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Original Sin: A Cultural History

David VanDrunen

Original Sin: A Cultural History, by Alan Jacobs. New York: HarperOne, 2008, xviii + 286 pages, $24.95.

Original Sin, by Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs, is a very good read. Jacobs engagingly addresses one of the Christian doctrines that is most overtly offensive to the natural man: that human beings are born into this world corrupt and unable to overcome their inherent wickedness by their own efforts. He tells a delightful tale of how the stubborn reality of innate human depravity has kept rearing its head through history and imposing its will despite the best efforts of apparently well-meaning people to proclaim the goodness of human nature and to live as if this were true.

Potential readers of this book should keep a couple of things in mind. First, it is not a book of Christian doctrine. Jacobs does not aim to give an exhaustive biblical or theological exposition of the doctrine of original sin. This is not a criticism. There is a place for doctrinal treatments of original sin, but Jacobs has simply given us something different—yet something valuable. Second, Jacobs' working definition of original sin is deficient from the perspective of the Westminster standards. Whereas Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 18 describes original sin as "the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature," Jacobs treats original sin only in terms of the latter two (though he does not explicitly reject the historic Reformed idea of the imputation of Adam's transgression). Perhaps this book would have been even more interesting if he had considered the notion of imputed guilt, but the topic of innate corruption is certainly rich enough to provide plenty of food for thought.

Jacobs's narrative, which runs from the early history of the Christian church to the present, describes a fundamental tension that has catalyzed innumerable theological and cultural clashes throughout Western history. The Christian doctrine of original sin is downright offensive, and theologians and social activists alike have tried mightily to oppose it. Yet the fact of human corruption will not go away. Social experiments based upon the assumption of human goodness always go awry, and theological defenders of human goodness are always checked by the defenders of Paul and Augustine. The idea of original sin simply explains the experience of human life better than the idea of inherent human benevolence.

Jacobs confesses that his story is not exhaustive, but he does take us into many of the controversies that have shaped Western civilization. Many people regard Augustine as the inventor of the doctrine of original sin (though Jacobs believes that he adhered to Paul's teaching), and Augustine plays a leading role in the narrative. Jacobs discusses Augustine's clashes with Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum and shows how these clashes reverberated in subsequent history. He takes us, for instance, to the seventeenth-century polemics between the Jansenites (Roman Catholics with an Augustinian orientation) and the Jesuits (who had a more kindly view of human nature). He describes the competing eighteenth-century visions of the Great Awakening preachers (defenders of human depravity such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who tried futilely to develop an educational method based upon human goodness). Jacobs takes us into the minds of those who saw civilization as the source of human evildoing and thus romanticized the idea of the noble savage and dreamed of getting back to nature—and who sometimes even went to America to fulfill this dream. Yet in America their utopian communities and socialist experiments inevitably failed in short order. Jacobs also reflects on contemporary debates spurred by scientific discoveries. For example, is evil passed along through our genes?

Among the many insightful observations that Jacobs makes in the course of this stroll through history are comments concerning the social and political implications of original sin. For one thing, Jacobs notes in several places that the theory and reality of original sin has a democratizing tendency: the idea that all people are born corrupt has a leveling effect that restrains the temptation to elevate or to lower a certain class of people far beyond others. Another interesting point arises in the context of his description of nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Finney—no friend of original sin. Jacobs observes that Finney hated the doctrine in large part because it endangered his dreams of achieving social and political perfection through the spread of Christianity. Finney regarded original sin as "subversive of the gospel" because it discouraged people from setting cultural perfection as their goal.

Jacobs's narrative might be described as an indirect defense of the truth of Christianity, because he shows how opponents of the doctrine of original sin have repeatedly failed to make sense of reality and have been unable to live in a way consistent with their convictions. This book may also have indirect apologetic value in Jacobs's observation that the doctrine of original sin compels us to look to the grace of God in Christ for a solution to the problem of original sin. Jacobs points to examples—twentieth-century writer Rebecca West preeminently—of people who have reckoned profoundly with the depth of human depravity yet rejected the Christian message of salvation. Their response has been deep despair about the prospects for human history. In the face of original sin the two alternatives are faith in Christ or loss of hope.

I recommend Original Sin as an entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking book about this central Christian doctrine. People teaching about the doctrine of sin in schools or churches may find this a helpful companion to (though not a substitute for) exegetical and theological works on this topic.

David VanDrunen
Westminster Seminary California
Escondido, CA

Ordained Servant, February 2009.