Original Sin – Leaving it Behind (lV)

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

We have now made the case that the concept of original sin I absorbed as a child has no support in the Old and New Testament texts.

As John E. Toews says in The Story of Original Sin, “There is not a hint in the Hebrew Bible of sin as an ontological reality that is transmitted biologically from one generation to the next via sexual intercourse, as proposed by Augustine” (93). And about the New Testament, his conclusion is the same. “The language of sin in the New Testament describes human beings making choices, unjust choices that harm other people, choices that lead them astray, choices that result in personal and communal chaos, choices that reflect irreverence to God, choices that mean disobedience toward God, choices that miss the mark of God’s intention for them” (94). But he adds that “Sin language in the New Testament is volitional, relational and political. There is no hint of ontological corruption; in fact, the language of ontology is completely absent” (95).

Further, Toews has made it abundantly clear that the doctrine of original sin found its way into the Western Church by way of a faulty translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin, Vetus Latina. By the end of the fourth century, Augustine had clearly articulated the doctrine of original sin and by 1529 the Council of Orange had made it official church dogma.

For centuries following, this understanding was the foundational bedrock on which the church operated in the West. Infants were baptized to remit this original sin which had damned them to hell from the moment of birth. And tied to this way of thinking was the even more damning teaching of double pre-destination – that God had only elected the “few” to inherit salvation while electing the masses of humanity to be damned.

The Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century for the most part did little to ameliorate this pernicious world view. While Luther thundered against the corruption and excesses within the Catholic church of his day, he did not question Augustine’s view of original sin. Infants were still baptized in order to receive “forgiveness, life and salvation.” John Calvin introduced a new perspective, likening infant baptism to circumcision in the Old Covenant. Yet, in the end, he concludes that if children are not baptized they remain in the state they inherited from Adam; that is a state of sinfulness – from which they must be rescued.

So where does that leave us with respect to the issue of original sin?

It is of interest to note that modern Judaism does not hold to the doctrine of original sin. “The Jewish theology of sin is anchored in Genesis 4:7, ‘sin crouches at the door,’ and Genesis 8:21, ‘the devisings [yetzer] of man’s heart are evil from his youth.’ Human beings struggle with two tendencies, a good ‘yetzer’ and an evil ‘yetzer’, and they must make choices with the help of the Torah and the grace of God to choose to follow the good ‘yetzer’ and repent when they fail to do so” (96). While this perspective appears to be closer to the Old Testament text than that of most western churches, it does not take into account the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus Christ. Therefore it does not serve as a logical solution for western Christians looking to move past the views of Augustine.

One option that western Christians are increasingly pursuing is to align themselves more closely with the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity. Since the Eastern Church was untouched by Augustine, the doctrine of original sin which he formulated in the West at the end of the fourth century did not become part of its body of teaching. It views the disobedience of Adam and Eve as resulting in “arrested development” instead of eternal damnation. “Adam’s choice was a personal choice and act, not a collective one…hence inherited guilt is impossible…in fact the belief in a sin of nature is a heresy” (97). So the Eastern Church baptizes infants “…to give them a new and immortal life, not to remit their yet non-existent sins” (99). While some disenchanted western Christians adopt the Eastern Orthodox church as their new spiritual home, others attempt to bring eastern understandings about original sin into their churches in the West where they feel more socially and culturally at home.

But there is a third option that can be found within the story of the Western church; namely, Anabaptism. While Anabaptists did not find favor within western protestant churches in its first few centuries, their perspectives on issues such as original sin are being accepted today by an increasing number of Western Christians. Anabaptists stubbornly held to Ezekiel 18:4 which explicitly states that “…it is only the person who sins who shall die.” Robert Friedman states that “The Ezekiel reference…freed the movement from the fatalistic character of inherited sin which was so characteristic of the Catholic Church and Protestant orthodoxy” (100). Anabaptists held that “…the sin of Adam and Eve introduced into the world a powerful tendency or inclination to sin which resulted in universal sinfulness, but it was a sinfulness by choice rather than by nature…The consequence of the sin in Eden was moral, not ontological, that is, inherited in human nature” (100).

It is ironic that, although I grew up in an Anabaptist/Mennonite church, I was not introduced to this view of original sin until much later in life. It seems that my particular church had largely acquiesced to the dominant Reformation ideas on this subject; hence my youthful trauma about going to hell through no fault of my own. And even to this day, I suspect that this series of essays on original sin will not be looked upon with favor by many persons within my ecclesiastical orbit. But for myself, I have now finally answered the question of original sin to my satisfaction and for my peace of soul.