Darwin As a Stalking Horse for Pelagius?

It’s no secret that evolution has raised questions about Adam and Eve as historical figures, traditional beliefs about their fall into sin and its consequences, and the saving work of Christ. If humanity evolved via natural selection, it’s hard to see how the first humans could have been even potentially sinless, so they couldn’t have “fallen.” Doubts are then cast on the idea of a condition of original sin in which we all share and the claim that Christ died to save us from that sin. Opponents of Christianity have used such arguments to attack the faith while some Christians have used them as arguments against evolution. Others may not go that far but use them to criticize Augustine’s idea of original sin and vindicate his opponent in the debate of the fifth century, the British monk Pelagius, who had a more optimistic view of the human condition.

My purpose here is not to argue for or against the historicity of Adam and Eve or to defend either Augustine or Pelagius. Nor – as anyone familiar with my work will know – is it to criticize Darwinian evolution. I do, however, want to try to remove some of the confusion about the idea of original sin that has distorted many discussions of these matters.

This confusion arises from the fact that “original sin” has two meanings. It may mean “the first human sin” which occurred at the beginning of the human race. Traditionally, of course, Genesis 3 has been seen as an account of this event. But “original sin” can also mean “the sinful condition in which every human life originates.” And it is this second sense which is the most important theologically.

Those who do hold to the latter view of original sin will then need to address the question of why our lives originate in that way if they want a coherent theology. Tracing that condition to “original sin” in the first sense provides one answer, though those who accept evolution won’t be able to take over conventional ideas about Adam and Eve without some modification. But they don’t need to answer the “why” question in order to hold the truth of original sin in the second sense.

Jonathan Edwards’ The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended is witness to this prioritization. Its long first chapter is titled “The Evidence of Original Sin from What Appears in Fact of the Sinfulness of Mankind.” This evidence to which he referred is not taken from secular history but from what the Bible says about the state of humanity. It is the fact that scripture speaks of all humans beings (except Jesus) without distinction as sinners that is the basis for the doctrine of original sin.

The ambiguity of the term “original sin” can be avoided by using the technical terms “original sin as originating” for an historically first sin and “original sin as originated” for the universal human condition, but these are clumsy. I have previously suggested as an alternative that we use “original sin” exclusively for the putative first sin in human history and another traditional term, “sin of origin,” for sin in which each of us begins life.

In any case, once we have resolved the ambiguity we can see that there is no fundamental conflict between an evolutionary origin of humanity and the Augustinian teaching that all human beings start out in a sinful state. If we realize that then we will see that there is no basis for the claim that the necessity of Christ’s saving work depends on the historical character of Adam and his sin. That idea has had the unfortunate result of “historical Adam” being raised by some Christians to the level of a fundamental dogma. But in turn, the difficulty of maintaining the traditional picture of Adam in view of scientific data has made this a convenient point of attack for opponents of Christianity.

One can certainly argue for the historicity of Adam on the basis of beliefs about the inerrancy and authority of scripture. It seems hard to square that with genetic data but those who are willing to be honest with the science are welcome to try. My point here though is just that the claim that Christ can’t be the savior of the world if there wasn’t an historical Adam is false. The world needs a savior because everyone is a sinner. It’s that simple.

While Augustine’s view of the human condition has been generally accepted by western Christians until recently, there have always been those who have been more sympathetic to Pelagius. It’s not surprising that many people prefer the view of the British monk to the gloomier one of the African bishop. Debates among Christians about these matters can be carried out on the basis of what scripture says about human capacities. But arguments for Pelagius’ position cannot be based simply on the fact that humanity has come into being through the processes of Darwinian evolution, any more than Augustine’s position can be proved by pointing to the deplorable historical record of human evils.

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May 2011
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