What Is “Original Sin?” And Where Has It Gone (In American Christianity)?
I fully realize that I have written about this here before, but many of you, my newer readers, have surely not read my musings about this historic doctrine of the Christian faith—one that seems to me to have largely died away, again, especially in American Christianity.
First, an anecdote. I invited a pastor-theologian of a major “mainline” Protestant denomination to speak to my church history/historical theology class about the Reformation and its continuing relevance—especially for his quite conservative Protestant denomination. The students knew that his church baptizes infants and that, for him and his denomination, the sacrament of baptism is more than an empty ritual or endowment with prevenient grace. One very knowledgeable student asked the pastor-theologian “What do you believe happens to infants who die without baptism?” The pastor-theologian answered honestly “As far as we know they go to hell.”
My students (and this was years ago) almost fell off their chairs. Most of them did not know that anyone still believed that about original sin as inherited guilt and the deserved damnation of infants. I admit that I, too, was surprised at the pastor-theologian’s blatant honesty about what his denomination believes.
But my concern here is this: Have we, American Christians, especially Protestant Christians in America, by and large dropped the whole idea of original sin because of the idea’s believed connection with infant guilt and damnation to hell (apart from baptism)? I fear we have.
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Of course, there are biblical passages that seem to support the idea of inherited guilt at conceptions/birth—especially Psalm 51. Fifth century church father Augustine of Hippo believed that Romans 5 teaches that doctrine and invented the idea of “Limbo” as a kind of state of suspended animation for unbaptized infants. (Recently a pope has declared that not a doctrine but a permissible belief.)
But my concern here is not with those modern Christians who still believe in Augustine’s very strong doctrine of original sin, or those adaptations of it common among the Protestant reformers (especially Luther and the Puritans). My concern is that we American Protestant Christians (and no doubt many American Catholics as well) have simply jettisoned any doctrine of original sin because of those extreme views—especially the one articulated by the pastor-theologian who visited my class and said that, so far as we know, unbaptized infants go to hell.
Again, is it a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? I suspect so.
A common American Christian tendency is to react to extremes by going to other extremes—usually by simply discarded a whole area of biblical-traditional Christian belief because it is offensive or unpleasant and just doesn’t resonate with modern culture.
On the other hand, G. K. Chesterton is often quoted by Catholic and Protestant theologians alike as saying that “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically provable doctrine of the Christian faith.” (That’s a paraphrase from memory; please don’t pick on the wording.) I have heard that quoted by many modern theologians—including American and British ones who belong to denominations that have, by and large, dropped the whole idea of original sin or have so radically reinterpreted it that it is no longer recognizable as such.
I insist on holding onto the doctrine of original sin—inherited sinfulness as a condition—without Augustine’s and Luther’s and the Puritans’ extreme views of it. Undeniably there is a “fallen” human condition that leads every human being to sin consciously and willfully insofar as they live to awakening of conscience and are aware that their decisions and actions are contrary to God’s will or to the natural order of things and to their own good—living out the humanity they ought to live out in love and justice.I believe we can and must hold onto a doctrine of original sin without the idea that any infants or young children who die automatically go to hell just because they are “born of Adam’s fallen race” (inherited guilt). I have actually met very few people who can stomach that idea. Why cannot I stomach it—in spite of Psalm 51? Because I interpret the whole Bible and every part of it through the lens of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ who invited the little children to come to him because “of such” is the kingdom of God.
So what idea of original sin can and should we hold onto? There are many choices. “Progressive Christians” (of whatever denomination or none) tend to interpret original sin via what I call the “incubator model.” That is, they believe original sin (a phrase they would prefer not to use) is simply the evil of the social systems of society and/or the evil (selfishness) of the all adults such that children always become actual sinners only because of those evils into which they are born and in which they mature. But there is, then, no necessity or even inevitability in actual sinning. This view leans heavily toward Pelagianism and provides no explanation of why Christ had to die for all people. But, of course, “progressive Christians” have, by and large, also jettisoned any idea of atonement except as moral example or victory over “the powers” (evil structures of society).
Many “Moderate Christians” tend to interpret original sin as inherited corruption, an inward spiritual disease, that inclines a person inevitably to turn against God and fall into disobedience and even into “idolatry of self” (“refusal of creatureliness”) at some point during their maturation process. That inherited corruption, though, does not carry guilt. Or, if it does, many moderates would say, that inherited guilt is set aside by God for Christ’s sake (because of his sacrificial death for all people). In other words, in this view, any guilt of original, “Adamic sin” (Psalm 51 and Romans 5) is forgiven because of Christ’s universal, sacrificial death as a substitute. Does that lead to universalism? For some, yes. But I don’t think it does necessarily. This was the view espoused by most of the Anabaptists during the reformation. I don’t know how much they still hold to it, but I find it attractive—when the question of Psalm 51 and Romans 5 arises in a conversation about inherited guilt.
In that view (expressed in the paragraph above), infants are born both guilty and not guilty—guilty in the sense of already alienated from God simply due to being born of Adam’s fallen race, and not guilty, “reconciled” with God, due to Christ’s universal atoning sacrifice. Guilt, then, returns when a person reaches the stage of maturity where they know enough of God’s will (whether simply through conscience and nature or also through God’s special revelation) to violate it consciously and willfully. And that happens to all people who, having sufficient mental awareness and free will, reach a certain stage of maturity many Christians have come to call “the age of accountability.”
And please don’t tell me there isn’t such a stage of maturity; almost every society in the world has some idea of it written into law—the stage (age is not the issue although laws often state one) at which a juvenile becomes fully accountable to law and liable to the same punishment for crimes as adults.
P.S. The best book I have ever read on this subject is Offense to Reason: The Theology of Sin by theologian Bernard Ramm (Harper, 1985).
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