Tuesday 13 March 2007

Ten propositions on sin

by Kim Fabricius

1. Reinhold Niebuhr famously described original sin as the one empirically verifiable Christian doctrine. Niebuhr was wrong. We know whence his statement gets its intuitive purchase: the omnipresent reality of self-alienation and social disorder. But sin is a theologoumenon, and, like all theologoumena, it is a matter of faith, not disinterested observation. To be specific, sin is a matter of faith because, definitively, it is a disruption between human beings and God – and the knowledge of God is itself a matter of faith.

2. What is the nature of this disruption? The fundamental form of sin is disobedience. “The Lord God commanded…” (Genesis 2:16) – and our paradisal parents did not do as they were told – for their own good. They transgressed the “Thou shalt not,” they trespassed on the Edenic orchard. As Paul typologically interprets Genesis 2 in Romans 6, the key terms are Adam’s παράβασις and παρακοή and, in contrast, Christ’s ύπακοή. It is precisely as the obedient one that Jesus is the sinless one.

3. Do I take the story of the “fall” in Genesis 2 to be “history”? No more than I take the three-story universe of Genesis 1 to be “science”. So the story of the fall isn’t true? Don’t be silly! Only a discredited positivism would reduce truth to the “facts” of history and science, quite apart from the issues of contructivism and perspectivism. Robert Jenson disagrees. He takes Adam and Eve to be actual hominids, “the first community of our biological ancestors who disobeyed God’s command.” Jenson’s target is an idealist understanding of the fall as a “myth”, but his palaeo-anthropological alternative is, in my view, a category mistake. The fall is neither a timeless idea nor a chronological moment but a pre-historical narrative disclosure of the way it is with you and me. The fall is a foil to the history of humanity.

4. The fall-as-foil forestalls two other errors. First, “The Bible knows no ‘sinless man’ and consequently no state of innocence” (Claus Westermann, citing H. Haag); thus the fall “is not a fall in the sense that man after has become anything else than man was before” (Bruce Vawter). Brueggemann observes that there is no “pre-commandment” human being; neither is there a pre-disobedient human being. And, second, the story of the fall is not an aetiological narrative; that is, it is not an explanation of sin. Sin is sure – and sin is a surd: irrational, non-necessary, inexplicable. Kierkegaard, that great anatomist of sin, is our teacher here.

5. After disobedience, there are several contenders for the clown crown of foundational sin. Unbelief and pride feature prominently in the history of harmatology. Karl Barth, the theologian of grace, appropriately accents ingratitude. In Thomas Mann’s disturbing retelling of the Faust legend Doctor Faustus, the satanic counter-commandment is “Thou shalt not love.” And to add to the witches’ brew, consider Augustine’s take on sin as disordered desire (concupiscentia), and Luther’s take on the sinner as homo incurvatus in se.

6. A word on “total depravity”. Calvin’s doctrine develops Augustine and Luther’s insight that we are (in Alistair McFadyen’s incisive wordplay) “bound to sin”. It is both polemical and dogmatic. Polemically, it is an attack on Origen’s platonic privileging of the mind, and Erasmus’ privileging of the will, over against the “lower appetites”. Thus does Calvin correctly interpret the Pauline category of sarx. Dogmatically, total depravity “means, not that there is no capacity for good in human beings, but that no human activity is altogether blameless”; “no privileged area of the personality can be depended on for salvation” (William J. Bouwsma). As grace goes all the way down in God, so sin goes all the way through and up in humans.

7. A Pauline anatomy of sin must also observe a crucial distinction between sin and sins. Paul’s fundamental harmatological category is not sins as moral failures but sin as alien and enslaving power that foments sins. Consequently Paul almost never speaks of the forgiveness of sins, rather he speaks of sin’s defeat and conquest – by Jesus Christ. Indeed that is how we gauge just how radical and universal sin actually is: it takes the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ to break it. That is, it takes grace to reveal the human condition. As E. P. Sanders puts it: Paul “deduced the plight from the solution.”

8. You know the phrase “ugly as sin”? Whenever I think of it I picture Duccio’s “The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain” with its nightmarish figure of the devil. I also catch a whiff of Luther’s shitty Satan. But how could the utterly repulsive be so totally tempting? Consider, then, the film The Devil’s Advocate (1997), in which Al Pacino plays a Lucifer whose attractiveness contributes as much as his corporate clout to his persuasiveness. His text might come from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”: “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.” Sin is no Ugly Betty.

9. On the other hand, the devil is a liar. He makes sin seem so exciting, both as lust and lure to power. “Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing,” C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood. In fact, sin itself always turns out to be unoriginal, recycled, predictable, dead boring – the Same Old Thing. But Satan is so streetwise that, like gullible teenagers or old folk with bad memories, we are always falling for his provocative promises. Thus W. C. Fields on original sin: “A sucker is born every minute.” By the way, one of the best antidotes to temptation is a sense of humour. Like all tyrants, the devil insists on being taken seriously, so take the piss and remove the sting.

10. Finally, a crucial pastoral point, based on an acute theological insight, which Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger puts powerfully and succinctly: “The paradox of the knowledge of human sin is that human beings can ultimately know themselves as sinners only in the light of forgiveness. Known sin as such, Barth argues, is always finally forgiven sin. We cannot fully perceive ourselves as sinners, he suggests, apart from Jesus Christ.” Which is why repentance “cannot possibly perpetuate debilitating shame”; rather, as a homecoming, it is ultimately an act of sheer joy.


Pastor Astor said...

I have always thought of pride as the basic sin - the force to question God and choose my own way instead of His, and that disobedience was a resault of pride.

michael jensen said...

The big feminist move was of course to challenge the positing of pride as the fundamental sin. For women, rather, it was the opposite: a tendency to self-abegnation (Valerie Saiving said it first in the 1950s).

Perhaps unbelief throws a blanket over them both.

michael jensen said...

If there is no pre-fall man, how do we know or why should we believe we were made good? I take it this is what Jenson is trying to protect..

Ben Myers said...

G’day Michael. Actually, I think Robert Jenson’s point is just the opposite. There is no such a thing as an unfallen or pre-fallen human being; the first humans are immediately the first sinners. Thus Jenson says: “Hominids who do not yet invoke God cannot sin. But so soon as members of the human community are on the scene, they in fact do [sin]; this is the lamentable puzzle of the matter” (Systematic Theology, 2:150).

I myself agree with Kim -- I think Jenson tries to read the Genesis story rather too “historically” (as though Adam and Eve were actual people living somewhere in Africa). But I think Jenson's point is exactly right: the story of the fall describes the fundamental riddle of human existence -- namely, that the existence of human beings is always already a fallen existence.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion points! I do have some questions regarding clarification, however. Could you explan further your idea of the fall-narrative as a "pre-historical narrative disclosure of the way it is with you and me" (point 3)? I understand wanting to go beyond the history-myth dichotomy, and hence your description of the pericope as "neither a timeless idea nor a chronological moment..." But it is exactly at this point that I stand confused! If the story is neither "chronological moment," nor "timeless idea," I'm curious where it actually "is," and how "pre-historical narrative disclosure of the way it is with you and me," avoids "being" historical while simultaneously not--somehow--"being" timeless. Are you speaking, then, of an "existentialization," of the question of sin that describes--not a timeless order--but the basic structure of sin that occurs in every man and woman's "moments of decision"? I'm certainly not attacking your idea, (or necessarily calling it existential) I'm just not really sure what that idea is. If you had, prior to your thesis and their polemical stance against either "myth" or "historical-chronological moment," asked me to categorize the phrase "pre-historical narrative disclosure of the way it is with you and me," I would certainly have understood it as describing (generally, of course) aetiological legends. Any clarity you could offer on your definitions would be greatly appreciated!

AndrewE said...

Kim, thank you for this. I dare to say i think it your most helpful set of propositions yet.

Anonymous said...

Hi Derrick,

To answer your question rather briefly, my point is really an exercise in a kind of negative theology leading to a positive point: the story of the fall is not what might be called history in the sense of something that happened (historische) (as "Caesar crossed the Rubicon" happened); nor, however, is it a fictional vehicle that is reducible to an idea, even an "existential" idea. The first view privileges the empirical, or the "scientific", as a vehicle of truth (a particulary modernist pathology), the second view suggests that the story is a "mere" myth, decorative, ornamental, but ultimately expendable, an idea in drag (if you like). Rather the story is the thing itself - Barth called it a "saga" - which forms a seamless cord with the subsequent narratives, including the patriarchal narratives (which I take to be a different kind of narrative again, a combination of "real" people with what might be called "legendary" material) and the narrative of the "history" of Israel (which, of course, is not uninterpreted - but then what history is?). I myself would be happy to call the Fall a metaphor in historical form, but we would need to go on a tour about the nature of metaphor. Could I refer you to three helpful sources?

(1) Eberhard Jüngel, "Metaphorical Truth" in Theological Essays (1989) (where "metaphorical language" is described as "neither non-literal nor equivocal language, but a particular mode of literal speech and in a particular way language which specifies").

(2) Colin Gunton, Chapter 2: "Metaphor and Theological Language" in The Actuality of Atonement (1988).

(3) Janet Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (1985).

As far as "aetiological" goes, I mean it in the sense of a story that traces a cause and its effect, which provides an explanation for something such that we can say, "Oh, there we are then, so that's the reason, full stop." Such a totalitarian understanding of sin is not, in my view, either possible or desirable.

Have I made things as clear as mud? :)

michael jensen said...

Well, from the quotes you have provided, I think you exaggerate Jenson's point: he does NOT say 'always already' - what would this say about us as creations? We are always already free to hear as respond (or not) but that is not the same as saying we are always already fallen. We are not then be made good at all! And what would we say about the entry of 'death' in Adam (Rom 5)?

Ben Myers said...

Hi again Michael. I think you're right to highlight the importance of "creation" here. But, for me at least, this is exactly the riddle of human fallenness: human existence is "always already" fallen existence, in spite of the fact that God's creation is "very good". The fact that this is a disturbing mystery is, in my view, precisely the point!

As Karl Barth puts it: "There never was a golden age. There is no point looking back to one. The first human was immediately the first sinner" (CD IV/1, p. 508).

Fred said...

1. if faith is needed to recognize sin, then salvation is unreachable except for the predestined. If the word, empirical, is a bit narrow, let's substitute the word, reasonable. Even Cicero said, I admire the better, but follow the worse.

3-4. I don't mind the Fall being less than journalistic, but if the consequences of this are the loss of an unfallen creaturely state, then that disappoints me. It means that human nature is essentially sinful and that Christ's human nature is fundamentally inhuman. And baptism would no longer serve to restore man to his original state. Salvation would mean that one becomes radically inhuman also.


Anonymous said...

Hi Deep Furrows,

There is a wonderful sermon by the late Dominican scholar Herbert McCabe called "Sin" in his God, Christ and Us (ed. Brian Davies, 2003), which begins:

"Let's think about sin.

"First of all, sin is something we know about by faith. Without our faith we would not know about it. For sin is about being out of friendship with God. And it is only from the preaching of the Bible in the Church that we know anything about being given friendship with God."

McCabe, who would claim to be following St. Thomas (McCabe is always in conversation with the Angelic Doctor), fully admits (as I do - only an idiot wouldn't) that life is very screwed up, that we behave inhumanly, but sin is about more than that - it is about our failure to be "divine human beings, human beings who share the life and friendship of our creator" - and only revelation can tell us that - and only that is sin strictly understood.

On your second point, Ben's point (above) about "the riddle of human fallenness". I certainly do not mean to imply "the loss of an unfallen ceaturely state", at least in the sense of eliding creation and fall, nature and sin. Indeed, I insist upon the distinction - but not by positing an historical positum, rather by pointing to the only unfallen human being in actu, Jesus of Nazareth, even though his given flesh, the flesh the Son assumed, is fallen flesh (another "riddle"!). And as baptism unites us to Christ, I'd go further than you: I'd say that baptism does not restore us to a prelapsarian state, it translates us to a post-post-lapsarian state, at least proleptically (Romans 6:1ff.)

Guy Davies said...

I appreciate your comments on total depravity and that salvation is by grace "all the way down". But your denial of both the original goodness of human life and the historicity of the fall is deeply problematic.

Anonymous said...

Your emphasis on riddles is an appropriate warning against historical naivete, but isn't there a danger here of concluding that what matters in sin is the imputation of guilt, not the circumstances of the offense itself? Cf. Kafka's "Trial," which is pretty good with riddles...

What do you make of attempts by people like Marilyn McCord Adams to root sin and evil anthropologically in the instabiity of embodied intelligent humanity as such?

Aric Clark said...

