A Better Atonement: Maybe I Was Wrong about Original Sin

This week, as we prepare for Good Friday and Easter, we’ll have a post every morning about the atonement. Some will be by me, and some by guests. And don’t forget to check out the Storify and Tumbler, both tracking atonement this week. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here.

Today, Dallas Gingles challenges my argument that Original Sin is a doctrine, fabricated by Augustine, without biblical or rational justification. Regardless of silly quotes by GK Chesterton, I don’t buy it. But I thought I’d let Dallas provide a Nieburhrian counterpoint.

First, let me say thanks to Tony for the opportunity to guest post in this conversation about atonement and original sin. I’ve enjoyed the conversation, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

I often hear theologians or pastors describing a conversation with a skeptical or hurt person who says, “I just can’t believe in a God who destroys lives, hates sinners, looks like the G.O.P,” or something similar. The minister responds, “I don’t believe in that God either.” Similarly, I don’t believe in the version of original sin that Tony doesn’t believe in in A Better Atonement. However, I do want to defend original sin.

The version of original sin that I want to affirm starts, like Tony’s, with St. Augustine. Unlike Tony, I want to locate the upshot of the doctrine, not in contrast to Pelagius, but in Augustine’s refutation of the Manicheans, and his political thought. Roughly put, the Manicheans believed that evil was a material substance in the world. The convoluted process by which evil was confronted and combated included the bowel movements of faithful believers.

Augustine’s account of evil as a privation—a no-thing—is a direct rebuttal to the idea that evil exists: is a “thing.” Humans will wrongly and humans love wrongly. In so doing they undo their being—they un-become, so to speak. This undoing is finally an undoing of human relations—of the Human City. As Jean Bethke Elshtain has noted, no one has recently captured this idea better than J.K. Rowling with her portrayal of the character of Voldemort.

At the turn of the 20th century, scientific (and social) optimism was the dominant ethos of European nations and the United States. Most Christians today know this movement from the phrase “what would Jesus do.” Simplistically put, the idea was that with new scientific discoveries and the ability to control outcomes, if Christians would just do what Jesus would do in their situation, evil would be eradicated.

Reinhold Niebuhr shattered this optimism and “rediscovered” original sin, and in so doing he returned to Augustine. For Niebuhr, “sin” names the fallen human state that both wills to be God (pride), and that—ironically—abdicates responsibility for human action (sensuality). Both are attempts to undo the proper relationship between God and self. It is this conception of the human situation that alone can explain the tyranny and injustice of a world of war. The response, Niebuhr insists, is a rediscovery of the grace of God that makes even our sins to praise God. But this, in turn, demands that Christians live responsible lives—both affirming their human nature, and accepting responsibility for it.

Robin Lovin, puts it this way:

Certain key ideas in [Niebuhr’s] understanding are easily summarized: The human being is both a finite, limited creature and an image of God. The final judgment on human history lies beyond history, and it falls equally on every particular human project, no matter how good or how evil that project may appear within history. Precisely because of that eschatological judgment, relative good and evil are real and make a difference within history.

We are human beings, and not God, Niebuhr told us. “We are responsible for making choices between greater and lesser evils, even when our Christian faith, illuminating the human scene, makes it quite apparent that there is no pure good in history, and probably no pure evil either. The fate of civilizations may depend upon these choices between systems of which some are more, others less just.”

Original sin is the name we give to warped desires. Because humans desire (or will) wrongly, we are in constant peril of willing our own destruction. Because of God’s mercy, we are under constant judgment that reveals this fallen state. Because of that revelation, we are cast back upon the grace that God has given us, and are sent out to live responsibly. Without such a conception, we risk self-justifying our desires, and mistaking the Triumph of the Will for good politics.

Dallas Gingles is a doctoral student in religious ethics at Southern Methodist University. His interests are peace and justice and the Pentecostal tradition. You can find him on his blog, G+. and on Twitter.

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  • James Walters

    There is a missing link in the argument. Augustine’s thought on evil was certainly formed in response to Manichaeans. However, there is no direct link between this concept of evil (as a no-thing) and his concept of sin. The latter was absolutely forged in his debate with Pelagius. The doctrine of original sin makes no sense over and against a Manichaean opponent. In fact, the Manichaeans would have agreed (i.e. all humans are born part light and part darkness) with a doctrine of original sin.

  • No.

  • Matt

    I find it difficult to argue for or against such an idea without consulting the whole of the biblical narrative as opposed to simply Romans. Ephesians 2:3 speaks of us as by nature children of wrath and Psalm 51:5 point to sinfulness from birth, from the time of conception. While I certainly understand keeping things in their context, do these assertions point to the idea of Original Sin as actually being valid? How do we handle those verses in light of Romans 5?

  • Evelyn

    Interesting. Unfortunately there is a blaring inconsistency between Robin Lovin’s interpretation of Niebuhr’s thought and the last paragraph of the blog. Robin Lovin seems to think that history is judged outside of history in an eschatological way whereas the last paragraph of the blog assumes that history is judged via some sort of infused grace.

