Christians have always understood baptism as the means by which God frees human beings from sin, brings them a rebirth, and through the Holy Spirit makes them new creations in Christ (Rom. 6—8). In ancient Christian catacombs, numerous tombstones indicate the length of this new existence, showing the exact number of days, months, and years the person lived after being baptized.
In the course of the second century, or perhaps even earlier, Christians started baptizing children and infants, as well as continuing to baptize adults. From the third century, Catholic theology had to come to terms with an issue that is still controversial today: does baptism always remit sins, even in the case of infant baptism? Adults become sinners, and obviously do so through their own free choice. But what about infants and children who have not yet reached the age of reason and are too young to have consented to sin? If baptism always remits sin, what could that sin be in the case of infants? In this way reflection on 'original sin' developed out of established practice and came to a head in the late fourth century, in the controversy between Augustine of Hippo and the disciples of Pelagius.
Pelagius and his followers, as we saw in Ch. 1, highlighted the power of human freedom and encouraged an ascetical life. For the Pelagians, as they came to be known, Adam's sin had not interiorly harmed his descendants and, in particular, had left intact their natural use of free will. Hence human beings could achieve salvation through their own sustained efforts.113 But babies, they argued, are born quite sinless and so their baptism serves only to insert them into the Church.
Before setting out the teaching on original sin developed by Augustine and others, we must first summarize the drift of a key passage from Paul: Romans 5: 12—21. The apostle, who sees all human beings to be enslaved to sin and death, ascribes this universal misery not only to Adam as humanity's first parent but also to all human beings, since they ratify their present, ungraced state by their own personal sins. Paul considers Adam the initial cause of humanity's sinful and mortal condition: through him 'sin entered into the world' (Rom. 5: 12a) and death was its direct consequence (Rom. 5: 12b). Then Paul adds the conclusion that 'death spread to all, because all sinned' (Rom. 5: 12c—d). Paul considers Adam a historical figure like the rest of us, and we all sin through the bad exercise of our human freedom. In the wake of Adam's evil influence, we continued promoting a universal situation of slavery to sin and death.
But where Adam initiated and headed the age of universal sin and death, Christ heads the age of grace and life that God offers to all (Rom. 5: 14). Paul is concerned with something greater than the mere remission of sins: he deals with the full inheritance that will be ours in Christ at the end of time. Paul repeatedly insists in Romans 5 that Christ's benefits prove incomparably greater than all the harm caused by Adam and his descendants. Christ gives life in a superabundant way, which far surpasses the deadly impact of sin. Thus, in dealing with the history of sin, the apostle compares and contrasts what has come from Adam and what comes from Christ; it is only in and through Christ that anyone can be justified. Lastly we should add that Paul does not address some of the questions that Augustine and the Pelagians were to raise in the fourth century: sin's transmission from one generation to the next, the particular question of infant baptism, and children's need to be delivered from an inherited sinfulness.114
Long before Augustine, Tertullian (d. c.225) and Cyprian (d. 258)—both of Carthage in North Africa—tried to explain the Church's baptismal practice. They believed that we are all born into this world carrying a
113 Over the centuries Pelagianism has surfaced again and again: e.g. under modern forms of secular humanism, which, while reducing 'salvation' to this-worldly success, understands such success as a goal to be reached by one's work and efforts.
114 See J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans , Anchor Bible 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 405-28.
'wound', or bearing a 'wounded inheritance'. Since this 'inherited sin' does not result from any deliberate act of our own will against God, it can never bar our way to God's mercy. When writing about baptism, Cyprian distinguished the effects of baptism. First and foremost, baptism restores humanity to full communion with God the Father in Christ and through the Holy Spirit; its secondary effect is to remit sin: 'the Father sent the Son to preserve us and give us life, in order that he might restore us' (De Opere et Eleemosynis, 1).
Augustine resisted the Pelagians on two grounds.115 First, the long-standing practice of baptizing infants and doing so for the remission of sins meant that infants come into the world in some kind of inherited sinful state. Second, since God sent his Son to save the whole of humanity, everyone must somehow be under the reign of sin and consequently in need of baptism. Without being baptized into the life of Christ, no one could have access to God. Given that everyone needs salvation, then baptism must be required of and available to all human beings, including children. Since baptism is necessary for salvation, Augustine had to conclude that those children who died without baptism could not inherit eternal life, and suffered what he called 'the lightest possible condemnation', the nature of which he could not 'define' (Contra Iulianum, 5. 44). He also drew the conclusion that refusing to baptize a child constituted an act of injustice and cruelty towards that child (De Gratia Christi et de Peccato Originali, 2. 5. 5). Children and babies, as well as adults, have the right to be 'born from water and the Spirit', so that they may enter the kingdom of God (John 3: 5).
Unable to read the NT easily in the original Greek, both Augustine and before him Ambrosiaster (an otherwise unknown fourth-century writer who commented on Paul's letters and was for long confused with St Ambrose of Milan) understood the Old Latin translation of Romans 5: 12d—'in whom all sinned'—to mean that we are all born sinners 'in Adam'. Being incorporated in advance in Adam, all men and women have already sinned en bloc in the very person of Adam. When discussing Romans 5: 12c ('death spread to all'), Augustine interpreted 'death' as bodily death. The classical philosophy of his day encouraged Augustine to understand death simply as a threat and imperfection: it has to be God's punishment and a direct consequence of Adam's sin.
115 On the mindset of Pelagius and his followers, see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, new edn. 2000), 462—4.
Challenged by the Pelagians, Augustine led the other bishops at the Sixteenth Council of Carthage (AD 418) in upholding the following positions: first, physical death is the direct consequence of sin; second, the universal and constant Catholic tradition is that of baptizing children 'for the remission of sins'; and, third, whoever dies in 'original sin'—i.e. without receiving baptism—is condemned to eternal damnation (DH 222—4; ND 501—2). Even though incapable of committing personal sins, children have inherited from Adam 'original sin, which must be expiated by the bath of regeneration' (DH 223; ND 502).
In their present state, Augustine insisted, human beings suffer greatly from the consequences of Adam's sin; their created condition of freedom is deeply impaired, though not destroyed. Against Pelagius and his followers Augustine rightly asserted that, whatever belongs to our human condition, cannot be a matter of individual choice and that, at all times, human beings truly need God's grace to participate in Christ's redemption. Augustine understood too that in challenging the reality of original sin the Pelagians called into question the meaning of baptism itself, and of our rebirth in Christ as the necessary requirement for salvation.
Although earlier theology had formulated original sin as a statement about the uniqueness of Christ's mediation and his redemption of humanity, after Augustine and the Pelagian controversy it became more an assertion about the corrupt nature of our human condition. Irenaeus had shown how in Christ we should understand our existence as created in the image of God; Augustine and the Sixteenth Council of Carthage added: only in Christ do we come to the newness of life and to a full communion with God. In Christ, we can come to know and welcome God's original plan for humanity and, in the same Christ, we can more than recover the treasures lost through sin.
The official Catholic teaching on original sin, as developed in the fifth and sixth centuries, expressed the sinful condition of all human beings: we may be free, but we are all born sinners. The Second Council of Orange (AD 529) was to condemn Pelagius posthumously for holding that through Adam's sin 'the freedom of the soul remained unharmed'; Adam's 'fall' damaged all his descendants and, in particular, their 'freedom of the soul' (DH 371—2; ND 504-5). They are all born deprived of the life of grace that they ought to have possessed and would have possessed but for Adam's sin. Bodily death continued to be considered the primary sign and consequence of original sin (ibid.). Thus official teaching emphasized the need for spiritual rebirth through baptism: the fullness of life and grace is no natural right or personal achievement, but God's free gift through Christ. Hence 'original sin' refers not only to our human solidarity in sin but also to our call to a new, supernatural life in Christ. Far from being merely a depressing statement about the wounded or deficient nature of our inherited human condition, the doctrine of original sin underlines humanity's need for Christ's grace: there is no way to true fulfilment and eternal life except through him.
In the Middle Ages, Catholic teaching and theology added only a few footnotes to the teaching on original sin that came down from the patristic period. In a letter of 1201, Pope Innocent III distinguished personal sin from original sin. Unlike personal sin, original sin is simply inherited and does not involve any deliberate offence against God. Consequently, in the case of infants, who are not yet capable of personal conversion, original sin can be 'forgiven' through baptism alone. Innocent added that, whereas those infants who die in the state of original sin will not enjoy the beatific vision, hell is a punishment reserved for those (adults) who have sinned deliberately against God (DH 780; ND 506). The Pope thus settled an issue, raised already by Augustine: do unbaptized infants merit hell? Medieval theologians proposed the existence of 'limbo', appealing to later teaching that had been falsely attributed to the Sixteenth Council of Carthage (DH 224), and that spoke of 'a certain middle place', which was neither heaven nor hell. We return in a later chapter to the question of the final destiny of the unbaptized.
The sixteenth-century leaders of the Protestant Reformation reopened the issue of original sin, but at the other extreme from any Pelagian optimistic minimalizing of the damage caused by Adam's fall. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformers looked pessimistically at the human condition. While Augustine spoke of a massa alienata or damnata in humanity's 'one body' condemned in sin, as opposed to the massa Candida or purified body (Sermo 293), Reformed theology first interpreted Augustine's massa damnata as a massa perditionis or body condemned to eternal punishment. Adam's sin had a maximal effect, inasmuch as it had totally corrupted human beings and completely destroyed their freedom. Luther, in particular, identified human concupiscence or disordered desire as the presence of original sin in us; he understood concupiscence to be a direct consequence of Adam's fall and an irresistible inclination to sin which persists even after baptism. The Reformers knew that justification uniquely belongs to Christ; consequently salvation comes through faith alone (sola fide). Humanity's role in the process of justification can only be passive and receptive.
In its fifth session (1546) the Council of Trent produced a decree on original sin that, while largely reaffirming earlier teaching, added some important insights and emphases. The grace of justification can be understood only in relational terms: it is God's gift to humanity, while the process of conversion constitutes the human response to that same gift. Trent, while refusing to interpret original sin as a constitutive element of our human condition, made five points. First, through the merits of Christ baptism truly remits the guilt of original sin and makes the baptized 'the beloved children of God'. Second, baptism restores the 'holiness and justice' lost through sin.116 Third, original sin is transmitted through 'propagation', something the Council refused to specify further. Fourth, concupiscence remains in the baptized as an 'inclination to sin'; even though concupiscence 'comes from [Adam's] sin and inclines to [personal] sin', it is not 'sin in the true and proper sense'. Fifth, Trent understood 'death' as referring to the 'captivity in the power of... the devil' that draws upon itself 'the wrath and indignation of God' (DH 1510—15; ND 507—12). Consequently, the effect of original sin is spiritual rather than bodily death.
The emphasis of this official Catholic teaching on original sin was positive rather than negative: it stresses 'the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ' rather than the depravity of human beings. Original sin allows us to understand that evil cannot be a power or an actual being that exists on some kind of par with God; evil is the direct result of some action (a doing) on the part of God's creatures, whether angelic or human. Catholic teaching also indicates that evil does not necessarily characterize our universe: although sin and evil can lord it over history, the final say always belongs to God. Such teaching reflects the Exultet, a hymn of praise sung during the Easter Vigil, which goes back to the time of St Augustine and calls original sin the 'happy fault' that merited for us such a Saviour.
The twentieth century brought new support and challenges for the doctrine of original sin. Writers such G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) and Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) commented that original sin is probably
116 The Council of Trent, Decree on Original Sin (DH 1511,1515; ND 508, 512). Trent chose the words 'holiness and justice' as biblical concepts that could express God's gift to humanity before the fall.
the most credible and even obvious article of Christian belief. When born into this world, babies are normally welcomed with love but also inherit a sinful situation for which they are not personally responsible. At least partly, they are at the mercy of a legacy of evil that stretches back to the beginning of human history. The doctrine of original sin supplies a plausible account for a situation that every newcomer on the human scene must face. Second, a modern sense of human solidarity in doing good and in committing evil encourages a more comprehensive understanding of original sin. We experience this solidarity for good (in the new life brought by Jesus Christ) and for evil (in a stubborn propensity to sin that the baptized must confront even after the deepest personal conversion). Third, polygenism, the view that the human race does not derive from an original pair of ancestors but from many, seems to threaten the doctrine of original sin and its transmission to all the descendants of 'Adam and Eve'. In a 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis., Pope Pius XII warned that polygenism may not be clearly reconcilable with belief in original sin and its transmission (DH 3897; ND 420). Some Christians turn to the Bible to take a stand for monogenism against polygenism. But this is a thoroughly modern problem: neither the authors of Genesis nor Paul could have taken a position on something they knew nothing about. While theology discusses the possibility of polygenism, some molecular biologists entertain the idea that our race may derive not from many, but from one original couple.117
Infant baptism continues to be questioned. Many argue that only adolescents or adults can decide whether or not to become Christians and be baptized. Augustine, the pastor, felt it his duty to 'labour on behalf of those children who, though under the protection of parents, are left more destitute and wretched than orphans'. He was speaking about believers' unbaptized children, babies who were still 'unable to demand
117 Homo sapiens sapiens emerged in Africa. Molecular biology and mitochondrial DNA testing suggest a hypothesis, popularly known as the 'Lucky Mother' or the 'African Eve'. Relying solely on maternal lineage, organelle genetics point to one phylogeny (one biological strain), so that all modern human mitochondria would have originated from an 'Eve' who lived in Africa somewhere more than 100,000 years ago. See R. L. Cann, M. Stoneking, and A. C. Wilson, 'Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution', Nature , 325 (1987), 31—6; A. C. Wilson and R. L. Cann, 'The Recent African Genesis of Humans', Scientific American , 266 (1992), 68—73; A. G. Thorne and M. H. Wolpoff, 'The Multiregional Evolution of Humans', ibid. 76—83; F. J. Ayala, 'The Myth of Eve: Molecular Biology and Human Origins', Science , 270 (1995), 1930—6.
for themselves' the grace of Christ that their parents 'denied them' (De Peccatorum Mentis, 3. 13. 22). In response to Pelagius, Augustine wrote: 'Let him grant that Jesus is Jesus even to infants.He shall, indeed, save his people; and among his people surely there are infants. In infants, too, there are original sins, on account of which he can be Jesus, that is, Saviour, even unto them' (De Nuptiis et Concupiscentia, 2. 35. 60). When parents baptize their children, they show their own faith that baptism brings the one meaningful existence they know. By choosing not to baptize their offspring, believers may be questioning the truth that Jesus Christ is 'the way, the truth and the life' for all (John 14: 6).
Was this article helpful?