In Bound to Sin McFadyen seeks to test the explanatory power of the doctrine of original sin in the cases of child sexual abuse and the Holocaust so as to demonstrate the necessity of God and sin in public discourse. Following the modern theological rejection of sin as being biologically transmitted, McFadyen posits that sin is instead transmitted through social means. Humans are bound to sin not through the negation of our freewill but through sin colonising our will, warping the field in which the will is exercised. By demonstrating how the will is not negated but subverted McFadyen is able to show sin’s ability to describe human pathology in ways distinct from secular disciplines. Following Augustine, McFadyen posits the heart of sin as misdirected worship – what the Bible calls idolatry. God orientated worship is therefore a means of re-educating us away from sin. However, he overstates the case for what worship does at the expense of the Cross, and also fails to take into account the Biblical account of sin and how his theory impinges on the doctrine of the atonement.
You have not yet considered the exceeding gravity of sin.
(Anselm of Canterbury)
Why bother with the language of sin? Recently I have passed a shop which has used the term ‘sinful’ to describe one of their sale items. Sin is a word that for the most part in our culture is ignored, moralised, or in this window front, subverted. Inherent in this subversion is the idea that Christianity equates sexuality with sin – but modern people know sex is pleasurable, and having rejected the relevance of God, the language of sin is now only useful as a playful reference to sexual hedonism. Sin is absent from the language of morality. Sin is seen as irrelevant to public discourse. Only quaint Vicars in antiquated robes need employ the term – and even they rush past it into the next hymn. For the larger part, sin is a dead word.
But sin still matters. The great error has been the decoupling of sin from the person of God. Sin is sinful, because it speaks of broken relation between the Creator and the creation. Sin is not about being bad: sin is the language of relational pathology; of the root to all the evil in our world. In Bound to Sin Alistair McFadyen seeks to test the usefulness of the language of sin in dealing with actual examples of pathology in the world. He employs the term pathology because of its biological and medical associations – here is sickness; here something is wrong. And in the role of doctor, he reaches for sin as the overlooked means of diagnosing the nature of the pathology.
Although ostensibly about whether the concept of sin adds anything in describing human pathology beyond that which is capable through secular language, at its core this book is about God - can we talk meaningfully about God? The validity of sin-talk is therefore critical to the validity of God talk. If sin-talk adds nothing to the understandings provided through psychology, psychiatry, sociology, etc., then it is a category of speech that is superfluous. So too God: if reality can be adequately described without reference to God, then God’s existence is not necessary. McFadyen relates this position to our current cultural milieu: while there are most definitely vocal detractors of the divine, our society is one of practical atheism. That is, we (even believing Christians) make no reference to God in the public sphere; all things are described and understood without reference to God. God is therefore redundant. And if people are reluctant to talk about God, then they actively flee sin-talk. But, if sin-talk is able to demonstrate a capacity to describe human pathology in a way that no secular category is able to, then not only may sin-talk be retained, but so also may God-talk, as the concept of sin is not so much moral but relational – the pathology resides in its orientation against God. If God is real then nothing that is can have its being without some referent to him and failure to do so marks a discipline as a failure.
This is practical theology in both senses of the word – it seeks to uniquely describe human pathology, and also claims that theology is of itself practical: sin-talk and God-talk relate to the real world. To this end McFadyen considers two examples of what should be universally considered pathological, child sexual abuse and the Jewish Holocaust conducted by the German Nazi state, and sees whether the doctrine of original sin, as historically understood, is able to describe them in a way that exceeds or differs from secular methodologies. McFadyen posits that if this is so, then the situation we are confronted with is this: secular means of describing pathology are by themselves not wrong, but inadequate. It is this issue of adequacy/inadequacy that drives McFadyen’s rigorous logic: if God exists and if sin has reality beyond mere morality, then it must be an observable and describable feature of the world we know, inhabit, and observe. Correlation between the observable and theological language is a necessity if theology is to have any validity in the public domain. McFadyen’s assumption in this is of course that sin is somehow quantifiable; his methodology rests on bringing theology into conversation with secular disciplines to highlight their inability and theology’s ability to account for reality.
