We continue our exploration into the chambers of theological thought and today we stop at the door of a doctrine that has deep ramifications into how we think about God, ourselves, redemption and a host of other things. Before we set out to consider this topic though, it is important to place the understanding of the original sin doctrine (as we know it today) in its right cradle so as to see it for what it is: an interpretation of the biblical account (albeit the most widely accepted in the western Christian Church).
Augustine of Hippo, though not the first to tackle the original sin, was the first who took the “original sin” concept (the first sin committed) and, reading Paul through a certain lens, made it to mean involuntary transmission whereby the original sin was physically transmitted from parent to child via semen. Nobody believed that before him (from the records we have). His point was so powerful that it became doctrine ever since (in the west). The only modification made (it’s worth noting) was only after a thousand years when Calvin defined further the extent of the original sin saying that it affected us totally to the extent that there is nothing good in us, hence the total depravity doctrine.
As persuasive and profound this interpretation is through out the years I saw cracks into its fortified walls. There were a number of issues that seemed to have been left out of the equation. I always thought to be unjust that I am blamed for someone else’s decision (Adam’s). Remember the old saying: we are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners? In other words we’re born with a disadvantage, thank you very much!!! What kind of choice do I have since, due to my totally depraved sinful nature, I can’t really choose to do what is good? I, for one, may not be able to do good, but wait can I honestly turn a blind eye to so much good that is being done all around me (and not by people considered to be Christians)? These and many other questions made me reconsider my belief (more like someone else’s that was handed to me and accepted at face value), made me take another look at the making of the doctrine of original sin, reassess its scriptural footing and maybe build an alternative that is more satisfying, that takes all the pieces of the puzzle and attempt to put them together in a harmonious whole.
From the very outset is important to clarify that I found the issue to almost never be about the reality/existence of “sin”, but with its meaning. Some people refer to it without using the word sin (maybe because it has been hijacked in some circles and given all sorts of connotations).
Since this doctrine seems to have been inspired by the Apostle Paul and his statements in Romans 5:12-21 (and alluded in 1 Cor 15:21-22), let’s turn to Paul first. I am surprised to see people applying to these texts what I call a “schizophrenic hermeneutics”. They seem to get what Paul says in Romans 5:19b, yet applying a totally different logic to the first part of the verse. Most people don’t read “through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” to mean “universalism”, i.e. what Christ did automatically applies to everybody. Yet when it comes to what Adam did it is seen unmistakably so? How come? There are really only two options here. Either we accept the idea of “involuntary transfer/participation” and declare therefore that what Christ did “involuntarily” affects everybody (universalism) or we accept the idea of “voluntary transfer/participation” and declare that each individual chooses to be part of Adam’s sin and Christ’s righteousness. After all isn’t that what Paul alludes to in verse 12 where he says sin entered the world “… because all sinned”, not due to just one man’s choice? (I understand that this hinges somewhat on the meaning of the greek preposition “epi”, translated most everywhere “because”). Since Paul doesn’t seem to be talking here about some automatic transfer but something totally different (especially when seen in its entire context, which could be the focus of a different post), let’s say for now that this passage fails to give its support for the Augustinian view of original sin.
Let’s go back now to the beginning and read the creation story on its own terms. Here we are being given an anthropology (a view of the nature of human beings) to work with. Here’s my short reading of this account.
Firstly, God created us ontologically (in our essence, in our being) good.
Secondly, He created us with the capacity for choice (in theology called “free will”), which implies the possibility of bad/evil (as something opposed to good). Yes, God created the space for the existence of evil when He gave us free will. So in this sense evil, or in our discussion sin, has been built latent into our being as a possibility. Only with this option true love is made possible, as true love is a choice, right?
I personally ascribe to the notion that evil doesn’t have an existence of its own (at least from a biblical perspective), but exists only as a departure from that which is good (which ultimately is God Himself).
So here’s my understanding of David and Paul when they mention the fact that we are born in sin or born with sin in our being. As Tony Jones rightly writes, this is could be seen as “an archetypal account of the human condition”.
Refusing to embrace the Augustinian view of original sin does not mean that the existence or the seriousness of sin is belittled.
It does not also mean that just because we have the capacity to choose good from evil that we can do this apart from God’s help, as it is sometimes implied. I must say as emphatic as I can: apart from God’s help we choose ONLY evil.
• When we choose good it is NOT because God forced it on us. That would be no choice, now would it?
• Looking at the Genesis account when we choose evil (in Adam and Eve’s case and ours today), we are the ones choosing to distance ourselves from God not the other way around.
This takes us to the last point, that of human experience. History has been the record of great acts of goodness and great acts of evil. It also paints, against our desire as Christians to admit, a picture where those who claimed to be Christ’s followers have committed atrocious acts of evil and those considered “pagans” have manifested great acts of goodness. That means that regardless of our religious associations we are ALL capable of both good and bad.
History is teaching us that to separate evil from good in terms of groups of people or in terms of the other is a dangerous posture.
Nobody is totally good or totally evil (i.e. all the time). In short the human experience too, if we’re honest about it, betrays the tenets of original sin doctrine. To uphold this doctrine is to give a blind eye to the reality around us. It is to choose to see the world through certain lenses.
These are my thoughts. What do YOU think? Do you think the doctrine of original sin can benefit us and more importantly, those around us? What issues do you find with this doctrine? Do you see any merits in it? How did you first hear about it and what made you embrace it? If you don’t believe in it, why not?