Reading the Slavery of Death (Part 2: Ancestral Sin)

Beck’s first chapter jumps in depth into the Eastern Orthodox concept of ancestral sin and how it differs from the Augustinian original sin model.

Right out the gate, I think there’s something really important going on here that Beck’s only casually broaching.  The original sin model is a nearly universal theological doctrine in white American evangelicalism.  This idea was implicit in the very foundation of the college ministry that I belonged to after my initial conversion, the Navigators.

The Wheel Diagram. The vertical spokes represent our relationship with God while the horizontal spokes represent our relationship to each other. (Image credit: The Navigators)

The Navigators’ ministry model is based on a concept known as the Wheel Diagram.  It’s a figure that visualizes how a Christian who is exercising obedience to God is supposed to put Christ at the center of their lives and keep him in that position through equal devotion to four major spiritual practices: Prayer, reading the Word, Fellowship with other Christians, and Witnessing.  All four practices have to be maintained in order to remain Christ-centered, with the analogy being that a wheel with any spokes shorter than the others will be uneven and likely to fail.  Like a typical introverted nerd, I was good at reading the Bible regularly and comfortable hanging out with my Christian friends, and even pretty diligent at prayer (in private).  Witnessing was a different problem entirely.  That’s likely because of the propositional nature of the primary model for witnessing we were taught, the Bridge Illustration (this is where original sin comes in).

The Bridge Illustration is based on a series of proof-texts that describe the state of the world as God having a Plan (abundant and eternal life) that got screwed up because of humanity’s Problem (Adam’s disobedience leading to our sin nature that eternally separates us from God); God’s Remedy (the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ to atone for all our sins) fixes the Problem, but humanity still has to Respond appropriately (accepting Christ as Lord).  The whole system hinges on the fact that humanity’s Problem is about its inherent sinfulness leading to death (“The wages of sin is death” Romans 6:23).  Evangelism in this context is framed around telling people about their innate evil.

And that’s pretty standard for much of evangelical theology.  The only thing I ever read when I was an evangelical that suggested this system might not be the only possible interpretation was from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity where he describes the purpose of the crucifixion as a mystery that no one’s really sure about.  If you’ve not spent any time steeped in evangelicalism, then trust me: atonement theology is one thing that evangelicals are eminently sure about.

And it all rests on the concept of original sin.  There has to be something wrong with us in order for Jesus to need to intervene, and sin nature is a pretty strong candidate.

In describing ancestral sin, Beck’s taking the whole system of original sin and atonement theory and making a sidelong suggestion that Protestants might be barking up the wrong tree in their theology on this issue (even in his formal writing, Beck’s a gentle enough personality that he only says that the original sin model is much more difficult to reconcile with contemporary biological and social science than ancestral sin).

So, to recap very briefly, ancestral sin is a model where sinfulness is not innate to every person, but it grows out of our condition of mortality that was caused by the Fall (I’m curious to see if in future chapters Beck ever acknowledges the complexities that emerge when the Fall is taken not as a historical story that explains what happened to bring us to this state but as a metaphorical one that offers an explanation of why we’re in this state at all).  Adam and Eve’s initial disobedience got humanity kicked out of Eden, but the curse was only that they and their children would die.  Being in that state of mortality leads to sinful action as we become desperate to alleviate our death anxiety.

To support his case for ancestral sin as a legitimate interpretation of the human condition, Beck pulls from the Book of Wisdom, a deuterocanonical text that isn’t recognized as part of Scripture by Protestant churches, and performs some exegesis around a particular Greek word that Paul uses extensively in his letters, sarx, which is variously translated as “flesh,” “human limitation,” “natural limitation,” “weakness of the flesh,” “the weakness of our natural selves,” “the weakness of our human nature,” “the weakness of our sinful nature,” “sinful nature,” fleshly desires,” and “sinful flesh.”

Holy crap, that’s a lot of translations for one word.  The basic argument is that Paul discusses our sarx as a characteristic weakness of our bodies related to their mortality (not knowing any Greek myself, I’m taking Beck’s word on that, and additionally trusting that it’s legitimate to translate sarx as “sin nature” even though the examples of Paul connecting sarx with sinfulness don’t seem to be direct, but by proxy of being associated with physical mutability).

It should be noted at this point that I’m not an inerrantist (as I’ve said many times before), so I don’t take issue with offering alternate interpretations of Scripture that don’t necessarily gel with prominent proof-texts that might be contradictory (Romans 6:23 still sticks out in my mind), but I’m wondering how Beck’s argument would be received by someone invested in inerrancy and proof-texting.  I don’t think it’s impossible to accept ancestral sin as Beck argues for it with that framework, but it seems really difficult to me.  I suspect this is part of why Beck’s building towards his idea of the unholy Trinity where the devil, death, and sin are codependent and simultaneously pull each other into existence.  It’s paradoxical, but that system doesn’t directly contradict the proof-texts.


I’m blogging through this book as my participation in the book club discussion that’s happening over at The Burner Blog this month.  Check them out to get some more perspectives on The Slavery of Death.


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