The doctrine of original sin presently lacks clarity throughout Christendom. Orthodoxy as of late is no exception to this, with many doubting that Orthodox have a consensus on original sin that is dogmatically binding. While this is a topic that can be treated in books due to its nuance, we will be more frank in our treatment for the sake of space. We will provide a brief definition from recent Orthodox sources, a Biblical overview, the conciliar teachings on the topic, and a fleshing out of the conciliar doctrine from the teachings of the saints.
An Orthodox Definition of Original Sin
We can piece together in a few words the Orthodox teaching on original sin. In short, original sin is the effect of Adam and Eve’s sin upon themselves and their offspring. The effect on Adam and Eve’s (and their progeny’s) minds and lives was profound, as they were created in a state naturally prone to Godliness and (tentative) immortality, but descended into confusion, inclination to sin, corruptibility, and death.
These effects are not an arbitrary punishment for anyone’s wrongdoing, but rather the natural result of breaking communion with God through disobedience. Breaking oneself away from the source of spiritual and physical “Life” (John 14:6) leads to spiritual and physical death, just like “cutting” power to a bulb “kills” the light. This is why Saint Nicolai Of Zica teaches that in Eden “there was not a trace of sickness or death, for there was not even a thought of sin.” (Prologue of Ochrid, November 28, Contemplation) Additionally, Saint Justin Popovic teaches:
For sin has darkened, blackened, crippled the beautiful image of God in the soul of the primordial man…Due to the close and direct connection of the soul with the body, original sin caused disorder in the body of our first parents. The consequences of the Fall for the body were sickness, suffering and death. (Dogmatics, Volume 2, Chap 38)
Hence, the teaching of our recent saints is that original sin is not punitive (i.e. a punishment that is the response to a transgression), but rather natural (i.e. it is the inevitable and inescapable result of a transgression).
The preceding is expounded in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Father Michael Pomazansky (d. 1988). Pomazansky is a gem, because he was the last modern theologian to have been educated in Tsarist Russia and unlike Saint Justin Popovic, his book on dogmatics has been translated into English (by Seraphim Rose of blessed memory).
On the topic of original sin, Pomazansky affirmed its hereditary nature:
[O]riginal sin is meant the sin of Adam, which was transmitted to his descendants and weighs upon them. (Pomazansky 2007)
He acknowledged that human willing was fundamentally affected by the Fall:
After his first fall, man himself departed in soul from God and became unreceptive to the grace of God which was opened to him; he ceased to listen to the divine voice addressed to him, and this led to the further deepening of sin in him…Thus, original sin is understood by Orthodox theology as a sinful inclination which has entered into mankind and become its spiritual disease. (Pomazansky 2007)
The eating of the fruit was only the beginning of moral deviation, the first push; but it was so poisonous and ruinous that it was already impossible to return to the previous sanctity and righteousness. On the contrary, there was revealed an inclination to travel farther on the path of apostasy from God…the principle of sin immediately entered into man — “the law of sin” (monos tis amartias). It struck the very nature of man and quickly began to root itself in him and develop…The sinful inclinations in man have taken the reigning position; man has become “the servant of sin” (Rom. 6:7). Both the mind and the feelings have become darkened in him, and therefore his moral freedom often does not incline towards the good, but towards evil. (Pomazansky 2007)
Lastly, he taught that this moral fall was a correlative of man’s corruption and death. Why? Sin divorces one from the abiding grace of God, His divine energeia (i.e. energies), which sustains life itself:
The physical consequences of the fall are diseases, hard labor, and death. These were the natural result of the moral fall, the falling away from communion with God, man’s departure from God. Man became subject to the corrupt elements of the world, in which dissolution and death are active. Nourishment from the Source of Life and from the constant renewal of all of one’s powers became weak in men…With sin, death entered into the human race. Man was created immortal in his soul, and he could have remained immortal also in body if he had not fallen away from God. The Wisdom of Solomon says, “God did not make death” (Wis. 1:13). (Pomazansky 2007)
This explanation of original sin did not die with Pomazansky. Perhaps the world’s preeminent living Orthodox theologian is Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos. In his article on “The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary” he teaches on original sin. In his treatment, he affirms that original sin is (1) hereditary, (2) gives concupiscence to mankind, and (3) this concupiscence is a correlative of corruption/death due to it cutting man off from God’s “glory” (which he elsewhere in the article explicitly calls “energies”):
No human is born delivered of the original sin. The fall of Adam and of Eve and the consequences of this fall were inherited by the whole human race. It was natural that the Virgin Mary would not be delivered from the original sin. The word of the Apostle Paul is clear: “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). In this apostolic passage it shows that sin is considered to be a deprivation of the glory of God, and furthermore that no one is delivered from it. Thus, the Virgin Mary was born with the original sin. When, though, was she delivered from it? The answer to this question must be freed from scholastic viewpoints.
