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Michael Schellman

TS 102, Shults
Box 7211

Theological Analysis and Evaluation of the Doctrine of Sin

The Status of the Dialog

Since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the World has been expressing a growing intolerance for

the Church’s talk about Sin. Consequently, the Church has expressed an increasing reluctance to raise this

topic in its dialog with the World. This breakdown in the Church/World dialog, has registered its effect on

contemporary Evangelical Christianity. On the one hand, the current focus in Evangelism, (on themes such as

purpose, happiness, or ultimate fulfillment,) lacks the urgency and necessity of the Gospel Message, leaving

Christianity unable to compete with rival worldviews, in the contemporary milieu. On the other hand,

attempts of some, to re-assert the doctrine of Sin with renewed zeal, while neglecting to examine the reasons

behind its dissolution, only builds greater walls between Church and World. What’s more, those serious

attempts that have been made by theologians at re-evaluation and renewal of the doctrine, have been off the

radar for most mainstream evangelicals; while those attempts, of which contemporary evangelicalism is

aware, are met with skepticism or outright rejection. This is no small problem for the Church. The doctrine of

Sin is indelibly, linked to the Church’s teaching about the Atonement. Without it, there can be made, no

compelling case for faith in Jesus Christ.

How we choose to address this problem will ultimately depend on where we place the locus of

responsibility for the breakdown of communication. Millard Erickson is representative of the view held by

many contemporary evangelicals, who place the locus of responsibility with the World. According to this

view, one reason for the breakdown might be simply that people do not like to think of themselves as bad or

evil persons. Another reason might be that those who lack a transcendent theistic reference point do not

consider themselves ultimately accountable for their actions. A third reason might be that unspiritual people

simply cannot grasp the concept of Sin as in inner force, an inherent condition, or a controlling power.1 If the

underlying assumption, behind these reasons, is true, then we truly have reached the time foretold in 2 Tim

4:3. Perhaps the time of human receptivity to the Gospel is now past. An alternative and lest nihilistic view,

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998) p. 582
would place the locus of responsibility within the Church; are we indeed talking about Sin in helpful ways?

It is my belief that the cause of this breakdown is the result of a lack of credibility in the Church’s ontology

and praxis. This lack of credibility is rooted in our anachronistic adherence to a Classical Augustinian

formulation of the doctrine, which is dependant on the substance metaphysics and faculty psychology

dominant in the West, prior to the philosophical and scientific turn to relationality in the post-modern era. I

would propose a (re)formation of the doctrine of Sin, along Neiburhian lines of finiteness and anxiety which

takes into account the postmodern philosophical turn to relationality.

Foundations of our Present Understanding

(The Crisis of Ontology)


Prior to Augustine’s influence, the contributions of the Apostle Paul to the doctrine of Sin as an

anthropological condition were not fully realized in by Church.2 The narrative of Genesis 3 did not have a

significant place in Christian reflection on Sin3, nor did Paul’s portrayal of Sin as a power, which holds

humanity captive to the reality of death. In fact, most Greek writers of the patristic period viewed Sin simply

as an abuse of free will.4 In this undeveloped form, the doctrine of human Sin was not in harmony with the

Church’s Soteriology. It could not account for the missionary zeal of the early church, nor could it fully

justify the church’s claim that Jesus was the only source of reconciliation with God.

Augustine’s most recognizable contribution to the contemporary view of Sin in the West is that of

inheritance. Three factors were formative in the creation of this doctrine his conflict with the Pelagians on

the one hand, the Manichees on the other, and his desire to defend the practice of infant baptism.5 This

statement from his major work, City of God, is representative of his formulation of the doctrine of


God, the author of all natures, but not of their defects, created man good; but man,
corrupt by choice and condemned by justice, has produced a progeny that is both
corrupt and condemned. For we all existed in that one man, since taken together, we

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology: Vol 2. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994) p. 239-240
Shults, F. LeRon. Reforming Theological Anthropology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003). p.193.
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001) p. 442
RTA p. 194
were the one man who fell into sin through the woman who was made out of him
before sin existed.6

As a doctrine, inherited Sin can account for a number of biblical truths: that all human beings sin (Rom

3:10-23), that we are fundamentally helpless while under the power of Sin (Rom 6:16-17), and consequently,

that intervention on the part of God is necessary for human salvation (John 15:5, Eph 2:1-6).

Augustine’s concept of inherited Sin, was conceived within the philosophical concept of

traducianism (the belief that the whole, human race was present in Adam and therefore, participated in his

sin). Augustine’s main biblical text for this doctrine is (Rom 5:12), using a flawed Latin translation of the

original Greek expression, evf w-| (because,) which renders it, “in whom”. This fact is widely

acknowledged today, even by those who support the traditional view.7 Even in Augustine’s day, the belief

that seminal souls could participate in Adam’s decision was considered bizarre;8 and since the concept of

inheritance cannot be found in either the Eastern Church or Judaism, we must concede that the assumption is

neither an automatic nor a necessary conclusion to draw from the biblical witness.9

Though advances in our understanding of the reproductive process eventually obliterated the

traducian concept of inheritance, this did not result in a rejection of the concept of inherited Sin. Rather, a

subtle shift occurred, from a traducian view to a genetic one. This shift had unintended effects on

Augustine’s doctrine of inheritance; because, the traducian view, at least according to Augustine, allowed for

our participation in Adam’s sin, making the inheritance a consequence of our own guilt. The genetic view,

makes our participation in Adam’s sin impossible, making guilt itself an inherited trait. The concept of

inherited guilt, without participation calls into question, human responsibility, and God’s justice, which

Augustine never intended.

John Calvin

Augustine’s formulation of the doctrine of Sin was not accepted carte blanche within the Catholic

Church. Many Christians were unwilling to let go of Pelagianism. They correctly assessed that Augustine’s

formulation of the doctrine would lead to a devaluation of human freedom and responsibility.10 The Synod of

Augustine, City of God, Book XIII chapter 14.
Erickson, p. 653
Pannenberg p. 254
RTA p. 192
McGrath p. 449
Arles c. 473, gave voice to these concerns.11 A subsequent reformulation of the doctrine was made at the

Council of Orange 592, where most of Augustine’s insights were accepted in his own words, but the concept

of predestination to evil was declared Anathema. 12

It was not until the reformation that the Augustine’s formulation of the doctrine was accepted in full.

The theologians of the Reformation protested the excesses of the Catholic Church, one thing at the root of

these abuses and errors – they held, was the Catholic Church’s semi Pelagianism. Calvin expresses this view

in his Institutes.

Teaching man to rely on himself can be no more than sweet seduction, because
everyone who is deluded by it will be ruined.13
Calvin’s Institutes Bk 2, Ch1: Sec.2

Like Augustine, Calvin wanted to express that Sin was substantial, real, and radically pervasive.14 Yet he

did so in a way that casts some doubt on the reality of free will in human agency. For Augustine, Rom. 5:15

meant, humanity needed to be shown what to do, and then gently aided at every point,15 Calvin went farther;

he asserted the total depravity of human beings.

-we are devious and malevolent with every part of us capable of lifelong evil (Rom.
3:10-18). If we are all like this (and the apostle says so clearly), it is easy to see what
would happen if the Lord allowed human passion to have its way. - - -
God heals the elect of these evil things; others he only restrains so that they do not
break out in a way that makes it impossible to maintain law and order.16
Institutes Bk 2, Ch3: Sec.3

In his attempt to show that Sin is more than a formal privation,17 he inadvertently undermined the idea of

free will, which theologians had hitherto sought to preserve. Without the concept of free will, humanity could

not be held responsible for its actions, and the responsibility for evil could be traced back to God.

Contemporary Observations

As I have stated earlier, the contemporary breakdown in the dialog between Church and World, owes

itself to the Church’s adherence to a formulation of the doctrine that is rooted in substance metaphysics and

faculty psychology. According to this view, guilt is an inherited trait, and human beings are born inherently
Bettenson, Henry and Chris Maunder eds., Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 65
ibid p. 66
Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker 1987) p 87
RTA p.198
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001) p. 448
Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker 1987) p.94-95
RTA p. 198
corrupt (bad, wicked, evil). In the previous sections, I have briefly shown how the doctrine has been

transmitted to us from Augustine down through the reformers especially Calvin. I have also shown some of

the forces that have been formative in the doctrine and how it was shaped, (intentionally and

unintentionally). This previous section examined the lack of ontological credibility in our present

formulation of the doctrine. I have yet to show how this creates a lack of credibility in the church’s praxis.

Therefore, my next task will be, to look at some of the contemporary effects of this formulation of the

doctrine in the Church’s relation with the World.

The doctrine of Sin, as it is currently formulated, creates tendencies in the Church’s relation to the

world, which are anti-Christ. Because we see Sin as an inherited trait (substance), which everyone possesses

form birth, but that Christ takes away from believers through conversion, one tendency will to dismiss virtue

in those outside the church. Christians today often use passages like Isa 64:6 and Rom 3:10 to support this

tendency. Yet when Jesus addresses the rich young ruler, who says he has obeyed the commandments, he

loves him. Mk 10:21. Our inability to recognize virtue in the non-Christian, contributes greatly to the lack of

credibility in the church’s praxis.

Another tendency is to discourage the identification of Sin within the church. Jesus and Paul both

clearly taught that we are to judge ourselves Matt 7:5, and the Church 1 Cor 5:12. Yet the church’s

identification of Sin is primarily directed toward those outside the church. This tendency stifles our own

experience of forgiveness and the opportunity for genuine spiritual growth as well as our ability to proclaim

that message to the world in a credible way. This consequently raises the indignation of a World that is not

blind to our inconsistency.

The us/them mindset that results from the substance view of Sin inclines the Church toward a

characteristically adversarial stance with the World. This may be part of the force driving the Church in the

“Culture Wars.” The World today is not much different than it was in Jesus day, there were sinful people and

sinful institutions, yet in the Gospels, we see Jesus standing beside sinful people, and challenging sinful

institutions; today we see the church allying itself with sinful institutions against sinful people. Could

anything be farther form the Gospel, which sought to save people and not culture?
What we need, is a formulation of the doctrine of Sin that does the necessary work of the traditional

view, while avoiding any assumptions, which have proven to be unhelpful in the Church’s dialog with the

World. Such a view must be in agreement with the witness of scripture and conversant with a contemporary

ontological assumptions. The philosophical turn to relationality can be helpful in this regard. I am proposing

that we (re)formulate the doctrine according to the recent turn to relationality in contemporary science and

philosophy in a Neiburhian framework of anxiety and finiteness.

(Re)Formation of the Doctrine

Reinhold Neibuhr puts forth a formulation of the doctrine, which proposes that Sin originates within

the paradox of human freedom and finiteness.18 According to this view, anxiety (which results from this

paradox,) is an inevitable spiritual state for human beings; from it, arises the temptation to sin, as well as the

possibility of faith in God, which transcends our finiteness. As finite beings, which are spiritually aware, our

contingent nature longs for a sense of permanence, as does our identity, which is also derivative. Drawing on

the insights of developmental psychology, Alistair McFadyen describes how our sense of identity and

personhood is formed by our individual history of communication; this makes our encounters with others,

including God significant in shaping who we are.19 If these longings do not find their persistent fulfilling in

God, the human creature will inevitably turn to sinful means to procure it from the creation. Because

creation is incapable of sustaining our being, the result is spiritual, and ultimately physical, death.

The advantages of this view are manifold. First, it would be in harmony with the Church’s

Soteriology (which calls for a certain missionary zeal, as well as support for the bible’s claim that Jesus

Christ is the only way to reconciliation with God). This view supports the doctrine of the universality of Sin

by appeal to common a human condition (anxiety,) from which there is only one legitimate response (faith in

God). Jesus Christ’s position as God’s only means of human salvation is secure, because of his unique status

as the Word, the self revelation of God, the second person of the trinity.

This view also avoids pitfalls of the classic formulation of the doctrine. For instance, it resolves the

Pelagian problem without making God accountable for human evil, by attributing human proclivity toward

Thelen, M.F., Man As Sinner, p. 93.
McFadyen, A. The Call to Personhood, (Cambridge University Press, 1990) p. 115-116
Sin to the necessary limits of human life when acting in denial of our status as contingent beings. It avoids

the problems of inheritance, especially the genetic concept of inherited guilt, preserving God’s justice.

This view also accounts for the universality of sin all without resorting to the doctrine of total

depravity or predestination to evil; upholding the idea of free agency, which is necessary to preserve the

biblical concept of human responsibility.

Finally, this view preserves Augustine’s appropriation of Pauline insights within the Christian

tradition. Sin is a power or force at work in the human being, but it is an inevitable relational dynamic, not a

substance, passed on from generation to generation. Furthermore, this view is fully sympathetic with

Augustine’s appropriation of the Genesis 3 tradition. A reinterpretation of the passage, in a

Neibuhrian/relational framework, is entirely possible; in fact, it could resolve many problematic elements of

the classical interpretation of this passage.20

Theology and Ministry (Praxis)

Learning to Talk About Sin in Helpful Ways

When the World asserts that it does not believe in Sin, or evil, we should not take this to mean that it

has no concept of right and wrong. The awareness of right and wrong, the desire to be treated fairly and

justly, and the ability to recognize when that does not happen – are fundamental to human nature.

It has been rightly stressed that the loss of meaning that the term “sin” has suffered in
the modern consciousness does not mean at all that people today are no longer aware
of the reality of evil. On the contrary, evil, though often perceived only diffusely and
partially, is one of our main problems today.21

The Church finds today that it has been “cut out” of the dialog by a World that no longer wants to engage the

Church on the issues surrounding the human condition. What I mean is this, by rejecting the category of Sin,

the World has decisively resolved to exclude Christianity from the discussion of what to do about the

problem of evil; for it is not merely ontological credibility, which the Church’s doctrine of Sin lacks. The

World also perceives a lack of credibility in the gap between how the church today acts towards Sin and the

way that Jesus acted toward it. Even a casual reading of the New Testament reveals that contemporary
Two problematic questions raised by the classic interpretation of Genesis 3: If Adam and Eve were created without the knowledge of Good and Evil
and in their uncorrupted state immortal, how could they have understood the prohibition? What significance does the Tree of Life play for beings who
are created inherently immortal?
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology: Vol 2. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994) p.236
evangelicalism’s attitude toward sin differs radically from that of Jesus and the Apostles; sinners flocked to

Jesus, they flee from the Church. Jesus embraced sinners, and avoided association with institutions. The

church builds coalitions with institutions in order to suppress sinners. This is very simplistic and perhaps

imperfect way of stating what is nevertheless quite obvious. The church, which is the body of Christ, does

not relate to a world that is in need of God, in the same way that Jesus did. The world has not changed, the

Church has.

It may indeed be the influence of a substance view of sin, and faculty psychology, which has oriented

the church in its characteristically hostile stance towards the World. We view Sin as a stain or blemish that is

fundamentally part of our person, until Christ removes it. After it is removed, we see ourselves as essentially

pure; at least in God’s eyes, we are forgiven and covered by the blood of Christ. The world sees this as

outright hypocrisy. The reason it does so should be so obvious to anyone. We have forgotten the parable of

the unforgiving debtor. We have also forgotten about the log in our own eye. Were Jesus words “judge not,

lest ye be judged” warning us primarily about the judgment of God, or of other people who see in us the

image not of Christ but of the self-righteous hypocrite.

I agree essentially with those who advocate the need to restore the theme of Sin, to preaching.

Without Sin, we cannot build a compelling case for faith in Jesus Christ. However, the way we speak of Sin

makes a difference. When we see Sin as something we are born with, that makes us fundamentally evil and

detestable to God. Then we see the un-redeemed World as the enemy. We doubt that the people we minister

to are trying to seek truth, goodness, and beauty. We alienate those whom Christ would draw near. When we

see Sin in relational terms, we can freely speak of our own sinfulness, and our experience of God’s grace and

forgiveness through Jesus Christ. The Gospel becomes good news again. Further, we can acknowledge

peoples longing for the good, true, and beautiful, and can commend their virtue without the sense that we are

undermining the Gospel. The result would be a church that does not support a culture of hypocrisy, and that

presents a welcoming environment to fellow sinners in need of forgiveness and grace.

Theology and Spirituality;

From Information to Relation

Seeing Sin from the perspective of relationality can also be very fruitful for one’s spiritual growth. I

have found this to be true, as I have moved away from merely seeking to know things about God, to knowing
God Himself. Devotional practices, suddenly take on a new significance as one makes the shift from

gathering information, to simply spending time. No longer is there pressure to find the spiritual principals

that will help me overcome Sin and somehow attain righteousness. Newness of life is not to be found in

principals, helpful as they may be. In prayer, there is no longer the expectation; the longing for something to

happen that will change me suddenly. One’s spiritual identity only changes, as one’s relationship to God

changes, (i.e. from someone who knows X number of things about God, to someone who spends time with

God). Then, you are no longer relating to God as object of knowledge. You do not worry about how

productively your time is being spent, you are not necessarily seeking to get something out of it, the

relationship itself is the payoff. Spending time with God is how you become God’s friend. Christianity is all

about relationships. I find evangelicals generally believe this, or at least they acknowledge it, and yet most

of our striving continues to be for more information, most of our sermons continue to be around keys for

effective living, rather than focusing on our identity, who we really are in Christ.

I have already mentioned the work of Alistair McFadyen. His insight about the formation of identity

through our history of communication is important here because it has much to do with what we encounter in

the scriptures. When we think about personal spiritual growth, as well as the spiritual growth of others, we

must keep in mind the way God intends us as persons when God communicates with us. We ought to pay

attention to these words, rather than skip over them in search of commands to fulfill, and principles to live

by. Most of what is written in the epistles concerns our identity (who we are,) in Christ. If what McFadyen

says is true, then merely hearing them affects who we are and who we are becoming. This is perhaps the

“good word,” which Christof Gestrich speaks of.

- the real word of God heals simply by being heard, by being heard as the holy voice
of him who has authority to call people home to himself. The real gospel is not there
for us to translate into “practical rules for living.” If we have done that, we would
have gained nothing in our fight against sin. Rather, that “good word” must succeed
and gain influence with us as it is in itself. This is really all that matters.22

When I hear the communication by which God intends who I am, when I receive it from him, thank him for

it, confess it as true, offer it to others, the power to change people at a very radical level is unleashed. The

Gestrich, C. The Return of Splendor in the World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997) p.27
Bible is the Spirit’s Book not primarily words about God, but the self-communication of God by which God

gives us himself.

All that remains is for me to present some possible objections to this view along with my response.

First, let us consider a Classical Criticism. One might ask

“Doesn’t rejection of the classical formulation of the doctrine of Sin fail to take seriously the reality

of Sin?” Denying the Substance view of Sin is not the same as denying the reality of Sin. This relational

view of Sin would agree with Calvin on two points. Sin is real and radically pervasive; however, it is not

substantial. The philosophical turn to relationality calls into question the reality of “substance” as an

ontological category; however, it does not need to call into question reality and the inter-relationality of

existing persons. Our experience of Sin as a power that influences human agency is real. Its hold on the

World is real. I would argue that this view takes Sin more seriously, because it is a serious attempt to deal

with the ontological assumptions, which lead to the breakdown in the Church/World dialog, rather than

falling into the Nihilism, which will inevitably result from an unexamined re-assertion of the Augustinian


Millard Erickson questions whether23 Neibuhr’s formulation of the doctrine of Sin requires us to

depend on our own ability, to trust God and thus overcome the anxiety of our finitude. We must remember

that the effectiveness of faith depends on what it is oriented toward. Faith does not merely give us the

psychological confidence to overcome the anxiety surrounding our finitude, if it is oriented toward the true

God it restores us to the source of all life and provision; therefore it is not about what we can do but what

God can do Matt 6:25-34.

Feminist Criticism – Doesn’t this focus on Sin provide a one sided view of the atonement i.e.

forgiveness without healing? Is there room in this view for healing as atonement? The fact of Sin necessarily

precedes the fact of woundedness. This in no way precludes the necessity of developing a view of the

atonement that emphasizes healing for the wounded and dis-empowered. Forgiveness and healing both come

through reconciliation to God who is the source of both.

Erickson, p.606

Augustine. City of God, (abridged for modern readers) ed. By Vernon J. Bourke, (New York: Doubleday, 1958).

Bettenson, Henry and Chris Maunder eds., Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1999).

Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, (Grand Rapids,
MI: Baker 1987).

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998).

Gestrich, C. The Return of Splendor in the World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).

McFadyen, A. The Call to Personhood, (Cambridge University Press, 1990).

McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology: Vol 2. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

Shults, F. LeRon. Reforming Theological Anthropology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

Thelen, M.F. Man As Sinner in Contemporary American Realistic Theology, (New York: Kings Crown Press, 1946).