Tag Archives: Original Sin

Original Sin, East to West: What’s the Difference?

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? Compass

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!

Worse than Pelagians? Why We Need A Savior

Throughout the history of the church, there have been many times and many people who have disparaged and denied the doctrine of original sin. Most famously an ascetic British monk called Pelagius insisted, in a nutshell, that human descendants of Adam do not share in the guilt of Adam’s sin, nor was humanity left morally debilitated through any corruption of its nature. According to Pelagius humans were only negatively affected by the bad example of Adam. With the better example of Jesus and proper instruction in the law of God, Pelagius believed that humans after the fall of Adam are capable of living morally upright lives apart from any special grace from God.

We know of Pelagius’ teachings through the writings of St. Augustine, who challenged him, and by way of Pelagius’ commentary on St. Paul. In countering Pelagius and his followers, Augustine insisted that the fall of Adam had indeed corrupted the nature of all of humanity rendering every individual completely dependent upon the mercy and grace of God to be redeemed. Augustine spent much time exegeting and expounding on Romans 5, among many other passages of scripture, in countering the teachings of Pelagius. Augustine defended and elaborated on the doctrine of original sin, which makes the grace of justification and regeneration necessary.

Pelagius and St. Augustine

There are some who act as if Augustine just made up the doctrine of original sin whole cloth. Pelagianism, the idea that human nature is still basically good and unaffected by original sin, continues to be a challenge for the Church. I was amazed to see that during the last United Methodist General Conference, one seminary professor explicitly stated on social media that he hoped the Pelagian United Methodists (i.e. progressives) would win out over the Augustinians (conservatives). Others have denounced the doctrine of original sin as harmful. Danielle Shroyer says, “As a pastor and now a writer, I want to help people grow into a mature relationship with God. I just don’t think original sin is helpful in doing that; in fact I think it’s very often harmful.”

I do think it is important to understand, as Augustine would agree, that humans were created good in the image of God. When Augustine said humans were sinners by nature he clarified that he meant human nature was corrupted by sin not by God’s design. But human nature corrupted by sin leads to immorality and misery. Throughout history periods of excessive optimism about human goodness have been punctuated by exclamation marks of tremendous human evil. As Proverbs 16:18 says: “Pride goes before destruction,and a haughty spirit before a fall” (ESV). Yet the excessive optimism continues to resurface; the denials of the doctrine of original sin persist.

At a conference last month—a conference sponsored by Duke Divinity school and attended by both bishops in the state of NC with many district superintendents present— another seminary professor gave her spin on the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3. For one, she insisted that Adam and Eve and the terms translated man and woman (Hebrew: ish and isha) in the latter half of Gen 2:23 don’t just mean male and female, those terms refer to unity in diversity in all of life’s generic variety. It’s not really a story of God’s design for marriage (pay not attention to Gen 2:24-25 or what Jesus said in Matt 19:4-6 and Mark 10:5-9). The professor went on to say, supposedly on the authority of St. Irenaeus, that these two humanoid units of generic diversity were not mature adults; they were immature and innocent children. Therefore, she said the story in Genesis 3 is not a story about original sin; rather it is a story about “original wounding” as Adam and Eve were children who were abused by the serpent. WOW! Adam and Eve were the original victims not perpetrators of sin!

Irenaeus, a second century Church Father, did say that Adam and Eve were created as children and had to mature into adulthood, but in that same context he also clearly acknowledged the sin of Adam and Eve. In comparing the disobedience of Eve and with the obedience of Mary that led to the virgin conception and birth of Jesus the Messiah and Savior, Irenaeus said:

. . . [Eve] having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race.  ~ Against Heresies 3:22:4

Irenaeus also argued against the claim that Adam was not saved by Christ. He said it is absurd to believe that Adam would not have also been saved by Christ along with his descendants who had been begotten by him in the same captivity (Against Heresies 3:23:2). He is talking about the entire human race who was born into the spiritual captivity of the devil. Ephesians 2:1-4, a key text for Augustine in the 5th century, generations after Irenaeus, puts it this way:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. Eph 2:1-4

In comparing and contrasting the tree of life in the garden with the new tree of life, the cross of Calvary, and in arguing that Jesus was the Word of the same God the Father who had given the commandment to Adam in the garden, Irenaeus also expressed the complicity of the entire human race in the sin of Adam.

