Is the Doctrine of Original Sin Incoherent?

Paul M. Gould, Associate Director of RC Prof One challenge to the reasonableness of the Christian faith is conceptual. If the concept of God or some central doctrine Christians endorse is incoherent, then Christian theism is necessarily false. As a philosopher, one of my favorite challenges to the coherence of theism (because it highlights the importance of defining terms) is the so-called paradox of the stone: “Christians say an omnipotent (all-powerful) God can do anything. If God is omnipotent, then can he make a stone so big that he can’t lift it?” If you say yes, God can make such a stone, well there is something an all-powerful God cannot do: lift the stone. If you say no, God cannot make such a stone, then there is something an all-powerful God cannot do: make that stone. Either way, there is something God can’t do. Therefore, as the argument goes, we have a contradiction: God is and is not all-powerful. Do we find contradictions between faith and science? Read Corey Miller’s series on the Perceived Problem of Science and Faith. If so, then theism is necessarily false. The problem, in this case, is with the definition of omnipotence. As it turns out, omnipotence does not mean God can literally do anything. There are things even God cannot do, and traditional theism has always maintained this view: God cannot bring about the logically impossible or anything that goes against his moral nature. The idea of a stone so big that God cannot lift it, arguably, is a logically incoherent idea. Think about it. Any finite stone, presumably, God could lift. So, it must be an infinite stone. But, the idea of an infinite stone—a concrete material object that is infinitely massed and extended in space—is impossible. Thus, the claim that God can’t create such a stone doesn’t count against his omnipotence. It is like asking an omnipotent God to create a square circle. As good thinkers and apologists, it is important to understand the conceptual challenges to our beliefs. In this post, I want to consider a conceptual challenge to a distinctively Christian doctrine, the doctrine of original sin. If the doctrine of original sin is incoherent, then traditional understandings of the Christian faith need to be rejected or revised. While the doctrine of original sin does contain some conceptual challenges, I shall argue that there is no good reason to think that the doctrine suffers from any conceptual incoherency. The Notre Dame philosopher Michael Rea nicely summarizes two key claims of the traditional understanding of the doctrine of original sin: (A) All human beings (except, at most, four) suffer from a kind of corruption that makes it inevitable that they will fall into sin, and this corruption is a consequence of the first sin of the first man. (B) All human beings (except, at most, four) are guilty from birth in the eyes of God, and this guilt is a consequence of the first sin of the first man. Claim (A) is sometimes referred to as original corruption and claim (B) as original guilt. Together, they capture a widely-held understanding of the doctrine of original sin. The events surrounding these claims are detailed, of course, in Genesis 3. There we learn that humanity’s first couple disobeyed God and as a consequence of this “fall” from grace, all future humans come into the world corrupt and guilty. The problem, as Rea points out, is that the doctrine of original sin conflicts with an intuitively plausible principle about moral responsibility: (MR) A person P is morally responsible for the obtaining of a state of affairs S only if S obtains (or obtained) and P could have prevented S from obtaining. The idea, less formally, is that I am praiseworthy or blameworthy only for things that are within my control. I’m rightly praised for walking Grandma across the street, but not for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’m rightly blamed for stealing those cookies out of the jar, but not for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. I had nothing to do with the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin nor Lincoln’s assassination. Moreover, I couldn’t have prevented either event since they happened over one hundred years before my birth. But here we find a problem at the heart of the doctrine of original sin. Why, we might ask, am I guilty for something Adam and Eve did, something I could not have prevented (since I wasn’t even born yet)? We can formalize the incoherency worry as follows: 1. Person P is born guilty.
2. Whatever states of affairs obtained at or before person P is born are not states of affairs whose obtaining person P had the power to prevent.
3. A person P is morally responsible for the obtaining of a state of affairs S only if S obtains (or obtained) and P could have prevented S from obtaining.
4. Therefore, it is not the case that person P is morally responsible for whatever states of affairs obtained at or before person P was born.
