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Just put the blame on Adam

by
26 April 2011

David Atkinson on responsibility for sin

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In Adam’s Fall: A meditation on the Christian doctrine of Original Sin
Ian A. McFarland
Wiley-Blackwell £70
(978-1-4051-8365-9)
Church Times Bookshop £63

THIS is a heady mix: four parts quite complex academic theology, and one part devotional meditation on the meaning of the gospel. Ian McFarland is an associate professor at Candler School of Theology, a Methodist seminary attached to Emory University in Atlanta. An­noyed by the way in which con­temporary secular thought and much contem­porary theology dismisses as either incredible or morally unacceptable the traditional doctrine of Original Sin — namely that “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all” — McFarland argues not only that the doctrine of ori­ginal sin is theologically defensible, but that it is inseparable from the confession that Jesus is Saviour and Lord.

McFarland acknowledges the difficulties of the doctrine: the idea that all people are sinners because of one person’s sin; the problems of un­derstanding all humanity as repre­sented by one federal head; what these ideas do to our understanding of individual freedom and respons­ibil­ity; whether the idea of “inevit­able” sin vitiates the pursuit of justice; perhaps especially the in­com­patibility of belief in a historic fall with neo-Darwinian evolution.

And there is much in Christian tradition of which McFarland is critical. He claims, however, that a careful interpretation of St August­ine and a judicious use of Maximus the Confessor provide resources for articulating the doctrine for con­tem­porary Christians.

The heart of the book includes a discussion, at times highly technical, at times highly tortuous, of August­ine’s theology of freedom and the human will, and of Maxiumus’s engagement in the seventh-century “monothelite” controversy. This leads McFarland to an exploration of whether Christ’s human will was “fallen or unfallen”; and provides a basis for his own reconstruction of the doctrine of Original Sin.

You do not need belief in Adam and Eve, he says, to recognise that all human desires are distorted, and can be turned towards God only through grace. It is possible, he argues, to recognise a complicity in sin among all human beings without assigning individual blame, or losing indi­vidual responsibility. Acknowledging the depths of sin, through a proper appreciation of the extent of God’s grace in Christ, can lead to a healthy concern for change, repentance, and justice.

This book is heavy going for the average preacher, or the average student. It will be most at home in an academic theological library — and a £70 price-tag suggests that is where it is most likely to be used.

The Rt Revd Dr Atkinson is Honorary Assistant Bishop in Southwark diocese.

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