Do we need some new work on our doctrine of sin?

Western Christianity inherited a very strong doctrine of ‘Original Sin’ from Augustine. Eastern Orthodox Christianity has never been convinced that Augustine actually understood what Paul’s Greek meant on that subject. Our doctrine of Original Sin is so strong that some branches of Western Protestantism consider sin stronger than God’s transforming power in this life – they don’t believe a Christian can go even an hour without sinning in one way or another. I grew up with such an implicitly strong doctrine of sin that I was surprised as a young person whenever someone who wasn’t a Christian even did anything that was commendable or right. The West’s current doctrine of sin raises a host of questions theologically, ethically, and anthropologically. Many traditional cultures in the world do not conclude that people are intrinsically bad from the get go. If I understand them, neither Islam nor Judaism has a conception of Original Sin, nor an anthropology involving sin anything like what Augustine thought Paul was saying. Explaining why people do bad things required of these religions no doctrine like Augustine’s. To many people today, the idea that I am on the hook for a condition I was born with is logically,  theologically and morally repugnant, and leads to questions about the goodness of the Christian God in general.

Which brings up the question – Is it time we did some additional work on our doctrine of sin, conversed with our Jewish friends and Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters, and go back to the drawing board in examining what the Scriptures actually say about this? Probably.

11 thoughts on “Do we need some new work on our doctrine of sin?

  1. I do think Judaism has a concept of “Original Sin”. In the Johannine corpus sin is spoken of with regularity; including the necessity of not sinning as Christians. Specifically in John 9:1-2 the Disciples are asking Jesus if the man who was born blind had sinned or if it was his parents. The Apostolic Fathers believed in infant baptism, where did they get that idea? Just a few ponderings (for my benefit) about a Jewish thought of “Original Sin”.

    • Hey bro. In John 9 the theology is one of punishment for something you or your parents did – but not being born with a genetic propensity to evil. If you look at Jewish sources (for instance Everyman’s Talmud by Abraham Cohen) they disclaim that Judaism has ever held a doctrine of original sin. I’ll double check, but it seems like I recall that being said explicitly by Cohen and several rabbis writing to a Christian audience.

      • Man, you’re making me think about this. After doing some database searches and other research I have found nothing that is peer reviewed concerning a Jewish view of Original Sin. However, I am still not convinced that Augustine misread Paul. The first illustration that entered my thoughts was how can two sinners make something that is not sinful? Two cats cannot bread then give birth to a dog; just as a man and a woman cannot give birth to a unsinable person. It takes divine intervention and conception for this to be made possible.

      • That would be to assume that sin is passed genetically. We do not believe this is how “original sin” is passed. If it were, we would simply identify the gene and laser it out and make people without the condition. I don’t think you’ll find a theologian today who thinks sin is a ‘ontological substance’ passed on genetically. The Eastern Orthodox who claim Augustine misunderstood are people who spoke/speak Greek as their native language. They point out Augustine was Latin and didn’t understand Paul’s Greek accurately. It’s an argument that is gaining more attention. One thing Wesleyan theology and Greek Orthodox theology have in common, as one Greek Orthodox guy pointed out, is that neither of us are Augustinian.

  2. Just a small follow-up, I have done some research, ponderings, and question asking to myself and to theologians, obviously prayer as well. Knowing the Nazarene Article of Faith V, and reading what Augustine had to say, and a lot of scripture reading I have found that there is some room for more thought and discussion over what the theology behind “original sin” really is. It also may be a time waster because at times it seems theologians really are splitting hairs and could be spending this time doing more constructive things and developing more effective ways of reaching lost people. Nonetheless, I invite such questions because it would be intellectual neglect if I just accept what instructors say and not think for and possess my own thoughts. God’s prevenient grace covers the thought of original sin, but my question back is: Had Christ ever sinned? If Christ had never sinned than the theology behind original sin cannot be true. Because Christ’s humanity proves that there is not original sin. However, Augustine was on to something, or else his theology would not have lasted this long. We have all sinned, we have all missed the mark (Christ must be included into the discussion because of His full humanity but for my remark I did not consider the question of Christ’s sin or lack thereof). Furthermore, a alternative conclusion to “original sin” has no eschatological or soteriological implications therefore rendering this theology not as significant or important as the latter two theologies.

    • Hey bud. I think the soteriological issue is that the way our propensity to sin has been described in Western Christianity (Augustine’s take on ‘Original Sin’) is so morally repugnant to postmodern people (“you will be punished for a condition you were born with”— like going to jail for having Down’s Syndrome) that it pushes people away from Christian faith, church, and Christ. That’s a hair worth splitting – but I don’t think it’s that thin. Knowing that there are alternate views (not least, Eastern Orthodox) opens the door for someone to be Christian without feeling like they are having to “hold their nose while they vote” or worse. Make sure you don’t assume just because one branch of Christianity has held to a particular doctrinal view for a long time means it must be accurate – we did Crusades for centuries. Civil religion, wrapping the cross in the Flag, etc. also has had a very long shelf-life. Many doctrines work for a while when that particular civilization hasn’t developed to a point where that doctrine no longer works (Honor Satisfaction theory of atonement!) But when a culture/ people of a society develop to a point that a particular take on a doctrine no longer works without making God into a moral monster, it has vast soteriological ramifications… as in people wanting nothing to do with your religion. Western Christianity has re-worked major doctrines (again, the atonement theories!) down through the centuries. My point is that this one’s time may have come.

