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.


12 thoughts on “In defense of Original Sin

  1. Josh

    A further problem with the traditional formulation was brought to my mind by Jones’ use of the word “genetic”. The way some people seem to approach the issue is to graft original sin onto a genetic determinism (I think that’s the right word) as if there’s a sin gene somewhere on human DNA inherited from A & E. I think that’s a distortion of the traditional formulation, though. Paul, Augustine, the author(s) of Gen 2-3, Luther, Calvin, et al had no such concept of genetics, so Jones’ characterization comes close to a strawman argument.

  2. That’s a good point–it is, at best, an anachronistic term to use. Though, in fairness, Augustine at least did seem to think original sin was inherited biologically, even if he didn’t have the language of genetics available to him.

  3. In his book Out of Eden, Paul W Kahn explores the “paradigmatic” interpretation of Original Sin or The Fall in detail. For instance:

    The experience of sin is the knowledge of a radical incompleteness and an insatiable longing.

    Our sin, as Genesis describes, is original, which means that it is produced by the very resources that constitute our way of being in the world: love and knowledge.

    The love of Adam and Eve becomes the labor of work and reproduction. That is the Fall. Even romantic lovers cannot remain locked in each other’s embrace, as Aristophanes’ circlemen would.The world that love founds becomes the finite world of separation of subject from object, of the limited capacities of labor and production in a world that is inevitably unjust and, equally inevitably, decays. Even the most beloved child grows up.We might try to extend the innocence of child-hood, but we cannot do so indefinitely. The child rebels and, with that, breaks apart the complete world of the romantic family. Becoming a unique subject, the child is overwhelmed by a world that is not his own. He now faces that same task of refounding that world on the basis of love.

    Kahn explains the doctrine, and its mythic origins, as a reflection of the most fundamental statements and insights about human life: In other words as an actual genesis of a or the concept of the human.

    However, if you choose to analyze the myth in this way, then you reach a point where the doctrine, in its very profundity, leaves the particularity of Christianity behind and can be compared to the in theory radically different Judaic and Islamic doctrines in such a way that meaningful differences disappear. The very insistence on those differences can begin to look like a reflection of the same inherently sinful condition.

    1. One thing that Christian theologians have struggled to do (not always successfully) is distinguish sinfulness from finitude as such. That is to say, there are some limitations to our existence that are inherent in being finite creatures, but these aren’t necessarily sinful. So, for example, limited capabilities would be a mark of finitude but not sin.

      You can see this as, among other things, an implication of orthodox Christology: Jesus was, or so Christians believe, both fully human and sinless. So “original sin,” whatever else it is, can’t be an inherent or essential part of being human. I think this is part of the attraction of “historical” accounts of the Fall: it emphasizes that there was a time when human beings were human without being sinful and that sinfulness is an accidental, not essential, feature of humanity.

      1. The theologians can be forgiven their failures, as they are only limited human beings like us. Sinfulness v finitude as regards the human condition replicates the same questions we have on the nature of God, God as willful being vs God as cosmic all, being of being, etc., which in turn replicates the free will vs. determinism antinomy. As for Jesus Christ and the human condition, in this relationship he stands as the absolutely typical absolutely exceptional exception. Seen like us and as finite being, or human, he suffers through no true fault of his own, since he was born with his destiny pre-determined: Created by God with our limitations and defects, that we suffer for them seems unjust: It’s not our fault but God’s that we were made with faults, or, in a non-theological account, bad genes and a bad environment inclined me to criminality, and to lessened resistance to selfish impulses. Seen as free agent, Christ unlike us does not succumb to sin. He is praiseworthy to the same extent that our sins our truly sinful, not merely bad but in some manner partaking of evil.

        Incidentally, the orthodox logic on the inapplicability of original sin to Jesus Christ in a peculiar way re-produces the orthodox Islamic difference with Christianity on the status of Jesus, who is, of course, an important figure in Islam, but not thinkable for the Muslim as “crucified divine.” Muslim traditions supply additional miracles around the crucifixion to express the insusceptibility of the divine to what they see as debasement. My own view is that all traditions want to have their cake and transsubstantiate it, too, which is also another way of describing what both stories are and are about.

