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:


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)'”


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.


Foreknowledge and the Handcuffs of God

Note: This is an intellectual exercise, designed to present a view I no longer hold. A further article here will explain the contrary view.

There are four fundamental positions in theology about the foreknowledge of God. They are:

  1. handcuffsGod knows the future because he decrees everything that takes place (Reformed Calvinism)
  2. God knows the future and can interact with it, but does not determine it (Reformed Arminianism or Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge)
  3. God knows the future and cannot interact with it (Simple Foreknowledge)
  4. God knows the future as partly settled and partly free, with the settled parts being those which apply only to his own planned actions (Open Theism)

We may also consider Molinism and Middle Knowledge along with Process Theology in other posts.

In this piece I will attempt to show that Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge (EDF) is fundamentally no different to Simple Foreknowledge (SF).

Simple foreknowledge has it that God foreknows or foresees the future at whatever his earliest opportunity is, and having foreseen it is unable to act in it in order to effect change because to do so would render his original foreknowledge false. God is, in effect, handcuffed by his own knowledge of the future.

Dr. Greg Boyd of the Open Theist camp, speaks of a hypothetical book of known future facts handed down to us in November 1963, in which we are seen to cheat on our taxes 40 years hence. Boyd’s argument is that with this knowledge we can see that we are not free to do other than cheat, as God’s foreknowledge must be perfect. It’s the essence of a fine argument, but ignores the fact that we would never see such a book, and in 2003, when we did indeed cheat on our taxes, it was a free decision. In fact, we are never affected by God’s foreknowledge, but God is, because it is he who sees a determined future. If the future he sees is not determined then his foreknowledge isn’t infallible, and this is closer to an Open Theist position than any other theological stance.

In supposed contrast, Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge, as practised by the majority of Arminians, is a form of foreknowledge which DOES allow interaction from God. Having seen the direction the future is going in, God can either make adjustments on the fly or put them in place at outset, thus keeping full control.

Here’s my problem:

Just as in simple foreknowledge, once God has seen the future it has become fixed, and any interaction renders his knowledge false. This is where exhaustive foreknowledge crosses into Open Theism. If God is able to change anything he has seen then he must only have seen what he has seen as possibilities, not fixed events. I find this conclusion inescapable, as to see an event as truth renders it unchangeable.

Of course, acting with foreknowledge of anything other than planned events is a logical contradiction, and as such all sorts of philosphical arguments need to be brought in in an attempt to harmonise the theory. One is the theory of the Eternal Now (see my brief explanation here) which I reject as a contrived way to protect the perfection of a God who needs no help from us, and posits a simultaneous past, present and future. God views all three simultaneously, in direct contradiction to everything about time which has been revealed to us, i.e. that it is linear and sequential and that God works within it, not outside of it. But the most desperate defence I have heard was relayed in another online group only yesterday:

“No Open Theist has responded to my challenge regarding historical knowledge. Can God know past events infallibly? If so, does that mean He had to cause them? No. Just like you and I can have accurate knowledge of the past without controlling it, so God can have infallible knowledge of the past and future without micromanaging the decisions of people. How would you respond to that?”

I replied that if anyone having a serious discussion thinks that God knowing the result of a past contingent (yet completed) event thinks this carries the same philosophical weight as knowing with certainty the result of a future (as yet incomplete) contingent event, then he probably isn’t thinking very carefully. OK, it was words to that effect and earned me an admonishment by a group administrator, but you get my point. In order to make any sort of foreknowledge work, one has to fully embrace the view that time is not as we experience it, and that the future is sitting somewhere, entirely complete, waiting for us to walk into it. And that, in anyone’s book, is predetermination.

By the way, I was not arguing for predetermination, as any decision I ever make can be freely made, but from God’s perspective, if he sees it and knows it as truth then it never be any other. The main objections come from a limited and strictly theological understanding of two words: predetermination and necessity. Traditionally, predetermination is a deliberate act of God, and necessity describes the only possible course of action. But I’m not talking “theology” I’m talking “English”. God’s knowledge of the future “passively” determines it. The act of knowing has the “necessary” effect of fixing an event. If these arguments make sense to you and you ever think of using them, be clear with your opponent that you mean what the words mean, not the divisive theological spin he will inevitably put on them.

