Beginnings 2 (RJS)

In the second chapter of his book Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives Peter Bouteneff discusses the uses of the creation narrative in the New Testament. The most important New Testament references are in the Pauline literature – which Bouteneff takes to include Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians.  He considers the Pastoral epistles separately.

Paul was an educated Jew of his day and he uses the scriptures in a method entirely consistent with Second Temple Judaism – although his conclusions are distinctively Christian.  He now reads the scripture through the lens of his Damascus Road experience and the corporate experience of the early Christians.  Bouteneff notes:

To Paul – the first Christian interpreter of the OT – the Scriptures speak of, anticipate, typologize, reveal,  Christ, and him crucified. In effect, Paul takes the spectrum of Jewish hermeneutical methods – literal, allegorical, midrashic – and uses these instruments in a completely new way. In so doing, he says things that are revolutionary to the Jews, but in a language and framework very much their own. (p. 36)

One of the revolutionary developments in Paul deals with sin and redemption.  It is suggested by some that  a more traditional Jewish reading sees “sin as an act that can be repented of but Paul sees it as a condition from which we are freed and redeemed in Christ.”  Paul uses the creation narratives to tell this story of redemption.

Bouteneff suggests that Paul’s use of the creation narratives in general and of Adam in particular is  first and foremost Christ-centered.  Paul did not start with a problem (sin) and look for a solution (Christ). He started with Christ and looked for ways to express the glory of the gospel of Christ in his day, age, and context. Col. 1:15-17, 1 Cor. 8:6 are key here – Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, all things have been created through Him, by Him, and for Him, in Him all things hold together, and we exist through Him. This theme is not limited to Paul, and is also seen in Hebrews 1:2 and John 1:3.  This Christ-centered focus in Paul must be recalled when reading both Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 15.

For his starting point and focus are not finally sin (which is old news) but rather that which was new: Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior.  Paul does nothing less than define the direction and the sequence, as it were, of Christian reflection on Christ. This direction is not the one commonly associated with Christianity, namely, a kind of chronological sequence from a perfect pre-fallen state, to a one-event calamitous fall, and then to salvation that comes in 33 CE. It is a sequence that begins with Christ himself: rather than Adam being a model or image for humanity or even the first human being, it is Christ who is both. Christ is the first true human being, and Christ is the image of God and the model for Adam. (45)

When Paul focuses on Adam it is as an individual, but this is because he is developing a biblically based understanding of Christ. Adam is the primordial individual from whom all descend.  He is the only suitable figure for describing the universal nature of redemption through Christ of Jew and Gentile alike.  As man of dust he is the contrast to Christ, the life-giving spirit. But, for Paul, Adam was made for Christ – not Christ for Adam.

It seems clear that Paul’s view of the OT is centered in Christ. Adam is not the significant figure – Christ is the significant figure and the central figure in a Christian reading of history and a Christian reading of the Jewish scripture. The Western church however has read Romans 5 with Adam responsible for original sin, corrupting the nature of all who follow. This reading makes Adam the central figure – or so it seems to me. And this leads to a question I would like to address.

Is Original Sin a legitimate reading of Paul? Is this doctrine of Original Sin consistent with a Christo-centric reading of scripture? Why or why not?

Bouteneff, coming from an Orthodox perspective, suggests that the traditional Western view of original sin is a distortion – “The idea of “original sin” as a causal factor lies not with Paul but with Jerome and, on the basis of Jerome’s translation, with Augustine.(41)”

What do you think?

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  • Scott M

    There were many reasons I never found ‘original sin’ either likely or reasonable as I came into Christianity. One of the first and earliest, though, were the questions it necessarily raises about the relationship between God and infants and children. I don’t particularly care how you answer or address the question. I had issues with any idea that raised them in the first place. It also led to parents speaking (to me) oddly about the nature of children. It was also never the natural way the narrative read to me.
    In this instance, first by studying the almost universal opinion of all Christian writers for the first thousand years (the natural direction given my interest in ancient history) and then much more recently discovering modern Orthodox theology (which hasn’t changed in any significant way from those writings, but is phrased in more modern parlance), the underpinnings supporting my rejection of the idea of original sin came after my intuitive rejection of it. Ancestral sin and Christus Victor were pretty much the sole themes for the first thousand years or so of Christianity.

  • Scott M

    I will also point out that as soon as you remove the concept of transmitted guilt from the equation, there is no theological problem with looking at the Adam as an archetype for the source or fount or head of humanity when humanity was by nature tied to death and thus to sin. Jesus then becomes the new source (or head or fount) for mankind, a source of life. Thus it is no longer the nature of man to die. In addition to removing the problems that are introduced if you try to consider ‘Adam’ as a particular human being through whom guilt is transmitted (via seminal reasons – Augustine) to each and every direct descendant, it’s also a more natural and straightforward reading of Paul. And it’s a reading that fits with Hebrews. It’s really not even a question or debate for me. I compare one idea to the reality I perceive and scripture and it fits without contortions or distortions or effort. The other twists everything into shapes that seem bizarre to me.

  • RJS

    Scott M,
    Do you think that sin is “an act that can be repented of” or “a condition from which we are freed and redeemed in Christ”?
    I think that part of the logic of “original sin” is establishing a cause for the condition from which we are freed and redeemed in Christ. Without original sin aren’t we left with a condition for which God is to blame – after all he made us that way?

  • art

    It should be noted that the idea of ‘original sin’ is a Christian understanding of Paul’s theology, and a Western Christian understanding at that. The idea of ‘original sin’ is not a doctrine within Judaism, either ancient or modern. It should not be surprising, then, that a book dealing with ancient interpretations of Gen 1-3 is critical of the idea of ‘original sin.’
    With that said, there are other doctrines that are not prevalent in either the Torah or in the entire OT, such as the idea of an afterlife or an understanding of the Trinity, that the NT seems to clearly teach. Perhaps ‘original sin’ belongs in that category.

  • RJS

    I have no final conclusion in my mind yet – I’m thinking. I don’t think that we can put Original Sin in the same category as Trinity and afterlife though.
    Both the Trinity and the afterlife are creedal and in very early baptismal creedal statements at that. Original sin is not in the mix until very late, and is certainly not in the “universal” creeds.
    Afterlife is prevalent throughout the NT and Mk 12:24-27 places it directly in the context of the teachings of Jesus.

  • Scott M


  • Scott M

    Sin is no

  • Rod

    I take exception to the arguments presented in this post. I believe that we do not have to read “Christ” in to the Old Testament. In fact, if you could tell me where I can find Christ in Judges 19-21, that would definitely make my day. The Old Testament, whether in the form of the Septuagint or the Hebrew text before the MT, or the Targums, was sufficient enough for the priests to teach the law of God. Granted, some of the Old Testament, especially the LXX points towards a Messiah, but the messiah is not the center of the text.
    I have accepted the doctrine of original sin because it is, as one of the Neibuhr brothers said, is the only verifiable Christian doctrine. It is hard for me to find Jesus in Yahweh’s commands to destroy other nations (I do find those commands to be the word of God; I am only making the point a Christo-centric interpretation difficult in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Judges, for me at least).
    I understand original sin, not as a biologically passed on curse, but as something that exists as a reality a person is born into, that penetrates all of creation. I am only beginning to scatch the surface of these conclusions, but I am open to dialogue.

  • RJS

    Scot didn’t write the post – I did. What he thinks we’ll see.
    Paul saw Christ in the old testament, and began to interpret the OT from this perspective. Certainly the early church followed in his footsteps.
    How could we take a Christian perspective of history and a Christian perspective of the workings of God in history and not read the OT with these eyes?
    It seems to me that the solution to the hard passages of the OT is not to put a dividing line in the text, but to wrestle with proper approach to the text in general, with particular not of context, type of literature, and the progression of history.

  • Joel

    Is God to blame? It seems that underlying all the opposition to evolution and insistence on a historical “fall” there is this idea that original sin lets God off the hook. Perhaps the only way to create truly free creatures was to allow life to evolve to the point where we can choose to follow our Creator. Maybe there is no hook.

  • Luke

    I would like to see some type of history of the doctrine of “original sin.” I have always had trouble with the doctrine, not because it bothers me (even though I have come to find that it does), but just because it seems so foreign to the scriptures and is based upon about two obscure Pauline proof-texts.
    My understanding is that the doctrine started with Augustine in the 5th century A.D. Five centuries after Christ walked the earth, after Paul died, and after the closing of the canon really doesn’t rest well with me. According to the rhetoric of some (mainly reformed), then those who had no understanding of it until the 5th century weren’t Christians, since the doctrine is so “foundational” to Christian theology.
    I would like to see a history of how the doctrine came about, what the difference is between the western and eastern understandings of it, what many modern Christians (both reformed and non-reformed) today think about it, examples of modern Christians who deny it, if it’s bogus then why does everybody sin (i.e. if it’s not inherited, then why does everybody do it, why do babies die?), etc.
    This would help me immensely in my understanding of the doctrine. Scot refers to “cracked eikons,” and this seems to be somewhat synonymous with it, but I just can’t get past the fact that it seems to be more environmental rather than genetic, inherited, and biological. I have a tough time saying that God creates mistakes, wretched sinners from the moment of conception destined to hell. This anthropology just seems evil and whacked out to me, yet it’s what most Christians believe. I don’t doubt anybody’s need for a savior b/c I believe all sin, I just don’t know if it’s inherited. I don’t see the big deal in my understanding, but many would claim I’m heterodox and borderline un-Christian because of it.