To begin with we must say that the original sin was the deprivation of the glory of God, the estrangement from God, the loss of communion with God. This also had physical consequences, however, because in the bodies of Adam and of Eve corruption and death entered. When in the Orthodox Tradition there is talk of inheriting the original sin, this does not mean the inheriting of the guilt of the original sin, but mainly its consequences, which are corruption and death. Just as when the root of a plant dies, the branches and the leaves become ill, so it happened with the fall of Adam. The whole human race became ill. The corruption and death which man inherits is the favourable climate for the cultivation of passions and in this manner the intellect of man is darkened. (Source)
The preceding may sound sensible, but are the teachings of Hierotheos (Vlachos), Pomazansky, Nicolai of Zica, and Justin Popovic Biblical and borne out by the Tradition of the Church? Before we address this, it is important to demonstrate the aforementioned teachings’ Biblical merits.
The Biblical Teaching
The Biblical teaching, without excessive elaboration, is consistent with the Orthodox teaching just given. In the Scriptures, we can surmise the preceding by taking a consistent interpretation of the Fall in Gen 3 and Saint Paul’s comments on its effects.
The Book of Genesis teaches that Adam and Eve were created without any sin. We know this, because they were created in God’s “own image” (Gen 1:27) and He “saw everything that He had made and indeed it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) This good creation was “deceived” (Gen 3:12) by the serpent, that is Satan, into believing that breaking a commandment of God would lead to divinization. (Gen 3:4-5) Eve, after hearing what the Serpent had to say, “saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise” (Gen 3:6) for the first time contemplated (or “imagined”/”invented”) sin. She knew nothing of it before. This “imagining” about the fruit and what it can do, as we shall see in Saint Maximus the Confessor’s treatment of the topic, is actually the cascading moment into original sin.
Without any description of what was going through Adam’s mind, though presumably the same thing, we know that he too ate of the fruit. After both of them ate, immediately the effects of the Fall took place. They felt shame due to their nudity (Gen 3:7), which reveals the passion of pride. Further, Adam and Eve’s minds reflected a state of confusion and fear, hiding from God when His voice was heard. (Gen 3:10) This implies their way of thinking beforehand was stable and naturally inclined towards Godliness in contrast with their present fear of an encounter with God.
After this point, people popularly assume that God “curses” the serpent, Eve, and Adam as a literal “punishment” for their wrongdoing. This is an interpretative leap we must be careful to avoid, because it posits that Adam and Eve would have been immortal in their fallen state if God never said the word “cursed” and that death is therefore punitive (i.e. imposed on man’s nature and not a natural result of sinfulness).
Rather, God by His permissive will allows man to die so his wickedness and corruption would not drag on indefinitely: “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” (Gen 6:3) Also: “If He should gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.” (Job 34:14-15) God at all times is upholding human life (cf Maximus Ambigua 22) and so when He permits man to die as a result of sin, He is not the cause of man’s death but rather man’s sinfulness is.
After all, God says it is “because” (Gen 3:14, 3:17 LXX) of what was done that they are cursed. From this, we may infer that the results of the Fall are not punitive, but something that already occurred when God made his judgement in Gen 3:14-19.
Against such an interpretation, one may infer a judicial penalty for wrongdoing from God’s statement that He will multiply Eve’s pains in childbearing. (Gen 3:16) If one takes a literal interpretation of this passage, this would make God an author of an evil, such as pain. Granted, the Scriptures do contain literal statements of God allegedly “creating evil” (Is 45:7). However, due to most Christian interpretative traditions explicitly teaching against such a notion, we can on good grounds understand any explicit statements of God “creating” evil as pertaining to His permission of an evil. Presupposing this, a figurative understanding of God’s words to Eve make the most sense—God permits the evil of the Fall to affect her childbearing.
And so, due to the effects of the Fall bringing about confusion and corruption, mankind is sustained for a time so that he may repent and his death is not prevented so that man may not experience eternity in such a state.(1) God does not become the direct cause of man’s concupiscence (sinful inclinations) or death—perish the thought!
Therefore, the most interpretatively consistent understanding of Gen 3 would be that the original sin itself brought upon the consequences of the Fall as a law of nature—not a scholastic view such as follows: sin harmfully affected Adam and Eve’s minds and then, as punishment, God lopped on top of this the penalty of death. Physical and intellectual corruption are necessarily the same and their cause is identical.
God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden in order to prevent them from eating from “the tree of life and liv[ing] forever.” (Gen 3:22) The reason behind this was redemptive. It, figuratively, prevented the effects of the Fall from being eternal, as discussed previously.
How literal must take Gen 3:22? Does one need to eat from a literal tree of life to live forever? The Scriptures do not get into enough detail as to whether Adam and Eve would have needed to actually eat from the “tree of life” in order to continue abiding in immortality. We can infer from Rev 22:14 that the tree is only for “those who do His commandments.” We also know that it brings about the “healing of the nations” of those in Heaven (Rev 22:2). Perhaps, the tree of life was intended for those who through faith, repentance, and obedience were to attain to eternal life in the resurrected state—the eating of the fruit being a figure of the impassible state of those resurrected onto salvation. Adam and Eve, in the fallen state and before having a lifetime of repentance, would have not been eligible to eat from this tree.
In any event, such speculations are beyond our purposes here, but it suffices to say that due to death being a “curse” before any mention of the tree, the casting out of paradise cannot be understood as punitive. Otherwise, God would be punishing Adam and Eve with death twice.
Saint Paul buttresses the preceding understanding. He taught succinctly that “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin.” (Rom 5:12a) Hence, death is not punitive—it explicitly is the result of sin. Likewise, “death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom 5:12b) as men die as the result of being sinful, not as an arbitrary, judicial punishment for something Adam did.
Elsewhere in the Scriptures, the prophet Ezekiel explicitly contradicts a punitive understanding of original sin:
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezek 18:20)
How are we to understand that “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam” (Rom 5:14)? The passage plainly states that those who have not broken the Mosaic Law still died because of sin, just not according “to the likeness of Adam” (i.e. explicitly breaking a commandment). Nevertheless, even without an explicit commandment, man is “without excuse” as he can perceive God and His goodness in nature. (Rom 1:20)
Even those who have never committed overt acts of sin (i.e. fetuses/infants and some saints, the Theotokos and John the Forerunner to name just two) are conceived “in sin” (Ps 50:5 LXX) and exhibit to varying degrees a battling against a way of thinking and willing which is contrary to the Law of God. (cf Rom 7) This obviously borders on the impossible to perceive for sinless saints as well as fetuses and some infants, but the propensity towards sin is hereditary and therefore latent in all of these parties. This is because “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.” (Rom 5:19) We understand “many” to pertain to everyone, because “through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in [the] condemnation” of death. (Rom 5:18a) Thanks be to God, “through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.” (Rom 5:18b)
The Conciliar Teaching
Original sin came up frequently in Ecumenical, Pan-Orthodox, and “local” councils. We can review their teachings in chronological order and presume where the councils do not give us more detail, that they are consistent with the teaching of the saints given in the next section.
The (local) Council of Carthage (approx. 252 AD) taught that infants should be baptized even though they have “sinned in nothing apart from that which proceeds from the flesh of Adam.” (Pomazansky 2007) This is because they have “received the contagion of the ancient death through…birth.” (Pomazansky 2007)
A later (local) Council of Carthage (approx. 419 AD) elaborated further. This council is endorsed by Canon 2 of the Council of Trullo (i.e. the sixth ecumenical council), giving its canons the highest level of authority. In Carthage’s 110th canon, it states that “whosoever denies that infants newly from their mother’s wombs should be baptized, or says that baptism is for remission of sins, but that they derive from Adam no original sin…let him be anathema.”
But, how does original sin work according to this council? Saint Augustine quotes the minutes of the council where Saint Aurelius of Carthage asserts the following:
The bishop Aurelius said: ‘…[M]y affirmation is, that although Adam, as created in Paradise, is said to have been made immortal at first, he afterwards became corruptible through transgressing the commandment.’ (Augustine, On Original Sin, Book II, Chap 3)
Interestingly, the council’s president in the above explicitly states that man’s death (i.e. corruptibility) came “through transgressing the commandment.” Further, it is stated that Adam was tentatively immortal before sinning, which implies that Adam’s curse was not punitive, but an acknowledgment by God of what had actually occurred through transgression.
A little more than ten years later, canon 1 of the (Ecumenical) Council of Ephesus condemned “the doctrines of Celestius,” who represented the Pelagians (i.e. a heretical group that denied the existence of original sin). (2) Coming off the heels of the Council of Carthage, it is sensible that we understand its sentiment as consistent.
Evidence of this may be surmised from a passing statement on the topic made by Arcadius, a legate for Saint Pope Celestine of Rome, during the July 10th, 431 AD session of the council (in its 32nd paragraph):
Just as the ancient serpent wormed his way in and seduced the well-regulated thoughts, attuned to God, of the human race, so he [Nestorius], having forgotten his own salvation and eternal life and afflicted by ignorance of the traditions of the fathers…brought about his own ruin through his disbelief. (Price and Graumann 2020, 379)
As we can see, similar to the Biblical exegesis previously given, Adam’s state of mind before the Fall was naturally “well-regulated” and “attuned to God.” After sin, mankind’s mode of willing descended into confusion and concupiscence, here compared to Nestorius’ “disbelief.”
Fast forwarding more than a thousand years, in 1642 AD the (Pan-Orthodox) Synod of Jassy treated the issue again. By endorsing an edited version of Saint Peter Mogila’s catechism, it propagated the following teachings found therein on original sin:
Adam had a perfect knowledge of God, therefore in knowing God, he knew all other things through God…[By sinning] he came into a state of sin and being expelled from paradise he became subject to death…presently losing the perfection of his reason and understanding, his will became prone to evil rather than good. (Mogila 1898, 28)
As we can see in the preceding, the Council presupposes upon the interpretation of the Scriptures given here. Adam before the Fall lacked passions and confusion, instead enjoying the “perfect knowledge of God.” Adam’s expulsion from paradise led to him being “subject to death.” This subjection to death is coupled with a distortion of a “perfect” will to an “evil” one. It should be noted that the chronology given here, if taken literally, contradicts the explicit chronology of Gen 3 as the effects of the Fall (as well as the curses) precede the expulsion from Eden. It may be helpful to view all of these events as concurrent—but the council does not explicitly state this.
Also consistent with the preceding Biblical interpretation, the council made clear that original sin is hereditary:
We are conceived in our mother’s womb and born in this [original] sin…Man was free from all sin,…and [through] Adam becoming guilty, we all likewise, who descend from him, become also guilty…this is called original sin because no mortal is conceived without this depravity of nature. (Mogila 1898, 29)
As one can see, mankind is “guilty” of original sin, not in that he explicitly inherited the guilt of the transgression, but rather its effects (“depravity of nature”). The council then gets into more detail as to the state of human willing after the Fall and couples its distortion with the advent of corruptibility, allowing us to infer a teaching consistent with what we have thus far given:
Reason, whilst man remained in the state of innocence (that is before the Fall) was perfect and uncorrupt and by the Fall became corrupt, but his will…became more inclined to the evil…the will is miserably depraved by original sin. (Mogila 1898, 31)
Decades later, the (Pan-Orthodox) Council of Jerusalem (1672 AD) also spoke of original sin. The issue first comes up in Decree 6, which states:
We believe the first man created by God to have fallen in Paradise, when, disregarding the Divine commandment, he yielded to the deceitful counsel of the serpent. And as a result hereditary sin flowed to his posterity; so that everyone who is born after the flesh bears this burden, and experiences the fruits of it in this present world. But by these fruits and this burden we do not understand [actual] sin, such as impiety, blasphemy, murder, sodomy, adultery, fornication, enmity, and whatever else is by our depraved choice committed contrarily to the Divine Will, not from nature. For many both of the Forefathers and of the Prophets, and vast numbers of others, as well of those under the shadow [of the Law], as well as under the truth [of the Gospel], such as the divine Precursor, and especially the Mother of God the Word, the ever-virgin Mary, did not experience these [sins], or such like faults. But only what the Divine Justice inflicted upon man as a punishment for the [original] transgression, such as sweats in labor, afflictions, bodily sicknesses, pains in child-bearing, and, finally, while on our pilgrimage, to live a laborious life, and lastly, bodily death. (Bratcher 2018) (Note: All citations of the council are from the same source.)
This Decree invokes the sinlessness of John the Forerunner and Theotokos, yet still places them under the “punishment” of original sin. The punishment is described as bodily death and the blameless passions. The Decree seemingly contradicts Jassy in that it does not comment on the prevalence of concupiscence in the human mind since the Fall. Instead, it seems to deny its existence. However, other Decrees flesh out this issue in more detail.
First, one must understand what the council means by “fruits.” Decree 13 permits us to come up with a definition. The decree states that the council “regard[s] works not as witnesses certifying our calling, but as being fruits in themselves, through which faith becomes efficacious.” Hence, fruits are herein defined as not mere evidence of something existing, but a manifestation of an interior reality. Hence, the fruits of faith are good works, because faith is efficacious through a cooperation of human willing with God’s will: “the faith which is in us, justifies through works, with Christ.” (Decree 13) Fruits are redemptive, in Decree 13, because they are the experience of faith and salvation.
Therefore, we may understand the meaning of “fruits” in Decree 6 to have this significance: we do not experience the actual original sin of Adam (or anyone else’s sins), but manifest the interior reality of Adam that existed after the transgression. We are not literally programmed to commit any sin, as our nature is not totally depraved. However, we experience the interior reality that causes the free choice of committing these sins. Hence, what we see in Decree 6, properly understood, is consistent with Jassy.
Such an interpretation is brought out elsewhere in the council. Decree 14 states:
We believe man in falling by the [original] transgression to have become comparable and similar to the beasts; that is, to have been utterly undone, and to have fallen from his perfection and impassibility, yet not to have lost the nature and power which he had received from the supremely good God. For otherwise he would not be rational, and consequently not a human. So [he still has] the same nature in which he was created, and the same power of his nature, that is free-will, living and operating, so that he is by nature able to choose and do what is good, and to avoid and hate what is evil…Consequently, he is not able of himself to do any work worthy of a Christian life, although he has it in his own power to will, or not to will, to co-operate with grace.
