Charmin Theology – My Take

Well, I’m new here at That Reformed Blog. I’m excited to join the collective here at TRB and I look forward to wrestling through some of these questions with this community.

I’ve enjoyed the conversation between Wayne and Susan on TULIP and wanted to throw in my own two cents. Calling this post “Charmin Theology,” by the way, is a lame pun on the Greek charis meaning “grace.” Sorry – I’ll try to avoid things like that in the future.

In my evening services (yep, we do night church!) we have been preaching through the Heidelberg Catechism. I recently finished the “misery” section and I think that it doesn’t necessarily say what we often think it says. The Heidelberg does not say that we are all terrible human beings and absolutely, 100% wicked.

Here’s the closest it comes:

Q4. What does God’s law require of us?
A. Christ teaches us this summary in Matthew 22:37-40: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.  “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Q5. Can you live up to all this perfectly?
A. No. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know how easy it is to read this as “everyone is as terrible as they can be.” Growing up in a church and school that placed a heavy emphasis on total depravity I was more surprised than I like to admit to find that my non-Christian friends were not only rather nice people, many were actually far nicer and more loving than the folks I knew at church. In my opinion, though, this is an abuse of a doctrine and not what the doctrine is actually about.

The Canons of Dort has this to say about Total Depravity (there called Total Inability):

Therefore, all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin. Without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.

The point is not that we choose evil every time, all the time. The point is not that we are as bad as we possibly can be.

The point is, left to our own devices, we will choose to put ourselves first. Left to ourselves, we will do anything and everything to protect ourselves or, perhaps, our family and friends.

More importantly, total depravity means that even our purest motives are touched by the taint of this self-centeredness. Think of it as “Pervasive Depravity.” Even my best, most altruistic motives can never be completely free from this desire to put love of self ahead of love of God and neighbor.

At least on my own.

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

“Beyond cure” implies disease.

“Deceitful” implies self-serving (the word is the same root as the name “Jacob” – grasper).

“Deceitful… beyond cure” means that, on our own, we will not seek out the help that we need.

Again, the Canons of Dort sums up the result of this:

Rather, in their place they [humanity] brought upon themselves blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in their minds; perversity, defiance, and hardness in their hearts and wills; and finally impurity in all their ­emotions.

The result of total depravity is not absolute wickedness.

The result of total depravity is pervasive, inescapable darkness and futility, from which we cannot ourselves escape

We need a light to shine in that darkness. We need the sunrise of Easter morning to break through the darkness that we are otherwise unable to break.

Understanding total depravity should always turn us away from ourselves to our God who shared in our flesh and blood and brought light to the darkness, healing to the brokenness, comfort to our misery. We need the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit to empower us to enter into the life that puts love of God and neighbor ahead of love of self.

We need God to come in and clean up our mess.

In the end, TULIP always points away from us to God. To me, TULIP is ultimately about resting in God as the one who brings healing and comfort in our misery and who holds us relentlessly in that grace.  There are, of course, many finer points to be debated and discussed – and I look forward to joining in on some of those conversations here at TRB – but I think we start with the big picture of TULIP. If our big picture is out of focus, we’ll miss out on the details.

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4 thoughts on “Charmin Theology – My Take

  1. Kory, I deeply appreciate this post! I still think total depravity is a bit of a misnomer. But I do appreciate how you explain things here.

    I wonder though, if we could sit down to a beer with Zacharias Ursinus, would he find our shared experience of knowing non-Christians who are nice people, some who are actually nicer and more loving than some of the folks at our churches to be incompatible with his sentiments that we all have a natural tendency to hate God and our neighbor?

    I completely agree with you that even our purest motives are touched by the taint of this self-centeredness and that we need the sunrise of Easter morning to break through the darkness that we are otherwise unable to break. But I am not convinced that Franciscus Gomarusf or the other framers of the Canons of Dordrecht would find that to be the same thing as saying, “all people are conceived in sin and are born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin. Without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform.”

    It would seem to me that the chief questions driving the Arminian/ Remonstrance party and those driving our Reformed predecessors were the same: Can an individual human being do anything – even in a partial cooperative effort with God – to merit his or her own escape from the Hell and the wrath of God that we all so rightly deserve?

    I deeply respect the Forms of Unity as bearing historic and faithful witnesses to the Word of God. I do. I think given the religious and cultural zeitgeist and the given religious questions of their day, these documents made a lot of sense. I don’t know about you though, but I am asking different questions. And to a large degree, I am convinced that scripture is asking different questions of us. Questions like what does it mean to be blessed to be a blessing? Do biblical passages about election seem to indicate that God elects individuals onto a salvation synonymous with escape or communities to a salvation that has more to do with mission and participation in God’s plan for redemption on a cosmic scale?

    Of course these things are not (completely) mutually exclusive and yes I would make a terrible trial lawyer because I am being leading with my questions in that last paragraph 😉 But I can’t help but think that while we should never, ever dispense with the wisdom of the past, it is insufficient to answer the questions of our present.

    • Also, I am sure Peter would have us remember that with Dort especially, there were all kinds of political power struggles and ambitions involved. Not that this nullifies the content. But we should keep the context in mind when considering these things.

  2. Hey Wayne, I appreciate the comments. I’ll follow up at greater length tomorrow or Tuesday but I wanted to say this much for now – I have little doubt that Gomarusf would not agree with the way I read the CoD.

    For that matter, I’m sure Gomarusf would be appalled by the way even the most conservative of churches do things these days.

    This is the challenge of being part of a confessional church. Being in a denomination that upholds the forms of unity means wrestling with them as living documents, not just historical documents. Doing so certainly takes them seriously AS historical documents, but also allows for some amount of change. It also allows for a breadth of understanding in how we approach these texts.

    I also agree that the questions the Heidelberg asks are not necessarily the same as what Scripture asks or what we ask. I can demonstrate for you some pretty bad examples of the kind of prooftexting that we are taught to avoid in the Catechism. This doesn’t mean that it (or its questions) are of no importance. It does, however, allow me to approach it as a living document, a product of its time, and see how it may inform some of the questions that I am asking.

    Again, hopefully I’ll respond at greater length tomorrow. For now, the second sermon of the day has wiped me out 🙂

  3. Pingback: Reformed Thought and the Problem of Evil | Quaerenda

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