Tag Archives: theology

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.


Three Harmful Theologies Behind Current Events

When I was young and rather naive, it was very simple: you were either in or you were out. People, institutions, and ideas were either Christian (and thus good), or non-Christian (and thus bad). Part of growing up into (or out of) our religious identity is learning to navigate the vast diversity of beliefs and ideologies that comprise American Christian culture. When we do, we discover that not everything that calls itself “Christian” is inherently healthy or helpful. Peeking behind the curtain at the theological pedigree of nominally Christian figures and movements can be quite illuminating. Here are three examples of potentially divisive theologies embodied by self-proclaimed Christian authorities, straight out of today’s headlines.

1. The end-times dominionism of Ted Cruz’s father

Rafael Cruz is a Cuban-born American preacher and the father of Texas Senator and leading Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. After coming to America, Cruz converted from Roman Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity and became an influential speaker and political activist. Cruz subscribes to a dominionist view which understands God’s instruction to Adam and Eve to “take dominion” over the earth as a standing commandment for all Christians, especially those with wealth and influence. Cruz and his dominionist colleagues see themselves as heralds of a new age – the final age before the second coming of Jesus – in which powerful conservative Christians must assume control of America’s wealth and resources. In his own words, from a now-infamous sermon delivered in 2012:

“There are some of you, as a matter of fact I will dare to say the majority of you, that your anointing is not an anointing as priest. It’s an anointing as king. And God has given you an anointing to go to the battlefield. And what’s the battlefield ? The battlefield is the marketplace. To go to the marketplace and occupy the land. To go to the marketplace and take dominion. If you remember the last time I was in this pulpit, I talked to you about Genesis chapter 1, verse 28, where God says unto Adam and Eve, ‘Go forth, multiply, take dominion over all creation.’ And if you recall, we talked about the fact that that dominion is not just in the church. That dominion is over every area – society, education, government, economics.”

“The pastor referred to Proverbs 13:22, a little while ago, which says that the wealth of the wicked is stored for the righteous. And it is through the kings, anointed to take dominion, that that transfer of wealth is going to occur. God, even though he’s sovereign, even though he’s omnipotent, he doesn’t let it rain out of the sky – he’s going to use people to do it.”

On a surface level, Cruz’s teaching might comes across as little more than a creepy sort of prosperity gospel. However, his intense personal involvement in his son’s presidential campaign indicates that his ambitions might be more grandiose. He recently stated that Ted’s presidential bid is the result of divine will and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

2. The strict complementarianism of The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is a collection of Reformed Christian teachers and cultural watchdogs intent on promoting and defending the Christian gospel as they understand it. Their website and network of publications provide a platform for pastors and a resource for like-minded believers. TGC is characterized by a few distinctive doctrinal positions, such as belief in biblical inerrancy, a Calvinistic understanding of sin and salvation, and a pervasive devotion to complementarian gender roles. Complementarianism, against egalitarianism, asserts that men and women are created equal but with different “biblical” roles to fulfill. These involve male “headship” and female “submission.”

Critics of TGC suggest that their commitment to the complementarian hierarchy has fostered an environment in which male abusers are protected and female victims marginalized. A blogger named Nate Sparks recently compiled an overview of scandals and controversies surrounding TGC members and their churches and posted it as an open letter. Issues raised include TGC’s consistent advocacy and support for pastors implicated in abuse scandals and controversial teachings by its famous members like John Piper and Doug Wilson. A particular quote from one of Wilson’s books has sparked some outrage:

“Women inescapably need godly masculine protection against ungodly masculine harassment; women who refuse protection from their fathers and husbands must seek it from the police. But women who genuinely insist on ‘no masculine protection’ are really women who tacitly agree on the propriety of rape.” (Douglas Wilson, Her Hand In Marriage, pg. 13)

Meanwhile, TGC has not directly responded to Sparks’ or anyone else’s request for a comment, though they may have passively acknowledged the controversy by tweeting this quote from Kathy Keller, wife of TGC heavy-hitter Timothy Keller:

“Whether you’re able to see justice in divinely created gender roles depends largely on how much you trust in God’s character.”