McFadyen chooses the doctrine of original sin not simply because it is the theological connection with human pathology, but because the doctrine itself has been seen to be problematic. He outlines sin as something that is not core to our human nature, even though it is universal; something that is continuous rather than episodic; something that we pass on to others as it was passed to us; and something that that is universal – though not core to the human ontology and yet present in all of us. Thus original sin posits two things that together are anathema to contemporary (modernist) thinking: liberty to choose and being held in thrall by some power external to ourselves. Put briefly, the problem is this: if we are bound to sin by it being ontologically part of our nature inherited from Adam, then how can we be held accountable for it? If something occurs not through my own personal exercising of my will, but through an inherited state then how am I to be held responsible for it? If I am captive, or have not willed something, why should God, (how dare God!) seek to punish me? Freedom of choice is one of the cornerstones of our society: oppression (limiting or removing choice) is immoral. For freedom to truly be free it must be absolute, and untethered by any strictures. For freedom to exist, the self must be unfettered and able to choose the good or the bad. One is a sinner only in so far as one chooses to sin, and not by means of sin entangling our nature. The doctrine of original sin, indeed the Bible’s own testimony, is therefore dismissed not for a lack of explanatory power to understand reality, but because it is seen to infringe the prior commitment to freedom, possibly before any consideration is given to the ethics of judging someone for an action they could not have willed otherwise:
Modernity’s core premise concerning human nature clashes immediately, then, with the traditional doctrine of original sin, which holds that sin (at least since the Fall) is not in any simple way a phenomenon of, but is prior to individual freedom. Sin pre-conditions freedom. It is a structural co-determinate of human being and action. Sin lies behind action, in the most basic intentionality of the agent (indeed, in the biological and social processes which lie behind that), and not only in the acts themselves. But how then may, not merely moral acts, but the human condition itself, be said to be characterised by freedom? In its traditional form, the doctrine of original sin appears to modern sensibilities to propose a metaphysics of sin (to ontologise sin in the form of bondage and non-personal attribution of guilt) which runs directly counter to the metaphysics of freedom characteristic of modernity. In so doing, the traditional doctrine appears to the modern (just as much as it frequently did to the pre-modern) mind to undermine the possibilities of deploying sin as a moral language; to undermine the very conditions for making moral judgments.
But is this actually so? Do we possess freedom in this way? In answering this question McFadyen works up two thick descriptions of child sexual abuse (primarily from the victim’s perspective) and the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Jewish Problem’. McFadyen makes a crucial point for his readers: these two concrete examples of human pathology were selected not to demonstrate sin, but to see if the doctrine of sin is able to offer something in describing this pathology beyond, but in partnership with, secular disciplines. His primary insight in this is to take into consideration not simply the individual will, but the environment in which the will is exercised. This is crucial to McFadyen’s thesis: he wishes to test whether human will is bound to sin not through biological inheritance from primordial ancestors but through culture, through institutions, through our experience. In so doing, he is simultaneously affirming the necessity of freedom to will in order to sin with the observation that we do not experience or possess freedom in the titanic sense it is often portrayed. Freedom is reliant upon context. Freedom is informed and known only through our environs. My willed action does not disappear into the ether after I have performed it, rather it changes the nature of the field of future actions by myself, but also for others. This is true for the individual, for families, for institutions and states. Each person exists in reference to a multivalent field of influences that inform (or distort) our preconceived ideas of the good so that while we may well be ‘free’ to choose our actions, the reality is that our choice is inherently distorted by prior acts of willing and action – this is how we are bound to sin and yet retain freedom:
Here there is a thoroughgoing substitution of social categories for the ontological and metaphysical language through which the doctrine of original sin is traditionally expressed. What we inherit are the consequences of a past history of freedom as they distort the conditions of communication and relation (and thereby of meaning-, value-, and identity-formation) in which we are situated. We inherit this, furthermore, not merely as the external situation upon which we act, but in the internal pre-conditioning of our free agency. Sin is then propagated through forms of sociality distorted through a history of sinning. The social processes, structures, and institutions through which we are called into full personhood, the very processes through which we receive the conditions for autonomous and therefore responsible action, are pathologically distorted. They are alienated and alienating from God.
Thus it is that willing becomes McFadyen’s Archimedean point upon which to move the world; but it could also prove his Achilles’ heel: in claiming that exercising of the will is not coterminous with moral accountability he has made willing the point by which his thesis stands or falls.
In turning to McFadyen’s enquiry into child abuse and the holocaust, insofar as he presents his accounts of both, similar patterns of enculturated sin emerge. At least in these two cases McFadyen showed that the pathology was not simply one of cause and effect, but of an altering of the relational and motivating dynamics in both the victims of abuse and the breadth of the German state under the Nazis. In both cases reality and identity are recreated so as to further enmesh the pathological orientation inherent in their worldview, values and decision making. Sin is not passed on via procreation, but via relationality and the reshaping of the field within which one wills. Sin is located precisely where we want to proclaim our freedom – in the exercising of will. Once introduced to the human ecology it does not exist as a discrete feature but enters all facets of life. The will is changed internally in the case of abused children, and for both the perpetrators and the victims of the Holocaust. This brings us to a related doctrine – Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity. In saying we are totally depraved, Calvin did not mean that we are all totally monsters, but rather that sin has entered every part of our existence, there is no part of our nature that is exempt. This perspective will be of assistance when we contrast Augustine and Pelagius on the relationship between sin and the will.
