Responding to Elaine Pagels on Original Sin

To set the context for this post, one of my professors at Knox College spoke glowingly of Pagels’ work on original sin. I’ve been reading some reviews over the past few days and have added some summaries of them to my notes, which I am posting here. I haven’t read Pagels yet, nor am I planning to in the near future, largely out of a fear that lightning may strike me.

Writing in Touchstone magazine, Leon Podles believes Elaine Pagels’ Adam, Eve, and Original Sin to be a foil for polemics about modern problems, namely feminism.

In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Pagels challenges the ‘orthdox’ doctrine of original sin. She claims that for the church fathers, there were a variety of opinions about human freedom after the fall, but the ‘orthodox’ view always said that man was free after the fall. For Pagels, it was the Gnostic heretics who denied the freedom of fallen man.  In Pagels mind, this is what made ‘orthodox’ Christianity so appealing. The common man (and woman) could be freed form the tyranny of nature and society.

Pagels spends a lot of time emphasizing Paul’s encouragement of women to be virgins and to not have to remarry after being widowed. For Pagels, this is a sort of proto-feminism as in virginity, women wound freedom from the demands of married life. Of couse, this Pauline emphasis was lost with the influence of St. Augustine, who seems to haunt the dreams of liberals everywhere. The Augustinian notion of the redeemed lacking freedom and so on, developed out of Augustine’s sordid sexual history (hello, informal fallacy!) and was in Pagels’ mind ‘heretical’. It gained traction because as Christianity became the established religion in the Empire, Augustine’s spin on original sin helped serve the Empire as a means of social control.

Podles is helpful for pointing out some glaring errors with Pagels work:

1) She dismisses the pastoral epistles and their praise of family life out of hand for being not Pauline and apparently, therefore, not authoritative. Pagels just whitewashes a major counter argument to her thesis. According to reviews I’ve read of other books Pagels has authored, the suppression of legitimate counter evidence is quite common with her work.

2) She doesn’t seem to understand how doctrine developed. Conflict brings clarity and the definition of doctrine. Arius was needed in order for the church to grapple with the Trinity. Nestorius was needed for the hypostatic union. And Pelagius was needed for the Church to tease out the implications of original sin. The earliest church didn’t have a Pelagius to combat so no wonder that some of Augustine’s specific emphases weren’t highlighted as much as one would hope in the writings of the earliest church fathers. Podles points out that Augustine himself made this point in his writings. At one point, Augustine

“explained to Julianus who had claimed Chrysostom as a Pelagian that Chrysostom was not more guarded in his language because “he was speaking in a Catholic Church and never supposed that he would be understood in any other way [than in an orthodox sense] when no one had raised such a question and he could speak more unconcernedly when you were not there to dispute the point.” (Contra Julianum, 1,6,22).”

3) Pagels fails to see what Podles calls “the converse of the glory of the Redemption.” Podles is so good here, I’ll quote him in full:

More profoundly, Pagels is wrong about Augustine’s theology of original sin because she fails to see that it is the converse of the glory of the Redemption. Christ came to save sinners; He saves only sinners. He came to save each person as much as he came to save all. The gravity of the sin from which Christ saves man is reflected in the Crucifixion and the Descent into Hell. Since Christ came to save the newborn child as much as the hardened sinner, the seriousness of original sin, the only sin that can possibly exist in the child, is mirrored in the price paid to cleanse him from it: the death by torture of the Son of God.

This is why Western Christians have accepted Augustine’s central formulations as true. They have seen in the dark picture of human nature that Augustine drew the negative image of the great salvation they had received. Christians were not duped by a Roman Church intent on tyrannizing them, nor were they misogynists intent on restricting the freedom of women. Like all revisionist versions of Christianity, Pagels’ also falls short of the truth “greater than which nothing can be thought.” In return for the mysterious tragedy and glory of the human story that Christianity reveals, she offers only a delusory self-creating autonomy. As Chrysostom might have said, “‘Ye shall be as gods,’ the Tempter still whispers.”