William Lane Craig, Original Sin and Original Guilt

A lot of people are up in arms at the moment about a paragraph in William Lane Craig’s answer to Question 193 “Overweening Ignorance.” Facebook, blogs, twitter and message boards are abuzz with Christians angrily attacking Craig with the charge that this paragraph shows he either does not hold to the doctrine of original sin or that he thinks it is not essential to Christianity. Here is what some are saying about the offending paragraph:

“Craig denies that original sin is essential to the Christian faith.” Steve Hays

William Lane CraigIn “Bible-optional Christianity“ Hays sets out the offending sentences from the offending paragraph then puts them alongside Romans 5:12 and Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49 (passages which speak of man’s sinful nature and the need for Christ’s salvation). The conclusion we are supposed to draw is that Craig is denying the truth of these passages and views these as “optional.”

In “Hollywood Squares” Hays draws a ejusdem generis parallel between Craig’s paragraph and the writings of liberal scholars like Spong, Bultmann and The Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the comments section of his third post on the paragraph “Rabbit Ears“, where he accuses Craig of making “a V-sign behind God’s head when God is speaking (the rabbit-ear gesture),” Hays writes:

“Craig doesn’t seem to care what the Bible teaches about original sin. He simply absolves his correspondent of responsibility to believe what the Bible teaches on this subject, regardless.”

On Facebook Dominic Bnonn Tennant wrote:

“This is why, contrary to the objections of some, William Lane Craig not the world’s foremost apologist. The first duty of apologetics is to the truth. Not to unbelieving presuppositions. You can’t have good apologetics without good theology.”

On Hays’ blog Bnonn Tennant wrote:

“As I think someone has said already, the problem with Craig is that he starts with philosophy and only then worries about theology. That’s ass-backwards.”

James R White of Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog wrote:

“this is not the first time WLC has made this statement. I have said repeatedly that WLC’s theology is way too hobbled to support biblical Christian theism, which is why he has to produce a much smaller theism to defend. And this is one of the manifestations of starting with philosophy and then crafting a theology to match your philosophical opinions.”

Jonathan wrote:

“Some apologists are eager to get people into the “Kingdom” anyway they can.”

Saint and Sinner wrote:

“I am so sick of minimalist Christianity”

Peter Pike wrote:

“Without Original Sin, there is no basis by which Christ’s blood can be applied to any sinner whatsoever. Craig should know this. He has a responsibility to teach this. I don’t care if ignorant, non-biblical “Christians” don’t hold to it–Craig is held to a higher standard, and his outright ignoring of this doctrine instead of teaching it in a way that someone can understand it simply neuters Christianity.

You don’t defend Christianity by surrendering”

Apparently, Craig is not only affirming heresy but is a compromiser who is not committed to the truth, who denies that the existence of universal sinfulness and that the need for salvation is an essential Christian belief.

This own goal demonstrates not just an alarming inability for many Christians to read in context but also some overweening ignorance about theology (not to mention an alarming lack of charity for the man who is internationally renowned and respected for publicly defending the faith by lay people and the academy alike.)

Let us take a look at the offending paragraph, William Lane Craig wrote:

As for your two moral objections, the first is an objection to the doctrine of original sin. But once more, that doctrine is not universally affirmed by Christians and is not essential to the Christian faith.

At a glance, sitting by itself in a Facebook status update, in a tweet or out of context on a blog, it may well look like Craig is saying that the doctrine of original sin is not essential to the Christian faith. But now let’s look at it again in context:

As for your two moral objections, the first is an objection to the doctrine of original sin. [Emphasis added]

The “first” what? The first objection that the atheist Luke, who asked the question Craig is answering, set out at the top of the page:

4) God Determines that Adams sin is transmutable down to every single person that will ever exist. (Moral objection 1: The sins of the father are logically not related to the son in any way shape or form)

Right, now back to the paragraph:

As for your two moral objections, the first is an objection to the doctrine of original sin. But once more, that doctrine is not universally affirmed by Christians and is not essential to the Christian faith. So don’t let that be a stumbling block for you. What is essential to Christian faith is that all men are sinners and in need of God’s forgiveness and redemption. I’m sure you’d recognize your own moral shortcomings and failures, Luke. So don’t get hung up on Adam’s sin. It’s your own sin you need to deal with. (As for the doctrine, its viability will depend on the viability of imputation. We often know of cases where one person is held responsible for the actions of another because the one person represents the other or serves as a proxy acting on the other’s behalf. Maybe Adam was our representative before God.)

