The word of the day is “death.” What is at the bottom of human sinfulness? The Western church answers unequivocally, “original sin.” Attributed to Augustine (354-430 AD), this doctrine holds that the sin of Adam and Eve infected human nature with incurable sinfulness. Since the Garden, the guilt of Adam has been passed down throughout the human race. Thus, in today’s reading of Romans 15:17-6:2, we read, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin…” (OSB Romans 5:13). Yet this answer to the origin of sin depends on the translation and the perspective that accompanies it. Today we will sketch out the Eastern counter view to the Western teaching of how the sin of Adam affected humans.
Yesterday, we read that “… just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12). That sounds plain enough. We identify the “one man” as Adam. Through him “sin entered the world and death through sin.”
Is It “Because” All Have Sinned or “In That” All Have Sinned?
However, let us look at this verse more closely. The New King James Bible translates this key passage in this way: “death spread to all men, because all have sinned. The Western doctrine of “original sin” hangs on this word, “because.” This term blames Adam and Eve, whose sinful nature we have inherited.
But the standard King James Version does not use the word “because.” It uses the “for that.” This is a more literal translation of the two-word phrase. This translation suggests that death spread to all men “for that” or “in that” all have sinned. This translation of the preposition means that human beings do not inherit the “original guilt” of Adam. They inherit the curse of death.
For Us, Sin Follows Death
A note of The Orthodox Study Bible makes this sense clear: “Which comes first death or sin? For Adam, sin came first (the original sin) and then death. But for us, it is the opposite: we inherit death and mortality, that is, “corruption” from Adam. Sin follows after that” (OSB note on Romans 5:12).
Therefore as St. Paul says, “by one man’s offense death reigned through the one (Adam)…” (OSB Romans 5:17). St. John Chrysostom says that “for that” means that all, even those who did not eat of the tree, have become mortal” (NfPf1:11, 401).
And St. Gregory Palamas comments on Romans 5:17, “Just as through one man, Adam, liability to death passed down by heredity to those born afterwards, so the grace of eternal and heavenly life passed down from the one divine and human Word to all those born again of Him (St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 16, 17). Death is the result of Adam’s disobedience to the Giver of Life, and it is at the root of human sinfulness.
The curse of death corrupts all of human life with the notion that one must gain all that he can, however he can, before he dies. Or it fosters desperate attempts to gain the immortality through fame, power, accomplishment, and the accumulation of wealth, none of which is lasting. That is, death provokes humans to self-seeking sin. It provokes humans to seek immortal life apart from their Creator, the source of life.
Our study has explained why the Orthodox put so much emphasis on the Resurrection of Christ. By His Resurrection, the Risen Lord overcame “death by death.” Therefore, death has not more “dominion” (Romans 6:10) for Him or for those who are baptized into His death… as Paul writes, “As Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also should walk in newness of life” (OSB Romans 6:4). Death no longer reigns, and therefore sin no longer rules those who believe in Christ.