What is Sin? (RJS)

This post is part 7 of a series The Fall and Sin After Darwin. We’ve been looking at the essays in a book Theology After Darwin centered around a simple question: What are the implications for Christian theology if Darwin was right? In conjunction with this we are also looking at three articles in the recent theme issue of the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (v. 62 no. 3 2010) Reading Genesis: The Historicity of Adam and Eve, Genomics, and Evolutionary Science.

In the last post in this series, Did God Create Us Sinful?, we looked at the question of theodicy – wrestling with the concept God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil and the questions human nature and human impulses. The nature and understanding of sin is a big piece of thie discussion. In the course of the discussion I quoted from Dr. Schneider’s article summarizing some of the reasons for the conflict between evolution, common descent, and the traditional view of sin as he sees the issues interacting.

The main point is that recent phylogenetic or cladistic analysis convinces many genetic experts that these detailed similarities of self-serving behaviors can hardly be coincidental—they look like a genetic legacy that has been passed on from one species to the next, including to our own. Domning endorses this as, by far, the best explanation: “The selfish acts of humans are homologous; that is, similar because derived from a common source.” And in any event (so we add, lest one resist that explanation), the traits are genetically common to every individual in all animal species. As members of a species, we are programmed, as it were, or powerfully disposed, to engage in our own genetic self-interest and advantage. We need not endorse the theory of common ancestry in order to respect the force of all this evidence and to begin pondering its implications for theology. (p. 202)

Natural biological response does not need to be limited to the negative of course. Virtue can also be argued to be merely natural biological response. Schneider discusses, not only sin, but also altruism and behavior for the communal good rather than the individual good.  He continues after the quote I have above:

It should be noted that geneticists observe, too, that we also share with animals “virtuous” traits involving love, genuine sympathy, and care. If this is selfishness, it proves that selfishness is the source of not only vice, but also virtue. If animals engage in genuinely unselfish acts-disinterested in the general survival of their own germinal DNA—then that is extremely interesting, to be sure. It is nevertheless clear that many animal “virtues” show self interest in a manner that benefits other nonmembers of the species, too. Domning calls this behavior “amoral selfishness.” As for deliberative human altruism (if there really is such a thing), it requires, writes Domning, “an intellect and will of a caliber that does not and cannot exist in the simplest life forms.” The clear implication of the science is that, at the dawn of human consciousness and its moral awareness and capacities for such virtue, altruism was the challenge for humanity in the future, not the original primal condition of human beings in the past. (p. 202)

Recent observations of chimpanzee gangs and food sharing by bonobos are used by some to bolster the argument. Human behavior is simply deterministic and natural. This idea has serious consequences for Christian theology.  Much of Schneider’s article is dead-on, insightful, and worth serious consideration. But his emphasis on sin and a sinful nature as equated with “natural” biological urges and tendencies is something of a problem.  It strikes me that we have here a serious misunderstanding of sin – and of the relationship between natural biological response and sin. We can not understand Adam, Paul, or the Christian faith if we cannot get a handle on the nature of sin. So I put up the question for consideration:

What is the relationship between sin and natural biological response?

I was planning to post on this topic – but was beaten to the punch in the comment section of the last post. David Opderbeck made the key point early in the comment stream (#16) – and I agree with him here.

Schneider makes some excellent points and his pointing towards Job on the theodicy question is exactly right.

However, he is fundamentally and I think dangerously mistaken about the reduction of “sin” to biology.

“Sin” is not merely a natural inclination, and “selfishness,” or better, “self-regard,” is not in itself sin.

When my dog takes food off the kitchen table, she is being a “bad dog,” but that is not “sin.” She’s just doing what dogs do. If I were to steal food from my neighbor’s table, that would be “sin,” even though I’m inclined by my “selfish” instincts to hoard food. Why is it “sin” for me and not my dog? Because I possess a capacity of “will” or “agency” or, if you will, “soul,” that my dog does not possess.

In fact, Augustine noted this distinction well before the challenge of biological evolution. It was the “soul” that, for Augustine, allowed human beings to regulate their impulses in ways animals cannot. This is very important: Augustine and the other Fathers wrestled with this problem of “natural” inclinations, free will, and moral culpability long before evolutionary biology. Contra Schneider, this is NOT a new problem at all, and there are rich resources in the tradition for thinking about it.

The only way in which it could be a new problem is if hard-core sociobiology is right: that is, if human beings have no free will or agency at all — if all our actions could be traced entirely to “hard wired” evolutionary causes. Very few scientists actually think this is true. In any event, I doubt it’s ultimately a “scientific” question rather than a “metaphysical” one.

Christian theology asserts that human beings possess agency such that we are morally accountable for our actions. Christian theology also asserts that God is not the author of evil. IMHO, these are fundamental truths that cannot, and need not, be compromised.

Later – as I was pondering this post and constructing my argument David put up comment in response to the argument that the continuity between animal and human behavior might undermine the concept of sin – and especially Original Sin.  It comes down, not to inherited response and biological structures, but to the intrinsic reality of free-will and human agency. (Comment 90)

As to “continuity,” I agree with you, we’ve inherited from our forebears all of the stuff from which our minds emerge. These include the mental structures that support culture making and morality. They also include the mental structures that support behaviors we may deem “immoral”.

I reject any view, however, that reduces what it means to be “human” merely to those inherited structures. I reject strong versions of neurobiological determinism. I believe human beings possess genuine agency. I believe the human mind, with its apparently unique capacities for agency, is an emergent phenomena that exerts downward causality, and therefore that human agency isn’t reducible to biology.

I also reject any view that reduces what it means to be “human” even to biology plus the emergent phenomena of mind. Humans are “spiritual” and “soulish” in ways that other creatures apparently are not. The “mind” and the “soul” are not exactly the same thing. This is a datum, I believe, of revelation, but it also accords with the experience of self-consciousness and God-consciousness.

Finally, I reject any view in which these various aspects of what it means to be “human” — (1) our biological and neurobiological and sociobiological inheritance, (2) our capacity for true agency through the downward causality exercised by the emergent phenomena of “mind”, and (3) our spiritual and soulish nature — are conceived of as divisible. Sort of like the Trinity, the layers of our being interpenetrate and coinhere with each other. We are not dualities or trialities — “body and soul” or “body, mind and soul”. We are integrated creatures though our ontology involves multiple layers.

As to “sin,” that begins not in layer (1), but rather is a product of the willful misuse of human capacities at layers (3) and (2) — and thereby it affects layer (1) (e.g., in the stress and anxiety that are produced when we intentionally harm others and break relationships). Certainly the structures of layer (1) make “sin” possible, but they do not dictate that “sin” must happen. A bodily behavior is only “sin” when the “soul” and “mind” have willfully directed the person to improper ends.

Human agency and free-will, creative, abstract, aesthetic thought. These are really the key ideas. Human beings can respond, create, and imagine – and the results of these processes have a reality that extends beyond the merely chemical, physical, and biological.  There is also evidence that human response can intentionally influence the biological ability for response. This came up when I posted last year on an article on the Science of Sin (part 1, part 2,). While it is clear that there is an undeniable connection between human response and natural impulse there is also evidence for an element of control or feedback in human response, albeit imperfect. One of the researchers quoted in the popular level article commented regarding the response in the brain “this network provides us with the evolutionarily unprecedented ability to control our own neural processing – a feat achieved by no other creature.”  There is an element of our very being, an element consistent with the idea of humans created in the image of God that is not merely reducible to animal instincts and biological encoding.  We can (in theory) choose and we can (in theory) change. This is true of the impulse for altruism as well as for the impulse for envy and self-aggrandizement.

Sin then – and the universal reality of sin – relates to an abuse and perversion of this capacity for agency. I posted last May on an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS 107, 4499, 2010) that dealt with the materialist argument against free will with suggestions for the criminal justice system (Is Free Will Anti-Science?).  Christian understanding of reality runs counter to this purely materialist view of action and responsibility. Agency, not just in Adam but in all of us, is a key part of the puzzle. The incarnation and the Christ-centered gospel is not about a return to an “natural-urge-free” existence, but about the ability to stay in proper relationship with God, to make proper choices, and the consequences for making improper choices. The most significant of these choices are relational – first and foremost relationship with God, and then with each other in community extending to the world in which we’ve been placed and in the context of the mission we’ve been given.

This is still only the tip of the iceberg – but enough for today.

Does evolutionary biology – or for that matter neuroscience – call into question the Christian understanding of sin?

More importantly – Does it challenge our understanding of the biblical story and the gospel?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • smcknight

    Wow, this is quite the post and the argument for aiming sin at agency is compelling for me. Do you folks — RJS and Opderbeck — think the human agency element is so pervasively in the direction of sinfulness that it leads to a corrupted agency at the core? (Original sin question.)

    I ask this because it seems connecting behaviors to natural biology might lay the blame for our sinful proclivities in biological evolution but not in some Fall or original sin.

