November 7, 2005

More on original sin

Filed under: Theology (other) — Camassia @ 4:25 pm

Lee responded to my post about original sin with a quote from an essay on the subject by Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware. He summarizes:

Orthodoxy has sometimes been accused by Western theologians of having a quasi-Pelagian view of sin, while the Western tradition has been criticized for embracing a morally objectionable notion of inherited guilt. Whatever the accuracy of those criticisms, both traditions agree that we need God’s grace to move from sin to blessedness, and deny that we are capable of living morally acceptable lives independently of God.

I think this is true, and it occurred to me after reading this that one problem with original-sin discussions is that they tend to confuse the peripherals with the main point. What Lee said is the essence; the business about whether it started with Adam or Satan, or whether it gets transmitted through sexual intercourse (!) is just so much human theorizing. Although Paul, like everyone else in the New Testament, never uses the term “original sin”, you can see how he used the idea of universal fallenness and God’s grace in a pastoral way before all the theorizing developed.

First of all, he uses it to make sense of the apostles’ extraordinary experience of Jesus. He points out that if people’s imperfect attempts at virtue were really enough, God would never have had a reason to come to earth, die horribly and rise again. After all, giving moral advice from on high was old hat for God, so surely he didn’t go through all that just to dispense still more moral advice. Secondly, he employs the idea to get people to stop feeling superior to each other. All have fallen short, he insists, so even if you follow God 80% of the time you don’t have a right to look down on somebody who follows him 20% of the time.

Underlying Paul’s advice was the early church’s conflict between gentiles and Jews; and one thing it achieved pastorally was that it tackled the “virtuous pagan” problem. It could explain why Jews and Greeks both needed grace, much though both their cultures produced fine works of piety and truth. (One interesting feature of this book was that Wilken credited Origen, who usually gets a pretty bad rap, with being one of the first to acknowledge the goodness of Greek philosophy while explaining that the philosophers still need Jesus.)

I was thinking about this after reading Telford’s post about seeing Desmond Tutu. Telford found Tutu inspiring in many ways, but was very upset to hear him say that “God is not a Christian,” because “who can look at the Dalai Lama and say his prayer and his holiness is something God will reject?” Telford gives a rock-ribbed Protestant response:

Thanks be to God for Desmond Tutu and the mighty works done through him in South Africa. My life will never remotely compare to his. But if he thinks the godliness of a Dalai Lama or a Desmond Tutu or (God forbid) a Telford Work will justify any of us, if he thinks the prayers or spirituality or deep thoughts of even the holiest of us will be acceptable to God on their own, if he thinks that Jesus’ good news doesn’t need to be taught because all these other good things are already all around us – then the Archbishop Emeritus is teaching another gospel. He is a prophet of justification by works.

The connection to original sin becomes more apparent in the interview Telford links to:

I mean, you don’t have to believe in God to know that loving is better than hating. We are trying to remind them that all of us are fundamentally good. The aberration is the bad person. God is not upset that Gandhi was not a Christian, because God is not a Christian!

The phrase “all of us are fundamentally good”, like “children are born innocent”, is one of those lines whose Christian validity depends on how far you take it. To the extent that everyone is a child of God, it’s true. But what to make of those “aberrant” bad people? Where does their evil come from? To what extent do “good” people share a responsibility for it? In this interview at least, it’s not clear to me what Tutu believes about that.

It seems to me that one reason this subject is so difficult is that it involves a rather delicate balancing act. On the one hand, overemphasizing the goodness of people can fail to deal effectively with their badness. On the other hand, overemphasizing people’s depravity can make loving your neighbor nearly impossible. Justification by faith alone can turn salvation into an arbitrary business, detached from moral behavior; justification by works alone sets people with the unbearable task of saving themselves.

I think that the “good, but fallen” definition of humanity is an attempt to carve out the middle space, however people push it this way or that. I noticed that on the point about justification, Ware also took a middle path:

Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God and can enter by grace into communion with him. There are many saints in the pages of the Old Testament, men and women such as Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah; and outside the Chosen People of Israel there are figures such as Socrates who not only taught the truth but lived it. Yet it remains true that human sin — the original sin of Adam, compounded by the personal sins of each succeeding generation — has set a gulf between God and man such that man by his own efforts could not bridge.

In a way, I don’t think this denigrates Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama so much as it further elevates God. After all, if being as good as those guys are still falls short of God’s glory, that’s a pretty impressive glory.


  1. perhaps Tutu is implying that God is beyond a category….such as Christian, or Muslim, or whatever….??
    just a suggestion.

    Comment by brian — November 8, 2005 @ 12:36 am

  2. I think he was implying that, among other things. But I tend to agree with Telford in that there’s a problem with thinking of religions as “categories.” Tutu seems to be thinking that religion is sort of a quality inherent to the person, like your race or gender, so just as God embraces people of all races and sexes he embraces all religions. That’s a rather peculiar view when you consider that religions are not really meant to be expressions of the nature of people, but of the nature of God. And this is especially true in Christianity, which claims to have been created by God himself coming to earth. Telf says: “We Christians don’t need to teach them (non-Christians) our culture, our history, our apologies, or even our religion. We bear only one thing. It is not something we created or own. We are merely entrusted with it for a time and held accountable for its fruitfulness when that time is over. That thing is the good news of Jesus Christ.” If the first disciples hadn’t been willing to tell it to people who belonged to other religions, obviously the faith wouldn’t exist.

    Comment by Camassia — November 8, 2005 @ 8:35 am

  3. I’ve been reading Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary on Romans and he argues that for Paul sin is not necesarily about being a “bad person,” but is about our fundamental attitude toward God. In other words, the opposite of sin isn’t virtue but faith – i.e. trusting in God, recognizing our dependence on God, accepting our lives as a gift, etc.

    Not trusting in God leads to trying to secure our own existence and worth ourselves, which leads to all kinds of vices (“sins” plural – cf. Romans 1). Even the person who flawlessly keeps the law (as Paul elsewhere says he did) is guilty if he is trusting in his own accomplishments rather than on God’s grace (which is a form of idolatry). So the most “virtuous” person can also be a “sinner” if his fundamental orientation toward God is skewed.

    I think this makes sense of the often-criticized notion of “total depravity.” TD doesn’t say that we are incapable of doing any good things, but says that even our good deeds are tainted when they are done out of a desire to secure our worth and existence ourselves rather than receiving them as gifts from God.

    Comment by Lee — November 8, 2005 @ 9:47 am

  4. Interesting. It actually sounds kind of like the evangelical “It’s all about your relationship with God!” approach. Come to think of it, another balancing act that seems tough for today’s Christians is between loving God and loving your neighbor. Johnson is emphasizing the traditional line that properly loving God is the first thing, and leads to loving your neighbor (and failing to love God leads to hurting your neighbor). But it seems like liberal Christians have seen enough people who put on a good show of piety towards God but harm their neighbors that they tend to put treatment of neighbor first. The trouble is when you lean too far the other way, the faith becomes human-centered rather than God-centered, to the point where how you identify and worship God are regarded as trivialities. But the God of the Bible is big on being properly identified. (The First Commandment, and all that.)

    Comment by Camassia — November 8, 2005 @ 1:11 pm

  5. “Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God and can enter by grace into communion with him.”

    For this nascent Quaker, that points to the core of the argument about original sin and justication. That “knowledge” is, I think, what we call the Inner Light, which is the Spirit of Christ, and which Robert Barclay, writing in 1678, identified with the gospel:

    “Although the mere outward declaration of the gospel is sometimes considered to be the gospel, this is actually only a figurative usage, of the nature of a metonymy. Properly speaking, the gospel is the inward power and life which preaches glad tidings in the heart of all men, offering them salvation, and attempting to redeem them from their iniquities. This is the reason for saying it has been preached “to every creature under heaven” even though there are many thousands of men and women who have never heard the outward gospel preached.” (from the Modern English paraphrase by Dean Freiday)

    I think this may have been what Tutu was getting at: that in the Dalai Lama that Inner Light shines more brightly than in most of us, and that, through grace, he does the work of Christ. “In my Father’s house are many rooms…” And I would say that the answer to Work’s objection is that the fact of the Dalai Lama’s justification by that Light is testified to by his good works: “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? Thus you will know them by their fruits.”

