Original Sin: Come on, Really?! What about infants? (Ken Pennings) 8.18.19

We do not enter the world as blotches on existence, as sinful creatures. We burst into the world as ‘original blessings.’

(Ed. Note: Due to a technical issue, no audio is available. Please enjoy reading the text below.)

Sacred texts:
Psalm 51:5 — Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

Romans 5:11-12, 18-19
We boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through [the] one man [Adam], and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned….Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

1 Corinthians 15:21-22
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

Our summer series, “Our Language of Faith: Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones?” is considering Scripture texts and interpretations that make us cringe or squirm. We struggle with certain texts because of certain doctrines that have been based on them. One of the phrases in our language of faith is “original sin.”

The doctrine of original sin argues two things: one, that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden, something negatively and permanently shifted in their nature, and two, this nature has been passed on to every human being since. Because of the sin on the part of the first human beings, all human life thereafter would be born in sin and would suffer death, the ultimate consequence of human sin. To be human was by definition to be sinful, fallen, and in need of rescue (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Spong, page 89).

It was Augustine, the bishop of Hippo (354-430), one of the premier theological minds of the Western world, who developed in depth the notion of original sin. He wrote: “Banished after his sin, Adam bound his offspring also with the penalty of death and damnation, that offspring which by sinning he had corrupted in himself…so that whatever progeny was born (through carnal concupiscence….) from himself and his spouse – who was the cause of his sin and the companion of his damnation – would drag through the ages the burden of Original Sin. (Enchyridion, pages 26, 27, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo)

For Augustine, Adam and Eve were quite literally the first human beings. Their banishment from the garden resulted in death being the price that all human beings would have to pay for their sin. Death was not natural, Augustine argued, it was punitive. The sin of Adam had been passed on through the sex act to every other human being.

A thousand years later, the reformers were still singing Augustine’s sad song of “original sin.”

The following is from the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530:
“Since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mother’s wombs and are unable by nature to have true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin …condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.” Cited in Ted Peters, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), pg. 323.

John Calvin wrote: “Original sin…seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which makes us first liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which scripture calls ‘works of the flesh.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.1.8)

As a young Christian, I was taught the doctrine of original sin, but I didn’t sweat too much about it. But when I took a systematic theology course in Bible College, I really struggled with it. I argued with my professor about the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity. How was it that all sinned in Adam? It just didn’t make sense. How could a loving God condemn all humanity for one man’s sin? And infants, what about infants?! I refused to believe that infants were born with the stain of original sin. If innocent infants and young children were to die, how could they be disqualified from entering heaven? Nevertheless, that is exactly what Augustine and the Reformers believed.

When I transitioned out of fundamentalist religion twenty years ago, I devoured books by Matthew Fox and John Shelby Spong, in which they challenged the doctrine of original sin, as traditionally understood, and affirmed what they call “original blessing.”

Spong writes, “Adam and Eve were not the primeval human parents and all life did not stem from them. The theory of evolution made Adam and Eve legendary at best….Human life clearly evolved over a four-and-a-half-to-five-billion-year process. There were no first parents, and so the primeval act of disobedience on the part of the first parents could not possibly have affected the whole human race (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Spong, page 96).

Elsewhere Spong argues that in a pre-Darwinian world, some might believe in a perfect creation which preceded the fall into sin, which in turn necessitated the rescue that only the God from beyond the world could accomplish. That kind of thinking transforms Jesus into God’s divine rescue operation. But in a post-Darwinian world, we must come to see that human life has never been perfect and thus could never have fallen and, in fact, requires no rescue. (Paraphrased from Eternal Life: A New Vision, by Spong, pages 166-167).

According to Spong, “We human beings do not live in sin. We are not born in sin. We do not need to have the stain of our original sin washed away in baptism. We are not fallen creatures who will lose salvation if we are not baptized” (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Spong, page 98).

Matthew Fox writes, “We enter a broken and torn and sinful world—that’s for sure. But we do not enter as blotches on existence, as sinful creatures. We burst into the world as ‘original blessings.’ And anyone who has joyfully brought children into the world knows this.…Creation-centered mystics have always begun their theology with original blessing not original sin….Nineteen billion years before there was any sin on earth, there was blessing….Our origin in the love of our parents and in their love-making, and the celebration of creation at our birth, are far, far more primeval and original in every sense of the word than is any doctrine of ‘original sin.’” (Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, pages 46-50).

