The first half of this article introduced the concept of original sin and looked at a number of biblical passages that can be used to support the idea. Here I need to offer some remarks about how this has played out in church history, and what have been some of the theological underpinnings and explanations of the doctrine, as well as questions about it.
Augustine and Pelagius
A very brief look at some theological history is in order here. But a small book at least would be needed to do it justice. However, for those who are interested, this can serve as just an introductory discussion. And note that while two main players are being discussed here, there is much more to it than these two.
For example, others in the camp of Pelagius can be mentioned, such as Celestius and Julian of Eclanum. Moreover, we have what eventually came to be known as the Semi-Pelagianism. These fifth and sixth century figures included John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, and Faustus of Riez.
Also we need to see the bigger picture here. While the church in the West was concerned about these matters of soteriology and anthropology, the church in the East had been more involved in various Christological debates. On the issue of original sin and the like the eastern churchmen were less concerned about the views of the Pelagians than those in the West.
But here I will look mainly at the original pair in this debate – and only briefly. The famous bishop from Hippo in North Africa, Augustine (354-430), was a leading proponent of this idea, having developed it from his reading of Paul. Based especially on Romans 5:12-21, he argued that we all inherit from Adam a sinful nature and the guilt that goes with it.
That is why he preached infant baptism for example, to save babies who are also tainted with Adam’s sin. Of course the issue of paedo-baptism opens yet another can of worms, and obviously Christians can and do strongly disagree about this one as well. But one issue at a time!
Just one line of his – from On the Grace of Christ and On Original Sin – will suffice to show something of what he believed: “the fault of our nature remains in our offspring so deeply impressed as to make it guilty, even when the guilt of the self-same fault has been washed away in the parents by the remission of sins.”
Pelagius, a British monk (350-425) disagreed. He did not believe that the sin and guilt of Adam had any direct consequences for his descendants, and he argued that while we are fallen, we are also more or less good – certainly able by ourselves to more or less obey God.
Instead of believing that we are all born with a sinful condition, with an orientation away from God, he said we are all born morally neutral. The human will is especially not impacted by Adam’s fall. Yes grace is needed, but we are not so lost and fallen that we cannot seek God and obey God on our own.
And just one quote from one of his extant writings will have to suffice here. On the particular issue of whether we are born sinful, Pelagius said this in his book, On Free Will: “evil is not born with us, and we are procreated without fault.”
But let me note at this point that we do not know a whole lot about Pelagius, and some of his key writings we now have only fragments of. So in some areas it can be difficult to know exactly what he taught. We often must rely on what Augustine and others said by way of rebuttal, or what the followers and defenders of Pelagius had said.
Nonetheless, the Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned the views of Pelagius, as had the bishop of Rome in 417-418. But that did not mean that Augustine’s views were entirely affirmed. And in 529 at the Synod of Orange, Semi-Pelagianism was condemned, although some efforts at a mediating position between the two camps were attempted.
This however is a much too brief and sketchy look at what is actually a rather complex debate. As mentioned, this is quite a nuanced and multi-levelled discussion – one that cannot here be fully entered into, so future articles will have to explore the various beliefs in much more detail.
How was this sin passed on?
Assuming that the Augustinian understanding of Scripture is more or less correct, other questions arise, including how it is passed on from Adam to others. One way to answer this is to recognise that the Bible often teaches the idea of corporate responsibility (more on this in a moment). There are two views on this:
-Augustine said that we participate with Adam – we sin in and with Adam. This is his doctrine of original sin. That is why babies die, eg, without having personally sinned.
-Pelagius however said that we simply imitate Adam. All we do is sin like Adam.
As to Augustine’s position, there are two main views of how this sin and guilt is passed on:
The Federal or Representative view (also called the federal headship theory), speaks of immediate imputation. That is, Adam is our representative or federal head. Because Adam was appointed by God to be our representative, his sin was imputed to all of us. Such a concept is not unheard of.
As some have explained, just as the President of the United States represents American citizens in decisions made as President, so Adam represented all of humanity when he made the choice to eat the forbidden fruit. This seems to be in line with Paul’s idea: we share with Adam the same guilt. If we were there we would have done the same thing. It is the same with the crucifixion: we are all guilty, we all nailed Christ to the cross. Some verses on this include:
Acts 4:26-27 ‘The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.
Hebrews 6:6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
An old spiritual asks the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The biblical answer is yes, we were there in a very real sense. We are not merely spectators, but guilty participants. We nailed Jesus to the cross, and we sinned with Adam.
