In defense of Original Sin
In his book A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin, author-theologian-blogger Tony Jones tries to do two things: refute, or at least call into question, the doctrine of Original Sin and offer different ways of thinking about Christ’s atonement that aren’t tied to this (he thinks) false and damaging notion. Ironically, perhaps, I think the second part is more successful than the first. That is, Jones’s book (it’s really more of a long essay) is strongest in showing that there are multiple atonement theories that can contribute to our understanding of the work of Christ. I’m less persuaded, however, that “Original Sin” should be jettisoned, though I agree with Jones that the way the doctrine has traditionally been formulated has problems.
In the first part of the book, Jones tries to show how the doctrine of Original Sin as we know it arose from a particular reading of the opening chapters of Genesis and some passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans, particularly as funneled through St. Augustine. As commonly expressed, it goes like this: The first humans, Adam and Eve, were created morally perfect, not only being innocent of any actual wrongdoing but also lacking any inclination to do wrong. But by disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, our first parents incurred both guilt and a disfigured nature, losing the ability not to sin. Both aspects of this catastrophe–the inherent inclination toward sin and the guilt attached to this state–have been passed down to the rest of us. (One variation on this account says that God “imputes” Adam’s guilt to the rest of humanity because Adam was the “head” of the human race, and thus authorized in some sense to incur this guilt on our behalf.)
According to Jones, this doctrine is both biblically unsound and scientifically untenable. He prefers a “paradigmatic” reading of the “fall” story in Genesis–it’s more about how each each one of us falls into sin than how sin came into the world “once upon a time.” Moreover, he maintains that Jesus didn’t explicitly accept a doctrine of original sin–citing as evidence the story in chapter 9 of John’s gospel, where Jesus denies that the man born blind was being punished either for his own sins or the sins of his parents.
The paradigmatic or “archetypal” interpretation of Genesis also informs Jones’s evaluation of Paul’s argument in Romans 5: “Paul states clearly that Adam’s sin resulted in every one of his descendants being sinful, too. So it seems that part of our interpretation of this passage in Romans hinges on exactly how we interpret and understand Genesis 2-3″ (Kindle location 173). Unfortunately, Jones doesn’t go into any real detail about how we should interpret Romans 5 on this view, stating only that if “one does not believe that the taint of Adam’s sin is genetic but is instead an archetypal account of the human condition, then it will be taken another way” (178).
Jones is clear that he isn’t denying the reality of sin. I think his position can be fairly summarized by this passage:
The account of the original sin in Genesis 3 teaches us a lot about the state of human nature, our freedom to know right from wrong, and our proclivity to not necessarily trust God. But it does not teach that the sin of Adam and Eve is responsible for the sins of subsequent generations. (108)
While I agree that we need to interpret the fall story in Genesis in light of modern science and biblical scholarship, I’m not sure doing so means getting rid of the idea of Original Sin altogether. This is because the doctrine of Original Sin isn’t just a theory to explain the existence of sin; it also names a common experience. We have (or so it has seemed to many people) a deep inclination to do the wrong thing–to prefer ourselves or our narrow circle of interests to the broader good, to remain indifferent to structural injustice, and to turn a blind eye to violence and cruelty (or even to perpetrate it). St. Paul captures this experience in chapter 7 of Romans: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Even when we know what the right thing to do is, we often find ourselves with a deep-seated disposition not to do it. We can’t simply overcome this disposition through an act of will, and yet we experience guilt because of it. This is a guilt arising not from specific actions, but from a more generalized sense that there’s something wrong with us. (This “something” obviously manifests itself in specific “sins,” but it runs deeper than that.)
As I’ve written before, I don’t think you need to believe in a historical Adam and Eve or a historical Fall to recognize that we need salvation. Early Christians weren’t mostly, we can assume, drawn to the faith because it provided a satisfying intellectual solution to the “Original Sin problem.” It was more likely because they experienced, existentially, forgiveness and liberation from the power of sin through their encounter with Christ and their participation in the Christian community. Paul may well have been in part reflecting on just this experience in light of the biblical narrative when he developed the argument of Romans 5.
How we conceptualize “Original Sin” can, I believe, be separated from some of the more objectionable aspects of the traditional account (such as a fall from a prior state of perfection and the imputation of Adam’s guilt to subsequent generations). Specifically, I think an updated understanding of Original Sin would draw on both modern biological and a social understandings of human nature. And any re-thinking along these lines would likely affect how we understand the Atonement. But however we explicate it doctrinally, bondage to and liberation from sin is a fundamental part of Christian experience.