Truncated: shortened by having a part cut off.
I’ve written monthly columns for public newspapers for many years. I had no idea how much this opportunity would discipline me to convey truth to a wide spectrum of readers. I realized early on that I would need to guard against using “Christianese.” In-house language can easily derail uninitiated readers.
While remaining faithful to Scripture, I had to find ways to explain biblical truths in language that a broad readership could understand and apply. This is where I ran into conflict with a few Christian readers. Some people wanted me to stick with Bible terms when I wrote about Bible themes.
Yet when it comes to choosing words (and I only get 800 per column), I decided not to avoid contemporary terms for explaining God’s truth. I am not willing to surrender good words to misguided or inadequate uses. If a good word has been wrongly or inadequately used, it motivates me to recapture it for its true and full meaning in a God-centered context. Allow me to offer two illustrations.
Several months ago, I used the term holistic in a blog discussion and a reader encouraged me to stick with Bible terms for talking about issues. He felt that the term had too many potentially strange and misleading associations. I understood his point but I also shared my commitment to recapture words to reflect their God-centered usage.
Those who say, “Stick with the terms used in Scripture!” ironically demonstrate a naive understanding of biblical words. More than once, I’ve gently reminded critics of the fact that even the great New Testament words of salvation (redemption, propitiation, sanctification, justification, reconciliation, etc…) came from the world of that time and had prior meanings and associations ranging from the market place; to the temple; to the courtroom, etc…. Was there risk of misunderstanding when including such terms in the New Testament?
While I am not interested in acquiescing to trendy terms if their popular meanings are misguided or inadequately centered in God’s truth, I am interested in restoring known words to richer and fuller meanings based in a God-centered worldview.
Another word that has been debated by several bloggers is the label “broken.” Obviously, if the term is being used to sum up our condition as fallen beings, critical concern is warranted. But, if used as one aspect of our fallenness, the term is rich with theological significance.
A truncated doctrine of sin
Debate over this label raises an issue that has increasingly troubled me. Those of us who follow a reformation-based theology seem especially concerned to articulate the doctrine of sin with scathing clarity. We oppose all efforts to mitigate or minimize the depravity of humanity as it is taught in Scripture. Yet, after many years of studying Scripture, I’ve developed a growing concern over the possibility that the reformed tradition has articulated its doctrine of depravity from the wrong starting point.
I realize that “Total Depravity” comes first in the acrostic TULIP. But when we think about sin by starting with sin, we risk ending up with a kind of truncated theology of human depravity. To adequately understand and articulate what it means to be a fallen sinner, one must start with the Imago Dei. We must start where our story began.
And we must wrestle with the implications of the Imago Dei as a continual primary ontological reality for human beings even after sin entered the world (see: Genesis 9:6;James 3:9).
Human depravity does not mean that we are always acting as badly as possible, but that we are always as bad off as we can be outside of God’s grace in Christ. The reach of human depravity extends to every person and every part of every person. It’s a pervasive reality — without borders among us and within us. But it doesn’t erase God’s image in man and this carries significant implications.
This truth leads us to speak of both the dignity and depravity of humanity. Part of the problem with using the word “total” when speaking about depravity. Acts of benevolence and heroism are found outside the boundaries of redemption precisely because of the Imago Dei in humanity. The same can be said of the profound human skills and creativity that one would never find in any other being on earth.
By explaining depravity and sin from the right starting point, we are able to understand the problem of goodness in humanity. Some wish to talk about the problem of evil: Why do people do such wicked things? Yet the problem of goodness must also be answered. Why do people do good things and strive toward a sense of justice?
I realize that Jesus said, “No one is good — except God alone” (Luke18:19) and the apostle Paul wrote, “no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). Yet we must be careful not to use these statements in violation of their contexts and the overall context of Scripture.
Certainly, we cannot speak of any acts of human beings as purely good or as good in a way that contributes to the righteousness provided in Christ alone (II Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 2:21;Ephesians 2:8-10;Titus 3:5). But we can place human deeds in a category of good because they conform to what we know to be God’s will. “It’s good that you told the truth.” “It’s good that you helped someone in need.” “It’s good ….” But we cannot attribute a heart-level of goodness regarding motivations to give glory to God alone.
I fear that a truncated vision of humanity under a doctrine of total depravity has led some to engage in a kind of over-renunciation. Can we celebrate (for example) skillful arts and musical abilities outside of a context of redemption but under the Imago Dei? Obviously, celebrating evidences of the divine image will be tempered with sadness when the performer does not offer glory to the One who gave the skill. But perhaps some measure of positive affirmation could serve as a bridge-builder for gospel witness as is warranted under the Imago Dei.
Fall from glory
When thinking about the fall of humanity and the doctrine of sin, we must keep before ourselves the truth that sin is a falling short of glory — an unblemished glory, the glory of God that distinguished us in the original creation. We were made in the Imago Dei and have fallen from it. Human depravity is not adequately understood if the image of God is not the starting point for how we think about humanity.
