Do Orthodoxy and Catholicism significantly disagree on original sin? Both agree that by his sin and disobedience Adam broke fellowship with God and introduced into the world chaos, disharmony, corruption, evil, and death. But Orthodoxy dissents from Catholicism, we are often told, at one crucial point: unlike the Catholic Church, Orthodoxy does not teach that the heirs of Adam inherit the guilt of Adam; rather they inherit mortality. Fr John Meyendorff elaborates:
Now, in Greek patristic thought, only this free, personal mind can commit sin and incur the concomitant “guilt”—a point made particularly clear by Maximus the Confessor in his distinction between “natural will” and “gnomic will.” Human nature as God’s creature always exercises its dynamic properties (which together constitute the “natural will”—a created dynamism) in accordance with the divine will, which creates it. But when the human person, or hypostasis, by rebelling against both God and nature misuses its freedom, it can distort the “natural will” and thus corrupt nature itself. It is able to do so because it possesses freedom, or “gnomic will,” which is capable of orienting man toward the good and of “imitating God” (”God alone is good by nature,” writes Maximus, “and only God’s imitator is good by his gnome“); it is also capable of sin because “our salvation depends on our will.” But sin is always a personal act and never an act of nature. Patriarch Photius even goes so far as to say, referring to Western doctrines, that the belief in a “sin of nature” is a heresy.
From these basic ideas about the personal character of sin, it is evident that the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God could be conceived only as their personal sin; there would be no place, then, in such an anthropology for the concept of inherited guilt, or for a “sin of nature,” although it admits that human nature incurs the consequences of Adam’s sin.
The Greek patristic understanding of man never denies the unity of mankind or replaces it with a radical individualism. The Pauline doctrine of the two Adams (”As in Adam all men die, so also in Christ all are brought to life” [1 Co 15:22]), as well as the Platonic concept of the ideal man, leads Gregory of Nyssa to understand Genesis 1:27—”God created man in His own image”—to refer to the creation of mankind as a whole. It is obvious, therefore, that the sin of Adam must also be related to all men, just as salvation brought by Christ is salvation for all mankind; but neither original sin nor salvation can be realized in an individual’s life without involving his personal and free responsibility.
The scriptural text, which played a decisive role in the polemics between Augustine and the Pelagians, is found in Romans 5:12 where Paul speaking of Adam writes, “As sin came into the world through one man and through sin and death, so death spreads to all men because all men have sinned [eph ho pantes hemarton].” In this passage there is a major issue of translation. The last four Greek words were translated in Latin as in quo omnes peccaverunt (”in whom [i.e., in Adam] all men have sinned”), and this translation was used in the West to justify the doctrine of guilt inherited from Adam and spread to his descendants. But such a meaning cannot be drawn from the original Greek—the text read, of course, by the Byzantines. The form eph ho—a contraction of epi with the relative pronoun ho—can be translated as “because,” a meaning accepted by most modern scholars of all confessional backgrounds. Such a translation renders Paul’s thought to mean that death, which is “the wages of sin” (Rm 6:23) for Adam, is also the punishment applied to those who, like him, sin. It presupposes a cosmic significance of the sin of Adam, but does not say that his descendants are “guilty” as he was, unless they also sin as he sinned.
A number of Byzantine authors, including Photius, understood the eph ho to mean “because” and saw nothing in the Pauline text beyond a moral similarity between Adam and other sinners, death being the normal retribution for sin. But there is also the consensus of the majority of Eastern Fathers, who interpret Romans 5:12 in close connection with 1 Corinthians 15:22—between Adam and his descendants there is a solidarity in death just as there is a solidarity in life between the risen Lord and the baptized. …
Mortality, or “corruption,” or simply death (understood in a personalized sense), has indeed been viewed since Christian antiquity as a cosmic disease, which holds humanity under its sway, both spiritually and physically, and is controlled by the one who is “the murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44). It is this death, which makes sin inevitable and in this sense “corrupts” nature. (Byzantine Theology, pp. 143-145)
Meyendorff reiterates this difference between East and West in his brief discussion of the Immaculate Conception. “Byzantine homiletic and hymnographical texts,” he writes, “often praise the Virgin as ‘fully prepared,’ ‘cleansed,’ and ’sanctified.’ But these texts are to be understood in the context of the doctrine of original sin which prevailed in the East: the inheritance from Adam was mortality, not guilt, and there was never any doubt among Byzantine theologians that Mary was indeed a mortal being” (p. 147). He even goes so far as to suggest that “the Mariological piety of the Byzantines would probably have led them to accept the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary as it has been defined in 1854, if only they shared the Western doctrine of original sin” (p. 148).
I distinctly remember reading Meyendorff’s discussion of original sin many years ago while I was still an Anglican and wondered whether he had accurately stated the Western understanding. I knew that I did not and had never understood original sin as a sharing in the guilt of Adam; but my knowledge of magisterial Roman Catholic teaching was limited at that time. I would not explore the matter until many years later. And the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was certainly well beyond my sympathies. Of course Mary was a sinner—how could she not be?
Tracing the doctrine of original sin within the Latin tradition is well beyond my competence. Those who are interested in the topic might want to purchase or borrow Henri Rondet’s book Original Sin. Rondet discusses at some length St Augustine’s construal of the Fall and its effects on humanity. For Augustine, he writes, “the most important consequence [of Adam’s sin] is sin itself. The children of Adam come into the world in a state of sin. To this sin of nature that they bring with them on being born, they add personal sins, so much so that of itself the human race, fallen from its primeval state, has no prospect other than hell” (pp. 120-121). Think massa damnata. In mysterious solidarity every human being shares in the sin of Adam and is thus deserving of divine wrath and condemnation, even apart from their personal sins. Commenting on Ezekiel 28:4 (“Both the soul of the father is mine and the soul of the son is mine. The soul that sins is the one that will die”), the Bishop of Hippo writes:
This is why he contracted from Adam what is absolved by the grace of the sacrament: for he was not yet a a soul living separately, that is, an other soul of which it could be said, “both the soul of the father is mine and the soul of the son is mine.” Thus when he is already a man existing in himself, having become other than the one who begot him, he is not held responsible for another’s sin without his own consent. Therefore he does contract guilt [from Adam] because he was one with him and in him from whom he contracted it, when what he contracted was committed. But one does not contract it from another when each is already living his own life, of which it is said: “the soul that sins is the one that will die.” (Letter 98.1; see Phillip Cary, Outward Signs, pp.205-212, and Jesse Couenhoven, “St Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin“)
On the basis of this profound solidarity with Adam, Augustine concludes that infants and small children who die without baptism are justly damned; or perhaps more accurately, on the basis of the salvific necessity of sacramental initiation into the body of Christ, Augustine infers Adamic solidarity in sin and condemnation. The condition of original sin can only be cured by rebirth in the New Adam.
Rondet makes clear, however, that as influential as the Augustinian construal has been, Latin theologians have not been content to simply reiterate it. Significant modifications and corrections have been made over the centuries.
So what does the Catholic Church presently teach about original sin? Fortunately for our purposes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes several pages to a discussion of the creation and fall of man. It tells us that man was created in the image of God and “established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him” (§374). This state of friendship and harmony is called “original holiness and justice.” But man let trust die in his heart and disobeyed the command of God. He “preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good” (§398). Consequently, humanity immediately lost the grace of original holiness. The Catechism describes the consequences of this fall:
The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history. (§400)
All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: “By one man’s disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners”: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” (§402)
So far so good. Is there anything in this presentation to which an Eastern Orthodox theologian would strongly object? One even notes the adoption by the Catechism of the Greek text for Rom 5:12: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” But the above passage intimates mankind’s Adamic solidarity: “all men are implicated in Adam’s sin.” Perhaps here we finally arrive at the dreaded Augustinian assertion of inherited guilt. The Catechism, however, decisively qualifies such an assertion:
Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the “death of the soul.” Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.
How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man”. By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed”—a state and not an act.
Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin—an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence”. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. (§§403-405; emphasis mine)
The Catechism’s presentation of original sin is open to interpretation. It does not seek to resolve the differences between the various Catholic schools. The catechetical doctrine excludes the Pelagian reduction of original sin to “the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example,” on the one hand, and the Reformation exaggeration of original sin as the radical perversion of human nature and destruction of human freedom, on the other (§406). Between these two boundaries lies the mystery of human iniquity and the fall of man. In the tradition of St Thomas Aquinas, the Catechism identifies the essential character of original sin as the loss of original holiness and justice: man is born into a state of spiritual death. Not only is every human being born into a world dominated by oppression, violence, and hatred; but he is also born into a condition of profound alienation from his creator. The Holy Spirit does not indwell his soul, as originally intended by God. Fallen man is thus deprived of sanctifying grace. His nature is wounded. This is the sin bequeathed to humanity by Adam. This original sin is properly understood as a condition and state, not as personal act: it “does not have the character of a personal fault.” The Catholic Church thus agrees with Orthodox theologians who insist that no person may be deemed morally culpable for a sin he did not personally commit. Individuals are not condemned by God because of Adam’s disobedience. In the words of Pope Pius IX: “God in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault” (Quanto conficiamur moerore ). All human beings enjoy solidarity with Adam and share in the consequences of his disobedience. All are born “in Adam.” But we do not inherit his personal guilt but only his corrupted nature and separation from the divine life. In one of his 1986 catechetical teachings, Pope John Paul II elaborated upon the “sin” of original sin:
Therefore original sin is transmitted by way of natural generation. This conviction of the Church is indicated also by the practice of infant baptism, to which the [Tridentine] conciliar decree refers. Newborn infants are incapable of committing personal sin, yet in accordance with the Church’s centuries-old tradition, they are baptized shortly after birth for the remission of sin. The decree states: “They are truly baptized for the remission of sin, so that what they contracted in generation may be cleansed by regeneration” (DS 1514).
