Original Sin ?

The question has come up, again and again, in conversations in the Benefice – Yes, we do actually talk about these things! It goes like this:

Must I try to believe in Original Sin?

It just doesn’t seem to fit with any of my other thoughts about the world. I don’t believe that babies are sinful and need to be baptised,because if they aren’t, that sin will take their immortal souls to hell. I don’t think that the most basic nature of humans is sinful; I don’t believe that the world is corrupted by Adam and Eve; I don’t even believe that there was an actual first human couple as I understand that we are evolved from primates . . . .

So the question is:

What is the Doctrine of Original Sin and where did it come from?

This extended quote from Prof Jeff Astley is clear and simplified, but gives us enough to begin with:

‘It is often said that, fundamentally, sin is anything that separates us from God’

‘According to the Bible, although at first God saw that everything was good, things went badly wrong. Not just the human race but the whole of creation were turned away from God as a consequence of human sin. This catastrophe is most strongly represented in the narrative metaphor (myth) of Genesis 3; although chapters 4-11 also deal with human sin and God’s response (Cain and Able, Noah, the Tower of Babel)’.

Jeff goes on to describe the Genesis 3 myth and adds: ‘This dramatic narrative is obscure in places and not referred to elsewhere in the Old Testament. However disobedience, arrogant defiance, selfishness, untruthfulness and faithlessness are key elements throughout the rest of its literature.

Judaism itself produced no fully developed idea of original sin, although it regarded God as creating ‘evil intentions’ in humans. Paul however clearly draws out the story’s implications that, “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Rom 5:12). Thus “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all” and “by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom 5:18,19). But this falls short of a doctrine of original sin.

The early church fathers acknowledged a transmission of human sin as a wound in human nature, but offer no hint that mankind shares Adam’s guilt. It was the Latin West that accentuated the fall, ascribing to it spectacular effects, Augustine attributing original righteousness and perfection to Adam. Through his fall came the corruption of the entire human race, which through his “ancient sin” became “a universal mass of perdition”. (Augustine read Rom 5:12 in a poor translation that suggested that Adam was the one in whom all sinned, not that all are guilty because they sin like Adam)….’

Augustine writes:

God created man aright, for God is the author of all natures, though he is certainly not responsible for their defects. But man was willingly perverted and justly condemned, and so begot perverted and condemned offspring. For we are all in that one man, seeing that we all were that one man who fell into sin through the woman who was made from him before the first sin. (City of God xiii, ch.14)

Jeff continues:

‘Conscious of the power of sexual passion in his own life, Augustine believed that original sin was transmitted by concupiscence: that is lust that “aims at enjoying one’s self and one’s neighbour, and other corporeal things without reference to God”. As a further by product of our fall, from now on we can only freely do wrong – psychologically we can only sin. And God’s will predestined (or foreordained) from eternity the salvation of those he mercifully chooses (the elect) – creating their faith by preparing their wills to respond. Without God’s grace, therefore, we are all on the road to hell’.

Enter Pelagius

‘In contrast to such views, the British layman Pelagius (a fashionable teacher at Rome) argued that our free will remains unsoiled by original sin, and God doesn’t condemn us for another’s (Adam’s) sin. Adam would have died even if he had not sinned: and that is how human culture emulating the poor example of Adam propagates disobedience. God’s grace does not predestine us to holiness, nor does it have any internal effect on the soul. It is offered to us all in baptism and repentance, and in reason and revelation. But for Pelagius it is resistible, whereas Augustine eventually concluded that there is no true freedom of the human will in relation to grace.

Pelagianism, “with its excessively rosy view of human nature and its insignificant acknowledgement of man’s dependence on God” (Kelly 1968) was condemned at a variety of church councils (see the upcoming blogs!) in the fifth century…. However… theologians frequently complain that the Pelagian heresy remains widespread within the church’. (Christian Doctrine, Jeff Astley p109-111).

I think that we could safely say that a strong reaction against an Augustinian interpretation of original sin is prevalent in the church today, and a form of Pelagianism is alive and well in many, if not most.

So what does this mean? . . . .We have yet to discuss this – watch this space!

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