Bewildering, Indispensable Original Sin

Original Sin: A Disputation,” by Edward T. Oakes (First Things, November 1998)

Jesuit author Edward T. Oakes tries to follow Thomas Aquinas' example by setting out the arguments against original sin before he responds to them. He writes: “[H]ow can guilt, an ethical and spiritual category, be inheritable, a category drawn from nature? As with the doctrine of predestination, to which it is often married, there seems to be a kind of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don't’ aura to the theology of Original Sin: Free will may be free, declares Augustine without apparent embarrassment, only it is not free to do good.

“What is remarkable about [original sin] is how even its most ardent defenders admit its blazing paradoxicality. Reinhold Niebuhr... began by openly admitting the strange logical status of the doctrine: ‘The Christian doctrine of sin in its classical form offends both rationalists and moralists by maintaining the seemingly absurd position that man sins inevitably and by a fateful necessity but that he is nevertheless to be held responsible for actions which are prompted by an ineluctable fate.’

“[O]ne must also admit that the Bible never attributes to Adam the role of biologically tainting us with his guilt, as can perhaps best be seen in the history of Jewish interpretation of Genesis up to and just past the beginnings of the Christian era: for it was the much more common Jewish interpretation of Genesis... that the human proclivity to evil (insofar as it came from anywhere else than man's free will) was the product not of the sin of our first parents but of that strange episode narrated in Genesis 6 of the mating of ‘the daughters of men with the sons of God.’...

“It is generally believed that theological schools such as Jansenism and denominations such as Calvinism bring in their wake legions of members with withered emotional lives, censorious views of their less austere neighbors, and a bleak, nearly blasphemous, view of God's love.... And so, it would seem that Original Sin ought not be believed.

“[But] first of all, the doctrine of Original Sin is... really, when soberly examined, an inference that arises from reflection on the reality of evil when considered in the light of ethical monotheism. John Henry Newman, for one, always insisted that Original Sin is the only way believers can make sense of the world when they contrast that world to their faith in God... the doctrine of Original Sin... is a secondary implication arising from a prior belief in God's goodness and omnipotence.

“What is more, the consequences of abandoning the doctrine are nothing short of disastrous.... I am reminded in this context of a shrewd observation by Anatole France to the effect that never have so many been murdered in the name of a doctrine as in the name of the principle that human beings are naturally good.

“The reason we are drawn, despite the theory of evolution, to Augustine's and Milton's portrait of paradise before the Fall is the memory of that original justice we once had with God but lost through sin.... The term ‘Original’ Sin still retains its validity... even when applied to Adam and Eve, for the narrative definitely holds that, in St. Paul's terms, sin entered the world through the sin of our first parents and henceforth takes on the specifically human form of ‘giving in,’ of yielding to a force already heavily at work in the world of creation.

“Finally,... I would like to add my own version to this argument: to deny this doctrine is not to escape the gray doldrums of Jansenist/Calvinist Christianity, but to warp the very core of the Christian Gospel: that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save that world from its sin.... There is no doubt that Original Sin is a hard doctrine. For if we are infected with an original corruption to the very core of our natures, then there is a great deal of evil that cannot be uprooted.... [But] it is my deep conviction that any mitigation of the doctrine of Original Sin will prove disastrous for the health of the Church in the future....

“But as St. Paul knew, this need not be a morbid doctrine. For our diagnosis has come with a cure.... As Pascal—who can set forth in two lines what it takes other theologians two books to show—says with his usual precision: ‘... Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine, and yet without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves.’”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.

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