Another great series of posts Kim, I basically agree with everything you say, though I prefer Richard Niebuhr's definition of the root of sin as "mistrust". Precisely because this is the opposite of faith and also is more hospitable to including the feminist critique of Saiving and others about sin rooted in pride or disobedience.

Derrick, for more good resources on metaphor see Sally McFague.

Halden said...

Kim, I may be an utterly unsophisticated post-evangelical flunkie, but I still don't know that dehistoricizing sin in the way you posit is theologically viable.

I certainly wouldn't insist on some sort of fundamentalist reading of the creation and fall stories, but I think that there must be some sort of historical core to those narratives, or at least a theological point that bears on how we think about the history of sin and redemption. I don't think its coherent to say that there's no such thing as unfallen man and at the same time say that God created all things "very good." If the essence of sin is disobedience as you rightly suggest, I think we have to say that there was a time whem for some enigmatic, irrational reason, humanity disobeyed God and entered into a profoundly unnatural sate of alienation from God's life.

All of human existence is historical and so is redemption. Why then must the Fall be curtained off from having a historical origin? Does it even make sense to call it a 'Fall' in that case?

I guess, the "always already" assertion seems to lack much pull with me. Why should one believe that? What theological reasons do we have for doing so?

michael jensen said...

Halden, I wish I could have said it this way!

How essential is the particularity and the singularity of an 'Adam' - however loosely we may find him described in Genesis - in relation to the singularity and particularlity of Christ? If we reduce 'Adam' to a description of a principle or a condition, then why not Christ?

Aric Clark said...

It seems to me the conflict perceived by some between God declaring creation good and no historical fall stems from a view of creation itself as a historical beginning point. If the fall isn't historical we also ought to affirm that what we mean by creation is different from a historical beginning point of existence. Creation is God's ongoing action for the World, which is both good and profoundly out of joint with God's will. The major problem with a historical fall and a historical creation besides the obvious that they are very improbable, is that they lead toward a view of redemption that is merely a "restoration". The goal and purpose of creation is in its future not its past. From the very moment of its inception (if such a moment even exists) it was already on the road toward that culmination.

Anonymous said...

Um...I'm guessing we can't reduce Christ to an idea because Christ actually existed! There was no first individual human. It's not possible. There were large groups of varieties of homo (not gay) primates. They emerged from primates not unlike chimps who organize wars, murder in groups, stealing away females. This sort of behavior is what our 'sin' evolved from. We need to rework this notion of a 'good' creation. This stuff can't be historical; it must be a theological statement of our historical condition. Since the Fall narrative deals with our existential yearning for immortality I would think the eschatology is the point. If Paul played up the protology angle in Romans, we can't. At least not in a similar fashion.

Kim, a tangential issue (but I think an interesting one) would be tackling simplistic conceptions of the 'sinlessness' of Jesus. We need clarity about what that means. As you say without faith we can't know sin. Without faith, Christ's sinlessness could not have been known either. It is a declaration resulting from the resurrection not a reasonable deduction from the observation of his earthly conduct. It's not as if people were sitting around saying "Man, that guy is perfect." Of course similar confessions were written in ex post facto, appropriately.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your main point, Plato -- in view of what we know about human origins, it definitely makes no sense to speak about a "first human being".

On the other hand, though, I think we can certainly still follow Paul's line of argument in Romans 5. After all, Paul isn't trying to derive the significance of Christ from a prior conception of the role of Adam. His argument works exactly the other way round: he's interpreting Adam in light of Christ, and he's using Adam to illustrate the significance of Christ. His argument doesn't depend at all on whether or not Adam is "historical" -- nor is the argument trying to establish Adam's independent importance. For Paul, Adam is interesting only in so far as he illustrates Christ.

Thus in Rom. 5:14, Adam is described as a figure or shadow of the reality that was to come (τύπος τοῦ μέλλοντος) -- in other words, Adam's significance is established only restrospectively in light of the gospel.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Kim, you seem to deny any form of general revelation or common grace in claiming that sin is knowable only through faith. That move, very Barthian, is troubling to me. It is one of the few places where Barth's exegesis is simply not persuasive.

On Total Depravity, I accept this when it means, as it seems to for Calvin, that sin affects every part of us. Unlike the Thomists, we cannot find unfallen reason, for instance. It also means that each of us are inclined to sin.

