On the Assumptions of Original Sin

A while back I started talking about the doctrine of Original Sin, and how badly it has been misused recently by neo-Calvinists. I said then that I’d get into the doctrine itself, and how I have theological issues with it. I’ll begin at the same place this question always begins to bother me: the writings of Calvinists, and the doctrine of Total Depravity.

I use the term “Calvinist” fairly loosely here: there’s a big difference between a neo-Calvinist like John Piper and a Reformed theologian like Karl Barth, and the underlying theology they describe comes as much from Augustine as it does from Calvin, and is as prevalent in Catholicism as it is in Protestant Christianity. But it’s the emphasis placed on total depravity in the writings of Calvinists that makes this issue stand out to me, and particularly, the assumptions made about what that depravity is or means.

The doctrine of Original Sin holds that when Adam sinned, human nature became somehow tainted or twisted so that our primary disposition toward God is one of opposition: we are all against God in our most basic nature. The doctrine of Total Depravity emphasizes this fact, and underlines the extent to which we are against God: we have no ability to do good on our own, and anything that is good in us is a gift of God, an act of his grace rather than an act of our own wills. I have issues with this that I’ll save for another day, but what jumped out at me this morning was that I frequently see interpretations of this merely assumed and never argued.

This morning I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s little book The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: The Theological Basis of Ethics, and I came across this passage:

And this is our rebellion: the fact that we want everything, all that is noble, helpful, and good, if so it must be; but not this thing, namely, to be made open, prepared and made fit for God by God. Grace is God’s sovereign realm. But our enmity toward God – which is to be seen in our hearty good will toward any self-discovered theory about God, or toward this or that religious, ethical view of the universe that is not excluded – the evil that we do: this precisely is our hostility toward Grace. (19-20)

Granted, this is not Church Dogmatics, which I have yet to read and where I’m sure Barth makes some argument for this understanding of the nature of our rebellion against God. Even so, I’ve seen this theory over and over again and in many places, and it’s always assumed and never argued. There are a few points that irk me about it:

1. First, I don’t relate to it at all, and I don’t see evidence of it in the world. Where are all of these people who are hostile towards God? There is very little open hostility towards God, though a great deal of ambivalence, agnosticism, and apathy. Even the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins are not necessarily hostile toward God, per se, but toward the idea of God and the people who propagate that idea. Some have characterized our rebellion against God as straight-up evil, as opposition to anything which is good, which is clearly not the case (and yet even those who disagree that this is the nature of humans have no problem attributing this purely evil nature to fallen angels). But Barth’s formulation of our rebellion here is particularly troubling: rather than seeing an innate human desire for goodness and nobility as a reflection of God in us, he sees it as the basis of our rebellion. Perhaps he’s saying that what is left of our resemblance to God is the basis of our rebellion because our complacency or pride in this glimpse of deity is what causes us to aspire to be God ourselves? If that is the case, then by creating us in his likeness God has doomed us to failure. I suppose some Calvinists would agree with this wholeheartedly, but it troubles me deeply.

2. And second, whenever I see this point of view argued, it’s usually done in a way that makes my very doubt or problem with the theory into evidence for the theory. Take Barth’s point here: that the nature of our rebellion against God is that we are hostile to God’s grace. Who’s hostile to grace? I’ve known a few people, but I think it’s a stretch to say that this is the fundamental human condition! But if we don’t see evidence of this hostility to grace, then it can be argued that this is because the Holy Spirit is at work in us to make us into people capable of receiving that grace. And my argument that perhaps human beings aren’t fundamentally opposed to grace as a general principle can easily be interpreted as my own opposition to God’s grace, because I would then implicitly be arguing that human beings are capable of something good on their own and therefore not as an expression of God’s grace in us; in short, that I “want everything, all that is noble, helpful, and good…but not this thing…to be made open, prepared and made fit for God by God.” The argument is so concocted that to argue against it is to confirm it and undermine oneself in the eyes of one’s opponent. It’s clever, but it makes me very suspicious: it all falls apart if one of its premises is incorrect, but it doesn’t allow us to question its premises without being seen as sinful for doing so.

The combination of these two points makes it easy to see why so many Christians (particularly Calvinists) see themselves as being against the world, and love to argue about it. They have an argument that affirms itself and undermines any arguments against it, and at the same time affirms those who argue for it and slanders any who argue against it. I’m tired of the argument, and I’m tired of being smugly told that I’m just another example of fallen humanity when I try to ask questions about it.


