A Response to James K.A. Smith on Original Sin and Atonement
When I write about difficult topics, I prefer to be wordy. For the sake of accuracy, I like to add lots of qualifiers and caveats to nearly every sentence I write. In my earlier essay, “Why the Church Needs Multiple Theories of Original Sin,” I had to be brief. So I’m grateful when scholars like James K.A. Smith respond to my work and add many of those important qualifiers and caveats – often better than I would have written myself. I agree with most of what he wrote.
Because Scripture gives us multiple metaphors for sin, the church has embraced multiple pictures for what sin is and damage caused by sin. Because Scripture gives us multiple images for Christ’s saving work, the church has developed multiple theories of atonement. But as Smith correctly notes, this is not the situation with the question, “How and when did sin enter the world?” It is our scientific study of God’s creation which is prompting us today to consider multiple competing answers to that question. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a different thing. Nevertheless, although science is prompting us to consider multiple theories, these theories take time to evaluate carefully precisely because Scripture gives us so many metaphors for sin and the damage caused by sin.
Sin is multifaceted. St. Augustine’s version of the doctrine of original sin touches many different facets. Augustine assumed a fairly literal-historical reading of Genesis 2-3 in which all humans were descended from a single pair of individuals. This allowed him to develop a version of the doctrine of original sin in which many different facets of sin all focus in a very particular time, and a particular place, when the historically first sins were committed. In Augustine’s version, all of our first ancestors were endowed with creaturely abilities (conscience, reason, empathy, etc.) to understand God’s moral law, and all were given a special revelation of a particular command to obey, and all were given divine gifts which enabled sinless obedience, all at about the same time. The entire population of our first ancestors disobeyed God at about the same time. Their relationship with God was damaged, and their supernatural gifts were lost, and their moral character was damaged, and they began to hide from God and shift blame, all at about the same time. For the entire population alive at that time, their relationship with each other was damaged, and their relationship to the rest of creation was damaged, and their natures were changed so that they were no longer able to not sin, and their natures were changed so that their inclination to sin would be passed on to all other human beings, and their status was changed so that the guilt of sin would be passed on to all other human beings, all at about the same time.
Science is now showing us that the human ancestral population probably was never smaller than a few thousand individuals who were spread over a large geographical area. This makes it much more difficult, perhaps impossible, to focus all of those facets of sin into a single time and place as Augustine did. In my earlier essay, I briefly described three general types of scenarios which are now being proposed for the entrance of sin into the world: Adam and Eve as recent representatives, as ancient representative-ancestors, and as literary figures telling a symbolic compressed history of many of our ancestors over a long period of time. Each of these scenarios addresses all of those facets of sin, but addresses them in different ways. For example, each scenario offers somewhat different answers to questions like, “How intellectually and socially advanced were the first humans who sinned?” and “How did the effects of sin spread from the first sinners to the rest of humanity?”
So one reason why the church today needs multiple theories of how sin entered the world is so that we can work carefully through their implications. For each theory, we must consider how the answers they suggest mesh with what Scripture teaches about the many facets of sin.1
I suspect Smith agrees with this. Near the end of his blog he wrote, “While we might have multiple accounts of ‘how human nature was damaged by sin and how sin is passed from generation to generation,’ those are still distinct from the question regarding the origin of sin. There may be room for multiple scenarios about how sin originates in time, but given that the goodness of God is at stake, there is not room for multiple theories about whether sin originates in time.”
Smith’s final point, “… there is not room for multiple theories about whether sin originates in time,” is another important caveat on my earlier blog. It’s worth exploring in greater depth. There is one sense in which “sin originating in time” is trivial. In any theory of human origins which includes human sin, there is a time in creation prior to human sin (because there is a time in creation prior to human existence), and there is a subsequent time after which all humans are sinners and no one is capable of not sinning. There is nothing profound there. So what really is at stake in saying that “sin originates in time”? Well, some scholars have proposed theories about original sin which could be summarized by saying, “God’s use of evolutionary processes to create humanity simply means that God created a sinful humanity in need of salvation. Human individuals might choose to commit or not commit particular sins, but human choice had nothing to do with humanity’s sinful condition. That was simply God’s doing.” Like Smith, I have serious theological reservations about theories of that sort. What is at stake, in theories like that, is the goodness of God.
It is precisely this theological concern – for the goodness of God – that motivates some Christians to favor competing theories about how and when sin entered the world. Some Christians favor symbolic scenarios in part because they worry that in representative scenarios, it seems like the sins of some individuals would affect the spiritual status of others who were not their descendants. Other Christians favor representative scenarios in part because they worry that in symbolic scenarios, humanity’s sinfulness seems too inevitable. In both cases, they are asking the right question. “How is this theory of how sin entered the world in harmony with, or in dissonance with, what Scripture teaches about the goodness of God?” The theological stakes are important and the questions are challenging. That is why the church, for now, needs to be examining multiple theories. As I said in my previous essay, this work can be productive and beneficial for the church. Ultimately, it should increase our understanding and appreciation for the immensity of God’s rescue in Jesus Christ.
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