TOTAL DEPRAVITY AND THE IMPLICATION FOR APOLOGETICS
It might seem counter-intuitive that one’s theology should direct and inform one’s apologetics (defense of the faith). For decades, Cornelius Van Til, the professor of Christian Apologetics at Westminster Seminary, has been calling for other Christian apologists to have theology drive their apologetics, rather than the other way around. As a result of Van Til’s ministry, a school of apologetics called Presuppositionalism was formed, with one of its chief tenets being that Biblically based theology should dictate the goals and method of Christian apologetics.
Why does theology matter in apologetics? A good example of the importance of theology to the field of apologetics can be found by looking at what the Scripture teaches concerning sin, and its implication in the believer’s task of apologetics. Since the endeavor in defending the faith require the rational faculty of the mind, this paper will begin with a discussion of key terminology found in the Scriptures which captures this aspect of man. This is followed by an assessment of several Biblical passages that shed some light as to the devastating effect of sin on the nature of man’s faculties (reasoning, volition, etc), which apologists typically appeal to. Then a summary of the ramification of man’s total depravity is stated, and a conclusion is given of the necessity of the Gospel and the Word of God in addressing the problem that total depravity presents in the work of apologetics.
Key Terminology in Scripture
For the Christians who are interested in the rational defense of Christianity within a Biblical framework, the first question to be asked is whether or not the Bible has anything to say about man’s rational aspect. This is a reasonable question, for if the Scripture does address man’s reasoning ability, the Christian apologist engaging in reasoning must come to grip with what God has to say about the matter. Identifying key terminology concerning man’s rational aspect in the Bible has two critical importance in this paper: (1) it demonstrates that man does has a rational aspect to him and (2) these terms are the tag indicators for any observer to recognize when Scripture has something to say about man’s rational capacity.
Confirming that man does have a rational faculty, “the Old Testament Scriptures are clear that there is a nephesh in man that transcends the life principle and to which is attributed reason, emotion, will and worship” (Morey, 48). The Hebrew word for “heart”, leb or lebab, is found in the majority of Old Testament instances as a term to emphasize the rationality of man (Zemek, 17). This point is establishes in places such as in Job 12:3, where the context in the verse has the rationality of Job in view, reinforced by the fact that Job’s response to his friends brought up the fact that he “knows”.
Continuing into the New Testament, the Greek word kardia for heart corresponds with the Hebrew word for heart in its multi-faceted aspect, including the emphasis on man’s thinking ability. It could be used to “stand for man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the rational and the emotional elements” (Vine, Vol. II, 206-207). The New Testament adds more richness to the available terminology of man’s rational aspect, such as the Greek word for mind, nous. This term can express “the inner orientation or moral attitude” of an individual (Behm, 958). Another commonly used Greek term for the mind is dianoia, or literally “a thinking through, or over, a meditation, reflecting, etc” (Vine, Vol. III, 69).
Assessment of sin
To begin with, the Scripture is very clear that sin is a prevalent reality in everyone’s lives (Romans 3:23). The origin of sin goes back to the Garden of Eden with the original man and woman that God created (Genesis 3). In the Garden, Eve was tempted by the serpent with the offer of “knowing” (Genesis 3:5). Yet, this “knowledge” was offered in violation of God’s direct command (Genesis 3:4-5; cf. Genesis 2:16-17, 3:2-3). It is interesting to note that the appeal to “knowledge” in violation of God’s Laws still continues today by those who attempt to rationally attack the faith.
The consequence of original sin has far reaching consequences. It has led to man’s total depravity. In defining total depravity, R.C. Sproul writes, “Because total depravity is so often poorly defined, let me substitute another phrase that means the same thing: radical corruption. We are depraved in the radix or root of our being, and that core depravity influences everything we do. In the fall we became radically depraved, which means that corruption pervades every area of our lives” (Sproul).
The effect of total depravity includes the mind of unbelievers. In summarizing Ephesians 2:3, Kent observed that “man apart from God’s saving grace has even his rational faculties deranged spiritually” (Kent, 35). God has revealed in Ephesians 4:17 the nature of the unregenerate mind. Using the Greek word nous, which emphasizes the seat of rationality within man, the writer Paul describes the Gentiles mind as mataioteti, which has the idea of vanity, worthlessness, nothingness and futility (Bauernfeind, 523). The description of the consequence of the futile mind is continued in the next verse, Ephesians 4:18. Using another Greek word for mind, dianoia, the Apostle Paul described the unregenerate’s thought as being darkened. Furthermore, the cause of why the Gentiles are excluded from a relationship with God is revealed as being because the nonbelievers have hardened their hearts. It is clear that sin has affected man’s mind and thought.
