In this sweeping survey of the history of Christian teachings on original sin the author seeks to show how we might preserve the doctrine's deepest meaning without carrying forward the contaminants of a premodern mindset: "Increasingly evident to theologians is that a genuine appropriation of [the doctrine of original sin] in a transformed intellectual context requires more than an exchange of old words for new ones. The doctrine must be understood within a different historical framework and in relation to a different apprehension of the human person (179)."
The first four chapters of the book provide a clear and concise history of the origins and evolution of the doctrine through the Middle Ages. In chapters five through seven, the author surveys the impact of Enlightenment skepticism and the challenges offered by science and feminist critique today. Chapter eight is devoted to summary of Bernard Lonergan's theological anthropology in order to support the contention that his concept of "sustained unauthenticity" provides an adequate language for retrieval of the doctrine's meaning without the excess baggage of the tradition. The very brief final chapter sums up the doctrine's role in Christian history and restates the case for a non-literal reading of Genesis.
Since none but the most fundamentally-minded academics and theologians any longer advocate a literal reading of the Fall, this book would be most appropriately used for undergraduate study of the evolution of doctrine, for this is the book's strongest point. It is clearly written and does not assume the reader possesses an extensive theological knowledge base. Its major weakness is perhaps an unavoidable by-product of the attempt to isolate a foundational religious doctrine from its theological framework. As nicely argued in the book, theological anthropology informed by psychology is clearly appropriate. But, truth be told, such an anthropology can never fully answer the questions that give rise to the myths of a religious tradition. The Christian myth of Adam and Eve did arise as an explanation for human depravity and suffering. The author rightly insists that "sustained unauthenticity is an empirical fact (204)," even though a literal reading of the myth is no longer tenable. But when read as myth rather than history, it tells us about more than human nature. It tells us that the possibility for evil was already present in creation prior to the first sinful choice (c.f. Paul Ricoeur, Symbolism of Evil). And so the question becomes the perennial and much more complex conundrum of theodicy and the nature of God.