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Wrestling with Original Sin

Edward T. Oakes does an admirable job of addressing the three objections to the doctrine of original sin in “Original Sin: A Disputation” (November 1998). Moreover, Father Oakes’ description of the consequences of dismissing original sin in favor of a utopian view of the perfectibility of human beings is remarkably lucid in light of human history, especially in this century.

Nevertheless, the relegation of Søren Kierkegaard to a mere footnote overlooks a thoughtful, coherent redefinition of the doctrine of original sin. Kierkegaard did not deny the reality of original sin, but he did deny the Augustinian explanation of the doctrine. Kierkegaard understood full well that human beings are not perfect and cannot achieve perfection. He mocked the utopian idealism of his own day in ways that seem almost prophetic. He knew that we are all slaves to sin, and cannot free ourselves from this bondage. But, he argued, this slavery does not result from an inherited, almost biological, flaw of human nature, passed down to us from Adam.

Instead, original sin is a condition infecting human society, and since all humans live in such a society, its effects are ultimately inescapable. For Kierkegaard, there is no such thing as a private sin. The things that we do affect not only ourselves but others. And, in affecting others, our actions gain a sort of momentum that spreads throughout society. There is not just one First Sin that is somehow qualitatively different from all others, but any number of first sins that are all very much alike and have far-reaching consequences.

Now, perhaps I misunderstand Kierkegaard, but it seems that this view of original sin also answers the same objections Oakes answers:

    • The idea that sin is a social event with far-reaching consequences is quite biblical, and is found in Genesis 3 as well as in numerous examples of the sins of the fathers being visited upon succeeding generations. It also does away with the problem of Augustine’s presumed exegetical liberties with Romans 5, while seemingly reinforcing Paul’s notion that sin entered the world through Adam and spread throughout the world.

    • Kierkegaard’s view of original sin seems to fit nicely with what modern science, especially modern psychology and sociology, says about human behavior. Psychology notes the reciprocity of human interactions. Treat someone nicely, and he will probably return the favor. Treat that same person poorly, and he will likely respond in kind. Hence the necessity of the Golden Rule and the Decalogue. Sociology shows that humans can rationalize the transformation of bizarre, even immoral, forms of behavior into cultural norms that almost always appeal to the past for their justification. Hence the gay rights movement’s proclivity to compare the plight of homosexuals to African-Americans under the yoke of slavery and Jim Crow.

    • Finally, and most positively, Kierkegaard’s view disposes of the repugnant notion that, in Calvin’s terms, even “infants bring their own damnation with them from their mothers’ wombs; the moment they are born their natures are odious and abominable to God.” This idea is not only repugnant, but contrary to Scripture, which teaches through the words of Jesus Christ that all people are loved by God rather than viewed with disgust and horror. As a Protestant who has heard from the pulpit many falsehoods about Catholicism, I find it disturbing that a Catholic writer would not be much more pointed in correcting the widespread misapprehension, often attributed to Catholicism, that asserts even babies will be damned to Hell.

We are imperfect creatures living in a gravely flawed society. In this situation, sin may be inevitable, but the first sin”everyone’s original sin”results from his or her own choice. All sin is a conscious choice to do what is wrong.

Mark L. Chance
Houston, TX

I found Edward T. Oakes’ article interesting and informative. However, I question his idea that death is not a consequence of original sin and that God did not create man in a state intended to be free from death. These positions can perhaps be validated by a scriptural/Augustinian critique. But as a Catholic, I (and Father Oakes too) have to take into consideration the teaching of the Church, and this seems to be quite contrary to Fr. Oakes on these points. I cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church , no. 1008, and its reference to Gaudium et Spes , no. 18, and the Council of Trent’s de fide statement, DS 1511. In the paragraph cited, Gaudium et Spes notes that “the Christian faith teaches that bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned, will be overcome when that wholeness which he has lost through his own fault will be given once again to him by the almighty and merciful Savior.” I find this statement and the one from Trent impossible to square with Fr. Oakes on the original non-freedom of man from death, if I interpret him correctly.

Monsignor James B. Nugent
Columbus, OH

In the methodology and spirit of Thomas Aquinas, I offer the following thoughts.

Videtur quod : It would seem that humans are naturally good is not the case. Edward T. Oakes’ article “Original Sin: A Disputation” does a masterful job of summarizing both sides of the discussion with a surprisingly evenhanded treatment. For those who listen to the authority of Scripture, he cites Psalm 51:5. But the case he makes for original sin wins the day as Father Oakes forces the reader to the realization that “original sin is the only way believers can make sense of the world.” The necessity of this truth is buttressed with the observation that disastrous consequences follow when one accepts the opposing view that humanity is basically good. In light of reality, the nature of humanity must be essentially evil.

