Sin: Insights from Paul and James

What claims are made in the New Testament when it comes to Adam and Original Sin?

Joel B. Green, Provost, Dean of the School of Theology, and Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary contributed a chapter to the recent book Evolution and the Fall addressing just this question. Green finds the primary significant passages in Paul (of course) and James. The latter is unusual and gives something of a different emphasis to his discussion than that found in the work of most other scholars.

Before digging into Paul and James, Green looks other Second Temple works, Life of Adam and Eve, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and Biblical Antiquities. Although the sin of Adam and Eve plays no significant role in the Old Testament after Genesis 3, it had become a topic of speculation in the Jewish world. This provides a context for Paul and James. Green concludes: “Paul and James would have swum in the same theological pond as the Jewish authors … and their contributions can be read in dialog with perspectives like those of 4 Ezra or Biblical Antiquities.” (p. 106)

Green’s summary of the pond: Adam’s disobedience results in human mortality but each individual human remains responsible for his or her own sin. “In short, when sin’s origins are discussed, Jewish writers of the Second Temple period refer to human choice even as they speak of Adam’s (or Adam and Eve’s) influence. Sin is not compulsory, even if its ubiquity might suggest its inevitability.” (p. 105)

So what about Paul and James?

Paul understands sin as “more a power from which humans need to be liberated than individual wrongful deeds for which humans require forgiveness.” (p. 106) This is particularly clear in Romans 5-7.

Sin “entered the world” (Rom. 5:12), where it exercised power reminiscent of a master-slave or king-subject relationship. Humans are “controlled by sin” (Rom 6:6), the aim of sin is to “rule your bodies, to make you obey their cravings [epthymia]” (Rom. 6:12, my translation), people present “parts of their body to sin as weapons to do wrong” (Rom. 6:13), and people comport themselves as slaves to sin (Rom. 6:16). Whereas in the Life of Adam and Eve, cravings give rise to sin, for Paul the opposite is the case: sin produces all kinds of cravings. And whereas in the Second Temple literature we surveyed obedience to the law was the means for countering cravings and sin, for Paul the law is an instrument sin uses to cultivate those cravings (epthymia; Rom. 6:12; 7:7-8). The baptized were formerly enslaved to sin, but they are now liberated from its dominion (Rom. 6:17-18, 20, 22). (p. 107)

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Don’t Read it for Moral Lessons

I had the opportunity recently to lead a discussion class on reading the Old Testament. The class was based in part on The Lost World of Scripture, by John Walton and D. Brent Sandy, but really focused on a Veritas Forum Video available on You Tube. In 2015 John Walton and Erin Darby engaged in an on stage conversation at the University of Tennessee entitled Reading the Old Testament: The Ancient Origins and Authority of Scripture. The conversation is outstanding and well worth the time and effort. It made for a fascinating class discussion, we would watch a five to ten minute segment interleaved with time for questions and discussion.

John and Erin conversation about the Old Testament was long and wide ranging, with many true gems for consideration. One I particularly appreciate is found at 1:03:07. If I’ve done this correctly, the video embedded below should start at this point.

John is talking about inspiration and how it is not limited to the writing of a book. Canonization was a community process, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

(1:03:07) That’s the idea that we do believe that God is involved at each step along the way. After all, somebody decided that Jeremiah was an authoritative voice of God and other contemporaries speaking in the name of YHWH were not. Some community decided that and some community decided that they were going to gather the oracles of Jeremiah into a book and that would be scripture. And some community decided to accept that as canonical literature and differentiate it from non-canonical literature. In other words, you have communities of faith involved step by step all the way from the first authority figure all the way through to the canonization process. …

So how and why should we read the Old Testament?

(1:04:35) That’s the case I have to make with Old Testament all the time with my students, that yeah, this is really just as important. … I make the case by persuading them that this is God’s revelation of himself and that if we read it that way we will appreciate it at a whole new level that we never have before. In other words, don’t read it for proof texts, don’t read it for moral lessons, don’t read it for heroes of the Bible, don’t read it for behavioral objectives, don’t read it for metaphors, what are the five stones in your bag to kill the giant in your life. Don’t read it for that! Read it because it is God’s revelation of himself and this is how you read it that way.

Read the Old Testament as God’s revelation of himself. Growing up in the church I was certainly introduced to the Old Testament as a series of heroes, as moral lessons for modern life, as proof texts for Christ. God was present, of course, but as something of a distant judge coming occasionally to interact with his people. How different would our understanding and interpretation be if we looked at the Old Testament as focused on God rather than on humanity?

