Is God Male?

Holy Trinity of Urschalling 1150When I teach about the Trinity in my introductory theology class the topic of God and gender often comes up. “Is God male?” Let’s think about that.

The Bible often refers to God with masculine personal pronouns. Following this, Christians usually say “He,” “Him, “His,” and “Himself,” when referring to God. Trinitarian language is predominately masculine (“Father” and “Son”) though “Holy Spirit” is more elusive. Many popular Christian books celebrate the more masculine qualities of God (especially books for men and books on ‘leadership’): God is a hero, a conqueror, a warrior, a triumphant king, and so forth.

Even so, I would be extremely hesitant about saying that God IS male; in fact, I would push further to argue that such a notion applied to God absolutely and without qualification is both false and misleading.

Granted, Scripture predominately speaks of God with masculine language. However, it also employs female language, images, and metaphors with reference to God.* For example, it portrays God as a mother. God is like a woman in labour (Isa. 42:14), a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12), a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15), a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13), a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4), a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Dt. 32:18), and a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals, and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4). Other maternal images can be found in Ps. 131:2; Job. 38:8, 29; Prov. 8:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:2-3, Acts 17:28.

In addition to using maternal images, the Bible portrays God in terms of common feminine roles (in biblical times): as a seamstress making clothes for Israel to wear (Neh. 9:21), a midwife attending a birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9), and a woman working leaven into bread (Lk. 13:18-21). The point is not that these tasks are inherently feminine, but that Scripture appeals to common culturally feminine roles to depict God.

Moreover, Scripture speaks about God using female bird or animal imagery. God acts like a female bird protecting her young (Ps. 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 91:1, 4; Isa. 31:5; Dt. 32:11-12), like an eagle (Dt. 32:11-12; Ex. 19:4; Job 39:27-30), like a hen (Mt. 23:37; Lk. 13:34; cf. Ruth 2:12), and like a mother bear (Hosea 13:8).

Finally, the Holy Spirit is often associated with female imagery and functions, such as birth/new birth, life, water, a comforter and counsellor, and love that binds together, etc. (e.g., John 3:5-6; John 14; 1 John 4.).

Genesis 1:26-27 teaches that both male and female human beings reflect God’s image. If this is true, and if there is any meaningful difference between male and female, this implies that it is only together, as both male and female, that we reflect God’s image. It also implies that God transcends both categories and that God is characterized by both male and female qualities.

So, Scripture can employ both masculine and feminine language to speak about God. Whether one or the other predominates is ultimately not significant. The larger point to grasp is that all such language is analogical not literal when used with reference to God. Why is that so?

Male and female are created categories; they relate essentially to creaturely sexuality and reproduction, not to God’s life as transcendent and infinite Spirit. Saying “God IS male” in an ontological sense—i.e., moving from saying God is like to saying God IS without qualification—leads us into idolatry, because such a statement limits God to finite, anthropomorphic, and created categories. We end up envisioning a god made in our own image (a human projection), rather than seeing human beings in God’s image. The danger of idolatry, of course, is that it tends to religiously undergird harmful and oppressive ideologies. For example, feminists worry (and not without reasonable warrant I think) that the problem with viewing God as ‘male’ is that we tend to begin with certain cultural notions of ‘maleness,’ which we project onto God; we then use these projections to underwrite the very cultural biases with which we began. We have to be very careful about this.

What about classical Trinitarian language that speaks of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? It is important to understand that when it comes to Trinitarian theology, Father, Son, and Spirit refer to the divine ‘persons’ or relations, not the divine being or essence. O.K. That way of putting things is rather technical. Let me illustrate with some practical examples.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was clearly male in his incarnate human form (a form he apparently retained in his resurrection). Does this mean that God IS male? No, this does not follow. Even if it were appropriate to say that Jesus IS male (not just was a male): (a) we would have to ask about the meaning of such ‘maleness’ in the resurrection (in light of passages such as Matthew 22:30); and (b) we would have to distinguish this from what we say about GOD’s being or essence. Whatever we say about GOD ontologically (God’s essence or being) we must say equally of the three divine ‘persons’ (e.g., God is holy, God is just, God is good, God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, etc.; Likewise, each divine person is holy, just, good, omnipotent, etc.). BUT, what we say about the individual ‘persons’ cannot always be said about GOD as such (ontologically, God’s essence). For example, Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew; the Holy Spirit was/is not. The Father is not a Son, the Son is not a Father, and the Spirit is neither. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is sent from the Father and Son (or from the Father through the Son). The Spirit is the breath of God, the Son is the Word of God, and the Father is the One who breathes and speaks his Spirit and Word. Jesus the Son died and endured physical suffering on the cross; Father and Spirit did not suffer in this way (though perhaps they suffered in other ways). And so on. So, the fact that Jesus was (or even is) male does not mean that GOD IS male. Everything that GOD is, Jesus is; but not everything about Jesus applies equally to God’s essential being.

Perhaps, in the end, the better question is not “Is God male?” but rather: “Are we men like God?” and “Are we women like God?” Do we resemble God in our character, our actions, our dealings with others, our treatment of creation, our vocational goals and responsibilities, and our stewardship of God’s material resources (which really belong to God and are entrusted to us to serve God and others)? Posing the question this way leads us to focus on how God’s character and actions ought to determine how we live out our cultural embodiment of masculinity and femininity, not the other way around.

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Painting: Holy Trinity of Urschalling (1150 CE).

* See Dr. Margo G. Houts, “Feminine Images for God: What Does the Bible Say?” Online:

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The ever quotable Hauerwas

I still love this quote:

“Protestants turned Second Temple Judaism into priest-ridden legalism so that Jesus could be Luther.” – Stanley Hauerwas

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Billy Graham on creation

A few years ago, I read the following quote from Rev. Dr. Billy Graham. I still find it powerful and provocative:

“I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things that they weren’t meant to say, and I think we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course, I accept the Creation story. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man… whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.”

- Billy Graham, Doubt and Certainties (1964)


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On Reading Genesis ‘Literally’

genesis bookIn many popular debates between ‘creationists’ and ‘scientists’ over questions of origins (such as the recent Ham vs. Nye debate), one very important question rarely comes up. That question is this: How should we read the early chapters of Genesis? Quite often, debaters on both sides simply assume that Genesis should be read as a literal and scientific historical account of how God created the earth, step by step. Scientists then reject Genesis as not being scientifically viable while creationists attempt to prove how Genesis does recount reliable science.

But why should we read Genesis in this way? (See also, my post on reading the Bible ‘literally’ here). The ancients were not concerned with scientific questions! They tended to employ their ‘science’ – what they observed  phenomenologically about creation – in the service of their cosmogonies and religious worldviews. If God had wanted to give them a modern scientific explanation they wouldn’t have understood any of it anyway (quarks and quarks, microbiology, general and special relativity theory, and other modern ideas would have sounded like utter nonsense). So, instead of speaking scientifically, God accommodated God’s revelatory message to them. God descended to their level to speak to them in language they could understand. As St. Augustine put it,

“Perhaps Sacred Scripture in its customary style is speaking with the limitations of human language in addressing men of limited understanding. … The narrative of the inspired writer brings the matter down to the capacity of children.” (St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis)

So, a key question to ask is: how does the actual text of Genesis ‘want’ to be read? What clues does the text itself give us  about its meaning and focus? Genesis is an ancient text. A very ancient text. And we should be careful about imposing our own views about what the text must say without carefully considering the kind of text that it is. How do we know what kind of text it is? By paying close attention to genre, grammatical structure, literary style and devices, and contextual issues (its context in Genesis, the Pentateuch, and the rest of the canon; its historical and cultural context in the Ancient Near East).

Another important question that often does not get addressed (people simply make assumptions about it) is: how do we integrate modern scientific knowledge with our reading of Scripture and with our theology? Does science even get a voice? If so, how strong a voice? This is a huge issue, which I cannot address right now (I’ve posted some other thoughts on this question here). But I do want to suggest that science should get a significant voice, particularly when we are asking questions about nature and physical reality (which is what science is designed to study and does so with impressive results). A good axiom is: the nature of the reality being studied must determine the methods we employ to study it. Spiritual truths must be discerned spiritually (aided by divine revelation); truths concerning the natural world must be determined by methods befitting the physical nature of the natural world (i.e., science).

On the relationship between theology and knowledge about creation, consider the wisdom of St. Augustine (4th – 5th century):

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but the people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?”

- St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis

Consider also the wisdom of John Calvin (16th century):

“If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf, were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God?”

- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion II.2.15.

Perhaps the worst tragedy in all of this is that when we do not consider such questions, we fail to here the message of Genesis as God actually intended it. We miss out on hearing the voice of God as God intended to speak! I have found that when we read Genesis according to the questions and issues it is actually addressing (rather than our modern problems), its message is so much more powerful and wonderful! I will devote a future post to discussing the powerful, life changing truths that Genesis teaches, truths that were quite revolutionary in their own time and continue to be today.

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Some thoughts on the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye debate and on young earth six day creationism

bill-nye-ken-ham-watch-onlineLast night the highly publicized and (for some) highly animated debate between six-day creationist Ken Ham and popular TV science personality Bill Nye took place. The debate and question period that followed lasted for quite some time, and much could be said about it, but I just want to share a few thoughts I had in response.

I was pleasantly surprised that the debaters (most of the time) remained amiable and respectful of one another. There were a few times when tensions rose and could have resulted in personal bashing, but mostly the debaters were cordial. This was a relief, because much of the pre-debate hype was terrible – fear-based tactics, ad-hominem assertions bashing the other’s character or credentials, and other rhetoric that succeeded only in further polarizing the issues and charging up their followers for battle (it almost seemed like a UFC fight being promoted!).

The question debated was posed as follows: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

Right from the get-go, there are a couple of things wrong with that question. First, it sets up the debate as an argument of “creation” against “modern science.” This is both a false dichotomy and an oversimplification. It’s a false dichotomy because these two things are not necessarily contradictory or mutually exclusive. Many scientists believe that God (or a higher power, as Nye puts it) created the universe and many believers in God are excellent (even leading) scientists. Both Nye and Ham actually conceded this point during the debate, which was good to see.

Second, this way of posing the question oversimplifies things grossly. It gives the impression that there are only two options, when in fact there are many. And that goes for both words – creation and science. There are many views about creation, even within evangelical Protestant Christianity, and “science” is not a singular discipline but includes many disciplines (we should speak of the sciences). For a more informed and comprehensive introduction to the spectrum of views within evangelical faith, I highly recommend Gerald Rau’s recent book: Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything (InterVarsity Press, 2013). As the title implies, the book compares, contrasts, and constructively and respectfully critiques sixth approaches to origins issues. One of these is six-day creationism, one is atheistic evolution, and the other four fall in between.

Third, the question does not acknowledge that both “creationism” and “modern science” (as posed in the question) are undergirded by particular philosophical and/or metaphysical commitments. Creationism requires a pre-commitment to reading the early chapters of Genesis a certain way (more on this below) and science requires a philosophical framework to make sense of its existence and to interpret its evidence (not to mention that the historical emergence of science required a particular philosophical environment). On this latter issue, see this article.

O.K., so having made these observations about the problematic way the debate question was posed, let me just make a few comments on what, for me, is at the heart of the issue. Let’s clarify the question by asking it as follows: “Is Ken Ham’s six day creation view viable as a scientific explanation of origins?”

My short answer is, respectfully, no.

1. Again, lots could be written on this (and will be, I’m sure, in various blogs and web discussions), but I will just focus on a few things. The bottom line impression I had after watching the debate is that there simply is no good scientific reason to believe in young earth, six day creationism. No scientist, having considered the scientific evidence, would even put forward the notion of a young earth created in six days as a hypothesis worth pursuing. This is not to say that a scientist cannot believe in young earth, six day creationism (as Ham pointed out, some scientists do). But it is to say that scientists who believe such things believe them for reasons other than what science tells them. Ham actually admits this: his scientific beliefs are based on the Bible. The Bible (or rather, Ham’s interpretation of it) filters his scientific observations and beliefs. This brings me to my second critical point.

2. Ham confuses general revelation with special revelation. In the great theological tradition, a distinction is often made between what we can know about God on the basis of reason and by observing creation (general revelation) and what we can know about God on the basis of Scripture (special revelation). The first type leads to general statements about God (God must be very powerful, God must be everywhere, God must be essentially one or simple in God’s being or substance) while the second type tells us specific things about God’s character, desires, will, purposes, plans, actions, and how God relates to human beings (in the Christian revelation, God relates to human beings in a threefold way: God creates, redeems, and perfects or consummates human beings). Early modern theologians referred to these two types of revelation as God’s “two books”: the book of God’s world (general revelation) and the book of God’s Word (special revelation). General revelation is informed by all of the sciences (physical, social, medical, applied, etc.) and other advances in knowledge in the humanities, the arts, the trades, and daily human living. Special revelation is not accessible to these ways of knowing (such disciplines might provide something like corroborative evidence to support the truths of special revelation, but they cannot ‘prove’ them in the scientific sense). Clear examples of special revelation are (in Christian theology) God’s triune nature as Father, Son, and Spirit and belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, coeternal and one in being or essence with God.

So, here’s where this distinction is relevant to the debate over six-day creationism. Ham believes that questions related to the age of the earth (and the universe), the existence of a worldwide flood, and the biological origins of human beings and other creatures belong to the domain of special revelation, not general revelation. This is a huge problem, because this view undermines all of the sciences involved in actually treating and investigating such questions with methods befitting their nature (as physical and accessible). It actually treats science as ultimately irrelevant to answering such questions (other than perhaps providing corroborating evidence for what we already know by other means). Why? Because the truths of special revelation are, by definition, inaccessible to human reason and observation alone. Even Aquinas, who gave us the well known five “proofs” of God’s existence, admitted that such proofs do not take us very far without God’s own gracious special revelation (e.g., we cannot know that God is a Trinity without it). This is a confusion of categories and leads to the application of wrong or inappropriate methods to the particular questions being asked. Spiritual truths must be spiritually discerned (informed by special revelation); physical reality and truths about nature must be naturally discovered (scientifically/natural revelation). Young earth, six day creationism rests entirely upon what it believes to be special revelation, not science (or general revelation).

The problem is not that a scientist cannot be a young earth, six day creationist (again, some are), but that she cannot be one on the basis of science.

3. The young earth, six day creation position rests entirely upon a certain interpretation of the Bible. This raises another serious problem about last night’s debate. It involved virtually no input from biblical scholarship, in particular Old Testament scholarship on Genesis. It simply assumes that the early chapters of Genesis are to be interpreted as a literal, scientific, and historical account of how God created the cosmos. Over the past few years I have been reading a lot of Old Testament scholarship on Genesis – books, commentaries, Old Testament theologies, as well as personally engaging in many close and careful readings (and re-readings!) of the early chapters of Genesis. I have learned that there is SO MUCH going on there, so much to consider. To grasp those chapters well, one must know something about the Hebrew language, about the grammatical and linguistic structure and features of the text, about its genre and literary style and devices, and an awareness of its historical context and narrative context within the book of Genesis, the Pentateuch, and the whole canon! On the basis of this study (and it’s ongoing), I believe that Genesis was written primarily to address who and why questions (e.g., Who is God? Who are we as human beings? Who is this people ‘Israel’ Why do we exist? Why did God make us? Why do we do evil things? Etc.) and not scientific how questions. Almost every Old Testament scholar I’ve read (including conservative evangelical interpreters) makes this point in some way.

This gets us back to the problems concerning how the debate question was posed (‘creation’ vs. ‘modern science’). It gives the impression that Christianity in general believes in young earth, six day creationism, when in fact most Christian scholars and teachers of the Bible do not believe this. And their rejection of this type of creationism usually has nothing to do with science. It has to do with features of the biblical text itself (such as those mentioned above). Secondarily, it has to do with their passionate faith in a God who reveals himself in a consistent and faithful way, both in creation and in Scripture.

So, then, is Ken Ham’s six day creation view viable as a scientific explanation of origins? No, because it is not a scientific explanation at all. It puts forward no positive scientific evidence to support its position (and admits that the Bible is its scientific sourcebook). It does employ some natural observations to support its precommitment to young earth, six day creationism and to attempt to poke holes in mainstream scientific theories and models. But such observations have not been scientifically convincing to those outside its own small circle and, put together, do not amount to a coherent, comprehensive theory or model of origins that has the explanatory power to account for all of the evidence and genuinely to advance our scientific knowledge in any way.

More troubling for me as a theologian is that young earth, six day creationism misreads the Bible and is theologically superficial. Because of this, it creates unnecessary stumbling blocks to faith, does serious harm to Christian witness, ignores the gifts and wisdom of most Christians in the sciences, and impoverishes what Christian worldview scholars call “the life of the mind” (see, for example Mark Noll’s books The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind).

One last comment: Christians who are seeking a more informed and balanced approach to origins issues should be aware of the following scientific organizations comprised of genuine, Bible-believing and God-loving Christians:

  1. The Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation
  2. The American Scientific Affiliation
  3. The Biologos Foundation
  4. The Discovery Institute

Also, you should be aware of the Veritas Forum, which brings top Christian scholars together to discuss all kinds of important topics, including those related to science and Christian faith.

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Why a Secular Society Needs Religion – my upcoming public lecture in Winnipeg and Steinbach

The recent controversy in Quebec over banning religious symbols among public employees raises serious questions about religious freedom – both its foundations and expression – in Canada. Does an atheistic starting point provide an adequate basis for religious freedom? Tolerance? Indeed, for genuine secularity? A case can be made for the counterintuitive claim that a genuinely secular society needs religion. From a Christian perspective, this approach leads not to an exclusive and narrow religious rule or theocracy, but a theologically grounded secularity, a making room for the voice of the other as we seek to live together in peace and mutual respect.

public lecture

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Gutiérrez on speaking about God in Latin America

Our questions about God in North America (Does God exist? How is God ‘relevant’ or ‘useful’ to my life? Etc.) are not the key questions for most human beings living in the 2/3rds world. I like how Gutiérrez puts it:

“. . . the question in Latin America will not be how to speak of God in a world come of age, but rather how to proclaim God as Father in a world that is inhumane. What can it mean to tell a non-person that he or she is God’s child?”

- Gustavo Gutiérrez, The Power of the Poor in History (London: SCM, 1983), 57.

Lesslie Newbigin argued that we (westerners) need to read the Bible in dialogue with those who are reading it in radically different contexts, cultures, and life conditions. Their reading can help correct ours, exposing our short sightedness, egocentricity, and idolatry (even as our readings also have something to contribute). I agree!

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Genesis 1: Getting the Focus Wrong

I came across an interesting quote from Daniel Block:

“If we go to Gen 1 just to fight the evolutionists, the devil has us right where he wants us!”

- Daniel Block (conservative evangelical Old Testament scholar)

Why do you go to Gen 1?


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Gospel and social justice

A quote from Donald Bloesch:

“The evangelical movement today has admirably resisted the new trends in theology that reconceive the mission of the church as an exercise in social engineering. Yet in their worship and social programs evangelicals betray a subtle accommodation to the therapeutic culture of our time by reducing salvation to psychic wholeness and the church to a life support system in the quest for stability and peace in a world disintegrating into spiritual and moral chaos.”

- Bloesch, The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission (Downers Grove: IVP,2002), 34.

A provocative quote! Is it true?

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Some thoughts on ‘original sin’ – is this ancient Christian teaching still helpful today?

G. K. Chesterton once wrote that, of all the Christian doctrines, original sin is the most obvious and perhaps the only doctrine that is empirically verifiable in all of human history. I think he’s right. However, certain aspects of original sin have always bothered me. How are we to understand its origin?[1] How is it passed on? Many Christians, following Augustine, locate the passing along of sin biologically.[2] I find that solution unworkable. It would imply, if carried through to its logical implications, that we could, theoretically, find and isolate ‘sin’ as a biological problem (a sin gene perhaps?) and then, again theoretically, design a therapy or intervention to fix it. This, it seems to me, is biological Pelagianism (i.e., that we could diagnose and treat our own sin problem). It also represents a form of biological reductionism. Sin is a holistic problem affecting the whole person; its remedy must therefore also be holistic.

Additionally, too often the idea of original sin has led to a unworthy view of human beings. It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to, but in popular evangelicalism (what Roger Olson calls a form of “folk religion”) it often does. I hear it all the time, for example when students use the word ‘humanism’ as a derogatory term. What they actually mean is secular humanism. But they smuggle all that is associated with that term back into humanism itself, failing to realize that the humanist tradition is deeply rooted in the Christian faith going all the way back to the patristic era and was a key factor in the historical context of the Protestant Reformation! (Jens Zimmerman calls this Incarnational Humanism in his important book on the subject, which demonstrates this rootedness very well).

Nevertheless, I think that the doctrine or theological construct of ‘original sin’ is still very important today.[3] Lest we become naive in our view of the world and/or deceived about ourselves (lacking self-awareness about our own shortcomings, our own brokenness, and all our attempts to cover up by retreating into defensiveness and self-justification), it’s important to affirm that we human beings are sinful in our very nature. This does NOT mean that human beings are as bad as they could possibly be or resistant to God’s grace in all its forms. It means that sin affects us at our core. Sin is not just “things we do” but affects our very nature (who we are) and is pervasive. It means that short of God’s intervention we are without hope. We have “hearts turned in upon themselves” as Luther and Bonhoeffer put it. This is why we need God to turn us inside out, why we need to be “made fit for God by God” (Barth). Sin does not have to be obvious or manifested in cliché forms. It is more like an insidious disease that we cannot seem to eradicate. The presence of sin is universal and affects the life of every human person.