  • John I.

    I don’t find much of Schneider’s theological musings dead-on, but rather find them off the mark and quite Bultmannian.

    I also disagree with his physicalist / materialist approach to humanity and with dopderbeck’s thought that our mind, etc. is an emergent feature that supervenes on our physicality. Such ways of thinking have not yet proved philosophically tenable, and ignore the Biblical data respecting the existence of the nonmaterial. To move from substance dualism (body and spirit) is to move from orthodoxy which is a direction to go if one is convinced one must, but I am not.

    The proposed implications of evolutionary biology seem very platonic, even though they are stated in materialist terms. That is, the body is wrong from the get go and is something to be escaped (or perhaps evolved past if one wants to stay within material terms). Such a view is at odds with orthodoxy which sees the physical creation as good, but now damaged and to be redeemed.

    I think that it is worth noting that Schneider is not a particularly great theologian. He wrote, after all, “The Good of Affluence” in which he argued against Ron Sider’s book “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” and proposed in his book that the wealth, comfort, and pleasure accessible to Christians in a western culture can be consistent with the demands of following Christ. Among other things, he argues that we do not necessarily have any obligation to bring aid to the downtrodden of the Third World. I believe that someone’s theology and ability to make theological judgments must looked at in toto. Even though someone can be right in one area and wrong in another, the existence of poor judgments and analysis should lead one to read that person’s work much more carefully and to be slow to accept their positions.

    Beleif in evolutionary biology does not require that one reject any intervention by God in the appearance of modern humans. It seems to me that the Biblical data, of all the corpus, requires a belief in such an intervention. If Schneider’s assertions were true, it would destroy Biblical knowledge and faith as we have received it, and require us to engage in a demythologizing approach a la JS Spong or Bultmann.

    In addition, there is not yet any tenable theory for the evolution of mind or morality out of purely physical materials.

    John I.

  • Tim

    Here’s a concern I have for progressing this argument in the Jesus Creed community on the relationship between sin and evolutionary biology – I worry that the solely deterministic and naturalistic explanations for sin will serve as a foil for those who want to argue for minimizing the influence of evolutionary biology in sin.

    I would rather not see this issue get polarized. There are more options than just a hard naturalistic position and a hard theological position of a spiritually sinful nature minimally influence by biological evolution.

    I would like to see the middle prove fertile ground for conversation, rather than excluding it beforehand.

    I would really like to see a conversation on what the level of continuity is between the biologically inherited dispositions of our hominid ancestors and closes evolutionary cousins in a framework that explores the nature of sin, that honestly engages the anthropological and evolutionary evidence we have available to us today.

  • dopderbeck

    Ok this “posting too quickly” technical issue has to go — just lost a long post.

    John I — a move from substance dualism is a move from “orthodoxy”???? You can’t be serious. According to what creed or polity?

    Even Roman Catholic theology tends towards holistic dualism, which is essentially my perspective (see, e.g., John Cooper, “Body, Soul and Life Everlasting).

    And by the way, I didn’t ignore the Biblical materials on the supernatural. Note that I said “soul” is not precisely the same thing as “mind.” “Mind” is an emergent property (an idea that I think is quite philosophically tenable) but “soul” goes past this. I think I lean towards a Traducian view of “soul” but not from a substance dualist perspective. Substance dualism, I think, is not philosophically tenable.

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    Dopderbeck said,

    Christian theology asserts that human beings possess agency such that we are morally accountable for our actions. Christian theology also asserts that God is not the author of evil. IMHO, these are fundamental truths that cannot, and need not, be compromised.

    When and how did we get that agency? If we got it gradually by random mutations and natural selection, then the impression of “agency” is either a fiction or is only relatively different than the agency that animals have.

    RJS, what is your definition of “biological evolution”? Are mutations truly random and unguided, or are they guided by God?

  • dopderbeck

    Scot (#1) asked: “[is the] human agency element is so pervasively in the direction of sinfulness that it leads to a corrupted agency at the core? (Original sin question.)”

    I would say “yes” — both on the grounds of the Biblical materials and the Tradition, but also on the grounds of common human experience. This does circle us back to the mystery of the origin of this corruption of agency — the “origin” of “original sin” if you will.

    Let’s first acknowledge that this is in part a true mystery. Even if we were to take the Gen. 1-4 narratives “literally,” we’d still be stuck with the question, “but why would Adam in paradise ever decide to eat the bad fruit?”

    I like the focus of some contemporary theology of sin on “community” (for example, in Stanely Grenz’s work). “Adam” in community with God and with other humans could have bent his agency towards the good and not to “sin.” We “after Adam” — after the Fall — are deprived of the immediacy of that community (sin is a depravatio — a corruption, a deprave-ation). If in Gen. 1 the creation is a cosmic Temple and in Gen. 2 the “Tree of Life” is a sacramental symbol, we are now barred by sin from immediate sacramental union with God.

    As a result of this ontological depravation we are in fact “depraved”. Our agency always tends to be curvatus in se, as Augustine observed — turned in on our selves — rather than turned out toward God.
    That access was provisionally restored through Israel’s Tabernacle and Temple, and is now permanently stored in Christ.

  • dopderbeck

    pds said: “If we got it gradually by random mutations and natural selection, then the impression of “agency” is either a fiction or is only relatively different than the agency that animals have.”

    I respond: not necessarily, if “agency” results at least in part from an emergent property of mind that is not present in other animals, or is present it a way that is different in kind, and particularly if the framework for that emergent property depends at least in part on evolved differences that are not present in other animals.

  • Tim


    My response to your latest post on RJS’s previous thread on this topic is up. If you want to read through that and continue a conversation here on the nature of the relationship between evolutionary biology and sin that would be great.

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds


    When my dog takes food off the kitchen table, she is being a “bad dog,” but that is not “sin.” She’s just doing what dogs do. If I were to steal food from my neighbor’s table, that would be “sin,” even though I’m inclined by my “selfish” instincts to hoard food. Why is it “sin” for me and not my dog? Because I possess a capacity of “will” or “agency” or, if you will, “soul,” that my dog does not possess.

    I agree. And when an ape kills his great-grandfather it is not murder. When a human kills his great-grandfather it is murder. If humans evolved gradually, the first human could have killed her great grandfather and it would not have been sin.

    My main point is that human evolution by random mutation and natural selection is at best a tentative inference drawn by scientists who are using the methodologies of historical science. I as a Christian can infer that God very actively intervened in the process, and this is completely consistent with all the historical and scientific evidence. It better explains the fossil evidence showing sudden appearance and stasis of most species, including (arguably) humans.

    Once again I recommend Gould on the methodology of the historical sciences:


  • dopderbeck

    pds said: If humans evolved gradually, the first human could have killed her great grandfather and it would not have been sin.

    I respond: It depends how you’re using the word “human.” If you’re using that term the way scientists use it, then you’re right — but H. Erectus and a variety of other hominid creatures that lived millions of years ago are considered “human.”

    If you use the term “human” in a theological sense, meaning the creature endowed with all the capacities and responsibilities of “adamah” in Gen. 1-4, then no, this is incorrect. Theologically, our capacity for moral agency is part of what makes us “human” and different in some respects apparently even from our hominid predecessors.

  • Tim


    “It better explains the fossil evidence showing sudden appearance and stasis of most species, including (arguably) humans.”

    The fossil evidence does not indicate in any way sudden appearance of humans. The line of transitional fossils leading up to homo Sapiens is truly extraordinary. You can of course argue that God intervened in evolution to direct it, but I think any claim of special creation is scientifically untenable, particularly as it relates to species for which we have such excellent transitional evidence such as humans.

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    Psalm 8

    3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
    4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?

    5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honor.
    6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under his feet,
    7 all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
    8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

    9 O LORD, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

  • Tim

    I want to introduce a main difficulty relating to sin and biology that really needs to be addressed, I think.

    All human actions require some motivation. We don’t procreate for no reason. We don’t compete for no reason. We don’t eat for no reason. We also don’t help others for no reason. We do these things because there exists a motivation within us to do them, and sometimes these motivations can be in tension with one another.

    So, the relevance of evolutionary biology is the potential for providing a partial basis to these motivations. Certainly the motivation to seek God wouldn’t have been evolutionarily inherited, but the motivation to eat is, the motivation to procreate likely is, etc.

    So, motivation to engage in various types of behavior provide the stratum upon which agency acts. Obviously a good part of this stratum is spiritual. But a good portion is also biologically inherited through common descent.

    So what is the nature of this inheritance?

    If the nature of the evolutionary inheritance is one of aggressive tendencies in competitive situations (such as competition over mates, resources, and social status), procreative tendencies that express sexual desire beyond just one’s mate (particularly for males), and limits to altruistic charity in terms of attending to resources for oneself and one’s family/community over at the expense of providing assistance to others, then these tendencies could have a very relevant role on how the agency of the first humans with souls and a knowledge of God would interact with evolutionary biology.

