The First Period, 80-250 A.D.

The Canons of Dordt, of course, also express themselves on the subject of sin. Articles I through IV, of Heads III and IV, which articles speak for themselves, read as follows:

Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright; all his affections pure; and the whole man was holy: but revolting from God by the instigation of the devil, and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections… .Man after the fall begat children in his own likeness. A corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring. Hence all the posterity of Adam, Christ only excepted, have derived corruption from their original parent, not by imitation, as the Pelagians of old asserted, but by the propagation of a vicious nature. . . ..Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation . . ..There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But sofar is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.

Also in these articles the same truth concerning sin is held before us. Man has retained glimmerings of natural light, but this must never be confused with spiritual light. Sin, also here, is a vicious corruption of man’s entire nature. He has retained glimmerings of natural light, but he is so corrupt that he is incapable of using even this natural light aright in things natural and civil. 

We now return to the writings of the early Church Fathers, in the period 80 to 250 A.D. Justin Martyr, an Apologist of the second century, complains of the universality of sin and declares that the whole human race is under the curse, when, in his dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, he writes in chapter 95, discussing the topic: “Christ took upon Himself the curse due to us,” he writes as follows:

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? For although His Father caused Him to suffer these things in behalf of the human family, yet you did not commit the deed as in obedience to the will of God. For you did not practice piety when you slew the prophets. And let none of you say: If His Father wished Him to suffer this, in order that by His stripes the human race might be healed, we have done no wrong.

Clement of Alexandria, a Greek writer of the third century, directs our attention in particular to the internal conflict which sin has introduced into the nature of man; it does not form a part of our nature, nevertheless it is spread through the whole human race. We come to sin, writes he, without ourselves knowing how. 

Origin, born about the year 185 and having died probably in the year 254, also conceives of sin as a universal corruption, since the world is apostate. In his writings against Celsus, III, 66, he writes: “Now here Celsus appears to me to have committed a great error, in refusing to those who are sinners by nature, and also by habit, the possibility of a complete transformation, alleging that they cannnot be cured even by punishment. For it clearly appears that all men are inclined to sin by nature, and some not only by nature but by practice, while not all men are incapable of an entire transformation.” And in III, 62, he declares the following: 

“While if by those ‘who were without sin’ he (Celsus, H.V.) means such as have never at any time sinned, — for he made no distinction in his statement, —we reply that it is impossible for a man thus to be without sin. And this we say, excepting, of course, the man understood to be in Christ Jesus, who ‘did no sin.’ Now we assert that it is impossible for a man to look up to God (adorned) with virtue from the beginning. For wickedness must necessarily first exist in men. As Paul also says, ‘When the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.’ ” 

Nevertheless the writers of this present period do not express as strong a sense of sin as those of the following. On the contrary, jubilant feelings preponderated in view of the finished work of the Saviour; counterbalanced by external contests and persecutions, rather than by internal penitential struggles. It is as one sided to expect in the first centuries the experience of later times, as it is to misconceive the necessity of the later developments. 


Though sin was recognized as a fact, yet definitions of its precise nature were to a great extent indefinite and unsettled during this period. The heretical sects of the Gnostics in general (Gnosticism believed in dualism. The Most High God is an unfathomable depth. Over against Him stands the material world, itself evil, and formed by a God of lower rank, the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Gnosticism also made a haughty distinction between the lower, common faith of the masses and the higher knowledge of the elite), forerunners of Manichaeism, with their dualistic notions, either ascribed the origin of evil to the demiurge, or maintained that it was inherent in matter. On the other hand, the Christian theologians, generally speaking, agreed in seeking the source of sin in the human will and clearing God of all responsibility. Such a view easily led to the opinion of Origin, that moral evil is something negative. This will become plain when presently we quote Origin in this matter. 

A definition of sin, akin to that of the Stoics, is given by Clement of Alexandria. He writes in the Instructor, Book I, chapter 13, “Virtue Rational, Sin Irrational,” as follows:

Everything that is contrary to right reason is sin. Accordingly, therefore, the philosophers think fit to define the most generic passions thus: lust, as desire disodient to reason; fear, as weakness disobedient to reason; pleasure, as an elation of the spirit disobedient to reason. If, then, disobedience in reference to reason is the generating cause of sin, how shall we escape the conclusion, that obedience to reason — the Word — which we call faith, will of necessity be the efficacious cause of duty? For virtue itself is a state of the soul rendered harmonious by reason in respect to the whole life. Nay, to crown all, philosophy itself is pronounced to be the cultivation of right reason; so that, necessarily, whatever is done through error of reason is transgression, and is rightly called (hamartnma) sin. But that which is done right, in obedience to reason, the followers of the Stoics call proseekon and katheekon, that is, incumbent and fitting. What is fitting is incumbent. And obedience is founded on commands. And these being, as they are, the same as counsels having truth for their aim, train up to the ultimate goal of aspiration, which is conceived of as the end (telos). And the end of piety is eternal rest in God. And the beginning of eternity is our end. The right operation of piety perfects duty by works; whence, according to just reasoning, duties consist in actions, not in sayings. And Christian conduct is the operation of the rational soul in accordance with a correct judgment and aspiration after the truth, which attains its destined end through the body, the soul’s consort and ally. Virtue is a will in conformity to God and Christ in life, rightly adjusted to life everlasting. For the life of Christians, in which we are now trained, is a system of reasonable actions —that is, of those things taught by the Word — an unfailing energy which we have called faith. The system is the commandments of the Lord, which, being divine statutes and spiritual counsels, have been written for ourselves, being adapted for ourselves and our neighbors.

In this quotation Clement writes that everything that is contrary to right reason is sin. Virtue itself is a state of the soul which is rendered harmonious by reason in respect to the whole life. He further considers sin as error; whatever is done through error of reason is transgression, and is rightly called hamartnma, sin. The different kinds of sin are lust, fear and pleasure. One consequence of sin, he also writes elsewhere in another passage, is forgetfulness of the truth, and, lastly, eternal death. That which is done right, in obedience to reason, the followers of the Stoics callprosnkon and kathnkon, that is, incumbent and fitting. What is fitting is incumbent. And obedience is founded on commands. Christian conduct is the operation of the rational soul in accordance with a correct judgment and aspiration after the truth. And the life of Christians, in which we are now trained, is a system of reasonable actions, the things taught by the Word. This system is the commandments of the Lord. Virtue is, therefore, rational, in harmony with reason. Sin is irrational, anything that is contrary to right reason. However, we do well to bear in mind that, although Clement speaks of sin as irrational and of virtue as rational, he nevertheless also states that the life of Christians is a system of reasonable actions, that is, of those things that are taught by the Word, and that this system is constituted of the commandments of the Lord. That sin is irrational and virtue rational, therefore, does not mean that man himself determines, in the way of his reason, what is virtue and sin. Yet, the language of our Reformed Confessions is surely more profound than this in its description of sin and the power of it. This, of course, is to be expected.