Friday, April 1, 2011

Early Christian Thought on Original Sin

We have seen (in Paul and the Yetzer Ha-Ra) that in Second Temple Judaism—the period during which the Genesis Adam and Eve narrative was written—there was no sense that this narrative had to do with a “Fall” of man based on an “original" sin. Rather, the narrative was intended to express the experience of the human condition in all its frailty and imperfection. The Judaic concept of the origin of human sin was instead expressed through the metaphor of the evil and good impulses in man, the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha tov. By this view man is subject to both good impulses as well as purely natural impulses that, if embraced in a turning away from God, constituted a type of self worship that defined sinfulness. Habitual yielding to this impulse involved mankind in a downward spiral of sin, as described graphically by Paul in his Letter to the Romans.

There is no reason to believe that Jesus taught a doctrine of Original Sin. However, there is good reason to believe that the Synoptic Gospels describe Jesus' Temptation in terms of the yetzer ha-ra. In these narratives Jesus is led into the desert to seek God and is tested by Satan (the Tester) for the metaphorical long period of time: forty days and nights. The various temptations are presented according to the standard concept of the yetzer ha-ra: they are not evils in themselves—riches, power, even basic sustenance—but they are all part of an attempt to turn Jesus from his vocation, to have him turn away from his Father and place his own personal needs and preferences first. The final temptation reflects the Judaic understanding of sin as idolatry, for Satan asks Jesus to prostrate himself in worship before him. In a sense, these temptations are less extreme forms of the temptation that Jesus underwent in the Garden of Gethsemane. In each instance Jesus passes the test, quotes Torah and remains focused on his Father's will. In the final test in Gethsemane, faced with a horrifying death, Jesus maintains this focus, praying to his Father and placing his Father's will ahead of his own. Like us in all things but sin, Jesus conquered the yetzer ha-ra definitively, even unto death on a cross, and so in his triumph he can sympathize with our own human frailty because he, too, was tempted.

Jesus did preach a baptism for the remission of personal sins, for reception into Divine fellowship and for the bestowal of the Spirit. This is true of the Apostolic generation, as well, as is especially clear in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 19 for just one of numerous examples in which bestowal of the Spirit is to the fore, and there is no mention of any "original" sin). Paul, James and the Evangelists knew nothing of Original Sin, but presupposed an anthropology and a doctrine of sin which in essentials is similar to the doctrine of sin current in Second Temple Judaism. Thus, in common with the Judaism of that period, the early Christian kerygma stressed man's freedom and personal responsibility as well as proclaiming the need for a new life “in Christ,” cooperating with God's grace that had been made available through Jesus.

J. N. D. Kelly, in Early Christian Doctrines, provides a convenient summary of early Christian teaching on a wide variety of issues, including Original Sin. We will follow his summary in what follows.

The Sub-Apostolic Age

While the Apostolic Fathers accept that man is sinful and, perhaps especially, ignorant, they make no effort to provide a theory that would explain the imperfect human condition. Only once, in the Letter of Barnabas, do we find a reference to the Fall story from Genesis

Forasmuch as the transgression was wrought in Eve through the serpent (12:5)

However, Barnabas elsewhere presupposes that children are sinless

So, since he [Jesus] renewed us by the forgiveness of sins, he made us men of another type, so that we should have the soul of children, as if he were creating us all over again. (6:11)

so it would be utterly unwarranted to read into his reference to Eve's sin a theory of Original Sin. We must suppose that Barnabas is referring to Jesus' forgiveness of personal sins, and that, as Paul stated, all are in need of forgiveness because all have sinned—not because Adam sinned.

Not surprisingly, the Rabbinic doctrine of the good and evil impulses or desires is widely presupposed, and in the Shepherd of Hermas (Mandate 12) we see an extended and explicit discussion of the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tov. Notably the Shepherd stresses the role of the Devil in leading men to sin, as in the Temptation narratives, but also insists that men by their own efforts can master the evil desire and fulfill the good desire if they have “the Lord in [their] heart[s].” There is not a glimmer of a notion of Original Sin.

Rather than developing a theory of the origin of sin, the Apostolic Fathers emphasize “what Christ has imparted to us—new knowledge, fresh life, immortality, etc.” (Kelly, 164) For example,

The Didache...confines itself to thanking God 'for the life and knowledge,' or 'for the knowledge, faith and immortality,' which God has disclosed 'though His servant Jesus.'

1 Clement has a somewhat more mystical approach:

we gaze up to heaven and 'taste immortal knowledge.' Through Him God 'has called us from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge of the glory of His name.'

This is not to say that the Apostolic Fathers were ignorant of Christ's passion, death and resurrection, but most often “the suggestion is that His sufferings should challenge us to repentance. (Kelly, 165) Thus, Clement states that Jesus' blood 'was given on behalf of us;' it was because of His love that 'He gave his blood for us, and His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls.' Polycarp and Ignatius both know that Jesus “died and rose again on our behalf” and that 'we have been restored to life through the blood of God.' Barnabas “can speak of the Lord as delivering his flesh to destruction 'so that we might be cleansed by the remission of our sins, which cleansing is through the blood of His sprinkling.' In all this, however, the main focus is a call to repentance, and our redemption is from personal sins for which we alone are responsible, not from Adam's sin in illo tempore.

The Greek Apologists

The Apologists represent a change from the Apostolic Fathers, in the sense that the Apologists are more inclined to work out a Christian anthropology in a more systematic way. Nevertheless, the dominant concern remains to defend man's freedom and, therefore, his responsibility for his personal conduct. Justin (d. 165), for example, opposes the Stoic doctrine of Fate, and “Athenagoras (d. 190), Theophilus (d. 185) and Tatian (d. 180)” all agree that it is up to man to choose whether to do good or evil. For Justin, sin “consists in 'erroneous belief and ignorance of what is good,'" not in a guilt that is inherited from mythical ancestors. (166-167)

How, then, did sin and evil arise? Justin, along with many other early Christians (perhaps drawn by the Temptation narratives), is attracted by the theory that man is tempted by "malign demons, themselves the product of the union of fallen angels with the daughters of men.” Justin is, of course, aware of Adam's sin, but he explicitly states that “each man sinned by his own fault.” (167)

Tatian and Theophilus provide a more detailed account of man's beginnings, but it is nowhere near as unrestrained as later speculation will become:

Starting from the premiss that man was not created good but rather with a capacity for goodness [note the similarity to the Judaic yetzer theory], [Tatian] states that [man] fell into sin through becoming attached to one of the angels who was 'more subtle than the rest' and venerating him as God [again, we recall the Temptation narratives]. As a result, the guidance of the Spirit was withdrawn, and while the power of self-determination was not obliterated (Tatian is a firm believer in responsibility) he became henceforth the prey of demoniac assaults. According to Theophilus, too, man as originally created was neither mortal nor immortal, but was capable of both; his destiny depended on how he exercised his free-will. As he expresses it, Adam was infantile and undeveloped, and indeed this was the reason why he was forbidden the acquisition of knowledge. Had he been content to remain obedient, he might have become immortal, but he disobeyed and so became mortal. All the physical woes of humanity can be traced to that act of disobedience and the expulsion from Paradise which it entailed. Like Justin, therefore, both of them seem to accept the Pauline teaching in so far as it links the entrance of sin and death into the world with Adam's act of disobedience; but neither of them, any more than Justin, sees that act as more than a type of the disobedience of the race... (168)

