Friday, February 19, 2016

Thoughts on Original Sin and The Fall

When one looks through the Old Testament, how often is Adam explicitly mentioned? In fact, he's quite present in different themes connected with a vision of Eden. But how often his initial act mentioned? In preaching to the Jews, how often is Adam mentioned? When does Peter, Stephen, John, Paul mention Adam? When Paul preaches to the Gentiles, Paul explicitly calls upon Jew and Gentile common bonds in Adam. How does Paul describe Adam's initial act in the Garden?

All of these questions are worth exploring for themselves. But it's quite obvious that Adam does not play a significantly prominent role in the History of Israel or the Apostolic preaching. However, Adam appears quite forcefully in Paul's major letters (Romans, Corinthians). Why? How does Paul utilize this story to make his point?

When I became a Christian, I heard a word speaking to Christ, but soon after I learned of Adam. It's not for nothing. For Evangelical preaching, Adam takes a center role. One can pass over the entire history of Israel, one could in essence cut out every book of the Bible between Genesis and Matthew and keep the same formula. In some sense, Evangelical preaching is trying to repeat Paul in Romans 5. However, the Gospel is not Romans 5. While I would advocate for a historical (if not pre-historical) Adam, I wouldn't go as far to say that the Gospel is compromised if one can't have a proper understanding of Adam (this is in light of controversies over Evolutionary Biology and Darwinism).

But here I think that Latin theology, by and large, has suffered from an insufficient biblical attentiveness. It has been held captive to a view that demands a particular reading of Romans 5. This is in part an Augustinian error, but not exclusively. Augustine had a bad Latin translation of Romans 5, arguing for an Original Guilt based upon our existence in Abraham's loins. This metaphysics has been mostly rejected except some pockets of Roman Catholics. However, the essence of this remains in that Man remains requiring an 'extra gift', grace, in order to overcome the defect of his nature. This isn't completely wrong as we will explore.

Besides that, what developed beyond that was the demand that what happened in the Garden has done something to us. I agree, but what does that mean? Some modern translations of Paul turn "flesh" (sarx) into "sin-nature". This is one instantiation of the problem, though a crude and more popular Evangelical one. What ends up occurring is building a kind of ontology where sin becomes wound up in Human Nature. We are born evil. There are some passages that speak to this, so this view is not entirely wrong either.

What is completely missed is the curse that befalls Man in the Garden. We are given over to Death. Paul's argument in Romans 5 makes the most sense in this light. Adam unleashed a reign of Death, subjecting Man to futility, bringing about an evil state of things, even when sin was not known. In other words, people don't need to know what exactly they need to be or to do in order to know that things are in ruin. The Torah excites Sin inasmuch we consciously reject the path of Life, that is Bearing God's Likeness, which is 'missing the mark' (the literal concept in the Greek).

Why did Adam sin in the Garden? How could he have rejected God's commandment if he was innocent? This is where Rome's doctrine is, in part, right. There is no sense that Adam was the pinnacle of maturity, that Adam was not child-like, as per St. Irenaeus. Adam didn't need a special gift in addition (which seems cruel and unusual to withhold). Rather, Adam had to grow into perfection. We can accuse God for allowing development and growth, but that's in a sense accusing God for creating at all. Creation's being (it's is) is in becoming. We were made to live, move and have our being.

But before I'm accused of inserting philosophy into a biblical discussion, I'm not blaming Rome or the Reformation for doing the same. Rather, I think they inappropriately developed their philosophy, misunderstanding the overall thrust of the Bible. Can there be any other way to describe the entire history of Israel besides incoherence and unintelligibility? I think the fact that Bible as story (which requires progressions) delivers us up, on a silver-plate, an understanding of Creation as being-in-becoming.

The upshot of this is for the proclamation of the gospel. My work has me engaged in the history of the Atlantic World, which has me engaged with a lot of missionaries of every stripe. Many of them are utter disasters. Why? In part, it's because there's a demand for a cultural conversion. There's a sense where Biblical concepts are believed to be flatly incompatible with American Indians or Africans. I'd say that, according to the missionary's theology, they're largely right. Many of these missionaries have a gospel dependent on understanding an aggregate of Roman law, feudal customs, and the Medieval sacramental-complex. In other words, one must understand Europe to understand the gospel. This combined with an Imperial-Christianity, attached to nascent nations and states, is an atrocity.

However what's apparent to all peoples, everywhere, is the common-lot associated with Death. We all die and we all try to make heads-or-tails of that reality. Paganism is rooted in that, trying to soothe the dead, or maintain the right balance of powers to sustain community life (whether through neighbor-ethics, crop growth, or female fertility). And even more than this, there is always some yearning in the Human spirit to fully actualize itself. Combined with the reign of Death, fallen Angels channel this to all sorts of Babel projects. Our own slavery to Death leads us to every crime. Whether in obedience to the Master, or in trying to personally overcome him, Mankind has done uncountable evil.

The Fall is important in the sense that the Created World was trapped, ever sliding towards non-being. Strange as it might sound, the fact that Humanity does anything about this is a testimony that our God-Imaged Nature still remains. Here, the distinction between nature and person is very important. Just because our Human Nature still remains untouched, our individual persons are unable, by the encroaching reign of Death, to follow it properly. The Torah might be revealed, showing us our telos, our nature's destiny and purpose, and yet it only produces an internal conflict.

As a side note, the major reason Pelagius is wrong is primarily because he collapsed nature into person. In his vision, Man should be able to be saved merely by being presented with the Law, without appreciating that on account of death, a Human person is incapable of following through. Augustine makes the same mistake, hence the need to build an alternate metaphysics and recast the entire Eden story. In this light, Origen is actually closer to the truth, despite his captivity to a metaphysics which was taken for granted. But I digress.

A more faithful articulation of Genesis 3 will not only illuminate the Bible, but promote a more persuasive evangelism. In our less-and-less Euro-Christo-National church culture, the need to foist a guilt-complex upon people will become more and more. Christians should not make this error and side-step it altogether. Everyone has to deal with death, whether they like it or not. That's the point of Genesis 3 (as Romans 5 highlights).

However, this is a more thoroughgoing problem. Most Americans, including all those Evangelicals, hide from their mortality. If we're going to be faithful to the Gospel, it's going to have to be frank about our own mortality. It's hard to look death in the face realistically, yet it makes Christ's victory all so much sweeter. This is a true liberty. Can we believe it? As a young, fit, male with mental acuity, it's hard. But it's the raw truth. Yet what stands above that is the empty tomb and its ascended king. Pentecost is the promise to get us through such a burden as we begin to learn to live under a different reign, one who is the Life and the Resurrection and who comes to bring life and it abundantly. This is salvation and the power of the Gospel.

Quite frankly, I think this is a better Gospel than most of what I hear.

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