Thursday, June 18, 2009

One of the Fundamental Differences

We all know that the issue of human sexuality is not really the issue. I've heard it said that the real issue is one of Authority. Who has the authority to change the teaching of the Church. Just as TEC says that dioceses do not have the authority to leave TEC (an assertion I deny, by the way, but that's another post), I submit that no Diocese nor Province has the authority to change the Church's moral teaching. What General Convention did in 2000, 2003, and 2006 regarding the moral teaching of the Church is beyond its authority.

I think it is even more fundamental than that. I believe that the fundamental issue is one of anthropology - what is man (and woman). And, even before that, Who is God. Let's leave the definition of God out of this discussion (for now). I want to discuss anthropology as it relates to what men and women are.

On the conservative side of things (both politically and theologically) we tend to believe that man was created good but is fallen. Thus, we tend to think of man, in his natural state, as a "twisted" individual. We may want to do good and to be good, but we lack the ability to do so. We are so bent by our sin that we don't even know what is good anymore. Thus, we need an external source to help us know and understand what God desires from us. We identify with Paul in Roman's 7
I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I
have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it our. For what I
do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep
on doing. (Rom 7:18, 19)

Thus, our natural state is one of brokenness and the inability to do good. Our natural state is one of separation from God. For this reason, God became man in the person of Jesus Christ so that we (and all creation) might be redeemed and be united to God by God's grace. In the conservatives eyes, mankind needs to die so it can be reborn. We've marred God's image and lost His likeness by our sinful actions.

On the other hand, most progressives I've known tend to think that man is basically good. Our natural state is one of blessedness. They like to speak of "Original Blessing" not "Original Sin." They believe that most people want to do the good and, if we just educate them enough, they will choose the good. Mankind needs fixing, not re-creation. Man still has a lot of the image of God and still bears His likeness.

That is an oversimplification, of course, but I find it to be true to a large extent.

So, how does this play out? In terms of the sexuality debate, the conservatives see homosexual orientation as a consequence of our fallen nature. Progressives see homosexual orientation as a natural occurrence and, therefore, a moral good or moral neutral. In terms of Evangelism, the conservative see other faiths as not participating in the new creation that all men need. Progressives see that all faiths as expressions of man's quest for God and, thus, evangelism is not as necessary.

So, which is it? Is mankind basically sinful and fallen (and thus with a need to die to self and be raised to new life) or is mankind basically good (and thus needs only education and improvement)?

Phil Snyder


The Underground Pewster said...

The former.

I would be interested in reading someone's theological reasoning in support of the "mankind is basically good" argument, because I can't seem to get there from my Bible readings.

Bryan Owen said...


For the sake of clarification, are you here subscribing to the notion of "total depravity"? My understanding is that while Anglican comprehensiveness does not utterly exclude such a view, it is not mainstream Anglicanism (seeing as it really is more at home in the Reformed or Calvinist tradition).

I note that Article IX of The Articles of Religion describes original sin as "the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation" (BCP, p. 869). The wording is strong, but sufficiently evasive (in good Anglican fashion) so as to allow one to read it as either supporting the full-blown doctrine of total depravity, or as supporting a doctrine of depravity that is not total (i.e., which leaves room for the possibility that human beings - though inclined to evil and error - can still know goodness and truth, at least enough sufficient to live in accordance with the cardinal virtues, and thus - as the apostle Paul notes in Romans 2:15 - to show in their actions that "what the law requires is written on their hearts").

I think it's quite possible to be somewhere in the middle between the idea of original sin as total depravity (a la Calvinism) on the one hand, and the idea that human beings are basically good and thus able to be improved or "redeemed" by human or "scientific" means (a la secular humanism). As I recall, Eastern Orthodox and much Roman Catholic thought does not subscribe to the more pessimistic notion of "total depravity" we find in Calvinism, but without jettisoning the idea of the fall and original sin completely. It's a question of just how deep or "far down" the fall really goes. Has it utterly destroyed our capacity to know anything good and true such that we must reject the very idea of general revelation or natural law?

A thought-provoking book that addresses these issues very well is Alan Jacobs' Original Sin: A Cultural History. I posted on that book a while back here and here.

Fr. Daniel Weir said...

Deacon Phil,

I think your two descriptions are caricatures and that the reality is much more complex. I am reminded of a comment by Bishop Fry, later president of TESM, that creation has the feel of something very good that has gone awry. Creation. and within it humankind is not described in Genesis as good but as very good. However we understand the Fall and Original Sin, we must understand that there was original blessing before there was original sin.


plsdeacon said...

I would not say that man is "totally depraved," so I would not subscriber to "total depravity." Man is created good and can see good and know good, but, for some reason, cannot always choose the good. Total depravity posits that the Image of God (and not just His likeness) was lost in the fall. I disagree. I would say that God's image is marred by sin, but not lost. God's likeness, however, has been lost - and is restored through faith (=trust) in Jesus Christ.

Like I said, I believe most men and women want to do good, but they don't always know what the good is and can't get past their self-definition of good as "what makes me happy now." I would say that the Cardinal Virtues (Temporance, Courage, Justice, Prudence) are attainable by most people if they give their lives to persue such virtues. But these are not salvific virtues and do not put us right with God. Only God can do that and only the gift of the Holy Spirit and God's grace can help us see truly and strive for the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and agape. ( I used the Greek agape because too many in our society equate love with sex.)

Phil Snyder

plsdeacon said...


You just proved my point. Man (along with all of creation) was "very good" but is now not good. Man is twistes and bent. While we are not totally depraved (al la Calvin) we are not naturally good either. Our hearts are inclined towards ourselves and not towards God. We can still see good, and we can occassionally choose good, but we cannot consistenly do it and even when we do act for good, we almost always have some personal motivation that is alongside our motivation to act altruistically.

So, is man now good or evil (which is, after all, twisted good)? Are people more inclined to selfishness or selflessness? Are people more inclined to look to God or to themselves for guidance on how to live?

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the clarification, Phil. I, too, do not believe that the Fall entails the loss of the image of God. And so I do not subscribe to the doctrine of total depravity.

And you're quite right about the need for the theological virtues. Unaided human reason and will can only go so far with general revelation. We need the infusion of grace that only God gives us through special revelation in the word written and above all in the Word incarnate.

BTW, I'm about halfway through one the best introductions to moral theology I've ever come across: William C. Mattison's Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues. The author combines the gifts of a scholar with good writing to explain difficult and nuanced concepts, and then uses clear examples to illustrate. If you like this kind of stuff, I think you'll find this an enjoyable refresher in the basics.