Sin: The Early History of an Idea, by Paula Fredriksen (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012)
The dominant current view of sin is that it changes throughout history to fit the culture, and that sin is rightly understood as a result of error or of a condition of ill health. This perspective of our time, consistent with the view of the dominant Western culture, does not require guilt, repentance or moral responsibility, nor are actions necessary to mitigate harm as part of a thorough redemption. Is this view consistent with our Quaker experience and our shared tradition?
In academic publications there is a “history of ideas” trend. There are histories of God, progress, sexuality, love and salvation. Now there is a new “history of sin,” at least for the early centuries of the Christian tradition. It is not the first history of sin, but it is a good one. (See the Amazon search results on “history of sin” for more examples).
The Paula Fredriksen book Sin: The Early History of an Idea is a very readable start on the history of the idea of sin in one religious tradition and a provocative invitation to exploration of this idea in all religions and outside religion.
At the outset, we must recognize the parochial nature of this history book. It is limited to the Christian tradition and does not address the history of sin in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and other religions. Nor does it cover the subsequent history of the idea of sin in later centuries beyond the fourth century CE. It does not mention Quakers.
The author covers the first four centuries of Christianity, as reflected in the teachings of seven central figures in the Christian traditions of both East and West: Jesus, Paul, Marcion, Valentinus, Justin Martyr, Origen and Augustine. The insights of each of these figures reflect major changes in the cultural understanding of sin as the idea evolved. Together these men established the early Christian tradition, the substance of has been addressed by Quakers in from the 17th century until now.
In Fredriksen’s large view of the idea as addressed by these authors, sin is not a growing collection of acts to be approved or criticized. Sin is the observed universal condition of all humans. Humans do what they ought not and fail to do what they ought resulting in anxiety, hope for change, deliverance and redemption from this condition, in this life or after.
This book places Jesus and Paul in the context of the Jerusalem temple and their shared desire for its renewal. Neither of them anticipated its destruction by the Romans or anyone else.
By contrast, the later leaders, Marcion, Valentinus and Justin Martyr, faced the implications of the complete obliteration of the Jerusalem temple (70-135 CE) in an expanding Roman world context. For these later leaders, this new reality required awareness of an expanding cosmos, together with a universalist that recognized some elements of the humanity of all people.
Origin (CE about 250) offered a majestic view of a cosmic universe with plenty of time for all sins to be resolved. Later, Augustine (CE about 400) offered a narrower time frame by focusing on the human sins and individual human salvation within each individual lifetime.
These contrasting views came to reflect the significant divergence of traditions between the Eastern and Western Christian communities. Augustine added the universality of the condition of sin for all people in the world, along with the recognition that humans are capable of change, by God’s grace, even as they continue mired in the inescapable sinful past also affecting all people.
What is the truth about human sin? As described in this book, the Christian tradition is a tradition with expanding indications of the universalism of sin. Origin offered the idea of a cosmic universe with huge time periods for engaging human change for all humans. Augustine offered a universal view of the effect of a sinful condition in our genes for all humans. Are these parts of our Christian tradition useful in our Quaker understanding of the reality of sin? What do Quakers say about sin?
The Quaker universalist perspective is being clarified. We are in this cosmos together as a universal community. We are all part of a universe, but not the center of the universe. Humans are not the focus of all the living species on the earth. The earth is not the center of this galaxy. This galaxy is not the center of the near cluster of galaxies. This near cluster of galaxies is not the center of the universe. And, we increasingly realize, the universe may be but one of a multitude of universes in the cosmos. This is the emerging clarification of the reality in which we live.
Fredriksen emphasizes that the human concept of sin in the Western tradition changes to fit the cultural times. In the West, she writes, there is a dominant view of sin as error or as a health condition. Error includes mistakes, misunderstandings and incomplete understanding. Our health condition includes addictions, compulsions and mental states that result in bad actions. Together, sin, as error and health condition, avoids prolonged guilt, provides for moral responsibility for actions to mitigate harms and the constant need for a thorough redemption.
These assertions by Fredriksen have some truth. it is certainly true that contemporary Quakers share in this cultural view of sin as error and health condition. But, is it true that Quakers have abandoned a sense of moral responsibility or the need for a thorough redemption from sin?
Quaker tradition holds to the importance both of owning one’s own acts and behavior and of mitigating or remedying the harms one causes. Our lives and our resources have consequences, as do our sins of omission and commission. While this Quaker tradition is overlaid with the new cultural view of sin, does our tradition relieve us of the need for guilt, remorse, and redemption?
However you read this book, if you conclude that the concept of sin does not change to fit the culture, what is the correct cultureless, timeless understanding of sin? How is sin rightly understood? What does sin mean for guilt or moral?
What if Fredriksen’s conclusions about sin are fallacious? If Quakers do not share the current cultural view of sin, what is a Quaker understanding of sin? And, if it true that Quakers have retained moral responsibility and the need for redemption, how is that the case?
Sin: The Early History of an Idea affirms a growing universalist perspective, inclusive of all humans in parallel with an evolving understanding of the idea of sin. The book is a provocative occasion and resource for reflection on our Quaker understanding of sin. It reads well. It includes an excellent index, thorough end notes and a useful glossary of terms.
Augustine of Hippo [Public domain. Original source: Hundred Greatest Men, The. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1885].
“Invisible,” by Mike Shell. Woman sleeping next to a well-dressed couple in Square Dorchester, Montréal, Quebec, Canada (8/8/2013).