5. Therefore, it is not the case that Person P is born guilty.
6. Therefore, Person P is and is not born guilty.
7. Therefore, the doctrine of original sin is false. Premises (4)-(7) follow logically from (1)-(3), so any way-out of the incoherency worry will be found in the rejection of one or more of the first three premises. Premise (1), as we’ve seen, is part of the widely-held view regarding the doctrine of original sin. Premise (2) captures the intuitively plausible idea that we can exert no causal influence on states of affairs that obtain prior to our birth. Premise (3) is a restatement of the plausible principle of prevention (MR) stated above. As it turns out, each of these premises have been challenged, and thus, there are at least three options available to the Christian theist for rendering the doctrine of original sin coherent. The three options are as follows: Option #1: Reject premise (1) and the doctrine of original guilt. The first option is to reject claim (B) and argue that it is only claim (A) which rightly belongs in any defensible doctrine of original sin. On this view, post-fall humans come into the world damaged but not guilty. We are born “in sin” but not “sinning.” Guilt comes when we sin in thought, word, or deed. Many have pointed out that the inherited guilt view is theologically suspect, built on a faulty interpretation of Romans 5:12 by Augustine. Romans 5:12 reads: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (NIV, italics added). Augustine, who only knew Latin versions of the New Testament, mistakenly interpreted the Latin “in quo” (Greek: eph ho) to mean “in whom,” that is, “in Adam” instead of “because,” the natural reading of the Greek conjunction eph ho. Thus, Augustine wrongly concluded, according to Charles Sherlock, “that all of us sinned en masse in Adam’s original sin,” and as a result we are all born with Adam’s guilt. Option #2: Reject premise (2) and endorse Fission Theory If we opt to endorse the view that pre-fall humans are guilty from birth, the question is this: For what are we guilty? Typically, the answer is that we are guilty for both our corruption and for the particular sin of Adam that caused our corruption. We are directly accountable for Adam’s sin. But how can we be guilty for Adam’s sin, since none of us existed when he sinned? According to Rea, there are two possible answers: the personal guilt view, in which it is maintained that there is some meaningful sense in which we ourselves participated in the original sinful act, or the alien guilt view, in which God is somehow just to impute guilt to us for a sin in which we ourselves didn’t participate. One historically prominent alien guilt view claims that we are guilty for Adam’s sin because Adam functions as the federal or representative head of the human race. As stated, however, the alien guilt view (including the federalist theory of original guilt) is in agreement with premise (2) and inconsistent with (MR), and thus, will be considered in option #3 below. If one is inclined to the personal guilt view, however, there are respectable metaphysical theories that can be employed to render meaningful the idea that we somehow participated in Adam’s sin. I’ll just report that, on one of these views, attributed to Jonathan Edwards, the resultant theory of human persons, with its endorsement of stage-theoretic Fission Theory and a counterpart account of persistence, is rather counter-intuitive and odd. Still, as counter-intuitive and odd as the resultant picture may be, it represents a philosophically respectable way to reject premise (2). The general picture is this, as reported by Rea, “Adam and his posterity are distinct individuals who share a common temporal stage . . . . Adam undergoes fission at the time of his first sin, splitting into billions of different people.” Importantly, on Fission Theory, the “Adam stage” that sinned is a counterpart of “me” and so I was Adam and I thus I could have prevented Adam from sinning. For the details, I refer the reader to Rea’s essay. The salient point is that Fission Theory provides the resources to maintain the view that I somehow participated in Adam’s sin and could have prevented it. For those inclined to this metaphysical package, premise (2) can safely be rejected. Option #3: Reject premise (3) and endorse compatibilism about human freedom. According to the compatibilist, moral responsibility and freedom are compatible with being determined. If so, then premise (3) can safely be rejected. On the compatibilist picture, I’m responsible for many states of affairs that I could not have prevented—in fact, I couldn’t have prevented any state of affairs from obtaining since they all are determined! Again, if compatibilism is a viable option (and philosophers debate this ad nauseum), then something like the federalist theory of original guilt becomes more plausible. In sum, while there are conceptual challenges to the doctrine of original sin, incoherency is not among them. There are three possible ways to show the above incoherency worry unsound. Which way-out one takes depends a great deal on prior philosophical commitments regarding persistence, personal identity, freedom, and moral responsibility. I leave you with two lessons from this exercise in philosophical theology. First, philosophy is essential to good theology. In other words, if you want to be a good thinker and a good theologian (and a good apologist), you need to be conversant with the foundational debates in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Second, the above exercise should encourage intellectual humility (and theological modesty) in us. Things are rarely as simple as they seem. As truth seekers, patience is required. Moreover, we could be wrong, especially on the more fine-grained details of our mature theories. Let’s argue for our view. Let’s defend the details. But let’s do it with charity and humility and a posture of faith seeking understanding.
End Notes:
Michael C. Rea, “The Metaphysics of Original Sin,” in Persons: Human and Divine, eds. Peter van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 319. Rea labels my (A) and (B) as (S1) and (S2).
Ibid., 320.
Charles Sherlock, The Doctrine of Humanity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 65.
Rea, “The Metaphysics of Original Sin,” 324.
Ibid., 325.
Stage theory identifies the familiar material objects of everyday experience with temporal stages.
A “counterpart” of one entity is some other entity that is relevantly similar. So, for example, I am relevantly similar to my 5-year old self to count as a counterpart to it, but not to that alligator.
Rea, “The Metaphysics of Original Sin,” 334.
Ibid., 342.
Rea also considers a Molinist account of original sin by developing a (controversial) account of Conditional Transworld Depravity as another way of rejecting premise (2).
Paul M. Gould teaches philosophy and apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University, serves as the associate director of RC Prof, and is the founder and president of the Two Tasks Institute. He is the author or editor of ten books including the forthcoming Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Zondervan, March 2019). He is married to Ethel and has four kids and lives in Fort Worth, Texas. You can find out more about Paul at Ready for your next read? Scope out more at the Ratio Christi Blog.

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