Monday, August 4, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 3)

In chapter 3 of Original Sin: A Cultural History, Alan Jacobs investigates the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve, and then describes how the events were interpreted by Pelagius, Augustine, Julian, and (briefly) the Eastern church.

Jacobs notes that the Adam and Eve narrative is remarkably simple. Adam is told not to eat the fruit. Eve eats. Adam eats. Both are expelled from the garden and cursed (as is the serpent). That’s all there is—there is not theological explanation for the significance of the story.

In fact, the story raises more questions than it answers. How did Adam and Eve know what death was if they had never seen it? How did Adam and Eve contemplate rebellion if they had no sin nature? What does it mean that the fruit was “good for food and pleasing to the eye”? Does this imply that they were envious of forbidden fruit before the fall? Isn’t envy evidence of sin?

Jacobs’ point in illuminating the problems in the Eden narrative is to point out that most of the ink spilt on this issue relates more to Paul’s interpretation of the story (specifically Romans 5) than it does to comment on the actual story.

The most famous debate over the interpretation of Romans 5 was between Augustine and Pelagius. Pelagius was a monk and an extremely pious man. He felt that too many people blamed a “sin nature” for decisions that they willed. He felt that the will was free from the influence of any kind of sin nature so that people were free to choose what they wanted. Thus his critique of his fellow Christians was that they just needed to will to be better.

Much good could be said about Pelagius. He was a pious man. He did a lot of good, and he valued the life lived for God. However, because he denied any external influences on the will, Pelagius offered no hope for growth. At all points of a person’s life, he has the capacity to walk away. There is no such thing as “discipline,” “transformation,” or “character.” Thus, Pelagians live in constant fear of Hell. They may have lived a good life up to the present, but the next 10 minutes could be different.

Augustine spent much of his life refuting the widely popular Pelagius, arguing that people inherited a sin nature from their father, Adam. He successfully had Pelagianism condemned as a heresy at the Council of Carthage.

Augustine’s more successful nemesis, however, was Julian—a family friend born around the time of Augustine’s conversion. Julian was a brilliant young man and a supporter of Pelagius who was exiled after the Council of Carthage. Unlike Pelagius, Julian was not a monk. He was more like a spoiled brat—an aristocrat and landowner who spent all of his time writing scathing books against Augustine.

Julian’s main criticism of Augustine was the way in which his theology of original sin portrayed God. Because the church adopted Augustine’s view of original sin, they believed that all un-baptized infants who died went immediately to Hell. Further, Augustine had some strange views on sexual ethics, which Julian exploited.

Augustine believed that part of the curse on man was that his sexual organs rebelled against him much in the way he had rebelled against God. Thus, involuntary erections are symptoms of the fall. Further, Augustine identified the root of sin in man as concupiscence, which often exerted itself in lust. Since lust is sin, sex between married couples necessarily involved an element of sin.

Augustine wrote On Marriage and Concupiscence to defend the institution of marriage, and he reformed his views on the destination of un-baptized babies, but the damage was done. To this day, Augustine’s notion of original sin is often compared to his strange views on sex and un-baptized babies. Augustine died before they could settle the argument. Found on his desk after his death was an unfinished work called Contra Julianum

In my opinion, Pelagius’ interpretation of the nature of people runs contrary to the biblical notion. This doesn’t mean that Augustine is right, but I think that there is evidence that sin is more than just a behavior—it is a force that influences the decisions we make. The fact that Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy doesn’t help his case, either.

On the other hand, Augustine’s views raise some serious questions. If people are conceived sinners, what do we do with the death of the unborn or the death of babies? We often punt to “age of accountability” answers, but is there biblical support for this?

Further, the “age of accountability” leads to some troubling conclusions. One of the reasons that Andrea Yates gave for drowning her five kids in the bathtub was that she was a bad mom and that her kids were going to turn out bad. She wanted to kill them so that they would go to heaven before they reached the age of accountability.

Augustine’s answer to the problem was that perhaps God had something else in mind for babies. He believed that God’s justice demanded such a case. I don’t know what biblical support he had for this, but you could make a case for it based on reason and Isa 55:8, which is spoken in the context of God forgiving people whom we might not expect to receive forgiveness.

I find the case for original sin compelling. I find the objections raised by Julian disturbing. I find the solutions to the problem confusing. I think I have to punt on this one and say, “God is too good to be unkind and too wise to make mistakes.”

No comments: