Looking at Original Sin Together With Others
Looking at Original Sin Together With Others
Our sinful nature works through the structures of our being. When tracing original or inherited sin along the structures in which God created us, the mystery surrounding it just melts away. We no longer need feel embarrassment and complain about the difficulty of the subject. We can learn to apply this doctrine to the reality in which we live.
In this we stand alongside the people around us who do not believe. Last time we remarked on how the awareness of the connection between all people in their misery and failure is widely spread in our society. There is a general opinion of the equality of all people: equal value (that might even be called a secular confession) but also equal deficit – the ‘human condition’.
However, that awareness is not as natural as it appears. In truth, it is primitively human to consider oneself superior to others. It is a stubborn inclination that manifests itself throughout all human history. The moment tribes called themselves human they considered other tribes to be less than that. The Greek regarded foreign peoples as ‘barbarians.’ Whites have denied that Negroes had a soul. Aryans were seen as better humans and Jews as inferior. Man is by nature tribal.
Even the Enlightenment, with equality and brotherhood in its banner, is in fact full of such sentiments since it considered people from the past to have been primitive, cramped, stuffy, oldfashioned and backward. ‘We know better. They lived in the dark; with us the light is breaking through’. Today we see an offshoot of this in the contemporary common scorn for religion, expressed in accusative terms like ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘exclusivists’.
It is not easy to apply the confession of ‘the common inclination towards evil’ consistently. Long after the German occupation, the categorization into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ prevailed. People who had suffered in the war did not want to know that there were also prisoners in the concentration camps who oppressed or stole from their fellow prisoners, or that people of the resistance often argued amongst each other, and deeds of resistance were sometimes inspired by motives that were less than noble, not to say downright egotistical.
Today also, the concept of equality is being threatened. When people become afraid, they easily cramp up into ‘us-against-them’ thinking. For a long time, besides being compassionate towards asylum seekers, an open attitude towards Islam was also an expression of enlightened broadmindedness, in marked opposition to ‘cramped’ orthodox Christianity. Since ‘9-11’, however, a new wave of aversion is moving through our society, not only among PVV (a far-right nationalist party in the Netherlands – ed.) sympathizers but also among intellectuals. And the church is not immune to it either.
The Christian confession of original sin offers a stable basis for a well-balanced Christian attitude towards Muslims. On the one hand, we are by nature inclined towards dislike and hate – both we and they. Neighbourly love is not so naive as to be blind to that. On the other hand, however, there is for those people too the love of Christ, which we have received.
More generally speaking, our confession of original sin is a solid starting point if, in our associations with non-Christians, we face up to the fact of human deficiency. We have sunk deep. How is this possible?! Yes, that is how we are. There is but one way to rise up out of this. Yet there is a way! Together with our fellow human beings we can scientifically analyse and creatively portray how we as humans are connected in misery. The connection is present at all levels, in all structures of our existence: genetics, background, responsibility ... everything. You can reach out and touch it, so to speak.
Just to be clear: I do not thereby mean that we must accept without criticism all that is portrayed to us in this area. It is, for example, very common to bring the human moral deficiency into connection with the lower nature of man – with his evolutionary origin. We do not accept that. Yet we do enter into the discussion about human deficiency, making use of information and means of expression that are commonly accessible to people: relationships between parents and children, history, influences, art. In the same way we, as Christians, take part in the public debate.
At the same time, we do not join in the sensational style in which misery is often expressed, or the lustful atmosphere, or the melancholy or cynical approach. We also need not, as novel and film reviews often do, leave it at: ‘Yes, that’s life’. We know how different it can be: how it could have been, how it could be; we also know how it can become and will become. A tiny sliver of light can alter the atmosphere even in the darkest pit.
It is also important for ourselves and our Christian life to see original sin in this way. It should not be a mystery to us. Not in the manner of ‘We cannot understand it but must just believe it, because it is in the Bible’. That is true of the miracles of God. We confess the Trinity as a mystery, as we do the resurrection of Christ. God’s mercy is beyond our understanding. With sin, however, it is different. We do that ourselves. Original sin is from below. It is something of ours: human, all too human. We should therefore be able to recognize it. True, we will only do that if we take the biblical teaching to heart, if we subject ourselves to it. In order to confess it, it should be clear in our conscience. We may not completely fathom the depths of it in this life, just as with the sins we commit. Our knowledge of our misery will always be imperfect, just like all the ‘good works’. But we do see the abyss in front of us.
