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Friday is for (Original Sin) Friends

posted by xscot mcknight

Two major criticisms of the belief in original sin, according to Alan Jacobs’ essay in the history of the idea (Original Sin), can be summarized like this:
First let me ask a question: Are infants who die prior to baptism sent to hell? Or, do you think infants innocent until they respond to God? And what does this say about original sin? Surely some pastors have been asked this one.
“And so, because a brilliant and devout old bishop [Augustine] could not resist the controversialist’s temptation — to take even a caricature of his views and defend it to the death, rather than show dialectical weakness — the whole doctrine of original sin, in Western Christianity anyway, got inextricably tangled with revulsion toward sexuality and images of tormented infants. And there has never been a full and complete disentangling” (66).
I think he could have offered to us a little clearer prose, but the point is this: Augustine’s stubborn fight with Julian was relentless; and Augustine defended his ideas that sin gets going in sex and original sin means unbaptized infants are damned to hell. So, these ideas — and not original sin itself — these ideas, and how they all got tied together, are what give the doctrine its bad name.
Jacobs took a long jog before this chp began to pick up its pace … some stuff from Milton and CS Lewis and then some stuff on “it’s the woman’s fault!” … and then we get Augustine.
For Augustine, original sin was an intense idea. It permeated everything. He fought Pelagians/Pelagius over it. Jacobs thinks Pelagius was a bit of a motivational speaker. That perfect obedience was obligatory and therefore possible. He thought Augustine’s theory of the corruption of the will was absurd. He sums up Pelagius like this: “Grace empowers us to avoid failure, rather than consoling us after we have failed” (51). Adam, Pelagius said, would have died anyway. Adam’s impact on us is as a bad example. The good news: we can obey; the bad new: we can disobey.
Jacobs deconstructs Pelagius for the possibility of being obedient leads to doubt about our getting the job done, while Augustine’s emphasis is “curiously liberating” (53) since it permits failure and tolerates sin in others.
I jotted this down in the margin: “Many Christians today are Pelagians without his anxiety or fear of judgment, because they’ve covered their anxiety with casual grace.”
Then he turns to Julian of Eclanum, who spent years fighting Augustine from the angle of Pelagianism and whom Augustine fought back with similar invective. It really is an ugly episode. It drove Augustine to say lust, a sinful thing, will accompany all sex; it drove him to think unbaptized infants would be sent to hell.



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Peggy

posted August 1, 2008 at 1:21 am


Scot,
I would agree that this is the crux of the matter for many of us who have problems with original sin. Unbaptized infants in hell is ridiculous. I believe children are innocent until they are capable of understanding and making a choice to accept (or reject) God’s offer of adoption in the New Covenant of Jesus. That time differs from child to child.
You know, maybe part of a physical change that could have occurred at “the fall” is that the human brain’s frontal lobe grew more complex, thereby requiring many more connections…so much so that the process whereby young people successfully make the move from “can I” to “may I” and “should I” is not completed until their early 20s.
Hmmm…I’ll have to think about that one some more….



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TriciaM

posted August 1, 2008 at 3:49 am


This chapter has helped me understand both the depth of negativity towards the doctrine of OS and why sexual sin gets so much attention.
I agree that many Christians today are Pelagians and that it’s expressed in a general disregard for the neediest amongst us. Many would say that the poor, the criminal (and criminalized), the addicted have got where they are by their own poor choices. We disconnect our sinfulness from their sinfulness because, generally, we’re “good” people in our own eyes.



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Ted M. Gossard

posted August 1, 2008 at 3:59 am


This reminds me that I must be careful not to concoct a doctrine or belief in reaction to what I hate from others, especially from other professing Christians. I think this is easier to do than what we imagine.
When it comes to original sin as it has come to be known in our time with its roots, this seems to be the case, and we all have been impacted by it, and have had to overcome it, to some extent. Which leads to the opposite reaction of just throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Which is what denying a doctrine of original sin, or that we are sinners or inherently sinful as well as inherently created in God’s image or eikonic- does.
And this seems to lead possibly to embracing other harsh teachings, I’m thinking. Like the damnable disaster of double predestination (that God predestines some to eternal life and the rest- that is most people according to most advocates of this- to eternal damnation. When the root is affected, some of the fruit is going to be rotten.



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John Frye

posted August 1, 2008 at 6:08 am


The best line in the post: “Jacobs thinks Pelagius was a bit of a motivational speaker.” I got a chuckle from that one! :)



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Gerald Hiestand

posted August 1, 2008 at 6:56 am


?Many Christians today are Pelagians without his anxiety or fear of judgment, because they?ve covered their anxiety with casual grace.?
Well said, Scot. I think this is spot on, and can be seen–at least–in some forms of dispensationalism (I’m thinking the “Free Grace” soteriology of Charles Ryrie).



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Scot McKnight

posted August 1, 2008 at 7:49 am


Gerald,
I tried to e-mail you but it kicked back; can you write me?



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MatthewS

posted August 1, 2008 at 9:09 am


Scot,
How would you frame a pastoral response to someone in the congregation who asks where babies go when they die?



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B-W

posted August 1, 2008 at 9:26 am


Peggy,
I think you overstate the point. “Unbaptized infants in hell is ridiculous?” Not at all. Tragic, certainly. But ridiculous? It strikes me as entirely possible. (NOTE: I do NOT accept this theology. I’m just saying that you are too readily dismissing it without proper analysis)



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Peggy

posted August 1, 2008 at 11:39 am


B-W,
I should have said something along the lines like “based on what I believe I know of the character and intention and plan of God, this seems to be a ridiculous conclusion.” Sorry to have jumped that stage, which made you think I have dismissed it without proper analysis.
Of course, this is all about perceptions of “proper analysis”, isn’t it? ;) And, of course, the human drive to definitively “know” many things that are actually a mystery to the Created.



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BrianMcL

posted August 1, 2008 at 1:29 pm


A couple of thoughts on the issue of infants in hell: 1) how one answers this question depends upon more than just his/her theology of original sin. At least election and one’s view of the sacraments come into play (as indicated by how Scot framed the question about “prior to baptism”…us baptists aren’t sure that is part of the question!), 2) the Bible does not directly answer this question, so no one can be too dogmatic.
The important question is from MatthewS and how to answer this in a pastoral situation. My first gut is “it depends.” Sometimes as a pastor we are asked these questions in the midst of a discussion of theology, which can lead to a discussion such as this. The real difficult situation is when we are asked this question when an infant has died. That takes great compassion and humility, and isn’t really the time to talk deep theology. One of my seminary professors said he would answer the question this way: “God is gracious and compassionate and always does what is right.” That doesn’t answer the question, but it is biblically true and provides comfort (as people will interpret in whatever way they are inclined to interpret it).



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Taylor George

posted August 1, 2008 at 2:17 pm


The current popes of reformed theology; Piper, Mohler, and Sproul, have come out and said that infants and even small children are not accountable. Piper believes in double predestination. Therefore, if God has predetermined that the mass of humanity will suffer hell, then what difference does it make whether it was an infant or an African that never heard of Jesus? If saving faith is absolutely necessary for salvation in every situation as they often insist then the reformed system must at least say, “we don’t know if God will send infants to torment”
Have your cake and eat it too I guess. Funny how they?re always blaming emerging for wanting it two ways.



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Taylor

posted August 1, 2008 at 2:17 pm


The current popes of reformed theology; Piper, Mohler, and Sproul, have come out and said that infants and even small children are not accountable.
Piper believes in double predestination. Therefore, if God has predetermined that the mass of humanity will suffer hell, then what difference does it make whether it was an infant or an African that never heard of Jesus? If saving faith is absolutely necessary for salvation in every situation as they often insist then the reformed system must at least say, “we don’t know if God will send infants to torment”
Have your cake and eat it too I guess. Funny how they?re always blaming emerging for wanting it two ways.



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Tim

posted August 1, 2008 at 3:12 pm


I think we need to go back to what we really do know about God and His creation. Before we were created, we were in the mind of God. It is in the mind of God that we existed before the foundation of the world.
From my understanding, Jewish people believed that if a child died before the again of accountability, they would return to God. The age of accountability is somewhere between the ages of 11-13 years of age.
No matter where you stand on this position, we must never allow our thoughts regarding this issue to paint a negative picture of God. God is gracious, loving, and good. He is also just Everything is done for His glory alone.
I don’t think my comments help but I thought I would share anyway.



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Preacherman

posted August 1, 2008 at 3:29 pm


As I look at my beautiful 2 month old neice I can’t help but see purity. I don’t understand how some Christians can look at an infant as a sinner in need of grace. Does an infant understand the difference between right and wrong? Does the cries of a baby mean the baby is self and self-centered or in need of love and care? I just don’t understand the arguements for original sin. I don’t get it. How can infants make confessions of faith and commitment to Jesus Christ?



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Rob

posted August 1, 2008 at 4:47 pm


Preacherman,
It’s not that I don’t understand what you are saying – but in my observation the only difference between an infant and the worst humanity has to offer is the possession of motor skills. I am in awe at the inherent sinfulness of a toddler who angrily slaps the one who loves him the most when he doesn’t get his way. This is why the Bible warns us to discipline our children out of our love for them (as God does his children) because when we don’t we essentially are turning them over to control by the sinful nature, which leads to destruction.
Peace



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Mike Mangold

posted August 1, 2008 at 5:26 pm


Lust is a sin? Well, I’ll be damned.
Yes accountability and salvation: our son Jon with Down Syndrome may never reach that level of accountability. Does that mean he is damned to hell for eternity? No, Jon does more to spread the good news of the kingdom in his own way than anyone else I know (well, except certain authors). I’m not even convinced eternal torment in hell is a biblical concept.



