Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 87 (November 1998) 16-24.
No doctrine inside the precincts of the Christian Church is received with greater reserve and hesitation, even to the point of outright denial, than the doctrine of original sin. Of course in a secular culture like ours, any number of Christian doctrines will be disputed by outsiders, from the existence of God to the resurrection of Jesus. But even in those denominations that pride themselves on their adherence to the orthodox dogmas of the once-universal Church, the doctrine of original sin is met with either embarrassed silence, outright denial, or at a minimum a kind of halfhearted lip service that does not exactly deny the doctrine but has no idea how to place it inside the devout life. Even the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, surprisingly enough, calls original sin a "sin" only in an analogous sense (#404), because unlike other (presumably real?) sins it is only contracted and not committed—a concession that would certainly have surprised Augustine, who had a vivid and almost physical/biological understanding of the First Sin.
Clearly, Augustine’s authority notwithstanding, the doctrine is in crisis, a crisis different in kind from the challenge that secular modernity hurls at the totality of the Christian message. Secular culture undeniably plays a part here as well, with its doctrine of evolution or its belief in progress (now a rather tattered and shopworn belief, though one that still lurks in certain editorials and books). But much more severe is the outright discomfort believers feel in the doctrine because of what seems to them its internal inconsistency: how can guilt, an ethical and spiritual category, be inheritable, a category drawn from nature? As with the doctrine of predestination, to which it is often married, there seems to be a kind of "damned if you do, damned if you don’t" aura to the theology of original sin: Free will may be free, declares Augustine without apparent embarrassment, only it is not free to do good. "How then do miserable men dare to be proud of free will before, or of their own strength after, they are liberated?" But no sooner does Augustine fear that the concept of original sin might threaten the idea of human responsibility than he quickly turns around and becomes free will’s best advocate, again without a trace of embarrassment: "Let no man dare to deny the freedom of the will as to excuse sin." In other words, if you do a good deed, that is God’s doing; if you commit a wrong, it is your doing.
In this situation of widespread denial, perplexity, or negligence, I thought the best defense of the doctrine could be mounted if it were presented as a typical article in Thomas Aquinas’ monumental Summa Theologiae. In this work Thomas would begin each treatment of a so-called "disputed question" with a fair-minded exposition of the position he wanted to refute in the latter half of the article. This is the famous Videtur quod section of the argument, which is usually translated as: "It would seem that [such-and-such a doctrine] is not the case."
What makes this opening portion of each article so remarkable is Thomas’ generosity and fairness to his opponents. Aquinas is the ideal model here, for, as some commentators have noted, he at times seems to present a better argument for his opponents’ positions than they themselves managed to do. Josef Pieper, for example, in his Guide to Thomas Aquinas, notes how Thomas’ fairness to his opponents can sometimes catch the reader off guard:
An unsuspecting reader, rather stunned and confused, may read whole pages containing nothing but opposing arguments formulated in a highly convincing manner. There will be nothing at all in the phraseology to indicate that Thomas rejects these arguments—not the trace of a hint at the weakness of the argument, not the slightest nuance of ironical exaggeration. The opponent himself speaks, and an opponent who is obviously in splendid form, calm, objective, moderate. . . . In this procedure there emerges an element profoundly characteristic of St. Thomas’ intellectual style: the spirit of the disputatio, of disciplined opposition; the spirit of genuine discussion which remains a dialogue even while it is a dispute.
Only after such an exposition of the opponent’s point of view would Aquinas venture to present his own case. First he would introduce a statement from an authority holding the position Thomas favored. This is the Sed contra ("on the contrary") section of the argument. Now because Thomas explicitly held that argument from authority is always the weakest form of argumentation, his citation of an authority was clearly meant only to give the reader pause: although the arguments previously set forth sound plausible, they cannot be the last word, for after all some authority—be it the Bible, Aristotle, a Church Father—holds the contrary opinion. So perhaps there is more to say on the issue (the reader is meant to think) than is first apparent.*
It is only at this point that Aquinas presented his own argument; this is the so-called Respondeo section ("I reply as follows"), which is the pith and substance of the article. Finally, after setting out his own position and the reasoning for it, he answered the objections raised in the first section of the article (ad primum, ad secundum, etc.: "as to the first, second objection," etc). And once more the reader notices Thomas’ remarkable serenity in responding to contrary views.
And so, with the indulgence of the reader, I would like to follow the Thomistic format in addressing the "disputed question" of whether we need any longer to believe in original sin.
Videtur quod peccatum originale non sit credibile: It would seem that original sin is not believable, and for the following three reasons. First of all, not only is the doctrine intolerably paradoxical, it is never once mentioned, as such, in the Bible, not even where it is taken to be most evident: in chapter 3 of Genesis and chapter 5 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Secondly, our understanding of both evolution and biblical science makes it even more obvious than before how far from the intent of the biblical authors was any doctrine of original sin (careful exegesis of Romans 5, for example, has led many scholars to hold that Augustine developed his view of original sin based on a mistranslation by the Vulgate of a verse in this chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans). Thirdly and finally, the doctrine damages souls. Belief in original sin leads to pessimism: it results in a resigned fatalism about changing those sinful structures that actually can be changed but which go unchallenged because they are all too lazily attributed to the effects of original sin, which by definition is a given and cannot be changed. (Hannah Arendt was rightly annoyed when she returned to Germany after World War II and discovered Germans were blaming Hitler, as well as their own romance with Nazism, on Adam and Eve, a subterfuge scarcely less vulgar than the common criminal’s pretext, "the devil made me do it.") Let us take each of these arguments in turn.
1) No one now disputes that the Bible does not teach a doctrine of original sin as such. Not only does the term never occur in the entire Bible, these Scriptures—both Old and New Testaments—are also innocent of any notion that Adam’s sin has made proleptically guilty those who live so far from the source of that sin that they seem incapable of having taken part in it. But that is what the doctrine says. Moreover, it goes on to say that this sin can only be expiated by Christ’s death and cleansed by baptism; that is, it is a sin which, if left unexpiated and uncleansed, "justifies" God in condemning that person, even an infant, to eternal banishment from God’s presence—and all for a sin never actually committed!
What is remarkable about this doctrine is how even its most ardent defenders admit its blazing paradoxicality. Reinhold Niebuhr undoubtedly presented the best defense of the doctrine in modern times, and even convinced a number of secular critics of its truth. But his stirring apologetic began by openly admitting the strange logical status of the doctrine:
The Christian doctrine of sin in its classical form offends both rationalists and moralists by maintaining the seemingly absurd position that man sins inevitably and by a fateful necessity but that he is nevertheless to be held responsible for actions which are prompted by an ineluctable fate. . . . Here is the absurdity in a nutshell. Original sin, which is by definition an inherited corruption, or at least an inevitable one, is nevertheless not to be regarded as belonging to his essential nature and therefore is not outside the realm of his responsibility. Sin is natural for man in the sense that it is universal but not in the sense that it is necessary.
As if that paradoxicality were not enough, one must also admit that the Bible never attributes to Adam the role of biologically tainting us with his guilt, as can perhaps best be seen in the history of Jewish interpretation of Genesis up to and just past the beginnings of the Christian era; for it was the much more common Jewish interpretation, even into the era of the rabbis during the Christian era, that the human proclivity to evil (insofar as it came from anywhere else than man’s free will) was the product not of the sin of our first parents but of that strange episode narrated in Genesis 6 of the mating of "the daughters of men with the sons of God." This highly enigmatic passage, told with the usual laconic style characteristic of all the patriarchal narratives, was usually interpreted by later (and obviously intensely monotheistic) Judaism as referring not to "gods" but to the rebellious angels, whose mating with "the daughters of men" brought with it a kind of "genetic pollution" to the human race.
Such a view now strikes us as frankly mythological, and indeed it soon lost all hold on the Jewish imagination, perhaps under the influence of early Christianity. It is worth mentioning only because the very prevalence of this interpretation shows how little the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 necessarily leads to a doctrine of original sin when left on its own terms. Even in Romans 5, which does explicitly link Adam’s sin to the entrance of death into the world (apparently under an incipient rabbinic trend of moving the origin of evil back from Genesis 6 to Genesis 3), there is no notion of original sin according to Augustine’s scenario; for it is to Augustine, not Paul, that we owe the picture of an ideal Paradise of two human beings created immortal and whose sin brought an unspeakable catastrophe on the human race. When Genesis 3 is read strictly on its own terms and not through the lens of Augustine’s theology of an ideal Paradise before the Fall, a much different picture emerges. As the Anglican theologian N. P. Williams puts it in his 1926 book The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin:
In fact, the scriptural text says nothing of the kind: it implies, on the contrary, that man was created mortal, formed of the dust and destined to return to it, though he might have made himself immortal by eating of the Tree of Life [that is, the second Tree, not yet touched by Adam and Eve after they ate from the first Tree, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil], even after his sin; and that it was precisely in order to keep him mortal that Yahweh expelled him from the Garden and posted a cherubic guard to prevent his return. The point of Yahweh’s warning [in Genesis 2:17] as to the fatal consequences which would follow a breach of his command is, not that man would become mortal after being immortal, but that man, mortal by nature and fated sooner or later to return to dust, would suffer death forthwith as a punishment for sin ("in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die") instead of living out his life to a ripe old age and being reabsorbed into his parent earth through a painless dissolution.
