Derek R. Nelson’s What’s Wrong with Sin? Sin in Individual and Social Perspective from Schleiermacher to Theologies of Liberation

[1] Anyone privy to undergraduates working their way toward understanding social or structural sin is familiar with the questions that give rise to Derek R. Nelson’s What’s Wrong with Sin? How can a system/structure/society sin? How do we talk about sin if everyone/no one is guilty of sin? Who is sinning in a sinful structure? Who is sinned against? Many contemporary authors, Nelson argues, evince “conceptual imprecision” in their doctrines of sin, especially as they attempt to answer (or avoid entirely) these questions.1 The result is a “deeply seated crisis in contemporary theology,” namely the inability of theologians to endow social sin with the same theoretical precision the tradition has lent individual sin, especially given the waning relevance and importance of individualistic interpretations of sin. With this book, Derek R. Nelson’s What’s Wrong with Sin? Sin in Individual and Social Perspective from Schleiermacher to Theologies of Liberation by Ryan P. Cummingdeveloped from his doctoral dissertation, Nelson confines himself to plotting a “map” with which to navigate “this new terrain,”2 “to establish[ing] clearly the limits and constraints within which a doctrine of social sin can be located within Christian theology.”3

[2] In the first unit of the book, Chapters 2 and 34, Nelson lays the groundwork for his most interesting contribution, namely that doctrines of social sin can be categorized according to two types of criticisms of individualist doctrines of sin. In Chapter 2, he draws from Albert Ritschl the basic elements which comprise the “structural sin” type of response to individual sin. Ritschl, in response to Schleiermacher’s individualist doctrine of sin, foregrounded the social aspects of the Kingdom of God, which he saw as both eschatological gift and historical task. Christians, he argued, are charged by God to oppose the current “Kingdom of Sin” by establishing social “structures of justice” in anticipation of God’s Kingdom.5 Like Ritschl, “structural sin” authors are concerned with the institutions and systems which order human social life, and they attempt to weave together “a thoroughly social view of the good [and] a thoroughly social view of the good’s privation.”6 Nelson argues that few are able to do so quite as well as Ritschl did.

[3] The second type of response, arguments based on the “relational self,” is drawn from the work of John Nevin in Chapter 3. In opposition to the individualism which characterized Charles Finney’s revivalism during the Second Great Awakening, Nevin argued that it was not possible to talk about the individual sinner without also talking about the relationships within which the individual’s identity is constructed and through which the individual comes to understand the law of God. Sin, for Nevin, was “a distortion of these life-giving relationships” and not solely a matter of an individual transgressing the will of God.7 Modern “relational self” theologians share this emphasis on relationships and, to a certain extent, share in Nevin’s shortcomings, especially his inability to articulate what it means to be related and what or whom it is that we should be in relationship with.

[4] In the second unit of his book, Chapters 4 through 6, Nelson applies his two frames to various liberation theologies and attempts, critically, to point out shortcomings of the harmartiologies he finds there and, constructively, to gain insight into the priorities which should guide future doctrines of social sin. He begins with Latin American liberation theologians, notably Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, and Juan Luis Segundo, in Chapter 4. This is perhaps his most balanced and perceptive chapter and demonstrates the usefulness of the typologies he draws from Ritschl and Nevin. Most Latin American liberation theologians, he argues, fit into the “structural sin” type. Nelson is especially appreciative of Gutiérrez, whom Nelson believes was careful to avoid the mistakes to which other liberation theologians are prone, especially the error of drawing the line between oppressed and oppressor so sharply that sin is attributed solely to the latter. His other major criticism of liberation theologians (especially Segundo, Boff, and the North American theologian Rebecca Chopp) concerns the nature of social structures. Liberation theologians are frequently imprecise about what structures are, how structures might be said to “sin,” and how a sinful social structure relates to sinful individuals within a society. This renders their conceptions of structural sin “not entirely coherent.”8 If we are to have a robust, acceptable understanding of social sin as it relates to structures, he will argue later, theologians must delve into these questions more deeply. Furthermore, Nelson is especially concerned throughout the book that our appreciation of social sin not cause “the pendulum to swing too far”9 such that the individual and individual sin are excised from the picture entirely. This is a recurrent criticism that echoes throughout the book.

[5] The next two chapters highlight well Nelson’s strengths and weaknesses. Nelson is clearly at home working with feminist theologians, as he was with Latin American theologians. Chapter 5, on feminist and womanist theology, is remarkable for its sheer breadth – no less than ten theologians are discussed and their work corresponds to both “structural sin” and “relational self” types. He finds much value in feminist scholarship for his project, especially in Ivone Gebara, Deanna Thompson, and Serene Jones’ blurring of the distinctions between oppressors-sinners and oppressed-innocent found in the work of some liberation theologians (notably, in this chapter, the work of Mary Potter Engel). His discussion of Marjorie Suchocki and Rosemary Radford Reuther (representatives of the “relational self” type) is especially well done. Nelson rightly emphasizes the risk that Suchocki runs by construing the human person as so thoroughly relational that it is difficult to find a real “self” to which identity and, importantly, moral agency may be attributed. He finds a possible solution to this problem in Reuther’s work on individuation. Reuther, one of the Nelson’s dissertation readers, presents a picture of a self which is individuated, as opposed to individual, a self that is constituted but not exhausted by his/her relationships.

[6] Nelson’s weaknesses come forth almost as clearly as his strengths in this chapter. While he is an able student of feminist theology, his work on womanist theologians is unbalanced and problematic. A relatively small, but important, difficulty is the very inclusion of womanist scholars in a chapter about “selected feminist theologies,” especially in the case of Jacquelyn Grant, given her opposition to elements of feminist theology. That said, choices must be made in the construction of any book and Nelson’s decisions about space and place are at least arguable. His conclusions regarding womanism, however, are not.

[7] His major criticism of the womanist theologians he treats (Jacquelyn Grant, Delores Williams, and Emilie Townes) is that their construals of sin and redemption result in “the partial eclipse of God from the picture of social sin.”10 This over-generalization is troubling, especially given his own discussion of the important role of God as the source of hope in Townes’ work.11 The difficulties with his analysis are most apparent in his discussion of Williams. Williams, Nelson argues, is “seemingly” heretical, since her insistence on a this-worldly salvation that must be worked out by humans borders on Pelagianism.12 Her work, he believes, jettisons God in favor of “the good work of cooperative communities” working out redemption in the “here and now.”13 Nelson bases his arguments on Williams’ 1997 essay, “Straight Talk, Plain Talk: Womanist Words about Salvation in a Social Context.” This is where the difficulty lies. Williams’ essay is addressed to the Black Church; her aim is to encourage social activism within that community. Her essay is about ecclesiology, not eschatology. Williams, in fact, is aware that some might, like Nelson, incorrectly believe she “eclipses” God from her picture of social renewal, and she warns against this misreading.

[8] Nelson’s problematic interpretation of Williams may result from reading her larger, earlier work, Sisters in the Wilderness, through the lens of his (mis)interpretation of her shorter, later essay, rather than vice versa, the more appropriate method. In her book, Williams makes quite clear what the role of God is: God provides direction through the “wilderness” such that black women can “survive” in the midst of multifaceted oppressions; Jesus redeems humanity through his “ministerial vision of life,” and God strengthens the oppressed by “surviving” with them in the midst of oppression. Nelson’s confusion of the foundational categories of survival and salvation leaves little salvageable material in his analysis of Williams. While her soteriology is controversial, her distinction between the two demonstrates that Nelson’s charge of Pelagianism is unfounded. This is a significant problem given that his belief in the pervasiveness of semi-Pelagian beliefs about redemption serves as the ground for some of his constructive proposals later in the book. Moreover, one might expect an analysis of the survival-liberation motif to reference authors such as C. Eric Lincoln or J. Deotis Roberts, both of whom point to the importance of this framework in African American theology. Failing to locate Williams’ discussion appropriately either within her own corpus or in the broader African American tradition renders Nelson’s treatment inadequate and insufficient. The lack of careful research in this section stands in sharp contrast to the balanced, thorough, and critically appreciative work which marked Nelson’s earlier chapters.

[9] Nelson’s penultimate chapter, on Korean minjung theology, is similarly problematic. Nelson is highly critical of minjung theology; it serves in his book as a source of “formulations of social sin…which will not work” and its insights do not function noticeably in his constructive proposal in Chapter 7.14 He often refers to it as, essentially, a dead theology, a project that “has basically run its course and petered out.”15 While dedicating a chapter to an obsolete theology raises its own questions, Nelson seems to suggest that the reason for its demise was a deficient theology. This is problematic for two reasons: 1) it is not at all clear that minjung theology has “petered out,” and even if this is arguable, the point should be bolstered by substantial references to indigenous assessments (especially in the work of a white, North American scholar), which are absent from Nelson’s chapter; and 2) this assessment may evince a confusion of minjung theology with the minjung movement, a socio-political movement which disappeared after the military dictatorship it was created to oppose was overthrown. Though the two were related, they were not identical. The decrescendo in minjung theology occurred because the success of the minjung movement partially removed the context in which the theology was being done, and not because the theology itself was untenable.

[10] The lack of depth and breadth which characterized the section on womanism is present in this chapter, as well. In contrast to the six theologians in Chapter 4 and the ten theologians in Chapter 5, Nelson only deals with two theologians in Chapter 6, the biblical scholar Ahn Byung-Mu and the theologian Andrew Sung Park. The inclusion of Park here as a minjung theologian is questionable; the use of him as a primary representative of minjung theology is highly dubious. 16 This lack of breadth contributes to the several shortcomings in this chapter (though merely including more authors would not have corrected his basic misreading of Park.) Nelson, for example, mischaracterizes the notoriously complicated notion of han by limiting his perspective to a tenuous interpretation of Park, whose work is often criticized as overly vague. Han is not, as Nelson seems to suggest, analogous to the English term “suffering.” It is a complex notion that resists easy conceptualization and categorization. It can even be understood positively, as the source of transcendence, or in some cases, as the grasping of the Holy Spirit. Neither is han analogous to an individualized internalization of oppression, as Nelson also seems to suggest. It is profoundly communal, as well, and it is this feature that makes art, poetry, and storytelling so central for minjung theologians; these allow the minjung to share their collective han openly in community.

[11] The bifurcations and classifications which Nelson reads into minjung theology (individual vs. collective, suffering vs. liberation, han vs. sin) are incompatible with the non-dialectical, non-dualistic methodology of minjung theology as a whole, and this is especially true here where Nelson’s discomfort with imprecision makes it difficult for him to adequately assess Park’s contributions. This is no less the case in regards to his very narrow view of Park’s project. Park’s purpose in highlighting han is to show the limitations of concepts like justification by grace. Justification may resolve the sin of the sinner, but it doesn’t speak to the han of those who are sinned-against. In fact, it often collapses the sinned-against into the universal category of “sinners” and thereby disallows the very real distinctions between oppressed and oppressors that exist in the world. Park’s aim is to give han pride of place in Christian understandings of salvation. This does not ignore the reality of sin and the need for grace for our sins. Even the oppressed with han can still be oppressors; minjung men can still oppress women, for example.

[12] The key point in Park is this reversal of soteriological priorities, and not the “self-effected” change of sinner and sinned-against, as Nelson claims. Even without these misconstruals however, by the end of the section, it is not clear at all how Park’s notion of social sin “comes completely undone”17 in any objective way, nor is Nelson’s reading of Park penetrating enough to justify Nelson’s charges of Pelagianism, Manicheanism, Gnosticism, and Arianism. These claims by Nelson (coupled with his charge that Park’s project was “destined to fail”18) must be defended in something more than the relatively few pages he writes here (a scant five on Park), and indeed, seem odd coming from an author who explicitly wishes to avoid “the chauvinistic vantage point of some sort of doctrinal watchdog.”19

[13] The shortcomings of Nelson’s work with womanist and minjung theologians may belie the difficulty in attempting to correlate nineteenth-century North American and Continental theology with contemporary theology coming out of the Third World. The two may not be compatible, and it seems that both Delores Williams and Andrew Sung Park would agree. Both womanist and minjung theology are intentional contradictions of traditional theology. They simply may not adequately fit with the theology of Ritschl and Nevin anymore than they would fit with the theology of Schleiermacher and Finney. Still, I don’t think this undermines Nelson’s argument or book as a whole, even if a fair interpretation of Williams and Park’s works seems to deny gravity to Nelson’s claim of a “crisis” in theology. His basic thesis, that doctrines of sin must include both a substantive analysis of social structures and “a developed understanding of selfhood formed in relationship,”20 is well taken and deserves attention from theologians. We can’t avoid the difficulty of talking about social sin, but we must, as his “Prologomenon to a Future Doctrine of Social Sin” in Chapter 7 suggests, make sure our language avoids vagueness, incoherence, and over-simplification.

[14] Overall, Nelson’s work toward this end is helpful and is presented in a logical, well-written, well-organized way that allows the reader to make sense of a variety of traditions. My criticisms above should not be taken as a disapproval of the whole (though readers should exercise extreme caution with the sections critiqued above). In fact, Nelson’s work in the other sections of his book, including his “Prologomenon,” is quite perceptive and insightful. Given his strengths in What’s Wrong with Sin? (and these are quite remarkable in regards to nineteenth-century theology, German Idealism, feminism, and Latin American liberation theology) as well as the creativity presented here and in his other articles and book, the theological community can expect, and should await, the valuable future contributions of the author.


1. T&T Clark, 2009, p. 7.

2. 5.

3. 10.

4. Chapter One is an introduction to the book as a whole.

5. 42.

6. 181.

7. 76.

8. 105. Segundo, for example, seems to argue that an individual is made to sin by the sinful social structures in which s/he lives. This risks “hypostatization” of sin in the individual and, more troublingly perhaps, risks granting agency to a structure (101).

9. 87.

10. 183.

11. 130–131.

12. 130.

13. 128–129.

14. 161.

15. 161. See also 178.

16. The analogy may be to describe Roberto Goizueta as a Latin American liberation theologian, for example. He may employ similar categories, but he is not “doing” Latin American liberation theology.

17. 175.

18. 179.

19. 85. His numerous references throughout the book to Pelagianism suggest something other than a lack of concern for doctrinal orthodoxy, at the very least. He may very well be right, but what does such a charge add to an argument for readers who are not worried about orthodoxy?

20. 7.

Ryan P. Cumming

Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D. is program director of hunger education for ELCA World Hunger and senior lecturer at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.