Original sin

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The term Original Sin (or first sin) is used among all Christian churches to define the doctrine surrounding Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, in which Adam is identified as the man through whom death came into the world. How this is interpreted is believed by many Orthodox to be a fundamental difference between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Churches. In contrast, modern Roman Catholic theologians would claim that the basic anthropology is actually almost identical, and that the difference is only in the explanation of what happened in the Fall. In the Orthodox Church the term ancestral sin (Gr. προπατορικό αμάρτημα) is preferred and is used to define the doctrine of man's "inclination towards sin, a heritage from the sin of our progenitors" and that this is removed through baptism. St. Gregory Palamas taught that man's image was tarnished, disfigured, as a consequence of Adam's disobedience.


In the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, Adam and Eve committed a sin, the original sin. The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that no one is guilty for the actual sin they committed but rather everyone inherits the consequences of this act; the foremost of this is physical death in this world. This is the reason why the original fathers of the Church over the centuries have preferred the term ancestral sin. The consequences and penalties of this ancestral act are transferred by means of natural heredity to the entire human race. Since every human is a descendant of Adam then 'no one is free from the implications of this sin' (which is human death) and that the only way to be freed from this is through baptism. While mortality is certainly a result of the Fall, along with this also what is termed "concupiscence" in the writings of St Augustine of Hippo -- this is the "evil impulse" of Judaism, and in Orthodoxy, we might say this is our "disordered passion." It isn't only that we are born in death, or in a state of distance from God, but also that we are born with disordered passion within us. Orthodoxy would not describe the human state as one of "total depravity."

Orthodox Christians have usually understood Roman Catholicism as professing St. Augustine's teaching that everyone bears not only the consequence, but also the guilt, of Adam's sin. This teaching appears to have been confirmed by multiple councils, the first of them being the Council of Orange in 529. This difference between the two Churches in their understanding of the original sin was one of the doctrinal reasons underlying the Catholic Church's declaration of its dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the 19th century, a dogma that is rejected by the Orthodox Church. However, contemporary Roman Catholic teaching is best explicated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which includes this sentence: ""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, but human nature has not been totally corrupted" (§405).

In 2007, the Vatican approved a document called, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized, see link below under Sources and further reading. This document is actually very helpful both in tracing the history of the doctrine of Original Sin within the Roman Catholic Church and in reading a reasonable summary of the teaching of the Greek Fathers. While the document deals with infants, nevertheless it must incorporate a doctrine and definition of Ancestral or Original Sin in order to talk about the salvation of infants. Among the helpful comments in the document are:

"Very few Greek Fathers dealt with the destiny of infants who die without Baptism because there was no controversy about this issue in the East. Furthermore, they had a different view of the present condition of humanity. For the Greek Fathers, as the consequence of Adam's sin, human beings inherited corruption, possibility, and mortality, from which they could be restored by a process of deification made possible through the redemptive work of Christ. The idea of an inheritance of sin or guilt - common in Western tradition - was foreign to this perspective, since in their view sin could only be a free, personal act. . ."

"Alone among the Greek Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa wrote a work specifically on the destiny of infants who die, De infantibus praemature abreptis libellum. The anguish of the Church appears in the questions he puts to himself: the destiny of these infants is a mystery, 'something much greater than the human mind can grasp'. He expresses his opinion in relation to virtue and its reward; in his view, there is no reason for God to grant what is hoped for as a reward. Virtue is not worth anything if those who depart this life prematurely without having practiced virtue are immediately welcomed into blessedness. Continuing along this line, Gregory asks: 'What will happen to the one who finishes his life at a tender age, who has done nothing, bad or good? Is he worthy of a reward?' He answers: 'The hoped-for blessedness belongs to human beings by nature, and it is called a reward only in a certain sense'. Enjoyment of true life (zoe and not bios) corresponds to human nature, and is possessed in the degree that virtue is practiced. Since the innocent infant does not need purification from personal sins, he shares in this life corresponding to his nature in a sort of regular progress, according to his capacity. Gregory of Nyssa distinguishes between the destiny of infants and that of adults who lived a virtuous life. 'The premature death of newborn infants does not provide a basis for the presupposition that they will suffer torments or that they will be in the same state as those who have been purified in this life by all the virtues'. Finally, he offers this perspective for the reflection of the Church: 'Apostolic contemplation fortifies our inquiry, for the One who has done everything well, with wisdom (Psalm 104: 24), is able to bring good out of evil'. . . . The profound teaching of the Greek Fathers can be summarized in the opinion of Anastasius of Sinai: 'It would not be fitting to probe God’s judgments with one's hands'. . . ."

"The fate of unbaptized infants first became the subject of sustained theological reflection in the West during the anti-Pelagian controversies of the early 5th century. St. Augustine addressed the question because Pelagius was teaching that infants could be saved without Baptism. . . . In countering Pelagius, Augustine was led to state that infants who die without Baptism are consigned to hell. . . . Gregory the Great asserts that God condemns even those with only original sin on their souls; even infants who have never sinned by their own will must go to “everlasting torments”. . . ."

"But most of the later medieval authors, from Peter Abelard on, underline the goodness of God and interpret Augustine's “mildest punishment” as the privation of the beatific vision (carentia visionis Dei), without hope of obtaining it, but with no additional penalties. This teaching, which modified the strict opinion of St. Augustine, was disseminated by Peter Lombard: little children suffer no penalty except the privation of the vision of God. . . ."

"Because children below the age of reason did not commit actual sin, theologians came to the common view that these unbaptized children feel no pain at all, or even that they enjoy a full natural happiness through their union with God in all natural goods (Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus). The contribution of this last theological thesis consists especially in its recognition of an authentic joy among children who die without sacramental Baptism: they possess a true form of union with God proportionate to their condition. . . . Even when they adopted such a view, theologians considered the privation of the beatific vision as an affliction (“punishment”) within the divine economy. . . ."

As one continues to read the document, one realizes that there was a swing back towards Saint Augustine's opinion on the 16th century such that it again began to be stated that unbaptized babies go to hell, though only with the mildest of punishments. By Vatican Council I, opinion has begun to switch away from this hardened a view towards "natural happiness." By the 20th century, it begins to be argued more strongly that unbaptized infants may indeed receive "Christ's full salvation." This actually appears to be a partial return towards the Pelagian doctrine that Saint Augustine so hated.

As one reads the document, one can see that the Eastern and Western Fathers shared the idea that baptism was a necessity for salvation. However, all the Church Fathers had to deal with the problem of the unbaptized infant, whether of Christian or non-Christian parents, and in dealing with that they let us see their understanding of Ancestral or Original Sin.

In Saint Gregory of Nyssa, one can see what becomes the Eastern thought on Ancestral or Original Sin. On the one hand, the infant needs no cleansing for personal sins and is thus not to be thought of as one who will be sent to punishment. On the other hand, neither has the infant either received baptism or tried to live a virtuous life, so the infant does not merit heaven. Yet God is able to bring good out of evil. Thus, it is clear in Saint Gregory of Nyssa that Ancestral or Original Sin contains no imputation of personal guilt, but rather a certain damage to the likeness of God, a damage so widespread and deep-seated that one must labor and rely on the overflowing grace of God and the Mysteries in order to begin to conquer the damage inherited from Adam and Eve.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of Ancestral or Original Sin is harder to pin down because of the development and pendulum swings of its development. It is clear from the Vatican's own documents that Ancestral or Original Sin did include both the imputation of the guilt of Adam and Eve's sin and a widespread and deep-seated damage to the imagio dei, at least during a good part of its history. Thus the infant is worthy of punishment in hell according to both Saint Augustine and St. Gregory the Dialogist. In the medievalists, this is ameliorated to a deprivation of the beatific vision, which is still considered a punishment, though the infant will only experience happiness. At the time of the Enlightenment, there is a return to a more Augustinian and Gregorian definition of Ancestral or Original Sin. But, by the time of Vatican Council I, the change is in full swing, and Ancestral or Original Sin begins to be seen as the deprivation of original holiness. This change in the definition of Ancestral or Original Sin is found in documents such as the aforecited Catechism of the Catholic Church and in the Hope of Salvation document.

--Orthocuban 20:26, March 4, 2010 (UTC)

Sources and further reading

See also