Human origins, sin, and “fiduciary” atonement

This article by theologian George L. Murphy today is a very helpful discussion of how an evolutionary understanding of human origins affects the Christian doctrines of sin and salvation. Murphy begins by arguing that the evolutionary account is more consistent with a broadly “Eastern” view of original sin (Irenaeus) than with a “Western” one (Augustine). That is to say, humanity was not created perfect but rather was made good but immature. The fall into sin consisted of a deviation from the path God intended us to travel toward the new creation:

We have then a picture of a divinely intended growth of humanity rather than the appearance of fully mature persons. But once sin comes into the world that growth is distorted. […] The picture that we get in the early chapters of Genesis is not so much one of a single abrupt “fall” from perfection in Genesis 3 but of a gradual “falling away” that begins there and worsens in succeeding chapters, which is the point made in Genesis 6:5-7 as it introduces the Flood story.

The root of this “falling away” is a failure to trust God and that our good consists in following the path God intends for us:

Humanity could, with difficulty, have followed the path of development that God intended, for we are not hardwired, either through genes or enculturation, to behave in particular ways. Temptations would, however, have been strong. Sin was, in words of Reinhold Niebuhr, not “necessary” but “inevitable.”

Refusing to trust and obey God, humanity turned from the goal that God intended and chose another path. Soon we had gone astray. Moving away from God, we were lost in the woods and night was falling.

The longer this goes on, the more deeply successive generations are mired in sin, due to a combination of genetic endowment and social-cultural environment. And our idols proliferate as we put our trust in finite things instead of God.

In light of this understanding of sin as departure from the divinely willed path of development, Murphy proposes an account of salvation that emphasizes new creation. “Since the basic problem as I’ve sketched it is that sin has gotten human history off course, new creation can be spoken of as reorientation of the trajectory of creation.”

Drawing on the thought of Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, Murphy sketches an account of the atonement that focuses on how the death and resurrection of Jesus concretely bring reconciliation (at-one-ment) between humanity and God by creating trust (i.e., faith).

The fundamental problem that got humanity going on the wrong road, moving away from God, is failure to put our trust in the true God. Instead, as Paul argues in Romans 1, people place their confidence in all kinds of idols. That is why humanity was estranged from God, and that is what God had to correct in order to turn the course of history back to his intended goal—that is, to reconcile humanity with himself. God must destroy our faith in idols and create faith in himself.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God acts to destroy our trust in these idols and create trust in him. The cross shows us that those things we put our trust in (e.g., governments, religion, morality) can become the instruments by which God-in-the-flesh is killed! But the resurrection shows that God returns as the crucified one who brings not condemnation, but peace.

Murphy calls this a “fiducial influence” theory of the atonement. Like the more familiar “moral influence” theories associated with Peter Abelard, this account emphasizes that it’s humans who need to be reconciled to God, not vice versa, and that the cross of Christ is what makes possible that needed transformation. It differs, however, in emphasizing that it’s faith, not morality, that saves us.

The “Christ-event” creates this trust/faith, which makes possible our re-orientation onto the path God intended for us:

God’s initial work of bringing sinners from spiritual death is followed by continual renewal of faith and sanctification throughout life. The lives of people are turned back toward God, part of the process in which God reorients the course of creation toward accomplishment of his plan spoken of in Ephesians 1:10, to unite all things in Christ.

This re-orientation has social and even cosmic implications, as “a renewed humanity taking seriously God’s call to care for the earth as God’s garden and to exercise responsible stewardship for creation.” Being rightly related to God allows us to be rightly related to each other and to the rest of creation.

I’ve long found Forde’s discussion of the atonement to be helpful because of its focus on how the concrete actuality of the cross effects reconciliation (rather than on some metaphysical “transaction” happening behind the scenes). And I agree with Murphy that his “fiduciary” theory is more consistent with an evolutionary understanding of human origins than certain traditional atonement theories–for example those which presuppose that physical death is a result of human sin.

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