In Defence of William Lane Craig on Original Sin

I will admit to jumping on a bandwagon with this one. A good recent post over at MandM alerted me to just how far and wide the phenomenon of apparently ignorant evangelicals bashing William Lane Craig is spreading based on something he said recently. Since such uninformed critique seems to spread like wildfire, I thought I would add my voice to those defending Dr Craig and calling our fellow evangelical Christians to be a little more patient and careful – as well as striving to be better informed about the theological issues we discuss.

At his website Reasonable Faith, Dr Craig recently replied in the Q and A section to a letter from a sceptic. The question was #193, and Bill appropriately titled it “Overweening Ignorance.”

On the whole, the letter and the response is entertaining, if only to see another display of how angry young sceptics are so often way out of their depth without even realising it. I won’t reproduce the correspondent’s letter in full, but here’s the relevant section that gives rise to the subject I want to look at:

4) God Determines that Adams sin is transmutable down to every single person that will ever exist. (Moral objection 1: The sins of the father are logically not related to the son in any way shape or form)

Bill replied to this objection as follows:

As for your two moral objections, the first is an objection to the doctrine of original sin. But once more, that doctrine is not universally affirmed by Christians and is not essential to the Christian faith. So don’t let that be a stumbling block for you. What is essential to Christian faith is that all men are sinners and in need of God’s forgiveness and redemption. I’m sure you’d recognize your own moral shortcomings and failures, Luke. So don’t get hung up on Adam’s sin. It’s your own sin you need to deal with. (As for the doctrine, its viability will depend on the viability of imputation. We often know of cases where one person is held responsible for the actions of another because the one person represents the other or serves as a proxy acting on the other’s behalf. Maybe Adam was our representative before God.)

I recall seeing this at Bill’s site and thinking nothing of it. It was a decent answer, one, I thought, that any number of Christians could have given. At very least it gave a basic response to the criticism raised along two lines: Firstly, the understanding expressed by the correspondent isn’t universally affirmed by Christians. There are bigger things to address first like the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ. Those issues are central to the Christian faith. Until those things are dealt with, there’s no point trying to grapple with finer points. Secondly, there is actually a plausible way of understanding original sin, involving the idea of representation.

However, not everyone shares my fairly positive reaction. Evangelical bloggers have taken this as an opportunity to tear into Bill as a compromiser who treats the Bible as “optional.” One went as far as to accuse him of catering to “unbelieving presuppositions” (although we weren’t told what those presuppositions are). A well known online Christian figure has accused Bill of “starting with philosophy and then crafting a theology to match [his] philosophical opinions.” Another commenter at a blog claimed that once you take away original sin, then there’s absolutely “no basis by which Christ’s blood can be applied to any sinner whatsoever.” His parting shot: “You don’t defend Christianity by surrendering.”

Why the furore? Why the extreme nature of the attacks? Why the accusations, hostility and wilful enmity? I know I’ve said this before, but it is such a major problem within evangelicalism that it can’t be mentioned enough. The problem is twofold: Ignorance and insularity. Actually there’s a third problem stirred up by ignorance and insularity, namely an unwillingness to listen carefully and charitably to what another person is saying.

Let me explain. The person to whom Dr Craig is responding is referring to the position that the sin of Adam – the sin itself and not just the negative effects of his sin or the ability or tendency to sin – is passed on to all human beings. He’s using this as an objection to Christian theism. Christianity teaches this, but this (he says) is objectionable, therefore Christianity is objectionable. And therefore Bill’s first response is entirely appropriate. Yes, many Christians do teach original sin – the idea that Adam’s sin is passed on to all of his descendants. Many Protestant churches teach this, as does the Roman Catholic church (which is why, for example, the Catholic catechism teaches in article 1263 “By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins”). However, many Christians do not share this view. For example, Eastern Orthodox Christianity does not teach this view. In Orthodoxy, original sin is a term “used to define the doctrine of man’s inclination towards sin, a heritage from the sin of our progenitors.” It is not, as in Catholicism, a sin transmitted to us for which we are held guilty and in need of forgiveness (forgiveness secured through baptism). It is not, as in Reformed theology, a sin imputed to us by Adam acting as a representative of humanity. The Orthodox wiki (this is where the previous quote came from) sums up the difference between Orthodox and Roman Catholic theology thus:

In the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, Adam and Eve committed a sin, the original sin. The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that no one is guilty for the actual sin they committed but rather everyone inherits the consequences of this act; the foremost of this is physical death in this world. This is the reason why the original fathers of the Church over the centuries have preferred the term ancestral sin. The consequences and penalties of this ancestral act are transferred by means of natural heredity to the entire human race. Since every human is a descendant of Adam then ‘no one is free from the implications of this sin’ (which is human death) and that the only way to be freed from this is through baptism. While mortality is certainly a result of the Fall, along with this also what is termed “concupiscence” in the writings of St Augustine of Hippo — this is the “evil impulse” of Judaism, and in Orthodoxy, we might say this is our “disordered passion.” It isn’t only that we are born in death, or in a state of distance from God, but also that we are born with disordered passion within us. Orthodoxy would not describe the human state as one of “total depravity” (see Cyril Lucaris however).

Orthodox Christians have usually understood Roman Catholicism as professing St. Augustine’s teaching that everyone bears not only the consequence, but also the guilt, of Adam’s sin. This teaching appears to have been confirmed by multiple councils, the first of them being the Council of Orange in 529. This difference between the two Churches in their understanding of the original sin was one of the doctrinal reasons underlying the Catholic Church’s declaration of its dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the 19th century, a dogma that is rejected by the Orthodox Church.

I am not explaining the Orthodox view because I accept it. I am only explaining it because I get the impression from some of the reactions to Bill’s comments that plenty of evangelicals didn’t even know that the Orthodox view existed! If a person is rejecting all of Christian theism based on a particular understanding of a specific doctrine that Christians may and do disagree on while still remaining in the camp of Christianity, then the objector is – at best – only saying that if he were a Christian then he would be a Christian of one sort rather than another. But there are much bigger issues he needs to address first like the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus.

Some of Dr Craig’s attackers seem to have entirely missed the point here. They have accused him of “surrendering” (surrendering what, Christianity?) or saying that the Bible is optional. He has done no such thing. The fact that Bill correctly noted that not all Christians think the way you do (and I am now addressing those who made the sorts of accusations I refer to above) does not mean that a) he doesn’t agree with you, or b) he is somehow selling out the faith for the sake of getting people more interested in it. He is simply pointing out that people need to put the horse before the cart: First deal with the big issues, namely God’s existence, the authenticity of Christ, our own sin and our need for reconciliation to God. Millions of people are able to appreciate all of these things without agreeing with each other on a doctrine of original sin.

What’s more, of all those who I have seen attacking Bill for these comments, none of them as far as I can tell actually disagrees with him on the doctrine of original sin! Incredible! The doctrine of original sin that he very briefly sketches is a Reformed view where Adam represents the whole human race as a kind of federal head. Ironically, the most vocal detractors of Bill and his comments have themselves been Reformed Christians who hold to precisely this view.

Bill didn’t sell out anything. He made these comments in the context of a succinct and effective rebuff to a sneering sceptic who evidently thought that his amazing arguments would bring the Christian faith crashing to its knees. I submit that if Evangelical Christians were a little less ignorant, a little less worried about the fact that people who don’t agree with them in every jot and tittle are enjoying success, and a lot more gracious towards those with whom they do not agree in other areas, they would find their own witness to the truth of Christianity to be considerably more effective.

Glenn Peoples

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21 thoughts on “In Defence of William Lane Craig on Original Sin

  1. Oy vey! Let me guess, the “prominent christian” who accused Craig of starting with philosophy and crafting theology was James White.

  2. Hi Glenn,
    I got a similar reaction from a church leader when I went further and suggested that the doctrine as understood by Western Christians really originates in Augustine.

    I think the problem is the hermeneutical circle of reading scripture with a theology already in mind which acts as a interpretive lens. People read Romans 5 and think Paul’s discussion of our being “in Adam” means we are just counted guilty and sin by being born as though it were some substance within us. What many don’t do is treat the “in Christ” aspect with the same logic. If Adam’s sin automatically made me a sinner (without my joining with him on my own account) just by having his humanity then if we follow Paul’s argument in that way then the text would also make it that everyone is automatically righteous (without participating in Christ on our own account) but most universalists wouldn’t even accept that let alone conventional evangelicals!! Surely this shows us Paul is actually using the categories of “in Adam” and “in Christ” in a prticipatory and
    paradigmatic sense—we are born and grow up following Adam’s pattern (for ourselves) but when we follow and put our faith in Christ we enter into a new pattern.

    The second issue most don’t think about is this: what kind of humanity first sinned? Surely the pre-fall humanity! In other words the humanity God created was able and temptable to sin–just like us. This then causes us to question whether human nature actually changed–I say it didn’t—it was the Adamic sin which typifies our sin. It’s not that we have a different nature from the created one but that that nature is sin-prone. Is that a denial of the goodness of creation? I don’t think so since I hold that God created us (I actually believe through an evolutionary pathway) dependant and unable to do his will without his leading and grace.

    This idea of “a different human nature” is also problematic Christologically since Jesus must share our humanity–as Jerome (I think) put it “what is not assumed is not redeemed”. Jesus had the same humanity as we do not some kind of pre-lapsarian humanity (which I think is a false distinction anyway). There is no indication in the Genesis accounts of human nature actually changing. The “Fall” if there is one seems to me to extend well beyond Ch 3 and is an ongoing degredation of human culture and behaviour with increasing violence and alienation from God.

    Glad you defended Bill!

  3. Glenn, my understanding is that the concept of original sin becomes theologically incomprehensible unless one accepts that there actually was an Adam and Eve who sinned in the Garden of Eden. How do Christians who accept the theory of evolution understand the concept of the Fall? In other words, how can any sense be made of the terms “sin of Adam” and “pre-fall humanity” if there was no Adam and no Fall?

  4. Atheist Missionary –

    You can find one potential explanation in Denis Alexander’s “Creation and Evolution: Do we have to choose?”. In this he suggests that Adam was not the first human but the first human to which God revealed himself. His model is compatible both with evolutionary theory (Alexander is a respected biologist in the UK) and (broadly) with reformed evangelical theology.

  5. I would define “original sin” as “the event which caused separation from God, consequently human mortality” – and in that sense, one of the hugest issues of understanding for Christians.
    Sure, perhaps in apologetics there are bigger issues, but for those who already believe, this is probably one of the biggest and most misunderstood things in the bible.

  6. People like Steve Hays are really fundies in disguise, rather than evangelicals in any historic sense of the word. As it is pointless to debate fundies, they should just be ignored.

  7. Observer, indeed. I sent him a message asking him to get in touch with me about this. He responded by pretending to be the model Fabio (!!!) followed up by the claim that I’m not a Christian. It’s incredible to think that he sees himself as in a position to rebuke others.

  8. I too found you on unbelievable. I thought that your discussion with Arif Ahmed (sp?) was reasoned and considerate, if only more christians were like that.

  9. Thanks Colin, I appreciate your kind comments.

    Every time someone tells me that they heard that discussion between Arif and myself, I feel like saying “Here are all the things I should have said….”

    I’ve blogged some of those thoughts here:

    http://www.rightreason.org/2010/arif-ahmed-morality-and-empiricism/

    http://www.rightreason.org/2010/laws-of-logic-laws-of-morality/

    http://www.rightreason.org/2010/does-christian-faith-make-people-more-moral/

  10. Very good blog post, Glenn. It’s ridiculous how Christians can react so stupidly to one of their most important and effective apologists. I’m convinced that one of the greatest conversion tools – to atheism – is hypocritical, unthinking and unimaginative theists. Thank goodness we have people like Craig to communicate the strong cases, rather than those reactionary and embarrassing ones.

  11. The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that no one is guilty for the actual sin they committed but rather everyone inherits the consequences of this act; the foremost of this is physical death in this world.

    So you and I are not guilty for the first sin,yet we are punished for it?

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