Being Human 6 (RJS)

The third chapter of Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible deals with the ideas of sin and freedom. In the last post we discussed a bit of the embodied nature of sin. We do not seem to possess a separable soul capable of overriding the impulses of our bodies. This was illustrated by an extreme example of a tumor that undermined the control mechanisms in the brain and rendered a patient unable to resist the lure of pornography and sexual pleasure. The limitations imposed by the fully embodied nature of human decision making are not confined to cases of disease and accident however.

Dr. Green summarizes the scientific data:

Among the implications of these data, two are of special interest to us in this chapter. The first is simply the embodied nature of decision-making, its manifestly somatic basis, involving predispositions and emotion alongside logical weighing of considerations. Second, decision-making cannot be characterized by the laws of neurobiology in simple bottom-up terms, since our neurobiological profile is itself in a state of ongoing formation and reformation on account of environmental, and especially relational, influences and through self-reflexive evaluation of the bases and futures of past and prospective behaviors. (p. 87)

That paragraph sounds a bit like “professor-speak,” but there are important ideas here.

(1) We are embodied creatures and our decisions are constrained by this fact. The idea of a libertarian free will to choose just doesn’t fit with the data.

(2) Our choices and behaviors today influence our future choices. Relationships and community play an important role.

In the remainder of the chapter Dr. Green looks at the biblical concept of sin in 1 Peter, James, and the letters of Paul, primarily Romans. The question is how the concept of sin according to Peter, James, and Paul, relates to the neurobiological ideas of decision making and human behavior.

What is the biblical concept of sin? How does this relate to human behavior and decision making?

1 Peter.

In his letter Peter refers to the former way of life practiced by his audience, behaviors to be avoided, and labels for those who are antagonists. These concepts help to define his view of sin… sin is living outside of the way of God.

“Sin,” then, is inhabiting the muck and executing the ways of a religious and moral climate set against God; it is present as an ethos of unrestrained immorality and craving that cannot but shape persons in its likeness. (p. 89)

Because of Christ his followers can be done with this way of life.  The capacity for transformation is a divine gift – both through the example of Christ and through the power of Christ’s life and death. The human family needed liberation from the bondage of a sinful past. Christians enter into a new community and a new way of life. This new way shapes all.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3)

Dr. Green summarizes his reading of  1 Peter:

For 1 Peter then, human life is life on the potter’s wheel, so to speak – being shaped one way or another, by the ancestral ways expressed in taken-for-granted social conventions, or by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and the formative influence of the people of God. Humans act out their formation, so the primary questions must be, Formed according to what pattern? Formed within what community? (p. 94)


In the book of James sin is the child of desire born through friendship with the world. Friendship with the world is a unity of heart and mind with the ways of the world. There is a strong emphasis on both the personal and the relational.

The very epitome of the sinful life is not an act but an allegiance, relationally delimited: “friendship with the world.” (p. 95)

Partiality, hypocrisy, bitter envy, selfish ambition, these characterize friendship with the world. Peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, absence of partiality and hypocrisy, these characterize the way of of God. As in 1 Peter there is an internal and a relational component – but the problem of human desire is internal to the human person and the solution must be internalized.

The challenges of exilic life provide an arena for the unbridled exercise of human passion, the result of which is sin and death. … Required is a transformation of human nature by means of divine wisdom, the divine word that must be received and fully embodied so that it imbues who one is and what one does. Theologically this is nothing less than a conversion of the imagination, those patterns of thinking, feeling, believing, and behavior that animate our lives. (p. 98)


According to Dr. Green Paul’s view of sin is universal – not because Adam sinned, but because all sinned.

Paul’s affirmation of the universality of sin derives from his understanding that Adam’s sin set in motion a chain of effects, one sin leading to the next, not because sin was an essential constituent of the human condition but because all humanity followed Adam in his sinfulness. (p. 100)

This isn’t sinfulness passed on as a contagion but sinfulness as an inescapable part of human community ever after. Reading beyond what Dr. Green has written – this is not necessarily a condition introduced by a unique act by a unique couple, but a statement of the rebellion of mankind and the condition of humanity as a consequence.  Paul may see Adam and Eve as the progenitors, but his understanding of sin and human nature does not rest on this.

