The Christian Doctrine of Original Sin:
a Summary of the Historical Development
summarized by Sheila E. Mc Ginn, Ph.D.
The place of the doctrine of original sin
The Christian message is essentially a message of God's love
for us, of the saving grace of God in Christ. This "good news,"
however, is addressed to fallen humanity which is in absolute
need of God's saving grace (i.e., "original sin" in us as a
universal human condition—peccatum originale originatum).
This universal condition in which the human person is found prior
to any personal decision is due to a primordial sin (peccatum
originale originans): God did not create humans sinners; rather,
humans, created good and called to communion with God (cf.
"original justice"), refused God's call.
within the Christian message
Development of the Doctrine of Original Sin
- Old Testament
- Genesis 3
- The place of Chapter 3 in Genesis (J tradition, relationship to
preceeding and following chapters)
- The message and its expression: paradigm and etiology
- Psalm 51
- ["Miserere"] time of composition and literary form
- its message [cf. also Jeremiah and Ezekiel]
- Sirach 25:23; Wisdom 2:24
- New Testament
- Romans 5:12-21
- General theme of the letter; the context of the passage
- Verse 12: (Vulgate) "... in quo omnes peccaverunt" = "in whom all
- Correct translation: EITHER "because all have sinned" [i.e. because
all have shared in the first sin, either in the first parents or by
personal sins continuing the sin of the first parents] OR "by reason
of which everyone has sinned" [i.e. by reason of the situation which
was brought about by this first sin]
- The whole passage [cf. in particular verse 19], in its general Pauline
context, surely contains a basic teaching on original sin.
- NOTE: See in all these texts the place of original sin within the
total Christian message as indicated above in the Introduction.
- Tradition and Magisterium (cf. TCF, chpt. V)
- The Ante-Nicene Period
- There is a very strong and rich patristic tradition on "original sin"
expressed in terms of a solidarity of humankind in salvation history.
- In the first parents, who refused God's call, "human nature" has fallen
[lost its "likeness" with God, has been "deprived of communion with God,"
- Each human person, sharing in the nature of the first human parents,
share also not only the consequences of their sin (death, passions) but
in some sense also share in the transgression itself.
- St. Augustine and the Pelagian Controversies
- Augustine's fundamental, and essentially true, doctrines on the absolute
primacy of and absolute need for God's grace, and on original sin, have
been developed already before the Pelagian controversy.
- Pelagius seems to have conceived "grace" as consisting of (besides
created freedom itself) purely extrinsic help (exhortation, teaching,
example). He practically denied original sin (peccatum originale originatum)
- In opposing Pelagius, Augustine further clarified, documented (using
Scripture, patristic tradition, sacramental practice of the Church), but
to some extent also hardened and exaggerated his position (concupiscence,
"massa damnata," fate of children dying without baptism).
- Several provincial councils, approved afterwards by the Pope and accepted
universally as expressing the mind of the Church, rejected the errors
of Pelagius and professed some of the basic tenets of the Church on grace
and original sin -- without, however, canonizing all of Augustine's views.
Main documents of the Early Councils:
- The Provincial Council of Carthage (418), canons 1-2 [cf. DS 222f; TCF #
]. This doctrine was reaffirmed by Trent [see below].
- The "Indiculus" (compiled by Prosper of Aquitaine against the Semi-Pelagians
in the middle of the 5th century), especially cap. 1. [cf. DS 239]
- The Second Council of Orange (529) [cf. DS 371f]. This was reaffirmed by
Trent [see below].
- Under the influence of Augustine there was a strong tendency in medieval
theology to identify original sin (in us) with concupiscence, though admitting—again
with Augustine—that concupiscence as culpa, "the guilt of concupiscence,"
is remitted by Baptism.
- St. Anselm, however, saw original sin in the privation of due justice in
the will. It was, then, slowly realized (with the progress of the theology
of the "supernatural") that this privation is a privation of supernatural
justice (i.e. of sanctifying grace).
- The two trends were connected in the view that original sin is formally
a privation of sanctifying grace, and materially found in concupiscentia.
The latter remains also after Baptism but, without the formal element, does
not have the character of sin.
- This last view is found essentially also in St. Thomas [cf. Summa Theologiae
I-II, q. 82, a. 1 on the essence of original sin, and q. 81, a. 1 on the transmission
of original sin]. Thomas appeals (with the whole tradition) to the sharing
of the same human nature, but uses also the notion of voluntas terminativa:
"the disorder which is in an individual man is not voluntary by reason of
his personal will, but by reason of the will of the first parent, who through
a generative impulse, exerts influence upon all who descend from him by way
of origin, even as the will of the soul moves bodily members in their various
The Council of Trent
- In response to Protestant accusations ("Pelagianism") and errors (original
sin remains even after Baptism, though it is not "imputed"), the Council of
Trent summed up the traditional teaching on original sin, without deciding
the questions discussed among the different theological schools [cf. TCF,
# , 5th session of the Council, AD 1546]: Intro. [DS 1510]
- Canon 1 [DS 1511] Adam's sin and its consequences for Adam. See Second
Council of Orange, Canon 1 [DS 371].
- Canon 2 [DS 1512] Consequences of Adam's sin for the whole human race:
not only punishment (death) is transmitted, but also "sin," "death of
the soul," loss of holiness and justice. See II Orange, Canon 2 [DS 371].
- Canon 3 [DS 1513] Original sin is "one in origin" yet "in each and proper
to each." This is especially against Albert Pighi (1490-1542) who held
that original sin is numerically one in all and not proper to each.
- Original sin is transmitted by propagatione and not by imitation; this
is a rejection of the Pelagian view, without deciding whether natural
generation is the cause, or rather only the necessary condition (as most
theologians today believe) of original sin.
- Original sin can be taken away only by the merits of Christ.
- Canon 4 [DS 1514] See Council of Carthage, Canon 2 [DS 223] -- Even
infants, "who in themselves have committed no sin," are truly baptized
"for the remission of sins." Thus, peccatum originale originatum is truly
"sin" but distinguished from personal sins (see also Canon 5).
- The Vulgate interpretation of Romans 5:12 does not seem to be defined,
even though it would surely be contrary to the mind of the Council to
deny that Romans 5:12 (in its context, and not necessarily with the explicitness
of later theology) teaches original sin.
- Canon 5 [DS 1515] Baptism takes away everything that is truly "sin"
-- it is not only "imputation" of righteousness, but real transformation.
- "Concupiscence" remains, but it is not really sin.
- Declaration on the BVM [DS 1516] The Immaculate Conception is not excluded
by the above decree.
- Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis
- Polygenism is not acceptable because it cannot be seen how it could
be reconciled with the Church's doctrine on original sin, "which proceeds
from a sin truly committed by one Adam and, transmitted to all by generation,
is found in, and proper to, each." [cf. DS 3897]
- Vatican II
- Paul IV, "Address to Theologians" (1966)
Original Sin and the Beginnings of Human History
(Original Sin and Monogenism)
- Note: The purpose of revelation is to enable us to share intelligently in
God's saving plan, not to satisfy our natural curiosity.
- Monogenism as such is not a dogma of Catholic faith.
- Neither in virtue of Scripture
- Genesis is not modern historiography
- Romans does not go beyond Genesis as to the biological origins of
- Nor in virtue of the Magisterium
- Conciliar definitions (particularly those of Trent) did not want
to decide a matter which was not a question asked or discussed.
- This is also true of the ordinary universal magisterium.
- Humani Generis deliberately leaves open the possibility
of polygenism for theological inquiry.
- Subsequent statements have been even more cautious.
- Polygenism may be compatible with the doctrine of original sin.
- Critical examination of main hypotheses:
- Hypotheses which appear to be unsatisfactory:
- "Original Sin" as the imperfection of the human condition in
respect to the fulfilment in Christ (Hulsbosch?)
- "Original Sin" as the "sin of the world" -- that is, the social
milieu shared previously to personal decisions (Schoonenberg)
- Hypotheses which may be satisfactory:
- "Original Sin" as the sin of the "Adamite population" (Supplement
to A New Catechism)
- "Original Sin" as the sin of an individual "first man" but not
a universal physical father of humankind (Alszeghy-Flick)
- Theological and Pastoral Consequences
- Bible, liturgy, proclamation and theology—their interrelationships.
- Monogenism is "safe" but not to be presented as dogma.
- Polygenism is not established as certainly possible, but not to be
presented as heresy.
- Fidelity to the revealed message and open dialogue with contemporary
- Not to overstress the perfection of the beginning: salvation through
Christ is more than restoration.
Synopsis of the Doctrine (and definitions of terms):
- Original Sin in us ["peccatum
- "Formally" (i.e. essentially) it is the privation of sanctifying grace
- "Materially" it is
- the absence of the "preternatural gifts" intended originally for
humans by God, and
- the resulting disharmony of our being aggravated by sin
- [and its cumulative effects throughout history]
- = "concupiscence"
- "Sin" is understood here in an analogous sense
- it is a condition contrary to God's will and due to human disobedience
to God, and thus sin
- yet, it is not due to our personal decision. Rather it antecedes
it, and therefore it is not personal sin [as our own "mortal" and
"venial" sins are].
- This condition is due to a disobedience
at the origins of human history.
- God, who created human beings in order to adopt them in Christ
[cf. Ephesians 1:4ff] offered divine grace from the beginning.
- Had humans accepted and persevered in God's grace, the first parent(s)
or the first human community would have transmitted sanctifying grace
to their posterity—together with certain "preternatural gifts"
intended by God, i.e. exemptions from human imperfections such as
"death" as we now experience it, disharmony between soul and body,
- Though these imperfections are "natural" (per se) to the
human person, they are in a sense contrary to the higher dignity to
which she is called by God.
- By freely rejecting God's grace [peccatum originale originans],
the human person or persons deprived also posterity of these God-intended
- This condition is not unjust, for:
- We are, as human creatures, in no way entitled to God's supernatural
grace or preternatural gifts.
- God had certainly the right to make the conferring of these at the
very beginning of our existence dependent upon the response of the
first representatives of humankind [in accordance with the social
nature of humanity and the communitarian nature of the divine plan
- Finally, and most importantly, our condition of not inheriting sanctifying
grace is contrary to God's will precisely since God had called and
IS STILL CALLING US to supernatural communion with the divine Self,
offering us— in and through the Redemption accomplished by Christ—God's
`grace even more abundantly' [cf. also Romans 5].
- The difference is (to express it in a somewhat simplified manner) that
instead of receiving God's grace as children of "Adam and Eve" by our
human origin, we receive it as redeemed by Christ through our Christian
re-birth [cf. the teaching of the Church, especially Trent, on Baptism
- "Concupiscence"—the lack of the "preternatural gifts"—is
not taken away by Baptism [cf. Trent, Canon 5, above].
- This, however, should not be seen only as an occasion for temptation
(concupiscence) and suffering (sickness and death), but also as a
way to share in the sufferings of Christ and thus to follow Christ
- God truly wants the salvation of all.
- Christ died for each and every human person, and the grace of Christ
is offered to all.
- For the possibility of salvation outside the visible limits of the
Catholic Church, but still always (even if unawares) through the grace
of Christ that always links the person to some degree to the people of
God, see Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Chpt. II, #13-17.
- In Karl Rahner's terminology, also used widely by other theologians,
such persons who freely cooperating with God's offer are in the state
of the sanctifying grace of Christ, but without their—or others'—knowing
it, are called "anonymous Christians."
- As for the salvation
of those who die before having arrived at a personal decision for or against
the grace of God—think, for example, of the multitude of unbaptized
infants—the Church's teaching is not fully defined yet. The following
points, however, can be confidently affirmed:
- God does not inflict positive punishment on anyone who is not guilty
of personal sin. Therefore, IF these infants die without having received
Christ's grace, they will not share in the beatific vision but will attain
a state of natural happiness in the knowledge and peace of God [cf. also
TCF # : Pope Innocent III, AD 1201]. This state, assumed by a part of
the theological tradition, is called "Limbo."
- We cannot exclude the possibility that Christ's grace reaches also these
- Indeed, God's universal salvific will and Christ's death for all
gives—at the very least—positive hope for such a possibility.
- Some theologians would speak, for example, of a possible "baptism
of desire" in virtue of the faith of the parents or of the whole Church.
- Another theological theory [viz., e.g., Ladislav Boros, The
Mystery of Death] would maintain that, in the process of the
"separation" of soul and body, such infants also would be given an
opportunity to accept or reject God's grace.
- Vatican II spells out very clearly that our faith and hope in the universal
power of God's grace in Christ should not weaken the missionary work of the
Church (see Lumen Gentium, Chpt. II, #16 end, and #17 [quoting Mt.