In similar language to Jassy, man before the Fall is considered “perfect.” Nevertheless, mankind lost this perfection through sin so that now he could be compared to “beasts.” This has not occurred so completely that human rationality has been lost, thus rendering mankind totally depraved. “Consequently,” man can will both good and evil, but nonetheless is incapable of “do[ing] any work worthy of Christian life” without spiritual re-birth in baptism. (Decree 16 states, “[B]aptism is necessary even for infants, since they also are subject to original sin, and without Baptism are not able to obtain its remission.”) Hence, original sin has put man into a state of no-escape from the penalty of death (cf Rom 6:23) and concupiscence, though mankind has not completely lost what is natural and good in him.
Our last (arguably) Pan-Orthodox document which weighed in on this issue in significant detail is the Longer Catechism of Saint Filaret of Moscow. Translated in several languages and propagated throughout the seminaries and libraries of the Orthodox world in the 1800s, it is with the Council of Jassy our highest-level catechism with Churchwide acceptance. During its time, it was described by Philip Schaff (2020) as “the most authoritative doctrinal standard of the orthodox Græco-Russian Church” and he noted that it “has practically superseded the older Catechism, or Orthodox Confession of Mogila [i.e. Council of Jassy].”
Dealing with this topic in Question 158, Saint Filaret wrote that Adam and Eve fell due to deceit:
The devil deceived Eve and Adam, and induced them to transgress God’s commandment. (Drozdov n.d.)(3)
Concurring with our analysis, that death is the natural (and not punitive) result of original sin, Filaret wrote in Question 160 that disobedience brought death to man:
Because it involved disobedience to God’s will, and so separated man from God and his grace, and alienated him from the life of God.
One would think that when man alienates himself from the life of God, he causes his own death by God’s permission. Nevertheless, Filaret also concurs that man was created with a will predisposed to Godliness:
God of his goodness, at the creation of man, gave him a will naturally disposed to love God, but still free; and man used this freedom for evil. (Question 162)
What is the death which came from the sin of Adam? It is twofold: bodily, when the body loses the soul which quickened it; and spiritual, when the soul loses the grace of God, which quickened it with the higher and spiritual life. (Question 166)
Filaret also asserts the hereditary nature of original sin:
Because all have come of Adam since his infection by sin, and all sin themselves. As from an infected source there naturally flows an infected stream, so from a father infected with sin, and consequently mortal, there naturally proceeds a posterity infected like him with sin, and like him mortal. (Question 168)
Lastly, it is worth discussing a passing statement made in the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs in 1848. This document was approved by the bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem and most of their synods. It should be noted that during this time jurisdictions such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia were technically under Constantinople. (4) Furthermore, it has since been cited as an authoritative document by the Moscow Patriarchate, which in effect gives the document universal acceptance. (Moscow Patriarchate 2013) The Encyclical simply states that Satan had deceived Adam by mixing truth with error:
[T]he Prince of Evil, that spiritual enemy of man’s salvation, as formerly in Eden, craftily assuming the pretext of profitable counsel, he made man to become a transgressor of the divinely-spoken command. so in the spiritual Eden, the Church of God, he has from time to time beguiled many; and, mixing the deleterious drugs of heresy with the clear streams of orthodox doctrine.
The Patristic Teaching
One may object to the treatment of the topic given thus far on the grounds that it is a private interpretation of the Biblical and Conciliar evidence. We left the specific teaching of the fathers outside of conciliar documents last in our treatment, because it is by far the most in-depth. For the sake of brevity, we will have to sacrifice simplicity in the treatment of these fathers for specificity so that we can “fill in the gaps” of what was not clarified in the councils themselves.
It may help to begin with one of our first Biblical exegetes, Saint Justin Martyr, because he provides for us a simple synopsis of original sin. He teaches:
[T]hey [Adam and Eve] were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons. (Saint Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chap 124) (5)
Adam and Eve were made perfect, free from suffering and death. However, this was contingent upon obedience to God. Disobedience led to death as a “punishment”:
For God, wishing both angels and men, who were endowed with free-will, and at their own disposal, to do whatever He had strengthened each to do, made them so, that if they chose the things acceptable to Himself, He would keep them free from death and from punishment; but that if they did evil, He would punish each as He sees fit. (Dialogue with Trypho, Chap 88)
Reading the saints consistently with one another, we are inclined to go beyond what happened, as Justin tells us, and venture into why it happened. Saint Gregory of Nyssa gives us a more thorough, but dense, answer. He writes in chapter 8 of the Great Catechism:
This liability to death, then, taken from the brute creation, was, provisionally, made to envelope the nature created for immortality. It enwrapped it externally, but not internally. It grasped the sentient part of man; but laid no hold upon the Divine image. This sentient part, however, does not disappear, but is dissolved.
In other words, man is naturally immortal, but “provisionally” death and corruption (“dissolution”) has taken effect since the original sin. Human nature has not been completely lost as death has not laid “hold upon the Divine image” in man. Death occurs “externally” (i.e. to the physical body) but not “internally” (i.e. to the soul) as the soul is immortal and not subject to physical corruption. How did death take hold? Gregory continues in the same chapter:
Now the cause of this dissolution is evident…since both soul and body have a common bond of fellowship in their participation of the sinful affections, there is also an analogy between the soul’s and body’s death. For as in regard to the flesh we pronounce the separation of the sentient life to be death, so in respect of the soul we call the departure of the real life death. While, then, as we have said before, the participation in evil observable both in soul and body is of one and the same character, for it is through both that the evil principle advances into actual working, the death of dissolution which came from that clothing of dead skins does not affect the soul.
Now we have it, in as few words one may summarize Gregory’s thought, the connection between death and sin. “The participation in evil observable in both soul and body is of one and the same character” and affects both the soul and body, but only leads to the corruption and death of the body—not the soul. The soul, apart from the grace of Christ, still suffers regardless from “a diseased condition of the will.” (Against Eunomius, Book II, Chap 12) Both the body and soul suffer from sin, albeit differently.
Clearly, Gregory did not view death as punitive, but rather as a natural consequence of cutting oneself off from God’s vivifying grace. In his own words:
Humanity once revolted through the malice of the enemy, and, brought into bondage to sin, was also alienated from the true Life. (Against Eunomius, Book II, Chap 12)
While Gregory is admittedly difficult to follow, Saint John of Damascus illustrates this concept for us more simply. When surmising what God meant when He said, “Of every tree in Paradise you may freely eat” (Gen 2:16), Damascene speculates God meant the following:
Through all My creations you are to ascend to Me your creator, and of all the fruits you may pluck one, that is, Myself who art the true life: let every thing bear for you the fruit of life, and let participation in Me be the support of your own being. For in this way you will be immortal. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die. For sensible food is by nature for the replenishing of that which gradually wastes away and it passes into the drought and perishes: and he cannot remain incorruptible who partakes of sensible food. (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book II, Chapter 11)
Hence, obedience to God meant immortal life because Adam literally was fed by God’s grace itself via participating in His divine energies. Disobedience, as represented by seeking to live by material food in place of abiding in God, leads to death. Elsewhere, the Damascene puts it more succinctly:
He [Adam] transgressed the command of his Creator and became liable to death and corruption. (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Chap 13)
Saint John of Damascus probably based his teaching upon Saint Maximus the Confessor. On this topic, Maximus writes succinctly:
If instead of his wife he had trusted God, and been nourished from the tree of life, he would not have lost the gift of immortality, which is maintained perpetually through participation in life [i.e. obedience to God]…the first man fell away from divine life, and embarked upon a different life which engenders death, a life in which he acquired for himself an irrational form. (Ambigua to John, 10:60) (6)
All of mankind dies because he manifests this sinfulness of Adam:
In the same manner, but in the case of what is contrary, the sages give the names of “perdition,” “Hades,” “sons of perdition,” and the like, to those who by their disposition have set themselves on a course to nonexistence, and who by their mode of life have reduced themselves to virtual nothingness. (Ambigua to John, 20:2)
This “course to nonexistence” is embarked upon because a willful distancing of oneself from God “voluntarily” brings about dissolution. (Ambigua to John, 7:11) This is because it is a willful turning from Him who “willed to impart Himself without defilement to them in a manner proportionate to all and to each, bestowing upon each the power to exist and to remain in existence.” (Ambiguum to John, 35:2)
Centuries later, Saint Gregory Palamas summarizes the aforementioned teachings as follows:
In this way, through the evil one’s envy and the good Lord’s just consent, death came into the world. Because of the devil’s overwhelming evil, death became twofold, for he brought about not just physical but also eternal death…The death of the soul is when God leaves the soul and is separated from it…When the human soul is separated from the divine energy for good, it is not only smitten with inaction, but starts working against itself, sinking from bad to worse…the soul’s state of death in due course brought about the death of the body too….[W]hen Adam fell by turning aside from good to evil, no one remained who was not inclined to evil…He [Satan] beguiled him [Adam] with deadly advice and made him share his own sin and spiritual deadness. Of necessity bodily death followed this spiritual death, so the evil one caused our double death by his single death. (Homily 16, Par 1, 7-9, 11, 25)
Having now covered the corruption of the body and is connection to mankind’s disobedience, let’s return to the fallen, “diseased” human will. The human will is still, by nature, human as it has not lost its “divine Image.” Nevertheless, it has been radically distorted by the Fall. In order to understand this, it is helpful in a few words to surmise what the pre-Fall human will was like, according to the Fathers. There is a surprisingly early consensus on this point.
