I’ve been thinking about original sin a lot over the past few years. Right now my beautiful and sexy wife and I are working through Credo House‘s Discipleship Program, and in Session 2: Mankind, Michael Patton and Tim Kimberley (going back to Augustine and Calvin, of course) break mankind’s sin problem down into three categories:
Particular Sin: This is the easiest one to buy into and, as a Mormon, it’s the only one I grew up believing in. Weirdly, for orthodox Protestants, it’s actually the least important. Our particular sins are the specific sins we commit during our lifetimes. No big stretch at all to imagine that God will hold us accountable for them; even Pelagius agrees. It seems fair.
Inherited Sin: By inherited sin I mean a sinful nature, and this is more than just being born into an environment where people sin and we learn by example (Pelagius again), but an inherent sinful nature that we are born with. Not just nurture, but actual nature: an inherent propensity to sin that we can’t overcome on our own. This I did not grow up believing in (as Mormons are pretty Pelagian), but I have grown convinced of it since coming back to Christianity. I even wrote what I consider to be one of my better blog posts about it back in 2012. I really hope that you will go back and read it, but to briefly summarize in case you don’t, I believe that the idea that we are subject to inherited sin is actually a far more just doctrine than the Mormon/Pelagian idea that we are guilty for our own sins only, because it acknowledges the reality that we really do lack the power to obey God’s law:
You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.
So far, so good. Original Sin: I’m on board. But then we get to the idea of imputed sin, and that’s a sticky wicket.
Imputed Sin: The doctrine of imputed sin holds that we are not only guilty of our own particular sins and guilty of having a broken and sinful nature, but that we are actually each individually and personally guilty of Adam’s sin. That absolutely flies in the face of our contemporary cultural ideas about individual responsibility, justice and fairness. Why should we be guilty for someone else’s particular sin? How is that fair? And I don’t know if I’m one hundred percent sold on it, but I am starting to lean towards it based on Romans 5 (and a drift towards believing in Biblical infallibility). The idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s particular sin sounds ridiculous at first, but then, hang on, because it turns out that’s precisely how the Atonement works. If imputation of sin is not possible, then Jesus can’t die for our sins. And that sure sounds like what Paul is saying in Romans 5, if you read him carefullly and allow him to communicate to you with the precision that he intended (I think that Mormons are able to gloss over Paul by treating his wrigint in the sort of broad narrative sense that you can treat most of the rest of the Bible, but that doesn’t do Paul justice because unlike, say, the Evangelists, Paul was writing precisely and theologically, so we need to do our best to read him that way).
So I’m grappling with the doctrine of imputed sin, and I am coming around to the idea that it may in fact be a Biblically sound doctrine, even though it’s hard to swallow. The fact that it sticks in my craw a bit shouldn’t be a good reason to just discard it–if I do that then really I’m just giving authority to some other influence (my culture, my upbringing, popular culture, my political values) that I have less reason to trust than the Bible. And Jesus’s disciples were constantly telling him that his sayings were hard to accept–having to deal with “hard sayings” is a part of Christianity and means exercising faith when things might not make sense (and I think we need to avoid the kind of easy and arrogant read of Jesus that tames him to our modern cultural values and then assumes that the disciples just thought his sayings were hard because they were primitive and backward and didn’t want to forgive people or love one another like we are totally cool with doing).
So then that brings us to evolution.
I’m not really sure about how the Biblical account of creation and scientific models of the origin of life are reconciled. I don’t really think that my salvation depends on it one way or another, and I am comforted in openness by the fact that we know that some of the church fathers, including Ambrose of Milan and no less than Augustine, didn’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis. But if Paul actually described imputed sin in Romans 5, how does that work if there was no historical Adam?
I think that it’s a bigger issue than just creation vs. evolution, because if (1) there was no real Adam, (2) you can’t have imputed sin without a real Adam and (3) Paul preached imputed sin in Romans 5, then I think we have a problem. Because that means Paul preached something impossible in the middle of the logical argument of the book of the New Testament that constitutes pretty much the theological bedrock foundation of the Protestant Reformation. If Romans goes, a whole lot goes with it.
The issue is in my head right now because it has come up on Tim’s blog (in the comments to the post that I vote “Sounds Most Like A Death Metal Band”). I admit that I haven’t done all of my homework on what people are saying about a historical Adam in light of scientific theories of the origin of humanity and its theological ramifications, so I’m sort of asking the internet to fill me in. So, internet, tell me: can you have imputed sin and no historical Adam?