As I am continuing to engage in theological reflection on what I have witnessed in Christian theology and discourse as it intersects with my reading of the Scriptures and personal experience, there are five common doctrines within conservative, particularly Reformed, wing of evangelical Christianity that I think simultaneously (a) causes great harm and (b) do not have a robust grounding in the Scriptures. Those five doctrines are (1) the universal, persistent wrath of God that is sending everyone but believers to hell, (2) a vision of sexuality that looks at sex through the lens of cleanliness and impurity rather than life and death, (3) the Scriptures as an embodiment of theological knowledge about God rather than a pointer to knowing God Himself, (4) the idea that God instituted an eternally fixed creation order that deviance from automatically amounts to sin, and (5) humanity is totally depraved in wickedness.
Each of these five doctrines are, I would say, rooted in some of what the Scriptures do speak to, but ultimately I would suggest these errors emerge because of the way that propositional content of such theology has often been structured like an idealized vision of philosophy, with clear, precisely delineated categories that cut asunder any ambiguity, that then structures the meaning they attribute to the words of Scripture. By contrast, I read the Bible with a different mindset that seeks to discern differences without then creating, large, all-encompassing, sweeping theological and ethical claims from single texts. Instead, it is my hope that through reading the Scriptures, along with its practice, that the goodness of the living God is testified to me from the whole of Scripture, saturating the deepest recesses of my mind and letting God’s Spirit then guide me to see what good and pleasing and teach me to see what ideas are worthy of acceptance.
It is not my intention to try to dive fully into this thesis here, however, but rather to analyze why the doctrine of total depravity as it is traditionally conceived is an understandable misreading of the Scriptures. Yet, as it is been construed and used, I have found that it has ultimately turned God’s Word into a nuclear bomb that destroys rather than a nuclear reaction that provides the energy that facilitates life. While I am not theoretically against a doctrine of total depravity, I would suggest that because of the associations it has taken on, it may be better to describe a different doctrine of utter deprivation.
The doctrine of total depravity at its most basic point stipulates the following: humans are utterly incapable of choosing to follow God and are enslaved to sin until God’s grace free us. At this point, I would agree with the doctrine of total depravity. However, after this, I diverge from the traditional explanations of total depravity. Firstly, the traditional doctrine of total depravity suggests that the Fall changed human nature in its essence, something that is lacking in Genesis 2, whereas my understanding suggests that the problem of sin is attributable to the combination of the knowledge of good and evil and the absence of God’s close presence and provision of life (done to limit the harm humans possessing the knowledge of good and evil could do). The effect of this is to propose a different theological anthropology that understands the origins of sin in our life differently, which leads to different conclusions as to how we are transformed through the grace of the Triune God.
Secondly, whereas the traditional doctrine of depravity tends to separate the saving grace of God that leads to conversion from common/prevenient grace, I prefer to think of grace primarily as an attribute of God Himself who is indivisible in His absolute reality, although experienced diversely in different people at different points of time along the pathway towards God’s gift of life and shalom. This means that people come to the righteousness of God from different directions in their life, that there is not a single process or formula of anthropological transformation.
Thirdly, total depravity tends to think the problem is of sin in and of itself that the mere existence of leads us to eternal punishment. This means that it inculcates a mentality of avoidance and aggression in fighting against what is perceived to be evil. This also means that the doctrine of total depravity tends to put the focus on what is bad, what is ugly, what is wrong rather than what is good, what is beautiful, what is right. By contrast, I would suggest that the ultimate problem is that humanity has blindness to and the absence of God’s goodness and that the practice of sin reinforces this blindness and absence, but that the primary purpose of mortifying sin is not to avoid some punishment but rather to discover the glory of God and His gifts of life. This inculcates a different mentality of focusing on being a healer that brings about shalom and well-being.
Fourthly, and branching off from the third point, the doctrine of total depravity often has the effect of eviscerating any sense of moral decency (I intentionally use this term in distinction from goodness) from the person prior to conversion, and often in such a way that the human body is permanently denigrated as being a bad thing (the way this overlaps with a harmful view of sex is apparent here). Instead, I would say that the problem isn’t of an utter absence of the potential for decency, but rather the source of true, abundant, full goodness in our life not reside within us apart from God’s grace.
There are three Biblical texts that I think this deficient version of total depravity primarily depends upon, but upon further reflection, it seems to be poor interpretations of the text, attributable to various causes.
First is Jeremiah 17.9. Most translations read something along the lines of “The heart is deceitful, it is perverse.” The effect of this is that people have treated the human heart as something to be thoroughly mistrusted, as circumspect. Instead, one should look to other sources for the truth, most particularly the Bible. Yet, if this translation were correct, that would put us quite in a bind, as it is our ‘heart’ that colors everything we think, say, and do. If it is inherently deceitful, then you should be utterly skeptical of anything and everything you think if you were to fully and zealously put this into practice. I tried this pathway, believing that my heart, its desires and thoughts were inherently wicked, and I found it to be a pathway that leads to death.
Yet, Jesus doesn’t seem to think the heart is by nature deceitful. Matthew 12:33-35:
Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.
You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.
Here, Jesus envisions a good heart that brings about good fruit and words in contrast to the evil heart. Perhaps, then, our translations of Jeremiah 17.9 have gone off track. Indeed, I think that is the case. I have previously written about it (http://owenweddle.com/rethinking-our-view-of-the-heart/). In short, I think there are good reasons to think the translation refers to how uneven and unpredictable the heart of a human is, but God understands the heart. This makes better sense of Jeremiah 17.10, where God is said to test the heart and reward them according to their ways. This is said in the context of the cursed man and the blessed man in Jeremiah 17.5-8, suggesting the human heart that has the potential for either depending on their trust in God. This is much more consistent with what Jesus says about the human heart.
Secondly and thirdly, are two passages from Romans. But before addressing those passages specifically, I want to make a point that much of the evangelical doctrine of sin has been derived from Paul’s letter to the Romans. There is an understandable reason for this as Paul talks much about sin and unrighteousness in the epistle. Yet, Paul talks less about sin in the rest of his epistles. Perhaps, then, it is fruitful to think that Paul’s discourse about unrighteousness in Romans was not as much about propounding a full-fleshed doctrine of sin and depravity, but that he was instead trying to address the understanding of sin among the (Jewish) Christians in Rome. I would put forward that Paul was trying to present a different understanding of sin that had become prevalent among his fellow Jews, particularly as it was written about and described in Second Temple Jewish literature such as Wisdom of Solomon and 4 Maccabees. Instead, if we pay attention to Paul, he is more concerned that his audience moves away from knowledge about sin, which has lead to the judgment of the pagan, Gentile world, and to instead see the vision of God’s righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3.20-22).
This leads us to the catena of Old Testament passages that Paul quotes in Romans 3.10-18. It has often been understood that Paul is propounding anthropology of human sinfulness in which people are utterly locked into evil and sin to the fullest degree. Yet, this entirely overlooks Paul’s discourse. He is intending to quote from the Torah and other Scriptures to show that Israel is not ethically superior in virtue of their possession of the Torah. The various Scriptures that Paul alludes to demonstrates that Israel too can fall into utter evil and darkness, even as it possesses the gift of Torah. The tendency to try to derive widespread, sweeping theological and anthropological knowledge has led these passages Paul quotes from to be understood as universal statements about humanity at all points of time, rather than being expressions, sometimes hyperbolic, of the people at particular points in time in Israel’s history.
Now, Paul does say that all humanity has sinned (Rom. 3.23), but this statement is intended as a continuation of the point in Romans 3.19-20 about the accountability of the whole world to God, not an expression of some unstated anthropology of utter wickedness. The consequence of this, then, isn’t some eternal judgment into hell, but rather to fall short of and be deprived of God’s glory, which is remedied by Jesus as the mercy seat, the place of atonement above which the cloud pillar of God’s glory was present. In other words, the revelation of God’s righteousness is ultimately about the return of God’s glory that has been lost and forgotten due to sin, not salvation from otherwise certain wrath (though, for some who have been utterly wicked and would be set to condemnation, even for them faith may lead to their justification and thus save them from judgment).
With this in light, we can look at the next passage, Romans 7.18 differently. Firstly, it is important to note that Paul is not, again, giving a sweeping statement about human nature here, but he is instead trying to poke a hole in the idea that the Torah is the ultimate source of righteousness in a person. If Paul’s “I” in Romans 7, whether autobiographical or not, is a realistic portrayal of the experience of someone’s experience of trying to obey Torah, then the legitimate conclusion to be drawn is that the Torah does not itself lead one into righteousness.
With that in mind, when we see the phrase “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is the flesh,” the doctrine of total depravity has tempted us to see this as the utter rejection of any good, decent, right impulse within the person. Yet, this actually goes against Paul’s point. The point is that the person has an inclination to seek what is right and good in their mind, but they find that they are incapable of accomplishing what they want to bring to fruition. Furthermore, the “good” here is not describing individual behaviors, but the persistent practice of what is good (Rom. 7.15). That absence of goodness in the flesh does not mean that the person is inclined towards sin and evil constantly and persistently, but, instead, they find that they regularly and persistently fall short of the good they want to accomplish. A person who seeks to obey Torah may be a decent person, but they find that they consistently fall short of the ideal that they have set before themselves in their mind. The divine solution to this problem, then, is that goodness comes to dwell in the person because the Spirit of Jesus Christ has freed them and has come to live in them (Rom. 8.1-11; contrast οἰκέω in 7.18 and 8.9).
What seems to be undergirding Paul’s understanding of human sin and righteousness in Romans, then, is the idea that people have become deprived of God’s glory and goodness because of their sin. Consequently, they are locked into the realities of the flesh, with its pangs of mortality, and can not live a bountiful life that is wholly pleasing to God (Rom. 8.8; do not assume that the only other option then is that God’s wants to send them to hell and finds nothing decent in them). Yet, because God is a God who forgives our iniquities, loves us, and finds human life to be most precious, He provides a way for us to discover His righteousness in Jesus Christ and come to embody Christ’s life in ourselves through the Holy Spirit, so that by taking our own cross and offering ourselves as living sacrifices, our minds may be transformed so that we can then come to discern all the good that God seeks to bless us with, some in this age but even more abundantly in the age to come.
In short, our hearts and lives are not utterly untrustworthy and wicked, but we are wholly ignorant of the true goodness of God until we come into fellowship with God. But through the Triune God, we come to have a good, right, and holy fellowship with God that then becomes manifest with shalom and fellowship with others. We are utterly deprived, but the Father seeks to bring us from exile into what is good by our beholding the crucified and resurrected Savior and becoming united with Him through the Holy Spirit.
There is someone special who God used someone to help teach me these things, to see the Scriptures, love, and the Triune God in an entirely new light.