by which things He clearly shows forth God Himself, whom indeed we had offended in the first Adam, when he did not perform His commandment. In the second Adam, however, we are reconciled, being made obedient even unto death. For we were debtors to none other but to Him whose commandment we had transgressed at the beginning. ~ Against Heresies 5:16:3 (emphasis mine)

The professor reads Irenaeus the same way she reads the Bible, selectively and out of context. To buy the assertion that the story in Genesis 2-3 is a story about “original wounding” and not “original sin” (which many have, hook, line, and sinker) you have to ignore so much of what the text actually says. You have to ignore the fact that God gave Adam a commandment with a serious warning of judgment (Gen 2:16-17). Adam and Eve disobeyed the command at the temptation of the serpent (Gen 3:6). As a result of their disobedience they were judged by God as was the serpent, and they were exiled from the garden of Eden to a life of suffering in a world under a curse (Gen 3:14-24). We should also note that this is a pattern that Israel would  fall into also. Israel was adopted into God’s covenant family and given commandments. They were promised blessing in the promised land if they obeyed; they were warned about the cursing that disobedience would bring. Eventually, disobedience led to Israel being exiled from the promised land. Why? Because of sin. Israel along with the rest of the world was still under the power of sin in Adam as Paul argues in Romans (Rom 3:9; Romans 5).

The professor’s spin on Gen 2-3 is far worse than the false teaching of the Pelagians, which the United Methodist Articles of Religion condemn. Article VII says:

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.

Although Wesley did speculate that Augustine may have overstated the actual views of Pelagius in the heat of debate, he insisted that to deny the doctrine of original sin is to deny biblical Christianity and to remain in paganism (See Sermon 44 “Original Sin” and Wesley’s treatise “On Original Sin”). Pelagius’ view was apparently more influenced by Stoic philosophy than the Bible. The professor mentioned above seems to be more influenced by what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called moralistic therapeutic deism, as well as postmodern progressive gender ideology. In both cases the Biblical data is forced into pagan paradigms. The interpretation of the professor, who is also a United Methodist elder, is far worse because she not only denies that Adam’s descendants share in the guilt of Adam’s sin and inherit a corrupted human nature as a result; she denies that Adam and Eve themselves were guilty of any sin at all!

Whereas some apparently feel free to read into scripture just about anything they want, Augustine and Wesley both sought to make their case from and under the authority of scripture. Wesley knew that original sin is the reason we need justification and new birth. The doctrines of justification by faith, the new birth, entire sanctification, and glorification in resurrection all assume the doctrine of original sin.

The Bible reveals our great need for help. We need much more than a good example and sound instruction. A central promise of the new covenant reveals just how serious our need is, namely the promise of a new heart. Around the time of Israel’s exile Jeremiah and Ezekiel both pick up on the promise of God in Deut 30:6. The promise is that after the time of Israel’s exile God would circumcise his people’s heart so they would love him with all their heart and soul. Jeremiah calls this the new covenant when God would write his laws on his people’s heart (Jer 31:31ff). Ezekiel describes it like a heart transplant when God would remove the calloused, hardened hearts of his people and give them a new heart and a new spirit of obedient love along with his very own Spirit  (Ezk 35:26-27). As Christians we believe this promise is fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah and received by faith in him. As Isaiah 53:5 puts it, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

We need a new heart in Christ because there is something wrong with the one we have in Adam. We need healing because we are sick, sin sick because of a hardened heart and the corrupted desires that go with it. As Jeremiah 17:9 puts it, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” The human heart is deceitful enough to convince us that we are fine just the way we are. As Jesus implied, no one is as spiritually blind as the one who thinks they can see just fine without his healing touch! (John 9:39-40)

Thankfully by the grace of God in Christ Jesus through faith we have hope “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).

We need more than a good example and instruction. We need more than a great teacher; we need the Great Physician because we need healing! We need more than forgiveness for following bad examples; we need new birth! We need more than a life coach; we need a savior! Thankfully we have one. His name is Jesus, the Son of God, the risen Lord.

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His Wings.
Now He lays His Glory by,
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth. . . . .

Charles Wesley “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”