Depravity or Sin?
by Vernard Eller

This letter was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on September 20, 1963. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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I am weary to death, weary of the trend so conspicuous of late in the Century, in motive, in Christianity and Crisis, in all sophisticated religious journals--the trend to cast the mantle of the Christian pastor upon worldly literati such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, J. D. Salinger and William Golding. The major display you recently gave (Oct. 2, 1962) to William Mueller's review of Lord of the Flies is what has prompted my protest, though my unhappiness has to do not so much with Mueller as with the genus as a whole.

The authors named above--and the tribe they represent--are hailed as analysts of sin; the truth is that they show not so much as a speaking acquaintance with what the term signifies. They do demonstrate ability enough in portraying the depravity of man; but "depravity" and "sin" are far from being synonymous terms. "Depravity" refers to man's peculiar skill in making himself miserable; and modern literature does constitute abundant witness to the fact that such skill is indeed ours.

However, a concept of "sin" requires two elements that this literature lacks totally:

  1. There must be comprehension of what God intended and created man to be; only against this standard can the extent of man's fall truly be measured. Literature, at best, traces the movement from social respectability to brutishness (and more often as a disclosure rather than as an actual fall)--But in any case, depravity does not begin to suggest the "fall-distance" that sin does.
  2. There must be understanding that man's degeneration involves not alone the ruin of himself but, vastly more important, personal offense and insult to the God who gave him being and to whom he is responsible. In short, the concept of "sin" requires the presupposition "God," which "depravity" does not; as Kierkegaard pointed out, the nature of sin can be learned only through revelation.

Actually, "sin" connotes a much more desperate and despicable condition than does "depravity," because sin places human evil within its true context. And sin alone, not depravity, forms the substructure for Christian faith. In the first place, only "sin" denotes understanding of man's predicament for what it really is; only "sin" conveys an inkling of what forgiveness will have to entail. In the second place, sin, though going a whole quality deeper than depravity, in the very act of going deeper introduces into the situation the only possible note of hope. Sin aggravates our situation by emphasizing that offense is against God; but God being who he is, the fact that it is against God, means that precisely here are opened possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness. But how could depravity be cured unless it first understands itself as sin? That today's literature of depravity falls a long step short even of defining such a problem--let alone suggesting anything by way of solution.

It is a little difficult to see, then, just how more and better presentations of man‘s depravity can be expected provide Christian edification. Perhaps at one time some Christian theologies needed a lesson in depravity to pull them into correcting their doctrine of sin; but anyone who is ever going to learn this lesson certainly has got the word by now. After all, it takes only so many novels and plays to make the point, and for that matter, a few well placed sticks of dynamite in a Birmingham Sunday school can make it even more effectively than all literary efforts put together. But to suggest that the layman can read or view one of these modern sermons on depravity and then, on his own, proceed to a full-fledged concept of sin and from there to the good news of salvation is somewhat less than realistic. Is there actually evidence that anyone has ever grown in faith by seeing a Hot Tin Roof or reading Lord of the Flies? And if not, what is gained by giving Christian approbation to works that fall far short even of the place where Christianity begins?

If and when contemporary literature takes the next step--if only to portray true sin rather than mere depravity--then let The Christian Century be the first to signalize the effort--But until that time, why keep adding to the collections of what we have too much of already? Indeed, whose exegesis is it that reads the New Testament command to be "in the world" as meaning that we should bend over backward to let the world know that we are "with it"?

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Copyright (c) 1963, The Christian Century