The Central Text in the Original Sin Controversy

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Diverging views on the doctrine of original sin represent a great chasm fixed between scholars and theologians today.

I sing not, but (in sighes abrupt),
Sob out the State of Man, corrupt
By th’ Old Serpent’s banefull breath:
Whose strong Contagion still extends
To every creature that descends
From the old Little World of Death.

These lines from Henry Smith represent for many, as for their author, what they consider to be a central tenet of biblical Christianity: the idea that humanity’s moral corruption springs from the sin in the Garden. It usually comes as a shock to learn that the Church did not always teach this, and in the wake of such an enlightenment, it is often supposed that Augustine, who formulated the doctrine in his fight against Pelagius (early 5th century), only made explicit what had already been implicit in the Church’s understanding.

This is not to say that everyone within theological academia regards the doctrine of original sin as a foreign body within the Church’s theology. Certainly, scholars who specialize in Paul’s theology often refer to the fact that the doctrine of original sin is not found in Paul’s letters, or, for that matter, anywhere in the Bible. But those who name theology (rather than biblical studies) as their specialty often disagree. (E.g., a recent article in Ephemerides Theologicae Lovaniense finds the idea of “a Christianity without original sin” hardly fathomable.) These diverging views on the doctrine of original sin represent a great chasm fixed between scholars and theologians today. To those who approach the history of doctrine from the perspective of the Great Church (dogmatic theology), the frequent observations that scholars make concerning the absence of original sin from the New Testament must indeed sound strange, because the methodology of this approach often has built into it the assumption that wrong turns of this magnitude are simply not possible.[1] Biblical scholars are so used to thinking of their field as a tradition of unlearning, however, that they usually dismiss these objections as criteriologically irrelevant.

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  • [1] Since the Reformation, some prominent streams of Protestant theology identify the Holy Spirit so closely with the Church that the collective voice of the people is treated almost as infallible. This is not an exaggeration: within postliberalism, the identification of the Spirit’s message with the Church’s collective position is often explicit.

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  • Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier is the chair of biblical studies at the newly forming Kingswell Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio (scheduled to open in Fall 2008). Jack earned his doctorate in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he wrote a dissertation…
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