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05 May, 2010 / theexpositor

Simul iustus et peccator

by Dr. Kelly Kapic for Tabletalk Magazine

Why do we do the things we do? Scholars struggle to understand human nature and, in  particular, what theologians call sin. Where does it come from and why do we do it? In 2002, James Waller produced a careful work of psychology called Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. What is fascinating about Waller’s study is that he challenges the common assumption that “extraordinary evil” must arise only from some abnormality within a people or society. Such a common view of extreme evil is a comfort to those of us who are “normal,” as it reassures us that we would never participate in such horrific events — we are not that bad. Yet what is so unsettling about Waller’s study is that he shows “extraordinary evil” actually arises from “ordinary people” — people like you and me.

The reality of extraordinary and ordinary evil remains a nagging problem, not easily answered and not easily ignored. Famed social psychologist Philip Zimbardo recently wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2007), emphasizing that the fundamental problem that leads us into offensive actions is environmental: what corrupts us is the hostile or acidic situations in which we find ourselves. Zimbardo is right to highlight the significance of context in shaping a person, but he is wrong when he reduces our proclivity for evil to influences from external situations.

Something is wrong not simply “out there” but within us. Jeremiah probed the human heart and soberly declared, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). Similarly, the apostle James did not blame God for our temptations or sin but concluded, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). But why do we have desires that can be so hurtful to others and so contrary to God? What is wrong with our hearts?

In the early church’s struggle to understand human nature, no debate became more significant than that between Pelagius and Augustine.


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Dr. Kelly M. Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He is author of Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen.

© Tabletalk magazine