    So what is the role of inherited evolutionary motivations with respect to sin?

  • dopderbeck

    Tim (#11) — that was pds’ comment, not mine. I agree with you about the fossil record.

  • Tim

    Well, I’m off to the zoo with my daughter :) and tonight is guys night out, so I’ll pick up the conversation Saturday.

    I hope we’ll see a dynamic and productive conversation on this issue.


  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds


    You said,

    “The fossil evidence does not indicate in any way sudden appearance of humans.”

    As I said, the overall fossil records shows a pattern of sudden appearance and stasis. Stanley has extended this to human evolution. Are you familiar with his discussion of this?

  • dopderbeck

    Tim (#13) — your summary “If the nature of evolutionary inheritance” is a problem here. It’s a really, really, really thin summary. The “nature of evolutionary inheritence” involves all the complexity of human behavior. It just isn’t true that actual human behaviors, social structures, and motivations can be realistically modeled by simple 2×2 game theoretic matrices. These models can be interesting and illustrative, but they necessarily oversimplify.

    Maybe it would help if you gave a specific example of a behavior?

    We’ve talked a bit about sex and monogamy already, for example. It seems to be strongly empirically confirmed by human history that at least some human beings are quite capable of life-long, stable, monogamous relationships. In fact, this seems to be an important social adaptation, because it is in one way or another a nearly universal human social value enshrined in a wide variety of religions and cultures throughout history (yes, polygamy also apparently has important social value in many contexts…). So, the fact that human beings have inherited sexual drives that impel us to have sex as often as possible with as many partners as possible is balanced by other drives that impel us towards stable social relationships — and further is capable of being subject to agency and will when the purpose and value of stable relationships is understood.

    I don’t see any inherent conflict here with the notion that according to God’s law some sexual behaviors are “sin.” It in fact seems quite consistent to me. God knows everything we are capable of and also knows what is most consistent with love, community, and flourishing.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    FWIW, i think the posting too quickly thing happens to me when I keep a window with JC in it open overnight.

  • Tim

    Dopderbeck – from cell – i only said sexual desire, not act. i see no precedent for monogamous desire. i also acknowledged that motivations can be in tension with one another, so by no meanr is that simplistic.

  • John I.

    Sin, materialism and the mind

    That materialist science does not have an explanation for the appearance of the mind is so evident that one regularly encounters such statements. For example, Colin McGinn (British philosoper, famous for his study of the mind-body problem) writes in his popular level work, The Mysterious Flame (N.Y.: Basic Books, 1999), on pages 13-14, “How can mere matter originate consciousness? How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness? Consciousness seems like a radical novelty in the universe, not prefigured by the after-effects of the Big Bang; so how did it contrive to spring into being from what preceded it?” McGinn’s belief is that humans inherently cannot find the answer to the problem of consciousness.

    The mind has attributes that material substances do not, and though it is not possible to see how a mind could arise from the rearrangement of atoms, it is quite obvious that a conscious entity possibly could produce consciousness. That is, one can get consciousness if one starts with it, but not if one starts without it.

    Furthermore, evolution and other sciences are based on principle of causal closure, that is, that all entities are physical or depend on the physical for their existence. There is no existing theory of emergence of mind and supervenience of emergent “entities” on physical bodies that surmounts this problem, especially with respect to the issue of mental causation. Epiphenominalism, if true, would destroy naturalism as a principle of science. Moreover, it is not clear at all how epiphenominalism could arise from the purely material, and no one has given an adequate explanation of how it can.

    This issue of the reality of the mental, and its qualitative and essential difference from matter are important issues for understanding and discussing morality and moral behaviour, and whether it can be said at all that there is some sort of continuity between the behaviour and possible morality of pre-humans and the behaviour and real morality of contemporary humans.

    It is not disputable that God is different in essence from matter, and that he is nevertheless both conscious and an agent. It is, moreover, clear from the Bible that our aliveness is directly connected to an action of God. It is not clear, however, that the Bible is consistent with a theory that the mind and moral culpability can arise gradually from changes in the physical arrangement of the particles of matter. Indeed, the Bible as traditionally interpreted is against such a view.

    Substance dualism need not be Cartesian, that is, a reduction of the soul to the mind, but can include such varieties as the Thomistic belief that the mind is a faculty of the soul that requires certain physical states to obtain in the brain and central nervous system before the mind can function. As for substance dualism’s orthodoxy, such a view was the defacto view of the church up until at least Thomas Aquinas.

    C.D, Broad, The Mind and its Place in Nature, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1925, p. 481) wrote, ““if there be reason to believe that a human mind can ever exist and function apart from a human body, it will be almost impossible to accept the epiphenomenalist theory of the mind and its relations to the body.”

    The belief that an essential and subsistent part of the person survives when the physical body dies and is utterly dissolved cannot be separated from orthodox belief. I would also argue that Thomas Nagel’s famous paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” has resulted in fruitful philosophical developments that make it less and less likely that an alternative to substance dualism is true.

    Darwinian evolution is inconsistent with a substance dualism view of humanity, and it cannot account for consciousness nor for moral culpability.

    Furthemore, the Darwinian explanation advanced by Schneider not eliminates the possibility of redemption, but renders the entire concept incoherent and non-sensical. Put simply, if there is no fall, there is no need for redemption. If there is no fall, we never fell into the power of satan. What there is, instead, is only upward movement of which Christ is our supreme example. Christ doesn’t redeem us, but rather shows us what we can aspire to evolve to, from our pre-human non-moral ancestors, through ancestors that were gradually more human and moral, to we who are human and moral but fallible, and in the future to humans that are moral and infallible.

    Which is, of course, the liberal answer to the impossibility of orthodox Christian belief in the face of science. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.

    John I.

  • dopderbeck

    John I. — I appreciate many of the concerns you raise in these discussions, but honestly, it gets a little tiresome when you basically always end up accusing everyone who disagrees with you, even on arcane points like the nature of the “soul,” with heresy.

    Yes, substance dualism was apparently the view of the Church until Aquinas, but as you note Aquinas pretty significantly modified old-fashioned Platonic substance dualism until it was just about unrecognizable. After that, I would argue, Catholic theology is not wedded to substance dualism. Certainly today Catholic theology could more accurately be described as holistic dualism, I think.

    I share the concern that Christian theologians today seem too willing to do away with any sort of dualism at all. I don’t really agree with Corcoran or Murphy or Green — too many problems result (what about agency? what about the “intermediate state”? is “resurrection” really just “reincarnation”?). Polkinghorne’s approach seems attractive as a possible via media. Ultimately I agree with Cooper that holistic dualism makes best use of the Biblical materials and the Tradition. But to say that substance dualism is basic to Christian orthodoxy strikes me as more than a bit extreme.

  • dopderbeck

    Tim (#19) — no precedent for monogamous desire? So throughout all of human history, anyone who stayed wedded to one person did so only because of some external compulsion? I don’t think so. There is something basic and deeply satisfying about stable long-term relationships. I delight in the fact that my wife of 20 years has been my only sexual partner (and I hers) for all those years. Have there been times when the temptation to stray may have been overwhelming but for some external compulsion? Sure — and any man would be lying to say otherwise. But there is not only external compulsion, there is also a rich, mutual emotional reward for that kind of fidelity.

  • Tim

    Competing motivations dopderbeck, mentioned that already.

  • John I.

    dopderbeck, what’s tiresome is your assumptiona and accusation that I am accusing others of heresy. I have not used that word at all, and have made no such accusations. I have continually referred to received teachings and traditions without claiming that tradition and orthodoxy are equivalents.

    What I am pointing out is not that someone’s views “are” heretical, but that certain views have definite implications and that those implications should be carefully examined where they are at variance with received traditions/ teachings–whether we look at denominational traditions, protestant traditions, RC traditions, or common traditions, etc.

    I have also not argued that all traditions or orthodoxies are unquestionable. Protestantism does not fall within the orthodoxy of R. Catholocism, but that does not mean that either side should call the other “heretic”.

    The point is not that falling outside of a normative orthodoxy inherently makes one an heretic, but that when investigation the implications of certain beliefs (e.g. Darwinism) for our faith, we can compare the various implications and arguments to our traditions, and it is not irrelevant to ask why or whether we should or should not depart from it. One can undertake such investigation and comparison without name-calling, heretic calling, or accusing someone of calling other discussants “heretics”.

    The nature of the soul is not “arcane” in any sense of that word, but one of the pivotal points of this discussion (on theology after Darwin), and the nature of the soul continues to substantively discussed in both theological and philosophical journals.

    Schneider’s discussion seems to presume that there is no non-material addition to hominids that makes them distinctively human, but rather a gradual biological development of humanness. Whether or not there is a break in the development of hominids makes a very big difference in understanding the nature of sin and the fall and moral culpability.

    John I.

  • Tim

    …and by monogamous desire earlier, I obviously meant sexual in that context, not relational – as that can be a competing motivation.

  • Tim

    - should be dash, darn cell phone.

  • AHH

    Today’s post on Biologos is related to this topic:

    The author is Dr. George Murphy, Ph.D. physicist and Lutheran pastor (and author of one of the best science/faith books I have ever read, The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross). Murphy appears to agree with dopderbeck and RJS about human agency and our inherited tendencies toward behavior that (for those who are moral agents) would be sinful. He also mentions the idea that human culture nurtures our sinful tendencies.

  • John I.

    I see that in one my posts in this thread I have used the word “orthodox”, but my intended sense was like that of earlier posts on this set of threads on Darwinism: traditional received teachings, departure from which should be done cautiously. I did not and do not mean that departure from these traditions makes one unorthodox in the sense of “heretic” (which word I’ve never used; using such a word is like using “Hitler” or “Nazi”), but only in the sense of at variance with.

    I don’t think that it is unreasonable to see the “holistic dualism” approach of Cooper and others as a variety of substance dualism in that it understands soul to be a different thing than the physical body and not merely emergent from material substance. What Cooper et al. do is to make a tighter connection between the body and soul, such that they speak of an “embodied soul”. This is distinct from Cartesian dualism, which as I noted in my post is not the only kind of dualism that exists.

    Part of understanding the Darwinian implications for our understanding of sin and sinfulness is understanding when and how hominids became embodied souls. Schneider fails to address this important question, and his failure to do so significantly flaws his analysis. (I also think his analysis of Job is flawed, but that’s for another post).

    John I.

  • dopderbeck

    John I — fair enough, thanks.

    AHH — George Murphy is a friend and has had a big influence on how I think about all these things. I think I differ from George somewhat in that I want to see “sin” as more of an ontological reality and not primarily an existential thing. I agree though — read George’s book, it’s discussion of the theology of the cross in relation to creation is important.

  • Darren King

    There is no doubt that our growing understanding of biological predisposition has/is shifting our perception of “will”. But I would say that as long as the human being has some degree of choice in his/her behavior (even if it is less, or more biased then we used to believe) then the core doctrine is still valid. I say that because the doctrine calls us to account.

    That said, I am open to metaphor being at play in our understanding of the fall. In other words, where the doctrine takes us – in terms of trajectory – is more important in my mind than the historicity of a certain interpretation behind it.

  • John I.

    dopderbeck – no problem. It is difficult in a blog to be both brief and fully clear, nuanced and perspicacious. I did not mean to come across as condemning.


    Tim has made several points, on this and the previous thread about this topic, about distinguishing and particularizing the continuities and discontinuities between the pre and post sin states of morally culpable humans (the “Adam” of the Bible).

    A purely Darwinian monistic view of humanity is not compatible with understanding a person to be an essential unity of body and soul, and not fully a person or human without a body (though in some sense still able to relate personally to God until the resurrection body is received).

    Schneider, in his article, comes across as a physical monist, especially in his description of the gradual development of the human from non-moral to moral. Consequently he necessarily departs from a traditional understanding of sin and moral awakening. This different analysis of sin leads to a different understanding of Job and of God’s relationship to sin. To answer the questions posed above by rjs, his understanding of the Darwinian implications for humanity and sin does call into question the Christian understanding of sin and does pose a significnat challenge our understanding of the biblical story and the gospel. The challenged posed is not, however, one that can be met through modification of the to date Christian understanding of sin, but only by an overthrow of it (which view is true is another matter).

    “Overthrow” is apropos as evidenced by the following statement by George Murphy, whose harmartiology is largely compatible with the Darwinian approach of Schneider: “Paul saw death as a totality—biological death together with all the fears we have of it and in light of the separation from God that is sin. His references are to biological plus spiritual death, although he didn’t separate the two concepts. From a scientific perspective, he was wrong about physical death itself having originated with the first humans, just as the writer of Genesis 1 was wrong about the dome of the sky, but the Holy Spirit accommodated revelation to Paul’s culturally conditioned idea.” [emphasis added; from his biologos article at http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/murphy_scholarly_essay.pdf

    At some point the demythologizing of scripture starts to smack of chronological snobbery and an unstated belief in the preferential perspicuity of one’s vantage point. Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit but is fundamentally wrong on a theological point, whereas we are correct and not subject to cultural conditioning because of our current state of scientific knowledge?

    Because of the fundamental discontinuity that I see portrayed in scripture between humans and all other animals and living things, I don’t perceive the need to go where Schneider and Murphy feel inclined to go. God is clearly a God who breaks into history and who creates salvation history, hence I see no need for a purely naturalistic evolution of humanity.

    John I.

  • http://scienceandtheology.wordpress.com Justin Topp


    From RJS post… you said: “The only way in which it could be a new problem is if hard-core sociobiology is right: that is, if human beings have no free will or agency at all — if all our actions could be traced entirely to “hard wired” evolutionary causes. Very few scientists actually think this is true.”

    I don’t think that very few scientists actually think this true. I think many believe it to be true but don’t discuss it because we can’t live on a day-to-day basis consistently with it. But, pushed to answer, I would venture that very many scientists actually think this is true.

    I’m not saying they’re right…

  • rjs


    I don’t think it is “very few” – but I am also not sure that it is “very many.” At least not when people really get down to thinking and discussing it seriously – and we can’t live consistently on a day-to-day basis with it.

    But part of the problem is that this idea is implicit, assumed as an underlying commitment.

    I don’t claim to have any real understanding of the mechanism of human agency or free will. But I don’t think either theological determinism rooted in the sovereignty of God or scientific determinism rooted in uniform laws of nature are consistent with our experience (or with scripture).

  • rjs

    pds (#5),

    You asked: “what is your definition of “biological evolution”? Are mutations truly random and unguided, or are they guided by God?

    Couple of things here – I would say that biological evolution is a description of the way biological entities change over time. “Random” mutation (including single nucleotide changes) and natural selection is one mechanism at play, but there are other mechanisms at play as well – especially in single cell organisms. Other mechanisms have been at play in the past as well.

    But random is loaded term. Each spin of the wheel or throw of the dice at a casino is random (within specific probability distributions) – but the ultimate purpose and result is not random on any significant level at all.

    ‘Natural’ processes achieve the goals and plans of God who sustains and underlies all. But we don’t need to look for ways in which he may (or may not) have intervened in “non-rational” (i.e. otherwise inexplicable) ways.

  • http://scienceandtheology.wordpress.com Justin Topp


    You’re absolutely right that it’s “assumed.” That’s my point. I’m actually quite glad that PNAS article came out as I hope it gets scientists (biologists, in particular) to actually talk and think about the logical progression and extremes of the scientific determinism that they espouse. We’ll see though…

    You’re also right that we can’t explain human agency but we know it exists. That’s a tough pill for you and me to swallow, but I’m cautiously optimistic that science will get us closer. You?

  • Tim


    OK, I’m back from the zoo and guy’s night out :)

    Anyway, I wanted to ask you, as you expressed appreciation and some identification with George Murphy’s thoughts on Genesis, how you would agree or disagree with this excerpt from his recent article, Human Evolution in Theological Context?

    “We noted at the outset the evolutionary implication that the first humans would not have been morally perfect, but would have had tendencies for selfish behaviors that injured their fellows. This in itself was not sin: We don’t consider chimpanzees “sinful” when they act like that. Sin has to do first with our relationship with God, so the category “sin” wasn’t appropriate before God had revealed some part of his will to creatures. But if God had somehow communicated to them that they shouldn’t injure their fellows, they would then have been tempted to ignore that call. Humanity could, with difficulty, have followed the path of development that God intended, for we
    are not hardwired, either through genes or enculturation, to behave in particular ways. Temptations would,however, have been strong. Sin was, in words of Reinhold Niebuhr, not “necessary” but “inevitable.” Refusing to trust and obey God, humanity turned from the goal that God intended and chose another path. Soon we had gone astray. Moving away from God, we were lost in the woods and night was falling.”

  • http://prodigalthought.net ScottL

    A little bit of a side point, but though I do appreciate David Opderbeck’s holistic focus on the make-up of human, I would say the ‘soul’ is not a part of humans but it is who we are. Or, as Jews would see it, we do not have souls; we are souls.

    I don’t know if this particular view has any implications on the biological nature of sin. So, our question wouldn’t be do animals have souls, but are animals souls (‘living beings’)?

  • dopderbeck

    Tim — I agree with much of that quote from George. I don’t agree with his word choice of “inevitable” in relation to sin. I’m fairly certain, however, that he is not using that word here to imply some kind of sociobiological determinism. The main point is that “sin” is an act of agency in the context of a certain kind of relationship with God.

  • dopderbeck

    ScottL — I’d agree with “we are” souls rather than that we “have” souls. I’m not a substance dualist.

  • http://prodigalthought.net ScottL

    David -

    So, are animals souls (‘living beings’)?