11 thoughts on “On the Assumptions of Original Sin

  1. Hey Jeff – thanks for the post. Some provocative thoughts, which is always good!

    A few things to clarify though. It should be mentioned that it’s not just Calvinists who believe in total depravity. Most classical Arminians do too (e.g., Wesley). As well as Lutherans like Bonhoeffer. It depends on how the doctrine is stated. It does not mean (even for many Calvinists) that human beings are as bad as they could possibly be (that’s not what the ‘total’ refers to) or resistant of grace in all its forms (Calvinists affirm common grace). It means that short of God’s intervention we are without hope. It also means that sin is not just “things we do” but affects our very nature (who we are) and is pervasive. We have hearts turned in upon themselves as Luther and Bonhoeffer put it. This is why we need God to turn us inside out, why we need to be made fit for God by God. And it does not have to be obvious or manifested in cliche forms. It is more like an insidious disease that we cannot seem to eradicate. The presence of sin is universal and affects the life of every human person. Is that really that difficult to imagine? Chesterton once said that the doctrine of human depravity is the most obvious of all Christian beliefs.

    ‘Depravity’ does not necessarily violate an Arminian stress on free will either, because Arminians emphasize prevenient grace (grace that always goes before and awakens the opportunity for response, it restores free will to respond to the gospel). And the ‘going before’ is crucial to grace being grace. It is not our initiative, but God’s that becomes transformative for us. Without some notion of depravity it would be difficult to understand why grace would even be necessary.

    The theological term ‘grace’ need to be clarified too. I think this confuses your second point above. Yes, many people are not opposed to ‘grace’ as general idea, or as a word synonymous with God’s goodness or something like that. Many benefit and in turn manifest and serve God’s common grace. But grace has to do very particularly with our being reconciled with God, and thus with repentance, trust, submission, etc., as we recognize God’s Lordship, God’s total claim on our lives, God’s right to have our full worship, and our failure to acknowledge God as such and offer to him what is rightly owed. Grace is not just a general disposition of love but the offer of forgiveness (and our receiving it is an implicit acknowledgement of our depravity) and an eschatological orientation toward sanctification and glorification. It means releasing all claims to personal merit, all attempts to justify ourselves, and all attempts to build the good life without him (Babel!).

    • Thanks for the clarifications, Patrick!

      It’s not depravity that I have a problem with in the sense that you describe it. I have issue with the way people describe it (see my post from a few months ago about “You and I are Bad”), particularly when it seems to denigrate and shame human beings (which is what I see primarily from Calvinist sources, hence my emphasis on them here). I also have a problem with how this seems to go hand in hand with original sin, which I have difficulty understanding. I’m okay with the notion that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; that’s obvious. I have difficulty with the notion that sin is prevenient, to use your term. It seems that many of those who emphasize original sin and total depravity in their writings assign to sin the function that you assign to grace, holding that it goes before us and taints our every thought and action so that everything we do is evil. I have a big problem with that, not least because it doesn’t really hold up to Ockham’s Razor (not that everything in life needs to, but still): it’s hard enough to make good choices in life due to the complicated world in which we live, without assuming some sort of quasi-genetic evilness that taints everything I do. I’m quite willing to own my own evil, and express my total dependence on God’s grace, but surely a Calvinist would tell me that I’m just being prideful by saying so.

      Thanks also for your clarification of the term “grace”, though with all of the things that you attach to it, it doesn’t really sound free and therefore doesn’t sound like grace. I must not be reading it right. Even so, I don’t think that most people are opposed to the idea you describe, and I don’t think we can project that as a universal human condition. There’s a great scene in Orange Is The New Black, in which the crazy fundamentalist is trying to convert the protagonist, and is trying to guide (force) her through the “sinner’s prayer”. The protagonist, Piper, is an agnostic and fully knows that Pensatucky, the crazy fundamentalist, is completely crazy, but she says how nice it would be to be forgiven. She begins to pray, to reach out to God, to seek reconciliation, to own her faults and sins – and then Pensatucky keeps interrupting her to correct the way she’s saying the prayer, because she’s not following word for word. It doesn’t end well, and it’s because Pensatucky has this notion that sin is not just a problem, but that it’s a particular problem and there’s a particular solution and you have to follow the right steps. Sometimes that’s how I see Christian approaches to sin, original sin, and total depravity. I don’t think that Barth should be able to say “THIS sin is THE sin”, and assume that opposition to God’s grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, and even seeking him, is a universal part of human nature. I simply don’t think it’s true, and I think there are millions of seekers out there who’ve rejected Christianity or found other faiths with the best of intentions that give evidence of this. Doubtless I’d be told that this is the inner heart condition, and someone would find fault in every one of those cases if we could possibly examine them all, showing that it’s people trying to do things on their own; but of course we’d be projecting again, because we can’t judge such things. We have only Scripture to show us the mind of God on this, and I don’t think there’s a strong enough case for this notion there (though I’d be happy to read more on it, when I have time).

