Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Adam cont. cont.

Christian interpretations of Genesis 2 and 3 today are an interesting mixture of reinterpretation piled on reinterpretation, like a wall that has been painted over several times without completely removing the previous paint. For example, we do not find the idea that the "image of God" mentioned in Genesis 1:27 has been either marred or destroyed anywhere in the biblical texts. [1] Nowhere in the entire Bible do we find any idea of this sort. The story of Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3 never mentions the image of God being damaged or destroyed, and Paul himself never thinks of it as damaged in any way. It is an idea that comes entirely from later Christian tradition. It may point to a truth, but it is not a truth that does not come strictly from the Bible.

Language of Adam’s sin being the “Fall” or the “original sin” also comes from Augustine rather than the Bible. The Fall is a shorthand term for the event of Adam’s sin that resulted in humanity and the creation being under the power of Sin and subject to decay. Adam’s sin is thus the first or “original” sin. But Augustine and later Christian tradition in the West meant much more by these terms than Paul himself, and we can probably call a great deal of it into question.

So for Augustine the original sin was sexual in nature, something that neither Genesis nor Paul taught. Augustine’s negative view of human sexuality cast an unhealthy shadow over Roman Catholicism for a thousand years. [2] Augustine and perhaps even the majority of later Christians in the West also believed that Christians continue to have the guilt of Adam’s sin hanging over their head, often believing that infant baptism is important to cleanse a child of Adam’s sin. While we have no problem with infant baptism, this particular view of it has nothing to do with anything the Bible teaches about Adam’s sin. [3] Romans 5:12 only says that death has passed on us because we all sin like Adam, not that we die as part of the penalty for Adam’s sin. We die because we all sin, Paul said. [4]

Similarly, the NIV and other versions introduce later interpretations into Paul when they translate Paul’s word flesh with the phrase “sinful nature” or, as some refer to it, our “carnal nature.” The skew here is to introduce the word “nature” into the discussion, which Paul never uses in this context. The “flesh” for Paul clearly related to my skin, since that is the starting point for understanding the word. But Paul could also say that, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8, NRSV). Paul could use the word flesh in a morally neutral way (e.g., of Jesus in Rom. 1:3). But he could also use it of that part of me that makes me lose in my struggle against Sin (e.g., Rom. 7:5).

In short, flesh for Paul was the material part of me, the part of me that belongs to this creation, my body. As such it is the part of me that is particularly susceptible to the power of Sin in this world. [5] But as we will see in the next section, the Spirit of God inside of a person meant for Paul that that person was no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit.

Particularly in holiness circles, language of a sinful or carnal (fleshly) nature led to all sorts of rabbit trails. What was already partially a metaphor in Paul was taken so literally as to lead to debates over the absurd. Thinking of the sinful nature as a thing inside of me, thinkers debated whether the thing might be eradicated or only suppressed. So if it could be eradicated, how might it ever come back? But if only suppressed, then what did that say about the power of God over Sin. In the end, Paul thought about it in terms of powers over my body. Either I was under the power of Sin, the default state of my flesh given the current age. Or I could become a slave to righteousness under the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Let alone the later Christian delineation of the image of God in us to aspects like the "natural," "moral," and "political" image

[2] Not that Augustine was solely responsible for these views, which were not uncommon in his day. No doubt such views were part of the reason celibacy became a requirement of priests around the year AD1000.

[3] Augustine wrongly translated Romans 5:12 in reference to Adam, “in whom” all sinned. Augustine believed that we were all present in Adam when he sinned and thus that we all carried the guilt of Adam’s sin. But the NIV and other translations are almost certainly correct to translate the verse to say, “in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.”

[4] Notice that Paul himself interprets Genesis differently than the impression we would get from Genesis 3 on its own. There it seems that the default for Adam and Eve was to die from the beginning and that it was only by eating from the tree of life that they might live forever.

[5] Interestingly, Paul talks in Romans 7 as if my mind (and presumably spirit) was not included in this part of me (e.g., Rom. 7:25).


Marc said...

Many people today think of Original Sin as though it were Original Guilt: we are all born guilty because of what Adam did and so unbaptised babies are doomed. Interestingly Paul is explicit that sin came to all people "because all sinned" (Rom 5:12) which diminishes the corporate aspect significantly and excludes those who really did not sin.

What Adam did was "let" sin into the world which seems to be a metaphorical way of saying he was the first to transgress a command (though he wasn't, Eve was).

But Paul is unfortunately ambiguous about sin and death - now it's powerless (or "dead") without law, now it's reigning (in death) even before law. This relates to his imprecision with the word "law" which is now Torah, now a principle, now God's law without much indication of change. Depending on when he means what theologies diverge radically.

Anonymous said...


While Augustine had some odd views of sex and views we would reject today, I don't believed that sex was involved in his teaching on the "original sin." Rather, the problem or issue of sex arises as a result of Adam and Eve's original sin.

The problem with sex comes about because of original sin and is not the original sin itself.

Chris Bounds

Ken Schenck said...

I was thinking concupiscence was more accurately the nature of the original sin, which led to sex. Is that correct, Chris?

John c. Gardner said...

Are you maintaining that Paul had no idea of original sin as taught by either Wesley or Augustine? You have argued that a Christian consensual intergenerational reading of Scripture is a valid hermeneutical approach? What would such an approach hold?

Ken Schenck said...

What gives me some freedom to critique Augustine and friends is my claim that these are distinct elements of the Western/Roman Catholic rather than consensual tradition per se.