Swimming the Tiber 30: We Are the Branches

Then [he] throws water into the washing-vessel and [he] began to wash the feet of the disciples and to wipe [them] with the cloth with which [he] was girded. So [he] comes before Simon Peter. [He] says to him, “Lord, thouMost languages distinguish between singular and plural second-person pronouns; English is fairly distinctive that it does not. I have used the older English singular pronouns and retained the plural “you” where the Greek is plural. For more information on how to read my translations, see the relevant page at 31prayers.com. are washing my feet?” Having answered, Jesus also said to him, “What I am doing thou do not know now, but [thou] will come to know [it] after these things.” Peter says to him, “[Thou] must not ever wash my feet.”Lit. “[Thou] must/shall not (emphatic prohibitive subjunctive) wash my feet unto the age.” Jesus answered him, “If [I] do not wash thee, [thou] do not have a share with me.” Simon Peter says to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also [my] hands and [my] head.” Jesus says to him, “The [one] having been bathed does not have a need if not to wash [his] feet, but [the] whole [of him] is purged; and you are purged, but not all [of you].

– John 13:5-10, my translation (emphasis original)

I am the grape-vine, and my father is the vine-dresser. Every vine-twig in me not bearing fruit, [he] will raise it up, and every [one] bearing fruit, [he] will purge it in order that [it] may bear more fruit. You are already purged on account of the word which [I] have said to you: remain in me, and I in you. Just as the vine-twig does not have power to bear fruit from itself if [it] does not remain in the grape-vine, thus neither [do] you if [you] do not remain in me. I am the grape-vine, you the vine-twigs. The [one] remaining in me and I in him, this [one] bears much fruit, because apart from me [you] do not have power to do anything. If anyone does not remain in me, [he] was thrown out as a branch and was dried up, and [they] gather them together and [they] throw [them] into the fire and [the branches] are burned.

– John 15:1-6, my translation (emphasis original)

As Christians, we know there are basically two options when it comes to death: there is a second (eternal) life with God, and a second (eternal) death without him. But when I was a Protestant, we didn’t talk much about the logistics, for lack of a better term. The closest I remember getting, even in theological classes, was a summation along the lines of a “snow-covered dunghill.”1

Basically, what I learned (or taught myself through reasoning based in my own wretchedness) was this: In life, we do bad things, but it’s okay, because whenever God looks at us, he sees Jesus instead. So it’s like…

You can see us a bit there in the back.


And since God sees Jesus when he looks at us, we don’t really have to change (though we should really try to, all the same). So when we keep sinning in life, we trust that God will fix all that after death. On our way to heaven, we will be purified and all our sins will be purged away in a great big fell swoop.

Only that doesn’t make any sense. Recall my posts on original sin and reconciliation and venial versus mortal sins. Consider Matthew 5:48; John 5:14; 8:11; Romans 6; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 6:1-12; 10:14, 26-31; James 1:2-4, 25-27; and 1 Peter 2:21-24. God’s plan is not for us to sneak past his judgment by hiding under Jesus’ robes; his plan is for us to be purified, sanctified, and made truly holy and perfect in his sight.

But what happens when we aren’t perfect? This applies to the overwhelming majority of us, myself included. Far be it from me to suggest otherwise. What if we die before we’re perfect? Well, if we are willfully disobedient to God, committing mortal sins with all the intent and desire that goes along with that, then we are not living according to God’s love and we must cast ourselves on the mercy of God.

But if, on the other hand, our sins are not mortal, but merely venial, where do we stand? We are not willfully opposing God’s desires, but clinging tepidly to our old selves, our old desires. St. Francis de Sales (my dear friend of a saint) writes this about venial sin and sinful affections in his Introduction to the Devout Life:

Even so there are penitents who forsake sin, yet without forsaking their sinful affections; that is to say, they intend to sin no more, but it goes sorely against them to abstain from the pleasures of sin; they formally renounce and forsake sinful acts, but they turn back many a fond lingering look to what they have left, like Lot’s wife as she fled from Sodom. They are like a sick man who abstains from eating melon when the doctor says it would kill him, but who all the while longs for it, talks about it, bargains when he may have it, would at least like just to sniff the perfume, and thinks those who are free to eat of it very fortunate. And so these weak cowardly penitents abstain awhile from sin, but reluctantly; they would fain be able to sin without incurring damnation;–they talk with a lingering taste of their sinful deeds, and envy those who are yet indulging in the like.

– St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life 1.7
(2002 adaptions of the 1876 English translation)

The relevant story of Lot’s wife, for reference, is in Genesis 19.

I invite you to look again at the passages from John at the top of this post and to consider also Philippians 3:12-21 and especially 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. This is the essence of my post: that God intends to purify us from our sin. That’s it. We’re not snow-covered dunghills or demons wearing Jesus masks; we are, rather, the adopted sons and daughters of God and by his power we are cleansed from our sin and we have the capacity to go and sin no more. Like the apostles, we have been cleansed once by baptism (bathed), but we walk about in the world, and our feet get dirty (sinful affections and venial sins). We must be cleansed of those as well before the whole of us is clean, at which point we will bear much fruit (as long as we remain in Christ).

But if we die with our feet dirty, still they must be cleaned, because God cannot be united to sin (1 Corinthians 6:14-17). In Catholic theology, the process of washing the feet of the faithful one last time, of purging them of their venial sins and sinful affections, is called Purgatory. Purgatory is not a third destination, aside from heaven and hell–rather, everyone who goes to Purgatory is en route to heaven, where they will enjoy union with God. Between their death and God, though, they must be cleansed of the last vestiges of sin, now not by water but by fire (see again 1 Corinthians 3).

This may sound somewhat familiar; that’s because post-death sanctification is what I described as my belief when I was a Protestant–that is, we become holy after death by the grace of God. In traditional Catholic teaching, this purgation takes time (prompting us to pray for the quick purification and release of those in Purgatory), but Pope Benedict XVI elaborated in his encyclical Spe Salvi that time is immaterial in Purgatory:

It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ.

– Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 47

I highly encourage you to read the rest of that encyclical, but it is fairly long.

But if Purgatory can be instantaneous, what’s the use of praying for people who experience it? Well, in part, it goes back to 2 Maccabees 12:38-45; this became Christian tradition because it was first Jewish tradition. The rest of it goes back to the point of time: Purgatory isn’t “instantaneous” or “long,” but outside of time, like heaven and hell. So our prayers can be efficacious because the prayer is not about the time (though it might be explained that way to stay simple) but about the people. We are a Christian family (and a human family), and our lives affect the lives of those around us constantly. Praying for others helps us (because it teaches us to be charitable and care for others first) and it helps others (because prayer is effective–see Matthew 21:22, et al). For more comments on that subject, see again Pope Benedict’s encyclical linked above.

And that, in a very small nutshell, is the idea behind Purgatory. Once I understood the details of it, I wasn’t bothered by it so much, so I don’t have quite as much to say as others might. Next week, we’ll use this understanding of Purgatory as a jumping-board into a historical look at the Church, focused especially on those events and activities people use to condemn Catholicism (which I will collectively call the “scandals” of the Church).


Footnotes:
1 It’s important to note that this is not a real quote from the Protestant Reformation. It is often attributed to Luther, but it can’t quite be found in Luther’s written works. It is, however, fairly representative of Luther’s thought on the total depravity of man and his justification by grace–in short, that we are so completely corrupt that even our attempts to do good are mortal sins and that only the grace of God can hide (but not remove) our wretchedness. See here for more notes on the subject. Or return to where you left off.

Swimming the Tiber 28: For All Have Sinned

For [there] is not a distinction, for all [men] erred [on a particular occasion] and are behind the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus; which God set out as propitiatory through faith in his blood unto a demonstration of his justice, on account of the dismissal of the failures(errors/faults/sins) that came before, in the forbearancelit. holding-back of God, towards the demonstration of his justice in the present time, in order that he may be just and justifying the [one who lives] out of faith in Jesus.

– Romans 3:22-26 (my translation, simplified)

I have simplified my translation of the above passage because, frankly, rendering it like the original Greek may be informative, but it’s also confusing. My aim here is to clarify, not obfuscate.

Before I started looking closely at Catholicism, I had never heard this doctrine about Mary, but it’s possible some of you have. In addition to being born without original sin, remaining virginal throughout her entire life, being the worthy queen mother of the King of Creation, and indeed being the very Mother of God, Catholic doctrine holds that Mary never committed personal sin in the course of her life.

Like me, you are probably quick to reply with Romans 3:23 above or Ecclesiastes 7:20 or Psalm 143:2 or Galatians 3:22. “Scripture clearly indicates that all have sinned!”

Well, let me ask this: Did Jesus sin?

Before you answer, remember your Christology. Jesus is fully God, yes, but he is also fully man, meaning that if statements about “all men” are absolute and without exception, then he is included. But of course Jesus did not sin, despite being tempted in every way just as we are (Hebrews 4:15).

Now that we have established the prime exception, let’s look at the secondary one. Ecclesiastes 7:20 can be safely cleared, first, because it was true when it was written, and because the phrase “on earth” (like “under the sun” elsewhere in Ecclesiastes) reinforces that such things are impossible without God. Psalm 143:2, likewise, was true at the time, and in that psalm, David is asking the Lord to do exactly as Paul says in Romans 3. Galatians 3:22 depends on the verse immediately before it, which frames the statement in terms of the law: “Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law.” (NRSVCE) This is the context in which all are imprisoned under the power of sin: exactly what Paul says in Romans 3:19-20.

So let’s focus on the Romans passage, since it seems to be the hinge on which this whole question swings. Like classic exegetes, let’s look at each phrase to determine the meaning of the whole. Before we do, it may be beneficial for you to refresh yourself on the concepts of soteriology, which I discussed at length early in this series.

  • For there is not a distinction. Jews and Greeks are on equal footing. Knowing the law of Moses does not help you. Sacrificing at the temple in Jerusalem does not help you. The justice of God is available to all equally, and its necessity is obvious to all.
  • For all [men] erred. “All” is masculine, but collective. All men are all people. Everyone commits discrete acts of sin (presumably, excepting any exceptions, like Jesus). The aorist is used here, though a translation in the perfect sounds more natural (“all have sinned”) and is frequently used instead. The tense provides that sense of discrete acts, which is what clearly distinguishes this from original sin.
  • And are behind the glory of God. This is often translated “fall short,” but I retained a more literal translation because it recalls Romans 3:9, not to mention 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and 2 Timothy 4:7. The point is that, though we try to win, we lose the race when we run it alone.
  • Being justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus. Our justification is a gift by the grace of God (see the rest of Psalm 143). We are released from the bindings of sin because God freely gives this to us, specifically through the atonement of Jesus’ death on the cross.
  • Which God set out as propitiatory. God gives his grace, our justification, to reconcile us to himself.
  • Through faith in his blood unto a demonstration of his justice, on account of the dismissal of the failures that came before, in the forbearance of God. In short, faith grants us access to this justification, because the blood of Christ acquits us of sin at God’s discretion. This we already know from our examination of soteriology.
  • Towards the demonstration of his justice in the present time, in order that he may be just and justifying the [one who lives] out of faith in Jesus. This brings to mind verses like Psalm 71:10-13, where enemies of God’s people claim that he has abandoned them, but he proves himself and brings glory to his holy name. Note also that God is justifying the one out of faith, that is, the one who lives from faith or comes from faith; this suggests that he is justified not merely who assents, but he whose life reflects his faith.

Consider also that, when Jesus forgives sin, he makes a request of us: “Sin no more” (see John 5:14; 8:10-11).

We already know that God has given Mary a special grace to escape original sin. This passage in Romans suggests that it is God’s grace which frees us also from personal sin and makes it possible for us to obey the Lord and “sin no more.” We also know that Jesus’ atonement is retroactive (that is, it applies to the saints and holy ones who lived and died before Jesus did, such as the patriarchs–see Hebrews 11).

There should be no danger, then, in saying that God, by his discretion, could give Mary the grace not only to escape original sin, but also to resist temptation and avoid personal sin throughout her life.

“But why?” you may say. I certainly did. I argued, “Well, fine, maybe it’s possible, but what purpose could there possibly be in doing this?”

Well, remember what we’ve been talking about these past few weeks. Mary is, first of all, a vessel for the Lord God Almighty; should not such a vessel be holy and pure in God’s sight? But more than that, Mary is Jesus’ own mother, and Jesus never sinned–so we know he obeyed the commandment to honor his father and mother. What greater honor could he do her than to free her first from the shackles of sin in which we have all been enslaved?

Next week, we have one final topic about Mary before we move on; it should be less controversial than these, if for no other reason than it’s not unique to Mary. Look forward to an examination of the bodily assumption of Mary!

Last Post:
< The Types of Mary

Swimming the Tiber 27: The Types of Mary

This post will meander a bit, so let me put one of the major points here at the beginning, so I can return to it without sounding way off-base: the Catholic Church teaches that Mary was born without original sin. If you’ve ever heard of the Immaculate Conception, that refers to this doctrine (it does not refer to the conception of Jesus, which–though also immaculate–is unique in far more ways than just that). In order to wrap around to this point, I’m going to spend quite a bit of time talking about the types of Mary.

You may want to look back on my post about original sin. There’s also a brief refresher on types in my first post on the Eucharist. Here’s an even briefer overview of those highlights: (1) Types are inferior to the thing or person they prefigure, and (2) types are often both literal and allegorical (they were real, historical things/people, but they also serve to illuminate other things/people).

First, let’s talk about a few of the things that prefigure (i.e., are types of) Mary. Some of these I have hinted at before, but others will seem completely new.

The Garden

The first to show up is the Garden of Eden. Eden, after all, contains the Tree of Life (which we know is a type of Jesus and the Eucharist). If the Tree of Life is Jesus, then Eden must be his mother. Eden contains and nurtures the Tree of Life. The entire purpose of that garden is to guide the faithful family of God to eternal life through the tree, which is in the center of the garden.

In the same way, Mary contained and nurtured Jesus Christ, first in her womb and then in her home. Her entire purpose is to serve the Lord (the word in Luke 1:38 often translated “handmaid” literally means a female slave) and to point others to him (John 2:5).

Eden is inferior to Mary because it lacked any capacity to prevent the Fall. Eden could do nothing to stop our first ancestor from sinning, but Mary prays eternally for the faithful from her throne in heaven.

The Bush

The burning bush of Exodus 3 is another example. The bush contains the very presence of God, but it is not consumed by the blaze. Because of the presence of the Lord, this becomes holy ground, to be respected by Moses and all others. The bush also rouses Moses from his time in the wilderness and compels him to begin his ministry, his mission to save his people. (We also know that Moses is a type of Jesus, from being miraculously saved at birth from a vengeful king’s infanticide to being the man by whom the Word of God and the bread from heaven come.)

In the same way, Mary held the whole Godhead in her womb and in her arms, but was not consumed. She is the one to kick off Jesus’ ministry (see John 2 again), in spite of his objections.

The burning bush is inferior to Mary because, though it contains the presence of God, it does not contain him bodily. His presence there is temporary, even fleeting, but Mary brought forth the Word made flesh, who reigns forever at the right hand of the Father.

The Ark of the Covenant

In the same way that the burning bush contained the presence of God, the ark of the covenant does even more. We’ve already seen that the Ark prefigures the Eucharist, since it contains the presence of God, but it also prefigures Mary for the same reason. It, too, is holy and should only be touched by the worthy (see again 2 Samuel 6).

The Ark is inferior to Mary because the old covenant is inferior to the new (Hebrews 8:6). The Ark contained the old covenant (Exodus 25:16), Mary the new (Luke 22:20).


Now let’s look at the people that prefigure Mary; these aren’t in chronological order, but there’s a reason for that. As above, a couple of these should be familiar to you by now.

Sarah

I mentioned Sarah last week as an example of a miraculous mother, one whose promised child it should not have been possible to conceive. This is one of the primary ways in which Sarah prefigures Mary, but there is another: as the mother of Israel. As much as Abraham is the father of a nation, Sarah is its mother, for it is through Sarah that the nation of Israel is promised (Genesis 17:15-21).

In the same way, Mary conceives Jesus impossibly, and she is the mother of the Church. Aside from the obvious–that the Church is Jesus’ body (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; etc.)–there is also John 19:25-27, where the apostle John, who throughout his Gospel has referred to himself as the “beloved disciple,” sets himself up as the generic believer in Christ and is given responsibility for Jesus’ own mother.1

Bathsheba

I talked about Bathsheba two weeks ago as queen mother. In case you’ve forgotten, you can read that post again.

I mentioned it then, too, but I will repeat it: Bathsheba is inferior to Mary because Bathsheba is deceived by Adonijah, and because Solomon is inferior to Jesus.

Judith

You’re probably not familiar with the story of Judith, but you should recall that her story is canonical. The short version is this: a town of Israel (Bethulia) is under siege, and Judith is a wise and God-fearing widow who lives there (Judith 8). She steps up when all others live in fear (cf. 1 Samuel 17). She prays to God for aid (Judith 9) in a way that resembles Mary’s Magnificat (compare Judith 9:11-14 with Luke 1:46-55). She goes out to the Assyrian general Holofernes, astounds him with her beauty, beguiles him, tricks him, and beheads him (Judith 10:1-13:10). Upon her return to Bethulia, she is praised (Judith 13:18-20).

Aside from her assent to do the will of God, like the young David in 1 Samuel and Mary in Luke’s Gospel, and aside from the Magnificat, there is also the praise for Judith and for Mary: of Judith it is said that she is blessed above all women, and that praise for her will never cease; Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42, NRSVCE), and Mary says of herself, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (verse 48, NRSVCE). Mary is also wise and faithful, as is Judith, and Mary stands opposed to the Devil, who makes war with her children (Revelation 12:13-17). Judith’s defeat of Holofernes is reminiscent of Mary, too, in traditional depictions of Mary crushing the head of the serpent (since Mary is a descendant of Eve, Genesis 3:15 was often interpreted to refer to her as well as to Christ).

Judith is inferior to Mary because Mary’s wisdom, assent, and praise are greater than Judith’s. Mary did not beguile or deceive, but stood openly in devotion to God and to her beloved Son. And Mary’s assent brought about not mere temporal salvation (Israel fell to Assyria eventually anyway), but eternal (through Jesus Christ her Son).

Eve

Perhaps the most important type of Mary is Eve, our first mother. She is the first woman of Creation, the mother of all humanity, and it is through her that sin entered the world. Even considering this, we know that it is not Eve’s failing that led to this fall, but Adam’s–for it was Adam who was responsible for teaching her the rules of the Garden (God gives those commands to Adam in Genesis 2:16-17, then creates Eve; no other account of these commands is evident in the text). It was also Adam who stood by and said nothing while she dealt directly with the serpent (Genesis 3:6–“she gave some to her husband, who was with her”). And it was Adam who, knowing the law of God, stood idly by while the first sin was committed, and proceeded to participate in it himself. This is why Adam is the one responsible for original sin, but Eve was the route by which this sin entered the world.

Just as Jesus is the new Adam (Romans 5:12-21), Mary is the new Eve. She is the first woman of the new Creation, being given grace by God (Luke 1:28 might be better translated, “Greetings, graced one!”) and being the first of Jesus’ disciples.

Consider also the text of John 1-2. Even a casual reader will notice a similarity between John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1, but the similarities between the creation story of John and the creation story of Genesis continue. John notes the passage of days in his first chapter. Verses 19-28 mark the first day, 29-34 the second day, 35-42 the third, day, 43-51 the fourth day. John 2:1 begins with On the third day, which brings us to… seven days.

At this point, John tells the story of a wedding, just as Genesis 2 tells of the first wedding. But where the story of Genesis went wrong–the first man and the first woman, after their marriage, fell into sin–the story of John goes perfectly. In Genesis, the first woman (Eve) gave to the first man (Adam) sin, and in so doing, all Creation fell. In John, the first woman of the new Creation (Mary) gives to the first man of the new Creation (Jesus) faith and obedience (John 2:3-5). Where Adam failed and sinned, Jesus succeeded and prevailed, and here foreshadows his death (“My hour has not yet come,” compared with John 17:1; 19:27).

So it is that Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, brings salvation to the world (just as Adam brought death), but it is Mary, by her assent to the angel (Luke 1:38), who is the route by which salvation comes to us.

Jesus himself further solidifies this connection between Mary and Eve. In the midst of this creation narrative (John 1-2), he addresses her as “woman.” This is not, as some claim, derogatory or disrespectful (how can Jesus, who is without sin, disobey the commandments of God and disrespect his own mother?), but links Mary with Eve and the first prophecy of Christ in Genesis 3:15.

Eve’s inferiority to Mary is obvious–she brought forth sin through her assent to the serpent, where Mary brought forth salvation through her assent to the angel of God. But this leaves one peculiar area where Eve and Mary do not line up, according to the Protestant reading: Eve was created without original sin.