But Total Depravity cannot mean that each and every one of us are as bad as we possibly can be. Here again, common grace comes into play--so that a Gandhi is possible and far above most of us Christians.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know how far those who argue for an "historical core" to the Genesis 2 narrative would be prepared to push it. Even Jenson, who has historical hominids in mind, does not think there was an individual Adam and an individual Eve, rather they were "the first community of our biological ancestors who disobeyed God's command." Further, Jenson allows no time (as Genesis 2 would seem to) for the first parents to live sinlessly until they sin, rather "so soon as members of the human community are on the scene, they in fact do [sin]." That Jenson still insists on a "'fall' of humankind, occuring within created time," suggests to me that he wants to have his applecake and eat it.

Of course the rib, the trees, the snake, etc. - there is nothing historical about these things, is there? Nor is it palaeontologically credible that the first folk lived in a paradisal garden: we know that nature had been red in tooth and claw for millions of years prior to the arrival of hominids, replete with violence, suffering, and death, indeed with what theodicists call "natural evil". Are we to believe that the first parents were not enmeshed in this environment? As for the "very good" of Genesis 1, to take this as a moral statement is deeply problematical, and not only exegetically but also theologically, particularly when it comes to theodicies (as followers of Thomas Aquinas are quick to point out). It is not sin that I am dehistoricising, it's the fall understood in a positivist historical sense, such that there was a time before and a time after.

In short, surely we do not want to engage in a "quest of the historical Adam". I say: enter the narrative as it is: the reality of the human condiiton is in it - and in it - not behind it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael W-W,

Even common grace is still grace. If only Christians can know sin in its full radicality - that which crucifies our Lord - non-Christians can know sin in some sense if they can know God in some sense. The Spirit blows where it wills - but it does take the Spirit to blow the dust from our eyes.

As for total depravity, I agree with you - and I think it's what I say in #6. Total depravity does not mean that everyone is a total shit!

Halden said...

I'd like to know how far those who argue for an "historical core" to the Genesis 2 narrative would be prepared to push it.

Well, not that far really. I don't think the belief in a historical Adam and Eve is required by Scripture or Tradition. All I think is that these texts ARE making a theological point that minimally entails that humanity, as a whole set itself against God at a particular point in its history, and that has fundamentally changed the world ever since (i.e. creation is now fallen).

In short, surely we do not want to engage in a "quest of the historical Adam". I say: enter the narrative as it is: the reality of the human condiiton is in it - and in it - not behind it.

Agreed, no quest for the historical Adam here. And the narrative is certainly about the condition humanity is in, but I think it's also about the fact that we are in because of the disobedience of humanity as a peoplehood. This disobedience has a history which the author of these texts gives us a theo-poetic description of. Does it mean it is a literal, historical account? No. It is a theological narrative that bears on how we interpret history. And I think the fundamental point is that the condition of sin is something that humanity brought on itself that God did not want done. I think this has to have a historical dynamic, otherwise we fall back into cyclical theories of history, such as those in the ancient near east to which Israelite religion was such a profound contrast (G. Ernest Wright).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that clarification, Halden. What you say doesn't convince me, but it makes sense and doesn't ask me to become a literalist or a flat-earther. However a one-time obedient historical humanity - in the archaelogical records, as it were - demands, for me, a sacrificium intellectus I just can't make. I shall continue to reflect on this matter. Thanks again.

Halden said...

No problem, Kim. I guess I may not know enough about archeology and biologial science to be sure that my position is such an intellectual sacrifice. However, I just have a bit more skepticism about the scientific certitude that is common in our culture about human prehistory. When last I looked paleontologists and geneticists had wild disagreements about the how they conjecture the dynamics of evolution to have operated in history. Which is certainly not to posit any sort of creation-science approach. I think that's all bunk. But I don't have any sort of Enlightenment confidence in natural science to really get at the facts about the origin of the world, either.

Anonymous said...

As an admirer of Jenson, I remember being startled the first time I read his assertion about our ancestors. But I agree with Michael Jensen that his intention is wholly theological , namely, to protect the doctrine that God created the world and all that was in it and He created it good. I take that also as the point of the story in Genesis ; Jenson is simply re-narrating to maintain the theological point.

My interpretation of Jenson is that as humans emerged and came to know God’s reality, they ,as a consequence came to know themselves as creatures. Whatever else it means to be a creature, it means you never go first, God has already started whatever is going on.; and humans came to hate that about God. That’s why I’m drawn to Barth’s contention that ingratitude is the root of sin.