Sed contra : On the contrary, Fr. Oakes himself states, “No one now disputes that the Bible does not teach a doctrine of original sin as such.” Furthermore, he points to the real problem, which is not whether our nature is either good or evil from birth, but the state of the world into which any given human is now born. “We are born . . . into a world where rebellion against God has already taken place, and the drift of it sweeps us along.”

Respondeo : To all of the above, I respond as follows: The question of whether people are essentially evil or good assumes that the nature of humanity must be rooted in one of these two options. The question is a bad question. The question should be, “What is the basic nature of humanity?” Instead of describing mankind as being essentially either good or evil, Scripture depicts our basic nature both before and after the fall as being “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26,27; 5:1; 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9) as well as being composed of some combination of body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23; Mark 14:38; Matthew 10:28).

I propose that the most natural interpretation of both Scripture and the reality we perceive is that each child is born, as a body, soul, and spirit made in the image of God, into a world already dominated by the effects of previous sinful generations. Then, with the dawn of his or her awareness between right and wrong, this young individual at some point chooses to do wrong, thus falling victim to the same cancerous plague dominating the rest of humanity. The results of sin’s dominion are obvious. The good news, however, is that through the covenant offered by Jesus, one can be freed from sin and recreated to become a new man in Christ.

Ad primum : As for the first objection, not only does Fr. Oakes inadvertently admit that Psalm 51:5 does not teach original sin, but it seems likely that the Psalmist is using poetic hyperbole to express in the strongest language possible his utter disdain for his sin. The text does not reveal a statement about human nature, but the depth of David’s remorse as he pictures his whole life being cloaked in sin. Such poetic deep remorse also finds expression in Job 3:1-19, where it is not the poet’s realization of his sin that causes such dark ruminations but his recent traumatic life experiences.

Ad secundum : As for the second objection, Fr. Oakes’ problem resides in identifying the wrong cause. Instead of attributing the sinful reality of this world to man’s nature being essentially evil, Scripture attributes evil to that “spirit who is even now at work among the rebellious” (Ephesians 2:2). The sinfulness of this world is the result not of man possessing an essentially evil nature but of each one of us becoming and remaining dominated by sin.

Ad tertium : As to the third objection, Fr. Oakes is right. Crediting man as being essentially good does lead to disastrous consequences. However, this does not prove his point, since it is not the case of a strong disjunction: there is a third option.

Barry Newton
San Jose, CA

In order to rebut the argument against the doctrine of original sin, Edward T. Oakes makes the following remarkable statement: “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.” If one were to accept this argument, any number of heresies could be justified by the harm they do to their adherents.

Father Oakes admits that there is much that he did not include in this essay, but that his only objective was to demonstrate that “despite its obvious paradoxicality, it proves to be more illuminating of the human condition than its competitors.” I thank him for his valiant effort. He did in fact demonstrate the weaknesses of several competing theories. However, showing that some of the other hypotheses are worse than the doctrine of original sin does not prove that the doctrine is true.

The doctrine of original sin as taught by Augustine is not the “only” doctrine that harmonizes the goodness of God with the evil in the world. The doctrine of original sin remains totally unsatisfying and unconvincing to thinking truth-seekers. The attempt to intimidate people into accepting this doctrine by saying that it is the very rudeness, mysteriousness, and incomprehensibility of the doctrine that proves its truthfulness is offensive and insulting. It reminds one of the dark ages when all access to the Scriptures was denied to the masses because it needed to be explained to them by those who understood the mysteries. Resorting to the doctrine’s incomprehensibility is simply an admission that even its proponents cannot explain it or harmonize it with God’s grace, mercy, and justice.

Jay R. Seaver
Longmont, CO

Edward T. Oakes concludes his interesting and scholarly review of the doctrine of original sin with the comment that “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.”

Those old enough to wonder about original sin are told it has to do with something they have themselves observed in their own infant siblings, the infant’s endless demand for attention. The youngsters are asked to ponder how many would survive infancy without the blessing of that primordial self-interest. The youngsters are then reminded of the great commandment that compels them for the rest of their lives to mitigate and manage that militant self-interest.

As a grandfather, it would be my simple suggestion to theologians that consideration be given to relabeling this perplexing human condition. Let us use a label for this foundational blessing/bane of life that rests on what our experience universally reveals it to be, namely, our radical self-centeredness-t-hat lifesaving blessing of infancy become a thorn.

