Original and Ancestral Sin: A Church Dividing Issue?

When asked about the topic of Original Sin, many Orthodox Christians will proudly claim the Orthodox Church does not believe in Original Sin. They explain they believe in “Ancestral Sin,” instead. Some even go so far as to call Original Sin, as understood by the Roman Catholic Church, “a heresy.” This, again, is a typical response from many Orthodox Christians, especially those who have a negative attitude towards anything “western.” But is this the official teaching of the Orthodox Church, and do all subscribe to that understanding? Has the Orthodox Church ever condemned or denied Original sin in favor of Ancestral Sin? 

To answer those questions, it is necessary to first study the history of how the dichotomy came to be. From time to time theological movements and new opinions concerning certain topics arise and often come to influence large portions of the Church (at least for a time). In the last century, a priest and theologian by the name of John Romanides published a doctoral dissertation in which he argued that Original Sin is wrong and that the real Orthodox doctrine is (or should be) “Ancestral Sin” (from προγονικὸν ἁμάρτημα, προπατορικὸν ἁμάρτημα), thus establishing the dialectical relationship between the two terms as two different and contradictory doctrines. Fr John’s thesis, as part of the Neo Patristics movement that had been gaining a lot of ground in the Church a couple of decades prior, became widely and increasingly accepted in many parts of the Church.

But, despite the widespread acceptance of the new articulation, it is not and has never been accepted by all1. Neither has it ever been endorsed by any synodal decision at the Pan Orthodox level. It must be pointed out, prior to the “rediscovery” of Ancestral Sin, Original Sin, as articulated by the Roman Catholic Church through the centuries, was never denied or contradicted by the East. It was certainly never identified as a Church dividing doctrine. One can search the history of theology and controversies affecting the Church through the centuries prior to the last one and never find a single synodal decision, father, or movement identifying dichotomies in understanding the topic. In fact, the opposite is the case. The Council of Carthage (418), which codified the western articulations used to refute Pelagius was adopted by the Eastern Council in Trullo, which is held in Orthodoxy as Ecumenical, since it is taken as the continuation of the 6th Ecumenical Council. It is important to point out the Council of Carthage along with the condemnations against Pelagius (through the doctrine of Original Sin) found its way into Trullo as a mere formality, having become very well received in the East for centuries2.

Similarly, around the time of the “Great Schism,” several differences between East and West were brought up as Church dividing issues. Some of them have always been held as important while others have been judged and discarded as not essential. Yet, Original Sin was never found among any of them – and that during a time when many seemed to be nit-picky and ready to affect division with their lists of grievances! Passing into the second millennium, other controversies and questions such as the essence/energy distinctions, the Protestant movements in the West, and the development of various doctrines in Roman Catholicism arose, which merited the responses of the East. The East responded to them. But, again, Original Sin was absent. There was no mention of it as a difference between the East and the Roman Catholic Church – and that during a time when polemics against each other were still very popular. Instead, the East made several affirmations of the doctrine such as through the Council of Jerusalem (1672)3, which is recognized as Pan Orthodox.

The Neo Patristic theologians of the last century which subscribed to the distinction between Original and Ancestral Sin, sensing the novelty of the new dialectics on this topic sought to justify it by blaming the Orthodox acceptance of Original Sin on the systematic theology prior to the Neo Patristics, calling it the “western captivity of Orthodox theology.” To make their justification reach prior to the “western captivity,” they cherry-picked some quotations from certain fathers such as St Cyril of Alexandria, pitted them against a homogenizing, overly systemized, and air-tight4 packaged caricature of Original Sin from which some theologians went so far as to claim the Eastern fathers were answering the Western ones. But when the fathers and their language are consulted5, it is clear that not only is Original Sin affirmed, but the quotations used by the Neo Patristics to attempt to refute Original Sin were not directed at the western fathers at all (as some of the Neo Patristic theologians claimed and some of their followers still claim). In fact, the opposite is the case. St Cyril and others were refuting the misunderstanding of the Pelagians who were accusing the western fathers of the same things the Neo Patristic theologians and their followers accuse “the West”6 of today. Thus, such Eastern fathers were actually siding with the Western fathers.7

At this point, we are ready to move to the salient points of the article. We will examine the major claims put forth by the Neo Patristic theologians and their followers today: the term itself, the translation of Romans 5:12, the doctrine, the teachings of the fathers on the subject, the understanding of the “western position,” and the fate of the unborn who die without baptism as a test point. The Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception will also be commented on briefly for the sake of answering the concerns of many who subscribe to the new understandings of Original Sin and who find the doctrine of the Immacuate Conception as a test point of it. The assertions of the modern Orthodox will be examined in light of official statements and tradition of the Church. An assessment of them and what is at stake with the issue will also be given.

The Term

As stated, we will start with the term itself. Much is made concerning the actual wording and etymology of the various terms used in the ancient Church to refer to the Fall of Man. But as has been pointed out, prior to the last century, with the advent of the Neo Patristic theologians, there is no history of dialectics between East and West on the topic. That coupled with the following facts demonstrates “Ancestral Sin” and “Original Sin” are just different usages to refer to the Fall of Man (like “mass” and “liturgy” are for the worship service). The attempt to make the term “Original Sin” synonymous with St Augustine and then attaching it to the entire Latin Church from his time forward is fallacious because the term has always been used to describe the teachings of the Latin fathers on the Fall before and after St Augustine (not only for a particular person’s articulation). It is also demonstrated by the fact that the Latin Church never endorsed all of Augustine’s minute articulations and continued to articulate through the centuries her own [the Latin Church] detailed expositions in light of our shared tradition. Today, for example, if one reads the articulations presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) side by side our Councils, our catechisms not written from the perspective of the Neo Patristics movement, and expositions one would not be able to discern any essential differences. The point, then, is that the term “Original Sin” is simply used to refer to the topic of the Fall of Man. The correctness or lack-thereof of each’s articulation has no bearing on the actual term. It may, of course, be used by those who insist on essential differences for the sake of highlighting them, but it is not essential in and of itself. We do not have a problem with Latin terms such as “mass,” “sacrament,” and historically we did not have a problem with the term “Original Sin” either (especially in translation to relatively modern languages).

The Translation of Romans 5:12

Concerning the translation of ἐφ᾿ᾧ in Romans 5:12, the meaning of the phrase has been understood differently since ancient times until today. There is in fact no scholarship that can prove the Neo Patristic understanding of it as the only correct translation. That is why, for example, the new Russian Orthodox catechism acknowledges the legitimacy of both translations and the understandings of the Fall modern scholars have attached to them. It should also be pointed out the term “in Adam” (εν τω Αδαμ) actually occurs in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15:22). Among at least some of the Eastern fathers of the Church both meanings seemed to be acknowledged as well. For example, St Cyril of Alexandria explains, “How did many become sinners because of Adam?.. all were made sinners, not by being co-transgressors with Adam,… but by being of his nature and falling under the law of sin… Human nature fell ill in Adam [ἐν Ἀδὰμ] and subject to corruptibility through disobedience, and, therefore, the passions entered in” (commentary on Romans). As can be seen, St Cyril acknowledge the phrase “in Adam” when explaining the relevant wording in Romans 5:12. This demonstrates the Latin translation does not have to be excluded nor does it have to be taken to mean personal sin (“co-transgressor”). Instead, based on the overall picture, one should not have to pick from sharp distinctions between “because” or “out of,” on the one hand, and “in” on the other. Such are distinctions made by choice, not because lexical8 or patristic exegesis requires them. As will be shown below, this latter sense is the sense St Augustine also understood it in. We will examine this “overall picture” now in the following point. 

The Doctrine

Turning to the heart of the contention among the followers of some of the Neo Patristic theologians against “the western doctrine of Original Sin” it is often claimed by such Orthodox Christians the West teaches that from the fall of Adam we inherit his personal guilt. For such Orthodox, there is no concept of “sin” and “guilt” other than that which a person personally commits. So, they speak of our inheritance from Adam in deliberately neutral terms such as “effects,” “consequences,” and the like – purposely avoiding terms such as “sin” and “guilt.” However, it will be demonstrated that such assumptions are lifted from abridged quotations and treatments of certain Eastern fathers, which they then try to pit against the Western ones.

Now, it is true the Eastern fathers did not teach we inherit personal sin and guilt. But then neither did the Western fathers teach it. For the fathers of both East and West, there was more than one type of sin (and, consequently, guilt) other than personal. There was sin by analogy, inherited – not committed – since personal sin is by nature not communicable. But though not committed and therefore not punishable as such, nevertheless, analogous sin is a real “sin” accompanied by a penalty (an inherited penalty) and was serious enough to warrant the term “sin” and have it recognized as part of the reason for the Incarnation.

God did not create man so he would die. Death and a “sinful nature” only exist in the context of sin. Therefore it is a “stain,” it is unnatural, it is the reason why we are born outside of the Kingdom, deprived of the Spirit, and such. This inheritance from Adam is part of the reason for the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, and Resurrection of our Lord. It is the reason for needing to “be born again of the Spirit.” The fact that infants die is the elephant in the room for those who deny the transmission of sin. In neither the Scriptures, nor fathers, and tradition of the Church is there such neutral words for our inheritance from Adam. They call it “sin” because they knew full well sin is the cause of our death. We don’t have to commit sin to have it. We can also contract it through inheritance, analogically. Christ himself also in an analogous and mysterious way took our sin in the mystery of redemption. He was baptized and died for us. “He who knew no sin He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him,” wrote the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:21).9

“But wait,” many of the followers of the new understanding can retort, “that is still not the sin that Augustine and the West taught! The West teaches people inherit the guilt of Adam and are born damned unless they get baptized. The Eastern fathers and the Church today don’t teach that.” Well, that is a misunderstanding. It is necessary to understand what St Augustine and the West meant with those terms and what the East meant by theirs. It has been pointed out the Eastern fathers all taught we inherit “sin”10 in which sin we and our “nature has gone astray, which Christ came to recover.11” There is in us a profound solidarity with Adam that is done away with only by Christ. Ie, they denied the inheritance of personal sin, but not sin by analogy.12

This is the exact position and explanation St Augustine gives in Contra Julian when he quotes St John Chrysostom and other Eastern fathers in favor of his position on Original Sin. Julian quotes St John saying children are baptized though they do not have sins [of their own]. But St Augustine answers that it is true infants do not inherit or have personal sin, but that it does not mean St John rejected original sin. As can be seen by the actual writings of St John, St Augustine was correct in that St John does refer to an inheritance of sin by analogy.13 That St Augustine confesses the orthodoxy of St John’s position (no inheritance personal sin, but only original sin), demonstrates clearly that St Augustine did not believe infants inherit personal sin or guilt, but only an analogous sin (and consequently guilt). The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907-1914) eloquently explains, “It is this law of solidarity, admitted by common sentiment, which attributes to children a part of the shame resulting from the father’s crime. It is not a personal crime, objected the Pelagians. ‘No,’ answered St. Augustine, ‘but it is paternal crime’ (Op. imperf., I, cxlviii). Being a distinct person I am not strictly responsible for the crime of another; the act is not mine. Yet, as a member of the human family, I am supposed to have acted with its head who represented it with regard to the conservation or the loss of grace. I am, therefore, responsible for my privation of grace, taking responsibility in the largest sense of the word. This, however, is enough to make the state of privation of grace in a certain degree voluntary, and, therefore, ‘without absurdity it may be said to be voluntary’ (St. Augustine, “Retract.”, I, xiii).

Thus the principal difficulties of non-believers against the transmission of sin are answered.

‘Free will is essentially incommunicable.’ Physically, yes; morally, no; the will of the father being considered as that of his children.

‘It is unjust to make us responsible for an act committed before our birth.’ Strictly responsible, yes; responsible in a wide sense of the word, no; the crime of a father brands his yet unborn children with shame, and entails upon them a share of his own responsibility.

