Monday, January 25, 2010

The Fall, Part 1: A History of Original Sin

I am moving right along in my reading of the Old Testament but I want to come back to talk about the story of Adam and Eve. Yesterday my ward’s Gospel Doctrine class was about the Fall of Adam and Eve. As I was sitting in sacrament meeting I was thinking about the story and realized what a important story it is. I thought of several applications the drama of the Garden of Eden could have depending the particular angle you take to analyze it. I want to dedicate a series of posts on Adam and Eve in addition to the few posts I have already done. I hope not to bury the subject too much but I think there is a lot here to investigate. I would like to review in this first post the history of the theological understanding of The Fall. In subsequent posts I will lay out some possible, symbolic interpretations (I think there are many, many viable interpretations).

The earliest history of the story begins of course in Hebrew culture but I would like to begin with the early Christian understanding of the Fall of Adam and Eve—the idea of original sin. To say this was the early Christian view is not entirely accurate. The first three centuries of the Christian era saw little treatment of the idea. It was Saint Ambrose (337-397) and his pupil Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in particular who first formulated the doctrine of Original Sin.

The idea was not conceived in a social vacuum but was a response to the contemporaneous political and ecclesiastical atmosphere. The time of Ambrose and Augustine was a time of the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Barbarian forces were invading from Europe and the fall of Rome influenced Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin [1]. Augustine’s writings were also in a large measure directed in response to another theologian, the British monk Pelagius. Pelagius (354-420) denied both original sin and the doctrine of salvation by grace. His doctrine, now known as the heresy of Pelagianism, affirmed the idea of salvation by merit.

Said Pelagius: “Everything good and everything evil, in respect of which we are either worthy of praise or of blame, is done by us, not born with us. We are born in our full development, but with a capacity for good and evil; we are begotten as well without virtue as without vice, and before the activity of our own personal will there is nothing in man but what God has stored in him.” [2]

The teachings of Pelagius were condemned by the Council of Carthage in 416. He was excommunicated by Pope Innocent I in 417. In the end it was Augustine who would exert the greatest influence on Christian teachings. Augustine taught that God was justified to damn the whole of humanity for the sin of Adam, the father of humanity. He understood that the guilt of Adam was passed down from one generation to the next through the sexual act and that all are thus conceived in sin. This depravity through sexuality he called “concupiscence” [1].

Augustine said: “Banished after his sin, Adam bound his offspring also with the penalty of death and damnation, that offspring which by sinning he had corrupted in himself, as in a root; so that whatever progeny was born (through carnal concupiscence, by which a fitting retribution for his disobedience was bestowed upon him) from himself and his spouse—who was the cause of his sin and the companion of his damnation—would drag through the ages the burden of Original Sin...” [3]

Augustine’s understanding of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden was, at the time, unique and different from that of Jews or Greek Orthodox Christians [4]. The other faiths had never taken such a negative view of the entirety of mankind in such unflinching totality.

Since the time of Augustine, several concepts have held sway regarding original sin. It is important to understand that not all theological positions of Original Sin claim that mankind is actually guilty for the sin of Adam (though that is one view). Most modern Christians ascribe to the idea that Adam and Eve simply caused mankind to become naturally sinful while we are not actually guilty of something done thousands of years ago. LDS philosopher Blake Ostler lists the historical theories of vicarious guilt as follows:

1. Calvinism: “We are guilty of Adam’s sin because we were ‘in’ him as ‘seed’ at the time he sinned and/or because he acted as our ‘federal head’ or representative in his sinful acts.”
2. Arminianism: “We would be guilty of Adam’s sin except that our guilt has been removed through prevenient grace as a result of Christ’s atonement...however, our nature is so corrupted that we inevitably sin, thus endorsing Adam’s sin, thus becoming guilty of it ourselves.”
3. Semi-Pelagianism: “We are guilty only for our own acts... Inevitably, we become guilty of our own sins.”
4. Pelagianism: “We are not guilty for Adam’s sin but only for our own acts. In principle, we could live perfect lives.”
5. Anselmianism: As a result of the sin of Adam, we have all lost the supernatural gift of grace that would have made it possible for us to appropriately order our inclinations... As a result, it is impossible for us to refrain from sin.” [5]

Both Semi-Pelagianism and Pelagianism deny the idea of any guilt on our own part for Adam’s sin. Calvinism and, in essence, Arminiansim assert a certain guilt born by the descendants of Adam for the sins of their ancestor. Anselmianism does not claim that humanity shares any of Adam’s guilt, but that we are affected by it in such a way that we are led to sin. The Calvinistic view involves the idea of traducianism, which is to say that the soul of an individual is generated by the souls of his parents (a topic for another post). All these ideas have had influence in Christianity, but what scriptural basis do they have?

Most of the Biblical support for the idea was taken from the epistles of Paul. The passage most important for Saint Augustine was the Epistle to the Romans: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned... For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification... Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:12-19)

It can be seen here that the understanding of man’s sinful nature is tied to the understanding of salvation by grace. The doctrine that man must be saved from sin through the grace of Christ is accepted by most Christian religions (including Mormonism) to one degree or another. But it is the severity of man’s depravity that determines the extent to which he depends on grace. In Calvinism and Arminianism, man is so base and evil that he is liable to be damned unless God, by his grace, selects an individual to be saved and enables him to become righteous. Such an extreme view stands in direct opposition to Pelagianism. Taken to its logical conclusion it is a doctrine of predestination. This is the view that we can do nothing to even seek the grace of Christ; we must be chosen and can do nothing about it for ourselves.

It is quite possible and evident that Augustine relied upon the Ambrosiaster mistranslation of Romans 5:12. The verse, again, states: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned”. In Greek, the text reads “So death passed to all men in that (heth ho) all sin.” However, in the old Latin translation which Augustine read the text read “in whom (in quo) all sinned.” [6] The difference is critical. In Greek, it means that all men sin. In Latin, it means that all men sin in the person Adam.

There are several other doctrines which easily follow from the doctrine of Original Sin. One is the doctrine of Predestination. If we are so naturally evil that we cannot even do good of our own free will then God has already chosen who will be saved and who will be damned, independently of our own participation. Carried further this may entail the idea of Determinism. This is that we have no free will to choose our own fate but everything we do is determined by our nature. Essentially, all the particles that make up the universe are organized and set in motion in a particular way that everything is perfectly predictable and inalterable.

Other implications are more striking. Augustine believed that humanity's guilt for the sin of Adam extended even to children. Thus, he believed infants who died before they were baptized would be consigned to Hell. This, he felt, was supported by numerous Biblical passages: Psalms 50:10; Job 14:4-5; John 3:5; Romans 5:12; Ephesians 2:3. [7] I defer comment to The Book of Mormon: “And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism... little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism!... And he that saith that little children need baptism denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption... But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.” (Moroni 8:11-23)

In such a short space I have hardly been able to give these theologies fair assessment and I in no way mean to disparage the ideas developed during hundreds of years of Christianity. Nor have I scratched the surface of the history. But I think the logical and ethical problems brought about by the idea of Original Sin stem from an overemphasis on the literal understanding of the story of Adam and Eve. In other words, the entire point of the story is lost—the point being embedded in the symbolism.

[1] Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 1993. p. 123

[2] Pelagius, Pro Libero Arbitrio, quoted by St. Augustine in On Original Sin, chap XIV.

[3] Enchyridion 26.27.

[4] Armstrong, 124

[5] Ostler, Blake. Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God. 2006. p. 123-124.

[6] Ibid., 128

[7] Ibid., 127

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