Responding to the Movie “Calvinist” (Part 1): Total Depravity

By Jonathan Thompson


November 17, 2017

Summary: In the movie Calvinist the interviewees (ostensibly) argue in favor of the doctrine of total depravity and that it precludes libertarian free will (hereafter LFW). In this essay I demonstrate that the interviewees beg the question in favor of total depravity and for the idea that it is at odds with LFW.

The movie Calvinist includes a section which is dedicated to articulating and defending 5-point Calvinism. This article is the first of a five part series. Each part of this series will be an attempt to provide defeaters for each point of Calvinism as it is defended in the movie. The focus of this essay will be on total depravity.

Issue 1: R.C. Sproul Misrepresents Free Will & (Possibly) Poisons the Well Against It
From the first two sentences in the section on total depravity, we find R.C. Sproul inaccurately defining and poisoning the well against free will. He states,

“From the time a child in the United States enters kindergarten he begins to be taught and only to learn – if only through osmosis – a particular anthropology, a particular understanding of the nature of man, so they develop this concept of free will which is. . . a pagan concept. This general understanding of free will is is [sic] that man is free to choose the good or evil – on either side. And that’s a blasphemous doctrine because that’s not what the Bible teaches. The Bible tells us that something happened radically to the constituent nature of humanity in the fall.” (29:08 – 29:55)

Sproul’s definition of free will is incorrect. Free will, properly understood, is merely “freedom of moral and rational responsibility”.1 Moreover, there are different models of free will and some of these models do not require individuals exercising free will to always be able to choose between alternatives (e.g. Frankfurt-libertarianism), much less, alternatives according to which one is good while the other is evil.2

That said, there are broadly two different types free will: compatibilist and libertarian. According to compatibilism “. . . both determinism and freedom are true”.3 Libertarianism, in contrast, affirms that “the freedom necessary for responsible action is incompatible with determinism”.4 As it so happens, R.C. Sproul (along with the majority of Calvinists) is a compatibilist and so hereafter I will assume that the type of free will he and those in the movie seem to speak against is libertarian.

Also of note is Sproul’s statement that LFW is a pagan concept. Here I understand Sproul to be claiming that the concept of LFW originated with non-Christians. Sproul provides no justification for this claim, but nevermind. Even if we were to grant this arrogation, we can still ask why Sproul would think it appropriate to mention this aspect of LFW. Was Sproul attempting to give a brief introduction of the history of free will? That is possible and it could be the case that Sproul couldn’t provide a more comprehensive analysis of it due to production-related constraints outside of his control. Another possibility, however, is that Sproul was poisoning the well against LFW by noting an aspect of it that he believed some Christians will find unappealing. Ultimately, however, God knows whether or not Sproul was being malicious.5

Something also worth mentioning is the fact that Sproul states that LFW (as he illicitly defined it) has been taught to children in the United States since kindergarten. My question to Sproul is “What elementary, middle, or high school in the United States has a curriculum which includes a section involving teaching its students a single anthropology on the human will?” I’m not aware of anyone who has been formally taught in school an anthropology of the human will prior college or university and if there are, surely these folks are in a minority. Sproul’s statement when taken at face value is thus prima facie dismissible.

There is, however, a more charitable way of interpreting Sproul. Perhaps he was speaking using hyperbole and simply meant to communicate his belief that free will (as he has illicitly defined it) has been an assumption many of us have made  since childhood and our belief happens to be at odds with what Scripture teaches. Fair enough – Sproul is entitled to his own opinion. The question then is if LFW (properly understood) is actually at odds with what Scripture teaches. We shall answer this question in later sections.

Issue 2: R. Scott Clark Begs The Question, Commits the Fallacy of Metaphor Extension, and Fails to Argue for His View
Following Sproul’s comment, a number of interviewees allude to or else prooftext a number of Bible verses which, prima facie, are given in order to demonstrate Total Depravity and that it is at odds with LFW (as they have illicitly defined it). First there is R. Scott Clark6 who states the following:

“Adam, as the first federal head of all humanity acted as our representative, so what he did implicated all of us. We are born dead in sins and trespasses.” (29:56-30:06)

