RAGS OF MORTALITY: ORIGINAL SIN AND HUMAN NATURE

by Archpriest Alexander Golubov, Ph.D.

 

Behold, I am now captive to death because of unlawful counsel.
And I who was for a time robed with the glory of immortality
have become like one dead, wrapped pitifully in the rags of mortality
--Matins of Meatfare Sunday, Einos, Tone 5

 

Our annual spiritual journey into Great Lent, and especially into Passion Week, when we commemorate the betrayal, crucifixion, death and burial of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, followed by the celebration of His glorious Resurrection on the third day, offers us, again and again, the opportunity to ponder the mysteries of the Incarnation of the Son of God and His Redemption of the fallen human race. Inextricably tied in with this, of course, is the mystery of human life lived in the context of the terrible realities of sin, suffering and death, which none of us are capable of escaping except for what the Lord has accomplished for us, through His Cross and Resurrection.

It was St. Paul who first connected the events surrounding the temptation and fall of Adam in Paradise, as recounted in Genesis 3, to the events surrounding the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ in Jerusalem, and established between them a logical and direct inner relationship. To his mind, Adam's transgression in Paradise became the doorway through which sin and death entered into the world: "sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men for all have sinned" (Rom. 5:12).

Commenting on this and related passages, St. John Chrysostom explains: "But what does it mean, 'for all have sinned' (Rom. 5.12) This: he having once fallen, yet they that had not eaten of the tree inherited mortality ... From this it is clear that it was not Adam's sin, his transgression — that is of the Law — but by the virtue of his disobedience that all have been marred. What is the proof of this? The fact that even before the Law all died: 'for death reigned,' St. Paul says, 'from Adam to Moses, even over them who had not sinned' (Rom 5:14). How did it 'reign'? After the manner of Adam's transgression, he who is 'the type of Him that was to come.' Thus, when the Jews ask, how was it possible for one Person to have saved the world? you will be able to reply, in the same way that the disobedience of one person, Adam, brought its condemnation" (Commentary on Romans, X).

Explaining Christ's redemptive role, St. Paul recapitulated this thought in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, where he proclaimed: "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection from the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:21-22).

Following St. Paul, the Holy Fathers teach that the state of general sinfulness and death is not man's original state of being, that man was not created by God to naturally live like this. Rather, this miserable condition in which we now find ourselves is the natural result of the moral disaster that occurred in Paradise with our ancient forefathers, Adam and Eve. The human race, writes St. Justin Martyr, "from the time of Adam had been subject to death and deceit of the serpent, each of us having committed sins of our own" (Dialogue with Trypho, 88). "When [Adam] transgressed the Commandment of God," teaches St. Methodius of Olympus, "he suffered the terrible and destructive fall. He was reduced to a state of death" (Banquet of the Virgins, III).

Before their fall in Paradise, however, writes St. Athanasius of Alexandria, our forefathers "did not die and did not decay, escaped death and corruption. The presence of the Word with them shielded them from natural corruption, as also the Book of Wisdom says, God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by the envy of the devil death entered into the world (Wis. 2:23f.) When this happened, men began to die, and corruption spread unchecked among them and held sway over men to more than a natural degree, because it was the penalty concerning which God had forewarned would be the reward of transgressing the commandment" (On the Incarnation of the Word).

Thus, according to the Fathers, our present condition is the result of a freely-willed choice, the natural consequences of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, the penalty for failure to heed God's warning that death, indeed, will be the catastrophic outcome of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It might occur to some, however, that it is exceedingly cruel of God to condemn the entire human race for the sin of two individuals. Why, indeed, should we, who were not around at the time of Adam's transgression, have to pay the rather stiff penalty for something that we did not, of ourselves, do? Isn't this guilt by association?

The source of this moral problem is not God, of course, as the author of evil and death, for God is not such. "We must understand," writes St. Gregory Palamas, "that God 'did not make death' (Wisdom 1:13), whether of the body or of the soul. For when He first gave the command, He did not say, 'On the day you eat of it, die,' but 'In the day you eat of it, you will surely die' (Gen. 2:17). He did not say afterwards, 'return now to the earth,' but 'you shall return' (Gen. 3:19), foretelling in this way what would come to pass" (One Hundred Fifty Chapters). Neither is the source, explains St. Theophilos of Antioch, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For it is not, he writes, "as if any evil existed in the tree of knowledge, but from the fact of his disobedience did man draw, as from a fountain, labor, grief and, at last, fell prey to death" (To Autolycus, II, 25).

The problem, rather, has to do with the nature of Divinely-mandated freedom and the autonomous functioning of the natural law of creation, directly pertaining to issues of heredity and genetics, being analogous to something which contemporary medicine would define as "fetal addiction syndrome" or "fetal AIDS syndrome." In such a case, a mother who carries a gene for hemophilia, for instance, will transmit it to her offspring by the biological laws of heredity, though the processes of meiosis and mitosis, by means of which cell division naturally occurs. Or, in a similar way, a mother addicted to either drugs or alcohol, or who is HIV-positive, by virtue of the fact that from the moment of conception she shares with the child in her womb both blood and other bodily fluids, will naturally transmit to her child what she herself carries in her own blood. We easily understand that in this case, the child that is in the womb of the mother, will, of course, without any movement of the will, without agreement or disagreement with the particular moral choices of the mother, and, importantly, without any guilt on his part, participate in the affliction of the mother ("Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me," Ps. 50[51].5). It is in this vein, indeed, that the Fathers explain the concept of what has become known in theology as "original sin."

St. Cyril of Alexandria, for instance, observes: "Since [Adam] produced children after falling into this state, we, his descendants, are corruptible as the issue of a corruptible source. It is in this sense that we are heirs of Adam's curse. Not that we are punished for having disobeyed God's commandment along with him, but that he became mortal and the curse of mortality was transmitted to his seed after him, offspring born of a mortal source ... So corruption and death are the universal inheritance of Adam's transgression" (Doctrinal questions and answers, 6). Elsewhere, commenting on St. Paul's teaching, he explains: "Human nature became sick with sin. Because of the disobedience of one (that is, of Adam), the many became sinners; not because they transgressed together with Adam (for they were not there) but because they are of his nature, which entered under the dominion of sin ... Human nature became ill and subject to corruption through the transgression of Adam, thus penetrating man's very passions" (On Romans 5.18).

Summarizing this patristic teaching, the Greek theologian John Karmiris writes that "the sin of the first man, together with all of its consequences and penalties, is transferred by means of natural heredity to the entire human race. Since every human being is a descendant of the first man, 'no one of us is free from the spot of sin, even if he should manage to live a completely sinless day.' ... Original Sin not only constitutes 'an accident' of the soul; but its results, together with its penalties, are transplanted by natural heredity to the generations to come ... And thus, from the one historical event of the first sin of the first-born man, came the present situation of sin being imparted, together with all of the consequences thereof, to all natural descendants of Adam."[1]

Held, in general, as Orthodox teaching by both Eastern and Western Fathers, the theological concept, or doctrine, of "original sin," as the Russian theologian Fr. Michael Pomazansky points out, "has great significance in the Christian world-view, because upon it rests a whole series of other dogmas."[2] As a distinct concept of Christian theology, however, it was first defined and introduced in the fifth century by Blessed Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius in Northern Africa.

Blessed Augustine developed his doctrine in the context of a rather hot polemical confrontation with the heretic Pelagius, who, fleeing Rome after its sack in 410 by Alaric, chieftain of the Western Goths, had the misfortune, together with some of his followers, to settle in Africa, where his preaching came under the intense scrutiny of the bishop of Hippo. Pelagius, who was not a theologian, but essentially an itinerant ascetic preacher and moralist, whose chief interest was in correcting the moral laxity of contemporary Christians, had the further misfortune of permitting a local lawyer named Coelestius, who was seeking ordination to the priesthood, to become his disciple and interpreter of his views. In the view of the Pelagians, the low level of morality and rampant moral laxity had its source not only in what they saw as the denial of individual moral responsibility in the teaching about the consequences of Adam's sin, but also in the definition of the clergy as an elite group in the church, which in their eyes permitted the laity to abjure their moral responsibilities and adopt unacceptably low standards of Christian living. Some time later, after Pelagius had already left for Palestine (where he had yet the further misfortune of running afoul of the hot-tempered Blessed Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin), Coelestius and his followers began preaching and explicating the views of their teacher, and in the process questioned the practice of infant baptism, the efficacy of the Incarnation and redemptive death of Christ on the cross, and denied the inheritance of Adam's sin. While man does indeed follow Adam into death, they taught, man sins only by example, through imitation of Adam, not through an endemic, hereditary defect of his nature. Despite the facts of sin and death, man's nature nonetheless remains as he was originally created, innocent and pure, as was first-created Adam himself. Disease and death are thus not consequences of original sin, but are characteristic of human nature from creation.

Blessed Augustine very correctly noted the dangerous implications of this argument for Orthodox theology. The total dismissal of the concept of an original, systemic sin inherited from Adam and present in human nature by virtue of genetic heritage results not only in an overly high valuation of man's physical and spiritual capabilities apart from God, but more importantly, perhaps, places in doubt the entire economy of our salvation by Christ, by obviating such essential Christian doctrines as the Incarnation and Redemption.

It should be remembered that the Pelagian controversy, which originally sparked the theological debate, was essentially a Western, more specifically, a Northern African controversy, which only incidentally involved Palestine and the East.[3] While Pelagius himself died in obscurity some years after his condemnation by the Council of Carthage in 416 and the Local African Council of 418, and before the Council of Ephesus in 431, the theological controversy to which he involuntarily lent his name was to involve quite a few Latin Fathers, and was to have far-reaching effects on the formulation of doctrines of sin and grace, free will and predestination. Thus, the theological debate that arose out of these issues eventually was to involve, directly or indirectly, not only Blessed Augustine and Blessed Jerome, but also Augustine's disciples Caesarius of Arles and Prosper of Aquitaine, as well as John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, Gennadius of Marseilles, Faustus of Riez, and Arnobius the Younger, not to mention the later "augustinians"[4] and scholastics, and eventually the Protestant Reformers as well.

Technically speaking, in their writings the Eastern Fathers and Orthodox theologians do not use the Latin term introduced by Blessed Augustine in his treatise "De Peccato originali," but instead translate this concept by means of two cognate terms in both Greek and Russian, namely, progoniki amartia (= pervorodnyi grekh in Russian) and to propatorikon amartima (= praroditel'skii grekh), which is properly translated "ancestral sin." These terms allow for a more careful nuancing of the various implications contained in the one Latin term.

In the East, then, the concept of original sin has come to mean, as Fr. Michael Pomazansky very succinctly defines it, "the sin of Adam, which was transmitted to his descendants and weighs upon them."[5] Or, as John Karmiris puts it in an expanded definition, original sin is "'sin-sickness,' the sinful situation of human nature which deprived man of Divine Grace, and subjected him to death, to departure from the Divine life, [and] has been transmitted by means of natural heredity to all of the descendants of the first-born, along with the stigma, the consequences, the fruits of that Original Sin."[6] Indeed, Karmiris reminds us, "it was for this reason that the ancient Church instituted the Baptism of infants, specifically that they might be freed from the stigma of sin of their ancestors, although the infants possessed no guilt of 'actual sin.'"[7]

In the West, however, the concept of original sin is tied up with and all too often even confused with an equally Western concept of "original guilt." The misconceptions resulting from this Western theological ambivalence are daunting, obscuring, as they do, the divine potential in man. It is, in fact, the particular assumptions about guilt and punishment, about human nature in general, as well as the specific mode of transmission of original sin from generation to generation[8] that constitute the historical and theological differences in interpretations of the doctrine of original sin. We can see two different, perhaps even opposing, trends develop with respect to these assumptions.

St. Anastasius of Sinai, for example, argues: "you must examine how the first-born, our father, transposed upon us his transgression. He heard that 'dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return'; and his incorruption was changed into corruption, he became subject to the bondage of death. Since Adam fathered children only after his Fall, we become heirs of his corruption. We are not punished for his disobedience to the Divine Law. Rather, Adam being mortal, sin entered into his very seed. We receive mortality from him ... The general punishment of Adam for his transgression is corruption and death" (Questions and Answers on Various Chapters, 143). Likewise, defending the issue of infant baptisms, St. Cyprian of Carthage also maintains that since "no one is precluded from baptism and grace, ... [so] ought not an infant be forbidden, who, being newly born, has in no way sinned, but only having contracted the contagion of death" (Letter to Fidus, LVIII, 2). Blessed Augustine, on the other hand, writing of those predestined by God, as he believed, to eternal death, holds that "they are punished not on account of the sins which they add by the indulgence of their own will, but on account of the original sin, even if, as in the case of infants, they had added nothing to that original sin" (On the Soul and its Origin, IV, 16).

The Western temptation to define the doctrine of original sin too precisely has historically led to overstatements and exaggerations on both sides of the issue, of both definition and reaction. Because they framed their arguments in the context of and in response to the Pelagian position, Blessed Augustine and his disciples tended to exaggerate the sinfulness and depravity of human nature, and their teaching thus tends to emphasize the "punitive aspect" of the consequences of the fall, leading also to exaggeration and overstatement on the question of free will. Interestingly enough, both extreme tendencies in Western interpretation can be seen to be rooted in the writings of Bl. Augustine: first, that man suffers death because he is guilty for the sin of Adam, and second, that the nature of man is so corrupt as to render man incapable of exercising free will in the work of salvation (the doctrine of predestination).

Historically, these two extreme Western tendencies have themselves developed in two variants: Roman Catholic and Protestant. The Roman Catholic position, as defined by augustinian scholastics, sees original sin essentially in terms of the wrath of God directed at man for his guilt in disobedient submission of the spiritual principle to the fleshly principle. This is an offense against God which results in the loss of "supernatural" grace and demands expiation, or "satisfaction," by the shedding of blood, in accordance with the medieval chivalry code of feudal knights. This position tends to reject the efficacy of free will on the part of man in choosing and working for his own salvation, and obscures the fact that within original sin are contained also sins of the spiritual order, not only those of the flesh.[9]

The Protestant reformation, in reaction to the extremes of Roman Catholic interpretation, has itself engendered two opposing views. On the one hand, in varying degrees, it amplifies the teaching of Bl. Augustine on predestination, postulating a complete perversion of human nature and corruption to its very foundations (Calvin is more severe in this regard, Luther less so). On the other hand, in certain contemporary Protestant sects we see, once again, a complete denial of original, inherited sin, that is to say, a return to Pelagianism.

In juxtaposition with the view that is prevalent in the Western Christian tradition, Orthodox fathers and theologians are perhaps more circumspect in not "dotting the i's," as it were, in relation to things that we cannot possibly know about the specific nature of Adam's sin. Thus, instead of discussing or stressing the many possible secondary and fleshly aspects of original sin, the Orthodox prefer to see it primarily in spiritual terms, as being rooted in spiritual pride and disobedience. "The Original Sin," writes Karmiris, "was a free transgression of our First Parents which grew out of egoism and boasting. Thus, through the envy and influence of Satan, directed against our First Parents, 'the sin and transgression entered,' and our First Parents transgressed the Law of God, motivated by a desire to be equal with God, or, as Chrysostom says, the 'anticipation to become God'; man wanted to become independent from God, finding, by means of sin, divine knowledge, blessedness, and perfection."[10]

In a similar vein, Fr. Michael Pomazansky observes:

The eating of the fruit was only the beginning of moral deviation, the first push; but it was so poisonous and ruinous that it was already impossible to return to the previous sanctity and righteousness; on the contrary, there was revealed an inclination to travel farther on the path of apostasy from God. Blessed Augustine says: 'Here was pride, because man desired to be more under his own authority than under God's; and a mockery of what is holy, because he did not believe God; and murder, because he subjected himself to death; and spiritual adultery, because the immaculateness of the human soul was defiled through the persuasion of the serpent; and theft, because they made use of the forbidden tree; and the love of acquisition, because he desired more than was necessary to satisfy himself.' Thus, with the first transgression of the commandment, the principle of sin immediately entered into man — 'the law of sin' (monos tis amartias). It struck the very nature of man and quickly began to root itself in him and develop. ... The sinful inclinations in man have taken the reigning position; man has become the servant of sin (Rom. 6:7) ... With sin, death entered into the human race. Man was created immortal in his soul, and he could have remained immortal also in body if he had not fallen away from God. ... Man's body, as was well expressed by Blessed Augustine, does not possess 'the impossibility of dying,' but it did possess 'the possibility of not dying,' which it has now lost.[11]

It can be said that while we have not inherited the guilt of Adam's personal sin, because his sin is also of a generic nature, and because the entire human race is possessed of an essential, ontological unity,[12] we participate in it by virtue of our participation in the human race. "The imparting of Original Sin by means of natural heredity should be understood in terms of the unity of the entire human nature, and of the homoousiotitos [13] of all men, who, connected by nature, constitute one mystic whole. Inasmuch as human nature is indeed unique and unbreakable, the imparting of sin from the first-born to the entire human race descended from him is rendered explicable: 'Explicitly, as from the root, the sickness proceeded to the rest of the tree, Adam being the root who had suffered corruption'" [St. Cyril of Alexandria].[14]

The Orthodox view of fallen human nature is remarkably sober and balanced, gravitating neither to the unwarranted optimism of the Pelagian view, which sees human nature as having remained essentially in its pristine innocence and goodness, nor to the equally unwarranted pessimism of the predestinatarian view, which sees human nature as hopelessly perverted and corrupt. "Man fell unconsciously, unintentionally; he was deceived and seduced," writes the 19th-century Russian bishop and ascete, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. "For this reason his natural goodness was not destroyed, but was mixed with the evil of the fallen angels. But this natural goodness, being mixed with evil, poisoned with evil, became worthless, inadequate, unworthy of God who is perfect, purest goodness. Man for the most part does evil, meaning to do good, not seeing the evil wrapped in a mask of goodness on account of the darkening of his mind and conscience."[15]

The Orthodox view of original sin is profoundly related to the Orthodox concept of theosis, deification, which is almost totally lost in the Western understanding. Thus, Pomazansky observes, while the physical, mental, and emotional faculties have become corrupted in man, the greatest loss to man was deprivation of the blessedness of Paradise and life eternal. "Both the mind and the feelings have become darkened in him, and therefore his moral freedom often does not incline towards the good, but towards evil ... The physical consequences of the fall are diseases, hard labor and death. These were the natural result of the moral fall, the falling away from communion with God, man's departure from God. Man became subject to the corrupt elements of the world, in which dissolution and death are active. Nourishment from the Source of Life and from the constant renewal of all of one's powers became weak in men ... However, the final and most important consequence of sin was not illness and physical death, but the loss of Paradise ... In Adam all mankind was deprived of the future blessedness which stood before it, the blessedness which Adam and Eve had partially tasted in Paradise. In place of the prospect of life eternal, mankind beheld death, and behind it hell, darkness, rejection by God."[16].

Theosis, or, as St. Seraphim of Sarov defines it, "the acquisition of the Holy Spirit," is both the possibility and the reality, the goal and the gift, of overcoming the stain of original sin and repossession of what has been lost through it, the sole dominant purpose of Christian life. Despite the "rags of mortality" in which the human race has clothed itself through the fall of the first Adam in Paradise, Christians live in the hope of once again "ascending to their former beauty" by virtue of their redemption by the suffering, death, and resurrection on the third day of the second Adam. Walking between hope and despair, repenting of our sins, and living a life of Christian struggle, we await the fulfillment of the promise of St. Paul, so that together with redeemed first Adam we can sing the song of victory: "So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1 Cor. 15: 55-56).

Notes

1. John Karmiris, A Synopsis of the Dogmatic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, trans. from the Greek by the Reverend George Dimopoulos (Scranton, Pa.: Christian Orthodox Edition, 1973), pp. 35-36.

2. Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: A Concise Exposition, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim Rose (Platina, Calif.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994).

3. The East was at this time itself embroiled in a theological controversy surrounding the teachings of Appolinarius and Nestorius concerning the divine and human natures of Christ. Blessed Augustine had been invited by Emperor Theodosius the Younger to the Council which was to assemble at Ephesus, but died approximately a year before. The Third Ecumenical Council in 431 ruled on both controversies, condemning not only Nestorianism, but also Pelagianism. In this context it should be noted that despite the lately-fashionable "bashing" of certain writings of Blessed Augustine by certain "ultra-correct" "neo-Orthodox" writers, both he and his writings remain uncondemned by any Ecumenical or Local Council, thus relegating his more controversial theological opinions to the status of theologoumena of a Western Father of the Orthodox Church.

4. As it sometimes happens when the writings of a teacher are interpreted by several generations of disciples and commentators, the end product may not be something that was originally intended by the teacher himself. So with Moses and the Talmudists, so with Cyril of Alexandria and the monophysites, so with Bl. Augustine and the augustinians.

5. Pomazansky, p. 160.

6. Karmiris, p. 38.

7. Ibid.

8. In particular, the peculiarly Western tendency to see and define original sin almost exclusively in terms of human sexuality, replete with Freudian interpretation of the metaphors of religious language. On this, especially see: Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988).

9. And dismisses as "semi-pelagianism" the balanced Orthodox position, formulated by St. John Cassian, which postulates the cooperation, or "synergy," of Divine grace and free will of man in working out the task of human salvation.

10. Karmiris, p. 33.

11. Pomazansky, pp. 156-159.

12. See, for instance, John 15:1-9 and 17:11-23; 1 Cor. 12:12-13; Ephes. 2:15 and 4:13-16. Also St. Gregory of Nyssa to Aulalius that there are not three gods but one God, etc., and St. Basil the Great, in the 18th chapter of his monastic regulations.

13. = "same-essence-ness," i.e. coessentiality or consubstantiality.

14. Karmiris, p. 36.

15. The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, trans. Archimandrite Lazarus (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), p. 186.

16. Pomazansky, pp. 158-159.

From Alive in Christ
1996:1 (Spring 1996)

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