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Original Sin

There are in the OT several acknowledgments and confessions of the universal sinfulness of man (Gen. 8:21; 1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 130:3), of resignation or penitence that man is born into an inevitable sinful condition (Ps. 51:5; Job 15:14; 25:4), and of the impossibility that for any man it can be otherwise (Job 4:17; 14:4). These texts are all expressions of the fact of original sin. Man seems to inherit this bondage from his birth. He seems to sin involuntarily and inveterately, and yet feels responsible for so doing. Before he wakens up to the seriousness of his struggle with evil, the battle is already lost. Sin not only develops within him, it also envelopes him. He finds his community life warped and inhuman in its ideals and even in the best zeal it can muster for its own reformation or revolution.

The Jewish rabbis were aware of such problems in a limited way, and attributed the universal sinfulness of man to the fall of the sons of God described in Genesis 6:1-4. Thereby, they believed, man has developed an evil impulse or imagination in the soul, exerting the strongest pressure toward sin (Gen. 6:5; 8:21). It was Paul who first linked up the phenomenon of original sin with the story of the fall in Genesis 3. In Paul's thought, the fall was modeled on salvation. Thinking back from Christ to Adam, he saw that as mankind was somehow totally involved and thus saved in Christ, so also mankind was somehow totally involved in the fall of Adam, the true significance of Adam being revealed in Christ. Paul (Rom. 5:12-21) is thus original in his clear explanation of the universality of sin, but brought to light what was already implied by the OT writer. The sins of all men are thus the unfolding of the original sin of Adam.

Jesus Himself does not formulate such a doctrine. Its full expression had to wait until the revelation of His cross. Yet He speaks and acts often in such a way as to imply it. All men are lost (Mark 2:17; Luke 19:10) and need forgiveness. They are all “evil” (Matt. 7:11; Luke 11:4). The things of man's nature are contrary to God (Mark 7:23). Paul, continuing the rabbinical doctrine of an evil impulse inborn in man, speaks of sin as seated in the “flesh” which through sin has become a principle radically antagonistic to God, lying behind all man's activity apart from the grace of God. James speaks of an overwhelmingly powerful “desire” or “lust” within man (James 1:13, 14; Gal. 5:16- 24).

The doctrine of original sin has been the center of much theological controversy. Tertullian* coined the term “concupiscence” for man's inborn evil desire. Augustine* insisted that the phrase translated often “because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12) implied that all men subsisted in Adam when he sinned, and that his sin was their sin. We are condemned, not by our willing assent, but by our ancestry. Moreover, ever since the Fall, man has lost all capacity to obey the will of God. In concupiscence itself we have original sin. Pelagius denied the doctrine of Augustine, insisting that God did not demand more than man can render, that we are born without virtue or vice and are free to choose the goal of our lives. We can live sinless lives. He believed that sin consists of bad acts rather than of bad dispositions, and is caused by bad example and deficient education (see Pelagianism).

During the Middle Ages, original sin tended to be defined as the absence of original righteousness-the privation of supernatural grace through the Fall-rather than as concupiscence. The latter was interpreted as the temptation to fleshly lusts which could become the material of sin if assented to-a weakness which could be helped, or even healed, by works. Among the Nominalists the will was regarded as possessing a synteresis-a tiny motion toward God which could be trained into the love of God. The Reformers, following Luther,* returned to the Augustinian teaching, insisting that concupiscence affected the whole of human life, including the intellect and will, inclining man to evil in everything he does.

As to the transmission of sin, theologians like Origen* have thought in terms of a personal pretemporal fall for each individual. Tertullian regarded the whole race as seminally present in Adam, the corruption being passed on through propagation. Augustine recognized the importance of the latter view, but regarded the passing on of sin as the punishment of Adam's sin. Adam's sin was imputed to his posterity. When Covenant Theology* became popular in the seventeenth century, the imputation of Adam's guilt to his successors was emphasized as well as the transmission of corruption.

F.R. Tennant, The Origin and Propagation of Sin (1906); E.J. Bicknell, The Christian Idea of Sin and Original Sin (1922); N.P. Williams, The Ideas of the Fall and Original Sin (1927); C.R. Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Sin (1953); H. Haag, Is Original Sin Scriptural? (1969).