    Comment by Dave Trowbridge — November 8, 2005 @ 9:14 pm

  6. There are a lot of different theories about how the Holy Spirit manifests itself, which accounts for a lot of the differences between denominations. To my understanding the Inner Light is actually considered the manifestation of Jesus’ second coming, so I’m not sure if that relates directly to the sort of innate (and pre-Christ) capacity for goodness that Ware was writing about. But I know very little about Quaker theology, so I’ll leave it to the Quaker readers to elaborate.

    I think the problem with applying that Jesus quote to non-Christians is that Jesus was speaking in a Jewish context in which idolatry was definitely regarded as a “bad fruit.” When the first gentile convert, Cornelius, shows up in Acts, we are assured that he is “devout and God-fearing”; the fact that he was a Roman soldier could, evidently, be dealt with. This goes to the point I made in my last comment: good works from that perspective didn’t just mean being good to other people, but worshipping God in the right way. (It’s also worth noting that God’s response to Cornelius’ devotion was to bring him into the church, rather than continue his spiritual journey independently of Christ.)

    Comment by Camassia — November 9, 2005 @ 8:28 am

  7. Just a quick follow-up before I get to work; perhaps more tonight. You write:

    “To my understanding the Inner Light is actually considered the manifestation of Jesus’ second coming…”

    I think I’ve seen references to this, but Barclay stresses the “pre-Christ” (in a temporal sense) nature of the Inner Light and its action in the justification of pre-Christian Jews and Gentiles. I’ll try to track down the references if you like.

    God’s response to Cornelius (whom I believe is referred to as “metuentes”–a Gentile who followed Jewish practices to some extent) was indeed to bring him into the church. But Barclay says:

    “…God, who out of his infinite love sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into the world, who tasted death for every man, hath given to every man…a certain day or time of visitation; during which day or time it is possible for them to be saved, and to partake of the fruit of Christ’s death.

    …For this end God hath communicated and given unto every man a measure of the Light of his own Son, a measure of grace, or a measure of the Spirit…

    …God, in and by this Light and Seed, invites, calls, exhorts, and strives with every man, in order to save him; which as it is received, and not resisted, works the salvation of all, even of those who are ignorant of the death and sufferings of Christ, and of Adam’s fall [ed.emph.], both by bringing them to a sense of their own misery, and to be sharers in the sufferings of Christ inwardly, and by making them partakers of his Resurrection, in becoming holy, pure, and righteous, and recovered out of their sins.”

    Now, he goes on to say that those who reject the knowledge of Christ once it is conveyed to them intellectually are condemned, but with this I cannot agree–it is something I must continue wrestling with, guided by the Inner Light.

    Comment by Dave Trowbridge — November 9, 2005 @ 9:48 am

  8. Dave–
    It seems to me that Christ himself indicated that those who reject Him after they’ve received the Gospel are condemned. We can’t really blame anybody else for that pronouncement. And we can’t really contradict it, either.
    I believe that God wants all souls possessed of that inner light to be saved. I also believe that all souls *do* have “the unbearable task” of saving themselves. We can’t do it. But with the help of God’s grace, we can strive in that direction. With God *all things* are possible.
    We are saved by faith alone. If we have faith, we are able to love. And if we are able to love, the good works will follow naturally and inevitably. Faith makes it or breaks it.
    The inner light, which perhaps all possess (but perhaps not), is what drives us to seek God, in the course of which we find faith–or not. I think that faith fuels that inner light. No soul’s individual spark is immortal without being tended. Neglected, it can die, and tending it is, therefore, our life’s task. If we fail in that task the light goes out. And that is hell. The light is gone and irretrievable. And we go on without it, alone, in the darkness, forever and ever.

