Sin: just how original is it?

Some time back I remember Bishop David Jenkins, who rather revelled in his reputation as the enfant terrible of the English bishops, once beginning a sermon at the (evangelical) St John’s College, Nottingham, by saying: “I don’t believe in original sin.” He paused for effect before continuing: “That’s the trouble with sin, someone’s always done it before!”

Many people would sympathize. Contemporary Christianity often seems to have problems with the doctrine, or at least some of the ways in which it is, and has been, formulated. Perhaps this is because it is unpopular to speak so negatively about humanity, or the way in which it can lead, for example, to views on the fate of dying infants that people find unacceptable.

It is problematic because we are more aware today from our Jewish friends of other ways of reading the early part of Genesis. It is problematic because as literate, scientifically knowledgeable, and well-educated readers we treat the Genesis stories as myth, and Adam as concomitantly ahistorical. And it is problematic because the foundation text of the Augustinian doctrine is not understood by most modern readers of Paul to say what the Augustinian interpretation took it to say.

Yet despite this, it is arguably the one Christian doctrine for which we are swimming in empirical evidence!

Here is the article.

IX. Of Original or Birth-sin
Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and 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 is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, phronema sarkos, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

I shall save the discussion around scientific questions about a literalist reading for a subsequent post. But here, while I am not going to engage with all the details of the article, I first want to note the fundamental affirmation of doctrine this article makes, then its fundamental deficiency, before going on to explore the problematic areas of biblical interpretation.

The fundamental affirmation is that sin is not simply to be reduced a set of individual faults, failings or wrongdoings performed in isolation by individuals, but that it is a characteristic of human existence as we know it, a disfigured social network, and an ineluctable chthonic marring of what it means to be human. It is not just deed, but matrix, not just act but the encompassing framework within which we act. Most (perhaps all) of us, baffled by our own behaviour, and a sometimes sense of helplessness in the face of our own inclinations, will recognise something of that conception of original sin, however uncomfortable we may be with some statements of it as a doctrine.

The fundamental deficiency is any prior related statement of the doctrine of creation. The reference in the first article to God as “the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible” and in this article to “original righteousness” really aren’t enough. Without a thorough grounding in the doctrine of creation, a statement such as the article makes that “man … is of his own nature inclined to evil” looks as if it is on the way to an unguarded Manichaeism. Where is original goodness, or the blessing that precedes and follows the Fall of Adam? Where is the image of God in which humankind were fashioned from the humus, the earth-creature from the earth? I don’t see how one can talk about what “corruption of nature” might mean, without speaking first of that nature. On this ground, the article is plainly lacking.

Some at least of this is due to the problematic exegetical base for original sin, derived from St Augustine, whom some suspect of never having entirely thrown off the Manichaeism he once professed.

Augustine took Paul’s phrase “ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον” (Rom 5:12) following the Vulgate “in quo omnes peccaverunt” to mean “in whom [Adam] all sinned”. This became the standard Western tradition, reiterated at Trent, which repeats the appeal to this verse (Session 5, Decree Concerning Original Sin, ¶2). The ninth article stands firmly in this Augustinian tradition: sin is fundamentally hereditary, and comes down to us like spiritual DNA from Adam. This is effectively sin as a sexually transmitted disease.

That Augustinian interpretation of Paul’s “ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον” as meaning “in whom all sinned” makes that επι (ἐφ᾽) the most disastrous preposition in history. All modern translations agree that its proper meaning is “because.” The hereditary idea of “naturally … engendered of the offspring of Adam” is poorly rooted in this text, once the text is more appropriately translated.

The article then moves on to another Pauline idea: “so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit”, which appears to allude to Galatians 5:17. What Paul sets out as two spheres of being (even if precise interpretations are disputed, this much is largely agreed) Cranmer seems to take as two components of human nature, setting up an internal dualism.

He then compounds this by conflating a reference to Romans 8:6-7 with the argument of Romans 7. He takes from the first the phrase phronema sarkos (τὸ γὰρ φρόνημα τῆς σαρκὸς θάνατος – the mindset of the flesh is death) and translates “the lust of the flesh” despite the lack of any word indicating desire (as in Gal 5:16. Then he argues that this is “is not subject to the Law of God” (i.e. cannot obey it) apparently paraphrasing from Romans 7:7. All of these might mildly be described as tendentious exegeses (although Romans 7 does rather lend itself to tendentious exegesis)!

Quite simply, original sin, in the way the article expounds it, is a textual and exegetical mess. That leaves quite a bit of work to do in rescuing its fundamental affirmation. The weight of scripture, tradition and our own honestly reflected on experience all point to a doctrine that has to say more than “all people just happen to do wrong”. Whatever else original sin might mean, it seems to me to suggest an understanding that our skewedness from God’s purposes is endemic to the human situation. And I would go so far as to claim that anything less doesn’t do justice to reality or our experience of it.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)