Anyone who has been around Orthodoxy for a while has heard an argument like the following: Orthodox don’t believe Original Sin but rather Ancestral Sin. At least one book has been written on the topic. Numerous essays of semi-scholarly quality and lay appeals, have been proffered. Podcasts were recorded. Even this blog has written an article on the topic.
The content of this position is generally a distilled version of Fr John Romanides’ book, The Ancestral Sin, containing some or all of the following features:
- Orthodoxy doesn’t believe in inherited guilt like the West does.
- Orthodoxy teaches that only the effects of the first sin were inherited (death not sin).
- There was an important translation issue from the Greek into early Latin texts of Romans 5:12.
- St Augustine was misled by the above translation issue to invent a notion of inherited sin, including inherited guilt.
- That Western doctrines like Limbo are due to the outgrowth of Augustine’s doctrine (see also infant baptism).
Let’s ignore for a moment that, generally speaking, Rome does not in fact teach inherited guilt. Let’s also bypass the fact that Limbo was taught by Greek Fathers before it was taught by Latin ones and that the doctrine of Limbo has explicit liturgical mention in the Synaxarion on the Saturday before Meatfare (this mention is intentionally excluded in the English translation overseen by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware for reasons unknown). Let’s also forget that Limbo as a doctrine exists precisely to solve the problem of infants with no personal sin, hence a distinction between (analogous) inherited guilt and (actual) personal guilt is presumed.
To get to the heart of what Orthodoxy teaches about Original Sin, we cannot merely look at what authors and theologians have said over time. Orthodoxy is a conciliar church; as such, if she has an official doctrine on a topic, it will be recorded in the acts of a council. Fortunately, we have such a council in Carthage around the years 418-419. In fact this council was personally attended by St Augustine and it reviewed the small inquiry into Pelagianism that occurred some time earlier in Jerusalem (this inquiry deferred judgement to Western church). The decisions of the council of Carthage are codified in its canons which were incorporated into the Greek Nomocanon via the 2nd Canon of Trullo (692). All that is to say that, in the Orthodox Church, Carthage (418) has ecumenical authority.
Two records exist of the council at Carthage. The first is the aforementioned Greek Nomocanon. The second is the edition preserved in Latin. The differences between these two surviving texts are, at times, quite large. How exactly these discrepancies emerged is not quite clear. Nevertheless, the differences in the canons covering Original Sin are generally not noteworthy, with one exception that we will deal with shortly. One further difference between the Greek and Latin texts is different numeric ordering.
The canons of Carthage on Original Sin are canons CIX-CXVI (Latin numbering; inclusive). All of the canons are important to read, if only to avoid some common theological errors. However, we will only be dealing with one canon here.
Canon CX (Latin) / CXXI (Greek)
Likewise it seemed good that whosoever denies that infants newly from their mother’s wombs should be baptized, or says that baptism is for remission of sins, but that they derive from Adam no original sin, which needs to be removed by the laver of regeneration, from whence the conclusion follows, that in them the form of baptism for the remission of sins, is to be understood as false and not true, let him be anathema.
For no otherwise can be understood what the Apostle says, “By one man sin is come into the world, and death through sin, and so death passed upon all men in that all have sinned,” than the Catholic Church everywhere diffused has always understood it. For on account of this rule of faith even infants, who could have committed as yet no sin themselves, therefore are truly baptized for the remission of sins, in order that what in them is the result of generation may be cleansed by regeneration.
[Also it seemed good, that if anyone should say that the saying of the Lord, “In my Father’s house are many mansions” is to be understood as meaning that in the kingdom of heaven there will be a certain middle place, or some place somewhere, in which infants live in happiness who have gone forth from this life without baptism, without which they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, which is eternal life, let him be anathema. For after our Lord has said: “Except a man be born again of water and of the Holy Spirit he shall not enter the kingdom of heaven,” what Catholic can doubt that he who has not merited to be coheir with Christ shall become a sharer with the devil: for he who fails of the right hand without doubt shall receive the left hand portion.]
