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Depravity Follow-Up

Wednesday’s post really seemed to resonate with some people and to irk others. On the one hand, lots of folks seemed to identify with my personal journey away from burdensome and fear-based religious beliefs. Meanwhile, others pointed out that I wasn’t quite describing or analyzing the doctrine of depravity correctly. And guess what? They’re technically right (the best kind of right!).

When I published that post I thought to myself, Someone’s going to tell me that I don’t understand depravity. Someone’s going to explain that depravity relates to the pervasiveness of sin in all aspects of the human condition and has nothing to do with original sin, divine violence, etc.  And that’s true, I suppose, by the book. I took those courses and read those texts. I know what the doctrine of depravity is all about. My post was rather sloppy, I admit, from a doctrinal perspective. I basically used “depravity” as an umbrella for related doctrines about sin guilt and its legal ramifications. I should have been more precise.

But my bigger point, which was also challenged, was about how divine violence is always the elephant-in-the-room with such doctrines, whether they spell it out or not. Ideas like depravity and original sin understand the human dilemma in terms of a desperate legal battle against the cosmic justice machine, an anticipation of divine wrath and violence instead of an embrace of divine forgiveness and mercy. This effectively makes people feel like tiny wads of sputum instead of beloved children of God, and God seem like the ultimate supervillain instead of a loving Father. It’s an arraignment instead of a party. It’s a millstone around the neck instead of a shattered yoke. It’s Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, Spurgeon, and Piper instead of Jesus.

Doctrine has value as both a subjective intellectual analysis of biblical material and a snapshot of how our forebearers in the church responded to their historical circumstances and challenges. The authors of our doctrines, like the authors of scripture before them, are products of specific times and places, and their work reflects a contextual attempt at faithfulness to God and tradition. We benefit from their work, and within our respective traditions it can help to shape our identity and inform our response to our own times and challenges.

But doctrine is no substitute for Jesus. Each generation has the opportunity and the duty to reassess its inherited doctrines in light of who Jesus was and is. This is why I feel not only permitted but obligated to critique and even to reject doctrines which distort or forsake Jesus’ kingdom vision. Clarifying and emphasizing that original spark of divine hope and liberation will always be more important to me than compiling biblical data or balancing my doctrinal ledgers.

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depravity

Depravity: The Sickest Thing I Used to Believe

I used to believe that I was so depraved in my mind, heart, and DNA that I deserved to be killed by God, but that Jesus died in my place so I was off the hook, except that I wasn’t really off the hook unless I believed and felt bad and obeyed every word of the Bible forever. I called this “good news.” I didn’t know any better.

Millions of children are taught from a very young age that they are broken and bad, utterly unacceptable to God as they are, and that only a religious negotiation will give them a chance at last-minute salvation. These are not the teachings of some fringe cult, they are the mainstream beliefs of American conservative Christianity.

Like so many harmful doctrines, the belief in “total depravity” (codified by Calvin) is based on a legal conception of the relationship between humans and God as well as a flat and technical reading of an inerrant Bible. When the poets and teachers of scripture describe their personal woes or the sorry state of the their society and world, they say things like “there is no one on earth who is righteous,” (Ecclesiastes 7:10) and “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23) These powerful and subjective testimonies have somehow become burdensome legalities, a forensic diagnosis of humankind’s “fallen” state. The message behind the doctrine is clear to those living in its shadow: you may think you’re doing OK, but the Bible says you are awful and bad and God can’t even bear to look at you.

A Depraved Doctrine

In the Reformed formula, depravity is the necessary premise for an entire “plan of salvation.” Without a legal status of depravity, the legal solution of Jesus’ blood cannot be efficacious. This mires our Christian faith – which ought to be an open-hearted journey along the Path of Jesus – in the archaic and dangerous logic of blood sacrifice and sacred death.

The pastoral failure of depravity as a doctrine is how it teaches people (especially young people) that they have no worth apart from their legal standing within a religious system and, bad news, your default status within that system is “screwed.” It teaches them to feel bad about who they are, out of the box, and sets them on a lifelong journey of anxiety and self-doubt. Ironically, while the mantra of Reformed theology is that humans play no part in their own salvation, its effect is that of a death sentence for every human being unless they begin to frantically dig themselves out of the pit.

Theologically, depravity and its implications are deeply rooted in a commitment to divine violence and sacrificial religion. This is the notion that from the ancient past God has demanded lifeblood as a payment for human sin, and the expectation of an ultimate future in which God uses violence to set things “right.” In the framework of depravity and substitutionary atonement, the “good news” is that God has provided a loophole out of the inevitable catastrophe for an elect few, but it nevertheless upholds the essential violence of God and of the divine plan. Again, it fails to follow Jesus in envisioning and following after a God who is bigger and better than our broken and bloody systems of justice. It cannot imagine victory or peace without a necessary shedding of blood.

The Alternate Way of Jesus 

Jesus warned his neighbors and followers that they were committed to a path of self-destruction. He invited them to repent of their sinful and violent ways before it was too late. But Jesus saw humans as beloved children of God who had lost their way, not legally damned fodder for the divine bloodlust. He called them back to the loving embrace of a God of peace and reconciliation, not into a legal machine that might make them conditionally acceptable to a violent God through substitution and sacrifice.