Clark’s use of the phrase “dead in sin and trespasses” appears to be an allusion to Ephesians 2:1 which states “And you were dead in trespasses and sins. . .”(ESV). The question then is “how does my being born dead in trespasses and sins preclude my having libertarian free will?” Clark doesn’t answer this question. Instead he (ostensibly) assumes that the relevant concepts conflict and so begs the question against the libertarian.  That said, the standard Calvinist response to the aforementioned question is to highlight the fact that dead people cannot do anything and so are unable to perform any spiritual good without God’s first intervening by supplying a particular means of grace. This response, however, commits two fallacies. First, it begs the question in favor of the Calvinist’s view since the Calvinist just assumes the relevant aspect of physical death is what the author is comparing to being “dead in trespasses and sins”. Second, the Calvinist view fallaciously extends a metaphor. This type of fallacy occurs when an individual extends the metaphor of another in order to convey a correspondence between the concepts being compared beyond what the metaphors original author intended and wants or would want to convey. Extending a metaphor in this way is illicit for the same reason that eisegesis is illicit – it interprets an author’s claims in such a way that betrays the author’s intent.7 With respect to Ephesians 2:1, as we shall later see, its metaphor likely refers to one being spiritually alienated from God.

Even worse for Calvinists, their understanding of the metaphor seems eminently challengeable. While it’s true that the physical bodies of dead people aren’t able to will anything, nevertheless, Scripture indicates that we – plausibly as immaterial substances8 – survive the death of our bodies in an intermediate state prior to our resurrection (2 Cor. 5:1-8). This intermediate state, moreover, is said to bring us in to the presence of Christ (Phil 1:21-24). These facts concerning our fates after death suggests that we can engage in relationships in the intermediate state after death and so perform actions. Should this conclusion turn out to be false, we can, at the very least,  argue that Scripture underdetermines whether or not we, as immaterial substances, can perform actions after death. This is so because Scripture does not conflict with such a conclusion.

The question then is “how should the metaphor of being dead in trespasses and sins be understood?” Unfortunately, nowhere in Ephesians does its author make a statement to the effect of “By ‘dead in trespasses in sins’ I mean X” (where ‘X’ specifies the literal meaning of the relevant metaphor). However, one possible way the metaphor could be understood is to understand it as being analogous to the Scriptural teaching of physical death. As previously noted, physical death entails the separation of our souls from our physical bodies. Moreover, without our souls, our physical bodies lack a divinely prescribed telos since it is we as immaterial persons – not our inanimate bodies – which are endowed with such a purpose.9 That in mind, it could be the case that just as our physical bodies in and of themselves lack a divinely prescribed telos, that we are similarly separated from God – the Divine Spirit – as a result of our being dead in trespasses and sins. Furthermore, by being dead in trespasses and sins we are consequentially relegated to lives of pointlessness by failing to fulfill our purpose. Kirk MacGregor has additionally noted that this understanding of being “dead in trespasses and sins” has explanatory scope in that it explains why the author of Ephesians would interchange phrases connoting this metaphor such as individuals being “separate from Christ,” “without hope and without God in the world” (2:12), “living in the futility of their thinking (4:17), and “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God.” (4:18)10 All things considered, given that we lack any better interpretation of the relevant metaphor, we thus have good reason to believe that the one I have proposed best explains it.

Finally, if Clark’s allusion to Ephesians 2:1 was intended to demonstrate the truth of total depravity, then it simply fails to do so. In order to see why this is the case, we should first understand what is meant by ‘total depravity’. The late Ronald H. Nash who served as a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary defined it as follows:

“The term total depravity refers to the fact that every human being is corrupted by sin in every facet of his or her being. Contrary to popular misconception, Reformed Christians do not believe the doctrine of total depravity means that every human is as evil as he or she could possibly be.”11

Nash further attempted to make this doctrine more easily comprehensible by analogy. He wrote,

“Imagine two glasses of pure water into which someone then drops different amounts of black ink. The water in one glass ends up being significantly darker than the other. Yet, however different the water in our two glasses may appear, every molecule of water in each glass has been tinted by ink. If the ink is analogous to human sin, we could say that each glass of water is totally depraved, because the ink has contaminated every molecule of water in each glass. Similarly, even though human beings manifest differing degrees of sinfulness, it is still true that sin affects, taints, corrupts, and influences every facet of our being.”12

Keeping Nash’s definition in mind we may now note that although Ephesians 2:1 suggests that the unregenerate are dead in trespasses and sins, it nevertheless does not assert that sin has affected every part of their nature. Moreover, Clark gives no argument that purports to show that our being dead in trespasses and sins implies the truth of total depravity. The adherent of the doctrine of total depravity thus still has a burden of proof to shoulder in favor of their view.

