What Was The “Original” Original Sin?

What Was The “Original” Original Sin? November 11, 2022

What was the first sin? For centuries theologians have wrestled over what constituted Adam and Eve’s ‘original sin,’ or the peccatum originis originans, the originating original sin. It may seem this is an overly obscure question, or one that is not answerable. However, to attempt an explanation at the root cause of human evil seems worthy of investigation. After all, even a semblance of an answer may say something significant about our own struggle with a fallen nature. It might supply us with additional knowledge regarding what to do about the battle against our own, broken selves.

Two Views of the Original Sin: Augustine & Edwards

Augustine, the greatest theologian of the Church’s first thousand years, thought the first sin was one of pride:

Our first parents fell into open disobedience because already they were secretly corrupted; for the evil act had never been done had not an evil will preceded it. And what is the origin of our evil will but pride?  For “pride is the beginning of sin.” And what is pride but the craving for undue exaltation?  And this is undue exaltation, when the soul abandons Him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself.  This happens when it becomes its own satisfaction.  And it does so when it falls away from that unchangeable good which ought to satisfy it more than itself.

(NPNF, vol. II, CG, XIV, 13)

For the most part, this is what most Christians think of when they consider the nature of sin. Historically understood, all manifestations of sin are, at the root, manifestations of pride. It is a reasonable answer to the initial question and one that is clearly warranted given the Scriptures and our observations about the social world in which we live.

However, others have seen pride as a disposition which emerges in light of some other, prior state of affairs; not as “the beginning of sin.” After all, consider the biblical story itself. There is little to no indication of pride prior to the eating of the fruit in Genesis 3. Further, there isn’t any explicit mention of pride after the eating. In fact, Adam and Eve appear rather naive throughout the Fall narrative. Their childlike response to Satan’s deception, as well as their post-fruit hiding behind the fig leaves, suggests a different theological conclusion than a pre-Fall disposition of pride. It suggests that the original pair was instead initially innocent, perhaps righteous even. On this view, prior to the eating, there was no inclination to sin. There was no “pride before the Fall,” at least in the sense of the first Fall.

In this vein, Jonathan Edwards, pace Augustine, considered Adam and Eve’s first sin not one of pride, but of believing a falsehood. For Edwards, there are two aspects of the human will: a rational will and an appetitive will. These wills, after Adam’s fall, are in constant competition due to sin. However, in Adam before the Fall they were in harmony. Adam’s rational judgements aligned with his appetites. Adam’s desires, which were always desires for the good, found their proper objects of affection on account of Adam’s right reason. This is what Edwards called Adam’s “original righteousness.” John Kearny explains:

When Edwards claims that Adam was created with ‘sufficient grace’ or the grace of ‘original righteousness’ I take him to mean, then, that (i) Adam was created with an inclination to act rightly (a bias toward good), and (ii) Adam was originally a free agent with respect to his ‘whole will’ (he was able to do as he pleased) and his ‘rational will’ (his rational will was not a slave to appetite).

John Kearny, “Jonathan Edwards’ Account of Adam’s First Sin

Thus, for Edwards, it was Adam and Eve’s rational will, their rational judgment, that was first deceived. Adam’s desires were, in his original state, always inclined toward obedience. There was no prior “pride” in him. However, in virtue of being deceived by the serpent’s lie, Adam and Eve found themselves fooled into having a genuine, yet false belief. They believed that eating the fruit would actually put them on more solid, existential ground than following of God’s original command. In believing Satan’s lie, the pair judged wrongly about reality.

it shows original sin
Was it Pride?

The Consequences of Their Error

This rational, yet false, judgement then lead to a non-rational desire for what was only a perceived good (not an actual one). Adam and Eve genuinely believed that eating the fruit would be better than adhering to God’s command not to. Perhaps to the point, they believed it would have brought them closer to God. Again, this doesn’t seem to smack of pride. Kearny confirms Edwards’ understanding:

Edwards claims that Adam sinned because his rational will became ‘perverted’. Adam’s judgment was deceived because what he thought was best for himself was, in fact, not best for himself….Eve’s judgment was erroneous but it was still a rational judgment about what Eve thought was, at that moment, best for herself. Eve believed that by eating the forbidden fruit she was acting in her rational self-interest.

