Irenaeus (and others) on original sin

I had reason to dig around in some of the Patristic literature recently, and came across Irenaeus’ (late 2nd century) teaching on Adam and sin whilst looking for something else. It reminded me that I haven’t yet recorded in this blog what Irenaeus actually teaches, which is an oversight as many modern writers in the evolution/theology field, and outside it, question the traditional teaching on original sin, most often by attributing it to Augustine in the west. The Eastern Church, they say, never taught the idea of hereditary sin. Even John H Walton, much of whose excellent work I have been reading of late, mentions this as a plain fact in order to defend the concept that Adam need not be regarded as the physical ancestor of the entire human race.


Now I am open to alternative views of Adam’s role as the author of human sin, since the relevant Scriptural passages are be difficult to interpret dogmatically. Neither do I regard the Church Fathers as the fount of infallible gospel truth. But the Patristic writers do at least give us an idea of what “the Church has always taught”, and if modern writers are misrepresenting their positions truth is not served.

Irenaeus wrote over two centuries before Augustine, and is regarded as an authority in both the Eastern and Western traditions. His main teaching on this matter, in Against Heresies Book III, is actually primarily against the heretic Tatian’s teaching that Adam was not redeemed from his first sin. Irenaeus wants to prove how fitting it was that God should save him, and how the Scriptures support that assertion. In other words, his theme is tangential to our interest here, and it is likely that any teaching involving original sin merely reflects the prevailing belief of orthodox Christians then. So in #2 of chapter XXIII he says:

For it is too absurd to maintain that he who was so deeply injured by the enemy [Satan], and was the first to suffer captivity, was not rescued by Him who conquered the enemy, but that his children were – those whom he had begotten in the same captivity.

See that Irenaeus says that Adam’s children are begotten in captivity. But is that captivity to sin, or just to mortality? In the previous paragraph he has said that Adam became “a vessel in Satan’s possession”, in his power, because Satan wickedly bought sin upon him, and pretending to offer immortality instead made him liable to death. In other words, the captivity is both: death is the consequence of sin for Adam’s children as for Adam. But he clarifies this by an illustration:

If a hostile force has overcome certain [enemies], had bound them, and led them away captive, so that they begat children among them; and somebody, compassionating those who had been made slaves, should overcome this same hostile force; he cerainly would not act equitably, were he to liberate the children of those who had been led captive, from the sway of those who had enslaved their fathers, but should leave these latter … the children succeeding to liberty through the avenging of their father’s cause, but not so that their fathers, who suffered the act of capture itself, should be left [in bondage]. For God is neither devoid of power nor of justice, who has afforded help to man and restored him to His own liberty.

I think it’s clear that the whole force of Irenaeus’ argument is that Adam entailed bondage to sin and death on his physical descendants. He does not spell out whether that bondage consists of the tendency to sin, or guilt for Adam’s first sin, but the first seems more in line with his words and is usually the main point at issue in terms of discussing Adam’s progeniture.

How is this different from Augustine’s view? In the matter of the inheritence of bondage to sin not at all. Augustine’s contribution was, firstly, to argue carefully from Scripture for the additional element of corporate human guilt for that first sin. But his most contentious offering, though frequently forgotten now, is merely a suggestion for the mechanism of transgression of original sin. He suggested that sin was transmitted to the new life as it was conceived through the concupiscence (lust) now inherent in fallen sexual relations. This doesn’t resonate with our modern mindset – but neither does it affect the nature of original sin itself.

What, then, has the Eastern Church rejected about original sin? Here my reading, as an outsider to Eastern Orthodoxy, suggests that all is not as it is often portrayed. An article by Orthodox writer Vladimir Moss, unfortunately no longer online, argues strongly that the tendency in Orthodoxy to deny the transmission of sin down the generations is a recent change initiated primarily by publications of Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky (1926) and Fr. John Romanides’ (1957), who argued that Orthodoxy had fallen into its own bondage to the Augustian tradition by accepting his erroneous translation of Romans 5.12. Moss, as a traditionalist, disputes their modern translation of this verse, their conclusion and their re-writing of history, and says that their teaching itself is not Orthodox (remember the high regard given to tradition in Orthodoxy – one can draw such conclusions in a way impossible within Protestantism).

Moss gives a long paragraph of Orthodox authorities for his claim, which is worth pasting here since the article itself is no longer available:

The Holy Fathers, on the other hand, contrary to the heretics just quoted and contrary to Metropolitan Anthony, stress the causal link between the sin of Adam and our death. Thus St. Athanasius the Great writes: “When Adam had transgressed, his sin reached unto all men”. Again, St. Cyril of Alexandria writes: “[All men] have been condemned to death by the transgression of Adam. For the whole of human nature has suffered this in him, who was the beginning of the human race.” Again, St. Symeon the Theologian writes: “When our Master descended from on high He by His own death destroyed the death that awaited us. The condemnation that was the consequence of our forefather’s transgression he completely annihilated.” Again, St. Gregory Palamas writes: “Before Christ we all shared the same ancestral curse and condemnation poured out on all of us from our single Forefather, as if it had sprung from the root of the human race and was the common lot of our nature. Each person’s individual action attracted either reproof or praise from God, but no one could do anything about the shared curse and condemnation, or the evil inheritance that had been passed down to him and through him would pass to his descendants.” Again, St. Anastasius of Sinai writes: “In Adam we became co-inheritors of the curse, not as if we disobeyed that divine commandment with him but because he became mortal and transmitted sin through his seed. We became mortals from a mortal…” Again, St. Gennadius Scholarius writes:“Everyone in the following of Adam has died, because they have all inherited their nature from him. But some have died because they themselves have sinned, while others have died only because of Adam’s condemnation – for example, children”.

To me, it seems that this Eastern tradition includes both the elements of original sin – transmission of the sin nature and guilt for Adam’s sin. All very Augustinian. I wonder if the old rejection of Augustine by the ancient Eastern Church may merely relate to the question of transmission by concupiscence, because otherwise ancestral sin (as Orthodox writers prefer to call it) was alive and well until challenged in the twentieth century in the East, just as it has been in the west (often by claiming that the East never held it!). It is probably true to say that the Eastern Church inherits a less radical view of sin than Augustine’s – Irenaeus’ image of bondage because of Satan’s deceit seems to predominate over Augustine’s bondage to our own all-pervading corruption.

But the net result is the same – both primary traditions of the Church assume that sin is inherited by descent from Adam. Our attempts to accommodate historic Christian doctrine to modern scientific findings needs to take that into account, and to demonstrate clearly just why the Fathers were wrong about it, if we end up rejecting it.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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