02.14,2016 Preaching Text: “Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’” (Luke 4:8)
It’s tempting to think we’re in control of life. Christian faith deems this the result of “Original Sin,” a highly contentious and mostly misunderstood doctrine gleaned by the early church from the pages of the Old and New Testaments.
Perhaps the most common criticism of Original Sin is that it’s “too Catholic,” though it may surprise you to consider how Protestantism historically has approached this same Christian tenet.
It goes back to the very first pages of the Book of Genesis, where we’re told that all human beings were created good. All are born, in other words, “in the image of God.”
In the mythological Fall, however, when Adam and Eve eat of the fruit from the forbidden tree of good and evil, their eyes are opened and, assuming they now possess the truth, act as if they themselves are gods. In so doing, theologically speaking, they have cut themselves off from the source of real knowledge and goodness.
They are now in charge, in control, forgetting who it was who gave them life. The world henceforth shall revolve around them. Banished from paradise and its truths, they now are forced to live “East of Eden,” with flaming swords barring their return.
In Roman Catholicism, the effect of this “Fall” is that the “image of God” within has been seriously compromised. Our innate ability to discern right from wrong, to see the world and ourselves as God sees it, is distorted.
But, also according to Catholic doctrine, we can still see vestiges of God’s perfection in and through the created things of this world (which forms the basis of Catholicism’s notion of “natural law”). For the most part, however, our hearts and minds are now prone to serious error.
Protestantism, at least in its original form, rejected this more “positive” assessment. John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer, for instance, had a far more pessimistic view. He insisted on “total depravity,” the belief that Original Sin hadn’t just diminished the “image of God” within us (as in Catholicism), but had completely obliterated it!
For Calvin, and other Reformers, the sole means of knowing the truth of God, of knowing anything of the original image of God within us, was by means of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Period. Any and all knowledge of God, in other words, necessarily comes from beyond us.
For Catholics, Christ’s revelation helps perfect what has been compromised by Original Sin. In Protestantism Original Sin is more determinative, our contemporary “protestations” to the contrary.
In either scenario, though, Original Sin challenges our godlike pretensions, and insists that we look beyond the self in order to discern God’s will and way. Without this, our every thought, word, and deed falls short of that which God intends. Without God’s eyes to direct us, we necessarily stumble and fall.
At the Ash Wednesday service this past week, I mentioned a book I’ve been reading on the Roman Empire and its fall, chronicling the religious and social conditions there from roughly 200 A.D. to 1,000 A.D.
In my reading I stumbled upon a surprising fact having to do with the ancient heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagius, a 5th century British monk, famously argued against the orthodox view of Original Sin, best exemplified by the highly influential Latin bishop, Augustine of Hippo.
Pelagius, in short, claimed that one of the benefits of infant baptism was that it utterly banishes the ill-effects of Original Sin, thus opening the door to a belief in the moral perfectibility of human beings.
He came to this realization while passing through a then-declining Roman Empire, on his way to Jerusalem. What he saw was diminished cities that were crowded, filthy beyond imagining, disorderly, filled with strangers, and afflicted with frequent catastrophes – fires, plagues, conquests, and earthquakes. Sewers were ditches running down the middle of each narrow street. Life expectancy was short, probably about 30 years.
Even worse, Pelagius was appalled by the moral laxity he observed among professing Christians and even among the clergy. He attributed much of this malaise to the implications of Augustine’s teaching, namely that righteousness could only be achieved with the special help of divine grace.
In other words, Pelagius believed that the doctrine of Original Sin had prevented Roman society from fixing its burgeoning social and spiritual problems. By using free-will and human agency, he argued, minus the self-limiting and dispiriting cloud that sin had caste over all human effort, humanity could finally free itself from suffering and evil.
This I already knew. What I hadn’t known was that part of Augustine’s insistence on Original Sin had to do with the fact that, in ancient times, many believed that only society’s upper classes, the elites, could attain moral perfection (many of the Roman emperors believed themselves to be gods).
What Augustine was arguing, in other words, was that nobody is perfect, not society’s elites, not any one, and all stand in need of God’s grace and mercy. He rejected a non-egalitarian elitism assured of its own god-like perfection, the kind that looks down its nose at “regular” people, the “great unwashed.”
One of the unintended side-effects of an otherwise well-meaning Pelagianism, as applied to real life, was and is its arrogant and hopelessly naïve assumption that “sinless” elites should decide for their lessers not only what “perfection” is but how it is to be achieved.
Unfortunately, our world is littered with the fallout from such deluded utopian schemes, “isms” designed to perfect human society by means of imperfect human beings! Lost in these hubristic schemes is a simple, humble reliance on God’s grace, just as Augustine argued.
Knowing we all are sinners (born of Original Sin) tells us that no one, no matter how lofty or worldly, is exempt from the human struggle with imperfection. We all stand equally in need of God’s grace.
In the wilderness Satan offers Jesus a way out of his suffering, tempting him with earthly solutions. In rejecting these, Jesus chooses the lowly path, and waits upon God, who alone is able to save him – and us. Amen.