Can I just say before you read any further – if you are happy that your beliefs and doctrines in relation to the Christian faith are satisfactory and you have no nagging doubts or questions in relation to the things you have been taught or believe – please do not read any further. This article is really not for you. What follows here is linked to my last post on such issues and that post, if you have not seen it, should be read before you go any further, if you wish to do so. I need also to point out from the start that some of the issues raised here are contentious and have been debated by thinkers and theologians throughout the centuries. I am simply sharing from my own experience and difficulties in relation to some of these matters. If I’m honest I write for myself as much as for others – as I find writing helps to clarify my thinking. So with all that said, I am not looking for argument, debate or to change the conviction or view of others. What is offered below is done so in the slight hope that it may help someone who may have, or may be, facing similar questions or doubts.
I think it’s fair to say, as far as our understanding of God is concerned, that our beliefs will be based on how we perceive him. In other words do we consider God, if indeed we believe in God at all, as a benevolent or angry being, near or remote, accepting or rejecting of us, one who requires to be appeased or one that does not take offence and shows mercy? These and other such questions form our view of God. I live in a culture where many people were brought up in a religious atmosphere which regarded God as demanding, angry, unapproachable and retributive. I rub shoulders most days with people who were taught to believe they were as worthless as a worm and deserved nothing but death and hell. Call this view what you will, it goes under a number of names which do not concern us at the moment, but I can assure you, such teaching has driven thousands of people away from God and the church.
While a large part of my own background and tradition concurred, at least doctrinally and theoretically, with the ‘worm’ and ‘angry God’ theology we have mentioned above – personally I left these behind a long time ago. The conundrum for me was this – how could I believe in the God of love revealed by Jesus – and still hold to the view of a God who appeared to be the opposite. In fact, that some see themselves as worms in God’s eyes is, I would suggest, as much a part of our broken condition as the view that the God of Jesus is austere, resentful and vengeful.
The real turning point for me in all of this came when I experienced God as Father at a personal level – and realised for the first time that the relationship Jesus had with and shared about his Father is at the very foundation of what we call Christianity. And, I believe, it is in to that relationship The Father longs to bring us all.
Over several years things have crystallised for me in to a certain way of seeing and understanding the Bible and the ways of God. First of all I view everything through the lens of the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. So in any apparent conflict of understanding as I read the Bible or listen to the teaching of others – Jesus is my touchstone and my go to theologian.
To narrow things down further – not only do I believe Jesus is the touchstone and foundation for the things I believe – but his revelation that God, his Father, is intrinsically Love, is the one thing through which everything else is, to use the lens analogy again, brought in to focus and relief. Love is everything. So, for instance, God’s justice is a justice of love – and in God’s justice his love will also be manifest. The same is true in regard to every aspect of what we call ‘God’s attributes’. However, this absolute belief in the supremacy of God’s love will, at some point, bring me in to collision with a tradition, belief or doctrine which either reduces this love to the level of other doctrines and beliefs or completely ignores it.
To move on then I think it best to start at the beginning and work forward . Firstly, we need to clarify one of the foundational issues involved in all of this and it is what is known in my tradition as ‘The Fall’, in particular the doctrine called ‘Original Sin’. But before we do that we need to remind ourselves of what ‘sin’ actually is – for many people, in my experience, become confused at this point.
We tend to think of sin in terms of individual actions – murder, stealing, lying and so on. But we also know, even in our own experience, it is much broader than that. We sometimes speak of ‘sins of omission’ – that is failing to do the good we know we ought to do – and such failure pains the conscience just as much as an overt action. It is no less a ‘sin’ all the same.
The original word in Greek (from which our English Bibles were translated) for the word ‘sin’ is, ‘Hamartia’. ‘For all have sinned (hēmarton), and come short of the glory of God’ says the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans. The word ‘hamartánō’ is said to have been regularly used in ancient times of an archer missing the target (Homer, Aesch., etc). (1)
In the religious world, according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, ‘Hamartánō’ (‘Sin’ in our English Bibles), contained a number of meanings as follows – ‘To be without a share in, to miss the mark, to err, be mistaken, to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honour, to do or go wrong, to wander from the law of God, or to violate God’s law.’
Sin then, in contrast to individual actions or the lack of them is, at its most basic level, a failing to live up to the the standard of perfection for which we were originally created. We need to bear this in mind as we move forward.
The generally held belief in my tradition, and this is true in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is, that as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the paradise of Eden, they were expelled from it by an offended God who was angered by their disobedience (sin). Furthermore, this theory teaches, that as a result of their disobedience, every human being coming after them becomes as guilty as they and, consequently, live under God’s righteous condemnation and wrath. So, having elevated the God of love, as I have, as the touchstone for all his actions, I am forced to ask – where is the love of God manifest in this incident and in the doctrine which flows from it? Well, let’s take stock.
The way I see it, the tragedy of Eden was primarily the tragedy of a broken relationship. Hitherto Adam and Eve lived with God in perfect harmony. There was no barrier in this perfect eternal communion. However, disobedience brought division and separation. To live eternally separated from God is my concept of eternal death – call it ‘Hell’ if you will, although the term is, I think, grossly misunderstood in its general use as well as within many religious traditions. Even the language used in Genesis appears to confirm estrangement as the issue – ‘So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken’ (Genesis 3 NLT). Again, ‘banishment’ from God’s presence is relational death. However, as we know, Adam not only died relationally to God but, from the moment of his disobedience, the seed of physical death began to work within him. But even in this, tragedy although it most certainly was, I think we can see the love and mercy of God at work. How so? For the very reason, as we have said, that to live eternally in separation from God is Hell. I don’t think we can even begin to imagine the consequences of eternal separation from Love. The late and esteemed evangelical theologian, J.I. Packer, once said – ‘Hell is the negation of fellowship with the Lord .. the negation of any form of contentment’.
However, there appears to be no suggestion in the biblical text that because of the disobedience of Adam, his descendants are, by default, held guilty of his his sin. The theory of ‘Original Sin’ is, in fact, of a much later vintage. It was not even, as far as we can establish, a view espoused by the very early church and only appears to have come into vogue with the writings of Augustine of Hippo (354–430), who was the first author to use the phrase ‘Original Sin’. Subsequently, it became, as we know, the official teaching of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Of course the adoption of this doctrine caused other problems – in particular the practical status of infants and children. If all are born guilty and responsible for Adam’s original sin – do infants and children, if they die, go to hell? Answer – not if the are baptised into the church! Enter ‘Infant Baptism’ and ‘Baptismal Regeneration’ to give them their proper terms. But these do not concern us at the moment.
Interestingly, Judaism itself does not accept the concept of Original Sin – nor, after Genesis, is the ‘Eden’ story ever picked up again in the Old testament. Neither in fact is it mentioned by Jesus. Jack Heppner has commented in relation to this –
‘So it is not surprising that Jesus does not pick up that story in his life and ministry either. If the primary purpose of Jesus’ coming to earth was to undo the curse attached to the ontological Fall of Adam and Eve, as many western theologians postulate, one would expect that Jesus would have said as much at least at some point in his ministry. But Jesus does not speculate about the cosmic origin of sin; instead simply assumes the universal presence of sin defined in terms of relational brokenness.’ (2)
Furthermore, the doctrine of Original Sin is not held by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is much older than Protestantism and (IMO) closer in thought and doctrine to the early church. As we have said, Protestantism adopted this doctrine from Roman Catholicism. The official stance of the Eastern Orthodox Church is described as follows –
‘Orthodoxy believes that, while everyone bears the consequences of the first sin, the foremost of which is death, only Adam and Eve are guilty of that sin.’ And – ‘In the Orthodox view, guilt can only result from an act which one has committed. We can’t sin for another person. We believe that we need a saviour to overcome death and our separation from God, to be forgiven our own transgressions, but not to be forgiven for Adam’s transgression.’