If we abandon the story of the Fall how do we avoid saying that humans were created sinful by God ?

In the same vein, Kim, I was also surprised that you wrote, “…Jesus of Nazareth, even though his given flesh, the flesh the Son assumed, is fallen flesh…” Does the church teach this ? I would have thought we’d want to say the opposite.

Kim, how would you, theologically, affirm that God created the world and created it good, given our current fallen existence.

How do we confess that we are sinners, but God is good ?

John Rasmussen

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I don't deny the fall, I have problems with the fall as an historical event (historical as in "Caesar crossed the Rubicon"). I explicitly say that, nevertheless, I think the fall is true. This view may be wrong, but it is not theologically eccentric.

Christ's assumption of sinful flesh, however is. It is a minority view in church history. It is, however, the view of Karl Barth and is now more mainstream. I think it is essential.

And, briefly, I know that God created the world good because the Bible tells me so. And I also think I know that God in Godself is good essentially, whether or not he creates. And, finally (#10), we know that we are sinners because/as we know that we are forgiven sinners, because we know God's grace in Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

This seems straightforward --
Romans 8:3 "God [sent] his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh."

I don't think there is an "as if" quality to this "sinful flesh" since it sounds exactly like Paul elsewhere in Gal 4 and Phil 2 where the "sent" Son straightforwardly takes the "form of a servant" or is "born of a woman". None of these latter are "as if". They are real just as the sinful flesh is it seems. And certainly Christ became "sin" in his life at some point (2 Cor 5:21), whatever that means ultimately.

My question is why does Paul think Christ "knew no sin" (2 Cor 5:21). Was it passed along as biographical info? Or, as I suspect, was it a theological inference from the experience of the resurrected Christ? He was righteous, falsely accused. He even calls his death his "one act of obedience" in Romans 5. Add to this Paul notoriously cares very little for Jesus' biographical details as embarrasing as that is for some.

My first reason for even for bringing this up is just to get rid of "Superman Jesus" i.e. I think he must at least occasionally have had inappropriate anger, been mistaken, been rude, acted up as an adolescent, hit someone, lusted (there! I said it!).

The second reason is that if we can define what it means for Christ to be without "sin" then perhaps we might find ultimately what our "sin" is.

Sin is a term we often easily define without reference to Christ (to our detriment). It can also lead to a neurosis when it dwells on moral "perfection", a word used of Christ in the book of Hebrews only as an accomplishment/status after his sufferings. Perfect having a connotation more like complete. He elsewhere is defined as righteous or innocent of the crucifixion charges, or he is depicted as the Isaianic servant with no deceit in his mouth. Still here it seems a reference to the passion and trial. I don't know where this goes (probably to heresy I'm sure you are saying) but it all seems interesting to me.

Anonymous said...

It is a peculiar enough thing but in Genesis during the days of creation God declares each individual aspect of his creation to be “good” with the exception of Heaven (second day) and man (6th day). It is true that the final “everything that He made” is declared to be “very good”, but this would include all the “good” aspects as well as heaven and man. Do you suppose this is significant or was the author of Genesis just being sloppy?

Anonymous said...

KIm, thanks for your prompt response (do they never sleep in Wales ?)
I don't deny the fall, I have problems with the fall as an historical event (historical as in "Caesar crossed the Rubicon").

I don’t believe anyone has claimed the fall to be that kind of reductionistic event. As in 4482 BC, March 12, at noon, you could have seen mankind fall. Certainly not I, (or Jenson). Rereading the section in Systematic Theology, I find that it is with some reluctance that Jenson makes his claim. “we just so are compelled to posit a ‘fall’ of humankind, occurring within created time”. Compelled theologically, not based on special evidence or speculative interest.

I explicitly say that, nevertheless, I think the fall is true. This view may be wrong, but it is not theologically eccentric.

You’re certainly right about that; Jenson is in the distinct minority. I dare say most theologians of the last fifty years have said with you that “the fall is true, but…” The question is what it means to say an event is true if it didn’t “happen” ? What are you affirming when you say that the fall is true.??
Of course, some theologians seem to dispense with the fall altogether. Pannenberg comes to mind if my memory serves me right.

Christ's assumption of sinful flesh, however is. It is a minority view in church history. It is, however, the view of Karl Barth and is now more mainstream. I think it is essential.
Kim, could you expand on why you believe it is essential ? My fear was that it seemed to “locate” sin specifically in the flesh.

And, briefly, I know that God created the world good because the Bible tells me so. And I also think I know that God in Godself is good essentially, whether or not he creates. And, finally (#10), we know that we are sinners because/as we know that we are forgiven sinners, because we know God's grace in Jesus Christ.

(#10) is indeed critical
Let me try this: The doctrine of the fall is doxology (even Trinitarian doxology)
We know God is good because he has forgiven us, sinners, in Jesus Christ, and in the doctrine of the fall we affirm that the God who forgave us in Jesus is the same God who created us good from the beginning. How we humans came to be sinners is a mystery to us. But somehow at some time it happened. The doctrine of the fall doesn’t try to explain; instead it creates a marker. Its purpose is to affirm the everlasting goodness of God.

Anonymous said...

One question we must ask, is this; is the expression "very good" in Gen. 1:31 a moral expression or a ontological one? I believe it says that creation --- being from God and having its being from God --- is ontologically good. Evil, as Aquinas argued, is a privation, a lack.

So, even though creation is "very good," there can be sin, I believe.

Anonymous said...


I think you are right about the co-existence of goodness and sin. I don't think Genesis 1 should be read as "pre-fall". The writer intended it to be a reflection of God's disposition to the creation that at that moment surrounded the writer. It was not nostalgia for "how it was" back before "the fall". Death, decay, disease, and sin just aren't in view at the moment for the writer, but they would not change his judgement of "very good". It's like when you are on a mountaintop, you forget all the bad stuff.

Arimathean said...

I do not think the fall was a matter of mere disobedience. This would suggest that had Adam transgressed any arbitrary command of God it would have had the same effect. Rather, I think the nature of the fall must be found in the particular transgression - eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Until the fall, Adam and Eve were naive creatures living in paradise in accordance with their God-given nature (very good, created in the image and likeness of God). Upon eating the fruit, their eyes were opened. At this point, they began to substitute their own judgment, in accordance with their perceived, calculated interests, for the unconscious operation from their God-given nature.

I think the story of Genesis 2-4 can be tied loosely to a real, though not exactly historic (it was more prehistoric) setting. Scholars locate Eden in what is now northern Iraq or southern Turkey. This was, not coincidentally, an early locus of the Neolithic Revolution - the shift from the hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence to the more "advanced" lifestyles of agriculture and herding (represented by Cain and Abel).

Evolution suited mankind to be hunter-gatherers - that is our nature. When humans began to manipulate their environments for survival advantages (more for groups than for individuals, as it turned out), they were on their way to adopting new lifestyles at odds with their hunter-gatherer natures.

So Adam and Eve, through their own choices, were forced out of the easy, natural, naive life of Eden, and they had to start working for their living. This complicated their relationships with God, one another, and all of Creation. To the extent that there was a fall within human history, I think this was it, and Genesis records it.

Now I don't really think Genesis 2-4 is about the Neolithic Revolution any more than I think Genesis 12-35 is about the nomadic herding culture of the early second millennium BC. The authors of Genesis were not recording history as an end in itself. But the ancient oral tales on which they based Genesis embodied memories of real settings as the background for their stories.

It would be simplistic to attribute the entire state of human fallenness to the abandonment of hunter-gatherer ways. But this was the "event" that, more than any other, set mankind on a new trajectory that has led to alienation from God, our fellow creatures, and our own nature.

David W. Congdon said...

I wholly agree with Kim on the non-historicality of the Fall. Rather than make my own comments, I will quote Barth from his Epistle to the Romans (which was a pivotal text for Kim as well):

The Fall is “invisible sin … which must not be identified with actual sin or with those miserable lapses which are so frequent in our lives” (175).

"The sin which entered the world by Adam is—and this must be emphasized—powerful, supremely powerful, quite apart from his actual sin and the sin of his followers. The visible sovereignty of death points backwards to the invisible sovereignty of sin, even when sin issued in no single concrete and visible action" (175).

"Adam is the ‘old’ subject, the ego of the man of this world. This ego is fallen. It has appropriated to itself what is God’s, in order that it may live in its own glory. This fallen state is the consequence of no single historical act: it is the unavoidable pre-supposition of all human history" (181).

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