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Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Further Reflections on Genesis 1-3 and the Nature of Sin : Response by David Congdon

This is a guest post by David Congdon, and is the fifth installment in a guest-post series discussing George Murphy's paper Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin. David is a PhD student in systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. For an introduction to David's writing, see his excellent blog series The Heresies of American Evangelicalism.

I would like to begin by thanking Steve Martin for inviting me to participate in this dialogue. I would also like to thank George Murphy for writing such a compelling and interesting article. I have to start by confessing up front that I basically agree with what Murphy says in his paper. What I would like to do is pursue some of the points raised by the essay in more detail and attempt to offer some further reflection on the nature of sin and the narrative of Genesis 3. My comments will proceed by briefly addressing the following questions: (1) what is original sin? and (2) how ought we to read Genesis 1-3?

1. What is original sin?

While it’s not stated as clearly as I would like, I think one could summarize Murphy’s thesis in the following way: instead of a doctrine of “original sin” with a corresponding doctrine of “original righteousness,” we should reconceive these concepts in light of the biblical witness by speaking of a “sin of origin” that affects each person from birth and a corresponding progression, by the grace of God, toward maturity, righteousness, and fellowship with God. Based on what we have learned from science, Murphy rightly rejects the idea of an original human pair that spawned the rest of the human race as well as a state of “original righteousness” in which death was not yet operative in nature. Instead of longing for some mythical past, Murphy argues that we should construct a teleological anthropology, in which the goal of humanity is not a recovery of a perfect Eden but the redemption of the new creation.

Original Guilt
Murphy’s insights are important, but some further theological development is necessary. First, we need to explore Augustine’s contribution a little further. Murphy discusses Augustine in the context of the debate with Pelagius. He says that Augustine argued “that all are sinners from the beginning of life,” whereas Pelagius turned Adam into a bad moral example. While certainly correct, this does not account for the true innovation in Augustine’s doctrine—viz. the idea of “original guilt.” It’s not just that all people “are born not only with a tendency to sin but actually as sinners”; rather, it’s that all people are born guilty of the original sin. That is, each person is born as if he or she actually committed the sin of Adam and Eve.

This doctrine of “original guilt” constitutes a central divide between Western and Eastern hamartiologies; the latter keeps “original corruption” but has no conception of “original guilt.” While I think the East is the better of the two on that point, both the East and the West remain far too mythical in their respective views on the transmission of this sinful corruption. On this point, the two sides essentially agree: the act of sexual intercourse is the agent by which the corruption of the parents is transferred to the child.

Reconceiving the Theological Priority of Sinful Being and Act
As modern Christians, we no longer hold to this notion of sexual transmission of corruption, at least not in the ancient form presupposed by Augustine and Maximus. Moreover, as a theologian shaped by the later Barth’s actualistic ontology, I have serious problems with the traditional priority of nature over act. Whereas the tradition says that we inherit a sin nature first before we commit any actual sin, I would argue instead that in our entrance into history with birth, we intrinsically act as individuals “curved in upon ourselves” because of our social environment. “By nature” we act in opposition to those around us. And in this “original” act of sin, we actualize our “sin nature.” Sin as act precedes sin as nature. We do not participate in Adam’s guilt, nor do we receive a corrupt essence from Adam by virtue of reproduction. On the contrary, we enter into a corrupt environment in which sin as incurvatus in se is inescapable. We are born into corrupt social relations that make it impossible for us to achieve perfection through the force of will.

Augustine and Pelagius were both right in their own ways: Augustine was correct to argue that we are slaves to sin who depend upon grace alone, but Pelagius was right to argue that sin is primarily an act before it is nature. Against Pelagius, though, I would say that such acts are inevitable by virtue of our historical situatedness. In a very real sense, therefore, history began with the fall, and history as we know it is the continuation of “fallen” acts.

An actualistic ontology means that being is determined by act. This goes for both sin and salvation. As sinners, we are what we do, viz. “sin.” As those saved by God’s grace, we are what Christ did, viz. reconciled us to God through his life of faithful obedience, his death in God-abandonment, and his resurrection to new life in the power of the Spirit. Theological anthropology is grounded not in substances or essences which precede human action. Rather, theological anthropology is defined by human acts: the individual act of sin that defines us as those “curved in upon ourselves,” and the Christological act of reconciliation that defines us as adopted children of God.

