Doctrine of Man (Part 15)

December 23, 2013     Time: 00:44:21

Attempts to Systematize Data


The first figure that we want to look at is perhaps the greatest and most influential of the church fathers, namely, Augustine, who was a North African bishop of the church in Hippo. Augustine’s dates are 354 to 430. Augustine is the church father who is most significant in formulating the doctrine of original sin. He founded the classical doctrine of original sin. In this analysis of sin Augustine stressed that all men – all human beings - sinned in Adam. In Adam’s sin, we all fell, and so we share the guilt of Adam’s sin as well as a corrupted human nature inherited from Adam. So all persons are comprised in the sin of Adam. When Adam fell, you and I fell. We bear the guilt and the responsibility for Adam’s sin as well as the proclivity to sin that we have inherited from Adam.

Augustine stressed both the universality and totality of sin. Sin is truly universal because it is endemic to human nature as a result of our fall in Adam. Every human being fell in Adam and therefore sin is truly universal. Also, sin affects every part of the human personality. We are not simply fallen in one aspect of our character or person but all parts of human personality are affected by sin. So there is a kind of universality and totality to sin as a result of Adam’s fall.

As we saw before, Augustine stressed the non-posse-non-peccary in our state of fallenness before God. We are not able to not sin. So sin is inevitable because we carry it in our very being. Therefore, in this state of fallenness, it is impossible for anyone to live a sinless life. We already carry in us the stain and the guilt of Adam’s sin and therefore we are not able to not sin; or to refrain from sin. Sin is inevitable among fallen humanity.

He, therefore, stressed man’s inability to earn God’s grace or approval. That God should extend forgiveness and reconciliation is something that can come only from God’s side. We are fallen and guilty before him and therefore incapable of doing anything that would merit or earn God’s approval.

Finally, he also emphasized that the redemption that was wrought by Christ consisted mainly in laying aside the guilt of sin. There is a strong moral element to his view of Christ’s atonement. Christ lays aside the guilt of original sin that we inherit from Adam as well as the guilt of the individual sins that each of us commits in our lives.

These are part and parcel of the classic doctrine of original sin.

In addition to these points, it must be admitted that there are other things that Augustine said about original sin that are probably less helpful. For example, Augustine made sin a matter of genetics or biology. He thought that it was literally something that you passed on physically from parents to child. So theoretically, at least, you would think that you, through genetic engineering, could perhaps engineer sinless people. If this is really a physical characteristic then science ought to be able to get rid of it.[1] He did think of sin as being something that was a matter of biological transmission. In fact, he connected sin very closely with sexual desire, and he made sexual intercourse the ground for everyone’s being born in sin. It is through the act of sexual intercourse that original sin is passed on. You can imagine the negative attitude then that this would occasion toward human sexuality even in the context of marriage, and how this might promote monasticism and celibacy as a way of trying to avoid passing on original sin.

His concept of sin thus tended to dim the understanding of sin as disobedience to God. It seemed to be more like a disease in a sense – a sexually transmitted disease that we have all inherited. It plays down, as it were, the degree to which we are individually responsible for rebelling and disobeying God.

Finally, he connected the doctrine of original sin to the doctrine of infant baptism. The baptism of infants was justified as the way by which the guilt of Adam’s sin was removed from these infants so that children who die in infancy before they can reach the age of accountability can be saved if they’ve been baptized because then they are no longer culpable for Adam’s sin. So the rite of baptism was interpreted not simply sacramentally to be a means of grace by which God bestows redeeming grace upon a person, but it was extended to infants in view of original sin and the need to deal with original sin. This, of course, tends to eclipse the need for personal conversion and repentance. It is all too easy to say, “I was baptized as an infant and therefore I am a Christian. I received God’s redeeming grace as an infant.” This tends to play down, again, your own personal need for repentance and conversion as an adult who has come to believe.

Those would be some of the characteristics of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin as well as some of the less helpful aspects of it.


