The Transforming Heart of Christianity
II - The Nature of Humanity
The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
March 12, 2003
Two of the very oldest stories that our ancestors preserved for us can be found at the front of our Bibles – they are two similar accounts of the creation of the world. In both stories, humanity plays the pivotal role in God’s creation. In the first one, the first man and the first woman are created in the very image of God, and given responsibility for every living thing on the earth [Gen 1:27-30].
In the second story, God shapes the dirt of the new world into a person, and then breathes into the empty shell. When the spirit of God (for “spirit” and “breath” are one word in Hebrew) enters the lifeless shape, the first man is formed. God then presents each new creature to that first man to be named. When the naming is complete, God takes a rib from the first male human and makes the first female one.
That is how our Scriptures begin. Much work has been done in an attempt to homogenize these two stories, but it is perhaps best to simply let them stand on their own. Our ancestors in the faith recognized that they both accurately depict who we are in relationship to God. That’s good enough.
From a biblical perspective, then, who are we as human beings? We are the product of a loving, creative God’s personal touch. We are central to God’s creative design, and we consequently carry huge responsibility for its care. We carry within us the mark and the spirit of God, a spark of the divine.
Then, of course, we get to Chapter 3 – where we find another ancient story involving a crafty serpent and the innocent first humans. In that story the first man and the first woman rebel against what God has told them to do. They sin. And for the next few hundred chapters of the Bible humanity will wrestle with the concept of sin, and it will not be until the very end of the book that we again see a perfect world free of brokenness and sin.
Thus we have the two tensions that define the human tradition within the context of orthodox Christianity: we are bearers of the divine spirit who are simultaneously in rebellion against that spirit through our sinful natures.
We’ll get back to what that means, but first we should deal a bit more with this fable about a magical fruit and a talking snake. We have Christian writings dating back as far as the third century (Origen - On First Principles) saying that many Christians did not take this story literally. Nevertheless, for several hundred years the orthodox Christian understanding of sin and its relationship to the human condition was strongly influenced by just such an interpretation.
For that, we can thank St. Augustine – whose writings form the foundation for all Christian discussions about sin. Augustine had a “realist” understanding of the transmission of sin. It was his belief that there really was an Adam, and that he was physically changed by his sin. From then on, sin literally tainted Adam’s sperm; and that sperm carried with it original sin so that every human child would – from the moment of its conception – be likewise tainted with sin.
Augustine lived in the fourth century, and the chief opponent to the Augustinian understanding of sin was a lay Christian monk named Pelagius. Pelagius, whose thought was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, rejected the idea that there was ever a state of grace from which humanity “fell.” Instead, he argued that death and sin were part of the human condition. He also taught that sinfulness could be overcome by a virtuous life.
Although never condemned by an ecumenical council, Pelagianism was labeled a heresy by subsequent popes and the Augustinian understanding of a fallen humanity and the seminal transmission of original sin became the orthodox Christian view.
A thousand years later, Protestant Reformer John Calvin would slightly modify Augustine’s realist understanding of original sin and adopt instead a “federalist” approach. In Calvin’s understanding, all children of Adam and Eve inherited the responsibility for breaking God’s initial covenant with God in the Garden. In Calvin’s view, “Original Sin” therefore, is like a mortgage that has been transferred indefinitely across generations to the purchaser’s heirs.
Thus, from the most influential Reformed theologian and the most influential early Christian one we have the clear belief that all humans live in a state of sin dating back to a real first couple on whom the blame of the Christian condition rests.
Many Christian writers over the centuries offered various levels of dissent from this view. Most notable for me is the eleventh century French theologian Pierre Abelard, who wrote that – although Adam and Eve’s actions established the penalty for sin – their sin was not itself imputed against later generations.
Abelard’s voice was just one among many, with theologians of different generations wrestling with how a sane and just God could blame children for their parents’ actions. Then came the rise of classical liberalism and existentialism in the nineteenth century and their subsequent twentieth-century movements. Philosophers like Kierkegaard rejected the concept of original sin, and in a kind of new-Pelagianism rejected the orthodox Christian understanding of a broken humanity.
Which brings us to today. We live in a world where Pelagianism is rampant in so many seductive forms. Social reformers talk about the need for “empowerment” – the desire to give people the resources to help themselves. Almost any bookstore has a section entitled “self-help.” The conventional wisdom, even among Christians, is that there is nothing broken within ourselves that cannot be fixed.
This is not, however, the Christian view of the human condition. As unpopular and uncomfortable as it might be, the first step for me in becoming a Christian is recognizing that there is a darkness and brokenness inside myself that I cannot heal. There is a spiritual vacancy within me, something fundamental that goes beyond how my brain is wired and how my body works, that nothing physical or material can fill.
We live in a world that denies that; a world that can, if we let it, distract us from that darkness with all sorts of quick fixes and affirmations. If you’ll remember though, the focus for our lectures is Christianity which transforms – which makes us different from the world in which we live. The first step in finding that transformation is admitting that we need to be transformed. The second step is recognizing that nothing we can do will transform us.
