After writing about the abuse of Irenaeus’s thought, and the resulting re-packaging of the doctrine of sin, I thought it would be good to check up on the history of that doctrine, and pulled out Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. It’s written from a Reformed position but always covers other views pretty thoroughly. To my surprise, I found immediate support for my reading of Irenaeus, even though I was aware Berkhof wrote before “the Irenaean theodicy” had been invented by John Hick:
The earliest Church Fathers do not speak very definitely on the origin of sin though the idea that it originated in the voluntary transgression and fall of Adam in paradise is already found in the writings of Irenaeus.
With no dog in the fight, his assessment is, I think, trustworthy. In fact it obviously is, because Irenaeus himself makes it abundantly clear to those bothered to read him. As I read on, though, I was surprised to find a full critique of the “new” hamartology (theology of sin) being offered by theistic evolutionists, apart from their distortion of Irenaeus. Berkhof goes on to say how his view became the prevailing view of the Church in opposition to Gnosticism, which regarded evil as inherent in matter, and as such a product of a Demiurge. What was that about a self-creating secondary power, and manifold evils, in the process of evolution?
“This theory” continues Berkhof, “naturally robbed sin of its voluntary and ethical character.” Well yes, I seem to remember arguing that against George Murphy on BioLogos, as well as in my previous post here. I somehow don’t think Berkhof depends on either source, though.
Whilst in the west, he continues, there was an increasing stress on the origin of sin in Adam, in the 3rd and 4th centuries the eastern Church tended to discount it, a trend culminating in Pelagianism, condemned in ecumenical councils at 418 (Carthage) and 431 (Ephesus). West and East were thereafter agreed on the fall, and on birth-sin (east) or original sin (west).
In mediaeval times the Church was sometimes Augustinian (holding that both guilt and pollution came through Adam), but often “Semi-Pelagian”, holding only the latter, despite the fact that the western Church had condemned this as heresy at Orange in 529. The Reformers, majoring on Scripture’s primacy, agreed with Augustine, and only the Socianians with Pelagius. Later, when the Arminians appeared, they “moved in the direction of Semi-Pelagianism,” a fair description seeing that Arminianism arose within the Reformed movement.
Fast forward to the Enlightenment, when rationalism, and then evolutionary philosophy, began to discount the fall of man altogether. And here’s a familiar theme echoed in the current debate:
The idea of sin was replaced with that of evil, and this evil was explained in various ways.
Nowadays, too, we see the issue of sin being bundled together both with “natural evil” and “suffering” as a theodicy issue rather than one of human guilt, the “sin” component being subsidiary. A little later on:
Naturally, a consistent theory of evolution cannot admit the doctrine of the fall, and a number of liberal theologians have rejected it as incompatible with the theory of evolution.
It’s worth considering what assumptions underlie the first part of that – is it the science of evolution or the metaphysical asasumptions now associated with it that exclude the fall? Be that as it may, at this point it all begins to look exceedingly familiar, except that the theological innovators are described by Berkhof as “liberals”, rather than “evangelicals”.
Berkhof’s book was published in 1939 – that’s exactly three quarters of a century ago. Now in biology, Simon Conway Morris’s theory of convergent evolution, at least in part, suggests that given the same environment evolution is pretty likely to repeat itself. Here we seem to have a similar process in theology, with the evangelical scholars following just the same path that the liberals who had abandoned evangelical faith did long ago. It is pretty likely that whatever assumptions – theological, metaphysical, philosophical and epistemological – guided the course that the old liberal scholarship took, they are also guiding the modern evangelicals in their thinking. That raises the question of whether the label “evangelical” is being used nowadays for anything more solid than “a denomination or institution that has that word in its title”. Whatever, it’s a classic case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Berkhof’s most developed example of evolutionary doctrines of the fall is that of Cambridge theologian Frederick Robert Tennant, whose interest in religion was (paradoxically) awakened in 1889 by “Darwin’s Bulldog”, the agnostic Thomas Huxley, and his claim that the fall was incompatible with evolution. In his 1902 lectures Tennant presents a scheme very similar to those we have recently seen on BioLogos, minus the mangling of Irenaeus (so the brave new theology was commonplace amongst liberals 112 years ago, no less!).
Seeing “natural evil” as inherent in the animal instincts produced by evolution, Tennant nevertheless had insight enough to see it was not “sin”. “In the course of evolution moral conscience began to awaken in man” (he didn’t explain how evolution pulled this trick off). At that point, following animal impulses, against the new sense of conscience, became “sin”, but the basis on which opposing conscience is an objective offence against God is not clear. For example, if social Darwinist reason suggests that we should put aside our scruples in order to destroy less-evolved (ie evil) races, right would seem to be against conscience.
The sinful environment added, Tennant said, to the difficulties of refraining from sin – so we see the same inevitability in sinning that arises from the “immaturity” implicated in the “Irenaean theodicy”. Tennant specifically repudiates the doctrine of the fall – “evil” animal instincts are inherited, but morality is an indeterminate libertarian choice.
Tennant’s theory is, in fact, not merely “homologous” to modern TE theology, but “ancestral”, having been cited, at least, by Daniel Brannan in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. At this point, though, Berkhof quotes W H Johnson:
Tennant’s critics are agreed that his theory leaves no room for that cry of the contrite heart which not only confesses to separate acts of sin, but declares: “I was shapen in iniquity; there is a law of death in my members.”
No doubt his supporters would regard such a cry as pathological anyway. Berkhof sums up Tennant’s theory – and thereby by implication many of the new evangelical theories:
As a matter of fact, it is merely the old Pelagian view of sin grafted into the theory of evolution, and is therefore open to all the objections with which Pelagianism is burdened… The radical defect in all these theories is that they seek to define sin without taking into consideration that sin is essentially a breaking away from God, opposition, transgression of the law of God. Sin should always be defined in terms of man’s relation to God, and His will as explained in the moral law.
Returning to the analogy of convergent evolution, although the old liberal evolutionary hamartology and the modern evangelical ones are clearly not independent, it’s still the case that theology depends on more than just shared preferences in ideas. Theology, like the puruit of science, depends on presuppositions, and these pressuppositions (as in scientific theories) more or less constrain the direction theology will take. There were identifiable principles in nineteenth century liberal theology, just as there were evangelical principles that led evangelicals to remain apart from the changing current..
For example, if it should be that ones foundation were that the Church Fathers have divine authority, Irenaeus and Augustine would have to be reconciled rather than pitted aginst each other (that reeconciliation not being a hard task, as I said in my previous post), and original sin would be indisputable. In fact, even the greatest traditionalists hold back from such a position, but they may well consider that when the Fathers agree with what the Church has always taught, it is risky to overturn it lightly.
Historically Evangelicalism (indeed, Protestantism itself) stood on the foundation that Scripture has supreme authority. They tended to view the Fathers in that light – since they too took their arguments from that supreme authority, where these arguments could be sustained they should be endorsed. So indeed should the tradition of the catholic churches, which admitted the divine authority of Scripture even when they departed from that in practice, where tradition could be endorsed by Scripture. And so Evangelicals concluded, whenever they worked on the sola scriptura principle, that Scripture teaches the fall of man in Adam, as had the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican streams of Christianity. Nevertheless Evangelicals have, on the same principle, allowed for flexibility about the history represented by that doctrine.
That appproach seems, to me, to be notably lacking in the “Irenaean theodicy” issue. There, the Fathers are used purely as a mine for ideas in the abstract: Irenaeus’s “immaturity” idea can be usefully dropped into evolution – the context and Scriptural reasoning he used to arrive at it being more or less ignored. Likewise Augustine is “just a different view”, whose position on original sin doesn’t appeal, and whose reasoning that it follows necessarily from the biblical revelation is just sidelined, rather than countered on Scriptural grounds.
In summary, convergence in theology needs to be seen as evidence of common ancestry of presupposition and methodology, even if not (though it is so in this case in this case) the actual continuity of thought. We ourselves therefore need to examine our working presuppositions, not just express our empathy with any particular theological conclusion. If we choose to be a duck, we will inevitably end up quacking. And, of course, the converse is true.