Does the Orthodox Church recognize the original sin? The question may seem strange, because one can often read in popular and publicly available publications that the Baptism washes away the original sin. In particular, it is the imperative to absolve the original sin that makes it necessary to baptize children. So what is the nature of the Orthodox doctrine of the original sin? Below are some of its key principles.
1. The term “original sin” (Latin, peccatum originale) has become a common term in Western theology, thanks to the high authority of the Blessed Augustine, who used it in the fight against Pelagian heresy. Pelagius taught that man was able to obey God’s commandments without the help of divine grace, as long as he really wanted to do so. The church denounced his teaching. “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (Romans 7:19), Apostle Paul himself admits.
2. Did Augustine invent the term? He denies this by saying, “I did not invent the original sin in which the Universal Church believes from the beginning; you, who deny this dogma, are undoubtedly a new heretic” (De nuptiis et concupiscentia ad Valerium. II. 12 // PL. T. 44. Col. 450-451.) This term was also used by other authoritative Orthodox Western saints, in particular St. Leo the Pope of Rome and St. John Cassian.
3. Was this term known in the East? In all likelihood it was, because the teachings of St. Augustine, adopted at the Council of Carthage in 418, were later ratified at the Council of Ephesus (the 3rd Ecumenical Council), the religious authority of which is mandatory for Orthodox Christians. The only Eastern theologian who revolted violently against the term “original sin” was… the heresiarch Theodore of Mopsuestia.
4. It is worth noting that Eastern theology is much richer than Western theology, especially in terms of vocabulary, and often developed independently of it. The Greek language is the language of philosophy and abstract notions used in theology, while Latin is the language of law. St. Gregory the Theologian even sympathized with Western theologians who had to use Latin: “Leave them alone, they are forced to say so due to the poverty of the language.” It’s not about words, it’s about their meanings.
5. When speaking about the Fall, the Eastern Fathers prefer to speak not about the original sin, but about the ancestral sin (Greek. ἡ τοῦ προπάτορος ἁμαρτία) and about the damage inflicted on our human nature as a result of the sin of our forefathers. This corruption of nature is not morally neutral; it is a sinful condition, an enmity, albeit involuntary, against the Spirit of God, and submission to the devil’s will. In this state of corruption, men are not children of God, but “by nature the children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).
6. To put it simply, Adam and Eve were created perfect and blessed, but they sinned. It was their fault alone, not ours. We are not responsible for the sin of our forefathers. “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20). That is why Orthodox theology does not accept the idea of the Blessed Augustine that all people were in Adam’s seed, and that therefore we indeed sinned by proxy. Adam’s personal sin is Adam’s fault alone.
7. Adam and Eve were the source of all humankind. Since the poison of sin entered the source (not without the involvement of Satan, the first sinner), now the whole river is poisoned by this poison. All of us, as part of this river, carry this poison in ourselves and suffer unwittingly from it. The poison corrodes our nature, our will, and our minds, although not completely. Since the very beginning of our lives, we are poisoned by the sin of our forefathers, inclined to do evil, and commit our own personal sins, for which we are personally accountable before God.
8. Thus, for Adam and Eve, the original sin is their personal transgression, for which they alone are to blame. For us, the original sin is the sinful and estranged condition, the distortion of our nature, in which we inadvertently found ourselves through the fault of our forefathers. We are not to blame for it, just as a son of drunkards is not to blame for the fact that he himself becomes genetically prone to alcoholism; notwithstanding that, when he begins to drink, he commits a personal sin.
9. So what happens when we’re baptized? The Sacrament of Baptism washes away personal sins committed before the Sacrament. Damage to nature, inclination to evil, submission to the demonic will – all those things are healed through the union with Christ, the pure New Adam, the source of immortality, in whom there is no poison but only life. This healing and reconciliation with God is a very long process. It is a path and a life in Christ, a life in the Church, in the Body of Christ, a life nourished by the Word of God and the Sacraments. The end of this healing will come when “death, the last enemy, is destroyed” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:26). It is for this reason that we baptize children: it is not because of the guilt of their forefathers and the wrath of God (God is not wrathful at all, He is the Good One), but because they are born sick and should be treated since their infancy, if we love them. They will grow up and, if they appreciate it, then they will say thank you, while if they don’t, they might try to become good people without God’s grace, as Pelagius taught. But can we wish them Godspeed? I think we can, because God loves and invisibly supports even those who turned away from Him and teaches us to do the same.