This blog is a response to a sermon given by a UMC Bishop. It is not about style, but about substance. For the purposes of full disclosure, I do not know, nor have I ever met, to the best of my knowledge, Bishop Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky. I have no personal grudge against her, nor do I find her to be some sort of horrible person. What I am going to comment on here has to do with the things that she expressed in a sermon that she delivered. You can find the sermon’s text here, and should take the time to read it so that you have some familiarity with the text that I am going to comment on. I also want to say that I have tried to get away from this sort of thing lately, but when I read the Bishop’s sermon, the words of Wesley’s sermon on Original Sin began to echo in my mind, so much so that I immediately went to it to read and make certain that my memory was not playing tricks on me. Let me encourage you to take the time to read Wesley’s sermon linked above as well as I will draw on it heavily in my comments.
To be as frank as I can be, there is so much wrong in this sermon that it will take several postings to get through it all, but the most grievous error is what I want to address first.
“What about creation? In Genesis, we hear of God’s mighty acts of creation out of a void: the heavens, earth, light, dry land, seas. Plants bearing seeds and fruit. Sun and moon to rule the day and the night. ‘Swarms of living creatures,’ sea monsters, winged birds. Land animals: cattle, creeping things, wild animals. Finally, human beings in God’s own image. And after all that creative activity, the Bible reports that God sat back and looked at all of creation, and said, ‘Now THAT is very good.’ How much did God say was good? Everything. Everyone. Anyone.”
Now nothing in the paragraph from the Bishop is inherently false. That is really the danger of it. The context of this however is what makes so such a grievous error. This is used as her defense of a position in the context of the world, and people, still being very good and is simply not at all the case. Keep in mind that this is a Bishop in the United Methodist Church. Earlier in the sermon, the Bishop makes the statement: “I guess that’s why I’m a Methodist. We do not teach that creation is utterly depraved.” Now, to be fair, we do not use the language “utterly depraved”, that much is true, but there is language that we use that points to the same idea. “
Article VII — Of Original or Birth Sin
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” (Articles of Religion United Methodist Church)
Article VII — Sin and Free Will
We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. In his own strength, without divine grace, man cannot do good works pleasing and acceptable to God. We believe, however, man influenced and empowered by the Holy Spirit is responsible in freedom to exercise his will for good.” (Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church)
Nowhere do either of these statements, both of which form the core of United Methodist doctrine and belief, that uses the words “utterly depraved”, but it is pretty clear that what is being said.
In Sermon 44 titled “Original Sin”, John Wesley addresses this very idea. The core text of the sermon comes from Genesis 6:5 “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” That seems to be a fairly clear statement all in all. Take the time to read the sermon. Take the time to compare it to the Bishop’s sermon. Then take the time to ask yourself how far from the movement that changed America have Methodists come. A few other selections from the sermon.
“I am, First, by opening the words of the text, to show what men were before the flood. And we may fully depend on the account here given: For God saw it, and he cannot be deceived. He “saw that the wickedness of man was great:” — Not of this or that man; not of a few men only; not barely of the greater part, but of man in general; of men universally. The word includes the whole human race, every partaker of human nature.”
“Now God saw that all this, the whole thereof, was evil; — contrary to moral rectitude; contrary to the nature of God, which necessarily includes all good; contrary to the divine will, the eternal standard of good and evil; contrary to the pure, holy image of God, wherein man was originally created, and wherein he stood when God, surveying the works of his hands, saw them all to be very good; contrary to justice, mercy, and truth, and to the essential relations which each man bore to his Creator and his fellow-creatures.”
“But was there not good mingled with the evil? Was there not light intermixed with the darkness? No; none at all: “God saw that the whole imagination of the heart of man was only evil.” It cannot indeed be denied, but many of them, perhaps all, had good motions put into their hearts; for the Spirit of God did then also “strive with man,” if haply he might repent, more especially during that gracious reprieve, the hundred and twenty years, while the ark was preparing. But still “in his flesh dwelt no good thing;” all his nature was purely evil: It was wholly consistent with itself, and unmixed with anything of an opposite nature.”
“However, it may still be matter of inquiry, “Was there no intermission of this evil? Were there no lucid intervals, wherein something good might be found in the heart of man?” We are not here to consider, what the grace of God might occasionally work in his soul; and, abstracted from this, we have no reason to believe, there was any intermission of that evil. For God, who “saw the whole imagination of the thoughts of his heart to be only evil,” saw likewise, that it was always the same, that it “was only evil continually;” every year, every day, every hour, every moment. He never deviated into good.”
Really, just read the sermon, every word contradicts what the Bishop set forward in this particular part of her sermon. The idea that we are somehow good is nothing more than self righteous hubris born of the arrogance of man kind. We are not good, God is good. We are not righteous of our own standing, God is righteous and has given provision to restore us, and all of creation, to our original intended state through Christ. Anything to the contrary is teaching that leads us away from Christ, not to Him. This sermon is an illustration of that which many of us have been saying about the United Methodist Church. While it is certain that some of us disagree on matters of human sexuality, but share an otherwise orthodox faith, the far larger problem is that there is a growing segment of the church, as illustrated by the sermon of this Bishop, that are teaching and practicing an entirely different faith with different understandings of human nature, of God, of the purpose of salvation, etc. These are not small matters, these are fundamental to the faith. Did God look at creation and call it good? Yes, he did, then creation, all of it, including us, fell and became so thoroughly corrupted that it is unrecognizable from God’s intention. We are not good outside of God’s grace. We simply are not. The core tenets of the UMC faith say this, the sermons of Wesley say this, the historic Christian faith says this, and in fact, it is one of the few things that the whole of Christendom basically agrees upon. We are not good on our own. Don’t believe me, believe the church. Don’t remember my words, read the words of our founder and our fundamental doctrines.
Now, about that title, let me finish with the words of Wesley, lest you think my condemnation of this sermon is somehow to harsh.
“Hence we may, Secondly, learn, that all who deny this, call it original sin, or by any other title, are put Heathens still, in the fundamental point which differences Heathenism from Christianity. They may, indeed, allow, that men have many vices; that some are born with us; and that, consequently, we are not born altogether so wise or so virtuous as we should be; there being few that will roundly affirm, “We are born with as much propensity to good as to evil, and that every man is, by nature, as virtuous and wise as Adam was at his creation.” But here is the shibboleth: Is man by nature filled with all manner of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen? Is his soul totally corrupted? Or, to come back to the text, is “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart only evil continually?” Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but an Heathen still.”
This is that time when Wesley called a UMC Bishop a heathen.