Last summer, I moved from Rhode Island to Dallas, Texas to start the ThM Program at Dallas Seminary. As you can imagine, moving a household 1,700 miles and literally single-handedly, involved a tremendous amount of details. Naturally, some things fell through the cracks, like an old oil heating bill. Thankfully, the agressiveness of the collection industry would soon remind me of my neglect. So one day, I received a call from a very gruff sounding person, with heavily accented Rhode Island dialect indicating that they were expecting payment and when could I deliver. After indicating to her that I would have to examine my budget to see how I was going to pay this bill, once again the demands of life knocked it right out of sight. She would call and I would assure her I would take care of. Now I really did not like talking to this lady. She wanted something and her voice sounded mean. I wanted to avoid her.
After some time, I received a call from a number I did not recognize. Only to discover it was another person trying to collect on the same debt. Only this time, the person on the other end was quite pleasant. I explained to her where I was on things. She understood that sometimes we fall behind and life circumstances become challenging. With that, she gently persuaded me to work as quickly as possible to get this out of my hair so it would no longer be a nuisance. She motivated to really want to take of this debt so that I could get it off my plate and out of my books.
It seems to me that we have this very same reaction to God. When reflecting upon the person and attributes of God, are we prone to shudder at His wrath but cling to His love as if the dichotomous attributes could not belong to the same person. We are naturally drawn, I think, to the softer side of God but don’t want anything to do with harshness, anything that speaks of wrath, judgment or condemnation. Some throughout history, have even rejected this harsher side to embrace the soft side, which has impacted theological and doctrinal positions concerning the fall of man, sin, hell and the cross. Unfortunately, there is no “softer side” but I’ll get to that in a minute.
I recently did a research paper on examining inherited guilt through the fall of man in response to the doctrine of ancestral sin. Orthodox theology rejects Augustine’s contention that the fall of man created an inheritance of condemnation. They believe that death merely was a corrupted state that in no ways would undermine the imago Dei nor result in a removal of the supernatural gift that would infuse a sin principle, thus subjecting humanity to condemnation. So, the idea of total depravity is rejected because it is viewed as contradicting God’s attribute of love for His creation.
During my research, I came across this paper Ancestral Versus Original Sin: An Overview with Implications for Psychotherapy. Here is a statement from the abstract
It is suggested that the doctrine of ancestral sin naturally leads to a focus on human death and Divine compassion as the inheritance of Adam, while the doctrine of orignal sin shifts the center of attention to human guilt and Divine wrath. It is further posited that the approach of the ancient church points to a more therapeutic than juridicial approach to pastoral care and counseling.
And later says “Love, in fact, is the heart and soul of the theology of the early Church Fathers and of the Orthodox Church.”
Now I contend that the transgressions in the garden of Eden most clearly had an impact on all humanity. God’s decree of death aptly was enforced through disobedience and the covenant relationship that exchanged obedience for God’s uninterrupted relationship and provision, was broken. The loss of innocence through Adam’s sin would now make man morally responsible for their transgressions incurring a penalty of judgment, and thus condemnation. Therefore, the death experienced for all, as stated in Romans 5:12 would consist of this judgment. This was the nutshell of my argument based on Genesis 2:17; 3:7-8 as well as New Testament support, particularly Romans 5:12-21 . And none of this has anything to do with the love of God.
The problem with the above statement and is reflected in Orthodox theology, is that infers that since God is love, it contradicts the occurance of wrath and judgment. If God is love, he CAN”T assign ramifications of his other attributes, most notably His righteousness nor could humanity be so marred from the original state in which they were created. So the idea that the human condition would be impacted by the fall of man resulting in total depravity must necessarily reject the LOVE of God or at least assign a lesser signficance to it.
This is most pronounced in the liberal branches of theology, that have denied the existence of hell or the banishment to it, the notion of God’s wrath, or the idea that the cruxifiction of Christ was in any way attributed to the demands of God. The idea that a loving God would subject His son to a horrible death and moreover require it is tantamount to child abuse and therefore inconsistent with God’s character of love. Now I would not equate Orthodox theology with liberal theology, particularly since there is a dividing line in their Christology but the reasons for rejecting total depravity are similar.
I think this is a false dichotomy and one that undermines the person of God and his righteous demands. It confuses terms and imposes independent relationships upon each other. It is misapplying one attribute towards the actions incurred with respect to another attribute. It asserts that because one attribute exists there cannot be an impact on the result of another attribute.
God is the sum total of His attributes. He is as much omnipotent as much as He is love as much as He is righteous. God does love His creation and His desire has always been to make Himself known. But He is righteous and holy. So God cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 11-13). He must act against offenses to Him. That does not mean He has no love for He cannot deny that either. And it is not as if the attributes cancel each other out, or one is weighed more heavily against the other. God loves but He also demands justice.
So when He set the terms and established a covenant with the first man, it was contingent upon his obedience. The failure of man to abide by this covenant would radically change not only the composition of the relationship between man and God but would subject man to a penalty – death. I believe the proclamation of death when weighed against the complete witness of Scripture naturally includes condemnation for which propitiation would be needed in order to satisfy the demands of God in His holiness. God cannot lie; He cannot go back on His word. If He has pronounced a particular judgment it is not out of a lessening of His love but in full support of His character, and that being the sum total of His attributes.
I think it is unfortunate when we dismiss a particular aspect of the impact of the fall because it doesn’t sit right with our consideration of who God is. If we have isolated particular attributes of God and determined that others cannot apply to certain situations, I think that will necessarily undermine both the work and the person of God. Even more dangerous, is that by creating this false dichotomy, we are imposing our ideas of how God does things unto situations that we deem unjust. And isn’t that what we are doing, imposing our own sense of justice and saying one attribute is important but the other one is less signficant or even non-existent?
So getting back to the above statement that infers that a theology that supports total depravity because it focuses on wrath and condemnation and therefore, is one that would yield less love I think is a mis-statement. Total depravity in no ways undermines either the love of God or His corresponding actions to treat man accordingly. Nor is God less love, if wrath and corresponding condemnation exists. Total depravity reflects a statement of the reality of our condition, that again do not speak against the love of God. So to say that a ministry that does not have condemnation as a part of its theology is more loving is false.
In fact, I would argue that total depravity compels an urgency for God’s love and saving grace. Think about it. If man has any glimmer of self-will to improve his condition, that would necessarily mean a lesser extent of God’s love. But if being dead in sin means that we have been subjected to a condition that renders us incapable of even responding to God properly but for His prevenient grace, how compelling is that love that will produce an even greater magnitude of love in ministry due to the impact of that grace.
So while we most naturally want to embrace a softer side, I think it behoves us to embrace the total picture, seeing God for who He is and seeing us for who we are.
PS: Bill taken care of 🙂