The effect of total depravity includes the human heart. This is evident from what Jeremiah 17:9 teaches. Nothing is more deceitful than the human heart. The heart is so wicked that Jeremiah is led to ask whether anyone can understand it, the heart’s condition being so depraved. In the New Testament, Jesus is recorded in the Gospel of Mark affirming what Jeremiah 17:9 taught. Jesus revealed the source of evil thoughts, fornications, thefts and other sins: the human heart (Mark 7:21). One commentator noted the Greek word for man’s mind here is dialogismos, and that, “in his own mind a person frequently carries on a dialogue…In nearly every instance—Luke 2:35 is a possible exception—the deliberations, inner reasonings, or devisings are of a definitely sinful nature” (Hendriksen, 286). These inner dialogues “give rise to actions and stimulate inner drives” (Hendriksen, 286). Thus, sin has affected the heart, which aspects include man’s rationality.
There should be no doubt that sin has tainted the mind and the will (Luke 5:22, 6:8, 9:46, 47; Romans 1:21, 14:1; 1 Corinthians 3:20, Philippians 2:14). The extent that sin has affected the nonbeliever’s rational faculty reaches to the point that the unbeliever will suppress the truth of God (Romans 1:18). In fact, sin has resulted in the nonbeliever rejecting God’s truth as foolishness in his/her own mind (1Corinthians 2:14).
In summary, man’s sin has totally devastated the faculty of man’s reasoning and will to be persuaded. This truth can leave the apologist on a pessimistic note, with the impossibility that the apologist faces. However, here is where the Christian apologist trusts not in his own wisdom of his own mind, but rather on God and His Word as the solution to the dilemma of total depravity’s implication towards apologetics.
The necessity of the Gospel and the Word of God
Dr. MacArthur’s admonition, while directed towards Pastors is also appropriate for the apologist as well: “If we do not understand the theology regarding man’s nature, then we might think that we could manipulate His will by our clever words, music, or programs” (MacArthur, 373). A Christian apologist who properly understands man’s nature will not be trusting in his own clever words or program of apologetics. Nor will they be dependent upon the outlook of those who are not saved. As one who takes Ephesians 4 as Biblical understanding of human nature seriously, Christian apologist Greg Bahnsen writes, “Paul tells us in Ephesians 4 that to follow the methods dictated by the intellectual outlook of those who are outside of a saving relationship to God is to have a vain mind and a darkened understanding” (Bahnsen, 11). The Christian apologist will not adopt the same thinking patterns and presuppositions of the World. He will acknowledge that He has to depend on the work of the Holy Spirit.
Knowing that the nonbeliever’s mind is carnal and unable to grasp spiritual truths, the Christian apologist will have to trust in the Word of God and the ministry of the Holy Spirit to convert souls unto salvation. Romans 12:2 will be the apologist’s hope. It is nothing short of the work of God for anyone to have their minds renewed, which goal is transformation. Thus, the Christian apologist must share the gospel, and not only present extra-biblical evidences, since it is in the preaching of the gospel that the true hope for the nonbeliever to have true faith is found!
Finally, the Christian apologist who truly understands the doctrine of total depravity will admit that nonbelievers can suppress the truth and with all their heart, willfully reject the truth. Yet, the apologist will remember the Sovereign God who is able to work in the nonbeliever’s heart, just as God promised to Israel so long ago, that He will take the initiative to cause the people to have a changed heart so they can love God (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Bahnsen, Greg. Always Ready: Directions For Defending the Faith. Nacogdoches, Texas: Covenant Media Press, 2004.
Bahnsen, Greg. “The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics.” The Westminster Journal 57 no. 1 (Spring 1995): 1-32.
Behm, J. “Nous.” In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 5 volumes. Edited by Gerhard Kittel. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. 4:951-960. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1942.
Hendriksen, William. Mark. New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980.
Kent, Homer A., Jr. Ephesians: The Glory of the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1971.
MacArthur, John F., Jr, Richard Mayhue and Robert Thomas, L., Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry : Shaping Contemporary Ministry With Biblical Mandates, Electronic ed., Logos Library Systems. Dallas: Word Pub., 1995.
Pink, A.W. The Doctrine of Human Depravity. Pensacola: Mt. Zion Publications, undated.
Sproul, R.C. Before the Face of God : Book Two: A Daily Guide for Living from the Gospel of Luke. Includes indexes. electronic ed. Logos Library System; Before the Face of God. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House; Ligonier Ministries, 2000, c1993.
Van Til, Cornelius. The Defense of the Faith. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955.
Van Til, Cornelius. The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel. London: Tyndale Press, 1950.
Vine, W.E. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words With Their Precise Meanings for English Readers. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1966.
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