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James K.A. Smith
 on June 02, 2015

Is There Room for Multiple Theories about 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.


The questions at the intersection of evolution, human origins, and original sin are challenging, unsettling, and intractable. Any honest Christian engagement with these issues has to be humbled and, at times, even overwhelmed. To wade into these concerns is to step into an arena that Charles Taylor describes as “cross-pressured”: an intellectual space where we feel the push and pull of competing stories and rival accounts of the world. Even if we begin from the conviction that all things hold together in Christ (Col. 1:17), that doesn’t mean we can see how they do. We trust they do and then undertake our scholarship in hope of glimpsing this truth.

When contemporary Christians find themselves puzzled and humbled by new challenges, it is a wise posture to look to the church’s past for models and wisdom. Thus we are often told that our current challenge is “like” prior debates in the church’s history. Such analogies are then taken as guides for how we might proceed in contemporary debates about evolution and original sin.
But such analogies are only illuminating and instructive if the likeness holds. I often find myself skeptical.

Elsewhere, for example, I’ve questioned whether ours is really the “Galilean” moment that some have suggested—that there are important disanalogies between the proposals of Galileo and the proposals of those who want to jettison an historical Fall. Like any analogical argument, the similarities need to be sufficient and salient in order for the parallel to shed light from a historical episode in the church on our contemporary questions. Many suggested analogies fail to meet this bar, I think.

This is why I find myself equally skeptical about my colleague Loren Haarsma’s proposal of another analogy. In his brief essay, “Why the Church Needs Multiple Theories of Original Sin,” Haarsma suggests we look to debates about the atonement as an instructive model for debates about evolution and human origins. Just as “the church has developed multiple ‘theories of the atonement,’” his analogical argument goes, so “perhaps we will need multiple theories of original sin.” As he rightly notes, across church history there have been numerous “models” of the atonement: as ransom, as liberating victory, as substitutionary payment, as a legal transaction, and more. If there can be multiple theories of atonement, couldn’t we entertain multiple theories of original sin?

I don’t think so. There are salient differences here that undermine the analogy. Let me highlight just a couple of aspects.

As Haarsma rightly notes, if there have been multiple “theories” of atonement in the history of Christian theology that is because the Scriptures themselves contain a multiplicity of metaphors to describe the work of the cross. (Hans Boersma’s discussion in Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition remains particularly helpful.) The multiplicity in this case is exhibited within the canon of Scripture received as divine revelation. There are multiple metaphors for the atonement because it is a mysterious work of grace that we cannot possibly probe—like the proverbial blind men trying to make sense of the elephant. And so the Spirit, in his grace, has given us multiple “word pictures” to invite us into this mystery. The multiple theories or models of the atonement are not different views on whether the cross accomplishes the forgiveness of sins but how. The multiplicity is generated by the richness and depth of the mystery.

Is the same true for the (very recent) proliferation of theories about original sin and—more pertinently—the origin of sin? I don’t think so. In order to understand why, we need to more carefully parse a host of issues and questions that fall under the broad category of “original sin.” On the one hand, the church’s historic doctrine of original sin is an account of the ubiquity of human sinfulness in a broken, fallen world. So the doctrine of original sin is an anthropological claim about the state of humanity as trespassers “by default,” and hence the universal need for salvation and redemption—which is pictured in all kinds of ways in the Bible. There are good reasons why Scripture includes a multiplicity of word pictures to name the corrosive, destructive power of sin. Evil, as Paul Ricoeur put it, is its own kind of perverted mystery, and its power to capture us, seduce us, tempt us, break us, pierce us, and overtake us evokes an array of metaphors.

Thus Haarsma rightly notes the multiple images and metaphors for sin in Scripture which, in turn, generate different biblical metaphors and models for what the work of the cross (i.e., atonement) accomplishes. He once again notes the analogy: “Just as scripture uses multiple images for atonement, it uses multiple images for sin and the damage caused by sin” (though I suggest the causality for this mirrored multiplicity is the reverse: it is because sin is “pictured” in many ways that the atonement is always pictured in various metaphors).

Noting this analogy is exactly right: because the ubiquitous, destructive, captivating power of sin is pictured in multiple ways, so too the liberating, healing, restorative work of the cross is pictured in multiple metaphors. On this point almost no one would disagree.

But is this really the issue that impinges on contemporary discussions about human origins? As we struggle with how to reconcile biblical and general revelation about human origins, is anyone really calling into question the ubiquity of human sinfulness or the universal need for redemption? No, at least no one in the orbit of evangelicalism and historic Christian orthodoxy.

But this points us to a second aspect of the historic doctrine of original sin: while the doctrine includes anthropological claims about the rebellious state of humanity, the doctrine also includes an account of the origin of sin—an account of how we got to be this way. (Haarsma tends to invert the question in an odd way, asking: “Why aren’t we sinless?” This is not the question the church has historically asked, but rather, “How did we come to be sinful?” There’s a difference.)

With respect to this aspect, in fact, calling it the doctrine of “original sin” can be a bit confusing, almost misleading, since the doctrine of original sin has historically emphasized that sin is not original, not coincident with creation per se, but something that befalls a good creation. In other words, sin has its origin in time. So what’s at stake in the current debate is not the nature of sin or why we need a Savior from sin. (In this respect, Haarsma repeats a trope found in the work of Peter Enns and others—a trope I have criticized elsewhere.) What’s at stake in our current debate is not just explaining universal sinfulness. Nor is it even just a matter of explaining the origin of sin—though it includes that. What’s really at stake is a biblical, theological, and scientifically responsible account of the origin of sin.

When we zoom in to this more specific question, we will begin to recognize that one of the most fundamental issues is not just explaining how human beings became sinful. In fact, what’s at stake here is how to account for the origin of sin in a way preserves the goodness of God.  Because if our “scenarios” or models entertain the possibility that humanity is created sinful—that our sinfulness is “original” in this temporal sense, then we have created a cosmology in which God is the author of sin. And if God is the author of sin and evil, then God’s own goodness is compromised. (One of the most searching explorations of these thorny issues remains the work of America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, in Freedom of the Will.)

Haarsma is exactly right to note and raise the challenging, difficult questions we have to address here. We may well entertain various scenarios that try to reconcile what general revelation seems to be telling us and what Scripture and the catholic tradition have taught us. But such scenarios reconciling general and special revelation are qualitatively different than the multiples models of sin and atonement that arise within and from the Scriptures themselves. And 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.

Of course, that still leaves a lot of questions to answer. But it perhaps helps us stake out some parameters that can then focus our common energy on the right questions.

About the author

James K. A. Smith Headshot

James K.A. Smith

James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. Trained as a philosopher with a focus on contemporary French thought, Smith has expanded on that scholarly platform to become an engaged public intellectual and cultural critic. An award-winning author and widely-traveled speaker, he has emerged as a thought leader with a unique gift of translation, building bridges between the academy, society, and the church.

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