Saturday, October 06, 2007

Evolution of Doctrine: Original Sin

In the history of Christian theology there have been a number of major theological changes made in Western Christian theology over the course of time, often due to the use of inaccurate Latin bible translations.

The earliest of these changes chronologically was the doctrine of Original Sin. The Christian church in the second century AD had nothing remotely resembling the doctrine of original sin as we know it today. The universal view attested is that children are born innocent and that people are guilty only of their own sins. In some writers the concept that Adam's sin damaged the likeness of God within humanity somewhat, and this is viewed as a kind of corruption of the natural order which is inherited - and this is generally taken to explain why humans die. But this is not taken to imply any inevitability to human sinfulness or any damage to free will. There is a dominating belief that through human effort and the assistance of the Holy Spirit and Christ's example, humans can live godly lives that are upright and pleasing to God.

In the late second century, in North Africa, the writer Tertullian protested against the introduction of the practice of infant baptism there. He argued that baptism was supposed to be for the forgiveness of sins, but since infants had no sin the introduction of its use for them was wrong. The widespread thought however seemed to be that there might be some mysterious gracious blessing from God conveyed through baptism, and thus infant baptism quickly became a fairly universal custom.

In third and fourth century North African Latin Christianity, there is a clear trend present towards taking a darker view of the human condition. In the course of these centuries the theologians in this area began to take the view that humanity had been very seriously damaged by the fall, that humanity was bad, that the human will is not capable of becoming good, and that all humans are born guilty of Adam's sin. It appears that a couple of generations after Tertullian, people had started using his same logic backwards: "We baptise infants, baptism is for forgiveness of sin, therefore infants must have sin." Such doctrinal changes were geographically fairly confined. Greek Christian writings from during and after this period reflect an unchanged stance on the subject - eg John Chrysostom (d. 407), states explicitly that infants have no sin and that forgiveness of sin is not the motive for infant baptism.

Nor, it seems, had these innovations reached too far to the west. When a monk from England named Pelagius journeyed to Rome he was shocked by the theology he encountered there. He felt that the teachings of the North African bishop Augustine effectively denied the possibility of good moral conduct and human moral reform which Pelagius (in line with typical Christianity of earlier centuries) saw as the foundations of Christianity. Augustine had gone further than his North African predecessors and actually advocated Predestination, a doctrine that had always previously been strongly opposed by Christians. This led to an extended controversy between Pelagius and Augustine. Scholars are generally agreed that Pelagius' viewpoints by and large were typical of previous Christian orthodoxy (especially the Greek-speaking church at the time, who couldn't read Augustine's writings) and Augustine's were radically new. Nonetheless Augustine managed to use his influence to get Pelagius condemned as a heretic: "it was an injustice that made history" writes the renowned Lutheran patristics scholar Jaroslav Pelikan in his The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (pg 313).

One passage that Augustine drew heavily on in his arguments with Pelagius was Romans 5:12, which in the Latin translation (he couldn't read Greek) said that everyone had sinned "in" Adam. Augustine used this to argue that all humanity was present "in" Adam when he sinned, and thus all are born guilty of sin. His Latin translation was extremely faulty here however, and it actually reads in the Greek that everyone dies "because" they sin or that everyone dies "because of which" they sin.

Thus the doctrine of Original Sin became standard within Latin Christianity. The Greek Christians however (who were at that time a large majority of Christendom), never read Augustine's writings and continued to hold their traditional doctrines. To this day the Eastern Orthodox Christians continue to totally reject the Latin innovations of the doctrine of Original Sin. Unsurprisingly when we turn from history to the Bible, there isn't much in the bible that could lend itself in support to the Latin doctrine of Original Sin. Nor did the Jewish Rabbis teach such a doctrine, and Judaism today rejects any such doctrine.

And that's how the standard Protestant doctrine of Original Sin resulted from the introduction of infant baptism, a bad Latin translation, a conflict where influence beat orthodoxy, and a couple of centuries of doctrinal change.


Blogger Jared said...

Man, when you say you are pissed at Augustine you really mean it. Now I am not particularly concerned with your affection for the North African bishop, but when it colors your reading of historians and shades the way in which you present your argument, I must speak up.

When you cite Pelikan:
"Nonetheless Augustine managed to use his influence to get Pelagius condemned as a heretic: "it was an injustice that made history" writes the renowned Lutheran patristics scholar Jaroslav Pelikan in his The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (pg 313)"you are entirely missing the core of his argument. As you phrase the quote, Pelikan is saying that Augustine's influence in Pelagius' condemnation is the 'injustice that made history', however, that is not even close to what he was saying.

The quote in broader context:
"The religious and moral concerns of Pelagius must be distinguished from their distortions in the writings of Augustine, and the differences between Pelagius and Pelagians must be kept in view. Nevertheless it was Pelagianism as a doctrinal option that determined the anti-Pelagian polemics of Augustine and the dogmatic formulations of the Latin church. An injustice may have been done, here as in other dogmatic debates, but it was an injustice that made history."Now it would seem to me that pronouns are of utmost importance in this quote. Exactly what is 'it'? What was the injustice that made history? Clearly Pelikan is not referring to some broad influence that Augustine could boast of in the Latin church. Perhaps he could have been referring to Augustine's influence over what history knows of Pelagius, but certainly not the council that condemned him. The paragraph is a discussion on the development of Pelagianism as a dogma and it's shaping through Julian of Eclanum and Celestius. That is, Pelikan's point is to say it isn't entirely clear now what exactly Pelagius himself believed, but the dogmatic expression of his belief in Julian and Celestius was ultimately condemned as heresy.

I just realized this post was quite some time ago, but it is late at night you will have to forgive my belaboring the point. Thanks for reading.

Blogger Andrew said...

Having looked again, I agree that Pelikan probably means the "injustice that made history" comment to refer to the idea that Augustine's mis-portrayal of Pelagian doctrine ("their distortions in the writings of Augustine") went unjustly down in history as being Pelagius' view.

Although I would note that it is possible Pelikan does mean what I thought he meant, and this injustice comment that closes the paragraph is a general stand-alone comment, or supposed to link back to the start of the paragraph that introduced Pelagianism. Pelikan earlier in his work has mentioned a couple of times how the pre-Augustinian church held to Pelagian doctrine, and it's possible he sees Augustine's condemnation of Pelagius as unfair in that context.

But I agree your reading is more probable.

Although the statement itself that Augustine's influence in Pelagius' condemnation was an injustice that made history seems to be relatively accurate... eg see J. Patout Burns “Augustine’s Role in the Imperial Action Against Pelagius”, Journal of Theological Studies 30, 1979, pg 67-83

Blogger Kalkas said...

How does a Pelagianist understand Rom 3:23; 6:23 and 1 John 1:8?

Here follows my reasons why Rom 3:23; 6:23 and 1 John 1:8 unfortunately commit us to the doctrine of hereditary depravity.

Would not Rom 3:23; 6:23 and 1 John 1:8 affirm that all men have sinned, and therefore that they die? The fact that we all die (due to the possession of corruptible flesh prone to decay) shows that all men have sinned, cf. Rom 6:23.

If the statements "all men have sinned" and "all men have sin" are true statements then we do not deal with mere factual statements, but with nomological ones, describing law-like observations. This is due to the universal quantifier "all." If John categorically states that it is not a case that we have no sin (1 John 1:8), then in effect he states that all men and women have sin. Such categorical statement makes no sense if there is a possibility that some man or a woman has no sin. Consequently, we are dealing with a statement expressing a nomological necessity, a law-like observation of the fact that all have sin. If there is a law, then there is something in human nature that lead any man to have sin.

Can we offer a plausible alternative interpretation of Rom 3:23, 6:23 and 1 John 1:8 such that are not committed to the doctrine of hereditary depravity?


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