      • Hey bro, since my last post on the topic I have done a lot of thinking and asking questions concerning original sin. I do not see sin as something which is in us and we do it uncontrollably, rather something that happens unknowingly. Although some sins are done with full knowledge that they are sins. I do see it as something we all have done; but it is something learned. My example is the cycle sin that was taught to us by our parents. The divorced parent’s children are likely to be divorced because that way of life is what was taught. The best way I can describe what I am saying is the illustration of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Where the kids are in the cave living with the parents. Once the kids discover the higher forms outside the cave and true knowledge is gained unmolested than the decision is either to stay out of the cave and live life enlightened and free from bondage. Or to return to the cave and personally place the bindings back on yourself. Also, some never make it out of the cave. They do not know any better and never will unless someone enters their world to introduce to them an alternative lifestyle. Some will stay and some will go. Some who go will return but others will remain outside the cave. In this regard it is truly a sanctification issue (I tend to think of holiness and piety as two different ideas). And the scripture I use to reinforce this thought concerning the cave is in Ezekiel 18:19-21.
        Another illustration comes from Lord of the Ring. Frodo was bequeathed the ring from Bilbao. Frodo was free from the power of the ring until he picked it up and placed it into the envelope. He did not know what he was doing by picking up the ring because nobody told him. I think it is the same with Jesus. God chose Mary because she was blameless in the eyes of the Lord. Did she ever sin? Of course. However, she was full of repentance and kept the Lord’s commands. Sin was not a way of life for Mary. So when Christ was born he was born into a family that was already living outside the cave. Mary had no sins to pass along to her son. Therefore, Christ, being fully human, had the freedom to choose sin or to refuse it. Thankfully it was refused and we now have someone to make us holy in the sight of the Lord because of the blood that was shed and the empty grave. We can now live a life outside the cave and become all that we were made to be; here and now on this planet. If that isn’t good news than I don’t know what is.
        So original sin is not something in us but it is something we all choose. It is different to say that “all have sinned” than it is to say “all are born sinners”. Everyone has sinned, but everyone was not born sinners.

      • Sure. And when David says “sure;y I was sinful before I was born” I don’t think we necessarily need to make a literal and ontological theory out of that. Poetic language, yo. “I die a thousand deaths.” Not really. “I’ve never seen the children of the righteous begging bread. ” Really? You ought to get out of the palace a little more, David.

        The Greek Orthodox have always said Augustine misunderstood Paul on this issue. (I said something wry about Augustine the other day and Tanner said “I know! He’s so over-rated!” LOL.) There’s also this: if the hard-core Calvinists complain that the Old Testament is Pelagian…. Hmmmm.

  3. Pingback: The Doctrine of Original Sin Re-examined. | padrerichard

  4. I like the idea of revisiting scripture on this, so what first came to mind was the purpose of Mary’s virgin conception of Jesus. It seems that if sin was not something transmitted to Adam’s progeny then the purpose of Christ’s virgin birth was simply to fulfill prophecy and demonstrate God’s power over natural human functions (conception). But it seems then that the purpose of Jesus resistance to temptation and his demonstrating constant obedience to the father on our behalf, were pointless if sin is not something mankind is actually in bondage to from Adam, why does Paul consider all to be dead because of him (Rom 5:12-14)? This adds to further confusion when you consider the proclimation the author of Hebrews makes when he states that Christ is sympathetic to our weakness, and then emphasizes Christ’s sinlessness as a reassurance to us (Heb 4:15-16). The questions I ask myself if our sin is not from Adam are, “What weakness do we possess that causes Christ to be sympathetic to us, if not sin? And,” Why is it such a big deal to magnify the sinless nature of Christ if there was not a need for him to remain sinless, outside of defending his own character as God?”

    • Great questions. In short, I think there might possibly some answers in the reverse of how you phrased the questions. If sin is inherited genetically (which by the way, we could simply identify the ‘sin’ gene and laser it out soon), Jesus can’t be applauded too much for not sinning, he wasn’t under as much compulsion as us, since he was born without ‘original sin’. This would seem to undo the big emphasis that he didn’t sin, and lived faithfully toward God. If this is simply a result of not having inherited genetic sin, then he deserves no big applause, he had a trump card. Scripture, then, seems not to be trying to say anything about original sin in those passages, but rather about Jesus’ extraordinary faithfulness. Also, neither Adam nor Eve inherited original sin, yet they sinned. Our weakness is surely sin (and many others) yet we don’t need a genetic sin-gene from Adam in order for Jesus to identify with our weaknesses. Paul, of course, didn’t have the human genome mapped, and so is communicating according to the 1st century understanding of lineage and family headship, etc – something we don’t really vibe with in our super-individualistic culture. The NT talks about being “in Christ” but we don’t take that to mean genetically; thus freeing us to consider being ‘in Adam” something other than genetic. All in all, whatever reasons for the Virgin Birth (perhaps most importantly that it indicates God’s immediate Father status of Jesus), I don’t think the intended idea is that it is the only reason Jesus didn’t sin. I don’t think the Virgin Birth has anything to do with ‘Original Sin.’ Otherwise his temptation would be meaningless if he were supposed to be “in all ways like us.” Perhaps the idea of the sinless nature is that his nature wasn’t corrupted by sinful acts. As mentioned above, the only reason we have this doctrine in the way we do is that we are Western Christians instead of Eastern ones.

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