The third in the latest “Take and Read” series — a book analysis, discussion, and dessert group led by Paul Doerksen of MBCI — happens this evening and the book we’ll be talking about is Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Jacobs’ book is not a theological study of original sin (by which is meant “sin that’s already inside us, already dwelling in us at our origin, at our very conception”), but rather, as the subtitle suggests, the story of how this doctrine has worked itself out through (Western) history. Nor is the fact that humans do wrong under debate. That seems obvious enough. Anyone with self-awareness or knowledge of others, or with even a rudimentary sense of the 20th century knows how unloving and selfish, how truly cruel, we human beings can be.
“Where does this wrongdoing come from?” asks Jacob. “What is its wellspring, the source of its ongoing prevalence and power?” In contemporary culture, scholars like Steven Pinker emphasize the biological determinants of human behaviour, but even they can’t explain “why selfish and violent are pejorative terms for us.” It’s time to re-consider peccatum originalis, Jacobs says, “the belief that we arrive in this world predisposed to wrongdoing.”
Jacobs proceeds to show how belief or disbelief in original sin played out in many cultural epochs and forms. He’s an excellent storyteller. His tour takes us to Augustine, who articulated what he saw as the teaching of Paul into the doctrine of original sin (including the inferences that only baptism could remove its “damning stain” and its further “logic” that those who die without baptism are eternally damned, as well as the belief that original sin’s mark is most primarily found in our uncontrollable sexual desires) and defended it against Pelagius, who emphasized our “perfectly free will.” It takes us to John Milton, John Bunyan, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Rebecca West, and Solzhenitsyn. It takes a look at that great experiment in “starting over” called America and its system of slavery, and at Marian devotion.
The pattern Jacobs demonstrates is that “a vision of the greatness of human moral potential emerges or arises, only to find an immediate counter in an equally potent and vivid picture of human bondage to the sin we all inherit from Adam.”
Jacobs keeps a mostly even hand throughout, but he prefers Augustine’s side of the argument. Pelagianism, he states, “like many zealous movements of moral and spiritual reform, writes a recipe for profound anxiety…a kind of self-scrutiny that can never yield a clear acquittal.” Thus, he continues, “Augustine’s emphasis on the universal depravity of human nature — seen by so many then and now as an insult to human dignity — is curiously liberating.”
Jacobs also wants us to grasp the “democracy” inherent in the doctrine of original sin. If each of us stands judged alike as a sinner because of adamic inheritance, then class or racial distinctions with their oft-given labels of noble or despicable simply crumble.
The Protestant Reformation yielded no substantially new teaching regarding original sin, states Jacobs, with its “leading theologians” (Zwingli as a partial exception) “forcefully” reaffirming the Augustinian teaching. He doesn’t mention the Anabaptists, but I was interested in what they said, and found, as this article on original sin at GAMEO (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online) indicates, that they were “for the most part outside of all these controversies” and further, avoided the term because it wasn’t found in Scripture. They believed in the freedom of the will, “though to be sure not of the Pelagian type but rather in the sense that with the help of divine grace man may overcome evil tendencies in his character and obey the divine commandments.” They believed further that “to claim that unbaptized children should be eternally lost was in their eyes a climax of blasphemy and an expression of lack of faith.” (They didn’t baptize their children.)
According to the “Take and Read” brochure, the question we’ll consider around Jacobs’ book this evening, is “Does our Christian faith really require us to believe that all of us are bad to the bone?”
What do you think?
I’ll report on Paul Doerksen’s analysis and our discussion of that question after it happens. (And whether there was anything besides apples for dessert.)