Nature Versus Grace: Why My Seminary Education was Confusing

In the Western world in the post-apostolic period, there was no more important thinker than Augustine (born A.D. 354), as his peculiar biography and form of thought have become the key influence for both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology. Because of his own difficulty in overcoming sexual lust, and because of his reading of a mistranslation of Romans 5 in which he understands that all have sinned in Adam, he concludes there is inherited guilt, total depravity or loss of free will, conjoined in his doctrine of original sin. All are conceived in sin and damned from the moment of conception. For “as soon as our first parents had transgressed the commandment, divine grace forsook them.”[1] Nature was from that moment literally “disgraced” as the grace of human nature was utterly lost. Thus, for Augustine, human nature is no longer such that humanity is free to obey the creator as the very possibility of not sinning is lost. Indeed, it is not possible for humanity not to sin or even to choose the good or to choose Christ, as all are guilty and depraved. The result of Adam and Eve’s transgression was, therefore, according to Augustine, a complete change in nature for the whole human race. The original righteous state of humanity has been replaced by “original sin”; a sin transmitted not by imitation but by mystical propagation. Nature knows no grace, for through our first parents it has suffered disgrace.

Augustine’s departure from the first 400 years of church teaching was acknowledged at one level in my education, but unbeknownst to me his understanding was smuggled in as the starting point of my theological education. Molly Worthen in her book detailing the crisis of authority in American evangelicalism mentions my old professor, Jack Cottrell, and describes him as among “specific individuals” who “smuggled Reformed thinking into Restorationist circles”[2] (I have detailed this here). Cottrell couches his theology in an extreme version of the Augustinian nature/grace split (logically entailing the extremes of Calvinism, which he attempts to overcome, while still holding to a version of original sin.). As a student I struggled to navigate this contradictory system of theology, which illustrates the profound and confused nature of this Augustinian departure.  

Creation Trumps Redemption

 Where orthodox theology turned to Christ as central in comprehension of all things, with Christ as the point of comprehension or the one in whom all things (history, creation, revelation and redemption) cohere (as in Col. 1:16-17 and Heb. 1:3), Cottrell posits a split between creation, redemption, revelation, and Christian experience. As he describes it, “In summary, we are saying that the Creator is the essential center of our lives; the Bible is the epistemological center; and Jesus Christ is the existential (or experiential) center.”[3] The presumption is that God as Creator is the ontological core, while Christ is added to this centrality. His role as revealer, creator, sustainer, the Alpha and Omega, is passed over for a God whom we presumably know through nature and law and in spite of sin.  

Cottrell presumes that it is not in Christ or in redemption that we encounter God’s original or true purpose: “Shall we interpret creation in the light of redemption, or vice versa?” Very much in the spirit of Augustine, he explains that redemption is added to creation and was not part of God’s original plan. We would not want, he explains, the undue “elevation of Jesus and his redemptive work as the touchstone or central fact around which everything else revolves and (by which it) must be interpreted.” Here he departs from the biblical principle that there is one Jesus Christ, the only Son of the one Father, who alone has made known (“exegeted,” Jn 1:18) the Father. He reduces redemption to the resolution of the sin problem, and misses that God had purposed from before the beginning to bring creation to fullness in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

Christ is Redeemer and Not Revealer

Cottrell is eager to refute what he calls the “Christological fallacy” or “the attempt to make Christ an epistemological principle, rather than the Redeemer he came to be.” Just as Augustine splits nature against grace – playing off salvation against nature – Cottrell will accentuate the split between Christ as Revealer and Redeemer, presuming that, while Christ plays a revelatory role, “there are many other ways in which God can reveal and has revealed himself and his truth to the human race. Thus our knowledge of God and his works comes to us from God as God, and not necessarily from God as Redeemer.” Though he allows Christ is “the highest revelation,” Cottrell relativizes this role under practical preference for the “many other ways” of revelation in creation and the Bible.

Christ is primarily redeemer, in Cottrell’s view, and this role is pitted against revelation, as Christ’s redemption (penal substitution) does not pertain to revelation nor does revelation pertain to redemption. Cottrell distinguishes Christ’s redemptive work from revelation and specifically the revelation of Scripture: “because of the reality of revelation and inspiration, this knowledge (primary knowing) comes to us in written form in Scripture,” in contrast to Christ. His conclusion: “The Reformers are still right: the Bible is our ‘formal principle,’ our epistemological principle. Jesus Christ is not.”

So, he pits the epistemological centrality of the Bible against the centrality of Christ: “If we mean what is epistemologically central, then the answer is that THE BIBLE is central.” He seems to deny the truth of John (1:8) and the truth presumed throughout the New Testament, that Christ provides both epistemological and redemptive access to the Father (the Bible knows no distinction between revelation and redemption). As Jesus explains to Thomas, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

Nature and Law Precede and Determine Grace

Cottrell goes on to explain that God the Creator is central to our lives, both in terms of ethics and understanding. The will of God, he concurs with Luther, comes to us on the basis of law: “law (grounded in the creation-relation) must precede gospel (grounded in redemption).” True to Luther and Calvin (and the economy inaugurated by Augustine), he sees the economy of redemption and relationship to God as law based, so that Christ is doing nothing more than working within this legal economy. There is no shadow/substance comparison here (as in Paul and Hebrews) as the law is the adequate frame of salvation. There is no need to reorder or change the natural understanding of God and the given notion of law. What is needed is someone to keep the law, and we know Christ’s redemption on the basis of the law which comes to us through both nature and the Old Testament, and which he fulfills by keeping. This stands in contrast to the apocalyptic picture of cosmic re-creation through resurrection (pictured in John, Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Galatians, and Revelation) which founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation.

Christ Provides an Experience

 Cottrell allows for a narrowed role for Christ’s centrality: he is “existentially (or experientially) central in our lives.” He clarifies that this pertains specifically to feelings: “our strongest felt relationship to God is the relationship we have with Christ our Lord and Savior. He is the One whom we know most about and to whom we feel the closest.” If it weren’t for the elimination of Christ from knowing, ethics, creation, and ontology, this focus on feeling might not be so damning, but Christ is accorded only this role of experience and feeling. We feel honor and gratitude due to Christ, and he is central in worship (which presumably must be feeling and not knowledge centered) and service, but we must not make too much of Christ. As Cottrell warns, “let us not demote Christ and distort truth by trying to make Him an epistemological tool.”

The Multiplication of Dualisms

The problems with this understanding – imagining that experience, knowledge, and redemption are separate realms; picturing law and nature as complete and adequate apart from God’s grace; the focus on the Bible as an independent epistemological source apart from Christ; indicate the inherent contradictions which Augustine bequeathed to Western theology. Cottrell seems to be a case in point of the confusion and splits caused by Augustine’s original sin. The dualities are irreconcilable and they seem to endlessly multiply, in that not only is nature ungraced or disgraced (as if there is such a thing as nature apart from God’s gratuitous gift), but epistemology is pitted against redemption, and redemption apparently does not include or require a revelatory component (if it is purely a legal exchange between the Father and Son). The soul is pitted against the body, the church is visible and invisible, and ethics is divided from redemption. Of course, at each intersection this is a blatant contradiction of Scripture and the early church.

The Deception of Sin is Disregarded

In the doctrine of original sin, the original lie foisted on the first couple and a continuing part of the definition of sin, is passed over. It is presumed that what is wrong in the world is not that people have been deceived in regard to the law, but that the law is an adequate measure of sin. In other words, Augustine’s original sin foists the original lie upon us. By focusing on sin and presuming that human nature is the problem, the cosmic nature of the problem is traded for an individualistic problem pertaining only to human interiority. People know enough to get into trouble but are incapable of doing anything about it.

The Cosmic Nature of Sin is Obscured

The problem here is not that Augustine takes sin too seriously, but he mystifies it, individualizes it, and reduces the problem and answer to human interiority (focused on the soul). But the failure of humanity in the first Adam is corporate (as is the resolution in the second Adam): it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word), is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death.

Revelation Is Redemption

The twisted presumption that the revelation of Scripture stands apart from the redemption of Christ misses the presumed veil that covers those who would exegete Scripture or understand God apart from Christ. Paul pictures the “same veil” that Moses placed over his face as continuing to obstruct those who would read the law and Moses apart from Christ. “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14). Only through the removal of the veil can the true meaning of Scripture and full glory of God shine forth. This does not occur by means other than the lifting of the veil through Christ. His redemption is revelatory; it is a seeing of God rightly, and this occurs only through “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). In turn, this revelation is redemptive: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Co 3:18). The obstructing lie of sin has been removed and with it the truth of God in Christ is revealed in redemption.

The Gospel Precedes and Constitutes Scripture

Christ seems to bear no knowledge content for Cottrell apart from Scripture, which ignores how the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ opens the Scriptures to the Apostles. For the first generation, the Scriptures refer to the Hebrew Bible, which are now read in light of Christ (and not the other way round). The death and resurrection of Christ act as a catalyst in apprehending Scripture in a new way. The preaching of the Gospel enacts a new form of understanding or wisdom, which in light of the old wisdom would be dismissed as foolishness (I Cor. 1:18-24). The preaching of the Gospel is not dependent upon Scripture in the first instance, as it consists of the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ, but in light of this proclamation “the wisdom of God” is revealed. Now there is a means of making sense of Scripture as Christ brings about a coherence it does not otherwise possess.[4]

This exegesis of Scripture and God on the basis of the Gospel constitutes the New Testament. Christ is the hermeneutical lens, the means to wisdom, the ground of epistemology, and this ground is worked out in conjunction with Scripture. The point of reading the Bible is not to find the original meaning; quite the opposite – the point is to apprehend Christ, where the original meaning, taken as its own end, might obscure this reality.

Christ’s explanation of Scripture, with himself as center, to the two on the Road to Emmaus, is not lost to us but is recovered and expanded upon throughout the New Testament. Paul does not read Genesis as an end in and of itself – and his reading may in fact seem to distort the original story, but his point is to show forth the second Adam in conjunction with the first (e.g., Romans 5 & 7).  It turns out the two sons of Abraham represent two covenants (Gal. 4:24 ff.) and yet, there are not two such covenants revealed apart from Christ, prior to Paul’s explanation. The snake of Moses foreshadowed the crucifixion and the giving of eternal life (John 3:14). The Exodus, Passover, the Sabbath, the Temple, the sacrifices, the priesthood, and creation, have to now be read and understood in light of Christ. To reverse this, and to lift up Scripture over Christ is to lose the meaning and substance preserved in the Old and New Testaments through the preaching of the Gospel. Apart from a Christological explanation there is no coherence but only confusion and contradiction.


[1]  Augustine, City of God, XIII, xiii.

[2] Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press; 1st edition (November 1, 2013), 85.

[3] Jack Cottrell, “What is Central in our Lives?” Restoration Herald (November, 2014). All references to Cottrell are from this article.

[4] See John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea Volume 1 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood New York, 2001), 25-28.

Resurrection as Sign or Substance of Salvation?

There are two primary ways of narrating the human predicament and its resolution in Christ and these two ways involve the two broadest forms of Christianity found in East and West (categories that are ultimately inadequate). The question that divides is whether sin is the problem which gives rise to death or is death the predicament which gives rise to sin? How one views this choice is determinative of the role of resurrection but it is also the move which will either posit a gap within or organically fuse the sign of the work of Christ with what it signifies.

The problem, giving us two forms of the faith, can be traced to the 3rd century with the Latin Vulgate’s rendering of Romans 5:12 (which describes sin’s universal spread resulting in death rather than death’s spread resulting in sin, as a consequence of Adam), which will not only give rise to Augustine’s notion of original sin but to varying interpretations of the death and resurrection of Christ which will infect even those theologies which may not hold to either Augustine’s theory of original sin or Calvin’s rendering of Augustinian theory. While there are some 20 different “theories” of atonement (which are not necessarily opposed – though some are) there are two basic approaches to understanding the work of Christ: the life and death of Christ are either a direct reversal of sin (a healing or deliverance) rendered directly available through resurrection, or his life and death are a step removed from the primary problem and his resurrection is a sign pointing to the resolution of the problem (as a sign of righteousness (sin defeated), rather than the thing itself). To state it in this broad way I am intending to capture an array of understandings characteristic, in the first instance, of what we might call Augustinian Christianity (in characteristic forms of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, but also the range from fundamentalism to liberalism) and Eastern Christianity. The ultimate goal (which can only be gestured to in this introduction) is not simply to distinguish forms of Christianity which separate or do not separate the sign and what it signifies but to describe how the life, death, and resurrection of Christ directly reverse the human predicament which is not clear at this point in theories East or West.  This will entail beginning with the person and work of Christ as the interpretive frame for understanding the solution and the problem toward which the solution is directed (an apocalyptic hermeneutic).

