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Five hypotheses about original sin and total depravity

So I went to the Facebook United Methodist Clergy page yesterday with the question of whether “total depravity” is really a Methodist doctrine, and the response was pretty fierce. The phrase “total depravity” means different things to different people. Some take it to mean that humanity is utterly wicked, while others take it to mean that every aspect of our humanity is corrupted by sin, which are different claims. To me, the most important thing to understand is that we can do nothing without God’s grace. We would be helpless without it, which is a moot point because it’s all around us; we are depraved when we don’t acknowledge and seek it. In any case, based on the discussion with other Methodist clergy, I wanted to make the following five hypotheses concerning the topic of original sin and total depravity. Continue Reading

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Wrestling with original sin (#sermon #podcast)

A week ago Sunday evening, we looked at the story of Adam and Eve as part of our LifeSign Wrestling sermon series. After listening to Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire,” we looked at several elements of the curse of sin in our world depicted allegorically through the story of Adam and Eve. They ate the fruit because they wanted to play God. As a result, they saw that they were naked and became ashamed. This meant that the world was transformed from a garden into a plantation. God’s way of undoing the curse was to get naked through Jesus on his cross so that we would stop hiding in the bushes from God. Please subscribe to the podcast if you want to receive the audio automatically each week.

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Eucharistic life (more than just “being thankful”)

It seemed appropriate to write about the word Eucharist since it means “thanksgiving” in Greek. As part of writing my ordination papers recently, I flipped back through Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, which talks about Eucharist not just in the sense of the church ritual but as a way of life. To Schmemann, it is much more than just “being thankful.” He writes: “”We were created as celebrants of the sacrament of life, of its transformation into life in God, communion with God. We know that real life is ‘eucharist,’ a movement of love and adoration toward God, the movement in which alone the meaning and the value of all that exists can be revealed and fulfilled” (34). Continue Reading

Total providence or total depravity? (John Cassian as a remedy for Augustinian nihilism)

In a recent post, John Meunier writes, “You cannot speak intelligently about Wesleyan theology if you discard the doctrine of Original Sin.” He shares a statement in the Book of Discipline which says, “We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil.” I agree that we need to know we’re sinful in order to recognize our need for Christ. But is the Christian gospel really unintelligible unless we believe that every non-Christian around us is “destitute of holiness and inclined to evil”? I wanted to offer a different way to narrate this, with the help of 4th century saint John Cassian. I ultimately think a doctrine of total providence is more faithful to John Wesley’s vision than total depravity.

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Eternal life is innocence restored (Journey to Eternity #1)

There has been so much extra-Biblical speculation about the implications of the Garden of Eden story that it’s very hard to read the story on its own terms. When I was a kid, I couldn’t get over how ridiculous it was for God to be mad enough to burn billions of people in hell over a stupid apple. Well, it would be ridiculous if that were the truth. But if we read the actual text of Genesis 3, it offers us a brilliant allegorical illustration of the loss of innocence and trust that every human being goes through and which God is . A written summary for last weekend’s sermon is below. Here is the audio: Continue Reading

God’s grace in 4 stick figure drawings

We had the first session of our new member class today. During the first class, we do introductions and give a primer on Methodist theology. We had the fortunate problem of having too many people in the class so our introductions took up all but 15 minutes. I didn’t want us to leave having only done introductions, so I tried to explain in 15 minutes and 4 stick figure drawings the three kinds of grace we talk about in Methodism: prevenient, sanctifying, and justification, along with the Christian perfection that God’s grace draws us toward. The way I’ve illustrated it is a bit individualistic (which of course I would have criticized if someone else had done it ;-)). I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions for improvement. Continue Reading

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Original sin: What really happened in Eden?

On many movie DVD’s, there is an option to watch the film with a running commentary from the director and the actors. It usually gets pretty obnoxious to listen to. I’m probably just not hipster enough. I often feel like we’re watching the “with commentary” version of the film whenever we read the story of Eden in Genesis 2-3, because the actual words of the text are usually drowned out by the background noise of the Reformers reading Augustine reading Paul reading Genesis. For Eden’s modern evangelical commentators, the focus is entirely upon Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God. Every other detail is mostly superfluous. When I read the story, however, I see the accent falling in a very different place, because Adam and Eve “die” when their eyes are opened to their nakedness (Genesis 3:7). Continue Reading

Canonical fidelity vs. empirical integrity (feminist theology and other challenges)

I just read a chapter in Adam Kotsko’s Politics of Redemption which engages feminist critiques of the cross. One aspect of the feminist theology I have encountered that makes me squirm as an evangelical is its willingness to toss out pieces of the Biblical canon if they seem to promote misogyny. I am willing to read the Bible with the same liberationist agenda that Jesus and Paul both had, but I consider myself bound to the epistemic foundation of canonical fidelity, meaning that I don’t throw anything out, even when God tells Joshua to slaughter all the women and children of some Canaanite city or when the Levite in Judges 19 pulls a Jeffrey Dahmer on his concubine. Biblical authority is a line in the sand for me, but given that, to what degree am I accountable to what I would call empirical integrity? Do I owe any responsibility to the reality that I share with people who aren’t interpreting it through my canonical filter? Continue Reading

Original sin, part one: Romans 5:12-21

Original sin. There are few Christian doctrines that cause more scandal for people living today. How could God be angry at humanity for something a guy named Adam did a long time ago? Is that what original sin is about? Does Adam have to be a historical figure for original sin to “work”? A certain kind of Christian seems to take pleasure in this scandal because it provides an opportunity to demonstrate a certain kind of piety that says, “Well, He’s God and therefore He’s just, so maybe you’re not really a Christian if you find this disagreeable.”  Well I decided I wanted to take a look at original sin’s scriptural proof-texts and then consider the concerns motivating three major Christian theologians who developed and tweaked original sin’s doctrine  — Augustine, Aquinas, and John Cassian — to see if something has been lost in translation over the centuries. I’m dividing this up into several parts. Originally, I was going to deal with all of the proof-texts in part one, but I’ve found a whole lot to talk about in Romans 5:12-21 by itself, so here goes. Continue Reading

Biblical literalism + magisterial inertia = sacramental Pelagianism?

I’ve been reading through Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings in which he spends a whole lot of time arguing emphatically why unbaptized infants deserve to go to hell because of Adam’s sin. It seems like the damnation of babies was a huge sticking point for Pelagius and his followers and part of why they were inclined to say that the doctrine of original sin was ridiculous. The core of Augustine’s argument against Pelagius rests upon a literal interpretation of John’s two verses describing the salvation of the two sacraments — 3:5: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” and 6:53: “Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye shall have no life in you.” Though I don’t have time to trace the historical development of this literal attribution of salvation to sacramental observance, I cannot help but wonder if Augustine’s Biblical literalism and the magisterial inertia of the church in following his claims uncritically led to the formulaic view of the sacraments which created the atmosphere of “Pelagian” salvation by works that triggered the Reformation. I realize I’m being mischievous, but the irony is too delicious. Continue Reading