Sin is never essential

Published August 5, 2020

So here is Prager U accidentally saying the quiet part loud about what they really believe about the American experiment:

Image may contain: 1 person, text that says 'accidentally left-wing @accidental_left PragerU 2.7M subscribers Premiered 11 hours ago SUBSCRIBE Young people are enamored with "anti-racist" rhetoric because they think they are fighting racist systems in America. The TRUTH is they are fighting America itself and the very values the country was founded on. Dennis identifies the best thing we can do to help.'

Cardinal George of Chicago once remarked that in America, everybody is a Calvinist, including all the Catholics.

He was kidding, of course. But he was also on to something: namely, that Catholic culture is like tofu. It tends to take on the taste and smell of the culture in which it is immersed. America is, both for good and ill, a Calvinist and post-Calvinist culture, including its atheists. It retains its sense of Puritan mission even when it no longer worships the Puritan’s god. We are convinced we are a city on a hill. We are certain we always know what’s best for everybody. And we resent being told to repent our sins because that interrupts us when we were just about to tell everybody else to repent ours. We retain the Calvinist believe that sins is sexual, not financial or monetary. And that extends even to sins of owning other people.

The taint of Calvinism doesn’t just stink up Catholic culture. There are Jewish Calvinists too, like Prager.

The theological mark (and error) of Calvinism is belief in “total depravity”. This is the conviction that sin is the constituting fact about the human person rather than the fact that they are made in the image and likeness of God. That is what lies (in every sense of the word) behind Prager’s remark here. Because what he is saying is not that sin is a tragic reality of our history, but rather that sin is an *essential* reality of our history–that it is not merely normal, but necessary.

There is nothing in Judaism, which does not even have a doctrine of original sin, that necessitates saying this. And there is, of course, nothing in apostolic Christian theology that requires it. On the contrary, Catholic anthropology emphatically rejects the idea that sin is ever necessary. As James says:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.

Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (James 1:13-18)

Theologically, the idea that God creates us to be sinners or makes us sin or commit evil is to say that God does evil. The faith rejects this. God is good. God is love. He wills our good.

But when we do evil by, among other things, enslaving people and profiting for centuries by it, it becomes fatally easy for us to start lying that the evil things we do are not evil but part of the Grand Design that God blesses and that to attack this Structure of Sin is to attack God and his will that our victims suffer so that we can be blessed.

All of which is to say that Prager’s grotesque insistence that racism is a constitutive virtue and not the original sin of the American founding against which every American is bound to fight is a lie.

39 Responses

    1. Calvin in fact thought that sin was so bad because it is an attack on the most basic fact that man is created in the image of God. He claims we all know this and it is our sin that causes us to deny it. Mark reverses Calvin’s position.

    2. The greatest Calvinist theologian America produced was BB Warfield. His parents were abolitionists. He opposed slavery and Jim Crow. Really this post should be put into the Orwellian memory hole.

      1. Good for him. Too bad a ton of Calvinists have, throughouot US history, used Calvinism as a excuse for acquiesence to all kinds of racism and sin.

      2. There are plenty of Catholics who have used their theology to justify slavery and racism as well. It wasn’t that long ago that the church in the South ran segregated schools

    3. Mark says calivinists don’t believe in repentance. That’s a lie. Calvin said repentance proceeds forgiveness.

      Mark you are making a fool out of yourself. STFU

      1. Oh my goodness. STFU should be reserved for dire necessity.

        Curious, are you an ex-Calvinist?

      2. Mark writes a post claiming that Calvinists believe certain things and that the things they supposedly believe have had a bad effect on US history.

        When I point out that Calvinists don’t teach what he claims they teach he proudly admits that he has never read anything by John Calvin and has never read a systematic theology of major Calvinist. He then doubles down by saying Calvinism (which again he doesn’t know anything about) is “repellant”. Not only that he attacks Calvinists as horrible people.

        This sure seems like a STFU moment to me

    4. I’m talking about the pop Calvinism that still dominate a ton of American culture with its protestant work ethic, its obsessions with sexual evils and its blind eye to the alleged “pluck” and “thrift” and “smart business” that has given America a Christian conservative culture that now falls down in slavish adoration of an obscenely wealth Mob Boss and declares him as Chosen a figure as King David. The only sins that culture (kind of) cares about are his sexual ones. But because it adores Mammon so deeply, it gives even those a pass because at the end of the day, power and wealth are not dangers to the soul, but proof of God’s favor for it.

