Are kids "tiny sinners"?
Total depravity, original sin, & Calvin and Hobbes
One reason I love a newsletter is the space for things that don’t fit a sound-bite-style social media platform. Today’s question was a perfect example! Have something you’d like to unpack more? Let me know!
Before I dive in, just want to remind you that the Exploring Affirming Theology Digital Cohort starts Thursday! To join in, you’ll just need to upgrade to paid.
Q: Do you have any verbiage for countering the church’s spin on you are horrible, awful, bad and therefore need God vs. God created you and you are inherently a good and beautiful creation?
So, first I want to point out something really important here: “the church” does not say you are horrible, awful, bad. One camp holds that view, and they are loud, well organized, well funded, and very good at social media. They have a tendency to position themselves as the one right way to be Christian.
But there have always been lots of Christian whose official stance IS that you are inherently a good and beautiful creation (who sins). It’s “you’re a sinner” vs. “you’re a saint who sins”.
So untangling this messaging has two parts. One is about that verbiage. But the other, equally important, is recognizing that one vein of theology is not the be-all-end-all, only right way to think about this.
Fancy Theological Jargon: Original Sin and Total Depravity
To really get to an answer to this excellent question, we need to dive into the deep end with another round of Fancy Theological Jargon.
The sort of perspective you describe has its roots in a theological idea called Original Sin, specifically an understanding of Original Sin that is known as Total Depravity.
The idea is that the Original Sin of Adam and Eve so damaged our humanity that we basically became the opposite of what we were intended to be, inevitably.
This often gets linked up with ideas like
sin gets inherited parent to child (Augustine said sin was passed through semen) and
children are born sinful.
Total Depravity is a specific view on the scope and impact of original sin. It’s one of the five core tenets of Calvinism, which is most commonly found today in Presbyterian, Reformed, and some of the more conservative Baptist and Nondenominational churches.
The main idea is that without Jesus humans are inherently, as you put it, “horrible, awful, and bad”. Or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it (somewhat less concisely, it must be said): “we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.”
These theological doctrines were developed to help understand the brokenness of the world, how humans seem pretty consistent in choosing to act in ways that are contrary to God’s character, and why we need Jesus in the first place.
As with much of the Fancy Theological Jargon thrown around by the Conservative and/or Calvinist wings of the Church, Original Sin and Total Depravity are often made to seem as if they are the Only Way to look at things, that this is just what the Bible says and all Christians have to believe. That these are the only ways to think about Sin, and the only ways to take Sin seriously.
They aren’t, for at least a couple of reasons:
Neither of these terms is in the Bible.
Not even close, actually. In fact, Jewish communities through the time the New Testament was written had no concept of Original Sin at all. Sin and Evil existed in the world. Humans did choose to walk away from God and commit sins. But there was no sense of a hereditary aspect. This idea isn’t in the story of Adam and Eve unless we bring it in from elsewhere.
What about “sinful from birth”?
In Psalm 51:5, David talks about being “sinful” from the time he was conceived. The problem with building a doctrine out of this verse is that the Psalms are poetry, and exaggeration and evocative figures of speech are kinda the point. David is wanting to poetically communicate the depth of the remorse he personally is feeling, not create a theological doctrine for all humans for all time.
What about “slaves to sin”?
Time to look at our friend Paul. In Romans, Paul has a LOT to say about Sin. Like, a LOT. And among the things he wants to say is the reality that all people have sinned. That all are “slaves to Sin”. And, that just as Sin entered the world through Adam, so the power of Sin is broken through Jesus.
What Paul does NOT say is that we inherited Total Depravity from Adam, or that we are incapable of ever doing any good. Saying that all people have sinned is stating a fact; adding a theological explanation for that fact like Original Sin is just that, an add-on, an attempt at explaining why something is the case that may or may not be the correct explanation.
Because in Romans, Paul does not talk about some fundamentally broken, sinful part of our nature that we inherited from Adam. Instead, he talks about Sin as if it were a person, a force that enslaves us, like Pharaoh in Exodus. And, just like the Hebrews in the Exodus, we need someone to break the power of Pharaoh and free us to live as the people God always intended us to be.
In that light:
The problem we have is not our Totally Depraved human nature that needs to be completely replaced.
It’s that the good nature inside us has been deceived, drawn in, and enslaved by Sin.
What Paul means by being slaves to Sin is not that we do bad stuff all the time, but that we have been drawn in by the way the world works and have, without even knowing it, been trapped. Sin is inevitable not because we are sinners, but because we live in a world filled with these sorts of systems, and we go along with them.
So yes, that then makes us “sinners” in the sense that we do selfish, violent, and otherwise-not-aligned-with-the-character-of-God sorts of things. It doesn’t make us “sinners” in the sense that Total Depravity would say.
It’s as the great theologian/tiger Hobbes, from Calvin and Hobbes, says after Calvin asks him whether he thinks babies are born sinful: “No, I just think they’re quick studies”.
Think about a name tag.
The question is: does a child’s name tag say ‘sinner’ or image bearer’? One camp says that a child wears the name tag ‘sinner’ until they accept Jesus. But it is fully aligned with Scripture to say a child is an image bearer most of all. That is their identity.
We are saying our kid is a beloved image bearer who also participates in sin. Our child is not is a ‘tiny sinner’. They are a good kid because God made them so. We are connecting them to the God who made them good.
Your kid and mine will also do wrong things, because the world forms us that way, and we are helping them know that in those moments there are ways we apologize, forgive, mend, extend grace.
There are counterexamples all around us at all times.
There are a lot of people in the world who seem to do a lot of good things, things very much aligned with the character of God, but who are not at all followers of Jesus. Total Depravity has to resort to all sorts of gymnastics to get around this one. Oh, well, they’re doing good things for bad reasons, so they aren’t ACTUALLY good! Total Depravity simply doesn’t describe reality, which is always a good clue that there’s something wrong with your precious theological doctrine.
Original Sin and Total Depravity aren’t helpful, and can be harmful.
If my kid is acting selfishly and I believe in Total Depravity, then the solution is….what, exactly? Get them to pray the prayer real quick to access Jesus magic? Shame them for not living the way God wants? Try and break their sin nature through punishment?
Do you see what just happened there? We started from a doctrine that specifically says that we are incapable of any good outside of the regeneration that by definition can only be brought about BY JESUS, and we ended up trying to make it happen through OUR OWN discipline and punishment. The parenting strategies put forward by some of the Total Depravity crowd simply don’t make any sense within the very framework of Total Depravity.
Kids are learning how to be human.
There are voices out there in the world that will give any number of options for the right way to live, where the good life is found, how to be safe and happy. Often (because this is how the world works) those voices will present options that are fundamentally opposed to the character of God.
As parents, we get to partner with Jesus, in our words and in the way we ourselves live, in showing our kids that a life aligned with God’s character is where true life is found. That Jesus can free us from the systems of living that harm us, other people, and creation.
One pastor talked through all this by putting two identical portraits on display. As he talked about Sin, he painted on one portrait. Layers of paint covered the image, obscured it, and made it impossible to see. But it was there still. Lost, but not damaged.
This is the idea of original blessing. We are, at our core, image bearers. And we will all, because of how life works, participate in sin. The good news is that Jesus comes to wipe the paint off, so to speak. In the resurrection Jesus breaks sin’s power so we can be who we really are. Fully human.