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In Adam's Fall, Sinned We All?



Rob Hardy


The possibility that people are born with original sin which they caught from Adam and Eve does not interest me much. I think of that creation story as a legend. Although many of my fellow citizens feel it to be literally true, it's pretty easy for me simply to subscribe to the views of science that the world has existed not for thousands, but for millions, of years, and that there evolved a human species, not two individuals created in a perfect garden. That so many people believe contrary to my own beliefs is, however, of some interest. It was not until I read Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World (Counterpoint) by James Boyce that I realized that, legend or not, the original sin story has had pervasive effects on society, effects that continue even into our own scientific age. This is a concise though wide-ranging story, and Boyce has brightly covered the origins of the doctrine and its surprising influence on all subsequent ages, including our own.  




The concept of original sin is not in the Bible. In neither of the creation stories in Genesis is the word "sin" used. The idea of original sin came about in the centuries after Jesus's time, as Christians wondered what it was from which everyone needed to be saved. Paul's teachings were interpreted as advising an extreme distrust of sex, which led to priestly celibacy and to the idea that the knowledge that Adam and Eve got from eating the fruit was carnal knowledge. More importantly, original sin was linked to infant baptism. At a time when infant mortality was high, it was not surprising that parents would rush to get the baby baptized, even though adult baptism was the type described in the Bible. Such a baptism washed away sin, but an infant could not really have done anything bad, so it must have been washing away the original sin. The Catholic Church was able eventually to assert a monopoly over salvation, and over baptism in particular, but it was only in the chaos after the sack of Rome in 410 that original sin became a doctrine of the church. 




It was Saint Augustine who began to teach about the fall of Adam and Eve and the subsequent transmission of sin upon all their offspring. It is remarkable that this influential doctrine may be based on a mistranslation. Augustine was using a Latin Vulgate version, which said that death spread because of Adam "in whom all sinned," whereas Paul actually wrote in the original Greek text that death spread "because all have sinned." How this sin was transmitted to all of Adam's successors was a confusion that would never be resolved, but Augustine preached that it was injected at coitus within the semen. This had the advantage of tying it to the bugbear of sex, and of emphasizing how different and free of seminal contamination Jesus was, being born by "infused immaculate seed" into Mary's womb.  




Augustine didn't have a monopoly of teaching about the matter. Pelagius was a holy man from Celtic Britain who had a far happier opinion of human nature. He thought babies were innocent at birth, and might later make a decision to sin because God had bestowed upon them the free will to do so, but the sin wasn't inherent. Pelagius and the Celtic tradition did not see that babies were sinners who had to get forgiveness or early baptism. We don't have many of Pelagius's original writings, because they were burned. Augustine's view was eventually triumphant, and most of what we know of Pelagian thought comes from Augustine's writings themselves, as he liked to make point-by-point rebuttals. Augustine and those who agreed with him were able to lobby the church to accept the original sin views, and also to get Pelagius expelled from Rome, and declared a heretic, in 418. 




The impetus to getting infants baptized early was one indirect reason that original sin became a foundational teaching, and reflections on infant baptism were to be included in thinking about the doctrine for centuries. Augustine suggested that God, being good, would ensure that babies who died early would gain salvation, but he wrote that he could give parents no guarantee of this. After all, he argued, innate human wickedness as inserted by original sin was so horrid that it was only logical that an infant who had not gained absolution through baptism would be damned. It isn't just us moderns who saw this as unfair or stupid; no just deity, I think, would ever torture anyone, much less a newborn that had simply missed the bureaucratic requirement of water on the forehead. The Catholic Church tried to make this atrocious damnation more palatable by the idea of limbo, a bland place where unbaptized infants could at least avoid being tortured forever but wouldn't get the joys of heaven. Limbo was officially withdrawn in 1992. 




Catholic theologians don't make much now of the damnation of infants; although they are unable to cite chapter and verse that would keep infants out of hell, they think that such infants might trust to the mercy of God. Luther, Calvin, and others taught that people were inherently sinful and liable to just hellfire. Calvin went further to say that it was a treacherous doctrine to think that people could do any act that would save themselves. He wrote that "the impurity of the parents is so transmitted to the children, that all, without a single exception, are polluted as soon as they exist." Many Protestants liked to emphasize how nasty babies were. They crawled like animals, for instance; swaddling an infant helped keep observers from being reminded of this bestiality. Cotton Mather, a famous New England preacher, wrote that children "go astray as soon as they are born. They no sooner step than they stray, they no sooner lisp than they ly."  




Boyce makes a compelling case that with all the centuries of thinking that original sin was factual, it has cast its shadow through the Enlightenment and into our own times. The second half of his book is devoted to many famous thinkers like Bacon, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Hume, and Kant. Even the ones who were thinking only of secular subjects, or were outright atheists, Boyce shows, saw humanity at least in ways analogous to the story of the fall from Eden. Humans were broken beings, vicious, selfish, and brutal, and whatever reason they possessed was at the whim of such more basic traits. This shows up even in our American Constitution, which founded a government that was to manage the inherent wrongness that people might get up to. Freud, too, argued that sexuality and aggressiveness were in conflict with morality and conscious thought; of course, he thought redemption would come from an honest examination and acknowledgement of one's inner life, and in that he was not so different from Augustine or Luther. Even Richard Dawkins is here; the selfish gene is analogous to original sin, and culture (and memes) have potential for breaking us out to altruism.  




Boyce explains that popular preachers like Billy Graham ascribed evil to Satan more than to any inherent nature, and this has been one reason the concept of original sin is not now so influential. It is also irrelevant to the Pentecostal feeling of ecstatic salvation; if you dwell on the fate of inherent sinners, you can't have much of an upbeat church. Increasing secularism, too, has eroded the doctrine. But also, Boyce admits that although evil might be pervasive in human history, the documentary sources for history are going to focus on big actions from the rich and powerful. "There are relatively few records of the 'small' acts of kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice which, almost by definition, seek no recognition but keep children, communities and cultures alive." Humans commit heinous acts, to be sure, and always have. But look at those around you, your family, your friends, those with whom you work. Is it actually realistic to say that they are, every one, born bad? Let us continue to let go of the doctrine of original sin. 




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