Publications: Articles - Theology
Sin: Missing the Mark of God's Original Plan for Humankind
What is sin? How does it work? Did God create it? What is 'original' sin? How does 'original' sin affect us since we did not take part in it? How does it come down through the generations? It is these questions that the following two articles of VEMA seek to reflect upon.
Sin in St Paul
No theology of sin and indeed 'original sin' would be whole without a reflection of the reality of sin as it is depicted by St Paul particularly in his letter to the Romans. Now, in the Gospels, even though the sin of Adam (ie the ancestral sin) is not mentioned explicitly it is definitely presumed in that Jesus is depicted beginning his earthly ministry with a call to repentance for the sake of the immanent kingdom. Repentance implies a ‘change of mind’ (meta-noia) where one chooses to forego a sinful way of life in favour of a life in Christ.
St Paul on the other hand, in his letter to the Romans deals with the pervasive subject of sin in a systematic way. Not only does he succinctly describe the reason for sin in chapter one in terms of people's refusal to offer glory and thanksgiving to God – that is humanity's denial to remain in communion with God – but also lists the effects of sin in the world today. Written some two thousand years ago, St Paul's words still echo true in society today. In a very long passage yet one worthy of quoting in full, St Paul describes the reality and results of sin in the following way:
"for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them." (Rom 1:21-32).
Further to the universal reality of sin, St Paul also describes, in very personal terms, his own reality of sin in a very moving passage in Romans 7:
"but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members." (Rom. 7:23)
Due to sin at work within them, human beings, like Paul, find it hard to do what is good, and easier to separate themselves from life. Not only can all human persons identify with St Paul's reality of sin on a personal level, but his remarks affirm the universal nature of sin as well.
From all that has been said thus far on the reality of sin as portrayed by St Paul, a question, which justifiably arises is why should the sin of Adam and Eve affect subsequent generations since they did not take part in Adam’s particular sin? This type of question has to do with the transmission of sin. At least two answers can be given to this problematic. The first has to do with the relational or communal character of existence implying that a person’s actions has consequences on all around. Secondly different Christian denominations have traditionally based their answer on how sin is transmitted throughout history on Romans 5:12, a particularly difficult verse from St Paul. It is to these two areas that we now turn our attention.
The first point, which must be mentioned is that since human persons are relational beings, this implies that all subsequent generations are affected by the sin of Adam. Since all human persons and indeed the entire created realm is organically linked, then the actions of one person affect the environment at large. Therefore being communal in being, human persons, in the fall, caused the reality of sin to become universal. Except for Jesus, no person lived on earth without falling into sin. Just as no person is saved alone so too no one sins alone. One of the greatest myths of society today is the belief that human beings are independent from one another. Rather the truth lies in the fact that they are interdependent and cannot exist isolated. A person is not an arithmetic unit or an entity within itself. The word ‘person’ comes from the Greek word ‘prosopon’ –the prefix (pros) means – to, or towards, and the noun (opsis), means "look", "eye", or "face". A person can only be known in a direct, personal encounter of immediacy with another person. The sin of the primordial couple is clearly related to all persons, indeed the entire created realm, just as the salvation of Christ touches all people and all created things. Yet whilst affirming the extensive or universal consequences of Adam's disobedience on all the world thereafter, the Orthodox Christian tradition does not speak of any inherited culpability. From the time of the ancestral fall, the Orthodox tradition teaches that human persons inevitably have a strong propensity towards sin.
That is to say, human persons do not inherit Adam's guilt or sin automatically; yet they do so in so far as they too freely choose to imitate the ways of the primordial couple. Since the image of God within human persons was distorted by sin but not totally destroyed, they were still capable of doing good. However this is not to overlook the reality that humanity's loss of communion with God did in fact set up a barrier which could only be overcome by the gift of Christ's way of life offered to the entire world with his incarnation, life, death and resurrection. A close study on Romans 5 verse 12 will shed further light on the Orthodox doctrine on the transmission of 'original sin'.
A Case Study of Rom 5:12
A Scriptural text which has played a key role in discussions on 'original' sin throughout the history of the Church and even up to this day, is a verse in St Paul's letter to the Romans:
"Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned [e˙f∆ wˆ— pa¿nteß h¢marton]." (Rom. 5:12)
The difficulty of the passage, which has formed the basis of the Church's teaching on 'original sin' lies in the last four words of Paul’s phrase. The reason for this is that these words "e˙f∆ wˆ— pa¿nteß h¢marton" can be interpreted in at least three different ways. These are as follows: 1) in whom all have sinned; 2) because all have sinned and 3) because of death all have sinned. And these diverse readings give different understandings.
