The Drama of Original Sin
James Tolhurst FAITH MAGAZINE March - April 2016
The Drama of Original Sin
Fr Tolhurst explains that understanding the reality of Original Sin enables us to collaborate with Christ in his work of our redemption
‘In sin was I conceived’
It is easy to be pessimistic. William Golding would say ‘Man is a fallen being. He is gripped by original sin. His nature is sinful and his state perilous.’ That was Luther’s conclusion also. He could identify with St Paul’s ‘I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’ (Rom. 7:14-16). He concluded that what we would term concupiscence was in fact a manifestation of the totally sinful condition which burdens humanity: ‘carnal, sold under sin.’ Calvin would go a step further and argue that some are in fact predestined to damnation from the beginning, which became the position of the Jansenists.
Although there is abundant evidence of the extent of sinfulness in humanity, there is also a cogent reason to reject the concept of humanity’s total corruption. Although concupiscence at times appears to overwhelm us, there is a far greater reason to reject it as evidence. Sin can have no place in matter because you need Spirit to comprehend the evil of sin. Although we say ‘Bad dog,’ when the pet has gnawed our slippers, he knows you are not pleased but he has not sinned. We have to realise that all brute matter, including dogs, cannot commit sin. Sin as a concept is only possible for human beings and pure spirits. In addition, the spirit in man cannot totally undo the law of the good and the true which is embedded in the physical nature of human beings.
In recent years Luther’s views have had a make-over. Paul Tillich in his Systematic Theology would say that ‘The doctrine of original sin seems to imply a negative evaluation of man and this in radical contrast with the new feeling for life that has been developed in industrial society.’ It almost seems as if the fifth-century monk, Pelagius, had come back to life.
Various alternative theories
However, instead of a reliance on humanity’s own efforts to claw itself back some entitlement to salvation, there is a discernible wish for absolution from any responsibility at all. This also includes a very free interpretation of the third chapter of Genesis. Rabbi Kaplan would write in 1970: ‘Emancipation from the authority of that text makes possible the substitution of a more constructive view of human nature as capable of improvement.’ Hans Kng would add that Genesis was ‘problematic’ and that we are talking of a ‘mythological idea’. Karl Rahner in Foundations of Christian Faith would argue that ‘Original sin does not mean of course that the original, personal act of freedom at the very origin of history has been transmitted in its moral quality. The notion that the personal deed of ‘Adam’ or the first group of people is imputed to us in such a way that it has been transmitted to us biologically, as it were, has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian dogma of original sin.’ This is broadly the argument in favour of the sin of the world theory (peccatum mundi), advocated by Piet Schoonenberg among others. It says that The Fall is the story of the state of disharmony between the Creator and his creation into which we are born. This amounts to sin by imitation and does not accept that sin can be passed on, nor face up to the problem of the genesis of sin or the question of human responsibility. It happens to sit neatly with the opinion of some astronomers who hold that the universe was always there and did not need a beginning.
Many of these theories would seem to excuse, or at least apologise for, human failings. Bishop Richard Holloway took this to its natural conclusion in 1995 when he wrote in The Times ‘God has given us our promiscuous genes, so I think it would be wrong for the Church to condemn people who have followed their instincts.’
An inherited sin
If we do not want to see humanity as corrupt, we also do not want to see original sin as some sort of collective disease, which A. M. Dubarle would call ‘an atmosphere that envelopseveryone and infects everyone’. The Church has always held that we are talking of something inherited: ‘In each act of generation human nature is communicated in a condition deprived of grace.’ There is a real state of sin, of which we are not personally guilty but which we nonetheless individually inherit. There is a deep truth in the passages of Genesis which must not be gainsaid. Karl Wojtyla, the future St John Paul II would say in Sign of Contradiction: ‘Even in the apparent simplicity of the biblical description we cannot fail to be struck by the depth, the present-day relevance of this problem’, Genesis lays bare in short brush strokes the extent of the primordial calamity. In the beginning there was that friendship where our rst parents walked with their Creator and lived in peace with creation. After their sin they hid from God, were lled with guilt and shame and experienced that loss of harmony in themselves and with their environment.
John Henry Newman makes the point in his Grammar of Assent that ‘The real mystery is not that evil should never have an end, but that it should ever have had a beginning.’ The state of perfection which is known as original justice was of such unimaginable joy and ful lment that it was almost inconceivable that it could ever have been surrendered. But once lost we need to understand the inner drama that took place.
The result of that decision has been explained by St. Thomas as a collective sin of ‘the whole human race in Adam, as one body of one man’ (De Malo 4,1), following on St Paul’s teaching that in Adam all die (1 Cor. 15:22). St. Thomas held to the view that as a result of Original Sin, the wounding of human nature was only relative to its primitive condition, having lost its preternatural gifts. But this does not seem to explain fully what the use of such terms actually means to the individual soul and body of mankind. The Council of Trent condemned in Session 5 the opinion that ‘the sin of Adam damaged him alone and not his descendants, and that the holiness and justice received from God, which he lost, he lost for himself alone and not for us; or that, while he was stained by the sin of disobedience, he transmitted only death and bodily pains to the whole human race, but not that sin which is the death of the soul.’ Theologians tend to state that the instrumental cause of Original Sin is the act of generation, but that does not help to explain the exact mechanism. Fr. Holloway analyses the effects of that first sin from a theological, and what could be termed a psychological, perspective. He draws attention to the thunderous e ect of sin on the soul which from its rst creation is totally centred in truth and love on God, its author and environment. All of a sudden, ‘The soul knew in its very depths that it was living a lie, and this knowledge, together with the will to perform could only be communicated to the body as a resistance against its law of total obedience to the universal law of the Good and the True.’ It is because there is only the dry acceptance of the fact that we have a soul and a body without any real comprehension of the interaction and interdependence of soul and body that the impact of the very first sin cannot be imagined in its awfulness; in almost the same way as the theory of nuclear physics could not fully comprehend the devastating impact of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Both had a catastrophic effect. In the case of Original Sin, this introduced a new flaw or what Fr. Holloway would call a lesion or wound, distorting in us the sense of that inherent law of the true and the good. This did not lead to a corruption of nature, but it was of such an impact that it was received by the body of ourfi rst parents and inherited by all generations that followed. (In an analagous way, ancestors transmit genetic defects to their descendants.)
The Remnants of Original Sin
The fifth century Church document known as the Indiculus states that ‘At one time man fully exploited his free will when, using his gifts too freely, he fell and sank into the abyss of sin. And he found no way to rise from those depths.’ Salvation only came from Christ’s saving death and resurrection which is applied to us in baptism. But the Fall also involved the loss of those gifts which our rst parents enjoyed in paradise, which resulted in, among other things, concupiscence, su ering and death. These are not termed punishments but, in a nice turn of phrase, poenalities. It might be asked why, if we are to be restored and forgiven, such ‘drawbacks’ still remain? Could God not remove what, in St. Paul’s case, he calls ‘a sting of the esh’? The unfortunate fact is that although God forgives, in a sense nature does not; and Original Sin is a sin of nature (peccatum naturae) and has profoundly affected our nature. Concupiscence however is not simply disordered sexual urges, but addictive cravings, the fomes peccati (the tinder which can set sin o ), ‘the whirlwind of desire’. (Wis. 4:12). But it cannot harm those who do not consent, but instead resist. (Catechism of the Catholic Church nn.1264.2515).
Certainly death is now seen as something which lls us with dread (together with the expectation of ‘bodily pains’) rather than, as it was meant to be, the gateway to eternal life. Sin has also introduced into the world the activity of Satan who has been granted, by the surrender of our first parents, a certain sway over the kingdoms of this world, especially over those who, wittingly or unwittingly, grant him entrance into their lives.
The impact of the Fall
In view of the current concern for the environment we might ask how far this damage extends. Genesis says that because of their sin ‘cursed is the ground because of you’ (Gen. 3:17). Fr. Holloway maintains that Original Sin does have a cosmic dimension: ‘All being in the universe “falls” in the sin of man.’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that ‘Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”’ (n.400). Calvin would doubtless agree because he says ‘There cannot be a doubt that creation bears part of the punishment deserved by man,’ (Institutes 2.1.5.) But not all the disasters which happen are evil. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and oods are not evil of themselves. It is otherwise with hatred, torture, war and all those things stemming from our selfishness and pride which come out of us and which de le us (cf. Matt. 15:11). It is also possible that the upheaval caused by Original Sin results in the prevalence of chronic systemic diseases. It would surely apply to those addictions such as drugs, sexual desire, alcoholism, gambling and pornography. Creation was not meant to be like this.
‘Creation subjected to futility’
But there is the mysterious phrase in Romans where St Paul says ‘For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:20-21). Certainly the Son entered as heir into his Father’s vineyard, but not as in a victory parade, instead he took the royal road of the Cross. In the body which he bore for our salvation he was able to bear the iniquity of us all (Isa. 56:6); and when he shed his blood for us, he gave us to drink the new wine of the kingdom.
Yes, we have a first Adam, but we also have a second, and what was lost in the rst has been restored in the second. There will not be that progressive and ever- glorious journey to Omega Point, which Teilhard de Chardin outlined, but instead that laborious struggle through pain and sorrow. But that should be no reason to give up on our journey. If it is true that ‘in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church’ (Col. 1:24), then we should strive to imitate Christ by confronting our weaknesses, and drinking the chalice of the love of the Lord. ‘Sweet is their pain, yet deep, till perfect love is born’, as the hymn goes.
;O happy fault...’
We should also not give up on society, but believe in our collaboration with Christ’s work of redemption, for he lives in us and we in him. We must never become disheartened, ‘knowing that in the Lord, our labour is not in vain’ (I Cor. 15:58). While we do not underestimate the devastating impact of Original Sin, we should always remember that God has shown us in Mary the Mother of God, both a life without Original Sin and the promise of final victory. It is because of her that we can repeat the words of the Exultet, ‘O happy fault that earned for us, that great and glorious Redeemer.’
Fr. Tolhurst was Spiritual Director of the English College in Spain and is author of a book on prayer, Climbing the Mountain (Gracewing)