The meaning of Original Sin

When it comes to Adam and his wrongdoings there are three main views of God’s position:

  1. God planned and indeed decreed that Adam should sin.
  2. God knew Adam would sin before he created him, but created him anyway.
  3. God’s hopes for humanity were dashed in a single, if allegorical act.

I’m firmly in Camp 3, believing that God hoped we’d do better but we failed him. In fact, as I’m not a biblicist, I believe that Genesis 1-3 is an allegorical tale designed to promote the God of Israel above the pagan gods and to explain why we so desperately need rescuing from the state we’re in.

When Adam ate of the mysterious fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (nothing to do with apples) he incurred the wrath of God. He and his new partner were expelled from the Garden and cast out into the hostile lands surrounding it, to eke out an existence from the now cursed ground, from amongst the thorns and thistles.

Catholics say we carry the stain of that Original Sin and Augustine in the fifth century claimed that we are jointly guilty of that first sin, and unless we turn to God’s Son, Jesus Christ in faith and obedience we are doomed to Hell fire. We are all born sinful and so deserve to die and suffer. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church defines Original Sin as Ancestral Sin, and says we don’t share in Adam’s guilt, but suffer the effects of it, and this is the view to which I hold.

Because of my beliefs I find myself trawling through the story to find its key metaphor in order to more easily explain what Original Sin is, and how we may use that knowledge to talk to others, perhaps (and hopefully) persuding them that God doesn’t make people bad then punish them for it – a view held, but denied, by Calvinists. For me, the key lies in the expulsion of the first couple, described by a fellow commentator as “being cast out into the wilderness”, stolen from Ezekiel 29.5ff.

To cast somebody out from the perfection of that first garden and into the wild, denying them access to the Tree of Life (and thus denying them eternal life) is a pretty definitive act of rejection. The holiness of living under God’s protection and all the benefits that closeness to God can bring were instantly lost.

Genesis 3:23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

This is the cause of our being separated from God. This is the effect of that Original Sin. As Adam’s progeny we are born out of fellowship, alone in a harsh world without God’s special protection and blessing. We are children in the wilderness, some searching for a way home, others resigned to their condition, and some completely ignorant of it. Our restoration can only come through our relationship with Jesus Christ, dying with him and rising to new life in harmony with the Father. The undivided Church held that the means of this rebirth was through baptism, where we symbolically die and rise again, cleansed by grace, symbolised by water.

At birth we carry the effects of our disfellowship. We have not yet sinned, but we lack that closeness to God. Worse, we have a propensity to actual sin, something Adam displayed as resident in the human psyche. For believing adults, baptism brings membership into the family of God. For infants, baptism does exactly the same thing, bringing them to God and into the family of the Church, to be later ratified by their personal faith. Actual, personal sin is only remitted by repentance, but with the promise of forgiveness for those who truly repent.

In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has moved broadly in line with the Orthodox, and now insists that we don’t carry Adam’s guilt, merely the effects of his disfellowship as head of the human race. The charge that the Church teaches that babies are “born evil” can at last be consigned to the bin of historical quirkery; The effects of Adam’s Original Sin separate us from God, but thankfully he has provided the solution in the form of his Son.

Original Sin

First sinThe question of Original Sin has dogged thinking Christians for the last 600 years, from what seemed a straightforward, if misunderstood, Catholic doctrine of the corruption of Mankind, to the view that Original Sin is a construct designed to enable the Church to exert power and control over the masses by holding Mankind to ransom through the power of the Church alone to offer salvation. I’ve been looking at the issue for years, and confess to holding several confused and sometimes polarised views. But as an Anglican I’ve had to take a close look at what I believe, and importantly, why.

For example, I believe that baptism is the proper mode of entry into the Church, the body of Christ. I reject the Baptist notion that is is merely an ordinance, an action undertaken by Man to follow commands given by God. I take a sacramental view of baptism in which God works in Man to cleanse and regenerate, making him fit for a growth in faith and eventual sanctification and glorification.

But cleansing from what?

Original Sin

The story of sin’s entry into the world is a simple one, which in figurative language is described in the first three chapters of Genesis in our Bibles. The first humans, Adam and Eve were implanted in Paradise and given free rein to eat of each and every plant with one exception – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. While Alone, Eve was tempted by Satan, in the form of a serpent, to eat of the tree, being assured that God had mislead the couple that death would ensue but rather a new realisation would occur and they would be like God. After sampling the fruit Eve passed it to her husband and Adam too, partook. The result, when it was discovered by God, was a curse upon the Earth and a spiritual separation between God and Mankind, discernible throughout history. This marring of our relationship has been known by the simple, all-embracing term Original Sin.

I’ll simplify this if I can: in the 1500s there was a major revolt against some of the teachings of the Catholic Church, which rejected some of the doctrines that had crept into Church practice at the behest of corrupt leaders and at the expense of Christians everywhere. This will be the subject of a separate article, but leading the thinking of the Reformation, as it became called, were two men: Martin Luther and John Calvin. They adopted the view that Mankind is not only totally corrupt, but all his deeds are evil in the eyes of God, however, their views on the efficacy of God’s grace differ: Lutherans believe that grace and the influence of the Holy Spirit are always of the same benefit to Mankind, yet some will stubbornly refuse it; Calvinists hold that grace is only efficient to those whom God has chosen to give it (the Elect) and then irresistibly. Calvinists therefore posit a class of people to whom this grace is never offered and who are therefore doomed to eventual destruction, while the Elect are saved to eternal life. These damned individuals are known as the Reprobate.

But what is the original view held by the ancient Church? I believe it is reflected in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which firstly sets the scene regarding Mankind’s relationship with God:

I. THE DESIRE FOR GOD

27 The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for:

The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.1

28 In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being:

From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being.”2

29 But this “intimate and vital bond of man to God” (GS 19 § 1) can be forgotten, overlooked, or even explicitly rejected by man.3 Such attitudes can have different causes: revolt against evil in the world; religious ignorance or indifference; the cares and riches of this world; the scandal of bad example on the part of believers; currents of thought hostile to religion; finally, that attitude of sinful man which makes him hide from God out of fear and flee his call.4

30 “Let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.”5 Although man can forget God or reject him, He never ceases to call every man to seek him, so as to find life and happiness. But this search for God demands of man every effort of intellect, a sound will, “an upright heart”, as well as the witness of others who teach him to seek God.

You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is without measure. And man, so small a part of your creation, wants to praise you: this man, though clothed with mortality and bearing the evidence of sin and the proof that you withstand the proud. Despite everything, man, though but a small a part of your creation, wants to praise you. You yourself encourage him to delight in your praise, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.6

No sign of Total Depravity here.

Elsewhere, the Catechism defines in precis form, the process of the fall and what it means by Original Sin:

413 “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. . . It was through the devil’s envy that death entered the world” (Wis 1:13; 2:24).

414 Satan or the devil and the other demons are fallen angels who have freely refused to serve God and his plan. Their choice against God is definitive. They try to associate man in their revolt against God.

415 “Although set by God in a state of rectitude man, enticed by the evil one, abused his freedom at the very start of history. He lifted himself up against God, and sought to attain his goal apart from him” (GS 13 § 1).

416 By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings.

417 Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called “original sin”.

418 As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called “concupiscence“).

419 “We therefore hold, with the Council of Trent, that original sin is transmitted with human nature, “by propagation, not by imitation” and that it is. . . ‘proper to each'” (Paul VI, CPG § 16).

420 The victory that Christ won over sin has given us greater blessings than those which sin had taken from us: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20).

421 Christians believe that “the world has been established and kept in being by the Creator’s love; has fallen into slavery to sin but has been set free by Christ, crucified and risen to break the power of the evil one. . .” (GS 2 § 2).

