Tag Archives: original sin

Ian McFarland on original sin

In short, the claim that human beings are born sinners (i.e., actually guilty of sin and not just predisposed to sin) derives from and depends logically on the more fundamental conviction that the ultimate vindication of particular human lives before God is pure gift.

This soteriological framework affects Christian claims about what makes human beings human. If humanity’s ultimate destiny as human before God is a matter of gift, it follows that the source and guarantor of human identity is located outside the self in God. This perspective is inconsistent with the penchant of most modern thinkers to see the (free) exercise of the will as the source of human identity. In other words, it is a corollary of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin that human identity is rooted in a reality that is prior to human willing. This reality is either the grace of Christ, which leads to eternal life, or the taint of original sin, which leads to death and damnation.

This way of thinking has the further effect of transforming sin form a moral category defined in terms of discreet acts of the will to an ontological one that describes the conditions under which willings takes place. The will is directed by desire, which is in itself not under the control of the will. Again, the will does whatever it wants, but it cannot want whatever it wants. Because in the aftermath of the fall human desire is turned away from God, the will is constitutionally sinful prior to any act of the will (i.e., prior to any concrete thought or deed that could be subjected to moral assessment). […] In short, while a sinner is one who commits sin, from an Augustinian perspective it is the fact of being a sinner that leads to concrete acts of sinning and not the other way round.

from “The Fall and Sin,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, (OUP, 2007), 148. [emphases added]

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Gerhard Forde on humanity’s “upward” fall

We must consider the fall and sin differently from the traditional scheme. The fall is really not what the word implies at all. It is not a downward plunge to some lower level in the great chain of being, some lower rung on the ladder of morality and freedom. Rather, it is an upward rebellion, an invasion of the realm of things “above,” the usurping of divine prerogative. To retain traditional language, one would have to resort to an oxymoron and speak of an “upward fall.” […]

Does such rebellion mean that the image [of God] is lost, either partially or wholly? That question is really not to the point since it comes from the picture of the downward fall. There one treats the image as though it were a faculty or an endowment that could be impaired or lost by falling to a lower place on the scale. Usually the “image” has to do with “reason,” on the one hand, and free will, on the other. Humans are “like God” in that they have rational freedom. In the scheme of the downward fall, consequently, one is anxious to protect free will from total corruption or loss. If one cannot, the whole scheme will have to be jettisoned. Those who speak of “total depravity” are thus quite naturally a dire threat and often charged with manicheism and the like.

If one looks at the human predicament as the consequence of an upward fall, however, then much of the difficulty can be avoided. What one “loses” in such a “fall” is faith and trust in God. One becomes, as stated previously, bound against God, indeed, a bondservant of Satan. The image is not lost, but turned to its opposite. One now images not God but the divine adversary. Even though the image is not lost as such, one can see that the predicament is infinitely more serious than the relatively mild impairment or partial loss envisaged by the downward fall. The God-given faculties are not lost, but rather bound to the service of Satan.

from Theology is for Proclamation, (Fortress, 1990), 48-49.

Robert Jenson on Adam and Eve

“Who then were Adam and Eve? They were the first hominid group that in whatever form of religion or language used some expression that we might translate ‘God,’ as a vocative. Theology need not share the anxious effort to stipulate morphological marks that distinguish prehumans from humans in the evolutionary succession. If there is no ontological difference between us and our hominid progenitors, the effort is pointless; if there is, the division may not coincide with the establishment of our species. […]

“Who were Adam and Eve? They were the first hominid group who by ritual action were embodied before God, made personally available to him. Theology need not join debates about whether, for example, the cave paintings were attempts to control the hunt or were thanksgiving for the hunt, were ‘magic’ or ‘religion.’ The painters were human, as we may know simply from the fact of their ritual. And so they were presumably fallen, and therefore with their rites did indeed try to bind the contingency of the future, to do magic. But by the very act of giving visibility to wishes directed beyond themselves, they nevertheless in fact gave up control and worshipped. […]

“We … are compelled to posit a ‘fall’ of humankind, occurring within created time. Hominids who do not yet invoke God cannot sin. But so soon as members of the human community are on the scene, they in fact do; this is the lamentable puzzle of the matter. The story told in the third chapter of Genesis is not a myth; it does not describe what always and never happens. It describes the historical first happening of what thereafter always happens; moreover, had it not happened with the first humans it could not have happened at all, since then the first humans would have been omitted from an ‘encompassing deed of the human race.’

“We may one last time pose the question: Who were Adam and Eve? And in this context the answer must be: the first community of our biological ancestors who disobeyed God’s command.”

from Systematic Theology, Vol. II, The Works of God, (OUP, 1999), 59, 60-61, 150.