The Origins of Original Sin
Updated: Nov 26, 2018
Perhaps no other doctrine formulated post the first Council of Nicaea (325 ad) has become more of a sacred cow than that of Original Sin. Today, at least in Western Christianity, this doctrine is so revered and so closely associated with the work of Christ that questioning it is often regarded as questioning the very existence of God Himself. To question Original Sin will inevitably result in one being labeled a heretic and an unbeliever... but at the risk of being despised by men we as followers of Christ must ask is it Scriptural?
Christians are not to operate in a spirit of fear, but are called to pursue God in truth. As we read in 2 Timothy 4:3-4 people will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. So, how can we know the difference between truth and myth if we are afraid to question something in light of Scripture?
Fear serves to imprison, while the truth sets us free.
"Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Acts 20:28-30
The books of Luke and Acts are believed to have been written by the same man – Luke. Regardless, the author of Acts warns us that soon after his departure false teachers will come from the church and begin sowing false teaching. So, one way we might determine whether a doctrine is sound or false is to see when it was introduced. Was this clearly articulated in Scripture and taught by the early church or did it come about later?
The Origin of Original Sin
In 354, Augustinus (Augustine) was born to a Christian mother and a pagan father. At the age of 11 he was sent to school at Madaurus where he became more familiar with pagan beliefs and practices. At 17 he went to Carthage where he read Cicero’s dialogue
Hortensius and fell in love with philosophy. Cicero had learned and developed his beliefs from the Stoics, philosophers with no connection to the Gospel. Eventually the Catholic Church declared him a “righteous pagan” in recognition for his morality apart from Christ (pointing to Romans 2:14-16).
Although Augustine’s mother raised him as a Christian, he left the Church to follow the Manichaean religion. Mani claimed to be an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He denied the incarnation, rejected the virgin birth and considered it obscene, teaching instead that Christ was wholly divine. Moreover, Mani denied that the death and resurrection of Christ played any role in salvation but were simply an example. Manichaeism also incorporated other deities and symbols such as the Hindu god Ganesha. It was likely here with Manichaeism that Augustine began associating flesh with the eternal evil and the spirit with the eternal good, as Mani taught a dualistic gnostic cosmology.
As a youth Augustine was very promiscuous, living a hedonistic lifestyle. Around the age of 17, he began a love affair with a woman in Carthage that would go on to last 15 years and produce a son, Adeodatus. In 385, he ended this relationship to prepare himself to marry a ten-year old heiress (the legal age of marriage for women was 12). However, a year later Augustine converted to Christianity and took a vow of celibacy having decided to become a priest.
At the age of thirty-seven, Augustine became a priest in the North African town of Hippo and in 395 was made bishop. Between 397 and 400, he began writing Confessions, a 13 volume autobiographical work in which he first began formulating the doctrine of Original Sin as a means of explaining the sins of his past, as well as his current struggles with celibacy.
However, it was not until the early fifth century that he expounded on the doctrine. Not being able to read Greek or Hebrew, Augustine studied a fourth-century Latin Bible known as the Vulgate. Due to the translation leaving ambiguity as to a passage’s meaning, Augustine fell victim to his bias and assumed his understanding was correct, it was not. He understood Paul to have said “Adam in whom all men sinned”, rather than “because all men sin.” This misunderstanding of the passage seemingly affirmed what he had believed, so with this “confirmation” he began all the more to stress how much the original sin in the Garden of Eden had permanently corrupted human nature.
Soon after his conversion to Christianity, Augustine rejected his past Manichaean and pagan beliefs. However, as time went on and he wrestled with explaining his desire to sin he came to reject some of the teachings of the Church Fathers and return to his old philosophies and paganism, combining them with Christian passages and themes to support this doctrine of Original Sin. While he accepted that Original Sin was not articulated in the Bible, Augustine was convinced that unless his doctrine was accepted, even good Christians would be tempted to seek salvation through holy living and end up in hell.