The Imago Dei continues as a shared reality of all people without exception or distinction. God singled out humans when He said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27;James 3:9).
At the beginning, God “saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Humans (by God’s intention) had a very good and noble beginning (and, we intuitively know it). But those intended for greatness have fallen. Sin is a tragic and culpable falling short of glory – “for all have sinned and fall short (ὑστερέω) (present/passive) of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). A universal and continuous condition of humanity.
“Near the beginning of our history, we human beings broke the harmony of paradise and began to live against our ultimate good… As Genesis 3 and Genesis 4 reveal, we rebelled against God and then we fled from God. We once had a choice. We now have a near-compulsion—at least, that’s what we have without the grace of God to set us free (Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.).
When sin became part of our experience, it required the addition of prefixes and suffixes to negate otherwise good qualities. Dis-obedience, dis-able, dis-agree, dis-advantage, faith-less, hope-less, etc… Could we use terms like Dys-functional or broken with this backdrop?
“Creation is the stage and first act of the world’s drama. In the second act, sin enters the picture, but only as a spoiler of God’s good creation. Creation is original; sin is only a parasite on it.” “The real human predicament, as Scripture reveals, is that inexplicably, irrationally, we all keep living our lives against what’s good for us. In what can only be called the mystery of iniquity, human beings from the time of Adam and Eve (and, before them, a certain number of angelic beings) have so often chosen to live against God, against each other, and against God’s world” (Plantinga).
When we form our doctrine where Scripture begins, we realize that we were meant for so much more. It should not be surprising or unexpected than that most people feel like something significant is missing from their lives. We have moments when life feels whole, full and satisfying but, at a deeper level, we know that we’re not what we’re supposed to be.
- Something great has fallen from its greatness.
- Something amazing has lost its amazement.
- Something beautiful has lost its beauty.
- Something whole is broken.
- Something healthy is sick and in need of healing.
- Something peaceful has been vandalized.
As a result of our fall, we can say that those who were whole are broken, partial and fractured. Brokenness is not the whole picture but it certainly belongs to it. Working from a full theological perspective, a sad (yet realistic) set of terms is fitting to us:
Not surprisingly, a vocabulary of salvation is what we need. We need intervention, rescue, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.
“In the third act God’s spectacular intervention through Jesus Christ is the story of creation restored, maybe even surpassed by the end of the drama. The world’s big story is not just about sin and grace, but about creation, sin, and grace” (Plantinga).
To think sufficiently about sin, one must also look to the centerpiece of the theme of Scripture.
“At the center of the Christian Bible, four Gospels describe the pains God has taken to defeat sin and its wages. Accordingly, Christians have often measured sin, in part, by the suffering needed to atone for it. The ripping and writhing of death on a cross, the bizarre metaphysical maneuver of using death to defeat death, the urgency of the summons to human beings to ally themselves with the events of Christ and with the person of these events, and then to make that person and those events the center of their lives-these things tell us that the main human brokenness is desperately difficult to fix, even for God, and that, while annoyances, regrets, and miseries trouble us in all the old familiar ways, none of them matters as much as sin” (Plantinga).
Plantinga offered a helpful consideration of the point I am making with reference to the label tragic.
“When one observes the rifts and scars of children whose parents took turns slapping, deriding, ignoring, bullying, or, sometimes worse, simply abandoning them; when one observes the wholesale life mismanagement of grown-ups who have lived for years in the shadow of their bereft childhood and who have attempted with one addictor after another to fill up those empty places where love should have settled, only to discover that their addictor keeps enlarging the very void it was meant to fill — when one knows people of this kind and observes their largely predictable character pathology, one hesitates to call all this chaos sin. The label sounds smug and impertinent. In such cases, we want to appeal to some broader category, perhaps the category of tragedy.”
“‘Tragedy’, however, “implies the fall of someone who is responsible and significant. It refers to someone whose significance has been ‘compromised and crushed by a mix of forces, including personal agency, that work together for evil in a way that seems simultaneously surprising and predictable, preventable and inevitable.’ A tragic figure is, in some intricate combination, both weak and willful, both foolish and guilty” (Plantinga).
On the other end of this discussion, we must think about salvation in the full context of a return to the full and final glory of the Imago Dei.
- A glory we had at the beginning (Genesis 1:26-27).
- A glory we fell from in disobedience (Romans 3:23; 5:12; James 3:9).
- A glory being restored in us (through God’s gift of salvation and the indwelling Spirit, Rom. 6:23; II Corinthians 3:18).
- A glory fully restored (despite our present suffering, Romans 8:18; Philippians 3:20-21; I John 3:1-2;Revelation 21:1-5).
When talking about sin and salvation, our choice of terms matters. But the starting point for understanding these great doctrines also matters and deserves more consideration than it has received.
See also: Total Depravity?