Channel surfing, I spent a little time listening to a program titled Consider Islam.

The host and guest were talking about original sin, and the guest was amassing evidence from the Bible that humans are not born sinful. Some Christians have also rejected this doctrine, which could refer to Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden – the original sin – or it could (also) refer, as it seemed to in the TV discussion, to the doctrine that all humans have inherited, as an attribute, Adam and Eve’s decision to sideline God as the arbiter of right and wrong, arrogating to ourselves this role; and that this attribute, called concupiscence, is sin [1]. The result is we are, by nature, alienated from God. Moreover, it makes us all equal before God. The Bible is very clear that no one can meet God’s standards: no one is good enough. We all depend on God’s mercy.

What I want to focus on is not Islam versus Christianity, nor the doctrine of original sin – even some Christians disagree with it – but the logic and the arguments the guest used to support his theses [2]. An endnote briefly discusses why people find original sin so objectionable. 

One of the arguments used against original sin was that no one ever looks at a baby and says, “how evil she looks”: it’s always, “how innocent she looks” [3]. But can you tell a person’s nature by their appearance; particularly at so young an age? Second, the doctrine of original sin means that we are born cut off from God: it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything good. People are born rebels against God but this doesn’t mean that our ethics are always different. Peopel of different faiths, or of none, can share similar ethics. Third, original sin means we have an inherited inclination to go our own way, not God’s, but babies can’t choose anything, good or bad. People don’t choose until they are know that they have a choice. Fourth, look at children (as opposed to babies): do we have to teach children to be selfless or selfish? Look how children treat each other: they don’t need to be taught to be greedy, to tell lies, or to cheat. Children can insult, exclude and treat each other badly without any instruction from adults. They just do what’s natural. (So we can deduce that just because an action or emotion feels, or even is, natural, it doesn’t mean it’s good.)

The guest on the show also quoted Jesus when he said, “let the children come to me…for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16, Good News Bible). We have to be careful where we get our doctrine from, and it’s a stretch to argue that this is a denial of original sin, especially as there are several more likely interpretations of Jesus’ meaning, none of which depend on any belief about original sin. Investigate for yourself how children were thought of in Hebrew culture, and what children are like emotionally and psychologically.

Credit where credit is due: the guest seemed to know the text of the Bible well. However, text without context gives limited information at best; complete misinterpretation at worst [4]. Ignoring the context was the chief mistake he made when, in what might have been another topic (the problem with analysing an argument when you’re channel surfing) he made the too-common assertion that Paul’s teaching contradicted Jesus’ in just about everything. People who say this, I think, don’t consider the context in which Jesus spoke and Paul wrote. If you are going to say the Bible can’t be trusted, but there is one authentic voice in the New Testament, why accept the Gospels as the authentic message, rather than Paul’s writings? Note it was Jesus’ disciples who wrote down his teaching: whether they authored one of the Gospels (Matthew, John) or just took notes that others later used (Mark, Luke). The Gospel authors, like any writer, had their own context and purpose in writing. But does having a reason for writing, or a bias, mean you can’t try to be objective? Of course not.

One piece of evidence offered that Paul’s message was different to Jesus’ was that Paul called the message he brought “my Gospel”, as if this were different to the Gospel according to Jesus. It’s the weakest argument for this issue that I have heard but for the sake of debate, my rebuttal follows.

A. If there really was such a divide between Jesus’ message and Paul’s, don’t you think that, in two thousand years, a few more people in the Christian church would have noticed? To my knowledge, not even the earliest critics of Christianity argued that this disparity existed.

B. Paul also called his message “the Gospel” (Romans 1:15), “our Gospel” (2 Corinthians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:5). He also called it the Gospel of God (1 Thes. 2:9), the Gospel of Christ (1 Thes 3:2), and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Thes 1:8). The Gospel writers said that Jesus preached “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). Before the Cross, when Jesus sent his disciples to preach in the towns of Galilee, do you think they preached that Jesus was God-become-human, who would die as atonement for their sins, and would be raised from the dead [5]? Of course not. They spoke the message they had heard Jesus preach (and done some healings and exorcisms as well).

C. Context. Jesus spoke about the imminent Kingdom of God, and how we enter it, and what his disciples were to be like. In the Gospels, Jesus’ identity and mission was the focus. Jesus’ teaching was almost entirely to Jews, who knew well the writings of their ancient faith. After Pentecost, Jesus’ identity and mission was now clear, and he told his disciples to go into all the world. Paul did go: his audience was predominantly Gentile, although he always began his ministry in a town by preaching to the Jews there. Paul’s focus was mostly on how Christians relate to each other, especially in their meetings – of which meetings we hear nothing in the Gospels and only a little in Acts – and to people who aren’t Christians. Many of the people who heard Paul’s message didn’t know the Hebrew scriptures, and their ethics often weren’t the same. After Paul had been in a town for any length of time, he was often chased out by the same kind of people who rejected Jesus. Much of what Paul taught wasn’t an issue in Jesus’ context; for example, which disciple people followed, or women teaching in meetings, or whether male followers of Jesus should be circumcised.

D. Paul was rather intolerant about any change to the Gospel. In the first half of the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians Paul wrote that anyone who changed the Gospel should be cursed and condemned to hell. He included himself, and even the angels, in this anathema. Objectors might say that this condemnation applied to those who preached a different Gospel to the one the Galatians had received; that is, the one they received from Paul. But other Christians had, or would be, covering ground in Galatia, and everywhere that Paul preached. They would be able to tell the difference if Paul had changed the Gospel.

