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.

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