While the doctrine of predestination if often taken to be the central, most important doctrine of Calvinism, I would suggest the ultimate heart of Calvinism, which was transmitted to Wesleyan theology, is the doctrine of Total Depravity. Whether Wesleyan or Calvin, how one views human nature commonly is the intellectual starting point and ending point for how one’s theological views in between will be shaped and formed; that is, if your theological views a) value consistency and b) take a view on human nature to be foundational for deriving other views.
While I am not recommending that human nature should be treated as a foundational theological doctrine that determines the nature of other doctrines, nevertheless it is a reality as to how we as anthropocentric humans actually think, barring some dramatic, crisis event that forces us to radically break out of our egocentricity, even if it is just for a moment that can not be sustained. This reality shows itself in how much of the theological conflicts between evangelical and progressive theology unconsciously are conflicts around what it means to be human, both descriptively and prescriptively. Take the conflict over sexuality for instance; rarely do disagreements about people’s sexuality ever take the form of a sustained analysis and understanding about some other form of knowledge, either in the sciences such as neurology, the more basic components of biology, cognition, or from theology-proper in talking about God Himself. Certainly, we tend to find references made to God or to science to legitimate one’s views, but the debate over sexuality defaults to and eventually returns back to a view of what it means to be human.
Similarly but outside of a specifically religious debate, we saw this play out in the previous generations debate on race, thinking that different races, based upon what can be ultimately amounted to either a) superficial features, b) environmental adaptions and/or c) cultural differences, reflecting different stages of development in human evolution or progress that was encoded in their intrinsic nature through their genes. Black and white people were seen to more different genetically than the same, overvaluing the differences and diminishing the similarities. At the care was a question of what it was to be human, and in this world that had just discovered the power of the gene, they began to project their own understanding of what it meant to be human onto this “scientific” idea. But at the end of the day, the center of the debate was about people’s working definitions of being human that people appealed to science to either verify or reject.
Throughout human history, the definition and understanding of a human comes under stark challenges. At the core, there is a universal principle that groups of people develop categories for and understanding about organisms like themselves, which we have in words like human, person, individual, etc. . While there is a general prototype that all cultures will share that our words will share in common, they are not all exact equivalents in the various nuances; even within our own language, the various synonyms to “human” are not exact equivalents. Therefore, as a consequence, how these nuances build from this basic prototype differs. A primary source comes with groups of people interact with other groups of people; as a consequence of many repeated encounters with other people, the alterations that make from the common prototype will be caused by there interactions with other people. Thus, when human networks change dramatically, as occurs in periods of intensifying regionalization and globalization, the definitions of what it means to be human gets challenged and shifted.
One feature of being human, which is relevant for the rest of my argument, is the aspect of temporality. We can construe being human in terms of temporality, such as going from birth, maturing into adulthood, developing in knowledge and wisdom into older age, and then passing away. We can also construe being human in atemporal ways, such as defining being human based upon certain biological, physiological, and cognitive capacities such as thinking, feeling, desiring, loving, hating, etc. While we can usually be flexible in construing humanity in temporal or atemporal terms in different circumstances, all people have a predilection to favor one sort posture to another such that two people may in the exact same situation and context other employ the different construals of being human.
So, for instance, when talking about humanity and sin, one person may construe it atemporally, thinking that being human is to sin, and thus because of this atemporal construal, draw the conclusion that human nature is evil. However, I, on the other hand, may construe of human nature more temporally, recognizing that humans over the course of time commit sin, construing sin a temporal event. I don’t define human nature of evil, but recognizing that over the course of time, human nature will commit evil.
The nature of temporality and atemporality impacts the discussion of Original Sin and then the doctrine of Total Depravity. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin suggested that due to Adam’s sin, there was a hereditary transmission of sin to his descendants. This doctrine construes humanity in atemporal terms, not considering how Adam’s sin temporally lead to the consequences it did through the alteration of (theological) history of God’s relationship to creation, but rather that something within human nature itself was change. Temporality is only used to construe the event of sin, but not the definition of what it meant to be a human as a consequence of this event.
This pattern of construing the impact of original sin in its atemporal effects of humanity gets transmitted to Calvin, who suggests that Adam’s sin destroyed the whole order of nature and “deteriorated” humans. At stake is the reality of being human has been fundamentally altered permanently. As a consequence, built throughout the Reformed tradition and even the Wesleyan tradition is the notion of transformation of nature through some act of God that gives us a nature or capacity that we did not otherwise have, such as the capacity to have faith in God or the capacity of free will. God’s grace is a re-naturing action, changing the experience of being human by changing humanity in and of itself through a specific event that creates a stark discontinuity with the past. The nature of a human and the nature of a human who is a Christian are not just starkly different in terms of their own experiences, but that there is something fundamentally different in their nature and capacities as they are conceived of atemporally.
