Original Sin

The Epistle of Romans is St. Paul 's magnum opus. While it's not the systematic theology text that some make it out to be, it is his most theological and most systematic epistle. It’s in this Epistle that Paul writes most specifically about the inherited nature of sin, and it is from this passage that St. Augustine gets his material for “inherited guilt”. Romans 5:12 – 19 reads: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned -- For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”.

Technically speaking, in their writings the Eastern Fathers and Orthodox theologians do not use the Latin term introduced by Augustine in his treatise “De Peccato originali”, but instead translate this concept by means of two cognate terms in Greek, namely, progoniki amartia and to propatorikon amartima, which is properly translated “ancestral sin”. These terms allow for a more careful nuancing of the various implications contained in the one Latin term.[1

With regard to original sin, the difference between Orthodox Christianity and the West is: In the Orthodox Faith, the term “original sin” refers to the “first” or “ancestral” sin of Adam and Eve. As a result of this sin, humanity bears the “consequences” of sin, which is death. Here the word “original” may be seen as synonymous with “first” or “ancestral”. Hence, the “original sin” refers to the “first sin” or “ancestral sin”.[2] In the West, humanity likewise bears the “consequences” of the “original sin” of Adam and Eve. However, the West also understands that humanity is likewise “guilty” of the sin of Adam and Eve. The term “Original Sin” here refers to the condition into which humanity is born, a condition in which guilt as well as consequence is involved. In the Orthodox Christian understanding, while humanity does bear the consequences of the original, or first, sin, humanity does not bear the personal guilt associated with this sin. Adam and Eve are guilty of their willful action; we bear the consequences, which is death.[3]

John Karmiris writes that “the sin of the first man, together with all of its consequences and penalties, is transferred by means of natural heredity to the entire human race. Since every human being is a descendant of the first man, ‘no one of us is free from the spot of sin, even if he should manage to live a completely sinless day’”.[4]

The Orthodox Church cannot agree with Augustine, when he says that humans are under a “harsh necessity” of committing sin in his City of God. The image of God is distorted by sin but never destroyed and because we still retain the image of God we still retain free will, although sin restricts its scope. Orthodoxy repudiates any interpretation of the fall which allows no room for freedom. However, we agree with the West that sin had set up a barrier which humanity by its own efforts could never break down. Sin blocked the path to union with God. Since we could not come to God, He came to us. With all that said I do recommend works of Augustine for Orthodox believers.

It can be said that while we have not inherited the guilt of Adam’s personal sin, because his sin is also of a generic nature, and because the entire human race is possessed of an essential, ontological unity, we participate in it by virtue of our participation in the human race. St. Cyril of Alexandria says: “The imparting of “First Sin/Ancestral Sin/ Original Sin” by means of natural heredity should be understood in terms of the unity of the entire human nature, and of the homoousiotitos of all men, who, connected by nature, constitute one mystic whole. Inasmuch as human nature is indeed unique and unbreakable, the imparting of sin from the first-born to the entire human race descended from him is rendered explicable: ‘Explicitly, as from the root, the sickness proceeded to the rest of the tree, Adam being the root who had suffered corruption’”.[5]

Written by Tenny Thomas

[1] Very Rev. Canon Howe, "Sign of the Cross" in The Catechist, 1898.
[1] Original Sin in Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church ( Oxford , 2005).
[2] Fr. Anthony Hughes, "View of Sin in the Early Church: Ancestral Versus Original Sin".
[3] Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: A Concise Exposition, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim Rose (Platina, Calif.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994).
[4] John Karmiris, A Synopsis of the Dogmatic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, trans. from the Greek by the Reverend George Dimopoulos (Scranton, PA.: Christian Orthodox Edition, 1973), pp. 35-36.
[5] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: Volume 2 - From Augustine to the eve of the Reformation.