Dialog 39:2 (Summer 2000) 153.

No, Sin is Not an Abusive Doctrine
George L. Murphy

In "Sin: An Abusive Doctrine?" (dialog 38/4, Fall 1999) Gary Pence calls for "an alternative definition" of 'sin.' Especially in his "Response to My Responders," he appeals to modern scientific understandings of evolution in support of the argument.

It is certainly true that what we know and what we can surmise about human evolution make the traditional western picture of a fall from a state of perfection to one of depravity quite implausible. Some radical re-evaluation of the ideas of original righteousness and original sin is therefore needed. But this must be a theological project in which scientific data and theories are taken seriously on their own terms and then placed in the context of Christian thought and viewed in the light of revelation. We need to pay close attention to the work of scientists such as E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, whom Pence cites, but we're going to be in trouble if we allow them to function for us as theologians.

In particular, the claim that evolutionary "development is not `directed' by any yet more transcendent `being' or immanent life force" is correct purely as a statement of neo-Darwinian biological theory. Notions of directedness or progress are inappropriate there. But if we broaden our view to see evolution as part of God's creative activity, the statement is false. How we might think of God acting through natural processes to provide some direction to evolution is a non-trivial question which is receiving a good deal of attention in the modern science-theology dialogue? But that God has some plan for the universe and human history is quite clear in scripture, as in Ephesians 1:10.

The Eastern church has held a view of humanity created in an immature state and intended by God to develop toward maturity and union with God. Irenaeus and Athanasius are representatives of such a position. This view seems to have much greater potential for dealing adequately with evolution than does the Western image of an already perfected Adam and Eve. The entrance of sin into the world then should be seen not as a precipitous fall but as a matter of human beings turning off the right path from the time they first became moral agents and resisting divine guidance and correction from that point on.

Such a concept does not minimize the seriousness of sin. We really are on the wrong road, and the biblical image which that suggests is ominous‐the broad path which leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13). The idea of original sin means that we were all born on the wrong road. We can't find our way back by ourselves, and, if left on our own, are generally under the illusion that we're going in the right direction.

Pence's argument that we are "by nature limited and unfinished" rather than "sinful and unclean" misses the point. It isn't just that we're "unfinished" in the sense of not having gotten to the end of the road we're traveling on; we're traveling on the wrong road in the wrong direction. The metaphor shouldn't be pressed too far, but anyone who has done some driving knows that when you take a wrong turn, you can't correct the mistake just by absolving yourself of guilt for not having reached your destination.

"By nature sinful and unclean" is problematic language, as Article I of the Formula of Concord made clear long before we knew about evolution. Maybe "lost and cannot find our way" would be better.

In any case, evolutionary realities do not require an abandonment of all traditional ideas about sin. I hope that in his projected book on "the evolutionary understanding of human nature and its implications for Christian faith and practice," Pence will try to develop a distinctively Christian understanding of evolution rather than‐as his footnote unfortunately suggests‐take Wilson et al. as primary authorities for the theological implications of evolution.

George L. Murphy is a pastoral associate at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio, and an adjunct faculty member of Trinity Lutheran Seminary.