      • Thanks Jeff – that makes things clearer!

        A question: how did my comments imply that grace is not free? (And I don’t think you’d want to equate free with Bonhoeffer’s ‘cheap’). The point is that grace (fully unmerited and free) creates the opportunity for reconciliatoin, which involves repentance on our part. What I describe emphatically is not “an ideal” but a real encounter with God.

        The pervasiveness of sin in the Bible seems clear to me: Genesis 1-12 and Romans1-6 seems very clear on this. I don’t deny that human beings are ‘good’ (I’m a humanist!). But I also think there is a pervasive selfishness at the core of every human being. If not, why would we need redemption? Why would we need grace? The problem wouldn’t be what theologians have called Sin (as condition, nature) but something like ignorance. But that makes the person and work of Christ unnecessary, even if morally instructive.

        I do think that the pop version of universal sinfulness is pretty crass. Such is the nature of folk religion (as Olson puts it). The Orange character is a pretty bad caricature and straw man of what theolgians actually discuss with much

        I have issues with “original sin” too . . . for other reasons (related to my forthcoming article on evolution).

        Enjoying the dialogue . . . 🙂

      • Thanks, me too!

        I was misreading your previous comment, then. I was still thinking about how Barth says that we’re opposed to grace, and your description of the things that grace has to do with implied to me that these are things upon which grace is dependent rather than things from which grace springs. Grace is there regardless of whether or not reconciliation follows, but it is the necessary condition for reconciliation to occur; I was reading you as somehow implying that it required those other things, and that this might be why Barth says that we’re opposed to grace. I was clearly misreading 🙂

        Again, I’m totally okay with the pervasiveness of sin; but I don’t think it’s a defining characteristic of being human. I think it’s a defining characteristic of being human-in-community, even if that community is just between humanity and God, but that’s very different. Original Sin and Total Depravity, at least as I’ve seen them articulated, hold that it’s the former: that sin is something we’ve inherited, some sort of condition or disease, an inherent corruption that goes to our core as human beings. But we do it unthinkingly, unknowingly – so I think you’re right, that ignorance is a big part of it. Certainly Scripture supports this: it’s why we have the Law, and why Law (appears to) precede Grace. When I sin against my neighbour, it’s not out of malice or conscious thought, but simple forgetfulness of the other; while this certainly leads to evil, I don’t think we can really call it evil, and certainly not in the same sense as so-called “radical evil” that we tend to associate with sin, and particularly with the Fall and Satan. In fact, Paul’s whole “I do what I don’t want, and don’t do what I want” argument isn’t about him having evil compulsions as much as it’s about him lacking self-control (at least, that’s how I’ve always read it, and I identify with it in that sense). Growing in virtues isn’t about becoming less evil, but about training ourselves to do good. I don’t think that we can call a lack of goodness evil, and I do believe in simple neutrality, particularly when it comes to morality and intent. I also struggle with the notion of culpability in ignorance, and I think that Scripture and tradition also support this: why else would there be an age of accountability, and why else would Paul argue from natural theology “so that they are without excuse”? The extent to which we can argue for moral culpability from general revelation is limited, I think, but Paul doesn’t imply that it is. In any case, I think ignorance actually IS an excuse for a lot of our sin, and I don’t think that this in any way implies that we don’t need grace for it; because even if we’re not morally responsible, sin is still killing us. And there are different levels of moral responsibility in ignorance: sometimes we ought to know better, and willful ignorance really is evil; but to what extent is self-deception the same as willful ignorance? Like Wink says, we’re part of the system that victimizes us, and we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s for our own good, or that there’s nothing better. We need deliverance from self-deception as much as we need deliverance from evil, because self-deception (and all deception) IS evil, but not in the sense implied by all of this talk of our so-called rebellion against God. I see much more language in Scripture that describes us as wandering sheep than as crafty serpents or malefactors. The problem, most of the time, is not that we’re evil; the problem is that we’re stupid, forgetful, and ignorant. If I had consistent awareness of the other, if I wasn’t primarily focused on myself, I could conceivably be perfect (as I’m called to be); then I would be reduced to sins of commission, of intent, of choice. Until that happens, I struggle with Barth’s talk of rebellion against God as being a hatred of grace.

