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Monday, September 25, 2006

Qohelet rescues the doctrine of total depravity

For quite some time I have been rather dissatisfied with the doctrine of total depravity. For those of you keeping score at home the doctrine of total depravity basically says that sin affects all aspects of human nature. The name of the doctrine is rather unfortunate because the word "total" in "total depravity" does not mean that human beings are as bad as they could be or "totally" sinful. The "total" in "total depravity" refers to the fact that all of a person's being is affected by sin. In today's language, however this significance is lost...but no matter, this is a side note...

I have had a gripe against this doctrine because it often seems so static. When I hear this doctrine presented it is often just kind of thrown out there: "Human beings are corrupt" or "People are bad." Anytime I have heard this doctrine presented it has left me hanging there - it's a cliff hanger. I usually kind of cock my head to one side, scrunch my face and think, "The world is messed up? People are bad? So, what. That's not news to me or anyone else."
In most situations in which I hear about the doctrine of total depravity this cliff hanger is relieved because the Christian who is explaining the doctrine of total depravity begins to talk about his or her real point, which is the fact that people need Christ. So, most of the time when people talk about the doctrine of total depravity it is a bridge builder: We use it to get to our real point, which is that people need something. But I see this as a problem.

The first thing is that people don't come to Christ unless they see the need for Christ in their
lives. Here's the formula: Needy Me + Christ = Christian. But this compeletly misses the point, because human need (i.e. our own depravity) cannot merely be one of the factors of an equation. To simply say, "Ah, well, ok, I'll add some Jesus to my need" is to miss the point of conversion, which is a deeply spiritual and life-changing event.

So, what do we need here? More than simply acknowledging our personal depravity is the fact that we must feel it. I mean that we need to feel it deep down as a burden ,as a weight that is holding us down and as a cancer that is destroying us. We must feel ourselves on our spiritual death bed in a hopeless state of misery. This is far more than an intellectual acknowledgment of a particular doctrinal point. What we are talking about here is something deeply personal. So deep, in fact, and so personal that it is possible to feel our depravity even if we could not express the doctrine in words or write it out as a theological formulation.

The problem, then, with presenting a static doctrine of depravity is that it seems to suck the life out the Gospel. The doctrine of depravity is something dynamic that we experience and feel on the deepest of levels. Without this feeling, forget it. Move on. Don't waste your time talking about the cure if someone is not sick. Let them live and wish them well in their life! Why try to convince a person to believe, intellectually, a doctrine whose whole point is to feel the doctrine on a spiritual level?

Now, if anyone is going to really feel the doctrine of depravity and if we are to present a doctrine that is dynamic and not static, then we have to camp on it. We have to give pause and truly ponder what it means to live as a depraved person in a depraved world. We have to step back and submerge ourselves in life; to engage in a deeply reflective conversation with our human situation.

Qohelet enters stage right...

This is the whole point of Qohelet (the author of the book of Ecclesiastes) - to examine the human condition. Qohelet is on a quest, and his quest is the quest of all persons: to explore and understand the world. To drink from the wells of experience and to eat at the table of knowledge and understanding. Consider Qohelet's own statement of purpose:

I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under
heaven. (1:13)

This is Qohelet's quest. And his conclusion quickly follows:

What a heavy burden God has laid on men! (1:13)

Life, as we know it is backwards from what it should be. As Qohelet relates his quest he finds that at every turn there is either frustration or the potential for frustration. The world as we experience it is messed up. It is a burden.

The fascinating thing about Qohelet is how he seems content to just camp on this theme. Many perceive the Bible as a handy answer key to life. A book with all the right things to do and say. But Qohelet shatters this perception of Scripture. With Qohelet we have a whole book of the Bible, twelve chapters in all, that takes the time to discuss all of the worst things about living!
But notice what Qohelet does. He does not simply talk about the bad in you and I, but talks about the system as the world. Life "under the sun" is subject to the worst uncertainties. Our sense of meaning and purpose is frustrated. We seek for more, but there is nothing more to be found. If one reads Qohelet they quickly begin to feel tension and even contradiction. It is a disturbing book, but this is exactly what Qohelet wants us to feel. We must feel the tentions because Qohelet was burdened with these tensions, and so is anyone who begins to live life and seriously examine it from life's many different angles. Life is "crooked." (1:15, 7:13)

The world, as a system, is meangingless and absurd. The word "meaningless" or "absurd" is the word Qohelet uses thirty some times to label various aspects of human experience and situations. (The Hebrew word is hebel (pronounced he-vel).) But after we have camped on the absurdity of the world's system it is quite easy to discuss the depravity of the human being. This is because the depravity in each of us is one of the major contributors to system that is so absurd.

So, what would we do without Qohelet? The doctrine of depravity might possibly become doomed to quipes and cliches. Qohelet opens our minds up to the ramifications of living in a crooked world. We are crooked people in a crooked world.

Sit on that stuff for a while. Discuss Qohelet at the coffee house. Talk about the crooked world of Qohelet and I guarantee you'll generate some chatter. What is there "under the sun" that can be predicted? Where are the easy answers in life? You won't find them in Qohelet.

And now you're ready to talk about total depravity. And then you're ready to talk about the Gospel.


ktismatics said...

"For over and above those arts which are called virtues, and which teach us how we may spend our life well, and attain to endless happiness – arts which are given to the children of the promise and the kingdom by the sole grace of God which is in Christ – has not the genius of man invented and applied countless astonishing arts, partly the result of necessity, partly the result of exuberant invention, so that this vigor of mind, which is so active in the discovery not merely of superfluous but even of dangerous and destructive things, betokens an inexhaustible wealth in the nature which can invent, learn, or employ such arts?"
-- Augustine, The City of God,, Book XXII, Chapter 24.

I think depravity and meaninglessness do go hand in hand. The depraved man uses his godlike abilities not to establish meaning and purpose but to pursue self-gratification and power, adaptability and customer satisfaction, popular esteem and the comfort of the herd.

ktismatics said...

It's curious how the Preacher begins by talking about the futility of work, how it's impossible to have any lasting impact or to introduce any real change. This is a grave concern for me too. You can decide you're going to step away from the pursuit of money and respect in order to achieve something meaningful, but after awhile it seems like such futility. Why didn't I stick with the tried and true? What have I to show for all that idealism and hope now? So yeah, I'm camped on it.

Jonathan Erdman said...

There is nothing in this world ("under the sun") that is untouched by hebel (the Hebrew word translated as "meaningless," "vanity," or "absurd").

It is a profound thought, and not a very pleasant one, at least not at first.

Qohelet (The Preacher) certainly seems to take a lot of thought and reflection.

You hit a nail on the head with your comment, which is something that Chapter 2 touches on: There can be a "portion" for something, but there is no "profit" from anything. In 2:10 we see that Qohelet had a "portion" from all his work and experiences - he seemed to enjoy it! And yet he didn't find a "profit."

I'm going to post on that sometime soon and try to unpackage it a little bit because it is an important part of the whole book.

fyfy said...