Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 1: “The Sting of Death is Sin”)

So, through a wonderful confluence of events involving The Burner Blog at Fuller Theological Seminary purchasing a bunch of copies of Richard Beck’s book The Slavery of Death and then proceeding to give them away to everyone who wanted one, I have acquired a copy of the aforementioned book.  Regular readers know that I discovered Richard Beck’s blog last summer when I was on the upswing with my own blogging efforts, and he rapidly became one of my favorite bits of daily reading (Beck maintains the admirable schedule of posting something new every weekday morning at 6 a.m. eastern time; I wish I could still manage that kind of blogging schedule) because he’s always delving into new ways to view typical theological topics with an infusion of perspectives from multiple traditions as well as his own background as an experimental psychologist.


I’ve read through the introduction to the book now, and the essential argument (as I’m understanding it) breaks down like this:

It’s common in Protestant theology to consider the relationship between sin and death as a causal one where the entrance of sin into the world predicates the reality of death for all things.  The standard proof-text for this idea comes from Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death” (it occurs to me that it’s strange how we typically translate this passage with poor subjective-verb agreement; what’s up with that?).  Besides that verse, the idea’s also supported by the second creation story in Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve are cursed to die after they’re banished from Eden for their initial misbehavior.

Coincidentally, I think it’s this particular bit of theology that lends a great deal towards the chronic problem of biblical literalism and anti-evolutionary thought.  After all, if you remove the literal reading of Eden as a period in time before death occurred in the natural world, then it becomes much harder to nail down the “sin causes death” relationship.  Yes, there are interpretations that read the curse of death in the story as a spiritual one, which works well enough, but I think it’s still uncomfortable for a lot of Protestants to consider even physical death as a reality of the natural world prior to whatever event equates with the Fall as it’s described in Genesis.

Anyhow, that’s the traditionally Protestant understanding of the relationship.

Beck points out that in Eastern Orthodox theology, the common understanding is typically reversed.  Based on the proof-text in 1 Corinthians 15:56, “The sting of death is sin,” it’s death that leads to sin.  Beck pulls a few other passages to support this idea, such as Paul’s lament in Romans 7 after meditating on his own struggles with sin that he needs rescue from his “body that is subject to death.”

The argument here is cursory at best, but I’m still just in the introduction, so I expect to find a much more detailed case for the “death causes sin” model in coming chapters.

Before Beck gets into further details, I think I can already see how working with the Orthodox model can help immensely in coming to an understanding of the Fall as it likely happened in reality.  Instead of it being a singular event that relied on the failure of a pair of individuals, the Fall is probably better viewed as a phase in human evolution where our ancestors came to a realization of their own mortality.  All organisms have some kind of driving force that pushes them towards survival and regeneration, but I think humans have the unique trait of recognizing the possibility of future events, including our mortality (any biologists who might be reading, please help clarify if I’m mistaken).  Cognizance of our mutability likely led to the first instances of humans acting against one another in malicious ways.

In addition to considering a reversed relationship between sin and death, Beck also highlights here in the introduction how he plans to explore the connections between sin, death, and the devil as they’re considered in the New Testament (Beck calls these three ideas an “unholy Trinity,” which I think is probably a good way to sum up the interconnectedness of them).  If I’m understanding him right in the introduction, Beck doesn’t intend to fully flip the Protestant understanding of sin and death, but to supplement it with the Eastern Orthodox model as a way of exploring our root motivations for behaving in ways that we categorize as sinful and considering what the implications of love, which is characterized by an absence of fear, are for overcoming his unholy Trinity.

I think this is going to be some good stuff.


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