      1. Can you name a single contemporary Calvinist who beleives what you attribute to these ideas/.

  1. The one thing that I always really appreciated about you, Mark, is that, unlike many other protestant converts of your generation, you actually understood that it was a conversion, and not just protestantdenominationX plus the authority of the church plus some kind of national exceptionalism.

  2. Can you point to more resources about America and American Catholicism being calvinist? I’ve heard this a little before and I find it fascinating. I’ve also heard this from some European Catholic friends who obviously have a different take on Catholicism.

    1. I’ve also heard that the American Church has a strong Jansenist (which seems to be the Catholic version of Calvinism) influence that came via the Irish-dominated hierarchy – the Irish Church having gotten it from French Catholicism where Jansenism originated.

  3. Is there some background we are missing? I do not read the quote from Prager U to be saying that racism is a constitutive virtue. To the contrary, he seems to be saying that the country is basically depraved. This takes nothing away from your theological points, just that they do not talk to this instance.

      1. It looks like it’s talking about a certain “anti racist” ideology which the author apparently thinks is different from being opposed to racism per se

  4. According to Mark Calvinists believe sin is sexual and not economic or financial. Calvin in fact supported laws against usury and most Calvinist theologians have agreed with him.

  5. Mark, have you read Calvin’s Institutes? Have you read the systematic theologies of Turentin, Shedd, Dabney, Hodge, Berkhof, bavink, and in our day Frame and Horton? Have you read the systematic theologies of moderate Calvinists such as Millard Erickson?

    1. No. I fled Calvinism when I first encounter Calvinists. Terrifying, cold, appalling people whose lived witness sickened and repelling me. Having vomited the first spoonful of rat poison, one does not beg to taste the rest of the banquet. Since that time, I have met Calvinists whose personal goodness overcame their loathsome theology. But Calvinism remains for me what it has always been: repellent.

      1. If you’ve never read any Calvinism them how come you think it’s ok to comment on “pop calvinism”? I’m not a dispensationalist, but the only reason I can comment on Hal Lindsey’s ‘pop dispensationalism’ is because I’ve read the real thing.

  6. Mark:

    ________________

    It retains its sense of Puritan mission even when it no longer worships the Puritan’s god. We are convinced we are a city on a hill. We are certain we always know what’s best for everybody. And we resent being told to repent our sins because that interrupts us when we were just about to tell everybody else to repent ours. We retain the Calvinist believe that sins is sexual, not financial or monetary. And that extends even to sins of owning other people.

    _______________

    Calvin and his followers don’t believe sin is entirely sexual. According to Calvinism, sin affects our nature in all respects – the mind, the heard, our relationship with others. I have no idea where you got that.

    The idea that American “do-gooderism” in foreign policy has a Calvinist component is certainly possible. However it could be a coincidence – New England was until not too long ago the center of American thinking and New Englanders had ancestors who were Calvinists (John Dewey for example).

  7. Here is Calvinist theologian Charles Hodge explaining sin:

    ______________________________________________

    Whatever is variable and limited in its manifestations; whatever is found in some men and not in others, we attribute to peculiar and limited causes, but what is universal and controlling is uniformly referred to the nature of man. Some of these universally manifested modes of action among men are referrible to the essential attributes of their nature, as reason and conscience. The fact that all men perform rational actions is a clear proof that they are rational creatures; and the fact that they perform moral actions is proof that they have a moral nature. Other universal modes of action are referred not to the essential attributes of human nature, but to its present abiding state. That all men seek ease and self-indulgence and prefer themselves to others, is not to be attributed to our nature as men, but to our present state. As the fact that all men perform moral actions is proof that they have a moral nature, so the fact that such moral action is always evil, or that all men sin from the earliest development of their powers, is a proof that their moral nature is depraved. It is utterly inconsistent with all just ideas of God that He created man with a nature which with absolute uniformity leads him to sin and destruction; or that He placed him in circumstances which inevitably secure his ruin. The present state of human nature cannot therefore be its normal and original condition. We are a fallen race. Our nature has become corrupted by our apostasy from God, and therefore every imagination (i.e., every exercise) of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually. See also Gen. viii. 21. This is the Scriptural and the only rational solution of the undeniable fact of the deep, universal, and early manifested sinfulness of men in all ages, of every class, and in every part of the world.

  8. “Racism is so American that when you protest it people think you are protesting America.”
    – sign seen at a recent BLM protest

  9. Mark says:
    _____________

    The theological mark (and error) of Calvinism is belief in “total depravity”. This is the conviction that sin is the constituting fact about the human person rather than the fact that they are made in the image and likeness of God.

    _______________

    Actually the term ‘total depravity’ doesn’t appear in the Calvinist confessions. Many Calvinists (such as John Frame) reject the term because it implies that people are as bad as they could be. Most people aren’t Hitler. They prefer the term “total inability.” Unless you are a Pelagian you’ve got to agree that you can’t “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

    1. @Joe James:

      Actually the term ‘total depravity’ doesn’t appear in the Calvinist confessions. Many Calvinists (such as John Frame) reject the term because it implies that people are as bad as they could be. Most people aren’t Hitler. They prefer the term “total inability.”

      Yes, and when I was – for 25 years – a Calvinist, some fellow Calvinists talked about ‘common grace’ – meaning, as you say, that people aren’t as bad as they could be. But, I was told – and I think I recall (it’s a long time ago now – I became a Catholic in 1995) seeing this in the Institutes, which I read twice – I was told that our every action is tainted by sin.

  10. @Mark, I tend to agree. Prosperity theology is an extension of the Puritan work ethic built on the notion that God blesses one with riches for their own hard work. That sense of blessing either from God or from ‘fate’ then justifies the exploitation of others. Usually the poor and disenfranchised whose own hard work reaps nothing.

  11. The devil hates beauty, art, culture, and effusive love. Puritanism isn’t Godly, It sucks the marrow out of God given gifts.

    For people who don’t care for a lecture on the subject, I recommend the film Babette’s Feast –which illustrates what happens when we fall for the caricature and try to be more holy than Jesus Christ.

  12. Mark, an example of your main point was a song by Father Carey Landry, a singing Catholic priest who did a number of catchy tunes about 40-50 years ago (eg, “Abba Father”, “Gentle Woman”. I heard him in concert at a young age and am 95% certain that one of his songs had the line “A man to America once was hurled/ God’s new plan to make the world…” I can’t find this on the internet, but it would make sense if it was written in the early Reagan/ Moral Majority era, even by a Catholic priest.
    That was back when American Catholics were chiding American Protestants for being lukewarm on abortion (Southern Baptists accepting Roe v Wade etc) when instead it was THE number one theological/ human rights issue of all time. (“Mother Theresa said it was the measure to judge a society by! Even if that makes Ceausescu’s Romania a more just society than America or Britain!”). Ironically, the wheel has come full circle and American Catholics now have to explain to American Protestants that abortion is only one human rights among many that make up the Seamless Garment.
    Calvinist Protestants: Think how you feel when you hear the word “Inquisition”. Can you ever get past your initial reaction to assess on its merits one of those “The Inquisition Wasn’t Really That Bad” arguments that the Catholic blogosphere puts out every few weeks? Hard, isn’t it? Well, that’s how Catholics and Arminian Protestants react when you say “Calvinism”, Try a different term, like “The Romans 9 Project”.

  13. Its always nice to read christians telling other christians they are not the right sort of christian. It just goes to prove the point that I have made many, many times. People always, always create their God in their own image.

    But for the record, im on your side, mark.

    Mostly.

  14. Actually, I’ve had time to rethink what I wrote earlier. I’m not going to change it, but I do want to add to it. I had to consider your title: “sin is never essential“.

    I’m going to put that in the form of a syllogism. If it’s sin, then it is not essential. The Contrapositive of that statement is: if it is essential, then it is not a sin. The contrapositive of the syllogism and the syllogism have exactly the same truth value. If one is true, then the other is true.

    The whole argument then devolves into a matter of opinion as to what is essential and what is not. For is it not written, “one man’s fish is another man’s poisson”?

    The question is legitimate, even if the pun is not.

  15. In a sense, most of the replies here seem to be reinforcing your QED

    In my experience here, in Britain, the ‘Calvinist’ frame of reference tends to be anally-retentive, literalist which completely lacks any self-awareness and can’t grasp anything subtle or the underlying meaning of things. Everything has to be ‘in-your-face’/empirical (seeing is believing), or a product of proof-texts: which, to me, seem to make it more Enlightenment than Christian (and how the Enlightenment seems most likely a child of the Reformation than simply ‘man coming of age’).

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