Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Original Sin

A reader suggested a thread on the topic of Original Sin.

What I have to say about the subject may be clear already from sermons I have posted. The Fall needs to be seen as the Fall from Grace. The expression "the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil" comes with the ancient Hebrew concept of knowledge, which is a bit different from our modern concept. "And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived..." (Gen. 4:1) Knowledge, to the ancient Hebrews, meant intimacy and experience. "By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities," says the prophet about Christ as the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53:11). That does not mean that Christ saved us by learning and acquiring information, but by his own experience of death, his intimacy with it. The choice to disobey God did not produce knowledge of good, but knowledge of a distinction between good and evil; the knowledge was not understanding evil, but intimacy with and experience of evil. Man knew what it meant to disobey God, and became acquainted with evil as a result. This knowledge produced the Fall from grace, because it involved the act of disobedience.

Following patristic reasoning, specifically that of St. Gregory of Nanzianzus, evil has no actual substance, but is simply a shadow that blocks the light of God's goodness. It is an emptiness, a void, a vacuum, like a black hole. Darkness cannot solve the problem of light (John 1:5). The Fall added nothing to human nature, rather it deprived fallen mankind of grace.

So far nothing I have written should be controversial among the major communions of the Church. Nonetheless, the understanding of Original Sin in the East and in the West tends to be different in one major respect. The Orthodox Church does not define Original Sin in terms of inherited guilt, whereas standard Latin teaching includes the idea of being conceived with culpability, inherited guilt. It includes a teaching that each child is born guilty of Adam's transgression, an added element of teaching which goes beyond the universal consensus of the Church. This has led to the Roman Catholic doctrine that baptism washes away the stain of Original Sin, an idea rejected in the Eastern tradition.

Much depends on how to correctly translate Romans 5:12: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." It has been argued by Orthodox Christians that the translation should say: "sin by death," not "death by sin." By this view, the story in Genesis shows that sin produced death, but that the Fall into sin has been passed on to the whole human race through death. (This fits I Corinthians 15:21.) The Greek idiom eph ho was rendered in Latin as "in whom." But, the Greek idiom means "because of," not "in whom." It is from this Latin translation that the idea sprung that everyone has sinned in Adam rather because of Adam.

All Christians share this belief: All the children of man inherit a fallen nature. This underwent change, according to the Orthodox, into the idea that they also inherit culpability, mainly due to St. Augustine's efforts against the heresy of Pelagius (c. 354-418). Pelagius did not believe in Original Sin at all, and taught that each individual had the power to overcome sin without grace. Pelagius was teaching heresy that denies the need for a Savior, and so it was necessary to refute him.

All too often members of the Orthodox Church distort western theology, set up straw men, and shoot them down. But, In this case it does not seem unfair to criticize a standard Western approach to a specific doctrine, or at least to say that we have a genuine distinction (as opposed to artificial distinctions produced by imaginative polemicists). Did St. Augustine go too far? And, does the idea of inherited guilt actually find its basis in scripture? Should we limit our own teaching of Original Sin to the Fall from grace, and avoid the doctrine of inherited guilt?


Anonymous said...

In his “Ethics” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said something to the effect of “In original sin, man becomes his own origin” – a profound insight!

It is because of original sin that we’re all, by nature, true atheists – i.e. we not only have difficulty perceiving God, but we’re in active rebellion against Him. Since this is the case, is it possible to be “fallen” but not guilty? Or do we actually have to act, or fail to act, before the guilt attaches?

And because we bear God’s image, and thus serve, in a way, as the link between Him and the Creation, our fall, our separation, has severed the link between God and the Creation as well – hence the distortions and evil (e.g. in animal suffering), quite apart from human sin, that we see throughout the world. Hence, too, Jesus’s redemption of the whole of Creation, not just humanity – a point emphasized by St. Paul in Romans 8: 18-23 and, I believe, more by the Eastern Orthodox than by us in the West. I wonder if there’s a connection between this metaphysical doctrine and the anthropic principle in Physics which (admittedly grossly simplified!) states that the universe is the way it is to some degree, at least, because of what we are.

W.H. Auden in “September 1939”, as paraphrased by Peter Kreeft, connected well original sin with the desolation at the heart of our culture – and the desperation of the human condition:

“Faces along the bar,
Cling to their average day,
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play
Lest we know where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the dark,
Who have never been happy, or good.”

Fr. Steve said...

I tend to agree with the Orthodox on this one. I believe we are tainted by Original Sin, but that we are not guilty of the sin Adam committed. It is more akin to an inherited sickness such as Diabetes or Heart Disease than to the guilt of a crime, as in you stole something. The church exists to treat and cure the sickness through its sacraments and through a sacramental life. The Orthodox idea of sacrament goes along with it, in that life itself is a sacrament and is intended to be lived as such. And since sacrament comes from the words sacra and menta, which mean "to be holy", the that translates into living your life in a holy way. It follows the command of Christ, to " ye therefore Holy, as your father in heaven is Holy. I have nothing against Augustine, but I like the Orthodox idea of Original Sin better than his.

Mike L said...

Fr. Hart:

The notion that original sin is inherited, personal culpa is Augustine's, and as such it has been widely influential in the West. But it is not the official teaching of the Catholic Church. See. e.g, CCC §405.

My post Development and Negation VII: Original Sin as Inherited "Guilt" shows that the CCC's teaching does not contradict the Council of Trent's dogmas on original sin, or indeed any definitive Catholic teaching on the subject.


Anonymous said...

...And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" - a state and not an act.

405 Although it is proper to each individual,295 original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice,

Anonymous said...

Isaiah 53:11
"By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities."

I learned a rather different exegesis from yours, Fr Hart. The phrase "his knowledge" really means "knowledge of Him." "His" (a pronominal suffix in Hebrew) is the equivalent of an objective genitive, not a subjective genitive. The meaning is thus: "My righteous Servant will justify the many who know Him, because He has suffered the penalty of their sins."


Anonymous said...

Since Original Sin involves our disgrace, our disaster, and our ultimate destruction, it is never going to be a popular doctrine.
As lost sheep and prodigal sons, we will go to great lengths to deny it, adulterate it, explain it away, or hide it like a hideous portrait of an ugly ancestor.

We need to remember that our Prayer Book, before 1928, began its Baptismal Office with "Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin, and our Saviour Christ saith...." The statement about original sin was removed in 1928 at the behest of the amiable revisers. The Scottish book produced about the same time (either 1927 or 1929) softened the language to "forasmuch as all men are born prone to sin" or something along those optimistic lines.

To make sense of the doctrine, we need to go to Scripture itself, rather than nattering along about "Eastern theology this" and "Western theology that."

Genesis 3--11 makes it perfectly clear that at the outset of history there was a rebellion, a mutiny, against the Creator, which had lasting tragic consequences, catapulting the entire human race into a new situation of alienation and estrangement, not only between the Creator and the creature made in His image, but amongst the race of creatures. Fratricide and violence spread universally, so that the Creator almost regretted the whole enterprise, and determined that an entirely new beginning is necessary. Nothing less than a radically new creation will resolve the hideous situation.

To understand Adam's role, we must accept Paul's analysis (Romans 5, 1 Cor 15) that like Christ Himself, Adam was not a private individual but a corporate figure. His actions involve not only himself, but the entire human family which he represents. It is childish to object that this is "unfair," since that is just how corporations work.
To deny this is to atomize the human family.

The threadbare argument pitting original sin against original guilt
is rooted in a superficial notion of sin as merely a series of isolated pecadilloes, possibly having consequences, possibly not. Sin and guilt can no more be divorced than the two sides of a coin can be split apart. When we as human beings participate in the corporate sin of the human race, we inevitably become involved in the guilt (alienation, estrangement) which is the dark shadow of sin.

"For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive."
There is more than one way of understanding what it means to be "in Adam" and "in Christ." But the parallel Paul draws is conclusive that just as Christ's righteousness becomes ours, so Adam's sin (and its associated guilt) became ours as well.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Fr. Wells:

That is a valid interpretation.

