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Original Sin Catholic versus Orthodox

by John S. Romanides

Christianity is the system of religious truth based upon the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the expected Messiah, or Christ, and that in him all the hopes and prophecies of Israel concerning the future have been fulfilled. While comprising creeds which differ widely from one another in doctrine and in practice, Christianity as a whole rests upon the belief in the God of Israel and in the Hebrew Scriptures as the word of God; but it claims that these Scriptures, which it calls the Old Testament, receive their true meaning and interpretation from the New Testament, taken to be the written testimonies of the Apostles that Jesus appeared as the end and fulfillment of all Hebrew prophecy.

It furthermore claims that Jesus, its Christ, was and is a son of God in a higher and an essentially different sense than any other human being, sharing in His divine nature, a cosmic principle destined to counteract the principle of evil embodied in Satan; that, therefore, the death of the crucified Christ was designed by God to be the means of atonement for the sin inherited by the human race through the fall of Adam, the first man; and, consequently, that without belief in Jesus, in whom the Old Testament sacrifice is typified, there is no salvation.

Finally, Christianity, as a world-power, claims that it represents the highest form of civilization, inasmuch as, having made its appearance when the nations of antiquity had run their course and mankind longed for a higher and deeper religious life, it regenerated the human race while uniting Hebrew and Greek to become the heir to both; and because it has since become the ruling power of history, influencing the life of all nations and races to such an extent that all other creeds and systems of thought must recede and pale before it. Ref. Jewish Encyclopedia 1904.

How Original Sin is seen from Orthodox Christianity

The Orthodox approach to sin and how to deal with it is never "legalistic". Following rules strictly without the heart "being in it" does not help a believer with his salvation. Sin is not about breaking some set of rules; rather, it is the name for any behavior which "misses the mark," that is, fails to live up to the higher goal of being like God.

Thus, in the Orthodox tradition sin is not viewed as a stain on the soul that needs to be wiped out, but rather as a pervading sickness or a failure to achieve a goal. Sin, therefore, does not carry with it the guilt for breaking a rule, but rather the impetus to become something more than what we are. Because each person's experience is unique, dealing with one's sinful habits needs individual attention and correction. The ultimate goal for this process is to become more Christ-like in one's actions.

To place the term original sin in context: God created man perfect with free will and gave man a direction to follow. Man (Adam) and Woman (Eve) chose rather to disobey God by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thus changing the "perfect" mode of existence of man to the "flawed" mode of existence of man. This flawed nature and all that has come from it is a result of that Original Sin. Because we participate in humanity, we share in the sin of Adam because like him, we are human.

The union of humanity with divinity in Jesus Christ restored, in the Person of Christ, the mode of existence of humanity, so that those who are incorporated in him may participate in this mode of existence, be saved from sin and death, and be united to God in deification. Original sin is cleansed in humans through baptism or, in the case of the Theotokos, the moment Christ took form within her.

However, this view differs from the Roman Catholic (Augustinian) doctrine of Original Sin in that man is not seen as inherently guilty of the sin of Adam. According to the Orthodox, we inherit the consequences of that sin, not the guilt. The difference came about because Augustine interpreted a Latin translation of Romans 5:12 as meaning that through Adam all men sinned, whereas the Orthodox reading in Greek interpret it as meaning that we all sin as part of the inheritance of flawed nature from Adam. Therefore, the Orthodox Church does not teach that we are born deserving to go to hell and Protestant doctrines such as Pre determinism that result from the Augustinian understanding of Original Sin are not a part of Orthodox belief.

In the book Ancestral Sin, John S. Romanides addresses the concept of Original sin, which he understands to mean that people under ancestral sin, inherit the sins of previous generations. Father Romanides asserts that this is not a tenet of the Orthodox faith. Father Romanides works out through scripture and patristics that original sin (as inherited sin) is not a doctrine of the church and is not cohesive with the Eastern Orthodox faith. In his view, the doctrine of Original Sin is an invention of later church fathers such as Saint Augustine. In the realm of ascetics it is by choice not birth that one takes on the sins of the world.

John S. Romanides (1928-2001) was a Greek Orthodox priest and professor who, for a long time, represented the Greek Church to the World Council of Churches. He was born in Piraeus, Greece, on 2 March 1928 but his parents emigrated to the United States when he was only two months old. He grew up in Manhattan. A graduate of the Hellenic College, Brookline, Massachusetts, and of the Yale Divinity School, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Athens.

From 1956 to 1965 he was Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, Massachusetts. In 1968 he was appointed as tenured Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Greece, a position he held until his retirement in 1982. His latest position was Professor of Theology at Balamand Theological School, in Lebanon.

Also see Jesus the man




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