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Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 260–261 

Book Review

The Story of Original Sin

John E. Toews. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013. 132 pages.

Reviewed by Melanie Kampen

The doctrine of original sin is one of the most prominent and pervasive accounts of sin in Christianity. Indeed, the standard canonical narrative relies on it: creation–fall–redemption. So much of theology turns upon the notion of an inherited depraved nature, yet relatively few theologians have inquired into the history of the doctrine. In this book, John E. Toews seeks to tell The Story of Original Sin as a complex and multifaceted one, whereas it has usually been portrayed as part of a single stream of orthodoxy through the centuries.

Toews begins by examining the primary source for the story of original sin in the so-called “fall” narrative of Genesis 3, but finds the text lacking in evidence for Augustine’s formulation of the doctrine of original sin, and the posited “fall” from a prior paradisiacal state. The Hebrew word translated as “sin” does not show up until Genesis 4:7, with regard to Cain. Toews continues to consider a variety of literature in the Second Temple period as well as the Pauline writings. None of these sources leads to Augustine’s formulation of original sin. It isn’t until Toews’s comparison of the early Greek and Latin fathers that one begins to notice some substantial theological differences and interpretations of key texts. What culminates in Augustine’s formulation of original sin as inherited depraved nature began in certain shifts in the theological anthropology of the Latin fathers. Some key turning points include Tertullian’s adoption of traducianism from the Stoics and his notion of “original moral fault,” together suggesting that both the material and immaterial aspects of humans (body and soul) are propagated through generations. In addition, Ambrose taught the “original righteousness” of Adam and his fall (lapsus) from that prior state (rather than a transgression of it, praevaricatio), and Ambrosiaster translated Romans 5:12d as “in whom all sinned” rather than “because of whom all sinned” as the Greek Fathers did. All of these elements, and more, influenced Augustine’s understanding of original sin, which became the dominant understanding in Christianity.

Some might think this suffices for a history of the development of the doctrine, but Toews, being the good historian he is, knows that theological questions are never neutral to the question of power. And that leads him to an inquiry that is one of the most valuable contributions of this book. Toews notes that many scholars have recognized that Augustine’s reliance on Rom. 5:12d for his doctrine jeopardizes his hamartiology. This is because Augustine, not fluent in Greek, relied on Ambrosiaster’s faulty Latin translation which rendered the passage “in whom all sinned.” Consequently, when the Pelagians informed the bishop of Hippo that the Greek {261} could not bear his Latin translation, there was simply too much at stake for Augustine concerning other aspects of the controversy that he would not, and could not, acknowledge this error. Indeed, his theology of original sin was so systematic that to change this mistranslation could cause the entire edifice of sin and salvation to crumble (though that might not have been so bad, after all). Thus, through a series of councils the doctrine was sedimented as orthodox theology (at least as far as the West was concerned).

In addition to his brief, but thoroughgoing, history of original sin, Toews also gestures towards some constructive approaches. He identifies the Jewish, Eastern orthodox, and Anabaptist-Mennonite traditions as sources to help the church to think theologically, but also differently, about sin. These traditions include the rejection or non-existence of original sin, instead recognizing the mimetic nature of sin as well as its structural and systemic aspects.

In this book Toews focuses on the historical, biblical, and theological aspects of the doctrine of original sin. The mistranslations, strange theological anthropologies, and politics of orthodoxy certainly warrant revisionist theologies. However, I would draw attention to another element of the doctrine’s history that is much more disconcerting, namely, its prevalence in the missionary conquest of the Indigenous peoples of North America. While it is true the Augustine’s formulation underwent some changes through the centuries, the basic notion remains prevalent in Western theological consciousness. In missionary conquest the doctrine of original sin (and its correlating soteriology) was racialized such that conversion of Native peoples to Christianity meant becoming White. The notions of sin and salvation that allowed for the assimilation and genocide of Native peoples is explicitly rooted in the theological anthropology of the Augustinian tradition and the doctrine of original sin, as settler sermons and mission society reports reveal. This is but one horrific way in which the doctrine has been detrimental to others. Certainly much more work could be done on other cultural, political, and socio-economic effects of the doctrine in Western Christianity since Augustine.

Melanie Kampen (Winnipeg, Manitoba) recently completed her Master of Theological Studies degree at University of Waterloo/Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario.

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