Father Oakes has established our need for the doctrine. There is great potential benefit in revisiting that need and characterizing it by a name that reveals the anatomy of its paradoxicality.

Angelo S. Miceli
Norris, TN

Edward T. Oakes replies:

First of all, I would like to thank the respondents for their intelligent and carefully phrased rejoinders to my “medieval disputation.” The sharpness and intelligence of their replies confirms for me a long-held suspicion: the time is ripe for breathing new life into the old Thomistic format, for it is a method specifically designed to resolve seeming contradictions that lurk within the tradition itself . Thus what animated my article, at least distantly, was not so much the tension between Darwin and St. Augustine as it was the apparent irreconcilability in St. Paul between chapter 5 of his letter to the Romans and chapter 15 of his first letter to the Corinthians, with the former seeming to attribute mortality to sin and the latter to our nature as physical bodies. But what finally got me, most proximately, to write the article was my reading of Pope John Paul II’s letter of October 1996 on evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences just after I happened to have finished reading his Wednesday allocutions on Genesis from the early years of his papacy.

I rehearse this personal history here because my rejoinder to the five gentlemen above depends on understanding how the disputatio works; and unfortunately their letters, for all their intelligence, still fail in various ways to understand the format. Mark L. Chance takes exception to my quoting John Calvin (we have certainly come to a strange pass in ecumenical relations when a Protestant tells a Catholic writer that he is in danger of unleashing anti-Catholic prejudice by quoting, without invidious intent, John Calvin!). But the citation of Calvin occurred in the Videtur quod section, that is, in that part of the article outlining the argument I planned later to refute. True, I subsequently went on to defend the Puritans, but only from the charge that Calvin’s view of God’s wrath toward infants in any way warped their children. (In the first half of the twentieth century the Harvard historian Ralph Barton Perry proved that the Puritans, at least in Massachusetts, were remarkably loving to their children.)

Nor does the fact that I have “relegated” Kierkegaard to a mere footnote mean that I value Augustine over Kierkegaard, whatever that might mean. On the contrary, if I were to present an entire work on original sin I would have to highlight the contributions of this melancholy Dane and lonely Lutheran, as he”even more than Paul Ricoeur or Reinhold Niebuhr”has dealt with the central problem of the doctrine for modern Christians: How can Adam and Eve be understood as the first of a series when life, especially now, in the light of evolution, is understood as an unbroken continuum?

I would also have to draw upon Kierkegaard when the time came to treat the issue raised by Monsignor James B. Nugent, who seems to have fallen under the impression that my article denied the doctrine of what is known technically as Adam’s prelapsarian immortality (which he rightly claims is defined de fide by the Council of Trent). But again, a closer look at the article will show that my arguments against that doctrine all occur in the Videtur quod section of the article. It is true that later, in the Respondeo section, I hold that Paul presumes the natural (biological) mortality of the body. But it is still perfectly possible to hold to Trent’s affirmation of Adam’s prelapsarian immortality while simultaneously affirming the natural mortality of the body, as Aquinas does when he says in the Summa Theologiae (II/II q.164, art.1, ad 1) that “death is both natural, on account of a condition attaching to matter, and penal, on account of the loss of Divine favor preserving man from death.”

Thomas’ argument here does not draw on St. Paul but on Aristotle’s metaphysics of form (an eternal identity) and matter (which is inherently divisible and hence prone to death), whereas today we would probably stress the biological reality that every organism is a finite energy system requiring food as fuel to maintain the necessary energy to run the system, the processing of which leads eventually to the entropic “rusting” of the system, terminating in death.

Of course, as Msgr. Nugent notices, how one reconciles that reality with Trent’s definition of Adam’s prelapsarian immortality is the issue, to which I can offer only the most preliminary of answers. First of all, such a question can only be addressed far down the ramified structure of a medieval summa : The question makes no sense until other issues are first dealt with, primarily that of Adam’s historicity.

Be that as it may, one possible solution was suggested by Karl Rahner in his book Hominisation: The Evolutionary Origin of Man as a Theological Problem and in some of his essays on Christian dying in his Theological Investigations , when he put forth the proposal that, had Adam not sinned, his (biological) death would have been experienced purely as a transition to God and not as it now is, as trauma. In fact, as Rahner also points out, the denial of the body’s natural mortality is itself a heresy, one first propounded by Michael Baius (or Michel du Bay, as he is also known) whose dates (1513-1589) roughly correspond to Calvin’s (1509-1564). Interestingly enough, Baius was a delegate to the Council of Trent in its last year (1563) but later insisted that Adam’s prelapsarian immortality (the definition of which de fide he ardently supported) was a feature of Adam’s very nature as a human being. Shortly thereafter, in 1567, Pope St. Pius V condemned this view in his bull Ex Omnibus Afflictionibus (DS 1955 and 1978): the Pope insisted that, contrary to Baius, death is not simply and purely a consequence of the guilt of sin, original or personal.

