Last month’s Bible study column began our study “God helps those who help themselves,” and it revealed an old theological debate: Do human beings need to be reborn, or do we simply need to be improved? Our study of both Romans 5:12-17 and church history led us to the conclusion that this popular statement does not reflect correct teaching; when it comes to our salvation, sin leaves us unable to help ourselves.
Our study continues this month in conversation with both Brethren theology and a popular hymn, before moving to some final thoughts.
Dale Brown addresses sin and salvation in his book Another Way of Believing, noting that the question of original sin is not one that Brethren have extensively debated. When pressed on this, many Anabaptists and Pietists simply adopted the position defended by Augustine in the fourth century.
William Beahm (long ago dean and professor of theology at Bethany Biblical Seminary) was one Brethren writer who did address these topics. In his book Studies in Christian Belief, Beahm describes the difference between sin (something inherent to our identity) and sins (actions that are offensive to God), ultimately affirming the position outlined by Augustine:
“Sin is a problem at the center of the self, not merely of specific external acts. Tinkering with these acts is ineffective unless and until the heart is changed” (135).
But if this discussion sounds unfamiliar to Brethren, it might be because we have spent much more time defining faith in terms of following Jesus—focusing our thoughts on issues after “the heart is changed.” Brethren love taglines like “For the glory of God and our neighbor’s good” and “Continuing the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together.”
Interestingly, our taglines show that we are concerned with the same questions of spiritual transformation and ethical behavior that prompted Pelagius (a theologian who was declared a heretic in AD 418) to begin thinking about the nature of salvation. Even though we reject Pelagius’ conclusions, these are necessary questions to consider.
What about our own souls?
Our practical natures might tempt us to remain somewhat uninspired by technical sounding theological questions. But it is helpful to remember that we are called to love God with our minds. Since theological statements on human nature are all around us—especially in our hymns—it is good to ponder these topics.
One such hymn is “Amazing Grace.” Congregations that use the 1951 “red hymnal” are familiar with the phrase “Amazing Grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a man like me.” Those who use the current “blue hymnal” sing the hymn’s original lyrics: “Amazing Grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
The 1951 hymnal committee’s revision of the first line is a significant theological choice, one that changes the hymn’s meaning. Never minding the red hymnal’s non-inclusive language (something we weren’t thinking much about in 1951), what is the difference between “a man (or woman) like me” and “a wretch like me”?
For the hymn’s author, John Newton, the difference was stark. As a young man who served on both merchant and slave ships, Newton had a reputation for being an offensively crude man in settings where crude behavior was the norm. His own journals describe his mistreatment of the slaves he transported, strongly implying in his own words that rape was part of this mistreatment.
Life on a ship in those days was filled with personal danger as well, and Newton had several near-death experiences while on board. Furthermore, the times he spent in captivity were severe; John Newton was well acquainted with great suffering and hunger.
These specific life experiences—and the transformation that followed—greatly informed the lyrics of “Amazing Grace,” including the unavoidable spiritual condition implied in the word “wretch.” A problem with the phrase “a man like me” is that it leaves the issue of our spiritual state to our own opinion and ultimately moves toward the Pelagianism the church ultimately rejected: “I might not be perfect, but I’m not that bad, either.”
Ultimately, this is the danger with the statement “God helps those who help themselves” and why a seemingly harmless statement masks such bad theology. It lulls us into a false sense of believing that we don’t need to depend on God for spiritual transformation and can instead will our way into a right relationship with God.
Implications for living
But what of the idea that I raised at the end of last month’s column—are people basically good?
Each of us can attest to a basic kindness and dignity in the people around us. Many community groups—not only churches—are involved in “helping your neighbor” types of outreach. People shovel snow and set out the trash for elderly neighbors. Strangers stop to assist when our car breaks down on the side of the road. Examples like these and many more do attest to a basic goodness in people.
But the more “wretched” side of humanity is there. In recent years, our culture’s veneer of decency has been removed, revealing troubling things we might otherwise have ignored. Drug companies hid evidence of the powerful addictive nature of opioids, causing thousands of persons to become desperately addicted. Black Lives Matter advocates point out how life is different in their neighborhoods, forcing others to realize the challenges and dangers in police encounters with black individuals. Politicians increasingly use racially motivated language to create fear about entire groups of people, even when statistics show the specific accusations are not warranted. Debates about abortion rage, seeming to either minimize the love by which God creates and nurtures human life or ignore those who must bear the consequences of pregnancy, depending on who is making the argument.
While I am regularly humbled by displays of kindness and decency all around, I do not believe that such displays negate the spiritual brokenness that exists within each of us, a brokenness that corrupts our relationships with God, our neighbor, and creation. The idea that “God helps those who help themselves” sounds wonderful. But in the end I believe we are too biased in our own favor to ultimately get at the root of our separation from God, and we must rely on the gift of grace found in Jesus.
I have no doubt that Brethren will continue giving good attention to what life in Christ looks like. But along the way we should not lose sight of the fact that we once were lost, but now are found; blind, but now we see.
Both theology texts mentioned here, William Beahm’s Studies in Christian Belief and Dale Brown’s Another Way of Believing, give good treatment to basic theological topics from a Brethren perspective. Brown’s is available from Brethren Press. Beahm’s book is available in text format online for free at Archive.org or from Brethren Historical Library and Archives for $16, postpaid. Contact BHLA by email or call 847-742-5100 ext 368. You'll get the book AND support the work of BHLA!
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.
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