The Realist view (also called the natural or realistic headship theory), says that we were present in germinal or seminal form in Adam and our ancestors. Just as our physical natures are passed on to us by our parents, so our spiritual nature is passed on to us by our parents.
To complicate things a bit further, this is based on the traducianism view of the soul. This is the idea that the origin of the soul is transmitted through natural generation along with the body, from the biological parents. It is opposed to the creationism view which says that God creates a new soul out of nothing for each child conceived.
We are really in Adam in the sense that we all descended from him biologically. It is not so much a case of the imputation of Adam’s sin, but human nature being a single whole. It means that Adam possessed the entire human nature, and that all mankind is present in Adam as a generic humanity.
Is it fair that we inherit Adam’s sin and guilt?
Some argue that this doctrine is simply not fair. How might its defenders respond? Part of the replies involve the biblical concept of corporate personality. The Apostle Paul was well aware of this Hebrew concept and utilised it in his arguments.
We find this concept often stressed in the Old Testament. Consider for example the sin of Achan discussed in Joshua 7: his individual sin resulted in others being punished for it. In Joshua 7:1 we find this: “But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.”
And in Joshua 7:11 we read: “Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions.”
And we have a sense of this also in the New Testament. For example, the book of Acts often speaks of household baptism. A man comes to saving faith in Christ, yet his entire household gets baptised with him. So there is some sort of family or group solidarity going on here as well.
Sure, we are each individually responsible for our own sin and our own salvation at the end of the day. Indeed, some will raise passages such as Ezekiel 18:20 here: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.”
The short answer is this: ultimately you and I are being blamed for our own sins. We are responsible for them. However, we also have other biblical data, such as the various Old Testament passages which speak about the sins of the fathers being passed on to their children (Exodus 20:5-6 for example).
How do we understand this? John Piper is helpful here: “The visitation of the fathers’ sins on the children is not a simple punishment of innocent children for what the fathers did. The children themselves are always thought of as sinful and rebellious as the fathers’ sin is worked out in their lives.”
And this applies in a larger sense to Adam and his offspring. Adam was responsible for his own sin, just as you and I are for ours. However, as Paul informs us, in Adam we all sin and in Adam we all die. So there are various biblical truths here that must be held onto, even if with some tension.
Finally, while some will ask if it is fair that sin is imputed to us, we must also ask another question. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. Is that fair? That is the real marvel here. God owed us nothing, yet in his grace he offers forgiveness of sins. None of us deserve this, yet we get this double imputation when we come to Christ: he gets our sins and the punishment they deserve, and we get his perfect righteousness.
Or as R.C. Sproul reminds us, if we object to having someone act on our behalf (Adam for humanity), then we reject Christianity, because the second Adam (Christ) acted on our behalf, representing us. So some sort of representation is going on here, even if we may not be able to explain it fully.
Why did Jesus not have a sinful nature passed on to him?
It is clear that the entire reality of the Incarnation is a mysterious event, one that we will never get our heads around fully – at least in this life. So too is the Christian doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Christ.
The two are closely connected, and the latter helps us to answer this question. By not having an actual physical father, Jesus seems to have avoided the line of sin being passed down through fathers. That is one way to deal with this issue. While we cannot be too dogmatic about this, various theologians over the centuries have held to such a position.
It should be pointed out that the Roman Catholics take a different view on this. Their doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (officially endorsed in 1854) states that Mary had no original sin nor a sinful nature, because of the merits of her son Jesus. But that is yet another debate to be had elsewhere! Suffice it to say that there is much mystery here that we cannot fully go beyond.
All up, this has been a very outline-ish look at a quite detailed and rather complex subject. So much more can be said about all the points raised here. So bear this in mind if you are ready to come here and denounce me as a heretic. I am simply presenting a very sketchy overview of something discussed and debated by theological giants over the centuries.
And there is clearly some room to move here, theologically speaking. Christians of good faith can agree to disagree on a number of the theological points raised here. I happen to think that there is a biblical case for some sort of concept of original sin, but I recognise that other believers will come up with differing points of view. That’s fine.
Let me conclude with two lines from G. K. Chesterton. He once said that he could not understand why parts of the church have abandoned the doctrine of original sin, since it was the one doctrine that can be empirically proven! As he stated in his book Orthodoxy, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
And when the London Times asked a number of writers for essays on the topic, “What’s wrong with the world” he responded in this very truncated manner: “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton”.
Part One of this article is found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/18/on-original-sin-part-one/