The Origin of “Original Sin and the Fall”
Jim gives an overview of his new book that tackles this age-old topic in the theological world, and the differing perspectives about the doctrine of original sin.
There are two moments in the process of getting a book published that are thrilling: first, when you get a contract from a publisher for the idea; second, when a box of brand new books with your name on the cover shows up at your door. In between those two moments, it’s a lot of work. And when it is an edited volume, completing the work does not just depend on you yourself putting nose to the grindstone and cranking it out. Other people’s schedules and priorities have to get factored in, and sometimes that takes quite a bit of time.
Moment #2 just occurred for this new book I edited with my friend Chad Meister: Original Sin and the Fall: Five Views. The first moment occurred more than five years ago. And it was several months before that that Chad and I pitched the idea to an editor at IVP. Then we rounded up the contributors and wrote the proposal. Some time after this was accepted, the original editor at IVP left, so we transitioned to a new one. And then two of the contributors became gravely ill. So the rate at which the parts were moving had slowed considerably. But finally, it all came together and made its way through the production process.
Thankfully, this topic is not new, or dependent on the latest headlines. Original sin has been with us a long time, and discussion of it is just as relevant today as it was 5 years ago, or 500 years ago (and even further back)!
The Five Views
When you have a theological doctrine that has been around a long time, you can bet there will be different opinions on just what it means and how it should be applied. This book was an attempt to sort out what a few of these views are, and to get proponents of those views interacting with each other. We tried to select contributors who span the range of views that are under discussion among theologians these days.
I’d guess that most in the BioLogos community will find the views of Oliver Crisp and Joel Green to be most familiar and reasonable. Crisp thinks his Moderate Reformed view is faithful to (at least one part of) the Reformed tradition and does not conflict with the scientific explanation of human origins. And Green’s Wesleyan view operates in the spirit of John Wesley, taking science seriously and allowing it to help rethink some traditional interpretations, but not allowing it to trump or dismiss the testimony of Scripture.
Contributor Andrew Louth comes from the Eastern Orthodox perspective, which has traditionally not engaged the “original sin” doctrine, which was a development in Western theology. Instead, the emphasis is on seeing the effect of the fall not as guilt, but as death. Then the response from Christ is not merely to set the relationship right between God and humans, but the entire cosmos needs to be restored, which culminates in theosis, as we become participants of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
Tatha Wiley argues in her Reconceived View that the doctrine of original sin still has relevance for us today, but it needs to be reworked in light of modern science and what we know now about the natural history of our species. She explains how there have been many different understandings of sin throughout the more-than-thousand-year span our Scriptures were being written. And drawing on the thought of Bernard Lonergan, she claims it needs to be understood afresh today along the lines of the failure to love properly.
At the other end of the spectrum, Hans Madueme claims that theology ought to make us reconsider the scientific interpretations. He argues for the ongoing viability of the traditional understanding of original sin and the fall: Adam and Eve in the Garden as the first humans, no animal death before their sin, and their guilt passed on to all human beings as a result of their sin. He calls it an Augustinian-Reformed view.
As is usually the case with these multi-view books, none of the contributors persuaded each other to change their views. But I think it succeeded in showing the differences between the views and what their strengths and weaknesses are relative to each other.
My Own Reflection
One of the things to remember about this discussion is that “original sin” and “the fall” are not terms taken from Scripture. That in itself does not disqualify them from being properly orthodox—the term Trinity is also not found in Scripture, for example—but it points to the fact that as elements of theology, they are our attempts to explain something.
No matter your view of Scripture, you must admit that theology does not come fully formed from the Bible itself. Instead, Scripture provides a story from which we extract some data points: God created everything; humans all sin; Christ’s death and resurrection somehow save us, etc. Theologians, then, try to connect those dots with rational explanations. Original sin and the fall have been part of those explanations for how the world and our behavior came to be the way they are today.
But mathematicians will tell us that for any finite set of dots, there are an infinite number of lines that can be drawn connecting them. And so we have the multiple views, which may all agree (though not always) on which data points from Scripture need connecting, but do so in many different ways.
Chad Meister and I had previously co-authored another book, Christian Thought: A Historical Introduction. My biggest takeaway from that project was the tremendous variety to be found in the Christian theological tradition, and the dose of humility that comes with that. Perhaps I should hold my own views a bit more loosely, recognizing that there are other legitimate ways of sorting out fundamental Christian commitments.
It’s not that doctrines are not important. I’ve spent much of my professional life trying to figure out how best to rationally explain Christian doctrines, and I’ve been especially interested in the topic of original sin and the fall because of its relationship to natural history and the scientific explanation of evolution. How do we integrate the theological explanation for the origin of sin and death, with the scientific explanation of evolution?
There was an interesting point about this in our recent conversation with N.T. Wright and Francis Collins (audio podcast or video). I asked about a line from Tom Wright’s new book, God and the Pandemic, where he said:
“Alongside this Israel-and-God story there runs the deeper story of the good creation and the dark power that from the start has tried to destroy God’s good handiwork. I do not claim to understand that dark power… I don’t think we’re meant to” (14).
It is that “dark power from the start” that we attempt to understand through doctrines of original sin and the fall. Where could these have come from in God’s good world? Wright’s answer (excerpted from the podcast) was interesting. He said:
“These are big and dark questions. I think the Bible doesn’t give us nice and easy packaged answers, for the very simple reason that if there was a nice and easy packaged answer, it would mean that there was a logical and rational and God-given place for evil within God’s good creation. And I think that’s simply not the case.”
That means, I’m afraid, that there will always be some mystery for us in this life, given that we only see things dimly now through the distorting glass of our own finitude. Given the mystery and lack of a definitive and final theological explanation, there will continue to be room for some disagreement about how all this works.
There will also be room, I hope, for a multi-views book on the topic! If you give it a read, I’d be happy to hear what you think.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
About the author
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