Review: Original Sin and the Fall

Original Sin and the Fall (Spectrum Multiview Books), edited by J. B. Stump and Chad Meister. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: An overview of five different views of original sin and the fall, with responses by each contributor to the other views.

Christians have traditionally believed that the first human beings enjoyed “original righteousness.” They were sinless and able not to sin. Then sin entered the world through Adam and Eve and has tainted all human beings such that only God can overcome our “fallen” condition through Christ. This “taint” is what is understood as original sin. Beyond this broad explanation, Christians have disagreed on many of the specifics of this doctrine. Does original sin entail original guilt? Are humans, even under prevenient grace, able to contribute anything to their salvation? With the greater, but hardly universal acceptance of evolution, how are we to understand the Genesis accounts of original sin?

This volume explores all these questions. Proponents of five views that reflect a broad spectrum of Christian thought contribute to this discussion:

Hans Madueme sets forth the traditional Reformed-Augustinian view, affirming original sin and original guilt with death and the judgment of God following, irrespective of our acts.

Oliver Crisp represents a modified Reformed view in basic agreement with the Reformed position except for not affirming original guilt.

Joel Green speaks for the Wesleyan view which affirms original sin but holds the individual guilty for only their own sins and sees sin not only as depravity but also disease.

Andrew Louth, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy describes the Eastern Orthodox understanding, which stresses ancestral rather than original sin and focus not on fall and redemption but the arc from creation to deification, within which this sin occurs.

Tatha Wiley speaks for a reconceived view, drawing upon Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan. Original sin is reconceived as a failure of authenticity, a failure to act upon what one rationally understands. We stand in need of intellectual, moral, and religious conversions. She advocates for a new approach contending biblical accounts reflect a pre-scientific view of the world and modern advances require a different formulation.

Each contributor responds to all the others. Each is gracious to the others, distinguishing their own from other views without polemics. The editors briefly introduce the discussion and then step out of the way.

A few observations. Madueme offers a statement of the Reformed position at its best and not a caricature. Crisp, while I think the best in framing his views seems a bit of a compromise–halfway between Reformed and Wesleyan, not quite either. Joel Green’s distinctive contribution is as a biblical rather than systematic theologian. He offers an interesting discussion on what Genesis 1-3 and other texts say and don’t say about original sin. Louth, rooting his work in the Eastern fathers speaks from a different framework, focused more on the arc of creation to theosis than focusing on sin. Here the focus is rather on death. Wiley’s was the least familiar to me and seems untethered from the biblical accounts. Further, while engaging science, as Crisp notes, she does not explain “what compelling reasons there are for the kind of doctrinal reconstruction she advocates.”

The discussion helps us to understand the interconnected nature of Christian doctrine, how our understanding of God, our anthropology, our soteriology, and eschatology all connect. I’m reminded of the pressing questions I’ve been asked by those of exploring faith of how we can be held responsible for Adam’s sin, or even our own sinful nature from birth. We see different ways of answering that may offer better language and explanations. This is a valuable adjunct to any study of systematic theology.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.