Is Original Sin A Legal Fiction?

So what do Roman Catholics — or Protestants who insist on real and personal holiness — teach about the sin of Adam imputed to new born infants?

“The magisterium has some explaining to do if you can swallow the idea that humans come into the world with the guilt of Adam’s sinful estate and then object to Protestants drawing a line between the imputation of Adam’s sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. If you want to be a Pelagian about sin, fine. But if you don’t want to be Pelagian about depravity, then don’t be semi-Pelagian about justification.”

 

Lane Keister responds to Roman Catholic criticisms that justification by faith alone depends on an understanding of the imputed righteousness of Christ that turns salvation into a “legal fiction” — we are righteous but not really because, in the words of John Kinnaird, it is not real and personal.

That post got me wondering about what Rome does with the transfer of sin from Adam to the human race. So what do Roman Catholics — or Protestants who insist on real and personal holiness — teach about the sin of Adam imputed to new born infants? Is it a legal fiction to view them as sinners (as Paul does Rom 5:12 — “all sinned”)? After all, the Council of Orange affirmed original sin this way:

CANON 2. 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” (Rom. 5:12).

Likewise, the Baltimore Catechism affirms that Adam’s sin affected all mankind:

45. Q. What evil befell us through the disobedience of our first parents? A. Through the disobedience of our first parents we all inherit their sin and punishment, as we should have shared in their happiness if they had remained faithful.

And even more recently, John Paul II taught some kind of “fiction” when it came to the affects of Adam’s sin on the rest of the human race:

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”. 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. 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.

I understand that neither of these catechisms use the language of imputation, though the notion of inheritance is in the forensic Friday ball park. Even so, the magisterium has some explaining to do if you can swallow the idea that humans come into the world with the guilt of Adam’s sinful estate and then object to Protestants drawing a line between the imputation of Adam’s sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. If you want to be a Pelagian about sin, fine. But if you don’t want to be Pelagian about depravity, then don’t be semi-Pelagian about justification.

D. G. Hart is an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Mich., and is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College. This article is taken from his blog, and is used with permission.



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