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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Critical Review of Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin

Without intending to do so, I've ended up creating a mini-series of posts on misconceived or downright wicked attempts by Christians to defend their beliefs. This third post in the series leaves me ambivalent. The author of this book is a professional theologian. His work is more carefully thought-out and balanced, handles other texts more responsibly, whether they happen to support his own views or not, and makes significant advances over some of the traditional views he critiques. In the end, despite all these positives, Dr. McFarland's commitment to an unsustainable theology leads him to defend patent falsehoods. I genuinely believe Dr. McFarland is a better man than his theology allows, and for that reason alone it is worthwhile to me to present his work as a cautionary tale of what happens when a Christian fails to carry out a complete reconstruction of "Christian faith" from the ground up.

You might wonder how I happened on this book. It was lying around the house and I just picked it up and start reading it, even though it isn't on my "list of things I plan to read." You may ask how it is that a book like this is just "lying around the house," but never you mind. Don't worry, I didn't do anything illegal or immoral to get my hands on it. Call it God's providence, if you prefer.

This book is difficult. I hope to keep my comments as brief as possible, but it will probably require a series of short posts to cover everything. Let's start with the positives. The book is written to defend and update the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin. As part of his defense, McFarland endorses a classical form of compatibilism. As I will argue later, this combination is fatal to his argument. On the other hand, he handles the views of Augustine and supporters of Pelagius fairly, as far as I can tell. He points out strengths, weaknesses and problems in both views.

This even-handedness and care in dealing with other writers continued throughout the book. To the extent that I was already familiar or could double-check, I found McFarland basically accurate in his summaries of others' views. Compared to the authors in my other recent "Liars for Jesus" posts, this is a huge improvement. It is nice to be able to trust an author. McFarland deserves a hearty thanks for this.

McFarland points out that given our inevitably distorted view of ourselves and our actions, individually and collectively, we need to listen carefully to people who complain that they are being hurt by our behavior. He stresses the importance of communities listening to their weakest and most vulnerable members. Even though their views are also inevitably distorted only by considering them can we avoid the danger of deceiving ourselves that great injustices are actually virtues.

On the way to reconstructing the doctrine of Original Sin, McFarland exposes fallacies in all the traditional accounts of the transmission of Adam's sin to his descendants, including Augustine's relatively undeveloped traducianism, William G. T. Shedd's realism, and classic, Reformed federalism.

McFarland accepts the current scientific consensus that human beings evolved and that the origin of the species cannot be traced to a single ancestral couple. He spends some time discussing how other modern theologians have attempted to reconceive Original Sin in light of our evolutionary history and spends a good deal of time developing his own reconception. Although he retains entirely too much of traditional Christian orthodoxy, his willingness to rethink the doctrine in light of settled science is a vast improvement over the existing Fundamentalist or Evangelical approaches.

McFarland appears to be a universalist. He does not provide a soteriology, even in outline, but it is comforting to hear someone so insistent that we are all condemned sinners also insisting that God intends to and will save every last one of us.

Unfortunately, McFarland's exposition of original sin presents us with nothing more than a new variation on God as moral monster. In the next post I will start demonstrating why this is so

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