The Horrifying Doctrine Disguised as a Pretty Flower, pts. 1 & 2
I have this knot inside of me. Part of it is due to a conversation I have been having with another blogger. The knot concerns the theological construct known simultaneously as Calvinism or Augustinianismor Reformed Theology. I’d like to offer a few preliminary thoughts on this subject, but only insofar as it pertains to the popular promulgation of the doctrines in the form of TULIP. That is, I’ll constrain my thoughts to TULIP and not much beyond that (this is in no way meant to be a full out refutation of everything John Calvin every taught or believed). There are at least two or three doctrines that are closely associated with TULIP that I will, perhaps, touch on later. First, there is the idea of ‘original sin.’ Second, there is the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. Third, there is the doctrine of free-will. And, I suppose fourth, there is the doctrine of infant salvation. I hope at some point to touch on all these in one way or another. (Upon reflection, I believe there should be a category also labeled ‘evangelism’ also.)
I am not writing these posts because I claim to be a theological expert on any of them, but rather because these things are weighing heavily on my heart and I wish to explore them. These thoughts are based on a few different things. In the first place, there is my ongoing investigation into Scripture as a preacher and minister of the Word. Some say the more they study the Scripture the more they affirm what I will generically, but not pejoratively, call Calvinism. I find just the opposite to be true. The more I read Scripture, the more I see the beauty of a Sovereign God who loves his children but does not feel compelled to act against (in the sense of a puppeteer controlling their every move or telling them what to think and do) their will–except in rare instances of what we generically call ‘miracles.’ (Job has a lot to say about this.) In the second place, I grew up as a Methodist and then moved into the Church of Christ (not a capellaand not Disciples of Christ). So perhaps some of the revulsion and angst I feel for these doctrines has to do with a certain part of the exegesis I have been exposed to through the years of sitting under preachers who think the same way.
In the third place, I have listened to many sermons, read many books, and studied deeply the teaching of many different so-called Reformed theologians. I am not on unfamiliar ground. I may not fully understand everything, but I am not coming at this uninformed or ignorantly. While I believe fully that these are men of God, and I should hope they believe the same of me, I am not convinced their position takes into consideration all of the Biblical evidence (even if they have ‘answers’ for everything I will say.) Finally, I should say this too. This is not a polemic against reformed theologians. It is a reflection on the nature of Calvinist theology, its implications, and whether or not it can be sustained Scripturally. I have, as I wrote, much respect, admiration, and love for theology in general and the men and women who do the hard work of theology. My shelves are lined with the works of theologians of all stripes. And, to be sure, I believe there is room within the church for ‘both’ ideas (although, it is impossible to narrow down theological systems to either one or the other). For the purposes of these reflections, I am limiting the scope of my investigation to two very narrowly defined categories: Calvinistic and not-Calvinistic.
The unfortunate thing is that so much of the theology that is being done is being done from a point of view that seems to misunderstand God’s sovereignty. Many not-Christians rightly react negatively to the Calvinistic portrayal of God’s sovereignty–to the Calvinistic portrayal of God himself! What I am hoping to accomplish in these posts is to simply reflect, in a very personal way, on these doctrines and seek to understand how two very different ways of understanding Scripture (Calvinist and not-Calvinist) exist. Why do I not see Calvinism (remember that is a ‘catch-all’ term not being used to define a system, but not to limit it to one person) in Scripture where so many others do see it?
As always, I am a learner and I am hoping to learn something about God through this public display of my questions and my thoughts. If you happen to be a ‘Calvinist’ or a ‘Reformed’ theologian or if you happen to be a sojourner with questions like me, please feel free to join the discussion.
There are five basis tenets to the TULIP system. Total Depravity. Unconditional Election. Limited Atonement. Irresistible Grace. Perseverance of the Saints (Eternal Security). In this first post, then, I will be reflecting on the first of the five basic principles of Calvinism: Total Depravity.
I think what gets me about this is the qualifier: Total. It really does not seem to fit with the Biblical evidence. I’ll hold up an example from the Bible:
1At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
4Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
7When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
Here we are given every reason to believe that Cornelius was not, as it were, totally depraved. Here was a man who probably had some contact with Jews, but probably also had some contact with the Caesar worship of the day, and probably not a little contact with the pagan pantheon of gods too. And yet he, and his entire family, are described as ‘devout and God-fearing,’ people ‘gave generously to those in need,’ and ‘prayed to God regularly.’ Now none of these things necessarily imply that Cornelius was a ‘saved’ man in the sense that the Christian might understand salvation, but he was certainly not a man, despite the fact that he was a Roman centurion of all things, who was thoroughly, completely, utterly, defunct and depraved.
