I recently read a book by James Boyce about the history of the Western branch of Christianity. The book, entitled “Born Bad”, chronicles the influence the concept of original sin has had over that last 1600 years. I heard about the book in a radio interview wherein the author recounted that the Founding Fathers of the US accepted original sin and therefore worked hard to craft a constitution that constrained man’s untrustworthy ambitions. The result is that no one person or group can hold sway because of the separation of powers.
Boyce writes that St. Augustine’s writings about original sin became the canon of the Catholic Church. Joyce heralds Augustine as a brilliant thinker and writer, but one conflicted by his own guilt. He argues that Augustine focused on one of the two creation accounts found in Genesis, the one that deals with the fall and the inherent tendency of mankind to sin. The fact that Augustine lived in the 5th century around the time of the violent overthrow of Rome may have reinforced his view of the depravity of mankind. Boyce goes on to sketch the contributions various thinkers have made over the centuries, including Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox. Accommodations mounted, and Boyce notes that what had been the sin of usury became sanctified as the pursuit of profit after the Reformation.
Boyce regards John Wesley as the founder of evangelical Christianity in the new World. Wesley accepted the idea of original sin, but he merged it with the ideas of the Enlightenment and was very optimistic about post-conversion man. Boyce goes on to weave secular ideas of thinkers like Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Richard Dawkins into the discussion as well, and he argues they, too, were at least culturally conditioned by the concept of original sin.
Modern Evangelicalism, beginning with Billy Graham, tended to externalize sin and made it easier for us to compartmentalize our lives. People no longer had to listen to sermons about their sinful selves. Boyce states that the free market also hastened the decline of the doctrine of original sin.
Boyce finds some of the traditions of infant baptism very troubling, although it predates Augustine. Some sixty years ago my grandfather was driving my sister and I to our brother Jay’s funeral. He had died minutes after birth. Grandpa said “that boy was going to Heaven because he had no chance to do wrong”. His words seemed comforting at the time, but the strictest view of original sin argues the opposite. An unbaptized child had little hope.
Because of my lack of knowledge of history, Boyce’s book definitely brought me perspective, and I think he has been objective. The doctrine of original sin is very egalitarian and leaves no room for anyone to boast, but it also tends to be fatalistic and dampen hope. Pulling these thoughts together has made me wonder if we sometimes miss the forest for the trees. Are we literally saddled with Adam’s guilt or is the Genesis story a myth embodying the same truth that Paul proclaims in Romans 3:23 ? Reason and experience are important in Wesleyan theological reflection as well. Is it arrogant to think that we see farther in some respects than St. Augustine or even Moses? Or, paraphrasing Isaac Newton, is it possible we see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants, including theirs?