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John Frye

posted August 1, 2008 at 8:17 pm


If it is true according to some current Calvinists that all babies are elect, that is, predestined to heaven, and abortion is the taking of the life of babies in the womb, then the killing of babies is a good thing in the eternal long run. Only non-elect babies ever reach the age of accountability, or am I missing something in the determinist scheme of things? But if non-elect babies reach the age of accountability how is it that they are ever converted as adults? Oh, wait, there are elect babies who reach the age of accountability, but it really doesn’t matter because, what the heck, they’re elect. The age of accountability is moot.



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Ken

posted August 1, 2008 at 9:34 pm


We should all remember the context in which the original controversy began, so that we don’t project our own reading of Scripture, along with the biases of our times, back several centuries past. And if I can try to read them in their own context, I might be able to dialog with each of you in our present context, and have a real discussion on the issue, rather than caricature an opponent. The point is to love one another, including the children at the center of the debate.



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Mark Z.

posted August 3, 2008 at 5:50 pm


John Frye #17,
Coming from determinists, the “age of accountability” is a cynical lie. What they actually believe is that God might or might not choose to save your baby, according to some logic that we don’t understand, and they’re fine with that. That doesn’t sell very well in a pastoral context, so they hide it behind a smokescreen. They just have to remember to stop after “Your baby is in heaven” and not say the rest, which is “because it was God’s will for your baby to be mauled by a dog. O praise him, Hallelujah!”
Notice that the “age of accountability” doctrine has God treating “failure to believe in Jesus” as a punishable sin which can then be excused. Instead of taking the sin-and-judgment landscape and covering it with the mercy of God, we cover it with another sin-and-judgment landscape, where God will forgive all of the things we’ve done wrong if we can just do this one thing right.[1] I’ll take Pelagius over this–he encouraged actual good deeds, rather than straining to believe in abstractions.
[1] I suspect this is human nature. If we’re not threatened with divine wrath for our sins, we’ll invent new sins and new forms of wrath. This may connect with what Paul meant by “the curse of the law”–our craving to be condemned by some law, any law, which drives us to either legalism or nihilistic defiance.



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Richard

posted August 6, 2008 at 4:52 am


#16 Mike, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” was spoken from dear lips that to some meant “when you die.” and of course those lips never, ever, spoke error. We do die to our opinions and reasoning for the mind of Christ. The way of the cross is as necessary today as it ever was to the inclusion of being filled by the holy spirit of God whom was promised and delivered to us by the same cross.
My best description for original sin is the myself whom I was delivered from, by and to the person whom delivered me to myself by Himself.
As far as hell being a biblical concept, I must confess that in my seeking the kingdom of God first, I have reached the conclusion that hell or joy is not a place created for a dwelling of a person but a person creating a dwelling and in all of this, we are included with the whole world in birth pangs, as a woman giving birth for the manifestation of the sons of God.



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Brian

posted August 6, 2008 at 1:50 pm


The western concept of “original sin” differs from the eastern concept of “ancestral sin,” which holds that man suffers the consequences of Adam’s sin, i.e. mortality, concupiscence, suffering, but does not share in Adam’s guilt.
According to that position, there would be no reason for concern that unbaptized infants be damned. If I recall correctly, in their churches funerals for infants either are not held, or if they are held, there are no prayers for the dead, since the salvation of the infant is regarded as certain.



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Brian

posted August 6, 2008 at 1:59 pm


Richard,
From patristics, I’ve seen a few views of hell different from the traditional western Dantean understanding.
1) Hell is being in the presence of God and experiencing his holiness apart from his love.
2) Hell is the eternal experience of “un-being,” wherein the ability to return to the purpose for which one was created, i.e. union with God, is forever foreclosed.
3) Hell is external existence with the image of God removed from the personal nature, a nature which is therefore no longer recognizably human.



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Richard

posted August 6, 2008 at 4:13 pm


Thank you Brian.



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jon

posted August 7, 2008 at 6:29 pm


scot,
have you read pete rollins thoughts on original sin?
http://peterrollins.net/blog/?p=59



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Scot McKnight

posted August 7, 2008 at 7:27 pm


jon,
I just looked through Rollins’ piece and I think he’s confusing a few ideas into one, but the idea of inscribing the fall into each of us is a good idea.



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Mike Mangold

posted August 7, 2008 at 11:10 pm


Jon (#24): I read that, too, and left more confused than when I started. I like to think that good theology means explaining abstract concepts in terms that average people like myself can understand. Didn’t happen with Rollins. IMHO: he was swatting at cobwebs of his construction.



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Richard

posted August 8, 2008 at 3:30 am


Mike, is it good theology that leads us to Christ or is it Christ that leads us to good theology?



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