In this context it is evident that original sin in Adam’s descendants does not have the character of personal guilt. It is the privation of sanctifying grace in a nature which has been diverted from its supernatural end through the fault of the first parents. It is a “sin of nature,” only analogically comparable to “personal sin.” In the state of original justice, before sin, sanctifying grace was like a supernatural “endowment” of human nature. The loss of grace is contained in the inner “logic” of sin, which is a rejection of the will of God, who bestows this gift. Sanctifying grace has ceased to constitute the supernatural enrichment of that nature which the first parents passed on to all their descendants in the state in which it existed when human generation began. Therefore man is conceived and born without sanctifying grace. It is precisely this “initial state” of man, linked to his origin, that constitutes the essence of original sin as a legacy (peccatum originale originatum, as it is usually called).
Latin theologians typically employ the terms sin, stain of sin, guilt, punishment, and penalty to describe the condition of fallen man. Following the ritual practice of the Church, they even speak of infants and small children being baptized for the “remission of their sins.” But the Catholic Church is clear that this usage is to be interpreted analogically, not literally. The driving concern here is the universality of salvation in the New Adam and the necessity of Holy Baptism. Jesus is the savior of all humanity, infants and adults. All need to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the glorified human nature of the eternal Son of God; all are summoned to the waters of baptism. Apart from this new act of grace, whether ministered sacramentally or extra-sacramentally, none can be saved.
Again I ask, Is there anything in this presentation to which an Eastern Orthodox theologian would strongly object? I acknowledge that the conceptuality of sanctifying grace, developed in the medieval West, is alien to Orthodox reflection. Scholasticism’s concern was to explicate the impact of God’s gratuitous self-communication on the human being. But the Roman Catholic Church can hardly insist that the Eastern Church must think in scholastic categories. Consider, for example, the presentation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Fr Karl Rahner:
What is the meaning of the Immaculate Conception then? The Church’s teaching that is expressed in these words, simply states that the most blessed virgin Mother of God was adorned by God with sanctifying grace from the first instant of her existence, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ her son, that is, on account of the redemption effected by her son. Consequently she never knew that state which we call original sin, and which consists precisely in the lack of grace in men caused in them by the sin of the first man at the beginning of human history. The Immaculate Conception of the blessed Virgin, therefore, consists simply in her having possessed the divine life of grace from the beginning of her existence, a life of grace that was given her (without her meriting it), by the prevenient grace of God, so that through this grace-filled beginning of her life, she might become the mother of the redeemer in the manner God had intended her to be for his own Son. For this reason she was enveloped from the beginning of her life in the redemptive and saving love of God. Such is, quite simply, the content of this doctrine which Pius IX in 1854 solemnly defined as a truth of the Catholic faith. (Mary, Mother of the Lord, pp. 43-44)
The Immaculate Conception means that Mary possessed grace from the beginning. What does it signify, though, to say that someone has sanctifying grace? This dry technical term of theology makes it sound as though some thing were meant. Yet ultimately sanctifying grace and its possession do not signify any thing, not even merely some sublime, mysterious condition of our souls, lying beyond the world of our personal experience and only believed in a remote, theoretical way. Sanctifying grace, fundamentally, means God himself, his communications to created spirits, the gift which is God himself. Grace is light, love, receptive access of a human being’s life as a spiritual person to the infinite expenses of the Godhead. Grace means freedom, strength, a pledge of eternal life, the predominant influence of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the soul, adoptive sonship and an eternal inheritance. (p. 48)
Like us, Mary is born into a sinful world and must engage in spiritual battle against Satan and the principalities and powers. Like us, Mary lives in a world filled with violence, sickness, and death. Like us, Mary is mortal and lives in the knowledge of her mortality. Yet she differs from us in one crucial respect: from the very first moment she came into existence in her mother’s womb, she was indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus enjoyed intimate, enduring communion with God. It seems to me that Rahner’s interpretation of the Immaculate Conception is easily translated into the language of theosis. In this sense, the blessed Virgin Mother was, by the grace of God, free from sin, original and actual. Do Orthodox Christians truly desire to deny this?
In one of his homilies on the Annunciation of the Virgin, St Sophronius of Jerusalem envisions the Archangel Gabriel speaking the following words to the young maiden:
Many became saints before you. But no one was full of grace like you; no one was blessed like you; no one was sanctified like you; no one was magnified like you; no one was purified in advance like you; no one was enlightened like you; no one was illuminated like you; no one was exalted like you; no one brought God forward like you; no one became so rich in God’s gifts like you; no one received God’s grace like you; you exceed in every human excellence. (Quoted in John Panteleimon Manoussakis, For the Unity of All, p. 9)
If the Latin doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is reformulated in positive terms, as the assertion of Mary’s possession of the Holy Spirit from conception, does the doctrine then become acceptable to the East? And if Catholics and Orthodox can agree on the original and life-enduring purity of the Theotokos, do they not in fact essentially agree on original sin?
[This article was originally published on my old blog Pontifications in April 2007. It has been significantly revised. Also see the 2019 revision.]