This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series: ‘If the church were Christian’ (Gulley)
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – intro
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – 1
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – 2
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – 3
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – 4
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – 5
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – 6
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – 7
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – 8
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – 9
- ‘If the church were Christian’ – 10
Philip Gulley puts it like this:- If the church were more Christian, ‘affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness.’ (If the Church Were Christian. HarperOne)
The church’s teaching about the sinfulness of human nature, it appears, has done great harm. It has brought the church into disrepute, and caused individuals to feel damaged and guilt-ridden. Gulley supports this with anecdotes of horror stories from which every reasonable person would recoil with horror.
But Gulley’s way is to ‘prove’ that the church’s teaching on human nature is wrong by taking the worst abuses of that teaching and treating them is typical. Moreover, he engages in inexcusable caricature. So, when it comes to the doctrine of original sin, we are informed that
‘any god who would condemn billions of people to hell because the first couple sampled a bite of fruit seems at the very least eccentric, and at worst despotic.’
So, let’s accept the ‘uplifting’ story of creation in Genesis 1, but not the one in Genesis 2 and 3. Let’s not side with Augustine and ‘original sin’, but with Matthew Fox and ‘original blessing’.
‘The church has typically understood salvation as being rescued from our sin and going to heaven when we die. But what if we believed salvation was our lifelong journey toward maturity, love, and wholeness? Were that the case, Jesus would not be the one who saves humanity by his sacrifice of blood, but the one who exemplifies this maturity, love, and wholeness, the one to whom Christians can look and say, “This life is what it means to be saved, this is what it looks like to be fully human, and we can be like him!”’
It seems that Gulley has actually undersold himself in this chapter. For, rather than setting out to show that ‘affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness’ (my emphasis), he is not prepared to admit any brokenness in human nature (apart, perhaps, from the brokenness engendered by preachers who proclaim the One who was ‘pierced for our transgression’).
With Michael Kruger, we note:-
1. Balancing sin and human potential
There is vast potential within human nature. This is so by virtue of our status as God’s image-bearers. But that image has been spoiled (but not obliterated) by sin. Consequently, there is a balance to be made between people’s sinfulness and their potential as God’s image-bearers. Unfortunately, Gulley can only conceive of those who teach one or the other. We must affirm both.
Kruger invites us to consider:-
- Gulley argues that churches that regularly teach people are sinners are guilty of “spiritual abuse” (40) and “mistreatment” of their people (p.30).
- Gulley states, plainly, “I had grown up in a tradition that emphasized sin and the need for salvation, hadn’t found it helpful, and had resolved to leave it behind” (33).
- Gulley denies original sin on the grounds Adam and Eve were not real people, the stories are just religious “myths” (37-38, 40). Moreover, the creation stories cannot be trusted anyway because they’re contradictory and inconsistent (39-40).
- Gulley argues that we should stop “viewing ourselves as wretched sinners, deserving of damnation” (44). He even laments hymns like Amazing Grace that speak of God saving sinners (43).
2. Denial of the saving work of Christ
If human depravity is denied, then this leads to a further tragic consequence: a denial of Christ’s saving work. As we have already seen (above), the Christian message then becomes a moralistic one: ‘Be like Jesus’. This once again begs the question: ‘Which Jesus?’, because the Jesus we are urged to emulate is certainly not the full-orbed Jesus of the Gospels.
3. This is not Christianity
Let’s be clear: once we have jettison the biblical doctrine of sin, and the gospel of redemption from sin, we have turned our backs on the Christian faith. We have embraced a completely different religion. (Machen would argue: a completely different kind of religion).
Far better to affirm, with Paul,
‘The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost’ (1 Timothy 1:15).