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The First Period: 80-250 A.D.

Hagenbach, writing on the “Effects of the Fall,” writes as follows:

Death was the punishment which Jehovah had threatened to inflict upon the transgressors of his law. Nevertheless the act of transgression was not immediately succeeded by death, but by a train of evils which came upon both the man and the woman, introductory to death, and testifying that man had become mortal. Accordingly, both death and physical evils were considered as the effects of Adam’s sin; thus, e.g. by Irenaeus and others. But opinions were not as yet fully developed concerning the moral depravity of each individual, and the sin of the race in general, considered as the effect of the first sin. They were so much disposed to look upon sin as the free act of man’s will, that they could hardly conceive of it as simply a hereditary tendency, transmitted from one to another. The sin of every individual, as found in experience, had its type in the sin of Adam, and consequently appeared to be a repetition of the first sin rather than its necessary consequence. In order to explain the mysterious power which drives man to evil, they had recourse to the influence of the demons, strong, but not absolutely compulsory, rather than to a total bondage of the will (as the result of original sin). Nevertheless we meet in the writings of Irenaeus with intimations of more profound views about the effects of the fall. Tetullian and Origen aided more definitely the theory of original sin, though on different grounds. Origen thought that souls were stained with sin in a former state, and thus enter into the world in a sinful condition. To this idea he added another, allied to the notions of Gnostics and Manichees, vis., that there is a stain in physical generation itself. According to Tertullian, the soul itself is propagated with all its defects, as matter is propagated. The phrase “vitium originis,” first used by him, is in perfect accordance with this view. But were far from considering inherent depravity as constituting accountability, and still farther from believing in the entire absence of human liberty.

Justin Martyr, in his dialogue with the Jew, Trypho, chapter 95, laments the universal corruption of mankind. In this chapter, entitled: “Christ Took Upon Himself The Curse Due To Us,” he writes:

For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.” And no one has accurately done all, nor will you venture to deny this; but some more and some less than others have observed the ordinances enjoined. But if those who are under this law appear to be under a curse for not having observed all the requirements, how much more shall all the nations appear to be under a curse who practice idolatry, who seduce youths, and commit other crimes? If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise Him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if He were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves?

Nevertheless, it appears that original sin, and the imputation of Adam’s guilt are conceptions foreign to Justin Martyr. At least, although there may be and are men who completely corrupt, yet there are others who are characterized by moral feelings. This appears in the same dialogue with Trypho, chapter 93:

For God sets before every race of mankind that which is always and universally just, as well as all righteousness; and every race knows that adultery, and fornication, and homicide, and such like, are sinful; and though they all commit such practices, yet they do not escape from the knowledge that they act unrighteously whenever they so do, with the exception of those who are possessed with an unclean spirit, and who have been debased by education, by wicked customs, and by sinful institutions, and who have lost, or rather quenched and put under, their natural ideas. For we may see that such persons are unwilling to submit to the same things which they inflict upon others, and reproach each other with hostile consciences for the acts which they perpetrate.

It is also difficult to conclude from the following quotation of Justin Martyr that he understood fully the Scriptural truth of the imputation of Adam’s guilt to all mankind and that Adam’s corruption was transmitted to the entire human race, Chapter 88:

And then, when Jesus had gone to the river Jordan, where John was baptizing, and when He had stepped into the water, a fire was kindled in the Jordan; and when He came out of the water, the Holy Ghost lighted on Him like a dove, as the apostles of this very Christ of ours wrote. Now, we know that he did not go to the river because He stood in need of baptism, or of the descent of the Spirit like a dove; even as He submitted to be born and to be crucified, not because He-needed such things, but because of the human race, which from Adam had fallen under the power of death, and the guile of the serpent, and each one of which had committed personal transgression. For God, wishing both angels and men, who were endowed with freewill; 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.

Similar sentiments are also expressed by Justin Martyr in Chapter 124 of this dialogue. In this chapter he first quotes Ps. 82. And then he writes as follows:

But in the version of the Seventy it is written, “Behold, ye die like men, and fall like one of the princes,” in order to manifest the disobedience of men, ─I mean of Adam and Eve, ─and the fall of one of the princes, i.e., of him who was called the serpent, who fell with a great overthrow, because he deceived Eve. But as my discourse is not intended to touch on this point, but to prove to you that the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they 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, and yet, they, becoming like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves; let the interpretation of the Psalm be held just as you wish, yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming “gods,” and of having power to become sons of the Highest; and shall be each by himself judged and condemned like Adam and Eve.

The same also applies to Clement of Alexandria. He, although admitting the universality of sin among men, does not seem to regard man as absolutely depraved. He sets forth the idea that men become noble and good by learning, as in Book I, chapter 6:

For nutriment, and the training which is maintained gentle, make noble natures; and noble natures, when they have received such training, become still better than before both in other respects, but especially in productiveness, as is the case with the other creatures. Wherefore it is said, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard, and become wiser than it, which provideth much and varied food in the harvest against the inclemency of winter.” Or go to the bee, and learn how laborious she is; for she, feeding on the whole meadow, produces one honey-comb. And if “thou prayest in the closet,” as the Lord taught, “to worship in spirit,” thy management will no longer be solely occupied about the house, but also about the soul, what must be bestowed on it, and how, and how much; and what must be laid aside and treasured up in it; and when it ought to be produced, and to whom. For it is not by nature, but by learning, that people become noble and good, as people also become physicians and pilots. We all in common, for example, see the vine and the horse. But the husbandman will know if the vine be good or bad at fruit-bearing; and the horseman will easily distinguish between the spiritless and the swift animal. But that some are naturally predisposed to virtue above others, certain pursuits of those, who are so naturally predisposed above others, show. But that perfection in virtue is not the exclusive property of those, whose natures are better, is proved, since also those who by nature are ill-disposed towards virtue, in obtaining suitable training, for the most part attain to excellence; and, on the other hand, those whose natural dispositions are apt; become evil through neglect.

Clement also rejects the idea of original sin as already imputed to children, and he does not regard Ps. 51:5 and proof, which reads: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” 

Irenaeus developed the doctrine of original sin and hereditary evil so fully, that the characteristic features of the western type of this doctrine may be fully recognized. 

In his “Writings Against Heresies,” Vol. IV, chapter 41, Irenaeus distinguishes between what men are by virtue of their creation by God and what they have become through their disobedience. He writes as follows:

Since therefore, all things were made by God, and since the devil has become the cause of apostasy to himself and others, justly does the Scripture always term those who remain in a state of apostasy “sons of the devil” and “angels of the wicked one” (maligni). For the word “son,” as one before me has observed, has a twofold meaning: one is a son in the order of nature, because he was born a son; the other, in that he was made so, is reputed a son, although there be a difference between being born so and being made so. For the first is indeed born from the person referred to; but the second is made so by him, whether as respects his creation or by the teaching of his doctrine. For when any person has been taught from the mouth of another, he is termed the son of him who instructs him, and the latter is called his father. According to nature, then─ that is, according to creation, so to speak─ we are all sons of God, because we have all been created by God. But with respect to obedience and doctrine we are not all the sons of God; those only are so who believe in Him and do His will. And those who do not believe, and do not obey His will, are sons and angels of the devil, because they do the works of the devil. And that such is the case He has declared in Isaiah: “I have begotten and brought up children, but they have rebelled against Me.” And again, where He says that these children are aliens: “Strange children have lied unto Me.” According to nature, then, they are His children, because they have been so created; but with regard to their works, they are not His children.

In this quotation Irecaeus distinguishes rather clearly, and does not hesitate to call man, as he is a sinner, a child of the devil.