Original Sin: An Essential Doctrine or Not?

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way Yesterday I mentioned a new Genesis commentary that rejected the doctrine of original sin.  A question then arises: Is the doctrine of original sin essential to Christian theology or not?  To be sure, this doctrine is in all the major (and even minor) Protestant confessions of faith.  Original sin is a crucial doctrine in the history and substance of Christian theology.  I like how Michael Horton defines and defends this doctrine:

“‘Original sin’ is the term that the Western church has employed to refer to our collective human guilt and corruption.  No doctrine is more crucial to our anthropology and soteriology, and yet no doctrine has been more relentlessly criticized ever since it was articulated.”

Horton explains that Protestant liberalism, Pelagianism, and to some extent Barth and Brunner denied or muddled the doctrine of original sin.  He continues,

“Repeated attempts to dismiss the doctrine of original sin as a peculiarity of Calvin or Luther, Augustine or Paul fail to take seriously the fact that the same assumptions are articulated in the Psalms (Ps 51:5, 10; 143:2), the prophets (Is. 64:6; Jer 17:9) and in the Gospels (Jn 1:13; 3:6; 5:42; 6:44; 8:34; 15:4-5) and catholic epistles (Jas 3:2; 1Jn 1:8; 10; 5:12).  The doctrine of original sin may be seen to arise as a result of two principal sources: the covenant itself as the biblical paradigm for relating divine-human relations and the narrative of the fall from an original state of integrity.”

On top of this, Jewish literature spoke of human sin deriving from Adam (IV Ezra 3:7, Sifre Deut. 323, 2 Esdras 3:10, 21-22, 26).  Horton says that in Biblical and Jewish thinking the concept of human solidarity is a basic worldview tenet (despite the fact that it may be foreign to our modern worldview).

“At this point, everything turns on what kind of credit we give to the historical narrative and whether we are wiling to speak, as not only Genesis 3 but subsequent Scripture does, of the human condition before and after the fall.  Whatever one’s conclusions concerning the process of human origins, Christian theology stands or falls with a historical Adam and a historical fall.”

“A covenantal account of original sin focuses on the representative, federal, covenantal structure of human existence before God. …We are not only guilty for Adam’s sin; we are guilty as sinners in Adam… [see Joshua 7 for an example of solidarity].  In Paul’s treatment in Romans 5, ‘sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…’ (v 12).  In other words, every human being was present representatively, federally, and covenantally in Adam.  Our own personal acts of sin flow from this corrupt nature and add to our original guilt.”

“…Sin is first a condition that is simultaneously judicial and moral, legal and relational.  Accordingly, we sin because we are sinners rather than vice versa.”

Later Horton talks about the two Adams teaching in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  “Under Adam’s headship, the whole race is guilty and corrupt; under Christ’s headship many are justified and made alive” (p. 636).

More could be said, of course.  The point is that original sin is not only a biblical doctrine that has to do with origins and human sinfulness, it also has to do with salvation from sin.  In Adam, those whom he represented died.  In Christ, those whom he represents live.

The above quotes (except the last one) are found in chapter 13 of Michael Horton’s Christian Theology.

Shane Lems

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