Metcalf’s Definition of Original Sin in Response to Sam Harris

R.C Metcalf has written a counterpoint to Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.  In this article, I will only address Metcalf’s presentation of original sin within his counterpoint, not his entire rebuttal to Harris’ open letter.  Metcalf introduces the Christian doctrine of original sin into his rebuttal as a way of pointing out that mankind is by nature prone to sin as a way of illustrating that we have a greater problem than just needing to be concerned about the promotion of morality as a way to increase human happiness and lessen suffering.  Metcalf understands that we need a full restoration of humanity, a solution that only God can provide.  Moving forward in this paper I will focus on evaluating Metcalf’s description of original sin and his method of persuading Harris to accept original sin. I will make this evaluation on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions, which I believe to be an accurate exposition of the teachings of Scripture*.

First, I want to address Metcalf’s description of original sin.  Metcalf writes, “We are not all born with the burden of Adam’s specific sin pressing down upon us.”  On the contrary, we are all born, even conceived, in a state of guilt having inherited a sinful nature that comes from Adam’s specific sin.  Article I of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord states, “As a result of Satan’s seduction through the fall, human beings, in accord with God’s judgment and sentence, have as their punishment lost the original righteousness with which they were created” (Kolb, p. 536.27).  This punishment is defined in the same article as such: “The punishment and penalty for original sin, which God laid upon Adam’s children and upon original sin, is death, eternal damnation, and also “other corporal” and spiritual, temporal, and eternal miseries, “the tyranny and domination of the devil”’ (Kolb, p. 534.13).  As such, “this inherited defect is guilt, which causes us all to stand in God’s disfavor and to be “children of wrath by nature” because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, as the Apostle testifies in Romans 5[:12]” (Kolb, p. 533.9).

Second, Metcalf expresses that original sin is “an inherent tendency toward sinful behavior; a sense of selfishness that yields a desire to promote our own personal happiness.” Metcalf’s use of the word tendency lessens the severity of our sinful disease that invades all of our humanity. He even closes this section by stating that we have the capacity to do good, it’s just that “we do not have the capacity to only do good; we must also sin.” This is another point in which Metcalf is in error, since the inherited defect of guilt in original sin is not just a “tendency toward sinful behavior.”  This defect places us all in a state of total depravity, so that we by nature cannot approach God or do anything to please him in any way apart from God’s work in us to produce any goodness.  Original sin is not just the tendency for us to sin; it is the cause of our sin.  The Apology of the Augsburg Confession in Article II explains that we have only two options concerning our relationship to God due to Original Sin: “For our weak nature, because it cannot fear, love, or believe in God, seeks and loves carnal things; it either despises the judgment of God in its complacency or hates it in its terror” (Kolb 115.24).  In other words, we are bound to sin and are incapable of doing good by God’s standard.  To be accurate, we can speak of our doing good by the standards placed upon us by our society or culture, but not by the standards of God.  This is another flaw in Metcalf’s description of original sin – there is no clear definition of morality, most importantly there is no clear standard for absolute, universal morality.

Third, I want to address Metcalf’s approach to convincing Harris of the reality of original sin.  From Harris’ open letter, he assumes that Harris won’t accept the words of the Apostle Paul on this issue, so he adopts the approach of speaking of evolutionary theory and his perception of evidences of selfishness in all of us from birth.  This is the wrong approach to convincing someone of original sin.  Metcalf is trying to reason with Harris using observations of our human experience to bring him into a recognition of original sin, however, reason alone cannot lead to a knowledge of original sin.  In Article I of the Third Part of the Articles of the Smalcald Articles of the Lutheran Confessions, it is confessed, “This inherited sin has caused such a deep, evil corruption of nature that reason does not comprehend it; rather, it must be believed on the basis of the revelation in the Scriptures (Ps. 51[:5] and Romans 5[:12]; Exod. 33[:20]; Gen. 3[:6ff.])” (Kolb p. 311.3).  Understanding original sin is not optional, because our view of the cross is directly related to our view of sin.  Article II of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains this point stating that “we cannot know the magnitude of Christ’s grace unless we first recognize our malady” (Kolb, p. 117.33).  Despite Metcalf’s assumption that Harris won’t accept Paul’s words, those words are exactly what Metcalf must share and what Harris must hear in order to be convicted of sin so as to receive the only true solution to our predicament of suffering – the sweetness of the Gospel message received in saving faith.

Finally, knowing that it is through the revelation of God in Scripture that one can alone come to the knowledge of both sin and God’s saving grace, one must opt to defend the truthfulness of this doctrine through the use of Scripture.  This is not done by convincing people that everyone is selfish from birth through anecdotes of crying infants… the truthfulness of this doctrine is defended by defending the truthfulness of Scripture by pointing people to the reality of the empty tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.  As the Apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ is not raised, then the Christian faith is a lie.”  We do not have to trust that Scripture is the Word of God by its description of itself apart from other evidence as Harris suggests Christians and all religious adherents do of their sacred texts.  Christians can approach the New Testament Gospels as historical documents.  We can see that their text has been reliably transmitted to us today.  We can see that they are internally consistent and that their authors intend to convey factual information that they claim to have seen firsthand or that they are relaying the testimonies of people who were eyewitnesses.  We can see that there are no competing testimonies from the first century, and that the Jews and Romans who both had the motive and the means to disprove the testimonies of the Gospel writers and the apostles could not produce the bones of Jesus.  The best that they could do was persecute the apostles and the other believers in an attempt to shut them up!  Such persecutions were unable to stop them from speaking their witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins.  They had no earthly reason to fabricate this message – to lie – especially under such physical and emotionally distress of physical death. We can trust their testimonies and thus the words of Christ they record for us in which he affirmed the Old Testament Scriptures to be the Word of God and gave his seal of approval on the teachings of the apostles that were to come (the New Testament Scriptures).  We can then trust that the Scriptures are the Word of God and thus believe the revelation of Original Sin that can be known from Scripture alone.

* For Bible verses on Original Sin please watch my video: “Scripture Verses for Original Sin”

Book of Concord quotes from the following translation:

Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000)

Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation

Metcalf’s Counterpoint

Random Theology Terms Part 1

The following is a partial list of terms that I needed to know for a theology test.  Some of the terms are defined from tertiary sources found online, some from notes I took in class, and others from a peer in the class with me.  Enjoy reading through this random list. 

Accidents and Substance according to Aristotle

Substances are the ultimate things in the universe – typically these are nouns – people and things.  Accidents are the features of the substances.

Altered Augsburg Confession

The Altered Augsburg Confession (Lat. Confessio Augustana Variata) is a later version of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession that includes substantial differences with regard to holy communion and the presence of Christ in bread and wine.

Authority (primary authority, secondary authority, tertiary authority)

A Primary Source offers first-hand evidence on the subject you’re investigating. Written or created by an eyewitness or participant, it presents an insider’s perspective. For example:

  • Diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, speeches
  • Journal articles reporting original/new research or findings

A Secondary Source is NOT the original source. Written or created after the subject you’re investigating, it offers interpretations, analyses, or criticisms of primary sources. For example:

  • Journal articles that review an existing body of scientific literature, rather than describe new research
  • Biographies
  • Historical studies
  • Reviews (e.g. movie, music, play, art, etc.)

Tertiary Source synthesizes information from other sources–primary and secondary–and presents it with relevant context. For example:

  • Reference materials (e.g. encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, etc.)
  • Textbooks

Calling or Vocation

One’s God given roles through which God works to care for and provide for his creation.

Catechism

A catechism is the summary of the principles of Christian religion in the form of questions and answers, used for the instruction of Christians.

Catechism’s components

Luther’s Small Catechism

Section 1- 10 Commandments, Creeds, Lord’s Prayer, Sacrament of Baptism, Confession, Sacrament of the Altar

Section 2 – Daily Prayers

Section 3 – Table of Duties

Section 4 – Christian Questions with their Answers

Commands of God or Virtues of Christian life

God’s will for his creation.

