Original sin (was Re: Human origins and doctrine ...)

From: george murphy (gmurphy@raex.com)
Date: Sat Feb 23 2002 - 09:06:38 EST

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        Let me try to tie together some aspects of this important issue. To
    avoid undue length I omit most biblical & other references & detailed
    arguments but will supply them if needed.

    John W Burgeson wrote:

    > Adrian Teo wrote: "I fail to see how the doctrine of original sin can be
    > reconciled with a purely evolutionary framework that denies the special
    > creation of humans."
    > To which John Burgeson replied: Then maybe the "doctrine of original sin"
    > is what needs to be challenged?

            Those of us interested in creation-evolution issues tend to focus on
    the question "How did sin get started?" but there's a basic aspect of the
    issue that's independent of such questions. The "doctrine of original sin"
    was originally formulated in response to the idea that human beings are
    basically OK & are capable of doing God's will by their own powers
    (Pelagius). Against this the church said "No" - that all human beings are
    sinners from their origin & are in need of God's grace in order to be saved.
    Not only is this the case today, but it always has been so.

            There are differences between theological traditions here having to
    do with the degree of seriousness of this sinful state. The naive idea that
    Adam simply is a bad example & that we are able to follow Christ's good
    example has been generally rejected by both east & west. God's grace is
    needed but there are significant differences about the ability of human
    beings to cooperate with grace.

            But then the question arises, "Why is this the case - especially
    since human beings are created by God & therefore good?" That requires us to
    reflect on the origins of the human race, which in the biblical tradition
    means reflection on Genesis 1-3.

            Since humanity is God's good creation, human beings were understood
    to have been created with the possibility of not sinning - i.e., in
    possession of "original righteousness. But that can be understood in 2
    ways. Here (& in other ways) the point made by Robert Schneider comes in:

    > I agree, Burgy. It might be worthwhile mentioning that the doctrine of
    original sin is a western >Christian conception and not part of the body of
    doctrine of eastern Christianity. The concept of >the Fall is not
    inextricably connected with the doctrine of original sin in the eyes of
    eastern >theologians. And there have always been western Christians (myself
    included) who have thought >that O.S. is neither an adequate theological
    explanation for human sinfulness nor a prerequisite for >God's act of
    salvation in Christ.

            Augustine, & most of the western tradition, understood humanity as
    having been created in already mature & perfect state. The "fall" then was
    an abrupt change from from a righteousness that was already in possession to
    a state in which that righteousness was completely lost. (Here there are
    significant differences between views of Roman Catholics OTOH & Lutherans &
    Reformed OTOH which I pass over now.) In the Augustinian tradition there is
    also the idea that original sin is _hereditary_, than we actually inherit it
    from our parents in a chain that goes back to Adam & Eve.

            The eastern tradition, represented by Irenaeus, sees humanity as
    having been created without sin but in an immature & childlike state.
    Humanity was intended to grow, to develop toward a final state of righteous
    maturity in union with God. The first sin then was not so much a matter of
    an abrupt "fall" but of getting off the proper road.
            To this point I've just been reviewing traditional beliefs. But no
    the question is, can we make sense of the basic ideas of the church's
    tradition here if human beings are the result of evolution. (& of course I
    mean there evolution through which God has been acting.) If so, how?

            First, the basic idea that all human beings are sinners & in need of
    salvation by Christ is not touched by concerns about how we originated many
    generations ago. In my view the western emphasis on the seriousness of the
    sinful condition of humanity is appropriate.

            But then the idea of an "original righteousness" of the first humans
    comes into question. Especially the ideas often held in the west, that the
    first humans had tremendous wisdom & other special attributes that we have
    lost is very implausible with an evolutionary scenario. The eastern view,
    that humanity began in an immature state, seems closer to the mark.

            But we can't simply think of the first humans as moral or
    intellectual blank slates who could just
    as well have avoided sin as sinned. What we know of evolution suggests that
    the first humans (however we choose to define them) would have inherited a
    heavy genetic &/or behavioral load inclining them toward behaviors that we
    would consider sinful - aggression, sexual promiscuity, theft, &c. These
    behaviors would not have been sin in their ancestors who were not moral
    agents, but would have been sinful in moral agents. & with those inherited
    tendencies it's very hard to see how those first moral agents could have
    avoided sin.

            We can still say that sin is not part of what constitutes proper
    human nature, but in the course of real evolutionary history sin could not be
    avoided. Sin is not "necessary" but it was "inevitable."

            In brief, I think an eastern metaphor of "taking the wrong road"
    (with the consequence of all humanity getting "lost in the woods") is better
    than the western metaphor of "the fall," especially if we are concerned to
    make theological sense of human evolution.



    George L. Murphy
    "The Science-Theology Interface"

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