The Development of the Doctrine of Sin The doctrine of sin in church history
A Doctrine of Sin
To begin with we might ask why the church has a doctrine of sin. The Bible informs us that God hates and punishes sin, and especially that by God’s grace sinners are saved in Christ. In comparison with the biblical message the doctrine of sin appears to be less personal and more abstract.
We will start with quoting an expression that is characteristic of the confession and teaching of the churches of the Reformation in the Netherlands. After it has been established that God created man good and in his image, the question is asked in Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “From where, then, did man’s depraved nature come?” The answer follows: “From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, for there our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.” It concerns here the fact of man’s rebellion and fall into sin, which is disobedience toward God. We are directly involved with the sin of our first ancestors. It affects us to such an extent that our nature is entirely depraved and that we come into the world as sinful beings. Further it states that God is terribly angry with our original sin as well as our actual sins, and he punishes us by a just judgment both now and eternally (LD 4, QA 10).
The teaching of the Reformation is not easy to accept. Some people get annoyed even at hearing the word “sin”. However, that is no reason to bypass it in theological explorations.
It will be clear that this doctrine is not an isolated teaching. When we reflect and speak about sin — and in the course of time there has been much of this already—then this is in connection with the core of the Christian faith: that Jesus has come into this world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
Augustine and Pelagius
The doctrine has not always been consistent, but it has developed in a particular manner. From the period before Augustine not much can be said that directly pertains to the dogma of the church. The focus is on the freedom of man to choose for what is good and to decide against that which is evil. For many centuries it has been the general conviction that man has been enabled with a free will and that sin does not stop him to do good and to avoid evil.
The seriousness of sin is seen in the fact that it results in death. People will die as a consequence of their own sins. With some writers there is already a shimmer of insight that the sin in Paradise has had consequences for all of humanity.
Paul’s words about the disobedience of one man through whom many have become sinners (Rom. 5:19) are actually being contradicted in the declaration of Chrysostom (†407 AD). According to him it is unthinkable that we became sinners through Adam’s sin. However, because Adam sinned and became mortal, we have become mortal as well.
In the understanding of many people sin is not so much the disruption or break of the right relationship with God as it is the deterioration of man through the superior force of sensuality and the introduction of mortality. This agrees with the view that salvation is seen as primarily the recovery of what is corruptible, and salvation is often described in terms of immortality and as deification. After ca. 400 that also becomes the main line of thought in the Eastern Church. But in the west things were changing in the course of the 5th and 6th centuries, for it is in that time that far-reaching decisions are made.
We are dealing here with the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius. The latter taught with much emphasis that everyone is responsible for his own sins. After all, man is free to sin or not to sin. God gave a free will to man by which he can be who he wants to be. Sinning is common, but not a necessity. People are sinning in imitation of Adam. However, that does not affect or change their own nature. We cannot speak of a sinful nature, only about sinful actions. After baptism, by which forgiveness is granted, one can live a sinless life through the help of grace.
We need to conclude that in this teaching very little can be found in what the Bible is teaching us about sin and grace. If the church had allowed itself to be led by Pelagius, Christianity would have taken on a moralistic character.
It has been the merit of Augustine (†430 AD) that he realized much sooner than many others that the doctrine of Pelagius needed to be radically rejected. Some people will say that Augustine ended up going to the other extreme: Pelagius may have a much too optimistic view of man and his possibilities, but Augustine’s view is much too pessimistic. Often this is connected to his past. We should not forget that for about nine years he had belonged to the Manicheans. This Manichaeism is dualistic: the good nature dwells in our soul, while the body has an evil nature. The way out would therefore be through asceticism.
With Augustine there are undeniably traces of a Manichaean influence, yet it is not possible to explain his teaching about sin and grace from this viewpoint. We should rather concentrate on the biblical and especially the Pauline background of this. Connecting to the Latin translation of Romans 5:12, Augustine says that all men have sinned in Adam. The consequences are immense. Nature has been corrupted and man has become depraved. Through reproduction the sin of Adam is transferred to us. This original sin is closely connected to desirability (= concupiscentia) and especially with the sexual desire. That does not mean that this is the most essential aspect of sin, for the sin of man is also pride. Sin is in fact love for one’s own self.
Augustine has provided exceptional depth about the doctrine of sin. To him, sin is a wrongful deed. Sin is therefore also not something that can be conquered by appealing to a better inclination in man. It is about a wrongful orientation of the whole human existence, something from which no one can save himself. There are certain elements in the doctrine of Augustine that the church could not regard as scriptural, such as his connection of sexuality and sin, but much of what he has alleged retains its importance: on the one hand we have the terrible power of sin, and on the other hand the irresistible grace of God.
Grace and Free Will
The view of Pelagius was condemned by the church, first in North Africa, and afterward by the Third Ecumenical Council (431). This decision affected the entire church. And yet there are still kindred spirits, soulmates to Pelagius...
Within the churches we meet more and more the idea of what is called semi-pelagianism. This designation has become current, although it should be noted that it has some reservations. This view considers that it goes too far to declare that someone has become totally corrupt. Rather we should regard man as a patient who needs a physician. The doctor comes and heals him all right, but yet the patient had been instrumental in calling for him. In this way people want to combine the grace of God and the free will of man. The will has become feeble such that it needs an infusion of grace. God’s grace is said to be always cooperating with our own free will.
In AD 529 this teaching is rejected by a synod in Orange, France. Although it is a miniature synod, yet the pope enforces the decisions. Since that time the Western church has a doctrine about sin and grace which can be referred to. Not all ideas of Augustine are taken over in Orange. It is however confessed that the grace of God is the decisive factor. By Adam’s transgression man has indeed changed entirely toward evil. The free will has become weak and corrupt and man is unable to do any good unless God allows him to do good.
It is very much a question whether the Roman-Catholic Church has managed to uphold the decision of Orange. Developments continued. In the Middle Ages it is generally observed that as a result of the fall into sin man lost the original righteousness, which he possessed as an added gift to his nature. This may be understood in the sense that man is not quite corrupt, but that he has a serious defect. Grace works in an uplifting and restorative manner and it does not only oppose sin (which is biblical), but it is also the supra-natural that acts as a superstructure complementing and completing the natural. We call this the schematic of nature versus grace.
We will not be following the scholastic theology in all its courses, but we should reflect for a moment on the doctrinal decisions of the Council of Trent, and especially on the decree about original sin of 1546. It is pronounced that the first man, Adam, lost his original righteousness and holiness and changed entirely toward evil.
He therefore lacks the supra-natural grace and that is, after the situation in Paradise, a marked deterioration. However defectively nature may now be functioning, there is as yet a point of connection for grace and even a possibility to prepare oneself for grace.
Original sin is taken away by baptism. The desire to sin remains, although this is not actually sin in the essential meaning of the word, even if it inclines man to sin.
It is remarkable that Mary is seen as an exception. By a special privilege of God she has been able to avoid all sin in her life. Was she also born without any stain of sin? This council did no quite go that far; after three centuries it did become the accepted doctrine.
One of the most important concentrations of the doctrine of sin is directed against the Reformation. Everyone who says that the free will was lost or extinguished after Adam’s fall into sin is condemned. From this it appears that the tenor of these doctrinal pronouncements from the 16th century is different from the earlier doctrine of the church. In Orange grace comes first, while Trent holds to a cooperation of God with the free will of man.
Luther, Calvin and the Reformed Confession
The reformers put the relationship of man to God in the centre. For this they appeal especially to Paul. We can see this immediately with Luther. Luther had a great awareness of sin. Sin is rebellion against God and it is therefore not something that can be measured. The sin in Paradise was unbelief. That is the source of all sin. Although sin is also pride and self-seeking, in the first place it is unbelief. The entire man has become corrupt through sin. Our mind has been darkened, our will and our inclinations are wrong.
The notion of desire is also present with Luther. However, to him this is certainly not limited to the sensual desires as was the case with Augustine. The word indicates the entirety of sinful desires, from which sinful deeds flow constantly. In contrast with Rome, desire is therefore typified as sinful as well.
The main point for Luther is that all good can only be ascribed to God’s grace. This appears quite strongly in his conflict with Erasmus, whose aim it is to defend the free will. When Luther says that the free will does not accomplish anything, the great humanist protests loudly against it. Then what about striving after what is right and good? Luther’s reply is that it is necessary that our pride be humbled and that God’s grace is acknowledged.
Where it concerns this topic, there is just one step needed to jump from Martin Luther to John Calvin. Calvin’s starting position is that man has been created in God’s image. By Adam’s fall this image in us has been destroyed, or has “almost disappeared”. What has been left of it is only a horrible malformation. It is therefore not only so that the original righteousness and holiness have been lost. Any good has now turned into the opposite. Original sin means that in Adam’s sin we all stand guilty before God, and from this wrong position new sins appear constantly. Man is not weak but dead; he is spiritually dead because he has become separated from God. He has become a slave to sin. He cannot but sin, and therefore any supportive grace is insufficient. It needs to be recreating grace. Only then will we receive back in Christ what we had lost in Adam.
This becomes now also the teaching of the reformed confessional documents. We might be inclined to question whether such a portrait of man is not coloured too gloomily. Really, is there nothing good left in man? Did man not remain man?
Indeed he did. But in the reformed doctrine man is placed before the face of God (coram Deo). We may still be able to speak of insight into earthly things, but that does not mean man has also heavenly, spiritual insights. We remind of what is said about this in the Canons of Dordt, chapter III/IV. By the light of nature man retains some knowledge of God, and of the difference between good and evil, and he will also observe good morals externally. But through these he can never arrive at the saving knowledge of God, and the little light he still has would be used wrongly.
These Canons are articles written against the Remonstrants. According to them man was originally positioned in a less high place, and afterwards fell less deeply. Original sin is for them actually no sin. A person sins when he or she freely changes a weakness or a lack into actual deeds. People can still make good use of the light of nature, especially the rational mind and the free will. When someone does this, God comes to meet him.
We can conclude that this is in fact the old semi-pelagian position. It makes the grace of God the first but not the only cause of man’s salvation.
In summary we can say that in the development of the doctrine of sin two lines of thought have become visible.
- With the one the emphasis falls on the possibilities which man still has, especially in his intellect and his will. Corresponding to this is the notion that our salvation also depends on ourselves. This is the line of reasoning of Pelagius, with all sorts of nuances: fully pelagian, half-pelagian or less-than-half pelagian.
- With the other line in the doctrinal development, the emphasis falls on the seriousness of sin, which is separation from God. It becomes evident in our total inability to do any good and to be inclined to all evil, unless we are born again through the Spirit of God. The grace of regeneration does not work in people as if they were dead objects; it does not destroy man’s will but bends it. “Now a prompt and sincere obedience of the Spirit begins to prevail, in which the true, spiritual renewal and freedom of our will consists” (Canons of Dordt, Ch. III/IV, Art. 16). We owe our entire salvation only to the grace of God. This is the line of Augustine, where the reformers applied some corrections.
However it is still not decisive whether we follow this tradition. The pivotal issue is whether we will remain true to what the Bible teaches us about ourselves. And there is no doubt about that.