Kearny, “Adam’s First Sin”

In spite of their false judgement, Edwards still thought Adam’s appetitive will, a will inclined toward the good, would have sensed his action to be wrong. In other words, Adam’s sub-rational conscience would have acted as a sounding board to the sinfulness of his, and Eve’s, otherwise rational judgement to partake of the fruit. Adam and Eve’s moral sense of wrongness was not what was deceived, it was still in tact.

Nevertheless, once the higher principles of Adam and Eve’s rational will were corrupted (or “perverted” to use Edwards’ term), these rational principles, meant to steer the lower, appetitive ones, could no longer rightly inform the natural appetites. Reason could no longer prevent the appetites from going after that which now appeared to be “good for food,” “delightful to look at,” and genuinely “desirable for obtaining wisdom.” (Gen 3:6). After the Fall, the natural appetite, which was meant to serve the rational will in its prudential choices, becomes the reigning principle–the appetites become “absolute masters of the heart.”

On Edward’s view then, the causal chain of the Fall of man starts with the serpent’s desire to destroy God’s image bearers. Satan willfully lies to Adam and Eve about the intent of God’s command for them. Adam and Eve, an account of their naiveté, then make an irrational judgement about reality. It is a judgement which grossly misinforms their appetitive will, i.e. their natural desires which are still inclined toward the good. Out of this misinformed desire, the accompanying free act of eating the forbidden fruit results and God’s initial and only command at that time is broken. This is the original original sin. It is not a prior disposition of pride, but a misinformed belief about what was good that overcame the otherwise ‘holy inclination’ to obey God’s precept” (Kearny, 136).

The confusion at the “beginning” of the day was not whether God’s command was absolutely good, but over whether God’s absolutely good command was good for Adam and Eve. It seems what Edwards is saying is that in spite of their deception and ignorance, Adam and Eve should have listened to their gut when it came to eating the fruit of the tree. As such, Adam’s ignorance of the consequences of his actions do not mitigate against his responsibility for them.

Assessing The Views of Original Sin

It seems that Edward’s view is more accurate than Augustine’s. Pride does not seem to be indicated in the relevant passages of scripture, at least with regard to the man and woman. That the Satan is prideful is, of course, a different theological question. In their original state, Adam and Eve seem initially righteous. There is little textual evidence for a state of pridefulness, arrogance, or self-aggrandizement prior to the serpent’s lie. The text presents them to us as originally naive. This view further reinforces the complete goodness of God’s original creation. God did not create mankind with an inclination toward pride.

One might adopt Edwards view then, as it fits better with the scriptural data. Also, from observation, pride in man does seem to follow other, more fundamental human dispositions. For example, recognizing our own finitude or proneness to error. As we err and come to see our own limitations, we become prideful as a response to our own weakness. Instead of seeking God’s aid, we try to be righteous on our own. This too is at the core of the serpent’s lie. This attempt results in self-righteousness, or pride.

Edwards, in addition, is not the only highly regarded theologian in the Church’s history to see sin as grounded in an irrational choice. Clement of Alexandria writing in the 3rd century (before Augustine) argues the same:

Everything that is contrary to right reason is sin….If, then, disobedience in reference to reason is the generating cause of sin, how shall we escape the conclusion, that obedience to reason–the Word–which we call faith, will of necessity be the efficacious cause of duty? For virtue itself is a state of the soul rendered harmonious by reason in respect to the whole life. Nay, to crown all, philosophy itself is pronounced to be the cultivation of right reason; so that, necessarily, whatever is done through error of reason is transgression, and is rightly called, sin.

Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus I.XIII

Still, it is not that Augustine’s analysis of the originating original sin is far from the truth. Pride does come immediately after the Fall. It is immediately noticeable in the blame game (Gen 3:12-13) that occurs as soon as God reveals His awareness of Adam and Eve’s transgression. Here there is perhaps a mix of both fear and pride; of fearing divine retribution as well as assuming they could not have been wrong about their decision (which, given Adam’s proximity to Eve, seemed to be a mutual one).

But how might we understand pride in this sense of being a secondary disposition? Perhaps we can come to better understand the vice of pride if we analyze its antithesis, the virtue of humility. 

Answering Vice with Virtue

In Sacred Scripture humility is the answer to pride. Humility is considered a necessary virtue if the soul is to be pleasing to God. Several passages speak directly to the humble, broken, and contrite heart being the only posture before God that makes any sacrifice genuine in God’s eyes. Humility is the only way an individual can be acceptable before his Creator (Psalm 51). Chrysostom said this of humility,

[It is] the mother, and root, and nurse, and foundation, and bond of all good things: without which we are abominable, and execrable, and polluted.”

Chrysostom, Homily 30 on Acts

Of course the greatest act of humility, which comes from humiliation, is Christ’s own incarnation and death (Phil 2:5-11). But if humility is the answer to pride, what is it about humility that corresponds to pride? What is humility actually, and how does it solve the problem of pride?

Humility, as such, is the rightly ordered, inner orientation of the human heart toward its Creator. It is the full acknowledgment of the creature’s own dependence and need for God. Unlike pride, which assumes no need of God, and presumes total self-reliance, even to the point of self-deification, humility accepts one’s actual position in the grand scheme of things. In accepting one’s actual position in the world, one not only comes to grips with reality, but also realizes that one is neither “all that” nor “nothing at all.” To be humble, therefore, is to reason rightly about what is real and how things actually are.

When Adam and Eve ate from the tree what became clear to them now was that they had lost their place in God’s hierarchical organization. Now they could have the belief that “they were like God.” But, as Edwards pointed out, not just the belief but also the desire. In man, there was now not only wrong reasoning, but disordered desire. 

However, it does not seem Adam and Eve could have experienced this kind of pride, the pride that comes with not knowing one’s right place in the hierarchy of reality, until after the fruit was actually taken. While Satan does tell them that this will be the result of the eating of the fruit, it is not certain whether Eve’s response to take the fruit was out of a desire to be like God in the sense of “being his ontological equal” or in the sense of “being closer to Him in character.” The deception of the Serpent could equally be understood as Satan tricking the original couple into thinking they could get closer to God through the partaking of the fruit. But this desire for closeness to God would be a natural and good desire for any human being, even our first parents. 

Of Doubt and Faith

If pride does not take pride of place in the sequence of sin, then there must be another, more fundamental vice of man that needs addressing. The closest vice we can imagine to making an irrational choice or an error in reason, is that of doubt. Prior to pride, Adam and Even had to have believed the serpent and doubted God. If we therefore posit doubt as the corresponding vice to Adam and Eve’s bad judgement, this further explains why the Bible consistently mentions one other primary virtue, alongside humility, that is absolutely necessary to please God. That virtue is clearly the virtue of faith.

Scripture abounds with examples of faith and its counterpart, doubt. Derrick Kinder in his short commentary on Genesis clarifies this dynamic:

On man’s side, we might be tempted to suppose … that rectitude of worship and life were his passport to acceptance, until we reach the statement that ends speculation, namely that Abram was justified by faith (15:6; cf. Rom. 4:1–5, 13–25)–a saying that illuminates not only every subsequent age, but every previous one, by making it clear that from the first, faith had been indispensable for access to God (Heb. 11:4ff.).” 

Derrick Kidner. “Genesis” Apple Books

If faith is the more fundamental virtue, the one that is “indispensable for access to God,” then doubt or lack of belief is its vicious counterpart (not pride, per se). Of course, even if faith is the primary theological virtue, it does not negate humility as a necessary condition to pleasing God. However,  it does indicate that something else is more foundational than humility. Of course, those faithful to God will also be humble in their orientation and service of Him. Still, without faith, humility has little role to play. Without faith, humility may morph into something like stoic asceticism, or devolve into mere self-loathing. So, if faith really is the answer to doubt, the key to accessing God, then what about lack of faith, or doubt? 

