Review: Original Sin – a legitimate doctrine?

This challenging book puts ‘original sin’ under the spotlight and finds the doctrine wanting. The book is:

Original Blessing: Putting Sin in its Rightful Place by Danielle Shroyer (Fortress Press, 2016).

oblargeOriginal sin’ is the idea that, as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, human nature was corrupted, leaving all human beings fundamentally and inherently sinful. Far from being a plain biblical teaching, it was not until the 4th century AD that this doctrine emerged, thanks chiefly to Augustine and his new twist on some of Paul’s teaching. Before that, ‘sin’ was seen as specific wrong actions, words or thoughts, or as an ‘illness’ that plagued an otherwise healthy individual. Nobody considered that we had a ‘sinful nature’.

But by the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of original sin was so ingrained in Christian thinking that no-one seriously questioned it, believing that there were other, more serious, issues needing attention. It has hung around ever since, giving a negative flavour to many of our attitudes and approaches, at least in the Western church. But the Eastern church never held that doctrine, and still rejects it as unbiblical.

Shroyer is not saying that sin isn’t universal; it clearly is. She is saying that humans were—and still are—formed as recipients of God’s love and blessing. Through our own waywardness and sin we repeat Adam and Eve’s running away from God. But he doesn’t run away from us; instead, he comes after us, bringing the means of covering our spiritual nakedness.

God, says the author, made us to be connected: to him primarily, then to each other and to the created order. He is committed to the relationship with us that he himself initiated. And insofar as any human being responds to that truth, they grow and prosper. Our gospel message, therefore, must focus on deepening their awareness and showing them how to know a full relationship with God through Jesus.

The author is a competent theologian. She looks in detail at Genesis 3 and at the Bible’s language of sin, drawing conclusions that are hard to deny. She also examines carefully the texts where original sin is usually grounded: Romans 5:12-17; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; and 2 Corinthians 11:3. There’s a lot to think about here. But you could find that it makes you look at other people with more of God’s own love and compassion!

Here are some quotations (numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers).

There’s a well-worn description of the great chasm of sin, where we’re on one side and God is on the other, and Jesus’ cross provides a bridge over which we can walk to God again. That illustration isn’t a description of the gospel. It’s a description of the story of original sin. And original sin is not the gospel.  (53)

Original blessing claims we are steadfastly held in relationship with God. Original blessing reminds us that God calls us good and beloved before we are anything else. Sin is not at the heart of our nature; blessing is.  (62)

More than any other idea, the doctrine of original sin has slowly eroded our understanding of our relationship with God. Rather than seeing our lives as naturally and deeply connected with God, original sin has convinced us that human nature stands not only at a distance from God but also in some inborn, natural way as contrary to God.  (155)

Original blessing means we don’t have to believe we must work against our human nature to live with God. Our human nature is not an obstacle to our relationship with God. Our humanity is the very reason we’re able to have a relationship with God in the first place.  (214)

We have to get rid of the idea that to be God-centered is to denigrate the self. When we are truly God-centered, our humanity becomes beautiful, not insignificant.  (272)

Though it may seem that original sin is a given, Christian history tells us a different story. None of the Eastern branches of our family tree (Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Christian) have ever accepted it, and of course our Jewish forebears, without whom we would not have our tradition, have roundly and consistently rejected it. So Jesus wasn’t raised with our notion of original sin, and his disciples wouldn’t have been either, or Paul.  (358)

Original sin is the red sock in our theological laundry. It has the potential to discolor everything, and it often does.  (364)

The man and the woman in the garden of Eden didn’t have a sin nature, and they sinned. Why can’t we just say the same is true for us?  (395)

People aren’t perfect, but the opposite is also true. People aren’t entirely evil.  (403)

I’m also wary of the idea of a sin nature because it devalues humanity. I don’t mean that we ought to put humanity on a pedestal, but there’s a direct correlation between how we value something and how we treat it.  (508)

Many proponents of original sin say it’s the only way for us to understand how much we rely on grace. I don’t think that’s true, and I also think that’s dangerous. God’s grace can’t and shouldn’t be twisted and used as a way for us to feel like we’re unworthy. God doesn’t need to humiliate us before giving us grace just to ensure the grace is effective and appreciated.  (574)

We are not born fallen—and yet, for many of us, that’s the only version we’ve been told about what happened with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They ate an apple, and when they did, their relationship with God—and ours with it—was permanently disfigured and disordered. Now instead of a golden thread connecting us to God, there is a chasm of sin separating us from God.   But maybe that isn’t the only way to read the story.  (712)

In no place in Genesis 1–3 does scripture describe the man and the woman as immortal. They are created by God and given life by God, but nothing in the creation stories tell us that death is not present…   Genesis 2:17 says, “Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” It does not say death will enter into the world. The fact that the man and the woman understood what God meant proves that death was a reality they already knew, even if they had not yet experienced it.  (779)

When we read Genesis 3, we do not have to say, “Oh yes, that’s how I got to be like this. It’s their fault.” We can say, quite simply, “Oh yes, I am sometimes like that.”  (881)

There are a good number of legitimate ways to interpret Genesis 3. I happen to think the most popular Protestant version of it is one of the least legitimate ones, if only because of the unconvincing conclusions it makes about original sin.  (1111)

The man and the woman were raised in the garden, but eventually they would have to leave home. And, like every other child who embarks toward adulthood, leaving home inevitably includes some form of individuation and rebellion. For us to become ourselves, we have to push against the very people who made us. We have to stand against them, and even reject them, in order to find our way back into relationship with them again as adults.  (1155)

We are not evil villains but wayward children. We do not have a sin nature but a human nature.  (1271)

We learn in the garden that we are capable of good and evil, and that we often do not know the difference. But more importantly, we learn in the garden that we are loved, that we are clothed and sent away in peace, and that God is waiting for us even east of Eden.  (1275)

The word of God is very close to us, while sin must always stalk us at a distance. Sin is waiting for us, but it is our choice whether we open the door. Blessing is not waiting for us, because blessing is already with us and within us, regardless of whichever side of the door we’re standing. Blessing is the home, and sin is the stranger.  (1406)

The most predominant word for sin in both the Hebrew and the Greek assumes in its very definition our ability to hit the mark.  (1574)

When scripture calls us to goodness, to repentance, to grace, it’s not like telling a fish to ride a bicycle. It’s not something so contradictory to who we are and what we can do that it’s an impossible notion. Salvation is available to us because God has offered it, but also because God has designed us to be capable of responding to it.  (1579)

I fear we’ve confused the personal nature of sin with an individualistic view of sin. Much of this stems from the doctrine of original sin, which slowly began to describe sin more and more as an individual problem. So it’s important to remember that the concept of the modern human and even the modern individual conscience is a new idea, and we have to be careful not to assume that the writers of scripture understood sin in the same kind of overtly personal (and existential) way.  (1646)

People are most motivated by a desire to be loved and cherished. What we want most of all is not heroin but a home.  (1713)

The doctrine of original sperm paved the way for the theory that the virgin birth was necessary to keep sin from being passed on to Jesus. And it’s one of the reasons the Roman Catholic Church ended up promoting the doctrine of perpetual virginity for Mary, even though scripture itself mentions that Mary and Joseph had children after Jesus was born.  (1771)

If we are taught to see our bodies as the source of our sin nature, it’s not particularly easy to appreciate them, much less to know what to do with them. When we believe our bodies are created good, we can choose to live into them as a natural part of human life blessed by God.  (1793)

If we see growing up as a natural part of life, we can see teen questions and struggles as the necessary road toward maturity, not the road paved to hell.  (1820)

This may be one of the most tragic results of the doctrine of original sin. It deeply diminishes Jesus. When we emphasize sin as the big problem, and we make salvation the debt paid for our sin problem, then Jesus becomes not a savior but a sin portfolio manager.  (1887)

For the first nearly thousand years of Christian history, the crucifixion was not a central focus; Easter was. The cross was remembered one day a year, and the other three hundred and sixty four days were devoted to Easter. Symbols of Jesus as healer, life-giver, shepherd, light, and gardener populated art, houses of worship, liturgy, and prayers.  (1897)

While original sin would say someone is bad, original blessing need only say something is wrong.  (1918)

As the doctrine of original sin developed, the Western church began to move away from healing language and instead describe sin and salvation in legal terms. Sin ceased to be viewed as the natural state of our bodies gone awry, but instead an unavoidable part of our human heredity. But once sin is considered part of our inborn nature, there is no restorative medicine to heal us. Sin became separated from the very life that can heal it. What is now required is not whole-life salvation, but payment. With this view of sin, the Western church began to rely almost exclusively on legal metaphors in some of the New Testament letters to describe salvation. Eventually, legal debt and payment were the only dimension of salvation left in the West.  (1931)

If we see Jesus’ story only through the lens of a courtroom and a legal debt, God’s love, mercy, and grace become more of a “phew” than a “wow.” Justice and mercy are not forces of punishment. They are agents of healing.  (1958)

In a world where we think we get what we deserve, the most deserving of us all got sold out, abandoned, denied, mocked, beaten, bloodied, and crucified. The cross is the symbol of a cosmic “should not.” It is the ferocious antidote of “if, then” faith. Choose life, says Moses. He didn’t mention if you do it perfectly, it would get you killed.  (2021)

God’s love is the steadiest thing the cosmos has to offer. We can rest in God’s steadfast faithfulness even after we have crucified the Son of God. What an unfathomable mystery. Once we realize that’s true, we can begin to know the depths of the deepest truth of all: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing.  (2134)

Blessing isn’t one more thing for you to be good at. It’s the one place where you don’t have to do anything at all but just show up.  (2368)

God’s blessing is not based on feeling it. It’s there whether you can see it or not, whether you feel it or not, even whether you can accept it or not. It’s always there. And somehow, it will become known to you again.  (2373)

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