Instead of addressing or denying specific allegations, the message from TGC seems to be, if you’re not a complementarian, you simply don’t know God. This is emblematic of TGC’s troubling tendency to draw lines in the sand and to package secondary theological questions (eg. gender roles and inerrancy) into their version of “the gospel.” 

3. The reckless reconstructionism of Franklin Graham and James Dobson (and friends)

No doubt Graham, Dobson, and their colleagues on the religious right would reject the label of “Christian Reconstructionist.” Like their dominionist counterparts, these leaders deny any ideological motivation, claiming instead to simply and boldly speak obvious truths on God’s behalf. However, both Graham and Dobson understand America’s national vocation and destiny in terms of a covenantal relationship with God modeled on the stories of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. If bad things happen to America, it is because we have angered God by disobeying His laws and violating the covenant. If we turn “back to God” and obey His laws, the nation will surely prosper. In this universe, cultural trends and Supreme Court decisions have the power to incite God’s wrath, bring on natural disasters, and possibly even set the end of the world into motion. Conversely, electing Christian leaders and passing Christian legislation will usher in an era of blessing.

Full-blown reconstructionism asserts that the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament constitute God’s everlasting blueprint for human behavior and must form the basis of all modern laws and governance. Being a savvy evangelical, Franklin Graham would surely equivocate and give lip service to the “new covenant” established by Jesus which supplants the ancient law, and yet he consistently gives voice to the reconstructionist view when he says things like this:

“When you look at Scripture, when Israel turned their backs on God – and that’s what we as a nation have done and are doing – there was usually some type of calamity. There was a famine, there was a persecution from their neighbors, nations would come in and overrun them and destroy them.”

Elsewhere, especially in his frequent Facebook missives, Graham directly links Christian morality and American prosperity with obedience to the laws of ancient Israel. Meanwhile, Dobson laments that “God’s judgment will fall on this great nation” because of political and social developments he finds displeasing. Whereas Dobson has frequently endorsed specific ultra-conservative candidates, Graham has remained unaffiliated, instead urging Christians to vote for any candidate who demonstrates “biblical values.”

What they all have in common

In this post I’m taking aim at self-appointed Christian authorities and gatekeepers, not friends or lay people who happen to hold this or that theological position. I’m not personally acquainted with any dominionists, and I’ve known a few Christians who thoughtlessly perpetuated reconstructionist ideas now and then. Understandable. I do know quite a few complementarians, good people who choose to apply complementarian principles to their marriage or family. I respect their choices even as I disagree. My real concern with any theology is what happens when it is enforced by those who claim authority over the lives of others. Here is what all three of these stories have in common:

First I note that all of the theological views described here are based on a flat and literal reading of an “inerrant” Bible. They have privileged and adapted portions of scripture for their own purposes, to be sure, but each appeals to the Bible as its basis. Second, each has some view to “God’s design” for how certain people or groups of people must live. They see morality in general as a response to hierarchies and divisions implemented by God from the beginning of time. And third, each becomes most harmful when combined with the authoritarian ambitions of influential Christian leaders. That is, abstract ideas about what God expects from humankind are solidified into doctrines, rules, and even legislation, and real human lives are affected. We note also how the “divinely appointed” divisions enforced in each case favor those in authority.

If God has a favored class, gender, or nation, surely God can see to it that they prosper without the help of a booster club or task force. As a rule, I am wary of anyone who speaks of “God’s design” as the heart of morality rather than selfless, redemptive love. That’s one more thing authoritarian Christian watchdogs have in common: in all of their posturing and for all of their “biblical” formulations, Jesus is readily invoked but his teaching is consistently ignored. Jesus did not underwrite the human tendency to establish and exploit authority, in fact he exposed and deconstructed it. Jesus advocated for radical inclusion and egalitarian love, not hierarchy, class, or exclusion. Followers of Jesus do not seek dominion or authority. They do not lord over others, they die for them.


