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.


2 Comments on “Original Sin 28 – Original Sin According to St. Paul”

  1. 1 Micah said at 6:25 am on March 23rd, 2010:

    To my mind, East and West are not simply poles apart, they are entirely different poles — irreconcilable and antithetical (except where they be reconciled in Him).

    Christ is in our midst!!!!

  2. 2 Scott said at 8:22 am on March 23rd, 2010:

    Perhaps because my formation was pluralist in nature, several things are simultaneously true for me.

    It seems obvious to me when descriptions of God, man, and reality diverge so much that even when similar language is used, it’s clear that it is being used in very different ways and we’re actually discussing different Gods. There are expressions of Christianity in the West that describe a God so completely different from the God I know in reality, the God I see in the Holy Scriptures, and the God worshiped in the Eastern Church, that they can only be described as irreconcilable and antithetical. As I’ve expressed elsewhere, that’s how I perceive Calvin’s God. (And judging by the one conciliar decision that directly addressed Calvinism, it seems the Eastern Church might hold that to be the case as well.)

    However, the “West” cannot be painted with a single brush. It does, after all, contain more than 30,000 distinct, measurable denominations and non-denominations that all say something different about God, man, and the nature of reality. And so most of the time, you can’t simply say that they are antithetical. Individual ideas? Certainly. The example in this series is the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. That idea cannot be reconciled. You simply have to decide what you do or do not believe. Much of the time, I like the sense of the idea of “fullness” I sometimes hear used in Orthodox discussions. It seems to me that it profits nothing to be overly harsh or to stand in judgment where it is neither required nor warranted.

    Finally, even with those frameworks, like Calvinism, that I would describe as irreconcilable and antithetical, that does not then mean that those formed and shaped within them are deliberately seeking another God. Generally, they are not. Moreover, we cannot limit the activity of God. He is not willing that any should perish and he is the one who comes to us. I find that God works with whatever is available to him to turn men toward him. He is the light that drives out darkness. And where there is love, there is God. I’ve found that even the harshest and most severe Calvinist churches nevertheless contain those who truly love others.

    Belief can and often does shape attitude and behavior. As a result, the more our ideas about God diverge from the reality, the harder it can be to truly encounter God. Our false conceptions blind us. But God has a great deal of experience working with blind human beings. If he opened my eyes — even a little — who am I to judge what he is able to do with others? I was a pretty hard case.

    God is faithful and he will not abandon us. While I think some ideas need to be challenged, I think the path to healing will be a long and difficult one.