Tulip Calvinism and Total Depravity (And this is not about the American President!)

7 08 2019

TulipBecause the tulip is my wife’s favorite flower, she loves to come home with bouquets of  them to brighten up our townhouse: yellow bunches in the spring, purple double-petal blooms in the summer, and even red ones mixed with boughs of green pine in December.  And they always do their job – boldly transporting the beauty of God’s creation from the outdoors, to the indoors.

But they also do something else.  They bring a bit of redemption to one of the church’s most misunderstood theological doctrines: Tulip Calvinism!  For the past 500 years this belief system, conceived in a world burdened by the harshness of life and born in the heart of a Church obsessed with purity, has marred the national flower of the Netherlands.  So it’s time for the Church to finally grow some bulbs that will give rise to a new way of thinking about Tulip, and let a few of the old beliefs whither and die.  And this is particularly true of the “T” in Tulip, which stands for “Total Depravity.”

I heard mention of Total Depravity far too many times at a recent Presbyterian conference.  And while I understand the tendency to want to emphasize the depth of human sin when talking about things like racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, I fear it does more harm than good, and radically distorts the truth of God’s creation.

Building upon the Roman Catholic understanding of creation’s fall, Calvin purported that the brokenness of humanity means that every aspect of human nature is touched, tainted, and enslaved by sin.  As a result, people are not only never able to freely choose to follow God, or to live the way of Jesus, but we are too broken, too evil, too . . . depraved . . . to experience the oneness that exists between Creator and creation!

Now it has been said that the one theological doctrines that requires the least proof of it’s existence is the doctrine of sin.  It’s consequences abound: from the destructive nature of hatred and war, to the traumatic injuries of poverty and injustice.  Most of us are more than willing to acknowledge sin’s presence and power in the world because it is all around us.  It brings harm and hurt to our lives all the time.  However the doctrines of original sin and total depravity often blind people to another more important doctrine: the Doctrine of Original Blessing.

Matthew Fox — expelled from the Dominican order of Roman Catholicism because of his ‘protests’ against ancient Christian teachings which he believes to be flawed, and who is now ministering in the Episcopal Church — has been attempting to deconstruct AND reconstruct Christian teaching about sin for decades.  And his concept of “Original Blessing” is the doctrine that deserves more of our attention and focus.  For before any mention of sin, brokenness, a fall, or eternal separation, Scripture references human beings as the ‘very good’ creation of God.  And nothing has, will, or can, ever change that reality!  Not even sin.

This was the message of Jesus, and it is what makes the grace he came to reveal so amazing.  In spite of the Church’s centuries-old teaching about original sin, God is a God of love and mercy.  And the Spirit of God dwells in each one of us.  There is a “Divine Spark” in all humanity, and Jesus reveals that when fanned, that spark has the capacity to burn brightly within us.  It is a spark that can fuel the making of choices and decisions that eradicate racism, that reject misogyny, and that refuse to embrace xenophobia.

The human race is not a broken, eternally lost species, that has the capacity to do good on occasion: when widows and orphans, when the blind and the lost, when prisoners and refugees just happen to get lucky.  The human race is the very good creation of a loving and grace-filled God, that has the capacity to evil when we deny or reject the movement of the Spirit.  We are not bad people with the capacity to do good.  We are good people with the capacity to do bad.  And the sooner we realize this, the better we will be able to live into our identity as members of the great human family.

Why is this important?  Because humanity has spent far too much time living up to the belief that we are nothing more than “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”  And if this is what we truly believe about others and ourselves, then is it any wonder that we live so fearfully, and angrily, and violently?  We have lived into this identity and well for more than 2000 years! We have given into fear and greed because we have believed that we are nothing more than fearful and greedy people.

But what if we shifted out thinking a little bit?  What if we began to understand ourselves and others as the very good creation of a gracious and loving God?  Could that change us?  Might that begin to change the world?  Is it possible that a shift away from original sin and toward original blessing might alter the way we live our lives, and give way to a little more kindness and compassion?

Well how about we give it a try?  The centuries we’re spent talking about original sin and total depravity have not helped us.  So maybe Calvin got it wrong!  Maybe the Church still has a little more reforming ahead of us.  Maybe, the Spirit isn’t done with you just yet!  I know she’s not done with me.  For the more I understand myself as the very good, and dearly loved creation of a merciful God, the more faithful I become!  Am I perfect?  Of course not!  But I live more like Jesus when I nurture the seeds of original blessing before original sin.

How about you?  Give it a try.  See what happens. Perhaps the Spirit of God might truly be able to do with us, and in us, more than we hope, dream, or even dare to imagine.





One response

8 08 2019

Thanks, Bob, I needed to be reminded of both Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing and the original ‘very good’-ness (not perfection) of mankind. Blessings, Friend! – Melissa

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