The Doctrine of Original Sin

The first mention of “original sin” (peccatum originale) appears in the writings of Augustine of Hippo (c. 354–430) in the West. The notion arose in Augustine’s debates with Pelagius, who rejected the idea of inherited sinfulness. The entire start to the controversy arose over Celestius’ dissent from the North African church who refused him ordination due to his beliefs, six of which were condemned at the synod of Carthage in 411. The six were: 1) Adam was created mortal and would have died even if he’d not sinned. 2) Adam’s sin affected only himself, not the whole human race. 3) Children are born into the same state as that of Adam before he sinned. 4) The human race does not die with Adam or rise with Christ, corporately. 5) The Law, as well as the Gospel, offers entrance into heaven. 6) Before Christ’s advent, there were persons without sin.

As we read some of these, we can see why they were denied and even condemned. Nevertheless, Pelagius, Augustine, and Jerome were invited to write to Demetrias on her adoption of the ascetic life. Pelagius wrote On Nature, meaning on human nature, and Augustine responded to his treatise with On Nature and Grace. Jerome and Augustine’s thoughts were more aligned than with Pelagius, and the debate followed. Augustine drew from Job 14:4 and Psalm 51:5 for his argument and wrote a few treatise’s to the end of establishing original sin as a doctrine: De peccatorum meritis et remissione (1.33), De gratia Christi, et de paccator originali, and De traduce peccati. Resulting from his debate, Augustine insisted upon children receiving baptism so that they could obtain remission of the penalty of original sin while Pelagius opposed infant baptism. In this baptism, Augustine argued, children are “delivered from the bondage of the Devil through the grace of Christ” (De gratia Christi 2.45). As a matter of interest, Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258) writes about infant baptism as if it were an already established practice in his writings, so the custom didn’t originate with Augustine.

This doctrine was taught since the Council of Carthage (AD 418) and was further defined by the Council of Trent (1545–63) and the Reformers. John Calvin is the most important Reformer who employed this doctrine. Where Calvin differed from Augustine was that Calvin didn’t believe baptism granted regeneration, but obedience to the Word of God did (Institutes 2.1.4–5). Calvin’s influence was so paramount that literary geniuses propagated his version of original sin: Chaucer, Milton, Eliot, Lewis, Tolkien, O’ Connor, and Percy. Hence, Western Civilization has been engrained in original sin since Augustine, but has it always been so?

Christian theology agrees that when God created Adam, He did so giving man the ability to choose between good and evil, or free will. Adam was allowed to either accept the vocation given him by God or reject it, which in sinning he did. When Adam disobeyed God, he set his will against the divine will and, thus, separated himself from God in this way. The result of this disobedience was a new existence on earth consisting of disease and death. Since God is immortality and life, we humans have put ourselves in a state contrary to our original nature which leads to death. The consequences of Adam’s choice extends to all his descendants, but not Adam’s guilt.

Now cut off from God, humanity passes under the rule of sin and the devil. Each person is born into a world tainted by sin, and, thus, it is easy for each human to sin and harder, not impossible, for one to do good. Calvin and Augustine believed that fallen human nature amounted to our inability to choose, so no one has free freely will any longer since we used such in a destructive way (On the perfection of man’s righteousness 4.9). This is where we would disagree with Catholic and Reformed theology. Humans still have free will since we were created in the image of God. Catholics and Reformed persons typically believe that the image was destroyed by sin, but we might suggest that it was distorted and not destroyed. Still retaining the image of God amounts to exercising free will, though such an exercise may be harder with sin in the picture.

What we inherited from Adam was not his guilt, but his corruption and mortality. We are guilty only insofar as we choose to sin, which all of us do. Where we would agree with Catholic and Reformed theology is that sin built a wall between us and God, a wall that we cannot on our tear down. Since we cannot necessarily go to God, He came to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross, of God in the flesh on the cross, was God reconciling us to Himself and making it possible for us to once again come to Him.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.