Though I have written much over the years on original sin, I have omitted to deal adequately with the idea that since Adam’s so-called Fall from original righteousness, human nature as such is sinful. (1* See, however, my articles More Meditation On Original Sin; Human Nature)
First, it is important to be aware of what the traditional dogma of original sin actually teaches and the definition of the Belgic Confession (Article 15: The Doctrine of Original Sin) is helpful at this point:
By the disobedience of Adam and Eve, original sin has been spread through the whole human race. It is a corruption of all human nature – an inherited human depravity ….
(Article 9 of the CE refers to original righteousness, the corruption of the Nature of every man, the remaining infection of nature or lust of the flesh and the concupiscence which has of itself the nature of sin. See also the Westminster Confession of Faith 6.)
For me living in the 21st century there are basic difficulties with this. While there is no denying that human sin abounds, I am nonetheless immediately prompted to ask how man’s birth nature could change if we are all the offspring of Adam (Gen. 5:1-3) who was ‘born’ innocent (knowing neither good nor evil, Gen. 2:17, 3:5, 22, cf. Dt. 1:39; Rom. 9:11)? After all, Jesus himself taught that flesh gives birth to flesh (and not to sin) just as Spirit gives birth to spirit (John 3:6), and he nowhere suggests that sin is inherited. Indeed, he clearly implies, like Paul in Romans 7:9f., that for sin to occur the law (or commandment) has to be broken and so asserts that the slaves of sin are those who commit sin (John 8:34). He confirms his point by teaching that where there is no knowledge, there is no guilt (John, 15:22,24, cf. 9:41). And Paul teaches plainly in Romans 4:15, 5:13 and 7:8 that where there is no law (or understanding, Rom. 7:1,7) there is no sin.
The truth is that an inherited sinful nature is an ecclesiastical myth or invention which is ultimately blasphemous. While it is undeniably true that we are born into an already sinful world (2* This is surely the meaning of Psalm 51:5. The LXX refers to ‘sins’ and ‘iniquities’ (plur.) as does 51:9.), so was Jesus whose own mother needed salvation (Luke 1:47) not to mention his forebears in general (Mt. 1:1-16). Indeed, the very reason why he came into the world was to overcome it (John 16:33, cf. Gen. 1:26-28), destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) and to save his people from their personally committed sins (Mt. 1:21). In other words, all the offspring of Adam (cf. Gen. 5:1-3), who was created not knowing good and evil, including Jesus himself (Isa. 7:14-16), began life innocent (Dt. 1:39, etc.). This inference is proved conclusively by Paul who tells us that apart from the law sin lies dead (Rom. 7:8) and that where there is no law as in the case of animals and babies (cf. Rom. 9:11), there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15, etc.).
If this is so, and the notion that the universal commission of sin depends on original sin as traditionally understood is denied, how do we all become sinners? The plain answer is that like Adam we all break the commandment in our turn (3* Pace Art. 9 of the CE). It is not a question of imitation (which Augustine of Hippo in his controversy with Pelagius rightly repudiated) but of repetition. For if Adam and Eve committed sins without a parental legacy, it is little wonder that the rest of us who have theirs (and those of their posterity to boot) also blot our copybooks. But even so, why do we all in our turn repeat Eve’s first sin? The answer is for the same reason as she sinned in the first place: she could not control her fleshly desires and the wiles of the devil as Genesis 3:1-6 plainly teaches. While Adam participated with Eve (Gen. 3:7), he was regarded as more guilty than she was because he had received the commandment directly from God. And if Eve became the ‘mother’ of the heathen who were deceived apart from the law (cf. Rom. 1:18-32; 2:12-16; Eph. 4:17-19, cf. Heb. 3:13), Adam became the ‘father’ of the Jews who had the written law. Thus the Jews were regarded as more blameworthy than the heathen they despised (Amos 3:2; Rom. 2:24-27). But that sin is not inherited is made plain not merely by Ezekiel 18, for example, but by Paul who tells us that our problem is that we are flesh (Rom. 7:14). Thus we are informed, on the one hand, that no flesh will boast before God (1 Cor. 1:29, etc.) for all are sinners because they break the law (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16) and, on the other, that only Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, overcame in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.). Furthermore, it is vital to note that children cannot be accounted guilty and punished for their parents’ sins (Dt. 24:16). Though they may suffer the consequences of the latter, they are not liable because of them. Exodus 20:5f.; 34:6f. and Numbers 14:18 imply that along with the ill-effects of their sins, we also benefit from the good they do us (cf. Luke 11:13).
Solidarity and Separation
As in so many things children repeat the pattern of behaviour provided by their forebears of whom the first were Adam and Eve. Physically we inherit many of their characteristics by necessity. Colour is but one illustration of this. As we have already noted, Jesus tells us that flesh gives birth to flesh just as seed-bearing plants yield plants according to kind (Gen. 1:11). Consequently both boys and girls follow the same pattern of physical development as their parents. Here recapitulation is undeniable. However, the same cannot be said of the moral sphere where fundamental difference is often plainly evident. In his work on Chronicles (p.207) Michael Wilcock quotes Thomas Fuller commenting on the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 as follows:
“Lord, I find the genealogy of my Saviour strangely chequered with four remarkable changes in four generations. Rehoboam begat Abia: a bad father begat a bad son. Abia begat Asa: a bad father and a good son. Asa begat Jehoshaphat: a good father and a good son. Jehoshaphat begat Joram: a good father and a bad son. I see, Lord, from hence that my father’s piety cannot be entailed: that is bad news for me. But I see also that actual impiety is not inherited: that is good news for my son.”
On the face of it, judging by his last comment Fuller appears by implication at least to be denying original sin. Be that as it may, at this point the reader may maintain that undeniable differences in general character do not totally cancel out sin and that original sin is a necessary postulate. However, there is one outstanding case in Scripture which proves conclusively that original sin and universal (moral) corruption are false and that sin cannot be inherited. That case is Jesus who, instead of breaking the commandment as Adam and all the rest of his posterity did, conspicuously kept it and thereby became the second or last Adam. (4* On this see further my The Redundancy Of Original Sin) So, though we are all born of woman and necessarily experience solidarity in the flesh, we can nonetheless theoretically enjoy separation in sin even if this was in fact achieved by Jesus alone as God clearly intended. (5* The notion that Jesus was sinless because he was born of a virgin apart from fleshly concupiscence is absurd. There is no law in the Bible against heterosexual desire and its consummation in the sex act, cf. John 1:13. Indeed, according to Genesis 19:31 it is a universal (animal) experience. It was designed by God himself to produce the fruit of the womb, Dt. 7:13, etc., and thereby to populate the earth, Gen. 1:28; 9:1,7. It was also endorsed by Jesus himself, Mt. 19:12, who clearly linked his own unusual birth with his incarnation. But he was doubtless aware that even the first Adam was a created son of God ‘born’ of (mother) earth, Luke 3:38; Acts 17:28. See further my The Fatherhood of God)
Native Moral Corruption
But if following Adam’s putative Fall human nature itself is morally corrupt, even Jesus could not escape, unless, of course, he was not truly man, that is, incarnate. On the assumption that he was a real man, however, we could argue that with Jesus God started again. But if we do this, we are faced with the problem Moses faced in Exodus 32 and Deuteronomy 9: Jesus loses his relationship with and is permanently separated from his forebears. If this is so, we are compelled to ask what happened to the plan of salvation originally propounded to Abraham. God’s own honour is at stake. Enough said! The obvious solution is to jettison original sin which is certainly not taught in the Bible. As Numbers 14 in particular shows, little ones in contrast with their sinful parents are innocent and free to enter the Promise Land (Num. 14:31).
Clearly for the atonement and hence salvation to be universally effective (Heb. 9:15; 11:39f.; 1 John 2:2), the only way for Jesus to go back to the beginning to include all his believing predecessors was by recapitulation (cf. Heb. 11). Only in this way could he be made like his brothers in every respect (Heb. 2:17). In other words, as Irenaeus and his contemporaries saw, he personally had to begin at the beginning and experience what is the universal human experience, that is, birth of woman who in procreation typifies the earth. Thus in light of Genesis 3:20 this means that we all including Jesus (Eph. 4:9) stem from (mother) earth as Adam did and like him we are dust (1 Cor. 15:47a). If we then ask for more detailed explanation, we reply that at procreation while men as the image of God play the role of God (1 Cor. 11:7), women as we have just seen play the role of the earth which physically is the mother of us all. Furthermore, this shows how the virgin-born Jesus as born of woman was dust every bit as much as Adam was. In fact, had he not been, he could never have become the second Adam. He would not have been a man at all.
Some theologians like Karl Barth, C.K.Barrett and others have taught that Jesus took on fallen human flesh! Apart from noticing that there is no such animal (!) and that flesh as deriving from a corruptible creation is naturally subject to corruption (decay), this idea is intolerable. It contains two obvious fallacies: first, it assumes wrongly that original sin is true, and, second, that Jesus was tainted by sin which Scripture denies (except of course as in 2 Cor. 5:21). What certainly is true is that Jesus as a genuine human being was both mortal (he died) and corruptible (he visibly aged) like the earth from which he emanated through his mother. But he was flesh only for a little while (Heb. 2:7,9; 1 Cor. 15:50, cf. Ps. 103:14-19).
Covenant with Adam
If human nature as such following the so-called fall of Adam is questionably regarded as corrupt, the reason for this must be that Adam was the covenant head and representative of all his posterity. Though historically this view has been strongly advocated, for all that it must be rigorously rejected both for lack of evidence and on theological grounds. Nowhere in Scripture is there any indication that God made a covenant with Adam. Indeed, given more space I would argue at length that such an idea is impossible. Apart from anything else it would ruin the plan of salvation, for Jesus would inevitably have been caught in its net. (6* See further my Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?; Thoughts On ‘Adam, The Fall And Original Sin’) If he was, obviously the rest of us would be. Since it is universally acknowledged that he was not, we are bound to deny that we are either. But this has not been the view held by the churches whether Catholic or Protestant. So on the assumption that the Bible is our authority, we must quarrel with the churches and reject the idea that there is some sort of hiatus between Jesus and all other human beings apart from his failure to commit sin (Heb. 2:17; 4:15).
Augustine’s Methodology or Modus Operandi
Though Augustine of Hippo did not invent the theory of original sin that is associated with his name, once he had accepted it, he was thoroughly committed to it and virtually cemented it into our tradition. In light of this it may well be asked why. Apart from misunderstanding Genesis 1 and Romans 5:12, for example, the answer is that instead of arguing from Scripture, he based his views on the church practice current in is day. What do I mean? It has long been recognized that the dogma of original sin has been the main support of infant baptism. But so far as Augustine himself was concerned, according to Peter Sanlon in Adam The Fall and Original Sin (p.94) (on which see my article), infant baptism came first. He reasoned that if infants were baptized, as by his time they widely were, and baptism signified salvation from sin, then babies must be sinful even though they were incapable of actually sinning. In this situation the notion of original sin conveniently explained the necessity or raison d’etre of infant baptism. What in effect Augustine was doing was denying the sufficiency of Scripture and basing the pernicious and blasphemous doctrine of original sin on erroneous church practice. (7* Regrettably John Stott does the same thing when he argues on the basis of the ecclesiastical view that Jesus was physically transformed at his resurrection. From this false premise he maintains that the physical creation will be redeemed. See The Contemporary Christian, ch. 4, on which see my John Stott on the Putative Resurrection Transformation of Jesus) Alternatively expressed, he was prompting the church to overrule Scripture, and this the Roman Church, which has slavishly followed him (Augustine), has done throughout its subsequent history. Thus when church practice requires justification and the Bible fails to provide it, support is found either in tradition or ecclesiastical fiat at which point development of doctrine enters the fray. (8* Compare Cardinal Newman in Victorian times.) In this regard, we have only to think of the celibacy of the clergy, Mariolatry, the Immaculate Conception and the Heavenly Assumption of Mary who is even considered as co-Redemptrix. Not without reason does Roman Catholicism repudiate the sufficiency of Scripture and reject to this day the Reformation so whole-heartedly cherished by committed Protestants. What is more, in this way it adds insult to injury by effectively barring the way to a new reformation so urgently needed in the 21st century.
P.Sanlon in ADAM, THE FALL and ORIGINAL SIN, eds. Madueme and Reeves, Michigan, 2014.
J.R.W.Stott, The Contemporary Christian, Leicester, 1992.
M.Wilcock, The Message of Chronicles, Leicester, 1987.
It is well known that Augustine’s early education involved Neo-Platonism and Manicheism. Perhaps Greek influence on his teaching was greater than is generally realized. In his Jesus Master and Lord (pp.160f.) H.E.W. Turner briefly highlights the difference between the (dynamic) Hebrew and the (static) Greek conception of God. When we consider that for the Hebrews God, though transcendent, was nonetheless immanently dynamic within the historical process, and that for the Greeks the Godhead was static and remote, above and beyond that process, it is difficult not to conclude that Augustine was often governed more by Greek than by biblical thinking. Reminding ourselves that he viewed sex as sinful (like the flesh itself), it is reasonable to infer that he never truly outgrew the Manicheism he embraced before becoming ostensibly Christian. Of course, we can correctly contend that Augustine believed in the authority of Scripture. But this does not mean that he was always consistent or that he always interpreted it properly. After all, Jesus deftly demonstrated the abject failure of the Bible-believing Pharisees at this point (John 5:39).
See further my: