Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Christianity and Original Sin

I have a writing assignment due today for a particular denomination's Sunday School literature. I thought I would draft it here.
“Original sin” is not a topic we hear much discussed or even mentioned from the pulpit these days. Many Christians may never have even heard of it. It refers of course to the first sin of our human parents, Adam and Eve, the “original” sin. In terms of us today, the question of original sin has to do with how the sin of Adam and Eve has left its impact on us as human beings.

At least since the days of a Christian named Augustine (354-430), it has been conventional to think of our human nature as “fallen.” That is to say, our humanity is not what God intended it to be originally. God intended for us to do good and not to do evil. God intended us to be able to think more clearly and understand the world more accurately than we do.

Instead, Augustine—and then later Protestant leaders like Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley—believed that we have a sinful nature inside us, a “carnal” or “fleshly” nature that makes it impossible for us to do good or choose God without the power of the Holy Spirit inside us. Without the Holy Spirit, our plight is that of Romans 7:15: “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Augustine believed this sinful nature was passed down “genetically” through sex, thus providing a partial explanation for why Jesus needed to be born of a virgin.

The default state of humanity is now “totally depraved,” incapable of doing any good in its own power. Although “total depravity” is more often associated with John Calvin, many of us in the Wesleyan tradition (as well as many Calvinists themselves) might be surprised to know that John Wesley affirmed this idea as well. Like Calvin, Wesley did not believe that we as human beings are able to choose God or do good on our own. Like Calvin, Wesley believed we could only choose God or do good if the Holy Spirit was empowering us to do it. The difference is that Wesley believed God offered this power to everyone, while Calvin believed that God only selected a few choice individuals to receive it. Such people were only God’s puppets, forced to do only what He made them do.

Another key difference between Calvin and Wesley is in how optimistic they were about God’s power to help us do good in this life. Luther did not believe we should even discuss such things, for the very discussion might tempt us to boast in our own righteousness. By contrast, Calvin did think the drive toward becoming more righteous in this life was important. But he believed the imprint of the original sin inevitably stayed with us our entire lives, with the result that we would never be able to stop sinning. The sinful nature inside us would be a part of us till we were glorified at the point of our deaths.

Wesley, on the other hand, was more optimistic. He believed that God wanted to overcome our sinful natures entirely, to “sanctify” us entirely and make us completely holy in this life. In the century that followed Wesley, various thinkers responded to these ideas. The Wesleyan tradition has historically affirmed that God wants to eradicate our sinful nature and destroy it. Others, like the Keswick tradition, have taught that our “carnal nature” will always be around, tempting us to sin, although they believe God can and wants to empower us to win over such temptation, even though it will always be a struggle on some level.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have the benefit of recent studies that help us look at Paul’s writings with fresh eyes. As a result, several aspects of the historical debate we have just mentioned seem a bit out of focus. For one, the phrase “sinful nature” is misleading at best, even though the New International Version and other translations use it consistently. But Paul nowhere uses the word nature in this way. The actual word he uses is flesh.

To begin to understand what Paul means by “flesh,” we only need take the word in its normal sense: skin. Paul understood our bodies to be enslaved to the power of Sin, along with the entire creation (cf. Rom. 8:19-21). This understanding is similar to what Augustine and later Christian thinkers have thought, but also significantly different.

In Paul’s thinking, the entire creation, including the skin of my body, has come under the power of Sin as a result of Adam’s sin. It is better to think of this power as a power over me rather than a power inside of me. To be sure, we have to take such images as metaphors. Paul was not thinking of the frontal lobes of our brains, but God was giving Paul’s audiences true pictures of the human condition in terms they could understand. We get into strange waters indeed when we try to mingle Paul’s ancient psychology with modern categories!

So Paul says things like, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (Rom. 7:14, NASB). A nice way to define flesh in this sense is my skin under the power of Sin. However, Paul does not see this state as the norm for the believer. Many readers of Romans 7 strangely stop without going on into Romans 8, where Paul indicates that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). In other words, Christians not only can get “out of” their sinful flesh—they cannot please God if they do not!

The confusion in debates over our “sinful natures” follows both from subtle misreadings of Paul we have inherited from Augustine and from taking various metaphors too literally. Basically, Paul teaches that the default state of humanity is one of moral disempowerment and alienation from God. Christ has made it possible, not only for us to be reconciled to God, but also for the Holy Spirit to empower us in relation to sin.

The powers of Sin in this world will be around until Christ returns. But we as Spirit-filled believers are not consigned to defeat in the face of temptation. “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13, TNIV). This truth, consistently proclaimed by Paul, has largely been lost to contemporary Christianity to such an extent that it is scarcely believed even by those of us in the Wesleyan tradition.

But it is a truth we more than any other tradition are responsible to bring to this generation of believers. God has made it possible, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for us to live Christ-like lives in this world. What was impossible in our own power and in our own flesh, “God did: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and ... condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4, NASB).


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Because "god" was a term useful in that day for society to function, as leaders were considered "gods". So, in pleasing "god" one was pleasing one's master or leader,as a slave, instead of being a free person.

Paul uses this imagery to help those who are in honor and shame cultures to submit to authority. These cultures are no free like our society, as our society functions of social contract and equality under law.

Ken Schenck said...

Even from an atheistic standpoint, I don't think we could reduce the use of the word "god" in ancient culture to a kind of surrogate for human leadership. For example, the gods in part represented to ancient people's the forces of the world beyond their control. We remain slaves to such powers today far more than most of us realize no matter how one conceptualizes them.

