Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reflecting on Original Sin

I grew up in a Christian church and floated around the Quaker and Reformed sets during college. I never got along well intellectually with the latter, which is why I still squirm when I hear people throwing around words like “total depravity.”

So when our study brought up this little tidbit, I started doodling:
“Natural persons [meaning unbelievers] have no means by which to be truly victorious over sin. They are driven soley by their own natures…Have you noticed that you never have to make the conscious choice to sin?”

I don’t like extremes. If you use the words “never”and “always” around my family, you’re certain to have a discussion at hand, and you will lose. Unless you’re saying “there is ALWAYS an exception!”

The “no means” bit rubbed me all twisty and agitated and I opened my big mouth at Bible study to say so. At issue here is the idea of original sin versus conscious sin choices. That’s where the conversation went downhill! And I realized it’s partly because I don’t come from a background where I was taught to read the Bible to support that view. In fact, I wasn’t taught to read the Bible to support ANY view. It's the other way around. A view has to have Biblical support...and where the Bible is paradoxical, we should just say “it’s a mystery.” Mysteries. Ah, I love a mystery, especially one that just brings me into more and more questions...I think God does too. It keeps us on our toes, and talking FOR him a lot less, talking TO him a lot more. But I digress.

Original sin is a belief that Adam and Eve’s sin was passed on to future generations. Every Christian denomination seems to have a different perspective on it. I find that my beliefs on this subject line up surprisingly well with those of Eastern Orthodoxy, who didn’t get exposed to Augustine and his sex obsession.* Also, their beliefs are firmly Biblical. Ah! Now I can rest easy, knowing I'm only a heretic to 83.6% of the evangelical Christian population.

In the Orthodox view, humans bear no guilt for Adam and Eve’s sin. Which is in line with Ezekiel 18.** Rather, their sin caused a distortion of man’s nature. This is emphasized in Genesis, where Adam’s sons are created “in his image,” in contrast to Adam being created in God’s image. What’s more, Adam and Eve’s sin “changed the reality of this present age of the cosmos.” This is held up by Romans 8:22’s comment about the whole world groaning, not to mention our own experience. The fall broke the world, including us. It did not, however, take our free will. Adam's sin didn't condemn us all outright; we're subject to God's judgement because we individually choose sin.

Adam and Eve, in sinning, chose separation from God (which is the real consequence and definition of sin). God’s love drove them from the Garden, not as “a legal consequence, but to prevent them from eating of the Tree of Life and immortalizing their sin.” I think that’s an important fact to point out. When we start from an idea in Genesis that God is out to punish us, our view of God is distorted. Just as parents are “mean” to their children in order to prevent them from harming themselves, God tossed Adam and Eve from the Garden so they wouldn’t jeopardize their own (and our) redemption!

If we hold to the belief that all humans are incapable of doing any good and are totally depraved, how in the world did Jesus manage, if he was, in fact, fully human? According to this site, “some theologians hold that Original Sin is passed to offspring through the father, making the son of God the Father free of Original Sin.” But that takes us to the “sex is the transmitter of sin” argument* that we really ought to reject out of hand, because it’s not Biblical and just plain stupid. Plus, it really screwed up the Church for a really long time.

Anyhow, as a result of our depraved nature, we lack the freedom to do good, they explained, and so we take a free fall all the way down the Calvinist slope...

Calvin? (No, we're not talking about the Best. Comic. Ever.) What did he have to say? Let me refresh your memory. I’m quoting the Wikipedia entry here on original sin:

“Calvin believed that humans inherit Adamic guilt and are in a state of sin from the moment of conception. This inherently sinful nature (the basis for the Calvinistic doctrine of "total depravity") results in a complete alienation from God and the total inability of humans to achieve reconciliation with God based on their own abilities. Not only do individuals inherit a sinful nature due to Adam's fall, but since he was the federal head and representative of the human race, all whom he represented inherit the guilt of his sin by imputation. Redemption by Jesus Christ is the only remedy.”

(An unfortunate sidebar to this extreme view of original sin is that unbaptized infants, of necessity, will go to hell if they die. Do not pass Go!, do not collect grace or your $200.)

It’s odd to me that this idea exists at all in “orthodox” Christian theology, as it seems rather Gnostic at best. For those of you out of touch with 2nd century theology, a key Gnostic belief was that flesh was inherently evil, while the spirit was inherently good, which eventually brought them to a belief that Christ couldn’t have been human, because as God was good, God couldn’t possibly inhabit a sinful, nasty, unclean human body. While Calvinists would say that our spirit too, is evil, it does beg the question how Jesus was ever able to rescue us at all. It requires some agile mental gymnastics, for sure! But if you go the Orthodox route, it’s not necessary to do quite so many back flips.

Which is what I was trying to say, I think, earlier today. I believe we’re all broken and we have all sinned. But that sin is chosen. We theoretically could choose not to sin, but we don’t. None of us have, and none of us will, except Jesus. So when we’re faced with sharing this unpleasant fact with someone who doesn’t share our view of the Bible, please don't plunk out a statement like “Oh, you’re incapable of doing good and a totally corrupt individual!" It's not even true (and going down a rabbit trail of how a "good" act is still evil in God's eyes because God can't tolerate a sinful person is a hard bit of madness to swallow). Even evil parents know how to give good gifts to their children, even the most reprobate person is capable of doing good some of the time. It’s the some of the time that condemns us. That’s when we’re able, forced, even, to admit a predisposition to sin. We all recognize it. We can't be good, but it's not because we're the products of messy sex, or because Adam's passed some kind of freaky sin gene to the human race. Sure, he started the whole mess. But we continue it. It's our fault, not his.

Comments welcomed, and if I've misrepresented any particular views here, feel free to correct my misunderstandings!

*The Western idea of original sin proposed by Augustine and Tertullian was basically that sex transmits Adam’s sin. Oh, those old guys with their fetishes!

**Where the Lord says “The one who sins is the one who will die…the child will not share the guilt of the parent.” And better yet, “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit" (Ezek. 18:30-31, TNIV). Because even back then, new hearts were available to those who wanted them!


Ellen said...

Where is their stance on the Roman passage about Abraham 'being credited to him as righteousness because he believed God'?
clearly before Christ was even born into the world and died for the redemption of our sins. Abraham was given grace, considered righteous and had a deep relationship with God- even as a human, and before he was even Jewish/circumcised. And, before he performed any actions, it was clearly based on his state of belief, in his heart and mind.

Anonymous said...

I've learned that prooftexting and doctrine is pretty much "of the devil". We need to read the Bible and think for ourselves, instead of following after a particular man's interpretation of what God said.


--jenna said...

Ellen, I'm not sure. I'm not Orthodox...and I'm not Calvinist. My understanding is that God always did care about the relationship...

Mom, are you sure you're still encouraged to attend local churches? With all that "thinking" heresy? :) Just kidding.

Wren said...

What's interesting to me, having grown up in Calvinist circles and lately revisiting them under unconventional circumstances, is that I've always interpreted "original sin" as more of the condition you describe rather than the guilt from the Adamic sin. That "the fall" broke the world, and God is in the continual business of making it new and whole again.

Your theological journey is interesting to me, Jenna, because I am also finding that my musings are aligning more with Orthodox and Catholic traditions as well. I find it a fun place to be (or I found it more fun once I shook off the need to think evangelically... :)

Keep posting!

anne said...

One wishes to comment, but one cannot seem to organize thoughts in coherent way. So, just sayin: Yeh,seems reasonable, your reflections.

--jenna said...

Wren...I don't recall who the professor was, but it was a senior year class and he was all giddy with the curious fact that so many of his former students had converted to Catholicism you remember that? I wonder what he'd make of us today???