Sunday, July 27, 2008

Original Sin:A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 1)

In his book, Original Sin: A Cultural History, Alan Jacobs seeks to give a cultural defense of the Christian doctrine of original sin. See here for a brief explanation of the doctrine.

In chapter 1, Jacobs summarizes stories from 6 different cultures that echo the Christian notion of original sin.

First, there is the ancient Greek story of Cassandra—pulled from the alter of Athena by the Locrian prince Ajax, then later raped and murdered, bringing a curse upon the Locrians. For 1000 years after the crime, the Locrians had to send two virgins to Troy to serve in the Temple of Athena to appease for the crime of their ancient ruler.

Then, there is Plato’s Laws in which the philosopher investigates the evil nature of man and concludes that he must inherit “an infatuate obsession” from a crime committed long ago.

Third, there is the Hebrew story of David and Bathsheba. King David commits adultery with Bathsheba and then conspires to kill her husband when she finds out she is pregnant. When the prophet Nathan confronts David with his sin, he prays “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Fourth there is the Chinese sage Xun Zi who said that man was inherently evil, but that he could be managed by the sages.

Fifth there is the Nigerian lore that the creator god Olodumare has left the world because he was annoyed at the women smashing yams on the earth below.

Finally, there is the Papua New Guinean tribe, the Urapmin, who, when converting to Christianity, found it impossible to live the way they wanted.

I love Jacobs’ approach to the doctrine of original sin. In seminary, I wrote a lengthy paper on the prepositional phrase eph hoi in Romans 5:12, literally translated “upon whom,” but rendered “because” by most translations. (Rom 5:12 says that death spread to all men eph hoi all sinned. My paper concluded that the grammar and argument of the passage suggested that death spread to all men “because” all sinned in Adam. This is the traditional Reformed position.) As fascinating as my study of obscure Koine Greek grammar rules was, Jacobs approach is a far more intriguing “proof” of original sin—especially to those outside of the evangelical camp.

Perhaps Chesterton was right—original sin is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically validated. It has been my experience that most people are inherently selfish. I especially liked Jacobs’ description of Xun Zi’s disagreement with fellow sage Mencius. Mencius “proved” that people are essentially good because all people will rush to save a child who is about to fall into a well. Xun Zi retorted that this was because we have nothing to gain from a child falling into a well. If we did, not only would we not save the child, we might give him a push. True!

1 comment:

John Pleau said...

Hi Matt,

Good stuff once again. The doctrine of original sin is verifiable every day. You don't have to teach a child to steal a toy or say "no".. it comes quite naturally and early in life (though many would say we are born as blank slates....only to learn this behavior by our environment). I call these people DINK's :~)

Bro John