    “Original sin is the name we give to warped desires.” This brings to mind a piece that I recently read in the NY Times by an author and psychologist named Jonathan Haidt. He claims that people generally base their decisions on intuition or desire and then later rationalize their decisions. Perhaps if people contemplated on whether their intuitions and desires were consistent with their internal ethos before they made decisions, they could break out of this concept of “Original sin”. Just sayin’.

  • I take my understanding of sin from the nature of Eve’s conversation with the serpent. The serpent’s lie (You shall not surely die) planted the seed of doubt about whether God can be trusted.If the world was created by the Word (God speaks…) and if God lies, then reality is undone. Not just that humans undo their being, but that if God’s word is not reliable, then reality itself is undone. Doubt, mistrust is the no-thing. Sin results from an honest question, “Can God really be trusted?” To me, the meaning of the cross and atonement is that it answers the doubt with a resounding YES.

  • Thanks, everyone for the helpful comments–including the rather Barthain “nein.” I’ll try to clarify my points in response to the comments.

    @James Walters: Your point is well taken; I should’ve made the link between evil and (original) sin more explicit. I did write that I wanted to take take the upshot of the doctrine from the debate with Manichaeism (thanks for catching the typo)–not the doctrine itself. In Augustine, the relationship between sin and evil is incredibly complicated. Here I’ll just point to a chapter on that topic in the Cambridge Companion to Augustine: “No creature, then, is evil, in spite of the fact that some creatures are worse than others. The word ‘evil’ when predicated of creatures refers to a privation, an absence of goodness where goodness might have been…Sin is not a desire for naturally evil things…there are no naturally evil things that could serve as objects of sinful desires” (44-5). The point, I take it, is that the desire (or consent to the desire; see, Ibid., 45), itself is tainted or deformed–and that this deformation brings about the undoing of the self in bringing evil to be. I’m not sure this clears it up, but I think there’s a decent relationship between the two. Also, I think that the Elshtain lecture (as well as her book Augustine and the Limits of Politics”) is very helpful on this topic.

    @Matt: I’ll leave the biblical work up to other people at this point, but I do think that there seems to be some conception of a universal human condition in the passages you cited. What exactly that human condition is would have to be argued.

    @Evelyn: I’m not sure I see the contradiction, but I’ll try to respond and you can tell me if I’m getting close. Also, if I’m simply missing it, please let me know. In his recent book, An Introduction to Christian Ethics, Lovin writes of Christian Realism (Niebuhr’s theological school), “Seeing ourselves in light of creation, sin, incarnation, redemption, and resurrection destiny undercuts pride in our achievements and destroys any illusions that we have the power to make them permanent. But the realist insists that it is not enough to bear this witness that our achievements are flawed and our possibilities are limited. Christian ethics must also guide our choices among these limited possibilities, because how we choose makes a real difference in the lives of individuals and nations” (56). For Niebuhr, the judgment that is outside of history makes meaningful action within history possible. This is why he thought that Christianity was “beyond tragedy;” the tragic shape of life is finally meaningful because of the grace of God that makes history meaningful instead of nihilistic. That meaningfulness makes demands of us to live responsible lives before God, though always undercutting “pride in our achievements.”

  • Evelyn

    Ok. I was thinking more about the differences between Pelagius and Augustine on the subject of the actions of free will and grace in our daily lives.

    What I’ve gleaned from B.R. Rees’ book called “Pelagius: Life and letters” is that Pelagius thinks that humans were created good (in God’s image), everything that humans do is a product of our free will, humans can be free of sin by following prescribed spiritual practices, and divine judgment occurs in the end times only. Therefor there is no active grace in our daily lives.

    Offhand, my impression of Augustine is that he thinks that humans are intrinsically bad (because of Original sin) and it is only by the grace of God that we do anything good. Augustine has a strong infused grace component with God active in our daily lives through an active grace that is not necessarily a rational thought process of humans based on scripture. I think this concept may be a little spooky for a lot of people who want to limit God’s presence to biblical times and the afterlife rather than our everyday existence.

    Your blog makes sense if according to Niebuhr, we are created in an image of God (basically good), but are imperfect (hence the nihilistic meaninglessness of history), the “constant judgment” mentioned in the last paragraph of the blog is man judging man via prescribed Christian ethics, and divine judgement (outside of history) occurs in the end times. This is basically Pelagian thought but then Niebuhr disses humanity because of our imperfections so that God and Christian ethics can give meaning to our imperfect lives.

    I take the view that we can seem imperfect because we are evolving (the past seems crude and tragic relative to the present) and it is the ongoing cultural and scientific evolution that give meaning to our lives. What we do today is built on the past and affects the future of humanity and that is the reason that we should be creative and ethical rather than destructive. God is the “common good” (agape) both present and future. When we align our will and intention with what we believe to be the common good we can experience the grace of God. We are not tragic. It is a miracle that we are here and we are successful. Not only are we evolving but because our worldview, which affects how we define God, is also evolving then God itself is evolving.

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