How fallen are our wills?

Is God’s morality so foreign to us that it can be expected to get mistaken for immorality by even devout followers of Jesus?

In my last post I began discussing this thorny question by ruling out the claim that the tension between the Old and New Testament conceptions of God’s nature is only apparent; while it is certainly not nearly so decisive that Marcion’s two rival gods solution begins to seem tenable, it is very real.

I then launched into a demonstration of at least one case where Scripture shows God expecting us to use our moral intuitions to inform our ethics, namely the Golden Rule, the basis of which is using our own sense of ethics to demonstrate our love for neighbor (which of course is tied to showing our love for God). If Jesus instructs us to consult our will, preferences, and our sense of right and wrong when dealing with one another, I can’t imagine a good reason we should expect that our sinfulness and creaturely estate are prone to thoroughly obscuring and distorting our understanding of good and evil.

But how can we even trust our moral intuitions, you ask, considering how corrupt and sinful we are?

First off – and this is necessary to consider – if you are asking that question, please realize that you have taken for granted some things that you probably feel are essential to Christianity that actually warrant further scrutiny. Those assumptions are not a clear, straight-forward reading of biblical testimony; they are not even an unrefracted reading of the important church father, St. Augustine, whose teaching is usually given credit for formulating the concepts. Rather, the assumptions behind the question, known as the doctrine of total depravity or total inability, are almost wholly dependent on the Reformers’ unique reading of Augustine.

According to that teaching, we are so broken by the Fall that we can’t see straight; in fact, more often than not (according to this view), we see things completely backwards.

c. 1480

“No matter how I word this next part, someone will inevitably be depraved enough to misuse it.”

It must be recognized here that the Reformers did not take up St. Augustine’s actual views without significant modifications, as Catholics in particular have been keen to point out. This uniquely Protestant articulation of total depravity contrasts with the other fathers of the Church who insist that the image of God imbued to us at creation remains intact, obscured but viable, functional albeit invariably dulled by the ailments of our fallen state. Both branches of the tree from which Protestants shoot, the Church of Rome and the Eastern Church, have roundly rejected Calvin’s conviction that the image of God in which we were created is now so twisted that we “cannot conceive, desire, or design anything but what is weak, distorted, foul, impure, or iniquitous…” The Church of Rome’s Council of Trent was not inventing a new teaching when it placed an anathema on those who taught that “the free will of man is lost and extinguished”; on the contrary, it was continuing the teaching that the imago dei, which includes free will, remains as part of what makes us human.

To be sure, living in this world and lacking wisdom, even when we try we will certainly not always be able to discern the best choice in particular circumstances, and we may indeed have exceptional difficulty living up to what we know is right, but the problem is not with an essential inability to recognize goodness and evil when we see it. We pursue our own ideals instead of God’s, but not because we don’t recognize what God’s ideals are; rather, we are culpable specifically because we know what is right and put it away from us. To put it another way, our wills remain essentially free to choose, but are prone to choose poorly because they are led astray by our selfish minds.

To say that humanity is not totally depraved is not to deny that everyone is fallen and in a state of sin from which we need God to save us. It just means that our sin doesn’t so compromise our make-up as humans that we’re stuck never being able to trust our judgment about what is wrong and right. In fact, in my previous post I already showed that claim to be problematic just by considering our Lord’s own instruction. If we become overconfident in making judgments about good and evil – and I know this does happen – it is not from total inability but from prideful lack of caution. Contrariwise, we can become overconfident in our understanding of Scripture in any direction.

Even if you lay aside the issue of the imago dei and make an argument that unbelievers are likely to misapprehend and misrepresent true, big-g Goodness, the beauty of the author of Hebrews’ description of the New Covenant is that the law of God is engraved upon the hearts of believers: we are empowered to be moral agents acting on principles we do have indelible access to, deep within us. That itself would suggest that it should be quite the norm for us to make judgments about what constitutes moral behavior, and following from that is how important it is for the sincere believer to evaluate others’ claims about God’s character and actions, and to do so with reasonable accuracy. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” At that point, it’s axiomatic that if God is described as performing acts that even some of those people we deem to be the closest to God’s likeness are troubled to explain, we should at very least not make acceptance of that description a tenet of faith.

Total depravityIt seems likeliest that those I’m conversing with here would at this point insist that when weighing the questionable judgment of unbelievers who see God’s depiction in the Old Testament as monstrous against the judgment of the believers who are confident that God can still be good while doing evidently monstrous things, those believers who agree with the unbelievers over against Scriptural depictions are clearly likelier to be wrong. Many will make the appeal to total depravity or other shows of humility in saying that we should avoid reading Scripture apart from certain dogmatic rubrics, chief of which is the presumption that the biblical authors were never mistaken in any theological teaching they intended to convey.

But the sticking point for those of us who disagree with inerrantists on this subject cannot be dismissed as merely the hubris of humanity in rebellion. For those of us who have pledged ourselves to be taught primarily by Christ as the image of the invisible God, we find such uneasiness with other biblical descriptions of God to be the only response that is truly faithful to our teacher. Indeed, as St. Augustine wrote, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” Could it be that a reading more faithful to the heart God engraved within us is one that doesn’t uncritically accept each biblical author’s own spin on theology wholesale?

Perhaps the reason God did not edit our Holy Scriptures to exclude misunderstandings of Himself and His ways is that their imperfection demonstrates just how “depraved” our minds can be.

When seeking to understand God’s nature, as always when reading Scripture, we have no default revelation that we can just put definitive quote marks around as so commonly wished for. We have no choice but to interpret, and to do so faithfully we must use all of the tools He built within us, limited and imperfect as they may be. But thankfully, we don’t have to shake off all of our bedrock assumptions about such fundamental concepts as right and wrong when we look at God. We would not recognize that we were looking at Him – could not be judged for missing Him – if we were not fitted to recognize Him. We must not sear our consciences and drag God’s good name through the mud in the interest of upholding our demands for inerrant revelation, especially under the veil of a false humility.

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