So, I’ve started writing a novel . . .

How I Killed Nietzsche & Became the New Übermensch

great awakening

The congregation raved about his eloquent homilies, his intellect, his moral fortitude, his perfect family . . . I remember their words as if it were yesterday:  “Just look at how well he manages his household. His children are so perfectly behaved!”

“Oh what a blessing it must be to have a minister for a father!”

“That man is a prophet.  You hear me boy?  A genuine prophet!”

How pathetic and blind they were.  They couldn’t see through his disguise, they couldn’t feel the truth as I did when he went into a rage.  My father, the great prophet . . . the great lie.  Let me tell you about his righteousness.

At church he could maintain the facade, he could preach about the judgement and fire of a holy God, he could pat the children on their heads and smile, he could quote you an encouraging scripture, he could…

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Further Reflections on Total Depravity

(this is a repost of a series I wrote for another website last year)

In my previous post, Why I Don’t Believe in Total Depravity, I addressed some of the primary reasons I refuse to accept the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity.  This article generated a lot of interesting discussion, both on The Christian Watershed and on Facebook.  Sadly, due to time constraints, I was unable to interact, deeply, with many of the insightful comments that were made.  Hopefully, this article will make up for my lack of response.

Interestingly, virtually everyone who commented on my previous article focused, almost exclusively, on my first objection, which argued that if man is by nature a sinner, then God wouldn’t love him.  Hardly anyone addressed my second two objections: that Total Depravity is at odds with the Doctrine of the Incarnation, and that, for a totally depraved creature, sin would be a virtue.  Accordingly, I would like to focus on the first objection (for the sake of clarification) and from there build several more arguments against Total Depravity.

Most of the questions or objections to my first argument seemed to flow from a basic misunderstanding of the term “nature.”  In light of this, let me take a moment to define this technical philosophical term.

When we speak of a things nature we are commenting about that which makes it what it is.  In other words, the nature of a thing is the essential quality which makes it what it is.      So, for example, if we said that man (in the universal sense: all “men”, both male and female) is made in the image of God we are making a statement about man’s  nature.  We are saying that being made in the image of God is an essential/universal quality of what it is to be a man.  If being made in the image of God is a part of the nature of man then any creature which is not made in the image of God is not a man.  Hence, we see that by changing the nature of thing we are changing what that thing is.

With this fresh in our minds, allow me to restate one of the basic conclusions of Total Depravity; namely, that due to the fall there was an ontological shift (i.e. a change in man’s nature) in man.  According to this view, sin is now a part of man’s nature; in other words, sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be a man (hence, the term totally depraved).  If this is true, then any creature who is without sin is not a man because sin is a necessary part of what it means to be man.

With these definitions in place, let’s revisit my first contention:

(1) If sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then man is absolutely unlovable.

Put simply, a totally depraved creature would be unlovable because its very nature would be counter to God, who is the only being truly and perfectly lovable in and of Himself.

Several commentators actually accepted this point and argued that God loves what is unlovable; maintaining that this was simply a mystery.  However, to claim that God loves what is by nature unlovable is not “mysterious” . . . it is simply illogical.  Does it really make sense to claim that God loves a creature that we have established to be fundamentally unlovable?  Just think about this for a moment.  Saying that a creature is unlovable is claiming that there is nothing intrinsically lovable about said creature; can we then claim, with any consistency, that God loves something unlovable?

Furthermore, too say that a creature is unlovable is to say that that creature’s very nature is counter to THE GOOD (i.e. God).  But, how could God love what is necessarily counter to Himself?  Sin is not a substance it is a degradation of something good.  If, then, we accept that God is the Good, and that God has nothing to do with darkness, and that only good things come from God, and that God will never do anything which goes against Himself (i.e. the Good), then we cannot believe, coherently, that God could love a creature which is totally depraved.

Now that I’ve clarified this argument (I hope) allow me to address several other problems with total depravity which stem from this one.  In so doing, I also hope to address several other objections brought up by commentators.

(2) If sin is an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then the image of God in man has been totally erased. 

Some commentators insisted, as most Reformed thinkers do, that man still maintains the image of God in spite of the fact that he is totally depraved.  However, like those who argue that God can love something which is by nature unlovable, this assertion is illogical.  It is simply incoherent to maintain that a creature is by nature a sinner and, hence, not good, while also maintaining that he is made in the image and likeness of Goodness Himself.  This is tantamount to claiming that you are by nature good and by nature not good which, of course, violates the law of noncontradiction.

To claim that a creature is made in the image of God is to claim that he is made in the image of Goodness.  There is no getting around the fact that such a creature, itself, would be good.  So understood, it is a matter of  necessity that any creature made in the image of God must lose this aspect of his nature in order to become totally depraved.  In other words, in order to accept the premise that man is by nature a sinner and unlovable  we must also accept that he is no longer made in the image and likeness of God.

However, as I clarified earlier, to alter the nature of a thing is to change the thing itself.  Thus, a man who was no longer made in the image of God would be no man at all.  If the image of God has been erased in a creature then so has that creatures humanity.

So, in order to be logically consistent with their beliefs, those who embrace total depravity must also admit that man no longer bears the image and likeness of God.  If this is true, however, we are no longer men but some freakish, unlovable, being which does not deserve its existence and, in fact, is by nature counter to Existence Himself.

(3) If sin was an essential/universal quality of what it means to be man then man could not exist. 

This assertion ties in directly to the previous one.  It stands to reason that our existence, as creatures, stems directly from God who has revealed Himself to us as The Existent One (Exodus 3:14).  It is God alone whose existence is necessary and who exists in and of Himself; everything else, all of creation, is contingent; that is to say, its existence is dependent upon God.  To say that a creature is totally depraved is to say that it is, by nature, counter to the Good (i.e. God); which is also to say that it is by nature counter to Existence Himself.

For it is God who gives all things existence.  How, therefore, can we consistently maintain that a creature whose nature is totally corrupted, evil, and counter to God, maintain its existence without also accepting that God creates and sustains pure substantiated evil.  Christians, however, have never accepted the premise that God creates and sustains evil; for this would put God in league with evil and make him the source and direct cause of all evil.  Most Christians have also, in line with the early church Fathers and especially St. Augustine, rejected the notion that sin is a substance at all.

The problem is, if we believe that God is the source of all existence and accept total depravity then we are accepting that sin is substantiated, that sin is a substance–being a part of the fundamental nature of man–and that God creates and sustains the existence of pure evil.  Clearly, this is at odds with everything we know about God from the scriptures!  A good and loving God who is light and who has no darkness in Him at all could not give existence to pure substantiated evil.  Hence, if sin was an essential/universal quality of what it is to be man then man could not exist; for God would not bring such a being into existence.

Actually, it stands to reason that God could not bring into existence something which is counter to Himself–sense He is the source of all existence.  Therefore, something which is by nature counter to Him could not exist.

Why I Don’t Believe In Total Depravity . . .

(this is a repost of a blog series I wrote last year for another website)

To begin with, I believe human beings are horrendously depraved and prone to all manner of evil.  I agree with these words from St. Paul with every fiber of my being:

“all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:  ‘None is righteous , no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.’  ‘Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive.’  The venom of asps is under their lips.’  ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’  ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they do not know.’  ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:9-18, 23)

I believe all of creation is in bondage to sin, and is experiencing corruption, decay and death, as a result of the Fall.  (Gen. 3, Rom. 8:19-23)  It is my contention that, from conception, man is born into sin (Psalm 51:5); he is deeply influenced by the sins of his parents, by a world system opposed to God’s will, and manipulated by evil spirits; he is subjected to spiritual corruption and decay, and suffers from various biological and physical effects of sin as well; he is born in the image of fallen Adam (Gen. 5:3) and is estranged from God (essentially, suffering the consequences of being expelled from Eden).

Having said all of this, you are probably wondering how it is that I reject the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity.  After all, the bleak picture of human existence I just painted sounds . . . well, totally depraved.  Allow me to explain this apparent contradiction.

The Doctrine of Total Depravity teaches that there was an ontological shift in the nature of humanity as a result of the Fall.  According to this view, man is now, by nature, a sinner.  In other words, sin is an essential part of what it means to be a human being.  Naturally, the idea that man has a sin nature is notoriously difficult to reconcile with the Bible’s teaching that man is made in the image and likeness of God.  While traditional Reformed theology has never denied the image of God in man (in an abstract theological way), there is a strong tendency among Reformed thinkers to downplay the image of God or even disregarded it.

A prime example of this is when Martin Luther compared humanity to a pile of dung.  According to him, the Fall had so corrupted and distorted man that he was no better than a heap of steaming animal droppings.  When I was in Seminary I had several Reformed friends who held this belief.  In my ethics class I remember one of them making the bold assertion that human beings were utterly worthless and were no better than a heap of garbage.  To this I replied:  “So, you’re arguing that the Father loves worthless piles of garbage?  He sent His Son to become a worthless pile of garbage, and to die for worthless piles of garbage?”

As these examples demonstrate, the doctrine of total depravity, which depicts man as a worthless pile of dung or a trash heap, construes a picture of reality in which the image of God in man seems entirely snuffed out; which logically leads to the conclusion that there is no intrinsic value or worth to man because of his sin nature.  If this view is correct, if man is totally depraved, if man is utterly worthless and valueless, and incapable of doing anything good, it is hard to understand why God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.  What exactly does God love about the world?

This brings me to my first problem with the doctrine of total depravity:

(1) If man is by nature a sinner, then God wouldn’t love him.

A creature who is totally depraved, who is a sinner by nature, who can’t help but sin, who always chooses sin, who has no intrinsic value or worth, who is essentially a piece of worthless garbage is not lovable.  The Psalmist declares:  “For thou art not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not sojourn with thee.” (Psalm 5:4)  St. John affirms that, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5).  Over and over the Scriptures attest that God is Holy and Righteous; that God detests evil and darkness; that God is pure and has nothing to do with wickedness; that God abhors injustice and the shedding of innocent blood.  How, then, could God love a creature whose very nature was wickedness, darkness, and evil.  How could a Holy God truly love a creature that was totally depraved?

The answer, of course, is that He wouldn’t.  Therefore, if we are to take the numerous passages of Scripture seriously, which teach us that God loves the world, and that He especially loves man, we must reject the notion that man is totally depraved.  There is something lovable about human beings.  After Moses’ first account of the creation of man he says this: “God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.”  Human beings are good because they are made in the image of God–no matter how twisted and warped they become because of sin.  Even the most depraved man reflects, however poorly, the image of his creator.

The other two problems I have with total depravity are as follows:

(2) If man is by nature a sinner then Jesus, who was without sin, was not really a man.  

This problem is rather significant.  Orthodox Christianity teaches that Christ is one person with two natures; that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.  This point was vigorously defended by both the Apostles and the Early Church Father’s and its truth is of primary importance.  Who we understand Christ to be has a drastic impact on everything we believe and do.  My aim, however, is not to explain the importance of the incarnation or to lay out the ramifications of denying the full humanity of Christ (I have written on this elsewhere if you are interested).  The point is, if you are an orthodox Christian, no matter what tradition you are coming from, the full humanity of Christ is of crucial importance.

With this in mind, it is terribly disturbing that total depravity is at odds with the Doctrine of the Incarnation.  According to the Scriptures, the eternal Word of God took on the full nature of man and lived and dwelled among us.  The Bible also teaches that Jesus never sinned and that he never gave into temptation.  But, if sin is a part of what it means to be human, if we are by nature sinners, if sin is an essential part of our being, as the Doctrine of Total Depravity teaches, then we are forced to draw one of two conclusions: (1) Jesus did not take on the full nature of man (i.e. he was not fully human), or (2) Jesus was not sinless.  Both of these conclusions are unacceptable.  Hence, it cannot be true that sin is a part of the nature of man.

(3) If man is by nature a sinner, then sin is a virtue and to sin is to align oneself with the Good.

This problem is significant as well.  The Good of something is directly tied to its nature and purpose; its telos.  For example, the purpose of a butter knife is to slice and spread butter.  It is not intended for or designed for cutting metal or cleaning your ears.  One could attempt to use a butter knife for these tasks, but would find it extremely difficult and inadequate.  The Good of a butter knife is to slice and spread butter; hence, a butter knife is only functioning properly, i.e. acting in accordance with its nature, when it is being used for this specific task.

The same is true for people.  If we believe that human beings are made in the Image of God; then we believe that man’s nature and purpose is to be like God; and that the Good of man is to conform himself to God’s image; to be in good fellowship with the One who created all things.  If, however, the image of God has been entirely snuffed out, if man is totally depraved and sin is an essential part of his nature, then we have major problems.  Suddenly, to sin is simply to act in accordance with one’s nature.  In other words, sin is the Good.  A totally depraved human being who sins is simply acting in accordance with his nature and is, therefore, functioning properly and achieving his purpose.  Strangely, sin, for the totally depraved human being, becomes a virtue!

If this were true, how could God ask His creatures to do anything but sin?  And why would God be upset with His creatures for acting in accordance with their nature—for functioning properly?

From this standpoint, the idea that human beings are totally depraved is terribly disturbing and, obviously, at odds with Scripture, which teaches that man is made in God’s image and likeness, that man is to be Holy as God is Holy, and that man is to conform himself to God’s will.

While I accept that we live in a desperately fallen world, that man is estranged from God, that men have a strong propensity to sin, and that all men do, in fact, choose to sin, I do not accept the doctrine of total depravity. I do not believe man has a sin nature; rather, I believe sin is completely at odds with man’s nature being made in the image of God; and that when man sins he misses the mark.  Sin is a corruption of and degradation of man; it is a lack of Good; it twists the image of God into something ugly and dysfunctional; it leads to death or non-Being.  Sin goes against God’s intentions and purposes.  It comes about when man, by his own free will, turns from the Good (God) and fails to live in accordance with his own nature.  For this reason sin is abhorrent, destructive, and leads to death.