Watch the whole conversation. You won’t regret it.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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Before Nature, Before Books

Jesus did not speak the ‘red letters’ in your Bible. He did not speak English … or even Greek. What we have is translation, interpretation, and paraphrase.The Gospels convey the true story of Jesus, but it does so through the medium of written communication that made sense to the original audience and continues to carry the message to us today. The evangelists pulled together incidents from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, putting them in written form, in books, but they pulled them from an oral culture where variants (e.g., the fig tree was found withered instantly (Mt 21:19) or on the next day (Mk 11:14,20); the number of women at the tomb, 1 (Jn), 2 (Mt) , 3 (Mk), more (Lk)); and the like) were not considered troublesome.

The same is true of the Old Testament, but the distance from our culture and context even greater than it is in the New Testament. The Old Testament describes an era of human history that is both before nature and before books.

How can we dig deeper?

The essence of the message contained in the Old Testament can be understood by the average reader of a good translation. However, much of the nuance and detail is lost when this is as far as we go. The Old Testament is not a text of Western modernity, or even of medieval Europe or ancient Greece. It is an ancient Near Eastern text originally composed or assembled in a specific time and place. It carries with it the nuances of that time and place. John Walton, in his book coauthored with D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture, emphasizes that the ancient Near East was a hearing dominant culture, not a text dominant culture. Texts served a different purpose in that world than they do in ours. One consequence of this is that authority rested with individuals and offices rather than with books. The Old Testament is not a series of books by authors, but for the most part a collection of documents assembled to convey a particular message. The history of Israel is integral to this message but the focus is on God. Continue reading

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Creation is Salvation

The interpretation of scripture – and especially the interpretation of the creation narratives contained in scripture – comprises one of the most significant points of conflict in the discussion of the relationship of science and the Christian faith within the church. There is a gut reaction on the part of many Christians that faith is the underdog, forced always to accommodate itself to the high priest of science. The clear, traditional reading gives way to secular reason and naturalism.

This scenario is not entirely accurate however. It is true that discoveries of science, archaeology, and geography force us, at times, to reconsider our interpretation of parts of scripture. But it is not true that there was one universal accepted interpretation prior to the modern era. The history of biblical interpretation is far more complex.

Peter Bouteneff’s book Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives explores the use of the creation narratives in Second Temple Judaism (ca. 200 BCE to 100 CE), in the New Testament, and in the writings of the early church fathers through the first four centuries of the church. It is a fascinating book – a bit academic, but not too strenuous a read. It is one of the most interesting and useful books I’ve read while mulling over the questions of science and Christian faith. In the first chapter of Beginnings Bouteneff discusses the development of the text of the Old Testament – especially the Septuagint (LXX) used by almost all of the NT and early Christian authors. He also explores the way that the text was used by Second Temple era Jewish authors in non-canonical writings, apocrypha and pseudepigrapha.

First: The OT canon developed slowly over the centuries before ca. 200 BCE. The various authors and editors may or may not have been familiar with the text of Genesis and the creation stories therein. There are a few clear references (Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 for example), and a few potential references – but by and large the creation narrative was not integral to the development of Israelite faith and practice. There are, of course, many references to creation in general terms to establish the sovereignty of God, but these do not use details of the creation narrative of Gen 1-3. Adam, Eve, and original sin are simply not part of the picture. Continue reading

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Most Evangelicals Are Not Creationists?

Of course, in asking this question it is important to define what is meant by “creationist.” Most evangelicals do believe that God created the world and continues to be involved in his creation. However, if we define a creationist as a young earth creationist – one who is a certain that God created the universe, the Earth, and all life within the past 10,000 years – then Ecklund and Scheitle (Religion vs. Science) find that only 28 to 29% of self-identified evangelicals fit cleanly into this category

Turning that around, more than 71% of evangelicals are not ‘true believers’ in young earth creationism. Some of these individuals lean toward young earth creationism, but they are not certain it is the correct view and are open (to varying degrees) to other possibilities. Many hold to some form of old earth creationism, progressive or evolutionary. Looking at religious individuals more broadly, “Among those respondents who said “I know God exists and have no doubts about it,”36.1% also said the young-earth creationist narrative is definitely true.” (p. 79) Again turning this around, 63.9 % certain of God are not certain of young-earth creationism.

