Wherever I see posts or articles defending the Methodist doctrine of original sin—whether they be my posts or someone else’s—it seems inevitable that some United Methodists will refer to the Eastern Orthodox Church’s supposed rejection of the doctrine to justify their own. Regardless of whether it is entirely accurate to say that the Eastern Orthodox Church rejects the doctrine of original sin, it is an essential Methodist doctrine. Article VII in The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church affirms the doctrine of original sin. Moreover, it is without question that John Wesley saw it as a fundamental and essential doctrine without which it is impossible to make sense of the other essential Methodist doctrines of justification by faith, the new birth, and sanctification. But is it entirely accurate to say that the Eastern Orthodox Church does not have a doctrine of original sin?
It is true that the Eastern Orthodox Church rejects the idea that descendants of Adam and Eve bear the guilt of their sin, but they also affirm that all of Adam and Eve’s descendants, as well as the entire cosmos, suffer from the consequences of their sin. Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that all of humanity suffers from the negative consequences of what they prefer to call “ancestral sin” (the fall in Eden), the first and foremost consequence being death. Other consequences in humanity include corrupted desires that result in the darkening and distortion of the image of God in all of humanity. While they believe only Adam and Eve bear the guilt of their sin, they do affirm that all of humanity suffers the deadly consequences of the resulting corruption, as poison in a spring corrupts an entire stream.
Therefore, when it comes to infants they believe they are born innocent without any “inherited guilt.” But, according to the Orthodox view, infants are born with a fallen nature with corrupted desires and are subject to death and the influence of demons. Consequently their practice of infant baptism involves application of grace for healing and deliverance, even if not for forgiveness. In their view forgiveness is only for those who have cognizantly committed actual sin themselves. Whereas Augustine taught that unbaptized infants that die would go to the punishment of hell, the Eastern Church does not believe that because they do not believe infants bear inherited guilt. It is worth noting that Thomas Aquinas in the West also rejected the view that unbaptized infants that die would go to eternal punishment. Rather, according to Thomas, they would go to a comforting and perfectly pleasant realm that he called “The Limbo of the Infants.” The difference, nonetheless, between the Eastern and Western Church is actually more about “inherited guilt,” not about the corruption of nature.
But the Eastern Church has also maintained an emphasis on free will, whereas the Western Church, under the influence of Augustine, has tended to emphasize the bondage of the will. This is not to say that the Eastern Church is Pelagian. They do not believe the will unaided by divine grace is capable of good. They do accept the decision of the Council of Carthage (418) on sin and grace and its rejection of Pelagianism. The Eastern Church also rejects the notion of double predestination, a conclusion that some would later draw from Augustine that Augustine himself apparently did not draw. Double predestination, the notion that God determined who would be saved and who would be damned before the foundation of the world, was rejected in the West at the Second Council of Orange (529). Along with many Christians in the West, including Wesleyans, the East views the predestination of the elect to be based on God’s foreknowledge of those who will believe. But, again, with regards to original sin the major difference between East and West has to do with inherited guilt (See Orthodox view of Council of Carthage and sin and grace).
For John Wesley, on the other hand, the punishment of ancestral corruption and death implies inherited guilt. Those who suffer the consequences must somehow be culpable. Wesley came to the conclusion that in some sense all humans were in Adam (Rom 5:12), although for the most part he was content to leave the how to mystery. The position he eventually adopted, nonetheless, is called traducianism (See Holy Love and the Shape of Grace by Collins pgs.67-68). This is the idea that body and soul are passed down from Adam and Eve, which stands in contrast with the view that upon conception each soul is created directly by God. In this case each soul was in a sense involved in the fall of Adam, thus bearing the guilt. That inherited guilt, however, in Wesley’s view was covered by prevenient grace through the merits of Christ’s death so that no one would be condemned for Adam’s actual sin. Therefore, Wesley believed unbaptized infants that die are not condemned for inherited guilt, not because they do not possess it, but because it is preemptively covered by the blood of Christ (See The Scripture Way of Salvation by Collins p. 47).
In terms of the bondage of the will, nonetheless, Wesley’s view was thoroughly Augustinian. For Wesley, apart from prevenient grace every soul is utterly helpless to receive God’s free grace. But according to Wesley, by the prevenient grace of God every soul is capable of actively rejecting or passively receiving God’s saving grace by faith. Again, the need for God’s saving grace is predicated upon the reality of original sin, the emphasis of which is on the corruption of human nature in the fall any way.
Article VII – Of Original or Birth Sin
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.
Alister McGrath says for all the historical differences between Catholics and Protestants with regards to justification, both shared the same assumption “that humanity was alienated from God, and required reconciliation to God to achieve its true potential.” The secular culture inspired by the Enlightenment, however, would increasingly challenge that assumption with the view “that humanity did not require reconciliation to anything or anyone, for any reason” (See Iusttitia Dei by McGrath 4.6 3rd ed.). Similarly, the Eastern Church and the Western Church share the same basic assumption about humanity’s alienation from God and its need for reconciliation. As I shared in my last article, at a conference sponsored by Duke Divinity School and the Duke Endowment, a United Methodist Elder and professor not only denied the doctrine of original sin, she also denied that Adam and Even actually sinned at all. The difference between some progressive Methodists and traditional Methodists is not like the difference between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Catholic and Protestant West; it’s more like the difference between liberal Enlightenment theologies that tended to reject the doctrine of original sin altogether as superstition and Christian doctrines about sin and grace of both East and West. In some cases it seems the progressive view has more in common with the Enlightenment secularism described by McGrath. Remember for Wesley rejecting the doctrine of original sin amounts to remaining in paganism. He said this in response to the increasing prevalence of liberal Enlightenment theologies in the Church of England toward the latter third of his ministry.
Traditionally the Eastern Church and the Western Church have both taught that human nature has been corrupted by the fall and both have taught the need for divine grace to be healed and/or forgiven. When it comes to the nature of sin and the sin nature, the East is not as far from the West as some misleadingly suggest. The really good news is that the Church in both the East and the West believe the grace of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit can cast all our sins as far as the east is from the west. From the perspective of the psalmist, that is definitely a long ways apart. Praise the Lord!
Psalm 103 (ESV)
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!