Plan of salvation/Original sin

Mormonism and the the concept of "original sin"

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Question: What to Latter-day Saints believe regarding the concept of "original sin"?

Latter-day Saints believe that "original sin" as commonly understood in many branches of western Christianity was not a doctrine taught by the Bible, Jesus, or the apostles

The Second Article of Faith states that "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression." There is a form of "original sin" in LDS theology, but it is a matter that has been resolved through the atonement of Christ:

And our father Adam spake unto the Lord, and said: Why is it that men must repent and be baptized in water? And the Lord said unto Adam: Behold I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden. Hence came the saying abroad among the people, that the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children, for they are whole from the foundation of the world. (Moses 6:53-54, emphasis added.)

Thus, LDS theology explicitly rejects the idea that Adam's "original sin" results in a condemnation of the entire human race. Efforts to insist that all of humanity is thereby tainted, all desires are corrupted, or all infants are damned without baptism are untrue. Because of temptation and the instinctive desires of physical bodies, human beings wrestle with the desire to sin (Matthew 26:41; Mosiah 3:19), but Adam's actions in the Garden of Eden have no bearing on this.

As Wilford Woodruff taught:

What is called the original sin was atoned for through the death of Christ irrespective of any action on the part of man; also man's individual sin was atoned for by the same sacrifice, but on condition of his obedience to the Gospel plan of salvation when proclaimed in his hearing.” [1]

Concluded Elaine Pagels:

Astonishingly, Augustine’s radical views prevailed, eclipsing for future generations of Western Christians the consensus of the first three centuries of Christian tradition. [2]

Original sin is the innovation. It is a post-biblical novelty without scriptural support.

Given that the doctrine is explicitly repudiated by modern revelation, the Saints feel no need to accept it.

Clearly, any effort to exclude the Church from Christendom because they reject original sin must also exclude several hundred million Eastern Orthodox and Anabaptists. Clearly, such a standard would be nonsensical.


Question: Is original sin a biblical doctrine?

Many authors have noted that the modern doctrine of "original sin" is at variance with much of both the Old and New Testament

James Barr wrote:

Our ideas about the origin of evil have an effect on our ideas about humanity and its potentialities and limitations in the present-day world” (59-60)...

For the traditional Christian conception of the origins of evil, the dominant passages are in St. Paul [Rom 5.12; 5.18; I Cor 15.21-22, 47, 49]….

The most noticeable thing about them is the stress they throw upon the disobedience of Adam…. Its effect was instant and completely catastrophic. There is no matter of degree or development. The slightest sin was total and universal in its effect: sin, it seems, completely, and not partially, altered man’s relation to God…. Later theologians worked out, on this basis, the doctrine of original sin” (60-1).

“All this has been the familiar and traditional Christian position. It is so familiar, so deeply implanted in our traditions, that it comes as something of a surprise to realize that it is after all a rather rare emphasis within the New Testament itself; and, in particular, it is an emphasis that seems to be lacking from the teaching of Jesus himself….

There is no doctrine of original sin to be found in Jesus’ teaching…. And, if it is not in Jesus’ teaching, it is equally absent from many other parts of the New Testament…. It is intrinsically Pauline” (61-2).

“Nowhere in the entire Hebrew Bible is the disobedience of Adam and Eve cited as explanation for sin or evil in the world. This reference…simply does not occur…. The Old Testament, far from taking the universal sinfulness of man as an obvious and ineluctable fact, seems rather, taken as a whole, to insist upon the possibility of avoiding sin” (67).

“The main Jewish tradition, as we know it since the Middle Ages, has refused to accept any sort of doctrine of original sin…. Moral problems are serious choices for the Jew, and they are serious choices because one has freedom to sin or not to sin. There is indeed the idea of the two yesers, formations or inclinations, the good and the bad, both of which are implanted in man and between which he has to choose…. Adam, like the other men of the first beginnings, was often regarded with admiration: he was a very great man. As Ben Sira put it, looking back over the worthies of the Bible who should be remembered: ‘Shem and Seth were honored among men but Adam is above every living being in the creation’ [Ecclesiasticus 49.16]” ;(68). “all this then raises the serious question: was St. Paul really at all right in his understanding the story of Adam and Eve as the cataclysmic entrance of sin and death?” (69). [3]

A better question may be, is the understanding of St. Paul adopted by the western Christian tradition actually correct? Where did this reading of Paul come from? Why would "Paul's" conception of original sin vary so profoundly from both the Jewish and New Testament tradition?

Interestingly, it all starts with one man, well after the death of Jesus and the apostles—Augustine of Hippo.


Question: What is the origin of the doctrine of original sin?

There is no evidence that the doctrine existed before Augustine

One non-LDS author observed:

The idea of ‘original sin’ has been so commonly identified with traditional Christianity that the rejection of the one has seemed to imply a rejection of the other. It is supposedly an unquestioned assumption of Christian soteriology. In truth, the teaching that all...men are guilty of Adam’s sin, that each person must pay the penalty for, as Augustine declared (De corrept. et grat., 28), is really the product of his legalistic and Neo-platonic imagination. No scholarly work, whether treating the Scriptures or the Fathers, has demonstrated…that the idea of ‘original sin’ belongs to ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) or ever existed before Augustine. The same may be said for his theories of Grace and Predestination which accompany it, all of which are the result of his ‘Neo-platonic world-view’ [quoting G. Nygren, ‘The Augustinian Conception of Grace,’ Studia Patristica 2 (1955): 260]. Many of his contemporaries opposed him [and] … were scandalized by his lack of traditionalism—and not without justification” (39). [4]

We learn, then, that:

  • there is no evidence that the doctrine existed before Augustine
  • Augustine's view drew on his legal training, and his background in Greek Neo-Platonism.
  • there was great opposition to Augustine's views, because his concept of "original sin" was not the traditional Christian teaching, but a drastic novelty.
  • Augustine's novel view of original sin led to alteration in other doctrine, such as his ideas on Grace and Predestination.

Augustine's mistranslation

Part of Augustine's error can be explained by the fact that he did not read or speak Greek. He was forced, then, to rely on Latin translations of both the scriptures and the writings of other early Christians.

As Azkoul goes on to observe:

The moralist problem concerning the transmission of guilt and death to the descendants of Adam which preoccupied Augustine made a traditional reading of the verse [Romans 5:12] impossible. He not only abused it, but the entire witness of St. Paul with its Hebraic background. Unfortunately, the Bishop of Hippo [i.e., Augustine] did not know Greek and depended on the Latin translation of the New Testament. It was Ambrosiaster who provided, perhaps unwittingly, with Romans 5.12 as a proof-text” (42). The Latin text was rendered: ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world and death by sin, so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned.’ The correct translation from the Greek reads: ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered the world and through sin death; on account of death all have sinned’ (42-3). Neither Origen [whom Augustine read: CD xi. 23] or Ambrosiaster gave voice to the doctrine of ‘original sin.’…. Quite simply, then, Augustine strayed from the truth, the Apostolic Tradition, and any attempt to justify his innovations by an appeal to some questionable principle of historical interpretation—‘doctrinal development’—will not help“. [5]

On the need for infant baptism

Of the consequences of Augustine's mistake, Stephen Duffy writes:

“his [Augustine’s] interpretation [of Romans 5.12], mistaken as it was, and deriving from the erroneous Old Latin version, would play a crucial role in the development of the later doctrine of original sin.” Ambrosiaster, the name given to an anonymous late fourth century commentator on the writings of Paul “does not seem [to think that] we are punished for Adam’s sin, but for our own: ‘…We are not made guilty by the fact of birth, but by evil deeds’ [On Romans 5.12-14; Questions on the Old and New Testaments 21f]” (63)...

“While granting that the tragic fall-out from Adam’s sin has contaminated all, Greek Christianity negates any transmission of guilt from Adam to his posterity. And the Eastern anthropology is in general more optimistic than that of the West. The two Gregories [Nyssa and Nazianzus] and Chrysostom maintain that the newborn are free from sin and so they are unperturbed about children dying without baptism….

Gregory of Nyssa, e.g., asserts that sin is congenital and that even Christ’s humanity was prone to sin [hamartetiken]” (63). Didymus the blind (ca. 313-398), last head of the famous catechetical school of Alexandria, speaks of the sin of Adam in virtue of which all are under sin, which is transmitted, it seems, by the sexual union of their parents. This involuntary, hereditary sin calls for purification not punishment [On 2 Corinthians 4.17 and Against the Manichaeans 8]” (64). “All this falls short of the classical Augustinian doctrine of original sin but key elements of that doctrine were already taking shape, especially in the West” (64). [6]

LDS readers see this as clear evidence of the apostasy impacting Christian doctrine—the loss of the apostles led Augustine and others to try to resolve difficult issues. Augustine was influenced by his culture, his practice of law, and his philosophical neo-platonism. These led him and others to gradually alter Christian doctrine, and yet these alterations would snowball. Augustine's adoption of original sin led, logically, to the need to baptize infants—an idea totally at variance with earlier Christian practice and doctrine.

Effect on ideas of grace and predestination

One error (Augustine's view of original sin) led to other alterations to Christian doctrine, which previous generations would have found incomprehensible:

According to Augustine, ‘original sin’ precluded any human cooperation with the divine Grace…. The human will is powerless to choose the good by virtue of the evil inherited from Adam. Unable to choose, he must be drawn irresistibly to God by grace. Original sin and predestination are both innovations without support in the Tradition of the Church. [7]

Azkoul then translates from G.F. Wiggers, Versuch einer pragmatischen Darstellung des Augustinisimus und Pelagianismus (Hamburg 1821: 448):

“In reference to predestination the Fathers before Augustine were entirely at variance with him and in agreement with Pelagius…. No ecclesiastical author had ever yet explained the Epistle to the Romans (e.g., Rom. 5.12) as Augustine had…. It was only by a doubtful inference, too, that he appealed to Cyprian, Ambrose, Gregory of Nazianzus, etc….’” [8]


Question: Is the concept of "original sin" part of all Christian theology?

Original sin is not part of all Christian theology

Many western Christians assume that "original sin" is a core part of Christian theology. While this may be true for theologies descended from Augustine's innovation, it is not true of Christianity as a whole.

For example, the Eastern Orthodox have quite a different view:

“In the Eastern patristic tradition …this experience is different from the Western, more legalistic, post-Augustinian, medieval conception of ‘original sin’ which makes every human guilty of the sin committed by Adam in paradise” (471). In the Eastern tradition “salvation is not only a liberation from death and sin; it is also the restoration of the original human destiny, which consists in being the ‘image of God’…. Humanity finds its ultimate destiny in communion with God, that is, in theosis, or deification” (472). [9]

And:

“The East did not accept Augustine’s notion of original sin and saw its consequence not as guilt but as mortality. Guilt is only acquitted through the personal exercise of the free will, through personal sin” (356). [10]

Other denominations also rejected Augustine's alteration to the doctrine. This author is a Mennonite theologian:

“Anabaptists insisted that Jesus’ atonement had canceled Original Sin’s guilt and restored children everywhere to an initial state of grace. Infant baptism, then, was no longer needed to wash away this sin. Anabaptists thus viewed humankind not as a massa perditionis but as initially graced” (86). [11]


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Wilford Woodruff, "Fulfillment of Ancient Prophesy," in Brian H. Stuy (editor), Collected Discourses: Delivered by Wilford Woodruff, his two counselors, the twelve apostles, and others, 1868–1898, 5 vols., (Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987–1989), 1:344. [Discourse given on Sept 1, 1889.]
  2. Elaine Pagels, “The Politics of Paradise: Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis 1-3 versus that of John Chrysostom,” Harvard Theological Review 78 (1985): 68.
  3. James Barr, “The Authority of Scripture. The Book of Genesis and the Origin of Evil in Jewish and Christian Tradition,” in Christian Authority: Essays in Honor of Henry Chadwick, ed. G.R. Evans (Oxford, 1988), 59-75. Italics added; citations from pages as indicated.
  4. Michael Azkoul, “Peccatum Originale: The Pelagian Controversy,” Patristic and Byzantine Review 3 (1984): 39.
  5. Azkoul, 43.
  6. Stephen J. Duffy, The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1993), 62-63.
  7. Azkoul, 40.
  8. Azkoul, 51, note 5.
  9. John Meyendorff, “Theosis in the Eastern Christian Tradition,” in Christian Spirituality III: Post Reformation and Modern, edited by Louis Dupre and Don Saliers, (New York, 1989), 470-476.
  10. Paul Meyendorff, “Liturgy and Spirituality I: Eastern Liturgical Theology”, in Christian Spirituality I: Origins, ed. B. McGinn and J. Meyendorff, New York 1985: 350-363.
  11. Thomas Finger, “Anabaptism and Eastern Orthodoxy: Some Unexpected Similarities,’ Journal of Ecumenical Studies 31 (1994): 67-91.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims