Original or Ancestral Sin: In Today’s Church, Is There A Difference Anymore?

Our fall from grace through the sin of Adam and its ramifications upon human nature is a difficult subject between East and West; One that should not be today but one that remains due to semantics and past ideologies and presumptions.

One can trace the divide to St Augustine and his teaching on Original Sin.   This Western term to explain our fall, teaches that we inherit the sin of Adam and the personal guilt associated with it.  It also teaches, as East and West both agree, the inherited consequences of sin via death, suffering and concupiscence.

The issue of inherited guilt would remain a sticking point for the East.  The East and the Eastern Fathers had never elaborated into detail how the sin of Adam affected human nature beyond its consequences but only saw these questions arise when Augustine debated Pelagius over the condition of human nature after Adam’s fall.

Pelagius contended that human nature was unaffected and that since being unaffected could make good moral choices without the aid of grace.   This was obviously something both East and West condemned as heretical for grace is essential for any good action.   However, the idea of man being born without an inherited guilt pushed the issue between Augustine and Pelagius.  Augustine would contend that man is born with an inherited sin of Adam and that man’s nature is totally corrupted.

The ideal that man was born with this sin and infused with the guilt of the first parents stemmed from Augustine’s improper translation of Scripture.  Using texts that improperly translated in Adam instead of because of Adam, Augustine more fiercely pushed the ideal of a stain of sin on the soul that proposed personal guilt for all generations.

The Eastern idea of Ancestral sin never presupposed an idea of guilt, but only consequence;  Namely death.   Through the sin of Adam, the consequences of his sin affected all of humanity, bringing death, suffering and an inclination to sin into the world.

The West would continue in its teaching on personal guilt of Adam which would lead it down a disastrous path of theological extremes trying to balance God’s justice and love with unbaptized infants who die prematurely.   The East was spared this theological nonsense.

The Western schools of thought would balance and counterbalance between ideas of condemnation of unbaptized infants to lesser punishments of Limbo.  Baptism of Desire, a legitimate doctrine, would also be used as a tool to help counter this idea of original guilt and stain, but ultimately, as seen in the Western Church’s catechism, the idea of original guilt was disregarded in present days.

This imbalance of doctrine did not just affect the West, but also negatively affected the East.  The East with its suspicion of the legalistic West, would deny the legitimacy of the Immaculate Conception, basing its objections that Mary did not need conceived without of sin because no personal guilt exists.  The East saw the Immaculate Conception as a natural development from Augustine’s erroneous extremes.

The East mused that if Mary died, then she too felt the full effects of Ancestral sin as any person ever born.  Of course, the East held to the traditional belief that Mary never personally sinned, as the West but the error of denying her this special grace is equally erroneous on the part of the East.

Whether one calls it Ancestral or Original, whether this sin of Adam stains or merely affects our nature like a disease, the ideal of Mary, as well as Christ, spared from its effects is critical to redemption theology.

This is where Eastern theology fails to make proper distinction between pre-fall and post-fall natures of Adam.  Adam was neither mortal or immortal in the Garden, but his nature was spared the effects of concupiscence.  After the fall, his nature was not destroyed as Augustine and many in the West contended, but only damaged with all the traits of historical man after the fall.  Yet Mary, as a perfect analogous partner to Eve, as well as Christ to Adam, must possess a pre-fall nature.

Furthermore, Mary , as the source of the Incarnation, must be a perfect tabernacle, spared the corruption and consequences of the sin of Adam.  Whether consequential or stained, she must be through a special grace of the Holy Spirit, spared the consequences of Adam.

The East may contend, then why did Mary die?  The Dormition of our Lady is the gentle sleep.  Immediately following, her body and soul assumed into Heaven.  Is this the death we all face?  Definitely not!  Furthermore private revelation speaks of Mary’s choice to fall into gentle sleep because she felt if her Son was to face death, how could she not also face it herself?

I think this clearly points out the pitfalls of both the East and West in it there past definitions of Original and Ancestral Sin.

As it stands, is it now only a matter of semantics?  Both traditions believe Adam fell from grace and sin and death entered into the world.  Both traditions believe that human nature was somehow affected by this fall.  Both traditions believe in the necessity of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross on remedy the fall of Adam and finally both traditions believe in the necessity of Baptism to remove sin, become sanctified and to enter into the Church.

As it also stands, the West accepts the fact that the sin of Adam is not a personal sin and ideas of Limbo have gone out the door.

So what prevents agreement?  Is it past teachings of the West and East and the prideful argument of who is right or who was wrong?  These things are now irrelevant as we look at what each tradition believes today.  Simply put, the sin of Adam affected all of humanity, crippling human nature and inclining it to sin.

What else is there to be said?  Is it pride between East and West?

I contend there is pride but it is also semantics and  the long separation between them.

How the idea is expressed and understood over the centuries has created the myth that a difference exists still to this day, but if we read what others are saying in their own theological systems, we discover there is no difference.  Yet separation prevents the two schools of thought from interacting and sharing and dialoging the confused language.  This division and separation keep parties away and allows parties to preach outdated concepts about each other that leads to misconceptions about one another.

This is also true of Lutheran and Western Catholics who for ages felt the ideas of good works and justification by faith alone were at odds with each other because of how Martin Luther taught it for centuries.  Yet, what we discover through dialogue is that the extreme views proposed are no longer felt between each party.  The same is true in the case of Original Sin and Ancestral Sin.

Both carry an image of the other party that is not felt by the actual party themselves.

It is time to remove past pride and prejudices that lead to modern day confusion over what the East or West believe regarding Adam’s sin.  Instead, dialogue needs to develop that looks past semantics or a certain tradition’s inherited language of thought.  Instead, we must probe into what the tradition believes.

If this is done correctly, I believe we will realize that the East and West today believe the same thing, or so close, that it is no longer an issue of heresy but a permissible difference within the range of orthodoxy and truth.  For in the end, these are mysteries that we cannot comprehend.

Satan’s schism between the true Church of Christ has caused this division.  Both East and West share in the true faith yet are separated by pride.  It is time to end that.


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