He was a man, however, who was totally guilty. It is my contention that there is a huge difference between being totally depraved and totally guilty. In Romans 1, Paul explicitly makes the case for the latter, but says nothing at all concerning the former. In fact, it seems to me that he explicitly refutes the former. Consider these two verses side by side:
“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing them, now even defending them.” (2:14-15, Romans)
“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (3:22b-23, Romans)
The difference in these two verses is simply this: The former shows that some Gentiles do keep the law which means, at least, that they are not completely unable to keep the law (whatever law that happens to be). And yet the apostle says in the latter verse that all have sinned. Well, if some Gentiles keep the law (and by implication this means that some Jews also keep the law also) and all have sinned what else can this possibly mean but that all are totally guilty even if those guilty ones (by virtue of the fact that they are demonstrated here as keeping a law they do not even possess) are not totally depraved?
This is not the total case, but I’m sure I will have a few more thoughts along the way. I’d like now to share some thoughts I have had concerning this issue of total depravity.
First, I fully affirm that the Scripture teaches we are ‘dead in our trespasses.’ This is the clear teaching of Scripture and only a fool denies it. However, it does not necessarily follow that since we are dead in our trespasses that we are unable to make any sort of decision for right or good or, ultimately, God. These are simply not logical connections to make. It seems to me that the knowledge of good and evil–a gift given to us at the fall–at least–even if we have a propensity for choosing evil–at minimum teaches that we can make a choice; we just happen to make the wrong ones more often than not.
Second, if the Scripture is true, and God’s law is still written in our hearts then I don’t think that just because we are sinners–people who aim at but nevertheless miss the mark–God suddenly decided to unwritethe law from our hearts. In other words, there is still that sense in us of right and wrong. If we can choose wrong, why can’t we choose right? Experience teaches, and so does Scripture I believe, that people do choose right and wrong every day of their lives. If James is right and we fail the whole Law by the transgression of one part, then it seems logically true that if we keep one part of the law we are not guilty of breaking the entire law. That is, James means we are guilty. He, along with Paul, is speaking of our complete legal position, not our complete moral condition.
Third, in my estimation, if total depravity has any merit at all it is in this one thing: We simply do not have the means necessary, of ourselves, to keep the law perfectly. That does not mean we will not keep the law at all. As an example, most people in the world choose, every day, not to murder someone. We choose to obey the traffic laws when we drive our vehicles. It is perfect obedience to the law–whatever law that is–that makes salvation possible, right: “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (2:7-8, Romans) What we are unable to do, therefore, is keep the law perfectly unto salvation. That is what we do not have the means to do, but this does not mean we have no ability to keep the law at any point. And if we can keep it at any point, then it follows that we are not totally depraved; even though our failure at one point does mean we are totally guilty.
Fourth, if we were totally depraved then the world would be the worst possible place to live. No one would do any good or any right. But Paul’s point in Romans is not to drive home our total depravity, but our total guilt. Scripture seems to make clear that we are not, nor is the world, nor is evil, as bad as it could be. “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.” (2:7, 2 Thessalonians). Even when it came to Israel ‘invading’ the land of Canaan we are told that the sin of the Canaanites was ‘not yet complete.’ I take this to mean that it was not as bad as it could have been and that it would not get to that point either.
What I am arguing for, then, is total guilt as opposed to total depravity. James says that if we break just one law you have broken the entire law even if you have kept the rest of it (James 2:10). This doesn’t mean, surely, that all sins are equally bad or that the entire body is thus corrupt, but it certainly does mean that we are thoroughly guilty and without excuse.
Why does this matter? Well, for a few reasons anyhow. First, I think it leaves people absolutely hopeless. In other words, it leaves them in a position of thinking either ‘I can’t choose’ or ‘I don’t have to choose.’ They become complacent or apathetic. Yet Scripture makes clear, time and time again, that we have to ‘choose this day whom we will serve.’
Secondly, I think this misunderstanding leads necessarily to the points (in the TULIP) that follow. For example, unconditional election. Well, if I am so depraved that I cannot say ‘yes’ to God and cannot say ‘no’ to evil, then I must necessarily sit around and wait for God to say ‘yes’ for me. This flies in the face of Scripture’s constant admonition to exercise faith in Christ. And what about those people for whom God never says ‘yes.’ In my opinion, this paints a rather grim picture of the Father who ‘desires that all people come to salvation and a knowledge of the truth.’ If God desires it, and has the power to effect it, why doesn’t he do just that? Why does he leave the vast majority of humanity trapped in their depravity and guilt? This is not the picture of the God who ‘so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son.’ This God is a tyrant.
Well, these are some preliminary thoughts that I will no doubt need to evaluate and re-evaluate as time goes on and I learn new things. But for the time being, this is where I am at with total depravity. To state clearly again my position: 1) We are totally guilty, 2) We are not totally depraved, 3) This has implications on the nature of our evangelism and our conception of God.
Soli Deo Gloria!