But within the wider Christian tradition, this view of original sin is not universal. Eastern Orthodoxy rejected this view of sin expressed in Augustine that influenced Calvin. Instead, they appeal to the Devil as the source of the problem as the one in the garden (which the Western Christianity can do also), which I would say is also closer to the apocalyptic worldview in appeal to powers outside of people themselves that influenced the New Testament although it doesn’t, in my opinion, precisely get to how the New Testament employs apocalyptic discourse and concepts. Then, they suggest an environmental change that lead to the problems of sin. I myself share some affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, but I have some reservations. In assigning the problem due to the environment, they are still suggesting there is some temporal event of change to nature, construed in an atemporal way.
However, what if the problem of Adam’s sin and what Paul refers to as the flesh isn’t a problem of human nature, per se, but rather Adam’s sin was an event that put in motion a series of historical events, most notably the separation of Adam and Eve from the presence of God and His provision of the tree of life, than they lead to conseqeuences down the road. What if being human entails sinning not because humans by nature sin, but humans separated from God’s presence and provision sin? What if sin is a product of the experience of being away from God’s presence and provision over the course of time rather than simply being something that is about human nature?
I think the problem stems from misunderstanding how Paul thinks about flesh/σαρξ. Augustine’s NeoPlatonism pedagogically taught him to look for fixed, atemporal ideas/natures and this became transmitted throughout Western Christianity. But I don’t think for Paul, the problem of flesh is that the flesh is sinful, but rather, throughout the course of the experience of the flesh, sin will emerge.
When you read his account of the Torah commandment and sin in Romans 7:7-13, Paul speaks temporally, see a an event of receiving knowledge from the Torah leading to the event of emergence of sin. Then, in 7:14-25, Paul construes the battle with sin as an ongoing war that is taking him captive; the present tense focuses not on an atemporal human nature but rather the struggle that exists within the person seeking to obey Torah while finding their body doesn’t do what their mind ultimately wishes. Paul’s ultimate explanation for this reality isn’t that the flesh is sinful by human nature, but rather that sin has taken residence in and colonized his flesh so that it obeys its dictates. Paul’s metaphor of war and power used to construe the struggle of human nature to obey God entails a temporal, not an atemporal, view of human experience to take the metaphor seriously as it is being used in describing the phenomenological experience. Paul is not construing the flesh in terms of a human nature that is just corrupt by nature, but rather it is experiencing the persistent, temporal control of other, external forces.
Furthermore, this metaphor of war is related to the imperial metaphors in Romans 5, where the effects of Adam’s sin and Christ’s faithfulness is construed of in terms of different political reign. Adam’s sin creates one political reign of sin and death and Christ’s faithfulness inaugurates another, competing reign of righteousness and life, of which both reigns influence all of humanity. Connecting the warfare metaphor of Romans 7 to the imperial metaphor of Romans 5, we can imagine that Paul’s sense of human experience is conceived of in a temporal manner that relates to history and the change that occurs through the course of history, rather than an atemporal manner that relates more to nature. Romans 7 describes the nature of this power as cemented prior to the rescue of Jesus Christ described in Romans 5, whereas Romans 8 describes the nature of the struggle between these two forces, but no longer using the warfare metaphor.
Simply put, the flow of Paul’s argument from Romans 5-8 entails a view of temporality, allowing for change and shift to occur through the course of time. As such, the problem isn’t some atemporal human nature, but the colonizing powers that bind human nature away from God. While there are aspects of the human person that can mentally dissent from these colonizing powers, their resistance is for naught, as because in Paul’s account, they find the body has a life of its own distinct from the thoughts of the mind, which most of us can find true from time to time. We could talk about this alternative today as the difference between heart and mind, because we have had a predilection in the West to conceptually decouple our own experience from the body rather than to see them connected, but the effect of it is essentially the same, one thinking powers experiences a dramatic challenge and defeat by other forces operating within ourselves as persons.
If all this is the case, then it offers a different explanation for what Paul ultimately says about the flesh in 8:7-8: “For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (NRSV) The thoughts of the flesh are different from the thoughts of the Spirit (vss. 5-6), thereby recognizing that human experience that is constrained to the realities of the flesh can not and will not be able to resist the thoughts, wishes, and intentions of the powers of sin that have colonized the flesh, but God Himself must draw near and come to dwell and seek to colonize the person to resist the colonizing dwelling of sin and death through the presence of His Spirit. The course of a person’s life in living by the flesh will only be in submission to the overwhelming dictates of human life that has been influenced and formed by the distance from God’s presence over the course of time, a distance which Adam’s action initiated allowing the powers of sin and death to enter in and colonize.