Moving on, Dr. Green sees six aspects of sin in Paul

(1) The perspective is cosmological. Sin is a condition of the human family.

(2) Acts of wickedness are expressions of sin, they are not themselves the problem.

(3) The expressions of sin evidence the moral integrity of a God who takes sin seriously. God gives humanity over to its own desires. As Wisdom 12:23 puts it: God “torments” those who live unrighteously by allowing them their own atrocities. This idea fits with the Paul’s understanding of sin.

(4) The giving over to sinful desires means that humanity is now in a condition of slavery to sin.

(5) Sin is a rupture of the divine-human relationship, human relationships, and the relationship between humans and creation. Sin is not private, it is in relation to God, to others, and to the cosmos.

(6) Humanity embraces a lie and receives a corrupt mind. [T]he conceptual patterns by which humanity perceives the world and orders its behavior is out of touch with the way things are. (p. 102)

Paul talks very little about the forgiveness of sins. Dr. Green identifies only two places (Eph 1:7, Col 1:14). Rather humanity requires a liberation from enslavement. We are liberated from the enslavement to sin and death and brought into a new community of the people of God. This new community was inaugurated and enabled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Pulling this together. Dr. Green suggests that the following three ideas are coherent with both neurobiology and New Testament perspectives on human nature, human sin and human freedom.

1) We do what we are. That is, our behaviors are generated out of, and so reflect, our characters and dispositions.

2) Who we are is both formed and continually being formed socioculturally, and especially relationally.

3) “Choice” is contextually determined.

Biblical faith pushes beyond the inherited human nature to a broader view of the people of God. Dr. Green doesn’t quite go here in this chapter, but the conclusion seems inescapable. Sin is not the specific acts or behaviors of an individual but the condition of humanity.  The acts, bitterness envy, sexual immorality, and so forth characterize a life shaped by a community apart from God or rebelling against God.

We are called and enabled to join the people of God and to re-form ourselves along biblical theological lines in the community of the people of God. This is not an instantaneous change, but an ongoing formation for which community is absolutely indispensable. There is no transformation without the church (being in relationship with the community of the people of God).

This chapter ends rather abruptly and leaves many ideas dangling. The next chapter, Being Human, Being Saved, may bring more of this together.

For now…

What do you think of Dr. Green’s identification of the nature of sin according to Peter, James, and Paul? Is this in accord with your understanding?

Does the emphasis on the communal nature of sin and sinfulness make sense?

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

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • phil_style

    RJS, this is a really interesting chapter by the looks of it. I note similarities in this discussion with the previous thread on the Vaun Swanson article. In the comments section you noted the following: “We need to train our bodies and our brains in Christian virtue – not in the ways of the world…(and later)…We study to develop the brain; We train to become successful athletes”

    I would suggest that the practice of virute, as a christian discipline recognises the biological influence(s) on our character. Humans can change (within limits) by discipline (habit) and by the gracious giving of the fruits of the spirit. However, as with all discipline (athletic etc) no training is without great sacrifice and pain.

    In the evangelical churches I grew up in, discipline meant getting up at 5am to read the bible, and the activity was (confusing sola-fide) carefully caveated with a thousand mantras about this “not being about legalism”. If we could only realise the values and priority of virtues, their pursuit would not need to be caveated, because we would seek virtues with as much hunger as we seek financial stability, “influence” etc…

  • Rick

    “The capacity for transformation is a divine gift – both through the example of Christ and through the power of Christ’s life and death.”

    “There is no transformation without the church (being in relationship with the community of the people of God).”

    I agree in the idea of a community’s impact on transformation, I am concerned about the lack of attention paid to how God directly transforms. He does not just ship us off on our own in the hopes we will figure it out. We are to abide in Him, both as individuals and as communities. Scripture, prayer, and sacraments have community transformation elements to them, but they also have direct Godly “grace” aspects to them.

    He is not, all of a sudden, disconnected from impacting us.

  • T


    I don’t know if this was your feeling in reading this chapter, but my feeling in reading your summary was that this was one of the most thoughtful, helpful and enlightening discussions of sin I’ve ever heard; and I’ve heard a few.

