Original Sin: Part 4, Reconsidering Paul on Original Sin

I have been arguing for a reevaluation of the concept known as Original Sin. Basically, I've argued that Original Sin is more extrinsic, situational, and circumstantial than intrinsic, dispositional, and innate. My arguments to this point have been inspired by the social sciences: Economics, psychology, sociology. In this post I want to support my argument with the biblical witness.

To do this I'm going to borrow the analysis of Tom Holland in his book Contours of Pauline Theology. Given that most of the texts used to support the doctrine of Original Sin come from Paul we should, obviously, take this issue right to the source.

The question I'd like to ask is simply this: Did Paul really teach the doctrine of Original Sin?

To start, note that Holland's work isn't about Original Sin, but his fresh reading of Paul does have implications for the doctrine. What I'd like to do in this post is summarize the parts of Holland's work that I think have implications for the doctrine of Original Sin.

The main thrust of Holland's reading of Paul is to suggest that Paul was a New Exodus theologian. The original Exodus involved God liberating his people from bondage, leading them through the waters and wilderness, back to the Promised Land. But after the fall of the Davidic dynasty and subsequent exile the Old Testament prophets, namely Isaiah, began to hope for a New Exodus. Critical features of this New Exodus would mirror the former Exodus from Egypt. It would be led by a descendent of David who was anointed by the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11.1-2). This descendent of David would lead God's people through the wilderness to a new Eden (Isaiah 51.3). A New Covenant would be established between God and his people (Isaiah 9.6-7). Hearts would be circumcised (Jeremiah 31.31-34). A New Temple would be built (Ezekiel 44-45) where all the nations will gather to worship (Isaiah 2.1-5). And God will be married to his people and a great banquet will be thrown in celebration (Isaiah 54.1-8). (Contours, pp. 20-21)

It is Holland's argument that the New Exodus imagery of the Old Testament prophets framed the way the early church saw the Christ Event. There are many overt New Exodus passages in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 26.17-18; Galatians 1.3; Colossians 1.12-13; Revelation 1.5-6; Luke 1-2) but Holland goes further to suggest that the New Exodus imagery is the central motif of the New Testament, particularly the writings of Paul.

Holland argues that Paul, as a New Exodus theologian, builds his soteriology upon the paradigmatic salvation event in Jewish history: The Exodus, with a particular focus on the Passover. Thus, all of the categories that we find in Paul--sin, faith, justification, atonement, baptism, law, grace--should be read in light of the Exodus. Since most modern readers of Paul have failed to do this (particularly the Reformers) we've tended to get skewed readings of Paul. Holland concludes his book with these words:

"The conclusion of this study is that two major lenses have been missing from virtually all New Testament exegesis and that their absence has had a detrimental effect on properly appreciating the message of Paul. The first is the lens of the Passover and the second is the lens of a corporate reading of texts." (Contours, p. 291)

Unpacking this quote, Holland's argument is that by neglecting the Passover imagery Reformed theologians built their views of atonement and justification around legal metaphors. That is, the metaphor of salvation became about crime and punishment rather than rescue and deliverance. The second problem was that the Reformers read the passages concerning sin, faith, justification and baptism as dealing with individuals. You were a sinner who, as an individual before God, had to receive the gift of grace. But the Exodus was a corporate, collective event. A people were delivered from slavery. True, nations contain individuals, but the salvation experienced in the Exodus was a collective event.

If we follow Holland and read Paul through New Exodus lenses then suddenly Paul reads quite differently.

Here is one implication of this reading. According to Paul, "salvation" isn't about dealing with personal sin or guilt. It is, rather, God lifting a group of people out of bondage and creating a New Covenant with them (often symbolized as a marriage). As Holland writes:

"Paul sees that behind the conflict and alienation that man experiences is a whole universal order of rebellion. Man is at the centre of this struggle as a result of being made in God's image. Satan, the one who has sought the establishment of a different kingdom from that which God rules, has taken man, and all that he was made responsible for through creation, into bondage in the kingdom of darkness. The redemption of Christ is about the deliverance of man and 'nature' from this alienation and death." (Contours, p. 110)

All well and good, but it is critical to insist that this deliverance from bondage didn't happen in the privacy of our own hearts and prayers. Like the Exodus, the New Exodus is a corporate and historical event:

"The concept is not individualistic, as it is so often held, but is corporate, speaking of the state of unredeemed humanity in its relationship to Satan (Sin)." (Contours, p. 108)

"Thus, in Christ's death, there is not only a dealing with the guilt of sin and its consequences, but also the severing of the relationship with sin, in which unregenerate mankind is involved. It is an experience that encompasses the individual, but it is much more than solitary salvation. It is the deliverance of the community by the covenantal annulling effect of death...Having been delivered from membership of 'the body of Sin', the church has been brought into union with a new head and made to be members of a new body, 'the body of Christ'. (Contours, p. 110)

How might this new reading affect Pauline texts that seem to support the notion of Original Sin? Well, to take the case noted in the quote above, we can consider Paul's use of the phrase "the body of sin."

When Paul speaks of "the body of Sin" it sure seems like he's teaching Original Sin. But Holland argues that this conclusion only comes about if we read the phrase "the body" individualistically. That is, we are tempted to think that Paul is referring to your body and my body. But Holland argues that "body of Sin" is best read corporately. That is, we are a part of a larger body, a group of people, who are captive to sin. Paul's teaching here isn't that your particular human body is inherently sinful. No, "body of Sin" is a term of membership, designating which group you belong to. To quote Holland:

"...Paul sees the relationship between Satan and the members of his community, the body of Sin, as a parallel to that existing between Christ and his people. This ought not to be too difficult to accept in that the New Testament is constantly making comparisons between the members of these two communities that show corresponding relationships. Believers are citizens of the kingdom of light, unbelievers of the kingdom of darkness. Believers are the children of God, unbelievers are the children of the devil. Believers are the servants of God, unbelievers are the servants of the devil. These parallels ought to suggest that Paul would not find any difficulty in taking these comparisons to their ultimate conclusion. Believers are members of the body of Christ, unbelievers are members of the body of Sin." (Contours, p. 100)

If sin is about membership with a group rather than about some innate taint, then our reading of Paul completely overturns the notion that Paul taught anything like the doctrine of Original Sin. Holland is clear on this point (Contours, p. 110):

"It follows that the body is not in some way the bearer of sin nor is sin a deformation that is biologically inherited as some have suggested...[Sin] is relational rather than legal...Whether a man or a woman is righteous or a sinner in the biblical pattern of thinking depends upon the community to which they belong."

"Appreciating that the body is not the seat of sin as the traditional interpretation of the 'body of sin' suggests, allows us to realize that our humanity is God-given, even in its fallen condition. There ought not to be any shame in being human, nor in what such a reality implies. It should help us recognize that there are many natural emotions and desires that in themselves are not sinful and need no repentance; it is only their misuse that requires such a response."

In short, Paul didn't teach Original Sin at all.

Okay, then, how does this reading of Paul square with my Malthusian view of sin? Holland notes that in the New Exodus thinking the concepts of Death, Sin, and Satan get conflated. Paul often links sin and death (Romans 7.2-3; 8.1) in describing the satanic powers that enslave us. In other places sin and death are considered to be the Last Enemy to be defeated (1 Corinthians 15.45-55). These all appear to be echos that go back to the Exodus where the Angel of Death "passed over" the nation of Israel. As seen in the quotes above, Holland tends to lead with "Sin" and "Satan" but I think it is just as acceptable to lead with Death as the controlling power. Interestingly, this focus on death is supported by Holland's New Exodus reading. Specifically, consider Isaiah 28.16:

So this is what the Sovereign LORD says:
"See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who trusts will never be dismayed.

In the New Testament this "cornerstone" passage is the most frequently cited Old Testament passage to describe the New Covenant in Christ. But in the verses preceding this passage (verses 12-15) a description is given of the Old Covenant from which the New Exodus will provide rescue (emphases added):

...to whom he said,
"This is the resting place, let the weary rest";
and, "This is the place of repose"—
but they would not listen.

So then, the word of the LORD to them will become:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule;
a little here, a little there—
so that they will go and fall backward,
be injured and snared and captured.

Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scoffers
who rule this people in Jerusalem.

You boast, "We have entered into a covenant with death,
with the grave we have made an agreement.

When an overwhelming scourge sweeps by,
it cannot touch us,
for we have made a lie our refuge
and falsehood our hiding place."

I don't think a better description of our Malthusian plight could found than "We have entered into a covenant with death, with the grave we have made an agreement." And, interestingly, this Malthusian-inspired "pact with death" is the New Exodus description of what we call "Sin" or "Satan" in the New Testament.

In sum, I think Holland's New Exodus framework can be easily adopted to fit the model I'm building around a Malthusian notion of sin. Specifically, the "law of sin and death" is the how the Malthusian forces enslave the human mind. Death here, as I've argued, is read very literally. The specter of death drives human sinfulness. Again, we are not inherently evil. But we are in bondage, members of the body of Sin. And our bondage is biological rather than spiritual. (Or, rather, the biological infects and pushes around the spiritual.) That is, our biology tethers us to a survival instinct that is enslaved to Malthusian forces. If we submit to those Malthusian pressures, to the law of sin and death, then we are in Sin. We are submitting, as servants, to the Power of this World. You can call that power Satan if you like.

Salvation, as Holland has shown us, is being set free from the bondage of Sin. Again, saved not in a private, individualized way where the sin "inside" me is removed. Rather, salvation depends, to use Holland's words, "upon the community to which you belong." If you are a member of the Malthusian world you play/live by those rules, the rules of sin and death. The Malthusian rules of survival of the fittest. But Christ has created a New Community, the body of Christ, the church, that has been set free from the "law of sin and death." Those in the body of Christ do not live according to the self-interested impulses forced upon them by the Malthusian world. Death can't push around the body of Christ. Freed from the Angel of Death, who passes over due to the blood of the Lamb, the body of Christ can live sacrificially and lovingly. A feat impossible when in bondage to Satan. Or Sin. Or Death. Or Malthus. Or whatever you want to call it.

Next Post: Part 5

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9 thoughts on “Original Sin: Part 4, Reconsidering Paul on Original Sin”

  1. You've done a good job "theologizing`" moral development...and what the "community" wants/needs...
    I will be frank. I have tried and "died trying" to talk with others about different difficulties concerning "community", but to no avail. The groups here are very entrenched "in group", through memory, culture, and belief.

    I don't think I "fit", as I have tried to "reach out", and belong... but have found personally, and intellecturally over the past 14 years, that there is no difference in needs of community, because community is not spriitul belonging. It is human belonging..and that has nothing to do with Scriptures...or Church...I can find community in any organization...or social structure..

    The Church has ceased to have the same meaning to and for me...

  2. Amen!

    I think up until this post I was misunderstanding terms. When you were saying "original sin" I was hearing "fallenness." Rather, as I understand it, you are arguing for the cosmic, communal enslavement of creation (including humans) to the powers of sin, death, etc. -- or, as you have named it, the Malthusian Situation. And it is God who does this in the cross and resurrection, not us individuals through our personal faith. Is that right?

    If so, now I am re-wondering (I am always compelled to wonder by your posts!) where fallenness, creation, and "inward" sin come into play in this construal. What I would personally want to say is that "inner" or "chosen" (or "predisposition to") sin is, in fact, a reality; but it is not something "spiritual" passed on biologically or otherwise that is a kind of "depravity," but rather something more and more formed in us over time precisely in our bondage to the Malthusian world. That is, being slaves to sin has formed sin inside us. And in the New Exodus of Christ's death and resurrection, as the Malthusian world is renewed, so our own selves, having been formed in the way of Malthus (!), are renewed as well.

    Does that make sense? I don't want to imply I'm trying to retain "inwardness" or individuality as important to the gospel; only that who we have become as members of the kingdom of Sin and Death is transformed along with the kingdom itself.

    And now I'm done. Great post.

  3. Brad, you suggest a "spiritual kingdom" which I no one can "prove". I much prefer the stance of agnosticism toward the spiritual realm and that includes one's view of God and other spritiual entities, such as Church...The natural world is filled with situations and people who only are focused on their individual interests at the costs of anyone else's. This is setting up for a frustration of "community" because each one is seeking his own. While I don't believe that individualism is wrong, as far as growth in knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, individualism in seeking, asserting, and dominating or controlling another, or situations, are not appropriate in seeking the best or most profitable for all concerned.

    I have a hard time with trust as it concerns these matters, because I trusted with no reservations, which I believe to be unhealthy and misguided. I made assumptions about others, without recognizing that certain people are untrustworthy. It was my nativete that I blame and take responsibility for...

    I do not think that there should be a view of "kingdom to come" as we do not know, as many did not know at the time of Christ, whether there was even a resurrection. So, let's not base our understanding on metaphors, but the real and substantial realities of the world, period.

  4. I am thoroughly enjoying this series and EVERYONE's response.

    Dr. Beck - what would you say to the latter portion of Romans 7?

    Romans 7:1-6 - Paul seems to address "sin" on a collective
    level, i.e. "my brothers", "we".
    That seems to harmonize with
    Holland's hypothesis.

    But in Romans 7:7-23, Paul seems to speak (using himself as an example or analogy perhaps) about "sin" on an individual level.

    Browsing Romans 8 from the proposed "New Exodus" perspective does seem open an interpretation of a resolution/antidote to a "collective" audience as well as an individual.

    Thanks again - I think this series
    is rich enough to go on for awhile.

