Original Sin and Christian Philosophy

The perennial debate over the nature and extent of original sin underlies nearly every aspect of Christianity. This is especially true of any attempt at distinctively Christian anthropology. While this seems to have been a traditionally theological problem, I am convinced that Christian philosophy (I have in mind here contemporary philosophy) has much to offer toward an acceptable version of this doctrine; a philosophically precise articulation of original sin is needed. Toward this end philosopher Paul Copan has written “Original Sin and Christian Philosophy” (in Philosophia Christi, Series 2, 5/2 (2003): 519-41). Now, before you all start thinking that I am about to end the debate, let me clarify two things: (1) I’m not qualified to offer to exhaustive, philosophically precise exposition of Christian anthropology, and (2) even if I were so qualified, a blog is not the place to do so. So, why this post? My goal is to spark a discussion that will encourage our community to shift its attention to this neglected (at least philosophically neglected) area.

Any thorough articulation of the doctrine of original sin entails treatment of the imago Dei, grace, our connection to Adam and much else. Most professed Christians agree that somehow original sin affects our nature. But exactly how? Unfortunately, it seems that theologians and philosophers merely talk past one another here. I realize this is a gross generalization, but while ‘nature’ for theologians is simply a word, it is for philosophers a term.

This doctrine also has serious apologetical implications. We know that humanity is depraved, though there is some debate concerning its extent and the result of prevenient/common grace (and other areas). “Why should I answer for Adam’s sin?” “I would have responded differently than Adam did.” Such questions must be answered from an apologetical standpoint.

What is the best approach to this issue? Do you have some great relevant articles or books to recommend to the rest of us? I think it’s time for theologians and philosophers to get on the same page and begin presenting, insofar as we are able, a unified front with answers to the world (1 Peter 3:15).

6 Responses to Original Sin and Christian Philosophy

  1. Don Jr. says:

    It’s coincidental that you should bring this topic up now. Just yesterday I gained (or at least it seemed so to me) some insight into this issue while reading Harry Blamire’s The Christian Mind (which is a great book by the way). In part of his book he discusses how a Christian should think about the issue of sexual or romantic love and how for any earthly experience of joy in general it is just a shadow of the real joy in its perfected state, in Heaven. He derives part of his response from some of Charles William’s writings, which he labels as “Romantic theology” and says do “justice to the spiritual significance of sexual [i.e., romantic] love.” Blamires elaborates:

    Williams tells us that the lover sees his beloved as all men would see one another, and all things, had not man fallen from his state of original innocence. He sees his beloved as all men ought to see their fellow-men “in God”. The relationship between lover and beloved which emerges is (at its best) the relationship of joyful giving and receiving which ought to join all men together. . . . And the archetype of such perfected relationships is the coinherence of the Three Persons of the Trinity.

    He adds:

    Romantic love presents to the lover a vision of the beloved in glory—the glory which, in the life of Heaven, will clothe all living things.

    I am inclined to agree with Blamires here, and I think his comments may give us some understanding of original sin and the fall of man. The personal insight I gained from this is just how far man has fallen from what he ought to be. If our only knowledge of what true love ought to be (in all relationships) comes from the intense, passionate nature of romantic love then we have fallen very far indeed. (Do we have such a relation with even our closest friends, much less the everyday passersby? And, just to add as a note, such an understanding of what our love for others ought to be like makes great sense of a lot of other things in the Bible, such as the story of the good Samaritan.)

    I realize that what I have said so far has not really been a response to the specific issues raised in your post. So, to address those issues: for a Christian theologian and/or philosopher I think the first place to start would be the Bible. Not to say that we should quote Scripture in speaking about this issue philosophically, but I think the Bible might have much more to say about this issue than we think, or at least it might be able to give us some insight into it (but I am not certain on this point because I have not read the Bible in depth all the way through yet). These are interesting issues you raise but unfortunately, as of now, I have little by way of direct response to offer in return, nor am I familiar with any articles or books on the subject (although I vaguely recall that Plantinga might have said some things about this issue). Hopefully others can be of more help, but I agree: this is an important issue, often neglected, which needs more attention.

  2. chris says:

    Keith,

    Hey — thanks for the visit. It’s always nice to discover a kindred spirit. I, too, see this issue as being important. Many who have a low view of philosophy do so because they believe the fall has corrupted our ability to reason. This troubles me.

  3. Keith says:

    Hi Don, thanks for your thoughts. Im glad your giving some thought to the issue of original sin. I am hesitant to say that “our only knowledge of what true love ought to be comes from…(the) passionate nature of romantic love…” The words of John 15:13 come immediately to mind. I do, nevertheless, hear what you’re saying.
    I agree that our anthropology (which includes original sin) should begin with Scripture, more specifically Genesis 1 (when man was in the image of God and unaffected by sin). I am completely willing to quote Scripture in philosophical conversation, while bearing in mind that we cannot force our own metaphysical views down the author’s throats.
    You’re right: in Warranted Christian Belief (apprx. pg 265ff-I think) Plantinga hits on original sin. I wont comment further on that here, as I intend to return to his thoughts on an upcoming post. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  4. Keith says:

    Hi Chris-you’re right, it’s unfortunate to hear such a view advanced. Surely the Fall corrupted us (and that is the topic at hand), but we are still in the image of Almighty God; we now bear a defaced image (that image has not been erased from us).
    Your thoughts are welcome here, thanks for stopping by.

  5. Don Jr. says:

    You’re right Keith. I shouldn’t have used the term only. Also, as I was thinking about this the other day, it would only be right to reference the Bible in regards to this specific issue, since it is biblical in nature—that is, “Original Sin” is more of a theological issue than a philosophical one, although it could be approached and discussed philosophically (but its roots, even as an issue at all, are biblical or theological). Looking forward to your upcoming post(s).

  6. Xavier says:

    I think this is a very good post. Something I should say that I seldom reflect on. I also read Copan’s article (at http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/pdf/Original-sin-christian-philosophy.pdf) which was thought-provoking.

    Copan seems to take exception to the reformed view of “Original Guilt” and suggest that scholars allow for more diverse–though orthodox–opinions on the matter. But I wonder whether Copan is just being unfair to reformed theologians here. After all, I’ve never heard these guys saying that any other view on original sin (save Pelagianism) is unacceptable. Now I myself agree with the Roman Catholic position on this–All humans are in some way implicated by Adams sin, but he precise nature of the transmission of Original sin is just a mystery. Further, I see original sin as a state (not an act) and thus it is not a thing for which one can be said to be responsible. Nonetheless, the reformed position is just an attempt at understanding this mystery. I know it is fashionable nowadays to heap scorn on anything Calvinist, but they should be given credit for at least wrestling with the issue.

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