Often we think that Christian doctrines are something frozen in time. Once they have been stated, they are simply put on ice and taken out of the theological fridge when we need to examine them or talk about them in our churches or in the classroom. But doctrine isn’t like that; doctrines change and develop over time. There is no single “doctrine” of, say, the atonement or of the Trinity, even though these are fundamental issues in Christian thought. Of course, there are a range of views on these matters that might be thought theologically tolerable. Usually the bounds of theological toleration have to do with a complex of different things, including what the Bible is thought to say, what the churches have commonly taught, what is set down in particular creeds and confessions, what particular theologians of the past have said, and where our own theological proclivities lie. In the case of some Christian doctrines the lines are drawn more clearly than in others. In the “clear” cases, we have some teaching of Scripture that has been received by the church and (usually) codified in some way, such as in a creed or confession, so that the doctrine has a relatively stable form. On this basis we may talk of this person’s doctrine of the Trinity being consistent with the views set out in the Nicene Creed, in the London Baptist Confession of 1689, or other similar documents, as they reflect the teaching of Scripture. Other views that are inconsistent with these standards will be judged beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. So, for example, the person who says that God is not three in any sense, but only one (as Jews and Muslims believe) will be thought to have missed something vital in the Christian account of who God is—something without which that person’s views cannot be counted as fully Christian, whatever other merits they may have.
The doctrine of original sin is a rather interesting case of a Christian teaching that is near the center of Christian thought, which has changed over time, and which does not have the same stable basis in creeds and confessions as the doctrine of the Trinity does. Let me explain. If asked, “what is the doctrine of original sin?” we may well think we have a ready answer: “that we have fallen short, are alienated from God, and in need of salvation.” That is a good start. But it is not a doctrine of original sin as such. Many people might agree that humans do wicked things, even that humans often do wicked things—one does not have to be a Christian to see that. However, Christians claim that humans have fallen from grace. Early Christian thinkers spoke in this way, explaining that because of the actions of our first parents, Adam and Eve, we are now in a state of sin. We are born with a moral bias towards doing what is wrong, even when we know it is wrong. We are addicted to sin and often succumb to the desire to feed that habit. Later Christians began to differ on what the condition of sin amounted to. Is it merely a lack of something we once possessed—a state of original righteousness or justice from which we have fallen? Or is original sin more than that? Perhaps it is a moral corruption that actively affects all our moral choices. Others argued about whether we are guilty for being born with original sin. Some even claimed that we are guilty of Adam’s sin even though we don’t know Adam and never authorized him to act on our behalf. Then there is the question of how sin is transmitted from one generation to the next. Does God simply make it true that I am a sinner from my first breath? Is it something that is passed down from parents to children like a congenital disease? Here too theological opinions divide. There seems to be much about original sin that is up for theological debate.
What about the biblical basis for the doctrine of original sin? Interestingly, that is not as substantial as you might think. The creation story in Genesis 2-3 that includes an account of a human fall in the Garden of Eden doesn’t say anything about original sin. It does speak of a curse and of consequences for having eaten of the forbidden fruit. But those consequences are not made entirely clear, and it is worth noting that Jewish thinkers have often found themselves scratching their heads when faced with the Christian understanding of these passages as a basis for a doctrine of original sin. Where is that in the text, they ask? Or consider Paul’s letter to the Romans. There in chapter 5:12-19, Paul makes his famous comparison between Adam and Christ. From Adam comes death and the moral consequences of sin. From Christ comes the healing of human nature—with Christ acting as a second Adam, a new head of the human race that makes the right choice, which has positive effects for those who are united to him. However, Paul doesn’t seem to specify what original sin is. Nor does he seem to say that we are guilty of Adam’s sin because we are Adam’s heirs. He does say something about the transmission of sin, but nothing terribly specific.
Why does all this matter? Because today Christians often fight over the doctrine of original sin, especially as it bears upon questions of human origins in relation to the natural sciences. Can all humanity be descended from Adam and Eve if science tells us that there never were just two humans? How can we reconcile these claims? Maybe that is the wrong place to start. Perhaps we should begin by thinking about what original sin commits us to. Given that doctrines change and evolve over time, it may be that there are resources in the Christian tradition that can help us to think through the doctrine for today in ways that are able to take a positive and constructive view of what the sciences bring to the table without rubbishing what Christians of the past have said on the subject. Though this may be a challenging task, I don’t think it is an impossible one. It is certainly one worth exploring as we seek to pass on to a new generation the ancient faith that has formed us.