Original Sin: How Original Is It?

The doctrine of original sin, the belief that “we are guilty as sinners in Adam,” has always been controversial and had its critics. This may be due to mankind’s optimistic view of human nature, which is based on the idea that humanity is not inherently sinful but inherently good.3 However, there are other reasons suggested by scholars for not accepting this doctrine.

Original Sin?

Karl Giberson, who once professed belief but is now a liberal critic,4 rejects the doctrine of original sin as a consequence of his belief in evolution.5 In his book Saving the Original Sinner, he argues that Christians should also reject this doctrine:

Christianity emerged in a different time and must be prepared to evolve like everything else.... In the Christian tradition, humanity’s problem is referred to as sin, blamed on Adam ... such a viewpoint is no longer tenable, and we must learn to get along without it. There is no original sin and there was no original sinner.

Because of his evolutionary view of humanity, Giberson has to redefine the meaning of sin. Rather than being disobedience to God’s law (1 John 3:4), he sees it as nothing more than wrongdoing.7 Sin, however, cannot simply be reduced to wrongdoing because the biblical understanding of sin is profoundly deep in its teaching on the condition of humanity (Genesis 8:21; Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 12:34–35; Ephesians 2:1–3).

Nevertheless, Giberson also rejects the doctrine of original sin as not being original to the text of Romans 5:12. He and others see original sin as an invention of the pre-enlightenment, and more specifically an invention of the church Father Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) who is said to have greatly influenced the Western church with this belief. Giberson states:

Shaped forcefully by Augustine in the fourth century, this notion—original sin—would become the dominant view in the Christian West.... Prior to Augustine, however, no such consensus existed and many Christians viewed Adam simply as Everyman, the first of our species, like us in many ways, tempted by Satan as we are. Adam, however, was weak and gave in to temptation, but his failure was his, and his alone. We can do better.

Although the term original sin may have been employed by Augustine to refer to our collective human guilt and corruption, this does not mean that it was invented by him. There is an outline of the teaching of original sin in the Patristic theology of Irenaeus (AD 130–202), Basil (AD 329–379) and Ambrose (AD 340–397).9 Moreover, the Jewish people of the second temple period (530 BC–70 AD) “shared the view that human sin [was] derived from Adam (IV Ezra 3.7; Sifre Deut. 3:23).”10 Possibly the clearest text that refers to original sin resulting from Adam is found in 2 Esdras 3:21–22, 26.11

The question we have to ask is this: does Romans 5:12 teach that we are guilty sinners in Adam and that physical death came about through him?

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