Fox continues, “The concept of original sin is not a Jewish one. Even though the Jewish people knew Genesis for a thousand years before Christians, they do not read original sin into it. As the Jewish prophet Elie Wiesel points out, ‘The concept of original sin is alien to Jewish tradition.’ (Original Blessing, by Matthew Fox, page 47).

It’s interesting to note that even within Christian traditions, namely Eastern Orthodoxy, many never bought into the notion of original sin as explained by Augustine.

So what are we to make of these cringe passages which Dan read for us earlier, passages which led people like Augustine and Calvin to conjure up the doctrines of original sin and total depravity?

Psalm 51:5 – “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

Does this verse suggest all humans have inherited from Adam and Eve a sinful and corrupt nature and will suffer the penalty of death and damnation? Or is this a poetic phrase expressing a common human experience: from the time we are children we habitually put ourselves, our needs, our desires ahead of everything and everyone else.

Isn’t this phrase a poetic way of saying “Since infancy, we long to do the right thing, but we sometimes end up doing the wrong thing?”

Isn’t the Psalmist holding onto the dream of wholeness, at the same time, admitting his limitations? And furthermore, is it ever appropriate to build a religious doctrine out of a poetic phrase from the Psalms?

The meaning of the other two passages from Romans and Corinthians may not be that God punishes all later human beings for the sin of Adam, but that Adam’s story is the representative story of everyone.

Bottom line, given the overwhelming evidence that our scriptures are concerned with original blessing much more than with original sin, why has original sin played so important a role for so many centuries of Western Christian theology, an even more important role than it did for its originator, St. Augustine? I wonder if part of the reason is political. An exaggerated doctrine of original sin, one that is employed as a starting point for spirituality, plays neatly into the hands of empire-builders, slave masters, and patriarchal society in general. How convenient for those who would dominate, control and oppress others to see all but themselves as sinful, corrupt, even damned!
And how convenient that they might see themselves as the ones having authority to dole out grace (or punishment) to those they deem to be deserving of it?!

And now an interesting sidebar:
One of the central problems with the doctrine of original sin is that it dramatically shifted our view of human sexuality. Once we believe we have a sin nature that is passed down from one generation to the next, procreation becomes a dangerous business. To state it bluntly, if sin is passed on from one generation to another through sex, then sex itself is seen as sinful and impure.

Augustine’s preoccupation with the transmission of sin through the sex act led him to focus on the stories of the virgin birth of Jesus. How could Jesus offer payment for sin if he himself had a sinful nature? Augustine’s logic? If Jesus is conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, he is not contaminated by the fall, by the sin of Adam. At that time, it was believed that the woman did not contribute genetically to the birth of the child but merely nurtured the male’s “seed” to maturity. So the fallenness of the woman’s humanity was not an issue.

In time, however, when the woman’s role as genetic cocreator was understood, this issue had to be revisited, lest the savior himself be corrupted with the sin of Adam via his mother, who also was a daughter of Adam. That was handled by the Catholic tradition in the nineteenth century with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin.

Original blessing does not need to disparage human sexuality or marriage in this way. Like many things, sexual activity can be both good and bad. It is one part of the human experience, and is to be given its healthy and rightful place. We can see sexuality as simply what it is, a natural part of life, and not the act upon which the morality of the cosmos rests. To view sex as a gift rather a than a curse allows us to treat it more reverently.

In a broader sense, original blessing carries a far greater opportunity to respect and value our bodies and sexuality, rather than contribute to a culture of shame, self-denial, self-abasement and negative body/sex images.

I’m wondering how original sin with its emphasis on the total depravity and corruption of human nature ever held sway with the Christian church. Did our forefathers think that motivating people negatively through guilt was the best way to effect change in people’s lives, in the church and society?

I’m so glad that many of us in the Christian church can read the stories in the Old and New Testaments and find in them the original blessing of God. In our experience, original blessing is a much better motivation than guilt. Because we’ve been so richly loved by God, blessed by God, affirmed by God, we respond with love, blessing, and affirmation towards others.

And when it comes to being born in sin, there’s no doubt in most of our minds we’re not talking about being born with a sinful nature. Rather it’s about being born into an evil world of systemic, structural, institutional inequality and injustice.

With God’s help, with active resistance to evil, and with persistent resolve to do good, we’re hoping our offspring will be born into a better world.

We link with a community like ORUCC, not to find absolution from guilt, but to heal the world. AMEN

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