- Latin Text
It has pleased the Synod to decree that whosoever denies the little ones newly born from the wombs of their mothers when they are being baptized, or asserts that they are baptized for the remission of sins, but that they have inherited no propatorical sin from Adam obliging them to be purified in the bath of renaissance (whence it follows that in these persons the form of baptism for the remission of sins is not true, but is to be regarded as factitious), let him be anathema;
for no other meaning ought to be attached to what the Apostle has said, viz., “Sin entered the world through one human being [and death by sin*]” (Rom. 5:12), and thus it passed over into all human beings; wherefore all of them have sinned, than that which the Catholic Church diffused and spread abroad every where has ever understood those words to mean. For it is on account of this Canon of the faith that even the little ones too, who are as yet incapable of committing any sin of their own to render them guilty of any offense, are truly baptized for the remission of sins, in order that what sin they inherited from the primordial birth may be purified in them through the process of renaissance.
- Greek Text
I have quoted here both the Latin and Greek texts for full comparison. In general, the canons in the two texts are nearly identical in meaning. There are two discrepancies of note.
First, the Greek text lacks the final paragraph of the Latin text which rejects Limbo. That Limbo has remained an open question in the Roman communion since this point indicates that Rome considers authoritative essentially what is maintained in the Greek text. Hence, we can essentially discard this paragraph except to note that inherited guilt is conspicuously absent. This later point is important since, as I maintained above, the Latin articulation of inherited guilt is nowhere canonized (except perhaps via ‘reatus’ at Trent, a rather weak argument) and where it is mentioned it functions analogically. There is no sense in the Latin version of this canon that children are sent to hell because they inherit guilt.
Second, the Latin text quotes Romans 5:12 in full, while the Greek text truncates it. While this fact is true, the truncation is somewhat worse in the English translation of the Greek (Denver Cummings, 1957). The English translation unfortunately leaves out καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος from the Greek original. I have translated this in brackets above to correct this glaring omission. The reason this error in the English translation is so critical is because it establishes that the Greek canon asserts, with St Paul, that death comes by sin. The magnitude of this error will shortly become plain.
Augustine’s Error in Romans 5:12?
The assertion that Augustine’s theological notions are derived from a faulty translation of Romans 5:12 into Latin is unfounded. This thesis comes from St Augustine’s work A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians (IV.6). This argument presumes that Augustine drops the word “death” and incorrectly interprets the antecedent of a pronoun. The problem is that if St Augustine’s theology were based on this error alone, it would be corrected by Carthage where the translation is found in its correct form. But it is not. In fact, the current canon under consideration maintains the correct translation and Augustine’s theology simultaneously. This argument is even weaker when we arrive at the Greek canon. There is definitely no translation issue for Romans 5:12 since Greek is the original language. And yet, something very similar to Augustine’s theology is maintained in the Greek. If Augustine’s theology is merely the result of a translation issue, then surely it would have been corrected by the time it reached Carthage, where Greek speakers were common, and Trullo, where Greek was the primary language.
The Interpretation by St Nikodemus
“Perhaps the Greek world read this canon in a drastically different way than Augustine did?” one might ask. Fortunately, we have St Nikodemus’ commentary on this canon to clarify this for us. It reads:
This view too was a product of the heretical insanity of the Pelagians: this refers to their saying that newly begotten infants are not baptized for the remission of sins, as the Orthodox Church believes and maintains, but, instead, if anyone say that they are baptized for the remission of sins, yet the infants themselves have not incurred any taint from the original (or primordial) sin of Adam, such as to require to be removed by means of baptism (since, as we have said, those men believed that this original sin is not begotten with the human being, simply because this was not any offense of nature, but a mischoice of the free and independent will). So the Council in the present Canon anathematizes the heretics who say this: First, because the form of the baptism for the remission of sins which is given to infants is not true according to them, but false and factitious, since, according to them, those infants have no sins to be pardoned. Secondly, because the Apostle in what he says makes it plain that sin entered the world through a single human being, namely, Adam, and that death entered through sin, and thus death passed into all human beings, since all of them have sinned just like Adam. This passage, I say, cannot be taken to mean anything else than what the catholic Church of the Orthodox has understood and believed it to mean, to wit, that even the newborn infants, notwithstanding the fact that they have not sinned by reason of any exercise of their own free and independent will, have nevertheless entailed upon themselves the original sin from Adam; wherefore they need to be purified through baptism necessarily from that sin: hence they are truly, and not fictitiously, being baptized for the remission of sins.
