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THE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE OF ORIGINAL SIN

A SUMMARY OF THE HISTORICAL


DEVELOPMENT
SUMMARIZED BY SHEILA E. MC GINN, PH.D.
updated 19 MARCH 2007

The place of the doctrine of original sin within the Christian message
The Christian message is essentially a message of God's love for us, of the saving grace of God in Christ. This "good
news," however, is addressed to fallen humanity which is in absolute need of God's saving grace (i.e., "original sin" in us
as a universal human condition—peccatum originale originatum). This universal condition in which the human person is
found prior to any personal decision is due to a primordial sin (peccatum originale originans): God did not create humans
sinners; rather, humans, created good and called to communion with God (cf. "original justice"), refused God's call.

Development of the Doctrine of Original Sin

The Bible

• Old Testament
⁃ Genesis 3
⁃ The place of Chapter 3 in Genesis (J tradition, relationship to preceeding and following chapters)
⁃ The message and its expression: paradigm and etiology
⁃ Psalm 51
⁃ ["Miserere"] time of composition and literary form
⁃ its message [cf. also Jeremiah and Ezekiel]
⁃ Sirach 25:23; Wisdom 2:24

• New Testament
⁃ Romans 5:12-21
⁃ General theme of the letter; the context of the passage
⁃ Verse 12: (Vulgate) "... in quo omnes peccaverunt" = "in whom all have sinned."
⁃ Correct translation: EITHER "because all have sinned" [i.e. because all have shared in the first sin,
either in the first parents or by personal sins continuing the sin of the first parents] OR "by reason of
which everyone has sinned" [i.e. by reason of the situation which was brought about by this first sin]
⁃ The whole passage [cf. in particular verse 19], in its general Pauline context, surely contains a basic
teaching on original sin.
⁃ NOTE: See in all these texts the place of original sin within the total Christian message as indicated
above in the Introduction.
⁃ Tradition and Magisterium (cf. TCF, chpt. V)

Patristic Theology

• The Ante-Nicene Period


⁃ There is a very strong and rich patristic tradition on "original sin" expressed in terms of a solidarity of
humankind in salvation history.
⁃ In the first parents, who refused God's call, "human nature" has fallen [lost its "likeness" with God, has
been "deprived of communion with God," etc.].
⁃ Each human person, sharing in the nature of the first human parents, share also not only the
consequences of their sin (death, passions) but in some sense also share in the transgression itself.

• St. Augustine and the Pelagian Controversies


⁃ Augustine's fundamental, and essentially true, doctrines on the absolute primacy of and absolute need for
God's grace, and on original sin, have been developed already before the Pelagian controversy.
⁃ Pelagius seems to have conceived "grace" as consisting of (besides created freedom itself) purely extrinsic
help (exhortation, teaching, example). He practically denied original sin (peccatum originale originatum)
altogether.
⁃ In opposing Pelagius, Augustine further clarified, documented (using Scripture, patristic tradition,
sacramental practice of the Church), but to some extent also hardened and exaggerated his position
(concupiscence, "massa damnata," fate of children dying without baptism).
⁃ Several provincial councils, approved afterwards by the Pope and accepted universally as expressing the
mind of the Church, rejected the errors of Pelagius and professed some of the basic tenets of the Church
on grace and original sin -- without, however, canonizing all of Augustine's views.
Main documents of the Early Councils

• The Provincial Council of Carthage (418), canons 1-2 [cf. DS 222f; TCF # ]. This doctrine was reaffirmed
by Trent [see below].
• The "Indiculus" (compiled by Prosper of Aquitaine against the Semi-Pelagians in the middle of the 5th
century), especially cap. 1. [cf. DS 239]
• The Second Council of Orange (529) [cf. DS 371f]. This was reaffirmed by Trent [see below].

Medieval Theology

• Under the influence of Augustine there was a strong tendency in medieval theology to identify original sin (in us)
with concupiscence, though admitting—again with Augustine—that concupiscence as culpa, "the guilt of
concupiscence," is remitted by Baptism.
• St. Anselm, however, saw original sin in the privation of due justice in the will. It was, then, slowly realized (with
the progress of the theology of the "supernatural") that this privation is a privation of supernatural justice (i.e. of
sanctifying grace).
• The two trends were connected in the view that original sin is formally a privation of sanctifying grace, and
materially found in concupiscentia. The latter remains also after Baptism but, without the formal element, does
not have the character of sin.
• This last view is found essentially also in St. Thomas [cf. Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 82, a. 1 on the essence of
original sin, and q. 81, a. 1 on the transmission of original sin]. Thomas appeals (with the whole tradition) to the
sharing of the same human nature, but uses also the notion of voluntas terminativa: "the disorder which is in an
individual man is not voluntary by reason of his personal will, but by reason of the will of the first parent, who
through a generative impulse, exerts influence upon all who descend from him by way of origin, even as the will
of the soul moves bodily members in their various activities."

The Council of Trent

• In response to Protestant accusations ("Pelagianism") and errors (original sin remains even after
Baptism, though it is not "imputed"), the Council of Trent summed up the traditional teaching on
original sin, without deciding the questions discussed among the different theological schools [cf. TCF,
# , 5th session of the Council, AD 1546]: Intro. [DS 1510]

⁃ Canon 1 [DS 1511] Adam's sin and its consequences for Adam. See Second Council of Orange, Canon 1
[DS 371].
⁃ Canon 2 [DS 1512] Consequences of Adam's sin for the whole human race: not only punishment (death) is
transmitted, but also "sin," "death of the soul," loss of holiness and justice. See II Orange, Canon 2 [DS
371].
⁃ Canon 3 [DS 1513] Original sin is "one in origin" yet "in each and proper to each." This is especially against
Albert Pighi (1490-1542) who held that original sin is numerically one in all and not proper to each.
⁃ Original sin is transmitted by propagatione and not by imitation; this is a rejection of the Pelagian view,
without deciding whether natural generation is the cause, or rather only the necessary condition (as most
theologians today believe) of original sin.
⁃ Original sin can be taken away only by the merits of Christ.
⁃ Canon 4 [DS 1514] See Council of Carthage, Canon 2 [DS 223] -- Even infants, "who in themselves have
committed no sin," are truly baptized "for the remission of sins." Thus, peccatum originale originatum is
truly "sin" but distinguished from personal sins (see also Canon 5).
⁃ The Vulgate interpretation of Romans 5:12 does not seem to be defined, even though it would surely be
contrary to the mind of the Council to deny that Romans 5:12 (in its context, and not necessarily with the
explicitness of later theology) teaches original sin.
⁃ Canon 5 [DS 1515] Baptism takes away everything that is truly "sin" -- it is not only "imputation" of
righteousness, but real transformation.
⁃ "Concupiscence" remains, but it is not really sin.
⁃ Declaration on the BVM [DS 1516] The Immaculate Conception is not excluded by the above decree.

Twentieth-Century Developments

• Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis


⁃ Polygenism is not acceptable because it cannot be seen how it could be reconciled with the Church's
doctrine on original sin, "which proceeds from a sin truly committed by one Adam and, transmitted to all by
generation, is found in, and proper to, each." [cf. DS 3897]
• Vatican II
• Paul IV, "Address to Theologians" (1966)

Original Sin and the Beginnings of Human History (Original Sin and Monogenism)

• Note: The purpose of revelation is to enable us to share intelligently in God's saving plan, not to satisfy
our natural curiosity.

• Monogenism as such is not a dogma of Catholic faith


⁃ Neither in virtue of Scripture
⁃ Genesis is not modern historiography
⁃ Romans does not go beyond Genesis as to the biological origins of humankind
⁃ Nor in virtue of the Magisterium
⁃ Conciliar definitions (particularly those of Trent) did not want to decide a matter which was not a
question asked or discussed.
⁃ This is also true of the ordinary universal magisterium.
⁃ Humani Generis deliberately leaves open the possibility of polygenism for theological inquiry.
⁃ Subsequent statements have been even more cautious.
• Polygenism may be compatible with the doctrine of original sin
⁃ Critical examination of main hypotheses:
⁃ Hypotheses which appear to be unsatisfactory:
⁃ "Original Sin" as the imperfection of the human condition in respect to the fulfilment in Christ
(Hulsbosch?)
⁃ "Original Sin" as the "sin of the world" -- that is, the social milieu shared previously to personal
decisions (Schoonenberg)
⁃ Hypotheses which may be satisfactory:
⁃ "Original Sin" as the sin of the "Adamite population" (Supplement to A New Catechism)
⁃ "Original Sin" as the sin of an individual "first man" but not a universal physical father of
humankind (Alszeghy-Flick)

• Theological and Pastoral Consequences


⁃ Bible, liturgy, proclamation and theology — their interrelationships.
⁃ Monogenism is "safe" but not to be presented as dogma.
⁃ Polygenism is not established as certainly possible, but not to be presented as heresy.
⁃ Fidelity to the revealed message and open dialogue with contemporary science.
⁃ Not to overstress the perfection of the beginning: salvation through Christ is more than restoration.

Synopsis of the Doctrine (and definitions of terms)

• Original Sin in us ["peccatum originale originatum"]


⁃ "Formally" (i.e. essentially) it is the privation of sanctifying grace
⁃ "Materially" it is
⁃ the absence of the "preternatural gifts" intended originally for humans by God, and
⁃ the resulting disharmony of our being aggravated by sin
⁃ [and its cumulative effects throughout history]
⁃ = "concupiscence"
⁃ "Sin" is understood here in an analogous sense
⁃ it is a condition contrary to God's will and due to human disobedience to God, and thus sin
⁃ yet, it is not due to our personal decision. Rather it antecedes it, and therefore it is not personal sin [as
our own "mortal" and "venial" sins are].
⁃ This condition is due to a disobedience at the origins of human history.
⁃ God, who created human beings in order to adopt them in Christ [cf. Ephesians 1:4ff] offered divine
grace from the beginning.
⁃ Had humans accepted and persevered in God's grace, the first parent(s) or the first human community
would have transmitted sanctifying grace to their posterity — together with certain "preternatural gifts"
intended by God, i.e. exemptions from human imperfections such as "death" as we now experience it,
disharmony between soul and body, etc.
⁃ Though these imperfections are "natural" (per se) to the human person, they are in a sense contrary
to the higher dignity to which she is called by God.
⁃ By freely rejecting God's grace [peccatum originale originans], the human person or persons deprived
also posterity of these God-intended gifts.
⁃ This condition is not unjust, for:
⁃ We are, as human creatures, in no way entitled to God's supernatural grace or preternatural gifts.
⁃ God had certainly the right to make the conferring of these at the very beginning of our existence
dependent upon the response of the first representatives of humankind [in accordance with the social
nature of humanity and the communitarian nature of the divine plan of salvation].
⁃ Finally, and most importantly, our condition of not inheriting sanctifying grace is contrary to God's will
precisely since God had called and IS STILL CALLING US to supernatural communion with the divine
Self, offering us — in and through the Redemption accomplished by Christ — God's `grace even more
abundantly' [cf. also Romans 5].
⁃ The difference is (to express it in a somewhat simplified manner) that instead of receiving God's grace as
children of "Adam and Eve" by our human origin, we receive it as redeemed by Christ through our Christian
re-birth [cf. the teaching of the Church, especially Trent, on Baptism and "justification"].
⁃ "Concupiscence" — the lack of the "preternatural gifts"—is not taken away by Baptism [cf. Trent,
Canon 5, above].
⁃ This, however, should not be seen only as an occasion for temptation (concupiscence) and suffering
(sickness and death), but also as a way to share in the sufferings of Christ and thus to follow Christ
more perfectly.

• God truly wants the salvation of all


◦ Christ died for each and every human person, and the grace of Christ is offered to all.
◦ For the possibility of salvation outside the visible limits of the Catholic Church, but still always (even if
unawares) through the grace of Christ that always links the person to some degree to the people of God, see
Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Chpt. II, #13-17.
◦ In Karl Rahner's terminology, also used widely by other theologians, such persons who freely cooperating with
God's offer are in the state of the sanctifying grace of Christ, but without their — or others' — knowing it, are
called "anonymous Christians."

⁃ As for the salvation of those who die before having arrived at a personal decision for or against the
grace of God — think, for example, of the multitude of unbaptized infants — the Church's teaching is
not fully defined yet. The following points, however, can be confidently affirmed:
⁃ God does not inflict positive punishment on anyone who is not guilty of personal sin. Therefore, IF these
infants die without having received Christ's grace, they will not share in the beatific vision but will attain a
state of natural happiness in the knowledge and peace of God [cf. also TCF # : Pope Innocent III, AD
1201]. This state, assumed by a part of the theological tradition, is called "Limbo."
⁃ We cannot exclude the possibility that Christ's grace reaches also these infants.
⁃ Indeed, God's universal salvific will and Christ's death for all gives — at the very least — positive hope
for such a possibility.
⁃ Some theologians would speak, for example, of a possible "baptism of desire" in virtue of the faith of
the parents or of the whole Church.
⁃ Another theological theory [viz., e.g., Ladislav Boros, The Mystery of Death] would maintain that, in
the process of the "separation" of soul and body, such infants also would be given an opportunity to
accept or reject God's grace.
• Vatican II spells out very clearly that our faith and hope in the universal power of God's grace in Christ
should not weaken the missionary work of the Church (see Lumen Gentium, Chpt. II, #16 end, and #17
[quoting Mt. 28:18-20]).