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|Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky|
Orthodox dogmatic theology
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Man's fall into sin
Why was man's fall into sin possible?
The Creator imparted to man three great gifts at his creation: freedom, reason, and love.
These gifts are indispensable for the spiritual growth and blessedness of man. But where there is
freedom there is the possibility of wavering in one's choice; thus, temptation is possible. The
temptation for reason is to grow proud in mind; that instead of acknowledging the wisdom and
goodness of God, to seek the knowledge of good and evil outside of God; to desire oneself to be
a “god.” The temptation for the feeling of love is that in place of love for God and one's
neighbor, to love oneself and everything that satisfies the lower desires and gives temporary enjoyment.
This possibility of temptation and fall stood before mankind, and the first man did not
stand firm against it.
Let us make note here of St. John of Kronstadt's reflection on this subject. He writes, “Why
did God allow the fall of man, his beloved creation and the crown of all the earthly creatures? To
this question one must reply thus: If man is not to be allowed to fall, then he cannot be created in
the image and likeness of God; he cannot be granted free will, which is an inseparable feature ofthe image of God, but he would have to be subject to the law of necessity, like the soulless creations
— the sky, the sun, stars, the circle of the earth, and all the elements, or like the irrational
animals. But then there would have been no king over the creatures of the earth, no rational
hymnsinger of God's goodness, wisdom, creative almightiness, and Providence. Then man
would have had no way to show his faithfulness and devotion to the Creator, his self-sacrificing
love. Then there would have been no exploits in battle, no merits and no incorruptible crowns
for victory; there would have been no eternal blessedness, which is the reward for faithfulness
and devotion to God, and no eternal repose after the labors and struggles of our earthly pilgrimage.”
The history of the fall into sin.
The writer of Genesis does not tell us whether our first ancestors lived for a long time in the
blessed life of Paradise. Speaking of their fall, he indicates that they did not come to the temptation
of themselves, but were led to it by the tempter.
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the beasts of the earth which the Lord God
had made. And he said unto the woman: Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of
Paradise? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of Paradise,
but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of Paradise, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it,
neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman: Ye shall not surely
die. For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye
shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for
food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of
the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her, and he did eat” (Gen.
The Christian Church has always understood the serpent, the tempter, to be the devil, who
took the form of a serpent as corresponding best to his sneaky, cunning, and poisonous character.
The clear words of our Lord Himself about the devil confirm this interpretation: “He was a
murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). In the Apocalypse of John the Theologian, he is
called “the great dragon, that old serpent” (Apoc. 12:9). In the book of the Wisdom of Solomon
it says, “Through the devil's envy death entered the world” (Wis. 2:24).
What was the sin in the eating of the fruit?
The transgression of our first ancestors was this: Having been tempted by the serpent, they
violated the direct commandment of God not to eat of the forbidden tree. The fulfillment of this
commandment would have shown obedience to God and trust in His words, as well as humility
and continence — a summing up of the simple and natural virtues. The eating of the forbidden
fruit immediately drew after itself the whole sum of lamentable moral and physical consequences.
The moral consequences of the fall.
The eating of the fruit was only the beginning of moral deviation, the first push; but it was
so poisonous and ruinous that it was already impossible to return to the previous sanctity and
righteousness. On the contrary, there was revealed an inclination to travel farther on the path of
apostasy from God. This is seen in the fact that they immediately noticed their nakedness and,
hearing the voice of God in Paradise, they hid from Him and, by justifying themselves, only in-creased their guilt. In Adam's replies to God we see from the beginning his desire to flee from
God's sight and an attempt to hide his guilt, the untruth in his saying that he had hidden from God
only because he was naked, and then the attempt at self-justification and the desire to transfer his
guilt to another, his wife. Blessed Augustine says, “Here was pride, because man desired to be
more under his own authority than under God's; and a mockery of what is holy, because he did
not believe God; and murder, because he subjected himself to death; and spiritual adultery, because
the immaculateness of the human soul was defiled through the persuasion of the serpent;
and theft, because they made use of the forbidden tree; and the love of acquisition, because he
desired more than was necessary to satisfy himself.”
