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Doing the Right Thing by Adam and Eve

Introductory Remarks

In the last issue of Vema, I attempted to show that the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, the doctrine that we have all inherited the guilt and the punishment of the sin of Adam, collapses because certain premises essential to the argument are simply wrong. Most decisively, the doctrine rests on the following two false premises: First, the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis is basically historical record (it isn’t).

Second, the sin of Adam could be biologically transmitted down through the centuries (it couldn’t)While hopefully we might have cleared away some dead wood, we are still left with the conundrums for which the doctrine seemingly provided at least partial answers. Why, in St Paul’s words, is it that I “not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19 RSV)? Is infant baptism essential to wash away innate sin? Why was the incarnation of Christ and His crucifixion necessary? These are major questions and I am not going to attempt comprehensive answers. Rather, I invite the reader to join with me in a little gentle rumination on the text of Genesis. First, however, we need to set down some rules of engagement.

Orthodox interpretation

Laying down some rules most obviously, we must restrict ourselves to well-attested Orthodox principles of interpretation. One such principle is that we must commence with the literal meaning of the text. Here, the first task is to establish exactly what the literary genre of the text is. Is it historical record, prophecy, allegory, just what? Once we have given our best shot at tying down the literal meaning, we can proceed to search for deeper spiritual meaning lying beneath the surface of the text; the sensus plenior, the fuller meaning of Scripture. In determining the sensus plenior, we must interpret the text Christocentrically. Christ is the Logos, the eternal Word of the Father, and as such is the divine (as opposed to human) author of Scripture (see, e.g., John 5:39- 40, 46).

The Old Testament must be read through the lens of the New, especially the Gospels. As we proceed, we must bring our background scientific, archaeological, historical, philological etc knowledge along with us. It is a most extraordinary thing that many people, including a good few misguided Orthodox, think that it is virtuous to deposit their brains outside the church door before entering. The Fathers of the Church would have been overjoyed had they had access to our vastly superior background knowledge. We have been made in the image of God and, whatever else that means, it means that we are logical sheep - “logical” having the double meaning “of the Logos”, that is of Christ, the Good Shepherd, and “rational”. God has given us rational minds, if we refuse to use them they will atrophy and we will become dingbats, illogical sheep in both senses.

While, on the one hand, we should bring our background knowledge along, on the other hand we should bring along the deep spiritual and theological insights of the Fathers, one of the great treasures of Orthodoxy. With something old and something new (not the same thing as putting new wine into old bottles!), let us see what we can do with Genesis 2:4 – 3:24. An Alternative Approach. We know today that the Genesis narrative is not historical record but an allegory concerning the human condition and humanity’s relation to God. Origen (c.185– c.254) did regard the narrative as an allegory, but the Fathers in general, while they typically observed that much of the language was anthropomorphic and allegorical, assumed that there was a core of historical fact. For this we cannot blame them, given the limitations of their background knowledge.

Purpose of Incarnation

In some cases, particularly in the case of Greek Fathers, this assumption had no serious consequences. In the case of Augustine (354-430) it did; not only because of his reliance on it as a necessary premise in his argument for original sin but for another reason. Stressing that Adam and Eve were biologically the first pair of ancestors led to his treating the narrative as a description of the first moments in a continuing chain of causally linked events. It says a great deal for the perspicacity of certain Fathers that they did not read the narrative in this linear historical way. As early as the second century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in France and probably a Greek from Smyrna (c.135-c.202), regarded Paradise as a future state of blessedness to which we are called. Moreover, that state had already been mystically realised in Christ, the New Adam, in whom the whole history of humanity was recapilated.

The purpose of the Paschal Mystery of Our Lord (and hence of baptism) was not, for Irenaeus, to redeem us from original sin (of which he knows nothing) but to make possible our theosis/ deification: “The Logos [the Word, i.e. Christ] was made human in order that we might be made God”. These words were echoed by virtually every Greek Father of the Church. Irenaeus had laid the foundations for an alternative tradition to that later established by Augustine. Following our ground rules, let me try to sketch a non- Augustinian way of reading the narrative, bearing in mind that there can be no such thing as a definitive reading.

As we believe that the Logos is the divine (as opposed to the human) author of Scripture, we can never claim that we have plumbed any passage of Scripture to its depths or seized the fulness of its meaning. Reading the Genesis Narrative with Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-394) and others, we should take ourselves as our point of reference. We live in a fallen world characterised by the struggle for survival, a world of sin and death, of violence and suffering, and of alienation from God, our fellow human beings and the non-human creation.

And that is how it has always been. Augustine was at least right in maintaining that there is a deep-seated rottenness in human beings, an innate disposition to choose evil over good. (Some Greek Fathers call this disposition “original sin” and trace its source to our solidarity with Adam. But a disposition to sin is not an actual sin.) But is human life today, as throughout history, what God intends it to be? Are human beings beyond perfectibility? The answer to both questions is “No”.


The mythopoeic allegory of the Garden of Eden reveals both God’s intention for humanity, and explains why that intention has been thwarted. The allegory tells us that God created humanity in His own image and likeness. But as the Fathers teach, while the image cannot be obliterated by sin, the likeness, the beauty of spiritual perfection, is something that is only achieved through baptism and the life in Christ. Moreover, its realisation involves ascetic struggle. According to the Genesis narrative, God’s intention for humanity is plain. We should live in perpetual communion with Him, and we should desire freely to choose the good, as Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (c.1033-1109) put it, just because it is the good (a pretty good characterisation of what it means to enjoy perfect freedom through servitude to Christ).

Paradise, depicted as a state of blessedness in which human beings dwell in harmony not only with God and their fellow human beings but with the whole creation, is achievable only through the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Paradise is to come, yet it is already realised in Christ in the Church. But this Paradiseto- come, but which now is, is not equatable with the primeval state of humanity. Rousseau’s noble savage never existed.

Adam as every human being

Before the creation of Eve, within the allegory, Adam exemplifies the fulness and integration of humanity per se – remember St Paul’s, in Christ there is neither male nor female (Galations 3:28). For a fleeting moment, Adam is revealed as archetypal humanity as God intended us to be. But it is an indistinct foreshadowing of the incarnation, when Christ, the prototype of humanity in all its perfection, became flesh. Christ is the New Adam who will redeem the Old Adam of Genesis; that is, each and every one of us because Adam is not an historical person but every human being, Everyman.

It is in this sense, not the Augustinian, that we should understand St Paul when he says “as in Adam all die…” (1 Corinthians 15:22) and “sin came into the world through one man … ” (Romans 5:12). St Paul is writing within the allegory in order to make an important theological point, not making assertions about the historicity of the narrative. Even if he did take it to be basically historical record, that is irrelevant. Further, Paul is certainly not asserting that Adam’s sin was inherited. This becomes clear from the full text of Romans 5:12: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (RSV).

We share in Adam’s sin through our solidarity with him by virtue of the fact that we also have sinned. St Paul’s interest is in contrasting one man, the prototype of perfect humanity, Christ, with another single individual, Adam, the prototype of fallen humanity. For Paul, Adam “was a type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14). So, the fleeting moment of wholeness passes, archetypal
Adam/Everyman gives up a rib and Eve is created. Man and woman, beguiled by Satan, eat the fruit. But this is not so much a choice of whether to obey or disobey a moral injunction as an existential dividing of the ways.

Reintegration into the Kingdom of God

Adam and Eve have the choice of living in communion with God, freely choosing the good because it is the good, or to go the way of the ego, of making their own wilful choices, for good or for ill, irrespective of God’s good. In Adam/Everyman we have, like lost sheep, taken the route that leads to sin and death - sin being that which severs communion with God, and hence leads to spiritual death. Rebirth in Christ But all is not lost, what we cannot do for ourselves, be born again, Christ can do for us. Baptism does not wash away original sin because original sin, as understood in the Augustinian tradition, does not exist. Rather, through baptism (and, of course, Augustine is not unaware of this) we appropriate to ourselves the Paschal Mystery of Our Lord. We sacramentally die with Him, are buried with Him, and are resurrected with, and clothed in, Him.

The font is the mystic womb, and through emersion in its uterine waters we are made into new creatures and filled with the Holy Spirit. As a consequence of this rebirthing all actual personal sin is cleansed. But even adults emerge from the waters as spiritual infants (and are so depicted in early iconography). Baptism is the beginning of the life in Christ, but there is a long way still to travel. In the eucharistic life of the Church, the fruit of the Tree of Life, denied to Adam and Eve, becomes our food in Christ. As Gregory of Nazianzus (329/330-389) says, “Christ is brought up to the tree and nailed to it - yet by the Tree of Life He restores us.” We will still stumble, time and again, but from now on we travel the Way which leads to Paradise by, with, through and in He who said: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, no one can come to the Father but by me” (John:14:6).

Dr. Guy Freeland teaches hermeneutics and liturgical
studies at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College.

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