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!