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Eastern Orthodoxy And Original Sin

July 5, 2016 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES LIKOUDIS

I am acquainted with some of Frederica Matthewes-Green’s fine writings, but she is not at her best when she seriously misunderstands the Catholic doctrine of original sin. Like many other Eastern Orthodox, she mistakenly thinks the “inherited guilt” of original sin means we have committed Adam’s sin. That is not Catholic teaching.
According to the Catholic Church, original sin is a guilty state or sinful condition of human nature, not a guilty act that we ourselves have personally committed. It is, instead, the sinful state of human nature resulting from Adam’s sin. The nature of every man born into this world (except our Lord and His Immaculate Mother) is deprived of the divine life of grace as a consequence of, and as a punishment, for the personal or actual sin committed by Adam, the progenitor and head of the human race.
For Catholics (and I must say, some Orthodox), Adam transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the spiritual “death of the soul.” St. Augustine would complement the teaching of the Eastern fathers by emphasizing that “inherited guilt” means it was not only the death of the body which is punishment for sin, but also “the death of the soul.” To repeat, original sin is not a sin the descendants of Adam commit; it is rather a sin that is contracted, not committed.
All Adam’s descendants share in his guilt insofar as they come into this world deprived of the holiness and justice of God, and needing the holy mystery of Baptism. This is also true of newborn babies; they are conceived in original sin and are sinners before God needing to be baptized to share in God’s divine life.
It should be noted that the lack of divine life (or sanctifying grace) in the souls of Adam’s descendants is more than an absence but a privation, a punishment because of the solidarity of the human race with Adam.
As Romans 5:19 states, Adam’s sin has passed on to his descendants: “By one man’s disobedience, many were constituted sinners.” Furthermore, “One man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18). Catholics have always distinguished between “personal sin” (in the sense of something which is consciously committed) and original sin.
The traditional teaching on “inherited guilt” is maintained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which makes clear that Adam’s fall from divinizing grace placed his descendants in a condition or state of sin (thus “stained” with original sin).
In short, such Orthodox writers as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, John Meyendorff, and other modern Orthodox theologians may seek to confine original sin to an inheritance of “Adam’s corruption and mortality,” but they deviate from the fullness of the Church’s ancient Tradition which held that when Adam sinned, it was not only the effects of his sin (ignorance, suffering, concupiscence, bodily death) that occurred. There also resulted an actual sinful condition or state of sin which was transmitted to all his progeny.
Also, Matthewes-Green does not appear to realize that all Eastern Orthodox do not reject the Catholic view of original sin. Various Orthodox “Confessions of Faith” and Orthodox theologians of the past and today are found in agreement with defined Catholic doctrine. Thus, it is not true that the Catholic doctrine on original sin has “separated Eastern and Western Christians for 1,500 years.”
The early 19th-century Russian Orthodox theologian Methodios Smirnov, in his On the Differences Between the Eastern and Western Churches, cites no discrepancy between the two Churches on the subject of original sin.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (whom she quotes) attempts to discredit Peter Mohila’s 1640 Confession of Faith’s orthodoxy on original sin, but is obliged to admit it was one of the “chief Orthodox doctrinal statements since 787.”
Moreover, his view finds itself blatantly contradicted by the Greek Orthodox theologian Athanasios S. Frangopoulos who has written:
“The saddest and ugliest aspect of original sin in its transmission from the first man to his descendants and from generation to generation to the entire human race: a hereditary transmission as a state and sickness of human nature and as a personal guilt of every man. . . . In the person of Adam all his descendants were included and all inherited the sin of Adam and the results of that sin which are guilt, corruption and the depravity of our nature . . . and finally death” (Our Orthodox Christian Faith, Athens, Greece: 1985).
Many other Eastern Orthodox theologians, past and present (e.g., the 19th-century writers Mesoloras and Androutsos), give clear expression to the Catholic doctrine. The present well-known Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, representing the Moscow Patriarchate, specifically uses the term “original sin” in his book Mystery of Faith.
Writing in support of the Russian Church’s centuries-old practice of baptizing newborn infants who cannot possibly be guilty of any “personal transgressions,” he states, “In Baptism we are granted freedom from original sin, and forgiveness of all our personal transgressions.” His straightforward declaration on the effects of Baptism evidences belief that unbaptized newborns are born in original sin.
It is clear that despite what some Orthodox believers and even prelates and theologians may say in criticism of Catholic teaching on original sin, they do not represent any official teaching but only their own individual opinions.
In fact, they are found at odds with past official or common teaching expressed in the 1640 “Confession of Faith” of Peter Mohila, and the 1672 “Confession of Faith” of the Patriarch Dositheos of Jerusalem.
See also the Catechism of the Greek Orthodox Church by the Rev. Constas H. Demetry, DD, Doctor of the Ecumenical Throne, wherein he replies to the question: “Are We Responsible for the Original Sin?” — “Personally none; because we did not personally commit the sin of our First Parents; but we are charged with it by inheritance because we were in Adam . . . when they sinned, and for this reason the Apostle Paul writes . . . all have sinned.”
It should be noted that the Byzantine Greek Church in the Council in Trullo (AD 692) accepted Canon 2 of the famous Council of Orange much influenced by the teaching of St. Augustine:
“If anyone asserts that Adam’s sin affected him alone and not his descendants also, or at least if he declares that it is only the death of the body which is the punishment for sin, and not also that sin, which is the death of the soul, passed through one man to the whole human race, he does injustice to God and contradicts the Apostle, who says, ‘Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned’ (Romans 5:12).”
Frederica Matthewes-Green is indeed correct in noting that Orthodox theology is in agreement with the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “we inherit an inclination to sin” [concupiscence]. However, those Orthodox who reject the doctrine that original sin resulted in the hereditary transmission of a flawed human nature alienated from God and resulting in our becoming sinners (that is, “by nature children of wrath” — Eph. 2:3) and in need of redemption — separate themselves from their own doctrinal past, and from a truth of divine Revelation.

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(James Likoudis has written The Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church ($27.95), a systematic examination of Eastern Orthodox doctrinal grievances against the Catholic Church. Signed copies are still available from the author [jlikoudis@cuf.org].)

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