Irenaeus (d. 202) was a Greek from Asia Minor who became bishop of Lyons in Roman Gaul. In important respects his anthropology recalls that of Tatian and Theophilus, also from Asia Minor, but Irenaeus was the first Christian to espouse what can truly be characterized as a doctrine of Original Sin. Like Tatian and Theophilus, Irenaeus views the pre-fall Adam as far removed from perfection:

he was morally, spiritually and intellectually a child; ... while God infused into the first man 'the breath of life,' He did not bestow upon him the Spirit of adoption which He gives to Christians. It was by a long process of response to grace and submission to God's will that Adam, equipped as he was with free choice, was intended to advance towards ever closer resemblance to his Maker. Unfortunately, because of his very weakness and inexperience, the process was interrupted almost at the start; he fell an easy prey to Satan's wiles and disobeyed God. (171)

This is clearly a far cry from what has become the standard Western view of Adam in Paradise, portrayed as nearly a supernatural being. Adam is, for Irenaeus, not a being endowed with “preternatural” gifts—he is a man, with all the frailties that that implies. His sin is a result of those frailties. But for Irenaeus Adam's sin of disobedience is an historical account, and that history is the source of all man's troubles, as he asserts:

through the disobedience of that one man who was first formed out of the untilled earth, the many were made sinners and lost life. (Against Heresies 3, 18, 7)

Irenaeus goes even further, adding that all men share in Adam's actual guilt:

In the first Adam we offended God, not fulfilling His commandment ... To Him alone were we debtors, Whose ordinance we transgressed in the beginning. (Against Heresies, 5, 16, 3)
In Adam disobedient man was stricken. (Against Heresies, 5, 34, 2)

However, Irenaeus nowhere formulates any specific explanation of how we could somehow share in Adam's actual guilt for a sin that none of us committed. He clearly sees the entire human race as somehow in solidarity with Adam, and so for Irenaeus it is precisely by establishing solidarity with Christ that we can be delivered from connection to Adam's sin. This is problematic since, as Kelly points out, many have argued that Irenaeus' theory appears to imply that our redemption could be the result simply of Christ's incarnation. Kelly, of course, argues against this conclusion, calling it a “half-truth,” but it is easy to see why, in strict logic this makes sense, since Irenaeus claims that when Christ became incarnate "he recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind." If solidarity with Adam entailed solidarity in his actual guilt, why should not our equally real solidarity with Christ be sufficient for our redemption simply by virtue of Christ's incarnation? (173) This is just the beginning of the endless complexities in which the notion of Original Sin will involve Western Christendom.

The West in the Third Century

Kelly notes that in the Third Century we begin to see a striking divergence between East and West regarding doctrines of redemption, and that the Western view, developed largely in North Africa, is distinctly “sombre.” Irenaeus did not develop what can be considered an explanation for the transmission of Adam's sin to later generations. That was done by Tertullian (d. 220) and can be said to flow somewhat naturally from Tertullian's unique anthropology, which involved consequences that most now consider repugnant.

Tertullian firmly opposes “creationism,” the now official doctrine of the Church which states that each soul is created by God when the body comes into existence. Rather, Tertullian views the soul as material, somewhat like a second body, and so he is a thoroughgoing “traducian.” That is, he taught that “each soul is derived along with the body with which it is united from the parent.” In other words, each individual man, body and soul, is produced by one generative act. Thus, it is perfectly true, from Tertullian's point of view, that every human soul is derived quite literally from Adam's soul as surely as the body is. It is no surprise, then, that Tertullian can state:

every soul is counted as being in Adam until it is re-counted as being in Christ, and remains unclean until it is so re-counted. (De anima, 40)

In Tertullian's view human nature in its entirety, created by God, has been changed by Adam's sin and now has a positive inclination toward sin. Even unbaptized children are to be regarded as impure, since the contagion of sin is passed down the generations physically in a curiously Darwinian manner—an acquired trait (sin) is inherited, physically altering the human nature that God created:

the evil that exists in the antecedent, being derived from the fault of our origin and having become in a way natural to us. For, as I have stated, the corruption of nature is second nature.'