At this point the Calvinist could just admit that while it’s true that Ephesians 2:1 does not teach total depravity, we can nevertheless know this doctrine to be true via inference to the best explanation. Unfortunately, no such argument is provided to us for believing that total depravity exceeds its competing hypotheses as the best explanation. Now to be fair, maybe there were production-related constraints that prevented the movie from including a section explaining why total depravity is superior to its rival hypotheses. If such is the case, then I do not blame Clark or the other interviewees for merely assuming that their view is the best. If the movies intent, however, was to convert people to Calvinism, they surely should have included non-question begging arguments demonstrating why total depravity is preferable to its competing hypotheses.

Issue 3: Shai Linne Begs The Question On Two Accounts And Fails To Provide An Argument in Favor of His View
Preceding Clark is Shai Linne who, like Clark, seems to provide an argument in favor of total depravity and for the notion that it is incompatible with LFW. Specifically Linne quotes Romans 8:7 and then comments. He states:

“‘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’. We are slaves to sin. We are slaves to our own corruptions.” (30:06-30:22)

Notice that Linne provides no exegesis of the text. Instead he just quotes it and then alludes to Romans 6:20, noting that we are slaves to sin and our own corruptions. Further, Linne provides no exegesis of Romans 6:20 or what it means to be a slave to sin or ones own corruption or how this implies the truth of total depravity and demonstrate that it is at odds with LFW. Linne therefore begs the question by assuming without argument that these verses prove total depravity and that they conflict with LFW.

Fortunately, Sproul does later elaborate on what it means to be a slave to sin. Specifically, he states the following:

“We still have freedom in so far as we still have the ability to choose what we want to choose, but the ‘want to’ has become enslaved by sin that we are not just corrupted by sin, but we’re dead in sin.” (31:21-31:36)

An equivalent way to expressing Sproul’s idea more succinctly is that we still have the freedom to make decisions, notwithstanding, the decisions we want to make have been delimited by sin in such a way that implies the Calvinist understanding of what it means to be dead in sin (i.e. being unable to perform any spiritual good without God’s first intervening by supplying some means of grace).

As it turns out, LFW is compatible with this understanding of what it means to be corrupted and “enslaved by sin”. How so? Recall that, LFW is just the position that (1) we possess free will and (2) “the freedom necessary for responsible action is incompatible with determinism”.13 Notice, however, that this definition does not stipulate that there are no factors (such as our sin nature) which delimit the actions we’re able to perform. What LFW analytically asserts is therefore consistent with the claim that there are factors such as our sin nature which prevent us from performing any spiritual good without God first intervening by supplying us with some means of grace. Furthermore, no argument is provided throughout the movie that LFW implies that there are no factors that delimit our freedom. Therefore, the movie provides its viewers with no reason to think that LFW is incompatible with our being enslaved by sin.

Returning to Romans 8:7, as we have just seen, LFW seems to be compatible with the idea that there are factors which delimit the actions we’re able to perform. Thus, LFW seems to be consistent with Romans 8:7 which implies that our freedom is delimited in such a way that we are unable to submit to God’s law as a result of our minds being “set on the flesh”.

Finally, with respect to total depravity. Notice that Romans 8:7 and 6:20 simply do not assert that our natures have been wholly corrupted by sin. Moreover, the interviewees provide no argument purporting to show that these verses imply or else best cohere with total depravity. Therefore, once again, the movie deprives us of any argument given on behalf of this doctrine.

Issue 4: K. Scott Oliphint Begs The Question On Two Accounts And Fails To Provide An Argument in Favor of His View
Next, there is James R. White who paraphrases John 6:44. White states:

“The way that Jesus expressed it is “No man is able to come to me unless the father who sent me draws him.”

