I am an enthusiastic and robust fan of Augustinian Christianity, including its doctrine of the fall, but as with everything, we frequently seek justification of our position through the wrong passages because do not carefully consider their context. One great example of this is Keith A. Mathison’s book Dispensationalism.
In chapter seven, he critiques the dispensationalist view of sin and the fall, and while his overall point was true, I cannot help but notice that dozens of his cited passages had nothing to do with a general sinfulness of man. I’m going to be re-exploring the passages typically used to defend the doctrine of total depravity in order to see what we’re left with, and how we are to understand those texts.
He writes that all men are born in sin, and provides only two passages to defend this statement, Psa. 51:5 and Psa. 58:3. Yet PSalm 51 is the account of David’s repentance for sleeping with Bathsheba and is a personal record that he, specifically, was born in sin (Psa. 51:5). Similarly, Psalm 58:3 states, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth.” Once again, this is speaking only of the “wicked,” not all of humanity. In contrast to these wicked who have been wicked from birth are the righteous, who will be vindicated (Psa. 58:10).
To bolster his claim that humanity’s heart is “utterly wicked” and blind to God, Mathison uses a number of erroneous passages. He begins with Genesis 6:5 and 8:21. In Gen. 6:5, God observes the sins of man and says that their hearts were turned to wickedness continually; but this is also not a universal statement, for Noah and his family was righteous (Gen. 6:8-9). God’s statement in 8:21 cannot mean any more than this, and again excepts Noah and his righteous line from the statement.
His next passage is Ecclesiastes 9:3, part of which states, “the hearts of the children of men are full of evil.” However, Ecclesiastes is a notoriously complicated book and the context again doesn’t match Mathison’s point. Once again there is a contrast between the “righteous” and the “wicked,” meaning that we cannot use this as a universal declaration. Solomon is discussing death in Eccl 9, and “the same event [death] happens to the righteous and the wicked.” In 9:3, Solomon defines death as “evil,” and then discusses the fate of the “children of death.” BUT, he goes on in 9:4, “he who is joined to the living has hope.” So the righteous and the wicked of 9:1-2 become the “one who has hope” and the “children of evil.” Solomon is not speaking universally.
Mathison’s next passage is Jeremiah 17:9, which states that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” This passage hardly bolsters the total depravity claims of Calvinism, which claims the heart is dead; the passage says only that it is desperately sick. The context of this comment, of course, is the particular sins of Israel, not a default position of every human heart; immediately following this claim Jeremiah tells us who Yahweh is speaking to. Those in Israel who “gets riches but not by justice,” (Jer. 17:11), and declares that “I have not desired the day of sickness” (Jer. 17:16). Like with Noah, Jeremiah is excluded from the category of those whose hearts are deceitful.
He then uses Mark 7:21-23, in which Jesus says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts.” Again, Mathison is seeking to prove too much. In the first place, the passage says nothing about every thought and deed coming out of the heart is evil continually, but simply that the origin of all evil thoughts is the heart (just as would be the origin for all good thoughts). Moreover, the term “man” in the Scriptures most often refers to Jews, not universal humanity (the symbolic structure of the OT presenting Adam in the Garden as the proto-Israelite who is given dominion over Gentile “beasts of the earth”). The heart is also parallel to the Temple; thus, to say that evil thoughts and deeds come out of the “Temple of Israel” would make this a pointed critique against the corrupt priesthood that is leading the people astray (which makes better sense of the context anyway).
Mathison also goes to John 3:19, “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Now, the gospel of John is one of the most misunderstood books of the NT because John uses terms like “world” in very different senses than we do. For John, the “world” is Israel (van der Waal, Search the Scriptures). The same is true of the “people who dwell in darkness.” John has already defined the “light” as Jesus and the “darkness” as the “world,” which is Israel (John 1:5, 10-11). Thus, this is not a universal statement at all, but rather a comment that Jesus came to Israel and the people loved the darkness of the Old Covenant rather than the Light of the New, because Israel was corrupt.
He also uses Romans 8:7-8, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Like with “world” in John, so too the “flesh” for Paul. The “flesh” refers to the Old Covenant and Torah-keeping, The one “in the flesh” would be Israel after the rejection of Jesus and the New Covenant; that Israel is hyocritical and already condemned for breaking the law, Paul has been at pains to establish already (Rom. 2:17-23). Those in the flesh of the Old Covenant cannot please God now that Jesus has come.
Another passage Mathison employs is 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritual discerned.” Like the one “set on the flesh,” the “natural man” is Israel. This is clear from the context (1 Cor. 2:5-6, 8). Far from a universal statement, this is again dealing with Israel after rejecting Jesus and by extension His Spirit/Community of the Church.
He also uses Titus 1:15, “to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” Once again, Paul is describing Israel, not humanity broadly speaking. His main point in the context is for Titus to keep the Cretans from “devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth,” (Titus 1:14). Those who are defiled and unbelieving are Israel, who “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works,” (Titus 1:16).