Sin can never be explained away. When God asks: Adam where are you? Why did you do that?- then we have no answer. We have no excuse. So it is also with original sin. In these articles we are engaged in explanation in the sense that we attempt to shed light on the matter. In the light of the Bible we see how the connections lie. It is not an excuse, as in ‘That is just the way I am’. As far as that is concerned, it is still an embarrassment. But we have a clear realization that we are like that; we acknowledge the original sin in ourselves as a life-sized reality – a reason for shame.
In this way we can confess original sin, clearly and concretely, and ask God’s forgiveness for it.
Would it not be best just to leave the inherited guilt and inherited blemish pair for what they are? They do not help clarify what original sin is. They seem to suggest two aspects that can be distinguished in original sin. But in turn they both raise more questions. Inherited blemish seems to suggest a sinful nature that we cannot help; inherited guilt seems to suggest something that is held against us before it can be pointed out in our own life.
Taken together, they even raise more questions than they answer. Together as a pair they do not give the full picture. It is as if you said to someone who stole a substantial sum of money: ‘There are two sides to what you have done. In the first place you have been greedy. In the second place you must now pay back the money’. In themselves those statements are true, but they can hardly be placed alongside as an explanation of the reality of what has happened. You would have to squint to bring them together. The concept of inherited blemish draws our attention to our biological structure; inherited guilt to our position in a legal or forensic regard. They are both abstracts taken from a reality that entails much more.
If we describe original sin as we have done, we do not need this conceptual pair.
You will not find them in the Confession. Neither does Calvin present us with a worked out theory on inherited guilt and inherited blemish. He purposely avoids tackling the issue of how inherited sin is transmitted from the parents to the children: “It is not necessary that we enter into that labyrinth...”1 It has been said that the Reformed confession displays a deficiency on this point, but perhaps that is, in fact, its strength. Rather than giving the appearance of making original sin in any sense fully understandable, the confession limits itself to measuring its full weight. The same is true of the concepts of realism and federalism: that pair had also best be put aside, for partly the same reasons. They do not solve the problem, either together or apart. The debate between them has not taken us any further and there is no sign that it ever will. Both approaches rely on the same Bible text: Romans 5. That makes it at least probable that neither one is taught, or even favoured, by Scripture. A continued use of both the aforementioned conceptual pairings will only lead us into the swamp known as scholasticism.
Nevertheless we must pay some attention to Romans 5. That passage is the heart of the scriptural evidence of both approaches. Realism concentrates on a phrase in v. 12 and tends towards the translation ‘in whom’ and lets this refer to Adam: ‘in whom all have sinned’. That is not the most obvious explanation; for this phrase is situated too far away from Adam. Others translate ‘because all sinned’. But what is written is not ‘in’ but ‘on’, ‘with’, ‘in connection with’. No statement is made here with regard to the manner in which the sin of all people is connected with Adam. Federalism concentrates on v. 19: through the disobedience of one many were ‘made’ sinners. That stands in parallel with the following: through the obedience of one man many will be ‘made’ righteous. The word ‘impute’ or ‘account to’ is used here: the righteousness of Christ is made accountable to us – the sin of Adam is made accountable to us.
Indeed, in this connection Adam and Christ are placed in a far-reaching parallel. The similarity is that in both cases what one person does has consequences for all people: for ‘the many’, humanity. The ‘many’ are communally connected with the ‘one’. Though this be so, it has not been stated what that connection is.
Searching for Words←⤒🔗
For that connection the word ‘solidarity’ has been used. However, that word points to a connection that has been purposely chosen or at least consciously recognized. You declare yourself at one with someone. And that is not the intention here. There has been talk of ‘corporate thinking’. Paul would have been thinking here along the lines of a ‘corporate personality’, as found in collectives elsewhere in the world: man experiences himself not as a detached individual; the individual is part of the community, and the community is present in the individual in some way. What one suffers, all can be seen to have suffered, in some sense. But here too we gain no insight into the nature of the connection. There is something irrational in this way of thinking, something anti-rational; it blocks further explanation. Why do we belong together? What is it that connects us?
Adam and Christ←⤒🔗
There is a huge difference between our connection to Adam and our connection to Christ. Adam’s sin is ‘made accountable’ to us because it is also our sin. That is on our account, because it is in us. Christ’s righteousness is made accountable to us even though we have done nothing for it. It is put to our account from outside, as a gift of grace. That is beyond argument, and must be kept in mind in this biblical passage where Adam and Christ are placed in parallel. The parallelism lies in the reality of the connection, not in the nature of it.
