Reframing “Original Sin”: A Frontier for Theology and Science (Part 1)

Joel B. Green

“Adam, What Have You Done?!”

The OT, Gen 3 in particular, does not contemplate much the etiology of sin, nor the consequences of Adam and Eve’s mistrust and disobedience in Eden. In fact, Gary A. Anderson can narrate the history of sin without referring even once to Gen 3 (Sin: A History [Yale University Press, 2009). A few Jewish writers of the Second Temple period fill in this lacuna, however. In one of those texts, 4 Ezra (ca. 100 CE), Ezra despairs,

Adam, what have you done?! If you sinned, the downfall wasn’t yours alone but also ours who are descended from you. What benefit is it to us that we are promised an immortal time, but we have done works that bring death? What good is it to us that everlasting hope has been predicted for us, but we have utterly failed? What good is it that safe and healthy dwelling places are reserved, but we have behaved badly? What good is it that the glory of the Most High will protect those who have conducted themselves decently, but we have conducted ourselves indecently? What good is it that paradise will be revealed, whose fruit remains uncorrupted, in which there is plenty and healing, but we won’t enter it, for we have visited unseemly places? What good is it that the faces of those who practiced abstinence will shine brighter than stars when our faces are blacker than darkness? While we were alive and doing evil, we didn’t think about what we would suffer after death. (7:118-26, Common English Bible)


New England Primer (1690)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Here, Adam’s sin marked the downfall of all who would come after him. Even here, though, Ezra walks a fine line, since he goes on to observe that Adam’s descendants have themselves “done works that bring death,” “utterly failed,” and “behaved badly” – that is, they bear responsibility for their own choices.

Christian Scripture does not always tie sin to choice, however, sometimes instead speaking of sin as a force or power. Nevertheless, John E. Toews shows how this concern with human volition (and its usual corollary, human responsibility) persisted until Augustine (354-430 CE) (The Story of Original Sin [Pickwick, 2013]). Augustine formulated for the western church a theology of “original sin” summarized neatly in this couplet from The New England Primer:

In Adam’s fall
We sinned all.

Scrolling the calendar forward, article six of “The Articles of Religion” of The United Methodist Church has the title “Of Original or Birth Sin” and includes this declaration: “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man [sic], that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.”

Wesley and the Methodists

In the eighteenth century, Wesley was adamant regarding the importance of the doctrine of original sin, which he understood in a near-Augustinian way — emphasizing the transmission of a corrupt nature but not the transmission of guilt, and clarifying the essence of original sin as the corruption of the human being and not as imitation of Adam. At the 1744 conference Wesley convened with his preachers, this issue is taken up in the usual question-and-answer form:

Q. 15 In what sense is Adam’s sin imputed to all mankind?
A. In Adam all die; that is, (1.) Our bodies then became mortal. (2.) Our souls died; that is, were disunited from God. And hence, (3.) We are all born with a sinful, devilish nature. By reason whereof, (4.) We are children of wrath, liable to death eternal. (Rom. v. 18; Ephes. ii. 3.) (Monday, 25 June 1744)

And in his various iterations of the Analogy of Faith, Wesley typically included the doctrine of original sin.

Wesley defended the doctrine of original sin against what he regarded as enlightenment optimism, particularly as this was articulated in John Taylor’s treatise, The Scripture-Doctrine of Original Sin Proposed to Free and Candid Examination (1740). Taylor asks “how far we, the Posterity of Adam, are involved in the Consequences of his first Transgression” (p. 4). He goes on to examine the primary scriptural texts, analyze the proofs given the doctrine in the Westminster Larger Catechism, and explore theologically the nature of humanity and of redemption. In the end, Taylor rejects the doctrine as nothing more than the “heavy Burthens of human Fictions” (p. 257).

