Monday, February 11, 2008

The Dangers of Wormism

Reformed Theology emphasizes certain theological truths that are sometimes less emphasized in other theological traditions. One of those truths is what is commonly known as the 'total depravity' of man. The idear here is that through the Fall, the entire human constitution (physical, emotional, spiritual) became corrupted by sin. The 'total' in 'total depravity' does not mean that everything about us is completely depraved. Instead, the 'total' refers to the totality of the human constitution being negatively corrupted by sin. There is no part of the human condition that is immune from the ravages of sin. Our physical bodies grow weak and eventually die. I was at a healing service last night, and the frailty of the body is an ever-present reminder of the potency of universal sin. Our emotional lives are subject to sadness, grief, and inner turmoil. Our spiritual lives are often marked by deep conflict, confusion, doubt, and weariness. All of this is the result of the entrance of sin into the world at the Fall. And because this is our state, everything we think and do is tainted to some degree by our sin. Our reasoning, behaviors, and actions are all greatly influenced by our sinful condition.

As an adherent of Reformed Theology, I believe the devastating effects of the Fall comprise perhaps the most documented empirical case for the truth of total depravity that anyone can ask for. And yet, in affirming this truth, we must be on guard against the tendency to become imbalanced in our stressings, and lurch into what is known as 'wormism', which is the reduction of humans to worms and little more.

Classic confessional Calvinism stresses both the depravity and dignity of humanity. An overstress on depravity to the neglect of dignity is not historic Calvinism - it's what Richard Pratt calls the 'neo-Calvinism' of 20th century Reformed thinking that was an imbalanced response to the destructive utopian modernism of the time. Every historic Reformed confession and catechism emphasizes the Scriptural truth that humans have been uniquely created in the image of God. In doing this, God grants humanity a tremendous and unique dignity that the Fall did not eradicate. It is true that the Fall greatly perverts and distorts the image of God beyond repair absent divine intervention. But the image of God is not lost, because it is ingrained in the human constitution. To lose it is to cease being human.

To forfeit the Imago Dei theology of Scripture by keeping it backstage while human depravity gets all the spotlight is a real danger that Reformed people in particular are often susceptible to embracing. Why is this dangerous?

1) When human dignity gets lost in the shuffle of human depravity, we lose something precious about the character of God. Our ontological connection with Christ is through his perfect humanity. It is because Jesus was perfectly human that he could legitimately be our sacrificial substitute on the Cross. If humans have lost their dignity and are only depraved, why exactly would Jesus need to be fully man, and why exactly should we feel good about God rescuing non-dignified agents of depravity? The salvation of humanity through Christ is an act of God redeeming a creation that he once declared 'very good'. There is an intrinsic dignity that God has bestowed on us as an act of grace, so that his salvation is also an act of grace that not only redeems hopeless sinners, but also redeems God's sovereign decision to create in the first place by gloriously repairing the shattered image of God in us. He is redeeming his own image. When we understand that, we better understand why God is so passionate and covenantally committed to this end, and makes us appreciate his grace, love and power even more.

2) When human dignity is lost, we lose our basis to affirm the irrevocable dignity of human life. It is the Imago Dei that gives us foundation for practicing an ethic of life, mutual respect, compassion, and love. If ontological dignity is lost, the praxis of dignity will be greatly lessened. This is a direct violation of the totality of the Pauline corpus, which urges us to value and love one another, and to put the needs of others ahead of our own. Paul's theology of Christian brotherhood makes no sense if it is not undergirded by the Imago Dei. It is because God has given us dignity through creating us in his image that Christians argue that human dignity cannot be defined or taken away by humans or their secular governments. Human beings are not their own kingmakers - they do not grant ontological dignity to each other. And because of this, humans have no standing to eradicate such dignity. This is a basic issue of ethics, and the Christian ethic takes a very serious hit if Christians themselves deny or downplay the intrinsic dignity of humanity that God has bestowed on us. Wormism is a serious threat to Christian ethics, because it warps what authentic humanity looks like in ways that inevitably redefine ethics in a negative way.

3) Overemphasizing depravity often leads to legalism. When depravity is constantly preached and 'teached', a serious perceptual imbalance can result. An unremitting diet of wormism can result in people and churches distrusting each other and their motives, and being fearful that people are primed and ready at every single moment to fall into grievous sin. What is the usual remedy to assuage this concern? Often, it is legalistic fence-building that is designed to keep us on the straight and narrow and prevent us from wandering off into sin. On the surface, this doesn't sound entirely bad. That has always been the allure of legalism - it is often rooted in good intentions, and when fed by a steady stream of wormism, it doesn't take long to start believing that legalism is actually necessary for the spiritual health of the church. The problem is that this is not the Gospel. The Gospel of Christ is a gospel of grace in which the law of God is written on the hearts of humanity (which is itself part of why humans possess inherent dignity as a result of being made in God's image). Even a cursory reading of Paul's corpus (ironically, a favorite of Reformed folks) quickly reveals Paul's emphatic rejection of legalism as a method of preserving holiness.

It is sometimes alleged that Reformed people who believe the Doctrines of Grace are often the least gracious people one can meet. I don't know if this is true. In my experience, people from every theological and atheological tradition tend to be more or less equal in their lack of grace. The reason Reformed folks stand out is because it is they who most fervently talk about and emphasize grace. It is the worst kind of irony that one can find in some Reformed circles the contradictory realities of grace and legalism coexisting side by side. It is what can happen when the dignity of humanity is thrown under the bus of depravity. Again, as a Reformed person, I understand why the depravity of humanity must be emphasized. The perennially attractive idear of achieving holiness and rightness with God through man-made righteousness is an affront to the person and work of Christ and is often the result of possessing an inadequate view of the comprehensive nature of sin. But if this is the extent of our theological anthropology, we have done the very thing Calvin himself tells us not to do - we have despised our own flesh and brought discredit to the image of God by impugning his creative handiwork. It is an imbalanced theology, and it's not Calvinism.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


After years of bogus excuses and anonymous poison pills, the NFL Hall of Fame selection committee has finally relented to the obvious - Art Monk belongs in the Hall of Fame. It is hard to believe that a committee made up of sportswriters who supposedly know the NFL well enough to judge who the NFL's elite players have been would have been so completely derelict in their responsibilities these last 8 years when it came to Monk. I have made the case for Monk in previous blogs, and it's been a slam dunk case for 8 years - not because I can make a good case, but because Monk was a superior player who made his own case. The selection committee's decision today to grant Monk HOF status doesn't somehow legitimize his accomplishments. No sir. Today's decision merely begins the process of restoring the credibility of a committee that had lost a great deal of it with most of the NFL public.

Ark Monk is in the NFL Hall of Fame. It's about time. I offer my heartfelt congratulations to Art Monk, the deserving candidate. And I offer congratulations to the selection committee for finally seeing the light.