Unsystematic Theology

The standard modern/Protestant method of doing theology has been to collect statements about God from the Bible and file them by category, this constituting a “systematic” theology. We then employ this chart of “divine attributes” as the rubric for our study of Jesus. I took systematics courses in seminary that worked this way. God is omniscient as implied by out-of-context verse X, and thus Jesus is also omniscient according to out-of-context verse Y. The goal in all of this is to forensically “prove” Jesus’ divinity, which helps us argue for the veracity and superiority of our faith.

There are many problems with this method, and in fact one of the major turning points in my own spiritual journey saw its unmaking. First, the systematic method ignores the Bible’s diversity of thought and voice, flattening a multiplicity of witnesses and claims about God into a simple catalog or encyclopedia of foregone theological propositions. If you want to know what God is like, turn to any page and start reading. Systematics then takes its specious package of “God facts” and stuffs them into an empty vessel called “Jesus,” likewise obscuring the rich and colorful tapestry of Jesus witnesses in the Bible and the organic contextual environments of the gospels. The result is a stale, conflicted, and obtuse notion of “God,” constructed out of detached biblical elements, and an even more muted and useless Jesus, a bland and generic divine mascot who simply underwrites everything we already think about God. Continue reading


Two Big Mistakes of Early Christianity From Which We Haven’t Fully Recovered

One of the strange assumptions religious believers make is that the human forerunners who formed and curated our traditions operated under some kind of spiritual protection that kept them from veering off course or making errors. “God wouldn’t let us be wrong about something so important!” Sure, there’s a basic level of faith we must have that we are following something good and true, and that all of it points back to an authentic revelation of God in Jesus. But the sheer multiplicity of Christian streams and convictions is enough to challenge the notion of divinely guaranteed consistency or theological purity. This shouldn’t plunge us into suspicion or despair, but it should pique our interest in the history and evolution of our own religion. It should also dispel the notion that our ancestors couldn’t make mistakes, or that those mistakes cannot affect us today. (It should also keep us humble in regard to our own ability to err and learn.) Very briefly, here are two examples of dramatic transformations from the early centuries of Christianity that are still causing trouble today.

1. Greek Philosophy Hijacks Bible Interpretation

If you told American Evangelicals today that Christianity had been co-opted by new agers or astrologers or dualists who were rewriting our traditions to conform to their own beliefs and selling them back as orthodoxy, there would be panic in the streets (and probably some kind of boycott or hashtag). Yet this is the very sort of thing that happened to Christianity in its early centuries. The thinkers, authors, and apologists we call “church fathers” were a collection of non-Jewish Christian men who defined the doctrines and canons which still define Christianity many centuries later. Some of the most influential church fathers (most notably Origen) were deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, a connection which had inevitable ramifications in the way they synthesized and described their theology. To be sure, many church fathers (like Tertullian) took a strong rhetorical stance against Greek philosophy as inferior to Christianity. But even these thinkers were indelibly locked into the categories and assumptions of Greek scholarship. When they defended the Bible against Greek ideas, they often did so on Greek terms. And when they interpreted the Bible, they did so within that same framework.

I’m not saying the church fathers as a group constitute a “mistake,” or that they did nothing good to benefit or enrich the faith. But their frequent disregard for the fundamental Jewishness of the scriptures and the categorical assumptions they injected into Bible reading and theology set Christianity on a very rocky path. If you believe in humanity’s “fall from perfection” or the “immortality of the soul” or a “spiritual afterlife,” your faith may have been influenced more by these writers (and thus by Plato and Aristotle) than by the actual texts of the Bible. In a few extreme cases, the efforts of the church fathers actually fueled and codified anti-semitic sentiment in the church. That is a path that takes us as far from the heart of scripture and of Jesus as we can get. Modern Christians should learn about the church fathers and read their work critically.

