Some Thoughts on Original Sin


Original sin is the teaching that, in some capacity, humans are guilty of sin and have no choice but to sin because of our fallen nature. Having done some thinking, the term “fallen nature” or “sin nature” gives me some problems. The reason is that “nature” is synonymous with “essence.” So if we have a sin nature then our essence is fallen as well; we have no choice but to be guilty in sin from the moment of conception to our point in death. Our very essence is sinful, an affront to God.

This could work except for one point, that point being the Incarnation. We say that Jesus was fully human. Philosophically, this means that Jesus had a human essence and a divine essence (and therein is the mystery). But this is the problem – if Jesus had a human essence, but was sinless and not guilty of sin, then how did He have a human essence? It seems we are left with two choices when we choose to use the term “sin nature.” Choice 1 is that Jesus wasn’t really human, but had humanistic characteristics, but being morally perfect and untainted by sin, He ultimately did not share a human essence with us. Choice 2 is to say that Christ was guilty of sin by having a human essence, thus making Him a sinner like us. Neither choice is Biblical and both are heretical, which is why I’m having difficulty believing that we have a “sin nature.”

Of course, there’s the problem that all humans choose to sin, but Christ did not. So what can we say?

I would put forth the theory that at the point of the fall of humanity, our wills were damaged. The will would be the ability to follow through follow through on a choice, or where to direct our actions. A weak will would allow us to make wrong choices, or at least cause us to lack the ability to go through with what we believe to be right all of the time. A weak will would allow us to deprave ourselves to the point where we desire evil and act on evil. But this does not mean Christ had a weak will; it is entirely possible that His will was perfected. Let me explain:

Tim was born with a deformed leg and therefore cannot run. Johnny was born with properly functioning legs and therefore has no problem running. We can look at Tim and realize that had there not be an external agent of change (something within his genes or development within the womb) he would have grown the ability to actualize his essence. That is to say, both Tim and Johnny have the capacity to run, but an external agent prevented Tim from actualizing his capacity.

Or we can look to Heather and Sally, born in 1900. Heather was killed by a disease at the age of 3. Sally died of old age at the age of 93. In 1901, both Heather and Sally had the capacity to become adults, it was a part of their essence. By 1904, an external agent had taken away Heather’s ability to actualize her capacity for “adultness,” but regardless both Heather and Sally shared the essence of being human. Just because one was given the ability to actualize a part of her essence while the other had an external force negating such an ability does not mean that one was human while the other was not. It simply means that both held the same essence and had the same capacities, but due to certain circumstances, one was able to actualize one’s capacity while the other was not.

Thus we come to Christ. We can say that the human will for most humans (with the exception of Christ) is damaged, thus meaning we are not properly functioning. It is within our capacity as human beings to have a fully functioning will, but we are all born deformed. Through the Incarnation, Christ was the only human ever born who has the ability to actualize His will to perfection. This would mean that human beings are fallen in the sense that their wills are broken, but we still share the essence with Christ. We have the same capacity He did in this regard, but only He was able to actualize His capacity while we are unable to do so.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts and I’m certain my argument lacks clarity. I’m simply throwing this out there for discussion to see if (1) we can really accept the traditional view of original sin and (2) if the alternative offered would be a better view.

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6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Original Sin

  1. Well, yeah I mean this makes some sense in some ways, but I still don’t find it to be a reasonable formulation of original sin. My first objection was that no one is going to blame Tim for not being able to run or Heather for not being alive (I suppose someone could but it would be cruel and/or silly). It seems that if we are born without properly functioning wills, then poor behavior (sin) is no more our fault than being dead or legless. Being able to make the decision, to live or run or not sin, yet not having the tools to act on the decision is indeed a disability. This would raise the question of why anyone is going to hell if they can’t reasonably be expected to meet the conditions of heaven. Not having the will to live a sinless life, and not having the will to accept Christ’s gift of salvation are are both in this formulation, matters of will…so if there is no expectation to achieve one, why then should the other be expected. This is one reason why I think the idea of original sin is wonky to say the least

    Another question is, what does this say about the original sinners? They did have perfected wills, but still were unable to avoid temptation. What then was perfect about their will? It appears to be the same as our supposedly gnarled and deformed versions. Personally I don’t think it has anything to do with will, and everything with the decision making. If Jesus, Adam and Eve are the same when it comes to wills and all other aspects of “humanness”, then a perfected will wasn’t what made Jesus successful. Maybe he had an ultra-deluxe-perfect will. Maybe he had the benefit of all the information accumulated between the fall and his birth. For my money I’d say he got a leg up from whatever part of his essence that was “Godness”. As people like to tell me, God can’t sin, so Jesus couldn’t have done even if he did have a severely retarded will. So I don’t see why you need to give him a “perfect will” at all.

    1. Oscar, you assume too much. 🙂

      Though we lack the necessary actual ability to lead perfect lives, we don’t lack the ability to make a choice to trust in the one who can cover us for such a “disability”.

      For instance, say a person had a disability that caused him to randomly slap people. Though he could certainly control such a disability to a certain degree, it was inevitable that at some point, he’d slap someone. Even without a cure, he has to be held responsible for his actions because people are being harmed, regardless of his disability. Granted, the punishment may not be as severe, but the fact that he was able to control his disability to a certain degree and that people were hurt would demand that he still be held accountable for his actions.

      Now, imagine that we found a cure for his slap-happy syndrome. We present this cure to him and tell him that over time, this will allow him to control his urges more and more. If he rejects that cure, then he is doubly culpable for any offense he may commit.

      It is the same with our sin and Christ. The fact that we can and do choose good actions while sinners shows that when we choose to sin, we know we are doing wrong. We may have a weakened will, but the fact remains that if we really tried, we could choose to do the right thing. The fact is, however, that we simply don’t choose to do the right thing. Likewise, we have an advocate in Christ who serves as a cure, but if we reject Him, then we are even more culpable for our actions.

      As for the original sinners, having a perfect will doesn’t mean you will act on that will. They may have had properly functioning wills, but this is no promise that they would always act on such wills. If it were, then why the temptation of Christ by the Devil?

  2. Hi Joel,

    I haven’t really seen this question discussed on the internet and then, twice within a month, I have found two discussions of this issue (yours being one of those).

    Let me first provide a caveat, if I understand you correctly you hold to a reformed theology and I am not trying to cause problems. If you think the link I am going to provide is out of line then feel free to ignore this comment.

    I found the online version of a book named “Calvinism: A Closer Look” about a month ago. The author writes an entire chapter (Chapter 18) where he states his case that the will is not corrupted but that it is mans’ knowledge of good and evil (knowledge man was never meant/designed to have) that is the problem. Here is a quote regarding corruption of the will from Chapter 18:

    hat does it mean, for example, to say that the will is corrupted? It can only mean that the will is not capable of doing what the will would have been able to do prior to Adam’s transgression, i.e., to choose freely in either moral direction. But the very function of the will is that it makes free choices. Thus, to say that the will is corrupted must mean that the will is unable to make a free choice in some sense. Observe, then, that to say that the will is corrupted is to say something different than that the will is merely surrounded by vast presentation (due to the knowledge of good and evil). We must maintain that the will is an all or nothing proposition. Either it is free to choose, or it is not free to choose and therefore is not a will. Thus, while the will is subjected to extreme stress due to various presentations from the knowledge of good and evil in us, the will is still totally free and operable. To maintain a lesser view is to unwittingly define man’s will in dialectical terms—i.e., free to choose, yet not free to choose. To define it this way would result in the annihilation of the will, owing to an irrational (and thus mystical) definition.

    Do you find any merit in that logic. I am interested in your opinion.

    Glenn

    1. Glenn,

      I appreciate the contribution. I certainly lean reformed, but I wouldn’t define myself that way. Though I’ve written some things in defense of Calvinism (especially when I leaned heavily in that direction), recently I’ve had quite a few problems with it. Thus, some aspects of my theology will seem reformed while other parts will be in direct opposition to reformed theology.

      I have considered the view the author brought up, but it brings up a few problems, namely why is Christ the only human to have never sinned? Certainly if the only problem is good and evil and not a deformed will, then there should be others out there who are morally perfect and thus in no need of a savior. That is why there must be something in our wills that is defunct, but not as a part of our essence, rather as a deformity of our essence.

      A defunct will still allows for the ability to choose; it simply means that at times we will lack the proper fortitude to follow through on a moral choice.

  3. I think you are right Joel, I may have assumed too much, in that I proposed living completely sin free and accepting Christ as equally difficult tasks for a will. I still don’t like the disability analogy though because none of the examples were disabilities of the will. Tim, heather and Slappy all had disabilities that were unrelated to their wills, or mental faculties. I think a better analogy would be some sort of mental disorder, say for instance schizophrenia because it can and does directly affect a person’s ability to make good decisions and follow through on them. In this way what you are proposing is a disability that directly affects the mechanism that would allow a person to choose the cure. I don’t think it would make much sense to punish Slappy, but it would make sense is to create a situation the would safeguard him and the people around him. If his slaps pose a real threat then I think we would have to treat or isolate him against his will. This is not punishment, we’re not trying to teach him anything, it is a pragmatic solution. If this is what you mean by being “held responsible” then I can accept that. I’ve hell formulated this way, and at least it makes sense to some degree.

    I still don’t think will is the only thing you are really talking about here. I think what is also packed within this argument is the idea that people always know right from wrong somehow. I don’t think that an inkling is enough, I believe the notion of the rightness of an action must be obvious. I think this is the only way that the full burden can be placed on the will, but is this really how it works? I have a hard time believing that this is the case, but maybe you have some compelling evidence for it. this is why I think personally if I were going argue for something being perfected in Jesus it wouldn’t be will will, i’d go with something like spiritual “reception”…something information based… Like Jesus had a more clear connection with God, he was better able to receive and understand what God wanted and why than any other human. The spiritual clarity, closeness angle seems more elegant to me. Anyway I guess if original sin is more like ADD than schizophrenia then you’ve got yourself something workable with the will, although for the life of me I can’t understand what good a “perfect will” does anyone, how is it in any way meaningful? You have not shown how it does anything that a regular will doesn’t. I also see no reason why Jesus would have even needed such a thing when he was in fact God…maybe its just me.

    1. Sorry I haven’t replied to this. For some reason I didn’t see it until today.

      In reflecting on what you’re saying about the analogy, I agree, it does seem to be a weak analogy. In fact, to say that the will is disabled might be an error on my part, but that remains to be seen.

      I do like your counter-analogy, but it would have to be modified. Maybe someone who suffers from a slight form of bipolar disorder is a good example. Such a person would know they have a problem, would know how to get treatment, and could have the mental ability to choose to get treatment, but out of a false sense of pride or willfully ignoring his/her condition, refuses to get treatment. This could be similar to our sin nature concerning Christ. Our wills, being damaged, could cause us to rebel against God, but it’s possible they aren’t damaged enough that it would prevent us from recognizing our position.

      As for the second part of your post, I think you make a very good point and it’s something I have to consider. I really don’t have a reply or anything to add to it currently, but it is something I’ll be pondering over the next few days.

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