Several years ago, during a late-night Christmas service at my home church, the head pastor got up and delivered his holiday message. It was pretty standard stuff he was preaching about but then he said something that got me thinking. I had heard this before a million times before by other preachers in the past but for some reason, what he said struck me. Basically, what he said that caused me to think was that Christ had to have been born from a virgin so that he would not have been “contaminated” by sin, whereby he could be born sinless and therefore be able to die for the sins of mankind.
Christ could not be contaminated by sin so that he could bear the sins of mankind… hmmm.
Of course, the pastor was talking about doctrine of original sin and the Fall (both are intricately linked), a doctrine that many Christians (whether they call themselves reformed or not) take as a matter of fact and don’t give much of a second thought to.
However, when you delve into the history and theology of the doctrine of original sin more critically, it poses many philosophical and even biblical problems that we’ll examine briefly here.
First off, definitions.
In John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion Book Two, Chapter 1 he states:
Through Adam’s Fall and rebellion, the whole human race has been cursed and has degenerated from its original state. Original sin.
1. What was our original state? One from which we have fallen. What is the purpose of our creation? One from which we have wandered until, tired of our wretched lot, we groan and sigh for our lost dignity.
6. The contamination of parents is transmitted to their children so that everyone, without exception, is depraved from their earliest moment. The start of this depravity cannot be discovered until we go back to the first parent of all, as the fountain-head. We must grasp the fact firmly, as we think of human nature, that Adam was not just an ancestor but a root, so that by his corruption the whole human race was justly tainted. This is clear from the contrast which the apostle draws between Adam and Christ. ‘Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned’ (Rom. 5:12), so that through Christ’s grace righteousness and life are restored to us.
Sin and death were introduced by Adam, so that they might be abolished in Christ… So the link between the two is this: as Adam, by his Fall, involved and ruined us, so Christ, by grace, restored us to salvation… [B]y sinning [Adam] not only brought disaster and ruin upon himself, but also plunged human nature into the same destruction. It was not only by one mistake, which had nothing to do with us, but by the corruption into which he fell that he infected the whole of mankind. Paul could never have said that ‘we were by nature objects of wrath’ (Eph. 2:3), if we had not been condemned in the womb. It is obvious that the nature referred to is not as God created it, but as it was polluted by Adam. It would be ridiculous to make God the author of death! So Adam, when he corrupted himself, passed on the contagion to all posterity.
8. In case there is any confusion, it would be a good thing to define original sin… Original sin, then, may be defined as the hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature. This reaches every part of the soul, makes us abhorrent to God’s wrath and produces in us what Scripture calls works of the flesh. This corruption is constantly called sin by Paul (Gal. 5:19) while the things which spring from it such as adultery, fornication, theft, hatred, murder and revellings, he calls sins. Sins are the fruits of sin.
This does not mean that we are being held liable for someone else’s fault. When it is said that the sin of Adam has made us obnoxious to God’s justice, the implication is not that we are taking his guilt, when we ourselves are innocent and blameless, but that since we are all under the curse because of his transgression, he has placed us under the debt of guilt. Through him, not only has punishment come, but pollution has been put within us so that punishment is justly due. So Augustine, though he often calls it Adam’s sin, so that he may show more clearly how it came to us by descent, at the same time maintains that it is each person’s own sin. The apostle very clearly states that ‘death came to all men, because all sinned’ (Rom. 5:12). They are involved in original sin and soiled by its stain. Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; they suffer for their own imperfection and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.
Our nature is not only completely empty of goodness, but so full of every kind of wrong that it is always active. Those who call it lust use an apt word, provided it is also stated … that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul to the body, is defiled and imbued with lust. To put it briefly, the whole of man is in himself nothing but lust.
(John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, 1986, pp. 85 – 91)
This essay will focus on some key biblical texts to see whether or not the Bible even supports Calvin’s view of Original sin.
The vast topic of the Fall and or Original sin cannot be encompassed in one single essay, so this essay will most likely be a starting point for what may be a series of essays pertaining to the topic of the Fall and Original sin.
In terms of Calvin’s interpretation of the Genesis narrative of Adam and Eve’s sin being passed down to future generations of humanity, well, there’s nothing in the biblical narrative that suggests that Adam and Eve were changed at the genetic level that would infect subsequent generations. Calvin, as well as Augustine, almost seems to make scientific claims that the curse of God produced a physical change within mankind so that they would experience the affects of aging, pain, disease, death, suffering, etc. So did God change mankind’s DNA and place, produce, or mutate a “sin” gene within them that gets passed down from generation to generation? If it’s a physical defect, doesn’t that mean that, in theory, if a “sin” gene could be isolated by scientists then a cure could be found, and therefore reverse the affects of the curse and establish us back to our pre-Fall state? (This is almost like saying that scientists have discovered something like a “gay” gene that makes people homosexuals.) Then it would be more of a scientific/medical dilemma rather than a spiritual/theological one. But apparently, within the biblical text, Adam and Eve don’t die physically after God’s judgment, so many interpreters have stated that what they really experienced was a “spiritual” death where the “death” they experienced was rather a separation from the close relationship with God they had previously enjoyed in paradise. Of course, Calvin and Augustine had no clue about genetics, modern medicine, or germ theory, but it seems clear that Calvin had this genetic interpretation in mind when he stated that, “Original sin, then, may be defined as the hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature.” So it’s hard, without doing some fancy hermeneutical and mental gymnastics, to argue for a purely “spiritual death” interpretation.
What about Jesus? Did he have anything to say about original sin? Is there anything in the Gospels that state that Jesus mentions, or even believes in, original sin? Sure Jesus talked about sin a lot of course, but I’m talking about original sin as defined by Calvin.
One instance where Jesus comes closest to making a comment about original sin comes in John 9:1 – 12, where the disciples come upon a man born blind and they ask Jesus what caused his blindness: his own sins or his parents?
Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (v. 3)
From John 9, we can assume that Jesus’ disciples did consider it possible that sin was present in an infant; they most likely did not assume that the blind person committed sin in his mother’s womb (i.e. a “volitional sin”), so they are asking Jesus if it was some kind of inherited (i.e. genetic) or hereditary sin was passed down to him by his parents.
The idea of inherited sin or guilt is mentioned in the Old Testament, so this is where the disciples and other Jews of that time may have gotten this notion of inherited guilt from past familial generations.
Exodus 34: 6 – 7 states, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
However, Ezekiel 18: 19 – 20 states, “Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.”
So here you see two varying viewpoints on the matter of inherited guilt or sin being passed down from generation to generation. At one level, one can see this as a blatant contradiction that disproves the inerrancy of the Bible (perhaps so), or in an effort to defend biblical inerrancy, one might do some really fancy and convoluted exegesis and hermeneutics that goes all over the place to (desperately) harmonize these verses together. In the way I see it, it should be stated that the two verses above may reveal a progressive understanding of sin as the Hebrew Scriptures were being written down over the decades or centuries, and how ethics and morality possibly evolved and changed in the different generations between when the books of Exodus and Ezekiel were written down and developed.
If we go back to Jesus’ response in John 9: 3, that it was neither his or his parents’ fault for his blindness, it seems clear that Jesus does not support the notion of Augustinian inherited guilt or even Calvin’s notion of total depravity.
I would go into Paul’s depiction of inherited sin, particularly in Romans 5:12-20, but that’s for another essay.
And not to mention, I haven’t even touched upon the Genesis 2 narrative yet.
But for now I want to lay down the groundwork and point out that an overwhelming, consistent biblical support for the notion of original sin (or even the Fall for that matter) is not a slam dunk or a universal matter in both the Old Testament and New Testament. This is important because much of our theological epistemology derives heavily from the Bible, and how we define or interpret sin as portrayed in the Bible has huge implications for our understandings of Christian theology, from theological anthropology, Christology, soteriology, eschatology, etc.
It gets even more and more complex when you include the sciences into the mix. For instance, say a person is born with a severe mental deficiency, disability, autism, or Down Syndrome. If that person cannot mentally understand the concept of Christian salvation (i.e. confessing your sins and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ to cleanse you of all sin, etc.), is he or she damned to hell or eternal torment for all of eternity because of his or her inherited original sin? How is that just or loving for God to do such a thing? Even if you maintain God’s perfect righteousness, how our good works are like filthy rags before God, God’s perfect holiness, etc., etc., how truly comfortable are we in saying that God was just in condemning mentally handicapped children to hell? Is it just for God, in his perfect wisdom and mercy, to do something like that?
You can rightly argue that it has absolutely nothing to do whether or not how comfortable we are about God’s righteous and sovereign decisions. You can also argue that from God’s omnipotence and sovereignty, since He’s the creator and ruler of the universe, He can do whatever He wants by definition and that we have no right to question his decisions.
That’s perfectly a perfectly legitimate response.
However, in a gut, visceral level, wouldn’t that leave a bad taste in your mouth on some level to be worshipping a God who condemns mentally challenged persons for their existential condition of having been born in sin, and then claim that God is all-loving and all-compassionate at the same time?
If so, then perhaps we should have a different or more nuanced way of what God’s love and compassion are all about.
On a psychopathic level (devoid of empathy and just sticking with the cold, hard facts) I can see how God can justify this level of justice and making decisions of this kind.
However, on a life-affirming, empathetic, grace-filled level, I have a very, very hard time seeing this.