  • Rob

    why can I only see comments 1-4, or 7-11??? This is frustrating!

  • Rod

    My apologies for addressing the wrong person.
    I do not know what you mean by one “putting a dividing line” in the text. Could you explain that point?
    I understand that we Christians cannot completely escape our theological preferences and historical context. However, we can try to attempt to understand the biblical narrative on the texts’ terms and not just use it for our own prooftexts.
    My point of bringing up the difficult texts as many people call them was to show that Christ just cannot be found in some texts in the Old Testament. These passages may show our sinful, violent ways, but there is no foreshadowing of a Messiah.

  • RJS

    Beliefnet had some real problems this afternoon – but they seem to be fixed now (I hope).
    Every text doesn’t foreshadow Christ – but the story is one with Christ at the center. If the Bible is a text relating God’s interaction with his creation, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a pivotal event – then we need to interpret the story in light of this event don’t we?.
    At time people have tried to separate the OT and NT, and I think that is a mistake. But proof-texting is also always a mistake.

  • RJS

    I was wrong – the comments are still showing up quite unpredictably.

  • I just wanted to say there IS a recent & very good book about the history of original sin. It was written by Wheaton’s Alan Jacobs and released last year. Excellent book!

  • Eric

    RJS — very interesting perspective that Paul is Christ focused, not Adam focused; I hadn’t considered that, and I find it helpful.
    Its interesting to me, however, that evolution seems to provide some support for original sin, at least in this respect: Our selfish nature is baked into us by our strongly evolved desire to look out for our own survivial and interests, and the survival and interests of our tribe; this selfish desire is passed down genetically from person to person.
    But then Jesus called us to love our neighbor, and, most importantly, He did so in a very radical way: By defining our neighbor to include far more than just our own tribe.
    There is obviously a lot more to the gospel message than just that, but if you read original sin in this way, then the Jesus Creed is the solution to original sin (as read through the perspective of evolution).

  • Mariam

    this is how I have also read Paul ie that Christ was not God’s backup plan, but his first plan, the model of true humanity at one with the creator. When we look at Christ we see what God means us to be. Christ is the alpha and the omega. He is in the beginning, god’s word, the image of god that is transmitted to humans at a point intheir evolution that God chooses. And he is the last Adam, the soul god wills that we will someday become. In the meantime there is all this messy in-between stuff where we possess neither the innocent selfishness of our ancestors, nor the perfection of Christ’ humanity. God is not constrained by time as we are. God created a perfect world but we do not experience it because we can only experience one point in time at any given point in time. So it seems to us as if creation is imperfect and we are faulty. But God has already perfected us in Christ. I think this is what Paul is saying.
    “the fall” is not a single catastrophic event which brings about death and decay but a narrative that explains our self-awareness of the battle between our earlier instinctive, survival-driven selves and the part of us that longs to be one with God. Original sin is nothing more than our inherited selfish genes, the tree of knowledge a metaphor for our acquiring the awareness of the consequences of our choices and the terrible burden of responsibility that brings, including the awareness of death. Self- awareness, free will, a desire for what is good – these are gifts of God and necessary if we are to freely choose oneness with god but it doesn’t feel like a gift to us right now because we are still too close to that creature that came before self-awareness. Much of the time we still are that creature. Evolution takes a long time but in God’s time it has already happened.

  • Am having problems viewing all comments. Sometimes I can see only first 4, other times only first 13. It seems Joel may have had/be having the same issues. . .

  • Rick

    It was doing a lot of that yesterday. Strange and a little frustrating at times.
    Hope you take time to do more of an indepth post(s) on the Orthodox take on all this. Seems to keep coming up in the comments (and in the case of Bouteneff, mentioned in the post itself).
    Really appreciating your work on all this.

  • RJS

    You understate – the current problems with viewing comments, and the seemingly unpredictable way they show or fail to show is much more than a little frustrating – and unfortunately hurts the conversation I think.
    I will look into a source for the Orthodox take on original sin.

  • comments are showing for me. . . for the moment.
    Not sure if anyone else was aware but Tony Jone’s blog ran a recent series (albeit a little unconvincing) on OS. There were some who joined in from an EO perspective, but it was really hard to get to the bottom of the issue, as there seemed to be differnces of opinion about whether or not EO really did differ from western orthodoxy on OS, or if it was just a scemantic issue. . .

  • Rick

    “I will look into a source for the Orthodox take on original sin.”
    And I hope you also will expand that to include its (and your) take on evolution in that context.
    Thanks. Perhaps their is a wide range of views within EO.
    I wonder if Nassif has some writing on it, since he is EO but likes to keep a foot in evangelicalism as well.