Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Time for a bit more depravity

Some time ago I wrote a blog on the doctrine of total depravity. Various subsequent conversations have kept bringing me back to the subject. In The Salvation Army it is a key issue, possibly ranking only just behind the doctrine of scripture as an indicator of where we are and where we are going. In particular, the common misconception that there can only be responsibility where there is innate ability is a constant point of attrition, and reflects a misunderstanding of the doctrine of sin. 

What I have noticed is a tendency to set the doctrine of sin over against the doctrine of the image of God, in such a way that the two modify, or leak into, each other. The confusion gets worse still when the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace is added to the mix. 

So, by way of just one example, in a Facebook conversation about whether we are "naturally attracted to holiness", a friend who is a Salvationist can say, "Although I agree that we need to know we are sick to know we need medicine, I think, although we naturally side with sin since the fall, God also does give us the power and the choice to live a life of Holiness. Because although we are fallen we also are made in the image of God, even if the fallenness does come out more often than not."

In that paragraph, the doctrines of Image, Sin and Grace are swirling around and intermixed. If "God gives us power" were related to grace, it would not be so problematic, but it seems to be based in the image of God. The result is, effectively, a watering down of total depravity which, as I hope my last piece made clear, takes the real urgency out of the gospel of Jesus and leaves us in the same boat as all the other religions.

The problem starts with a lack of appreciation of salvation history. If the doctrines concerned are only viewed in the abstract, uprooted from their place in the Story, then there will be a greater risk of 'leakage' between them. Salvation history should ground us. The image of God is a concept from creation; whatever happens to that concept as a result of sin, it must be understood as starting in that pre-fall condition. Total depravity describes the condition of those who are in the image of God. It is post fall; it describes the spiritual inability of fallen people. It cannot be "modified" by the Imago Dei; rather, it assumes it, as the Image is the very backdrop against which sin, and the doctrine of sin, comes in. Finally, God's grace is revealed, starting in the sequence of curses that come with the fall. There will be a victory over the enemy: a victory on behalf of people made in the image of God who have fallen into total depravity. 

As we move from the methodology of Biblical Theology towards a systematic approach, taking these doctrines out of their salvation history context and expressing them as abstract ideas, we need to take special care to still keep them separate. 

The Image of God (often called the Imago Dei; a bit of Latin sounds impressive!) is about the purpose and honour of humankind as created. In an era when kings set up statues in their likeness in the city squares of their empire, where heralds would stand in front of those images and proclaim their laws and demands for tribute, the language of "Image and likeness" was instantly recognisable when describing man as the one who would "have dominion" as God's regent and representative on earth. Within the framework of the narrative of the handiwork of God in Gen 1, the Image of God sets the human race apart as the pinnacle of his creativity, with particular dignity and honour within the created order, but the phrase above all highlights our purpose within the world. We are not merely in the image of God; we are the image of God. 

The fall ushers in the era of failure to live up to purpose, and it does so precisely because the fall IS radical failure at the very heart of that purpose. Human dominion is to be under God; the world is there to be explored and enjoyed in submission to his supreme rule.  The exploration and enjoyment is to be shaped at its heart - at the centre of the map - by a seemingly arbitrary commandment whose purpose is to demonstrate commitment to his higher authority. At the moment that the couple eat the fruit, they come to the "knowledge of good and evil" in the sense of taking it upon themselves to define their own moral boundaries, instead of submitting to the creator. They are no longer heralds of his will, the spokespeople of his voice into the world. They now declare their own wills, and all hell (some hell, actually) is let loose. 

Imagine a magnificent car, from the classic era of big touring cars. Something like a 4.5 litre Bentley. Imagine it in perfect road condition, built for speed, able to race, turning heads, an awesomely beautiful machine. Then someone comes along and takes a crowbar to the valve rockers. They use the same tool to twist and distort the brake mechanism out of all functionality. They remove the steering wheel. They syphon out the fuel, and for good measure they blow up the oil wells and refineries; the fuel is made completely unavailable. 

The car is still magnificent. It is still intrinsically beautiful and valuable. But its fitness for purpose is utterly wrecked. It cannot move. If it rolls down a hill it is at the mercy of every bump and twist in the ground. It can't stop at the bottom. It cannot be moved uphill except by an outside force. It is impressive and full of grandeur. Further vandalism would still be crime, but it is totally unable to fulfil its purpose. 

We are not machines, but that is a description of total depravity. The dignity and worth of the image remains, but functionality is hopelessly compromised. Every aspect of purpose is affected and rendered useless. If you saw the wrecked car in motion, you would know that it was more of a danger than a joy. If you saw a number of them rolling down a hillside, you would know that, despite apparently chaotic paths taken, they had one thing in common - the downhill pull of gravity. 

No, we are not cars. A car can't wreck itself, which is what we did. But insofar as any illustration is useful, the car helps. We are beautiful, but unfit for purpose. Valuable but unable to fulfil our role. Pushed about by circumstances and trends of thought instead of ruling with maturity and stability under God. In the chaos of human existence, the one thread running through human behaviour is sin, as we career downhill and away from our Creator. 

What we must not do is play the doctrines of Image and Depravity off against each other. We are not permitted to look at that classic, wrecked, car and say, "It's so beautiful - I can't believe it's useless!" or, conversely, "It's so wrecked, it can't have any value!" Rather, the brilliant glory of the Creator is seen precisely in the fact that something of his magnificence is still so clear even in his vandalised handiwork. And the gravity of sin is highlighted by the grandeur and obvious dignity of what was wrecked. 

It is against that backdrop that we see grace. We are utterly unable and utterly undeserving to be what we ought to be, even though what we ought to be is written all over us. And yet, instead of coming in judgement, God comes to our wrecked creaturehood to bring light, to repair, to enable. His grace operates at precisely the level where the fall occurred - he draws us to a humble submission to his word and away from proud, independent self-sufficiency and self-determination. But the Word to which we are drawn is not simply a word of command, the proving point of who has authority in the world, but a Word of promise, the commitment of the Creator to forgive, to re-create, to transform, to re-form humanity. By grace we are remade in the full glory and perfection of his unspoiled image, gathered round a new man, our head, our captain, our champion, our authentic Adam, Jesus Christ.
In a depraved world such grace is "wholly other".  It isn't an outcropping of the image of God - it isn't a "bit of goodness left in us". It is all from God and it is all new. Once again, we mix the concepts at our peril. Leakage of Image into Grace will destroy the doctrine of Depravity - and then grace will no longer be grace. 

Last Saturday saw the commissioning in London of new lieutenants of the Messengers of Light session. The Territorial Commander spoke of exactly the distinctions seen in these doctrines, but in terms of light and darkness. Into a world of original chaos and darkness, God spoke Light at creation. But then human beings, the shining crown jewel of God's brilliant creation, chose darkness instead of light. We chose it, it overthrew us, we wallowed in it. And into that new, man-chosen darkness, God spoke light again. Personified light. Light incarnate. The Light of the world. And for those new lieutenants, as for every Christian, our calling is to carry that light into the world.  The way to be faithful Messengers of Light is to live in the light consistently, and to communicate the light in truthful words. Nowhere is that more critical than in clarity on sin and grace. 

1 comment:

  1. As a " non" theologian nor mega apologist, I found your efforton this was done in such a way, to where I wouldn't need a Vine's Greek or Hebrew lexicons! Thanks Much for the efforts.CaniacSteve,USA-South Territory