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ORIGINAL SIN AND SANCTIFICATION:
A PROBLEM FOR WESLEYANS

 

 

by  

Vern A Hannah

 

Wesleyan Theological Journal

Wesley Center Online

Wesley.nnu.edu

 

An Old Testament theologian has rightfully stated that “What a religion affirms concerning the meaning of sin is a highly suggestive clue to its entire creed.”[1] This is especially true of the relationship between the ideas of sin and sanctification.

There is an urgent need within the modern Wesleyan movement to rethink the concept and terminology of original sin in relation to sanctification. Thirteen years’ pastoral experience and ten years of college teaching convince me that there is widespread confusion about the traditional teachings on original sin and entire sanctification.

Why are so few members able to articulate an unequivocal and lucid understanding of the concept often held to be “cardinal” in our tradition? I believe the primary reason lies in the error of trying to wed a traditional (i.e., a mechanical—and to my mind faulty) concept of original sin with the dynamic work of the Spirit in sanctifying a believer’s heart.

The traditional understanding of original sin—which is basic to the “eradicationist” view of entire sanctification—appears to be the assumption of most modern holiness advocates. This traditional view came into the mainstream of Christian thought principally through Augustine’s influence and it describes the condition by various terms such as “sinful nature,” “inherited depravity,” “carnal nature,” “adamic corruption,” “inbred sin,” or, simply, “original sin,” etc. This condition, it is held, originated with the sin of Adam and Eve and was passed on to all their descendants with the result that we are all now born in a state of moral depravity. I am going to argue that neither logic nor the scriptures support the implications of such concepts and terminology, and that the most charitable thing that can be said about this view is that it is extremely fatalistic.

 

Terminological and Theological Problems

 

One of the implications often associated with terminology such as “inherited depravity,” or “inbred sin,” etc., is the thought that somehow this condition we inherit is a “something”—and hence is seen in substantive or quantitative terms. This something is thought to be removed in the experience of entire sanctification. Thinking in such terms, in spite of efforts to explain that “this is not what is meant,” gives rise to confusion and disillusionment on the experiential side of sanctification and a “magical” view on its theological side.[2] There is a hiatus or at least a tension between the experience and the description of it. The problem of terminology is not new, of course, nor can it ever be fully solved. There are, however, ways of preaching and teaching the concept in personal, dynamic, and relational terms[3] which make it easier for the man in the pew to understand. Precisely because terms convey meanings ipso facto they need to be selected with care in order to convey as much precision as possible.

But there is a suspicion that the problem is deeper than semantics. It is more likely an acutely theological and philosophical problem. The designation, “original sin,” is a curious expression at best. The problem is compounded when expressions like “inherited corruption” or “inherited depravity” are used as synonyms. Unless one is content to be a fatalist there is something fundamentally askew in the notion that anything truly moral can be inherited. Morality is a quality of responsible human action. So is immorality. Most people would accept this without question. In spite of this the notion has prevailed among many Christians that human beings inherit a sort of “corruption” or “depravity” from Adam. But terms like these are moral terms and they convey concepts that are deeply moral. In view of this it must be said that one can no more be corrupted by the act of another human being (be it Adam or his own father) than he can be held guilty for the act of another human being. There is no way that one can discuss original sin in terms of inherited “corruption” or “depravity” and at the same time maintain that he is discussing a mere abstraction or even using the terms metaphorically. Such terminology makes no sense in a truly moral context.[4]

In the opinion of this writer the basis of the theological and practical problems, vis-a-vis sin and sanctification, stems in part from the rather curious anomaly in Wesleyanism of blending an Augustinian-Reformed concept of original sin with the Arminian-Wesleyan view of grace and human responsibility. Although Wynkoop makes an admirable attempt to show that Wesley’s view of original sin is basically moral and spiritual,[5] it must nevertheless be said that Wesley was essentially in the Augustinian-Reformed camp on this matter.[6] Lindstrom makes this clear in his excellent study.[7]