A literal translation, which I shall render, is interesting:

"In his knowledge [he will] make righteous the righteous, my servant." Better syntax for English: "In his knowledge my servant [will make] the righteous righteous." Alternatively: "justify the just." Whether my take was correct (his knowledge of death) or yours (to know him) is not exactly clear from the Hebrew. But, I can see the theological value of both interpretations. What is also valuable is what this reveals about justification. The just are just (or the righteous are righteous) only through the Servant of the Lord, and his knowledge.

I like your interpretation too, come to think of it. It fits well with John 17:3.

Carlos said...

Thanks for the post Fr. Hart!

Anonymous said...

I would also cavil at the notion that the Fall was a "fall from grace."
The fall of man was a fall from original righteousness, with serious damage to (but not absolute destruction of the image of God, for that would involve an essential change in man as such). But immediately after the Fall comes the Protevangelium ("the seed of the woman...Gen 3.15) and the sacrament of grace in the coats of animal skin. The original warning "in the day that thou eatest of it thou shalt die" is not carried out, so that Adam and his progeny are allowed to live under a stay of execution, as it were. Thus, the fall is not "from grace," but on the contrary, the fall may even be said to trigger grace so that grace becomes active. This was the meaning of that thrilling phrase "O felix culpa," O happy fault! By God's gracious sovereignty, Adam's sin set off the process which culminated in the Incarnation itself. So the Fall is not "from grace," but rather "into grace." Salvation history originated at that horrible point.

Anonymous said...

Finally, I agree with your point! (Miracles never cease! I think I'll mix a mimosa.)

BTW, Bicknell, in his excellent single-volume treatise on the 39 Articles, contends that the authentic Anglican position on Original Sin that we inherit a "state of sin" (i.e., generalized separation from God due to human mortality), not individual guilt (i.e., an individual act that separates us from God). This certainly makes good sense when it comes to infants -- who are mortal, but haven't personally committed any willful transgression against God.

Anonymous said...


The New Catholic Catechism does make a concession to orthodoxy with by conceding that Original Sin is "contracted," not "committed sin." And, I applaud this significant ecumenical step (though I understand certain Thomist Orders consider the New CC to be trash due such concessions.)

Still, a full reading of the CC reveals that, for RCs, this still just means "contracted GUILT," and therefore the grim, Augustinian structure of RC doctrine has not changed (though is has always been more optimistic than Calvinism due to some tempering of full-throttle Augustinian in the Council of Orange). Hence, peculiar doctrines such as Immaculate Conception are still firmly dogma in the RCC.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Hart,

A feather in the hat of King James, and his Authorized Version, because Romans 5:12 is an accurate literal translation of the Greek NT (the only accurate English translation of this verse far as I am aware):

"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men[,] FOR THAT all have sinned."

Indeed, in modern usage, the "FOR" is better rendered "beause of," and the "THAT," a relative pronoun refers back to "death," not sin.

Hence, rendered in modern English, the verse reads:

Just as sin [a state of separation from God] entered into the world through one man [Adam], and death [mortality] because of this separation; mortality was then passed to all men [as descendants of Adam]. And, moreover, because of our inherited mortality, we have all sinned personally.

* * * *

BTW, the audience of this verse does not include the Theotokos or the Forerunner, so the pious opinion that neither committed personal sin is not contradicted by Paul.

Fr William Bauer said...

The original sin was the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Thus, the fallen man has the idea that he, himself, can decide what is good or evil.
God is the One who has decided what is good and what is evil.
Man must abide by God's definition and cannot make his own rules.
The situation we have today in the United States is a decision by fallen man that he has the right to decide what is good and what is evil.
We have NOT evolved one bit from the Garden of Eden.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Deth Bredon

By the time the KJV was translated, Lancelot Andrewes and others had opened a road eastward. This is why the Church of England was reading the Greek Fathers years, in fact centuries, before they were rediscovered in Rome (where they merely gathered dust).

Fr. Wells;

When I say the Fall from Grace (a perfectly Patristic term) I use the word "grace" to include, as it does, the very gift of life itself in creation. The creation of man was not necessary for God (who needs nothing), but a gift from him. By grace Adam was meant to grow in the knowledge of God. By grace he was meant to eat of the tree of life and live forever. By grace he already had the entire earth and its creatures under his subjection.

Grace is given again in Christ. I can see "the Fall from Grace into Grace" for those who are redeemed. But, grace comes both before and after the Fall, one for creation, one for redemption and salvation.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

IX. Of Original or Birth Sin.

Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Fr. Steve said...

Anonymous said: <Since Original Sin involves our disgrace, our disaster, and our ultimate destruction, it is never going to be a popular doctrine.

Yet it was Adam's sin, and not ours, that led to the punishment for that disobedience... death. Christ offers the propitiation for that original sin which led to death. We are still going to die. God does not change. But through Christ, that death is not permanent. We suffer the consequences of that first sin... death... not the guilt for it. We are sick with the sickness that has been passed along through out gene pool from Adam to today... that genetic sickness of a sinful nature.

I don't agree with St. Augustine. We do not suffer the guilt of that sin, for we did not commit it. We simply suffer the symptoms of the sickness that is sin. In some, the symptoms are more acute than in others, but we all suffer from it. It is a sickness only one person in history has been exempt from, and that's because he was God. And it is a sickness that can only be cured through the church that he set up, and through faith in him.

Anonymous said...

Fr Hart,

Is the view of inherited guilt related to (note I said realted to, not causal) the ascension of advanced liberalism in the West? After all, inherited guilt seems to be a strong component of Western liberalism and Western-style liberalism doesn't seem to have gotten hold in the East.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Is the view of inherited guilt related to (note I said related to, not causal) the ascension of advanced liberalism in the West?

Group guilt, guilt by association, inherited guilt, all seem to be jumbled up in their heads. They cannot possibly escape the influence of their culture, which includes this religious doctrine. Distort it? Yes. Escape it? No.

Anonymous said...

"Much depends on how to correctly translate Romans 5:12. The King James Bible, following the standard Western interpretation, says: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.""

Death gave the proper understanding of how this is to be understood, and the KJV gets this verse spot on where the Latin Vulgate fails. This is because the KJV is based on the Byzantine Text type. So I don't see why you would think the KJV is giving a "Western" reading of the verse when it is in fact translating the subtleties of the greek and keeping those subtleties in the english that it translates. It is quite "Eastern" in its reading.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

The second part is what gets it right: "for that all have sinned."

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Dear Anonymous,

Well that was a wonderful piece of hit and run contempt. Is your point that Anglicans never resolve these questions fully and with perfect agreement because we are not in communion with Rome? Very naive. Are you not aware that arguments within the RCC on the precise meaning of Eucharistic Sacrifice, the precise nature of Purgatory, Papal Authority Original Sin, etc., etc., have been going on for centuries, and are not finished yet? And then there is the Orthodox Church. Do all its theologians and bishops agree on the precise meaning of modern "schism", the binding authority of Palamism, the definite heterodoxy of the Filioque Clause? They do not.

The mere existence of disagreement over serious issues within a Church proves little. Even where there are "dogmatic" resolutions given, interpretations of them can vary dramatically.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Oh dear,

Anonymous has just had his disdain deleted. OK, just accept the above response by me as another item of mysterious significance in the Universe. :-)

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I deleted it because I hit the wrong button in the first place. I meant to reject it. Since I almost never reject anything, I hit the "publish" button by mistake.

Folks, you aren't missing anything. Some mindless heckler actually thought that the varied interpretations of "Original Sin" were a distinctly Anglican phenomenon, and then derided us for being a bunch of idiots.

Maybe I should have left it on for comic relief.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Robert,

No, I think the KJV gets the whole verse correct, from an Orthodox stand-point anyway:

"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin"

Sin causes death in the nature of Adam.

"and so death passed upon all men"

Adam passes this death on to his progenity in passing along his human nature (what is in common).

"and for that all have sinned."

Death now causes us to sin, if *that* is understand as modifying *death,* which is how Orthodoxy has understood the greek of the verse.

To echo "Death" again, this is the only English rendering that I've seen that correctly translates the Greek.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

That's right.

I was not criticizing the KJV, but repeating what I have read by Orthodox writers, some who have not appreciated the KJV.