Following White’s statement the movie cuts to a voiceover that ostensibly sounds to be the voice of K. Scott Oliphint. Hereafter I will assume it was Oliphint that was speaking during this scene. Oliphint emphasizes our inability to come to God without the Father first drawing us. Oliphint states,

“So sometimes that verse is read “no one may come to me. . .”; that’s not what Jesus says. [It’s] very clear, no one can. . . The ability is not there.(30:28-30:46)

Again, no argument is given on behalf of why our being unable to come to God without the father first drawing us is incompatible with LFW. So, once again, the interviewees seem to beg the question against LFW.

That said, if there are at least some factors which delimit the free actions I’m able to perform, as seems to be consistent with libertarianism, then that entails that on this view there are some actions that I am not able to perform. Thus LFW does not contradict the idea that we are not able to perform the action of coming to God without the Father first drawing us.

Finally, to no one’s surprise, no argument is given in favor of the idea that John 6:44 teaches that the reason we are unable to come to God unless the father draws us is because of our total depravity. Moreover, no argument is given on behalf of the idea that total depravity, while not taught in Scripture, nevertheless best accounts for what the relevant verse teaches. As a result, in light of the fact that this was the final argument that was ostensibly given in favor of total depravity, we, at this point, have seen that the movie provides no non-question begging arguments in favor of total depravity.

In conclusion I take it to be the case that I’ve provided successful defeaters against total depravity as it is defended in Calvinist. To recap, throughout the movie various prooftexts are cited which seem to given in order to demonstrate the truth of total depravity and that it is at odds with LFW. In response to these arguments I demonstrated that all such arguments beg the question in favor of total depravity and against LFW.

That in mind, the most charitable way I can construe the aforementioned question begging is to say that the reason there was so much of it is that the movie really didn’t intend to argue its points, but instead merely intended explain the Calvinist position. If such is the case, then the movie is simply not a tool one should employ in order to convert (rational and non-ignorant) individuals to Calvinism. At most it can be considered a primer that might captivate the interest of someone, leading them in to in to exploring the doctrine further.

Last, I demonstrated that the interviewees’ concept of LFW was illicit in that (1) it assumed that LFW simpliciter includes the ability to choose between good and bad alternatives and  (2) they assumed that LFW asserts or else implies and that there are no factors which delimit our freedom. On a more personal note, the fact that this straw man of LFW was able to make it into the movie reflects badly on anyone who participated in the movie, was aware of the straw man, and did not seek rectify it. Theologians traditionally have prided themselves on being able to portray views they disagree with accurately, but as is evident from this movie, this virtue did not receive its due appreciation. Hence, my overall appraisal of this section of the movie is that it suffers from a lack of rigor.


Read Part 2 Here: Unconditional Election
Read Part 3 Here: Limited Atonement
Read Part 4 Here: Irresistible Grace
Read Part 5 Here: Perseverance of the Saints

1William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 268

2To be fair, it’s possible that Sproul only rejects or else has conflated the type of freedom John Calvin rejected with the type of freedom libertarians accept. As Matthew Barrett has noted, John Calvin rejected free will in the sense that Sproul described, but was accommodating to freedom in the sense that he believed that our wills have been delimited in such a way that we can do no spiritual good unless and until God enables us to do so via his irresistible grace. LFW seems to be compatible with this latter sense of freedom since, as will be argued in this essay, LFW does not stipulalte that there cannot be at least some factors which delimit the free actions we are able to perform. See Barrett’s comments here:

3William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 269

4Ibid. p. 270

5Despite my attempt at extending charity to Sproul, I think it’s likely that Sproul was being malicious considering that his own website indicates that he has a background in philosophy and so presumably would have been exposed to LFW, properly defined. Read more on Sproul’s background on philosophy on his website here:

6R. Scott Clark wasn’t actually visibly on screen during this time, but there was a voiceover during this time that I believe to be the voice of R. Scott Clark.

7To be clear, I am not arguing that extending a metaphor is always fallacious. Only that it is fallacious when one extends the metaphor of another in order to convey a correspondence between the concepts being compared beyond what the metaphors original author intended and wants or would want to convey.

8I am assuming the truth of substance dualism, being of the impression that most Christians will be sympathetic towards it.

9While it’s true that we use our bodies as a means to carry out our purpose, my point is that it is the individual within the body that is endowed with the responsibility to carry out their purpose.

10Kirk MacGregor argues for this in A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology, p. 25

11Ronald Nash, When a Baby Dies: Answers to Comfort Grieving Parents, p. 73


13William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 270


About the Author

By Jonathan Thompson