Original Sin

Original Sin is not found in any bible concordance. Nor is ‘the Fall.’ These are both theological concepts derived from the Genesis 3 account of Adam and Eve.  Most Christians are convinced that the interpretation of Eden they learned in Sunday School is as orthodox and incontrovertible as the death and resurrection of Jesus. We have been taught that the very purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection was to atone for the original sin that Adam and Eve unleashed upon perfect Paradise.  Eden and Calvary are as closely knit as good and evil.


Old Testament Hebrews regarded the first chapters of Genesis as a description of remote events. They did not make sharp distinctions between history, legend, allegory and myth. All stories contain truth. Whether Adam and Eve were historical figures or an allegory for everyman and everywoman, the message of Eden was the same; sin leads to suffering.  


The important question was: How can sinful men and women be reconciled to a holy God? The Bible provided an answer in Genesis 22. Just as one man, Adam, had rebelled against God, another man, Abraham, proved himself obedient. Yahweh promised Abraham that his descendants, who would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore, would take possession of the cities of their enemies, and ‘through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’


The outward sign of adhering to Abraham’s covenant with God was, for males, circumcision. For women, baptism was sufficient. The inner work of obedience to God’s will was far more important - although more difficult - than a simple ritual.  Centuries later Moses delivered the ten great commandments. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are filled with secondary and tertiary laws governing almost every aspect of life. The children of Israel – like all nations – were divided between the few who sincerely sought to do God’s will, and the many who manipulated the letter of the law to suit their own interests.  


Do we have any reason to believe that the Chosen People of Israel believed that all ‘unchosen’ nations were hated by God and would be eternally tormented?  The short answer is no. Abraham recognized Melchizedek as a priest of God most high (Genesis 14:18-20) although he was an uncircumcised foreigner. Abraham’s descendants were not given carte blanche to treat neighbouring tribes as enemies. The opposite was true; the tribes of Israel were to give shelter to aliens, and ultimately to bless all nations on earth. Israel was not preoccupied by something as abstract as original sin.  Personal sin remained the real and pressing problem; the covenant between God and Abraham remained the only remedy.  


The Early Christian Church was shaped by Jewish tradition and thought. God’s covenant with Abraham, the rite of circumcision, and obedience to Mosaic Law were fundamental to Jewish salvation.  Disciples of Jesus engaged in heated debates about what was required of Gentiles in order for them to share the blessings of Abraham’s covenant. Acts 15:20 outlines the shortlist of four prohibitions that Gentiles were to respect. It was clear to Jews and Gentiles alike that obeying four rules was neither the definition of salvation nor the remedy for sin. Early Christians began to conceive of the Holy Spirit as the means by which human sinfulness would be transformed. Salvation entailed victory over the sin. It required supernatural assistance and unrestrained cooperation.


An entirely new theology began to take shape.  Perfect obedience to divine will and Mosaic Law was indeed the path to salvation. But who had ever completed the journey? All had been sidetracked and waylaid by sin. Jesus presented himself as a new kind of Saviour. Theologians are still debating the precise role that Jesus plays in salvation, but in essence he made it possible to have a personal relationship with God, and receive personal assistance from the Holy Spirit to overcome personal sin.  The transformative power of Early Christianity was its defining feature.


What did the Early Church think about Original Sin? The question is as futile as asking what the Early Church thought about Quantum Theory. The term is not Biblical and the theological concept did not emerge until the 4th century.  How do we know this?


In a moment we will come to Augustine who formulated the doctrine of Original Sin, claiming it was traditional Christian belief. If that was true, we would expect earlier theologians to agree with him that all humans are born condemned because of the fall of Adam, and to agree that everyone who died unbaptized, including infants, would be excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life.  What do we find in the pre-Augustine writings?


The Epistle of Barnabas, written about 100 AD, expounds the new ‘Christian’ theology.  In chapter VIII Barnabas explains why physical circumcision has been replaced by spiritual circumcision of the heart. In chapter VI he says that remission of sins is renewal of the soul, and because we are remade after another pattern ‘we should possess the souls of children.’  He echoes Jesus who held up children as a model of innocence and purity. (Mark 10:13-16) This is far from Augustine’s view of depraved infants. In chapter IV Barnabas writes, ‘The Lord will judge the world without respect for persons. Each will receive as he has done: if he is righteous, his righteousness will precede him. If he is wicked, the reward of wickedness is before him.’ There is no hint here of Original Sin, nothing is involved but personal sin and personal righteousness. Barnabas makes no mention of Eden or baptism. Salvation is purely a matter of faith.


The Pastor of Hermas wrote an allegory of the Church in about 165 AD. In Vision III, Chapters 5 -7 he described stones used to build a church. The most perfectly formed stones represent the apostles, bishops, teachers and deacons.  Less polished stones represent ordinary believers. Freshly inserted stones represent new believers. ‘But they are admonished by the angels to do good, for no iniquity has been found in them.’  Some stones are rejected, but left near the church. ‘These are they who have sinned and wish to repent.’ The stones thrown far from the church are either ‘sons of iniquity’ or ‘those who have known the truth and not remained in it.’ The underlying theology of this parable confirms that both sin and obedience are personal choices. The Pastor of Hermas makes no mention of Eden or baptism.  


Irenaeus of Lyons (120-202) wrote a long book against the heresies of his day.  His defence of Christian orthodoxy stands in sharp contrast to the theology that would be shaped by Augustine three centuries later. In Book III, chapter 23 Irenaeus writes that, ‘God pronounced no curse against Adam personally, but against the ground... God did indeed transfer the curse to the earth, that it might not remain in man. ... The curse in all its fullness fell upon the serpent, which had beguiled them....  For God detested him who led man stray, but by degrees and little by little, he showed compassion to man who had been beguiled.’ 


Irenaeus goes on to explain that God prevented Adam and Eve from eating of the tree of life in their sinful state so that the evil which surrounded them should not be ‘interminable and irremediable.’  The tree of life would wait until they had repented and turned away from sin.  Irenaeus had harsh words for those who deny that Adam can and indeed shall be saved. ‘Thus do those who disallow Adam’s salvation gain nothing, except this, that they render themselves heretics and apostates from the truth, and show themselves patrons of the serpent and of death.’  


In Book III, chapter 28 Irenaeus describes who will be saved. ‘Those who believe in God and who have continued in his love... and innocent children, who have no sense of evil.’  In chapter 38 Irenaeus describes human freewill and divine compassion. ‘There is no coercion with God, but goodwill toward us is present with Him continually.’  In Book IV Irenaeus describes a future, literal resurrection of the dead.  Augustine would declare it heresy to deny original sin and to advocate freewill as well as a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation.


Tertullian (145 -220) wrote a treatise on Baptism to refute a contemporary heresy which denied that baptism was necessary for salvation. He defended baptism as a venerable Christian tradition. ‘Unless a man be born of water and Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ (John 3:5)   However, in chapter XVI Tertullian states that water baptism is not essential because the blood and water that flowed from the crucified Christ are quite sufficient for salvation.  In chapter XVIII Tertullian advises that it is wise to delay baptism until the person receiving the sacrament is fully prepared to commit to rebirth and a new life.  Baptism is far more serious than the life-long commitment of marriage; it is an eternal commitment.  ‘If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: solid faith is secure in its salvation.’  Tertullian opposed the baptism of infants because it is impossible to know if they will develop a righteous character or an evil disposition. ‘According to the circumstance and disposition of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally in the case of little children... let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ.’  For Tertullian, salvation was purely a matter of faith. 


Cyprian (200-258) began to formulate the ideas that Augustine would shape into a complete theology.  He wrote an epistle (LVIII) on the subject of baptism and included a section on infant baptism.  His contemporaries had come to think of baptism as the equivalent of circumcision among the Jews. One of his friends condemned the practice of baptising babies before the 8th day and Cyprian informed him that an African council in Carthage had decreed that there was no reason new born babies should not be immediately baptized because ‘nobody is hindered from baptism and grace; how much rather we ought to shrink from hindering an infant who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth...’   Cyprian presents merely the shadow of Augustinian original sin.   


Augustine cannot be said to have ‘invented’ original sin.  Baptising infants was not a new idea. The apostles had written about the need for baptism. Many Christians thought that baptism had replaced the rite of circumcision. However, no Jewish rabbi had ever taught that a baby who failed to receive circumcision was hated by God.  None of the Early Christian leaders taught that children dying without baptism would be excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life.  This was Augustine’s innovation. 


This new doctrine was brutal but absolutely necessary to terrify Pagans into converting to Christianity. There could be no exceptions, no mercy. The justification was similar to dropping atomic bombs on Japan; shortening the war spare multitudes of lives. Augustine spent two decades fighting a monk named Pelagius in order to build his case for original sin and convince other Bishops that Christianity was in peril unless original sin was embraced as fundamental doctrine.  Augustine used the Pelagian heresy to redefine Christianity at the Council of Carthage in 418. Two points of the new orthodoxy were:


-          Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.

-          Children dying without baptism are excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life.


The effect of making original sin a fundamental doctrine was to condemn all humans at birth. The only remedy was baptism. Within a generation, the Pagans of the Roman Empire had submitted to baptism and had become ‘members of the visible church.’ It was a great victory for Augustine. The consequences for Christianity were catastrophic in two ways.  Original sin meant that untold millions of people were excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life simply because they died unbaptized. Second, the key message of Christianity was no longer divine love and freedom from sin but divine wrath and the overwhelming depravity of sin. By shifting the focus of Christianity from sin to original sin, salvation was reduced to a ritualistic pardon rather than a lifelong process of transformation. 


The Catholic Church amended the most repugnant aspects of original sin as soon as Augustine was dead and the mass conversion of Pagans was complete. Unbaptized babies were transferred to the eternal dreariness of limbo. What of unbaptized pagans (non-Christians)? Catholic theologians eventually came to the conclusion it was impossible for a just and loving God to exclude all Pagans from the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life, ‘That sufficient grace really is given to the man who never comes within reach of the influence of Christianity, there can be no doubt... Thus we are forced to conclude that God gives grace to all men, even to pagans... However we explain the process we must accept the fact that salvation is really possible for all.’  (The Teaching of the Catholic Church, 1952 Canon George D. Smith p 609.)  This mysterious salvation of unbaptized pagans, which cannot be explained but must be accepted, is a paradox that Augustine would have appreciated for its complexity, although not its heresy.


In 1969, caught up in the revolutionary spirit of the time, the Second Vatican Council revised its rites of baptism for adults and children to remove all mention of original sin.  If salvation is possible for all, however mysteriously and inexplicably, then original sin is a meaningless threat. The Vatican, which took centuries to reverse its condemnation of Galileo, corrected this new ‘error’ with lightning speed. In 1973 the re-revised rites of baptism reinstated original sin. 


The Protestant Reformation led by Luther and Calvin used Augustinian theology as its guide for reforming the Church. Reformed theology is dominated by Original Sin. The elect are saved by God’s grace alone and sanctified by God’s grace alone. The elect cannot resist salvation and cannot reject salvation.  Salvation is instantaneous, although sanctification remains incomplete during this earthly life. Whatever sin remains at death will be cleansed by the power of God alone.


What of babies? The Protestant Reformation removed the power of salvation from Priests and sacraments. John Calvin taught that deceased infants would be saved because God willed it. He strongly refuted that Arminian reasoning that infants are saved because they are innocent. The taint of Original Sin is as deadly for infants as adults and their salvation requires the same abundance of grace. It is impossible to explain why God elects few adults for salvation while extending grace to all children, but Calvin’s God had no need to be coherent or comprehensible by human standards.  


What of non-Christians? The consensus among Calvinist theologians is that predestination is not dependent upon human knowledge or deeds, therefore any person anywhere in the world could be elected for salvation, just as the most saintly Christian might not be predestined for paradise. Reformed theology is officially built on Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin but allows God to be mysteriously merciful.


The last major Protestant campaign in defence of Original Sin came in the years leading up to the First World War. Leading North American conservative scholars and theologians published a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, which caused their supporters to become known as Fundamentalists. In one tract entitled ‘Doctrinal Value of the First  of Genesis’ Dyson Hague, a Professor of Liturgics from Wycliffe College, Toronto, reiterated the age old condemnation: ‘… Pelagianism  declares that man is not so bad after all, and derides the doctrine of original sin which in all our Church confessions distinctly declares the possession by everyone from birth of this sinful nature.’  Professor Hague’s defence for original sin was that these things are ‘definitely set forth in the Holy Scripture, and are St. Paul’s divinely inspired deductions from this fact of the incoming of sin and death through the disobedience and fall of Adam, the original head of the human race.’  In short, original sin is true because the Bible is inerrant, therefore only one orthodox deduction can be made from the story of Eden. Any teaching that contradicts these inerrant truths and their orthodox interpretation must necessarily be false. Fundamentalism has become a byword for blind faith.


Modern Charismatics tend to believe in freewill and personal responsibility for accepting salvation. Charismatics also tend to believe that God loves the entire human race and provides all with an equal opportunity for salvation.  However, most Charismatics agree with Augustine that the gospel message is designed to save the lost from (original) sin rather than free the believer from the bondage of personal sin. The rallying cry of Charimatics is: Are you saved?  Charismatics have outdone Augustine in the simplicity of their remedy for sin by replacing the sacrament of baptism with recitation of the sinner’s prayer. Once those words are uttered the sinner is ‘saved.’ Charismatic salvation is instant and unconditional.   


What of deceased infants? Charismatics are in total disagreement with Augustine on this point. They agree with Calvinists that all infants are saved, although how this fits into a non-Calvinist framework of freewill cannot be explained.  What of unsaved sinners? Charismatic Evangelists offer no possibility of salvation for those not born again with Christ as their personal saviour. Sinners have a black and white choice to make: salvation or damnation.


Charismatic Evangelists – particularly those with large radio and TV audiences – love to proclaim that every born-again Christian – no matter how imperfect and sinful their life – will be welcomed into heaven while every non-Christian – no matter how moral or righteous – will be doomed to eternal torment. Charismatic Evangelists proclaim, ‘It is not good people who get into heaven, but born-again sinners!’


All forms of Original Sin – Augustinian, Catholic, Calvinist and Charismatic – leave multitudes with no hope of salvation.  At its Augustinian strictest, it is an ugly religion of wrath that still terrifies sinners into submission. Adding mysterious loopholes which cannot be explained does not restore Christ’s Gospel of Love, it merely creates a wishy-washy religion worthy of Laodicea. (Revelation 3:15)


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