I find the above statement helpful – for it focuses, not only on the issue at hand but on another matter we have already highlighted – separation from God. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition the issues for which we require a ‘Saviour’ relate to the matter of ‘separation’ from God and the ‘death’ that results from such separation.
The view of the Anabaptist movement on this issue is, once again, summarised well by Jack Heppner –
‘While Anabaptists did not find favour within western protestant churches in its first few centuries, their perspectives on issues such as original sin are being accepted today by an increasing number of Western Christians. Anabaptists stubbornly held to Ezekiel 18:4 which explicitly states that “… it is only the person who sins who shall die.” Robert Friedman states that – “The Ezekiel reference … freed the movement from the fatalistic character of inherited sin which was so characteristic of the Catholic Church and Protestant orthodoxy”. Anabaptists held that “ … the sin of Adam and Eve introduced into the world a powerful tendency or inclination to sin which resulted in universal sinfulness, but it was a sinfulness by choice rather than by nature … The consequence of the sin in Eden was moral, not ontological, that is, inherited in human nature” .’ (3)
When it comes to the the early Church Fathers sometimes their beliefs on individual subjects are difficult to disentangle. The problem is that most theological historians use hand picked quotes from the ‘fathers’ in an attempt to bolster their own belief or tradition. However, it appears quite clear to me, that most did not hold to this theory. Jack Heppner again –
‘When Justin Martyr references Adam’s role in introducing sin into the world (165 CE), he takes pains to say that all subsequent humans are responsible for their own sins, as was Adam. Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons held the view that Adam and Eve sinned because of their mental and spiritual immaturity, but even so that had been their free choice. Clement and Origen of Alexandria later added the idea that Genesis 3 should be interpreted allegorically in which Adam represents all humans; that is to say that all people sinned, “not so much from nature as from Adam’s example”. The Antiochene fathers took a more Hebraic approach to biblical interpretation than the more Hellenistic approach of the Alexandrian fathers. They believed that “…infants were born without sin, and thus did not recognise any doctrine of inherited sinfulness’. (4)
But the main focus and foundation of my own understanding in relation to this issue comes directly from the metaphoric theology of Jesus himself. I have spoken about this here before so will not repeat it – suffice to say that it is clear to me that God is the Father of all (5) and, as in the parable we call the ‘Prodigal Son’, as Father, he longs to restore to himself his estranged sons and daughters and welcome them with open arms into the Father’s House. It is here that Eden, before our estrangement is restored. And, at the consummation of all things, this restoration will have its ultimate fulfilment –
‘Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the centre of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations. No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. Blessed are those who wash their robes. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life.’
To be continued ..
(2) Jack Heppner – Original Sin – New Testament Perspectives (ll)
(3) Jack Heppner – Original Sin – Leaving it Behind (lV)
(4) Jack Heppner – Original Sin – Early Church Fathers (lll)
(5) As I said in a recent post my view here is in conflict with my tradition. It clearly teaches that God is not the Father of all. See – https://steve-taylor.org.uk/thoughts/the-fourth-dimension/ or CLICK HERE
Augustine’s Theory of Original Sin – BBC Article (An unbiased overview)
‘St Augustine, who largely devised the theory of original sin, thought that original sin was transmitted from generation to generation through sexual intercourse. Augustine did not say exactly how this happened. He said that it was transmitted by “concupiscence”, when people had sex and conceived a child. Concupiscence is a technical theological word that Augustine used to refer to sexual desire as something bad in the soul that was inseparable from normal human sexual impulses. Sexual desire was bad, he taught, because it could totally overwhelm those caught up in it, depriving them of self-control and rational thought. This disapproving view of passion was quite common among Christians of Augustine’s time.’
For more of this article – CLICK HERE