John Wesley, "Original Sin"Wesley responded in what would be his single longest treatise (over 500 pages), The Doctrine of Original Sin according to Scripture, Reason, and Experience (1757). For wider dissemination, he summarized the first major section of that treatise as a sermon on “Original Sin” (1759), which he placed at the head of the fourth volume of his Sermons on Several Occasions. Resisting ancient and contemporary accounts of human dignity, virtue, and happiness, “as if it were all innocence and perfection,” Wesley counters portraits of “the fair side of human nature” (“Original Sin” §1.2) by discussing human nature after Adam and Eve but before Noah: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5 AV). Appealing to experience, he goes on to argue that this is the state of humanity up to this very day, then claims that the doctrine of original sin separates the Christian religion from ancient portraits of the human situation. “They were wholly ignorant of the entire depravation of the whole human nature, of every man born into the world, in every faculty of his soul, not so much by those particular vices which reign in particular persons as by the general flood of atheism and idolatry, of pride, self-will, and love of the world. This, therefore, is the first, grand, distinguishing point between heathenism and Christianity” (“Original Sin” §3.1). It is probably not too much to say that Wesley’s defense of the doctrine was grounded less in scriptural exegesis and more in his understanding of the gospel, and particularly his understanding of the universal need for divine grace.

Importantly, Wesley’s Augustinianism was mitigated by two factors. First, Wesley’s understanding of prevenient grace allowed him to affirm original sin and free will at the same time. Moreover, due to his understanding of grace as a power at work in people’s lives, he was able to map a soteriological itinerary that allowed people to be eradicated of the power and effects of all sin. Second, with the Western Church, Wesley affirmed total depravity, but with the Eastern Church he spoke of sin as a disease. Thus, he ends his sermon on “Original Sin”: “Know your disease! Know your cure! Ye were born in sin; therefore ‘ye must be born again’, ‘born of God’. By nature ye are wholly corrupted; by grace ye shall be wholly renewed. … Now ‘go on’ ‘from faith to faith’, until your whole sickness be healed, and all that ‘mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus’!” (§3.5).

Enter Evolutionary Biology

Wesley could hardly have anticipated how this doctrine would fare in the wake of evolutionary biology, which problematizes the idea that human history began with a single couple whose lives can be divided into two “eras” — pre- and post-Fall, and that threatens to turn the doctrine of original sin back on itself by requiring that sin belongs to the very essence of the human condition. To cite only a single example of recent study, chromosomal mapping now suggests that women today share a common female ancestor who lived in Africa between 99,000 and 148,000 years ago, that men today share a common male ancestor who lived in Africa some 125,000 to 156,000 years ago, and that these two ancestors did not know each other and, in fact, were two among thousands of people alive at the time (G. David Poznik et al., “Sequencing Y Chromosomes Resolves Discrepancy in Time to Common Ancestor of Males Versus Females,” Science 341, no. 6415 [2013]: 562-65; Paolo Francalacci et al., “Low-Pass DNA Sequencing of 1200 Sardinians Reconstructs European Y-Chromosome Phylogeny,” Science 341, no. 6415 [2013]: 565-69).

Accordingly, Henri Blocher belies all scientific reasoning when he affirms the plausibility of the view “that the biblical Adam and Eve were the first parents of our race, some 40,000 years ago,” then posits “an initial period of fellowship with God in their lives before they were apostacized” (Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle [Eerdmans, 1997], 42). Indeed, Patricia Williams, claiming that the Scriptures are bereft of a theology of original sin, has turned to sociobiology in support of her notion of “sin” as the outworking of inordinate or inappropriate desires (Doing without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Origin Sin [Fortress, 2001]).

Clearly, the doctrine of original sin has fallen on hard times. For many of us, the notion that we all might be held accountable for the misdeed of a single, common ancestor or first couple boggles the mind as a historical and/or moral nonstarter. Increasingly, the doctrine is jettisoned from church talk altogether and those who do discuss it often first remove from the doctrine its theological teeth. How are theologians responding to this state of affairs? I turn to this question in part two of this essay.

Posted Apr 02, 2014