First Clue:
If Craig meant to convey that the idea that we are all innately sinful and as such need Christ’s salvation, is not essential to the Christian faith then why does he say in the very next line “What is essential to Christian faith is that all men are sinners and in need of God’s forgiveness and redemption”? [Emphasis original] He has just said that all of us are sinful and need Christ’s salvation!

In the line after this he writes, “I’m sure you’d recognize your own moral shortcomings and failures, Luke.” Where does Craig get this surety from that Luke has moral shortcomings and failures?

In case you need more evidence that this is not what Craig meant, then see the next line “So don’t get hung up on Adam’s sin. It’s your own sin you need to deal with.” Again, Craig seems pretty confident that Luke has sinned and needs a solution.

Second clue:
Having realised now that Craig cannot have meant to convey a denial of universal sinfulness or the need for salvation – he said in sentence 4 that this “is essential to Christian faith” – we need to look at what he did say, what he meant.

By employing some helpful techniques I use for analysing difficult legal passages and finding coherent solutions to prima facie statutory ambiguities we see that the vital words are “that doctrine.” What does the “that” in “that doctrine” in the second sentence refer to?

Obviously, many people are reading it as referring to the term “original sin” (and their understanding as to what that term means – more on that from Matt in clue three). Now this is one way of reading it – read only the bold font:

As for your two moral objections, the first is an objection to the doctrine of original sin. But once more, that doctrine is not universally affirmed by Christians and is not essential to the Christian faith. So don’t let that be a stumbling block for you. [Emphasis added]

On this reading, Craig is saying, “The doctrine of original sin [as understood by the outraged readers] is not universally affirmed by Christians.”

But as clue one showed us, this is a rather contradictory way of reading it.

To read the paragraph this way we would have to read Craig as denying that universal sinfulness and the need for salvation are an essential Christian doctrine in the second sentence but then spending sentences 4-7 affirming universal sinfulness and the need for salvation and their place as an essential doctrine within Christianity!

Craig hold two PhD’s and is a world class analytic philosopher known for many things but making overt contradictions in the same paragraph, side by side, is not one of them.

This should tell us something – especially in light of the other possible way of reading the “that doctrine” in context; again read only the bold font:

As for your two moral objections, the first is an objection to the doctrine of original sin.

4) God Determines that Adams sin is transmutable down to every single person that will ever exist. (Moral objection 1: The sins of the father are logically not related to the son in any way shape or form)

But once more, that doctrine is not universally affirmed by Christians and is not essential to the Christian faith. So don’t let that be a stumbling block for you. [Emphasis added]

On this reading Craig is saying “the doctrine of original sin … the sins of the father … is not universally affirmed by Christians.”

Craig starts his paragraph by stating “As for your two moral objections, the first is an objection to…” In doing this he makes it clear what the subject of his paragraph is: it is the first of Luke’s moral objections, Luke’s clause 4). Luke is asking specifically about “the sins of the father”, the idea that “God Determines that Adams sin is transmutable down to every single person that will ever exist.” Craig is answering this specific objection. This means that when Craig then writes, “But once more, that doctrine is not universally affirmed by Christians and is not essential to the Christian faith,” it is clear that by “that doctrine” he does not have in mind the idea that we are not all innately sinful and as such do not need Christ’s salvation – he is talking about something else, the specific doctrine that Luke raised.

Third Clue:
Are we really sure we know what the doctrine of original sin is as Craig is using the term? This was the first thing our 15 year old son, Christian, demanded to know, to be utterly clear on, as he read of this controversy on the web. Christian refused to formulate any conclusion as to what Craig was saying until he had double checked he understood the doctrine of original sin – if only other Christians were like Christian…

As Madeleine pointed out, Craig is not a layman, he holds two PhD’s and one of them is in Theology so you can be certain he knows his theological terminology; however, Craig also has a PhD in Philosophy and has worked in the field of contemporary analytic philosophy for most of his career. This is an important point to note because in Responsibility and Atonement, Richard Swinburne advanced one of the most important philosophical discussions of “original sin.” Swinburne analysed what he calls “the full doctrine of original sin” and identified it as having three distinguishable components.

1) Humans are prone to sin, there is a kind of “original sinfulness” in human beings.

2) This proneness is the result of Adam’s fall.

3) The third is the doctrine of “original guilt,” Adam’s descendants are guilty of Adam’s sin and can be held accountable for this sin.

Swinburne notes these three components are logically distinct. It is possible to accept some of them and not others. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has an understanding of original sin, which rejects the notion of original guilt.

Now when Craig, a philosopher, talks about the doctrine of original sin as being “unessential,” he is claiming that acceptance of all three of these doctrines is “unessential.” This is not the same thing as stating that none of them are essential. To claim that what is true of the whole is true of each individual part is a fallacy. It is true that the wall of my house is over two metres tall, it does not follow that each brick is this tall.

So when Craig states that the doctrine of original sin is unessential, the question we should be asking is which of the three components is he refering to? Well clearly not 1). As Madeleine has pointed out in clue one above, Craig is emphatic that “What is essential to Christian faith is that all men are sinners and in need of God’s forgiveness and redemption.” [Emphasis original]

As to 2), Craig does not even mention it. It is obvious from the context, per clue two, that Craig’s claims are about 3), the doctrine of original guilt. Note again the objection he is responding to, Luke wrote:

“4) God Determines that Adams sin is transmutable down to every single person that will ever exist. (Moral objection 1: The sins of the father are logically not related to the son in any way shape or form)”

Here Luke clearly gives a moral objection to the idea of original guilt, the third component of the doctrine of original sin. Craig responds to this with:

“As for the doctrine, its viability will depend on the viability of imputation. We often know of cases where one person is held responsible for the actions of another because the one person represents the other or serves as a proxy acting on the other’s behalf. Maybe Adam was our representative before God.” [Emphasis added]

Here Craig is clearly refering to the idea of original guilt. He does not deny original guilt, he appears agnostic on it; he suggests that a standard federal understanding “might” be true. What Craig said is that this doctrine “is not universally affirmed by Christians and is not essential to the Christian faith” and on this he is correct. As noted, the Eastern Orthodox Church accepts a version of the doctrine of original sin, which does not hold to the notion of original guilt. Interestingly, all the scriptures Craig’s detractors cite do not clearly or unequivocally teach 3), the doctrine of original guilt, they all focus on 1) and 2) which Craig never denied.

Craig’s point then is sound. When sceptics object to the doctrine of original guilt, as Luke did, they object to one particular component of one particular understanding of original sin. If their arguments are sound, it shows only that this particular component of original sin might be false. To get an objection to Christianity as a whole from this, one would need to show that this component is essential to Christianity so that denying it involves abandoning Christianity or that this understanding of original sin is the only defensible version of the doctrine. Such claims would be news to the Eastern Orthodox Church and the claim is not made by citing a pile of proof texts that speak to the doctrine in general and not this component.

Perhaps Craig could have been clearer. Not all his readers will draw the distinctions we have above, so given this, perhaps he should have used the term “original guilt” so as to be clearer to those less familiar with the literature as to which component of original sin he was speaking of. But really it is the duty of readers to read in context, to read charitably – where there are two possible readings, the one that does not entail blatant contradictions two lines later is probably the reading we should adopt… It is unfortunate that in this case it appears many Christians have failed to do so and are so quick to publicly jump to conclusions about one of their brothers.


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