There are some key convictions however. The first is that God is involved in the process of creation. 70% of evangelicals agree that God is actively involved in the world. Many are also convinced that there are phenomena for which natural explanations will never be found. Continue reading

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Insights From Thomas

In his book No Free Lunch William Dembski commented on gaps and science.

The “gaps” in the god-of-the-gaps objection are meant to denote gaps of ignorance about underlying physical mechanisms. But there is no reason to think that all gaps give way to ordinary physical explanations once we know enough about the underlying physical mechanisms. The mechanisms simply do not exist. Some gaps might constitute ontic discontinuities in the chain of physical causes and thus remain forever beyond the capacity of physical mechanisms. (p. 334-335)

Christian advocates of intelligent design will agree, I think, that God is present in all of nature and that his design is found throughout all of nature, including natural mechanisms. Both Jim Stump and Jeff Zweerink emphasized this in their contributions to Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation? on the question of divine action. Still, there is an emphasis on these “ontic discontinuities,” an expectation that mechanisms do not exist to provide natural explanations for empirical observed phenomena, for the nature of the world. In the work of Dembski and Stephen Meyer the origin of life, and of the “specified information” of the cell, is proposed to represent one of these discontinuities. Old earth creationists suggest that these discontinuities are also seen in the diversity of life – natural mechanism is insufficient to account for the appearance of complex life from simpler forms. This leads to an interesting theological question.

Contrast this with Thomas Aquinas and his approach as reflected in Summa Theologica (written between 1265 and 1274), and particularly with Thomas’s fifth way. Thomas answers an objection (Quotes from this link to Summa Theologica article three):

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

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A Means of Knowing or a Subject for Study?

What role should religion play in a University?

In her earlier book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think Elaine Ecklund asked 191 scientists at ‘elite’ universities “What place should religion occupy in a university like yours?” Of these scientists, ~42% mentioned some kind of positive role, ~36% saw no positive role for religious people, institutions, or ideas in the university, the remainder are mixed. Approximately 54% mentioned the dangers that religion can have for science.

Ecklund outlines three models or reasons for eliminating religion from the University and three models or reasons for including religion in the University distilled from the comments of these 191 professors across Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Psychology, Sociology, Economics, and Political Science. First, three reasons for eliminating religion.

The Model of Opposition: Religion ought to be viewed in opposition to scientific reasoning. Some of the scientists interviewed view the purpose of the university as “inherently focused on reason and rationality, and little else.” (p. 93) Religion should not be at the university as anything other than a subject for dissection. Because there is no truth in religion that is not also found apart from religion – religious “knowing” or thought simply does not belong. The only real questions are secular questions.

The Model of Secularism: Universities ought to be bastions of secularism.Scientists who talk extensively about separation of church and state argue that there are enough places in the broader society where religion has taken hold and that universities should be places where knowledge is protected from its grip” (p. 97)

The Model of Pluralism: Universities ought to foster pluralism. There is a serious danger from bringing religion into the university because religion is inherently partisan and will privilege one group over another. Proselytizing has no place in the university. Some wonder if one can even hold an exclusive view and be a true scholar.

Of course, it is also possible to take a different view of the purpose of the University. Perhaps the university has a responsibility to students and to society that runs counter to it image as a bastion of scientific secularism. This leads to three reasons for including religion in the University.

The Model of Nurture: Universities ought to nurture students – including spiritually – in their formative years. In general this is not considered part of the intellectual mission of the university, rather the university should provide resource for the development of the whole person, providing athletic facilities, social opportunities, and, for those who wish, the opportunity for spiritual nurture. This is supporting student choice and diversity, not establishing any belief as preferred.

The Model of Legitimacy: Universities ought to extend legitimacy to religion as a subject of study. This is a two-edged sword. While religion should be acknowledged as a subject for study and for the impact it has on some subjects, not just for dissection but from a variety of perspectives, it is separated and bounded and kept away from the other disciplines.

The Model of Connected Knowledge: Universities ought to support the connection of religious knowledge to other forms of knowledge. Ecklund comments on Marsden’s call for “Christian scholars to take bold initiative in connecting their beliefs to their specific disciplines while at the same time playing by the rules of their particular guilds.” This is harder than it sounds. In Ecklund’s interviews social scientists struggled to see a way to connect faith with disciplines, natural scientists saw it as nearly impossible. No one saw faith as having any influence on the scientific method of their discipline.

What do you see as ways that religion can or should have a place within the university?

Is religion a form of knowledge or a subject for investigation?

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