Confession (as understood by Lutherans)

Two Terms/ideas

  • Confession: to say again.  A statement of belief which summarizes the whole teaching of Holy Scripture in addition to serving as a hermeneutical guide for understanding Scripture, the World, and the Christian’s place in that world.
  • Also means to speak/admit one’s sins in order to receive absolution.

 Confessional subscription

To subscribe to a confession or confessional statement means to attach oneself to that confession and make it one’s own.  The LC-MS requires its pastors to subscribe to the Confession of the Book of Concord stating they believe it is a proper understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures.  The two main types of subscription are quia and quatenus subscription (SEE BELOW).

Contradict – They Can’t All Be True

A book written by Andy Wrasman, published by WestBow Press in 2014.

 Corpus doctrinae

This term, meaning “body of doctrine,” is used for a collection of writings that was meant to summarize authentic apostolic teaching and doctrine.

Creatio ex nihilo

God created all things out of nothing by his spoken word.

Ecumenical creeds

Ecumenical creeds is an umbrella term used in the Western Church to refer to the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed and, less commonly, the Athanasian Creed. The ecumenical creeds are also known as the universal creeds.

The Apostle’s: Foundation of the Christian faith.  Believed to be an early baptismal creed.  Clearly articulates the identity and roles of the three persons of the trinity.

Nicene: Creed created in response to Arianism and later refined to combat Pneumatomachians.  Affirms the divinity of Son and Spirit.  Further expounds details of Apostle’s Creed

Athanasian creeds: Expounds comments on particular theological issues.

Epistemology of faith (or epistemology of Saint Paul, 1 Corinthians 1)

Epistemology is the study of knowledge.

Paul outlines four areas of knowledge:

  1. Empirical (Experimental) knowledge
  2. Logical (Reason) knowledge
  3. Aesthetic (Having to do with beauty) knowledge
  4. Authoritative knowledge (Knowledge above) – above all other knowledge.  This is God’s knowledge which must be trusted and taken without question.

Fear of God

Luther explains the fear of God using this analogy of his son: “little Hans knows I love him, but he also knows I’m much bigger and stronger than him and can whop him clear across the room if I so choose”

 Gnosticism

Greek religious movement that emphasized secret knowledge for its initiates.  Gnosticism had and has many variants.  Gnostics commonly emphasized a radical distinction between the material world (which was evil) and the spiritual dimensions (which were good).

Furthermore, this belief had an influence the early Christian Church.

God as defined in Luther’s Large Catechism, Creed, first article

Anything you fear, love, and trust above all else.

Law

The will of God for his creation.  Often times this is defined as God’s commands and demands.

Thomas Aquinas’ four types of law:

  1. Eternal Law – Exists in the mind of God.
  2. Divine Law – The part of eternal law that has been revealed (Namely the Ten Commandments).
  3. Natural Law – The law of the universe that is discernable by human reason (Paul reverences this in Romans- Law written on their hears).
  4. Human Law – Application to natural law in a specific context/situation/culture.  Ex. We have Laws in the USA.

Natural law

Will of God for creation which is best summarized in the Decalog (Ten Commandments).

Ninian Smart’s seven component parts of all religions

Ritual: Forms and orders of ceremonies (private and/or public) (often regarded as revealed)

Narrative and Mythic: stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human’s place in it.

Experiential and emotional: dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss (private)

Social and Institutional: belief system is shared and attitudes practiced by a group. Often rules for identifying community membership and participation (public)

Ethical and legal: Rules about human behavior (often regarded as revealed from supernatural realm)

Doctrinal and philosophical: systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form

Material: ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural

Original sin

AKA – Inherited Sin.  From Adam’s fall, the sinful nature was beget to all humans, so that we are by nature sinners.

Quatenus

Definitions:

  1. how far/long?, to what point
  2. since
  3. to what extent
  4. where
  5. while, so far as

I subscribe to the Book of Concord quatenus (so far as) it is a faithful exposition of the teachings of the Bible.

Quia

Definitions:

  1. because

I subscribe to the Book of Concord quia (because) it is a faithful exposition of the teaching of the Bible.  

Relationship of the first commandment to the other commandments in Luther’s Small Catechism

All the commandments are essentially a breaking of the first commandment.  When a person lies, cheats, steals, kills, covets, or commits adultery, he is ultimately putting his fear, love, and trust in something or someone else over the fear, love, and trust that is rightly due to God alone.  Essentially – idolatry is the root problem of all sin.

Relationship of Scripture and the Book of Concord

Scripture is the Word of God.  The Book of Concord is a faithful exposition of the teachings found in the Book of Concord.

The Bible norms the confessions.  The confessions norm our teachings and practices.

Relationship of the spiritual and material realms of creation

The Spiritual and material realms are God’s way of working in the world. Lutherans are often accused of dualism here, but that is a blatant misunderstanding of Luther since these realms intersect in the life of the Christian and the life of the church.

  • The Spiritual realm involves things pertaining to God such as confession and absolution, the sacraments, the word of God, and Christian individuals who are called to a higher virtue of loving their neighbor.
  • The Temporal or Material realm includes government, commerce, and the laws of the world which are used primarily to curb evil rather than to point an individual to God.

Regula fidei

Rule of faith.

Subjective – everyone has a rule of faith that they run with

  • But this rule of faith must be in submission to Scripture
  • As to confessions the rule of faith has a flexible guide
    • This flexible guide shifts to the needs of the people
      • Confessions don’t always address the concerns of the day
      • Is it Left Behind? Is it speaking in tongues and spiritual gifts?  Is it transgender issues?  It depends.

Operative rule of faith

  • A rule that one would write for his current situation to operate by

Righteousness, human

Being in a right relationship with one’s neighbors and within one’s society.  A person can be righteous in the human sense, but not in the divine.  To be in a right relationship with God, a person must have faith in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

Spirit of Augsburg

  1. Evangelical – tells the Good News of Jesus Christ
  2. Eschatological – sees itself as part of Christian witness in these end times (the Antichrist is present in the office of the Papacy)
  3. Ecumenical – yes, even though the LCMS thinks this is sometimes a dirty word
  4. Edicatory – imparts knowledge intended to be used for helping others grow
  5. Evangelistic – desires to share the Word of God with others

Symbol (as document)

From the second century on Christians have expressed the biblical faith in summaries that served to identify the church’s public message.  The Greek word symbol – a technical word for creed – identified the function of such summaries of church’s teachings as its identifying statement of belief, purpose, and mission.

Tables of the law

The “First Table of the Law,” then, describes our fear, love, and trust of God, our exclusive worship God, our prayers, and our hearing the Lord’s Word.

The “Second Table of the Law,” beginning with the commandment “Honor your father and your mother” gives shape to our love for our neighbors.

Unaltered Augsburg Confession

The original text of the Augsburg confession written by P. Melanchthon for the Diet of Augsburg on June 25th, 1530 A.D.  Also called the Confessio Augustana Invariata: the original text of the 1531 edito princeps.

Later editions “watered down” chief principles of this confession which permitted a “spiritualized” view of the Lord’s Supper.

Valentianism

The gnostic heresy of Valentianism was a dualistic sect. Founded by an ex-Catholic Bishop by the name of Valentius, he taught that there were three kinds of people, the spiritual, the psychical, and the material. This meant that only those of a spiritual nature (his followers) received the gnosis (knowledge) that allowed them to return to the divine Pleroma (totality of Divine Power). Those of a psychic nature (the ordinary Christians) would attain a lesser form of salvation, and that those of a material nature (the pagans and the Jews) were doomed to perish.

Valentinus (also spelled as Valentinius, c.100 – c.160) was the best known and most successful early Christian gnostic theologian for some time.

Walks of life (estates)

Luther saw all of human life ordered across three spheres of structured relationships: the politia, the oeconomia, and the ecclesia. These indicate government and state, the household and economic human interactions, and the church. Each estate or sphere is ordered hierarchically (thus the alternative designation, “the three hierarchies”). In each estate there exists a set of hierarchically structured relationships that organize human life under God’s care. The top of each hierarchy stands God himself who endows those ruling and governing in the given hierarchy with their given authority. The basic premise of all hierarchies is that the authority that subsists in each is finally divine.