Can we believe in original sin?

Posted: September 16, 2014 by J in Church, Church history, Theology

Original sin is a doctrine you don’t hear much any more. ‘For all have sinned and fallen short…’ – yup we teach that. But ‘Adam sinned and so you fall short’ – that’s a harder one to sell. We tend to kind of keep it up our sleeve.

People who look into the doctrine of original sin tend to struggle a bit. Part of the problem is clarifying what the heck it means.

There are of course different versions of the doctrine, and not everyone means the same thing by the words. The Reformed doctrine, in the words of the Westminster Confession, is this:

Q. 18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness,  and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

Full on, huh? What we all get from Adam is this package: not just lack of righteousness and corruption of nature, but the actual guilt of his sin.

In other words, we are held to be guilty of Adam’s sin.

I wonder if your church teaches this? It’s a more formidable doctrine than other Christian traditions hold: the more universally held position is that Adam’s sin affected our whole race, and the whole creation, so that sinfulness was transmitted to us all through him. In other words pretty much everyone accepts the ‘corruption of his whole nature’ part of the Westminster statement, but not the ‘guilt of Adam’s first sin’ part.

The Roman Catholic catechism, for example, describes original sin like this:

…but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.  It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.

This is a kind of organic view of original sin, as a disease propagated. Rather than the judicial view of Westminster: a guilt imputed. Westminster also teaches this, it teaches both. So I would say, the Catholic doctrine makes a lesser claim.

We are going to examine this issue over a few posts. What should we believe about original sin?

We can start by noticing that the Westminster view has traditionally only held out one proof text: Romans 5:12ff. Hmm. That’s not so good. One text is hard to build a doctrine from. We’re going to need to take a close look at Romans 5.

  1. Dave Binggeli says:

    here’s a quote from a book by Ben Myers on Rowan Williams’ theology. I happened to read it today and thought I’d share it… it’s slightly touches on the idea of Original Sin.

    “There is an immense shadow lurking in the background here, which I have neglected to mention till now. It is the Christian vision of the world as fallen – what Vladimir Lossky calls the ‘nocturnal side’ of creation. Following Augustine, Williams sees original sin as an ugly wound running right through the middle of things, and most acutely through human reason and experience itself. This is not a moralistic obsession with individual vices but a universal vision of tragic disorder: the whole ‘frame of things’ has come disjointed.

    Anyone acquainted with theology today will know that this Augustinian vision has become unfashionable. We are too committed to moral agency and empowerment, or to the cultivation of virtues, or to human capacities to initiate social change: we are, in a word, Pelagians. More than almost any other contemporary thinker, Williams has resisted the deep undercurrent of Pelagianism in modern thought. Though he rarely speaks explicitly of ‘sin,’ his thought begins to make sense only against the backdrop of the doctrine of original sin, in something like its full Augustinian form. Indeed it is tempting to call this the negative source of Williams’ theology, the dark star around which his thought silently orbits.

    The importance of Augustine is foregrounded in Williams’ first book, The Wound of Knowledge, written in his late twenties and published in 1979. Here, he finds in Augustine a unique awareness of ‘the tragic, the senseless, the irremediable’ dimensions of human experience. Augustine saw the human self as a small point in a ‘vast structure of forces’ whose operation cannot easily be discerned by human reason. We imagine ourselves to be the real centre of things, when in fact ‘human reality is acted upon at least as much as acting.’ We tend to interpret everything around us as extensions of ourselves; we make our home in a house of mirrors, so that the whole world becomes a twisted reflection of our own desires. Because we are fallen, even our belief in God – especially that belief – cannot simply be trusted but must be scrutinized and subjected to a ruthless suspicion.
    In a lecture on modern literature, T. S. Eliot once said that when the idea of original sin disappears from a culture, the representation of human beings tends to become more and more unreal, more dreamlike and ‘vaporous.’ Augustinianism is realism. Its opposite is not a cheery human optimism, as is often thought, but a cruel and disabling unworldliness. Awareness that things are disordered – and that our own thinking is part of that disorder – keeps us morally alert, suspicious of easy certainties, attentive to the real tissue of human experience with all its tragic failings and uncertainties. For Williams, the only hope worth having is one that emerges from the ‘doomed frailty’ of every human hope. The only human story worth having is one pieced back together from ‘the muddled and painful litter of experience.’”

    — Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams, by Ben Myers

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