How can Eve, a type of Mary, be created without original sin, but Mary–in every way Eve’s superior–be subjected to it?

Consider, too, the other types of Mary I have mentioned. Eden is a place where man and woman walk with God daily, yet it is inferior to Mary, since it only prefigures her. The burning bush has made the very ground around it holy; how then can Mary be less holy? The ark of the covenant cannot even be touched by the unworthy (no matter how good their intentions); how then can Mary be defiled by original sin?

This doctrine has led to another, which I will discuss next week–the conclusion of this idea, grounded in the rich Tradition of the Church. Even more than any other topic so far, though, it will probably give you pause. Pray about these things as we move forward.

Last Post:
< How Will This Be?
Next Post:
For All Have Sinned >

Footnotes:
1 No doubt many will dispute this interpretation of John. Nevertheless, the literary effect of an anonymous author stands in such a way. Consider also the commentary of Origen, that we must become like St. John, accepting Mary as our mother, and in so doing stand at the foot of the cross in faith, being named by Christ not as a son of Mary, but as the Son of Mary, that is, Christ Himself (cf. Galatians 2:20).

Consider also that, all the times we see the beloved disciple, we may interpolate ourselves. In John 13:21-30, we are so beloved by God that we may rest near his heart (Matthew 11:28-30; Hebrews 4) and inquire of him directly (1 Timothy 2:5-6; see again Hebrews 8). In John 20:1-10, though we do not understand the mysteries of God, we may have faith and believe in his Word. In John 21:4-8, we may recognize our Lord even though those around us do not. In John 21:20-24, we the Church persist until Christ’s return (cf. Matthew 16:18) and we testify to the truth in Christ. It is therefore also appropriate that, in John 19:25-27, we take Jesus’ mother as our own and show her the respect and honor which Jesus shows his own mother.

Whether you take these passages as descriptive or prescriptive is up to you, I suppose, but either way, it seems obvious that Mary is the mother of the Church, especially in light of Revelation 12.

Swimming the Tiber 12: That Death May Die

My original plan for this series had me moving directly into a discussion of the sacraments. I assumed everyone would be on the same page as me by this point, but it occurred to me more recently that views on original sin are inconsistent. Personally, my view did not change between the first time I learned of the topic, when I was Protestant, and now; thus, as a chronicle of my own journey, this series did not need a post dealing directly with the question of original sin.

But, I decided, as an examination of Catholic theology in general, a short post addressing original sin would be a good idea.

The doctrine of original sin, however you hold to it, describes the state of humanity as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. As our first ancestors, the sin of Adam and Eve has an effect on our entire species; the full nature of that effect is where disagreement lies. Some undoubtedly insist that original sin is nothing at all, that we bear no effect from that first disobedience–such a view flies in the face of Romans 5:12-21. Some conflate original sin with personal sin (thinking, perhaps, to link it to Romans 3:23). I am fairly certain that neither of these views is correct; Scripture is quite clear about the immediate and interminable effect of our ancestral sin.

But perhaps you don’t recognize the term at all. Perhaps you know it by another name: our “fallen nature,” for example. Whatever the term, though, the theology is clear: because of the Fall in the garden, we are now separated from God and we engage in personal sin.

There are still some conflicting views on how this works, though. In at least some Eastern Orthodox traditions, for example, “original sin” is basically our state of mortality; because of Adam’s sin, we (his descendants) inherit death. This is a reading focused on verses 14 and 17 of Romans chapter 5, because “death ruled” over man (with consideration also for 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). I think (in accordance with the Roman tradition) that this is not a full reading of the passage, nor a full understanding of the situation. Rather, in my view, original sin is not merely our mortality, but our very corruption, from which we cannot escape without God’s grace.

Let’s take a closer look at the primary passage in question:

On account of this, just as through one man, failure came into the cosmos [on a particular occasion], and through failure, death [came into the cosmos], and thus into all menhere and through the end of the chapter, (persons) death came through,(passed through, reached) upon which [point/time] all [men] died; for until [the] law, failure was in [the] cosmos, but [on the other hand] failure is not put in the account with [the] law not being,(without [the] law) but death ruled from Adam as far as Moses evenlit. and upon the [ones] not erring inlit. upon the transgression of Adam, who is a cast(model / type); lit. beating of the [one] being destined.

