In chapter 13 of The Lost Message of Paul, Steve Chalke asks: Where does the Western church get all its ideas about guilt and unworthiness before God? The Eastern half of the church has never accepted the doctrine of ‘original sin’. That doctrine owes its origin to Augustine of Hippo and was developed much later by John Calvin. It teaches that we all enter the world with Adam’s fallen nature. The analogous doctrine of total depravity teaches that there is ‘no vestige of goodness left in us’. But, ‘I do not believe that God perceives any of us as totally depraved. As Martin Luther King once put it, there is some bad in the best of us, but there is also good in the worst of us.’
In fact, writes Chalke, the Bible starts with original goodness, not with original sin. The story of the so-called ‘fall’ in Genesis 3 has nothing to say about satan or sin. It is, rather, a myth that speaks of ‘the loss of innocence; the journey of humankind, as well as that of every individual, into moral responsibility.’ And it is a moral responsibility in which God has by no means abandoned them.
On the question of ‘original sin’, Chalke is correct in saying that the Orthodox church does not teach this doctrine (it teaches, rather, the idea of ‘ancestral sin’). It is also true to say that Orthodoxy does not hold to the doctrine of ‘total depravity’. Further than that, I don’t think that Chalke says much in The Lost Message of Paul that he hadn’t already said, in The Lost Message of Jesus:
While we have spent centuries arguing over the doctrine of original sin, pouring [sic] over the Bible and huge theological tomes to prove the inherent sinfulness of all humankind, we have missed a startling point: Jesus believed in original goodness! God declared that all his creation, including humankind, was very good. And it’s this original goodness that Jesus seeks out in us. That’s not to suggest that Jesus is denying that our relationship with God is in need of reconciliation, but that he is rejecting any idea that we are, somehow, beyond the pale. (The Lost Message of Jesus, p67)
So, according to Chalke, Jesus rejects ‘any idea that we are, somehow, beyond the pale’! That God has not abandoned us! But what responsible Christian – reformed or otherwise – would not also reject such preposterous ideas?!
But let me turn to Chalke’s casual dismissal of the doctrine of ‘total depravity’. This doctrine does not teach that there is ‘no vestige of goodness left in us’. According to the Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms,
total depravity refers to the extent and comprehensiveness of the effects of sin on all humans such that all are unable to do anything to obtain salvation. Total depravity, therefore, does not mean that humans are thoroughly sinful but rather that they are totally incapable of saving themselves. [My emphasis]
The relevant article in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology explains that the doctrine does not teach that people are incapable of performing good actions, or that they are unable to distinguish between good and evil, or that they either commit every kind of sin or that they indulge in any sin to the maximum degree possible. Rather,
total depravity means that the corruption has extended to all aspects of man’s nature, to his entire being; and total depravity means that because of that corruption there is nothing man can do to merit saving favor with God. [Original emphasis]
In The Message of Ephesians, John Stott writes:
The biblical doctrine of ‘total depravity’ means neither that all humans are equally depraved, nor that nobody is capable of any good, but rather that no part of any human person (mind, emotions, conscience, will, etc.) has remained untainted by the fall.
The three citations I have just given are representative of a much larger number. I conclude that (not for the first time) Chalke has been jousting at a man of straw.