The Emergence of Sin

The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans

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Matthew Croasmun
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What is sin, according to the Bible? (or s/Sin, in Matthew Croasmun’s usage, which defines s/Sin as encompassing the complex realities of sin on multiple levels: individual, social, and mythological). While Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped that “the doctrine of original Sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith” (Man’s Nature and His Communities, Wipf & Stock, 2012, 24). In his The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans, Croasmun qualifies such verifiability of sin by reading Romans 5-8 through the lens of a theory of emergence. To be sure, his main contention—“Sin, as described by Paul in Romans 5-8, is precisely one of these social realities” (59) which is at once individual and mythological—is not novel in the history of Christian thought, as he acknowledges in the book that “the individual (Bultmann, Ratzinger), the social (liberationist), and the cosmic or mythological (Käsemann et al)” have been each dealt with in depth (19). Even so, Croasmun keenly observes that “an ontology that can hold all of these level of analysis together” (19) is lacking. Closely connected to this problematic for him is whether s/Sin in Romans 5-8 is a person or not, which leads naturally to the question of what constitutes a person. Thus, not only are Croasmun’s inquiries in the book in pursuit of an integrative ontology that brings together all the separate analyses of s/Sin, but also in what sense s/Sin may be understood as a person.

While some among the scholarly circles in the guild of biblical studies might not look favorably upon Croasmun’s attempt to bring in emergence theory for the reason that a foreign theoretical tradition might distort what the text could have meant to the original recipients, Croasmun’s work is grounded in the spirit of faithfulness to the text: “We want to know what this text might have meant in that place and at that time… So, in some sense, this desire to hold the text together, to find a way to hold Paul’s personal discourse together with his moral or social ideas, is ultimately an historically driven desire: the desire to resist our modern (reductionist) drive to resort to metaphorical interpretation” (103). Croasmun’s counter-example for the modern theological neglect of the text is apparently Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing interpretation of s/Sin, resulting in the reductive understanding of s/Sin as only existential (5). In this light, what are the advantages of the lens of emergence? Above all, emergentism can hold different levels of knowledge together by neither separating them from each other (dualism) nor collapsing them into a single level (reductionism) (30). In addition, the explanatory powers of emergentism for the realities of s/Sin consist in supervenience and downward causation, the two basic principles of emergentism. On the one hand, supervenience “means that higher-level entities are ontologically dependent on their supervenience bases” (33). Thus, “the fragility of the vase would be said to supervene on the micro-physical structure of its materials, the wetness of the water to supervene on the chemical characteristics of H2O” (33). Likewise, “the social supervenes on the individual—that is, no individuals, no society—but…the social is irreducible to the individual” (35). On the other, downward causation means that social groups as emergent of individuals “exercise constraint on the individuals of which they are composed” (36). Bringing supervenience and downward causation together for our case with s/Sin, Croasmun renarrates the story of s/Sin in Romans 5-8 in emergent terms: “a self emergent from a complex of human sinners and sinful social structures… Sin operates as a collective epistemic subject, depending ontologically on the participation of its constituencies but nevertheless functioning as a distinct locus of epistemic activity” (137). This fits well with Sin as a slave master in the Pauline narrative, without de-emphasizing the individual violations of God’s laws in the scriptural texts.

In the end, has Croasmun delivered what he has promised? I believe so, at least in terms of providing an ontology of s/Sin as a person through emergentism. However, Croasmun’s project goes beyond providing an analytical tool for his avowed project, particularly for the following two reasons: First, Croasmun achieves at least an initial success to bring together the languages of non-theological disciplines and those of theological ones through his account of s/Sin. The book is replete with his assiduous engagements with several important figures in modern emergentism, including Philip Clayton and Andy Clark. The natural corollary to this is that Christian theological discourse (in this case what he calls “an emergent hamartiology”) can be a potentially fruitful interlocutor for many non-theological disciplines. Second, an emergent account of s/Sin expands culpability not only to a mere collective set of individuals, but to every member of humanity as long as she or he is called a human person, with fruitful implications for our practices of repentance and confession (185). While regarding this point Croasmun does provide some thought-provoking suggestions grounded in his comparing the body of Sin and the body of Christ. I leave further thinking and questioning to the readers of the book.

As a practical theologian deeply interested in phenomenological accounts of s/Sin, I look forward to Croasmun’s upcoming projects. In particular, I hope that scholars like Croasmun deal more with the dynamic of guilt, shame, and fear in the emergent account of s/Sin, especially in light of the Western culture’s disproportionate emphasis on guilt only, which is in part my own project. I have benefited much from Croasmun’s work, and suspect that many others will find this book helpful as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sang-il Kim is a doctoral candidate in the Practical Theology Program at Boston University, School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Croasmun is associate research scholar and director of the Life Worth Living Program at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture and Lecturer of Divinity and Humanities at Yale University. He completed his Ph.D. in Religious Studies (New Testament) at Yale in 2014 and was a recipient of the 2015 Manfred Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise for his dissertation, "The Body of Sin: An Emergent Account of Sin as a Cosmic Power in Romans 5-8."



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