Let’s turn secondly to another church father who Augustine opposed. This is Pelagius. Pelagius held that man is free to do good or evil. We are not prisoners condemned inevitably to sin. When we sin, we do so of our own free will and we are free to do what is right, to do good, and therefore we are responsible when we sin. He admitted the universality of sin. He said, yes, sin is indeed everywhere; it is throughout the world. The world is suffused with sin and we all fall into it eventually. But this corruption of sin comes through imitation not through inheritance. It is not as though we inherit original sin from Adam and therefore this works itself out as sinning. It is rather that we are born into a corrupted, fallen world and we then, by imitation, take on the pattern of sinning as well. So sin is not a matter of inheritance. We aren’t born sinners, but rather sin is a matter of imitation through the corrupted world into which we are born.

Pelagius recognized that man can only do good through the grace of God. He is not saying that without God’s grace you can avoid sin. Of course you need God’s grace in order to resist sin. But he would say that, in creating man, God has already given to man all of the grace that he needs in order to resist sin. There is a sort of natural gifting that God gives to man when he creates him.[2] And if man would draw upon those resources then he can resist sin. The fact that he doesn’t and that he falls into sin is therefore his own fault. He can’t blame Adam, he can’t blame God; it is his own fault. He has, as a human being, the inherent gifts of God’s grace that are sufficient for leading a sinless life. But people don’t do so. They eventually all do fall into sin, and therefore we need now God’s forgiveness and redemption.


Another view that arises later is Semi-Pelagianism.

[Someone off-mic asks for the dates of Pelagius. Dr. Craig tells him he does not have that information in his notes. Pelagius lived in the mid-fourth to the early fifth century AD.]

Semi-Pelagianism wants to come closer to the classic doctrine of original sin than Pelagius did. Remember Pelagius thought that we already have, as created human beings, all the grace we need in order to live sinless lives before God. This seemed wrong. It seems like surely we need to call upon God to assist us to give us more grace and more strength in order to live a sinless life. So Semi-Pelagians attempted to accommodate themselves to the original sin doctrine by saying that man’s will is indeed weakened by the Fall. As a result of Adam’s sin there is a kind of weakness of will that we are heir to. But they said that the basic tendency to good still lies within man; it is still there. So grace is necessary – that is, additional grace, not just the grace given you as a created being – but additional grace is available and needed in order to deal with this weakness of will. But this grace is only given in response to your free will. You go to God and say, “God, I can’t live this sinless life without you. I need your help. I come to you poor, naked, destitute. Give me more grace to live a life pleasing to you.” So grace then will be given by God in response to your free choice. By your own free decision, therefore, you receive salvation or damnation. It is not as though God has predestined you to this end. It is not as though God is the one who takes the initiative in bestowing grace upon those whom he wills and he passes over others; rather, we come to God and ask for his grace. On the basis of that God will give us the grace for salvation, or we will not receive his grace because we don’t seek it. We neglect it. Therefore, we condemn ourselves.

By the time of the late Middle Ages, Semi-Pelagianism had become pretty wide spread in the church. The doctrine of original sin had come to mean simply an inherited or inborn inclination to sin. But the idea of Augustine that we actually bear the culpability of Adam’s sin and we are condemned in virtue of Adam’s sin had been largely eclipsed, and original sin was simply re-interpreted as this weakness of will and an inclination to sin that we are all born with as a result of the corruption that Adam introduced into human nature.


With the Reformation came a reclamation of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. The principal reformers such as Luther and Calvin took over the elements of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. Indeed, they stressed even more strongly the guilt aspect of our inheritance from Adam – that we are guilty because of Adam’s sin and therefore are under the condemnation and wrath of God by nature. They still held to, then, the doctrine of infant baptism even though the Reformers had a strong emphasis upon God’s grace and personal faith in Christ as the means by which we receive God’s grace.[3] Nevertheless, they still held to Augustine’s doctrine of infant baptism in order to deal with the guilt of origin sin that we inherited from Adam.


Finally, let me say something about post-Enlightenment views or the modern period. As you can imagine, in the Enlightenment and with the modernist period the doctrine of original sin fell into disfavor. The Enlightenment thinkers – people like Voltaire and other rationalists – argued that it is impossible that you could be punished or be guilty for another person’s sin. If that other person committed sin then he is the one that is guilty and bears the responsibility. But it would be manifestly unjust of God to hold you responsible – to punish you – for a sin that somebody else committed. Indeed, how could you be guilty of that sin? You didn’t do it! So how in the world could you be guilty for something that you didn’t do that some other person did? Therefore, the doctrine of original sin was thought to be simply an incoherence, a moral impossibility.


The father of modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher (whom we’ve mentioned before), also reinterpreted the classic doctrine of original sin in line with his theology. You will remember that for Schleiermacher the essence of the Christian religion is this sense of absolute dependence upon God, a strong God consciousness. As you live day by day aware of at every moment your dependence on God, your absolute dependence upon him. So original sin is reinterpreted to simply mean that we have a weakening of this God consciousness. It is the overpowering of the spiritual by the material elements of life. The things of the world seem so much more real, so much more present and demanding, and therefore our awareness of spiritual things tends to be eclipsed and our consciousness of God is accordingly weakened. Original sin is simply our inability to do good. We find ourselves incapable of really doing the good that we should, and therefore original sin is reinterpreted in this way.


In the classical liberal theology represented by someone like Albrecht Ritschl – this is late 19th century, classical liberal theology – sin is now connected with social problems. It is not so much an individual affair anymore. Rather, the emphasis is that the institutions of society are infected with sin. Government. We might say today the entertainment industry, the economic and business world. All of these societal structures are infected with sin and this has an affect upon everything we do. Ritschl called this the Kingdom of Evil. He thought that this is much worse than your own individual sin. The individual sins that you commit cannot compare to this Kingdom of Evil that infects all of society and therefore affects all of us. Obviously, this would then lead into the program of classical liberal theology which would see Christianity as a movement of social reform. You namely need to reform the institutions of society to bring about the Kingdom of God through social action. So you can see, I think, how this reinterpretation of sin works itself out in classical liberal theology and social reform as an expression of Christianity.

That is just a bird’s eye view of some of the history of thinking about the doctrine of original sin.[4]


Question: Regarding Ritschl’s view of the classical liberal philosophy, does that go hand-in-hand, or did that usher in the idea in modern times anyway, of the post-millennialism or amillennialism thinking and it’s really dominionism and the world can get better and better and we can make it better?

Answer: Those are several different thoughts that you’ve raised. I don’t think we can attach this to amillennialism because that, I think, was characteristic of the Reformed tradition, for example, long before liberal theology came on the scene. So millennial literalism is just one tradition historically within the church. But many would have taken the millennium to be symbolic or to be the church age or something of that sort. But, and I don’t know about dominionism, that is a very interesting question because that is a philosophy of society which says that we should try to establish a Christian government and a Christian sort of structure in, for example, the United States. That would seem to be rather similar to Ritschl’s call for a reform of society’s social structures over just the individual. So obviously this liberal theology – and that is not used in a negative way, that is what it is called, this late 19th century development in theology – would obviously promote political action, political involvement, much more, I think, than the traditional view because it sees the Kingdom of God as being established through this sort of political and social reform.

Question: Where do the various branches of Christianity today fall? Are we all over the board as far as say Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant?

Answer: Catholics would still hold to the classic doctrine such as you find in Augustine. Orthodox, as we saw last time, don’t have the doctrine of original sin in terms of Augustine’s doctrine. Augustine was a Latin-speaking Western theologian, and the Greek-speaking Eastern theologians don’t look to Augustine as their pilot so to speak. So for them the result of Adam’s sin would be a kind of corruption introduced into human nature, but it would not be something for which we bear guilt. We don’t have culpability for Adam’s sin. The Protestant Reformers, and I think those who are their heir today, would tend to hold to the doctrine of original sin. This was denied within Protestantism by someone like Charles Finney but that tends to be, I think, a small group. So most evangelicals today, I would say, would have a strong Augustinian or quasi-Augustinian doctrine of original sin that would see us as both corrupted in nature and also guilty in virtue of having sinned in Adam.

Question: Infant baptism. If I understood what you said correctly, the church’s position was that because of original sin then the infant was baptized to sort of cleanse the baby of that inherited state of sin. Did that sort of serve him until the age of accountability when man was then susceptible to sin on his own accord? Because at some point it seems there has to be that point of accountability. Was there actually an age, like age 12, where now you can no longer utilize an infant baptism as your cleansing possibility?

Answer: Yes, that is the purpose of the sacrament of confirmation in the Church. The Church – the Catholic Church – sees itself as the means of grace. We will talk about this more when we get to the section on the doctrine of the church. It is very different from what evangelicals believe in terms of what things like the Lord’s Supper and baptism represent.[5] For the Catholic, these are almost like pipelines through which God’s grace flows like water. This is how God’s grace comes to you – through these various sacraments that are administered by the church. Indeed, the church itself is a kind of means of grace which is why it is so important to be connected with the true church because that is how one normally receives God’s grace. So, you receive the grace of regeneration through infant baptism and removes Adam’s sin. But as you say, as you grow older you start sinning on your own. Therefore, you need to begin to take the means of grace like the Eucharist and you attend Mass. That will be the means by which God’s grace then is mediated to you to forgive those sins. Now the little child can’t take the Eucharist until he reaches a certain age where his baptism that his parents made is confirmed by him. He goes through the sacrament of confirmation, and thereby now begins to appropriate these other means of grace because he has made an individual decision to begin to receive them.

Followup: So things like confession and so forth would be a cleansing of sin given by the church?

Answer: Right, yes. Because you are to go to confession, confess your sins, and then you will be absolved from those sins by the priest, and then sometimes traditionally some sort of penance will be prescribed for you to do – a certain number of prayers to say, or to go on a pilgrimage, or visit a holy site, or something of that sort. This penance doesn’t win forgiveness but what it does is that it shows the genuineness of your contrition. It shows that you really mean it – you are not just going to the priest and blithely confessing your sins, but you are really contrite. This penance is an expression to God of that contrition that you have and the more serious the sin the greater the penance that you need to show to show that you mean business with God. So it is quite a different system of salvation and grace than I think most of us in evangelicalism are accustomed to.

Question: Was Ritschl influenced by Marx? Did he admit to any influence from Karl Marx?

Answer: I do not know. That is a very intriguing question. I can’t answer it. Ritschl himself was a great influence upon American liberal theologians of the late 19th century, but I couldn’t say whether there was a connection with Marx. One could see how there would be a natural affinity, can’t you?


All right, let’s go on to some evaluation of this issue.

The degree to which we are persuaded to adopt an Augustinian doctrine of original sin is going to depend upon our exegesis of Romans 5. So we might want to turn to that passage and look at it. Augustine’s doctrine was based upon a mistranslation of verse 12 where Paul says, “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men” and then Augustine’s read, “in whom all men sinned.” That is to say, he thought that it meant that death spread to all men because all men sinned in Adam and hence the doctrine of original sin. Well, that is not what the original Greek reads. In the original Greek, it means something like “because all men sinned.” I imagine if you have a modern translation, your translation will read something like that – “death spread to all men because all men sinned.” And that’s why they bear the curse of death and condemnation.

However, it seems to me that Augustine’s doctrine is not dependent upon verse 12 alone. When you read the remainder of the passage, I think that it would be very easy to interpret this in terms of a kind of solidarity with Adam in virtue of which we fall in Adam and share his sin.[6] For example, in verse 15 it says, “. . . if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” And there the parallelism is between Adam’s sin and Christ’s atoning death. The idea seems very natural to say that it is through the one man’s trespass that we all died just as it is through Christ’s atoning death that we are all made alive.

