Original Sin

A toddler shows defiance, disobeys or displays selfishness. Someone comments, “That’s original sin’s impact.”

Has Adam’s sin affected us and if so how? Are we culpable of sin at birth? Might we be born with a depraved nature bent upon evil? Is mortality our only inheritance?

Since even in the 5th century Augustine of Hippo perceived Romans 5:12 to teach that all of us have sinned in Adam, it would seem we are guilty of original sin. Furthermore, Paul pressed on to state, “through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19).

If this were not enough, king David acknowledged he was brought forth in iniquity (Psalms 51:5). It would seem we are guilty of original sin from birth.

On the contrary, Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom belongs to little children and we must become like them if we wish to enter (Matthew 18:3; 19:14). Why would Jesus teach this if they are depraved and sinful? Or for those who value God’s justice, God proclaimed that descendants would not die for their parents’ sins (Ezekiel 18:20).

Therefore to the prior arguments for original sin I respond as follows. As to the first argument, Augustine’s interpretation was based upon a faulty Latin translation of the Greek “eph’ ho” rendered as “in whom.”  By way of contrast the eastern church with its access to the Greek text did not develop a doctrine of original sin (David Weaver, STVQ 1983:3; 1985:2).

Daniel Wallace explains that in Romans 5:12 if eph’ ho functions as a conjunction, it would not refer back to any prior antecedent such as Adam. Rather, it would function to explain how death is universal. It is universal for the same reason sin is universal. All do die and all do sin. Recognizing that there is no grammatical evidence for an antecedent interpretation, Wallace concluded eph’ ho should be understood as carrying a conjunctive force  (D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 342-343). As for the other occurrences of eph’ ho in the Greek New Testament consult: Acts 7:33; 2 Corinthians 5:4; Philippians 3:12; 4:10.

Thus, “in Greek Paul is simply stating that everyone has sinned the way Adam did, so that the effect of Adam’s sin continues, and continues to be symbolized by the death experienced by all humans” (L. T. Johnson, Reading Romans). Nothing here about babies being born as depraved sinners.

As for the second argument, Romans 5:18-19 starts with a “therefore” indicating that these verses draw conclusions based upon 5:12-17. Paul utilized Adam as a representative of humanity, who was a “type of the one to come” (Romans 5:14). Adam introduced a new reality for humanity, just as Christ would do so later. In the person of Adam’s disobedience and in the person of Christ’s obedience and resurrection, new realities broke forth for humanity (1 Corinthians 15:21-22; Romans 5:19). Adam’s sin and its consequences have affected everyone (Genesis 2-3). “Paul is positing a universal situation within humanity of sin and death, which can be reversed by a death that is a faithful act of obedience carried out by a human of a status equal to or greater than Adam” (Johnson).

In order to glean the idea of inherited culpability from Romans 5 requires imposing an interpretative framework or explanatory methodology that is absent in the context. Such assumptions might be either conscious or unconscious.

Finally, as for the final argument based upon Psalm 51 we witness David’s outpouring of profound disgust with poetic hyperbole regarding his sinfulness. David’s utter contempt for his guilt causes him to envision his entire life shrouded in sin. In this Psalm we gain access to something of his turmoil and state of mind, not doctrinal truths about humanity.

We have heard people use similar language. “My whole life is a failure! I was born a failure!” Really? Such statements are not absolute historical truths, rather they reveal one’s psychological state in that moment.

So what are we to make of a defiant self-willed child? Just as it would be erroneous to conclude on the basis of a compliant and sweet child that human nature is fundamentally good, so too it is misguided to assume that difficult children reveal human nature is twisted toward evil.

A more helpful perspective might involve realizing that children develop by engaging their world. They will explore their boundaries, discover what is expected and allowed, as well as learn what happens when challenging authority. They quickly learn how various individuals may respond differently! Nature and nurture will influence their development.

If we are concerned about developing a biblical anthropology regarding human nature, we might be better served by framing our discussion around the biblical language of body, soul and spirit, not the categories of good and evil.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

2 thoughts on “Original Sin

  1. I agree with your conclusions, but want to raise this question for future discussion: When does a person become culpable? The `age of accountability’ becomes the question. I’d appreciate some discussion on this subject.

    1. Thanks for the feedback and your question. Not sure how helpful I can be. Some initial thoughts …

      Would not a person be culpable for his or her own sin when God identifies someone as having chosen evil and rebellion against what is good? Would not this imply that the person comprehends that he or she has chosen evil? Presumably, this will occur at a different age for different people. As to when God identifies someone as passing over the threshold of perceiving the choice of good and evil, logically that could not be later in time then one’s choice to sin. For different individuals, crossing over this threshold might occur at the same time of sinning or perhaps earlier.

      These thoughts appear self-evident. Perhaps others above my pay grade will have greater insight. If the question stems from a personal situation, I would recommend chatting with a spiritually mature elder, preacher or Christian.

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