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I understand the reformed doctrine of total depravity to be that the human nature is such that it is utterly unable to choose to follow God. Another way I've heard it put is that men are by nature inclined to reject God.

Now, I also understand that Christ took on a human nature at the Incarnation. He assumed the same human nature we have, thus He is rightfully called the one mediator between God and man.

How do Calvinists reconcile the fact that Christ has a complete human nature while they teach that this human nature is at odds with God?

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Perhaps another way to look at this issue is to focus on what human nature is, and see what sin changed. Man was created in the "image of God," which certainly included original righteousness (or, as Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof puts it, "true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness"), which was lost in the Fall. Berkhof goes on to contrast this element with others:

But the image of God is not to be restricted to the original knowledge, righteousness, and holiness which was lost by sin, but also includes elements which belong to the natural constitution of man. They are elements which belong to man as man, such as intellectual power, natural affections, and moral freedom. As created in the image of God man has a rational and moral nature, which he did not lose by sin and which he could not lose without ceasing to be man. This part of the image of God has indeed been vitiated by sin, but still remains in man even after his fall in sin.

To put it another way, Adam was a man both before and after his sin. So while the Fall stripped him and his progeny of original righteousness, this is not so essential to his nature that as a result of his sin he was no longer man:

Notice that man even after the fall, irrespective of his spiritual condition, is still represented as the image of God, Gen. 9;6; I Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9. The crime of murder owes its enormity to the fact that it is an attack on the image of God. In view of these passages of Scripture it is unwarranted to say that man has completely lost the image of God.

But while one can be said to be in the image of God with or without original righteousness, its lack is a serious impairment:

The loss of that righteousness meant the loss of something that belonged to the very nature of man in its ideal state. Man could lose it and still remain man, but he could not lose it and remain man in the ideal sense of the word. In other words, its loss would really mean a deterioration and impairment of human nature.

On the flip side, this lack of original righteousness, or "original sin," is definitively not an essential aspect of human nature. This is obvious because Adam was a man before he sinned, but it's also clear when we consider the definition of total depravity. It does not imply, as Berkhof and others say, "that every man is as thoroughly depraved as he can possibly become," but rather it is "inherent corruption" that "extends to every part of man's nature."

This distinction makes it clear that total depravity does not mean that man's defining characteristic is his sin – rather, his human nature, as image bearer of God, is corrupted in all its parts. This corruption taints his human nature, but does not eliminate it or replace it.

Obviously Jesus had to have the same human nature as us, but could not have this corruption. So how was he protected from it? By the Holy Spirit:

[The Holy Spirit] sanctified the human nature of Christ in its very inception, and thus kept it free from the pollution of sin.

So Jesus thus has a true human nature, an ideal human nature, different from our own only in that he was protected from the corruption of original sin.


All quotes from Berkhof's Systematic Theology:

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    Great answer. So it is not that the nature of man changed but that fallen man is corrupt in every aspect that his nature describes. – Joseph Hinkle Jan 29 '18 at 3:59
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I think these paragraphs from the Westminster Confession of Faith explain the conundrum sufficiently.

  1. Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptations of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.

  2. By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.

  3. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.

  4. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions. (WCL 6.1-4)

So paragraph 2 tells us that the sin of Adam and Eve resulted in the loss of righteousness and communion with God, so that spiritually God looks upon us and calls us "dead". It then tells us that sin has "wholly defiled" all the parts and faculties of soul and body. This is the WCF's way of describing total depravity. Every part of us has been corrupted by sin.

Paragraph three then explains how we inherit the sin, the guilt, the death, and the corrupt nature of Adam and Eve.

Now when it describes the incarnation, it says:

  1. The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. ... (WCF 8.2)

From this I take it that the authors of the WCF saw the human nature as something Jesus could possess without sin. Sin is not therefore an essential part of the human nature, even though none of us can be without sin.

As you say in the question, we are by nature inclined to reject God. But that does not mean that our human natures are inherently sinful. Instead it means that along with inheriting the human nature, we inherit a sin nature which corrupts every part of our being.

People may at times say that our "human nature is at odds with God", but that should be understood as shorthand for saying that our "sinfully corrupted human nature is at odds with God." If the human nature itself were at odds with God we would have no hope for redemption.

  • Thank you for the answer, but doesn't this take away most of what distinguishes the ordinary concept of original sin from the Calvinist concept of original sin? If I'm not mistaken, the nature of something refers to its essential attributes. If human nature itself is not corrupt, but rather, human nature is the same as it was pre-Fall, what then about the doctrine of total depravity is so different from the ordinary concept of original sin? – Joseph Hinkle Jan 26 '18 at 7:27
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    @joehinkle11 I'm not sure there is an "ordinary" concept of original sin - every denomination has its own. – curiousdannii Jan 26 '18 at 7:29
  • you're right. I guess I couldn't think of a good way to refer to a non-extreme view of original sin. Anyways, I think I have my answer. Whatever original sin is, it cannot affect the nature of man without jeopardizing the Incarnation. It is just still unclear what Calvinists mean when they say human nature is corrupt. Do we now have a different human nature or are humans corrupt while retaining the same nature? P.S. I'll upvote your answer once I get enough rep in the future. ;) – Joseph Hinkle Jan 26 '18 at 7:43
  • @joehinkle11 It's a fair question, maybe someone else will be able to explain better than I can. Feel free to change the accepted answer if they do. – curiousdannii Jan 26 '18 at 7:58

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