Lack of faith, or doubt, can itself be construed in two different ways. One way comports well with Edward’s understanding of the primal sin as rational deception leading to an ill-informed natural inclination, and subsequent transgressive act. The other way less so. The question will turn on whether the doubt of Adam and Eve was something entirely passive, like a flaw, or lack, or, if it was, or even could be considered, a generative act. In other words, was Adam and Eve’s doubt an authentically free movement of the will, or were they mere victims of the serpent’s lie?

Of Fear and Doubt

It seems if Edward’s analysis right, which it certainly is in part, then the serpent was the active agent in causing Adam and Eve to doubt. This would be due to initial imperfections inherent in their created natures, what Edwards called a lack of “efficacious grace.” The serpent, Satan, simply exploited the natural weakness of the innocent pair, namely, their original naïveté. But could naïveté, or original ignorance, really be considered sinful? After all, we might then wonder whether Adam would have sinned had the serpent not been in the garden, or in the cosmos at all. It seems like he, Adam, would not have sinned had evil not already existed in the created order and had access to our first parents. 

On this account then, how can we blame Adam at all for his disobedience, and not place any and all guilt for sin squarely on the far more powerful shoulders of the evil, angelic being known as Satan? This would seem quite reasonable. Would the Genesis account not be equivalent to two children being bullied on an edenic playground, after someone negligently left the gate to the schoolyard unlocked? Further, to directly, and only, blame the bully in the story might make many of us happy today. We could, without pang of conscience, continue in our use of the proverbial cop-out for any moral failure, “the devil made me do it!” Of course today we might say instead, “my genetics made me do it!” 

However, this kind of helpless determinism seems inadequate. As such, perhaps we must posit and even deeper layer to the perversion of Adam and Eve’s rational will. Perhaps the error in judgement was also not quite the originating original sin. Perhaps the deception and doubt were also subsequent to some other sin. Maybe there is something prior to the deception itself; something already brewing in the inner life of helpmate Eve and her loving husband Adam that made them susceptible to the serpent’s wiles. We seem to have already identified that whatever it is, it causes doubt. Also it is something that can, post-Fall, only be rectified through the virtue of faith.

If not merely a passive naïveté on Adam and Eve’s part, then the vice seems to be not merely doubt brought on by deception, but something more like fear resulting from a lack of knowledge. Fear of not knowing, or the unknown, seems about as primary an inner experience as one can have. Moreover, being created and then placed apart from God, even if still connected to Him in original righteousness, might allow for something like a primordial experience of existential angst to occur. An angst off of which the father of lies was ready to set his manipulative trap. 

Conclusion: Fear Comes Before the Fall

It seems at least plausible to say the initial conditions to make sin possible were 1) Adam and Eve’s lack of knowledge of God and, 2) their resulting fear due to that lack of knowledge. Once the condition of fear was in the hearts of our first parents, then the possibility for the deception of the rational will emerged. The serpent, the ‘father of lies from the beginning,” exploited Adam and Eve’s fear, causing them to make an irrational judgement about the eating of the fruit (their desires at this point, however, still being pure).

Subsequently, after the eating of the fruit, they realized the error of their judgement and their fear increased exponentially. Lastly, in spite of their fear, they still had the chance to run to God and repent, but they do not. And in not turning immediately to God for reconciliation, pride is now spawned in the nature of man. As such, pride does not come before the Fall, but it does come shortly after it as an answer to fear and doubt.  

The rest of human history can then be understood as man’s persistent fear of the unknown, subsequent lack of faith in God, followed by our own prideful attempts to alleviate that fear and control our environment. It is those prideful attempts at control that usually result in great terror and human atrocity.

About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.

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