By L. Alfred James
Is theology really all that important?
Isn’t the study of biblical doctrine just the concoction of airy-fairy spiritual notions that have nothing to do with everyday life?
Not at all. The greatest proof of the practical nature of theology can be found in the real-world implications of what we believe about human nature.
The Bible tells us that, because of the fall of Adam and Eve, human nature has become corrupt (Romans 5:18-19). Therefore, David said, “No man living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143: 2); Solomon announced, “There is no man who does not sin” (1 Kings 8: 46); and Jeremiah lamented that the human heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).
This doctrine has enormously practical ramifications. If you believe what the Bible says about human nature it will have a huge impact on your political philosophy, on what you think will improve society, and on how you parent your children.
Law and Government
Those who reject the Bible—and believe that human beings are naturally good—are typically very open to expanding governmental control. Indeed, many secular humanists are striving mightily to bring all of mankind under the authority of a unified one-world government. And, on their view, this makes sense. Since humanity is good by nature, utopia is within our reach. We just need to increase the amount of authority the government has over citizens. That way, the scientists and other experts will have the power they need (through government agencies) to make society into a paradise.
But if you believe that human beings are inclined towards evil, you will be wary of giving any person or any group complete authority. Even a good king has a sinful nature. This is why the founders of the United States created a system of “checks and balances,” including term limits for presidents and members of congress and the three-branch-system of government. They knew that human nature was bent on selfishness so it must be restrained.
Those who believe that human beings are naturally good also tend to think that we can improve society by changing the environment that people live in. On their view, it is bad environments that produce thieves, rapists, liars, and murderers. “Let’s give people free money, healthcare, and education. That will improve their self-esteem and make them better human beings.”
According to this line of thinking, when irresponsible young men impregnate irresponsible young women, the problem is not a lack of responsibility, it is a lack of education. They sincerely believe that teen pregnancy only proves how more sex education (and better access to condoms) is needed.
However, on a biblical view, education is not the answer. It is not a lack of knowledge that leads young men to impregnate young women (and then abandon them). Do we really think that these guys and girls never learned where babies come from? No. The real problem is a lack of self-control because human nature is prone to run wild.
Parents who believe that human beings are naturally good will not feel the need to be vigilant about their children’s habits and character. They will not see much need to discipline their kids nor to teach them how to be good. “Aren’t children naturally innocent and good? Why would you teach someone to do what comes naturally?” They believe that people become evil completely from society’s influence, not from the internal sinfulness of the human heart.
These are the households that are often controlled by the children. All the kids need to do is cry loud enough, throw a fit big enough, and then they get their way right away. Since mom and dad think the kid is naturally good, they see no problem with obeying his every beck and call. Consequently, the parents are always exhausted and struggle with feelings of resentment toward their children. And the children are never forced to learn self-control.
Those with a biblical view see their children as little sinners. Yes, they are beautiful creatures, made in the image of God. But they are also sinners afflicted with an evil streak, bent on self-fulfillment at any cost. These parents strive tirelessly to discipline and instruct their children. They know that their kids will not be motivated to learn self-control unless they are forced to face the consequences of their choices.
As you can see, your beliefs about human nature are hugely important. Do not ever think that theology is impractical. Your theology affects you deeply, in ways you don’t even realize. It will determine your politics, direct your efforts to improve society, and guide your parenting philosophy. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
But there is no area it affects more directly than your relationship with God and your spiritual growth. It is no surprise that Paul said he was the “worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). He knew how wicked his own heart was and how much sin there still remained inside of him. As C.S. Lewis put it:
When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)