Original Sin


“Original Sin: A Cultural History” (Alan Jacobs)

I just finished Original Sin, an excellent book by Wheaton English professor Alan Jacobs (heretofore of Books and Culture and First Things fame).

It’s obviously appropriate to argue for the doctrine of original sin via direct scriptural exegesis. But Jacobs’ book, though it does a (helpful!) bit of that, builds up a supplementary, inductive case. He tells many stories that demonstrate the truth of the doctrine. Many of those stories involve thinkers or activists who directly denied original sin—and then suffered the sad but fascinating consequences.

I was particularly taken by the story of Robert Owen (1771-1858), a poor Welshman with a genius for organization who by sheer force of will transformed a mill in New Lanark, Scotland, into a model community. He thought that he was merely providing man an environment in which his natural goodness would shine forth, but when he tried to expand the scale of his work by starting a utopian community in Indiana (the city he founded still exists), his faith in human goodness led to drastic failure.

Another gripping story was that of Rebecca West, a left-wing intellectual whose infatuation with Yugoslavia in the 1930s led her to research and write voluminously on that country and the Europe it typified. She had just written a biography of Augustine, of all people, and came to see with utter clarity that only that saint’s doctrine of original sin could explain Yugoslavia and Europe as a whole. But she could not accept, as Jacobs puts it, “the faith within which that doctrine is articulated and makes sense.” (227). Original sin, but no grace. West’s was a despairing position indeed.

Jacobs finds multiple obscure—and for that all the more interesting—stories to tell in this book. I highly recommend it.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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