2. Constantine Imperializes and Militarizes Christianity

The legend is well known: In 312 CE at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, military leader Flavius Constantine I looked up and saw a cross in the sky emblazoned with the command, “By this sign, conquer!” He went on to become Caesar Constantine the Great, and to lead armies into war under the banner of the cross of Christ. It is often said that he made Christianity the “official religion” of the Roman Empire, but it is more appropriate to say that he favored it. Roman pagan practices continued, but those wanting to please and impress the emperor would undergo an expedient conversion to Christianity. Constantine reformed Roman imperialism based on “Christian” principles, if that makes any kind of sense. For example, he outlawed crucifixion to honor the death of Jesus and made hanging the new official mode of execution. The empire could still dominate and victimize and terrorize, but it would do so in a way that “honored” Jesus. Christianity had a king on earth, and that king had bloody hands.

Of course, many thoughtful Christians today would cringe at the idea of a “Christian” army or a weapon emblazoned with a cross. At the same time, how many American Christians claim that they live in a Christian empire? How many connect God’s will and blessing with the power and success of that empire? And it is not uncommon in conservative Christian circles to justify the Roman expansion of Christianity as God’s undercover plan to disseminate the religion around the globe. But how can a machine built on death and domination deliver a gospel about peace and reconciliation? The spirit and legacy of Jesus cannot be managed or defended by an empire. Constantinian Christianity represents an abject failure to realize the gospel of God’s kingdom. It should be a byword for us, and we should strive to define ourselves against it in belief and practice.


Five Books That Changed Everything

One nice thing that my unexpected midlife spiral into biblical study has done for me is to teach me to read. In my younger days, I was always more of a “worn out VHS tape of The Simpsons or Mystery Science Theater” kinda guy than a “book” guy. When I first started asking big questions about faith and tradition, now almost a decade ago, the only resources I had handy were my ESV Study Bible and sermon podcasts from the likes of John Piper, Tim Keller, and Mark Driscoll.  (I had no idea back then that my biblical education had been entrusted almost exclusively to neo-Calvinists. I barely knew what a Calvinist was.)

Seminary taught me to read, and to read wide. It taught me to eagerly seek diverse points of view and to expose myself to scholarship from many disciplines and traditions (not just Christian, not just American, not just western). I still regularly consult books I bought in seminary: reference books, theologies, histories, and books on biblical languages. And my library shelves (and Kindle and Audible accounts) continue to expand.

Looking back on the journey that has taken me from familiar and safe surroundings to new and uncharted frontiers, there are some books which represent distinct moments of discovery, correction, and transformation; what I might call “intellectual repentance.” These are not necessarily my “favorites” or my “desert island” reads, but they mark the major moments of progress in my ever evolving relationship with the Bible. If I remain diligent, this list will never be a “closed canon.” Here’s how it looks today:

1. The First Testament In Historical and Cultural Context, R. Bryan Widbin

first testamentThis one has more to do with a man than a book. The First Testament is a published presentation of notes and curriculum from Dr. R. Bryan Widbin, Professor of Old Testament at Alliance Theological Seminary. As the title of his book suggests, Dr. Widbin does not prefer the moniker “Old Testament,” which too often reflects unhelpful Christian notions about the Hebrew Scriptures.

I had the honor of studying under Dr. Widbin in several courses and the great honor of assisting him in the teaching of Hebrew for a couple of terms. Few experiences have been more profoundly transformational than my time in classrooms with Dr. Widbin. He taught us about the world, culture, language, and people which created the Hebrew Bible, emphasized the prophetic call for justice, and exemplified a peaceful, hopeful reading of difficult ancient material. In short, his courses set me on the critical and theological trajectory that has defined my faith ever since.

Thank you, Dr. Widbin!

2. How to Read the Bible, James Kugel

how to read bibleI bought this book on the recommendation of Dr. Widbin. In fact, I seem to recall that it was listed on the syllabus for one course or another. It wasn’t until some time later that I actually picked it up and started reading it, and it proved to be immensely helpful. Kugel is a distinguished professor of Bible (retired from Harvard, now at Bar Ilan in Israel) and an Orthodox Jew. In How to Read the Bible he pursues two objectives: he provides a comprehensive and invaluable survey of current Hebrew Bible scholarship, and at the same time wrestles with his own conclusions in light of both his scholarly accomplishment and his personal Jewish faith. For a Christian just beginning to study and ask unsettling questions, it was disarmingly instructive and comforting to observe such vulnerable teachability in someone from a very different perspective and station. This book gave me mountains of data to consider, but more importantly it modeled sensitive and responsible scholarship.

