In one of his most memorable sayings, repeated by many in the centuries since he wrote his letter to the Romans, Paul declares that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). In the following verses, he goes on to discuss precisely how Jesus deals with sinfulness by drawing on his understanding of the second creation story (Gen 2:4b—3:24). Paul places Jesus alongside Adam, declaring that “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom 5:18).
The argument forms the basis of the Epistle reading for this coming Sunday, the First Sunday in Lent (Rom 5:12–19).
Paul then restates this equation in the following paired affirmation, “just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19), before he concludes, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:20b—21).
The reality of sinful behaviours amongst human beings cannot be denied. Throughout history, people have always experienced the selfishness, greed, manipulation, abuse, and hatred manifested by others (as well, of course, as loving, selfless, caring, supportive and encouraging behaviours and ways of relating). That this sinfulness needs to be addressed and dealt with cannot be ignored. That God, in Hebrew Scriptures, stands firm for justice and calls for covenant fidelity, is important. That Jesus, in turn, calls out unjust actions and invites sinful people to repent, is consistent with this earlier witness. As a society, we need to function in healthy ways that foster co-operation. Dealing with sin, which impedes this healthy functioning, is vitally important.
Where many people come unstuck in relation to sin, however, is when we consider the origin of that sinfulness. Are human beings born innately sinful? Or is this a way of behaving and relating to others that we learn as we grow and develop? Or, to put it in explicitly theological terms: are we human beings all caught in the grip of original sin?
That is a view that was advocated centuries ago by Augustine of Hippo, and which has come to dominate theological understanding in the church of he ensuing centuries. Augustine read Paul’s words in Romans as a clear statement that every human being is born already scarred by sin. His view was that Paul understood the story in the early chapters of Genesis to be an explanation of this incontrovertible reality. As a result, Augustine declared that “the deliberate sin of the first man is the cause of original sin” (On Marriage and Concupisence, book 2, 26.43).
(Concupisence has a Latin origin: the root term is cupid, meaning desire or passion; it is given a suffix, –escere, used to change a noun into a verb and to signify entering into a particular state of being; and a prefix, con-, which serves to intensify the compound word. As a whole, it means “to desire strongly”; in theological usage, it usually refers to the innate tendency within human beings to sinfulness.)
Augustine based his view on a particular way of reading on Romans 5:12. The NRSV renders this verse as “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned”. A fair warning needs to be given: the argument about this verse is rather technical, because it depends on how we translate just two small words in the Greek original of this verse.
The two words in question are the preposition, epi, and the personal pronoun, ho, which comes immediately after it. Because the pronoun starts with an h sound (a “hard breathing” in Greek) and the preposition ends with a vowel, the natural inclination in Greek is that the preposition is modified so that it slides seamlessly into the pronoun. So epi hobecomes eph’ho.
But how to translate this short and seemingly simply phrase? Here’s where it really gets complicated! We need to take into account the phrase which comes before it, about sin, death, and one man, as well as the words which follow immediately after it, which are hugely significant: “all have sinned” (which of course goes to the heart of the idea of original sin).
Augustine wanted to read this text as stating that sin entered the world through Adam. Technically, he reads the Greek, eph’ho, as referring to the man, Adam. But scholars of Paul’s Greek have seen the problem with this interpretation: eph’ho [(ἐφ’ ᾧ)] as a reference to Adam is “both grammatically and exegetically impossible”, one says.
Rather, “eph’ho pantes hemarton [(ἐφ’ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον)], can be safely interpreted as modifying the word, thanatos [(θάνατος)], which precedes it, and which grammatically is the only word which fits the context.” Each time the grammatical construction of the preposition epi [(ἐπί)] with the dative is used by Paul, it is always used as a relative pronoun which modifies a preceding noun (Rom 9:33; 10:19; 15:12; 2 Cor 5:4; Rom 6:21) or phrase (Phil 4:10).
So eph’ho [(ἐφ’ ᾧ)] is understood to modify thanatos [(θάνατος)]—kai houtos eis pantas anthropous ho thanatos dielthen eph’ho (thanato) pantes hemarton [(καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν, ἐφ’ ᾧ (θάνατο) πάντες ἥμαρτον)]—”because of which” (death), or “on the basis of which” (death), or “for which (death) all have sinned.”
The quotes in the preceding paragraphs come from the technical discussion of this verse at https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/14268/translation-of-romans-512
Augustine bases his claim about original sin on his reading of the story of Genesis 2–3 (some of which appears in the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the First Sunday in Lent), which depicts the fall of Adam, from which all humans inherited innate sinfulness (original sin).
However, the problem is that the Genesis 1 account of creation which precedes this story (and which we read later in the year, on Trinity Sunday) makes it quite clear that the original state of humanity was that human beings, like all that God created, “was good”—indeed, that as the final act of that sequence of creation, humanity was “very good” (Gen 1:31). So much for original sin; humanity, according to this narrative, was part of a “very good” creation.
Indeed, Augustine was reading the sequence of early chapters in Genesis as historical narrative, and his understanding was that the consequences of “the fall” in Gen 3 was that every person born after Adam inherited that fallen state from the first human being. However, we know from a careful application of literary criticism, that the Adam story is myth which has an aetiological purpose, and that it is not an historical account.
That is, it does not give a realistic account of “things as they happened”, but rather, it is an imaginative story which tells of the reasons for the origin of things. It doesn’t answer the question, “what happened?”; rather, it responds to the question, “why are things like this?” So the Genesis story as a whole explains the good original state of humanity, before any decline or corruption took place. It is descriptive of how we find things, not prescriptive for how things should be.
In fact, we can see this nature of the story in the names given to these mythical first two human beings: the man, Adam (adam) was created “from the dust of the earth” (ha–adamah), and so his name signifies “the earth person” (Gen 2:7), whilst the woman, Eve (havah) was to be “the mother of all living creatures” (hay), and thus her name signifies “the giver of life” (Gen 3:20).
It’s not the case that what “occurs” with Adam and Eve has been passed on through human beings ever since; but, rather, it is the case that how we experience humanity has led to the creation of a story about Adam (the earth person) and Eve (the giver of life) as an explanation for the way that we experience ourselves, and other people on this earth.
Augustine’s distinctive interpretation was his own initiative; most patristic writers prior to him who addressed this topic (Barnabas, Hermas, Justin Martyr, Origen of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Cyril of Jerusalem) offered explicitly different interpretations of the human state. By contrast, Clement of Alexandria accepted that sin was inherited from Adam, and Cyprian of Carthage argued for the necessity of infant baptism on the basis of a belief that humans were born sinful.
Augustine had developed his views in opposition to the view of his contemporary, Pelagius; the debates continued on into the medieval period, with significant contributions being made by the great theologians Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas, as well as Franciscans such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. The Reformers, Martin Luther and Jean Calvin, adopted and developed the Augustinian view, which has held sway in the Western Church over subsequent centuries. Eastern Orthodoxy, by contrast, attributes the origin of sin to the Devil; what we humans have inherited from Adam is our mortality, but not any innate sinfulness.
This is all a long way, then, from prophetic fulminations against foolish, stupid, evil Israelites, caught in the error of their sinful ways, or the grace-filled encounters that Jesus had with sinners as he called “not the righteous but sinners”, or the formulaic affirmation of the first letter to Timothy, that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”, which has become the bedrock of certain contemporary theologies.
Whilst a recognition of sin is inherent in each of those texts, there is no indication in any way that such sinfulness is innate, inherited from birth, of the very essence of our human nature. The doctrine of original sin is not a biblical idea; it’s not something that we should be maintaining in our theological discourse and spiritual understanding.
But I think we are stuck with the scenario that Jesus ben Sirach described when he wrote his book, “pertaining to instruction and wisdom, so that … those who love learning might make even greater progress in living according to the law” (prelude to Sirach). He admonished his readers, “do not say, ‘His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins,’ for both mercy and wrath are with him, and his anger will rest on sinners” (Sirach 5:6). That’s the paradox that sits, unresolved, throughout scripture, that we still need to grapple with for ourselves, when we think about human sinfulness.