The Limits of Doctrine

by Joel on April 4, 2006

For me, doctrine is a little akin to a poor patch placed on a finely crafted leather shoe. It is essential, because it keeps the water and pebbles out, but the shoe never quite completely fits. Doctrine is a human construct to understanding of the divine, so right from the beginning, it has its limits. However, for the Bible’s teachings to be put to use, we have to first make sense of them, and we can’t make sense of them unless we order them in some fashion.

Take the Doctrine of Original Sin. To me, it is one of the worst patches of all, but no one has come up with a better patch. Now again, I am making distinction between Scripture as the divinely given or inspired and doctrine as the humanly made application. Oh, some will say, “I don’t interpret Scripture, I just go by its plain meaning.” Then, often what they are telling you is that they go by what their preacher of long ago, their Sunday School teacher or their parents told them a particular passage means.

I accept the Doctrine of Original Sin because 1) I have to in order to be a United Methodist pastor and 2) I find that no better explanation of our depraved state apart from Christ has ever been offered. That the doctrine has at times carried some ugly baggage can’t be denied.

Augustine got so caught up in the biological transmission of original sin that he came to take a very low, polluted view of human sexuality. How unfortunate, even as he offered other great teachings.

The inevitable reach of the Doctrine of Original Sin is that the very babies the Bible tells us are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and “crafted in the womb” are nevertheless born as sinners. Indeed, one of the questions posed at the official United Methodist website is whether or not babies are born sinners, and the answer given is yes, they are. This may be the patch that keeps the shoe from falling apart or helping it to weather the elements, but it leaves the shoe a little ill-fitting. That’s because we have to really make some stretches to claim that a newborn sins. Let’s see, they cry, burp, sleep, perform bodily functions, keeping parents or guardians up at all hours and do all this in seemingly endless cycles. Which of these things are sins, though? They cry because they are hungry or wet. They scream to develop their lungs. They kick and squirm to build theire muscles. Science tells us that babies must be self-centered to insure their survival. So, in some sense it might seem that God created babies in a way that they think only of their own needs and not of others. To me, sin requires some “sensibility of sin” as referred to in Charles Wesley’s I Want a Principle Within. True enough, we see an infant’s sin as “covered” by God’s prevenient grace. That makes sense to me as a child gathers some understanding of “otherness” but not so much as to a newborn. However, if we don’t apply the doctrine to newborns, the whole theory seems to fail.

The Doctrine of Original Sin is very good for explaining the inevitably of rebellion, but it falls short in dealing with the “hows”. While a a very few Christian groups have relied entirely on some doctrine of “free agency” to explain our propensities toward greed, envy, lust, hate and more, the great bulk of Christianity looks to “Original Sin” as a doctrinal battle long settled.

Just as there are great mysteries to God’s grace, I think some mysteries remain as to the exact transmission of our sinful nature. While I have a hard time naming exactly what a newborn does that is sinful, I nevertheless find it inevitable that all will sin sooner or later, and usually sooner. That’s really the heart of the doctrine, anyway.

I myself am not particularly comfortable with sin as a biological transmission because of the fact at least that we are created in God’s image. And yet I cannot deny our inevitable pull toward sinful behavior that is repelled only by God’s grace. And neither does “free agency” alone serve as an answer. So I wear the patch of the Doctrine of Original Sin. It doesn’t feel quite right to me, as if there is a pebble trying to work its way into the shoe, but it keeps the shoe in one piece such that I can walk on it. And, I always remember that the patch isn’t the shoe. (This is metaphor only — I’m not suggesting that Scripture needs to be patched or fixed in any way.)

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }


dh 04.04.06 at 12:49 am

Being created in God’s image doesn’t mean we are ccreated without sin. I think there is a difference between sin nature and sin. So maybe it is semantics. Original sin is the concept we are born with a sin nature but not with sin. What do you think does that make sense? I think you are appropriating a definition of original sin that is not there. Hense the semantics response by myself. (I’m not saying this in a debating way but for a comcept of better understanding of all sides involved and for proper agreement that I feel is actually there.) So I guess I don’t see it as a patch but what Scripture actually says in light of Pauls sermons on Adam. “Through one man, Adam, sin entered into the world.”, etc. and others. Also, Scripture in paraphrase that talks about sin going to the third and fourth generations. (It may seem we disagree but I feel we do in that the definition of original sin seems to be an inaccurate one. not a harsh statement but clarifying.)


Joel 04.04.06 at 1:00 am


My point is that you and I are incapable of fully explaining how sin enters into our lives. It is much easier to acknowledge the reality and understand the solution than it is to dissect the particulars.


Joel 04.04.06 at 1:09 am


Maybe I should go further and ask you what you consider it is that a newborn does that is sinful.


Kim 04.04.06 at 1:31 am

The problem, Joel, is not Original Sin - or rather the problem is Original Sin! - on that not only Augustine and the tradition he bequeathed to the West, but also Orthodoxy agree; and as Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, it is the one Christian doctrine that offers convincing empirical demonstration.

Where Augustine went wrong was with his idea of Inherited Guilt. He went wrong for several reasons, including his mistranslation of Romans 5:12, but also because of his Roman criminal forensic mindset (which Calvin, by the way, will echo in his Penal Substituionary model of the atonement). In the East, however, theologians like Theodoret of Cyrus denied that infants were baptised to cleanse them of their guilt, while the great Gregory of Nyssa said that babies who died without baptism went straight to heaven (their deaths being their baptisms). Nor is the distinction here between East and West an arcane one: it lies behind some of the crasser theodicies of Western theologians when it comes to the suffering of children (”no problem, they deserve it like everybody else”).

Check out one of America’s rising-star (Orthodox) theologians David Bentley Hart: for starters, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005); for the main course, The Beauty of the Infinite: the Aesthetics of Christian Truth (2003).


Joel 04.04.06 at 1:41 am


It offers empirical evidence that it is a doctrine that works, but t does not offer evidence of how it works. I’ve simply never read any explanation of the means by which original sin is transmitted that I consider coherent. I believe it simply because there is no other plausible explanation. War, slavery, the Holocaust, etc. offer proof that the doctrine is valid but I don’t see empirical evidence of the exact ways by which the rebellion in the Garden is visited on us.

United Methodism says babies should be baptized but we deny that unbaptized babies go to hell, such being but one application of the doctrine of prevenient grace.

And, again, what exactly is it that a newborn does that can be considered sin?


Kim 04.04.06 at 8:12 am


It’s not a question of what a newborn does, which is why the doctrine of (Inherited) Guilt is offbeam; rather it’s a question of the newborn, “thrown into existence” (Heidegger), being ab initio part of/subject to the broken human condition and the power of sin.

As far as searching for an “explanation” of the means of sin’s “transmission”, I suspect that’s a category mistake. I don’t expect biologists to discover a “sin gene”! It is just a surd “fact” that, as Kant put it, we are all made of warped wood.


Joel 04.04.06 at 8:26 am


I’m basing what I write partly on what the website of the United Methodist Church declares, and that is that babies are born as sinners. One cannot be born a sinner unless one has sinned. Sinning requires either doing something wrong or failing to do something right. I’m not denying the doctrine of Original Sin, I’m just pointing out that the typical language used can be very problematical. The website isn’t saying that babies are born subject to the broken human condition or subject to the power of sin, it is saying in effect that they are born broken.

It isn’t possible that we are made warped because God created us and God is incapable of creating something that is defective.

Again, I don’t think there can ever be an adequate explanation of our propensity to sin, but such propensity seems irrefutable.


Kim 04.04.06 at 10:32 am


I see your problem with the website material: “that babies are born as sinners” lacks precision; I’d rather say “that babies are born-sinners”. But the church offers no “explanation”, rather it tells an aetiological story (i.e. the Fall). Press it too far, however, and you get ideas as nonsensical - and pernicious - as those that come out of pressing atonement-metaphors too far.

