Christian Doctrine (11)

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“Total depravity” – seriously

More summary notes on Christian Doctrine1 – Chapter 11, “Why Don’t You Just Be Yourself? The Doctrine of Sin”:

Sin is paradoxical for human beings. It is “unnatural” in the sense that it runs contrary to created human nature “in the image of God,” which means “(1) life received from and lived for God in a relationship of thankful dependence and active obedience; (2) life with and for our fellow human beings in a relationship of mutual openness and help; (3) life that is self-affirming and self-fulfilling when we live in community with God and other people.” (212-3) And yet we sin all the time, sometimes without thinking about it, sometimes despite our best efforts, even when we work hard at not doing it – so it separates us from “ourselves.” Guthrie emphasizes that we want to “take sin very seriously but not too seriously” (213), in that sin is neither the basic truth about our nature (see “image of God” above), nor stronger than God, so it is not really “the main thing” in Christian doctrine, though it is our main problem. It is no coincidence that “in the Bible the word sin itself has only a negative meaning” (214), as missing what we aim at, deprivation of the good, etc., and that in the creed the only mention of sin is as our faith in God’s forgiveness of it.

Guthrie discusses sin primarily as the way humans deny their humanity, in a sense pursuing life either as animals or as gods in their own right. In so doing, he discusses three basic forms of sin: disobedience, sensuality, and the desire to be good.

Thinking about sin as disobedience might have some pitfalls; sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that if we follow “all the rules” we are without sin; so here it helps to remember that the basic law is the one about loving God with all our heart, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves – all the departures from that law, like making our main loyalty ourselves or our race or our class instead of God, or “not only murdering other people but simply letting them starve to death physically or emotionally because we decide that social welfare and foreign aid are ‘money down a rathole’” (215), etc. etc. qualify as disobedience. The point being that, even we law-abiding folks disobey God a lot, and can easily say, along with the Heidelberg Confession “I am by nature prone to hate God and my neighbor.”

Sensuality is the “safe” one to pick on for most people, sometimes because some of us don’t think we have this problem. Guthrie’s discussion here mostly focuses on correcting some misconceptions about sensuality. First, it’s a mistake to think that sin is just a problem of our bodies, as if sin doesn’t afflict our souls and spirits and minds and hearts, or as if somehow our bodies are our real problem. Second, sensual sin is only one form sin can take. “It would be hard to argue that the moral, law-abiding Pharisees were less sinful than the prostitutes and tax collectors” (216). Finally, the sinfulness of sensual sins is less the specific activities involved than the motives, that come from the heart and drive the activities: motives that have to do with exploiting other people’s or our own physical beings in ways that deny or break or trash human relationships and our own and others’ intrinsic value.

Guthrie’s identification of sin as “the desire to be good” is hardest for me to understand – maybe because this is where I have the most trouble? He directs attention to Genesis 3:1-13; what is the sin? “It is an indication of how profound this ancient story is that several answers can be given, two of which we have already discussed” (218). Guthrie notes that another way to think about the story (besides disobedience and sensuality – which, by the way, is not particularly well-supported by the text) is as “pride” – the desire to be like God – a classical interpretation; more recently, feminist theologians have pointed out that people also sin through “passive self-denial and servility” – akin to what Barth identified as “sloth,” refusing to be what we are made and called to be; another interpretation has been “lack of faith” in God’s care. Guthrie, however, identifies “the root and essence of sin” as “the desire to know good and evil” (219). On Guthrie’s analysis, this amounts to a desire to dispense with God as our source for direction (so, rebellion against God), to setting ourselves up as judges of others (so, “enmity” towards and separation from others), and believing that we know good and evil is self-destructive. So wanting to “be good” in this distorted sense is a particularly pernicious form of sin on Guthrie’s account.

The notion of “original sin” is a way of trying to come to terms with a paradox: everyone sins – which would ordinarily make us think that “we can’t help it,” it’s just how people are – but we are responsible for our misbehavior – we really aren’t compelled, the better alternatives are really possible, though we don’t take them. We could think of this as a “hereditary” problem – people have inherited original sin from the first parents Adam and Eve; this is an old theme in Christian theology. Guthrie criticizes it on the grounds that it encourages us to think of ourselves as not responsible for our own sin (any more than we are responsible for the color of our eyes), that sex is the main source of sin (he just got done pointing out the error of that thinking), and that it distracts us from something we know very well: that we really transmit sin through socialization and social structures.

Another way to think about original sin is to think of Adam as a “representative” of humanity, a notion that is enshrined in the Westminster Confession as God’s “imputation” of Adam’s sin to all humanity. (“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”) A way to think about this would be to think of Adam as Everyman, and to recognize that what Adam did, we all do – he’s archetypal, or prototypical. There are several advantages to thinking about original sin this way: it’s less fatalistic in a way than the inheritance view – we don’t have to be Adam, although we all are; it makes sin personal – which we like to avoid, so being reminded of that is helpful; and it has a lot of Biblical support. The disadvantage is that it doesn’t really explain why sin is so inevitable for us.

Finally, there are the consequences of sin: depravity and death. Being in the Reformed tradition, we have Calvin’s formula of “total depravity,” which sounds grim, but which doesn’t actually mean that no one ever does anything good, or that people can’t get together and improve things in the world. It just means that we’re never what we could be and want to be: really free, from self-interest and base motives, really wholeheartedly free for God and our neighbors; we’re never “cured.” And then there is death, which is not so much physical death, as the other kind of death, the death of what is human and humane in us, the death of love and what Paul called “the life that really is life.”

But that life is the main idea of Christian faith. The point of being aware of sin is not to meditate on it or stop with it; recognizing that it is a problem is of value only for recognizing that there is a remedy. So the next chapters deal with redemption and Jesus Christ.

1 Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 212-227.

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