‘Your dogma makes us strictly responsible for the fault of Adam.’ That is a misconception of our doctrine. Our dogma does not attribute to the children of Adam any properly so-called responsibility for the act of their father, nor do we say that original sin is voluntary in the strict sense of the word. It is true that, considered as ‘a moral deformity,’ ‘a separation from God,’ as ‘the death of the soul,’ original sin is a real sin which deprives the soul of sanctifying grace. It has the same claim to be a sin as has habitual sin, which is the state in which an adult is placed by a grave and personal fault, the ‘stain’ which St. Thomas defines as ‘the privation of grace’ (I-II:109:7; III:87:2, ad 3), and it is from this point of view that baptism, putting an end to the privation of grace, ‘takes away all that is really and properly sin,’ for concupiscence which remains ‘is not really and properly sin,’ although its transmission was equally voluntary (Council of Trent, Sess. V, can. v.). Considered precisely as voluntary, original sin is only the shadow of sin properly so-called.’ It is clear, therefore, St Augustine and the Western tradition do not teach we inherit personal sin or guilt, but only analogous sin and guilt. 

This is also the position stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), which reads, “Although it is proper to each individual,295 original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence.’ Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle” (paragraph 405) This position articulated in the Catechism and in the Catholic Encyclopedia is the same as the Orthodox position stated in the following catechisms (a couple among many, including that of the Russian Church, which are based on older articulations of Original/Ancestral Sin, often claimed as the systematic theology of the recent past but which in fact stretches back to the fathers):

From the Orthodox Catechism by Metropolitan Sotirios Athanassoulas (Ecumenical Patriarchate): “That is original sin. And its consequences? A.) Spiritual death. That is, the separation of man from God, the source of all goodness. B.) Bodily death. That is, the separation of the body from the soul, the return of the body to the earth. C.) The shattering and distortion of the “image.” That is, darkness of mind, depravity and corruption of the heart, loss of independence, loss of free will, and tendency towards evil. Since then “the imagination of man’s heart is evil “(Genesis 8:21). Man constantly thinks of evil. D.) Guilt. That is, a bad conscience, the shame that made him want to hide from God. E.) Worst of all, original sin is hereditary. It did not remain only Adam and Eve’s. As life passes from them to all of their descendants, so does original sin. We all of us participate in original sin because we are all descended from the same forefather, Adam. This creates a problem for many people. They ask, Why should we be responsible for the actions of Adam and Eve? Why should we have to pay for the sins of our parents? they say. Unfortunately, this is so, because the consequence of original sin is the distortion of the nature of man. Of course, this is unexplainable and belongs to the realm of mystery, but we can give one example to make it somewhat better understood. Let us say that you have a wild orange tree, from which you make a graft. You will get domesticated oranges, but the root will still be that of the wild orange tree. To have wild oranges again, you must regraft the tree. This is what Christ came for and achieved for fallen man, as we shall see in the following sections” (52-53).

From the Orthodox Church Catechism by Metropolitan Panteleimon Lampadarios (Patriarchate of Alexandria) “Question 165: What is the inheritance of Original Sin? Answer:

Original Sin consists of true and real guilt, not only in the punishment imposed as a result of Adam’s Offence. Adam’s sin was not committed by his descendants, and consequently for them it had nothing to do with their own will, merely being inherited as a sinful condition. Sin is not only the separate inner or external acts (‘peccatum actuale’). It is especially the condition of sin (‘peccatum habituale’), due to specific sinful deeds that further strengthens and cultivates it. Original Sin is the heritage of a sinful condition for all mankind, which is imputed to us not as personal sin (direct imputation), but as the sinful condition of each person (‘vitiositas’). Between Adam’s guilt and the guilt of his descendants there ‘…exists a great difference: … in Adam the Offence of God’s Law was committed by his own will whereas in his descendants it is by inheritance and unavoidable.’ 967 ‘The Original Sin in the first-created should be understood as their own sin as well as the sinful condition of their nature in which the Offence led them. Whereas in Adam’s descendants it is the sinful condition of man’s nature with which he is born into the world.’968 Holy Scripture does not explain how men inherit Original Sin” (124-125). As can be seen, the teaching and even the terminology is the same across the 3 sample Catechisms and in the following authoritative source.