The Bible As It Was is another essential book from Kugel, a reference volume in which he compares interpretations of Hebrew Bible texts from various rabbis and church fathers. His In Potiphar’s House is also highly regarded, though I have not read it myself yet.

3. The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann

prophetic imaginationThe third and final “Old Testament” title on the list, and one of the most stunning intellectual experiences a Christian can have reading about the Bible. Brueggemann’s very short book reframes and clarifies the role of the biblical prophets, clearing up unhelpful assumptions and giving the original prophetic voices a fresh broadcast. Dr. Brueggemann portrays prophets not as unfeeling, mechanical vessels for divine announcement and prediction, but as poets artfully inviting their hearers (and especially the powers-that-be) into an alternative world of imagination. These prophets don’t merely wag their fingers at sinners, they challenge us all to consider that “it doesn’t have to be like this.” I cannot do this powerful book justice in such a brief description.

Brueggemann also published a full and excellent Introduction to the Old Testament, and his recent Sabbath As Resistance is another watershed.

4. Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright

jesus and the victory of godI usually treat lengthy theologies like reference books, consulting them topically as-needed. But when the 700 page Jesus and the Victory of God arrived at my doorstep from Amazon, I opened it up and read it straight through over the course of a few evenings. Then I immediately went back and re-read a couple of key sections. When it comes to the New Testament and the historical person and ministry of Jesus, no work has been more influential and definitive to me than Wright’s. After providing an alarmingly thorough history of Jesus scholarship, JVG offers a meticulous and multidimensional examination of the (ancient, prophetic, and Second Temple) Jewish contexts of Jesus’ life and message. No aspect of the historical Jesus is left unexplored or unclarified: his self-concept as a prophet, the political background to his public campaign, the meaning of his miraculous “signs,” the exile as the interpretive key to his parables, the historical roots of his eschatology, and the reasons for his arrest and execution. If you care about who Jesus was and what he said, JVG provides invaluable guidance. The follow-up volume The Resurrection of the Son of God deals with Easter from a similar perspective and with the same rigor.

Also highly recommended are Wright’s books on Paul (his major scholarly work Paul and the Faithfulness of God and his more reader friendly Paul: In Fresh Perspective), Surprised By Hope, and The Kingdom New Testament, his own fresh and eye-popping translation.

5. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Bradley Jersak

her gatesFor a brain like mine, Jersak’s book is what Rob Bell’s Love Wins should have been. That’s probably not fair to Bell, who surely wrote the book he intended to. But Her Gates Will Never Be Shut examines the questions of hell and judgment with an evangelical attention to the contents and contexts of scripture, even as it gives voice to perspectives that go far beyond the traditional Protestant configurations. Jersak exhaustively catalogs those biblical terms and scenarios which deal with judgment and ultimate human destiny and demonstrates their rich diversity, their obscured and unexpected origins, and some surprisingly beautiful pastoral implications. This book doesn’t call the debate for the universalist side, it simply constructs a holistic – and ultimately hopeful – biblical view to a future in which God’s mercy conquers, redeems, and rescues all. If you are a serious and conscientious reader of the Bible who finds traditional formulations of judgment and hell untenable, this book is a gift.

Brad Jersak appears in the fascinating documentary Hellbound?, now streaming on Netflix, and his upcoming book is titled A More Christlike God.

Other Game-changers:

Understanding Genesis and Exploring Exodus, Nahum Sarna
Sinai and Zion, Jon Levenson
A Farewell to Mars, Brian Zahnd
Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood
The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle
The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard
A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren
A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass
For the Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns
The Jesus Driven Life, Michael Hardin
And for old times’ sake: The Reason for God, Timothy Keller