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What Can Progressive Christians Say About “Sin” and “Original Sin”?

Some of our detractors have suggested that in our attempt to include all people, we have abandoned the concept of sin. Not so. In both the Hebrew and Greek languages, the word translated “sin” is based on a metaphor taken from hunting. Both the Hebrew chatah’ and the Greek hamartia originally meant that the hunter missed what he was shooting at. The arrow fell short of the target. Thousands of years ago, human beings observed that their actions often fell short of their best intentions. Their behavior was frequently “off the mark”, a sidestepping or evasion of responsibility. The result of such behavior tends to be a deadening of relationships and of self esteem. Or as St. Paul put it, “The wages of sin is death*.” (Romans 6:23)

The puzzle for the ancients was that in some ways human beings seem to be born with a desire for self preservation, but at the same time they seem to have a built-in tendency for behavior that is self destructive and destructive to the community. Christians from an early date called this universal human tendency “original sin”. As with all their other observations of the mysterious, the ancients invented explanations for the unexplainable. Some of the Hebrew speaking people attributed the problem to the presence in each person of an evil yetser and a good yetser. In English translations of the Bible, yetser appears as imagination, inclination, or purpose:

The Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” (Genesis 8:21)

O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our ancestors, keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts toward you. (1 Chronicles 29:18)

We are no better off today, even with the help of modern psychology, to explain why people can be motivated by both a desire for self preservation and for self destruction, by both altruism and a total disregard for the well-being of other people. Unfortunately, Christians in the fourth century came up with an explanation that has had tragic consequences. Augustine of Hippo decided that the tendency toward sin was passed from generation to generation through the generative act itself. Sex is sinful, so everyone is born sinful and has a capacity for doing good only through the grace of God transmitted in baptism. In spite of the protests by Britain’s first theologian of note, a layman from Wales whose name was Pelagius, the views of Augustine prevailed. The result in the western world has been a terrible preoccupation with sex and a disparagement of women. Even worse, the Augustinian view of sin reduces a sense of personal responsibility for one’s behavior. As one of his recent biographers put it, to accept Augustine’s view of sin is to drift into a kind of “languid piety”.

Far healthier than what has been the official Christian view of original sin is to follow Pelagius in recognizing that we have no satisfactory explanation for the tendency toward sin and that we are responsible for our choices.

Although Pelagius has been called a heretic, no council ever condemned him. His condemnation came through a Pope who was under pressure from the emperor, who was a supporter of Augustine. Perhaps we should acknowledge Pelagius as the first progressive Christian.

Review & Commentary