Test Point: The Fate of Infants Who Die Without Baptism

As this applies to infants who die without baptism, Decree 16 of the Pan Orthodox Council of Jerusalem (1672)/Confessions of Dositheos states, “We believe Holy Baptism, which was instituted by the Lord, and is conferred in the name of the Holy Trinity, to be of the highest necessity. For without it none is able to be saved, as the Lord says, ‘Whoever is not born of water and of the Spirit, shall in no way enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens.’ {John 3:5} And, therefore, baptism is necessary even for infants, since they also are subject to original sin, and without Baptism are not able to obtain its remission. Which the Lord showed when he said, not of some only, but simply and absolutely, ‘Whoever is not born [again],’ which is the same as saying, ‘All that after the coming of Christ the Savior would enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens must be regenerated.’ And since infants are men, and as such need salvation, needing salvation they need also Baptism. And those that are not regenerated, since they have not received the remission of hereditary sin, are, of necessity, subject to eternal punishment, and consequently cannot without Baptism be saved. So that even infants should, of necessity, be baptized. Moreover, infants are saved, as is said in Matthew; {Matthew 19:12} but he that is not baptized is not saved. And consequently even infants must of necessity be baptized. And in the Acts {Acts 8:12; 16:33} it is said that the whole houses were baptized, and consequently the infants. To this the ancient Fathers also witness explicitly, and among them Dionysius in his Treatise concerning the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy; and Justin in his fifty-sixth Question, who says expressly, ‘And they are guaranteed the benefits of Baptism by the faith of those that bring them to Baptism.’ And Augustine says that it is an Apostolic tradition, that children are saved through Baptism; and in another place, ‘The Church gives to babes the feet of others, that they may come; and the hearts of others, that they may believe; and the tongues of others, that they may promise;’ and in another place, ‘Our mother, the Church, furnishes them with a particular heart.’

Now the matter of Baptism is pure water, and no other liquid. And it is performed by the Priest only, or in a case of unavoidable necessity, by another man, provided he is Orthodox, and has the proper intention to Divine Baptism. And the effects of Baptism are, to speak concisely, firstly, the remission of the hereditary transgression, and of any sins of any kind that the baptized may have committed. Secondly, it delivers him from the eternal punishment, to which he was liable, as well for original sin and for mortal sins he may have individually committed. Thirdly, it gives to the person immortality; for in justifying them from past sins, it makes them temples of God.

And it cannot be said that there is any sin which may have been previously committed that remains, though not imputed, that is not washed away through Baptism, For that were indeed the height of impiety, and a denial, rather than a confession of piety. Indeed, truly, all sin existing, or committed before Baptism, is blotted out, and is to be regarded as never existing or committed. For the forms of Baptism, and on either hand all the words that precede and that perfect Baptism, do indicate a perfect cleansing. And the same thing even the very names of Baptism do signify. For if Baptism is by the Spirit and by fire, {Matthew 3:11} it is obvious that it is in all a perfect cleansing; for the Spirit cleanses perfectly. If it is light, {Hebrews 6:4} it dispels the darkness. If it is regeneration, {Titus 3:5} old things are passed away. And what are these except sins? If the baptized puts off the old man, {Colossians 3:9} then sin also. If he puts on Christ, {Galatians 3:27} then in effect he becomes free from sin through Baptism. For God is far from sinners. This Paul also teaches more plainly, saying: ‘As through one [man] we, being many, were made sinners, so through one [are we made] righteous.’ {Romans 5:19} And if righteous, then free from sin. For it is not possible for life and death to be in the same [person]. If Christ truly died, then remission of sin through the Spirit is true also. Hence it is evident that all who are baptized and fall asleep while babes are undoubtedly saved, being predestinated through the death of Christ. Forasmuch as they are without any sin; — without that common [to all], because delivered from it by the Divine laver, and without any of their own, because as babes they are incapable of committing sin; — and consequently are saved. Moreover, Baptism imparts an indelible character, as does also the Priesthood. For as it is impossible for anyone to receive twice the same order of the Priesthood, so it is impossible for any once rightly baptized, to be again baptized, although he should fall even into myriads of sins, or even into actual apostasy from the Faith. For when he is willing to return unto the Lord, he receives again through the Mystery of Penance the adoption of a son, which he had lost.”

Now, the Council of Jerusalem is often said to display Roman Catholic influence. So, it was revised shortly after its conclusion to better reflect the Eastern tradition’s expressions. However, that does not mean it was not fully Orthodox. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote in his book The Orthodox Church, It employed “Latin weapons… but the faith which he defended with these Latin weapons was not Roman, but Orthodox” (2nd Edition, Penguin, 97). It should be pointed out that the terms about infants who die without baptism being damned, not saved, and such as employed by the Council needs to be understood in the way they were understood by the Latin and Greek theologians of the time. For them infants who die without baptism, not attaining to the Kingdom did not mean damnation and hell as is understood in popular culture today. They did not mean that infants who die without baptism are in the same place or state as those who commit personal sins, but rather it denotes more of a state where the person could experience even the highest natural happiness but not in the direct presence of God, so to speak. This lack of proximity to God is the inheritance (“punishment,” “hell”) we receive from Adam. We receive from him the “sin” that causes the death of the soul and eventually bodily death as well as the corrupted nature that tends towards sin, guilt, and such. But it is proportionate to their accountability. They are clearly not suffering in the sense that those who commit personal sin suffer. For them, “suffering” is simply not attaining to the fullness, to the proximity to God.

Further, the Council made no mention of the judgement of God on individual souls and the prayers of the Church for the souls of such infants (this reality of the need for baptism but the infant not having personal works was relevant to the early Eastern Fathers). Therefore, it is reasonable to deduce the Council was merely pointing out the necessity of baptism in the natural course of the spiritual life (ie, as things naturally should be) rather than render a definitive judgement on how things actually are. For that, it seems one would need to take into account the other factors mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. It cannot be emphasized enough the author of this article does not conflate the natural course of an unbaptized infant who has died with the judgement of God and the power of the prayers of the Church. Ultimately God’s judgement upon an individual infant’s soul is a mystery as are the effects of the prayers of the Church for such souls.

The Roman Catholic Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as the Second Test Point

Last, we come to the concern of many modern Orthodox Christians concerning the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as a test point for the doctrine of Original Sin. There are several treatments of the history of the Immaculate Conception in Orthodoxy.14 But as a test point for Original Sin the weight of it is not as much as it might appear at first glance when we consider that both the Orthodox and Catholics confess the Virgin was purified before our Lord’s conception. 

It seems the connection many modern Orthodox see between the doctrines of Original Sin and the Immaculate Conception lies in the belief that Roman Catholics see Original Sin as involving moral culpability. Therefore, they reason, the Roman Catholics had to come up with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in order to free the Theotokos from guilt and so uphold the belief in her sinlessness.

 But as has been argued here, the doctrine of Original Sin as confessed by the Roman Catholic Church does not ascribe moral culpability to any of the descendants of Adam. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) is helpful in this area when it describes Original Sin in the following way, “How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam ‘as one body of one man’.293 By this ‘unity of the human race’ all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.294 It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ – a state and not an act.” So, if the sin inherited from Adam is not committed and is not an act, it cannot be personal sin and the Theotokos cannot not be morally responsible for it.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907-1914) is even more detailed in its entry on Original Sin. After explaining that we do not inherit a moral responsibility for the sin of Adam and defining the “stain” of Original Sin mostly as privation of grace, it notes, “Several theologians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, neglecting the importance of the privation of grace in the explanation of original sin, and explaining it only by the participation we are supposed to have in the act of Adam, exaggerate this participation. They exaggerate the idea of voluntary in original sin, thinking that it is the only way to explain how it is a sin properly so-called. Their opinion, differing from that of St. Thomas, gave rise to uncalled-for and insoluble difficulties. At present it is altogether abandoned.” So, it is clear that according to the definition of Original Sin presented in such teaching sources as the Encyclopedia and the Catechism, the Catholic Church is in agreement with the Eastern fathers that Original Sin does not involve a movement of the will or culpability that would render a person morally responsible for sin. The entry on the Immaculate Conception further clarifies, “The state of original sanctity, innocence, and justice, as opposed to original sin, was conferred upon her, by which gift every stain and fault, all depraved emotions, passions, and debilities, essentially pertaining to original sin, were excluded.” It is hard to imagine an Orthodox objecting to such a definition of Original Sin – defined in terms of negation rather than direct activity – that our Lady is exempt from with the Immaculate Conception.

Therefore, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is not really at odds with the traditional Orthodox understanding of Original Sin. It is more about the honor due to our Lady than about a conflict between our shared tradition of the Fall. That is why when Orthodox Christians (even high ranking bishops of the Church), following the Neo Patristic dialectics on the topic, attack the Roman Catholic dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Original based on such dialectics, keen Roman Catholic theologians often expressed a sense of relief to know that such Orthodox are not attacking the doctrines that Catholics actually believe in. Rather, they are attacking misconceptions of it that are actually rejected by the Catholics too. As long as moral responsibility is not included in the definition of Original Sin, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Fall is compatible with the older Orthodox tradition.  

As stated before, the real difference between the Orthodox who reject the Immaculate Conception and the need for the Roman Catholics to uphold the doctrine does not lie in a supposed essential difference in the understanding of the Fall of Man, but in the honor paid to our Lady. Modern Orthodox who reject the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception do not really mind confessing the Theotokos to have at some point in her life been subject to the Fall so long as she was purified before conceiving our Lord (whether that happened in the womb, early in life, progressively throughout her life, or at the Annunciation). But for the Roman Catholics, it is of utmost importance to confess the Theotokos to have never been subject to the “stain” of the Fall (“the state of original sanctity, innocence, and justice”). There, in the honor paid to the Theotokos, lies the difference, not in supposedly essential differences between the traditional Orthodox and Catholic understanding of the Fall of Man.


The older Orthodox tradition, does not teach the sort of neutrality in our inheritance from Adam that many modern Orthodox claim it teaches. Neither does the Latin tradition teach the inheritance from Adam is personal (committed) sin or any sin that renders a person morally culpable, as many modern Orthodox likewise claim. Instead, both older traditions teach we inherit sin (and consequently guilt), but that there are essential differences between inheriting it and personally committing it.15 Inheriting it does not entail moral culpability.

So, what is at stake with all this? Fidelity to the authentic tradition of both East and West is what is at stake. But also at stake with dubious dichotomies is the Catholicity and unity of the Church (the Orthodox Church, but also Roman Catholics whom though we are currently out of communion with them, nevertheless, we do not view the schism as totally sealed), the will of Christ that all may be one (ostracizing those who adhere to the older models does not serve unity), and the spiritual health of certain Orthodox who in subscribing to the new understanding end up exposing themselves to what in reality amounts to an anti-Westernism that may in turn expose the person to the unhealthy triumphalism, zealotry, disrespect for others, and such that is ultimately antithetical to the Christian life and witness. We must strive, rather, to be Christ-like and be faithful witnesses to Him and the received tradition. 

1 Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, himself a Neo Patristic theologian admits in his classic book, The Orthodox Church, that not everyone teaches the new understanding (Second Edition, Penguin, page 224). This is evidenced also by numerous Orthodox Catechisms from hierarchs and priests throughout the world such as those of Metropolitan Sotirios Athanassoulas (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Metropolitan Panteleimon Lampadarios (Patriarchate of Alexandria), the new Russian Orthodox Catechism, and others. 

2 For a detailed analysis of this, consult this study by Nathaniel McCallum: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2013/09/05/original-sin-and-ephesus-carthages-influence-on-the-east/ (Sept 5, 2013)

3 See Decree 16 of the Council.

4 From such a vantage point it was (and is) easy to pit any component that could be open to various interpretations and declare it a difference between East and West on the topic of Original Sin. This will be treated in the section titled, “The Term.”

5 http://journal.orthodoxwestblogs.com/2019/01/03/ancestral-original-sin/#more-108 (Jan 3, 2019) https://www.reddit.com/r/PatristicsProject/comments/91t0yr/originalancestral_sin/

6 As in the beginning of the article, the term “West” will be used as a reference to the Roman Catholic Church. Many Orthodox today use it to mean all Christians of western origin, which includes the various Protestant confessions. But it is unfortunate to use such a broad term when treating this topic because the various Protestant confessions do not all agree on this topic among themselves or with Catholicism. Therefore, it is necessary to point out it is the Roman Catholic Church this article refers to with the term. 

7 As the actual passages from St Cyril’s writings, the relationship between St Augustine and St Cyril (as Nathaniel McCallum points out under the heading “Cyril of Alexandria” in his article, “Original Sin and Ephesus…”: http://journal.orthodoxwestblogs.com/2019/01/04/original-sin-and-ephesus-carthages-influence-on-the-east/ (Jan 4, 2019) and the Catholic Encyclopedia testifies in the entry on Original Sin under the heading, “How voluntary”)!

8 Even eminent Protestant scholars such as the translators of the NET Bible who favor the “casual in force” understanding acknowledge the legitimacy of the “in Adam” translation and understanding (https://netbible.org/bible/Romans+5 (last update: May 30, 2018). It is not true that the translation of the salient phrase in Romans 5:12 as excluding “in Adam” is “without doubt.”

9 The language and explanations of the Fall of Man in the Scriptures and fathers are replete with moral language. 

10 As the language in the quotation of St Cyril given above shows as well as the quotations of a plethora of Eastern fathers and sources reveal, which sample can be accessed here: http://journal.orthodoxwestblogs.com/2019/01/03/ancestral-original-sin/; (Jan 3,2018) https://www.reddit.com/r/PatristicsProject/comments/91t0yr/originalancestral_sin/ 

11 St Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomios (Book 12), et al included in the florilegium above. Notice also the active language (as opposed to passive) used to describe the sin such as “gone astray.”

12 The Neo Patristic theologians seem to deny even an analogous but proper sin, and consequently even analogous guilt (Ware, Kallistos, The Orthodox Church, Penguin, 224)

13 See Homily 10 and the quotations St Augustine uses  in Contra Julian.

14 One such treatment is Fr Lev Gillet’s, “The Immaculate Conception and the Orthodox Church,” which can be accessed here: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/the-immaculate-conception-and-the-orthodox-church/ (Sept 1, 2015)

15 Perhaps a good analogy would be infants born to drug addicted mothers. Such infants are not personally guilty of the actions of their mothers, but they are born with all the consequences. They are born real addicts and as such require medical treatment without which they will continue to be full addicts and without which a strong inclination of their will towards substance abuse will continue to the point that upon acquiring physical ability it is expected they will end up feeding the habit. All that causes others to see and treat them as real addicts in every sense of the word except in that they personally did not choose to become that (personal sin) and so cannot be held accountable for that.

16 Indeed, such is the polemical nature of their efforts that whether deliberately or not and whether with bad intention or not, they end up misrepresenting their own fathers and even go to the extremities of [deliberate?] misquoting them. For example, in this article: http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/dogmatics/golubov_rags_of_mortality.html (Golubov, A. A. (1996)) St Cyprian is cited as supporting the “Ancestral Sin” doctrine against “the Western” “Original sin” to the effect that we only inherit death and not sin from Adam. Upon observing the quotation one can notice it is replete with ellipsis. But what happens when the ellipsis are removed and the full quote is seem is that St Cyprian actually wrote the opposite of what the article (written from the perspective of the Neo Patristic understanding of the subject) states, and is in perfect agreement with the authentic tradition of the Church. St Cyprian explains, “But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted — and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace— how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins— that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.” It is obvious why the author left out entire clauses from the original quote. Leaving them in raises important questions!