The subsequent reference to Adam, with which theology follows this Bible passage, does remind us of the structure in which sin was transmitted: it is the family connection. (Because of this, so much depends on whether Adam and Eve were truly the first human couple.)
Just like the other terms mentioned, the word ‘representation’ does not completely fit the bill either. There has to be a certain framework within which the representation comes into being and/or is recognized, like, for example, a function or delegation. It is true that in this connection Adam is often named with a functional title: ‘head of the covenant’. But to our appreciation it remains something outward. Also it underplays the procession of sin through the line of generations. In short, Romans 5 helps us very little with respect to getting to know how the connection lies between Adam’s sins and our sinful nature. We can sometimes ask too much of Bible passages when we wish to draw some dogmatic conclusion from them. Repeated, careful exegeses will then not always lead to the desired result. In history, the connection between Bible passages – often taken out of context – and dogmatic propositions have often produced a short circuit. We must take that into account in this case too. The doctrine of original sin does not rest on one particular Bible text, just as is the case with many other doctrines. We are sooner convinced of original sin by confronting ourselves with the Word of God as a whole and reflecting ourselves in its mirror – ourselves and the relationships in which we live.
It works the same way with the doctrine of original sin. It did not start with God accusing us: ‘You have a sinful nature!’ It did not start by its being impressed upon the Israelites’ children in catechism class. No, David was already a grown man. He had committed a dreadful sin, one that had developed into a giant web of sins. He regarded himself upright for a while, until – on God’s initiative, through a prophet – he was forced to look into the mirror.
He saw himself reflected in the mirror of God’s Word, of God’s deeds – the prophet held them up to him, applied to his personal life. How did he handle that? How did he react? He knew God’s commandments. He knew the song of Moses that prophesied how Israel, in times of prosperity, would desert God. He saw himself in the mirror of God’s holiness, as it shone on each and every page of His Word. Then, in horror, he learned to know himself. He saw that there was more than this one deed, or the deeds in the limited period of a few months. He saw in the deeds his attitude, his inclination, the pulling power of sin in him. Then he said – without God himself prompting him – “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
That acknowledgement received a place in God’s Word. We now all learn to know our original sin, taken by the hand by this text. If there is one core text for the doctrine of original sin then it is this one – the cry of (in modern jargon) an ‘expert by experience’, a king that became a father to God’s people.
Later in church history, it was no different. More than with any other doctrine, the church can be grateful to one man, Augustine, for the doctrine of original sin. He did not discover it in the church. Before his time there was hardly any reflection on the sinful nature of man and how it worked through the generations. The church preached salvation of sins through Christ. She was capable of condemning Pelagius’ doctrine. But Augustine learned to know original sin through his own life history. He was familiar with Christian doctrine; his mother was a Christian. But for a long time he wandered, as far as his convictions were concerned, into different philosophical and religious doctrines, and concerning his lifestyle into a practice that as a Christian he would later reject as sinful. All that time he experienced the pulling power of sin, even while the gospel was drawing him, while God was already at work in him. From the Word of God he came to know the justification through Christ. He got to know his own sinful nature through the fact that it took him so long and it cost him such effort to let go of his old life, to become a Christian; to accept God’s word and consequently say ‘yes’. Along that road he became a teacher of the church on this issue, and many others, to the present day. In his autobiography, and in the calm light of having been saved, he points out original sin in his own life. He applies what he has observed in infants: when I was hungry and wanted to drink from the breast, then I cried angrily and impatiently if I did not immediately get what I wanted. Then already my sinful nature was apparent, from what came forth out of it.
After David we also hear God, through the prophets and throughout history, reproaching his people that they are collectively soiled. Without being exhaustive, we can mention Isaiah 43:27, Ezekiel 20 and 23. This is then recognized in confession of guilt by Daniel (Chapter 9), Ezra (Chapter 9, especially verse 7) and Nehemiah (Chapter 1), as also in the aforementioned Psalms. Similar prophetic accusations can be heard from the mouth of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 21:34ff and 23:35 and from that of Stephen in Acts 7. These Bible passages are seldom brought into view in the discussion on original sin, though they do belong there. Does God perhaps only make accusations on hindsight? Could he do nothing to stop sin running rampant throughout the further history of humanity? Our final article will deal with this question.
Add new comment