    I’ve often said that community is neither an inherent good or evil. It shapes either way, and more profoundly than I used to think. But the internal component of desire is also an important component as the author notes in James. But I love how the life, death and resurrection of Christ provides a doorway out; I agree that escape from bondage to a pattern against God and his ways, against life, internalized and communally maintained and deepened, is the focus of Paul’s message. Jesus is and enables and leads the alternative Way, which is deeper than a mere alternative pattern. He offers to make a new human, a new creation, new set of desires and new community to deepen and internalize the new Way.

  • rjs


    I think you are right to emphasize the direct role of God and the Spirit in the transformation. But I would also add that transformation through the power of God with his direct involvement is in the context of God fearing and God following communities. There are very few, and probably no, effective lone ranger Christians. I think we tend to underestimate the way God works with us as individuals through us as a community.

  • Susan N.

    “Theologically this is nothing less than a conversion of the imagination, those patterns of thinking, feeling, believing, and behavior that animate our lives.” (p. 98) I love this!

    Wow, rjs, this speaks to me on the topic of yesterday’s post ‘Transforming the World 2 (Patrick Mitchell)’.

    Dr. Greene’s three ideas which summarize the chapter (we do what we are, Who we are is both formed and continually being formed socioculturally, and especially relationally; and, “Choice” is contextually determined) bring home the point that American Christianity is so syncretized with the culture at large that we’ve lost our ability to see ourselves (namely, our sins) accurately.

    We have to make the distinction of *not* being a friend with the world (its sinful behaviors) while *being* a friend to people who are not necessarily a regular part of our social context. If we only surround ourselves with those like us, it is difficult to really “see” those who are different. If we can’t see them, how can we respond to others with love?

    Fellowship of believers is a blessing — I know this is true. The church as a body working together to share the gospel and do good works is a great encouragement. Alone, the task can seem daunting. But…I also feel that “relational” and “community” here take on a whole new dimension when we get outside of our social context, seek to know those beyond our “walls”, and stand in solidarity with them. Ubuntu?

    I’m reflecting deeply on the question of how free our human will really is, given our neurobiological and socio-cultural conditioning… Mercy!

  • Rick

    RJS #4-

    I don’t disagree, and see it as a both/and:

    Romans 12:4-5:
    “For as in one body we have many members,and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

  • John W Frye

    Evangelicals revel in 1 John 1:9 about confessing our sins to God and being *forgiven* and cleansed but shun James 5:17 “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” A little leaven leavens the whole lump. There is no privacy or individualism viz-a-viz sin. Sin is always profoundly relational and communal. Privatization of faith has spun off privatization of sin. Both are fantasies and seedbeds for growing sin. This was a good comment: “Reading beyond what Dr. Green has written – this is not necessarily a condition introduced by a unique act by a unique couple, but a statement of the rebellion of mankind and the condition of humanity as a consequence. Paul may see Adam and Eve as the progenitors, but his understanding of sin and human nature does not rest on this.”

  • Tony Springer

    Thanks for the post.

    “Acts of wickedness are expressions of sin, they are not themselves the problem.”
    “Sin is not the specific acts or behaviors of an individual but the condition of humanity.”

    If this is the case, would this tweak the use of the non-biblical saying of “love the sinner, but hate the sin?”

  • T

    Rick, in fairness, the author deals with transformation in the next chapter, where as this one dealt with the condition of sin. Hopefully the Spirit will receive some fair attention in the next post.

  • Kaleb


    Thank you for this post! It speaks volumes to what I have felt over my growth and transformation. Our imagination, our relationships, our habits, our everything need this kind of conversion; not just converting to some abstract agreement with a set of truths, however truthful they may be! I also really like the way you bring freewill in. It makes sense that are freewill is contextualized by the environments and habits we have grown up in. Yes, everyone can change, but maybe we need to welcome people more freely into Christian community to help model a different way of being; without which there is not much hope. I only wish more churches welcomed everyone in that way to make transformation possible, instead of having to agree to a set of doctrines to ever truly belong. This post really spoke to me and I appreciate your thoughtfulness!

  • Joe Canner

    Tony #8: Tony Campolo suggests “love the sinner, hate our own sin” as an alternative (based on Matt 7:1-5), but it sounds like you are suggesting, based on this post, that hating anyone’s sin and loving sinners are incompatible propositions since the sinner and the sin are so closely entwined. Is that what you are getting at? It’s an intriguing thought; I wonder what a better formulation would be? Perhaps the next chapter will provide that…

  • Rick

    T #9-

    Thanks for that heads-up.

