What Is Original Sin?

Alan Jacobs, in his new book Original Sin, lists “five distinct beliefs” which make up an Augustinian anthropology (or a belief in original sin):

You must believe that everyone behaves in ways that we usually describe as selfish, cruel, arrogant, and so on. You must believe that we are hard-wired to behave in those ways and do not do so simply because of the bad examples of others. You must believe that such behavior is properly called wrong or sinful, whether it’s evolutionarily adaptive or not. You must believe that it was not originally in our nature to behave in such a way, but that we have fallen from a primal innocence. And you must believe that only supernatural intervention, in the form of what Christians call grace, is sufficient to drag us up out of this pit we’ve dug for ourselves.

I wrote a review of the book here, and William Edgar wrote a similarly appreciative—and more substantive—review here in Themelios.

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.

Liberty, License, Legalism

I recently recommended a message by my pastor, Mark Minnick. Here are my notes from that message, taken on my trusty Palm IIIxe. Minnick does something he rarely does: he chooses a controlling metaphor. In the hands of many such a metaphor is a cheesy device. But used sparingly, I think it can be very helpful.

(9/19/2007) Minnick on the Two Closets

  • We tend to categorize things as lawful and unlawful, but just because something is lawful doesn’t mean it’s open season, that it’s the best thing to do in a given case!
  • Think of choices as having to be placed into two closets: “UNLAWFUL” and “LIBERTY.” Every choice you make must be placed not only within one of those closets, but on one more of the racks into which that closet is subdivided.

Racks in the unlawful closet:

  1. Specifically prohibited (even though each of these is questioned within evangelicalism!):
    • Fornication (1 Cor 5-6)
    • Deserting a spouse (1 Cor 7)
    • Women teaching men in church (1 Tim 2)
  2. Prohibited by an institution that has authority over me
    • Family
    • Church
    • School
    • Government
  3. Prohibited by my conscience (Rom 14)
    • PERSONAL NOTE: Frisbee on Sunday
    • PERSONAL NOTE: Alcohol? (also falls under no.2 and possibly no.1) N.B.: Pastor Minnick puts alcohol on the the potentially overpowering rack and on the rack of things that cause people to stumble and on the institutional (school, church) rack.
  4. Applications of general scriptural prohibitions
    • Eph 5:11 – Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.
    • Rom 12:2; 13:14
    • 2 Cor 6:14

Racks in the liberty closet:

  1. Profitability: Will this thing bring glory to God and therefore benefit to me?
  2. Power: the degree of power something will have in my life. Paul said, “I won’t be brought under the power of any.”
  3. Things that build people up (on the other end of this rack are things which cause people to stumble).
  4. Inconsequential things: am I going to wear glasses or contacts, eat carrots or broccoli?

Additional comments from Pastor Minnick:

  • Remember that our simplistic, immature tendency is to think that anything in the liberty closet hangs on the “inconsequential” rack.
    Even these racks are subdivided, from the very profitable down to the inconsequential and unprofitable.
  • Unlawful no. 4, applications, are where believers get at odds with each other: music, dress, appearance. We’ve got to distinguish between 1, 3, and 4. The day comes when our applications make no sense and we’ve painted ourselves into a corner (PERSONAL NOTE: face cards?).
  • Christian leadership is responsible to think about these things, to avoid simplifying life into two closets with no racks in them.