Saturday, September 20, 2008

Calvinist Thinking: Total Depravity

I have a strong conviction about how to read the Bible. When we read a verse of scripture we should never interpret it in a way that is opposed to the clear meaning of other scriptures. For instance, 1 Corinthians 14:34 says, 'Women should be silent in the churches'. Taken out of context this seems pretty straight forward but when we read the rest of 1 Corinthians- much less the rest of the Bible- it is clear that women do speak and teach and proclaim within the Body of Christ. So we conclude that Paul is speaking about a specific situation here and not as a universal all-time rule for women in churches. By the same token Paul says many things about the character and nature of God, Man, Creation, etc. But we must always keep these in line with what has been revealed in Jesus. In John 14 Jesus makes an incredible announcement. He tells Philip and the disciples that whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father. Do you want to know what God is like? Look to Jesus. So here is my point: Any interpretation of the Old or New Testament scriptures that is contrary to what Jesus has revealed to us about God can not be correct. Or to put it another way, we don't read Paul to find out what Jesus is like we look to Jesus to explain what Paul was talking about. This all sounds terribly complicated until we look at Total Depravity in the Calvinist system of thought.

Total Depravity according to Calvin meant that everything about Mankind is fallen and broken by sin. To Calvin's way of thinking this is a critical point in his theology because it sets up the number one point that John Calvin wanted us to understand about God. He chooses us, we do not choose Him. WE CAN NOT BY ANY MEANS FORCE GOD TO DO ANYTHING. I happen to believe that. But I do not understand Total Depravity the way some Calvinist consider it. Here, I will diverge from what some of you may have been expecting, namely a scholarly discussion of what Calvin thought. I am actually not too terribly concerned about what Calvin himself thought. I am much more concerned with what we think and in the conversations I have with Calvinists and non I am concerned with this Total Depravity issue. You see, Calvin may be right but I have two things to say about this. One, I believe that Man was made in God's image and that no matter how badly Sin has messed it up it is still in there. You can see it in the beauty of friendship, love, and forgiveness in Christians and non-Christians alike. I see this as God's original splendor still percolating beneath all the filth we have covered it with. So, while I- and every non-Calvinists I know- agree that there is no part of Man that does not need the redemption of Christ I will not yet declare Man totally depraved in the way that some Calvinists seem to think of Man. Man is not wholly evil. Second, Jesus does not see us this way.

If Total Depravity is technically correct or not too many Calvinists and non use it to misunderstand how God looks upon Man. When Jesus sits next to prostitutes and tax collectors the Word does not record Him thinking, 'What a bunch of despicable reprobates! There is no good thing in them and they make my skin crawl.' On the contrary, the Pharisees are rather annoyed with Jesus because He not only teaches them but seems to genuinely enjoy being with them. I know, I know, we are fallen, corrupted, 'All have fallen short...' Yes, I understand that. But when Jesus looks on the Rich Young Ruler who rejected Him the Word says, 'He loved him.' Think about that for a moment. Some of you may have thought, 'Ok, I know God loves me but it is solely because of the work of His Son. It is because of Christ's sacrifice for us that God can stand to look at us.' Or, some of you might think 'Well, of course He loves me. He knows all things and He knows what I will become in His Kingdom. He loves me for what He will make of me.' But the Rich Young Ruler rejected Him and would never become any more than what he was- in fact, he was probably never closer to the Kingdom than at that moment and the Word says he walked away. I have seen those who walk away and I bet some of you have as well. What they go on to become is never pretty. No, somehow Jesus loves us. He does not love the sin. He does not love us for the good things we occasionally do. He loves us.

Now, some may step in at this point and say, 'I see that He truly loves us but that is because He is so loving. It has nothing to do with who we are. We are yet totally depraved, utterly sinful.' My only response to that is that sometimes we say things we just don't think through. God does not love sin or depravity and yet He loves us. Therefore there is something about us that is not sin or depravity. I have a teenage daughter. If she came home one day and told me that she was a loving person and that is why she is going to marry a totally depraved, sinful, immoral man I would have a less than positive response to this. God loves us and He plans on marrying us!