There are texts in Scripture which might support either of these understandings (e.g. the cross as a sign or as an organic solution), so it is not enough to demonstrate that his death is a sacrifice, a consequence of sin, or a pathological result of evil. His death might be all of these things but to make it simply any one of these is not an end of explanation nor does it arrive at the fullness of an organic solution. Certainly, his death was at the hands of evil men (as Peter tells it in the first Christian sermon) but does this mean, as Edward Schillebeeckx maintains, “that we are not redeemed thanks to Jesus’ death but in spite of it.” Or does this mean that, as Donald Smythe has put it, “We revere the cross as a sign and symbol of what fidelity to God means?” What Schillebeekx and Smythe are rejecting is the notion that the death of Christ involves an exchange between the Father and the Son, removed from the human context (as in theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution), but then they too are guilty of reducing the cross to a sign. The cross is indeed a sign of many things, but is it simply a sign of consequences? It is not enough to reject vicarious satisfaction and with it to reject the centrality of the cross, nor are ancient formulations of Christus Victor (the cross as the defeat of the devil) in and of themselves adequate to rescue this centrality. Just as Nicaea and Chalcedon would develop and extend the New Testament understanding of the Trinity, so too we must develop and extend our understanding of the doctrine of salvation.

This will entail not simply a reordering of proof texts (all 20 theories of the atonement have their texts) but beginning from an apocalyptic presumption that the work of Christ not only provides an answer but also unveils (the root meaning of apocalypse) the problem. Christ is the resolution to a problem we do not understand, as stupidity, ignorance, false sophistication, having believed a lie, is part of the problem he exposes (I Cor. 1:20). The answer comes prior to the diagnosis because the disease is one of deception. To begin with sin is to begin with a complete mystery, even in Augustine’s estimate, which will leave salvation mysterious as well.  The diagnosis and remedy entail a holistic inclusion of epistemology, as the life that one relinquishes so as to gain true life (Mt 10:39; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25) is inclusive of the life of the mind. Our addiction to one sort of life is characterized by an addiction to a foundational knowledge (our knowing), which is not simply a modern philosophical method. Augustine is not simply mistaken in his creation of his distinctive notion of original sin but in his hermeneutic which presumes to work out Romans 5:12 apart from Romans 5:10 in which the life of Christ is set up as the interpretive frame for understanding sin and death. Our desperate addiction to a form of life that kills is inclusive of a deadly, lying, interpretive frame. The sure sign of this mode of thought is that it begins explanation apart from the cross and presumes sin and death are accessible apart from his death and resurrection.  

In this sense Augustine’s mistake is the mistake of sin. Death as the occasion for sin is always obscured or denied in sin and instead it is made a result to be voided or avoided (through the law). Contractual theology negotiates a way around death, presuming as it does that the law marks the way even for the work of Christ (he keeps the contract where we could not and he pays the price required by the law). Rather than the law marking an orientation to death the law is thought to be the means of life which Christ fulfilled. The lie of sin, that there is life in the law which voids the role of death, is the mark of failed humanity and religion. You won’t die (as the serpent tells Eve) as death is unreal – a doorway to the unfolding of immortality. So too in a failed Christianity, death is made peripheral by either shuttling the work of the cross off to heaven or getting rid of it entirely. A theology which misses the very thing the cross was meant to heal bears the mark of sin. To reverse the problem, as in an Augustinian reading, and to imagine sin has some sort of mysterious coherence apart from its orientation to death (the grab for life) and its disruption of resurrection life, is to not only miss sin (it is made original, mysterious, genetically conveyed, sexual, pertaining to guilt) but to miss how the cross frees from sin (it too is made mysterious, heavenly, pertaining to the mind of God, or simply particular forms of oppression). 

