To kick off our Interview series, we sat down with Danielle Shroyer, an author, speaker, and former pastor who has built up an impressive body of theological work both online and in print. Shroyer recently published a very interesting and controversial new book, Original Blessing: Putting Sin In Its Rightful Place. You can learn more about the book at Danielle’s website. In this interview, we ask her about her motivation to write about such a contentious topic, as well as what effect removing the doctrine of original sin might have on evangelism and understanding Jesus’ ministry.
Trellis Magazine: Welcome Danielle! Our first question is, why Original Blessing? How did you first arrive at the conclusion that the doctrine of original sin perhaps isn’t the whole story?
Danielle Shroyer: Someone asked me recently whether I changed my mind on original sin or whether I always questioned it, and I think it’s true that I always questioned it. Even as a child, it just seemed like there was something a little off about the way people were explaining Genesis 3 to me. I was always a bit skeptical about the traditional ways that people talked about the subject. That curiosity remained with me and led me to study related theology. Then later, as a pastor, I watched the way that it practically worked out for people in their faith lives. Eventually I realized that I really don’t think Scripture is trying to tell us that we have an inborn sin nature. The minute that we cross over to that belief, things can get really skewed and negative.
We can say all that we need to say about sin and about the severity of sin without going that last step towards an inborn sin nature. I certainly don’t want to stop talking about sin—I just think that it’s contrary to the message I see from Genesis to Revelation to talk about it in that way.
TM: Interesting that you say it was always something you weren’t quite sure about. Did that come up as an issue as you were starting to pursue ministry and going to seminary?
TM: As in, “Oh, Danielle. I don’t know about her. She doesn’t seem to buy the whole original sin thing. What’s up with that?”
DS: It’s funny how it came up in different ways. I didn’t walk around saying, “This thing is wrong!” I wasn’t quite as bold about that until somewhat recently. I went to Baylor University for undergrad, and there the original sin concept turns up in sort of an evangelical way. It’s very connected to “you’re a sinner, therefore you need Jesus, therefore he fixes the sin problem for you, and that’s how you get to heaven.”
What I think is important to remember is that questioning original sin as a doctrine is not technically heretical. It’s not unorthodox.
In various ways I did push back against that very narrow view of what the Gospel is. Later on, when I went to Princeton which is a Presbyterian seminary, it took a different turn. The way that you saw original sin there was much more connected to the Reformed tradition. So we read Luther, we read Calvin, and Barth. A lot of the conversations and discussions that I would have with people was pushing back, specifically, against such theological concepts as total depravity or concupiscence (to use a big word). Then of course there are questions about what happened during the Atonement. What exactly happened on the Cross?
What I think is important to remember (and is so hard for us as Western Christians) is that questioning original sin as a doctrine is not technically heretical. It’s not unorthodox.
Original blessing, as I call it (a term originally coined by Matthew Fox) has been around for longer. It’s been around since the beginning. So the idea that to question original sin is somewhat unorthodox or puts you in heresy is a pretty new assumption. Even to say that really denigrates the faith of our entire Eastern branch of the Christian church. Not to mention it’s sort of a snub to our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters who think it’s a strange way of understanding the Genesis story as well.
TM: You raise an valid point: that a Jew practicing Judaism and reading the Genesis story is going to see that narrative in a different light than someone who’s immersed in the TULIP kind of view—“Jesus is the solution to the total depravity of man”—and how that evolved over the centuries.
DS: Right. That’s why I keep saying Jesus didn’t believe in original sin and maybe we shouldn’t either. Yes, that sort of calls people to question it and say, “Whoa, what are you talking about?” It’s true that Jesus was Jewish. Paul was Jewish. So, even as Paul is writing Romans (Romans 5 is said to be about original sin), when we stop and think about it, there’s no possible way that Paul, as a Jew—even as a converted one—would be thinking about sin in the same way as it developed 500 years later.
It’s totally possible that the early church, the disciples, and Jesus himself somehow had a way to understand sin without this concept of an inborn depraved sin nature. That wasn’t even the purview of the way that they would understand sin.
TM: What made you decide to wake up one day and write a book which upends 1,500 years of theological tradition? Do you enjoy pain? Angry hordes coming at you with pitch forks? What was going through your mind as you started to undertake this project?
DS: That’s funny. Well, I will say, I don’t tend to back down from a theological argument. I think they’re fun. It doesn’t bother me that this will cause some raised hackles and frustrations with people.
Since our relationship with God is the most central relationship that we have, it seems obvious to tell people that they are created in God’s image and are designed for a relationship with God.
I don’t want to just stir up trouble. The reason that I wrote the book is because as a pastor, I saw firsthand in the Bible belt how the doctrine of original sin was so harmful for people’s lives. As a pastor, my whole job is to encourage people to be mature, faithful disciples of Jesus. It seemed like the doctrine of original sin undercut the whole purpose of that.
I don’t understand the concept of telling someone—either who’s been raised in a church their whole life, or even worse when somebody is outside of a faith tradition—“Hey, you have a problem and it’s that God is very far from you. You’re bad.” Then, to say, “I now want to encourage you to have a relationship with God.” There’s no rhyme or reason to that sort of argument, to me. You don’t start any healthy relationship in that kind of a negative regard.
Since our relationship with God is the most important one, the most central relationship that we have, it just seems obvious to tell people that they are created in God’s image and are designed for a relationship with God. If in any way people feel far from God, it’s not that God has moved, it’s that they have. I think that kind of love and that sense of being beloved unconditionally is what actually transform people.
My frustration is that the Church talks about unconditional love out of one side of its mouth and then says this original sin thing out of the other. You really do have to choose. They are competing messages. Either we are born connected and designed for a relationship with God—or we are born as sinful, inclined to evil, separated from God, and there’s this chasm that doesn’t completely get fixed, even after you “accept Jesus into your heart.”
TM: It is odd, isn’t it, that evangelism messages sometimes begin by convincing the person about how angry God is with them and how far they are from Him. Like, “Let me tell you about God. You don’t know very much about Him yet, and it’s really bad news. But there’s also good news. So here’s the Gospel now.” You have to start off with the bad news before the good news makes sense. But you’re right that it’s something a lot of people end up questioning. How can it truly be Good News when it starts off as such Bad News?
DS: Yes. It’s also weird that we spend so much energy trying to convince people of their sin. I spend a decent amount of time with agnostics and atheists, and they all know that already! It’s not that they think they’re perfect people and that the world is fine the way it is. There’s literally no one I’ve ever run into that thinks that. So it’s not really a selling point for this pitch that we’re making to people. “Did you know that you sin?” Yes!
The thing that’s the Good News is actually that second part, which is, “Did you know that you’re loved regardless of that? Did you know that you are unconditionally accepted? Did you know that when you rest in that love, you actually grow in your own capacity to exhibit that love to other people and to the world?” I believe people do want to experience that kind of love and they are looking for it. They want to experience that in the relationships with other people and in their relationship with God. So it just seems like that would be a better place to start.
TM: In terms of push back to the ideas in this book and as you’ve communicated them, have you received criticism that seems rooted in gender bias? In other words, “Oh, I’m not rejecting this idea because I don’t like the idea. I’m rejecting it because you’re a woman and I don’t think women should be teaching men. Theology is a man’s job.”
DS: I haven’t had that explicitly happen yet, but I have had only men email me to say, “Did you know that Romans 5:17 says X?” To me, that is sort of an undercurrent of gender bias. After all, I have a Master’s from Princeton and I just wrote a book on this! (Laughs)
I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s fine if someone disagrees with me, but it’s patronizing to assume that I would not have read Romans 5:17, and considered it, while writing a book on original blessing.
TM: That is strange. Like what might your response be? “Oh, thank you! I never read that verse before. Gosh, I’m going to have to rewrite the whole book now!”
DS: (Laughs) “Gosh, I had no idea Paul said that. Thank you. I’m going to have go start all over. I needed you, as a man, to explain that to me despite my years of Greek.”
I’ve had a few eye roll situations in that regard. I simply respond and say, “I’m aware of what it says. I even talk about that in the book. I just interpret it differently.” It’s amazing, if you set down original sin for long enough—which takes a while, because when you’re so steeped in it, it’s hard to read those passages in any other way—if you really try hard, take a step back, and read Romans 5:17 for just what it says, it’s not what Paul is saying. He’s not saying inborn sin nature, he’s saying there’s a universality to sin. He’s saying there’s this beautiful symbolism between Adam and Jesus that is lovely. I’m not trying to ditch any of that. I’m just trying to bring it back to a level of normalcy.
TM: Looking at the Christian faith through this lens of original blessing, what’s the benefit? What changes when one’s whole preconceived notion is shifted like this?
We have these two dueling inclinations in our lives towards conscience and drive, and our purpose is to balance those and bring those into harmony with one another.
DS: It changes everything, and yet everything is still intact. Because I think really what happens is that we change our perspective in our entry point. Just that shift in worldview is radical enough to alter the way that we see the rest of the Christian story. I think that’s a great benefit to us. The minute we understand that we are grounded in the love that God has for us, that God began this relationship with us and it is available to us at any time, we get a sense of centeredness that just doesn’t come from this constant battle we have if we assume that we’re always at war with our own nature, that we’re odds with our flesh and our community. That all feels so complicated.
When we can say “No. Our bodies are designed to worship God. We’re designed to follow God in these ways,” then I think we can have a much more honest and sane approach to our own struggle between the knowledge of good and evil. We have these two dueling inclinations in our lives towards conscience and drive that I talk about in the book, and that comes from Jewish tradition. Our purpose is to balance those and to bring those into harmony with one another. So, we don’t have to demonize our humanity. We just have to talk about integrating it well. Then it helps us see Jesus in a more respectful and sacred way. He’s not just a solution to a problem that we have. He is the embodiment of full human life in God. In that way, we can honor the fullness of what he’s done.
TM: By publishing this book, what do you most hope to accomplish? What do you wish as the goal for readers of your book?
DS: I really wrote it for people who have an inkling that this is closer to the way they’ve experienced God and what they think of God. They just haven’t quite known how to describe it. They haven’t given themselves permission to say that original blessing is an alternative that is viable to original sin. I also wanted to write it for people who feel estranged from God and yet who don’t want to be. They want to have a relationship with God, and they want to grow closer to God.
But they’ve heard so often that they’re separated from God, that they’re bad, and all of these other pieces of baggage that it’s hindered them from really being able to cultivate that relationship. I hope that this book gives freedom to those people, so that they can see they have every reason to trust that Scripture gives us an account of a God who loves us, and that—while we struggle within—we have the capacity within us to be faithful.
TM: Wonderful. Thank you for your time and for participating in this interview. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. One more fun question: if you could time travel to any other point in history, what would it be and why?
DS: (Laughs) Well, the complicated thing about that question is that, as a woman, if I travelled too far back in time, it would be bad for me! There are many places intellectually I would like to experience firsthand, but once I got there, I just wouldn’t get to do anything at all.
I think I would love to be in Paris as it was in the movie Midnight in Paris. It’s a lovely depiction of just how many thoughtful artists and writers were alive at the same time. Paris was sort of the epicenter of that. I think I could probably get away with being a woman in that regard, in Paris. I could hang out with Van Gogh, or Hemingway.
So that might be a safe space for me to peak into a number of figures that I like, and yet get away with it as a woman.
TM: Fair enough. Good luck Danielle with the book and getting the word out. May that continue to go well for you!
DS: I appreciate that, thanks!