Please do not hear me, however, as rejecting valid disciplines like counseling, psychology, and the general principal of self improvement. All of these things can make us better off and bring us some healing. We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
If we are to call ourselves Christians, however, we must admit that there is something that runs more deeply within us than even those good medicines can reach, and that is sin.
Does this mean that like Augustine we must believe in a literal Garden where a real Adam and Eve condemned all of humanity? No. Recognizing that we as humans are inherently broken is not the same thing as believing that it is because we are fallen. Pelagius, Origen, and Abelard are all examples of pious Christians who recognized the existence of sin without trying to blame it on Adam and Eve.
In doing so, are we rejecting the Bible? No. If you’ll remember back to our previous discussion, I pointed out that the underlying principle of biblical interpretation is only using the text to answer the question it was meant to respond to. The question posed in Genesis is not “How does God explain the existence of sin?” It is, “How do we understand our human condition?”
The answer is that, even created with the very breath of God within us, we still choose our fleshly desires over doing what is right in God’s eyes. When Carlyle Marney was asked where he believed the Garden of Eden was located, he answered, “In my grandmother’s kitchen in Harriman Tennessee where as a child I used to steal cookies.” It does not matter if there was ever a real Garden of Eden, since – if we are honest – we can all find a Garden in our own lives.
As with the other topics we’ll discuss, this is in essence a neo-orthodox understanding of “original sin.” It preserves the historic and very biblical [I John 1:18, Rom 3:9-10] understanding of the inherent sinfulness of the human condition, while rejecting some of the contradictory and irrational theological systems that have been built on that concept. We still have the unanswered question of why does being a human mean being broken, but we at least move beyond that questions of how an omnipotent God could make such a big mistake with the first humans and why a just God would blame us for their decisions.
There isn’t a good way to understand why we are made the way we are. Perhaps it is that being part of a physical world means being torn between the physical and the spiritual. Perhaps it is the only way we can appreciate the goodness of God. Nevertheless, without understanding why, we can still recognize that there is sin within us and within the world.
Which leads us to the other part of our discussion on sin: What is it? Off the top of your head, can you name a few actions that come to mind? Isn’t that what we generally think of when someone says “sin” – specific actions?
Part of being flawed creatures is that there is something in us that wants a hard-and-fast list of rules for what is right and what is wrong. A Christian fundamentalist will tell you that there is such a list, and that it is in the Bible. Good rhetoric, but simply not true. Although we can find broad ethical principles that are generally consistent on what is sinful and what is not; as we discussed last week the Bible is simply not uniform or consistent on specific actions being sinful. In fact, the Christian consensus on sinful behaviors (like owning slaves, for instance) has changed from generation to generation.
This is another area, then, where neo-orthodox or progressive Christianity differs – at least in principle – from fundamentalist Christianity. I say in principle because I believe that most Christian fundamentalists don’t take the Bible as a literal rule book either, otherwise they’d be giving everything they have to the poor.
Nevertheless, Christianity as I understand it does not focus as much on particular actions as it does on an individual’s relationship with God and on the general principles that differentiate sinful behavior from healthy behavior.
We can find those general principles in the Bible. In the scriptures we have a clear dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual, between the mortal and the eternal. In its simplest definition, sin is anything that gives priority to what is human over what is divine [Rom 6:12, 7:14].
Some might argue that this gives too much license to human beings, that no real ethical system can be built on such an esoteric statement (no matter how biblical). Yet any action that I can think of that even might be sinful falls under this category. Why is stealing wrong? Because it gives priority to our greed for material things. Why is adultery wrong? Because it means placing our own lust over the binding promises that we have made. Why is lying wrong? Because it further separates us from the reality of our brokenness and our broken world. Why must we not do things that wound, hurt, or destroy others? Because when we do, we push them and ourselves away from what is holy and further into our brokenness.
Therefore I tell you that there are certainly some things that are always wrong and always sinful because they could never be done in a way that was not a rejection of the divine. There are, however, other actions that might sometimes support the clear principles of the Scriptures, and which other times might be sinful.
That may be more ambiguous than some of us might like. Sometimes it’s more ambiguous than I might like. Nevertheless, the biblical record makes it clear that defining sinful behavior is often more complex than simply looking up an action in the Bible and seeing if it gets a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.
If we are to seek out a mature faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we must be honest about that ambiguity, and accept that we might sometimes get it wrong. Our faithful ancestors did as well.
The key, though, is starting with the understanding that we will not find the answer to sin within ourselves because we are a part of the physical world that sin reflects. We must start with the nature of God, accepting that the rejection of sin comes not from seeking to be better human beings but instead to be more like God.
When we do, that divine spirit that God has breathed into us is kindled into a bright flame, and we become something more than human. We become the Body of Christ [I Cor 12:27]. Through Christ, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new [II Cor 5:16-17].
Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.
Haag, Herbert. Is Original Sin in Scripture?. Trans. Dorothy Thompson. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969.
Marnbon, John. The Philosophy of Peter Abelard. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Pieper, Josef. The Concept of Sin. Trans. Edward T. Oakes. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine's Press, 2001.
Stump, Eleonore and Norman Kretzman, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Williams, Patricia A. Doing without Adam & Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.