Thursday, December 02, 2004

Original Sin

A Lutheran friend of mine recently asked me what I think of the doctrine of original sin. This is what I emailed her:

OK, here's my shot at it. I think that the doctrine of OS is more than just a way of talking about humanity's need for JX. I think it was a way to protect a Platonic/Aristotelian metaphysical view of God. The Early Church, in its attempt to reconcile the divinity and death of Jesus and to gain a hearing in the Hellenistic world had to do something to guard this Greek metaphysic. The doctrine of OS was a handy solution: it could be justified from Genesis, and it kept intact God's impassibility. The problem of theodicy now lay completely in the tarnished souls of human beings.

Now I grew up as a loyal Calvinist, and I only began to question that when I fell under the sway of a couple Anabaptist professors at Fuller. Then I started to wonder if we don't need to set up philosophical shemes to protect God's sovereignty; maybe God shows true sovereignty by deigning to suffer with us. In fact, it seems that the fact of creation itself does away with God's impassibility; that is, why would a perfect and impassible God create anything to begin with?

Moltmann argues that because God is love, God really had no choice but to create a creation which he could love. Further, because love inevitably involves suffering, God inevitably suffers. If God did not suffer, then God would not be love.

Regarding metanarrative, the question is: Is there a Christian metanarrative, or are there many? Are the anabaptist, lutheran, reformed, catholic, and orthodox conceptions of Christianity reconcilable? Brian McLaren argues that they are in his latest book, A Generous Orthodoxy. I'd like to share his optimism, but I'm a little more skeptical.

Yes, I am convinced that the world needs the story that we're telling. But that story has changed over time. In other words, all theology is, in some way, contextual theology -- doctrines like OS and the Trinity were developed at certain times to deal with certain issues. We need to reappropriate some for our time, and we need to leave others on the rubbish heap of history. That's how you Lutherans are able to embrace Luther's theology of the cross but repudiate his anti-Semitism. So if there is a metanarrative, "there is no there there." It's always in flux, in negotiation between different theological schools, and, more importantly, between theologians and people who sit in pews every Sunday.


Blogger Timbo said...

"All theology is contextual theology"? If doctrines like original sin and the Trinity were "developed at certain times to deal with certain issues," were also the doctrines of creation, incarnation, atonement, redemption, resurrection, salvation, sanctification, etc. likewise "developed at certain times to deal with certain issues"? Could not one say that the theology of the resurrection was developed to deal with the issue of Christ being dead? A contextual theology of the resurrection would have to deny the actuality of the resurrection, would it not?

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I still have trouble jiving with your statement that the story has changed. What we have understood of the story has changed. What we have appropriated has changed. But it seems to me that there are constants there. As subjective human beings, we may not latch onto those constants in the same way as our predecessors or even our neighbors today do, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

But maybe I'm arguing with a straw man. Maybe you agree with me.

6:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

early christians were embedded in a hellenistic context. it's not sufficient to say they used hellenistic ideas to get their point across. there is no standing outside your culture.

had to chime in, this is what my dissertation is about :)

9:01 AM  
Blogger W. Travis McMaken said...

I'm interested in hearing how you propose to determine which doctrines to reappropriate and which to leave "on the rubish heap of history"?


9:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tony this is all so good. There is no Story, just multiple tellings of stories. Stories don't exist in the abstract, only in the telling, and stories are told many ways by many different communities. There is no Christianity, just multiple christianities. To claim otherwise presupposes the view that Christianity is a collection of beliefs. Religion-as-collection-of-beliefs is the wrong way to look at it. Religions are lived practices in specific, concrete communities. We cannot talk about Christianity abstracted from communities, we can only talk about specific communities at specific times and places and what they said and did. If we do that, we find there is no one thing in common that all these have shared.

This implies neither wishy-washy relativism nor the claim that any version of christianity is as good as any other. Also, it is not the case that just because a belief or practice was developed at a specific time and place in a certain socio-intellectual context, it is erroneous. Contingency doesn't equal falsehood. It just makes the theologian's work a little more complex and a lot more historical.

All we can do is look at specific communities, what they are doing and what they are saying, and evaluate how adequately their beliefs and practices hold together and make sense. The theologian is a social critic, an ethnographer, who is responsible to the particular ethnos that is a community or group of communities who identify themselves as christian.


10:18 AM  
Blogger Fajita said...

It seems that there is a "story" that is more than the stories about the "story." Part of the "story" is the collection of stories about the "story," but it is not limited to it. (Changing metapors) There is still a picture without a frame, but no one has ever seen the picture without the frame (perhaps Moses saw part of it???). The frame is part of the art, but it is not the entirety of it.

Individuals, communities, cultures, geographies and the meaning generated from these and everything else is framing. It is part of the art. Depending on the frame, different pieces of the art will be exposed, highlighed; hidden or downplayed.

Some frames fit the art better than others...and some fit better at different times than others.

"There is no story (art)" perhaps is appropriate in that there is no one frame that is the only frame suitable for this piece of art (modern extreme). At the same time, not all frames are suitable (postmodern extreme) There are some frames not suitable for it, but then again, to what extent?

12:58 PM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

There is no spoon.

I have always read OS as humanity's desire to *be* God. *We* want to judge good and evil. We want to knock God of the throne and put ourselves there. Now that story is relevant to this discussion and in and across time.

I am not God, and I'm sure you all are thankful for that.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

good post.

christianity does not exist outside of its expressions.


3:46 PM  
Blogger Dave Sheldon said...

God's Broken Image

Bishop J. C. Ryle's most famous book, Holiness states this, "The plain truth is that a right knowledge of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity. Without it such doctrines as Just, Converstion, Sanc are words and names which convey no meaning to the mind. The first thing therefore, that God does when He (sorry about that but I am using J. C.'s words) makes anyone a new creation in Chirst, is to send light into his/her heart, and shows that he/she is a guilty sinner."

I am broken in God's image. I am glad Chris E is not God but our salvation lies on Grace and our Justificaiton is only found in Chirst ... Christ Alone. (There are some good Latin words that should be used here).


3:59 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Anastasia makes an important point. So go see Stone’s new movie, and then spend some time thinking about who was Hellenized when. Perhaps Paul was the platonic bad boy …

4:38 AM  
Blogger jch said...

Please, please, please don't do as Jack says: "Go see Stone's movie." It's horrible! In fact, it has made it into my "Worst Movies Ever" category. Read a history book or listen in on historical lecture but for God's sake (literally) don't go see this movie.

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

7:08 AM  
Blogger Dave Sheldon said...


Delete the blog above this blog. That link goes no where fast!

If you want us to read a book just give us a title.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Mike Clawson said...

In regards to the concept of original sin, might it be helpful to finally give a second hearing to Pelagianism? i.e. the idea that sin is socialized into us, rather than genetically inherited.

IIRC, the problem with this Pelagian view was that it created the possibility that a person could actually become sinless through their own effort, by simply choosing to act against their social programming.

But, what if we agree with the "socialization" theory of OS but hold that socialization is a much stronger force in our personal identities than perhaps Pelagius realized? What if we say that our sin nature, even if it is learned and not inherited, is still just as potent, and just as in need of a divine act of grace to overcome? Would that avoid some of the metaphysical problems of the Augustinian view of OS?

This socialization theory of sin has two other things going for it, I think. One is that it seems to fit with postmodern ideas about how our identities and very natures as individuals are shaped primarily through community, through the network of social relations we find ourselves embedded in. And second, it also fits (I believe) better with an Eastern Orthodox view of sin (thus giving it some greater credibility beyond merely the reported beliefs of a 4th century heretic.)

Just a thought...


9:15 AM  
Blogger James said...

I see the comments of the story existing by the context it exists within as being parallel to seeing truth as demanding a context to exist within.

For me, Jesus' statement claiming to be the way, the truth and the life - is only true because God initiated a context to exist within, that being creation.

Without creation, I wonder how God/Jesus could be the truth?

11:44 AM  
Blogger W. Travis McMaken said...

I like Gandalf's comment quite a bit. I would only add that we should probably find a way to make a move toward saying that sin is NECESSARILY socialized into us. If we don't make this move then we will spawn all kinds of communities who are trying to socialize sin out of the community rather than dealing with it. In the above statement I reveal my unease with removing all of the innate nature of sin in the human person.


7:11 AM  
Blogger Mike Clawson said...

I agree WTM, whatever view of sin we take, I think it's important to stress that it is unavoidable. One person (nor a whole community) cannot simply will not to sin.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Mitch said...

... this is leading into another discussion I was engaged into elsewhere but didn't get to finish.

My view on the matter is that we have to *try* to will not to sin. I don't see my worth in God's eyes if I'm not trying to be a good boy. What's the point of christianity if I'm not trying to be better.

The problem that was thrown back at me was: when have I tried enough? At what point have I put in enough effort to be considered worthy of salvation?

But I'm afraid of what might happen if someone contradicts this: you have to will yourself not to sin, even if you fully expect to fail, and do fail, you have to will yourself not to sin again.

I feel as though it is not my place to decide that I, you or anyone has done enough. I just have to keep willing myself not to sin.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...


You ask, what's the point of Christianity if it's not about "trying not to sin."

I've tried to think of my life as a Christian in terms of positives, "I get to do this", rather than negatives, "I've got to (or not to) do this". When Paul wrote to the Ephesians (Chapter 2) that we were created in Christ Jesus for a life of good works, I think that's what he meant. When Jesus told us to love one another, I think that's what he meant. We could argue about whether these are just some stories in a Hellenic context or some other context, but I don't think God operates in a way in which God is trying to confuse us.

Anyway, Mitch, I sympathize in your sense of constantly trying to battle against our sin. It nearly drove Luther mad. And Paul wrote about it (Romans 7) as a situation in which, "who is there to rescue us?" Well, it was Christ Jesus. We are set free by Christ from this battle. Yes, we continue to sin. But there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. And we are given the Spirit with which to walk our lives. It is a Spirit-led life that Christ calls us to, rather than one's own willing of self against sin. As long as it is "us" who is trying to do this, we are doomed to fail. That's what faith is about: receiving the righteousness that Christ has already purchased for us, and living in that freedom to love and serve each other.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Clawson said...

I hear what you're saying Mitch, and I can sympathize somewhat... but then I wonder, where's the grace? I don't think Christianity is primarily about trying not to sin. I think it's about realizing our inability to not sin, and then joyously receiving God's unconditional grace in spite of our inabilities.

See Yac's Messy Spirituality for more on that...

Or as C.S. Lewis once said, "It's grace, and nothing else, that sets Christianity apart from any other religion."

9:50 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

(directed to both Gandalf and Micheal. I am not too familiar with the language "spirit-led", "hellenic" for examples. I hope you can help me to understand the part of christianity we are discussion)

"I get to do this." Ah, a priviledge. I feel priviledged just being here. When I talk about trying to act a certain way I mean that I want to, I really do. I don't feel like I have to, except, if I don't... then I don't deserve the priviledge. Enter Grace.

I see two sides to Christianity. The first side is loving one another, a life of service. The other side is loving one another, a life without disservice. This is positive language, but I could just have easily have written: a life failing to serve, and a life being of disservice is sinful. It means the same to me.

God's grace has to be in addition to this.

If I step forward and say "I'm saved, I accept Jesus into my heart and through him I received salvation from the sins of my life"; if I do this then I am saying "I know that what Jesus taught, how he acted towards others, is how I have to work to be like."

God's grace is that: I am not Jesus nor will ever be; "fine, good enough, you've done well Mitch, keep doing; See this, you made a mistake here. See this, this is awesome, I'm proud of you."

When you say "spirit-led life", you mean a life of giving your will over in favor of God's, right? And God's will is that I act like Jesus towards others (towards myself)? It's like God came down and said "Behold my Son, do as he does".

Also when you say "spirit-led life" you also mean that I turn to the spirit for guidance, right?

What scares me most is neglecting the behavioral component, this part from Micheal:

"As long as it is "us" who is trying to do this, we are doomed to fail. That's what faith is about: receiving the righteousness that Christ has already purchased for us, and living in that freedom to love and serve each other."

It's like you're saying that with faith I cease to sin. At no point did you agree that I have to try to be a good person. I have faith and suddenly everything that I do is perfect. !!!

I understand that Grace sets christianity apart from other religions, but the "acting a certain way" part is still fundamental. I have to put effort into that activity.

5:56 AM  
Blogger Michael said...


This is a response to a couple of the issues you raised from my previous response. First off, I want to say that I am so happy we are having this discussion about both sin and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's like the song…."I love to tell the story".

Anyway, my comment about "Hellenic" was a reference back to the comment Tony made in his original post, regarding the Early Church attempting to gain a hearing in the Hellenistic world. My point on that was that the Gospel of Jesus rings true, whether it was originally proclaimed in a Hellenistic context or today's world. The message is the same, although the context may change. As it was written in Hebrews, "Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow." And as Paul wrote to the Galatians, "If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed." So, neither Christ nor the Gospel change in substance.
Regarding the Spirit-led life, I was referring to Paul's comments in Romans 8: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."
Which gets us to a couple of your other inquiries: By a Spirit-led life, do I mean giving my will over to God's? In a way, yes. What Paul was writing about in Romans and also in Galatians was that the flesh (not our bodies, but the part of our human spirit that rebels from God) and the Spirit of God are in conflict with each other. When we are walking by God's spirit, we are putting to death our flesh (again, I do not mean by this our bodies or our physical needs). The flesh (our own will, rather than God's) brings a certain harvest, but then, so does the Spirit. But Paul describes it better than me in Galatians 5:
"But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.
But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."
Now, any of us realizes that the flesh is still with us. Luther wrote about renewing our baptism daily, in which we crucify the flesh and are raised back to life with Christ in his resurrection. That's out of Romans 6.
Mitch, here is my response to your concern about the behavioral component: Can I do anything in my behavior to justify myself before God and gain his righteousness? Nope. It all comes up short. This is why God calls us to totally trust in Christ for righteousness and justification before God, rather than count on any of our own works/behaviors. That's what Paul was writing about in Romans 3:19-28 and Ephesians 2: 1-10. The Romans passage emphasizes that justification only comes through faith in Jesus. The Ephesians passage brings light that it is not us who does this, but God himself who raises us up, "even when we were dead in our own trespasses." The reason of all this is to point that this all a gift from God, "lest any of us boast" (Ephesians 2:9).
So, does that mean we ignore our behavior? No, but it means that we are called to have our behavior led by the Spirit of Christ. And that behavior is a gift from God, a harvest of His spirit. It includes love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. The efforts of our own will (our flesh, which opposes God), bring forth those other works, such as idolatry, etc.
And, it's not like I'm saying that with faith I cease to sin. In fact, as the writer of First John says: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
But what I am saying is that when we have faith, God does not count our sins against us. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians: "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation"
That's the message, Mitch. We're reconciled to God through Christ. Our sins do not count against us. God calls us to believe it (faith) and gives us the Spirit by which to lead our lives (behavior). This is all a gift from God, not something for which we can take any credit.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

A quick correction to something I stated at the end of my long post:

I wrote that when we have faith, God does not count our sins against us. In reality, whether or not we have faith, God does not count our sins against us. God's forgiving of the sins of the world (that is, the world's rebellion against God) is not dependent on whether we believe it. It just is. God has done it. It is finished.

However, as my recently departed teacher Bob Bertram used to say, "It's like when a couple gets married, and they pledge their love to each other. I always ask each of the couple: 'Do you believe what the other is saying?'"

The point being, if I don't believe that my wife loves me and promises to love me, then I miss out on the benefits of that love, even though her love is there whether or not I believe it.

What follows, then, is that God has forgiven all the sins of the world, but when we don't believe, we miss out on the benefits of it. Faith is believing it, believing that God has indeed done this great thing for us through Christ's death and resurrection; and even this faith is a gift from God.

I'm saying this to try to avoid presenting an "iffy" Gospel, a Gospel that is dependent on something that we do rather than something God has already done. That's why they call it the Gospel; it really is good news!


10:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Origianl Sin as inheritance or socialization would seem to be practicably impossible to determine other than as a logical extension of the plan as layed out before us. But then, in jumps the, perhaps newer, concept of accountability, so I will move to how OS seems to manifest itself as a reality in my life, maybe not yours. Adam having been given all that he needed and in a place sometimes called Paradise and apparently having daily face to face with the Creator was able to confuse his priorities enough to condemn himself and the rest of us to hard labor. So where did he learn that behaviour, or is it attitude, or some combination of the two? oh yeah, Eve. Eve forgot, she could "touch" and live-Adam was to dress the tree, but after she misstated 'If I even so much as touch it I will die' then the proof was misleading, so why not taste? The weakness seems to have manifested in misstatement. Malicious or forgetful? If malicious, where did she learn malicious? Malicious from perhaps overexuberance? An overexuberance from being startled by a talking snake? Overexuberance in response to an unexpected occurence? But where did she learn overexuberance. Ahh, forgetful, yes, so where did she learn forgetful? I forget. Cerebral cortex short circuitry. Original sin is Cerebral cortex short circuitry?

Did any one move closer to Jesus in this effort?

Forgetfulness is a gift of God?

I have been trying to get this posted for a couple of days so now it is nearly obsolete and short of response to the new inputs but while my isp is hot I will press the button

Robert Fn Revier,

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That argument about faith and behaviour is a heady question that will continue to frustrate truthful desciples till the return. A former preacher used to try to ilumminate the paradox with this analogy about here is a dollar in my hand will you take it, normally he used a small child and then clamoped down hard on the dollar-not the God I know, but relevant to the point that if you don't accept (a behaviour) the gift then you do not receive the benefits as someone above related. On the other hand if as Paul said even our faith is a gift is it that 'the Faith' is the only faith and received at salvation or that the faith we receive as descendants of Adam must be replaced correctly?


12:48 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

Thank you so much Michael. I've already opened a space to paraphrase my understanding on my own blog. I'll get around to that eventually.

You said "the part of our human spirit that rebels from God", so there must be a part of our spirit that is in cahoots with God's spirit. This I like and it says to me that my nature is both "in the image of God" and "tainted by original sin".

I understand your description of faith too "God calls us to believe [that grace is given, forever and unconditionally]"; I trust in God that He has forgiven me and granted his grace. And that I have to believe it for it to be of benefit to me.

Ok. God's grace is not dependant on my actions. Gotcha. With faith I know that I am granted grace and by choosing to live in the spirit, or out of it as the case may be, I make a rather dramatic change in quality of my spiritual condition.

I have some questions about marriage, and also of the flesh (now that you've brought it up). Perhaps I might pick your brain again someday... :)

3:36 PM  
Blogger Michael said...


It's a blessing to have this conversation with you. If you want to e-mail me privately in the future, you can reach me at

I share your view that our human nature is both "in the image of God" and at the same time sinful, that is, in rebellion from God. As believers we are simultaneously sinners and saints. Luther's Latin phrase for this was "simul iustus et peccator."

Regarding life in the Spirit, I was taught by one of my theology instructors that life in the Spirit (some people call it "sanctification") is not something of initiative (Jesus said, "It is not that you chose me, but that I chose you to be my disciples") but that the Spirit leads me, and I follow. And even that following is by the power of the Spirit (Luther talks about this in his explanation of the third article of the Apostles Creed). Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me." To me, this is truly what it means to be Jesus' follow Him.

My upbringing is Lutheran Christian, but I generally identify myself as a Christian who happened to be brought up in Lutheran churches and schooling.


12:43 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

"Yes, I am convinced that the world needs the story that we're telling. But that story has changed over time. In other words, all theology is, in some way, contextual theology -- doctrines like OS and the Trinity were developed at certain times to deal with certain issues. We need to reappropriate some for our time, and we need to leave others on the rubbish heap of history."

It's quite telling that theology, according to this statement, mainly concerns us. But, of course, that means it's not theology at all.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

Keith, I think its fair to say that while the story changes this does not mean then that theology is about us.

Tony might have committed an error in "leaving [doctrines] on the rubbish heap of history". I wrote this on my blog:

"If you had a tool but did not know how to use it, would you carry it around with you? No, probably not.

"Would you think less of someone carrying around the tool that you choose to set aside?

The story we tell changes because our life context changes. The study part of theology means that we seek to gain understanding of faith and God, and to do that we need a "story", an explanation, that is contextually relevant.

9:13 AM  

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