By Rhyne Putman, NOBTS
A discussion following the release of “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” last spring has Baptists asking an important theological question: “Am I judged by God on the basis of Adam’s sin or my own?” Southern Baptists are presently engaged in a conversation about the historic doctrine of “original sin” and its implications for our doctrines of salvation and the “age of accountability.”
This debate over original sin has consequences for how we understand the spiritual condition of children, infants, and those mentally incapable of responding to the gospel. (Speaking personally as the father of an eighteen-month-old son, I believe this issue is of tremendous importance!)
In this article, I will offer a very brief history of differing views on original sin.
The term “original sin” does not mean Adam’s “first sin.” Rather, theologians typically use the term to describe how Adam’s sin affects every member of the human race, particularly the way in which his disobedience results in our own legal condemnation before God. For this reason, original sin is also called “original guilt.”
Those who affirm a doctrine of original sin argue that we come into the world with an inclination toward sin and a fractured relationship with our Creator.
Throughout history, Christian theologians have taken up several positions on original sin. Much like the development of other Christian doctrines, the doctrine of original sin developed in the midst of theological controversy that forced Christians to reflect on and articulate their respective understandings of Scripture.
One such controversy sprang up in the early fifth century, when a British monk named Pelagius (d. 418 AD) advocated a position that outright denied the transmission of a sinful nature and guilt from Adam to his descendants.
According to Pelagius, Adam’s sin impaired his own relationship to God but did not affect the spiritual condition of his descendants. The only lingering effect of Adam’s sin is the poor example that he left for the human race.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Pelagius’s theology is his notion that every human being is essentially good and begins his or her life with the potential to live a completely sin free life before God.
This would mean that it is possible for that a human being could live a holy life apart from the saving work of Christ. Believing that Pelagius minimized our need for God’s redemptive grace, the North African theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) challenged his views. Pelagius and offered one of the earliest explanations of the doctrine of original sin.
Whereas Pelagius believed that God individually creates each human soul at conception (a doctrine called “soul creationism”), Augustine argued that human beings receive their souls or spiritual natures from their parents in the same way that they receive their physical natures (a view called “traducianism”). Augustine contended that a person’s spiritual nature or soul is linked inseparably with his or her physical nature and that human beings who have received Adam’s physical nature likewise have received his corrupted spiritual condition.
Every human being inherits from Adam an inclination to sin and a broken or distorted free will. While God originally created Adam with a perfectly functioning free will and the ability not to sin, Augustine suggests, human beings after the Fall are bent toward sin and so are “not able not to sin.”
Like a child born addicted to drugs because of poor decisions made by his mother during pregnancy, human beings are born with an “addiction” or inclination to sin because of Adam’s disobedience.
Furthermore, because all human beings are linked to Adam genetically, Augustine argued that all human beings literally were biologically present “in Adam” when he fell into sin. Consequently, all human beings share in the first man’s guilt and culpability. Adam’s sin not only resulted in the curse of death of for all human beings but also in the condemnation of all human beings.
For Augustine, human beings who inherit original sin or guilt from Adam are born condemned and deserving of hell. Like many in the Roman Catholic tradition after him, Augustine believed that infant baptism was the God-ordained means of removing this original sin from children who are were not yet capable of making moral decisions.
As many of his critics rightfully observe, Augustine’s view of original sin – that we were literally “in Adam” when he sinned – is based on a poor Latin translation of Rom. 5:12.
In the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible –the translation Augustine would have read – the Greek phrase eph’ hō (meaning “because” or “on account of”) is mistranslated as “in whom,” meaning that Augustine would have read the final phrase of the verse to mean, “in whom all have sinned,” when whereas a more accurate translation would be “because all sinned.”
The reading based on the Latin Vulgate would imply that death spread to everyone because all were in Adam when he disobeyed God. Another reading, but based on a more accurate translation of the Greek, the text would mean that death spread to every person because every person sins like Adam. Whereas the former reading implies all men are condemned simply because they are related to Adam, the latter reading puts responsibility on the shoulder of those who willingly and consciously disobey.
Two other prominent views on original sin or guilt emerged during the Protestant Reformation. The French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) agreed with Augustine that we have inherited from Adam both an inclination to sin that affects every part of our being (what Calvin calls “total depravity”) and his guilt or condemnation. Nevertheless, Calvin disagreed with Augustine about how original sin is transmitted from Adam to his descendants.
Whereas Augustine believed that we inherit Adam’s guilt because we were biologically present in him, Calvin argued that we have original sin or guilt because God chose Adam to be the first representative of the human race. When Adam, who was our representative before God, sinned, he threw the entire human race into his condemnation (a view called “federal headship”). From Rom. 5:12-21, Calvin argued that Adam was not our final representative. Just as the first representative imputed his guilt and sin to the human race, Calvin believed that the final representative, Christ, imputed his righteousness to save those who are his elect.
The Dutch Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) offered a mediating position between these views. Arminius agreed that all human beings receive from Adam a corrupted sinful nature and inclination to sin but rejected the notion that every person born is automatically condemned for Adam’s sin.
According to Arminius, God gives a special kind of grace (called “prevenient grace”) to infants, children, and all those who are mentally incapable of responding to the gospel that protects them from the condemnation associated with their inherited sinful natures.
Presently, there is no consensus among Southern Baptists regarding the doctrine of original sin, though all who affirm the Baptist Faith and Message would agree that every person (with exception of Christ) has received a sinful nature from Adam.
The recent statement on what “traditional” Baptists believe about salvation affirms that every human being receives from Adam an inclination toward sin but explicitly denies any kind of culpability or condemnation for Adam’s actions, stating that people only earn God’s wrath for their own personal sin.
Others among Southern Baptists have adopted views more like those of Augustine, Calvin, or Arminius.
In the next article, I will attempt to make a biblical case for my own view and present what seems to be the more biblical view.