In an interview on Rob Bell’s podcast (cleverly titled The Robcast), comedian Pete Holmes mentioned an interesting event that occurred as he was driving along in his car one day. As Holmes tells it, he was in the car listening to yogic chanting when “somebody cuts me off and I literally go like, ‘Fuck you, bitch!'” As the conversation continues, Rob and Pete spend a good amount of time discussing that sort of thing and asking the question, “Is that really me?”1
This, I think, is a terribly interesting question. Who am I really? When does the real “me” come out? Is it when I am most connected with God and the world around me? Is it when I am obeying Jesus’ teachings to serve others self-sacrificially? Or, do I betray the real me when I am at my worst? Is it when I lose my temper, judge someone subconsciously, or allow that freudian slip that the real me begins to show?
I think that this sort of questioning has a way of cutting to the heart of our personal identities. When we ask, “Is man ultimately good or evil?” what we’re really asking is, “Who am I?” And throughout Christian tradition, beginning rather early on, there have been largely two main answers to that question.
In case you don’t know about this most prominent of heretics, here’s the rundown: Pelagius was a theologian in the ancient church not too long after Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire. Seeing the laziness and apathy among Christians, Pelagius tried to compel believers to be more active with their piety by de-emphasizing the doctrine of divine grace (at least as it was articulated by his contemporaries) and emphasizing people’s innate goodness. Additionally, Pelagius was a huge proponent of freewill, and a big opponent of the doctrine of original sin, which taught that humans are infected with sin from birth (almost like a hereditary disease passed down from Adam to his descendents).
I don’t think anyone would deny that the guy had good intentions. He wanted to see Christians act according to the teaching of Jesus. And by combining a works-based faith2 with the genuine ability to perform good works (no original sin) and the personal responsibility to do so (freewill), Pelagius was actually incredibly successful in garnering followers.
That is, until ol’ Augustine put his foot down.
Although he was wildly inconsistent with it, the bishop of Hippo, Augustine, was probably the church’s first big proponent of God having an all-controlling kind of sovereignty, especially when it comes to salvation. Moreover, he was a beast when it came to debating against perspectives that he disagreed with. Because he was so darn good at this, the views that Augustine was against generally became the views the church was against. And that’s precisely what happened when these two theologians butted heads.
During a previous conflict with the gnostic Manichaeans, Augustine had essentially established the doctrine of original sin as being fundamental to how the church ought to understand the human condition and our subsequent salvation from it. It’s not entirely clear whether or not Augustine actually understood what Pelagius was asserting, or whether he ended up straw-manning the Pelagianist view. What is clear is that, when all was said and done, Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by the Synod of Diospolis and banished from Jerusalem. And ever since then the label “Pelagianism” has been a dirty word in Christian circles.
In fact, so profound was Augustine and company’s defeat of Pelagius that we feel its effects even to this day. We need look no further than John Calvin’s doctrine of Total Depravity to see the face of Augustine’s anti-Pelagianism.
So, now what? Is that it? Is that the end of the discussion? Is that the answer to the question that Rob and Pete were kicking around? Are humans totally depraved? Do we all suffer from an inherited sickness called sin that is just as much a part of who we are as the blood in our veins?
I once heard someone say that there are no new theologies. All new perspectives in Christian theology, they claimed, and especially what we call “progressive Christianity” is nothing more than old heresies revisited. And, you know what? Maybe there’s something to that claim. But, in case you couldn’t tell it from the name of this blog site, I’m not convinced that that’s necessarily a bad thing. In fact, from what I can tell, culture and Christianity are both finally at a place where folks can begin to challenge some of our long-held dogmas from within the faith, and not have to worry about being burnt at the stake for it. And that’s a good thing!
“But what about the Bible?” some will say. “The Bible teaches total depravity, so it doesn’t matter what your touchy-feely, Oprah-inspired spiritism wants to believe.”
Ah, yes… the Bible.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”3 By this he meant that simply looking at the way people behave, and have behaved throughout history, ought to be enough to convince any reasonable person that mankind is fundamentally wicked. And it’s difficult to deny that.
Scripture itself reflects this observation. For instance, in John’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:44a). In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul writes, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom 3:10-11). He then goes on to say that “through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (5:12). To the church in Ephesus, he reminds them, “[We] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:3b).4
Well, that seems to settle it, right? If we are “by nature” children of wrath, then it seems reasonable to conclude that the answer to the question (Is mankind essentially good?) is a resounding no.
But, I don’t think that’s the end of the discussion. Not by a long shot. You see, while we can certainly prooftext our way into the doctrines of original sin and total depravity, I think we run into some issues with them when we take those passages within the broader narrative of Scripture.
When the ancient biblical authors described God’s initial design for humans in the creation story, they wrote, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27). At the end of the poetic tale, “God saw all that He had made,” including humans, “and behold, it was very good” (v 31).
Yes, there was a fall. Yes, we can see human sinfulness played out throughout history in all of its horror. But there’s also Jesus, and redemption, and renewal. Immediately after writing that we “were by nature children of wrath,” Paul writes that God “made us alive together with Christ” (cf. Eph 2:4-7). Interestingly enough, the apostle claims that God “raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v 5). Not that God will raise us up, or that God will seat us with Christ. But that God has raised us up and seated us with Christ. Certainly there is an element of salvation that we look forward to, but, unless we are to change Paul’s wording, there is something about salvation that has already taken place.
We see a very similar thing in Paul’s language of re-creation. He writes, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17, emphasis mine… obviously). The use of the past-tense is overt here. Moreover, Paul is not saying that we are fundamentally dead and depraved, and that Christ sort of shrouds us with a facade of resurrection, heavenly seated-ness, and new creation. But that something fundamental, perhaps even ontological, has changed in us because of Christ.
All of this makes me wonder if perhaps mankind is not so essentially wicked after all. I mean, did we lose our image of God at the fall? I don’t see anything in the text itself to suggest this. Marred and stained, perhaps. But lost, altogether abandoned? I don’t know about that. That humans are depraved, Scripture proclaims. Whether or not our depravity permeates every fiber of our being, it doesn’t really say with absoluteness. That the human race has a sin problem, we can be certain of. Whether or not that is an essential part of who we are, I have my doubts.
So where does this leave us on the question raised at the beginning? Is the real me the one who forgives or the one who holds a grudge? Am I inherently hateful or loving? Or do humans come into the world as a blank slate (tabula rasa), neither good nor bad?
I don’t have a definitive answer. But I do know that it’s not as cut-and-dry as I’ve often been told it is, not even for Christians.
But, what do you think?
1: Their answer would be no.
2: Thought not a works-based salvation.
3: G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Loman Press, 2015) 17.
4: I don't want to get too far into the weeds, and this blog post is long enough. But I think it would be interesting to do a study on why Paul uses the word φύσις (phúsis) here for "nature" instead of μορφῇ (morphē), which he uses in Philippians 2:6, or ὑποστάσεως (hypostasis), which we see in Hebrews 1:3.