Tripp Fuller and I are recruiting YOU to ask your biggest question about God via YouTube to some of the top theologians in the world.
Tripp Fuller and I are recruiting YOU to ask your biggest question about God via YouTube to some of the top theologians in the world.
First, let it be said that Jesus is not recorded in the gospels as saying anything that can be construed as particularly supportive of the doctrine of Original Sin. Jesus did talk about sin, to be sure (and n.b., dear readers, I am not disputing the reality of sin, just the doctrine of Original Sin). Probably the closest he came to tackling the idea of inherited sin is the pericope of Jesus healing a man born blind in John 9:1-12, which begins:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’
Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. (TNIV)
As usual with Jesus, his primary point seems to be subvert the conventional wisdom of the day. His interlocuters assume that the man’s blindness is a direct result of either A) his own sin, or B) his parents’ sin.
Philip Clayton (who is, by the way, da bomb!) tells us:
UPDATE: Not going on the show today. Todd and I just spoke on the phone. He didn’t really want to talk about Original Sin but use that as a jumping off point to justification and soteriology. He made it clear that he thinks I am “knocking on the door” of heresy. He fears for my eternal salvation.
So, we chatted at length and decided not to have the radio interview today. Too much at stake. We’re going to reschedule it for a couple of weeks from now.
Scott M drops some historical and biblical context on Original Sin:
For that matter, Ethan, I could have pointed to the very first
controversy that resulted in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. I
didn’t do so because the Scripture was not yet in the canonized state
(or indeed even existant) at that time. But it does have some
illustrative use in this discussion even so.
You see, in that dispute, using Scripture as the sole authority, the
judaizers actually had the stronger point. You only have to read
Genesis 17 to realize that, especially 17:14. The apostles and early
bishops (James seems to have headed the council) on this point and
elsewhere radically reinterpreted Scripture to mean something other
than what it sometimes seemed to plainly say in light of who Jesus was,
what he had done, and what he had taught them. Sola Scriptura was
certainly not their criteria. Their criteria, their lens if you will,
was the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, while I feel we must read all Scripture through that same lens,
I don’t feel and have never felt free to develop and promulgate novel
interpretations of my own. And you see that consistently beginning with
the apostolic fathers. That’s why, though I have pretty much always
rejected the Western notion of original sin, I largely kept my mouth
shut until years later when I discovered the Eastern Church had
essentially the same understanding I did.
What we have seen for the past 500 years are people promoting all
sorts of novel interpretations (or in some cases ancient heresies
rehashed) under the banner of the ‘sole’ authority of Scripture. Many
of these are so radically different from each other that they don’t
even seem to be describing the same person. I don’t see any way to
resolve the God Jonathan Edwards described, for one example, with the
God described by St. Isaac the Syrian.
What does this have to do with ‘original sin’ in my mind? I realize
that may not be obvious. Developing a theory about the nature of the
human being purely from a novel interpretation of Scripture is
dangerous. Attempting to interpret or reinterpret Scripture simply
through textual or historical analysis is at best a mixed bag. In order
to understand what it means to be human, we need to understand what
Jesus of Nazareth not only revealed about God, but about humanity. He
was not an idea about which we can have varying opinions. He was a
person. As such, though we may all only understand him or know him in
part, there is an underlying reality. I would not be willing to concede
that any conception another had of me was equally valid. I am who I am,
even if I don’t always know for sure who I am.
This Western notion of original sin is more platonic in nature than
anything that can be strongly identified with the historic Christian
interpretation of Scripture. It’s not even particularly scriptural. The
problems it raises certainly can’t be addressed by anything in
Scripture. Rather it was a fairly novel and largely ignored idea for
the first thousand years of Christianity. It only found real traction
in the West over the past thousand years. It seems to be the sort of
problem that quickly manifests when we abandon the idea that we need to
interpret Scripture in a way that is consistent with the past
interpretation of the Church.
I feel like I’ve blathered and babbled enough, which probably means I’ve gone on too long. Sorry about that.
I’ll take a break on substantive posts on this topic over the weekend, and launch back in by tackling Romans on Monday. (It is interesting how many commenters on the last post were unwilling to deal with Genesis on its own merits but instead jumped straight to Paul. Also interesting how many already assume how I’ll deal with Paul when, in all honesty, I don’t know how I’ll deal with Paul.)
I’ll have a post on Paul up on Monday morning, just in time for me to go on Todd Friel’s Wretched Radio program. That should be a laugh riot.
Why does a close examination of the doctrine of Original Sin matter? Because it is the “foundation” upon which much other Western doctrine is based. Scott M, take it away:
Hmmm. Part of the problem may be that we
have fixed names for these characters, ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. In truth, if
it is used as a proper name, ‘Adam’ is not so used until Chapter 4.
Before then, the references are to ‘ha-adam’. (Pardon me for any
inaccuracies. I’m hardly a language expert.) The ‘little ground’(?) and
elsewhere the man and the woman. We also totally miss in translation
the play on words.
I’ve never found it particularly important to the story whether or
not there were two specific people involved. By the time we start
getting a family narrative in Chapter 4, we see when Cain is exiled
that there seem to be plenty of others outside his family for him to be
worried about. Chapters two and three have a pretty different feel to
them. And referencing ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’ fairly generically
seems to me a good stand-in for referencing humanity. (In that sense, I
do think it is paradigmatic, though probably not the word I would
However, we are born into a world which has been damaged by eikons
of the Creator reflecting other than that Creator into it and by eikons
trying to become the eikon of something else. In that sense, we inherit
the consequences of sin. However, just as the Resurrection is not
merely some historical event (though it must be that), but indeed the
center of reality — including time, so too I don’t see ‘sin’ as a
purely linear, historical progression. We do not just affect ourselves
with our ‘sin’ or those we directly touch. Rather, in ways we do not
see we affect all reality, of necessity including time. So we are born
‘in Adam’ and indeed inevitably participate with Adam. In that sense,
we are all Adam. Nothing less seems to make sense of either Scripture
or Jesus to me. So to say that creation is affected by our sin does not
to me imply a time when it was not so affected simply because we did
not yet exist in a linear progression of time.
I think there are many problems with the Western doctrine of
original sin. But not least among those problems is the fact that it
effectively trivializes the true problem. I think that’s why the
Resurrection has, for the last thousand years in the West, become
increasingly adjunct, often little more than a add-on, and from there a
short step to unnecessary. I saw that very clearly a few years ago
reading an SBC publication (the denomination to which I suppose I
‘belong’). There were a lot of articles talking about and defending the
Resurrection. But when it came to describing the ‘why’ or what it
meant, the most they could say was that it ‘proved the Father had
accepted the payment of the Son.’ I was stunned. I suppose I still am.
As I’ve tried to say, there’s a lot more at stake in how you view
this question than is immediately evident. It sends shoots everywhere.
Let me start with some throat-clearing. At least one friend and not a few commenters were bothered by the fact that I wrote about my own intuition before I started reflection on the biblical passages at play. One friend told me that, as a self-proclaimed Protestant, I should begin with the Bible, where Protestants always begin.
Firstly, don’t read too much into my decision to write about my intuition first. It has something to do with the fact that I was pressed for time on Monday. Further, I was trying to be a bit autobiographical, in both the introduction and intuition posts. This blog is not particularly a place for forensic arguments, like, say, my dissertation will be. Instead, it’s a place for more personal, impassioned writing.
Secondly, and I’ve been very clear on this point here and elsewhere, I do not think it possible to “begin with the Bible.” We always begin with our own hermeneutical assumptions. Always. No exceptions. A human being cannot escape her/his own hermeneutical horizon. You are encased in it, just as you are encased in your own skin. There’s no escape.
Does this mean that I reject the Lutheran formula of sola scriptura? Well, insofar as sola scriptura is naive to everyone’s interpretive biases, yes. I don’t think I can actually rely on scripture alone. I am always also reliant upon my own reason to interpret and apply scriptural truth (this just in, Tony Jones believes in scriptural truth!). (Just a side question here: Doesn’t sola mean “alone”? As in, all-by-itself-with-nothing-else? How, then, can there be five solas? Is that not logically incoherent?)
So, I might approach the Bible differently than you do. So be it.
Now, on to Genesis!
Some commenters are concerned that I’m setting up a straw man — that is, I’m leaving the doctrine of Original Sin undefined so that I can then dispute an unformed doctrine. So I will defer to the BBC, and their excellent summary of the doctrine. This will be our working definition of Original Sin:
What is original sin?
Original sin is a Christian doctrine that says that everyone is born sinful. This means that they are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God.
Original sin is not just this inherited spiritual disease or defect in human nature; it’s also the ‘condemnation’ that goes with that fault.
An explanation for the evils of the world
Christians believe that original sin explains why there is so much wrong in a world created by a perfect God, and why people need to have their souls ‘saved’ by God.
A condition you’re in, not something you do
Original sin is a condition, not something that people do: It’s the normal spiritual and psychological condition of human beings, not their bad thoughts and actions. Even a newborn baby who hasn’t done anything at all is damaged by original sin.
The sin of Adam
In traditional Christian teaching, original sin is the result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God when they ate a forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
Effects of original sin
Original sin affects individuals by separating them from God, and bringing dissatisfaction and guilt into their lives.
On a world scale, original sin explains such things as genocide, war, cruelty, exploitation and abuse, and the “presence and universality of sin in human history”.
Scott M points out some of the most significant intellectual problems with the doctrine of Original Sin:
There are many ways in which this peculiarly Western variation of
Christian belief distorts the faith. I mentioned one, the fate of
infants who die, because that’s something I immediately noticed when I
began turning to Christianity. It’s something that matters deeply to
me. While the Roman Catholic Church has moved away from limbo, this is
still a theological issue. That is also true in most forms of
Protestantism. Each tradition may have its own way of ‘dealing’ with
this problem (the SBC, for instance, simply declares it not to be a
problem out of the blue), but it is a problem. That is not the case and
has never been the case in Orthodoxy.
But it strikes much deeper, into the nature of the Incarnation
itself. And you see this borne out in Western theology. You see, if we
all have and are guilty through this inherited nature, how was it Jesus
didn’t inherit this ‘sin nature’? Roman Catholics take it back a
generation and came up with the Immaculate Conception of Mary. God
shielded Mary from inheriting this nature so she could provide the
perfect womb for Christ. Some strains of Protestantism stick more
closely to a more literal ‘seminal reasons’ line of thought and tie it
to the semen of the father. They all are trying to address a problem
the Orthodox have never had.
Further, it’s a ‘problem’ that strikes to the heart of our
salvation. For if I have this inherited ‘sin nature’ and Jesus did not,
then he and I are not of the same nature. It renders moot the promise
of Scripture that Jesus fully experienced all that I experience, was
tempted in every way, yet did not sin. Moreover, as Athanasius aptly
put it, that which is not assumed is not healed. If Jesus was of a
different nature than me, I’m still right where I was.