Skip to content

Depravity and Divinity

October 4, 2007

During my final year of seminary I took an elective seminar course called Theological Anthropology. It was a great class and I learned a lot. It was especially great because the study of theological anthropology was a passion for our professor, Dr. Damayanthi Niles (a brilliant mind in her own right, but also known as the granddaughter of the famous Methodist theologian D.T. Niles).



Theological anthropology, in simplest terms, really means a theology of human nature in relation to God. (Theology, like all sciences, spends a lot of time putting relatively simple concepts into fancy five-dollar terminology. Or as liked to say during class, taking ideas everybody can understand and putting them into language nobody can understand).



The fun came in class presentation and discussion. Graduates from Eden tend to fall into one of two broad theological camps: those who are roughly neo-orthodox and those who are roughly process theologians. I tend to lean toward the process side, but neo-orthodoxy provides some important correctives and plugs some holes for me. (My friend Josh leans the other way; he’s neo-orthodox but process thought plugs some holes for him).



Anyway, the biggest insight from that class for me came in this form: all theology begins with theological anthropology. Even when we begin by talking about God we begin with the question of how God is either like or not like a person. On the flip side of that coin, we begin our talk of human nature in terms of imago dei (how the human being is imbued with the image of God) and the fall (how the human being is imbued with sin).



Neo-orthodox theologians tend to focus more sharply on the fall than the imago dei when describing humanity. Process theologians tend to speak more commonly of incarnation and imago dei. Are they often saying the same thing, simply looking at the same diamond from a different aspect? Maybe sometimes. Some argue that process has a “high” theological anthropology while neo-orthodox has a “low” anthropology, but I think that mischaracterizes both positions to a certain extent.



But it is at that crossroads I make my choice. And the problem isn’t that I disagree with a Calvinist view of total depravity. No, the problem is that deep down inside I agree too strongly with it. I’m really good at seeing the worst in people, especially myself. For me, too often the question isn’t whether a given person is a jerk, it’s “in what way is that person a jerk?”



I didn’t need Calvin or Barth or Niebuhr to teach me about depravity and brokenness. I’m down with depravity and brokenness. Way down with it. One could even say that I’m clinically down with it. Some neo-orthodox theologians argue that this deep distrust of humans necessarily leads to a deeper trust in God alone. I disagree. Such deep distrust leaves me cold, hopeless and afraid.



A more process anthropology was a real balm in Gilead for me. I needed to balance my robust theology of brokenness and depravity with something that gave me hope. I believe in the unconditional love of God who creates us in God’s image and offers hope to the world through our incarnational moments, not because I want to; but because I need to. Without a God who seeks to be discerned and experienced, who calls upon us to respond, who invites us into moments of pure transformation, I’m not sure I could believe in a God at all. I needed and discovered a God who never gives up on me no matter how broken I am, no matter how hopeless I feel, no matter how poor my discernment or how pitiful my choices.



My theology of depravity and brokenness had to be tempered with a theology of potential. I have to believe that we can incarnate God in the present moment – that we have the potential to do so even though we’re not very good at it. Without the potential for moments of divinity, a lifetime of depravity means nothing to me. With said potential, I find motivation to become; to engage in a lifestyle of sanctification; to practice the presence of God; and to take seriously God’s call to be the hands, feet and voice of God in my tiny corner of the world when I can.



In all truth, I’m not really a process theologian. Damayanthi told me, “Willie, you’re really a Wesleyan theologian who likes process thought, not a process theologian who likes Wesley. There is a difference.” And she was right. Her course helped me find a balance between depravity and divinity that gave me trust in the goodness of God, made me savor the sweetness of grace, gave me motivation to live out my salvation, and gives me a passion that I can preach.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. permalink
    October 4, 2007 9:21 am

    The balance of seeing both the depravity and divine in the individual and humanity as a whole is certainly an interesting dilemma. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and honesty of your struggle and conclusions.

  2. layman Erik permalink
    October 4, 2007 11:24 pm

    Now I’m depressed.

    But on a more serious note, if you ever wonder in what ways I am a jerk, just ask. I’ll provide a list.

  3. October 6, 2007 5:51 am

    Asbury takes an entirely different approach to theological education. I’m not sure if I’m being well served by it. Students are explicitly taught to be Wesleyans, and are taught Patristics, Aquinas, and the Reformers. But we really don’t address anything after 1800, except people like Willimon and Hauerwas. I’m not sure if I could give a coherent definition of Neo-orthodoxy or process theology because we only (at most) glance at it here at Asbury. We don’t read Barth, Tillich, Bultmann, etc. Not even a little bit.

  4. October 6, 2007 9:36 am

    Whoa, John… I’m not sure if you’re being well served by it, either. I read Barth, Tillich, and Bultmann in undergrad! I wasn’t a religion major, but I took Makers of Modern Christian Theology, which was well worth the experience.

  5. October 6, 2007 1:24 pm

    Maybe. But I don’t want to tempt the powers that be to increase the size of the M.Div. 96 hours is enough.

  6. October 6, 2007 8:27 pm


    I have not really read much of your stuff before, but jumped over after John’s goat topics looking for a funny song. What I found was a post that takes those “5 dollar” words and makes them understandable to the lay individuals reading your blog. Thanks for the insight into some of the struggles that I am sure a great deal of us face. I now can put a theological term to the struggle between total depravity and God’s pre-eminent grace… Confusion

    We are what Satan wants, confused, but through the grace of God, we see through the lies to be more than the depraved sinners we are.


  7. October 6, 2007 8:44 pm

    Thanks, folks. What I find in my struggles is that human beings, at our best, can discern a little bit of God’s will and wishes for our lives and with God’s help can move a little bit closer to it. But even with such great potential, we are one horrible circumstance from “The Lord of the Flies.”

    I do find it interesting that John’s education has largely ignored 20th century theology. Even if one chooses to reject it, it should be seriously engaged. Barth’s works are structured like and closely follow Calvin’s Institutes, but his work takes into consideration the philosophical and scientific changes that took place between Calvin’s time and his own. And you’re not really going to understand Willimon and Hauerwas if you don’t (to some extent) get Barth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: