Monday, September 6, 2021

The Fall

A principal teaching of orthodox Christianity is that human beings have the stain of “original sin” within them. “Original sin is the Christian doctrine that humans inherit a tainted nature and proclivity to sin through the fact of birth.”1 The belief that human beings are born with a proclivity to sin is not found in the Bible. It is a belief that began to emerge in the third century and was given its classic statement by Augustin of Hippo and from him it passed into orthodox Christian theology. Even the word “Sin,” as it appears in English is a religious term used by church folk to describe unacceptable behavior in human beings from a religious perspective and has been defined as follows: “In a religious context sin is a transgression against divine law. Each culture has its own interpretation of what it means to commit a sin. While sins are generally considered actions, any thought, word, or act considered immoral, selfish, shameful, harmful, or alienating might be termed sinful.”2 In the secular world the term “sin” is not used to describe unacceptable behavior. In society at large formal deviant, lawbreaker, or criminal would be terms corresponding to the term sin in a religious context, because the unacceptable behavior is a breaking of the laws of the land. We also use other terms to describe the breaking of social mores, such as informal deviance, improper behavior, or social faux pas in a social context. Social mores are different in different social contexts. Only in religious contexts is sin an appropriate word for describing human behavior.

            Christians who believe that human beings have a penchant for committing sin usually trace the origin of this human inclination to commit sin to the second of the two creation myths in the Bible (Gen 2:4b-2:24), and the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (3:1-24). This account (called the Yahwistic account) focuses on man’s rebellion against God and its outcome. The Priestly account of creation (Gen 1:1-2:4a) focuses on the creation of the heavens and the earth. The rationale that human beings are stained with original sin is a product of how one reads the Bible, and the argument proceeds on the basis of ideas that Christians have about the Bible. It is not an argument made by the writers of the biblical texts themselves.

Here is one way of explaining the rationale that ties original sin to the story about the Garden of Eden and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden:

Since God made man good the tendency to sin which forms part of his inheritance must be traced back to the disobedience of the first couple in paradise, from whom all are descended. Intercourse, conception, and birth rendered individuals unclean in matters of cult [in ancient Israel, Lev 12:1f; 15:16-18], but were not regarded as sinful in themselves or able to produce the tendency to sin. We are all doing penance for the sin of our first parents by suffering and dying, since “through a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all must die [Sirach 25:24]…through the envy of the devil death has come into the world [Wis 2:24]; easily and logically then we arrive at the conclusion that the sin in paradise is imputed to all men as guilt and is the reason why we carry in ourselves the inclination to evil.3

It is clear from Heinisch’s first sentence his entire rationale is based on his belief system that somehow the creation myth is a historical account of how things actually were, rather than “a traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the worldview of a people.”4 It serves the Yahwist as a myth of origins of the ancient Israelite people explaining why it is that men must earn their living by the sweat of their brow tilling the soil (Gen 3:17-20) and women must suffer pain in childbearing and be submissive to their husbands (Gen 3:16). Heinish’s rationale is not mandated by the text in Genesis; that is to say, original sin is not an idea contained in the text. The passages in Genesis do not use either the word sin or the term original sin. The story becomes about original sin in Heinish’s mind.

In the Yahwist’s scheme the story deals with the deeper question of why man and woman, God’s creatures, refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of their Creator, with the result that history is a tragic story of banishment from the life for which they were intended.5

Human beings are more complex and diverse than is allowed by the belief that they deliberately sin against divine law because it is built into the genome system inherited from the mythical characters Adam and Eve.

None of us are perfect, but some of us are worse than others.

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University sin

3Paul Heinish, Theology of the Old Testament (trans. William G. Heidt; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1955), 254. References to original sin are not usually found in the subject index to critical Old Testament commentaries.

4Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s.v., myth.

5B. W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (3rd ed.; Prentice-Hall, 1975), 211.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Do Contradictions in the Bible make any Difference?

Here is the definition of a contradiction: "a situation in which inherent factors, actions, or propositions are inconsistent or contrary to one another." For me this raises the question: Does even one contradiction between biblical texts make any difference as to how one understands the nature of the Bible? Here is one verifiable contradiction between two biblical writers: Paul, the earliest writer of the New Testament (around 50 CE) and the anonymous writer of Second Peter, the latest writer in the New Testament (around 150 CE). In Rom 8:18-25 Paul says that the creation (ktisis) itself "will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (8:21). He continues his thought about creation in 1Cor 7:31: "the world (kosmos) in its present form (schema) is passing away." Second Peter (3:10), on the other hand, announces that "the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth (gē) and the works that are upon it will be burned up." Since the creation (i.e., the entire created order of things) cannot both be a redeemed ktisis and a burned up ktisis, it would appear that these writers contradict one another on the future prospects of creation, as they understood it.1 What difference might this one contradiction make on how one understands the nature of the Bible? Or put another way, what does it mean for the Bible that it contains contradictions? What follows is my attempt to address the significance of even one contradiction in the Bible.

It means that these two authors do not share the same view as to the ultimate end of the creation. It should also be added that the authors of Third Isaiah (65:17) and the Apocalypse (Rev 21:1-4) disagree with Paul and agree with the author of Second Peter that the whole of creation will ultimately be destroyed. The author of Ecclesiastes, however, seems to disagree with the idea that the earth will be changed in any way: "A generation goes and a generation comes but the earth remains forever." (Eccl 1:4).

It means that there is no single biblical view about the ultimate end of the creation and that, in turn, means the Bible ("God's Word" to many people of faith) is not the ultimate authority on everything in life, as I have heard some ministers claim. Three different positions are taken regarding the entirety of creation, one by Paul and another by the anonymous author of Second Peter and others, and a third view by the author of Ecclesiastes. If one position is selected to represent the "biblical view," then the others have been rejected as being invalid explanations.

            It means that the Bible is better viewed historically rather than theologically. Here is a Southern Baptist view of the "Scriptures":

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.2

This statement, however, does not describe the Bible; it is a theological description of what many (not all) Southern Baptists believe about the Bible. Describing the Bible in a neutral way is a complex enterprise. There are just too many variables to be considered. Here is an attempt at a brief description and even this description does not cover all the issues:3

There are three ancient religious collections (Jewish, Catholic, Protestant) that are called the Bible:

These three collections constitute the traditional remains of two different religious communities, which extend from the Israelite Exodus to the writing of 2 Peter. They reveal different social, cultural, ethical, and religious traditions covering around 1200 years. The Jewish Bible is a library of traditional writings of the ancient Israelites containing among other things the history of the Israelite people told from a religious perspective, along with its ancient laws, prophetic literature, hymnbook, wisdom literature, etc., from the 13th century BCE to roughly 400 BCE (second temple period). The Apocrypha consists of additional Jewish religious texts written between 300 BCE to 70 CE. The New Testament (50 CE to early second century) contains among other things stories, personal correspondence and theological essays.4

It means that the texts comprising the biblical collection are not "a perfect treasure of Divine instruction" or that the biblical matter is "without any mixture of error," simply because it contains contradictions, which must be considered errors and inconsistencies. That in turn means that the Bible could not derive from a perfect deity and could not be "God's Word."

The Bible does not belong to the Church and Synagogue but rather its collected texts, before being collected, belonged individually to the historical movement of human civilization. In short, the Bible is a collection of human words about different views of God in antiquity. One contradiction appears to do a great deal of damage to modern pious views about the Bible.

Something to think about.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For a brief discussion of the fate of the earth, see Hedrick, "Will the Earth Abide," pp. 35-37 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019). The contradiction between Paul and the author of Second Peter is but "the tip of the iceberg." Here is another contradiction of which the reader may be unaware between the Christian Old Testament and the New Testament. How did Moses come by the Torah? In Exodus and Deuteronomy Moses is described as receiving the Torah the first time directly from God (Deut 9:9-10). Moses broke the first set of tablets and was given a second set, again given directly to him by God (Deut 10:1-5). In the New Testament, however, Paul (Gal 3:19; see also Acts 7:38, 53; Heb 2:2) says that the law was "ordained through angels" (RSV). So, did Moses receive the law directly from God, or was it mediated through angels? For a discussion of how Moses came by the Torah, see Hedrick "How did Moses come by the Torah?" pp. 266-68 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths.

2The Baptist Faith and Message Statement, June 14, 2000:

3For a more complete picture of its complexity, See Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 87-97.

4Hedrick, "What about the Bible gives it the Status Word of God," Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 94.