Tentative thoughts on original sin

The idea of a single couple as the progenitors of the whole human race, especially on the time-frame suggested by Genesis 3, is difficult to support from history, archaeology, genetics or palaeontology. It is not actually mandated by the Bible’s testimony either, being more an obvious assumption in the absence of perfectly accurate knowledge of the genre of the garden account. It is, however, quite possible to postulate an historical Adam who is not the sole and specially-created progenitor of mankind. That I’ve covered elsewhere, but one of the biggest remaining problems is how it can still be true that “sin came into the world through one man.”

The difficulty is one reason why theistic evolutionists, in particular, have often denied the reality of Adam, and even put Paul’s doctrine of Adam as the originator of sin into the burgeoning “cultural error” category. That is a problem for those of us with a higher doctrine of Scripture. After all, Jesus used Genesis 2 to justify his doctrine of marriage – much is at at stake if the teachings of Scripture, Paul and even Jesus are moveable feasts. (Incidentally it would be interesting to make a list of all theose teachings of Scripture that have been ascribed to “cultural conditioning”. I’ll wager not much would escape. I’ll write on that soon.)

Can we nevertheless make headway on understanding how sin might spread universally from an historical individual among others, “in accordance with the Scriptures”? I believe we can, tentatively.

It helps guide our thinking if we don’t start from the surprisingly common assumption that “everyone knows what sin is” apart from the Bible’s teaching. We must instead define sin as Genesis defines it, and as Paul refines it. In Genesis 3, sin was rebellion against a command of God (not selfishness, disobedience to moral law, etc).

If Adam was the first man to be called into covenant relationship with God, then the breaking of that covenant-trust by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (probably an idiom for “the tree of wisdom”) accounts for sin coming into the world. Adam, then, became corrupted from his true (but incomplete) knowledge of God, by his own illicit version of wisdom seized through that knowledge. He could not go back either to ignorance of God, or to his previous naivety, and he could no longer go forward into learning God’s wisdom, as no doubt God had planned in the first place.

That such a thing becomes a canker in his soul leading to all the other perversions of sin is easily comprehended. Adam’s case then is closely parallel (and perhaps intentionally so, within the structure of torah) to the chosen nation of Israel whose breaking of their covenant loyalty led them to become, according to the prophets, worse than the pagan nations around them and therefore exiled. Rebels who have known God can be worse than those who never knew him, like the parable of Jesus about the cast-out devil who comes back with his friends, so that “the last state of that man is worse than the first”.

But that doesn’t account for Adam’s sin becoming the universal problem of mankind. Paul in Romans 1 comments on the Genesis progression: from disregard of the known God, through idolatry, to sin in ever more perverse forms. But he makes no comment on just how it spread from Adam and Eve themselves, except to say in ch5 that consequently “sin came to all men, because all sinned” – which could be interpreted in many ways.

Original sin did not originate with Augustine. Contrary to many modern claims, Irenaeus had already pictured sin as a racial bondage brought by Adam’s sin upon all his offspring. His emphasis was on the “immaturity” that produced it, whereas Augustine stressed its character as the privation of good, and tried to develop a plausible model of its spread via the “concupiscence” (lust) now associated with sexual intercourse. Later theology tended to collapse that into the general idea of the inheritence of a corrupted nature, and nowadays that in turn tends to be interpreted according to Neodarwinian scientific ideas as necessarily “genetic” – and it is therefore rejected as impossible on the grounds of population genetics.

There are longstanding differences in the historical branches of Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) about the distinction between inherited guilt for Adam’s sin and the transmission of actual sin, though all three accept the Council of Carthage (417) that formalised the doctrine of original sin. My own reading of Romans 5 inclines me to accept both aspects (Rom 5.13-14 links the penalty of death to those before the law who had broken no command, unless it were “in Adam”). But in any case the former is a forensic or representational matter, and quite capable of being understood under the heading of “Adam’s federal headship” – those whom Adam represented were accountable for his sin, just as later in the Bible Israel was held accountable for King David’s when he took a census against God’s will. It is more problematic to account for the actual universal corruption of human nature by this means.

