Original Sin 23 – Ephesians 2:3

Posted: March 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 23 – Ephesians 2:3

This verse (or actually just a portion of it) is typically used to support the notion of original sin as inherited guilt. However, for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to quote all of Ephesians 2 verses 1-10. (And I would even urge people to go reread all of Ephesians again if it’s been a while since you’ve done so.)

1 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

The part of the above that was used by St. Augustine to support the idea that we inherit guilt is the phrase “by nature children of wrath.” This was a part of his larger idea that instead of God interacting with the will and actions of each individual human eikon, after Adam all humanity became one big lump of sin. Tied to this interpretation is that we were born sharing a nature subject to God’s wrath.

However, there’s a problem with that interpretation, which is why I quoted the entire excerpt above. As Paul often does, he is contrasting two things — the kingdoms of death and of  life. All humanity was dead, subject as a result to the “prince of the power of the air“, bound by our passions, and the wrath of which we are all by nature children is the wrath flowing from the ruler of that kingdom — not God’s wrath. By contrast, God — who loves us — has made us alive in Christ, freeing us from the wrathful rule of the prince of the power of the air, and created us anew for good works rather than in bondage to our passions.

I love Ephesians. I fall in love with its vision all over again every time I read it. But it doesn’t say anything about human beings inheriting guilt. Trying to lift that one phrase in an effort to make that point does violence to the text.


Original Sin 22 – John 3:5

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 22 – John 3:5

First, here’s the text of John 3:5 for us to consider.

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

John 3:5 refers to Christian baptism. For almost the entire history of the Church, that has been its universal interpretation across traditions. Recently, of course, some sects of Protestantism (and much of what is typically labeled today as “evangelicalism”) have interpreted the verse to refer to physical birth (water) and some sort of inner, spiritual rebirth (Spirit). But if we’re discussing St. Augustine or almost anything recorded throughout the history of Christianity, then we must read the ‘water’ as the waters of baptism and ‘Spirit’ as the Holy Spirit. The waters of Baptism, accompanied by the seal of the Holy Spirit mark our entrance into the kingdom of God as manifested on earth in the Church.

As an aside, this even impacts the architecture of our churches today. Those of you who are “evangelical” are probably accustomed to seeing the baptistry at the front of the sanctuary, so that all those seated within the church are facing it. Traditionally, however, baptisms were performed at the back of the nave or in the narthex before the entrance of the nave. This was done because baptism marked the entrance of person into the Church. One was baptized and then one entered. Churches built in a traditional manner still reflect that design.

St. Augustine used John 3:5 to say essentially that if one had to be baptized to enter the kingdom, then there had to be something in the nature of the unbaptized — even infants who had committed no willful sin — that kept them out of the Kingdom. He, of course, defined that something as the inherited guilt of original sin. Both his exegesis of the verse and his assertion that unbaptized infants are condemned run contrary to the predominant interpretation of the ancient Church.

To illustrate that, I would point to St. Gregory of Nyssa in On Infants’ Early Deaths. It’s only one example, but a good one. He first takes the time to pose the question well, pointing out the flaws in quick or easy answers. He then constructs an analogy of life around the choices available to two men with a degenerative disease of their eyes. One follows the advice and way of the doctors and purgation, however painful that might be, and is eventually healed and able to enjoy the fullness of light. The other chooses to follow what seems to be a broad path of ease and comfort, declining the necessary treatments and spending his time in comfort in the baths and eventually ends up blind, unable to perceive the light at all. From that, he says the following of infants.

Whereas the innocent babe has no such plague before its soul’s eyes obscuring its measure of light, and so it continues to exist in that natural life; it does not need the soundness which comes from purgation, because it never admitted the plague into its soul at all. Further, the present life appears to me to offer a sort of analogy to the future life we hope for, and to be intimately connected with it, thus; the tenderest infancy is suckled and reared with milk from the breast; then another sort of food appropriate to the subject of this fostering, and intimately adapted to his needs, succeeds, until at last he arrives at full growth. And so I think, in quantities continually adapted to it, in a sort of regular progress, the soul partakes of that truly natural life; according to its capacity and its power it receives a measure of the delights of the Blessed state; indeed we learn as much from Paul, who had a different sort of food for him who was already grown in virtue and for the imperfect “babe.” For to the last he says, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it.” But to those who have grown to the full measure of intellectual maturity he says, “But strong meat belongeth to those that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised…” Now it is not right to say that the man and the infant are in a similar state however free both may be from any contact of disease (for how can those who do not partake of exactly the same things be in an equal state of enjoyment?); on the contrary, though the absence of any affliction from disease may be predicated of both alike as long as both are out of the reach of its influence, yet, when we come to the matter of delights, there is no likeness in the enjoyment, though the percipients are in the same condition. For the man there is a natural delight in discussions, and in the management of affairs, and in the honourable discharge of the duties of an office, and in being distinguished for acts of help to the needy; in living, it may be, with a wife whom he loves, and ruling his household; and in all those amusements to be found in this life in the way of pastime, in musical pieces and theatrical spectacles, in the chase, in bathing, in gymnastics, in the mirth of banquets, and anything else of that sort. For the infant, on the contrary, there is a natural delight in its milk, and in its nurse’s arms, and in gentle rocking that induces and then sweetens its slumber. Any happiness beyond this the tenderness of its years naturally prevents it from feeling. In the same manner those who in their life here have nourished the forces of their souls by a course of virtue, and have, to use the Apostle’s words, had the “senses” of their minds “exercised,” will, if they are translated to that life beyond, which is out of the body, proportionately to the condition and the powers they have attained participate in that divine delight; they will have more or they will have less of its riches according to the capacity acquired. But the soul that has never felt the taste of virtue, while it may indeed remain perfectly free from the sufferings which flow from wickedness having never caught the disease of evil at all, does nevertheless in the first instance partake only so far in that life beyond (which consists, according to our previous definition, in the knowing and being in God) as this nursling can receive; until the time comes that it has thriven on the contemplation of the truly Existent as on a congenial diet, and, becoming capable of receiving more, takes at will more from that abundant supply of the truly Existent which is offered.

Yes, I know that’s quite a bit to digest, but it captures more of the essence of the common patristic view than St. Augustine did. St. Gregory also admits his ignorance.

Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best.

Ultimately we don’t know all the answers, but we trust that God is good and that he loves us. This is what Jesus showed us in his life and it is what he taught us about God. Death is not good, but we trust that God is working to transform all things, even the evil things, into good. (Romans 8:28) And that certain applies when we face the deaths of innocent infants, baptized or not. They are safe in the hand of God and I reject any teaching and any teacher who says differently.


Original Sin 21 – Psalm 50:7 (or 51:5)

Posted: March 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 21 – Psalm 50:7 (or 51:5)

The next text St. Augustine used, and one which you will hear widely quoted as a text defending the idea of original sin as inherited guilt is Psalm 50:7 (LXX) or 51:5 (Hebrew Masoretic numbering). I’ll start by providing an English translation of each, beginning with the Septuagint rendering (OSB).

For behold, I was conceived in transgressions, And in sins my mother bore me.

And here’s the Hebrew Masoretic translation (NKJV).

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.

It is difficult to discuss this verse divorced from the context of the entire Psalm and the way it has been used for centuries by the Church. Even today in the Orthodox Church, the entire Psalm is used in the services of Orthros, the Third Hour, and Compline. It is also recited in every Divine Liturgy by the priest as he censes before the Great Entrance. This is the great penitential Psalm and has been so used by the Church for as long as we have any records. I think it is best approached as a whole text in that light and with that attitude.

However, the natural reading of the single verse above does not communicate to me any idea that David is saying that he was conceived and born with some sort of inherited guilt. Rather he is lamenting the damaged and broken state of humanity into which we are all born. Those who conceive and bear us do so within the brokenness of their own transgressions and sins — their own mortality. Who among us would deny that reality? It’s also possible that in his song of repentance, David is engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but it’s not necessary to assume that’s the case. It’s perhaps a bit clearer in the translation from the LXX, but David is obviously not referring to his own sin in that verse. He’s referring to that of those surrounding him from the moment of his conception. He is making reference to the brokenness which forms and shapes us all.

The verse just doesn’t say what St. Augustine and others who try to use it the same way want it to say. It doesn’t communicate that idea when you lift it out of its context and that is certainly not the message of Psalm 50 (or 51 in the Hebrew numbering) when taken as a whole.


Original Sin 20 – Job 14:4-5

Posted: March 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 20 – Job 14:4-5

I left for last an examination of the texts from Scriptures used by St. Augustine to support his idea of original sin as the inherited guilt of all mankind. It has always seemed to me that St. Augustine developed his framework from the other sources and for the reasons I’ve examined in this series and then found texts he could use to connect those ideas to the Holy Scriptures. St. Augustine uses just five texts to support his idea of original sin, so we’ll look at each of them in turn. I will note that St. Augustine wrote and read in Latin and appears to have either been uncomfortable with Greek or outright disliked it. A couple of the verses on which he relies are actually mistranslated in the Latin text on which he relied.

The first text we’ll examine is Job 14:4-5. This also seems to be the first mistranslated text. It appears that the Latin version St. Augustine used was translated to read (in part) as follows.

Who is clean from sin? Not even a child whose life on earth is of one day.

I will note that the LXX (which is the traditional Christian Old Testament) and the Hebrew Masoretic text differ somewhat on this text. However, neither reads like the above. I’ll start with the LXX (quoting in full from the OSB).

For who shall be pure from uncleanness? No one. Even if his life is but one day upon the earth, his months are numbered by You. You appointed a time for him, and he cannot exceed it.

Within the context of Job’s prayer to God, he is saying that we are bound by mortality and with just a day amid the struggles of this life, even the most righteous would sin. St. John Chrysostom had the following to say on the passage.

You see Job taking refuge again in his nature, because it is impossible, he says, to be pure. [He implores God] not only because of our weakness or our ephemeral nature or the disheartening that fills our life, but because it is also impossible to be pure. … Job expresses again the ephemeral, miserable, and unhappy character of life. … Then Job demonstrates that human beings are the unhappiest of all, more than trees, rivers and the sea.

The Hebrew Masoretic text is translated as follows in the NKJV.

Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one! Since his days are determined, The number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass.

The gist of verse five, looking at both texts, is clearly the idea that our days are numbered. We are limited. St. Gregory the Great writes the following.

God sets bounds to our spiritual attainments. We learn humility by the things we are unable to master, that we may not be exalted by those things we have the power to do.

With this text, it seems obvious to me that it does not say anything like what St. Augustine thought it said. His exegesis of this text was led astray by a flawed translation. That leaves four more texts to examine.


Original Sin 19 – St. Augustine & Pelagius

Posted: March 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

It’s impossible to discuss the origin of the idea of original sin as the inherited or shared guilt of Adam without noting the context within which St. Augustine developed it. And the idea developed within the context of the long-running dispute between St. Augustine and Pelagius. I find that this particular dispute is often caricatured and positions are attributed to each man that do not appear to be entirely accurate.

So let’s start with Pelagius. While his teaching was ultimately condemned and he is considered a heretic (one who holds and teaches a different faith) in both the Eastern and Western Church, it doesn’t seem to have been as blatantly distinct from Orthodox faith as it is sometimes portrayed today. While Christianity had always taught and practiced the process of salvation as a lifelong synergy between God and man rooted in the amazing act of God in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, it seems that Pelagius taught that in light of Jesus’ accomplishment, man had the potential to “work out his salvation in fear and trembling” without anything else from God. Most wouldn’t or couldn’t, of course, and thus required the grace or energies of God. But it was at least possible.

