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Me? No, I’m from Canada.

So, Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, forced to live east of Eden. And, everyone who has come after them has been born east of Eden as well—separated from God, cut off from the source of life, dead in our sins. We all fell together.

Now, I can almost hear the objections forming in your mind. They’re in mine as well. How can this be fair? We didn’t choose to break that commandment. Why are we being punished?

The simplest answer is to point out that although we didn’t break that commandment, we’ve broken plenty since. Just like Adam and Eve, we’ve made our own choices—deciding to focus on our own plans and desires, rather than pursuing and manifesting God’s glory in the world. So, even if we set aside Adam and Eve’s sin, we’re far from blameless.

But, there’s a deeper answer as well. From the Bible’s perspective, we’re all in this together.

When I lived in Scotland, I learned a couple of interesting facts. First, it’s sometimes a bit awkward to be American in a place where American policies are not terribly popular. And, second, Canadians do not like it when people think they they’re American.

The first point became clear because we lived in Scotland during the Bush/Kerry election, a time when Scottish frustration with the war in Iraq was high. So, American politics and policies were on everyone’s mind. And, people quickly noticed that I was American. You’d think it would be hard to pick out the American in a room full of Scots. But, apparently it’s not. Several times complete strangers walked up and asked me about how I was going to vote in the upcoming election and whether I supported the war. On two different occasions, I got trapped in pretty intense political “conversations”—i.e., the other person vented about the evils of American foreign policy while I scanned the room for a window large enough for both me and my backpack.

Was it fair for these people to associate me with the actions and policies of my country? After all, I didn’t create any of these policies, and I certainly wasn’t involved in any of those actions. I’ve never even been to Iraq. None of this was my fault. I wasn’t responsible.

But I was.

I wasn’t directly responsible, of course. It’s not like I was in the Oval Office making the decisions. But, I am an American. I am a part of the whole. I enjoy the many blessings that come from being a part of that whole, and I also bear some responsibility for the actions of the whole. Even if I thought that a particular decision or action was a bad idea, even if I voted against those who were making the decisions, I’m still a part of that greater whole that we call America. Consequently, I bear some responsibility for what America does. And, I certainly share in any consequences that result. I may not always like it, but there is a real sense in which we’re all in this together.

All of this can be really annoying if you’re Canadian. The second thing I learned in Scotland is that although Europeans have an easy time identifying if you’re American, they have a really hard time telling Americans and Canadians apart. So, if you’re Canadian, people tend just to assume that you’re American. And, then you have to put up with all the grief that being American can bring where American policies are unpopular.

Of course, Canadians have an advantage. They can simply point out that they’re not American. People apologize, and the harassment ends.

Eyeing a window that is clearly too small for both me and my backpack, I consider taking the cheap way out. “Me? No, I’m from Canada.”

But, of course, I’m not. I’m American. And, although I like being American, it does come with some drawbacks at times. Because we’re all in this together.

[Okay, I’m looking for some feedback here. I’m in the part of the Gospel book that deals with the fact that after the Garden sin spreads everywhere (kind of like Justin Bieber – see my post on The Saturday Morning Syrup Monster). And, I want to deal with the objection that it’s not fair for us to experience the consequences of sin when we didn’t do anything. And, I want to introduce the idea that there is a corporate dynamic at work. I don’t want to get into details, but I want to expose people to the idea that “we’re all in this together.” Let me know what you think.]

Some Problems with Jonathan Edwards’ view of Original Sin

[This is a guest post by Andreas Lunden. Andreas is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.] 

In The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended; Evidences of its Truth Produced, and Arguments to the Contrary Answered, Jonathan Edwards engages in the controversy over human depravity, a topic that occupied much of the eighteenth century. Edwards’ eagerness to refute his opponents on this matter indicates that a major cultural shift was ultimately at stake, since the Western man was viewing himself with increasing positivism regarding his nature and potentialities. In other words, Edwards was combating an increasingly prevailing drift of opinion that had begun in Europe and was now slowly but surely invading America.

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An Outline of Edwards’ Argument

The argument of this book is straightforward. Edwards spends well over three hundred pages defending the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. More specifically, for Edwards, Original Sin means, (1) the innate depravity of heart of all men OR, (2) the imputation of Adam’s sin to all men. Those who hold to one of these statements usually also hold to the other. On the contrary, those who oppose Original Sin usually oppose both these statements. According to Edwards, such “new interpretations”, which stray from Christian tradition, are unlikely to be correct. For Edwards, “mankind are by nature in a state of total ruin, both with respect to the moral evil they are subjects of, and the afflictive evil they are exposed to, the one as the consequence and punishment of the other, then doubtless the great salvation by Christ stand in direct relation to this ruin.” He finds support for his views both in general observations of man’s inclinations and behaviors (history), as well as the witness of the Christian scriptures.

The flow unfolds as follows:

  • Part One: Evidence of Original Sin from Observation, Experience & Scripture
  • Part Two: Observations from Scripture Proving Original Sin
  • Part Three: Observations Relating to the Process of Redemption
  • Part Four: Answers to Common Objections

What stands out is Edwards’ brilliant exposition concerning man’s inability to present evidence for capacity of goodness despite God’s “great means” to promote such virtue. He analyzes both the Old and the New Testament, focusing on the means used by God to draw man to Himself: from Adam to Noah, from Abraham to Jesus in relation to the Gentiles, from Abraham to Jesus in relation to the Jews, and finally the “Church age.” For John Taylor (the main opponent of Edwards), the ongoing failures to pierce the heart of man were simply due to a wrong representation of the gospel. Such a view must have caused unpleasant affections in the heart of Edwards. According to our defender of Original Sin, the problem of man’s depravity stems ultimately from something much deeper than an “unfortunate” misunderstanding. Man’s apparent failure to respond to God lies in the realm of a thoroughly corrupted heart. Consequently, man’s redemption is obviously connected to a restructured heart, which is exclusively the result of the Holy Spirit’s work.

Some Problems with Edwards Argument

Edwards has a talent for arguing in such a way that he answers not only the questions currently on the table, but also possible “follow-up” issues that may surface in response to his own writings. However, one possible weakness in Edwards’ argument (as discussed in class) is his view that creation is a continuous event ex nihilo (from nothing). In arguing that God recreates the whole of the universe every instant, he is able, not only to combat Deist notions, but also maintain a sense of oneness, and connectedness between the first Adam, and the whole of mankind (as opposed to Taylor’s view that sin and guilt are to be seen as entirely personal). However, this begs the question, if history is divided into an infinite number of independent frames, how is the now related to the past or the future? What, then, is a person? How does one in this view understand personal identity?

Another area that I find problematic is Edwards’ somewhat condescending posture in relation to his opponents. His argumentation is ruthless, in style but first and foremost in intellectual force. While, I agree with most of Edwards’ argument it’s possible that his aggressiveness caused a more polarized debate, rather than mutual learning from one another. I am by no means arguing we should compromise truth, only that we constantly need to be on the lookout for ways to communicate creatively in a spirit of truth and grace, simultaneously.

Edwards’ Opponent

Finally, I conclude from this reading that nothing is new under the sun. I found myself chuckling at Taylor’s arguments since they sometimes sound similar to contemporary objections to Christian doctrines of Sin, Hell, Judgment, etc. Here are a few examples:

The doctrine of Original Sin…

…disparages divine goodness in giving us our being, so that we have no reason to thank God for our being.

…pours contempt on human nature.

…gives us an ill opinion of our fellow humans.

…hinders comfort & joy, and promotes sorrow & gloominess.

…is not mentioned by Jesus in the gospels.

Jonathan Edwards offers sound answers to every one of these objections, but I’m curious, how would you respond?

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]


Flotsam and jetsam (1/4)

At stake in the fight between Frances and the APA is more than professional turf, more than careers and reputations, more than the $6.5 million in sales that the DSM averages each year. The book is the basis of psychiatrists’ authority to pronounce upon our mental health, to command health care dollars from insurance companies for treatment and from government agencies for research.

So how did Amazon do it? How did they compete with the Mighty Apple, when everyone was predicting they would be crushed by a more sophisticated machine? They used a four-prong strategy.

Luther’s great insight was that obedience to God which springs from faith exhibits itself in the course of our ordinary, daily vocations.

It seems then that this paradox is part of our moral experience. It is inevitable that we will sin. In an important sense we cannot but fail morally and yet we are responsible for our moral failure. On the face of it, there appears only two ways to address this. One is to deny we are responsible for our moral failures. The other is to claim that we can achieve moral perfection. But both claims seem to be obviously false and as such are implausible.

Flotsam and jetsam (12/31)

There’s a lot of discussion taking place regarding the essence of the Gospel. People are asking questions like “What is the center of the Gospel?” and “Can (or should) the essence of the Gospel be distinguished from its implications?” Some insist the gospel is just the message of Christ’s substitutionary atonement and that anything else is an “entailment” or a “result.” However, the Bible says the essence of the Gospel is bigger than this.

Two Iraqi Christians have been killed in a new wave of apparently coordinated bomb attacks in the capital just two months after militants massacred 46 Christians in a church in the city.

But really it is the duty of readers to read in context, to read charitably – where there are two possible readings, the one that does not entail blatant contradictions two lines later is probably the reading we should adopt… It is unfortunate that in this case it appears many Christians have failed to do so and are so quick to publicly jump to conclusions about one of their brothers.

As a friend of mine once said, “atheism and theism died in the trenches of World War 1.”  Indeed.  If we continue to fear each other, the answers will always elude us and, alas, the past as we know it will disappear to us entirely.

  • You can now lend Kindle books to your friends for up to 14 days. (Has anyone tried this yet?)

Flotsam and jetsam (11/10)

As ironic as it might seem to anyone who would dare read his 14 volume Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth’s entire theology stood as a testament to his time as a parson. Barth was first and foremost a preacher and felt all theology should be done from the viewpoint of the preacher.

For my part, I tend to think of Original Sin socially and systemically. Basically, you can’t ever get clean. Systemically clean. The human condition is to be complicit, to have blood on your hands

To me, these are symptoms of a beginning fundamentalist posture towards culture: We have the answers, we distrust everything about everything that is not us.

  • There’s an interesting discussion on how to translate pistis Christou going on over at BibleGateway’s Perspectives on Translation forum. Tom Schreiner and Mike Bird have both weighed in with helpful comments (along with a very brief one from Darrell Bock). I particularly liked this comment from Bird:

The problem is that I am familiar enough with Greek grammar and syntax to know that a genitive modifier restricts the head term but does not fill it with radically sophisticated theological content.

Born with a black hat

Why do I do the bad things that I do? Because I was born with a black hat, of course.

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I’m sure you could use this as a good discussion starter for talking about things like original sin, total depravity, fatalism, etc.

Eccentric Existence 11 (Sin)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

For Kelsey, living faithfully before God in the quotidian is “dying life.” As finite beings, we are constantly poised on the edge of death, constantly dependent upon God, the source of life. As we respond faithfully to God in our context, we flourish. But, if we respond unfaithfully before God, “dying life” turns into “living death” (402).

The Nature of Evil

Kelsey makes a very helpful distinction here between “sin” and “evil.” For Kelsey, evil is anything that violates the integrity of God’s creatures:

Evil may be understood as a violation of creatures….It is a violation of what the violated ones are, either as instances of some natural kind or as individuals in their particularity. (403)

It is, therefore, anything that hinders the “well being” of God’s creatures and prevents them from being and doing everything that God created them to be and do. But, it’s important for Kelsey that evil does cause creatures to become any less creaturely. That is, we are still God’s creatures, possessing dignity and (potentially) serving to manifest his glory in the world. Thus, he critiques the Augustinian notion that sin should be understood as a “privation of being” because he thinks it suggests a diminution of our creaturehood. Instead, he argues that we should see evil as distortion rather than privation. (I’m not entirely certain that this is as different from the Augustinian notion as he suggests, but the distinction is still helpful.) And, since we remain God’s creatures, we retain our dignity and purpose despite the ravages of evil:

evil may be said to damage their well-being but not to damage their flourishing as God’s glory….Consequently, violation of their creaturely integrities in no way undercuts human cretures’ dignity and their inherent claim on their neighbors for unconditional respect. On the other hand, the fact that who they are and how they are able to be is also the glory of God becomes very ambiguous and obscure when they are violated by evil. (407)

And, Kelsey rightly points out that when our existence has been distorted by evil (either our own or others’) it often takes on a life of its own, resisting efforts at amelioration and spreading to those around us. So, the violated becomes violator and the death spiral continues.

The Nature of Sin

Sin, on the other hand, is best defined as “living foolishly in distorted faith” (408). Thus, “Sin is folly – that is, an inappropriate response to the triune God relating to us creatively” (408). Unlike evil, then, which primarily has to do with the impact that we have on our fellow creatures, sin is theocentric; it refers exclusively to our faith response to God.

In one of my favorite sections, Kelsey addresses the origin of sin in the world. He adopts the Kierkegaardian notion that “sin posits itself” and argues that we cannot “explain” why sin entered the world.

Every theological explanation of how sin entered creation either turns out to be circular, presupposing the very thing it sets out to explain, or explains it away by reclassifying it as another type of evil. (410)

Thus, the origin of sin is a “mystery.”

Sin is a type of negative mystery. It is not mystery in the sense of something in principle explicable but about which we present have insufficient information for an explanation. Nor is it mystery in the sense of something too richly complex for our finite minds to be able to grasp its rationale. Rather it is mystery in the sense of something undeniable real but a-rational, without cause or reason. (411)

The Origin of Sin

Although the entrance of sin into the world is a mystery, Kelsey affirms that human existence as we now have it is sinful. He agrees that we all act in sinfully distorted ways that renders us guilty before God. But, he goes further and affirms that there is a deeper sense in which we are all sinful before God. And, Kelsey rejects any suggestion that our sinfulness comes through some kind of genetic connection to Adam and Eve. Instead, he seems to argue that we are born into a sinful state because we are born into quotidian relationships that are already sinfully distorted. Thus, our own existential “how” is distorted from the very beginning.

every personal body is born into an everyday world that is already constituted by exchanges of giving and receiving among personal bodies whose existential hows and personal identities are sinful. (435)

So, we enter the world sinful because we are always already in sinfully distorted relationships. But, Kelsey argues that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are “guilty” (i.e. morally culpable) from the beginning. Instead, he argues that impurity and shame are much better descriptions of our sinful state at birth:

However, I suggest, the objective status one enters by violating relationship with God by responding inappropriately to God’s creative relating might better be designated by impurity before God than by guilt before God. Subjective awareness of this status might better be described as feeling shame rather than feeling (subjective) guilt. (436)

Thus, we have the status of being “sinful” at birth and are always-already subject to the dynamics of a sinful world, but we don’t become morally culpable until we begin to express our own existential hows in sinfully distorted ways.

Sins vs. Sin

That gets us to Kelsey’s explanation of the difference between “sins” and “sin.” For Kelsey, sin in the plural refers to the “distortions of faith’s existential hows” (412). In the previous post, we discussed the ways in which we are to respond faithfully to God in our everyday context (existential hows). Now, Kelsey argues that “sins” are the myriad (infinite?) ways in which those faith responses can be distorted. So, practices of delight become sentimental practices; practices of wonder become exploitative practices; and practices of perseverance become practices of self-abegnation. For each, Kelsey offers insightful discussions of the ways in which sinful practices actually mirror faithful practices.

Sin in the singular, on the other hand, is “best understood as a living human body’s personal identity distorted in an inappropriate trusting response to God relating to her creatively” (422). Thus, for Kelsey, sin (in the singular) is more about one’s identity than one’s practices (though the two are ultimately inseparable).

When their quotidian personal identities are defined by acknowledgement of some aspect of their quotidian proximate contexts as the basis of their reality and value, their personal identities are distorted in a bondage of limitless dependence on that by which they consider their identities to be defined, whatever it may be. (424)

The key here is that when we allow our identities to be fundamentally grounded in creaturely realities, as opposed to the Creator, we get involved in relationships of “limitless dependence” (427). Since neither party is capable of fully meeting the needs of the other, the relationship lapses into a never-ending spiral of dependency, ultimately undermining the true existence of both.  Thus, instead of being eccentric beings, fully and fundamentally defined by our relationship to the Creator, we become “deficiently eccentric” (426), locked into our finite and sinfully distorted relationships.