My conclusion then, is that God’s foreknowledge is indeed limited to those things that he determines for himself, and those things which remain open. To know with certainty is to fix those events, and the difference between Exhaustive Divine Foreknowledge and Simple Foreknowledge is non-existent in every practical sense..

Where is God?

388px-But435.1.1r.wc.300Group member Wayne Scott recently asked fellow member Chris Fisher about his views on the omnipresence of God, which sparked an interesting discussion. For centuries Christians have taken for granted that God is Omniscient (all knowing), Omnipotent (all powerful) and Omnipresent (present everywhere).

The first two attributes are universally accepted by all but process theists; God can do what he wants and he can know everything there is to know, and some would add “and then some…”, but the third attribute, being in all places at all times, is tougher to pin down. Chris runs the Reality is not Optional blog and wrote the following article in support of his position, the title of which speaks for itself:

God is not Omnipresent

One beautiful and positively cinematographic passage Chris uses in his argument is 1 Kings 19:11- 13:

11 And he said , Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; [but] the LORD [was] not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; [but] the LORD [was] not in the earthquake:

12 And after the earthquake a fire; [but] the LORD [was] not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

13 And it was [so], when Elijah heard [it], that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, [there came] a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?

Here we see one of a number of Old Testament “arrivals” of the LORD, where at one point he was not, and then he was. It seems clear that an Old Testament view of God is that he was either highly anthropomorphised or did indeed appear in a virtually human form. In the Garden of Eden we have the following, in Genesis 3:8-10

8 And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. {cool: Heb. wind}

9 And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where [art]thou?

10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid , because I [was] naked; and I hid myself 

Certainly here we see God as a fellow being with Adam, with more than a hint that God was enjoying a pleasant afternoon stroll, even looking for his new friend. But this human vision of God does not sit well with the traditional Church view of God, as immutable and distant, aloof, unseen and dispassionate. Chris sees this latter view as having it’s roots in paganism, and quotes Plotinus, another Greek philosopher of the Platonic tradition:

The authentic and primal Kosmos is the Being of the Intellectual Principle and of the Veritable Existent. This contains within itself no spatial distinction, and has none of the feebleness of division, and even its parts bring no incompleteness… every part that it gives forth is a whole; all its content is its very own, for there is here no separation of thing from thing, no part standing in isolated existence estranged from the rest, and therefore nowhere is there any wronging of any other, any opposition. Everywhere one and complete, it is at rest throughout and shows difference at no point; it does not make over any of its content into any new form; there can be no reason for changing what is everywhere perfect.

This view is as far away from the ancient Hebrew view of God as it is possible to get, where God is personal and relational. And it’s that personal attribute which casts doubt on the notion of Omnipresence.

Chris’ argument is really not about whether God is omnipresent or not, but rather what the authors of scripture thought. And it’s certainly clear that some took the omnipresent view and some the view that God need to see something to understand it, or that he came from somewhere to view something. I think Chris weakens his argument here:

Can God see everything but not be omnipresent? I can watch a live golf match on TV, I do not have to be present. How many more resources does God have? And note, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, God can choose not to know something.

I’m personally uncomfortable with the concept of a self-sufficient God pulling on resources, but perhaps Chris meant it less literally. With regards to God choosing not to know, we have to be careful about how literally we take the words of bronze age inhabitants, recorded well after the event, in terms of their presentation of God.

If you’d like to join our group you can read the whole discussion here

167px-The_Lord_Answering_Job_Out_of_the_Whirlwind_Butts_setMeanwhile, here is my view: We lack both the language and the comprehension to fully understand the concept of omnipresence, yet we seem to speak of omniscience with no trouble at all. We can never explain how God can hear all prayers globally simultaneously; it is entirely beyond our language. God is personified in the Old Testament and walks and talks with man, something we have either lost now, or anthropomorphised in the past. I lean in favour of a God who was present with man when he chose to be. These appearances are known as theophanies, where the Deity communes with man in human form. But equally I believe that a being who can create all that is ex nihilo can certainly be omnipresent if he so chooses. It’s not an either/or situation. The writers of Genesis held to both views, and many hold the first five books of the Old Testament to be the work of one author. I don’t, as I hold to higher criticism, but its clear that both views are represented in scripture and we believe scripture to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, so both views must hold, particularly as they are non-contradictory.

Read the whole of Chris Fisher’s blog here.