Adam and Original Sin: What Does the Bible Really Say?

on April 19, 2017

    Excerpt from: Joel B. Green, “Adam, What Have You Done?” from Evolution and the Fall, eds. William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing), 107-109

    Today’s context raises hard questions against the traditional doctrine of original sin. The whole church has never reached a common understanding of “original sin,” modern optimism regarding human progress has made it difficult for many to take original sin seriously, theologians have raised ethical objections against the notion that God might hold people responsible for the human sinfulness of past generations, and evolutionary biology has undermined the idea of sin imputed to all of humanity on the basis of the rebellion of our first human parents. Moreover, we have seen that neither Paul nor James affirms that the entire human family is implicated in Adam’s sin, and both biblical and extrabiblical Jewish texts typically affirm free will and personal responsibility. What, then, might we say about original sin?

    Though it cannot be said that the doctrine of original sin originated in the Christian scriptures, we can and should affirm that the doctrine was developed from scriptural warrants. This is true at least with regard to our understanding that the human heart leans toward sin, that sin can be intentional or unintentional, that sin is a power that precedes human behavior, and that sin pervades the human family. Moreover, even if Paul and James are not as forthcoming as we might wish on the matter of sin’s etiology, both reflect on Genesis 1–3—James to assure his audience that God is not the author of sin and Paul to emphasize the pattern set for all humanity by Adam. On the one hand, this means that there is much of importance to be said for [John] Wesley’s defense of the doctrine of original sin on account of the soteriological work it does.

    On the other hand, the narrative we have thus far traced would be hospitable to an alternative story of “the Fall”—for example, that the lives of our early ancestors were not yet clouded by the haze of spiritual darkness or the muddle of decisions that eventually would envelop the human family as it turned away from God, yet who were subject to temptations and to the desire to turn away from God’s voice, and were vulnerable to all kinds of perversions, violence, abuse, and self-centeredness their ancestors bequeathed to them.[1] And such a narrative would be hospitable to a series of elements of the doctrine of original sin—the emergence of sin as a pervasive quality of human experience, sin’s personal and structural nature, and sin’s character as a disease that pervades the human family relationally (or “environmentally”[2]).

    Accordingly, on the issue of original sin, scripture provides plenty of room to take seriously the primary questions raised by evolutionary biology. The qualified view of original sin to which scripture bears witness does not require belief in a first human couple, Adam and Eve, or in traditional notions of a historical “fall,” or in the traditional view of sin’s genetic transmission. The doctrine of original sin—this is not one of those areas where one might urge a forced choice: scripture versus science.

    Notes & References