One might ask what difference for a theology and experience of sanctification might result if a more truly Arminian rather than Augustinian view of the effects of the Fall were followed. It is a too-little-noticed fact among Arminian-Wesleyan advocates that Arminius himself does not follow the historic creeds of the church in seeing original sin primarily in terms of a depravation. Rather, he views the effects of the Fall primarily in terms of deprivation or the “absence of original righteousness.” This has been noted specifically by Carl Bangs in his valuable study on Arminius.[8]

In “Private Disputations”, Arminius makes the statement:

           

. . . we permit this question to be made a subject of discussion: Must some contrary quality, beside (carentiam) the absence of original righteousness, be constituted as another part of original sin? Though we think it much more probable, that this absence of original righteousness, only, is original sin itself, as being that which alone is sufficient to commit and produce any actual sins, whatsoever.[9]

 

It is further illuminating in this regard that Arminius considered any discussion on the question of the propagation of original sin to be “useless.”[10] This supports the position noted earlier that a moral condition cannot in any intrinsic way be transmitted from one person to another. “It makes better sense to see the condition of the posterity of Adam in terms of a privation of any positive orientation to God than it does in terms of a positive corruption or depravation.”[11] The implications of Arminius’ view for the concept of sanctification will be shown later in this essay.

 

Scriptural Problems

 

It is doubtful also that one can make a strong case from scripture to support the traditional understanding of original sin as inherited depravity. Frequently passages such as Genesis 6:5 , Psalm 51:5, Jeremiah 17:9 and Romans 5:12 –21 are appealed to in support of the traditional position. Particularly is Romans 5 interpreted as Paul’s view of the aetiology of sin as being rooted in the sin of Adam. But this is questionable.[12] The passages in question are largely descriptive of man in the general sense of his sinful predicament and do not strictly teach that sin is inbred or inherited. The Romans passage in particular needs to be seen in light of the two spheres: man in Adam =sin/death, while man in Christ = righteousness/life. Paul is emphasizing the contrasts of conditions in the sense of the two typical environments or spheres which each “Adam” represents. There is not strictly an aetiology of original sin presented here—i.e., not in the sense that Paul is teaching that a positive depravation is inherited from Adam.[13]

Part of the problem with the Romans passage, is the expression eph ho (inasmuch as) in verse 12. Käsemann points out that the older Latin translation which has so influenced Western thought since Augustine is in quo (in whom). This is to be rejected in favour of rendering eph ho as “because,” in which case the meaning is “concrete sinning,” says Käsemann.[14] The result of this is that “Adam is thus the cause for himself alone; each of us has become his own Adam, each for himself” (2 Apoc. Bar. 54:15, 19). “Clearly,” says Käsemann, “the emphasis here is on personal responsibility.”[15] Paul does not say in verse 12 that sin passed on to all men but that “death passed unto all men,” i.e., death is universal because sin is universal. The point is not therefore that all sinned when Adam sinned, but, rather as Lightfoot has said the “disease was communicated to the whole race not inasmuch as all were descendants of Adam, but inasmuch as all sinned.”[16] All have turned astray after Adam’s example

A further problem is posed by verse 19 which on the surface seems to teach both fatalism and universalism: through Adam’s disobedience “the many” were made sinners, while through Christ’s obedience “the many” shall be made righteous. The analogies of Adam and Christ cannot be strictly pressed to their logical implications, however. To do so would be to disregard the teaching of Paul elsewhere—and of the NT generally—that man is to respond to God’s offer in Christ. If universalism is in view here then the clear teaching of condemnation for the unbelieving elsewhere in the NT is erroneous. Since Paul cannot, therefore, mean that all men inherit righteousness from Christ, neither can he mean that all men inherit a sinful nature from Adam. Plainly what Paul means is simply that Adam introduced sin into the world which brings death, while Christ introduced a saving righteousness which brings life. One’s orientation to the two “Adams” is to be viewed as dynamic not mechanical, and the orientation to the respective “ Adams ” determines whether one is sinful or saintly.

The dynamics of the “Fall” are seen clearly illustrated in Romans 1:18 ff., especially verses 21–25, 28. This passage reveals remarkable affinities with Genesis 1-3 , and with Romans 5 , a fact pointed out some time ago by Morna Hooker.[17] Man, who was created as “the image and glory of God” (1 Corinthians 9:7) is pictured in Romans 1 as exchanging this “glory” for “images resembling mortal man or birds. . .,” etc. (verse 23). This exchange included “the truth about God for a lie” and the worship and service of “the creature rather than the Creator” (verse 25). As a result of this exchange—this failure “to acknowledge God” (verse 28)—man’s condition degenerated to a tragic depravity (verses 29 ff). Claiming to be “wise” he became a “fool” (verse 22). The central point of Paul’s emphasis here is the idolatry of man. “Original sin” is the potent tendency of man to “serve the creature rather than the creator”—meaning essentially a fixation upon himself—which inevitably leads to a positive moral depravity. It should be emphasized that this account is not merely a description of what happened “once-upon-a-time” in the distant past, but it is primarily a description of the existential situation of man throughout history.[18]

But does this view mean that man is born into the world in a neutral position unaffected by the sin of Adam? No, man does not simply sin like Adam; he is born into an environment of sin and in a state of spiritual impotence which means that he inevitably does sin. Ernest Best states it well when he says that

 

this sin of Adam was the first sin of all, and once it had entered no one was able to escape its power: just as a child picks up the words and gestures of those among whom it is reared, so it picks up the sin that is already in the world. Thus though all men have indeed sinned by their own personal acts, these sins cannot be dissociated from the sin that entered the world when Adam disobeyed. No one can ever be back in the position of Adam when there was no sin in the world and so be unaffected by the sin of Adam.[19]

 

Conclusion

 

If, as it has been argued in this essay, man cannot on logical and Biblical grounds be described as having a congenital corruption or depravity, then how can his condition be described? The answer is that he is in a state of privation of all those positive qualities which would truly make him “man the image of God.” His basic reference point is himself. He is, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel , and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 3:12 RSV ). C. K. Barrett describes the condition as follows:

 

Sin could never be a private matter, but corrupted the whole race, which consisted of men born out of true relation with God and condemned constantly to worsen their relationship whether they carelessly ignored it or self-righteously essayed to mend it. Like planets robbed of the center of their orbit they could not possibly keep a proper course.[20]

 

As such man stands under the imperative of the new birth. In such a state he inevitably becomes “dead in trespasses and sins” and positively depraved.

James Denney once said that

 

nothing has been more pernicious in theology than the determination to define sin in such a way that in all its damning import the definition should be applicable to “infants”; it is to this we owe the moral atrocities that have disfigured most creeds, and in great part the idea of baptismal regeneration, which is an irrational unethical miracle, invented by men to get over a puzzle of their own making.[21]

 

While many may take objection to this strong statement there is a relevant overtone sounded here which has some parallel to the problem which the traditional doctrine of original sin poses for the idea of entire sanctification. It has already been stated in this essay that the traditional way of understanding original sin is at the heart of a widespread confusion—and in many cases a disillusionment—over sanctification as taught in holiness circles. This is because of the faulty and simplistic way in which the traditional view sees sanctification primarily in subjective terms as the removal of some “foreign” element from the person. This places sanctification primarily in a negative framework and implies that once the culprit (inherited depravity) is removed the door is open for victorious living. The “fly in the ointment” is that most people do not experience sanctification quite that simply and furthermore they still have to cope with self. The emphasis on crisic sanctification seen in terms of the traditional view of original sin, undermines the essential Wesleyan and scriptural emphasis of process[22] and human responsibility, and contributes to a chronic immaturity among many Christians.

But what are the implications for sanctification if a more truly Arminian view of original sin as privation is followed? First it does not mean that either the crisic or the secondness aspect is sacrificed. Second, it means that sanctification can be presented as a much more positive, realistic and desirable experience. No longer is it seen primarily in terms of the extraction of something from us but rather it is seen as (1) the regeneration of the believer to spiritual life, which is initial sanctification, and (2) the orientation and integration of the responsible self in a depth relationship of love under the Lordship of Christ following regeneration. This is living in the fullness of the Spirit which is dynamic and entire sanctification.



[1] O. J. Baab, The Theology of the Old Testament (Abingdon Press, 1949), p. 84.

 

[2] The problems associated with thinking of original sin in substantive terms have been well pointed out by M. B. Wynkoop, A Theology of Love (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1972), pp. 50, 157–164.

 

[3] Cf. Wynkoop’s chapter “The Meaning of ‘Moral,’” op. cit., pp. 165–183.

 

[4] Ezekiel 18:1 –4, 19–20 should be illuminating here. Also related to the principle under discussion is the (faulty) notion that Adam was created holy, i.e., in the moral sense. But God does not create holy robots. Adam, at his creation, was a man standing before possibilities—he was neither holy nor unholy. There is no such thing in the moral universe as created holiness—and on the same basis there can be no such thing as inherited sin. The story of Adam is the story of every man.

 

[5] Wynkoop, pp. 160–163.

 

[6] Commenting on Romans 6:6 in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Wesley states: “Coeval with our being, and as old as the Fall; our evil nature; a strong and beautiful expression for that entire depravity and corruption which by nature spreads itself over the whole man, leaving no part uninfected.” That he viewed original sin as a congenital condition can be seen clearly in his comments on Romans 5:19 (cf. also “The Doctrine of Original Sin,” Works IX, p. 335). However, he also described the condition in moral/dynamic terms on occasions—eg. as “pride, self-will, unbelief, heart-idolatry” (cf. his sermon “On Sin in Believers”).

 

[7] Harold Lindstrom, Wesley and Sanctification: A Study in the Doctrine of Salvation (London: The Epworth Press, 1946), pp. l9ff.

 

[8] Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Abingdon Press, 1971), pp. 339–340.

 

[9] James Arminius, The Writings of James Arminius, II. trans. by J. Nichols (Baker Book House, 1956), p. 79.

 

[10] Ibid.

 

[11] The idea of privation of course does not imply any less ultimately serious spiritual condition for man. One who suffers a privation of the Spirit or of a positive orientation to God is just as spiritually needy as one who is morally corrupt. Man’s congenital condition cannot logically be described in terms of moral depravity. Rather it is self-centeredness which invariably leads him to a “me first” syndrome and an ultimate moral corruption. In other words it is inherited “deprivity” and acquired depravity.

 

[12] Cf. Jerry McCant, “A Wesleyan Interpretation of Romans 5 –8” in Wesleyan Theological Journal, 16:1 (Spring 1981), pp. 70–71.

 

[13] Cf. Ernst Kasemann, Commentary on Romans, Translated and edited by G. Bromiley (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), who states that “the western theory of original sin and death . . . is much too rationalistic, especially when both are taken to be sexual transmission” (p. 147). Further he states that “the apostle does not know of an inheritance of sin and death in the strict sense” (p.148). Ernest Best, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible (Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. 60–62, holds a similar position.

 

[14] Kasemann, Commentary on Romans, pp. 147–148.

 

[15] Ibid, p. 148.

 

[16] J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul “Classic Commentary Library” (Zondervan Publishing House, 1957), p. 289. “M. D. Hooker, “Adam in Romans I,” New Testament Studies 6:4.

 

[17] July 1960, pp. 297–306: “In his argument (Paul) moves from all men (1:18–2:16) to the Jew (2:17–3:20), from the Jew (4) back to all men (5). The theme of chapter V is the same as that of 1:18–2:16, but considered from the point of view of justification instead of wrath, and it is framed in both passages in terms of man’s solidarity with Adam.” (p. 306).

 

[18] It is not clear in Paul’s thought precisely how he conceived of the relationship between Adam’s Fall and the sin of men in general. There is a solidarity with Adam but the solidarity should not be viewed as aetiological, but rather as existential.

 

[19] E. Best, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, p. 60.

 

[20] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to The Romans, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1962), p. 119.

 

[21] James Denney, “ St. Paul ’s Epistle to the Romans,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament Vol. II, ed. by W. R. Nicoll (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), pp. 627–28.

 

[22] There is no question but that the modern holiness movement lacks the balance between process and crisis that we find in Wesley.