Christian theologians throughout the centuries have struggled with the meaning of the fall, the nature of sin, and original sin. Although the early church gave little attention to the systematic construction of the doctrine ofsin, the apologists and early church fathers were not completely silent on the subject. Interest in the doctrine gained momentum, culminating in Augustine’s development of original sin. The implications of the Augustinian synthesis were refined and modified during the medieval and Reformation periods. The modern period witnessed both restatements and redefinitions of the classical position. The following survey will provide a historical overview of what the church has said on the doctrine of sin. Key developments and select theologians will be examined. Special attention is devoted to representative Baptist theologians.
Justin Martyr had no systematically constructed doctrine of sin as evidenced in some of his beliefs about sin. He believed that the transgression of Adam placed the entire human race under the curse of sin. In a discussion of the role of the serpent in Genesis 3, Justin suggested that Adam’s fall was connected in some way to the sinful condition of the entire human race: “The race of men, who from Adam’s time have fallen under death and the deceit of the serpent.” Justin could be saying that, by succumbing to the temptation of Satan, the sin of Adam is as a prototype for each person’s sin. All people fall and die in the same way as Adam. Adam thus brought death to all people and began the spread of evil through his bad example. On the other hand, Justin also asserted that each person is responsible for his own sin. He rigorously contended for individual freedom and human responsibility. In the same passage cited above, Justin noted that “each man sinned by his own fault.” Justin may have meant that sin is the willful act of the individual. A corrupt nature is not transmitted from Adam to his descendants; rather, what Adam brought to all humanity was mortality. In spite of any connection with Adam, each person is still culpable for his own sin. Justin’s understanding of sin is also connected with his belief in demons. Like many of his contemporaries, he was attracted to the idea that demons were in some measure to blame for human sinfulness. Believed to be the offspring of the union between fallen angels and the daughters of men (Gen. 6:1–2), demonic creatures were thought to swarm everywhere, afflicting men’s souls and bodies with vice and corruption. Justin believed that these malevolent beings are in some sense responsible for human sinfulness and for the presence of evil. He also believed that all people have been nurtured, raised, and taught wickedness and sinfulness through a fallen, sinful environment.
Irenaeus is commonly recognized as the first systematic theologian of the church. The doctrines of the fall and sin, as well as other theological tenets, find formal expression in his writings and teachings. His thought is a converging point for many extant beliefs about sin, and it provided fresh insights about the nature of sin and the fall. Irenaeus regarded Adam as a moral, spiritual, and intellectual child. Prior to the fall, Adam was undeveloped and imperfect. Original righteousness was not something Adam innately possessed but was a goal to be attained. Although God infused into Adam the breath of life, he did not bestow upon him the Spirit of adoption granted to Christians. Adam was to advance toward an ever closer semblance to the Creator through a process of submission and obedience. Adam’s fall is attributed to his weakness and inexperience. The process of advancement was interrupted almost from the beginning. Because of his spiritual and moral immaturity, Adam was easy prey for the wiles of Satan and fell into his clutches. Although impacted by the fall, the divine image and likeness of God remained in a damaged form. For Irenaeus, the essence of Adam’s sin was disobedience that carried grave consequences for the entire human race. Human sinfulness, mortality, and enslavement to sin find their source in Adam’s sin: “For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally molded from virgin soil, the many were made sinners and forfeited life.” Irenaeus believed that all people participated in Adam’s deed and shared in his guilt: “By which things He clearly shows forth God Himself, whom indeed we had offended in the first Adam, when he did not perform His commandment. . . . For we were debtors to none other but to him whose commandment we had transgressed at the beginning.” Although believing that the human race sinned in Adam, Irenaeus did not develop a theological argument for the connection between Adam’s guilt and the rest of humanity. He presupposed some solidarity or identity between the father of the human race and his descendants.
Tertullian stands as the progenitor of the doctrine of original sin in the Latin theological tradition. His discussions on this topic establish a trajectory that would fix “once and for all the main lines along which speculation was to proceed to the Latin Churches.” Tertullian’s view on original sin was shaped largely by his understanding of traducianism. As W. G. T. Shedd notes: “Tertullian’s Traducianism, which gradually became the received psychology of the Latin Church, paved the way for the doctrine of innate sin, in distinction from innate evil, and also for the theory of monergism in regeneration.” Tertullian developed his view of traducianism from his notion that all existences have corporeality. All that exists has bodily existence; nothing lacks bodily existence but that which is nonexistent. Corporeality extends both to the physical and to the spiritual elements of man. Tertullian concluded that, since the human soul truly exists, the soul is corporeal.He contended that the origin of the soul is identical to the body. Like the body the soul is produced from the physical union of the parents. The soul does not enter the body after birth but is produced simultaneously with it. The corporeality and transmission of the soul explains Tertullian’s inclusion of the human race within the sin of the first parents. Inasmuch as the soul, along with its spiritual characteristics, is inherited from the parents alone, the sin of Adam and its lingering corruption is also transmitted to his descendants. The propagation of the soul necessitated for Tertullian the propagation of sin. Every soul has its nature in Adam until it is born again in Christ. The unregenerate soul is unclean and sinful both in condition and in action. Tertullian believed that the source of original sin could be traced to Satan, who entrapped man by breaking the commandment of God. On account of Adam’s sin, the entire human race transmits the taint and culpability of Adamic guilt. Original sin was a corrupting nature that did not completely obliterate the good of the soul, yet “that which is from God is rather obscured than extinguished.” Tertullian was a forerunner to the idea of inherited sin. He believed that this condition was propagated from one generation to the next.
Although he used traditional and ecclesiological evidences to support his ideas, Augustine primarily developed his doctrine of original sin from the Bible. The principal text for Augustine’s doctrine of original sin was Romans 5:12. Augustine relied on the Old Latin versions of the New Testament for the development of his understanding of the nature and transmission of original sin. These manuscripts mistranslated the phrase in quo to mean “in whom.” “By the evil will of that one man [Adam] all sinned in him, since all were that one man, in whom, therefore, they individually derived original sin.” Original sin resides within all human beings because all persons were descended physically and spiritually from Adam. Augustine interpreted Paul to say in Romans 5:12 that all people were actually present in Adam and thereby shared in the actual commission and guilt of the original sin. When Adam sinned, all people were “one in and with him,” participating in the willful commission of the sin. Inasmuch as all then sinned in Adam, when in his nature, by virtue of that innate power whereby he was able to produce them, they were all as yet the one Adam; but they are called another’s, because as yet they were not living their own lives, but the life of the one man contained whatsoever was in his future posterity. No one prior to Augustine had so thoroughly depicted the sinful complicity of all humanity with Adam. Based upon his interpretation of Psalm 51:10, Augustine regarded infants as guilty of original sin. Because of their seminal unity in Adam, they were equally guilty by virtue of their presence and participation in Adam’s deed. The Adamic guilt in infants is remitted through baptism. Adamic sin also corrupts the imago dei in all persons. Despite the fall, humanity still retains a nobility of virtue that arises from God’s likeness within man. Adam’s rebellion did not destroy the imago dei in all persons, but his sin did injuriously scar human nature. All persons therefore have need for healing from the devastating consequences wrought by sin.
Thomas Aquinas defined original sin as the privation of original righteousness. He believed that God created Adam and Eve in a state of original righteousness. At the fall, this original righteousness was lost. Original sin resides in the soul of the person and is thus an integral part of the individual. The transmission of original sin occurs in the reproductive processes. “The semen by its own power transmits the human nature from parent to child, and with that nature, the stain that affects it.” All humans are guilty of Adamic sin since all persons derive their nature from a single, common individual. For Aquinas, original sin had a devastating impact on Adam’s descendants. With the fall the gift of life was lost, and man became subject to death. Death is the result of original sin and is passed down to every human being descended from him. In addition, original sin clouds human reason. After the fall, human beings were controlled by their passion or desires rather than their reason. The effects of original sin begin at birth. Infants must be baptized in order to remit Adamic guilt. Although baptism removes the guilt of original sin, the sin nature remains with the infant and is disseminated to that child’s progeny. Should baptism be withheld from an infant, and if the child should die, then “original sin incurs everlasting punishment, since children who have died in original sin through not being baptized, will never see the kingdom of God.” Aquinas did acknowledge the division of sins into two categories: venial and mortal sins. “Venial and mortal sins are infinitely different, for venial sin incurs punishment, whereas mortal sin incurs eternal punishment. . . . Therefore, venial and mortal sins are not even of the same genus, to say nothing of the same species.” Venial are of lesser importance than mortal sins and can hinder a person’s access to or experience with God. Forgiveness of venial sins comes through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Mortal sins are willful, serious transgressions. Mortal sins include apostasy, murder, or adultery, and merit eternal punishment. Only the sacrament of penance (confession, priestly absolution, and restitution) can provide forgiveness for mortal sins.
Ulrich Zwingli defined sin in a twofold way. First, sin is a “disease which we contract from the author of our race, in consequence of which we are given over to love of ourselves. . . . This defect is the disease native to us in consequence of which we shun things hard and burdensome and pursue things pleasant and agreeable.” This spiritual defect is transmitted from parent to child, much like a congenital disease in a family such as “stammering, blindness, or gout.” This disease, or depravity, is uncondemnable; human beings are neither guilty nor condemned for their depravity. Original sin is a pollution of human nature but not an actual, culpable transgression. Only actual sin brings guilt because “sin implies guilt, and guilt comes from a transgression or a trespass on the part of one who designedly perpetrates a deed.” Zwingli believed that original sin was “damning” in the sense that its nature and force inevitably led to sin. The children of Christians are exempt from this damnation; the blood of Christ is sufficient for the children of believers to overcome their damnation. Second, Zwingli understood sin as any action contrary to the law of God. The sin of transgression is born from the sin that is disease. The source of transgression is self-love, “from which flowed all evils which exist anywhere among mortals.” Zwingli understood original sin to be the spiritual defect inherited from Adam, and actual sins are those deeds which flow from the disposition.
Impugning those theologians who denied original righteousness, Martin Luther believed that God conferred the gift of original righteousness to Adam and Eve. Adam’s nature was “to love God, to believe God, to know God, etc. These things were just as natural for Adam as it is natural for the eyes to receive light.” When Adam fell into sin, he lost his original righteousness. His “natural endowments” were no longer sound but corrupted through sin. As a result of the fall, the image of God was totally lost, and all of Adam’s descendants now possess a corrupt nature. “By one sin Adam makes all those born of him guilty of this same sin . . . and gives them what he has, though it is quite foreign to them.” Luther posited that guilt, depravity, and condemnation are transmitted to all persons via procreation. This curse is called peccatum originale, hereditary sin or natural sin, which we received by nature from our parents in our mother’s womb. . . . This means that by nature, as we are conceived and born, we bring sin with us into the world, and through sin comes God’s wrath and death so that we are all lost and damned. And this hereditary sin is the true fountainhead whence spring and issue all the actual sins of men. The natural endowments of intellect, will, and emotions still remain but are severely corrupted in all people. Luther contended that the human race has become completely corrupted. All human beings are now inclined toward evil, are guilty before God, and are subject to the God’s divine wrath. Because of original sin, the sinner is “bent in on himself;” that is, the sinner is habitually seeking his own selfish ends. Greed, materialism, lust, anger, hatred, and all types of vices now fill the hearts of all men and women. The sinner’s nature is totally corrupted, and all sinners are spiritually enslaved to sin. No one is able to do good apart from divine grace. Those who “will maintain that man’s freewill is able to do or work anything in spiritual cases be they ever so small, denies Christ.” The human will is hopelessly in bondage to sin. Human beings no longer exist in God’s image but rather in the image of the devil. Luther distinguished between two kinds of sin: original and actual. Original sin is that guilt which is inherited from Adam and merits condemnation. “Even if no actual sin is present, the tinder of original sin hinders the entrance into the kingdom of heaven.”146 Actual sins are those that the individual personally commits. Luther understood all actual sins as attempts for self-deification. By his sinful act, the first man sought to become God. Adam “was not satisfied to be a fine creature of God, created in the image of God; he did not want to remain man; he wanted to be God too and to know good and evil.” All persons follow the first father in this regard. “Adam wanted to be God Himself, and God was to be of no account. All the children of Adam act in this way.”147 Actual sin is an expression of creaturely self-will that is contrary and hostile to the will of God.
John Calvin believed that the garden of Eden was a place in which the obedience of Adam would be tested. Adam was to demonstrate his submission to the command of God by refraining from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam, however, failed the test and brought the curse, judgment, and disaster to himself and his posterity. Calvin asserted that Adam’s guilt passed down to his progeny. All persons thus receive guilt, a depraved nature, and a liability to punishment: “Therefore all of us, who have descended from impure seed, are born infected with the contagion of sin.” “Hence Adam, when he lost the gifts received, lost them not only for himself but for us all.” All persons participated in the original sin. Calvin viewed original sin as more than the absence of original righteousness. For Calvin, original sin is “a hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all parts of the soul, which first makes us obnoxious to the wrath of God, and produces in us works which in Scripture are termed works of the flesh.” Calvin defined depravity as a hereditary corruption of the person’s total being. This depravity is total in that this corruption taints every part of the person: “The whole man is overwhelmed—as by a deluge—from head to foot, so that no part is immune from sin and all that proceeds from him is to be imputed to sin.” With regard to volition, Calvin believed that sin has impaired the human will. The human will is free in the mundane affairs of everyday life but is unable to respond favorably to God. The sinner’s will is not compelled by external influences but is driven by the internal compulsions of the fallen nature. Although the primary result of the fall is spiritual death, other aspects of human existence are also affected. The natural endowments of the sinner, such as intelligence, will, and emotions, are corrupted by sin. Spiritual endowments, such as faith, love of God, holiness, etc., are lost.
Friedrich Schleiermacher defined religion, or true piety, in terms of a consciousness of God, a feeling of absolute dependence. The heart of the experience of absolute dependence is the total givenness of our being. Givenness of being means that the human self is not the ground of its own being. Human existence is a gift that we neither create nor sustain. Human beings therefore do not embody the principle of existence in themselves. Rather, our finite existence points beyond ourselves to our absolute dependence on God.156 The Christian religion is thus the experience of the total givenness of our being to God. The common element in all howsoever diverse expressions of piety, by which these are conjointly distinguished from all other feelings, or, in other words, the self-identical essence of piety, is this: the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or which is the same thing, of being in relation to God.157 For Schleiermacher, sin arises in human experience (i.e., selfconsciousness) as it relates to God and as it affects the created order. Sin can best be understood as the dominance of the flesh (the sensual selfconsciousness) over the spirit (God-consciousness). “We have the consciousness of sin whenever the God-consciousness which forms part of an inner state, or is in some way added to it, determines our selfconsciousness as pain; and therefore we conceive of sin as a positive antagonism of the flesh against the spirit.”158 Ideally, the flesh (the lower powers of the soul) should be directed by the individual’s spirit (the Godconsciousness). Sin inverts or disrupts this anthropological hierarchy, causing the individual to lose his or her consciousness of God. Schleiermacher regarded sin as anything that interfered with the individual’s consciousness of God. Sin is thus the experience of God accompanied by a sense of alienation or guilt; it is the stifling by the flesh of the human awareness of God struggling for expression. For Schleiermacher, human fallenness is not a reference to the historical fall of Adam but rather to the universal warring of the flesh against the spirit. Schleiermacher believed that an awareness of sin could arise only from a God-consciousness. The awaking of our God-consciousness arouses in the self a sense of a higher life that humans do not currently possess. The more acute the feeling of absolute dependence upon God, the more intense becomes our awareness of sin. Schleiermacher thus believed that sin could not be defined independently of grace, and grace could not be rightly understood independently of sin. He thus regarded sin “on the one hand as simply that which would not be unless redemption was to be; or on the other hand as that which, as it is to disappear, can disappear only through redemption.”159 The Christian could not possess a consciousness of sin without a consciousness of the power of redemption, and a consciousness of the power of redemption required a consciousness of God. Although he had little regard for the concepts, Schleiermacher did use the terms “original sin” and “actual sin.” Original sin is that state of sin that was received prior to any act upon the part of the individual and in which guilt was latent. Actual sins are sinful acts which were perpetrated by the individual and which revealed the presence of original sin, along with its latent guilt.160 Original sin always issues in actual sin. Schleiermacher understood original sin as “the sinfulness that is present in an individual prior to any action of his own, and has its ground outside
his own being, [and] is in every case a complete incapacity for good, which can be removed only by the influence of Redemption.”161 Whereas the earlier theologians understood original sin in terms of biological transmission or in terms of imputed guilt, Schleiermacher interpreted the transmission of sin in terms of its social dimension and presence among people.162 Original sin also refers to the corporate guilt of the human race. Sins are thus interrelated; an individual’s sin ultimately impacts society, which in turn affects the individual.
In his formulation of the social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch rejected the traditional, historical understanding of the fall in the garden of Eden. The intent of the Genesis account was not to provide an actual history of the entry of sin into the world but was rather to explain the entry of death and evil.164 So much weight had been placed upon Adamic sin and guilt by previous Christian theologians that contemporary developments for the problem of sin were greatly diminished, if not ignored. The focus of the social gospel is upon the present-day struggles and problems of sin.165 Although he rejected the historicity of the garden of Eden and the fall, Rauschenbusch affirmed original sin. He contended that moral evil was transmitted biologically. Believing that scientific evidence could corroborate the biological transmission of moral evil from parent to child, he asserted that “depravity of will and corruption of nature are transmitted wherever life itself is transmitted.”166 Despite this affirmation, Rauschenbusch placed greater emphasis upon the social transmission of evil. He believed the Augustinian conception of original sin denigrates free will and responsibility as well as individual and corporate sins. Rauschenbusch often referred to social sins with the concepts of the “kingdom of evil” (in contradistinction to the kingdom of God) and “collective guilt.” He believed that sin inhered within societal structures and customs and was disseminated to the individual by social contexts: “A theology for the social gospel would have to say that original sin runs down the generations not only by biological propagation but also by social assimilation.”167
Karl Barth argued for an existential interpretation of the account of Adam and Eve in the garden. He contended that the events of Genesis are to be understood as saga, not history.168 The fall of Adam describes the event that happens to all as each individual reenacts personally the events described in the garden. Adam is thus an existential symbol for every person and the fall a saga of the existential, sinful demise of all people.169 Sin originated in the fall, but the precise details of sin’s origin transcend human comprehension. Barth repudiated the doctrine of original sin as hereditary corruption. Original sin is not a disease passed from one person to another but rather is the radical, prideful departure of every person from the will of God. In the development of his understanding of sin, Barth did not begin with Adam but with Christ. As humanity is joined with Christ in redemption, so also is humanity joined with Adam in condemnation. Jesus is the true and original Adam; the Adam of Genesis is the negative side of the work of Christ.170 Because of the universal experience of the fall, God has placed all persons under the sentence of sin and guilt. The moral condition of the sinner is depraved, with each person perverted and ruined by sin and guilt.171 The will of the sinner is in bondage, and the mind is distorted by sin.
John L. Dagg
John Dagg asserted that “all men are by nature totally depraved.”172 Because Adam was the representative for the human race, his depraved condition is transmitted to his progeny, assuring the depravity of all people. Dagg believed that depravity was total. He did not believe, however, that human conduct is as bad as it could be or that “amiable affections” no longer have a place in the human heart. Depravity means that “the love of God is dethroned from the heart, and therefore the grand principle of morality is wanting, and no true morality exists. A total absence of that by which the actions should be controlled and directed, is total depravity.”173 Prior to the fall, Adam had perfect love for God and for others. With the fall, love of self replaced love of God. Dagg contended that this love of self came to all of Adam’s descendents via their natural, moral, and federal unions with Adam.174 He believed that the natural union of all humanity with Adam resulted in the biological propagation of depravity from parent to child. With regard to the moral union, all persons do commit sin actually and willingly. The federal union is established in that “the first man, having been placed under a covenant of works, violated it, and brought its penalty on himself and his descendants.”175 For Dagg, depravity is a “disease and debility” corrupting the image of God in man.176 Depravity has infected human conscience, action, and rational capacities. The human will is not lost in the fall, but the will has been affected by human sinfulness. Since a person’s will always follows the person’s nature (which is now sinful), depravity inevitably leads the person to sin. “No inclination to holiness exists in the carnal [unregenerate] heart; and no holy act can be performed or service to God rendered, until the heart is changed. This change, it is the office of the Holy Spirit to effect.”
James P. Boyce
James Petigru Boyce stated that the condition of Adam before the fall is not a state of mere innocence. Adam lived in a condition of original righteousness in which he possessed a love of holiness. In this state Adam was inclined toward goodness rather than evil.178 Adam, however, disobeyed God, thereby causing the corruption of his holy nature and rendering him incapable of further acts of holiness. Because of God’s just demands and the terms of the covenant, Adam’s act of rebellion resulted in the loss of paradise and reception of punishment. Adam immediately experienced shame, fear, and denial.179 The devastating impact of Adam’s sin was threefold: natural, spiritual, and eternal death. Spiritual death, which Adam experienced immediately, brought alienation from God as well as loss of God’s favor and acceptance. Eternal death was the quality of death that resulted from Adam’s sin. The spiritual death that came immediately upon Adam would result in eternal death apart from God’s gracious, atoning intervention. Natural, or physical, death was also a consequence of the fall. The death of the soul eventuated in natural death. The effects of Adam’s sin were devastating. His nature was corrupted, and he could not alleviate his corrupted, alienated existence. Even if he had the will to be delivered from his state, Adam did not possess the ability to extricate himself by his own acts.180 Boyce believed that Adamic guilt is transmitted in two ways. First, he argued that Adam was the “natural head” of the human race. Adam’s corrupt nature is passed to his descendants through natural procreation. This inherited, corrupt nature is liable to punishment; thus, all persons are born guilty before God because of their corrupt nature. Second, Boyce advocated the theory that Adam is the “federal head” of the human race. While in the garden, God entered into a “covenant of works” with Adam and appointed him as the representative of the human race. When Adam violated the terms of the covenant of works, all humanity was affected. This covenant was designed to test Adam’s confidence in the goodness and trustworthiness of God. Boyce declared that the test was not unduly demanding or trying. As such, any act of disobedience makes the sinful act that much more heinous.181 Boyce believed that both natural and federal headship are taught in Scripture. The effects of Adam’s sin upon his progeny result from the dissemination of Adam’s character to his progeny. He also asserted that the federal headship is necessary in order to provide for future salvation. Since Adam is the representative head of the human race in the fall, Christ can serve as the representative head in the salvation of humanity.182
E. Y. Mullins
E. Y. Mullins believed that, prior to the fall, Adam was perfect, sinless, free, and inclined toward righteousness.183 Because he was created free, Adam had the capacity either to obey or to sin against God. The moral freedom that Adam possessed was one facet of being created in the image of God.184 Adam’s freedom did not necessitate that he would in fact sin.185 Mullins, affirming the historicity of the garden and the fall, believed that Adam’s sin revealed the nature of human choices and the nature of sin. Mullins understood the fall to be progressive, occurring in several stages. Adam, as an intelligent and free moral being, was first confronted with two courses of action: obedience or sin. He then experienced internal and external conflicts. Internally, Adam craved the knowledge that would come to him by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Externally, he was enticed to choose evil by an outside agent, Satan. Finally, Adam yielded his will to the temptation and committed sin, thus experiencing shame and guilt.186 The sin committed by Adam was “the perversion of the good: the desire for food, the craving for knowledge, and the love of the beautiful.”187 With regard to the relationship of Adam’s guilt to the rest of humanity, Mullins rejected federal headship. He contended that no clear, biblical evidence existed to support the notion that Adam functioned as the head of the human race or that a covenant of works existed between God and Adam. He also rejected the notion that “we [humanity] sinned because we were actually present in him [Adam] when he sinned.”188 Mullins rather understood the spread of Adamic guilt via natural headship. As a result of common origin, all persons inherit Adam’s tendency to sin. “Adam was the natural head of the race. Our tendency to sin is derived from him. All men are affected by his act through the medium of natural propagation.”189 The tendency to sin is inherited from Adam and is imputed to all humanity by means of the solidarity that all persons share through their common, biological ancestry. Mullins defined original sin as an inherited tendency to sin. The proclivity to sinfulness is received via biological transmission. People are not condemned because of the reception and presence of this sinful tendency. Individuals are rather condemned because of the actual commission of sin.190 The reception of the tendency to sin renders it certain that the individual will commit sin. According to Mullins, this bias “always manifests itself in actual sin in every person who attains to a state of moral consciousness.”191 Mullins believed that the reception of the tendency is sin itself, although moral culpability did not occur until hereditary sin manifested itself in actual sin. Both hereditary sin and actual sin corrupt the individual, bringing guilt and condemnation.192
W. T. Conner
W. T. Conner believed that sin must be defined from a theocentric perspective. For Conner, “sin is against God. In a godless world the idea of sin would have no meaning. As men lose the consciousness of God, the
sense of sin also goes out of their minds and hearts.”193 The nature of sin is both rebellion and unbelief or willful rebellion.194 Unbelief is the active rejection of the moral and spiritual light, natural (or general) revelation, available to all persons.195 Unbelief is manifested in volitional rebellion against God and could be directed against the person of God or against the law of God.196 Knowledge and will are considered necessary elements for the incurrence of guilt.197 The antitheses to knowledge and will are respectively unbelief and rebellion. Conner believed sin to be a cognitive act; persons are not guilty of sin unless they are sentient beings capable of both knowledge and will.198 Sin is the result of the culpable rejection of the knowledge of God manifested in willful rebellion. Conner rejected the federal headship theory of original sin, stating that “so far as individual responsibility and guilt are concerned, there can be no such responsibility and guilt for an act committed thousands of years before one was born and with which he had nothing to do.”199 He did assert, however, that the entire human race is affected by the evil effects of Adam’s sin: “The doctrine of original sin means that . . . the race is an organic unity, and as an organic unity it was affected by the sin of the first man, the head of the race. Through the law of natural generation, the whole race has inherited the evil effects of that first transgression.”200 As a result of hereditary evil, “all men have been born on a lower moral and spiritual plane than they would have been if Adam had not sinned.”201 Conner’s view of human solidarity has implications for the social influences of sin. Not only is sin transmitted via hereditary processes, but sin is also “passed down by social influence.”202 He argued that God ordained societal institutions and orders. When the vision of God is manifested or revealed in or through these entities, a consciousness of sin is manifested or experienced. “As the vision of God is renewed in an individual or a society of people, he (or they) will be smitten with a sense of sin.”203 Sin was self-propagating and corrupted the whole human social order, penetrating “every phase of the life of man. . . . All human relations and all social institutions have been pervaded by the power of sin and the corruption produced by it.”204 The entirety of man’s existence, individually and corporately as well as biologically and socially, is corrupted by the evil
power of sin.
Dale Moody employed two concepts that he believed best describe the nature of sin. He defined ungodliness as a broken relationship with God and unrighteousness as broken relationships between persons.205 Each of these aspects is intended to emphasize the direction or focus of sin. Ungodliness is ignorance of God. This ignorance results from a rejection of the knowledge of God found in general revelation. The rejection of general revelation leads to personal estrangement from God and is expressed in ignorance and idolatry. Unrighteousness is manifested either as the defilement of human flesh or the defilement of the human spirit. Sins of the human flesh defile the body while sins of the human spirit corrupt the mind.206 Moody rejected the Augustinian position on original sin and the imputation of Adamic guilt. He did, however, believe that tendencies toward sinful behavior are biologically inherited. These sinful tendencies eventuate in actual transgressions: “Transgression is personal, not inherited, yet transgression as imputed sin is conditioned by inherited sin.”207 Moody thus distinguished between sin as inherited tendencies and sin as imputed transgression, yet he did so without adequate clarification of these distinctions. Also without explanation or rationale, Moody asserted that sin is transmitted psychologically or socially.208 Moody understood the universality of sin both in individual and corporate terms. With regard to individual sin, Moody noted that much of the New Testament, especially the writings of Paul, clearly teach that all individuals commit actual sin. The Bible makes no references to the sin of Adam as the cause of each individual’s sin.209 Moody regarded corporate sin as the collective sins of the group. Corporate sin in no wise undermines personal responsibility for sin. “Corporate sin is universal, but each individual is responsible for his personal involvement in the consequences.”210
Millard J. Erickson
Millard Erickson defines sin as “any lack of conformity, active or passive to the moral law.”211 Sin has the negative result of separation of the individual from God as well as with others. For Erickson, the essence of sin is an idolatrous displacement of God, a failure to “let God be God.”212 He contends that the Bible teaches that the sinfulness of man can be traced back to an historical Adam. Erickson opts for a natural headship theory for the transmission of sin; that is, all persons are biologically present in Adam. He states that “we were actually present within Adam, so that we all sinned in his act. There is no injustice, then, to our condemnation and death as a result of original sin.”213 Adam’s sin “was not merely that of one isolated individual, but of the entire human race.”214 Further, the entirety of humanity (physical and spiritual; material and immaterial) is received immediately from our biological parents and ultimately from the first pair of humans. All humans inherit a corrupted nature and are responsible for this sinful nature. Regarding original sin, Erickson suggests that a corrupted sin nature is received biologically and the guilt for that polluted nature is conditionally imputed. Human beings, while inheriting both a corrupted nature and guilt, first become guilty when they approve their corrupted nature.215 Sin is transmitted via conditional imputation according to the level of responsibility and maturity of the individual. Infants begin life with a corrupted nature and the guilt associated with the actual sin of Adam (Adamic guilt). Children are not regarded as sinful and guilty. Individuals are not responsible for the guilt of their sin until they are able as sentient beings to “accept” or “approve” one’s sin nature. Children who die in infancy have not attained an appropriate level of moral responsibility. These infants are not sufficiently able to approve their sin and are therefore not morally responsible.216 They will be received into heaven.