'O happy fault': the Christian doctrine of original sin

'O happy fault': the Christian doctrine of original sin

Noel Roberts

Edward Oakes wrote in First Things (November 1998): "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 half-hearted lip service that does not exactly deny the doctrine but has no idea how to place it inside the devout life".

Original sin may mean either the sin that Adam committed or the consequence of this first sin. From earliest times the latter sense of the word was more common, as seen from St Augustine's statement, "The deliberate sin of the first man is the cause of original sin" (De nupt. et concup., II, xxvi. 43).

The doctrine of original sin, defined at the Council of Trent, was reaffirmed at the second Vatican Council:

"Although he was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very onset of his history man abused his liberty, at the urging of the Evil One. Man set himself against God and sought to attain his goal apart from God. Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, but their senseless minds were darkened and they served the creature rather than the Creator.

"What divine revelation makes known to us agrees with experience. Examining his heart, man finds that he has inclinations toward evil too, and is engulfed by manifold ills which cannot come from his good Creator. Often refusing to acknowledge God as his beginning, man has disrupted also his proper relationship to his own ultimate goal as well as his whole relationship toward himself and others and all created things" (Gaudium et Spes, 13).

John Paul II observed in Centesimus Annus (25) that the doctrine of original sin is essential to understanding human reality: "Moreover, man, who was created for freedom, bears within himself the wound of original sin, which constantly draws him towards evil and puts him in need of redemption. Not only is this doctrine an integral part of Christian revelation; it also has great hermeneutical value insofar as it helps one to understand human reality. Man tends towards good, but he is also capable of evil".

Opposition

Much of the opposition to the doctrine springs from the belief promulgated by Pelagius that human beings are able to achieve their salvation through their own powers. Pelagius, influential from the late fourth to early fifth century, was a British lay theologian and exegete who was influential among the Roman aristocracy.

He aimed to establish a perfect church of the elite as an example to a sinful world. He praised free will, the power to choose between good and evil, as the highest human endowment.

Pelagius was outraged by Augustine's words in The Confessions (X, 29): "Grant what thou dost command, and command what thou wilt", implying that our power to do good depended solely on God's help.

Pelagius taught that even atheists could become virtuous by use of their free will. Christians, he believed, had the added help of grace, which Pelagius understood as the example and motivation of Christ.

Original sin was no more than Adam's bad example, not an inherited defect that impaired the freedom of the will. He believed adult Baptism marked a psychological break with the past and not as remitting inherited guilt. Infant baptism did not fit into the Pelagian system.

It is to Augustine that we owe the Church's teaching on original sin. Before he became a bishop he had accepted some semi-Pelagian views, which he subsequently renounced (De Praedestinatione Sanctorum).

Some of the most vehement attacks on the doctrine of original sin have appeared in recent times. I have chosen three of the most influential writers in this category.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982), a novelist of Russian origin, spent her adult life in the USA. She rejected faith as antithetical to reason. A 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month asked what was the most influential book in the respondent's life. Rand's Atlas Shrugged was the second most popular choice after the Bible. The following extract is from that book:

"What is the nature of guilt that your teachers call Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge - he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil - he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labour - he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire - he acquired the capacity for sexual enjoyment.

"The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness and joy - all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man's fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was - that robot in the Garden of Eden who existed without mind, without values, without labour, without pleasure - he was not a man".

Rand's grand lie is as seductive as that of the serpent.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ (1885-1955), the past century's most lauded figure in religious circles, was a Jesuit priest and a palaeontologist. He recasts traditional Christian belief in the mould of his evolutionary view of the world and rejects the Catholic doctrine of original sin. "Original sin", he claims, "expresses the perennial and universal law of imperfection that operates in mankind in virtue of its evolution." Thus it is not the result of a human act, but the consequence of the manner in which God chose to create (From Piltdown Man to Point Omega, p. 193).

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made the following comments on the Teilhardian view of original sin:

"In an evolutionist hypothesis of the world, there is no place for original sin. This, at most, is merely a symbolic, mythical expression to designate the natural deficiencies of a creature like man, who from most imperfect origins, moves toward perfection, toward complete realisation. Acceptance of this view turns the structure of Christianity on its head: Christ is displaced from the past to the future. Salvation would simply mean moving toward the future as the necessary development to the better.

"Man is but a product who has not yet been perfected by time. There has never been a redemption because there was no sin on account of which man would need to be healed, but only a natural deficiency.

"Yet these difficulties of a more or less 'scientific' origin are not yet the root of the present-day crisis of 'original sin'. If it is no longer understood that man is in a state of alienation - that is not only economic and social and, consequently, one that is not resolvable by his efforts alone - one no longer understands the necessity of Christ the Redeemer. The whole structure of the faith is threatened" (The Ratzinger Report, 1985, p. 80).

Matthew Fox (1940-), a Dominican priest, was forbidden to teach theology by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) in 1988 because of his denial of original sin. He was also an admirer of Teilhard de Chardin. Subsequently he was dismissed from the Dominican Order for refusing to meet with his superiors to discuss his writings and in 1994 was received into the Episcopal Church. His influential book Original Blessings sold millions of copies. In that book he asks the question:

"Why has original sin played so important a role for sixteen centuries of Western Christian theology, an even more important role than it did for its originator, St Augustine?" He answers his own question: "I believe that the basic reason is political ... It plays into the hands of empire builders, slave-masters, and patriarchal society in general. It divides and therefore conquers, pitting one's thoughts against one's feelings, one's body against one's spirit ... people against earth animals and nature. ... it pays well to keep guilt going."

Thus he dismisses 2000 years of Christianity! In his eyes the Church's service to the sick, the homeless and the poor, to art and scholarship, and its saints, reflect nothing more than a grab for power and money.

John Henry Newman

Although John Henry Newman (1801-1890) lived in optimistic 19th century England he perceived that fallen humanity cries out for explanation.

"Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself.

"If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling that actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world.

"I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet's scroll, full of 'lamentations, and mourning, and woe'" (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1864.

There are only two answers for this state of affairs; either there is no creator or humanity is discarded from God's presence. Newman is absolutely certain that there is a God - he is as certain of this truth as of his own existence - so he concludes the human race must be implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. The human race is at odds with the purpose of its Creator. Newman is not averse to calling this situation a fact. He concludes that the doctrine of original sin "becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (415-419) presents Newman's vision of original sin in a more prosaic form:

"Although set by God in a state of rectitude, man, enticed by the evil one, abused his freedom at the start of history. He lifted himself up against God and sought to attain his goal apart from Him. By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but also for all human beings.

"Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called "original sin." As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the domination of death and the inclination to sin. We therefore hold, with the Council of Trent, that original sin is transmitted with human nature, 'by propagation, not by imitation, and is proper to each'."

Dr Noel Roberts, formerly Associate Professor of Chemistry at The University of Tasmania, has degrees in Physical Chemistry, Economics and Philosophy, and Divinity (specialising in Hebrew and Greek), and is literate in German and other languages. He wrote the book From Piltdown Man to Point Omega: the Evolutionary Theory of Teilhard de Chardin (New York, Peter Lang, 2000), and has written articles on Newman and Galileo. He recently contributed a chapter to a history of Christianity.

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