Cyprian (d. 258), another North African, goes even further—or is more explicit—than Tertullian, for he argues for infant baptism on the basis that, while the child has committed no sin, it has been "born carnally after the pattern of Adam, and by his first nativity has contracted the contagion of the ancient death." Cyprian is also typical of the many "Christians" over two millennia who have denigrated bodily existence and especially sexuality, as he linked “the transmission of sinfulness with the process of generation.” (175-177)

Alexandrian Anthropology

In the Third Century Alexandria, in Egypt, was the center of Hellenistic learning. The Christians there were exposed to a wide variety of thinkers and their own thought presents an interesting contrast to the “sombre” North Africans, Tertullian and Cyprian. The Alexandrian thinkers were quite alive to the seriousness of the human condition, yet the notion of a physical connection to Adam involving later generations in Adam's sin is “largely absent” from their thought. There is also a definite trace of Gnostic influence in the clearly ambivalent attitudes toward man's bodily existence.

Some of Clement of Alexandria's (d. 215) anthropology is familiar from Tatian and Theophilus, although Clement has a somewhat higher view of Adam. Like Tatian and Theophilus, Clement sees Adam as essentially “childlike and innocent, destined to advance by stages towards perfection.” (179) And while Clement sees Adam's sin as having engaged in sexual intercourse with Eve before the appointed time, he also injects a distinctly humanist tone into his speculation. For he states that Adam

was not created perfect in constitution, but suitable for acquiring virtue...For God desires us to be saved by our own efforts.

Thus, progress toward perfection depended on the proper exercise of free will, which Clement, along with other Eastern Christians, strongly emphasizes. However, in one respect Clement's view of the results of Adam's sin is rather similar to Tertullian's Darwinian view.  Clement sees the result of Adam's fall as leaving men enslaved to their passions and subject to Demonic temptation. Nevertheless, Clement's views cannot be viewed as Original Sin in the Western sense, for while man is weakened Clement “nowhere hints ... that [men] are involved in Adam's guilt, and in one passage vehemently denies that a new-born baby which has not performed any act of its own can have 'fallen under the curse of Adam.' In another he explains Job 1:21 as implying that a child enters the world exempt from sin.” (179)

Origen (d. 254), on the other hand was, like Tertullian, a firm believer in Original Sin, including the notion that children enter the world stained with sin. His speculations, however, are clearly strongly influenced by Gnostic or Neoplatonic elements and would be considered wildly heterodox today. Origen was a strong believer in the pre-existence of souls. According to his speculation, God created a certain number of souls, all of them free. All of these souls, except for the pre-existent soul of Christ, sinned. As a punishment, God bound each soul to a body. (This is a great simplification of Origen's complicated and luxuriant speculation but gives the essential flavor). Thus, each soul, when joined to a body, enters the world guilty of a previous, pre-cosmic, sin. Obviously, Origen's speculation has nothing at all to do with the sin of a first man, Adam. Instead, Origen sees Genesis as an allegory for this pre-cosmic Fall. (180-181)

This brief survey should make at least two points clear. First, the original Christian view of man had no doctrine of original sin; instead, it followed in its essentials the Judaic view that man is, by nature, frail and imperfect. This naturally follows from the view of man as created, since no creature can be perfect. Secondly, as time passes in the early Church we find a growing inclination to speculate in ways that diverge from the early Christian views. Lacking a critical theory of revelation, this speculation was increasingly influenced by non-Christian (Neoplatonic and Gnostic), dualistic views of man, that tend to identify the body with sin. Interpretation of scripture suffers from a combination of a willingness to take the Genesis narrative literally while at the same time extrapolating in allegorical and typological ways from the text, again, often in ways that reflect the influence of non-Christian strains of thought. The basis for much of the speculation that gave rise to the idea of Original Sin is now generally discredited, while the doctrine itself lives on in attenuated form, cut adrift from its own history.

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