Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse.
John Milton, “Paradise Lost,” Book I
Although Milton wrote it much more eloquently than I could, the song of humanity is creation, fall, and redemption—a beautiful symphony replete with rich polyphony, sudden modulations, and dramatic dissonance. At some point, a tragic melody weaves itself into the score but eventually resolves and the music concludes with a triumphant fanfare. While most Christians agree with this musical shaping, some compose the score with a different prelude. Where exactly did the tragic melody come from, who wrote it into the score, and how does it affect the rest of the sound? The answer to these questions influence the attributes of individual parts as well as the direction of the entire musical narrative.
Here is our working narrative at the bedrock of Christianity: Adam and Eve were created in communion with God, lost communion with God, and the rest of humanity followed them. Two competing anthropologies, however, have arisen from this narrative. While all Christians use the term original sin to refer to the state of humanity after the Fall (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:22), many Eastern Orthodox Christians prefer the term ancestral sin. Thus, for convenience I will use the term original sin to refer exclusively to Roman Catholic, Calvinist, or Lutheran articulations of the consequences of the Fall, teaching that humanity inherited both the effects and the guilt of Adam’s sin. In contrast, I will use the term ancestral sin to denote the Eastern Orthodox teaching that humanity inherited only the consequences of Adam’s sin, and not his guilt. One view is ontological; the other is existential.
The Roman Catholic Church was the first to articulate the doctrine of original sin as a state of inherited guilt (for the sake of brevity, I will implicate Protestant doctrines of the Fall in my discussion of original sin). Inspired first by the reactionary theology of St. Augustine of Hippo and solidified by later councils and theologians, Roman Catholics took a distinctly different theological path from Orthodox Christians. In 1546, the Council of Trent issued the first major dogmatic statement on original sin:
If any one asserts, that the prevarication of Adam injured himself alone, and not his posterity; and that the holiness and justice, received of God, which he lost, he lost for himself alone, and not for us also; or that he, being defiled by the sin of disobedience, has only transfused death, and pains of the body, into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul; let him be anathema: whereas he contradicts the apostle who says; “By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned” (Session V).
Almost four centuries later, the Baltimore Catechism continues to define it as sin that “comes down to us from our first parents, and we are brought into the world with its guilt on our soul” (Q. 266). With the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the doctrine of original sin is still present, albeit improved by new language such as loss of “original holiness,” “human nature wounded by [Adam’s] first sin,” “weakened” by ignorance, suffering, and death, and “inclined to sin” (416)—nothing to which an Eastern Orthodox theologian would strongly object. The emphasis shifted from the rigid transference of guilt to a gentler loss of holiness and consequently an evolution in doctrine. Although the Roman Catholic doctrine of original sin seems to have been re-articulated over the last hundred years and many Roman Catholics today no longer seem to believe the teaching that infants are born guilty of sin, it is clear from the history of Roman Catholic theology that original sin included imputation of the guilt of Adam and Eve’s sin upon all of humanity.
There are notable implications for the doctrine of original sin. If original sin is true, then human nature is bad—not only positionally, but fundamentally bad. Not only do we bear the guilt of our first parents upon our souls, we inherited a corrupted ontology and therefore an inability to do anything good. Adam’s guilt changed human nature itself into something dirty, pitting nature against grace. If human nature is inherently depraved, what does this mean for the Incarnation? How could God take on human flesh? Did Christ inherit Adam’s guilt and corrupted nature? Of course not, and therefore bad theology begets bad theology.
Heterodox theology #1: The doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary put forth by Roman Catholicism conveniently sidesteps the problem of God taking on a corrupted human nature by guaranteeing the nature of His mother to be free from the stain of original sin transmitted through the corrupted seed of an earthly father. This is a logical outworking of the doctrine of original sin. While the Orthodox Church believes that Mary was full of grace from her childhood, we do not need to “fix” her humanity prior to the Annunciation to explain our Christology, because the early Church never taught this doctrine of original sin in the first place.
Heterodox theology #2: The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement stems from the same legal categories created by the doctrine of original sin in western theology. Original sin belongs to a legal paradigm in which the wrath of God against humanity for Adam’s sin must be satisfied so that we can be saved from eternal hellfire. God’s justice and love, however, cannot be separated from each other because our relationship with God is based on freedom, not necessity. While the atonement of Christ is certainly an Orthodox concept, the salvation of humanity cannot happen through a simple act of forgiveness or juridical payment plan. Salvation can only happen through gradual destruction of the devil and our passions by working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).
Heterodox theology #3: The doctrine of limbo also sidesteps the problem of original sin for the unbaptized in Roman Catholic theology. A rather nuanced concept, humanity’s “loss of original justice” still results in separation from God and eligibility for punishment according to Roman Catholic theology. Thus, even though they may not technically inherit Adam’s guilt, unbaptized infants who die are relegated to an eternity in limbo, functionally implicating the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of original sin—a doctrine which ultimately dies the death of a thousand qualifications. What differentiates that gulf between heaven and hell for each person, however, is the accumulation of guilt due to a personal, not inherited, loss of justification. At any rate, the more we choose to speculate about the intricacies of salvation and damnation, the more doctrines we must use to support our speculation. God’s grace cannot be measured with scales.
The Orthodox picture of fallen humanity is far less somber than that of Roman Catholicism. Although the Orthodox Church does teach that humanity is damaged by sin, our depravity is not total, consummate, or inherent to human nature—we retain our reason and free will (Imago Dei). The personal consequences for moral deviation are spiritual death and physical death, but the universal consequences for humanity are physical death, disease, and difficult labor. Death is the consequence of breaking communion with God, not a judgment, because created beings cannot continue to exist without God. Since Adam and Eve are linked to humanity, and humanity is linked to creation, all of nature is subjected to the same death and corruption. We inherited a cosmos where sickness and death reign. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware put it, “Even though we are not guilty of the sins of others, yet we are somehow always involved.”
The Fall of Adam and Eve also created an inclination for humanity to move away from God. While Adam and Eve did not possess a mature holiness, they did possess innocence and potential for holiness, which were lost after the Fall. The theologians of the Church speak of a corruption of human nature which is the result of a loss of the indwelling grace of God—and humans sin because we are willingly yoked to the power of death and its consequences rather than to God’s nurturing grace.
According to St. Maximos the Confessor, the problem is that our natural will has become a gnomic will, meaning that we can now waver between choices. The gnomic mode is what inclines us to sin against nature. Even after heaping guilt upon his own soul, a person’s nature is not mutilated beyond recognition. The corruption of human nature from sin is a sickness or illness. A woman with cancer is ill, but she herself is not fundamentally bad. A boy with paralyzed legs cannot walk, but he himself is no less of a human than anyone with functioning legs. In the same way, sin is not the tainting of a nature but corruption within an individual.
Building upon classic Orthodox theology of God, Patriarch Meletios Pegas (1549-1601) put it this way: although the “energies” of a person’s soul are spoiled by sin, the person’s “essence” is not. Just as the distinction between essence and energies is of vital importance to an Orthodox understanding of God, it can also assist in explaining humanity’s inclination to sin without inheriting the guilt of our first parents. Sin is not who we are, but what we do.
Even though the Orthodox Church rejects the western articulation of original sin, we still need to be born again. After a person sins, the gulf between him and God begins to grow. Every time he heaps guilt upon his soul, he pushes himself further away from union with God and wounds himself in the process. Baptism is the beginning of the lifelong journey of repentance in the Church in which we die to the law of death in order to live according to the law of life; our past, present, and future sins are washed away, we are no longer a slave to the effects of sin, and we are re-instilled with God’s grace and the potential for immortality in Christ. Even though infants themselves are not guilty of original sin, they receive all of these benefits at baptism because they inherited mortality and a weak will. The cross is not an atoning satisfaction or penal substitutionary act, but rather it is Christus Victor—the victorious Christ who trampled sin and death through his voluntary, atoning sacrifice. God took on the flesh of his creatures and allowed us to participate in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), thus restoring creation to become what it was meant to be.
The doctrine of original sin as originally articulated by the Roman Catholic Church and later by Protestants is not simply a case of semantics, but an erroneous anthropology resulting from theological reactions and misunderstandings. This doctrine has wide implications for anthropology—sin, grace, free will, baptism, and theosis. How we understand the effects of the Fall directly bears on our soteriology. The Orthodox position on original sin (“ancestral sin”) is that humanity inherited only the consequences of sin from Adam and Eve, rather than their guilt. Baptism restores God’s grace to humans so that we have the ability to overcome sin and death and finish the song of humanity.