Saturday, July 24, 2010

Human Nature and Original Sin

Are we by nature good or are we bad? Do we have the capacity for rising above our limitations or are we forever doomed by the biological constraints of our physical bodies? These are the questions thoughtful people ask in every generation and the answers turn out to be fairly consistent: we are both good and bad.

Take Solzhenitsyn, for example, who came to the conclusion while laying in rotting prison straw wishing that evil people could be somehow separated from good people. It isn’t hard to sympathize with him and lament the injustices he endured while in the gulags. But he realized that it wasn’t possible to separate people this way because “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The Psalmist marveled that God had created man just lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor (Psalms 8:5). And yet the wickedness of man has been great and every imagination of his heart evil (Genesis 6:5).

There is nothing very surprising about this. A little honest introspection should be enough to convince each of us of our own dual natures. And yet for all this apparent clarity, we rarely manage to put into practice this truth that seems so obvious. We insist on shaping our societies as if we were just one or the other, as if we could do no good, or as if we could do no evil.

In American history, the Puritans stand out as clear examples of the former. Man inherited their evil natures from Adam and could not be trusted, or so they believed. In Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne was required to wear a prominent letter A throughout her life as a sign of her degenerate - and seemingly incorrigible - nature.

Yet the very same New England that cultivated this 17th Century bigotry, turned completely around and by the mid 19th Century produced the Transcendentalists who believed that man could do no harm. Emerson’s belief in the greatness of man and in his immense potential has convinced (and still convinces) generations of Americans to trust no one more than their individual native geniuses.

Fortunately, the American founders were wiser in this regard than we have been. They established a government with the expectation that evil and designing men would seek public office. Checks and balances were accordingly put in place and with good effect. Today the United States government is the longest-lived constitutional government in the world. Ironically, it is because of this legal restraint that America has become a land of freedom, a land brimming with self confidence, and a land of realized human potential.

But things are not the same as they used to be. Almost all legislation these days ignores this dual nature of man. Committees are formed and budgets are allocated, but who checks-up on the committees or reviews the success of expensive programs? We write laws that are politically expedient (and self-promoting) while hardly worrying about their abuse once they are passed. Large budgets are created without the care needed to avoid the greed of special interests. Corruption abounds.

Of course we have political parties that carefully watch their corrupt competitors (and eagerly advertise what they find). But concern is much greater over deflecting criticism than it is over partisan character. In truth there is a greater moral divide separating individuals in the same political party than there is between the very issues separating these parties.

It becomes worthwhile asking ourselves how all of this came about. How did we start worrying about partisan causes more than about personal character? No doubt there are many reasons. One important reason that deserves special consideration is the unpopular and timeworn concept of original sin.

Original Sin

No one likes to think about their own faults. In fact only a few strong individuals ever attempt to look at their own failings objectively (as a prelude to personal improvement). Being told that we are sinful is almost certain to elicit a negative reaction on our part. Being told that we are sinful just by the fact of being born isn’t likely to be any more popular. Even so, this is one of the messages of original sin that has been accepted by many Christians as doctrine for centuries. Maybe our ancestors didn’t like it, but its truthfulness seemed self-evident. It was a doctrine that informed who they were and what they thought about themselves.

It was a doctrine that required rulers to accept - even plan for - corruption in their subjects. But it worked both ways. For example, when the barons of 12th Century England began exercising their own political rights, it became obvious to them that even rulers were likely to err and needed to be watched. One of the founding documents of Western freedom - Magna Carta - was forged from this realization.

Yet ironically it was the breaking away from the idea of original sin that empowered the Enlightenment, and ushered in the modern world with its confidence in man and its accompanying idea of progress. Clearly there seems to be an historical give and take here between fallen and enlightened man. For those who were taken in by the addictive fiction of an unpolluted human nature, the French Revolution came as a shock. Rousseau’s doctrine of the noble savage soon matured in to the massacres of thousands.

America, by contrast, experienced her own political upheaval at the same time but with very different results. More popularly called a rebellion than a revolution, her government retained traditional institutions, including a belief in a fallen world and of a fallible human nature.

History seems to be telling us something important here if we only had the wisdom to pay attention. It seems to be our inclination to believe in just one or the other of our dual natures, but not both, at any given time. Either we fail to be suspicious of our rulers and end up in bondage, or we fail to see our potential and live enfeebled lives. Today we are obviously making the first mistake, and in so doing are scoffing (or more likely ignoring) the whole idea of original sin.

Given our historical misunderstanding it would serve us well to consider the doctrine in a little more detail: where it came from and what it has come to mean.

The Doctrine of Original Sin

Both Judaism and Christianity agree (as do other religious traditions) that life on earth, as we commonly experience it, is a fallen or a corrupted place. Both traditions also agree that we experienced a better place prior to mortality from which Adam and Eve (our original ancestors) were driven because of sin. There is, however, a big difference between being a descendant of someone who has transgressed and actually carrying part of the burden for that sin oneself. It is something yet again to be guilty of that sin. These distinctions may seem subtle but they have been at the heart of many religious controversies through the years.

Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any suggestion that mankind is guilty of Adam’s transgression. There are places where the challenges of mortality are admitted and traced back to Adam, but these challenges, by themselves, do not constitute sin.

The New Testament is much the same with one primary exception. Paul’s epistle to the Romans (Chapter 5:12-21) recognizes Adam’s sin and then becomes a bit ambiguous (Tennant indicates that this is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible to understand theologically) about human sin. These verses were eventually understood to mean that mankind sinned with Adam’s sin, although originally this was not the case.

The early church fathers have nothing to say about original sin until Origen, who in emphasizing our inherited mortal condition failed to make a clear enough distinction between corruption and sin. To make matters worse, Origen also lived in northern Africa where there had developed the practice of infant baptism. Historians have not been able to show the reasons for this early practice but by the time of Origen, it was widely accepted. It became almost inevitable that the practice assumed a role of mitigating the corruption of the fall, once it was believed that corruption might involve sin.

Sometime later, Tertullian added another piece to the developing doctrine. While rejecting infant baptism, he taught that the spirit offspring of Adam inherited the sin of their ancestor at conception. This complex doctrine (known as traducionism) never became established church doctrine but the belief in an inherited sin did, along with infant baptism and Origen’s corrupted humanity. By the time of Augustine and the important Pelagian controversies, these basic points were fairly well established doctrines.

During the Reformation these doctrines were openly challenged. Some reformers argued that baptism should be done by immersion and not by sprinkling. Others argued that children did not need baptism because they didn’t carry the sin of Adam. An interesting perspective on this that sounds like a wise compromise from the time of Origen is Zwingli’s (16th Century) argument that we are all born with the inborn rapacity of the wolf. This inborn drive often prompts us to tear the sheep. But there is also an implication that we can chose not to act upon these prompting as well.

Latter-day Saint Beliefs

Latter-day Saint beliefs on original sin reject the notion that children can be sinful (either by inheritance or otherwise) before they reach an age of accountability (recognized to be eight years old). Mormon (in the Book of Mormon) writing to his son Moroni taught that, “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefor the curse of Adam is taken from them in me…” (Moroni 8:8).

And yet human beings are clearly prone to mortal corruption. Nephi (also in the Book of Mormon) lamented, “how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men…(Heleman 12:4).

Latter-day Saints do, however, accept an intergenerational responsibility towards sin that is often over-looked. Parents who sin are held responsible for the disadvantages they pass on to their children through generations. In Section 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants, however, it indicates that repentant children can repent and remove this guilt from their parents. This does not mean that children inherit sin, nor does it mean that we are not responsible for our own sins. It does, however, imply that we can inherit disadvantages from our parents. In this sense, Latter-day Saints do believe that we have inherited a fallen world from our first parents, but our agency has not been breached. This is an understanding of human culpability more reminiscent of early Christianity than the normative Christianity of Augustine.

Having this dual understanding of human nature, Latter-day Saints are both suspicious and yet trusting of their leaders. Public figures are known to behave immorally and need to be kept in line. On the other hand, religious leaders are held to a higher standard, and are often revered for having risen above the natural tendencies of fallen man. Nobody is perfect, but for Latter-day Saints, there exists the potential (frequently actualized) of virtuous leadership.


Nobody that has lived more than a few decades can deny that mortality brings with it an ample supply of aches and pains. We don’t need an understanding of the human genome to convince us that our body’s programming isn’t perfect. Some of us believe this is due to our heritage as descendants of Adam. Others argue that our physical imperfections are inevitable artifacts of opportunistic evolutionary change. These opposing perspectives may not agree on the cause of our woes but at least they can agree that we have them.

So why then do we insist on creating our modern societies as if we had no moral limitations? Do we believe that despite our physical imperfections that our mental capabilities are less corruptible? Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe we no longer believe that our moral limitations should color our public policies since we’ve already banished religion from the public square.

Whatever the cause of this moral myopia, it is clearly a dangerous condition to be in. And whether we agree with the Catholic Church or not about the inheritance of Adam’s transgression, we should at least be wise enough to agree that we have inherited an imperfect human nature, subject to the constraints of a fallen world (call it a Darwinian world if you like).

In our pluralistic society, we feel a lot more comfortable talking about criminals in public than we do about sinners. One of the failings of this occurs at election time when we hope to elect public officials that aren’t criminals and yet we have to expect, in all honesty, that they are imperfect (dare we say that they are sinners).

But by abandoning the truth of our dual natures - including the doctrine of original sin - we are leaving public officials free to construct our societies as if they - with their eminent wisdom - were fully capable of the task. Sadly, it is quite apparent that they are not.

If we were smart we would adopt a more realistic perspective. We would start to realize that people (including public people) will fail. In fact they will make the kinds of mistakes that constitute sin. And we should, in spite of our own imperfections, plan accordingly.


Tennant, F.R. 1968. The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin. Schocken Books, New York. 363 pp.

Schaff, P. 2002. History of the Christian Church, Vol. 8. Hendrickson Publishers. 890 pp. (originally published in 1858). Zwingli’s views on original sin are on pages 94-95.

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