Saint Justin Martyr, as covered earlier, taught that Adam and Eve “were endowed with free-will…to do whatever He had strengthened each to do.” Their mental focus had a sense of clarity, naturally inclined to do the things of God and thereby live eternally. Saint Irenaeus taught that Adam was “free and self controlled.” (Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, Par 11) Saint Theophilus of Antioch concurred: “For God made man free, and with power over himself.” (To Autolycus, Book II, Chap 27) This state of willing made Adam “adapted to the reception of virtue.” (Saint Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book VI, Chap 12) Later fathers such as Saint Gregory of Nyssa (cf On the Making of Man, Chap 27) and Saint Maximus (cf Ambigua to John, 45:3) concur that man “was not subject to” and “devoid of” what they both call “flux.” In other words, unlike post-Fall man who has a constant unsureness of what is right or wrong, prelapsarian (pre-Fall) man lacked this.
This is why all the fathers are emphatic that Adam and Eve were deceived, (7) as they could not intentionally defy God and work evil in the prelapsarian state. Saint Irenaeus explicitly teaches this:
[I]t was not possible for them to conceive and understand anything of that which by wickedness through lusts and shameful desires is born in the soul. For they were at that time entire, preserving their own nature; since they had the breath of life which was breathed on their creation: and, while this breath remains in its place and power, it has no comprehension and understanding of things that are base. (Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, Par 14)
The preceding quotation links together (unintentionally) the causes of the physical and spiritual Fall. Physically, being cut off from the grace of God through disobedience leads to death because our very lives are upheld by God’s grace continuously. In the same way, human nature apart from sin “while this breath [i.e. God’s Spirit] remains in its place and power” allows for “no comprehension and understanding of the things that are base.” Turning away from God’s grace and rejecting this “breath” then enables man to partake in a fallen mode of willing.
The way Satan accomplished this deception was not the same as how we are often deceived today. We are “inwardly” assaulted by Satan due to our concupiscence. Those without original sin, therefore, can only be assaulted “externally.” Several fathers and even later theologians taught this. (8) Likewise, Saint John of Damascus taught the same idea:
The wicked one , then, made his assault [on Jesus] from without, not by thoughts prompted inwardly, just as it was with Adam. For it was not by inward thoughts, but by the serpent that Adam was assailed. But the Lord repulsed the assault and dispelled it like vapour, in order that the passions which assailed him and were overcome might be easily subdued by us, and that the new Adam should save the old. (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book III, Par 20)
As we can see, the external assault, if accepted, becomes internalized and leads to the actual Fall itself. In fact, according to Saint Maximus, this is precisely what Satan was trying to accomplish when he tempted Jesus:
They [the demons] therefore assailed Him, hoping that they might prevail even upon Him, through His natural passibility, to form an image in His mind of an unnatural passion and act on it as they would. (Questions of Thallasius, 21.4) (9)
The issue of imagination and its connection to sin is invoked elsewhere in Questions of Thallassius:
[T]he movement of the intellect that gives a form to the passions, and fashions beautiful images that give pleasure to the senses. For no passion would ever arise without the intellect’s conceptual capacity to fashion such forms. (Questions of Thallasius, 65.7)
The dangers of imagination are profound, which is why Saint John of the Ladder forbids using it during prayer. (cf Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28, Par 42) According to Saint Maximus, imagination ultimately pertains to all pleasurable sense-perception, which is sinful because it distances us from the dispassionate life of God:
[I]n every passion it naturally rules and leads the corresponding organ of sense perception, for without a substrate to attract the powers of the soul toward him by means of a sensation, no passion could ever come into existence. (Questions of Thallasius, 50.11)
In plain English, a passion needs to act upon “sensation” for it to exist. An external assault of passion, like that of Adam or Jesus, would have had no such sensation coupled with it—which is why imagination would have been required for the demonic assault to become an inward passion. (10) Maximus writes elsewhere:
Pleasure and pain, he says, were not created together with the nature of the flesh. Instead, the transgression conceived both the former, resulting in the corruption of free choice, and the latter, resulting in the condemnation and dissolution of nature, so that pleasure would bring about the soul’s voluntary death through sin. (Questions of Thallasius, 61, Scholia 1)
As we can see, contemplating pleasure corrupted Adam and Eve’s perfect free will and in so doing, this voluntary mode of willing (elsewhere called “gnomic will” by Maximus) permits “bodily death through sin.” In so doing, all of mankind originating in Adam has been plunged into a “chaotic and roaring ocean of material attachments…submerged in temptations…and overwhelmed by the great weight of evil pressing down on its power of reason.” (Questions of Thallasius, 64:6) Our rest from this affliction comes from the grace of God. Grace gives us “complete inactivity of the passions and the universal cessation of the intellect’s movement around created realities” allowing for “the perfect passage toward the divine.” (Questions of Thallasius, 65:20)
As we have already shown in passing, the fathers are clear that original sin is hereditary. In fact, they are so clear, they identify that it spreads specifically through sexual relations:
All these and the like affections entered man’s composition by reason of the animal mode of generation. (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, Chap 18, Par 2)
[E]very one who is born of sexual intercourse is in fact sinful flesh, since that alone which was not born of such intercourse was not sinful flesh (Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, Book I, Chap 13).
[I]f human nature, in the first man, had not sinned, the multiplication of the human race would have proceeded not through the union of bodies, which is the penalty of sin, but in a miraculous and divine manner, without the contamination of any seed. (Maximus, Questions of Thalassius, 21, Scholia 4)
The impulse of the flesh is involuntary and openly wars against the law of the mind. Even though it is brought into subjection by chaste people, and given reign only for the purpose of having children, it ushers in the original condemnation, being subject to corruption and always bringing forth what will persish. (Palamas, Homily 16, Par 4)
In summary, from the preceding one can surmise that the fathers have answered all our important questions about how original sin occurs, what it did to Adam and man, and how it is propagated.
One can see that Orthodoxy has a clearly Biblical and historically delineated teaching on original sin. The full ramifications of this we will leave for others to work out, even though they are important. As Pomazansky (2007) points out:
The doctrine of original sin has great significance in the Christian world-view, because upon it rests a whole series of other dogmas.
And so, we will offer a couple minor comments, but nothing of grand importance.
First, Orthodox are similar to the rest of Christendom in having a doctrine of original sin and affirming all the same basic tenets. We believe it is inherited and that it affects the human body and the mind.
Second, by fleshing out the doctrine we can also clearly identify where Orthodoxy differs with heterodox denominations. For example, an “Augustinian” view where man inherits the literal guilt of Adam is disallowed. (11) A Calvinist view of total depravity is likewise disallowed, as it is inconsistent with the Orthodox view of human nature.
Orthodoxy’s clearest difference between ourselves and the heterodox is that we affirm an actual connection between the Fall into concupiscence and bodily death. This is because Orthodoxy affirms an energy-essence distinction and so maintains that human life literally abides in God’s energies. Original sin divorces man from these energies, leading to his moral and physical decline.
If we are to presume upon this essential Orthodox dogma, other doctrines, such as the Immaculate Conception as understood by Roman Catholics, become unworkable. As it pertains to the Immaculate Conception, because the Theotokos experienced bodily death then one inevitably must conclude she had original sin.
And so, with a thorough understanding of original sin, we can better understand where we both agree and disagree with others, with the hope that those falling short of the Orthodox teaching will amend their views accordingly.
1. Pomazansky (2007) quotes Saint Cyril of Alexandria at length on this exact point.
2. The Council of Ephesus did not properly have canons, but during the reign of Saint Justinian ad verbatim teachings of the council were put into canon-form and propagated as canons.
3. All additional references to this catechism are identified by their question number and are derived from the same source.
4. Serbia’s situation as a Patriarchate was quickly evolving, literally separating itself from Constantinople during the same month as the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs was penned.
5. Any quotations of ancient Church texts identified by simple book name and paragraph are from NewAdvent.org’s collection of early church fathers and documents.
6. Quotations from Ambigua are all from (Contas 2014) .
7. This can obviously be its own article, but to name a couple passages from Irenaeus, Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, Par 12 and Against Heresies, Book III, Chap 23, Par 5 touch on the issue.
8. Saint Augustine (On the Trinity, Book IV, Par 17) and Saint Gregory the Great (Gospel Homilies 16 [comments on Matt 4:10-11]; Moralia on Job, Book III, Par 30). This has been given a scholarly treatment recently by Dr. Benjamin Heidgerken. (Heidgerken 2015)
9. Questions of Thallasius quotations are from (Constas 2018).
10. In the case of Jesus Christ, He was being tempted not simply to be hungry, which He already was, but to hunger for food instead of God. Jesus Christ, like Adam before the Fall, had no propensity towards this and so it would have to be imagined (i.e. made up out of whole cloth).
11. Roman Catholics have not dogmatized the “Augustinian” view of inherited guilt and have, in fact, on the most part rejected it. The Roman Catholic Catechism explicitly rejects the notion. (cf CCC 404-405) One source actually convincingly rejects that Augustine believed in inherited guilt, though this would call into question a plain reading of Letter 98.
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Contas, Nicholas. 2014. On the Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Volumes I and II. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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