    Comment by Rob — November 9, 2005 @ 8:08 pm

  9. Part of my problem with believing that “those who reject the knowledge of Christ once it is conveyed to them intellectually are condemned” is that, after all, many people have had conveyed to them some very general sense of “the knowledge of Christ,” but accompanied by behavior, on the part of the Christians they’ve encountered, which raised an insuperable obstacle to their actually being receptive to that intellectual knowledge. And, I’m not so sure that’s what Jesus meant when he spoke of people rejecting him. I think that belief only works if I also assume that I don’t get to know who has actually received the Gospel and rejected it, that only God would know that.

    Getting back to the Inner Light, I am not sure whether it was meant to be a manifestation of Jesus’ second coming, or of the Holy Spirit; in either case, early Quakers are talking about God, and not about some purely human nature, here. But Quakers, unlike many others in the seventeenth century, firmly held that Jesus died for everyone, and that the Inner Light was available to all (so, out of the Calvinist TULIP, they’re rejecting the “L” – and actually, I think, the rest of TULIP as well).

    Comment by Sappho — November 9, 2005 @ 11:15 pm

  10. Hi all

    Re: Barclay vs Quaker “realized eschatology”:

    I’m a Quaker. I’ve understood that Barclay is writing from a perspective which has moved away from the “founding charism” of the Quaker movement. He is no longer teaching that the second coming has happened/is happening right now in believer’s hearts and consciences, as the first generation of Friends were. The Wilburite Quakers following Barclay moved towards a more conventional understanding of time & God’s plan, becoming a “church in waiting for Christ’s return” again like many other churches. Hence the dissonance between the Quaker theological position – Christ has come to teach His people Himself – and Barclay’s Apology. More on this stuff can be found in Peat, Gwyn and Dandelion ‘s book “Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the seocnd coming” ISBN 1 900259 09 5.

    For me it’s the realised eschatology of early Quakers which is meaningful and powerful. Christ is here with us, He is the head of the church himself present here, and He is leading us in the work of the re-creation of the world towards Heaven on Earth. This is the foundation of the Quaker traditions of social and environmental justice work – a people under Christ’s leadership doing his work. Barclay’s ‘Apology’ is a step away from this theological position, as I understand it.

    Comment by Alice M. — November 10, 2005 @ 1:46 am

  11. Sappho:
    I completely agree that only God knows who has accepted Christ, and who has not. We are not to judge that. I also think that it *may* be true that those who receive “some very general sense of ‘the knowledge of Christ,’ but accompanied by behavior, on the part of the Christians they’ve encountered” have been preselected by God *in eternity* and that these Elect will accept the message of Christ, regardless of how, or from whom, they receive it: it will ignite the light in them.
    That said, the scriptural teachings that have led to the development of the doctrines of predestination and “the Elect” are pretty vague, so I am not going to insist on any of this, but I don’t find any logical inconsistencies in these ideas themselves.
    I realize, however, that this is not consistent with my earlier stated notion that “God wants all souls to be saved”. There is clearly no way that God can want that, if He has separated out an Elect group for salvation. I don’t know how to reconcile these conflicting strains of thought.

    Comment by Rob — November 10, 2005 @ 5:34 am

  12. Just for clarity’s sake, I want to point out that there’s a difference between belief in universal salvation, and belief that knowledge of God is equally available to all persons, though these days the two positions tend to get blurred together. On the former point there’s always been a lot of speculation, but ultimately we don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of time. I think my favorite reconciliation of the apparently conflicting passages on the subject is the Eastern Orthodox idea that yes, God will bring everyone into his presence, but not everyone is going to like it. I guess if you’ve devoted your life to some other god or idol, finding out the truth would be pretty upsetting. (How the Dalai Lama would feel about it, I wouldn’t hazard a guess.)