Prof. Bernard Ramm is quoted as saying that “God forgives our theology just like he forgives our sin.” We must stop teaching our children that they are inherently deficient and depraved. Jesus points us away from shame and sacrifice and toward joy and peace. The young ones will discover soon enough how compromised and treacherous the world and their own hearts might be. Let’s be ready to encourage and affirm them as recipients and agents of God’s rescuing love in a world that needs them. This is the path of Jesus. Violence and depravity are the other path.

A “Historical Adam” For Every Occasion

Yet another new book explores the history of Christian belief in America, though this one begins its survey in the ancient Near East and tracks one very narrow (if surprisingly versatile) strand of theology. It concerns the first man Adam, the nature of his existence, and his many creative interpreters.

In Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World, Karl W. Giberson tells two connected stories: the sordid history of the interpretation of a few short chapters from the Bible (Genesis 2-4),  and the story of the author’s expulsion from the halls of evangelical academia. Giberson’s own evolving views cost him his job and saw him branded a heretic and worse – a “liberal.” At times palpably bitter but always in command of his impressive research, his contention is that Adam has been a sort of blank slate onto which Christians have projected their ideological interests. To put it another way, Adam is the lump of clay we have fashioned into our own image.

Giberson’s history of Adam as a moral and theological mascot is often outrageous, as he traces it across centuries and continents, right up to our own cultural moment. It is amazing what Christian thinkers and gatekeepers have done with these few ambiguous Bible passages, and how insistent they have been that their views are not only obvious and true, but necessary to one’s spiritual well-being.

The Historical Adams

The Apostle Paul may be to blame for Adam’s eventual role as a theological gun-for-hire, though it’s unfair to hold him accountable for how future writers may have blown his work out of proportion. Paul appealed to Adam in new and innovative ways, taking a far greater interest in the first man than previous Jewish interpreters had done. The apostle imagined Adam as a sort of prototype of Christ, the one who inaugurated sin and death instead of faithfulness and life. By taking this creative juxtaposition as a literal, legal reality, later thinkers took Paul’s innovation to further extremes. What was meant rhetorically to exalt and draw eyes to Christ engendered an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with Adam and the precise nature of his life and malefaction.

Giberson’s book accuses St. Augustine of crafting this sort of Adam-obsessed theology and foisting it upon later generations as a burdensome appendix to the gospel. Augustine took Paul’s Adam analogy off-road, galvanizing a doctrine of “original sin” that made the first man more than a type or an example. It made him a key player, and belief in him (and his literal, historical existence) became a prerequisite of divine salvation. In a phrase that echoes throughout the history of Adam interpretation, “no historical Adam, no gospel.” Suddenly the “good news” of Jesus came with some fine print.

From there, Giberson traces the history of the church, which at every turn finds Adam useful for new and creative reasons, but always emphasizes his literal role as the first sinner and father of all humans. There is the superhuman Adam, anywhere from seven to a hundred feet tall, immortal and gifted with superpowers, all lost in “the fall” (another interpretive golden goose not actually found in scripture). There is the racially ideal Adam, genetically perfect, displaying only the most “desirable” traits before his offspring are “marked” or made otherwise imperfect through the consequences of sin, resulting in a “hierarchy” of world races. There is also “traditional marriage” Adam, and “deceived by a temptress” Adam, and today’s model, “young earth creationist” Adam. In each case, argues Giberson, the configuration and re-mythologizing of Adam reflects the cultural and social concerns of the Christian gatekeepers of that time and place. In western civilization, we observe, racism, sexism, classism, and all manner of imposed human division have as their foundation or rationalization some interpretation of the early Genesis stories.

The Absurdity of Doctrinally Mandated Belief

The implications of the book’s thesis are many, and could generate many responses. For my purposes on this blog, the most relevant takeaway is the absurdity of what I’d call “doctrinally mandated belief.” That is, believing something, regardless of evidence, because we “need to” believe it in light of some preexisting belief or assumption. And so: Adam lived six thousand years ago and passed his sin-tainted genetic material on to every other human being, implanting them with a legal stain of sin. Why are we told we must believe this? Not because it is likely or evident or even taught by the Bible, but because our other doctrines (depravity, original sin, penal substitution, young earth, etc.) demand it.

Believing something dutifully out of obligation to other unexamined beliefs is dishonest, backward, and fruitless. It is also harmful to people who refuse to play along, as many like Giberson have discovered. This is what “biblical inerrancy” and “historical Adam” have in common: neither is evident and both are affirmed out of responsibility to some other pre-established theological construct. We must affirm inerrancy or the technical trustworthiness of the Bible (and thus our own credibility) will collapse. We must affirm a historical Adam or original sin, young earth creationism, and/or the gospel itself will collapse. None of this noise has anything to do with the real gospel and legacy of Jesus, in fact it only serves to obscure and damage it. If belief and trust in Jesus cannot be proffered without burdensome technical baggage, it is not worth the confusion and harm it causes. But as long as there have been Christians, Giberson’s book demonstrates, there have been Christian gatekeepers, eager to commandeer the gospel for their own small purposes.

In a follow-up post I will lay out my own thoughts on the value and meaning of the Adam and Eve narratives in Genesis.