  5. Hi Angie,
    Well, I think a lot of people can sympathize with your disillusionment with church. I tend to think of church as "a moment of grace experienced socially." I go to building called "church" on Sundays, but I might not find a moment of grace. I went to a building and tried to have church, but it didn't happen. And sometimes, I'm with complete strangers and something happens where we stop and look at each other as real people and not just anonymous faces in the crowd. And it might just be for fleeting moments. But when I feel that, I know I've experienced church.

    Hi Brad,
    I think up until this post I was misunderstanding terms. When you were saying "original sin" I was hearing "fallenness." Rather, as I understand it, you are arguing for the cosmic, communal enslavement of creation (including humans) to the powers of sin, death, etc. -- or, as you have named it, the Malthusian Situation. And it is God who does this in the cross and resurrection, not us individuals through our personal faith. Is that right? Yes, this is what I'm saying. It fits with a Christus Victor view of sin and salvation.

    Also, I think your wanting to retain a notion of inwardness is also correct. I'm not denying that sin has an inward component. I'm just trying to think through how that inward sin got there in the first place. Again, the Orthodox position is close to where I'm at: Adam's choice brings about Death (expulsion from the garden). What we inherit from Adam isn't sin but Death (in my frame: A death wariness due to being a biologically contingent being existing in a Malthusian world). And it's death that drives us to sin. We primarily inherit Death, and not Sin, from Adam. In short, I'm just putting out the Orthodox view in non-theological terminology. (And, btw, the Orthodox view is Christus Victor. See my post on the Orthodox Easter icon: The Harrowing of Hell.)

    Great question. Obviously, in the end, one might just need to read Holland's book. But here is a hint at his answer (and let's all be clear that I'm no Pauline scholar):

    In Romans 7.14-25 it can look like Paul is speaking of an individual and internal battle. But many Pauline scholars believe that Paul is acting out Israel's collective experience under the Law. One hint of this collective reading is the phrase in v. 9 "I was once alive apart from the law." This surely cannot apply to Paul's own life story. But it does fit Israel's story: Israel lived as a liberated people before getting to Sinai.

    This collective reading also appears to be supported by the metaphor at the start of the chapter that has confused some commentators (7.1-6). A New Exodus reading sees the "old husband" as Pharaoh/Egypt/Sin/Bondage. If so, the chapter begins on a corporate note (as the "bride metaphor" is never applied to individuals but to Israel and the church collectively).

    And, finally, we also have evidence elsewhere that Paul was very comfortable using the ideas of a "body" and its "members" as metaphors for the corporate church (I Cor. 12.12ff).

    Obviously, one could quibble and push back on these readings. If so, I'd refer my interlocutor to Holland's fuller argument.

  6. A very worthy subject which has interested me since I left my Southern Baptist background for a trek to find something that, for me, seemed to be missing; the spiritual dimension. Thank you Dr. Beck for making me think with different eyes.

  7. Interesting stuff.
    Holland seems to be playing a lot of either/or cards, doesn't he? It's relational NOT juridical. But of course Paul DOES use lawcourt metaphors, and Paul DOES use relational metaphors.
    Perhaps Holland is just trying to rectify an imbalance, but his exegesis seems odd to me. Maybe I should just read the book. Then I could find out what he does with Romans 5:12 (So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin...), where the both/and dynamic seems fairly obvious to me...


  8. Don, I appreciated your blog entry and went to you blog site. Anyone interested in understanding their faith outside of the Church, whether the institutional or not, would find it interesting.

    Richard, I am not just disappointed with the institutional Church, although that has compounded the "problem" concerning my struggle to come to terms with faith. "Problems" are only considered problems when they disturb and make one start to search to define things differently, so that meaning can come and somehow survive the absurdity of life.
    Evaluation is necessary at all times, but especially during these times. The Church just seems to want to "fix" it by pointing to Scripture and verse and the traditionally understood way of theologizing the "problem'...and especially if they see or understand "you" as the problem.
    So, don't give me the relational jargon of "connection". The Church has an agenda and it is not relationally focused, it is only enlarging their numbers, and 'planting churches" and acting as if individuals are (business) projects, instead of truly caring, loving and connecting..but this is not about church anyway, it is about human relationships at large, which is independent of church... A person may need to change in certain ways, but will never come to that place unless there is trust and relationship to do so. And the person themself sees the need and wants the change.

    I just wonder if those who think so "paternalistically" are themselves aware of how they need to change? Or are they the "mature", "the leader", "the mentor"...I would much prefer to connect to other humans that recognize human problems as human experience, and that doesn't have to be inside of the Church...but could be.

  9. How does one interpret Romans 6 (ie: "wages of sin is death" type language) through this lens? I'm a bit perplexed.

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