Adventures in Thinking about What’s Wrong with Us (Part 2)

The Christian doctrine of the Fall is many things: it incorporates interpretations of biblical texts, whole traditions of thinking in Christian history, and the first-hand experiences of people in every age. In short, the Fall is the Christian description of how humanity went from the state in which they were originally created by God to a state of sin and rebellion against God — that is, a description of how humans fell from God’s created intent. Or, to say it differently, the Fall is the Christian description of what’s wrong with us.

Since scientific investigations of humans include claims about the origins, history, and nature of humans, Christians frequently respond to the science in order to stake their own claims about the meanings (or not) of the science for Christian understandings of the Fall. They are trying to answer a question like this one: What bearings, if any, do scientific claims about humans have on Christian understandings of what is wrong with us humans, and of how we humans came to have these things wrong with us?

James Smith’s “What Stands on the Fall?”

Just this year (2017), a group of Christian authors collaborated to give their answers to these questions in the book Evolution and the Fall (Eerdmans, 2017). James K. A. Smith, a Christian philosopher from Calvin College, contributed a philosophical analysis of the issues in an essay entitled “What Stands on the Fall? A Philosophical Exploration.” This 17-page chapter is divided mostly into two parts: the first part elucidates the core claims of the Fall, and the second part evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Christian efforts to relate these core claims to scientific claims about humans.

In my estimation, Smith’s essay has several strengths. First, it pushes readers to clarify what the Fall really is and is not about. Second, it bears the marks of humility, taking a tone that is more along the lines of thoughtful suggesting than dogmatic insisting. Smith is seeking to stir readers’ “theological imagination” (p. 56), their abilities to imagine a God that is bigger than their preconceived ideas. A third major strength of the essay is its clear and explicit desire to honor God and to be faithful to the gospel entrusted to Christians. Fourth, Smith is humble enough to take science seriously.

Despite the value I place on this essay and its potential for helping Christians, I also find two significant weaknesses in the essay. First, there is a lack of clarity as to the meaning of the words good and goodness. Second, there is a lack of attention to free will. Let me explain these weaknesses in context.

A Good God Created Good Humans

Smith’s central thesis is that any faithful Christian response to scientific claims about humans will insist on the goodness of God and the original goodness of humans. In short, a good God created good humans. There was nothing wrong with us when God created us. Something later went wrong with us, but it was not God’s fault that things went wrong and when things went wrong.

I will set aside the goodness of God as a given. Instead, what I want to ask is, What does it mean to call humanity “good”? I submit to you that this question is harder than it seems. As I read Smith’s discussions of humanity’s original goodness — discussions that both summarize certain Christian traditions (e.g., Reformed) and present Smith’s own views — I find myself unclear about Smith’s own understandings of the words good and goodness.

For example, the Reformed Belgic Confession seems to have identified original goodness as original righteousness (p. 52). This is a moral meaning of the word good. In short, a good God created morally-good humans. Thus, even if humans weren’t morally perfect, and even if they had room to mature, they were still morally good in their first created state (pp. 56-57).

But is moral goodness the meaning of good in Genesis 1, where humans are part of the “very good” creation that God evaluates in 1:31? In the scheme of Genesis 1, humans are “good” before there is any discussion of whether they perform good or bad acts — that is, they are pronounced “good” before they make any moral choices. Perhaps good means that humans simply matter to God, before they make any choices. This is certainly a value meaning of good, but not necessarily a moral one. In short, a good God creates good humans — i.e., humans whose existence and life he values and delights in.

Perhaps we could imagine other nuances in the meaning of good as applied to humans as God created them, but Smith’s discussion of sin may clarify for you why I am confused. “Then whence sin? The Reformed confessions are unanimous in emphasizing that sin befalls a good creation — it is an irruption in the order of a good creation. Sin is not ‘natural’ or some natural outgrowth of creation” (p. 53).

I understand the claim that a good God did not create humans such that they had to sin. Christians do not believe that a good God created morally-bad humans. So yes, in this sense, “sin is not ‘natural’ ” (p. 53): God did not include sin as such as an ingredient in the nature that he gave to humans. But is it also true that “sin is not … some natural outgrowth of creation” (emphasis mine)?

This is precisely where Smith’s lack of attention to free will confuses me. (It also befuddles a philosopher-colleague of mine who read the essay.) I grant that God did not create sin within humans, but he did, on all accounts (biblical and confessional), give humans free will to choose sin. In this sense, is it not true that sin is “some natural outgrowth of creation”? If free will is natural to humans, and if it was originally the case that humans could use their freedom to sin, then how can we say that sin is not a natural outgrowth of creation? Does sin not grow out of the free natures that humans were given?

My response here is not an effort to find fault with God for giving humans free will. Nor am I faulting God for the human choice to sin. I believe that free will is from God, and that it is good. Nonetheless, if the human ability to choose was good, then it seems to me that the human capacity to sin was part and parcel of God’s good creation. In other words, part of what it means for humans to be “good” is that they had the capacity to do good or evil, to choose or reject God.

Now, to be fair to Smith, much of his essay presents the views of entire Christian traditions (Augustinian and Reformed), and so some of my confusions may have more to do with those traditions than with Smith’s own views. Even so, Smith himself works so hard to avoid “inscribing brokenness into the fabric of creation” (p. 63) that his relative silence on free will is rather deafening to me. Again, if free will is an intrinsic feature to God’s good creation, including God’s good humans, then the potential for brokenness is in fact inscribed in the fabric of creation.

So What’s Wrong with Us?

My confusions notwithstanding, I am grateful for Smith’s essay, and I think Christians will be well served by interacting thoughtfully with it. In fact, I have already been well served by it: the essay prompted me to dust off previous studies of Augustine and other Christians who have written influentially about the Fall. These renewed studies will surface in the next posts in this series.

For now, let’s return to our original question: What’s wrong with us? Christian doctrines of the Fall all more or less answer that we humans are born into a world that has a lengthy history of people doing bad things, with consequences that ripple well beyond the perpetrators, and outlive them as well, influencing more people than ever can be fully anticipated and calculated. The Fall is one way in which Christians assert that this human condition was not the only option available to us. God gave humans options.

What is more, once certain choices have been made and certain actions taken, the effects alter the character of human life (and the world) significantly enough that we can never go back to an earlier time when the better options were less cluttered by the tangled web of human actions and reactions. All of our choices take place in our cluttered setting. Rather than despair, though, I think the doctrine of the Fall can help us take both the impact and the limitations of our actions more realistically. Perhaps in its own way, the Fall can help us be better humans, and maybe think more carefully before we act.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Comments Welcome!