    The latter point though, goes to the center of how the apostles interpreted the Incarnation. Basically, they weren’t going to say, “God came in flesh, we hung out with him, ate with him, listened to him — but we don’t have any more knowledge of God than anyone else, oh no, why would we think that?” I can see why it seems more egalitarian to say that everyone has knowledge of God within them somewhere, so all human religious expressions are true expressions of God, but it’s not surprising that in groups where that view predominates the Incarnation has a way of going out the window.

    Comment by Camassia — November 10, 2005 @ 8:18 am

  13. That is an important distinction. It also brings up the interesting question – can God simply save everyone/anyone he wants to by sheer fiat or do we have to accept salvation in order for it to be effective in us? Universalists often seem to assume the former – that God can (and, being infinitely good, will) simply declare everyone to be “in.” But if you believe in free will it seems to me you have to allow for at least the possibility that some will ultimatley refuse to be saved (as you put it “not everyone is going to like it”). I go back and forth on this – as a Lutheran I lean heavily to the “God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy” side of things, but my philosophical intuitions want to hold out for a measure of free will.

    Regarding the second point, I think it may get at what Telford Work rightly objected to in Abp. Tutu’s comments – for Christians the identity of God is defined by Jesus. There’s no getting “beyond” that to some ineffable, unknowable God. Which is kind of the essence of the good news – God comes to us!

    Comment by Lee — November 10, 2005 @ 9:23 am

  14. That is an interesting question. It seems to relate to your own post about justification, namely whether being saved really describes your legal standing before God, and the place you go after death, and how much it describes an actual change in your self. If it’s the former, then it’s entirely an action of God, so there’s no reason why everyone couldn’t be saved except for God’s inscrutable will (hence the Calvinist doctrine of election). However, one place where Catholics, Orthodox, Mennonites and Quakers all seem to agree is that salvation effects an actual change in the person. This change may go on after death (hence Purgatory, and Origen’s peculiar reincarnation theory), but either way a transformation has to occur before full union with God can occur. To me it’s not so much a free-will question, as it’s a question of what the point of salvation ultimately is. In Orthodox thought the destiny of man is actually to “become divine,” so obviously we all have to change a lot from the way we are now.

    If you look at it that way, it does seem to leave the possibility that someone like the Dalai Lama may be farther along the developmental path than someone who, say, answered an altar call once but lives a totally decadent life, or even someone who follows what he thinks is Jesus but that is actually not much like the real Jesus. This is where I diverge somewhat with Telford, since he draws a bright line between people who invoke the Name and those who don’t. But either way, the idea is that the gap between human and God can’t be fully bridged without Christ. It’s a good thing we’re not the ones who have to sort all this out, isn’t it?

    Comment by Camassia — November 10, 2005 @ 12:18 pm

  15. Camassia:
    But we *are* the ones who have to sort it out, *if* we all have to change alot from the way we are in order to achieve salvation, and the *if* the mechanism of that change is not something that is received by us completely passively.

    Comment by Rob — November 10, 2005 @ 1:57 pm

  16. I meant we don’t have to sort out who’s “in.” I mean, within our own churches we do to some extent, but not in the ultimate sense.

    Comment by Camassia — November 10, 2005 @ 2:03 pm

  17. Camassia–
    Ultimately, we will each stand alone before the throne of judgement, and, at that moment, how we answered the questions above and acted upon those answers will be seen to have been a matter of life or death, all along.
    There is a verse in a Dylan song that ends: “…this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.”

    Comment by Rob — November 10, 2005 @ 3:23 pm

  18. Rob, as far as “receiving the gospel,” I think that can be taken, as Barclay did, in a sense apart from the mere intellectual message of Christ’s story. So I’d say we can’t be sure that Christ meant rejecting an intellectual understanding.

    Alice, I’m new to Quakerism, so I have not read widely in it yet. This is my first pass through Barclay, and I read the “modern English” version, with which I understand some people have a problem concerning its accuracy. But nowhere does Barclay mention the Second Coming, and it seems to me his emphasis is on the fact that “Christ has come to teach his people Himself.” In fact, although I can’t find it now, I think I read something very close to that very statement in his Apology. I will try to find that book you mention. Perhaps our Meeting’s library has it.