Moreover, Augustine’s belief in Original Sin would go on to have him invent other doctrines in response to it. For instance, he came to view baptism as the means in which we wash off Original Sin and as such any infant that died before being baptized would go to hell (infant damnation). He also became a proponent of violence and persecution as a means of conversion, since we were condemned against our wills then so too could we be saved against our will. Due in some part to his views on sex he believed that the Virgin Mary "conceived as virgin, gave birth as virgin and stayed virgin forever". He even went so far as to claim sex within marriage was sinful unless specifically intended to produce offspring.
Utilizing the power of his position and vast influence with the church and Rome, Augustine would go on to mischaracterize, slander and attack those who would disagree with him, all while pushing Original Sin and its subsequent doctrines. Eventually, the Catholic Church would fully embrace Original Sin, confirming it at the Council of Carthage in 418, the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Trent in 1546 and by affirmation of Pope Innocent (401-417) and Pope Zosimus (417-418).
Original Sin Defined
This Augustinian doctrine asserts that everyone is born sinful; that the guilt and condemnation of Adam’s sin is transmitted to the entire human race, resulting in mankind being stained by sin and possessing an appetite drawn to sin. Further it asserts that this sinful state is passed on via sexual reproduction.
When Scripture refers to “sin” the reader should not assume it really means “inherited sin nature” as if God intended it to mean that it would certainly say that. When Scripture refers to “death” the reader should not assume it really means “spiritual death at conception.” If we affirm that Scripture is the inspired word of God, we should not add to it or take away from it, this includes reading our presuppositional philosophies into the text.
While this article is intended to address the history of and faulty premise upon which Original Sin was established, it is of paramount importance the reader understands that neither sin nor physical death are in dispute here - these are two clear and undeniable effects of Adam’s sin along with thorns and thistles, toil, painful childbirth, legless serpents and expulsion from Eden. What is being challenged, and ultimately rejected, is the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin.
Claims of Authenticity
While history clearly shows Augustine invented the doctrine of Original Sin, there are proponents which, wishing to defend it, will point to the writings of other early Church Fathers to establish authenticity. Were they to establish as a fact that Original Sin was taught before Augustine it would not necessarily prove its soundness, but it would certainly serve to refute the claims that Augustine is responsible for inventing it.
“For it is too absurd to maintain that he who was so deeply injured by the enemy, 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.” Against Heresies Book III, Irenaeus 180 ad
Above we see early Church Father Irenaeus speaking of the condemnation to death, that is mortality and futility, which resulted from Adam’s sin; in other words captivity to the grave and subject to Satan - due to Adam we no longer have access to Eden or the Tree of Life. However, proponents of Original Sin would have us believe that while Irenaeus never spoke of or affirmed any aspect of the doctrine of Original Sin, that he was nevertheless referencing it in this comment.
Remember, we can speak of death without meaning spiritual death and we can speak of sin without meaning inherited sin nature, so too can we speak of condemnation without meaning condemned to spiritual death and possessing a sin nature.
“Finally, in every instance of vexation, contempt, and abhorrence, you pronounce the name of Satan. He it is whom we call the angel of wickedness, the author of every error, the corrupter of the whole world, through whom Man was deceived in the very beginning so that he transgressed the command of God. On account of his transgression Man was given over to death; and the whole human race, which was infected by his seed, was made the transmitter of condemnation.” Testimony of the Soul, Tertullian 200 ad
Tertullian is addressing the condemnation of mankind to mortality, and again there is no mention of Original Sin and its claims. Supporters of Original Sin would have us read their doctrine into the writings of the Early Church Fathers, just as they would have us read it into Scripture - but we will get to that momentarily.
“If, in the case of the worst sinners and of those who formerly sinned much against God, when afterwards they believe, the remission of their sins is granted and no one is held back from Baptism and grace, how much more, then, should an infant not be held back, who, having but recently been born, has no sin, except that, born of the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of that old Death from his first being born.” Cyprian of Carthage 250 ad
Cyprian spoke of sinners committing sins and needing remission of their sins, not the sins of Adam or his inherited sin nature. He clearly states infants have committed no sins but as a result of Adam’s sin are subject to death – thus they still have need for Christ despite being innocent. This is a far cry from Augustine’s claims that unbaptized infants go to hell for Adam’s sin.
Everything up until now, while relevant, merely sets the stage for the history of the doctrine, but it is Scripture which will ultimately teach and affirm it or refute and rebuke it. While Augustine admitted his doctrine was not articulated in Scripture, many of his followers today will claim just that.
This is why it is absolutely critical that we can consider such doctrines in light of Scripture without being afraid that in doing so we are somehow rejecting Scripture and renouncing our faith. NO! This is the greatest example of faith, trusting God and His word “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17
In Genesis 3 we see the fall of man from life and relationship with God to death and bondage to Satan. Here among that account are listed all the consequences for Adam’s sin: death, painful childbirth, thorns and thistles, toil, expulsion from Eden and even legless serpents. Yet, nowhere do we read the assertions made in the doctrine of Original Sin (or Total Depravity for that matter).
In Genesis 4 we see God speak to Cain, a child born after Adam sinned and after their expulsion from Eden. Does God tell Cain he was born spiritually dead and guilty of his parent’s sins, or that he bears the stain of their sin, or that sin is master over him or that he is controlled by sin? No! Just the opposite. God tells Cain sin is crouching at the door, meaning it is seeking an opening to enter his life. God tells him sin’s desire is contrary to him - not a part of his nature!
In Genesis 8:21 we read that “the imagination of man’s heart is set on wickedness from his youth.” YOUTH! - not conception, womb or birth but the very same Hebrew word used to describe the age of David when he faced Goliath on the field of battle, the very same Hebrew word used to describe the age when men marry and have children. The whole passage speaking of man’s heart becoming hard as it is corrupted by sin, not being born as such.
We’re not even one fifth of the way through Genesis and we see the claims made by Original Sin and Total Depravity have been undone. Complicating matters all the more for adherents of these doctrines is the fact that there are no passages in Scripture which teach them - a fact you will recall even Augustine recognized.
Now to be sure there are plenty of passages in Scripture which deal with a sin nature, but in every case it is one that has been developed by the individual committing sins. It is the sin of Adam which condemned man to mortality, but it is this self developed sin nature and the individual’s own personal sins which condemn them in the eyes of God, separating them from relationship with Him. They are not born wicked!
“The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” Psalm 58:3
Scripture is crystal clear - the wicked GO ASTRAY from the state they were created in, they were not born wicked, but go astray into sin becoming thus. The Psalmist continues as we see Scripture compare the wicked (not all mankind) to the serpent that stops listening, it speaks of them having teeth - which no one is born with, and contrasts them against the righteous. So we see the wicked are they that stop listening to God and go astray into sin, while the righteous await the judgement of the Lord.
“The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.” Psalm 58:10-11
Fashioned by the hand of the Holy & Living God in whom there is no darkness
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” Psalm 139:13-17
This doctrine has resulted in many parents wrongly viewing their children as vipers in diapers, less than rats, murderers waiting to kill and as a result these precious gifts from the Father are abused, mistreated and even murdered.
Spirit of anti-Christ
What many well intentioned and misinformed Christians fail to understand is that the doctrines of Original Sin and Total Depravity undermine the very incarnation of Christ Himself.
Consider: The Hypostatic Union
“If man is not born sinful, then why did Jesus need to come?”
This article is already pretty lengthy, so we will keep our answer brief and direct the reader to our other articles which go into far greater detail:
Scripture tells us the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the hold of the grave and the works of the devil, that through death He might reconcile those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong futility. Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Now, the grave is not the end for the believer - but rather we await His return where the dead will rise and the living transfigured to enjoy eternity with Him.
1 John 3:8, Hebrews 2, John 10:10, Daniel 12:1-4, John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:12-13