Pelagius, however, seems to have been quite adept at putting that idea in terms that seemed orthodox. The reaction to him in many places was ambivalent and sometimes even accepting. And that seems to have infuriated St. Augustine, who ultimately did convince his fellow bishops to condemn Pelagius. St. Augustine, known for his piety, had a deep sense of his own sinfulness and his inability to make any headway without the grace of God (which is to say God himself). As easily happens in such situations, St. Augustine was striving to make his case and in this instance, seems to me (and many others) to have overreached in making a rhetorical point.

That does not then mean that Pelagius was right. Today a lot of people seem to cast the discussion as some sort of an either/or dichotomy. Either you accept everything that St. Augustine ever wrote over the course of the dispute or you accept that Pelagius was correct. And that’s a false dichotomy. It’s easy to believe that Pelagius taught something other than the faith handed down by the Apostles and still believe that St. Augustine overstated his own case and was even wrong on some points. I certainly believe that’s true when it comes to his formulation of original sin and so does all of Eastern Christianity.

Nothing human ever happens in a vacuum. There are always many dynamics and forces at work. And if you want to understand an end result, you have to have some insight into the process and circumstances that produced it. Hopefully this post helps adds some of that context to the discussion.


Original Sin 18 – Seminal Reasons

Posted: March 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 18 – Seminal Reasons

I want to begin this post in the series with a disclaimer. I have had a deep love for the history of ancient and classical Greece, its gods, its plays, and its literature for most of my life. By the time I finished fourth grade, I remember having read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Illiad, the Odyssey, and Antigone. I was hooked. (That was also a somewhat more … interesting … year than some of the others growing up, so I may have buried myself in books a bit more than usual that year. And the reading wasn’t all on one topic. I know I read King Lear for the first time that year — and performed a scene from it in a talent show. Oh, and I have a memory of reading a ton of the Hardy Boys books that year as well.)

With that said I have to confess that that love never translated into a love for Greek Philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Over the course of my life I’ve read some of their work and have some general understanding of their frameworks. But in all honesty, I can’t think of any time I wouldn’t have preferred spending time with Lao-tzu or the Bhagavad Gita over any of them. I can usually tell the Stoics from the Epicureans from the Neoplatonists, but I hardly know much beyond the basics about any of them.

I say all that in order to say that when I speak about them, which I have to do in order to do justice to any series on the topic of Original Sin, I’m doing so from a state of qualified ignorance. I will undoubtedly make mistakes at some points. Hopefully they will be fairly minor. I believe I grasp the important points as they relate to my topic fairly well. But if you know more on this subject than I do and you notice a mistake, please let me know. It was probably made from ignorance not malice.

In this post I’ll begin to explore the history behind the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. And such a discussion has to begin with St. Augustine, and thus it also has to begin the Stoic and Neoplatonist perspective that shaped his perception of reality and from which he drew pretty heavily in his works. And one of the central ideas from which he constructed his view of original sin was the Stoic philosophy (also adopted by the Neoplatonists, I believe) of seminal reasons. That’s basically the idea that indeterminate matter has in itself the principles of all future manifestation and development. St. Augustine used that concept in a number of places, especially when it came to creation. But for the purposes of our series, this idea held that all future generations were present in the seed of Adam and, when he sinned, all future generations sinned with him.

That idea by itself is not exactly the same thing as inherited guilt, but in its effect it’s largely indistinguishable. When you combine it with the fact that St. Augustine appears to have held to some form of traducianism, which asserted that the soul as well as the body is derived in its generation from the parents and you can see how the idea that we all share the guilt for Adam’s act developed.

As far as I can tell, these philosophies — not anything specifically Christian — provided the structure and form to the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. I’m certainly not one to say that truths cannot be found in other religions and philosophies. I absolutely believe that they can be — and as Christian, when they are, I attribute their revelation to Christ. However, a lot of people seem to strongly believe that these ideas are rooted in the Holy Scriptures or were developed entirely from the tradition of the Apostles. And they weren’t.

I will look at the other driving forces to St. Augustine’s approach and the way he connected these ideas to the Holy Scriptures. But I wanted to tackle the philosophy behind the idea first. Hopefully I’ve done so in an understandable fashion.


Original Sin 17 – Blocked Transmission

Posted: March 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

In addition to the issue of Christ’s nature that I discussed yesterday, which I perceive as the central problem, the idea that all mankind naturally inherits guilt in a “sinful nature” but that Jesus didn’t tends to raise another question. How is it that Jesus did not inherit our nature of inherited guilt when he became human? It seems to me that many Protestants simply ignore the question. I could be wrong, of course. I’m hardly an expert on any Christian tradition. But that’s my impression. I am aware of two different ways this question is answered, though.

The first I remember hearing in a sermon from a Baptist minister when I was a teenager. It stuck in my head all these years because it sounded so strange to me at the time. I wasn’t sure at first if he was serious or not, but it quickly became apparent that he was. I have no clue how common or uncommon this idea might actually be. If anyone does know, feel free to add that information in the comments. Here’s the thread of the explanation as I recall it.

Because Adam ate knowingly and was not deceived like Eve, his offense was worse. Both ‘fell from grace’ with God, but it’s from Adam that the guilt of original sin is inherited. As a result, children ‘inherit’ their nature of original sin from their fathers, not their mothers. The guilt is transmitted through the male descendants to their offspring. Since Jesus did not have a human biological father, he did not inherit the nature of inherited guilt and was thus born free of original sin.

In my mind, even if I try to take the idea seriously, it immediately raises another question. It’s safe, I think, to assume that at some point in the future, we will be able to do in vitro fertilization from cellular genetic sources other than, strictly speaking, a female egg and a male sperm. Ignoring for the sake of this question the whole matter of bioethics and whether or not this is something we should do, let’s just assume it will happen. Does that then mean that a child conceived from the genetic material of two women would also be born without a nature of inherited guilt? And what about a child conceived from the genetic material of two men? Does that child get a double whammy of inherited guilt?

I might sound facetious. I’m trying not to be, but the idea still strikes me as absurd decades after I first heard it. But if that is truly what some people believe, they will need to face questions like that and figure out how they are going to answer them.

The other response to this question lies in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Roman Catholic Church. This is actually a more sophisticated dogma than the way it is sometimes portrayed by those outside the Church. It holds that Mary was miraculously preserved from the stain of the inherited guilt of original sin in order to provide a fitting womb for the infant Christ. It does not, as is sometimes said, that God could not have (or did not) simply preserved the infant Jesus from inheriting the stained nature of inherited guilt. It uses more the language of honor, reverence, and what was fitting. Also tied into this is the idea that Mary needed to be so preserved in order to offer her free assent to God.

I will note that the Immaculate Conception was fixed as dogma in the 19th century, so it’s a relatively recent Roman Catholic dogma. And I will also note that Eastern Christians, who certainly cannot be charged with a failure to hold the Theotokos in great honor and esteem, view it as unnecessary specifically because they do not agree that the state of sin for Adam’s transgression is transmitted to every human at conception. Although it retains much of the character of a mystery, it’s my understanding of the Roman Catholic teaching that though it is normal for human beings to inherit the guilt of Adam (which they do note is different in some sense from the guilt for acts we actually commit ourselves), God can intervene and prevent that from happening and he specifically did so with Mary and (I presume) Jesus.

The question that raises in my mind is probably different than the ones it raises for most people. My question is simple and direct. If God can choose to act to preserve people from inheriting some aspect of the guilt of their ancestor’s transgression without damaging their free will or their nature as his icons, why has he not chosen to do so for all people? After all, if the Christian God is truly a good God who loves mankind, we are under the curse of inherited guilt through no fault of our own, and he is able to simply free us from inheriting that guilt through a unilateral act, why hasn’t he done so for everyone?

If I were to accept any sense of original sin as inherited guilt, it would probably be the Roman Catholic version. It is the most nuanced and reasonable of all the variations. And yet it tends to collapse as well. In my mind the dogma of the Immaculate Conception does not alleviate that underlying tension. It makes it worse instead.


Original Sin 16 – Healing the Nature of Man

Posted: March 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 16 – Healing the Nature of Man

As I began to knit Scripture together with its ancient Christian interpretations, the image that likely sealed my turn toward Christianity was the image of recapitulation first found in the work St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies. His imagery of recapitulation follows St. Paul’s typology of Adam and Christ.

[Christ became man], in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.

Or perhaps my turn was sealed when I read Athanasius who in On the Incarnation of the Word wrote, “For He was made man that we might be made God.” Or perhaps it was Paul who in Romans 8, Ephesians, and Colossians described a vision of a work of God in Christ redeeming creation, summing up all that is in Christ, and doing it in and through and by love, that captured my heart as no other story about reality had ever done.

But at every point in my journey, I have been drawn to a God of love who became one of us, who was tempted in every way we are tempted, who endured all that we endure, in order to join his nature to ours and through that union restore us to life, bring us into communion with God, and redeem all that exists. That’s a God worthy of all worship and of all love. I would not say that about any other god.

And here is where the doctrine of original sin as inherited guilt creates a serious problem. For if Jesus was never condemned by God, then he could not have been born guilty. However, if his nature at conception did not carry the burden of inherited guilt and the nature of man is so burdened, then Jesus did not actually become fully human. He became instead something like a superhuman. He was not one of us. He walked above us instead instead of with us. Moreover, if he was not fully man, then his work cannot have truly healed man’s nature. St. Gregory of Nazianzus captures it beautifully in the simple statement, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”

If Jesus was born with a different nature than the rest of mankind, then whatever else he accomplished, he could not recapitulate our lives on our behalf. He could, perhaps, purchase us. But having purchased us, he could not also heal us. He could not join our nature to God’s. There is a deep theological problem with the fundamental idea that we inherit guilt at birth as part of our human nature. It makes us other than Christ in our very nature. If Christ is not fully human, Christianity has nothing to offer — at least to me.


Original Sin 15 – What is the Gospel?

Posted: March 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

I have been struggling over how I would write this part of the series since I started it. I know what I want to say, but I’ve discovered over the years that this is a place where the fact that I was not culturally shaped within the context of American Christianity creates a disconnect that is difficult to bridge. I don’t really grasp the inner experience and automatic assumptions of those who were shaped within that context and so it is often like navigating a minefield. I tend to express myself in ways that produce reactions I did not intend. I’ve never been known for a reluctance to “stir the pot” in any situation if that’s what I feel is necessary. However, I don’t have the sense that anything I want to say on this topic should be controversial for any Christian. It’s not only deeply embedded in the Scriptures, but consistently in the interpretation of those Scriptures throughout the first centuries of the Church. So I ask that if you react negatively to something I write in this post, take  a moment to explain your reaction to me and I’ll see if I can find better words.

I’ve been writing this series from the perspective of my own personal journey into and with Christian faith, so I’ll continue in that vein. It seems to me that most American Christians today don’t realize that in order to proclaim their story of “good news“, they must first either make a person feel bad about themselves or convince them that there is a powerful deity out there who will torment them forever if they don’t do as he requires. When you boil them down, most of the common “gospels” require you to first induce fear, guilt, or shame in the hearer before the rest of the proclamation (which is basically deliverance from the very shame, guilt, or fear you’ve worked so hard to instill) makes any sense at all.

Stop here and think for a minute about how you would explain to someone why they should consider being Christian. Am I wrong? Now, if someone is already consumed to some degree by shame, guilt, or fear, then it’s an easy sell, I suppose. But if a person is not, then unless you can manipulate them into feeling guilty or fearful about their status before this deity, most modern “gospel” proclamations have nothing to offer. And it seems to me that as soon as we fall into manipulation, we are acting in ways that God does not act. If I am trying to manipulate you, then I am treating you not like a person, but like an object instead. I cannot love you and use you at the same time. If that’s not “sin“, I don’t know what is.

I did not come into Christianity because I feared what this deity might do to me. I was living within non-Christian frameworks and was largely content with them. There was no ground in which fear of this Christian God could take root. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hand of the Lord, but you have to be Christian or shaped by a Christian culture before you begin to understand the deep truth of that statement. And by then you should understand that it is fearful due to the all-consuming fire of his love.