The emphasis added above highlights for us perhaps the most crucial passage of the section. The articulation is slightly different than Augustine’s, but the emphasis is clearly the same. Original Sin is inherited. It is remitted at baptism. The only apparent difference in language comes in the language used in describing the relationship between sin and death.
Greek and Latin Views of Original Sin
In the Latin text, this is described in the final paragraph as a negative: those who have “not merited to be coheir with Christ shall become a sharer with the devil.” Note here that the Augustinian theology of this extra paragraph assumes that in the case of infants there may be no action or motion. Hence, even though an infant has done nothing, because he has failed to do something to earn merit, he is bound with the devil.
St Nikodemus, on the other hand, articulates this in a positive way: all humans have sinned, and therefore all are deserving of death. For Nikodemus, it is not inaction which merits death, but rather action. This difference arises from a distinction made by St Maximus. He says, at the beginning of Ad Thalassium 61:
But at the instant he was created, the first man, by use of his senses, squandered his spiritual capacity – the very natural desire for the mind of God – on sensible things. In this, his very first movement, he activated an unnatural pleasure through the medium of the senses. … After the transgression, [the pleasure of sexual reproduction] naturally preconditioned the births of all human beings, and no one at all was by nature free from birth subject to the passion associated with this pleasure; rather, everyone was requited with sufferings, and subsequent death, as the natural punishment.
Both St Augustine and St Maximus share a notion of concupiscence passed on through sexual reproduction. Both follow a formula of: Genesis (Creation), Kinesis (Motion/Activity), Stasis (Rest). The distinction between the Greek and Latin views of Original Sin is entirely wrapped up in the question of the transition between Genesis and Kinesis. For Augustinian theology, there appears to be a state between Genesis and the generation of merit/demerit. The precise nature of this state is undefined. Two possible explanations are: 1. no motion at all occurs in this state 2. some motion may be ameritorious. However, it is clear that for St Augustine, at least in the form of the challenge being put to him, it may be possible for a child to die without earning either merit or demerit. In this state, for St Augustine, the child has not earned the merit required for heaven. Hence, the negative articulation.
On the other hand, for St Maximus the very first motion after Genesis is intrinsically disordered. This disordered action generates demerit, and hence every person’s first motion is sinful. For St Maximus it would not be possible for a child to die without demerit since his first motion was demeritous and there is no temporality between his Genesis and his first motion. Hence, for both St Maximus and St Nikodemus: all people deserve death because all have sinned. Thus, the positive articulation.
Put another way, in the Latin tradition God created man with his end (τέλος) in God. Heaven, in this tradition, is nothing other than man actualizing this end. By sin Adam and his progeny are estranged from God and as such are unable to, apart from baptism, actualize this end. Hence, mankind, apart from baptism, “has not merited to be coheir with Christ” and therefore “shall become a sharer with the devil.” St Maximus, in the Greek tradition, takes this a step further and attributes actual, personal sin to the disorderedness of the very first motion of our existence. Where for St Augustine we fail to actualize divine life, for St Maximus we have actual sin by the mere fact of our existence. The great irony here is that St Augustine is arguing from theosis!
Far from being irreconcilable differences, these two approaches are hair-splitting differences in philosophical models. Where the notion of inherited guilt may exist analogically in the Latin model, guilt is personal and actual in every person in the Greek model. Further, the Latin model falls on the side of negative articulation (failure to obtain merit) where the Greek models uses a positive articulation (actual sin of all leads to the death of all). The distinction between these models is the result of St Maximus’ articulation of the transition from Genesis to Kinesis.
However, regardless of the model used, one thing is certain: Orthodox Christians who wish to make a distinction between Original Sin and Ancestral Sin will have to deal with the canons of Carthage.
Editor’s Note: Comments on this post have now been closed, due to the enormity of attempting to respond to so many. Nathaniel McCallum will be posting more on this subject in the future. As always, submissions are welcome. You are free to take an opposing view, to write something else on original sin, etc.!
After obtaining a BS in Christian Ministries and Music Composition from Indiana Wesleyan University, Nathaniel McCallum studied Historical Theology and Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is a member of St Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, KY, along with his wife and four children.