Total Depravity is a good way of understanding our relationship to God in regard to our salvation. We have nothing and can do nothing that demands God's love. But do not then go on to understand that is all Man is. The King of Kings truly loves us. He finds a value in us that I do not comprehend but as we relate to one another it is perilous to forget that the King loves those whom you love, those whom you hate, and yes, even Democrats and Republicans. Let us treat each other with this love and leave Total Depravity on a theoretical shelf to be pulled down only when we get too prideful. But in my life I have seen more people rescued by the certain knowledge of God's love than the hell-fire sermons of a vengeful God who may or may not save us against His better judgment.


Rev said...

Hey Strider,

I agree with your conclusion that Total Depravity is NOT a accurate picture of man. Again why it is a incomplete theology. What is missing is what you said, "that Man was made in God's image".

But i think you might be wrong in equating Totally Depravity as being Totally evil. The point is that there is nothing man does by himself that is not stained, marred and corrupted by sin. Sin totally permeates who we are. Just like dusty a moth eaten wedding dress can be totally destroyed, but still somehow reflects what it once was and could have been.

the point of the word "depravity" is more like "corruption" rather than just being pure "evil". The point is that though being made in the image of God there is no part of us not deprived (morally corrupted) in any-sense that can merit God's acceptance. But even though i agree with the premise of Total Depravity, i think it is not the best phrase to use.

You said, "Total Depravity is a good way of understanding our relationship to God in regard to our salvation". And that was the original point. Calvinism from the beginning was a soteriological (study of salavation) statement, not a well rounded statement of God or Man. So... does that mean that we both agree on point one? Yet we both think it clear or complete.

Rev said...

The last line i meant to say "Yet we both think Total Depravity doesn't paint a clear picture of who we are according to the Bible"

Strider said...

Rev- You are reading me right. I don't know what John C thought about Man but I have heard some talk about Total Depravity in such absolutes. I realize many if not most do not.
My point in this post and the following will be to see us through Jesus' eyes and let the chips fall where they may.

Anonymous said...

strider: Total depravity does not say that we make God's skin crawl, but without Christ we do not have the power to choose God, we do not have the desire until God does the work through the Holy Spirit. This is what the picture of Lazarus being raised from the dead pictures. Salvation.

Did Lazarus rise from the dead in his own power? No. Christ had to call out to him. That is total depravity. I believe it does describe men after the fall. It is the cause of the fall. This is the death in sin that God spoke of. Not only physical death, but spiritual death.

Anonymous said...

That should be it is a result of the fall.

Rev said...

so Debbie, are you agreeing or disagreeing with Strider? I think he already said that in terms of describing salvation the description works. So what are you trying to say?

Anonymous said...

Disagreeing. I think my comment is self explanatory, but will go into detail if you truly have a hard time understanding.

Rev said...

Let me get this straight. Strider says that, "Total Depravity is a good way of understanding our relationship to God in regard to our salvation"

And you start talking about Lazarus is a picture of our salvation. How we don't have the power or desire to choose God.

So if Strider is saying its ok as a description of us in terms of understanding God and salvation. and you say it is a picture of how God saves us. Then you are not disagreeing.

So i may be missing some awesome point you made but from what i am reading it sounds like strider is saying there is more to Man than TD and you are just rattling on about TD and not responding to his statement.

Hows this. Debbie, how does our being made in the image of God and being totally depraved mix? Does God love the lost? Hate the lost? or has mixed feelings? Please answer.

Strider said...

I am traveling just now and wont be online until next week. Rev seems to be speaking for me just fine! But if there are more questions then I will reply later. I think we agree on this issue - we wont agree on future post I am sure!

bryan riley said...

I really like what you've written, Strider. I'm pretty agnostic as to how God interacts with His creation and am continuing to seek more knowledge of Him, but I agree that all of humanity has the Divine spark of His image in them and how that impacts our understanding of Him reaching us is hard to tell - at least for me. I've always "believed" "total depravity" and yet I'm not sure if we even know what we mean when we say it, as is indicated by the discussion here. Perhaps people who strongly believe we are totally depraved need to remember that it even impacts our ability to think and articulate such things? :)