If we are not sick, we need no physician

You cannot speak intelligently about Wesleyan theology if you discard the doctrine of Original Sin.

John Wesley understood his entire ministry to be built upon a linked chain of doctrines. Creation, fall, and original sin are the first links in that chain. Without original sin the rest of what he preached was incomprehensible. Or, as he put it in the preface to his book on the doctrine of Original Sin:

If we are not diseased, we do not want a cure. If we are not sick, why should we seek for medicine to heal our sickness? … If, therefore, we take away this foundation, that man is by nature foolish and sinful, “fallen short of the glorious image of God,” the Christian system falls at once …

Of course, this is no challenge for those who view the doctrine of Original Sin as an embarrassment, a relic from a less Enlightened culture. But what are we United Methodists to do with our Book of Discipline and its doctrinal standards that say:

We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil.

The challenge for United Methodists, it seems to me, is to learn how to speak about Original Sin in ways that touch the heart and mind of people today, so that we might — having shared the diagnosis — offer the cure that will make people whole again.

12 thoughts on “If we are not sick, we need no physician

  1. It depends upon what you mean by original sin. A “chain of doctrines” sounds more reformed than Wesleyan. I don’t think we need a historical Adam or to affirm any speculative covenantal system beyond what the text supports. Because I think Adam is an allegorical representation of humanity, I interpret Genesis to represent the way that all of us inevitably eat from the tree of knowledge and discover our nakedness which creates an ontology of self-justification and mistrust of God that we have to be liberated from by the justification of the cross. But to say that we are totally depraved as a punishment for what someone else did is the most unfortunate extra-Biblical legacy that Augustine has bequeathed us and whether Wesley believed it or not (I’m sure he believed in a historical Adam along with a 6000 year old universe and covered his right flank under heavy polemical fire from Toplady and the Calvinists), I feel adequately orthodox in my interpretation of the text. I would even call what I have a doctrine of original sin.

    1. Augustine was big into allegorical readings of the OT, too. What I have a harder time following is the basis of your interpretation that moves from Apple’s to ontology. For all its reported faults, the classic Western theology seems more grounded in scripture.

      1. Augustine needs to posit an original justice prior to original sin for the purposes of his polemic against the Manicheans. This means that Adam and Eve cannot be merely innocent and ignorant; they have to be perfectly rational creatures. The text says, “Their eyes were opened and they saw they were naked.” That’s the focal point of the text for Jewish interpreters. It’s about a loss of innocence and trust. Before hominids eyes were opened to their nakedness, the ground wasn’t something people tilled and childbirth wasn’t something women anticipated and remembered.

        1. I thought the crucial issue with the Manichees was the substance of evil and the nature of God.

        2. Creation has to be perfectly good to refute the Manichees. Hence Adam and Eve have to be fully evolved perfectly rational beings who become utterly wicked instead of innocent, ignorant beings who stumble into the blessing/curse of self-consciousness. The Augustinian reading is inattentive to the type of fruit that is forbidden and the irony within God’s debate with the serpent (Adam and Eve don’t physically die but their innocence does die), because the Augustinian reading reduces the whole thing to disobedience. Part of the punishment of Adam by the way for Augustine is the fact that humans have bodily functions that are not under complete control of their reason (such as male sexual arousal). The other thing Augustine completely ignores is the “death” that occurs with the advent of having your eyes opened to your nakedness. See Genesis 2:25 and 3:7. A straightforward reading of the passage without Augustine eisegeted on top of it would make the consequence of the disobedience the focal point rather than the disobedience itself. The problem is not that Muslims and Hindus and other non-Christians are hopelessly wicked. The problem is that good people are poisoned by their goodness into becoming self-righteous unless they identify themselves as empty of goodness without the providence of God and thus are able to be righteous and humble and merciful at the same time.

  2. The problem most Methodists have with the doctrine of Original Sin is the inherent Calvinism which has invaded much of our theology.

    For Wesley, original sin is a disease that leads to death. For those who follow Calvin, it is total death in and of itself. For the Calvinist, It’s not just a disease affecting us but our total death and inability to do anything.

    For the Calvinist there is no enabling grace to help even the most reprobate person but, rather, a common grace meant to condemn humans for their lack of acknowledgment of God (whom they couldn’t acknowledge anyway!)



    1. I find that many people are at heart optimists about human capacity, which leaves no room for any conception of inherent sin

      1. That’s a very absolute statement. I think we should presume the best in others and regard only ourselves as the greatest of sinners. Otherwise it’s very easy to fall into the very common popular Christian doctrine of the total depravity of everyone else which is completely upside down.

      2. I had a longer comment here, then wordpress forced a login :/

        I’m an optimist about human capacity, but I believe our capacity comes from God and is (obviously and observably) weakened by original sin in almost every age and land?

  3. If prelapsarian Adam were perfectly rational which is the premise of Augustinian original sin, then why would God ask “Who told you you were naked?”

  4. It was not Augustine who came up with the idea of original sin.
    Augustine simply put into words a truth revealed.
    It is upheld in all of scripture from the Jews forward.
    “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” Christ.

    Words that describe the state of man.

    “The challenge for United Methodists, it seems to me, is to learn how to speak about Original Sin in ways that touch the heart and mind of people today, so that we might — having shared the diagnosis — offer the cure that will make people whole again.”

    I agree with that statement but how will you do so with the added requirement of today’s UMC to “not offend” anyone for any reason?

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