Original Sin According to St. Paul
In regard to the doctrine of original sin as contained in the Old Testament and illumnated by the unique revelation of Christ in the New Testament, there continues to reign in the denominations of the West–especially since the development of scholastic presuppositions–a great confusion, which in the last few centuries seems to have gained much ground in the theological problematics of the Orthodox East. In some circles this problem has been dressed in a halo of mystifying vagueness to such an extent that even some Orthodox theologians seem to expect one to accept the doctrine of original sin simply as a great and profound mystery of faith (e.g., Androutsos, Dogmatike, pp. 161-162). This has certainly become a paradoxical attitude, especially since these Christians who cannot point their fingers at this enemy of mankind are the same people who illogically claim that in Christ there is remission of this unknown original sin. This is a far cry from the certitude of St. Paul, who, of the devil himself, claimed that “we are not ignorant of his thoughts” (noemata).
If one is to vigorously and consistently maintain that Jesus Christ is the unique Savior Who has brought salvation to a world in need of salvation, one obviously must know what is the nature of the need which provoked this salvation. It would, indeed, seem foolish to have medical doctors trained to heal sickness if there were no such thing as sickness in the world. Likewise, a savior who claims to save people in need of no salvation is a savior only unto himself.
Undoubtedly, one of the most important causes of heresy is the failure to understand the exact nature of the human situation described by the Old and New Testaments, to which the historical events of the birth, teachings, death, resurrection and second coming of Christ are the only remedy. The failure to understand this automatically implies a perverted understanding of what it is that Christ did and continues to do for us, and what our subsequent relation is to Christ and neighbor within the realm of salvation. The importance of a correct definition of original sin and its consequences can never be exaggerated. Any attempt to minimize its importance or alter its significance automatically entails either a weakening or even a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the Church, sacraments and human destiny.
The temptation facing every inquiry into the thought of St. Paul and the other Apostolic writers is to approach their writings with definite, although many times unconscious, presuppositions contrary to the Biblical witness. If one approaches the Biblical testimony to the work of Christ and the life of the primitive community with predetermined metaphysical notions concerning the moral structure of what most would call the natural world, and, by consequence, with fixed ideas concerning human destiny and the needs of hte individual and humanity in general, he will undoubtedly take from the faith and life of the ancient Church only such aspects as fit his own frame of reference. Then, if he wishes to be consistent in representing his own interpretation of the Scriptures as authentic, he will necessarily proceed to exaplain away everything extraneous to his concepts as secondary and superficial, or simply as the product of some misunderstanding on the part of certain Apostles or a group of Fathers, or even the whole primitive Church in general.
A proper approach to the New Testament teaching of St. Paul concerning original sin cannot be one-sided. It is incorrect, for example, to emphasize, in Romans 5:12, the phrase, eph’ho pantes hemarton, by trying to make it fit any certain system of thought concerning moral law and guilt without first establishing the importance of St. Paul’s beliefs concerning the powers of Satan and the true situation not only of man, but of all creation. It is also wrong to deal with the problem of the transmission of original sin within the framework of dualistic anthropology while at the same time completely ignoring the Hebraic foundations of St. Paul’s anthropology. Likewise, and attempt to interpret the Biblical doctrine of the fall in terms of a hedonistic philosophy of happiness is already doomed to failure because of its refusal to recognize not only the abnormality but, more important, the consequences of death and corruption.
A correct approach to the Pauline doctrine of original sin must take into consideration St. Paul’s understanding of (1) the fallen state of creation, including the powers of Satan, death and corruption, (2) the justice of God and law, and (3) anthropology and the destiny of man and creation. These divisions are not meant to suggest that each topic is to be dealt with here in detail; rather, they shall be discussed only in the light of the main problem of original sin and its transmission according to St. Paul.