Sin, Autonomy and Biblical Critical Theory

17 March 2023

6.4 MINS

More useful cultural and biblical analysis from this noted Christian philosopher. See part one here.

There are many ways to describe and discuss sin. Perhaps one definition of major significance is to speak in terms of autonomy. In its simplest form this means self-law or self-government. However, if there is a God who created us and seeks to govern us for our own best good, then autonomy is the height of folly – as well as sin. It is idolatry on steroids.

We perhaps see this especially played out in the radical trans movement. Here we have folks who have so deified autonomy that they believe they can – at will – redefine morality, redefine biology, redefine truth, and redefine reality. Talk about playing God! Talk about kicking God off his throne and elevating mere man in his place.Biblical Critical Theory book

Last week I penned a piece featuring the important new book bChristopher Watkin: Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Zondervan, 2022). As I said there, this is such a wide-ranging and significant volume that a short review will hardly do it justice.

So instead I will feature aspects or chapters of the book in a number of articles. The first one focused on Ch. 23 and is found here.

What I want to highlight today is found in Ch. 5: “Sin and Autonomy.” The Australian Christian philosophy professor also stresses autonomy as the heart of sin, and shows why it is so very destructive. And let me preface this by citing a paragraph from the previous chapter, “Sin and Society”:

The absence of a sustained emphasis on sin and judgment in Christian cultural engagement is, at least, a little odd and, at most, a heinous omission that leaves Christian cultural theory limping and unbalanced. After all, sin is such a crucial figure in the biblical rhythm of creation, fall, and redemption, the rhythm that taps out the distinctively Christian approach to all things from identity and ethics and the environment to culture, the economy, and politics. p. 108

Exactly right. So it is vital that we speak about sin and identify it properly and accurately. Autonomy is key to all this. And it is the perfect descriptor of what happened in the garden with our first parents:

Adam and Eve choose to live by their own law, their own code of what is permitted and not permitted, rather than by God’s law, and they choose to do so in a world that God has created and sustains, as the creatures God has created and sustains. In the context of Genesis 3, autonomy manifests itself as deciding for oneself what is to be counted as good and evil. It is not, of course, deciding for oneself what is good and evil, because God has already settled that question, and any new legislation that Adam and Eve pass down from their DIY parliament does not annul God’s royal decrees. p. 133

All this should be sensible enough to understand, but sin of course twists everything, including our understanding. So it is like a toddler telling his parents that he knows what is best, that he can fend for himself, and that he is able to determine what is right and wrong. Or as Watkin expresses it:

It is hard to underestimate the extent to which many in our society today fail to consider what the Bible has to say about God on its own terms because that would require admitting that our own autonomous reason may not be the most reliable truth-discerning tool in the universe. One of the crucial pennies to drop in the minds of those who find their way to faith in their adult years is often the realization that, if there really is a God such as the Bible reveals him to be, then he is smarter than I am and his judgement is more reliable than mine: if he and I differ on a matter, and if he is really God and I am really a creature, then it is more than reasonable to assume that he is correct and I am mistaken. To reach any other conclusion would require a bizarre routine of epistemological gymnastics. Either God is God and I am not, in which case his judgement is to be trusted over mine, or else God is not God, in which case there is no reliable way of satisfactorily arbitrating at all between what is reasonable and what is not.

This Copernican revolution takes me from the position of considering my own autonomous reason and will to be the most reliable and authoritative guide in the universe to the position of conceding that if the God of the Bible exists, his reason and will are more reliable than mine. This revolution is required in order to get from the unstated and almost always uncontested assumption of our contemporary society that autonomy and choice are necessarily and of themselves both possible and ultimately good to the biblical view that autonomy (understood in the sense of being independent from God in our judgements and evaluations) is metaphysically impossible and relationally destructive. “To know oneself, is above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against the Truth, and not the other way around.” p. 135

He looks at how Kant and other philosophers have spoken to these matters, especially in light of Enlightenment thought. Autonomy is the default position today when it comes to things like ethics, epistemology, and so on. He argues that the ideal of autonomous choice is a delusion, and that it of course undermines all attempts at social cohesion.

If I alone can determine what is right and wrong, true and false, just and unjust, I will always be bumping heads with all the others who also think and act this way. With no higher objective absolutes that transcend my and your judgments and assessments, we will always clash. Real human dignity and community can only come from recognising who God is and how we share in the image of God:

If nature is a world of pure facts and human rationality is ultimately legislative, then my choice to consider myself, another person, or any particular group or class of humanity as being without dignity is inviolable. If, however, there is a God, then as God’s creature in God’s world I do not have the right to define the rules or the value of my life or of anyone else’s—any more than, as a citizen of my country, I have the right to define my own speed limits. pp. 139–140

Human reason – fallen as it is – can only take us so far. Indeed, it invariably takes us in the wrong direction. He follows Van Til and others to show that autonomous human reason only leads to irrationality. Says Van Til:

Suppose we think of a man made of water in an infinitely extended and bottomless ocean of water. Desiring to get out of water, he makes a ladder of water. He sets this ladder upon the water and against the water and then attempts to climb out of the water. So hopeless and senseless a picture must be drawn of the natural man’s methodology based as it is upon the assumption that time or chance is ultimate. On his assumption his own rationality is a product of chance. On his assumption even the laws of logic which he employs are products of chance. The rationality and purpose that he may be searching for are still bound to be products of chance.

Writes Watkin:

Eve was a rationalist because she decided to take as ultimate her own judgment and desires in relation to what is good, true, and beautiful when she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eye, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen 3:6 ESV). But she was also an irrationalist because that same judgment cannot justify its own ultimacy.

The problem is that if we seek to ground right and wrong on our own reason, the apparatus we use to legitimate that very grounding is the same as that which we are trying to ground. I am using my reason to prove that reason is
authoritative, at the same time as I admit that this same reason is a product of evolutionary chance that has not evolved for the purpose of disclosing the truth but of helping me to survive. Even if autonomous reason does not hold that the laws of logic are products of chance, it must still maintain that our apprehension and understanding of them is not through faculties the purpose of which is to reveal to us the truth. The turning away from God’s word to autonomous human reason is, in this sense, acutely unreasonable. p. 142

He winds up by looking at Nietzsche, Sartre, Marx and others, and then concludes:

In the biblical account it is not the case that all alienation is experienced only by human beings, nor that it is primarily economic in nature, for Genesis 3 takes a perspective that goes beyond human concerns to include an ecological dimension. Furthermore, the account of alienation in Genesis offers a much more radical diagnosis than the philosophical alternatives and therefore requires a much more radical prognosis. If alienation is due to the conditions of labor … or the the latest fad in broadcast technology or social media, then we have, at least in principle, the solution in our grasp. But for the Bible alienation is not first and foremost a problem out there in society for us to solve: we ourselves, in our propensity for self-justifying autonomy, are the source of alienation that needs to be addressed, both in the desires of our own hearts and in the structures and figures that, together, we have created. p. 156–157

Much more can be said about this chapter – and this book. I again recommend that you get this volume and carefully read it for yourself.


Originally published at CultureWatch. Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash.

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