On the Assumptions of Original Sin

A while back I started talking about the doctrine of Original Sin, and how badly it has been misused recently by neo-Calvinists. I said then that I’d get into the doctrine itself, and how I have theological issues with it. I’ll begin at the same place this question always begins to bother me: the writings of Calvinists, and the doctrine of Total Depravity.

I use the term “Calvinist” fairly loosely here: there’s a big difference between a neo-Calvinist like John Piper and a Reformed theologian like Karl Barth, and the underlying theology they describe comes as much from Augustine as it does from Calvin, and is as prevalent in Catholicism as it is in Protestant Christianity. But it’s the emphasis placed on total depravity in the writings of Calvinists that makes this issue stand out to me, and particularly, the assumptions made about what that depravity is or means.

The doctrine of Original Sin holds that when Adam sinned, human nature became somehow tainted or twisted so that our primary disposition toward God is one of opposition: we are all against God in our most basic nature. The doctrine of Total Depravity emphasizes this fact, and underlines the extent to which we are against God: we have no ability to do good on our own, and anything that is good in us is a gift of God, an act of his grace rather than an act of our own wills. I have issues with this that I’ll save for another day, but what jumped out at me this morning was that I frequently see interpretations of this merely assumed and never argued.

This morning I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s little book The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: The Theological Basis of Ethics, and I came across this passage:

And this is our rebellion: the fact that we want everything, all that is noble, helpful, and good, if so it must be; but not this thing, namely, to be made open, prepared and made fit for God by God. Grace is God’s sovereign realm. But our enmity toward God – which is to be seen in our hearty good will toward any self-discovered theory about God, or toward this or that religious, ethical view of the universe that is not excluded – the evil that we do: this precisely is our hostility toward Grace. (19-20)

Granted, this is not Church Dogmatics, which I have yet to read and where I’m sure Barth makes some argument for this understanding of the nature of our rebellion against God. Even so, I’ve seen this theory over and over again and in many places, and it’s always assumed and never argued. There are a few points that irk me about it:

1. First, I don’t relate to it at all, and I don’t see evidence of it in the world. Where are all of these people who are hostile towards God? There is very little open hostility towards God, though a great deal of ambivalence, agnosticism, and apathy. Even the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins are not necessarily hostile toward God, per se, but toward the idea of God and the people who propagate that idea. Some have characterized our rebellion against God as straight-up evil, as opposition to anything which is good, which is clearly not the case (and yet even those who disagree that this is the nature of humans have no problem attributing this purely evil nature to fallen angels). But Barth’s formulation of our rebellion here is particularly troubling: rather than seeing an innate human desire for goodness and nobility as a reflection of God in us, he sees it as the basis of our rebellion. Perhaps he’s saying that what is left of our resemblance to God is the basis of our rebellion because our complacency or pride in this glimpse of deity is what causes us to aspire to be God ourselves? If that is the case, then by creating us in his likeness God has doomed us to failure. I suppose some Calvinists would agree with this wholeheartedly, but it troubles me deeply.

2. And second, whenever I see this point of view argued, it’s usually done in a way that makes my very doubt or problem with the theory into evidence for the theory. Take Barth’s point here: that the nature of our rebellion against God is that we are hostile to God’s grace. Who’s hostile to grace? I’ve known a few people, but I think it’s a stretch to say that this is the fundamental human condition! But if we don’t see evidence of this hostility to grace, then it can be argued that this is because the Holy Spirit is at work in us to make us into people capable of receiving that grace. And my argument that perhaps human beings aren’t fundamentally opposed to grace as a general principle can easily be interpreted as my own opposition to God’s grace, because I would then implicitly be arguing that human beings are capable of something good on their own and therefore not as an expression of God’s grace in us; in short, that I “want everything, all that is noble, helpful, and good…but not this thing…to be made open, prepared and made fit for God by God.” The argument is so concocted that to argue against it is to confirm it and undermine oneself in the eyes of one’s opponent. It’s clever, but it makes me very suspicious: it all falls apart if one of its premises is incorrect, but it doesn’t allow us to question its premises without being seen as sinful for doing so.

The combination of these two points makes it easy to see why so many Christians (particularly Calvinists) see themselves as being against the world, and love to argue about it. They have an argument that affirms itself and undermines any arguments against it, and at the same time affirms those who argue for it and slanders any who argue against it. I’m tired of the argument, and I’m tired of being smugly told that I’m just another example of fallen humanity when I try to ask questions about it.