But, yes, Paul does not have an option of freedom of the sort you envisage. For him, freedom from sin is enslavement to righteousness. The question is thus not whether you are a slave or not but to whom you are a slave.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

In the natural realm, we are subject as we cannot control natural disasters, as of may come to understand how to do so, or predict with such accuracy that humans are not prey to such "evils".

Everyting else that happens has some human cause of some kind, which is leadership/government.

Providence was what was given to the "unexplained". This is what science doesn't understand, or humans don't control, as to the complex "outcomes" of choices and decisions in leadership. Leadership cannot determine or predict with absolute certainty what a person will choose to do, unless there is communication about leadership's intent or plan and a forth-coming social contract...This is where understanding the human world by the physcial one, i.e. biological systems thinking always leaves out some which is immoral in our understanding of social contract and human choice.

Some have suggested that the "emergant' properties that one finds in biological systems then are what is the "creative spirit" or element in the world, that expresses itself apart from the system...This is deductive thinking as it imposes an understanding upon reality, hindering real understanding in a scientific way. But, then we all use dedeuctive thinking even in the formulating of hypothesis.

So, freedom in this sense is free to be apart from what the system "determines". We are free to choose where the values we hold will play out in our lives, as it respects the other to choose for himself. This is what righteousness is about, in the modern sense of social contract.

Kevin Jackson said...

Thought provoking post! I really like what you said referring to original sin: "It is better to think of this power as a power over me rather than a power inside of me."

This gives clarity on how we can have victory over sin, and yet doesn't do it by being overly optimistic regarding our default state.

Craig Moore said...

You are saying that the power of sin is an external power over us and not a fallen character issue? Can I then blame my environment for the sins my skin commits? Also, moral disempowerment replaces depravity and spiritual deadness. Sounds like good sociology to me!

Bob MacDonald said...

I have been buried in Job these past 4 months - but what you say on OS has resonances with Elihu's speech in chapter 36 - here's a bit of my translation. OS IMO is completely misleading spiritually and psychologically. We are all 'bound' to use Elihu's term - whether from Adam or from our own circumstances - we begin bound and we may end bound - by whichever bindings we chose or are cast into.

Elihu ... (disdained by many)
and if those bound in flame
are captured in ropes of affliction
then [God] tells to them their works
and their transgressions that they allow to be great over them
and he reveals to their ear his mentoring
and he says that they should turn from iniquity

if they hear and serve
they will consume their days in the good
and their years in pleasantness
but if they do not hear
into death they will pass on
and they will expire without knowledge

a penny's thought from ancient times

Christopher said...


Just to point out that Beverly Gaventa (from PTS) understands Sin as an external power to be eschatological in nature. While this sounds somewhat similar to what moderns call "environment", perhaps the subtle difference is that if Sin is a binding eschatological power, then it suggests some collusion between humans and God's eschatological enemies in order for the binding to take place?

I dunno, just my two cent's worth...any thoughts?

::athada:: said...

I love how evolutionary understanding and and modern biology have opened this up in a new way, as developed some by Burt and Keith at the Honors College lecture. Maybe I'll come to conclusions by the time I'm 60... then have it dismantled by another finding!

Anonymous said...

Of course Eastern Orthodox Christians view this differently as well, since they do not hold to Augustine's views.

John Romanides of St. Vladimir's Seminary states:
"St. Paul is not thinking as a philosophical moralist looking for the cause of the fall of humanity and creation in the breaking of objective rules of good behavior...Paul is clearly thinking of the fall in terms of a personalistic warfare between God and Satan....The theory of the transmission of original sin and guilt is certainly not found in St. Paul..."

He goes on to state that St. Augustine was not, contrary to Protestant and Roman popular positions, "the first and only early church father" to understand Paul. He calls that a "myth".


Ken Schenck said...

I agree, Rick. For example, Paul did not in my opinion teach total depravity. The Eastern church has more accurately parsed this one.

Ryan Fishel said...

"[W]hat Paul means by “flesh,” we only need take the word in its normal sense: skin."

It seems more like Amelia Bedelia translated the text.
I highly recommend you don't submit this article as Sunday School literature.

Ken Schenck said...

Craig, you push forward to an important next step in the discussion. If Paul conceptualized Sin primarily as a force that is not my self--"It is not I who do it but Sin that works within me," how does that relate to us in the way we conceptualize ourselves as people with a brain?

Ryan, I'm not sure what your objection is, but "skin" in our context certainly shifts to "brain," which ties into Craig's concerns as well and Adam's allusion to thoughts Burt Webb and Keith Drury have presented.

(By the way, their thoughts clearly involve elements any real discussion of sanctification will have to engage going forward, namely, the structures of our physical brains. The WTS ignorantly snubbed a proposal they made a few years ago. I'm hoping this year's conference on the Bible and Scripture with Richard Hays signals that the organization might move toward relevancy in the near future)

Sinful tendencies, whatever extra-physical components they may involve, also relate to the physical structures and "pathways" of our brains. Sanctification thus must of necessity involve physical alterations to our very neuron structure beyond any "soulish" components.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Whether sin is concieved as a failure of the social structure, as in one's family of origin, or other social context, which impacts the child's "worldview", as well as I suspect, the neural "connections" of experience in such a family....such that a "word" hold connotations that are connected to that meaning and the physical reactions that follow such "word" usage.

Other times, there are mental illnesses that are "original" (genetically determined) that hinder someone from "behaving" according to a norm.

Sin is also "outcomes" that are due to "world systems" that are not "free". Governments that do not believe in individual liberty of conscience are such as these.

All of these are oppressive "original sins". And they impact human beings, society and the world.