    And Camassia, I think your comment concerning justification is very close to my (evolving) understanding: that it involves a real change. Barclay is very emphatic about that:

    “As many as resist not this Light, but receive the same, it becomes in them a holy, pure, and spiritual birth, bringing forth holiness, righteousness, purity, and all those other blessed fruits, which are acceptable to God, by which holy birth, to wit, Jesus Christ formed within us, and working his works in us, as we are sanctified, so are we justified in the sight of God, according to the apostle’s words: “But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Therefore it is not by our works wrought in our will, nor yet by good works, considered as of themselves; but by Christ, who is both the gift and the giver, and the cause producing the effects in us, who, as he hath reconciled us while we were enemies, doth also in his wisdom save us, and justify us after this manner, as saith the same apostle elsewhere, “According to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5).” (Proposition 7: Concerning Justification)

    As for the Dalai Lama, he doesn’t seem to me like someone who “resists the Light,” even if he doesn’t “name” it Jesus. I know many people, like Mr. Work, put a great deal of emphasis on “the Name,” but my understanding of this term is that in Hebraic thought it refers not merely to nomenclature, but the very nature and essence of an entity, so that “the name of Jesus” is who He is, not just his given name. And the only way we know who He is, is through that Inner Light: as both Gift and Giver.

    Comment by Dave Trowbridge — November 10, 2005 @ 7:49 pm

  19. I admit I don’t know more about the Dalai Lama than most people, but I think that like most of us he accepts the Light in some ways and resists it in others. I mean, let’s not forget that he came to his position thanks to a theocratic system that makes him an object of reverence to millions. He’s certainly not Jim Jones or anything, but I think that those of us in sects that challenged popes — and in your case, the whole idea of clergy — ought to be just a little bit skeptical of the fact that the dude’s Inner Light just happens to keep him in a religion that puts him right at the top.

    That’s why even though I do think some people invoke the Name of Jesus without knowing who the heck they’re talking about, I also don’t believe in turning Christ into abstractions like Truth, Justice and Love that are detached from his historical person. By coming in the flesh, God did not give you the option to see him in your chosen object of reverence; he identified himself. And in doing so, he challenged all other powers that laid claim to godhood. I know the Dalai Lama is a sympathetic figure because his people are being stomped on by a much bigger power, but I still suspect Jesus would have a few sharp words about the whole “Living Buddha” thing.

    Comment by Camassia — November 10, 2005 @ 9:46 pm

  20. It seems quite simple to me. If the Dalai Lama and other morally righteous non-Christians are saved as such, then the Crucifixion and Resurrection were unnecessary and the Christian religion is all in vain. I think St. Paul said that.

    Comment by Rob — November 11, 2005 @ 4:41 am

  21. Camassia – In response to #14 – I think there’s less of a difference between Rome/Orthodoxy/Mennonites/Quakers on the one hand and “classic” Protestants (kind of like Classic Coke!) than may at first appear. I think Lutherans and Reformed would say that there is a sense in which salvation includes a real change in the person, though one that is only fully realized after death.

    However, within their understanding of salvation they, as you know, distinguish justification, which is about our standing before God, and sanctification, which is about growth in holiness. We are justified (forgiven, pardoned, etc.) solely on account of Christ and there’s nothing we do to merit salvation in any respect.

    However, as a consequence of our justification we receive the Holy Spirit who works within us to transform us into the image of the Son of God. But it’s not in virtue of that “actualized” holiness that God accepts us, but only on account of Christ. You might say that sanctification is the working out or making visible of our salvation, but it’s not the cause of it.

    Comment by Lee — November 11, 2005 @ 6:55 am

  22. I understand, Camassia. Perhaps my final word on this should be in the cadences of the KJV (1 Cor. 4:5):

    Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord
    come, who will bring to light the hidden things of
    darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the
    hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.

    Comment by Dave Trowbridge — November 11, 2005 @ 8:29 am

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