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« Don't Stop Believing 2 of 5: A Third Way by Michael E. Wittmer | Main | Don't Stop Believing 4 of 5: Christians, the Economy and Plato by Michael E. Wittmer »

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I thought about the only thing a newborn baby did was suck! ;-)

Seriously, is this postmodern innovation or just a revival of old-fashioned liberalism?

Good point, Peter. See yesterday's post for insight into your question.

Well now, I don't know. While I'm happy to see people on all sides rethinking notions of 'original sin', I'm not really convinced by this approach. This is so for a few reasons.

I'm not sure that the picture of original sin affirmed within this post is although that faithful to what the bible actually says (versus what certain Christian traditions have taught). In fact, I think that it's fairly hard to correlate this view to that of the biblical narrative. This, I think, is why Christians on all sides (i.e. not just 'liberals' or 'emergent' folk) have begun to revisit this notion -- because this is where biblical study leads us.

That said, I think it is possible to offer a more satisfying alternative. To say that one is born needing salvation, is not the same as asserting that one is born into (eternal or other) damnation. Thus, we can say that a person is born under the Powers of Sin and Death, while not simultaneously affirming that that person is a sinner.

Thus, to speak of 'original sin' as an ongoing force, according to this formulation, would be to speak of the way in which sin still holds sway in this world, and the way in which we -- although not born as sinners -- inevitably become sinners with no chance to become anything else. Before we can walk we are learning to participate in the sins of our parents or of our broader social milieu. Indeed, before we can talk we may have even inherited a latent predisposition to drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, and so on (NB: having this predisposition does not make a person a sinner, only following through on it does).

So, yes, one is born needing salvation... but this is not salvation from God's wrathful judgment, it is salvation from the death-dealing Powers of Sin that operate both spiritually and materially in the world. It is only later, after we ourselves have become sinners, that we also come to need salvation from God's wrath.

This, at least, is how I understand 'original sin'. It also happens to be a view that I think fits more closely with the biblical narrative.

Any thoughts?

Thank you for your posts this week. I have enjoyed reading them. The topic that you address is one with which I find myself wrestling. Raised in traditional Christianity or shall I say, traditional theology, I have found myself tired of religion and wanting to get back to seeing the Church preach and teach the unadulterated gospel that is liberating and life-giving, not suffocating. I believe there is a balance between the orthodox doctrines of the Church and the practice of them in a loving manner that will attract, not repel. Oftentimes, I have felt that people's issue is not so much with Christ as it is with the Church and how we have presented, and at times polluted, His message. Can we hold to our doctrine and yet extend love to a homosexual? By love, I mean, are they welcome in our churches? Are we capable of saying, "this is what we believe, yet we accept you as a child of god and you are welcome to worship with us"? I think there are pet issues that the Church has chosen while letting others sit quietly by. We don't call out, as you said in your introduction, "the bigots who persecute" homosexuals, or the gossips or the women who've had abortions (just the abortionists and pro-choice folks), and the list goes on. Let's be fair, sin is sin. Let us call ALL people to repentance in a way that expresses our love and concern for them, rather than our need to put forth an agenda that maintains the status quo of our religious clubs.

Dan:

This is an interesting and provocative post. I would push back on a couple of points. Your view was essentially taught by Pelagius, who was declared a heretic by the Catholic church in the fifth century. I don't mean to dismiss out of hand your viewpoint by saying this, only to make sure that you know where you stand, and to say that since the idea isn't new, you might enjoy reading Augustine's anti-Pelagian writings to see how he dealt with your questions (see volume 5 of the second series of the Philip Schaff, the Post-Nicene Fathers).

Regarding the biblical narrative, there are passages that speak to original sin ("in sin my mother conceived me"; "in Adam all die"--Rom. 5:12-21) and to the inevitability of sin (Rom. 3:23). If we weren't born already broken by sin, it becomes difficult to say why everyone inevitably sins. Wouldn't some pure souls find the strength to resist their bad environment?

And theologically, if we only sin because we follow a bad example, then we aren't all that bad off, and salvation is not as great. If we are broken from the inside and all the way through, then we need a salvation that starts from the inside and saves all the way through. But if sin is only a product of our environment, then salvation need only change our environment to be effective. In sum, if we minimize sin we inevitably tend to minimize the grace which saves us.

Pat:

Amen. Everyone likes to talk about the sins that they aren't struggling with. What a change if we started with ours and confessed those first!

Mike,

Thank you for your response. I have read some (but not all) of Augustine's anti-Pelagian writings so I am aware of that discussion. And, although I'm happy to see that you are not using reference to dismiss what I say, I still do find it a bit of an amusing rhetorical power-play. But, no worries, I'm not at all put off by your reference. Now I'm no Pelagian (and I think my position is different than his, as we'll see below), but I have found that when we take the time to study the early Church conflicts we tend to find that the 'villains' aren't that bad, and the 'heroes' (especially Augustine!) aren't that great.

But enough of these things, let me cut to the issue at hand. What I am going to do is take the criticism you raise against me, and apply it to your position. That is to say, I think that you have trouble embracing my position because you don't take sin seriously enough, which means you end up not taking grace seriously enough!

To do this, let me remind you of the distinction I wish to maintain between being born under the power of sin, and being born a sinner. The biblical passages you quote don't actually contradict this position. To say that all die in Adam, or that sin is inevitable, actually (IMO) confirms my position in prioritising an understanding Sin as a death-dealing Power operating over creation (and over wee babies). Thus, we can be born broken by sin, because we are under Sin's domain, but this does not make us sinners in need of salvation from God's wrath. It makes us slaves in need of God's salvation.

Let's take another concrete example. A baby born with a hole in her heart is an obvious example of a baby born broken by Sin's power. What that baby needs is liberation from that power and not salvation from God's wrath!

This, then, leads to my reversal of your criticism. You suggest that my environmental approach to sin would lead to 'some pure souls' finding the strength to resist their respective environments (you see where I'm going with this, don't you?). To make this suggestion, is to not take Sin and its power seriously enough, which then leads you to question (from this angle) the need for grace. However, should one take Sin deathly seriously in this regard, this concern is shown to be without foundation. Until the time of Christ's return, all of us are born into Sin's domain and none of us escape unscathed.

Finally, regarding your final point about the potential outcome of a change of environment, I would suggest that you might be operating with too much of a scientific-industrial mindset (there's my rhetorical power-play!) which posits sharp boundaries between one's external environment and one's self as some sort of isolated monad. The truth, IMO, is that such boundaries are far more porous than this mindset allows. Who we are, on the inside, it very much related to what occurs on the outside, so I think that your concern rests on an artificial distinction. Thus, for salvation to be complete we need a transformation of both.

This, by the way, is one reason why, despite the fact that we possess the Spirit internally, we continue to sin. We are also awaiting the consummation of the kingdom and God's universal rule on earth (a necessary environmental change).

Grace and peace to you.

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