The Doctrine of Sin: The First Period, 80-250 A.D. Effects of the Fall

We concluded our preceding article with a quotation from Irenaeus’ Writings against Heresies. Of Iren- aeus, Hagenbach writes as follows, Vol. I, 167:

According to Duncker, the doctrine of original sin and hereditary evil is so fully developed in the writings of Irenaeus, “that the characteristic features of the western type of doctrine may be distinctly recognized.” Irenaeus indeed asserts that man, freely yielding to the voice of the tempter, has become a child, disciple, and servant of the devil, etc. He also thinks that, in consequence of the sin of Adam, men are already in a state of guilt. On the question whether Irenaeus understands by that death which we have inherited, merely physical death (V. 1, 3 and other passages), see Duncker, 1. c.

Origin, by insisting upon the freedom of the human will, forms a strong contrast with Augustine. He also maintains that concupiscence is not reckoned as sin, so long as it has not ripened into purpose (here we are able to recognize the Roman Catholic position on this subject;—Rome maintains that evil desires are sin only when carried out and practiced—H.V.) guilt arises only when we yield to it. In his De Principiis, III, II, 2, he writes:

I am of opinion, indeed, that the same course of reasoning must be understood to apply to other natural movements, as those of covetousness, or of anger, or of sorrow, or of all those generally which through the vice of intemperance exceed the natural bounds of moderation. There are therefore manifest reasons for hold the opinion, that as in good things the human will is of itself too weak to accomplish any good (for it is by divine help that it is brought to perfection in everything); so also, in things of an opposite nature we receive certain initial elements, and, as it were, seeds of sins, from those things which we use agree­ably to nature; but when we have indulged them beyond what is proper, and have not resisted the first move­ments to intemperance, then the hostile power, seizing the occasion of this first transgression, incites and presses us hard in every way, and furnishing us human beings with occasions and beginnings of sins, which these hostile powers spread far and wide, and, if pos­sible, beyond all limits.

Origin, however, also seems to teach that sin is not merely reckoned to be sin when ripened into purpose, as when he writes in the following paragraph:

That there are certain sins, however, which do not proceed from the opposing powers, but take their beginnings from the natural movements of the body, is manifestly declared by the Apostle Paul in the passage: “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” If, then, the flesh lust against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, we have occasionally to wrestle against flesh and blood, i.e., as being men, and walking according to the flesh, and not capable of being tempted by greater than human temptations.

In the above passage Origin writes that there are certain sins which do not proceed from the opposing powers, hence outside of us, but take their beginnings from the natural movements of the body, therefore within us.

On the other hand, Origin also formally adopts the idea of original sin, by asserting that the human soul does not come into the world in a state of innocence, because it has already sinned in a former state. Never­theless, subsequent times, especially after Jerome have seen in Origin the precursor of Pelagius.

According to Tertullian, the soul itself is pro­pagated with all its defects, as matter is propagated. Tertullian speaks of this in his Treatise on the Soul. He writes in chapter 40:

Every soul, then, by reason of its birth, has its nature in Adam until it is born again in Christ; more­over, it is unclean all the while that it remains with­out this regeneration; and because unclean, it is actively sinful, and suffuses even the flesh (by reason of their conjunction) with its own shame.

And in chapter 39 of this same treatise Tertullian speaks of the corruption of the human soul:

All these endowments of the soul which are bestowed on it at birth are still obscured and depraved by the malignant being who, in the beginning, regarded them with envious eye, so that they are never seen in their spontaneous action; nor are they administered as they ought to be. For to what individual of the human race will not the evil spirit cleave, ready to entrap their souls from the very portal of their birth, at which he is invited to be present in all those superstitious processes which accompany childbearing? Thus it comes to pass that all men are brought to the birth with idolatry for the midwife, whilst the very wombs that bear them, still bound with the fillets that have been wreathed before the idols, declare their offspring to be consecrated to demons.

For the rest, as far as Tertullian is concerned, Hagenbach writes as follows:

That, e.g., Tertullian was far from imputing original sin to children as real sin, may be seen from his re­markable expression concerning the baptism of infants; ….His disciple Cyprian also acknowledges inherent depravity, and defends infant baptism on this ground, but yet only to purify infants from a foreign guilt which is imputed to them, but not from any guilt which is properly their own.

We conclude our discussion of the doctrine of sin during the early period, 80-250 A.D. with a quotation from the History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff, pages 541-543:

It was the universal faith of the church that man was made in the image of God, pure and holy, and fell by his own guilt and the temptation of Satan who himself fell from his original state. But the extent of sin and the consequences of the fall were not fully discussed before the Pelagian controversy in the fifth century. The same is true of the metaphysical problem con­cerning the origin of the human soul. Yet three theories appear already in germ.

Tertullian is the author of traducianism, which derives soul and body from the parents through the process of generation. It assumes that God’s creation de nihilo (from nothing—H.V.) was finished on the sixth day, and that Adam’s soul was endowed with the power of reproducing itself in individual souls, just as the first created seed in the vegetable world has the power of reproduction in its own kind. Most Western divines followed Tertullian in this theory because it most easily explains the propagation of original sin by generation, but it materializes sin which originates in the mind. Adam had fallen inwardly by doubt and dis­obedience before he ate of the forbidden fruit.

The Aristotelian theory of creationism traces the origin of each individual soul to a direct agency of God and assumes a subsequent corruption of the soul by its contact with the body, but destroys the organic unity of soul and body, and derives sin from the material part. It was advocated by Eastern devines, and by Jerome in the West. Augustine wavered between the two theories, and the church has never decided the question.

The third theory, that of pre-existence, was taught by Origin, as before by Plato and Philo. It assumes the pre-historic existence and fall of every human being, and thus accounts for original sin and individual guilt; but as it has no support in Scripture or human consciousness— except in an ideal sense—it was con­demned under Justinian as one of the Origenistic heresies. Nevertheless it has been revived from time to time as an isolated speculative opinion.

The cause of the Christian faith demanded the as­sertion both of man’s need of redemption, against Epicurean levity and Stoical self-sufficiency, and man’s capacity for redemption, against the Gnostic and Manichaean idea of the intrinsic evil of nature, and against every form of fatalism.

The Greek fathers, especially the Alexandrian, are very strenuous for the freedom of the will, as the ground of the accountability and the whole moral nature of man, and as indispensable to the distinction of virtue and vice. It was impaired and weakened by the fall, but not destroyed. In the case of Origin free­dom of choice is the main pillar of his theological system. Irenaeus and Hippolytus cannot conceive of man without the two inseparable predicates of intelli­gence and freedom. And Tertullian asserts espressly, against Marcion and Hermogenes, free will as one of the innate properties of the soul, like its derivation from God, immortality, instinct of dominion, and power of dievination. On the other side, however, Irenaeus, by his Pauline doctrine of the casual connection of the original sin of Adam with the sinfulness of the whole race, and especially Tertullian, by his view of heredi­tary sin and its propagation by generation, looked towards the Augustinian system which the greatest of the Latin fathers developed in his controversy with the Pelagian heresy, and which exerted such a powerful influence upon the Reformers, but had no effect what­ever on the Oriental church and was practically dis­owned in part by the church of Rome.

So we can see that the groundwork is laid for the struggle that would unfold in the early church of the New Dispensation between the forces that would defend the goodness of the natural man and those who would adhere to the Scriptural doctrine that man is conceived and born dead in sins and in trespasses. The opponents in this struggle would be Pelagius and Augustine. But the seeds for the pelagian heresy were already laid in the ages prior to the historical appearance of these two men. Although the church of God did recognize the sin of Adam and the fall of the human race because of Adam’s sin, it did not express clearly on the doctrine of sin. They were inclined to emphasize the freedom of the human will. Sentiments were expressed to the effect that man was either good or evil as he was taught and received instruction. Men, therefore, became corrupt because of the influence of outward circum­stances upon them. And this, we know, is nothing less than the heresy of Pelagianism. Of course, the heresy of Pelagianism is inherent in man’s human nature. It is a doctrine that appeals to the natural man. But, to this struggle between pelagianism and the Scriptural doctrine of the absolute bondage of the human heart and mind and will we will call attention, the Lord will­ing, in subsequent articles.