McFadyen finds a supportive dialogue partner in feminist theology, where he finds an analog for sin: the feminist understanding of the nature of patriarchy. The idea of patriarchy does not simply reside in simple actions in which women are limited in choice and worth, rather it exists as a field of force with a culture:
… ‘patriarchy’ is not an external object of choice in relation to which will is neutral. It is already present within the internal dynamics of self-orientation and life-intentionality. Rather than presenting itself as one object of possible choice among others, ‘patriarchy’ functions as the basis and foundation of all choosing and acting, as the rules by which one makes choices, which are not themselves open to scrutiny or direct choice. … its core ideological function is to shape and influence us, not only through external constraints, but through the internal shaping of cognition, desire and (therefore) will . ‘Patriarchy’ need not then be chosen explicitly or directly. It is ‘chosen’ implicitly in and with every choice that operationally assumes its base assumptions and meanings.
So too sin – it colours our values, perception and orientation. Sin binds us, not by removing our freedom of will, but by subtly warping the field in which freedom is exercised. It is a loathsome thing, because our every free choice simply serves to bind us evermore to sin, by further warping our will. It is insidious and virulent, as indeed has been testified to in the test cases of sexual abuse and the Holocaust – like patriarchy, sin operates not as an external power but as something internal to us, which limits the field of possible willing.
McFadyen now turns to Augustine as the representative figure for the doctrine of original sin. The heart of the matter is the necessity of the exercising of will in order to transgress and incur guilt:
The bottom line is that freedom is a prerequisite for there to be a moral accounting of behaviour, at least in the sense that it would have been possible to have willed or done otherwise. Determination and moral evaluation are usually considered antithetical. In that sense at least moral behaviour involved free willing and intentionality, coupled with freedom in action sufficient to enact the will.
Pelagius championed the view that freedom is absolute, that the will was not enslaved to sin, indeed it remained free even after willing a sinful (immoral) act. Any talk of being bound was seen to deny this foundational premise. What this fails to take into consideration is the situatedness of human existence. This is what is seen in McFadyen’s test cases – all things are not equal. Context - previous acts of willing, even those taken by others - reshapes the situation in which one wills, so that even when will and action appear free, they are so bound in the continuum of events that the perception of reality and the concept of the good have been changed. In McFadyen’s account, sin exerts a field of force so that the will, while free to choose, has had its field of reference so altered that it is enmeshed in a sinful pattern and cannot will apart from it. Pelagius would see the will as the Phoenix: rising anew from the ashes of each act of will, unfettered and bound. What McFadyen has shown, following Augustine, is that the will is more like Marley’s ghost – weighed down with chains wrought through each and every act of will – free, but loaded. But this illustration breaks down on the Augustinian side, because it might be an inadequate portrayal of the location of the chains – they are internal, not external to the self. In Augustine’s view sin does not force us as an external force, but rather as an internal compulsion. We are bound, not in chains, but through a radical re-orientating of our worldview, our values, and what we think will make for felicity.
This introduces the real death blow to the Pelagian view of sin, and what sets Augustine’s view in relationship to the Gospel: the nature of the good. In his zeal to safeguard human will, Pelagius had the will as independent of all external forces. What this meant however was that the will was to understand and construe the good, without any external influence. Augustine wrote that this meant separation even from God – in trying to preserve the will, Pelagius had brought us back to Eden, to the desire to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and to be like God, to be the arbiters of what is good. Augustine countered this by saying that the good is good only in relationship to, and by the regal decree of, God himself. Having been separated from God and the good, the will is unable to return to them by its own efforts. Any attempts at rediscovery or union by ourselves only further entrench the separation created by sin: ‘In acting on the illusory assumption that sin has no real, conditioning power over us in reality, that we remain free in relation to it, we lend sin ever more power and embed it all the more deeply.’ What is needed is for God to act as saviour – to reconcile humanity to himself, and therefore to know the good once more in relationship to him.