        That wandered quite a bit. Apologies.

  2. Thanks Jeff – lots there there to discuss. I think the dialogue here shows how important it is to define terms, lay them out in the right way, and integrate them properly. In between all that, misunderstanding and miscommunication easily follow.

    I think that you are right when you say that too often the idea of original sin leads to a unworthy view of human beings (it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to, but in folk N. American religion it often does). I here it all the time, for example when students use the word ‘humanism’ as a derogatory term. What they actually mean is secular humanism. But they smuggle all that is associated with that term back into humanism itself (failing to realize that humanism is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition . . . and made the Reformation possible! Jens Zimmerman’s book on Incarnational Humanism demonstrates this rootedness very well.

    I also agree that too often “all are sinful” leads Christians (again at the folk level) to crassly make all sins equal, so that we fail to distinguish between radical evil and minor transgressions (“it’s all sin . . . it’s all the same to God,” so the thinking goes). That’s just silly and, I would argue, does not remain true to what the doctrine of ‘original sin’ is meant to convey and imply.

    I think ‘original sin’ is still very important as a doctrine (but not necessarily as grounded in some historical or pre-historical literal ‘fall’ . . . but that discussion is for another day!). I do think that it’s important to affirm that we human beings are sinful in our nature. However, if I were to develop this idea in detail I think I would do it differently than most traditional evangelicals (and so much rests with they way in which we develop these ideas). Nevertheless, the ‘fallenness’ of our nature is a fundamental Christian conviction. It’s why Christ “became human so that we could become ‘divine'” as Athanasius argues; it’s why Christ assumes our human nature (for, what Christ has not assumed he has not healed, as Gregory of Nazianzus says). Biblically, it fits with the old-Adam to new-Adam typology (along with “old man – new man” language in Paul, which Luther really picks up on), with baptism as dying to the old self and rising with Christ (Rom. 6), with the notion of new birth or regeneration (John 3), with participating in a genuinely new creation (2 Cor 5:17), having formerly been “dead in sins” but now “alive in Christ” (Eph. 2) with being creatures of light who formerly walked in darkness (Eph. 5), etc., etc.

    One more minor point. I appreciate what you’re saying about ignorance (this fits with the critique of popular Christianity’s saying that “all sin is equal). So, I get that for sure. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that ignorance is not an excuse. Sometimes, we are not responsible for that of which we are ignorant. But sometimes we are. E.G., racisim has lots to do with ignorance. And yes, we should be gracious to those who were, for example, raised to be racists. But that does not excuse their attitudes and actions. They are still culpable. THAT, it seems to me, is part of the point of ‘original sin’ as a doctrine. We all sin culpably, even if sometimes ignorantly, and something about the human condition makes that inevitable. The presence of other humans makes sin more likely, perhaps (because relationships offer occasions for mistreating others). But even without others, we would still sin against God and not give unto God all that is God’s due.

    • Thanks for all this, Patrick – it’s good to clarify these points!

      I certainly don’t mean to say that we’re not culpable, but only that we’re culpable for what we do, and most especially for what we know we’re doing. I talk about ignorance to distinguish between sinning with intent – malicious, radical evil – and sinning in ignorance. I think that the difference between these is significant, but as you said, we often treat all sins as if they’re equal (and this is particularly true of the New Calvinists). Ignorance does not absolve us of blame altogether, but we certainly wouldn’t categorize it as rebellion against God, which is what Barth appears to be reducing all sin to. If all sin is rebellion against God, either rebellion means something other than what I think it means, or else Barth is only talking about sins of intent, which he does not seem to be doing.

      • Hi Jeff (and Patrick),
        Great blog post & subsequent discussion… thanks for letting us all eavesdrop 🙂

        In the interest of clarifying terms, what do you mean by rebellion, Jeff?

      • Thanks Rob! Good to hear from you 🙂

        That’s a good point – I wonder if perhaps Barth and I have different notions of rebellion? He seems to be saying that sin, rebellion, and unbelief are the same thing. He seems to reduce all sin to a rejection of grace, which is a rebellion against God’s purposes, and he characterizes this as unbelief. I don’t really like his conflation in this regard, because it universalizes a very black and white relationship that I’m not sure actually exists in most people.

  3. Pingback: Some thoughts on ‘original sin’ – is this ancient Christian teaching still helpful today? | Patrick S. Franklin

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