Again, the second half of verse 16, “. . . the judgment following one trespass” – one trespass: Adam’s. “. . . the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.” Again, it would be very natural to read that, I think, as saying that there is a judgment upon mankind that is the result of that one trespass that Adam committed, not just because of all of our individual trespasses.

Similarly, in verse 19, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” Again, the contrast there between Christ’s act of obedience which makes us righteous is Adam’s act of disobedience which you could say makes us unrighteous.

So it seems to me that the viability of Augustine’s doctrine is not at all dependent upon this mistranslation of verse 12, but that the rest of the passage also could be very naturally read in terms of a kind of solidarity with Adam by which we fall in Adam and are counted guilty and sinful as a result of his fall.

How might we understand such a doctrine if we do want to go that route in opposition to the Enlightenment critique which, you’ll remember, says no person can be justly punished for another man’s sin? Well, traditionally Reformation theologians have understood Adam to be the federal head of the human race. He represents us before God just as in, say, the U. S. Congress your federal representative represents you. He votes for you. We don’t have a democracy in which all of us can go and vote. Rather, we have a representative system whereby our representative votes in our place. Or think of, to borrow a different analogy from the financial world, a stock brokers’ meeting. We will often receive in the mail a proxy form where we are asked to sign a statement which assigns someone else to be our proxy at the meeting. Since we don’t attend the stockholders’ meeting, this proxy does, and through this paper he votes in our place. It is my vote that he is casting because he is my proxy. Therefore, if we think of Adam as our proxy before God, or as the federal head of the human race, it seems to me that we could make sense of the idea that all persons are culpable for what Adam does. He votes on our behalf, and we are held responsible for it. Therefore, all persons are born sinners, and therefore they will inevitably sin. Sin is not just a sort of accident that befalls us. We are sinful by nature and therefore inevitably will sin.

The natural response to this, I think, is to say, “Well, who asked Adam to be my representative? I didn’t vote for him to be my proxy? Who gives him the right to stand before God on my behalf and make this decision for which I am then blamed?” Well, it seems to me that what the defender of Augustine’s doctrine could say is that Adam, as our representative, sinned before God and that had we been there instead we would have done exactly the same thing. So that he affirms the truth of a counterfactural of freedom about each one of us; namely, if we had been in that situation we would have sinned and done the same thing.[7] Therefore, we cannot complain that we have been misrepresented by Adam before God. Adam has faithfully represented us before God; he has done exactly what we would have done freely in that situation, and therefore we cannot complain about what Adam did.

That would then explain the universality of sin. It would be something that is inevitable for us because we are fallen and corrupted as a result of Adam’s sin. I think we would also want to agree that sin is total in the sense that it affects every aspect of the human personality. When classical Reformed theologians talk about total depravity, they do not mean that people are as bad as they could possibly be. Obviously, some people are lots worse than others. Hitler was a lot worse than Mother Teresa, say. So what total depravity means is that there isn’t any aspect of human nature which is untainted by sin or is pristine. Rather, every aspect of the human personality is tainted by sin. So it is rather like a drop of ink in a glass of water. The drop of ink diffuses itself throughout the entire glass and affects all of the water – the water is totally affected by the drop of ink. But obviously, the water isn’t as black as it could possibly be. It could be a lot worse, but nevertheless there is totality in the sense that the whole is affected.

So this would explain why people are, by nature, lost before God. They are lost because they are born in original sin. On the non-Augustinian view, it would be possible for a human being to grow up and never need Christ. He would never need to be redeemed because sin isn’t inevitable. He could live a sinless lift, either through the grace that is infused in him by nature as Pelagius thought, or in response to his request for grace as the Semi-Pelagian thought. But on the Augustinian view that is impossible. No one could ever live a sinless life given the affect of original sin upon us.

How should we then regard children? Well, I think Jesus’ attitude toward children shows that God’s graciousness is extended to children. Jesus said let the little children come to me for such is the Kingdom of Heaven.[8] I think this gives good grounds for thinking that God’s grace is extended to children, particularly those who die in infancy. But it seems to me that infant baptism is a terrible mistake, especially when it is conjoined with the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, that is to say that in baptism you actually are baptized in the Holy Spirit, or by the Holy Spirit, and are regenerated. What this leads to is a church filled with unregenerate people who have been trusting in infant baptism as the basis upon which they are supposedly Christians but who haven’t actually made a personal decision to receive Christ and so be regenerate. If infant baptism is regarded as a purely symbolic act that isn’t actually simultaneous with spirit baptism then that problem would be alleviated somewhat because you wouldn’t regard a person as regenerate as a result of being baptized as an infant. But when you conjoin infant baptism with the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, it seems to me that this just has disastrous consequences for the church, and therefore Augustine was quite wrong in denying believers’ baptism and thinking that baptism should not be restricted totally or wholly to believers.

So I don’t think we need infant baptism in order to remove the stain of original sin. There is nothing in Scripture that would suggest that baptism is the means of grace by which original sin would be expunged. Rather, we can simply trust God to be gracious to those who die in infancy.[9]

Further, it seems to me that we should not think of original sin as something that is sexual in nature or is passed on through sexual intercourse. That would be to turn sin into a sexually transmitted disease – something that is physical and surely it is not. Rather, what the doctrine of original sin would hold is that man’s moral nature is now somehow flawed. In virtue of Adam’s sin the soul is somehow incapacitated in its moral abilities to resist sin and do good. So man in the state of nature – in the natural state – doesn’t seek God. I think this is where Pelagius erred in thinking that in the natural state human beings will seek for God, ask for his grace, and so forth. Rather, the testimony of Scripture is that the natural man does not seek the things of the Spirit of God; they are foolishness to him. He doesn’t understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Therefore, no one would come freely to God unless God took the initiative. God must seek out the erring sinner. It is not that we come to God of our free will and ask for his grace; rather, God’s grace is expressed in his taking the initiative and in drawing us to him.

Now, the question of whether or not we have freedom to resist that drawing or whether that is irresistible grace – that is a further question that we can take up when we get to the doctrine of salvation. But I do want to defend the view that we don’t take the initiative in salvation; we are sinful, fallen, estranged from God, alienated from him, and therefore would not come to him apart from the work of the Holy Spirit and God taking the initiative.

Finally, I think we should agree that sin does permeate social institutions. The liberal theologians are quite right in seeing sin as something that gets institutionalized in commerce, in entertainment, in government, in political systems. That is very true. We live in a society that is inherently corrupted by sin. But this is because individuals are sinful. Individuals are not sinful because they are born into a corrupt society; society is corrupted because it is made up of corrupted and fallen individuals who then try to [live] together in some sort of harmony as best they can.

So it seems to me that this classical Augustinian doctrine is defensible, I think, in certain respects if we modify it, and that it does make good sense out of Romans 5. However, these views that I’ve expressed are not held with great dogmatic certainty or tenacity. I think we have to recognize that the basis for this doctrine is this one passage basically in Scripture and that this passage might be differently interpreted by others. But nevertheless given the commitment of the historic Christian church – both Catholic and Reformation – to this doctrine, I think it is one that we would give up very reluctantly. It would only be if there were really compelling reasons to abandon the doctrine of original sin that we would read Romans 5 otherwise. Otherwise, I want to stay within the mainstream of Christian thinking, at least in the West on this issue, and affirm an Augustinian view of original sin.[10]


[1] 5:05

[2] 10:04

[3] 15:04

[4] 20:05

[5] 25:01

[6] 30:00

[7] 35:05

[8] cf. Matthew 19:14

[9] 40:00

[10] Total Running Time: 44:21 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)