Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Theologizing Original Sin after Evolution

Posted by NT Wrong on October 4, 2008

I’ve had some very interesting discussion and argument with Stephen Cook at Biblische Ausbildung on the topic of Original Sin. In particular, we’re discussing how Original Sin can be thought, if at all, after the discovery of evolution — once it is no longer possible to think of death coming into the world because of humankind, but only of humankind coming into the world because of death.

What got me started was Stephen Cook’s discussion of a recent proposal by Joseph Wimmer and Daryl Domning. The discussion after that goes as follows:

My initial reply
– Stephen Cook’s initial response, ‘Response to N T Wrong’
My second response, Stephen Cook’s second response, My third response.
– Stephen Cook’s Third response, ‘N T Wrong Still Remains Wrong!’
My fourth response, Stephen Cook’s fourth response, and my brief reply.

At this stage we are both hoping for other opinions (although some have already been offered).

What interests me are questions such as these:

    – Is the modernist interpretation of ‘Original Sin’ as only or mainly a continuing condition, which ignores or minimises its originating aspect in Adam and Eve, a departure from past orthodoxy?

    – If it is a departure, or a redefinition of some kind, to what extent has the fact of evolution caused theologians of the twentieth century and beyond to search for new ways to rescue the doctrine of Original Sin? I attempt to articulate the problem most fully in my fourth response, e.g.:

    “What do you do with a concept that explains how death came into the world (in time-history), after the fact of evolution has demonstrated that humanity was created by death — by trillions of earlier deaths? Answer: reduce the concept of Original Sin to an “originated” status or condition of ongoing humanity, eliminating its “originating” status at any one point in time. What do you do with a concept of an initial period of Paradise in the Garden of Eden (which as the ‘contemporary bible scholar’ James Barr has so eloquently argued on many occasions is both history and theology for its authors), when there never was any such Golden Age? Answer: reduce the story to an ‘archetype’ or ‘myth’, which has ‘mythic meaning’ but no historical meaning. (Ah, Barr would be turning in his grave!) What do you do with the doctrine of ‘the Fall’ once evolution has shown we are not ‘fallen angels’ but ‘rising beasts’ (to employ Arthur Peacocke’s cute phrasing)? Answer: reduce the story to a ‘mythic meaning’ about the prevalence of evil carried on by humanity from generation to generation.

    – Should we limit the interpretation of passages such as Gen 1-3 to theological/mythic interpretations, or was it understood in its earliest reception as both history and theology (in emic definitions), as I have previously argued here, here, and here (in disturbance of the dominant harmonizing and modernistic theologizing trend of Christian biblical scholars)?

    – Is there any qualitative difference between Homo sapiens and other species of animals (past and present, e.g. apes, dogs, and Neanderthals) that justifies distinguishing our exercise of freewill from theirs?

    – If God is responsible for messiness (evil, suffering, etc) in some way that logically or chronologically precedes human responsibility, is this a more radical and fundamental problem of evil than one in which God simply allows human freewill, from which evil begins?

    – Does the pervasiveness of what we consider to be ‘evil’ provide any proof of a ‘fall of humankind’ without already assuming the past or future reality of such a difference between humanity’s actual and idealized states?

    – Does the fact that many of us dream of a better world prove that such a world exists?

    – Is there any better summary of theology than Albert Schweitzer’s “Es gibt keine Lage so verzweifelt, dass die Theologie keine Ausweg wüsste”?

Now, if you don’t find something out of all that to comment on, there must be something fundamentally wrong with you!

3 Responses to “Theologizing Original Sin after Evolution”

  1. bobcu said

    Original sin? Jebus! Who cares? Theology is a bunch of words about nothing.

  2. ntwrong said

    Hi Bob,

    I guess when Schweitzer wrote that theology can mean anything, he might as well have said that it can mean nothing. When thinking about modern theological interpretations of ‘Original Sin’, I’m as much interested in the manner by which theologians go about their rather tendentious, sophistic, and apologetic-driven craft as the subject itself. I’m interested in how theologians bend over backwards after the fact of evolution to hold onto a doctrine they call ‘Original Sin’, but which has significantly departed — like Humpty Dumpty — from the term’s more traditional reference.

    Yet, the topic of Original Sin also provides an avenue for bringing out some of the perennial issues concerning ‘evil’ and suffering. not everybody will want to bother with the baggage, but if one’s already carrying it, that’s ok.

  3. Duane said

    “new ways to rescue the doctrine of Original Sin”

    I’m not sure that theology was ever anything else, but if it were, it has now devolved into an intellectual game to rescue phrases and words and very little else.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: