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Sunday, 16 November 2008

Evolution and Original Sin: George Murphy Replies (Part 1)

This is a guest post by George Murphy, and is the sixth installment in a guest-post series discussing his paper Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin. George is a physicist, theologian, and pastor, and has authored numerous articles and books including The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross.

It’s more than a formality for me first to thank the three respondents. As Steve has noted, my article was part of a broader research program. Criticisms and suggestions are helpful in this ongoing work.

The Theological Task
The source of the theology in whose context science – and evolution in particular – is to be placed is scripture. I attempt to read scripture as a theologian of the church, with awareness of the Christian theological tradition. We try to understand scripture in its original cultural settings, but must also take seriously (though not uncritically) the ways in which our ancestors in the faith understood it. It seems to me that Lamoureux is too willing to depart from some aspects of this tradition for reasons that are inadequate, while Gray is too insistent on maintaining secondary aspects of the tradition. Congdon is closer to a “just right” position here.

Sin of Origin: Some Clarifications
Congdon and Lamoureux note my use of a concept of “sin of origin,” the latter with puzzlement. That phrase, in distinction from “original sin”, is not completely standard but I explained my usage in the article’s note 16. To quote Wiley more extensively, what I mean by “original sin” is “peccatum originale originans, ‘original sin as originating’ ... the historical event of Adam and Eve’s sin” while “sin of origin” is “peccatum originale originatum, ‘original sin as originated’ ... the condition of sin in humankind caused by the transmission of Adam and Eve’s sin to all.”

I don’t want to replace the concept of original sin with that of sin of origin, as Congdon suggests. The sinful condition of all people from the beginning of life is, however, the crucial teaching. It is the fact that we are all sinners that calls for atonement, and thus is the presupposition of the gospel. Concepts of “original sin as originating” provide explanations of why we begin life in that condition. Such explanations are needed but of secondary importance. That is why I think Gray is mistaken in insisting upon a traditional form of explanation.

Do I speak about sin of origin just “to maintain a ritual”, as Lamoureux asks? I assume he means baptism, and the answer is “No”. Augustine’s argument went in the opposite direction. His teaching on original sin was not a justification for infant baptism, but the reality that infants received baptism “for the forgiveness of sins” (Nicene Creed) meant that infants had some sin to be forgiven. Further discussion of baptism would take us too far afield. Suffice it to say that I hold with the catholic tradition that baptism is a means of grace and can be administered validly to infants.

Sin of Origin: An Emphasis on the Universality of Sin
The real question here is whether or not we take the universality of sin seriously. Are all people in a sinful condition from the beginning of their lives or do they just start to be sinners when they reach “the age of reason” or something like that? Scriptural texts that speak of the universality of sin make no such qualification.

We should distinguish between a doctrine of the universality of sin as something we “believe, teach and confess” and “theological opinions” about how that condition originated historically and eventuates in each person’s sin of origin. Differences about the latter need not be church dividing. Denial of universal human sinfulness is a much greater problem. It immediately suggests the possibility that unredeemed humans aren’t really dead spiritually but just wounded, that they can do something about their condition on their own – i.e., some type of semi-Pelagianism.

The Origin of Sin: An Important but not Central Question
I turn now to the question of the historical origin of sin. Lamoureux thinks that we don't need to address that question, and can be content to say, "Humans are sinful, and God judges us for our sins.” I do not agree.

It is true that for some important purposes we can ignore questions about how and why sin originated historically. In my article I emphasized that sin’s universality, not its origin, is the important doctrine, noting that “the basic law-gospel message is ... ‘You are a sinner and Christ is your savior.” But a theologian shouldn’t ignore such questions (though that was popular in twentieth century theologies influenced by existentialism). We have to deal with them if the Christian message as a whole is to be coherent. How does it make sense to say that we are good creatures of God and that we begin our lives as sinners? Is God the creator of sin? These questions are sharpened if our theology is to encompass what science has shown us about human origins.

The Origin of Sin: Discussing Theological Options
What “theological opinion” should we hold about the origin of sin? Gray wants to maintain major elements of the traditional scenario, a “state of innocence” for an historical Adam and Eve. “State of innocence” suggests a weaker claim than does “state of integrity.” The latter term means that the first humans were not only free from sin but also from any bodily defect or vulnerability. (Calovius does use both terms.) In its strongest sense this includes physical immortality. Existence in such a state would not necessarily require a “golden age” but would mean that the physical properties of the human body and the world were different before the Fall. I find that implausible.

I have not, however, “adopt[ed] a materialistic view of human nature,” even implicitly. While I think that arguments for some type of non-reductive physicalism are strong, I also see problems with such a view. I remain agnostic about the possibility that at some point in evolutionary history God added something (rational soul etc.) to our ancestors in a way that can’t be accounted for by the sciences. I do insist, however, that our evolutionary history isn’t cancelled out by whatever special divine action may have taken place in making us human. That evolutionary history is the story of how God chose to create us, and any “superadded” feature God gave us does not remove the genetic and behavioral predispositions which evolution has produced.

Gray joins with some others in suggesting that something like a traditional view can be maintained by embedding the biblical Adam and Eve in a population of pre-Adamites. To a certain extent this strategy can succeed simply on the level of historical concordism. But the idea that the sin of such an historical Adam could be responsible for the sinful condition of people who had no biological relationship with that Adam encounters a serious problem. In the second part of this response (to be published later this week) I will discuss this problem. I will also highlight areas of my argument that may need further work or articulation.

Note: As indicated in the introduction post, comments will be closed for posts #2 to #7 for this series. Post #8 will include George's answers to reader questions. If you have a question for George that you would like included in this post, please send it to me via email.