Sunday, April 1, 2012

Original Guilt vs. Original Sin

Consider the following argument:

1. If one cannot sin, then one has not sinned.

2. If one has not sinned, then one cannot be held morally responsible for sin.

3. Therefore, if one cannot sin, then one cannot be held morally responsible for sin.

(1) is true as a matter of course; if something is impossible for a being, then it certainly cannot be said that being has performed that action. (2) seems to be somewhat uncontroversial as well. For how can we hold someone morally responsible for an act they have not performed? Instead of “sin,” replace it with any form of wrongdoing or reprehensible act (such as “lying” or “cheating on one’s taxes,” etc.). (3) is just a conclusion from a logical rule of inference that allows us to say “if A, then B; if B, then, C; therefore, if A, then C,” and hence cannot be denied. But then consider:

4. For any sin act X, if one cannot perform X, then one cannot be held morally responsible for X.

5. To hold someone morally responsible for X is to hold one guilty of X.

6. Therefore, for any sin act X, if one cannot perform X, then one cannot be held guilty of X.

(4) is little more than a restatement of (3). It just makes it explicit that one is meaning any specific act of sin. (5) also seems quite plausible, for to be morally responsible for X just means either to be praiseworthy or blameworthy, and since X is specified to be an act of sin, one cannot be praiseworthy. (6) follows as an entailed conclusion from (4-5), and hence cannot be denied. So, finally consider:

7. There are at least some created persons who are, at this moment, incapable of performing a sin act.

8. Therefore, there are at least some created persons who, at this moment, cannot be held guilty of X.

9. [Original Guilt Premise]: For every created person A, A is held morally responsible for (and hence guilty of) X. (OGP)

10. Therefore, either (8) or (OGP) is true, but not both.

11. (8) is true.

12. Therefore, OGP is false.

(7) is true when we consider the mentally handicapped, babies, etc. It seems truly odd to think that all people so described are in fact capable of sin while in those states. (8) follows as an entailed conclusion from (1-6), and hence cannot be denied. (9) is the premise of original guilt[1], and specifies X as Adam’s sin. But (8) and (9) are contradictory, for since we did not actually exist, we could not perform X. But if we cannot perform X, then we did not perform X, and hence cannot be held morally responsible for X. This means original guilt, where the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to all persons at conception, is false.

I do believe in original sin, however. Original sin teaches that the consequences and effects of Adam’s sin are passed on to the entire human race. This includes death (cf. Romans 5), the proclivity or inclination to sin, etc. One need not worry as to when, precisely, guilt is imputed. If Genesis 3 is any hint, it comes with the knowledge of good and evil. This knowledge comes experientially and with the resisting of temptation. Philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga have made the case that any non-divine, libertarianly free being will not successfully refrain from choosing sin over a course of time (even though it is logically possible). In that case, with the will inclined toward sin, it is both metaphysically and anecdotally possible that persons only come to realize the knowledge of good and evil in the relevant sense when they realize they have committed wrong! What begs to be written on (and it probably has) is a good exegesis of Romans 5 from this perspective.

                [1] This is not to be confused with “original sin,” which will be discussed later. Original sin (OS) states the effects and consequences of Adam’s sin are passed on to his descendants, while original guilt (OGP) states the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to all persons. OS seems to be obviously taught in Scripture, while OGP seems to be a theological outworking.

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  1. I am teaching on the end of Romans 5 this Sunday and remembered seeing this post in my Gmail :)!

    I was reading my commentary on it and the author advocates original guilt, which just doesn't seem fair in any sense.

    Why would we have a choice to accept life (redemption) from Christ, but we don't have a say in the matter when it comes to Adam's sin?

    This is Frank by the way :D

  2. Frank again :D

    After doing a bit more reading I think I'd say that Original Guilt is correct in a sense. Original sin says we all inherit that sin nature from Adam (the effect). Original guilt could be understood as saying that the inheritance of the effects of Adam's sin is the consequence of being imputed with his guilt. Admittedly I'm pretty tired and questioning whether this will make sense tomorrow. Hopefully.

  3. Hi Frank! I hope your teaching went well. They way this article is using "original guilt" is to say that, at conception, the person is held as actually guilty of Adam's sin (hence the need, in Augustine's view, for infant baptism--otherwise the infants go to Hell). Now I actually don't think the one committed to original guilt is committed to the proposition that infants who die go to Hell, for God may impute righteousness to them. But my question is why? Their answer may simply be God's graciousness, in which case we may ask why we would think God does this for all of the set of infants when he ostensibly does not do so for all of the set of the rest of us. My answer is that God does this because he regards them not to have done any of their own sin, which is what we should be judged on. But it is here we tip our hands and admit original guilt cannot be true, for it would have us to be judged on merits (or demerits) not our own.

  4. Well here's the conclusion I came to:

    We're guilty in the sense that we have been judged for Adam's sin, but it's important to clarify what that judgment is. I'd reject the idea that I deserve hell for Adams action. I can't see how its in any way fair to be judged for the sin of someone else. I believe the judgement that results from Adam's guilt is the inherited tendency to sin, though it could be better thought of as a consequence. We could further explore this with the question "why does God ordain that every person is born after Adam should have this natural desire for sin? Why not just create us in the same state He created Adam and Eve? We can only speculate, but I think it has to do with the fact that our ancestral parents had this fallen nature, and we as their offspring simply inherit it.


  5. Randy,

    Your second point seems valid on the surface when judged by human definitions of "fair" but can you support such an assertion biblically?

    "2. If one has not sinned, then one cannot be held morally responsible for sin."

  6. Hey man good to see ya and thanks for commenting!

    Of course I can support this premise, if by "support" one means to show "evidence." Evidence for some proposition means that the proposition is more probable on some given fact or facts than it would be in the absence of that fact or those facts.

    Take Ezekiel 18. The entire chapter is about personal moral responsibility, irrespective of what one's father has done. Consider Deuteronomy 24:16, which states that the son will not be put to death for the father. Every man would receive punishment for his own sin. So we see, at least in the Old Testament, people were held responsible for the sins. Now one may think this is an improper interpretation of the text, but it nonetheless follows it is evidence of the proposition, for the proposition is more probable given these passages than if they were not present.

    Moreover, consider the New Testament. Rom. 3:23 details individual responsibility: "for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." It was their acts of sin that were held as morally responsible. Even those who hold to original sin typically will add that a) we were in Adam, so that we did perform such a sin, and b) we are held responsible for our own actions.

    Finally, consider it doesn't make any sense to speak of "responsibility" for something in which one was not involved. I had no part in the 9/11 attacks; I am not morally responsible for them. Even supposing there were some acts that contributed in some way so that I could bear a partial guilt, consider: it only makes sense to speak of me bearing moral responsibility in the sense that there is some reason for it (i.e., "Randy you influenced the moral perversion of America, the attacks were done because of moral perversion, ergo you had a part"). But then it follows I did in fact sin, which is ex hypothesi false! Given the arbitrariness with which moral responsibility would be applied (so as to make the term itself vacuous), the biblical evidence, the commonsense moral intuition which God gave us, and the inability to formulate a coherent account from everyday life, I think it is pretty well-established. I can't think of any moral epistemology that relies on truly objective moral values that could think (2) is false.

  7. Yeah while Romans 5 can be Interpretted in favor of imputed guilt(proper term!).
    It is unnecessary. "as much as all men have sinned" vrs 12 Geneva bible
    But the power of Ezekiel 18 makes OT clear. Sadly , main line protestants try to have the new testament interpret the Old instead of vice versa.

  8. Since the death of our unborn baby the subject of original guilt has caused me to examine my belief in the inerrency of the Bible. Romans 5:12-19, especially verse 12, makes it seem pretty clear Paul is saying that death spread to all men because all sinned in Adam. I believe Scripture agrees with itself so the tension in verse 12 with the rest of the Bible's teaching on the subject is confusing. As an appologist, I want to be ready to give the reason for my faith, can you help me please.

  9. Ralph, thanks so much for commenting. First, let me say I am terribly sorry for your loss.

    One of the things we must always remember is that what a text appears to be saying depends in no small part upon our background knowledge. For instance, if we know God does not sin, then any text that may seem to teach that must not. Similarly, the tension you see may be difficult, but not actually exist.

    For instance, I also believe the text in Romans 5 teaches that death passed upon all men. I also believe that sin is inevitable; that is, I believe we are born with a proclivity to sin and that, although each sin is resistible, nonetheless we will ultimately fall (sooner rather than later). However, God does not hold us guilty of Adam's sin apart from actually participating in that same sin: rebellion against God. Any sin is, by definition, rebellion against God. Thus, any of us who sin (which is all of us) participate in Adam's same sin.

    Finally, this is a prime example of what I call theological confirmation bias. The text nowhere says infants are counted to have sinned; instead it states that death passed upon all men, even those who did not sin by disobeying a direct command given to them of God (or, taken more literally, even those who did not sin in the garden). But note what this means: it means that there is some fundamental difference between Adam's sin and ours--namely, that he committed his and we committed ours! There are consequences that linger on, even for those who are innocent. This is why people who have committed no sins at all (such as babies) can pass away. Consider those who are robbed; they did not commit a sin by being robbed, and yet they endured the consequences of the sin of robbery.

    The point of Romans 5 is not to say all babies have sinned while in the womb. The point is that the proclivity and consequences of sin came through one man (Adam), but the consequences of salvation (and later the changing into the image of the Son of God) comes through one man (Jesus Christ)! I hope that helps a little. :)


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