First, any understanding of the term “original sin” must begin with Augustine and the effect his writings have had on Christian theology, for it is Augustine who first coined the term. It must also be understood that Augustine developed his theology on “original sin” as an argument against the Pelagian heresy that denied original sin and grace in a way which undermined both the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of salvation (that humans were not wounded by Adam’s sin and were perfectly able to fulfill the law apart from any divine aid – Wikipedia). Understood in this light it should be accepted that Augustine did not attempt to exhaust the subject, but merely addressed the aspects of the heresy. This is an oversimplification of the origin of the term original sin; the reader would do well to research thoroughly the heresy which prompted Augustine’s defense. Such a study should include the impact that Augustine’s writings had on subsequent theology, especially as developed during the Protestant Reformation, in particular the theological developments of Luther, Calvin and Wesley.
Second, the understanding of “original sin” carries significant differences across the whole realm of Christianity. Within the divergent streams of Christianity there are two universally accepted branches, East and West. The East is represented by the Orthodox churches; the West is represented by the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. The Latin mindset and Roman culture profoundly shaped all of Western Christianity, while the Eastern church is shaped by the Greek mindset and culture. It is critical to understand the differences in these viewpoints. If one states that the Latin, Roman culture produced history’s greatest lawyers, while the Greek culture produced history’s greatest philosophers, though profoundly simplistic it provides the beginning to understanding the differences between the East and West.
Third, and most importantly, it must be understood that these are differences of emphasis and not differences of contradiction. The Eastern and Western churches were united in Antiquity, that period of time referred to as the first three hundred years of Christianity after the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore if one is to correctly understand the concept of original sin one must go back through the ages of Christian theology to the point where both views converged as one. Simply stated, Christianity developed from the theological background of Judaism, in which there is no concept of the idea of original sin.
Once the theology of Augustine is understood, the explanation of the divergence of thought begins with the Western emphasis on legal exposition versus the Eastern emphasis on spiritual exposition. In this respect, the Western mindset views original sin in terms of legal status, which is defined by such ideas as guilt and innocence, or punishment and mercy, which imparts the guilt of Adam upon the whole of humanity. The Eastern mindset rejects the term “original sin” for the term “ancestral sin”, which imparts the consequences of sin upon mankind but not the individual guilt. Thus the Western view teaches that men automatically inherit Adam’s guilt, whereas the Eastern view teaches that men automatically inherit the consequences of Adam’s sin, primarily death, but not the guilt of Adam. This difference begins in the Eastern view versus the Western view of man’s created state.
The Western view begins with the idea that man was created in a perfect condition with a perfect nature dwelling in a perfect state of blessedness with God. The Eastern view begins with the idea that Adam was created perfect but not mature. This leads to a significant difference which vitally informs the divergent views of original sin. In the Western view Adam possessed a state or condition of perfection, or full maturity, which he lost when he sinned. In the Eastern view Adam was perfect but not yet mature in the same sense that a child is an image of a parent but not yet mature. Thus the Western view is that Adam was created in and tasked to maintain a perfect, mature union with God. The Eastern view is that Adam was created in a perfect yet un-matured state tasked to pursue a perfect, mature union with God. Thus the Western view is that Adam failed to maintain a perfect state which he already possessed, whereas the Eastern view is that Adam failed to pursue a perfect state which he did not yet possess. Both views define that state as perfect union with God. The difference in these views produces a divergent view of original sin.
The Western view is legal: Adam possessed, and he lost, and the error is strictly legal in regards to the justice of God, the guilt for which is inherited by the whole human race. The legalistic extrapolation of such theology over the course of 1700 years has resulted in a Christianity which is no better than the legalistic Judaism which Jesus so adamantly opposed and abolished. The Eastern view is spiritual: Adam missed the mark, he veered from the path God set before him, and he cannot regain that path of his own accord. Adam’s original sin affects the human race in that physical death and moral paralysis are the consequence, not inherited guilt. While these divergent views have divided the East and the West, and profoundly divided the West into Catholic and Protestant, they should never have diverged, for they are two views of the same picture, neither of which can fully explain the mystery of God and His relation to man.
It is the nature of man not to reside peacefully in the median, but to swing to the extreme. The extreme swing of Western theology ends in the legalism of fundamentalism, which cries “Guilty!” and grinds men to their knees. The extreme swing of Eastern theology ends in mysticism which can never relate to the realities of life. The median, the center, can reside in perfect, peaceful co-existence which illuminates both views of God’s relationship to man. Yes, Western theology often overly accentuates the legalistic requirements of the justice of God; yet at its best it does not leave man on the chopping block but posits him securely in the redemptive work of Christ which satisfies that justice. Yes, Eastern theology possesses a knowledge of the mystical nature of God and His relationship to man which requires a concerted effort to be at peace with things which cannot be explained; yet at its best it reminds us that our mistakes are far less serious than we make them out to be when considered against the unrelenting pursuit of a loving God for fellowship with man. The heart of the message of both East and West is this: When man moved away from God, God lovingly and relentlessly moved toward man.
So, what are we to understand about original sin? I trust we all have benefitted from some kind of formal education. We all have taken some form of written test we did not answer 100% accurately. There are those who view that as a total failure and there are those who view that as a bump in the road. Those who view that as a total failure suffer far more, and inflict far more suffering on others, than those who simply view that as a bump on the road. So it is with the understanding of original sin. There are those who view it as total failure, and in doing so suffer and inflict suffering. There are those who view it as a bump in the road, and joyfully pursue the God who pursues them. One of those is better.