McFadyen posits that Christian community and communal life, that is, life rebuilt and relearned in communion with God, is an essential part of God’s panacea for sin. While the church is of course itself sinful, the church plays an educative role in unbinding human life from sin – not educative in the sense of merely imparting information, but as a counter-culture wherein relationships, values and identity are reworked offering an alternative to the existing sinful paradigms. Following Augustine, McFadyen rejects the popular understanding of sin as pride, or sloth, or immorality, instead positing that the heart of sin is idolatry: sin is misplaced worship:
The idol exerts a comprehensive and compelling field of force, which sequesters all other dynamics and forces (including God) into its own service. The worth of all else becomes a matter of its functional utility in relation to that which is worshipped, which functions as the criterion of truth and righteousness as well as of value (goodness). Not only does the idol override all other claims, it bends the whole of life into its exclusive service.
True, loving, joyful worship restores the focus upon God to whom it rightly belongs. Joy is found in the good as revealed and known in God, who is the good. Identity is formed not by the independent exercising of the will, but through relation with God. Worship is thus not a mere activity but the natural, God ordained nature of being. Worship is more than just song and prayer – it is the description of a God-re-orientated life in communion with God and his people.
Has McFadyen succeeded in retaining the doctrine of original sin? Through rigorous logic he has demonstrated that the language of sin is better placed to describe human pathology in the cases he examines. He has shown that sin is more than mere morality by showing that the complexity of willing in the situations considered is beyond our normal patterns of culpability. Sin so changes the field in which will is exercised as to bind it, while still allowing for an active willing. McFadyen concludes:
Sin now appears as energised resistance to the dynamics of God and, thereby, as constriction in the fullness of being-in-communion and joy. Sin is thus construed primarily in dynamic terms, as highly energised, comprehensive disorientation in, through and of all relationships. Such energised disorientation is also communicable and, whilst the claim of biological transmission has not been amenable to testing in relation to these pathologies, it is clear that this disorientation is transmittable through the dynamics of social relationships. That includes those through which we construct our personhood, identity, life-intentionality (including desire) and sense of what is good, right and true. Sin therefore is not an object of possible choice, external to my will, but a dynamic disorientation already internalised in my will and redoubled with the addition of personal energy I provide through my own willing. All this suggests a working out of the doctrine of original sin in terms of communication, rather than causality.
Sin-talk would seem to offer something by way of descriptive and explanatory power beyond that which the secular disciplinary languages allow. This in turn, demonstrates that God-talk should not be precluded from the public sphere.
There are two pragmatic issues arising from McFadyen’s thesis. The first is to establish the place and necessity for sin-talk. At least in so far as his two test cases will allow, his theory stands. Sin as a life orientation that internally warps the field of willing that is communicable has been shown to be a viable description. The language of sin is a valuable asset that assists us in making sense of the human pathology we encounter in the world. The second pragmatic issue is one of remedy. But is worship really the answer to sin? Sin may be idolatry, but can we so simply assume that the worshipful life of the church is the answer? Many victims of childhood sexual abuse of the church would disagree. The German Reich church had its worship subverted through its allegiance to the Nazi party. Where are we to find a church that is not in some way compromised by its culture location? The church, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, may have an educative role to play in the common life of believers, but McFadyen seems to have overstated the case for what worship does. Worship is important in the sphere of soteriology, but it is not our worship that frees us from sin: it is Christ, who in the ultimate act of worship was himself both great High Priest and perfect sacrifice. It is his act of worship that is the panacea for sin. Worship now is only ever a foretaste of the true, joyful and sinless worship that will exist in the fully realised Kingdom of God. McFadyen’s formulation of worship is therefore a form of over-realised eschatology.
McFadyen’s theory has other problems. He has overlooked two areas and how they impact on his reworking on the doctrine of original sin: the Biblical language of Sin and the nature of the Atonement.
Much of McFadyen’s work is taken up with the issue of willing (that is, our active participation in sin); what remains untouched is sin’s own willing. Human culpability and participation in sin do not exhaust the issue of willing – sometimes in Scripture sin itself is spoken of as willing, or desiring. In warning Cain God speaks of sin actively desiring him (Genesis 4:7). The Apostle Paul writes of sin actively seizing opportunities to turn him away from God’s good law (Romans 7:8, 11). It is telling that while Berkouwer refused to define sin as the work of the demonic, yet he still wrote of sin as an alien other : ‘a very vicious and mortal enemy, an irascible and persistent power’. It is beyond mere anthropomorphism, rather it reminds us that the issue of evil is one that is larger than simply a human problem. Sin and evil are somehow the true primordial enemies of God; sin may have entered human ontology in the events of Genesis 3, but whether the text is read literally or metaphorically, evil/sin is prior to the fall. Sin is an un-thing: it is not part of the created order and yet it exists. McFadyen’s description may be a true analysis of sin, but it does not exhaust the reality of sin. This is not to invalidate his work, but a call to walk humbly – there is a precipice at the edge of what is humanly discernable. Sin, like God himself, retains something that transcends our ability to comprehend without revelation. The issue of revelation is pertinent in at least one critique of McFadyen’s approach: his thesis grants primacy to the Augustinian formulation of the doctrine, without a detailed biblical account of sin. Augustine may have been dealing with the Bible in his theological work, but Augustine himself is not Scripture.
While I agree with McFadyen’s point that Christians are implicated in the practical atheism of our culture that precludes God from any discourse about the nature of reality, why is the present cultural setting considered so problematic? Paul writes of how human beings suppress the knowledge of God from creation (Romans 1:18ff) – this has always been the case. This is in itself symptomatic of what McFadyen himself identifies as sin – not the breaking of moral norms but the break in relationship with God. Somewhat contentiously, let me suggest that our society’s indelicate rejection of God-talk, of exclusion of God, is just as illustrative biblically of sin as is paedophilia or the holocaust. This is not to minimize the singular horror or either, but to point to the simple truth that McFadyen himself reminds us: sin is more than moral failure, it has to do with a broken relationship with God.
We also need to ask, what does McFadyen’s formulation of sin do to the atonement? What sense can we make of Christ being made sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21)? The definitive nature of the cross is lost in favour of an educative and participatory salvation through participation in worship or through God’s re-creative work in the resurrection. This seems to align with the emphasis on incorporation into the life of the triune God; but while Scripture does talk of the disciples’ life with God (for example John 14), it is not the primary Biblical paradigm, which is instead Christological. McFadyen fails to attend to one of the New Testament’s most cherished topics – what did the cross achieve? It is one thing to talk about ‘Joy worthy of God has already gone through the cross’ without explaining how the death of the one is related to the sin of the many. And herein resides a key Biblical concept that aids us in understanding the atonement and the nature of sin: that is representative headship:
According to Scripture the kind of solidarity with Adam which explains the participation of all in Adam’s sin is the kind of solidarity which Christ sustains to those united to him. The parallel in Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45-49 between Adam and Christ indicates the same type of relationship in both cases, and we have no need to posit anything more ultimate in the case of Adam and the race than we find in the case of Christ and his people. In the latter it is representative headship, and this is all that is necessary to ground the solidarity of all in the sin of Adam. To say that the sin of Adam is imputed to all is but to say that all were involved in his sin by reason of his representative headship.
The concept that sin is transmitted biologically is incorrect – we all share Adam’s sin, because he is the original human being who is representative of the whole. He is the human ambassador who speaks and acts for the whole of humanity: it is not biological descent from him that binds humanity to sin, but his position as appointed by God as the head of humanity: ‘as in Adam all die’ (1 Corinthians 15:22) is not about biology but ontology. It is Jesus’ role as the new Adam (new head/ambassador) that permits his self-sacrifice for sin on the cross, and is why his resurrected life is good news for those ‘in Christ’. This concern, taken with my previous comment regarding the Bible’s talk of sin as an entity, does not unpick McFadyen’s primary thesis regarding the relevance of any form of God-talk to reality over and above secular description, but rather reveals an oversight into what sin is, and therefore how we are to formulate our doctrinal understanding of it. Just as McFadyen described secular means of describing human pathology not as wrong, but as inadequate without sin-talk, so too, McFadyen’s own presentation on sin is not wrong but inadequate: sin is more than the social structures, pressures and personal inheritance.
To talk about sin is to talk about the nature of evil itself – the dark primordial thing that is the enemy of God, the thing defeated in the Cross, and whose end is the lake of burning fire (Revelation 20:14). What McFadyen has done is describe how sin operates in some capacity – he has demonstrated that the language of sin is useful in describing concrete situations. But it would be a mistake to assume that we now know the true and full nature of sin. Anselm was right: sin far exceeds what we can test for or imagine.
 Anselm of Canterbury Cur Deus Homo (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1909), 50
McFadyen, Alistair Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 7.
 Bound to Sin, 5-7
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 Bound to Sin, 16-17
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 Bound to Sin, 48
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 Bound to Sin, 78-79, 104
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 Calvin, Jean Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol.1. (London: James Clarke, 1962), 248-255
 Bound to Sin, 148-149
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 Berkouwer, Gerrit C., Sin (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1971), 235
 Bound to Sin, 215ff
 Bound to Sin, 210-211
 Bound to Sin, 211
 ‘Sin’ in Douglas, James D., (Ed.) New Bible Dictionary (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), 1107