 Given the starting point of the resurrection and our participation in that resurrection (Paul’s starting point in such passages as Ephesians 2) we come to understand how dying to one form of life is actually a dying into life or a dying to death. That is, resurrection as our starting point also tells us that death does not simply pertain to our morality but to an orientation which is death dealing in the living (the opposite of resurrection living). The reason that the death of Christ leads to resurrection is the same reason that our dying with him leads to our resurrection life. Jesus describes it as a germination sort of dying, bearing the fruit of life. To hold back this planting and germination, so as to keep a grip on the life one loves, is to halt life before it begins. To follow Jesus manner of life, in which he takes up the cross, is already to live out the resurrection (to die with him is to be raised with him (Jn 12:24-26)). In this understanding, death need not characterize a person’s life, so death as the controlling orientation is overcome. Death, in fact, is no longer a negative factor orienting life, but dying to this orientation by embracing the death of Christ is the means to life.  

Joseph Fahey recently shared his class notes with me from a course taught by William Frazier. Frazier used a series of questions to bring out the radical but sometimes subtle difference in these two forms of Christianity. In order to accentuate this distinction and to locate one’s own understanding I have copied, sometimes in revised form, a few of these questions below. I provide an explanation below that might aid in drawing out the difference.

1. Death is a mystery that   A. necessarily destroys life    B. potentially enables life.

2. Death is a result of   A. sin     B. creation.

3. The Father saved us     A. in spite of Jesus death    B. by way of Jesus death.

4.  According to Christian belief the Savior saves mainly by    A. bringing about a real change in the world     B. showing the world how to change itself.

5. God accomplished salvation through Christ by   A. reconciling the world to himself   B. reconciling himself to the world.

6. The Christian life is related to death as   A. oil is to water   B. night is to day    C. flower is related to seed.  

7. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that    A. sin germinates in the soil of mortality    B. mortality germinates in the soil of sin.

8. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that death    A. is something that happens to human beings    B. the way human beings happen.

9. Resurrection means deliverance   A. from death    B. through death.

10. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that the resurrection of Jesus   A.  did away with his death   B. derived from his death    C. reversed his death.

The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 in the Latin Vulgate obscures (or in fact makes impossible) the meaning of the Greek original but it took the theological genius of Augustine to ensure that this fundamental error would shape Western theology.  What Augustine provides is explanation for the mistranslation “in whom (i.e. Adam) all sinned”: “Nothing remains but to conclude that in the first man all are understood to have sinned, because all were in him when he sinned.” Whatever it means that all were in him when he sinned (Augustine will link it to sexual passion), in some way everyone is born guilty and damned in the eyes of God. Because they are guilty and damned or because they all sinned (mysteriously so even in Augustine’s account), death then spread to everyone. Even for those who have done nothing (infants – presumably upon conception), it is as if they have sinned. The mistranslation reverses cause and effect in Paul’s explanation, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned (in Paul’s language).

This mistranslation and misinterpretation make nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the propagation of sin through death and, as a result, in the history of the Western church, sin’s propagation is mostly left a mystery. It is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around and it is this explanation for the propagation and work of sin (to say nothing of salvation) that he will build on for the next three chapters.

Original sin also directly contradicts what Paul says in verse 14: “death reigned from Adam to Moses even over those who had not sinned in the manner of Adam.” In Paul’s explanation there are those who have not sinned as Adam did (there is no concept for Paul of everyone sinning “in Adam” before they exist) but death reigned even over these.

 Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. In chapter 4 Abraham is depicted as relinquishing the struggle – though he is as good as dead due to his and Sarah’s age and childlessness – nonetheless they believed God could give them life (a son) and this belief is summed up as resurrection faith. It is not clear how resurrection faith would have anything to do with sin were it not for the fact that sin is the orientation to death (death denial) reversed in Abraham and Christ (death acceptance).