Similarly, I did not become Christian because I felt guilt or shame before the Christian God for my “sin“. Oh, I had and have guilt and even shame, but largely for the way things I’ve done have hurt other people or for failing to be the person I desired to be. (Some of it also probably flows from childhood experiences, but that’s a different topic altogether.) I had no sense of guilt toward the Christian God. In fact, I would still say that I am just discovering what sin actually means in a Christian context and how deeply that thread is interwoven in my life. Sin is also something that can truly be understood only from within a Christian framework.

If those aren’t the “gospel”, what then is the “good news” of Christianity? And why is it good news?

Christianity proclaims a good God who loves mankind. Christianity tells the story of a God who is about the business of rescuing mankind and all creation. The Christian God is not some distant, transcendent deity. No, the Christian God is the one who comes near, the one who enters his creation as a part of it, who empties himself. And by doing so, the Christian God is the one who destroys death and heals mankind’s nature, making communion with God possible for us all.

Here’s a question for you. If mankind had never sinned, if we had remained faithful, would the Son of God still have become Incarnate? The ancient Christian answer to that question is yes. Jesus would not have had to die if that were the case. It was through the Cross that he was able to destroy death in the Resurrection. But it was always God’s purpose (see Ephesians) for mankind to be joined in full communion with God. And that was only ever possible through the action of God. We could never have joined ourselves to God unless he first joined his nature to ours.

When I think about the Gospel, I like a phrase of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s. “Jesus did not come to make bad men good. He came to make dead men live.” I think that captures a significant and central part of it.

I realize that this post is getting long and I’ve still not reached the point that I originally intended to make. So I’ll wrap this up here and continue the discussion tomorrow.


Original Sin 14 – The Two Natures of Christ

Posted: March 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 14 – The Two Natures of Christ

Whether through the hands of another human being, in the narrative text of the Holy Scriptures, or through some sense of direct connection, it has always been Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, who draws me toward Christianity and who keeps me circling in a whirlpool of love with Jesus at its center. But I wasn’t interested in knowing just any Jesus of my imagination (or the imagination of others). I wasn’t interested in buddy Jesus. I’ve always been repelled by white, suburban, American, Republican Jesus. No, I wanted to understand (to the extent possible), learn to worship, and grow in communion with the actual man.

On the one hand this Jesus was a specific historical human being, a seemingly failed revolutionary gruesomely executed by one of the empires most gifted at instilling fear. The Christian scriptures themselves tell us that Jesus was tempted in every way we are tempted, he endured everything that we endure, he is truly one of us. When we turn toward Jesus, we do not find some supernatural, divine avatar who is something other than human. We find a human being in the fullest sense of the word.

And yet … he did not sin.

Sin is a word that is full of modern, often awful, connotations, but the way I have come to understand it is that Jesus did not miss the mark. He remained faithful where we all have been faithless. He lived and died as the true man, the Son of Man, the sum total of all that humanity was meant to be.

And here is where Christianity takes an amazing turn. Death could not contain Jesus. Death thought it had swallowed a man and found it had swallowed God instead. For the one human being, Jesus of Nazareth, was both man and eternal Logos — the Word or Act of God. Everything that could be said of the Father or had ever been said of the Father, could also be said of the Son. Somehow the one who created all things and in whom everything subsists became a part of his creation.

And all humanity is healed in that union. We are no longer in bondage to death. It is no longer the nature of man to die. Moreover, since our nature has been joined to God’s in Christ, we can move out of our bondage to death and sin and into communion with God. We are able to participate in the divine energies of God.

This discussion may not seem directly related to the topic of original sin as inherited guilt. But it seems to me that many people today often have a somewhat truncated vision of Christ. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, but if what I’ve described in this post does not lie somewhere near the center of what you consider to be salvation, then you may have only just begun to wrap your head around the immense implications of the Incarnation. I feel this post lays necessary groundwork for the next thing I want to discuss in this series.