warning: theology ahead

Bruce Chilton reviews my Original Sin in this morning’s New York Sun. It’s an interesting and fair-minded review, but I don’t understand it fully — the last paragraph in particular seems cryptic to me.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College, one of the pre-eminent evangelical institutions in America. His experimental and interesting book is part of a new intellectual movement within American evangelicalism, to distance itself from the excesses of fundamentalism by assessing how the teaching of the Christian Bible may be understood within Christian tradition and how it fits within the broader scope of ancient and modern thought. In that task, his book shows that evangelicals will need to be alert to two constraints of pursuing history of any type, "cultural" or not. First, claims of uniqueness need to be tested by a thorough investigation of context; simple assertion and argument from personal experience are not sufficient. Second, if investigation makes a researcher shift ground, in this case away from a fully Augustinian conception of original sin, he ought to acknowledge the fact, rather than try to change the definition of what he alleges is unique.

Aside from the lecture to evangelicals in general, which seems both misplaced and condescending, Chilton makes two criticisms: first, that I have made at least some points via “assertion and argument from personal experience”; and second, that I have tried to change the definition of Augustine’s conception of original sin. I don’t know what he means by the first charge — I suspect that he originally wrote an explanation that got cut to fit the Procrustean bed of newspaper reviews — but on the second one I think he’s mistaken.

The mistake stems from Chilton’s assumption that my primary goal in the book is to defend and celebrate Augustine’s picture of original sin. But while I think that Augustine was largely correct in his development of the idea of original sin, he went astray in certain respects: first, by linking it so closely with sex, and second, by arguing that a belief in original sin requires us also to believe that unbaptized infants are consigned to Hell. So, pace Chilton, I don’t “quietly back away from the sexual focus of Augustine's thought,” I straightforwardly say that I think Augustine was wrong about that.

So I wasn’t trying to change the definition of anything, I was just arguing that Augustine isn’t wholly right in his approach to this topic.

All that said, I appreciate Chilton’s review. He says some positive things and is generally fair in expressing his reservations.