  • DRT

    ISTM that he is making sin = human condition without god. Even more specifically, it is the human condition without the intervention of god as an exogenous event to change the deterministic biological and societal trajectories of humans.

    Here is the bigger version of that. It is much like the birds in Scot’s back yard. They are out there doing there finch things and starling things and they will keep doing their finch and starling things unless something from the outside comes in and intervenes. Lo and behold, a Blue Parakeet comes into the picture so now we have something that otherwise could not have existed, and new prototype for behavior. The other birds start to adapt that new behavior and therefore draw closer to the Blue Parakeet way of being. We are the other birds, god is the Blue Parakeet (in this case).

    I still have an inherent problem with the idea that sin = the human condition without god. That is the same as the total depravity idea, right?

    But I have lived my entire life with that outside influence present because 1) I was raised a Catholic and 2) the Holy Spirit is at work in my life. So the question that comes to me is given the prevalence of the Holy Spirit in a post-Jesus world is it possible for anyone to be living in the undisturbed state of humanity = sin….

    Thanks for the post, this has me thinking in new ways!

  • Dennis J

    ever since i learned that the neurology of an addict’s brain conforms to their addictions i have become facinated with this topic and how it relates to the biblical concept of sin.
    i would caution people on this topic that they do not fall into the same error as the Deists of the 18th century. when scientists discovered that natural phenomenon operated according to measurable patterns, and were predictable, the assumption was that God was not involved in the universe: God was “outside” as the “clockmaker” who merely wound up the clock. according to the bible, God is intimately involved in all aspects of the universe and is ever present. for many years the Deist view has tainted theology with its perspective on reality: for example, questioning the nature of miracles, etc.
    today, science is discovering that our behaviours, emotions, and drives, all come from the physical brain. again, from a biblical perspective we are both physical, and spiritual beings. (our separation from God, for example, is a spiritual problem, not a physical one). it is easy to forget the spiritual, when the physical is so observable.
    i am not a dualist. i believe in the integration of body and spirit, and that the human psyche derives from a joining of the two. however, there are people who, on a practical level, will deny spirit altogether. this will have consequences on theology. when we read, for example, in Galatians that, “whatsover a man sows, that he shall also reap”, this is a spiritual principal. the fact that it can be physically observed in the brain does not make the spiritual reality moot. if we do not maintain a belief in the human spirit, doubt will be cast on human responsibility and all evil will be reduced to social and genetic factors outside anyone’s control.
    (maybe Dr. Green addresses this. i don’t know)

  • Owen

    “Paul talks very little about the forgiveness of sins. Dr. Green identifies only two places (Eph 1:7, Col 1:14). Rather humanity requires a liberation from enslavement.”

    It seems Dr. Green has overlooked Paul’s discussion of justification in Romans 4: “David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN, AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED” (4:6-7).

    Green seems to lay a heavier stress on the liberation of humanity from the chains of sinfulness, and less on the guilt of sinful mankind. I wonder if he would favor a Christus Victor atonement theory over and above substitutionary atonement. Both theories are present in Paul, and both aspects of the atonement are necessary for dealing with humanity’s problems. But emphasis on one or the other seems to evidence a lopsided view of human nature.

  • Dana Ames

    There is a lot in the summary that would be compatible with the EO approach, particularly with Green’s understanding of what Peter, James and Paul were trying to get at.


  • Patricia Zell

    I think it’s important to consider that, if the Bible is reality, Adam and Eve did not create sin, but were deceived by Satan into sin or into letting go of God. Before God created our world, Lucifer created sin when he decided that he would rather rule over his peers in the alternative to God than to continue to hold on to God.

    As long as there is deception, freedom of will is limited. Just like Eve (who had no concept of deception) in the Garden of Eden, many times we do not recognize the deceptions in our life. This is why Christ said that we would know the truth and the truth would set us free.

    When we receive the love of God manifested through Christ’s death on the cross and are born again, we kill the power of sin (unbelief, not cleaving to God) in our lives. We are made the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus (II Corinthians 5:21) and sin no longer rules over us. What that means is that we can go to God anytime and for anything. In fact, we can climb up on the couch next to Him and never leave that spot. This is freedom from sin!

  • Ann F-R

    DRT, don’t I recall that the RCC has the understanding that w/out God’s grace we are lost? That would be a different perspective on original sin than Calvin’s total depravity, but still present. Augustine certainly had that understanding of human sinfulness in his writing, AFAICR.

    Re: Green’s perspective on Paul & the use of the word, “forgiveness”, which would also figure in Owen’s comment (15), IIRC, Paul preferred to use “grace” (χάρις, or its forms), rather than the Hebrew/Aramaic-speaking, Greek-writing authors who used the wording of the LXX. The LXX uses the Greek word for “let go”. ISTM the differences between the two words had to do w/ the audiences they were writing to, and the culture in which they learned Greek. When Paul quoted the LXX, he used the word it used (ἀφίημι) – to send away, let go, disregard. I couldn’t quickly locate my notes on this distinction, but I recall verifying that Luke did have some parallels in his word choices w/ Paul.

    I would agree w/his take on the reinforcing that takes place w/in communities – for better or for worse! I recall a scientific article on neurological activity of observers mimicking the neurological activity of those doing the activity. Does that sound familiar to you, rjs? It reinforces the Proverbial & Psalmists’ warnings about paying attention to the company we keep. If we want to be wise, we need both to avoid the foolish, and to keep company with the wise.

  • Dave P

    Yes, Yes, this makes perfect sense. I see the connection to the discussion several days ago about the genome mapping and whether Adam and Eve were the actual first two beings. The communal nature of sin fits far more fluidly with the Paul’s connection with first Adam and Last Adam. First Adam brought sin for ALL, and Last Adam brought life for ALL. We are enslaved in community and we are freed in community and freed into community.
    Restoration from the sinfulness of the whole of humanity results in the restoration of community with Trinity. Our Americanized “me” culture finds ways to turn life into the singular. But God’s eternal purpose through the church is to display Himself in community with mankind to the heavenly community and in so doing silence His critics and magnify Himself.

  • DRT

    Ann F-R , why yes. Now that I bring my RCC upbringing back to the front of my mind, Adam and Eve committed original sin and we are all born with this original sin. We cannot be saved while we have this original sin.

    But, the sacrament of baptism forgives original sin, allowing us to be a member of god’s family.

    My RCC heritage says there is original sin that is forgiven through baptism. Mortal sins which are forgiven through the sacrament of confession or by spending time in purgatory, and venial sin which is more or less ok but they are like traffic tickets, if you just get a couple you are fine but too many will send you to jail.

    The idea of sin was less of a characteristic of us and more of a reflection of our standing between us and god. Sin type is shorthand for telling how far away we are from god and his perfection.

  • Gary Sweeten

    These are issues I have written about and taught since 1979 when I met a Lutheran Theologian James Kallas. He posited that Fallen Nature, he would not call it sins, had always been represented by three factors: 1. Rebellion; 2. Guilt; and 3. Bondage. After studying these things for a few years i added a fourth: 4. Shame.

    So, I generally agree with Mr. Green’s thesis but he seems to try to narrow “sin” to only one of the three and narrow it to either individuals or community. I strongly agree with Kallas that all four operate at all times both individually and corporately.

    Genesis 3 is clear that Fallen Nature impacts nature, family, community, governments, etc. all are impacted by Bondage and Rebellion at the very least.

    When Christian anthropology fails to deal with all four issues we get a truncated gospel and a truncated discipleship, especially in the progressive nature of healing and growth. Green seems to proof text and come up with a disconnected approach to healing and growth. For example, he says Paul did not talk about forgiveness as if True Moral Guilt were unimportant.

    I cannot fail him for most Protestant Christians steer away from confession, forgiveness and repentance. This lack leaves most Christians with a bad conscience and feelings of false guilt and shame. Of course shame is ignored all together even though it is central in scripture.

    Modern Protestant theology as applied to individuals and the church is so insipid that few Christians grow at all but remain babies on milk.

    I must put my grand kids to bed now. Maybe more later.

  • Gary Sweeten

    I further think it is a mistake to use the term sin in these instances. The term has lost its meaning and is confusing to almost everybody that does not have an M. Div. Use the specific aspect of human wrong doing.

    Miss the mark is different from trespasses and both are different from Guilt. Clear language will assist us all in developing an understanding of God and human interactions.