Put more simply, one is formed by one’s experience. To be formed by the control of the flesh makes us people who do not have a formative submission to God’s Instruction/Torah, even if we can have an intellectual assent and agreement to it. The course of human life directed by the powers of the flesh is not towards God, but towards some other, conflicting destination. Consequently, one’s life never reaches to a point where one actions are what pleases God’s.
The temporal nature of this experience of spiritual bondage provides the undergirding logic for Paul’s explanation in 8:5-6 and his instruction in 8:12-13. The warfare/ metaphor pops its head up through the metaphor of violence/killing in the charge to “put to death the deeds of the flesh,” connecting the Christian experience of flesh in the midst of the dwelling Spirit to the metaphorical warfare described in chapter 7. By achieving domination of the various instances of control by the colonial powers of sin and death, one will free oneself from the future destiny of the reign of sin, death, and experience the opposite, life.
Paul’s constural here entails no atemporal definition of humanity as sinners, or inherently unable to respond to God in any and all fashions, as is commonly detailed in classical doctrines of total depravity. Rather, the simply problem is that whatever capacities that exist in the person to move towards God’s will, they are always thwarted and cut off before they can amount to anything, as the colonial power of sin has control. In this schema, people can be said to have some, very, very, VERY minimal sense of freedom that can be directed towards the will of God as God’s makes known in the Torah, but it will not amount to anything. Temporalizing total depravity entails recognition that our future apart from God’s gracious presence and power will never amount to anything that God is seeking and wanting. While the truths we may derive about human life and our definition of being human derived from human experience may have some value, may have some truth, may have some importance, nothing in all these things are an empowered force for good to bring us to God’s desire for humanity; the mind can recognize the good but has not power to bring it to its ultimate fruition.
The implications of this is the potential, partial repairing of a fracture between evangelical and progressive Christian sensibilities. Taking sexuality as a concrete, prototype case, evangelicals at a more extreme level would view same-sex sexual desire as itself sinful and evil by nature, whereas progressive views tend to emphasize that this sexual desire is good and should be cherished, if not even celebrated. Consequently, progressive theology places its focus on trying to celebrate this goodness, fighting against shaming nature that comes when we define our basic human desires as sin, evil, etc. Temporalizing flesh, and through that temporalizing ttotal depravity, would be to say the problem of human sexuality isn’t a problem of wrong desires or wrong sexual behaviors, but rather the fundamental recognition that nothing in human sexuality provides the basis for redemption and in fact a focus on human sexuality can actually hinder us from the good that God wants; this is true for all forms of sexual desire. But the problem isn’t, like Augustine, that these things are naturally evil or dirty which can lead to a lot of shame, but simply the recognition that these desires do not present a power to rightly direct and form us for God’s purposes and thus should not be valorized and celebrated as necessary or fixed. The problem isn’t our orientations, our identities, or even behaviors in and of themselves, but rather the temporal effects these things have to control us to be formed for purposes other than God’s purposes. Furthermore, while God’s purposes for human sexuality as for male and female, this ethical idea itself is of no real value in and of itself for forming us into the purposes God forms us for, because trying to maintain right sexual ethics in and of itself will do nothing for accomplish God’s purposes for our lives.
Hence, to bring this to my immediate context, this explains part of my own concern about the nature of the conflict of human sexuality in the United Methodist Church. The conflict has caused us as United Methodists to place the emphasis on the wrong place, and insofar as we construe our denomination in terms of stances on same-sex sexual intercourse and marriage, we are not spending our time fighting a battle against the deeds of the flesh but against the ideas of people. This isn’t simply a reformulation of the statement of the common cliche “this conflict is distracting us from the Gospel,” because my concern isn’t simply about denominational behaviors in how we spend our money and time, but rather how our denomination is pedagogically forming a way of thinking that does not actually participate in the type of thinking Paul calls for in the putting to death the deeds of the flesh. So much time is spent thinking about human nature and order, less time is spent over the course of time thinking about conflicts of the flesh and Spirit in our own experience of life.
While not an all-curing panacea, a more temporalized view of human nature emanating from Paul’s understanding of the phenomenological experience of the flesh and the Spirit can provide a) matter of thinking to break many of the intellectual stalemates centering about what it means to be human, specifically in our sexual desires, while b) redirecting the importance of the future of our denomination and the churches to how the people are engaged in the specific experiences of conflict between their flesh and the Spirit in their lives that attunes us more to the peace-making presence of God, rather than the more conflict-oriented motivations and powers that has caused people to repeatedly shame, psychologically harm, slander, attack, and ridicule LGBTQ persons and which also lead to the arrogance of activists to try to control retain control of evangelicals (or at least the property and finances of evangelicals) and shame people for holding to what the Scriptures are pretty clear about, despite the objections of lack of clearity coming from a level of hyper-critical skepticism that are selectively directed towards the text on sexuality but not on all other texts.