2. How should we read Genesis 1-3?

Barth argues in Church Dogmatics III/1 that the “history-like” Genesis story should be read in the genre of “saga” as a “third way” beyond the binary opposition of myth and history. Against myth, Genesis recounts a truly historical event: the event of creation. Against history, Genesis recounts an event which, as the editors of CD III/1 state in their preface, “cannot be historiographically expressed.” The event of creation is not unlike the event of the resurrection, in the sense that science cannot penetrate what is a divine occurrence, an event in the historical life of God that cannot be read off the face of creation itself.

Etiological Myth
While I have no disagreement with Barth regarding the theological interpretation of Genesis as saga, I do not have the same aversion to the word “myth.” As a result, I tend to speak of Genesis 1-3 (though not only these chapters) as an “etiological myth” (or “etiological saga,” if you prefer). “Etiology” refers to the study of origins or causes, and here I think the opening of Genesis was crafted by the Israelites over a lengthy period of time for the purpose of narrating the nature of created existence and the cause of human sin and suffering in the context of their covenantal relationship with Yahweh. The creation narrative serves the Israelite self-understanding as those brought into a covenantal relationship with God. What all this means on an exegetical level is the Genesis story has to be read as the history-like, mythological introduction to Exodus. The creation account provides the necessary prelude to the account of Israel’s deliverance and establishment as God’s chosen people.

In short, we need to read Gen. 1-3 with Exodus firmly in mind. The story of creation has to be read in relationship with the story of God’s de-construction of Egypt and re-construction of Israel. The story of Adam’s sin has to be read in relation to Israel’s confession of sin, their promise of covenant fidelity, and their continual failures as a people before God. The story of Eden and “original righteousness” should be read as the mythological acknowledgment of creation’s disruption through human sin and the need for a covenant with God. The covenant is thus the restoration of humanity’s relation with God. The myth of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden is the narratival introduction to the story of humanity’s redemption in the exodus from Egypt. Egypt is the literary foil to Eden, just as Pharaoh is the literary foil to Yahweh: Egypt is a place of enslavement and Pharaoh the one who enslaves; by contrast, Eden (and later Sinai) is a place of freedom, and Yahweh is the one who liberates.

Interpreting the Text
Just as I remarked above how the doctrine of creation serves the doctrine of redemption, so too the text of creation serves the text of redemption. Genesis serves Exodus; creation serves the covenant. When we read Genesis, then, we have to interpret the text in a threefold context: (1) the theological context of the doctrines of creation, sin, and redemption (the first two serving the third); (2) the literary/textual context of the Torah as the history-like narrative of God’s covenant; and (3) the historical-cultural context of Israel as a people living in exile from the land promised to them by God. Finally, while these three contexts are indispensable, as a Christian interpreter of Genesis, we also have a fourth and determinative context: the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The creation account must be read with the prophetic and New Testament witness to the new creation, and the exodus story must be read together with the story of the cross as the final and definitive event of our liberation.

3. Conclusion

I have sought to reflect on the ideas and insights touched upon by George Murphy in his fascinating article. My disagreements are all rather minor. In a larger version of this essay, I discuss the issue of supralapsarianism. Further exploration of this topic could be pursued along many different lines, but two in particular stand out. The first is the account proffered by Daryl P. Domning and Monika K. Hellwig in their work on Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution. While I have not yet read this work, it seems to me that their project has the possibility of being a very interesting theological proposal, one that retains continuity with the tradition while incorporating the scientific insights of evolutionary biology. I would like to see future discussion of this topic engage this particular study. The second is a theological reappropriation of Schleiermacher’s theology. Though he is often dismissed as a 19th century liberal who is no longer worth reading, such an attitude is greatly mistaken. Schleiermacher is a profound thinker of the highest quality, and his theology, particularly his doctrine of creation, offers substantial room for incorporating the insights of evolutionary science. It would be exciting to see what a post-Barthian appropriation of Schleiermacher and contemporary science might look like for a doctrine of creation.

This concludes my essay. I wish to thank Steve and George again for the invitation and the article, respectively. I look forward to reading the dialogue that follows.

Note: As indicated in the introduction post, comments will be closed for posts #2 to #6 for this series. Post #7 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.