Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs

Now that I have finished discussing D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, I am moving on to Alan Jacobs’ Original Sin: A Cultural History. Jacobs is an English professor at Wheaton, and the purpose of his book is not to present an exegetical defense of original sin, but a cultural one. He is going to look at ways original sin has been portrayed by various writers, poets, and playwrights through history to give a “cultural defense” of the doctrine. He agrees with G.K. Chesterton that original sin is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically validated.

In the introduction to his book, Jacobs clears up a common misunderstanding of original sin. When most people hear the phrase “original sin,” they think of Adam and Eve’s eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden. That, to them, was “the original sin.” While original sin does relate to Adam and Eve, that is not what theologians mean when they refer to original sin.

Original sin is the doctrine that all people are born sinners—that they inherit guilt from the womb before they ever do anything good or evil. We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. The primary defense of original sin as a doctrine comes from Romans 5:12–21:

So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned-- for before the law was given, sin was in the world, but there is no accounting for sin when there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam until Moses even over those who did not sin in the same way that Adam (who is a type of the coming one) transgressed. But the gracious gift is not like the transgression. For if the many died through the transgression of the one man, how much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiply to the many! And the gift is not like the one who sinned. For judgment, resulting from the one transgression, led to condemnation, but the gracious gift from the many failures led to justification. For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ!

Consequently, just as condemnation for all people came through one transgression, so too through the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous. Now the law came in so that the transgression may increase, but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more, so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (NET)

The key verse is verse 12, “So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned.” When Adam sinned, death spread to all people because all people sinned (in Adam). Original sin is the sin we are born with that we have inherited from Adam.

Jacobs notes that original sin is a very unpopular idea today. The notion that we are born guilty for something we did not personally do rubs us the wrong way. Through his book, Jacobs hopes to renew appreciation for the doctrine as the best way to explain why people do what they do, and why they feel the way they feel about the things that they do.

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