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 â€“ 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.