I’ve formerly suggested that if sin is not regarded as genetic, yet is spread by ancestor-offspring relationships, then it is scientifically by no means impossible to regard Adam as a possible common ancestor of the whole present race, even if he appeared as a man amongst many in 3rd or 4th millennium Mesopotamia, as Genesis implies when interpreted in an historical manner. But leave aside the inheritance aspect of such MRCA studies for now – consider only what it tells us about the cultural connections of the human race.

Culture is, and always has been, worldwide. Take the example of the bow and arrow, quoting Wikipedia:

The bow and arrow appears around the transition from the Upper Paleolithic to the Mesolithic. After the end of the last glacial period, use of the bow seems to have spread to every continent, including the New World, except for Australia.

bowIt appears, from other anthroplogical research, that bows were not adopted in Australia for purely local reasons concerning size of prey animals and the like, not because of lack of contact. Aborigines preferred the spear and spear-thrower. The earliest extant bow is from Denmark, and dated to c9000BC, just a millennium after the Mesolithic began there. Obviously other examples could be given of the wordwide spread of good ideas, but the bow demonstrates that even before the putative time of Adam (3rd or 4th millennium BC) culture could and did encompass the world.

Amongst the early Christian writers, only the heretical Pelagius (to whose teaching the Council of Carthage was a response) denied original sin and saw people as blank slates, born as innocent as Adam, and therefore entirely individually responsible for being sinful or righteous. Evolution has made Pelagianism seem a viable option again to many, against the mainstream of historical theology, though it’s often been turned on its head to make sin truly the original state. Adam’s disobedience is, in this scenario, unsatisfactorily explained as the inevitable symptom of an evolved “selfish” nature to which God adds some kind of extraneous, generic “free-will plus conscience” to make us guilty of sin for being what we were created to be. But as our first definition showed, sin is expressly related in the Bible to the rejection of the knowledge and command of God, not to supposed animal inheritance.

Pelagius believed that sin spread merely through imitation, and since his clear implication was that it could be overcome (in theory) simply by a refusal to imitate, his views were decisively rejected as inadequate to account for the universally entrenched and intractable nature of sin. When the Council of Trent used the phrase “by propagation, not by imitation” it was only quoting from Augustine’s detailed rebuttals of Pelagius:

Since, however, these are actually the words of the apostle, to whose authority and doctrine they submit, they charge us with slowness of understanding, while they endeavor to wrest to some unintelligible sense words which were written in a clear and obvious purport. “By one man,” says he, “sin entered into the world, and death by sin.” This indicates propagation, not imitation; for if imitation were meant, he would mention the devil as the object of the imitation. But, as no one doubts, [the apostle] refers to that first man who is called Adam: “And so,” says he, “death passed upon all men.”

But both Pelagius’s trivialisation of sin as mere imitation (and of grace as, for example, God’s provision of the Law to give a better model to imitate), and its rejection by the orthodox, depend on a rather individual concept of humanity. To Pelagius the individual is born, matures to the age of being able to choose, and then makes his choice for good or evil. To Augustine and most well-taught Christians before and since, man is born corrupt by inherited nature, and so is bound to choose the way of sin unless grace prevails.

But a greater understanding of man’s fundamentally social nature (perhaps reverting somewhat accidentally to the biblical worldview) now enables us to see that it is only possible to become human at all through the absorbtion of our parents’, and community’s, culture. Our nature is not exclusively “from our genes” – in fact genetics has a minor role in inheritence. We inherit speech by absorbing in infancy the language of our society, to express the worldview of our society. And so there is a level at which our first enculturation, though a social rather than a genetic affair, is in a real sense the propagation of our very humanity from, first, our parents and then our society. I can’t resist using again my favourite quote from philosopher Roger Scruton:

Communities are not formed through the fusion or agreement of rational individuals; it is rational individuals who are formed through communities.

But I might also quote leading British philosopher (the late) E J Lowe:

Selves as persons are not created through biological processes but rather through socio-cultural forces, that is, through the co-operative efforts of other selves or persons. Persons create persons, quite literally.

If we were isolated from our culture – and especially from speech – as babies, we’d not become real people at all. (And regarding “man” in the sense of “Adam”, might we not only have become the image of God in the first place by that dwelling of the Person of Christ with the person of Adam in the garden?).

Even in evolutionary terms the importance of this has been increasingly realised: Eva Jablonka, for example, regards culture as a driver of evolution of equal importance to genetic change, in animals as well as mankind. The philosopher of biology Elliott Sober goes further, particularly in the case of humans with speech and literature:

Cultural selection can be more powerful than biological selection… [T]houghts spread faster than human beings reproduce.

Discussing this Conor Cunningham adds, citing Henri de Lubac:

There is no pure nature… just as there is no pure culture.

In that context, “imitation” in the sense of cultural spread is far more than Pelagius’s morally neutral human being making a free choice between alternatives – it is the restriction of his alternatives to those of his milieu that make him a human being in the first place. It’s impossible to choose the philosopher’s life in a culture lacking philosophy. You will never become an accomplished safe-cracker in tribal Amazonia. In other words, cultural inheritance can be as hard and pervasive as genetic inheritance (perhaps more so, given what we’re discovering about the disconnect between genotye and phenotype). And it is quicker, and doesn’t depend on any genes becoming fixed in the whole population: just the spread of a strong idea or a habit. We may paraphrase Scruton:

It is culpable sinners who are formed through sinful communities.

Sin is as broad as culture, and culture as broad as the human race. So perhaps one could compare the spread of sin from Adam with the analogy of something like Christian mission. However strong the message of the love of Jesus is, experience shows that it can’t be communicated at all apart from the culture of the missionary. That’s why the best practice toils endlessly to enculturate both missionaries and message to the host culture, to avoid the gratuitous imposition of the missionary’s own cultural worldview. But in practice, it’s impossible to quarantine culture absolutely. There is some kind of dialectical fusion between the missionary’s culture, and the host’s culture, with the gospel as the medium between them. The same is true of any cultural contact whatsoever, and cultural contact can never be artificially prevented for long.

If Adam was indeed the first person to have a true relationship with God, it would have affected every subsequent relationship. There can be no more powerful idea than the possibility of personal knowledge of God, even had his commission not been to spread the knowledge of such a possibility to the whole creation. Willy Nilly such communication happened, down the line of Seth, by intermarriage and no doubt in other ways… but though it need not be exclusively by genetic descent, yet it was truly propagation from Adam.

At the same time, if Adam was also the first to become corrupted by rebellion against God, then all his communication, and especially that about God, would also be tainted by sin. Adam’s cultural contribution to the world would be the knowledge that there is a God who seeks communion with people and in whom is eternal life, but also the knowledge that one can assert ones own wisdom against such a God and maintain Promethean independence. And thereby was born mankind as we know it – Homo divinus peccatum – “religious (but sinful) man”.

It’s a far more potent and universal influence than that achieved by the inventor of the bow and arrow. And like the latter, though rather more like the opening of Pandora’s box, it could not be undone once it has been done. It would become as much an integral part of “human nature” as the power of speech, or fire, or the human genome.

And if it would take a miracle to replace the human genome without losing humanity in the process, then the restoration of a person to the full image and likeness of God requires a similar miracle. A new creation, even, into a new society.

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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.
This entry was posted in Adam, Creation, Genealogical Adam, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Tentative thoughts on original sin

  1. Cath Olic says:

    “Tentative thoughts on original sin”.

    It’s amazing that almost 2,000 years after the founding of the Church, ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth’, so much tentativeness remains outside the Church on basic, fundamental theological issues settled long ago.

    Then again, it’s not amazing at all.
    “The idea of a single couple as the progenitors of the whole human race, especially on the time-frame suggested by Genesis 3, is difficult to support from history, archaeology, genetics or palaeontology.”

    Perhaps, over time, it will become *less* difficult.
    A couple points of note from the article linked below:
    · Every male alive today appears to trace his ancestry to one and only one man – “genetic Adam.”
    · That “genetic Adam” lived 250,000 years ago, per latest estimates, but…
    · Previous estimates varied by as much as 900% (50K years ago vs. 500K years ago). (Makes me wonder how accurate the 250K is!)
    · This “genetic Adam” is now placed in the same time frame as the “genetic Eve” a.k.a. “mitochondrial Eve”.
    · Every female alive today appears to trace her ancestry to one and only one woman – “mitochondrial Eve.”

    Who knows? Maybe with some further future “adjustments” to the time frames, this will sound more and more like the Adam & Eve “story” of Genesis.


    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Cath Olic

      It needs to be endlessly repeated that “Mitochondrial Eve” and “Y-chromosome Adam” are a complete red herring, which say nothing abouyt the first humans, however long ago. Covered here way back.

      • Cath Olic says:

        Two points on the article you linked:

        “… autosomal studies indicate never took us lower than, maybe, ten thousand individuals.”

        I don’t understand this. Apparently, the studies are saying one day there are no human beings, and the next day there are at least 10,000? If so, then apparently evolution *can* happen *quickly* and *widely*, even in a coordinated fashion.

        ““Mitochondrial DNA shown to have become fixed in humans 200,000 years ago” would hardly have had the same ring.”

        I think this is greatly understates the issue.
        I’m pretty sure I’ve read that scientists agree that *all* human beings on this planet trace their biological heritage to one and the same woman.

        Do I have this wrong?

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Hi Cath Olic

          Yes, I’m afriad you do have it wrong, but so do a lot of people who should know better. Our own Preston Garrison did a pretty good explanation of the basic population genetics involved here.

          The basic key is that the whole stuff about those mitochondria and Y-chromosomes derives from the theoretical assumption that whole populations evolve, not individuals.

          Whether or not the theory is correct for speciaation events rather than just changes within species (where it is proven), the fact remains that to interpret it in terms of single original ancestors is just mistaken.

          • Cath Olic says:

            What a shocker – that anyone could “get it wrong”, when all they have to do is properly digest something like Preston Garrison’s 20-mouse clicks-long “pretty good explanation.”

            I’m not sure someone should say I “got it wrong” if what is “right” is a theory which someone isn’t sure is correct.

            Anyway, some more about a group who should know better:
            “Even more impressive, the geneticists concluded that every person on Earth right now can trace his or her lineage back to a single common female ancestor who lived around 200,000 years ago.”

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              Despite the (ultimately anti-Creationist) polemic presentation of the piece you cite, it still says clearly:

              The study’s lead author, Rebecca Cann, called her colleagues’ and her choice to use Eve as the name “a playful misnomer,” and pointed out that the study wasn’t implying that the Mitochondrial Eve wasn’t [sic] the first — or only — woman on Earth during the time she lived [source: Cann]. Instead, this woman is simply the most recent person to whom all people can trace their genealogy.

              Even that’s wrong – the “misnamed” mitochondrial Eve is the most recent mitochondrial common ancestor, and that alone. There have been many common ancestors before and since, but just not in the exclusively female-female line.

              You’re right in saying they ought to know better, which was my point entirely. Either the researcher or the journalist has muddied the waters some more by the erroneous double negative in the quote.

              Preston’s article is a lot better – but he’s a geneticist, not a journalist.

              PS – I was taught the basics of population genetics at school 47 years ago: trust me on this one (or else go on a course).

  2. Timothy Hicks says:

    Thought provoking article.

    To be honest though, I would have considered myself more-or-less like the “heretic Pelagius”, way before I ever even would have considered evolution! The idea of “inheriting guilt” always sounded (to me) like putting the blame on someone other than yourself, “Because of Adam we sin, and so on,”. Though I’ve always believed in Historical Adam, when I read the account in chapters 2-3, it always seems liked it was describing me personally, and my fall from innocence … we all eat from that Wisdom Tree, knowing that it’s against God’s Will in other words.

    In Ecclesiastes it says, “God made man upright, but he has sought wicked devices…”. While I do believe we have a corrupt nature, would it not be inaccurate to say you were born innocent, and free from any wrong-doing? The Catholic doctrine of baptized babies with the sprinkling of water, I’ve been told, was because of the belief that even babies were born corrupt, and if they died before baptism then….. well, you know. Hell.

    Being raised or born outside of humanity though …. you’re right. You wouldn’t really be “human” in the same way. All it takes is to watch any of those awful documentaries where parents neglect their kids by ignoring them almost entirely …. 12 year old kids with the brains and character of a toddler, because they weren’t taught any social skills, nor acquired much of a personality.

    Concerning the homo divinus model of “spreading a specific type of humanity”, there’s an interesting passage in Genesis 5:3 “And Adam begat a son in his own likeness, after his image, and called his name, Seth.” <<< It's very peculiar why it would be worded like that because it is the same phrase used in Genesis 1, "Let us make Man in Our Image in Our Likeness." … and no one associates the "likeness" or "image" having anything to do with physical or outward appearance, but with qualities, and natures. Medieval Rabbit, Moses Maimonides touches on this issue in his book The Guide for the Perplexed …. it's very interesting to think about!


    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I referred to “original guilt” because it is a classic doctrine that depends on careful exegesis (and I happen to concur with the exegesis), and therefore needs to be accounted for in any scheme about sin. But I also said it was irrelevant to the argument I was making, which is about the universality of sin.

      I’ll say just a few words about the “unfair” bit since you raise it, though. It’s clear that to Hebrews, corporate responsibility sat much more comfortably than with our totally individualistic worldview. I mentioned Israel being punished for their king’s sin – one may think that unfair, but God, and the inspired writer, didn’t. You could also remember, in the NT, Hebrews speaking of Levi paying tribute to Melchizedek “in the loins” of Abraham. So “original guilt” would fit the Biblical worldview – it’s just a question of whether the text teaches it or not.

      There has always been some flexibility on the question of infant sin: the Bible has concepts of reaching the age to choose the good and reject evil (cf “Immanuel” in Isaiah), and the Catholic doctrine of “limbo” differentiates the state of dying infants from dying adults, though undoubtedly infant baptism is intended to remove original sin (though by that, I think, is meant inherited corruption, not guilt for Adam’s sin.)

      But Pelagius went much further, presenting sin as something like a political vote, made on rational grounds – I suggest one doesn’t join his party! And I say that even though he was a Brit.

      Your neglected toddler example captures the idea – like those dreadful Romanian orphanages did. Yet even in such cases, there has been minimal socialisation, or the kids wouldn’t have been fed long enough to survive. As you say re Seth, being human is irreducible either to the physical or the mental or the spiritual – nor even the individual: we are inevitably both individually accountable and part of “the mass of humanity”.

      Incidentally, that’s one reason I hate the TE idea of a “naturally” evolved hominid having a “soul” added by God as an upgrade – it destroys the unity of man. It’s a bit like a rich man taking some feral kid off a Victorian street and squeezing him into an ill-fitting suit to civilise him. Whatever our view, we have to remember that man is created *in* the image of God, not painted *with* it later on.

      • Timothy Hicks says:

        You bring up some interesting passages, and maybe I was too quick to judge. Levi being in the loins of Abraham is a bit of a quandary to understand in any sort of scientific sense … so the only solution is to understand it in a different way.

        What is your position on the idea of being “created in the image of God” as a being similar to a position of office; like a man might say, “I work IN the police academy”, or “I worked IN the hospital.” Or being as God’s “Representatives”? Some attempts have been made to quantify the “image of God” as being either a physical resemblance to God (though that view is quite outdated), and other attempts have been made to say that the image of God is referring to our intellectual prowess, our ability to think abstract thoughts, form opinions, have empathy for others, and so on. The problem is that when you go down that road, it gets a bit shaky, because many of these qualities you can subscribe, to some degree, to animals.

        On top of all that the Bible never even says what the types of qualities being made “in His Image” we are supposed to acquire by this. It simply says, we are made in His image. Though in Genesis 9 it does give a reason why bloodshed is wrong, and specifically says, “Because he was made in the Image of God”.

        Bottom line though. Whatever way you swing with this, it seems obvious to me that us bearing His image, is supposed to signify some greater or higher calling on our part. There’s a song that I heard once that goes, “Come to teach, come to be taught. Come in the image and the likeness of God, because you can be like that. With all that humbleness and all that respect.”

        It’s a status, a privilege, and a representative position, that we must honor.


        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          In my view picking on particular human traits and locating the “image” in them is misleading, whether you see them as unique products of creation or evolution, or “added” to an animal by God, or just super-evolved versions of what animals have.

          On the other hand, simply to see it as an assigned role is mislading too, because the passage doesn’t say we have the image in us at all, but that we are created in the image (and likeness) of God. That means we were, from the beginning, made-for-purpose, and assigned and set to that purpose “on delivery” – we are all of a piece (one reason I dislike the Ken Miller idea of God giving an off-the-shelf soul to the first intelligent beast to evolve)..

          The “image” has to do primarily with rule and sterwardship, but that involves rational (in the Thomistic sense) governance and worshipping priesthood, so we have to be the kind of “thing” we are to do the “job” we do. I’d argue, we have to be *exactly* what we are to do *exactly* the job God intended us for.

          A crude parallel: if you considered the lion to be proverbially “king of the jungle” it would not simply be that he was elected to the job, but that he has the created nature to be worthy of election. A panther would not do.

          This links closely to the Person of Christ (as Logos) and P E Hughes has some excellent stuff on that wjich I covered here.

          Your final sentence is spot-on!

  3. KJ says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reflection on a difficult subject. I wonder if you’ve ever read through Michael Heiser’s blog posts on Rom 5:12 (http://drmsh.com/the-naked-bible/romans-512/), . [I feel like I’ve seen someone ask this in the comment section awhile back, but I’m not sure.] Heiser’s main theological contention against the traditional inherited guilt position (besides not finding it exegetically convincing) is that it unwittingly denies the full humanity of Jesus. Here’s one quote:

    {“My question, to start the ball rolling, is simple: If ALL humans since Adam inherited Adam’s guilt (however that happens), then why does Jesus get off the hook? He is 100% human in biblical theology. His genealogy goes straight back to Adam (see Luke 3:23-38; esp. v. 38). Now, I know what the standard answers are. ‘Oh, Jesus was God, so he didn’t have original sin.’ This avoids the question; it doesn’t answer it: he’s was also 100% human. To deny that is deny the incarnation. It wouldn’t be a real or actual incarnation then.”}

    You may have no interest in chasing this rabbit, but Heiser is a guy (like you) who generally makes my brain hurt (in a good way), yet is concerned to stay within the bounds of orthodoxy. On creation issues generally, you two are quite similar. His take on Rom 5:12, however, is a bit novel.

    • Timothy Hicks says:

      I love Michael Heiser’s seminars — I think he’s very thought provoking most of the time, and this is a great observation. Good way to open up further discussion on some difficult passages. The nature of “spreading death” sounds a lot more like one would say, “Spreading a disease,” or “Spreading a rumor,”. If the spreading is through “biological inheritance”, or if you wanna word it differently… “theological inheritance”, then it seems like a rather awkward use of the term.



    • Cath Olic says:


      “If ALL humans since Adam inherited Adam’s guilt (however that happens), then why does Jesus get off the hook?”

      I’m just winging it here, but maybe Jesus’ human nature DID have the guilt inherited from Adam’s original sin. Jesus certainly suffered all the aspects of fallen human nature. Except for one aspect – personally committed sin (i.e. not inherited or imputed sin).

      “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” [Hebrews 4:15]

    • KJ says:

      Tim, it’s interesting you liken the “spreading” of death to disease. Disease can be “passed on” in ways similar to how different theologians consider the link between Adam’s sin and our sin. Augustine thought it was biological (we’d say genetic today). Others (e.g., Irenaeus) have thought more of a radiation effect (like pollution)…which seems to me to be in the same ballpark as Jon’s post on culture. Heiser doesn’t put in quite these words, but he (and, e.g., John Walton) sees the link between Adam’s sin and our sin/death centered on the loss of access to the tree of life. Thus, Heiser understands “death” in Rom 5 to be about “mortality,” and translates the end of v.12 as “death (i.e., mortality) spread to all men so that all sinned” (*eph ho* can mean “so that” as well as “because”), thus reversing the more traditional understanding of cause/effect. In Heiser’s view, this allows Jesus as 100% human to be effected by Adam like us in becoming mortal (but his deity prevents him from personally sinning). (This also provides a better answer to why babies go to heaven if they die in infancy, since they don’t incur guilt, which only comes from personal sin not inherited guilt.)

      So, I remain intrigued but am still considering. Heiser’s logic is sound as far as it goes (I still wrestle with the exegesis), but it leaves several questions unanswered about human nature (pre-Fall vs. post-Fall…since Heiser does believe, against Pelagian, that sin is inevitable if given enough time and mental capacity), and about how to respect early Councils (Jon mentioned Carthage).

      Cath Olic, all I can say is that your response is quite un-Catholic (recall arguments for Mary’s immaculate conception)! And, if Jesus inherited Adam’s guilt, does it not disqualify him as a suitable substitute for sin?

      • Cath Olic says:


        Yes, I realize my response was un-Catholic. That’s why I said I was “just winging it”. Like a Protestant.

        The Church teaches that Mary the Mother of God was conceived without original sin by the grace of God. (We’ll celebrate this fact on December 8.) I assume the Church would say the same about Jesus’ conception.

        But both Mary and Jesus obviously suffered the trials and tribulations of this post-Fall world. They suffered, but not through inherited or personal guilt.
        “This also provides a better answer to why babies go to heaven if they die in infancy, since they don’t incur guilt, which only comes from personal sin not inherited guilt.”

        Just to be clear, the CC doesn’t teach that unbaptized babies go to heaven if they die. It says their fate is left up to God (cf. the Catechism 1261). The Church DOES teach that Baptism takes away the stain of original sin (and brings one into the Church), so that a baptized infant *would* go to heaven.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Hi KJ, Cath and Tim on this

          The orthodox idea, AFAIK, is not that Jesus was innocent because he was God, but because the human nature he possessed was that like Adam, not like that of Adam’s sinful descendants. He is, after all, the “second Adam”.

          It’s a genuine human nature, so it genuinely incorporates and redeems what God made us. Jesus learned wisdom from God without, like Adam, rebelling.

          Nothing in Scripture suggests that, to be genuine, Christ had to have aour failings – just our created weaknesses. He was “tempted in every way as we are, only without sin.”

          Now, on any model, cashing in that truth is difficult: maybe Augustine’s inheritance model bypasses his inheritance of actual sin because ge was not born “of concupiscence” via sexual intercourse, but of a virgin. But that does not deal with inherited guilt for Adam’s sin, which Augustine held, and that would have come through Adam.

          Maybe that’s why the Catholics argued that Mary was sinless, and then that she was born free of original guilt through the Immacuate conception, “on the foreseen merits of Christ”, but that really is just setting up an endless regress. It solves the problem of Mary passing on sin by raising the problem of St Anne passing on sin. We then need for St Anne to be conceived immaculately too. Not a word in Scripture about any of it, so a complete non-starter for me. (sounds like people winging it, which won’t do.)

          My scheme is not a lot stronger on this, though: we have to explain why, alone of all men, Jesus would not be “sinfully socialised” in childhood, especially if there is no actual “genetic sin” in the rest of mankind. The same problem onb all sides: how is Jesus different, and yet man?

          My suggestion would be as follows: Jesus is sinless not just because he is God, but because he is the Eternal Son who is the true image of God, from which Adam’s “imageness”, and ours, was derived.

          He therefore comes to us with a nature “prior to Adam’s” (as I said above), and so with no inherited guilt, if one’s theology includes that.

          And he grows in God simply because he is *himself*, the “Man from heaven”, and not the perishable seed of Adam. Incidentally, that explanation works on Augustine’s scheme too, though not on evolutionary schemes in which “sin” is inherent to human nature.

          That is by no means complete, but it avoids (a) docetism, denying Jesus’s real humanity (b) Pelagianism, saying that free will is all (c) endless regresses of orginal righteousness and arbitrary appeals to Jesus’s future merits.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Guys, thanks for responses. I’m away for the next 2 days, so will try and respond on my return.


  5. Avatar photo Mark says:

    Placemarker on a very thoughtful article.

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