The Pope’s grounds for this condemnation were not so much biological or Aristotelian as theological. As St. Athanasius had put it earlier in his treatise On the Incarnation (which St. Gregory of Nyssa later took up in the Great Catechetical Oration ), God made the first human pair as the most gifted of animals and then conferred on them the ability to know and love Him, which brought in its wake a condign gift of immortality; but when the first humans lost their knowledge and love of God, they reverted to the animal state which was theirs by nature. (There is also the faintly amusing view of the second-century St. Irenaeus to consider; he held that Adam and Eve were not in Paradise more than five minutes before they committed the First Sin, which, even if Irenaeus meant his proposal to be taken semi-facetiously, certainly says something about the prelapsarian nature of our First Parents!)

Baius’ problem was the same as Calvin’s: He read Augustine without the benefit of Aquinas. For Augustine’s real problem in his battle against the Pelagians was that he had no concept of the natural order of goodness independent of the ordinances of God; St. Thomas, however, had a much different concept of nature, so that he could talk about actions which are naturally good, though neither graced nor supernatural. And this distinction allowed him to make the further distinction that eluded Augustine, Baius, Bishop Jansenius, and (it would seem) Calvin: between death as punishment and death as natural.

In any event, to reassure Msgr. Nugent, I heartily support Pascal’s view that the only man unhappy at not being a king is a deposed king”meaning, there is something in our sense of life in the presence of God that tells us that we are not meant for death, at least not this kind of death, with its fear of annihilation or (worse!) the judgment of God. As Jesus said to the Sadducees, who denied eternal life: When Jews call God “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” that must mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are in some (unspecified) sense still alive, since God is only a God of life, and never of death. And such I would hold also of our First Parents: God did not create them for death, for He could not do so, being entirely the God of life”however obviously all material things are by nature headed for dissolution.

Nonetheless, I hesitate to develop these proposals here at any (more) length, as any argument on this issue, to be convincing, would have to take place within a context where other issues”to which this is a very subordinate, subsidiary one”would first be resolved. Indeed, most contemporary solutions known to me, such as those of Rahner or of C. S. Lewis (in the third chapter of his Problem of Pain ), seem to beg the question, “Who is Adam: the culmination of evolution or the first of a series?”

Trent no doubt assumed, along with all other authorities in the sixteenth century, that Adam’s prelapsarian immortality was an implication not just of Romans 5 but also of his having been created fully formed as an adult, obviously a necessity in a narrative assuming a six-day creation. Needless to say, after Darwin and especially in the light of the Pope’s letter on evolution, this whole question will have to be revisited, which is why I suspect Kierkegaard will in future generations be regarded as the most important theologian of the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman excepted, for he is the first and still most important thinker to have addressed this question directly.

Barry Newton argues well for a “third option,” one that does not fall into the trap either of affirming man’s essential goodness or claiming him to be essentially evil. Unfortunately, he seems to labor under the assumption that my defense of the doctrine of original sin entails my claiming man to be essentially evil. Admittedly, this is the theological implication that some theologians (mostly of the Reformation) drew from the doctrine, especially Calvin.

But again, I must stress that just because I quote John Calvin without attacking him in the next breath does not mean that I hold to Calvinist doctrines. It is essential to the method adopted by both Mr. Newton and myself that one describe the opponent’s position better than he had managed to do, which Mr. Newton has failed to do in my case. And to the extent that Mr. Newton goes on to defend the essential goodness of man (as he seems to do), I have an easy rejoinder: the record of human history in the twentieth century.

Jay R. Seaver has also failed to see the nature of my argument in context, for I do not defend the doctrine on the basis of its sheer paradoxicality. In fact I would hold that, barring other, more telling considerations, the sheer paradoxical nature of a doctrine would normally count against it. But if, in spite of a doctrine’s paradoxicality, it illuminates more than any other alternative, that speaks in its favor. As G. K. Chesterton once put it: “Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find there is something odd in the truth.”

