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

  1. gbkoop says:

    Greetings. I really appreciate this conversation. This is not merely academic entertainment, but rather deeply meaningful, especially for us as pastors as we proclaim the gospel message. Over and over Jesus explained to His disciples the Son of Man must be killed and then after three days rise again. The discussion of sin (original sin) is connected to the cross and resurrection; in effect integral to the gospel message. Too often it seems we gloss over these concepts with church or theological language without really wrestling through the details (i.e. how does it really ‘work’; what does it really mean?) I have two teenagers, so perhaps I am ‘fortunate’ to be at a time in life where questions are plentiful and great answers not so much. :)

    I have been exploring and studying this subject for quite some time. I appreciated Dr. Terry Tiessen’s explanation to me through conversations he and I have had on the subject over time. Patrick, as you pointed out, one school of thought subscribes to a natural inheritance or ‘sin gene’ while another school of thought is what Terry refers to as “federalism or corporate solidarity,” Adam being the head of one ‘race,’ Jesus being the head of another. We through natural birth are born in Adam, and through faith are reborn in Jesus.

    Thanks again for initiating these conversations. I look forward to continued reading on your blog as time allows.

    Blessings…

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