This ‘fallenness’ of our nature is a fundamental Christian conviction that ought to be seriously pondered and fruitfully articulated today.[4] It’s why Christ “became human so that we could become ‘divine’” as Athanasius argues (he’s speaking of theosis; not that we become God in any ontological sense, rather we are transformed by the Spirit to partake in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4)); it’s why Christ assumes our human nature (for, what Christ has not assumed he has not healed, as Gregory of Nazianzus says). Biblically, it fits with the old-Adam to new-Adam typology (along with “old man – new man” language in Paul, which Luther really picks up on), with baptism as dying to the old self and rising with Christ (Rom. 6), with the notion of new birth or regeneration (John 3), with participating in a genuinely new creation (2 Cor 5:17), having formerly been “dead in sins” but now “alive in Christ” (Eph. 2) with being creatures of light who formerly walked in darkness (Eph. 5), etc., etc.

In his book, God—The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), Ted Peters provides some very helpful comments on the meaning of the doctrine.

Peters begins by noting that critics of original sin have argued: (1) the story of a first sin in a primeval garden sounds mythical rather than historical; (2) it is unjust for the present generation to suffer for what their ancestors did; (3) too often sexual intercourse has become the target of those who wish to point to the precise mechanism for how sin is passed on. Peters shares these concerns, but then says:

“Despite these criticisms, I believe theologians need a concept such as original sin to account for the human experience it articulates. Evil comes to us and we sin—these are basic elements of human experience and are symbolized in the story of Adam and Eve, who represent everyone. Sin is universally human. The idea of original sin is an attempt to provide a workable concept of this universal phenomenon. . . . The metaphor of disease and the story of sin’s history from Eden to the present are theological constructs that create a problem only when one takes them more literally than they are intended” (p. 177)

Further along, he says, “Our aim, as Augustine makes clear, is to center our lives on God and, in turn, center ourselves in the whole” (p. 177). Peters has argued that sin results from a failed attempt to integrate whole and parts; we usurp our place as parts (as autonomous individuals) and assert ourselves over-against the whole of the cosmos, with bad implications for spirituality, relationships, justice, governance, ecology, etc.

Then, “the difficulty in this matter, as Augustine warned, is that we cannot by our own power center our individual existence in the whole . . . We are unable to extricate ourselves from our state of estrangement. Any attempt to center one’s self outside the self is, by definition, a self-constituting act. This is a paradox. As long as the self retains the initiative it can only fix upon itself and further establish itself as the center. Yet, somehow it must be uprooted from this center and be drawn to find its center in that which is beyond itself, in the Spirit of the whole” (pp. 177–78).

And finally, “We find ourselves in an impossible position. We need the whole to take the initiative. We need God to act. We need the transforming power of divine grace” (p. 178)

I find Peters’ reflections very helpful and invite further theological reflection as we seek to understand and articulate a rich heritage of ancient ideas about sin in our own contemporary contexts.[*]

[*] Thanks to Jeff Wheeldon, whose blog post stimulated me to think and write about this topic.

[1] Many locate original sin with Adam (and/or Eve) but struggle to explain why Adam, a perfect being living in an idyllic paradise, would sin (blaming the devil just pushes the problem back into infinite regression).

[2] This, of course, is not everything Augustine had to say about original sin. Unfortunately, many Christians have followed him in the unhelpful bits, while ignoring his more helpful insights about the depths of human sin. It’s also important to point out that Augustine was not the first to believe in original/inherited sin. Seeds of the doctrine precede Augustine and are found, for example, in Tertullian (in the Western tradition) and Origen (in the Eastern tradition). Augustine gives the doctrine its classic form.

[3] Precisely how one ‘grounds’ this doctrine, whether historically in a literal ‘fall’ or in some other way is another matter . . . for another day.

[4] Though it does need to be rethought and reformulated in light of what we know of human beings holistically from all the contemporary sciences. This is the ongoing, constructive task of theology (theology develops; it is never static).

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