We have been so inundated with the notion of an original guilt equated with sin that it has obscured the open and obvious explanation of sin as an orientation to death. Sin reigns in death not simply because people are mortal or already guilty, but because sin arises in conjunction with death in which people deceive themselves into believing life can be had by other means. Life in and through the “I” or ego or life through the law (ch. 7), life in the tower of Babel (the implicit background of ch. 4), all amount to the lie Isaiah characterizes as the – Covenant with Death (Is. 28:15, a key reference for Paul). The irony of sin is that it is a taking up of death – a living death under the auspices of having life – and this deception is the definition of sin.

For Paul, Adamic humanity and those in Christ are two alternative identities (the only two possibilities), and they are ontological poles apart in regard to life and death. Death reigned through the first Adam and life through the second Adam. Sin follows the reign of death and righteousness follows the reign of life in a similar sort of cause and effect relationship. The transgression of Adam resulted in the condemnation to death for all (access to the Tree of Life is cut off) but the one act of righteousness resulted in life for all people and with this life things are made right in a multiplicity of ways (5:18-8:39).

Rather than sin being accessible to explanation, sin is obscured by the theory of inherited guilt and notions of total depravity, which eschew explanation. They completely relinquish the possibility of breaking down the (il-)logic of sin or any notion of how salvation addresses the sin system and its propagation. Calvin’s explanation of Augustine’s doctrine confounds the possibility of explanation, in that he will attribute the propagation of sin to divine ordinance (along with natural inheritance). The result is that sin is not subject to explanation (in light of salvation) but becomes the lens through which salvation is interpreted (Calvin’s system of TULIP).

To state the situation most darkly, a mistranslation gives rise to a nonsensical notion – a mystery – and this nonsensical notion gives rise to an equally mysterious and nonsensical notion of salvation (divine satisfaction and penal substitution) and an entire system which in each of its parts has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. Total depravity of the entire race gives rise to unconditional election – divine fiat that cannot be penetrated with any insight. This cannot include all (limited atonement) and all of this is built on a flattening out and rendering irrelevant of human will and action (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints).

There are a series of secondary effects related directly to this failure of thought. Augustine’s theory of original sin was so tied up with his disapproval of human sexuality that for centuries it contaminated all sexual passion with the idea of sin. Though he deems marriage “lawful” he concludes “the very embrace which is lawful and honorable cannot be effected without the ardor of lust. . .. the daughter of sin, as it were; and . . . from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin.”[1] Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, is tied to his notion of the original misdeed and its propagation. One wonders if clergy sexual abuse, not just among “celibate” priests, but across the Protestant and Catholic world today is not connected to this degrading of human sexuality. At a minimum the misogyny and anti-sex bias of the Western church has certainly been influenced by this error. The idea of being punished for a crime committed by someone else (for eternity) is unethical but this unacceptable notion gives rise to an equally unfair idea that someone else can be made to bear this punishment for the crime (divine satisfaction and penal substitution).

Perhaps the primary tragedy of this misreading is that it renders Christianity irrelevant to real world problems and the reality of the solution Christ provides. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with an already recognized reality in that we all have the problem of death. Death for humans is interconnected with what most everyone would agree is evil: violence, murder, war, and the recognition that death accounts for the human sickness at its root in the inward self (death drive, Thanatos, masochism, etc.). If we believe in evil then it has to be connected to the problem of death. In the human psyche our main problem is not some sort of inherited guilt but that we die and how we orient ourselves to this reality. The fact that Christianity addresses this universal and most basic problem is nearly completely obscured by notions of inherited guilt and imputed righteousness which leave out the painful reality of the human condition and its resolution. Paul’s cry, “Who will deliver me from this body of death” (7:24) goes unanswered where Augustine’s mistaken reading reigns.


[1] Augustine, De bono coniugali

Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease

Where the truth of Christ is understood to counter a lie and the death of Christ an overcoming of the orientation to death fostered by this lie there are an infinite variety of ways in which this overcoming is to be described.  Key throughout is the recognition that this understanding has its explanation in the lived reality of human experience. As opposed to theories of atonement focused on the mind of God (i.e. divine satisfaction, penal substitution) which do not, for the most part, engage the lived reality of human experience, an immanent explanation of how the world is impacted by Christ is readily available.  Let me suggest a direction for the theological enterprise as it engages the ongoing task of apprehending the meaning of the death of Christ. Continue reading “Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease”