Original Sin 28 – Original Sin According to St. Paul

Posted: March 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I have read the article, Original Sin According to St. Paul, by John S. Romanides, several times and I believe I’ve absorbed its main points. This is a modern Orthodox theological paper written in light of interaction with Western thought. As such, it has some points that fit well with this series. I encourage anyone interested to go read the full article. Romanides begins with an exploration of fallen creation and makes an important point.

Whether or not belief in the present, real and active power of Satan appeals to the Biblical theologian, he cannot ignore the importance that St. Paul attributes to the power of the devil. To do so is to completely misunderstand the problem of original sin and its transmission and so misinterpret the mind of the New Testament writers and the faith of the whole ancient Church. In regard to the power of Satan to introduce sin into the life of every man, St. Augustine in combating Pelagianism obviously misread St. Paul. by relegating the power of Satan, death, and corruption to the background and pushing to the foreground of controversy the problem of personal guilt in the transmission of original sin, St. Augustine introduced a false moralistic philosophical approach which is foreign to the thinking of St. Paul and which was not accepted by the patristic tradition of the East.

As I mentioned yesterday, the power of corruption and death is active and personal, not passive. Moreover, deliberately or not, the sort of thinking the West employs about original sin leads to a certain sort of metaphysical dualism.

It is obvious from St. Paul’s expressions concerning fallen creation, Satan, and death, that there is no room in his thinking for any type of metaphysical dualism, of departmentalization which would make of this world and intermediary domain which for man is merely a stepping stone leading either into the presence of God or into the kingdom of Satan. The idea of a three story universe, whereby God and His company of saints and angels occupy the top floor, the devil the basement, and man in the flesh the middle, has no room in Pauline theology. For Paul, all three orders of existence interpenetrate. There is no such thing as a middle world of neutrality where man can live according to natural law and then be judged for a life of happiness in the presence of God or for a life of torment in the pits of outer darkness. On the contrary, all of creation is the domain of God, Who Himself cannot be tainted with evil. But in His domain there are other wills which He has created, which can choose either the kingdom of God or the kingdom of death and destruction.

Does not the above accurately describe the way many Christians and non-Christians alike in our country today view the Christian story of reality, as a sort of three story universe? Fr. Stephen Freeman has an excellent article on that very subject, Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. I highly recommend it.

Then, in the second section, Romanides attacks the resulting view of God’s justice, that essentially makes God responsible for death.

On the other hand, it is a grave mistake to make the justice of God responsible for death and corruption. Nowhere does Paul attribute the beginnings of death and corruption to God. On the contrary, nature was subjected to vanity and corruption by the devil, who through the sin and death of the first man managed to lodge himself parasitically within creation, of which he was already a part but at first not yet its tyrant. For Paul, the transgression of the first man opened the way for the entrance of death into the world, but this enemy is certainly not the finished product of God. Neither can the death of Adam, or even of each man, be considered the outcome of any decision of God to punish. St. Paul never suggests such an idea.

Rather, as the nature of the Trinity itself suggests, the problem is deeply relational.

The relationships which exist among God, man and the devil are not according to rules and regulations, but according to personalistic freedom. The fact that there are laws forbidding one from killing his neighbor does not imply the impossibility of killing not only one, but hundreds of thousands of neighbors. If man can disregard rules and regulations of good conduct, certainly the devil cannot be expected to follow such rules if he can help it. St. Paul’s version of the devil is certainly not that of one who is simply obeying general rules of nature and carrying out the will of God by punishing souls in hell. Quite on the contrary, he is fighting God dynamically by means of all possible deception, trying by all his cunning and power to destroy the works of God.

In the last section of the paper, Romanides dives deeply into Greek and Hebrew meanings, understandings, and interpretations. I believe I’ve read it enough times to absorb the points, but I don’t know either language and don’t trust myself to summarize them. It’s an important section, but if you are interested, you need to go read it yourself. His first concluding observation, though, is one I’ve made in this series.

St. Paul does not say anywhere that the whole human race has been accounted guilty of the sin of Adam and is therefore punished by God with death. Death is an evil force which made its way into the world through sin, lodged itself in the world, and, in the person of Satan, is reigning both in man and creation. For this reason, although man can know the good through the law written in his heart and may wish to do what is good, he cannot because of the sin which is dwelling in his flesh. Therefore, it is not he who does the evil, but sin that dwelleth in him. Because of this sin, he cannot find the means to do good. He must be saved from “the body of this death.” Only then can he do good. What can Paul mean by such statements? A proper answer is to be found only when St. Paul’s doctrine of human destiny is taken into account.

If man was created for a life of complete selfless love, whereby his actions would always be directed outward, toward God and neighbor, and never toward himself–whereby he would be the perfect image and likeness of God–then it is obvious that the power of death and corruption has now made it impossible to live such a life of perfection. The power of death in the universe has brought with it the will for self-preservation, fear, and anxiety, which in turn are the root causes of self-assertion, egoism, hatred, envy and the like. Because man is afraid of becoming meaningless, he is constantly endeavoring to prove, to himself and others, that he is worth something. He thirsts after compliments and is afraid of insults. He seeks his own and is jealous of the successes of others. He likes those who like him, and hates those who hate him. He either seeks security and happiness in wealth, glory and bodily pleasures, or imagines that this destiny is to be happy in the possession of the presence of God by an introverted and individualistic and inclined to mistake his desires for self-satisfaction and happiness for his normal destiny. On the other hand, he can become zealous over vague ideological principles of love for humanity and yet hate his closest neighbors. These are the works of the flesh of which St. Paul speaks. Underlying every movement of what the world has come to regard as normal man, is the quest for security and happiness. But such desires are not normal. They are the consequences of perversion by death and corruption, though which the devil pervades all of creation, dividing and destroying. This power is so great that even if man wishes to live according to his original destiny it is impossible because of the sin which is dwelling in the flesh — “Who will deliver me from the body of this death?”

It does not seem to me that there is any way to reconcile the Eastern and Western perspectives on this question. They say very different things about the nature of man, the nature of God, the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection,  the purpose of the Church, and the underlying nature of reality. Not only that, they frequently say opposing things. I think you just have to decide which you believe.


Mercy and Justice

Posted: June 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Father Stephen Freeman wrote two fantastic interrelated posts today. Take a moment to read them both before reading my feeble thoughts on them.

St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice

More on the “Justice” of God

I had read a fair amount of St. Isaac the Syrian and others like him even before I had heard of Orthodoxy. It’s probably one of the things that always made me such a poor evangelical (and frankly, a poor Western Christian). But I was thirsty to know more about this God I had encountered and couldn’t shake. I read Scripture, but the more modern voices I encountered mostly did not match the things I saw in the Holy Scriptures or the God who had met me. The ancient authors I read more often did. I have not read Abba Ammonas before, but the short snippet makes me want to track down more by him.

I echo what Father Stephen says in his opening paragraph. I’ve often said that Western Christianity attributes a problem with forgiveness to God. The way he puts it might be better. Western Christianity speaks as though God’s justice constrains God. I’ve never understood how anyone could immerse themselves in the story of God and walk away with anything other than a picture of a God overflowing with mercy, forgiveness, and love. Even Jonah understood that much about God. It pissed him off royally. He didn’t like it one bit. But he understood God. It’s a struggle in the West to find voices that even seem to know God at all.

God doesn’t achieve justice by punishing the evildoer. He achieves justice by bringing good from the evil, by ultimately undoing the wrong, and, if at possible, by saving both the victim and the evildoer through his boundless mercy and love. St. Isaac could not imagine that any human being could become so hardened that they could resist the love of God forever. I am perhaps a bit more pessimistic. I fear that human beings can so distort themselves that they can trap themselves in a state unable to ever experience the light and love of God as anything but searing fire. But I hope St. Isaac is right.

In some ways I’m reminded of the scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? where Mrs. Prentice tells Matt Drayton this.

I believe that men grow old. And when the — when sexual things no longer matter to them, they forget it all. Forget what true passion is. If you ever felt what my son feels for your daughter, you’ve forgotten everything about it.

My husband too.

You knew once, but that was a long time ago. Now the two of you don’t know.

And the strange thing, for your wife and me, is that you don’t even remember.

If you did how could you do what you are doing?

That’s what Western Christianity feels like to me these days. They knew about the love and mercy of God once upon a time. But now they don’t even remember. If they did, how could they do and say the things they do — about God and about other human beings? Eastern Christianity is like the wives. It remembers. It has never forgotten.

I strongly agree with Father Stephen’s closing statement in the first post. When somebody can show me where God’s mercy ends, I’ll be willing to consider where something else — anything else — begins. Until then, let’s talk about his mercy, pray for his mercy, live within his mercy, and live out his mercy to others.

If anything, Father Stephen’s followup post strikes even closer to home. Those who know me at all well know that I and those I love have experienced “injustice” — even evil. Ultimately, the cry for “justice”, where it is not merely a code word for revenge, is a deep cry from the depth of my being for the evil to have never happened. That is the only true justice.

But we desire justice only for others. For ourselves, if we are honest, we desire mercy. We not believe we will receive mercy, but it is what we desire. If God is willing to have mercy on us, how we can possibly believe his mercy toward anyone else is limited in any way? We are all hypocrites of the worst sort. We are the whitewashed tombs.

And yet God loves us.

That is the mystery at the center of reality.