  4. I’m temperamentally inclined to be skeptical about any of these new readings, in part because they all turn out not to be new. Paradigmatic readings can easily be found in Augustine and the medieval theologians, for instance; they just didn’t think that they answered every important question.

    I think a problem with the sort of approach taken by Jones is that the traditional doctrine of original sin is not as identifiable with the Augustinian reading of Romans 5 as it assumes. Even Augustine, contrary to popular belief, does not make it the linchpin of his argument — it only occasionally comes up in the anti-Pelagian writings, for instance, and when it does it is rarely the only thing to which Augustine appeals in order to make a point. The reason this particular reading of this particular passage seems to have become important is merely that it happens to bring together a lot of the important issues in a way that can be laid out fairly easily — that is, it is the simplicity it gives to prior concerns related to original sin that account for the importance of the reading, rather than the reading accounting for the importance of original sin.

    1. Yeah, I think it’s clear from Paul onward, that “Adam” can function both as an archetype and a historical figure. I guess the question (or at least a question) is: what happens if the historical interpretation is no longer tenable? I take it that at least part of the motivation for seeing the Fall as a historical event was to safeguard the notion that humans are not “essentially” sinful. So if you give up the historical interpretation, do you also give that up? (I actually had some speculation about this in a draft of this post, but it was already getting too long.)

      1. Well, I find in general that the historical interpretation no longer being tenable has no general meaning — contrary again to common belief, the common traditional view about historicity was that while the story tells of real events, it does so after the manner of a folk tale (that’s exactly what Jerome says,if I recall correctly). And there is no clear sense in which this actually becomes ‘untenable’, unless one (wrongly) thinks that we have clear information on the moral attitudes of humans who existed before cave painting. What people really mean when they say it’s untenable is that it doesn’t fit with the pictures in their heads depicting human pre-history; i.e., what they really mean is that it no longer seems plausible as a narrative, not that they have any good reason to think it is true. I think that’s fine, but I think it’s quite important to be clear about how limited a basis it is for demanding that everybody change everything, particularly given that the requirements of historicity in the traditional interpretation can really be quite minimal — one has to accept that human beings became capable of moral accountability and failure, and that they had a relationship with God, and that they lost it, and that the Adam and Eve story gives us the essential elements of this in an easy pictorial form.

        However, if one does honestly regard this as implausible, Christian Neoplatonist views never had to put much emphasis on historicity, and they had no problems with safeguarding the idea that human nature does not itself involve sinfulness; they have an embarrassment of riches for handling it, actually. Part of the reason I don’t like projects like Jones’s is that they are based on the false assumption that there have only been one or maybe a few ways of handling this, when actually the landscape here is pretty wild. There were things that were considered widely essentially, but that left a lot of room for different views on all sorts of features of the doctrine.

    1. Lee

      I guess I found Oakes’s argument a bit more persuasive. I think he’s making the same point I tried to make in this post: that belief in original sin is based in large part on our sense that we are “in bondage to sin and cannot save ourselves,” as the corporate confession of sin has it. Oakes’s argument also seems consistent with what Brandon observed above (and which I agree with) about what the doctrine does and does not commit us to.

  5. Lee

    @Brandon: I agree with you about the minimal requirements of a historical interpretation. (I think that’s basically the view Keith Ward is defending that I summarized in the next post.) That said, there are people who want to include more in the “essential” elements of the account–such as a unique first pair of humans, or that the fall introduced death into the world–that do seem harder to accept given contemporary knowledge.

    1. Agreed. This is a a relative matter, though; ‘harder to accept’ can mean little more here than ‘needs more careful analysis to avoid pitfalls’. And that is quite weak; it can be guaranteed that for any such elements there is some analysis involving assumptions that do make it consistent with any particular body of observations, measurements, and inferences in natural history that can be chosen. This makes me worry about overemphasis of the historical question; what one takes to be historical and what one doesn’t is just a matter of one’s general sense of how a bunch of different things fit together, rather than anything definite about the doctrine itself.

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