But (the favor is not like the blunder);lit. not as the blunder, thus also [is] the favor for if to the blunder of one [man], the many died, much morelit. very much the grace of God and the gift in grace, [that is, in] the [grace] of the one man Jesus Christ, abounded unto the many. And [it did] not [abound] as the gift through the one [man] having failed [on a particular occasion]; for on the one hand, the judgment fromlit. out of one [blunder] [leads] unto condemnation, but on the other hand, the gift from many blunders [leads] unto justification.lit. a just [act] For if, by the blunder of the one [man], death ruled through the one [man], much morelit. very much the [ones] seizing in [this] life the abundance of the grace and [the abundance] of the gift of justice will rule through the one Jesus Christ. Then therefore as through one blunder into all men [it has come] unto condemnation, thus also through one just [act] into all men [it has come] unto justification of life; for just as through the disobediencelit. misunderstanding of the one man, the many becamehere and in the next clause, lit. were put/set down [as] erroneous, thus also through the obedience of the one [man], the many will become just. But [the] law came in alongside, in order that the blunder might be more than enough;(superfluous) but where the error was more than enough, grace over-abounded,(abounded even more) in order that, just as the error ruled in death, thus also grace may rule through justice unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our lord.

– Romans 5:12-21 (my translation)

If you’ve read my full translation of that chapter, then you’ve probably seen a few of the cross-references as well. Let’s take a quick glance at the most relevant one, which I mentioned above:

For since death [came] through a manhere and throughout, (human), raising of [the] dead also [came] through a man; for just as in Adam all [men] die, thus also in Christ all [men] will be made alive.

– 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 (my translation)

Here’s the issue, generally speaking: it may be that what is passed through procreation is merely biological mortality, and not a sinful nature–but from where does our mortality come? Romans 6:23 and James 1:15 tell us that the natural result of sin is death, that death is the just payment for sin. Above, we read that by the sin of Adam, many died, and that grace abounded unto them–but later, we read that we receive grace to accommodate our sin. We see, especially, that through Adam’s sin, the many became sinful–not mortal. Finally, we read that sin ruled in death; so death may have ruled, but sin ruled in it. Which is the greater ruler?

But I grant that it is clear that death comes to us through Adam’s sin. St. Paul makes that plain. But what kind of death is he speaking of? Biological death? Certainly that is the subject in the 1 Corinthians passage, where he is arguing for the resurrection of the dead (that resurrection being one of our bodies after our biological deaths). But here in Romans, where we see this doctrine taking shape, I think he means quite a different death: a spiritual death.

Recall the commandment broken by that first sin: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17, NRSV). Anyone aiming at interpreting this passage must either deny the physical meaning of “day” or the physical meaning of “death”; the latter makes more sense. Adam and Eve, in their first sin, died a spiritual death; they were separated from God. Thus was Satan able to twist the word of the Lord, saying, “You will not die.” Adam and Eve feared death (or else God’s warning has no power or sense), but they did not grasp the fullness of God’s meaning. (Consider also John 8:51; Romans 8:13; Ephesians 2:1-10; Colossians 2:13; et al.) Of course, this sin resulted in their physical deaths as well, but not on that same day; just as, likewise, our salvation by Christ will result in resurrection from the dead and eternal life, but our spiritual freedom from sin is immediate (Romans 6:15-23).

After all, if original sin is merely biological death, would its cleansing through baptism, the sacraments, the sacrifice of Christ, not make us immortal immediately? But of course we still die physical deaths–for “death is made idle as [the] last hated [one],” being subjected to Christ last of all his enemies (see 1 Corinthians 15:25-26). But dare we say that we are still subject to original sin when we have been set free from every slavery unto the old self? Christ is our master, and no other; physical death is but a temporary inconvenience to the glory of God.

So when St. Paul wrote that “death rules” on account of Adam’s sin, I think it clear he meant spiritual death–that is, corruption. And we shall yet die physically, whether we are saved or not, but those of us who are saved will be resurrected and reign eternally with him, conquering at last physical death and subjecting all under God.

But of course, I am a limited man, and many great minds and saints have debated this question over the millennia, so I trust the authority of the Church on the issue. You may trust what you will.

Next week, I will look at the first of the seven sacraments: baptism. This will work directly with the question of original sin and how the Catholic Church deals with the reality of it. See you then!