Sorry TULIP but we’re not totally depraved

A few weeks ago a student came to me upset because she did not agree with the understanding of humans that her church taught. She wasn’t looking for an argument against it, she was convinced her church held the “correct, biblical view.” Her church teaches that humans are basically evil. She wanted me to help her come to that same understanding, because her own opinion is that humans are not completely evil at all. So I shared this verse with her:

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Ps. 139.14

As you can see, I wasn’t much help in her quest to fit in with her church’s teaching.

Then yesterday, I made a short post about calling on the Holy Spirit to help me wage war on my unruly flesh, which led one reader to think I was teaching what they teach at my student’s church.

Which leads me to this short reflection:

There are a couple of ways you can take David’s statement. It may mean: I praise You because You have made me to be a creature of praise – worship is in keeping with my most fundamental nature (like the Chris Tomlin song: “you and I were made to worship”). It may also mean: I recognize how wonderful it is that You have made me and that fills me with the desire to praise you.

Both ways of taking this seem in keeping with David’s overall perspective; he may have meant both here at the same time.

Either or both serves as an important corrective to the Protestant doctrine of “total depravity” as understood in the TULIP Confession. It is important to note that it was David who said this (anointed by the Spirit), not Adam in his pre-fallen state. Even in our fallen state, we are still wonderfully made, still made in the image of God, still bearing the same natural goodness that God pronounced over the creation in Gen. 1.31.

This does not at all mean everything is okay. Sin is a debilitating disability, a disease, “a splinter in the mind” (as Morpheus said in The Matrix) that prevents us from having full relationships with God and each other. We require divine intervention for that, which Jesus provided through his incarnation, death and resurrection.

The term “total depravity” wants to ensure that we know the work of Christ was necessary both for our salvation and for leading a holy life. The TULIP confession was concerned about the heresy of Pelagianism, which taught that humans were good, unfallen, and in no need of God’s intervention for salvation. Thinking of ourselves as “totally depraved” is supposed to remind us that we cannot save ourselves.

The trouble with theological positions that are mainly a response to some error is that the response often overcompensates and winds up in another error. In this case, the total depravity doctrine comes very close the Gnostic and Manichean heresies, which denied the goodness of created being altogether. While a good Calvinist will demur at such a claim, the normal, everyday meaning of “totally depraved” definitely has this ring to it – that humans are basically evil, as they supposedly teach at my student’s church.

You might say that the job, then, is to educate people as to what is meant by “totally depraved,” but the creation of technical terms is not the solution. The solution is to find better, more creative language to express our anthropology, so that people don’t overhear us and leave supposing we think people are totally evil, or else in no need of God.

So, no Christian theology does not teach that humans are basically evil or totally depraved. We teach that all humans are created in the image of God, that in our capacities to love, reason, create, and communicate we are good – we are wonderfully made. Yet, we also teach that something has gone terribly wrong with us. We are not as we should be, not fully as we were created to be. Our loss is not total, but it is real and costly. But thanks be to God who has overcome this wrong through His Son, Jesus Christ our Savior. He shows us both the extent of God’s love and the maximal measure of human goodness.

T down. ULIP to go…

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2 Comments

  1. You’re explaination was prepared wisdom. In addition, calvinists should know that being created in God’s image is also a gift from God as is our ability to recognize God’s saving grace and our responsibility to decide to receive it or reject it(Joshua 24:15).

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