E. If Paul taught a message different to Jesus’, the other apostles would have found out, and had something to say about it. Paul travelled with Luke, the author of the third Gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles. How is it that Luke’s Gospel accords so well with the other Synoptics, and there are both agreements and arguments recorded – in Acts, by Luke, and by Paul in his letters? There is neither the irreconcilable conflict nor the complete agreement to be expected if there was some doctrinal jiggery-pokery. Peter even placed Paul’s letters (the ones with which he was familiar) on the same level with the Jewish Scriptures (2 Peter 3.15-16)! (Of course you could argue that Peter didn’t really write one or both of the letters that bear his name; or that the second letter was written by a Paulophile; but that’s a topic for another day. Anyway any claim, for or against, must be backed by evidence.)

Paul wrote that when he went to Jerusalem to see what message about Jesus they were preaching, the first apostles there “gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9). Of course he could be lying, but again, the apostles would have heard about this, and gone to the ends of the earth to set the record straight, all the more so as many Jews, even Jewish Christians, were gunning for Paul, and would have loved to have seen his ministry come to an end.

F. The analogy used for a good disciple was that they were like a plastered cistern (underground chamber for storing water), that doesn’t lose a drop of all the water poured into it. As a good student in the Pharisaical tradition, it would be unthinkable for Paul to change the teachings of his rabbi. He might develop his own thoughts about the issue, he might disagree with what his rabbis taught, but never lie about it!

Rather than “my Gospel” meaning one Paul invented or changed, isn’t it more likely that he means the Gospel about Jesus is a message he holds as his most previous possession, not his invention? Can you imagine Paul talking about his Gospel as opposed to Jesus’ Gospel, or Matthew’s Gospel, or John’s Gospel et cetera?

The second biggest mistake people make in analysis and argument is not being critical enough. We tend to stop too early in the process, usually when we think we have sufficiently defended our own belief and found enough chinks in the armor of the opposing view. That is the biggest mistake we make: we so commit ourselves to a view (God-in-the-box syndrome) that we stop trying to get to the truth, which could be more encompassing and satisfying than we yet appreciate.

________

Endnotes

[1] This makes human nature seem very dark. It does, and it is.

[2] I suspect part of the distaste for the idea of original sin is comes from the doctrine that all humans are, by nature, evil. It’s not a flattering or pleasant idea; however, an unpleasant proposition is not, based on that unpleasantness, untrue. The remaining source antipathy to original sin comes from a corollary – and naturally repugnant – idea: that children, if they aren’t brought under the aegis of some salvific agency, go to hell if they die. I think this overlooks the idea of grace: that God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Children are unable to do anything for themselves, good or bad; so even if we do inherit a rebellious nature from Adam and Eve (bad), God’s mercy, in the death of Christ, destroys any punitive claim original sin may have on us.

[3] Judging by appearance is called face validity.

[4] One person fell foul of this hermeneutic error when he read from Genesis and, arguing for a literalistic (24-hour day, 7-day week) interpretation of the text, said something along the lines of: “Now I just read the text: other people [i.e. those who argue for evolution] have to interpret it.” Now, no one “just reads” anything: we all bring our own life experiences, culture et cetera, to the text. The text, too, has its own context: the society of its original author and audience. A narrative text is the simplest for us to interpret, because it uses words at their most widely understood “face value” interpretation: they carry the most common meaning in the most common context. This is the context that “just reading” requires. I’m not saying whether I agree or disagree with a literalistic interpretation of Genesis, just that we all interpret text, no matter how simple and straightforward it seems. This is our context; and the text also has a context that we ignore at the expense of our reputation as an objective thinker.

I suspect part of the distaste for the idea of original sin is comes from the doctrine that all humans are, by nature, evil. It’s not a flattering or pleasant idea; however, an unpleasant proposition is not, based on that unpleasantness, untrue. The remaining source antipathy to original sin comes from a corollary – and naturally repugnant – idea: that children, if they aren’t brought under the aegis of some salvific agency, go to hell if they die. I think this overlooks the idea of grace: that God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Children are unable to do anything for themselves, good or bad; so even if we do inherit a rebellious nature from Adam and Eve (bad), God’s mercy, in the death of Christ, destroys any punitive claim original sin may have on us.

[5] Propitiatory atonement is another hot topic – no one wants to believe that they are sinners (look at John 9, about the man born blind and the community rulers. “Jews” in this context meant Jesus’ opponents, not all Jewish people) or that someone else has to pay for them to be forgiven. “Why can’t God just forgive?” they say. Forgiveness always comes at a cost: justice means the guilty person pays; forgiveness means the innocent person pays. Further, some people consider the atonement of the Cross akin to child abuse: the Father sending the Son to die. This is also a position that I think is mostly formed from ignorance and misunderstanding – neither is which is necessarily an insult: we are all ignorant of some topics and misunderstand others, because of insufficient information. For example, the the meaning of “Father” and “Son”; the idea that the Father is transcendent and removed from pain; and that the penalty (death; Hell) for, say, lying, seems disproportionate to the crime. All these , I think, are based on an insufficient understanding of the topic.

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