Finally, I thank Angelo S. Miceli for his observations about infant behavior, insights which he shares with Augustine, who in his Confessions (I,7) seems to be the first observer, at least in writing, to have noticed the greed, jealousy, and rage of which the human infant is capable. By pointing out the survival advantages of the infant’s relentless self-interest, Mr. Miceli raises a central dilemma that has yet to be addressed by contemporary theology in dealing with original sin: how do we reconcile evolution with Genesis? If these behaviors are not only advantageous but evolutionarily essential, how can they be regarded as products of sin, which entered history only at the moment of our First Parents and which in any event must be eschewed? This question, in essence, constitutes Nietzsche’s central objection to Christian ethics and is one more reason why the issue of original sin needs the kind of “medieval” treatment which the five correspondents above have initiated with their intriguing questions. Misplaced Nostalgia

Richard John Neuhaus turns nostalgic as he recalls his involvement in the antiwar movement of the 1960s (“Conservative Changes,” Public Square, November 1998). He ponders the role of that movement in the outcome of the war and concludes by agreeing with the contention that the radicals at least “made the war stoppable.” I believe there is abundant evidence to refute that conclusion, but there is another point that needs to be made.

When the United States went to war in the 1960s, the country needed men to answer its call to serve. Some men responded to that need, and some refused to answer. Those who refused not only turned their backs on their own country; they acted in ways that lent encouragement to her enemies.

To those men who fought and died in Vietnam, we owe all the honor that is due to the brave and the patriotic. Many of those men had the same doubts about the “rightness” of that war as did the radicals who stayed home. But to those who went, concepts such as duty to one’s native land, sacrifice, and physical courage (which Aristotle calls the foremost of all virtues) meant something. Those men responded when needed and did not conveniently decide that it was time to pick and choose which of their country’s wars they could support.

Henry Wingate
Madison, VA
A False Dichotomy

James Nuechterlein suggests a false but widely accepted dichotomy when he says of many in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (“The Lutheran Prospect,” October 1998) that our “rigorous doctrinal particularity” makes us “theologically serious” but also “indifferent to ecumenical involvement with other Christians””as though zeal for true doctrine varied necessarily and inversely with zeal for ecumenism. This idea is foreign to the spirit of the early ecumenical councils, and its popularity today presents a big stumbling block to LCMS involvement in recent ecumenical proposals. Nevertheless, many if not most clergy in the LCMS view the Lutheran prospect in the same way Mr. Nuechterlein does. We are, like him, “committed to the distinctive Lutheran construal of the Christian faith” (i.e., rigorously particular about doctrine), but also “ecumenical in spirit.” We simply don’t share his view that doctrinal purity must compete with the spirit of ecumenism in the heart of a Christian.

(The Rev.) Peter Speckhard
Community of Faith Lutheran Church
Spring Grove, IL

James Nuechterlein replies:

I do not in any way question Peter Speckhard’s commitment both to theological rigor and to ecumenical engagement. But my own experience”and, I would argue, the history of the LCMS”brings into question his assumption that that dual commitment holds for “many if not most clergy” of the Missouri Synod. Faith and Reason

While I might sympathize with Daniel P. Moloney’s frustration (“Questioning Everything?” November 1998) vis- -vis the arrogation of rationality by several prominent scientists, it is equally presumptuous for Christians to base their ethics upon reason ahead of faith. Reason is a tool; it is but a part of our humanity. It has a signal tendency to foster division in mankind. Faith, on the other hand, involves the whole man and his decision to submit to the will of the Creator. Secular and religious rationalism are, whether we like it or not, poised towards arrogance. Faith is poised toward communion and restoration. Thankfully, our salvation is not dependent upon how much we know or understand, or even upon how well we can argue, but rather on our attitude and predisposition to receive the free-will offering of God’s grace. My sense is that the Church spends all too much time celebrating the faith and too little time living it out in love.

Finally, I am not intimidated by science. The best of it was and is a product of Christianity, as Karl Popper notes in The Open Society and its Enemies . He also pointed out that the spirit of science is that of Socrates, who was acutely aware of how much he did not know. Yes, “scientists make as many assumptions as the rest of us,” some of them right, others wrong. However, they have little bearing upon the simple faith God has called us to.

Adrian Valentino
Fort Collins, CO

Daniel P. Moloney replies:

Adrian Valentino takes issue with my argument that “most traditional ethical principles are derivable from reason,” suggesting that it is “presumptuous for Christians to base their ethics upon reason ahead of faith.” I could not agree more. Christians should value very few things ahead of faith”charity and hope are about all that come to mind. Faith is necessary for salvation; scientific understanding is not. Yet if somebody has been given the relevant intellectual gifts, I think it would be a rejection of God’s grace and the sin of burying one’s talents were he not to use his reason to explore this wonderful world we have been given. Those who have eyes will see the reasonableness of much of ethics, I believe; they also will see the limits of human reason, which Mr. Valentino and I agree are legion.