Working through Possibilities: a Theologian Reviews When Did Sin Begin?

June 1, 2022
Author: Loren Haarsma
Publisher: Baker Academic
Publishing Date: August 17, 2021
Pages: 272 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1540964267

In When Did Sin Begin?: Human Evolution and the Doctrine of Original Sin, Loren Haarsma explores the relationship between the Christian doctrine of original sin and the scientific evidence for human evolution. This conversation focuses on the connections between original sin, the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the nature of Christ’s saving work. It also raises important questions about death, which Genesis 3 says is a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. All of this is seemingly at odds with the claim that death and extinction are part of the evolutionary development of Homo sapiens. This tension is the context for Haarsma’s book, which, as he states, can seem like “the entire gospel of Christianity is at stake”.1

Haarsma provides the reader with a variety of perspectives—from what it means to be created in the image of God, to the nature and impact of Adam and Eve’s sin, to how sin is passed down from Adam and Eve to the rest of humanity. For each issue he provides a variety of Christian perspectives and discusses how they might be compatible with the scientific evidence for human evolution. He acknowledges that some Christians have no problem interpreting Adam and Eve as literary figures, but he also provides quotes from respected scholars like N.T. Wright and John Walton to show how others hold the tension between human evolution and the historicity of Adam and Eve. Haarsma does not try to force the reader to accept one view or another, but instead asks us to consider the different options, and then follow the arguments to their logical conclusions. In writing this way, he chooses to gently persuade, not push, the reader to consider how the doctrine of original sin and human evolution are compatible.

“In writing this way, he chooses to gently persuade, not push the reader to consider how the doctrine of original sin and human evolution are compatible.”

Overall, this approach is helpful. Haarsma presents primary biblical and theological issues while demonstrating important touchpoints with evolutionary theory. To do this, however, Haarsma takes for granted the philosophical and hermeneutical presuppositions of conservative evangelical/fundamentalist paradigm. By doing this, he can then show how one can be an evangelical and still accept human evolution. This leaves me wondering: is it merely a matter of making evolutionary theory fit within a particular Western theological method, or is it possible the method itself needs some tweaking? Furthermore, is this culturally conditioned hermeneutical perspective the only way to seriously read scripture?

Western theology develops within the legal framework of Roman culture and its emphasis on explanation. Through the various theological controversies, the focus in the West is on explicitly articulating doctrinal beliefs. For example, a crucial difference between the Western and Eastern church is their understanding of the Eucharist. The West develops the doctrine of transubstantiation—a theological and philosophical articulation of how the Eucharist “works”. On the other hand, the Eastern church agrees the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ, and they are content to leave it in the realm of mystery. Another example is Western Christianity’s view of the saving work of Christ. Both the satisfaction and penal theories of the atonement are grounded in the legal paradigm. In the East, however, the focus is on divinization, or being caught up into the Divine life of God through the death and resurrection of Christ. My point is that theological method often reflects the cultural paradigm in which scripture is being read and interpreted. The controversy over a heliocentric cosmos around the time of the Reformation suggests it takes time for cultural paradigms to adjust, especially when it is the lens through which the Bible is read and interpreted. While Haarsma’s exploration of the different views of what it means to be an ensouled human, and the various possibilities for an original sin are well done, I wonder if they unintentionally solidify a cultural paradigm that pushes toward a particular relationship between faith and science.

“My point is that theological method often reflects the cultural paradigm in which scripture is being read and interpreted.”

Consider the Eastern Orthodox Church: their understanding of the sin of Adam and Eve, like the Jewish perspective Haarsma discusses, is not tied to historicity or some original event that changed human nature. Instead, the Eastern church reads the text as a story about the human propensity to turn away from God and refuse to take up the responsibility that comes with being creatures made in the image of God. They use the term “ancestral sin” to focus on the consequences of this disobedience, not just for humans, but for all creation. According to Andrew Loueth, Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University, this view of “ancestral sin” is entirely compatible with a scientific view of human evolution. He writes:

  • My first point, then, is that the idea of continuity between the animal and the human presupposed by the theory of evolution is not at all at odds with how the Fathers understood human nature. Orthodox theology should not have any problem as such a level. What about Adam and Eve as the original human couple? Here I would draw a distinction between the notions of ancestral sin, found in the Greek Fathers and accepted by Orthodox theology, and of original sin, characteristic of much Western theology, under the influence of Augustine. Original sin involved the idea of some baneful inheritance from Adam (and strictly speaking in Augustinian theology that we are each, individually, responsible for Adam’s sin and justly punished for it). It may well be possible to recast this doctrine in some form that dispenses with the historicity of Adam, but clearly there is work to be done.2

Engaging with the Eastern Orthodox view of sin can also provide an alternative reading of Augustine and the Pelagian controversy. A close reading of Augustine’s Confessions, specifically his emphasis on the relationship between language and human identity, suggests that Augustine is much more in line with Eastern theology than one might think. In fact, it’s clear that Pelagius, who emphasizes sin as imitation, doesn’t follow the logic of his own argument. For Augustine, the relational nature of sin is both cultural (language) and communal (think stealing pears). This doesn’t take away from the arguments Augustine makes elsewhere, but it does show his understanding of sin, like the Eastern church fathers and mothers, resonates with the idea of ancestral sin is inscribed within us from the moment we are born.

“For Augustine, the relational nature of sin is both cultural…and communal…”

Overall, I greatly appreciate Haarsma’s project. He frames the discussion in a way that prompts those who take a much more hyper-literal interpretation of scripture to consider other ways of reading the text that might open a dialogue between human evolution and Christian faith. This is to be commended, and from this perspective, I strongly recommend this book. At the same time, I can’t help but feel something is missing. At some point we need to acknowledge that those who interpret scripture from a particular evangelical/fundamentalist methodology are not the only ones who take the Bible seriously.

Read another perspective of this book here.

About the Author
  • Jason Lief is a Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

  1. Loren Haarsma, When Did Sin Begin?: Human Evolution and the Doctrine of Original Sin (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2021), 2.  

  2. Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013), 137.  

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