Molinism is not Open Theism: A Critique of Dr. McMahon’s Assessment

In recent years Molinism has made a come-back in philosophical circles thanks to the work of Alfred J. Freddoso, Thomas Flint, and William Lane Craig.  As a result, Molina’s ideas are creeping their way back into theological discussions as well.  Slowly but surely, pastors and seminary students are becoming acquainted with, at least, the term Molinism.  Often, this minimal acquaintance leads the uninitiated to do a quick search on goggle.  Upon searching, they are confronted by the blog-post of Dr. C. Matthew McMahon on A Puritan’s Mind entitled:  The Heresy of Middle Knowledge.  Curiosity gets the best of them and they eagerly click on the post with the inflammatory title.  As they read the first paragraph of McMahon’s article, and encounter his thesis statement, any positive interest in Molinism which might have existed quickly fades away:

“In this paper, the heresy I am re-refuting surrounds Theology Proper, or the doctrine of God.  It is specifically in terms of the doctrine of the knowledge of God, or His Omniscience.  The error is called Molinism, or Middle Knowledge (Today Open Theism is its close brother.)”

After reading the final words of his thesis the troubled pastor or seminary student dutifully  stuffs Molinism in a black file-folder marked, “Heresies that must not be named,” and forego any more research on the matter.

For many, Dr. McMahons malicious and poorly researched blog-post is both their first and last introduction to Molinism.  I find this situation very sad, because Dr. McMahon’s description of Molinism is filled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations.  To rectify this unfortunate situation I will correct four of the biggest mistakes in McMahon’s post.

(1)  McMahon claims that the Doctrine of Middle Knowledge is Open Theisms “close brother.”

This claim is truly baffling considering Molina’s doctrine of Middle Knowledge is actually Open Theisms worst nightmare; for, it ascribes to God what Molina terms supercomprehension.  Without getting into too much detail, this means that God has knowledge of how a person would freely act in any and all possible worlds.  He calls this supercomprehension because it says that God has comprehensive knowledge of states of affairs that may never actually obtain (something far beyond regular comprehension.)  On top of this, Molina believed that God had this knowledge prior to his decision to create.  To put it in the crude vernacular of modern language: the doctrine of middle knowledge is like foreknowledge 2.0.

Open Theism argues that it is impossible for God to have foreknowledge—especially foreknowledge of the free actions of human beings.  So, it is entirely false and nonsensical to claim that Molina’s Doctrine of Middle Knowledge is Open Theisms “close brother.”

(2)  McMahon says, “middle knowledge states that God cannot know the future free acts of men in the same way He knows other things absolutely.  Thus, this middle knowledge is dependent upon the free acts of what men will do.  God, in His “omniscience”, waits for men to act and then will choose them to be saved based on their choice to be saved.”

It’s clear from this statement that McMahon has grossly misunderstood the thrust of Molina’s argument.  Molina holds to a libertarian view of free-will which basically means that human beings are the efficient cause or first cause of their own actions.  Naturally, if man has libertarian free-will then God’s middle knowledge is partly contingent (dependent) upon man because man is the one producing the action.  However, it does not follow from this that, “God, in His “omniscience,” waits for men to act and then will choose them to be saved based on their choice.”  This is the Arminian position.

The crucial part of Molina’s theory is not that God has middle knowledge but that he has middle knowledge prior to his free act to create.  Accordingly, God knew that Peter would deny him when placed in situation A (A being the situation described in the gospels) before the foundation of the world.  Furthermore, God knew how Peter would act in any and all possible situations that he could put Peter in.  Based on both his natural and middle knowledge God chose to create a world in which situation A would obtain.

So, it is not that God waits for men to act and then chooses them.  God chooses what creatures to make, what world to create, and what situations to place them in—knowing what free choices they will in fact make.  Thus, God predestines but this does not impinge upon mans free will.  Man is still responsible for his actions because he is the cause of his actions.

(3) McMahon says, “The Molinian logician will argue that an action must first occur before it can be true.  God, then, cannot know anything in this manner as true and absolute unless it has first occurred.”

This statement is obviously false, because Molina believed God possessed middle knowledge before his free act of creation. In other words, the Molinist does not believe an action must first occur before it can be true—that is Open Theism.  The Molinist believes that God has supercomprehension, and thus can have knowledge of actions before they occur and even if they never occur.

(4) McMahon says, “It is certainly easy to see what the doctrine of Middle knowledge is attractive here.  Men are ultimately their own little saviors.”

Well, actually, the doctrine of middle knowledge says no such thing.  In fact, the doctrine of middle knowledge has only indirect implications on matters of soteriology—it is directly concerned with matters of God’s omniscience.  There may be some crazy exception (there always is) but Molinist’s do not believe man can save himself.  They do believe salvation comes from the Lord—through the work of Jesus on the cross.