Take care,


Richard 04.04.06 at 12:29 pm

Very useful post, Joel. I’m with Kim - the story of the Fall (and, therefore, the doctrine of Original Sin) is not an explanation of the way things are, it is a description of them. It is a myth, a story with a purpose. Once that is grasped, there is no need to ask about the ‘mechanism’ by which sin is transmitted. What the story tells us is that we sin because we are human. That’s our condition.


dh 04.04.06 at 2:51 pm

Joel, I personally don’t believe that babies should be baptised. I personally believe in Believers baptism. So maybe the problem that you are experiencing is the concept that babies are sinners. I don’t believe that babies are sinners but that they have a sin nature being born in a sinful world and that sin nature. I also believe that when it says “Through one man sin entered into the world” in relation with “All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.” That we are all born with a sin nature. Once we understand at a latter age then we become accountable to that sin that is acted upon from that sin nature. So Joel you are focusing wrongly on the act of sin after Adam when the problem with Adam for the ages started with an act from Adam and by birth the sin nature was transmitted and as one understand at a latter age the act of sin accountability for that takes place. However, I don’t believe the story to be myth whatsoever. I personally believe it is an explanation and a description of the way things are in that it is the sin nature (to agree to a point with Richard being human is having the sin nature) that is transmitted, the ability to sin and we are held accountable for the ability by acting upon that ability to sin. That is the amazing thing about what God says through Paul regarding Adam, sin nature and the like is that sin and the ability to sin are addressed at the same time in the passages.

Atonement? When readining the OT you can’t come away with anything other than Jesus being the perfect Sacrifice for sin that by Faith in His death and resurrection we can enter into that atonement for our sin. When you read Paul with regard to Sacrifice I don’t understand how one can’t get the concept of sacrifice when Paul mentions it directly and other passages with regard to Christ as Sacrifice.


dh 04.04.06 at 2:54 pm

So Joel babies don’t act upon the sin nature that is in them. ONce they know that what they are doint is wrong that is when the acting upon the sin nature takes place. (I say this without using babies in that people have different ages with regard to babies so I’m not going to use the term babies in this response but you can still get an idea by my unparenthetical statement within this response.)


Joel 04.04.06 at 3:50 pm


And of course the underlying purpose of my post wasn’t the Doctrine of Original Sin, but to point out the Doctrine is an attempt to understand and “order” Scripture. It just seemed to me that many equate the rejecting of any particular doctrine with the rejecting of Scripture itself. The first is human-constructed, the second divinely given or inspired.

I actually don’t disagree with you or Kim on this matter. I, too, believe that the story of the Garden of Eden is truth told in myth.


dh 04.04.06 at 4:31 pm

I guess I differ than all three of you in that I believe the Garden of Eden is Truth told in Truth. I also believe original sin is not a manmade consruct but God in the concept of Romans 5:12.


Kim 04.04.06 at 6:33 pm

Joel and Richard,

Not so fast with the term”myth”, which I very intentionally did not use. It is too loaded. Most OT scholars - and, following them, most theologians - link the term with ancient Babylonian religions and associate it with timeless/cyclical understandings of cosmic and human origins; furthermore they contrast the term with the biblical picture of “In the beginning . . .” Of course Genesis 3 is not to be taken literally - but neither is it to be taken mythically.

In Volume Two of his Systematic Theology: The Works of God (pp. 148-50), the American Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson writes very sensibly about the whole issue of Original Sin, combining elements of both Augustine and - Schleiermacher! - and he suggests a convincing - or at least very discussable - way out of the impasse:

“Moreover, we . . . are compelled to posit a ‘fall’ of humankind, occurring within ceated time. Hominids who do not yet invoke God cannot sin. But as soon as members of the human community are on the scene, they in fact do; this is the lamentable puzzle of the matter. The story told in the third chapter of Genesis is not a myth; it does not describe what always and never happens. It describes the historical first happening of what thereafter always happens; moreover, had it not happened with the first humans it could not have happened at all . . .”


dh 04.04.06 at 7:01 pm

Kim, I appreciate your balance on this. While I do believe in literal Gen 1 and Genesis 3 and have major problems woth Schleiermacher, I appreciate you not supporting myth. Wow, Kim. As a Calviminian (and not a supporter of Schlermeicher) I can have a respect for someone who is Augustmacher. :) Just having fun and apreciating (while not agreeing 100%) your attitude. :)


Nathan 04.04.06 at 7:42 pm

“Very useful post, Joel. I’m with Kim - the story of the Fall (and, therefore, the doctrine of Original Sin) is not an explanation of the way things are, it is a description of them. It is a myth, a story with a purpose. Once that is grasped, there is no need to ask about the ‘mechanism’ by which sin is transmitted. What the story tells us is that we sin because we are human. That’s our condition.”

While I’m no theologian nor minister, this seems to hit the nail on the head.


dh 04.04.06 at 7:47 pm

Why isn’t a description of them in light of the proper definition of original sin as being “sin nature” as apposed to the actual act of sin? Also, why can’t we ask how sin is transmitted when the Bible explains it by way of Romans 5:12?


Brett 04.04.06 at 8:19 pm

We aren’t sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.


Richard 04.04.06 at 8:45 pm

I disagree with you about the word ‘myth’, Kim. It seems to me precisely the right word to describe, for example, Gen. 3. What other word can you use to categorize this sort of narrative? I haven’t read Jensen, but I can’t help feeling that the excerpt you’ve quoted performs a parallel motion with those who say that Gen 1 describes the way the world was made, but with ‘day’ being understood as ‘age’. (I don’t think I’ve expressed that very well, but I should be getting on with real work!) In other words, they want to have their scriptural cake and eat it - don’t read the narrative as precise history, but don’t read it as myth either. I reckon we’d be better off recognizing the story for what it is. Myth is a perfectly respectable form. Why be shy of it?


dh 04.04.06 at 9:43 pm

Or you can believe like me that when it says “evening and morning were the first day” (and every day thereafter) was exactly what it says or the description of Genesis 3 of the “fall” as exactly what it says as well, not myth. Richard, talking about cakes or cakes and eat it too in relation to your judgement. I would say it appears you believe in no cake at all. In my opinion that is something to be shy about. :) Just being humourous.

While I don’t adhere to the concept of day being age, I do respect it. It is
a lot better than believing the whole thing is total myth. For me the “myth” concept promotes or can lead to a pick and choose idea in relation to the Bible that I cannot adhere to.


dh 04.04.06 at 9:43 pm

Brett I like your statement. I wish i could have worded it as concisely as you. :)


Joel 04.04.06 at 10:58 pm


I mean myth from the standpoint that if humans evolved from lower life forms we cannot name a particular couple or a particular place that rebellion took place, or know that their names were “Adam” and “Eve.” Maybe the term “historical novel” would work.

Lower animal forms are often violent and might be considered greedy or selfish if looked at from a human standard. We could not necessarily pinpoint the point in time in evolution where life went from acting from nature without the responsiblity of conscience to a higher reasoning form that must take responsibility for its actions.

I am aware, of course, that at least in the United States, the majority of Christians reject the theory of evolution.

I do agree that there must have been a starting point for rebellion.


I don’t understand your statement. We aren’t sinners until we’ve sinned, in my book, so that means that we are sinners because we sin.


Kim 04.04.06 at 11:03 pm


You speak of folk who “want to have their scriptural cake and eat it - don’t read the narrative as precise history, but don’t read it as myth either.” But that’s not to want to have your cake and eat it, it is to recognise a false alternative - and indeed a false alternative - fact or symbol - that has been imposed on the Bible by the hermeneutics of classical liberalsim - as sure as inerrancy is imposed on the Bible by conservative evangelicalsm). It’s the same kind of thinking that leads into the cul-de-sac of the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” dichotomy, and which suggests, quite dogmatically, that however you might want to refer to the the appearances if the risen Jesus, “proper”. Well, it’s not history as we know it, Spock, but it’s history nevertheless history. So too, I suggest, the story of the first Couple is history, begins a history, encompasses our history - again, not as literal characters but as representaive earlt hominids.


Kim 04.04.06 at 11:31 pm

[Sorry, pressed the wrong button!]

I was saying that “the story of the first Couple is history, begins a history, encompasses our history - again, not a literal characters but as representative early historical hominids”. i.e. actual characters, who begin a family tree that will eventually run into characters of “saga” and “legend”- further genres to be distinguished from “myth”) with names like Noah and Abraham (further genres to be distinguished from “myth” Jensons ends his short exposition be saying that “We may one last time pose the question: Who were Adam and Eve? And in this context the answer must be: the first community of our biological ancestors who disobeyed God’s commands.”

This hermeneutic is unlike the specific one you metion much deployed by fundamentalsists - and the last thing Jenson is a fundamentalist - viz. turning the biblical six “days” into “ages” - because it is demonstrably pseud-scienctific, whereas Jenson is interfacing with paleo-anthropologists who may actually have something to say about the development of hominids and homo sapiens - us - that might be theologically relevant.


Kim 04.04.06 at 11:35 pm

Sorry about the typos - my cat and I are battling for control of the keyboard!


Joel 04.04.06 at 11:56 pm


Not that I think it would be persuasive to you, but Old Testament professor James King West’s preferred term for the creation story is “myth.” He said doing such is to “recognize that certain truths resist the strict categories of history and science, and find as a vehicle of expression the parablelike stories derived from a peculiar folk culture.”


Richard 04.05.06 at 8:21 am

If not ‘myth’, then what? “History, but not as we know it’ sounds like a fudge to me. I’m not convinced, Kim.

How about we agree to call the story of the Fall an aetiology and leave it at that? ;)


Kim 04.05.06 at 8:30 am


It’s all about how we define our terms, but in my view, given its deployment in the wider theological discussion, “myth” is too tainted with a-historicism to be of any edifying use.

To Professor West, I would want to say, “What do you mean by ‘history’?”

The test case for me is the resurrection of Jesus: Was the resurrection a “historical” event? It was certainly not a historical event in the same sense that the crucifixion was a historical event (i.e. according to the criteria of conventional historiography, which operates etsi deus non daretur), but I would insist that it is a historical event nonetheless. (I obviously do not follow Bultmann’s project of demythologising!) So too, I am suggesting, we should take the Fall, in its own and different way, as a historical event and not as just some “timeless” truth about the human condition. I am, if you like a critical realist, not a philosophical idealist (the Hegelian notion that “myths” are vehicles of ideas, and once you’ve reached the ideas you can dispense with the transport).

With the hermeneutical pioneer Hans Frei, I want to find a way out of the impasse of the fundamentalists, who conflate historical reference with literal meaning, and the liberals, who also identify the two but then detach the “meaning” of texts from their literal-historical sense, i.e. they jettison the history-intending nature of “realist” (in the literary sense) texts altogether.

You agree “that there must have been a starting point for rebellion”, and you tentatively refer to Genesis 3 as a “historical novel”. As usual, in a roundabout way I think that we are there or there-abouts on this one!


dh 04.05.06 at 1:43 pm

I don’t understand what I’m reading. Are you guys saying that there wasn’t a literal bodily resurrection? I know I probably misreading.

To me I appreciate Kim trying to find a middle ground but I still believe strongly in the literal Genesis 1 & 3 accounts. To me, it doesn’t contradict science for I have read many a creation scientist who have some pretty strong explainations. However, I respect Kims efforts in promoting the strength of the Bible with regard to Genesis 3 and the like rather than promoting “myth” which is the same term used in Greek and Roman days. Like Kim says “myth” is way too loaded and to say it isn’t in light of the term used in the past in my opinion shows a predisposition that is difficult to relate in relation to Faith.


Joel 04.05.06 at 2:37 pm


For what it’s worth, Professor West places the Creation account in the category of “pre-history.”


dh 04.05.06 at 3:30 pm

We could look at the Creation account as the beginning of history. When you say “pre-history” are you referring to human history or overal history. I know the Bible addresses the fall of Satan and his angels. Just wondering.


Joel 04.05.06 at 5:53 pm


Professor West uses the term “pre-history” to mean “phases of the distant past for which there can be found no formal documentation….” West makes it clear, though they he considers Genesis a “true” story. He simply adapts a wider understanding of “myth” than much common literary usage.

Professor West places Genesis in the same category as Revelation, with Genesis being “prologue” and Revelation being “epilog.”

I am aware that many would claim that the Bible itself is formal documentation.


dh 04.05.06 at 7:16 pm

“He simply adapts a wider understanding of “myth” than much common literary usage.” I think that is why I react the way I do. The term makes it ambiguous and that ambiguous. That is why I believe we need be careful to not give people wrong impressions by using a term that goes beyond what the term actually is.


Greta 04.05.06 at 11:19 pm

Interesting post. One way I have found to resolve the matter in my own mind is to say that to be born in sin is not to be born in a state of having sinned, but to be born outside of God. While a baby may commit no sin which he or she is aware of, the baby still has not learned to abide in Christ. It is only when adults make the same mistake and turn away that they sin. Anyone can be forgiven by Grace, baptized or not, but that does not mean that babies are born without the propensity and condition of sin.


dh 04.06.06 at 1:50 pm

Greata, I can totally respect that position. I’m not 100% in terms of the fine tune detail but it kind of make sense. Thanks for posting your response. I have never heard it worded that way. :)

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