Thus, with the first transgression of the commandment, the principle of sin immediately entered
into man — “the law of sin” (monos tis amartias). It struck the very nature of man and
quickly began to root itself in him and develop. Of this sinful principle which entered human
nature, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good
thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not … For I
delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring
against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members”
(Rom. 7:18, 22-23). The sinful inclinations in man have taken the reigning position; man
has become “the servant of sin” (Rom. 6:7). Both the mind and the feelings have become darkened
in him, and therefore his moral freedom often does not incline towards the good, but towards
evil. Lust and pride have appeared in the depths of man's impulses to activity in life. Of
this we read in 1 John 2:15-16, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world ...
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is
not of the Father, but is of the world.” The lust of the flesh is a weakening of the authority of the
spirit over the body, a subjection of it to the lower, fleshly desires; the lust of the eyes means the
false idols and attachments, greed and hunger for the world, envy; and pride is self-esteem, egoism,
self-exaltation, a despising of others who are weaker, love of self, and vainglory.
Contemporary psychological observations also lead investigators to the conclusion that lust
and pride (the thirst for being better than others) are the chief levers of the strivings of contemporary
fallen mankind, even when they are deeply hidden in the soul and are not completely conscious.
The physical consequences of the fall.
The physical consequences of the fall are diseases, hard labor, and death. These were the
natural result of the moral fall, the falling away from communion with God, man's departure
from God. Man became subject to the corrupt elements of the world, in which dissolution and
death are active. Nourishment from the Source of Life and from the constant renewal of all of
one's powers became weak in men. Our Lord Jesus Christ indicated the dependence of illnesses
on sin when he healed the paralytic, saying to him, “Behold thou art made whole; sin no more,
lest a worse thing come unto thee” (John 5:14).
With sin, death entered into the human race. Man was created immortal in his soul, and he
could have remained immortal also in body if he had not fallen away from God. The Wisdom of
Solomon says, “God did not make death” (Wis. 1:13). Man's body, as was well expressed by
Blessed Augustine, does not possess “the impossibility of dying,” but it did possess “the possibility
of not dying,” which it has now lost. The writer of Genesis informs us that this “possibility of
not dying” was maintained in Paradise by eating the fruit of the Tree of Life, of which our firstancestors were deprived after they were banished from Paradise. “As by one man sin entered
into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned”
(Rom. 5:12). The Apostle calls death the “wages”; that is, the payment or reward for sin: “The
wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
Misfortunes and death as chastisements of God.
Physical misfortunes are not only a consequence of sin; at the same time they are chastisements
from God, as was revealed in the words of God to our first parents when they were banished
from Paradise. It is clear that these chastisements are given as a means of preventing man
from a further and final fall.
Concerning the meaning of labors and diseases in fallen man, St. Cyril of Alexandria says
that man, “having received as his lot an exhausting fast and sorrows, was given over to illnesses,
sufferings, and the other bitter things of life as to a kind of bridle. Because he did not sensibly
restrain himself in that life which was free of labors and sorrows, he is given over to misfortunes
so that by sufferings he might heal in himself the disease which came upon him in the midst of
blessedness” (“On the Incarnation of the Lord”).
Of death, this same Holy Father says, “By death the Giver of the Law stopped the spread of
sin, and in the very chastisement reveals His love for mankind inasmuch as He, in giving the
commandment, joined death to the transgression of it, and inasmuch as the criminal thus fell under
this chastisement, so He arranged that the chastisement itself might serve for salvation. For
death dissolves this animal nature of ours and thus, on the one hand, stops the activity of evil,
and on the other delivers a man from illnesses, frees him from labors, puts an end to his sorrows
and cares, and stops his bodily sufferings. With such a love for mankind has the Judge mixed the
chastisement” (the same Homily).
The loss of the Kingdom of God.
However, the final and most important consequence of sin was not illness and physical
death, but the loss of Paradise. This loss of Paradise is the same thing as the loss of the Kingdom
of God. In Adam all mankind was deprived of the future blessedness which stood before it, the
blessedness which Adam and Eve had partially tasted in Paradise. In place of the prospect of life
eternal, mankind beheld death, and behind it hell, darkness, and rejection by God. Therefore, the
sacred books of the Old Testament are filled with dark thoughts concerning existence beyond the
grave: “For in death there is none that is mindful of Thee, and in hades who will confess Thee?”
(Ps.6:6). This is not a denial of immortality, but a reflection of the hopeless darkness beyond the
grave. Such awareness and sorrow were eased only by the hope of future deliverance through the
coming of the Savior: “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day
upon the earth: And though my skin hath been destroyed, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job
19:25-26). “Therefore did my heart rejoice and my tongue was glad; moreover, my flesh shall
dwell in hope. For Thou wilt not abandon my soul in hades, nor wilt Thou suffer Thy Holy One
to see corruption” (Ps. 15:9-10).
God's mercy to fallen man.
After man's fall into sin, God did not reject man the sinner. He took away from him neither
His image, which distinguished him from the animal world; nor the freedom of his will; nor his
reason, by which man was capable of understanding spiritual principles; nor his other capabili-ties. God acted towards him as does a physician and educator: He covered his nakedness with
clothing, moderated his self-esteem and pride, his fleshly desires and passions, by means of healing
measures — labor and diseases — giving to them an educational significance. We ourselves
can see the educational effect of labor, and the cleansing effect of disease on the soul. God subjected
man to physical death so as not to hand him over to final spiritual death — that is, so that
the sinful principle in him might not develop to the extreme, so that he might not become like
However, this natural bridle of suffering and death does not uproot the very source of evil.
It only restrains the development of evil. It was most necessary for mankind to have a supernatural
power and help which might perform an inward reversal within him and give to man the possibility
to turn away from a gradually deepening descent towards victory over sin and towards a
gradual ascent to God. God's Providence foresaw the future fall of man's free will which had not
become strong. Foreseeing the fall, He prearranged an arising. Adam's fall into sin was not an
absolute perdition for mankind. The power which was to give rebirth, according to God's
pre-eternal determination, was the descent to earth of the Son of God.
By original sin is meant the sin of Adam, which was transmitted to his descendants and
weighs upon them. The doctrine of original sin has great significance in the Christian
world-view, because upon it rests a whole series of other dogmas.
The word of God teaches us that through Adam “all have sinned”: “By one man sin entered
into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned”
(Rom. 5:12). “For who will be clean of defilement? No one, if he have lived even a single day
upon earth” (Job 14:4-5, Septuagint). “For behold, I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did
my mother bear me” (Ps. 50:5); “the seed of corruption is in me” (Evening Prayers).
The common faith of the ancient Christian Church in the existence of original sin may be
seen in the Church's ancient custom of baptizing infants. The Local Council of Carthage in 252,
composed of 66 bishops under the presidency of St. Cyprian, decreed the following against heretics:
“Not to forbid (the baptism) of an infant who, scarcely born, has sinned in nothing apart
from that which proceeds from the flesh of Adam. He has received the contagion of the ancient
death through his very birth, and he comes, therefore, the more easily to the reception of the remission
of sins in that it is not his own but the sins of another that are remitted.” (The same thing is
stated in Canon 110 of the” African Code,” approved by 217 bishops at Carthage in 419 and ratified by the Council
in Trullo (692) and the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787). Canon 110 ends: “On account of this rule of faith even
infants, who could have committed as yet no sin themselves, therefore are truly baptized for the remission of sins, in
order that what in them is the result of generation may be cleansed by regeneration” (The Seven Ecumenical Councils,
Eerdmans ed., p. 497).)
This is the way in which the “Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs” defines the result of the
fall into sin: “Fallen through the transgression, man became like the irrational creatures. That is,
he became darkened and was deprived of perfection and dispassion. But he was not deprived of
the nature and power which he had received from the All-good God. For had he been so deprived,
he would have become irrational, and thus not a man. But he preserved that nature with
which he had been created, and the free, living and active natural power, so that, according to
nature, he might choose and do the good, and flee and turn away from evil” (“Encyclical of the
Eastern Patriarchs,” paragraph 14).
In the history of the ancient Christian Church, Pelagius and his followers denied the inheritance
of sin (the heresy of Pelagianism). Pelagius affirmed that every man only repeats the sin of
Adam, performing anew his own personal fall into sin, and following the example of Adam be-cause of his own weak will. However, his nature remains the same as when it was created, innocent
and pure, the same as that of the first-created Adam. Moreover, disease and death are characteristic
of this nature from the creation, and are not the consequences of original sin.
Blessed Augustine stepped out against Pelagius with great power and proof. He cited (a)
testimonies from Divine Revelation concerning original sin, (b) the teaching of the ancient shepherds
of the Church, (c) the ancient custom of baptizing infants, and (d) the sufferings and misfortunes
of men, including infants, which are a consequence of the universal and inherited sinfulness
of men. However, Augustine did not escape the opposite extreme, setting forth the idea that
in fallen man any independent freedom to do good has been completely annihilated, unless grace
comes to his aid.
Out of this dispute in the West there subsequently were formed two tendencies, one of
which was followed by Roman Catholicism, and the other by Protestantism. Roman Catholic
theologians consider that the consequence of the fall was the removal from men of a supernatural
gift of God's grace, after which man remained in his “natural” condition, his nature not
harmed but only brought into disorder because flesh, the bodily side, has come to dominate over
the spiritual side. Original sin, in this view, consists of the fact that the guilt before God of
Adam and Eve has passed to all men.
The other tendency in the West sees in original sin the complete perversion of human nature
and its corruption to its very depths, to its very foundations (the view accepted by Luther and
Calvin). As for the newer sects of Protestantism, reacting in their turn against the extremes of
Luther, they have gone as far as the complete denial of original, inherited sin.
Among the shepherds of the Eastern Church there have been no doubts concerning either the
teaching of the inherited ancestral sin in general, or the consequences of this sin for fallen human
nature in particular.
Orthodox theology does not accept the extreme points of Blessed Augustine's teaching; but
equally foreign to it is the (later) Roman Catholic point of view, which has a very legalistic, formal
character. The foundation of the Roman Catholic teaching lies in (a) an understanding of the
sin of Adam as an infinitely great offense against God; (b) after this offense there followed the
wrath of God; (c) the wrath of God was expressed in the removal of the supernatural gifts of
God's grace; and (d) the removal of grace drew after itself the submission of the spiritual principle
to the fleshly principle, and a falling deeper into sin and death. From this comes a particular
view of the redemption performed by the Son of God: In order to restore the order which had
been violated, it was necessary first of all to give satisfaction for the offense given to God, and by
this means to remove the guilt of mankind and the punishment that weighs upon him.
The consequences of ancestral sin are accepted by Orthodox theology differently.
After his first fall, man himself departed in soul from God and became unreceptive to the
grace of God which was opened to him; he ceased to listen to the divine voice addressed to him,
and this led to the further deepening of sin in him.
However, God has never deprived mankind of His mercy, help, grace, and especially His
chosen people; and from this people there came forth great righteous men such as Moses, Elijah,
Elisha, and the later prophets. The Apostle Paul, in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews,
lists a whole choir of Old Testament righteous ones, saying that they are those “of whom
the world was not worthy” (Heb. 11:38). All of them were perfected not without a gift from
above, not without the grace of God. The book of Acts cites the words of the first martyr, Stephen,
where he says of David that he “found favor (grace) before God, and desired to find a tab-tabernacle of the God of Jacob” (Acts 7:46); that is, to build a Temple for Him. The greatest of
the prophets, St. John the Forerunner, was “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's
womb” (Luke 1:15). But the Old Testament righteous ones could not escape the general lot of
fallen mankind after death, remaining in the darkness of hell, until the founding of the Heavenly
Church; that is, until the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ destroyed
the gates of hell and opened the way into the Kingdom of Heaven.
One must not see the essence of sin — including original sin — only in the dominance of
the fleshly over the spiritual, as Roman Catholic theology teaches. Many sinful inclinations,
even very serious ones, have to do with qualities of a spiritual order, such as pride, which, according
to the words of the Apostle, is the source, together with lust, of the general sinfulness of
the world (1 John 2:15-16). Sin is also present in evil spirits who have no flesh at all. In Sacred
Scripture the word “flesh” signifies a condition of not being reborn, a condition opposed to being
reborn in Christ “That which it born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is
spirit” (John 3:6). Of course, this is not to deny that a whole series of passions and sinful inclinations
originate in bodily nature, which Sacred Scripture also shows (Romans, ch. 7).
Thus, original sin is understood by Orthodox theology as a sinful inclination which has entered
into mankind and become its spiritual disease.
Note. Perhaps no doctrine of the Orthodox Church has caused such heated discussions and misunderstandings in our
day as has this doctrine of original or ancestral sin. The misunderstandings usually occur either from the desire to
define the doctrine too precisely, or from overreactions to this over-definition. The expressions of the early Fathers
in general (apart from Blessed Augustine in the West) do not go into the “how” of this matter, but simply state:
“When Adam had transgressed, his sin reached unto all men” (St. Athanasius the Great, Four Discourses Against the
Arians, 1, 51, Eerdmans English tr., p. 336).
Some Orthodox Christians have mistakenly defended the Augustinian notion of “original guilt" — that is, that
all men have inherited the guilt of Adam's sin — and others, going to the opposite extreme, have denied altogether
the inheritance of sinfulness from Adam. Fr. Michael rightly points out, in his balanced presentation, that from
Adam we have indeed inherited our tendency towards sin, together with the death and corruption that are now part of
our sinful nature, but we have not inherited the guilt of Adam's personal sin.
The term “original sin” itself comes from Blessed Augustine's treatise De Peccato Originale, and a few people
imagine that merely to use this term implies acceptance of Augustine's exaggerations of this doctrine. This, of
course, need not be the case.
In Greek (and Russian) there are two terms used to express this concept, usually translated “original sin” and
“ancestral sin.” One Orthodox scholar in the Greek (Old Calendar) Church describes them as follows:
“There are two terms used in Greek for 'original sin.' The first, progoniki amartia is used frequently in
the Fathers (St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Maximus the Confessor). I have always seen it translated
'original sin,' though Greek theologians are careful when they use the term to distinguish it from the
term as it is applied in translating St. Augustine. The second expression one sees is to propatorikon
amartima, which is literally 'ancestral sin.' John Karmiria, the Greek theologian, suggests in his dogmatic
volumes that the latter term, used in later confessions, does not suggest anything as strong as Augustinian
'original sin,' but certainly suggests that 'everyone is conceived in sin.'
“There are sometimes extreme reactions against and for original sin. As recent Greek theologians have
pointed out, original sin in Orthodoxy is so tied to the notion of divinization (theosis) and the unspotted part of
man (and thus to Christology) that the Augustinian overstatement (of man's fallen nature) causes some discomfort.
In the expression 'original sin' the West often includes original guilt, which so clouds the divine potential
in man that the term becomes burdensome. There is, of course, no notion of original guilt in Orthodoxy. The
Western notion compromises the spiritual goal of man, his theosis and speaks all too lowly of him. Yet rejecting
the concept because of this misunderstanding tends to lift man too high — dangerous in so arrogant a timeas ours. The balanced Orthodox view is that man has received death and corruption through Adam (original
sin), though he does not share Adam's guilt. Many Orthodox, however, have accepted an impossible translation
of Romans 5:12, which does not say that we have all sinned in Adam, but that, like Adam, we have all
sinned and have found death” (Archimandrite Chrysostomos, St. Gregory Palamas Monastery, Hayesville,
The King James Version rightly translates Romans 5:12 as: “And so death passed upon all men, for that all
have sinned.” The Latin translation of the latter clause, “in whom all have sinned,” overstates the doctrine and might
be interpreted to imply that all men are guilty of Adam's sin.