Thursday, March 15, 2007

Sin: Questioning the Original

So Pastor Rhett has been blogging like a madman (the technical phrase is "blogging like a fritchie") over at Rhettspect Along the way the question of original sin came up. Its a subject I've had some interest in since I did a Wesleyan holiness paper a few years back.

What struck me then was the way in which the vast majority of popular theology was rooted in a concept of original sin formulated by a depraved, sexual pervert who went by the name Augustine. Alright so I'm exaggerating, but Augustine (who was a pretty heavy hitter in matters theological) basically overlaid a neo-Platonist gloss on the Judeo-Christian understanding of creation - remember Genesis 1:31? Creation wasn't just good (Gen 1:12) it was VERY good. For Plato, evil was a distortion of being and the body an example of that evil, particularly in its sensuality. Its the Greek stuff that taints the deal here with its dualistic approach to life, the universe and everything - spirit is good; creation is evil. Augustine's big idea was that the passion which accompanies sexual intercourse is the continuing source of sinful pride and depravity in our lives. This condition originated with the sin of Adam and Eve and was passed on to all their descendants with the result that we are all now born in a state of moral depravity or corruption. Now, this makes no sense to me unless they ate the fruit of the tree after a particularly exhausting bout of "oneness"!

So we're all corrupt in our deepest nature. Which is why we sin. Its an inherited moral condition. Which is why this concept of original sin is objectionable. The essence of living in a universe characterised by free will is that we get to be corrupted by our own moral choices rather than the choices of others.

On the other side of the equation is Arminius (phrases like Arminian theology or the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition pick up his name). Arminius defined original sin differently - he saw it less as the presence of corruption as the absence of righteousness:

This was the reason why all men, who were to be propagated from them in a natural way, became . . . devoid [vacui] of this gift of the Holy Spirit or original righteousness. This punishment usually receives the appellation of "a privation of the image of God," and "original sin."

I suppose the withdrawal of Adam and Eve from Eden and God's perpetual presence is consistent with this idea of lack of access to the Holy Spirit. So for Arminius you don't need to be corrupt to sin you just need to lack righteousness and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

This is not a moral definition of original sin. Its more relational ie absence of Holy Spirit and maybe ethical - an inability to choose right consistently.

John Wesley (the founder of the faith stream in which I bathe) finds himself in something of a half way house on this issue. He doesn't go for Augustine's corruption view but he doesn't go as far as Arminius either. The idea that I was introduced to at the lecture was Wesley's understanding of original sin as self-love. So this is a more relational understanding of original sin (its also consistent with Wesley's most enduring thoughts on holiness: that it is essentially a mature love for God and others).

The essence of my fallen human nature is fractured relationship with God and a tendency to choose in my own interests rather than God's. Its not that I am this worthless being with an essentially corrupt nature, albeit that my need of Christ is no less acute because of it.

Which makes sense if you think about the conditions in Eden - God creates a sentient being (with an awareness of self) - this is evidenced by Adam's naming of the animals (can you name anything if you don't have self-awareness?) God also creates Adam with a capacity to love - that being most of the point of the exercise - love being the highest exercise of free will. There is also a clear sense that the first humans enjoyed good things, appreciated beauty and possessed intellectual curiousity (Genesis 3:6) So the choice is laid bare: I can choose to love myself ahead of God if I perceive the payoff to be acceptable. And with a less than perfect appreciation of the benefits, sin happens.


Rhett said...


Do you see the Adam and Eve story as a mythological representation of the introduction of sin to the world, or as a real event?

BJ said...


servant said...

I was just having a morning smoothie, was having a mouthful, went to laugh and almost blew it out my nose when I read that question and reply! Brilliant.

Rhett said...

... :-(

I thought I could look to my pastor for some guidance, poor pilgrim soul that I am.


Yoda said...

Look you must, young paduin. Deeper yet, truth lies.