My review of a fantastic new book, now in paperback: Matthew Croasmun, The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Sin in the Pauline letters seems to be more than the violation of a command and seems to take on systemic force. Christian theology’s doctrines of original sin and guilt are but one example of theological attempts to come to terms with lower case sins and upper case Sin as a tyrant. In Matthew Croasmun’s recently published dissertation, The Emergence of Sin, a series of proposals are made that provide innovative solutions to all the above and more.

Croasmun establishes both the contours and parameters of the discussion in chapter one, which sorts out scholarship more or less into the individual or psychological (R. Bultmann), cosmic or mythological (E. Käsemann), and the systemic view of liberation theologians (E. Tamez). His terms are “sin came through sinning” (4), standing under definite dualism’s lordships (11), and sinful institutions (15). Croasmun’s contention is not that these elements are not each present, for they are, but that they can’t explain enough. Sin, what is it? Personification or a hyper reality? Is the individual sinning paradigm sufficient for the cosmology and anthropology at work? Is not Sin experienced as something outside and inside, as some kind of cosmic tyrant? What happens then to cosmology and anthropology? “We would prefer a reading that can hold together both sides of the contradiction, about which Bultmann and Käsemann more or less choose sides: that is, that human agents are subject to a power, Sin, that constrains their freedom to act; and that they are nevertheless responsible for their sin. Liberationist readers move us in the direction of being able to hold these two “sides” of the debate in tension, though not without introducing their own difficulties and limitations” (15). Whether it is social or cosmic forces, the systemic theory of Sin acting upon humans offers promise in coming to terms with the Pauline presentations in Romans. How then can Sin be explained as an enslaving force or power? Are the structures simply consequences of individual sins or do they take on a power of their own? What happens then to cosmology and anthropology? What is a person, or what is an agent? Is Sin a person or agent? Sin, Romans 7:8, makes clear is some kind of agent acting upon the person in his or her attempt to observe Torah.

The singular contribution of The Emergence of Sin is Croasmun’s lengthy, accessible and paradigm-altering proposal that sin by the individual, Sin as a cosmological presence and Sin as a systemic can be explained best by emergence theory. In chapters two and three the author examines emergence theory and personhood by appealing to the physical and social sciences as well as philosophy, sociology and psychology. His concern is “trans-ordinal theory,” or the relationship of various levels and how one is caused or correlated with another. Emergence is “concerned with the appearance of higher-order properties at coordinating higher levels of complexity” (23). The “wetness” of water, beehives, memory and money each briefly illustrate emergence that appears to be both caused by lower order elements yet taking on something of a life of its own. Dualistic theories are on their way out as some kind of ontological monism becomes more and more the scientific orthodoxy. Reductionisms are emergentism’s primary challenge: that is, the thought that lower levels always explain higher levels. However, “explain” and “explain away” are not the same thing. The mind does not exist apart from the chemicals at work in the brain, yet the mind and its intentions do real work in the world (hence, something like emergence is better than dualism or reductionism).

The core to Croasmun’s explanation of emergence theory itself is the dialectical relationship of supervenience and downward causation. Supervenience is not as intuitively clear as downward causation: the former refers to a causal basis of higher properties from which they emerge while the latter contends that what emerges works back almost in cyclical fashion upon the supervenience base making it more of what it is. They feed on one another and form one another. I shall enter our topic now into the discussion: human agents sin and from these sins, Sin emerges and Sin as an Agent works back on humans to precipitate more sin and sinning. Sin is ontologically dependent for its existence on human sinning. Croasmun’s ability to think through various systems of thought comes into play in these two chapters, each of which both demonstrates and illustrates this interplay of supervenience and downward causation. For example, the mind supervenes on the brain but the mind is not reducible to brain. Mind, thus, is more than brain.

Importantly, the question becomes Is the Mind then something other than brain? Croasmun examines this dialectic with amazing dexterity in chemistry, biology, sociology, and then focuses on racism. Back to sins and Sin: “In this light, the conflict between Käsemann and more radical liberationists, on the one hand, and Bultmann and the Vatican, on the other, is entirely predictable: it is the conflict between dualists and reductionists. Those more committed to modernist frameworks (Bultmann and the Vatican in this case) adopt the reductionist view. Those more committed, largely for theological reasons, to the recovery or preservation of premodern frameworks (Käsemann, Gaventa, etc.) adopt a dualist view. Those less committed to modern or premodern Western frameworks (non-Western liberationists and postmodern Westerners) are inclined toward something that looks more emergent” (55).

What then of the person? Croasmun’s examination leads him to conclude that the separation of persons from other persons and the person from the organic cells of the body are not as tidy as often argued and that we are together enmeshed in a system. Furthermore, both “self” and “person” begin to take on new properties leading him to contend that an agent or person or self called Sin can emerge from its supervenience base and become an agent of downward causation on the sinner. The older terms like personification or mythology are now found to be inadequate categories once emergence theory and personhood are reformulated. “Both body and mind are internally composite and integrated externally with their environments, to the extent that the very use of the categories ‘internal’ and ‘external,’ and ‘individual’ and ‘environment,’ become problematic” (59). The reductionism of Bultmann then comes to an end. Nor do we need figurative language for Sin: it becomes a reality, not simply a way of speaking. It is, in other terms, a Self that exercises constraints on its supervenience base. Sin, the apostle Paul said, influences the human to sin. On emergent account, Sin is comprehensible as a genuine Self. Croasmun then turns this into a discussion of the organismic self (the body) and the subjective self (mind) and this turns into superorganisms (e.g., a bee hive), the larger emergent organism encompassing the others. When the system, the superorganism has a life of its own, for the sake of survival, the individual cooperates and preserves the superorganism. The human person then is not an isolated individual but a cog in a wheel, an organism in a superorganism. The individual cannot opt out of the system. A human is a “node in a network of multiple scales” (94). Perhaps the most stunning conclusion is this: “Either the social is real or the individual is not. Ontological individualism is incoherent” (96). Emergence theory best explains the Pauline language of humans as sinful agents and Sin as a cosmic tyrant. Thus, hamartia in Romans 5–8 is a “mythological person: that is, a superorganism with a group mind emergent from a complex network of individual human persons” (99).

Only at this point does Croasmun turn to Romans but he has given his secrets away: Sin exercises downward causation – encouragement to sin – upon human sinning selves, and sinning selves are the supervenient base for Sin as a superorganism. With aplomb Croasmun sorts out Greco-Roman contexts for understanding Pauline anthropology and hamartiology. The Body of Sin stands over against the Body of Christ, each a system unto itself, one for Death and one for Life. How then does emergence theory deal with Torah/law/Law? Law is the means by which Sin connects to the human, the supervenience base (128).

The fifth chapter (142-174) on “Sin, Gender, and Empire” took a surprising and (to me) unconvincing turn to explain sin as a mythological figure, Hamartia, in the context of Greco-Roman concerns with self-mastery, the latter theory in interaction with Stanley Stowers’ A Rereading of Romans. Sin, then, has a body sexed female and gendered feminine. If the overall theory at work was less than compelling, the details will continue to fascinate Romans scholars. If masculinity was control, femininity was lack of control; if the audience of Romans is out of control, and if that audience is under the control of Harmatia, then the behavior is feminine and Paul proposes a new kind of ironic if not deconstructive masculinity of slavery to God! Hamartia then acts as a hypermaculine controlling agent for evil. She may be an impossibility but she is also, for Croasmun, the goddess Roma herself. Filter her through emergence theory and you have a collective Self in her too. Add to Roma now the ancient women called tribas who have masculine passions for women … and it all gets tied together in this fascinating romp through ancient sexuality, gender, empire and theology. Hamartia then is a woman ruling over the passions of the Roman males who are then challenged by the Pauline insult. This may well, he suggests, be a kind of anti-empire criticism by way of insult. Thus, it’s a parody: “the tribadic dominion of Hamartia sounds not unlike the effeminate dominion of the Caesars”(166)! The effeminate Body of Christ then resolves the battle and leads to a new kind of mastery of the passions.

In what will be a favorite for those teaching this book as an effort to show that emergence theory really matters for modern realities, Croasmun suggests his account of an emergence theory of sins and Sin speaks into racism today, into capitalism, into The Network and The Market, but also into a fresh account of original sin and guilt as well as into youth violence. Croasmun’s book has more than enough contribution in his theory of emergence and sin as supervenient base with Sin’s downward causation. The adventure into the gendered body of Hamartia, Roma and tribas may well find a number of responses as well. I find his theory of Sin and emergence to be compelling as a way of putting together individual sins, Sin as a powerful force and Self, as well as Sin/sin as a collective systemic set of institutions. While he states that his method is not a typical historical critical examination, his practice approaches the typical explanation of Paul in his historically reconstructed context.