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Posts Tagged ‘Pelagianism’

Fall of Adam

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?

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mormon-jesus-gethsemane

[After posting this, my beautiful and sexy wife pointed out the huge hole in my thesis, so I am going to re-tool the post and re-post it in the near future, but I am leaving it up for now even though it is massively flawed.]

So, in light of some frustrating discussions lately with Mormons about the nature of the Atonement (most particularly this one), I think I have managed to nail down two competing Mormon Atonement narratives or models:

1. Heavenly Father requires your perfect obedience in order for you to qualify for exaltation (“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—-and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.D&C 130:20-21). Mortals are born innocent and fully able to obey Heavenly Father’s commandments, but we have free will and we are subjected to temptation, and so each of us will inevitably, sometimes, break the commandments. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane to pay the price for all of our sins and transgressions, and because of his sacrifice, we are able to go through the repentance process and have our sins effectively erased, so that we are counted in Heavenly Father’s eyes as if you had kept the perfect standard (so mercy satisfies the irrevocably decreed demand of justice). However, over time, in the eternities, we will stumble and fall short less and less, and eventually progress to where we, like Heavenly Father, no longer need repentance.

Put simply, we qualify for exaltation by never deviating from the standard of perfection. If and when we do deviate, the Atonement erases the deviation so that it is as if we had never sinned. So our exaltation is something that we earn by perfect obedience, and to the extent we are unable to be perfectly obedient, Jesus takes up the shortfall if we have faith in him, repent and have our sins washed away by baptism (and regularly renew our baptism through taking the sacrament).

I think that this model is internally consistent, and generally more supportable from Mormon sources across the standard works and the words of latter-day prophets and apostles. I think that it reflects a Mormonism that can be found in Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness. I suspect that older Mormons, Mormons who live in more homogenous Mormon communities and more traditionally-minded Mormons are more likely to espouse this first model. If you had asked me to explain the Atonement as an adolescent or early on my mission, I would have explained it in terms of this first model.

I also think that this first model is thoroughly Pelagian.

2. Heavenly Father wants to bring about our exaltation, which is a thing of infinite worth and so it comes with an infinite price. We have no means of paying an infinite price, so justice demands that we can’t be given an infinite gift that we did not earn. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane, paying an infinite price on our behalf, essentially purchasing our exaltation for us. We can then take part in the exaltation that Jesus has bought with his sacrifice when we fulfill the requirements that he has set: faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the holy ghost and enduring to the end.

In this model, we do not directly qualify for exaltation. We qualify for it only indirectly through Jesus, who pays the entire price to obtain it, and then grants it to us (or gives us access to it) if we, in a separate transaction, meet the requirements he sets out. Mercy thus satisfies justice twice: once when Jesus pays an infinite price for our exaltation that we cannot pay, and once when he gives it to us for a price we can.

I also think that this second model is generally internally consistent, but I do not think it is as consistent with historical Mormon sources. We could probably have an argument about the degree of tension it has with other Mormon ideas, doctrines and texts. I think that it reflects a contemporary, PR-conscious and interfaith-dialogue-minded Mormonism that emphasizes the role of Jesus Christ and the Atonement, minimizes historic Momronism, and is influenced by Stephen E. Robinson’s Believing Christ. I suspect that younger Mormons and Mormons who live in diverse, pluralist urban centers and Mormons who are more engaged with postmodern culture are more likely to espouse this second model. I would not be surprised if, in a generation or two, this second model becomes overwhelmingly the norm among Mormons and will be taught consistently from the pulpit as if it had always been the norm. I would have explained the Atonement in terms of this second model towards the end of my mission and as a Mormon adult.

I’m not sure if the second model is Pelagian or not (kinda doesn’t matter since it’s still based on a completely and thoroughly heretical Christology). I suspect that Mormons who espouse the second model would assert that it is consistent with Protestant ideas about salvation by faith through grace, but I think you would have to look hard to find a Protestant who would agree.

Given the Mormon tendency to eschew systematic theology, I think that many Mormons probably hold oth models without giving it a lot of thought and without thinking about whether the models are consistent (not that Mormons lack the intellectual rigor to do so; I think they are just more likely to approach the atonement devotionally instead of theologically, and be satisfied* with any illustration or explanation of the Atonement that is sufficiently moving, reverent, and not obviously inconsistent with other Mormon doctrine).

To my Mormon readers: Do either of these models fairly represent your beliefs about the Atonement? Which one do you think is the most consistent with scripture and the teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles? Do you think that these models are mutually exclusive? If not, why not?

To everyone else, let me know your thoughts and observations. Let’s discuss.

*Did you see what I did there?

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The Not Even Once Club is a new children’s book by Wendy Nelson (who is married to Russell M. Nelson) about a group of kids who form a club where they pledge to never break the commandments, Not Even Once.

I think a book like that might be okay (if a little didactic) if it was a heartwarming story about kids with good intentions to do the right thing all the time but who inevitably fall short, because we all do, and learn a little something along the way about forgiveness, grace and the power of the cross.

But nope, it’s apparently just a story about choosing to never break the commandments and only hanging out with other kids who do, and it even comes with a certificate your kids can sign to join the club by pledging to never break the word of wisdom, lie, cheat, steal, do drugs, bully, dress immodestly, break the law of chastity or look at pornography. NOT EVEN ONCE.

There was a recent post about it over at Wheat and Tares but that post deals more with the psychological and sociological problems with making commitments like that, rather than the basic incompatibility of The Not Even Once Club with the gospel. (EDIT: there’s now a follow-up, cross-posted at Wheat and Tares and Rational Faiths that does address gospel issues more directly.)

The Bible is incredibly clear that we all sin, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because we are fallen people in a fallen world and heirs to a sinful nature, a promise to never break God’s commandments is a promise that we will invariably break. We are hard-coded to break God’s commandments, and we absolutely lack the power on our own to do anything about it. Personal perfection projects like the Not Even Once Club, whether we attempt them as little kids or as adults, get us off on the wrong foot from the very start. Are the kids in the Not Even Once Club really going to never break the “law of chastity,” not even once? What about when they hit puberty and their brains are flushed with hormones? They’re going to be able to never entertain lustful thoughts? Really?

How is the Not Even Once Club good news? “Good news, if you manage to never sin, you can be part of the club!” “Good news, if you manage to never sin, you can go to heaven!” That’s not good news for sinners like you and me. That’s really bad news. I’ll admit that I haven’t read The Not Even Once Club, and I’d love to be wrong about it (by all means, tell me if I am!), but everything I have read about it and everything I know about Mormonism leads me to believe that the book is nothing less than a false gospel aimed at children. I am confident that Wendy Nelson has good intentions, but they’re not enough.

The Good News is that we don’t have to join the Not Even Once Club, because we get to join a far better club. Despite our corrupted natures and our inborn tendency to sin, we are declared to be in the right with God, right now, by virtue of Jesus Christ. Not because we managed to never sin (no matter who we are, that ship has always already sailed–we literally can’t help it), but because he did. Through God’s grace we are given the ability to respond to God’s grace and submit to the reign of Jesus. He makes us good. We don’t.

We don’t have to worry about qualifying for the Not Even Once Club because we get to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. I promise you it is way better.

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