It might be objected that Augustine was basing his theology of original sin not just on Genesis 3 but also on Romans 5:12-21, where Paul explicitly assigns the universality of death to Adam’s sin (especially in verse 12: "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and through sin death, so then death spread to all men inasmuch as all sinned"). But the Greek word translated here by the phrase "inasmuch as" is eph’hô, which in Latin was translated, not quite literally, as in quo; Augustine then took it to mean "in whom," referring to Adam. In other words, Augustine would have read Paul to say that death spread throughout the whole human race because we always sin "in" Adam. But this is not Paul’s meaning, for if it had been he would have chosen the Greek phrase en hô. In this passage death seems to be a later consequence of personal sin: in other words, according to this interpretation of the Greek, Paul here seems to imply that our individual deaths are the result of our own personal sinfulness, not of Adam’s primordial sin.
But leaving aside technical questions of translation, there can be no doubt that Paul is not referring to Augustine’s later doctrine whereby Adam was created perfect and through his own sin introduced into the world a death that would otherwise never have afflicted humanity. On the contrary, he could not be clearer in the rest of his writings that death is not just punishment for sin but is also (and perhaps primarily) a natural condition of fleshly existence.
What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. The body is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical [animal, worldly] body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is a spiritual body. Thus it is written, "the first man Adam became a living being" [Genesis 2:7], but the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Corinthians 15:42- 50, emphasis added)
Not only is there no trace in Paul of any notion of an Adam and Eve created immortal, the passage cited here directly contradicts it.
2) But even if we could force Paul to fit Augustine’s procrustean bed by having him assert a doctrine of an imperishable Adam and Eve before the Fall, and even if we could convince ourselves that the combination of Genesis 3 and Romans 5 leads to a doctrine of original sin, the massive discoveries of nineteenth- and twentieth-century geology, biology, and paleontology block our way. Under their combined and massive impact we no longer interpret Genesis 1-3 literally, understanding by "literal" what is meant in ordinary parlance: taking any vivid historical-seeming narrative to be genuinely historical. Now, at least in professional circles, "literal" means something else: interpreting a text according to the author’s own intentions independent of later doctrinal overlays (a meaning of the term "literal" approved by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu).
Before his conversion, Augustine had always disliked the Old Testament because he found its history so crude, and it was a real liberation for him to discover St. Ambrose’s figural interpretation; thus after his conversion he toyed with an allegorical interpretation of Genesis, as in the last three books of his Confessions. But the older he got, the more literal (in the first sense of the term) became his methods; indeed he wrote a book called Genesis Literally Interpreted. And out of such "literal" interpretations came his depiction of the Garden of Eden as, well, a Paradise: no death, no sin, no suffering. Indeed, so glowing was his portrayal of this putative historical "paradise" that, in his debates with the Pelagians, he was hard put to come up with a motivation for the sin of Adam and Eve: what would ever prompt such a fateful sin in such a pleasant environment and in beings created so free of evil tendencies? So he was finally forced to posit at least a smidgen of "concupiscence," a small but appreciable amount of an inclination toward evil in our first parents, to explain their enticement by the Serpent—a concession which might seem rather to undermine the whole point of the doctrine.
But however awkward it may be on its own terms, this literalizing scenario of Augustine’s completely collapses under the impact of Darwinian biology and of the geology on which it rests. Now "literal," at least for those not schizophrenic about modern science, can only mean taking the biblical authors on their own terms by bracketing away later doctrinally inspired interpretations. This method highlights features of the text not previously noticed, such as how radically variant are the two accounts of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis and how much both are reliant on ancient Hebrew cosmology, which itself borrows heavily from Babylonian sources. And none of these sources recognizes a scenario whereby the first progenitors of the human race were created immortal. Indeed most mythological accounts of the origin of man see the human species as the last and weakest of prior, much stronger, races (as in Hesiod’s notion of the Age of Gold declining to Silver and then to his own wretched Age of Iron, etc.).
3) Finally, even if some way could be found to give a plausible hermeneutical spin to these difficulties, even if theologians found a way of presenting the doctrine in a convincing way, we have the experience of Christian history to tell us of the effects of this doctrine on those churches that most emphasize the doctrine.
It is generally believed that theological schools such as Jansenism and denominations such as Calvinism bring in their wake legions of members with withered emotional lives, censorious views of their less austere neighbors, and a bleak, nearly blasphemous, view of God’s love. At least that is the picture handed down to us from countless sources in the culture, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter to more vulgar displays of the journalistic mind, such as H. L. Mencken’s scorn for the Tennessee literalists of his day or, more recently, the soap-opera treatment to which the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart was subjected a few years back.
And there must be something to this perception, at least if we are to take the testimony of certain people raised in the Calvinist tradition seriously. For example, Woodrow Wilson, a Presbyterian, suffered from a bleak and relentless depression stemming, according to his biographers, from the combination of his herculean efforts to spread democracy coupled with his firm belief that the vast majority of the human race was going to hell in any event. And Henry James, Sr., the father of the famous novelist Henry and his equally renowned philosopher brother William, suffered under a similar theology-induced depression until he had what he described as a "vastation" (clean sweep) and became a Swedenborgian.
To the extent this cultural perception is accurate, it must rest on what is the most illogical and contradictory aspect of the doctrine of original sin, at least as it is normally heard in the pew: that we are morally culpable for possessing instincts which we cannot help possessing. One is reminded in this context of Calvin’s weird, though logical, inference in his Institutes (II, i, 8) that "infants bring their own damnation with them from their mothers’ wombs; the moment they are born their natures are odious and abominable to God." To build a pedagogy on this premise is, needless to say, to invite disaster, as we learn in the poem "Holy Willie’s Prayer" by the Scotsman Robert Burns; one of the grimmest poems in the language, it depicts the vision of babies dropping right from their mothers’ wombs into hellfire. The Rev. Williams, whose book we have already cited, generally offers a sober, impartial history of this doctrine, but when he comes to its moral and psychological effects he can be positively withering, and on no one is he harsher than on Augustine:
The downright brutality which led him to discard his mistress of fifteen years’ standing, the mother of Adeodatus, without, apparently, so much as a thought of making reparation for his fault by marrying her, appears in his theology as the heartlessness which leaves the great bulk of mankind, even helpless infants, in the massa perditionis, doomed to everlasting flames for a sin which is not their own. The terrible strength of the sexual passions which devastated his youth and early manhood accounts for the prominence which the idea of "concupiscence" assumes in his writings; and the apparently instantaneous sublimation of these emotions through his conversion explains the feeling of irresistible grace upon which his theology of predestination and election was founded, as well as the ultra-puritan fanaticism which colored his opinions with regard to wedlock and procreation. . . . The fact that Augustine nevertheless maintained this inhuman theory [of the damnation of unbaptized infants] down to the last days of his life is a melancholy illustration of the way in which the best of men may allow the kindly instincts of human nature to be overridden by the demands of a fanatical logic.
And so, it would seem that original sin ought not be believed.
Sed contra: on the contrary, the Psalmist says: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psalm 51:5). Or, for those who would deny the authority of the Bible but need to be brought up short so as to question the seeming plausibility of all of the above, I cite Reinhold Niebuhr: "The truth is that, absurd as the classical Pauline doctrine of original sin may seem to be at first blush, its prestige as a part of the Christian truth is preserved, and perennially reestablished, against the attacks of rationalists and simple moralists by its ability to throw light upon complex factors in human behavior which constantly escape the moralists."
Respondeo: And therefore, to all of the above, I respond as follows:
First of all, the doctrine of original sin is not, despite what some historians of dogma aver, St. Augustine’s invention sprung full-blown from his overheated sex life. It is really, when soberly examined, an inference that arises from reflection on the reality of evil when considered in the light of ethical monotheism. John Henry Newman, for one, always insisted that original sin is the only way believers can make sense of the world when they contrast that world to their faith in God. So powerful is his description of the meaning of this doctrine (it is probably the most famous passage in his Apologia pro vita sua) that it bears quoting in full:
If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflection of its Creator. . . . [To consider] the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turns out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, "having no hope and without God in the world"—all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution. What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence.
This remarkably modern passage does not, admittedly, present a full-throated defense of the doctrine of original sin, for it still allows a choice between atheism or a subscription to a belief in the Fall to account for the presence of evil in the world. But that is how the doctrine of original sin has in fact functioned in the history of the Church’s thought: it is a secondary implication arising from a prior belief in God’s goodness and omnipotence. Thus the waning of belief in God was bound to make the doctrine of original sin seem irrational. But that hardly makes it less indispensable, as Steven Duffy argued in an important 1988 article in Theological Studies:
In the twentieth century, when human beings have already killed well over one hundred million of their kind, disenchantment [with an optimistic view of human nature] has set in. Two world wars, the Gulags, the Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, the nuclear and ecological threats form a somber litany that makes the optimism of the liberals ring hollow and naïve. Despite technological progress, evil, far from vanishing, has only become more powerful and more fiendish. . . . And artists like Conrad, Camus, Beckett, Golding, and Murdoch contend that because of our hearts of darkness there may be countless nice men and women but few if any genuinely good ones. In all these perspectives evil is held to be inherent, somehow structural, ingrained. And its terrible power defies explanation and solution. Paradoxically, the silver wings of science and technology, on which soared the hopes of the industrialized societies, carry the ultimate menace to the human prospect.
Nor is the doctrine, in its essence, tied to a "literal" interpretation of the narrative of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3, despite what so many people think. In fact, the ubiquitous evil of the world, when honestly considered, is not a reality that an honest person should see first and primarily as an abstract issue of speculative theodicy ("How can there be evil out there when God is good?"); rather it is one that should first arise from within the human heart itself ("Why do I do the evil I abhor?").
What is more, the consequences of abandoning the doctrine are nothing short of disastrous. Indeed, perhaps the best way of defending the doctrine is to follow the career of modernity and see the consequences of not holding to the doctrine. I am reminded in this context of a shrewd observation by Anatole France to the effect that never have so many been murdered in the name of a doctrine as in the name of the principle that human beings are naturally good. When one glances over the catalogue of evils that have so pockmarked this century, it is extraordinary how many have come from doctrines founded on the notion of the perfectibility of man. As Niebuhr puts it so well:
The utopian illusions and sentimental aberrations of modern liberal culture are really all derived from the basic error of negating the fact of original sin. This error . . . continually betrays modern men to equate the goodness of men with the virtue of their various schemes for social justice and international peace. When these schemes fail of realization or are realized only after tragic conflicts, modern men either turn from utopianism to disillusionment and despair, or they seek to place the onus of their failure upon some particular social group, . . . [which is why] both modern liberalism and modern Marxism are always facing the alternatives of moral futility or moral fanaticism. Liberalism in its pure form [that is, pacifism] usually succumbs to the peril of futility. It will not act against evil until it is able to find a vantage point of guiltlessness from which to operate. This means that it cannot act at all. Sometimes it imagines that this inaction is the guiltlessness for which it has been seeking. A minority of liberals and most of the Marxists solve the problem by assuming that they have found a position of guiltlessness in action. Thereby they are betrayed into the error of fanaticism.
This too, like Cardinal Newman’s defense of the doctrine, is not a positive "proof" in the technical sense but merely points to the consequences of abandoning the doctrine. But such a modest opening gambit at least blocks the way to an outright denial of the doctrine. For it is, after all, mostly because of Augustine’s own formulations of a perfect Paradise spoiled by a nearly unmotivated sin that make Christians feel stranded in their sense of the doctrine, especially in the light of evolution. On its own terms, the doctrine stands as a cipher pointing to what everyone senses in his or her own heart: that sin after Adam always takes the form of acquiescence and not of origination. We are born, that is, into a world where rebellion against God has already taken place, and the drift of it sweeps us along.
Nor, properly understood, is Augustine’s rosy scenario of Paradise (which John Milton used so effectively in Paradise Lost) all that absurd: the Catechism speaks of the "figurative language" of Genesis 3 (#390), and the same must therefore apply, a fortiori, to Augustine’s portrait of Adam and Eve before the Fall. The reason we are drawn, despite the theory of evolution, to Augustine’s and Milton’s portrait of Paradise before the Fall is the memory of that original justice we once had with God but lost through sin, as Pascal explains so well:
The greatness of man is so evident that it is even proved by his wretchedness. For what in animals is called nature we call wretchedness in man; by which we recognize that, his nature now being like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his. For who is unhappy at not being a king except a deposed king? Who is unhappy at having only one mouth? And who is not unhappy at having only one eye? Probably no one ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes; but anyone would be inconsolable at having none.
In other words, when Augustine and Milton paint their version of "paradise lost" with the genius of their theological imagination, they are putting into figurative language this elementary insight of Pascal’s, one that every human being can recognize. The Genesis story of the Fall even retains its validity when we admit into our purview the folkloric motif of the serpent. As Paul Ricoeur notes in his book The Symbolism of Evil, which along with Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man is perhaps the best book on this topic written in the twentieth century, the figure of the serpent symbolizes a seldom-stressed aspect of the doctrine of the Fall: that rebellion against God also pre-existed the human species: "It is noteworthy that the Adamic myth does not succeed," says Ricoeur, "in concentrating and absorbing the origin of evil in the figure of a primordial man alone; it speaks also of the adversary, the Serpent, later [understood as] the devil." In a way, the term "original sin," at least when taken, as it usually is, to refer to what happened to humanity in Adam and Eve, is a misnomer, for it is crucial to the narrative that they were tempted, and indeed by an outside force or reality. Niebuhr also emphasizes this point:
The importance of biblical satanology lies in the two facts that: (1) the devil is not thought of as having been created evil. Rather his evil arises from his effort to transgress the bounds set for his life, an effort which places him in rebellion against God. (2) The devil fell before man fell, which is to say that man’s rebellion against God is not an act of sheer perversity, nor does it follow inevitably from the situation in which he stands.
The term "original" sin still retains its validity, though, even when applied to Adam and Eve, for the narrative definitely holds that, in St. Paul’s terms, sin entered the world through the sin of our first parents and henceforth takes on the specifically human form of "giving in," of yielding to a force already heavily at work in the world of creation. This is why for the saints an asceticism of agere contra, literally "striving against," was so crucial. For without a conscious effort to "stem the tide" of sin, acquiescence will sweep us along in its path.
With these arguments in hand we are now ready to answer the various arguments raised in the first part of this essay:
Ad primum: as for the first objection, it is not necessary for the Bible to mention the name of a doctrine for it either to be true or for it to be located there in so many other words. The notion of original sin arose in the Christian Church well before Augustine when Christians accepted a canon of Old and New Testaments and began to interpret one book in terms of all the others. And so it became inevitable to interpret Genesis 3 in terms of Romans 5. But even more crucially, the canon of the New Testament arose under pressure from Gnosticism, which held that evil was a necessary concomitant of the material, created world. To counteract this heresy, which contradicts the Christian gospel of the goodness of God and of his creation, the Church insisted on the contingency of evil. And yet, as Paul says, once evil "entered" the world, it worked its way into the very roots both of creation (Romans 8) and of the human heart (Romans 7). And out of this process, at first adventitious and then deeply embedded, there arises the experience of the servility of the will to temptation, which all human beings who are honest with themselves will see as true in their own case. This reality of the crippled will, when coupled to a confession of the essential goodness of nature, can only be illumined by a doctrine of original sin.
Ad secundum: as to the second objection, as we have seen, the doctrine in its essence does not depend on the historicity of Genesis 1-3 (very few Christians in the world now refuse to admit the figural language of the first three chapters of the Bible). In fact, to historicize it, to read it "literally" (and it is doubtful that even fundamentalists think God takes afternoon strolls in His garden), distorts the point of the doctrine and forces Paul to contradict himself about the physical body being naturally mortal.
As we have seen, the Jews of the Hellenistic world also came gradually to abandon the notion that evil entered the world because of the mating of "the daughters of men with the sons of God" and finally attributed the evil inclination of the human heart to Adam’s sin. But because of the similarity between the name Adam (Hebrew for "man" in the generic sense) and adamah ("ground" or "earth"), some rabbis wove a charming story of embellishment—technically known as a midrash—which said that God made Adam out of dust gathered from all over the earth, with his head formed from the earth of the Holy Land, the trunk of his body from Babylonian soil, etc. How much Paul was influenced by these speculations remains a matter of dispute (the story, at least as it comes down to us, stems from a tradition that postdates Paul), but he certainly seems to hold a corporate view of Adam in Romans 5 as a contrasting concept to his corporate view of Christ (that is, as sinners we belong to the "body of Adam" as we belong to the Body of Christ by virtue of our redemption through baptism). But that must mean that Paul does propose a theory of original sin after all, precisely by subscribing to a corporate notion of Adam: we sin because we sin "in" Adam. (This is, by the way, a view also held by, among others, St. Ambrose, an elder contemporary of St. Augustine’s, who said, "So then Adam is in each one of us, for in him human nature itself sinned.")**
Now if Paul does hold to a corporate view of Adam, then this must mean that Romans 5:12b should not be translated "death spread to all men inasmuch as all men sinned" (implying that personal sin causes death) but rather "with the result that all men sinned" (with its implication that the specter of death generates sin; this, at any rate, is Father Joseph Fitzmyer’s choice for translating eph’hô in his recent Anchor Bible commentary on Romans). If this translation is accurate, then Augustine is fundamentally right and this verse in the Bible comes very close to asserting a doctrine of original sin: in other words, we die not because we commit individual sins of our own volition; rather we sin, and inevitably, we die, and inevitably, as a result of Adam’s sin.
Ad tertium: as to the third objection, we must take seriously the testimony of those raised in, and later reacting against, Augustinian strains of Christianity who claim that a stress on original sin leads to a morbid preoccupation with and fear for one’s salvation. But this concern must be coupled with a sober reflection on the immense harm that has been unleashed on humanity by a denial of this doctrine. One need only compare Henry James, Sr. or Woodrow Wilson, however theologically grim their lives were, with the fate of a Ukrainian farmer, starved to death by Stalin on his altar of collectivized agriculture in his drive to bring to birth the New Soviet Man. And if Calvin’s view that newborn infants are "odious" in the sight of God has led to warped pedagogy (a point never really established by historians; indeed the Puritans were noted for their love of their children), this can hardly compare to the appalling way Jean-Jacques Rousseau reared his children. Rousseau insisted that man is born a "noble savage" who is corrupted not by his own heart of darkness but by civilized forces external to the innocent self; yet he fathered a number of illegitimate children and farmed them out to orphanages, never to make contact with them again.
It might sound intolerably paradoxical to say this, but it is precisely the very harm that sometimes comes from the doctrine of original sin that proves its validity. This is a point made time and again by Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish emigré intellectual now at the University of Chicago, author of a three-volume history of Marxist thought and a man who therefore knows something of the harm visited upon the human community by doctrines of progressivism. In his recent book of essays, Modernity on Endless Trial, he shrewdly notes how this third objection to original sin can be turned into a supporting argument:
The possible disastrous effects of the concept of original sin on our psychological condition and on our cultural life are undeniable [because of its use to keep people "in their place" and not alter unjust social structures]; and so are the disastrous effects of the opposing doctrine, with its implication that our perfectibility is limitless, and that our predictions of ultimate synthesis or total reconciliation can be realized. However, the fact that both affirmation and rejection of the concept of original sin have emerged as powerful destructive forces in our history is one of many that testify in favor of the reality of original sin. In other words, we face a peculiar situation in which the disastrous consequences of assenting to either of two incompatible theories confirm one of them and testify against its rival.
Finally and in conclusion, I would like to add my own version to this argument: to deny this doctrine is not to escape the gray doldrums of Jansenist/Calvinist Christianity but to warp the very core of the Christian gospel: that God so loved the world that He sent his only Son to save that world from its sin. But why so extreme a remedy for so adventitious a fault?
There is a trend afoot these days, noticeable even in the later writings of Karl Rahner, to see the Crucifixion as an admirable example of love "to the end." Of course for Rahner this love must be Jesus’ love. But this focus on Jesus as model and exemplar prompts the question of what God was doing in Christ’s death. How and why is God reconciling the world to Himself in the death and resurrection of His Son?
Ironically enough, this sentimentalism of stressing Jesus’ exemplary love has already been tried and found wanting. The pagans of antiquity used Jesus’ manner of death as a reproach to Christians; Socrates’ approach to death, they claimed, was much more admirable, since he faced death unflinchingly and without fear, whereas Jesus agonized over the prospect of death and prayed that the cup of suffering might be taken from him. But even if one grants a change in sensibility and that people of today can be led to admire Jesus’ perseverance and willingness to sacrifice himself in the face of gut fear, it still leaves unanswered why God would choose so extreme a remedy for a condition so easily ameliorated by good pedagogy, rather like a doctor who recommends a regimen of chemotherapy to cure a common cold.
Rather than face this issue directly, more and more Christians, I have discovered, are resorting to a kind of Sunday School moralism, a sentimentalism of love-thy-neighbor that is more concerned with thinking nice thoughts than facing hard issues. This can be confirmed by dropping in on most churches on a Sunday morning and listening to the sermon, which more often than not spends its time inculcating the virtues of "family values" or moral earnestness than proclaiming that hard gospel preached by Paul of the price paid in the Blood of the Lamb for our redemption.
Perhaps with good reason. There is no doubt that original sin is a hard doctrine. For if we are infected with an original corruption to the very core of our natures, then there is a great deal of evil that cannot be uprooted—not an easy doctrine to accept in our activist times. Without the aid of God, unearned and unmerited, so this doctrine says, our misery is incurable.
No wonder, too, that Christians are more and more opting for a theology of universal reconciliation, hoping for an empty hell, a theological opinion most vigorously defended recently by the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. And while he is certainly right that there are certain biblical warrants for this hope, I also feel that the attraction that many Christians increasingly feel to that doctrine can be worrisome. In this accommodating climate perhaps the Church would do well to heed the admonition of Kolakowski:
It is hardly surprising that the optimistic philosophy of universal reconciliation should tempt contemporary Christianity so strongly. After the many failures it suffered through its inability to cope with a secular civilization and its mistrust of intellectual and social changes beyond its control, after its spurious success in overcoming the Modernist crisis at the beginning of this century, a Great Fear seems to have pervaded the Christian world—the fear of being trapped in an alien enclave within a basically un-Christian society. This Great Fear of being out-distanced and isolated now impels Christian thinking towards the idea that the most important task of Christianity is not only to be "within the world," not only to participate in the efforts of secular culture, not only to modify the language of its teachings so that they are intelligible to all men, but to sanctify in advance almost any movement that arises spontaneously from natural human impulses. Universal suspicion seems to have been supplanted by universal approval; the dread of a forced retreat to the Christian culture of the Syllabus of Errors . . . appears to be stronger than that of losing one’s identity.
It is my deep conviction that any mitigation of the doctrine of original sin will prove disastrous for the health of the Church in the future, and for just the reasons that Kolakowski adduces. If the experience of human history from Rousseau to Stalin means anything, it must be that we are stuck, like it or not, with the doctrine—nay, the reality—of original sin. But as St. Paul knew, this need not be a morbid doctrine. For our diagnosis has come with a cure. Even Augustine’s formulation is perfectly understandable to people today, for he, perhaps even more than St. Paul, got to the heart of the issue when he noted that although (by virtue of our nature as human beings) we are free to do what we like, we are not free (by virtue of original sin) to like what we ought to like. And this insight is the beginning of the journey toward that holiness which God has destined for His Church. For as the Rev. N. P. Williams so wonderfully notes, "The ordinary man may feel ashamed of doing wrong: but the saint, endowed with a superior refinement of moral sensibility, and keener powers of introspection, is ashamed of being the kind of man who is liable to do wrong."
The argument of this essay is a Thomistic "article" in the literal sense of that word: only one link in a larger articulated chain of theological argument. It is designed only to establish that we must believe in original sin. I do not establish its essence, its mode of transmission, the extent to which it is "analogical," how it might fit into a scheme of evolution, the historicity of Adam, etc. My only argument here, against the whole plausible array of arguments against the doctrine, is that, despite its obvious paradoxicality, it proves to be more illuminating of the human condition than its competitors. As Pascal—who can set forth in two lines what it takes other theologians two books to show—says with his usual precision: "Doubtless there is nothing more shocking to our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered guilty those who, being so removed from its source, seem incapable of participating in it. Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine, and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves."
*The Bible is somewhat of an exception to this rule. This is because, for Thomas, while merely human authority is a weak support for any argument, divine authority is the strongest possible ground of truth. However, the mere citation of the Bible in the sed contra section was not meant to be the clincher it might seem, for often the videtur quod section cited the Bible as well. It was obvious to everyone in the medieval schools that on the surface the Bible often seems to contradict itself; indeed it was out of a sense that these contradictions needed to be resolved that the scholastic method first arose.
**The reason this issue of the corporate Adam is so important stems from this dilemma: how do we connect the first sin with all subsequent sins but not so that there is a cause-effect relationship between the first sin and later sins? For in that case Adam's sin would be a freely chosen sin while all other sins would be the inevitable result of his sin (effects have no choice in being the effect of a cause). But if Adam is free and we are not, then he is not really the first of a series. So how do we link Adam to the rest of the human race so that he still remains within the series of humans (though the first ) but also so that we an still posit a definitive change in mankind with the first sin? Here is where I think Kierkegaard (with Ambrose) must be right, that the story of Adam and Eve means that "[each] man is at once himself and the whole race, in such a way that the whole race has part in the individual and the individual has part in the whole race." Once we concede this point to Kierkegaard, the rest falls into place, including our responsibility for an evil we will inevitably commit.
Edward T. Oakes, S. J., is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Regis University of Denver, Colorado. The second edition of his book Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Continuum) has just appeared in paperback.