Firstly, the West, based on Jerome's Vulgate, translated the difficult Greek phrase as "in whom all have sinned" which led to the belief that Adam's sin was passed onto future generations and that human persons today carry this sin of Adam. This gave rise to the belief that human beings throughout the centuries have inherited the sin of Adam and therefore are guilty in that they share in his sin as they share in his nature. Whereas the Orthodox Christian tradition would claim that the world today shares in the effects of the sin of Adam which was death, this understanding believes that human persons share in the sin of Adam directly. The consequences of such an doctrine is that God is seen to punish subsequent generations unjustly since He judges them not on their actions but on the deeds of Adam.
A second rendering of this difficult phrase and one espoused by most scholars today is to translate this verse not as “in whom all have sinned” but as "because all have sinned". Such an understanding implies that human persons today have not inherited Adam's transgression or guilt but rather that they have replicated it in their lives by sinning themselves. Simply put, in this understanding, Adam sinned causing death which in turn caused a likely propensity on the part of human persons to sin themselves. This subtle difference makes each person responsible for their sin and consequently takes away any inherited notions of culpability. In agreement with this view, St Mark the Monk affirmed: "When evil thoughts become active within us, we should blame ourselves and not ancestral sin." Understood in this way, Adam's sin is not passed down to human persons today causing them to sin. Rather Adam's sin is a prototype of all future sin in the world and therefore all people are responsible for their own sin.
There is yet a third reading of the text which takes the Greek words usually translated as "because all have sinned" to mean "because of death all have sinned." In this case, the relative pronoun, e˙f∆ wˆ— is taken to be masculine, as was the case in the first interpretation, but in this case it does not relate back to Adam but rather to the word "death". Grammatically speaking, it makes more sense to have the relative pronoun relate back to the word "death" since it is this word which immediately precedes and substantiates the phrase in question. Understood in this way, it is the cosmic reality of death which explains the reality of sin in the world and not the other way around. In other words, this subtle yet profound saving truth affirms that human persons sin or break communion with God because of the reality of death and not that human persons are punished to death because they have sinned. Therefore the verse could read in the following way:
"Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all; because of death all have sinned" (Rom. 5:12)
From this understanding, the Eastern Orthodox tradition would claim that it is not the sin of Adam which is propagated to future generations as St Ambrose and Augustine believed but the reality of death. And because of death human beings personally sin as well. In contrast to Augustine’s view St John Chrysostom wrote:
“With Adam’s guilt, also those who did not eat from the tree became all mortals, coming from Adam.”
And thus the human person could not be liberated from the predicament of death except by the grace of God who by his Son’s incarnation we have the culmination of our salvation.
All human beings are born into a world subject to death caused by humanity's refusal to share in the real life of God by being in communion with Him. Instead of a life of immortality, incorruptibility realised in communion or in a loving relationship with God, humankind believed that life could be realised outside of God's life and this caused death. God's commandment not to eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was not a law given by God to Adam and Eve, which if they broke would bring about their punishment in order to satisfy God’s wrath. Rather, in these words God simply made a statement – that life exists in communion with Him and outside of Him there is death. By eating of the fruit of the tree, God was declaring that this would remove the presuppositions of life and lead to death. In eating of the tree, Adam and Eve were in fact attempting to realise "life" in a way which does not constitute God's communal and loving way of life.
Therefore it is death which renders sin inevitable in so far as in one's struggle for life there is prevalent an overwhelming pressure to sin in order to survive. It would be Christ as the second Adam, in his obedience to the Father, who would come to reverse the reign of sin in death and bestow eternal life through grace:
"Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom 5:18-21).
In this case the inheritance of the Fall is seen as an inheritance of mortality rather than of sinfulness.
From the above it was shown that in the entire adventure of life God does not intervene to remove the result of Adam's use of free choice since this would remove the way of life feely chosen by Adam. Rather as we shall see God will intervene to transform this self-afflicted punishment into a salvific opportunity for relationship or communion with God, which is nothing other than a restoration of the world to eternal life. Jesus Christ God would make possible this transformation from death into life again without eliminating human freedom. For this reason in this continual state of tension the anticipated Messiah will come and assure the world saying:
"In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (Jn 16:33).
In fact the entire Old Testament Scriptures which is nothing other than God's increasing communion with the world in the covenant that He initiates with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will find its ultimate purpose in the birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and ultimate glorification of God's only begotten Son, Jesus Christ the Messiah.
It will be He who will come to save the entire world from their sin thereby granting them the possibility once again of eternal life.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College