In the movie the Princess Bride, as the story unfolds, we find ourselves confronted with a dire situation. Our hero, The Man in Black, is dead and our damsel in distress, Buttercup, is being forced to marry someone she does not love. Indigo brings our hero to Miracle Max to see if there is any chance he can help.
Indigo: He’s dead. He cant’ talk.
Max: Oh, look who knows so much. Well it just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. … Mostly dead is slightly alive.
Theologians, like Miracle Max, have also come up with 3 general categories for describing the nature of man and his ability to initiate a relationship with God. These states are “Not Dead”, “Mostly Dead”, and “All Dead”. Like Max theologians find that there is a big difference between these stages of being dead.
When we probe the nature of man we generally want to understand how to answer the following questions:
- Is man basically good or basically bad?
- Is man a sinner by nature or does he become a sinner once he commits a sin?
From a theological perspective, this line of questioning leads to additional questions. These include:
- Is man able to desire and respond to God’s invitation into the kingdom without divine aid (grace)?
- If man is not able to desire or respond to God’s invitation, how much divine aid (grace) is required?
The answers to these questions have been debated throughout church history. The answers revolve around the view one holds regarding the nature and extent of the Fall described in Genesis 3 and Romans 5. The views that one has regarding the affects of the Fall are generally discussed under the label “original sin”. The doctrine of original sin does not deal with the actual sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but explains the consequences of the sin and how mankind was affected.
All of the views understand that there were consequences as a result of the Fall, acknowledging that we live in a fallen world which includes sickness and death. The debate is whether man’s nature (volition, will) and ability to do good were impacted. In describing these views I am painting with a wide brush stroke and trying to capture the main ideas. As in any view, adherents will have differing opinions on some of the details.
The “Not Dead” theory rejects the idea of original sin. According to this view, the nature of man (will, volition) and his ability to do good was not affected by the Fall. Every person is born in a neutral state regarding his ability to choose and act. In this neutral state each person has the ability to do good (or evil) deeds. This theory also asserts that mankind does not inherit any of the guilt of Adam’s sin.
Under this view a person,by virtue of having both the will and the ability to do good, is able to initiate and enter into a relationship with God through saving faith without any divine aid.
Those who would hold to this view are called Pelagians, named after the chief promoter of this idea, a British monk named Pelagius. These ideas were intensely debated by Pelagius (and his adherents) and Augustine during the 4th and 5th century. Augustine describes the views of Pelagius in several works including On the Grace of Christ. In chapter 4 of this work Augustine describes the three faculties of man – capacity, volition, and action. For Pelagius God has graciously given mankind the capacity of a free will (volition) and the ability to freely act (action). Pelagianism (under the name of the adherent Celestius) was condemned during the Council of Ephesus in 431 under canon 4.
The “Mostly Dead” view asserts that our nature (will, volition) and our ability to do good (action) was corrupted as a consequence of the Fall. This corruption is passed on to every person since we are all descendents of Adam. However, the nature of man was not corrupted in its entirety, thus man is only “mostly dead”. The will of man is free but inclined to do evil resulting in every person sinning. Under this view mankind does not inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin, just like Pelagianism.
Since the will of man is free, faith can be initiated by man without divine aid. However, in this view a person cannot exercise saving faith without God’s grace. God offers grace by taking the initiative or in response to man’s initial desire to be saved. This grace can be accepted by a person resulting in saving faith or it can be resisted and rejected leaving the person unsaved. This view is synergistic, as it proposes that salvation is the result of cooperation between God’s grace and human will.
Those who would hold to this view are called Semi-Pelagians, as this view is considered a middle ground between the ideas proposed by Pelagius and those by Augustine. Two Gallic monks, John Cassian and Vincent of Lerins, are considered by many as holding this view during the fifth century. Augustine wrote several documents against this position and defending his own. This theory was rejected at the Council of Orange in 529. However, it is considered to be held by many Christians. The wording of the recent SBC statement on God’s plan of salvation has caused many to label it Semi-Pelagian.
The view held by Roman Catholics, Calvinists, and Arminians is that mankind is “All Dead”. The nature of man (volition) and ability of man (action) was entirely corrupted as a consequence of the Fall. Man is by nature predisposed to be against God and doing good. In the words of the eminent theologians Bill and Ted – we are totally dead dude. Every person as a descendent of Adam inherits this totally corrupted nature. Most adherents of this view would propose that all people not only inherit a corrupt nature but also Adam’s guilt and are therefore rightly judged and condemned by God on this basis.
The view is often labeled “total depravity” or “total inability”. It was defended by Augustine against the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian views. It should be noted here that “totally depraved” is describing the totality of man (will, ability, body, soul) as being corrupted and is not claiming that man is as evil as he possibly could be.
Under this view mankind is unable to initiate or desire a relationship without God’s first acting and giving them the grace to be saved and exercise faith. This grace is often called prevenient grace.
In an excellent article on prevenient grace, Roger Olson explains the concept:
“Prevenient grace” is simply a term for the grace of God that goes before, prepares the way, enables, assists the sinner’s repentance and faith (conversion). According to classical Calvinism this prevenient grace is always efficacious and given only to the elect through the gospel; it effects conversion. According to classical Arminianism it is an operation of the Holy Spirit that frees the sinner’s will from bondage to sin and convicts, calls, illumines and enables the sinner to respond to the gospel call with repentance and faith (conversion).
Catholics, Calvinists, and Arminians accept the doctrines of original sin, total depravity, and the need for prevenient grace. The difference is that in the Catholic and Arminian view the grace given by God is able to free the will so that a person can desire to be saved. These systems share the synergism found in Semi-Pelagianism, as man must still choose to exercise faith. The prevenient grace that frees the will to respond to the gospel can be resisted and rejected. Under the Calvinist view the prevenient grace given by God is efficacious or irresistible always resulting in the person to whom it is given being saved. This system is called monergism because only one actor, God, is working. Man does not cooperate with God, he only receives what God has graciously given him.