Adam and Eve in the Garden by MichelangeloConcupiscence is a word which most see as being exclusively sexual lust, hence the charge levelled at the Church over the centuries that the “Eating of the fruit” was a metaphor for sinful bodily conjunction, which of course the LORD hates (even though he told Adam and Eve to “Be fruitful and multiply”). In fact, concupiscence ((from the Latin: con-, with + cupi, cupid – desire + -escere – suffix denoting beginning of a process or state) is lust of any description, and in Catholic theology is called Fomes peccati, the desire for any person, object or experience. It describes our leaning towards “fleshly appetites”, usually things which are proscribed.

For now, we can tie the terms concupiscence and Original Sin together, and this is where Protestants and Catholics often separate. Most Protestants see concupiscence as a sin in itself, an act of the sinner; Catholics see it as “the tinder for sin” which “cannot harm those who do not consent” (CCC 1264) and therefore not a sin in and of itself, but the propensity to sin.

The overriding Protestant view of The Fall, as it become known, is that Mankind was created with an innate tendency to good, and their relationship with God wasn’t due to any particular gift, but to their own natures. Adam’s sin therefore brought about a change or corruption in their natures, making them evil in themselves. This is why a Calvinist will claim that a non-Elect baby (one not chosen by God) will go straight to Hell if it dies.

The current Catholic view, in contrast, says that while also maintaining that humanity’s original nature is good (CCC 374), the loss of withdrawal of God’s gifts has led to a propensity to sin, and Man’s nature is NOT evil because it remains a natural creation of God. So human nature is not sinful in itself and is not the cause of sin, although it may magnify and ignite sin where it comes into contact with it.

The difference in views also extends to the relationship between concupiscence and original sin.

Some Protestants will hold that a person can be guilty of sin even if it is involuntary. Catholics believe that guilt only applies where sin is voluntarily chosen. Because some Protestants believe that concupiscence is the primary sin itself, human nature is described as “sinful”, thus humans are inherently evil. The Catholic view is that humans aren’t evil, but concupiscence is the influencing factor in human behaviour, yet resistible. The Catechism states that human nature has been “weakened and wounded, subject to ignorance, suffering, the domination of death, and the inclination to sin and evil (CCC 405, 418)”

masaccioThe Catechism of the Catholic Church also states that “Original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ – a state and not an act. Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants”. The Greek translation of the Catechism uses the words “προπατορική αμαρτία” (literally, “ancestral sin”) where the Latin text has “peccatum originale”.

Eastern Orthodox teaching agrees, and more specifically uses the term “Ancestral Sin”: “It can be said that while we have not inherited the guilt of Adam’s personal sin, because his sin is also of a generic nature, and because the entire human race is possessed of an essential, ontological unity, we participate in it by virtue of our participation in the human race. ‘The imparting of Original Sin by means of natural heredity should be understood in terms of the unity of the entire human nature, and of the homoousiotitos of all men, who, connected by nature, constitute one mystic whole. Inasmuch as human nature is indeed unique and unbreakable, the imparting of sin from the first-born to the entire human race descended from him is rendered explicable: “Explicitly, as from the root, the sickness proceeded to the rest of the tree, Adam being the root who had suffered corruption” (St. Cyril of Alexandria)'”

Conclusion

It would seem then, that the term “Original Sin” has two distinct flavours in both the Protestant and Traditional Churches. Protestants might see it as a corruption, from a perfect nature to an evil one, where Catholics and the Orthodox may view it as Man’s natural, God-given nature but with certain gifts of unity and fellowship removed. Protestants see Mankind therefore as sinful in nature, and evil in the sight of God, and the Traditional Church sees us as still bearing the image of God, concupiscence being something natural to humans if unchecked.

Personal experience

Because of my exposure to elements of the Reformed Church I came to reject the notion of Original Sin as I could not bring myself to believe that Man is as corrupt and evil as I’d been taught. Only by researching the original Church’s view of Original Sin have I learned a form of understanding and acceptance. We ARE predisposed to self-interest (concupiscence) and that does put us at odds with God. God will restore his gifts to us through our returning faith in his Son, but that does not make us evil, just broken. This understanding, I can happily live with.

End Note

All of the above represents the current view of the Catholic Church, which has revised its views on “inherited guilt” and somewhat aligned its views with the Orthodox Church regarding Ancestral Sin.