The Original Justice and Sin Debate

sin justice

As you might be able to tell from recent posts, I’ve been studying original justice and sin as of late, from different traditions.

What many may not know, is there is a disagreement between the Catholic/Eastern church and the Reformed church over the state of Adam pre fall and post fall. Both agree that Adam was in a state of justice and righteousness before the fall. And both agree that mankind fell in Adam.

However, the Reformers differed on Adam’s state in original justice, and especially on mankind’s state after the fall, from the Catholic church. Luther and Calvin wrote much on their disagreements on mankind’s pre and post fall states.

With that said, what is the main difference between the Catholic church and Reformed?

Charles Hodge, in his Systematic Theology, aptly lays out the disagreement here:

The doctrine of [Catholic church] as to the original state of man agrees with that of Protestants, except in one important particular. They hold that man before the fall, was in a state of relative perfection; that is, not only free from any defect or infirmity of body, but endowed with all the attributes of a spirit, and imbued with knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, and invested with dominion over the creatures. Protestants include all this under the image of God; the Romanists understand by the image of God only the rational, and especially the voluntary nature of man, or the freedom of the will. They distinguish, therefore, between the image of God and original righteousness. The latter they say is lost, the former retained. Protestants, on the other hand, hold that it is the divine image in its most important constituents, that man forfeited by his apostasy. This, however, may be considered only a difference as to words. The important point of difference is, that the Protestants hold that original righteousness, so far as it consisted in the moral excellence of Adam, was natural, while the Romanists maintain that it was supernatural.

Now what is Hodge saying here? What he is describing, is that fact that the Catholic church distinguishes between the “image of God” (man in his natural state), and Adam’s state of original justice. For them, Adam’s state of righteousness and relationship with God was something supernatural, rather than something within his nature; it was an endowment given above and beyond his natural state. Thus, Adam’s original righteousness and justice was preternatural. It was a gift of God, infused into the soul of Adam at the point of creation, which made him more than a creation; it made him a divine son with divine qualities.

What is to be noted here, is that Catholics argue that without this supernatural endowment, Adam would have been subject to death and temptation. Matter, by definition, is subject to change, breakdown, and finitude. And thus even the universe itself would be subject to constant breakdown without supernatural intervention. Adam was thus unfused with supernatural life, enabling him to live beyond his naturally created state.

In contrast, Protestants hold that Adam’s state of righteousness was something natural to him. Adam’s righteousness was the “image of God”; something he was created with. And so he was created naturally righteous, naturally immortal, naturally in fellowship with God. Had Adam not rebelled, he would have lived confirmed as he was. He possessed within himself that life and righteousness which God desired.

This disagreement, as would be expected, flows into one’s understanding of original sin. Both the Catholic and Protestant tradition agree that something fundamental happened to the entire human because of Adam’s sin. Adam fell, but from what? And how does it affect us?

Protestants, logically hold from the position that Adam was naturally righteous, that mankind fell from an upright nature. As Hodge says, Protestants “hold that it is the divine image in its most important constituents, that man forfeited by his apostasy”. In other words, the human nature became cursed and depraved as a result of the fall.

As a result, humans, while still containing the image of God in some form, are said to be born marred and defaced in their nature. Man then operates from this broken nature; and thus sinful desires, thoughts, and actions spring from this depravity.

In contrast, Catholics hold that, rather than falling into a depraved nature, mankind fell from this supernatural grace which endowed them with eternal life. Hodge says,

[Catholics] distinguish, therefore, between the image of God and original righteousness. The latter they say is lost, the former retained

Mankind lost the grace which upheld them, but the human nature is retained. In other words, human nature is not defaced; rather, it is only deprived of the grace which upheld it. Thus, mankind is evicted, as it were, from God’s life, and left to death and sin.

Catholic Taylor Marshall distinguishes the difference such:

The Catholic Church teaches that Adam and Eve were constituted in grace prior to the Fall … The Catholic Church teaches that Adam “fell from grace”; where as some Protestants teach “Adam did not fall from grace, because he wasn’t sinful and was therefore not in a state of grace.” This begs the question: If Adam “fell”, then from what did he fall? It seems that the answer is that Adam fell from nature (source)

Catholics, would then not hold to total depravity. However, they would add that human nature is wounded in several ways:

The fall of Adam and Eve brought the “four wounds” to human nature. These are enumerated by St Bede and others, especially St Thomas Aquinas (STh I-II q. 85, a. 3):
  1. Original sin (lack of sanctifying grace and original justice)
  2. Concupiscence (the eleven passions are no longer ordered perfectly to the soul’s intellect)
  3. Physical frailty and death
  4. Darkened intellect and ignorance (source)

What is notable, is that the Catholics do not understand the temptation to sin, or disordered passions, labeled “concupiscence”, as inherently sinful. Passions are disordered — given to sin — as a result of the deprivation of grace. Contrastly, Protestants teach that desires or passions for sin come from the depraved nature, and are thus sinful. Consequently, Catholics do not believe the individual person himself is worthy of wrath — rather, from a deprived (not depraved!) nature, those actions which are sinful merit punishment. Reformed thinkers believe that the human nature is inherently fallen, deserving of wrath.

So then, there is much debate over the state of Adam in original justice, and the state of mankind after his apostasy.

While we can agree on much, this teaching creates some dissonance between the Protestant and Catholic traditions.

On the Doctrine of Original Sin: Why we fell with Adam

Adam original sin

One of the more novel notions of Christian doctrine — at least from the world’s perspective — is this notion of original sin. Namely, that human beings are born apart from God. And, that they are born apart from God on the basis of an earlier act in which we weren’t present. 

Christian doctrine supposes that Adam, the first man, was brought into a covenant with God at the point of his creation; and that by coming into covenant with the triune God, Adam was given a share of divine life, becoming a son of God. Author Scott Hahn says that on the seventh day of creation, God made a “covenant with mankind. [And in doing so,] God took Adam and Eve into his own family. God made them his children” (Love Comes First, 55). And so God created mankind, but he did not simply create humanity: God transcended the Creator/creature relationship, and condescended into a Father/son relationship. And so Adam was elevated into God’s family by virtue of this covenant.

However, as is explicit in the Genesis text, Adam’s sonship was conditioned upon confirmed obedience to God. And as long as Adam was obedient, Hahn says, “the Father would raise up His son, Adam, to be a father himself, a father who would in turn raise up many children of God” (ibid, 56). In other words, as Adam confirmed himself in sonship, he would in turn generate progeny who, by virtue of Adam’s own sonship, would be divine sons. And thus, all of mankind would share in divine life as God’s family in Adam (cf. Rom 5:12-21).

However, we find that Adam did not continue and confirm himself in obedience, but instead “violated the covenant… [And] in breaking the covenant, he separated himself and all his offspring from God’s family… Adam chose instead to live outside the family as a slave” (ibid, 57).

As a result of sin, Adam broke this covenant with God, and tore himself from the divine sonship which he had. Thus, this participation that Adam had in God’s life was stolen from him — or better put, he ripped himself from that life, and from God’s family. And not just himself, but his entire progeny. Because of Adam, all of humanity — all of Adam’s descendants —  would be born apart from God’s life; would be born under covenant curses; would be born in brokenness and sinfulness.

This is why we may say that every person is born in original sin: in as much as we originate from Adam, we are left devoid of divine life and righteousness. We are a broken and marred species, for we are born apart from our divine destiny; apart from God himself. In other words, we have fallen from grace. And we are left lifeless and sinful, in the greater context of a broken covenant.

Karl Adams says this of mankind wholeness in original sin:

Adam, the first man, called to share by grace in the divine life, represented in God’s eyes the whole of mankind. Adam’s fall was the fall of mankind. Detached from its original supernatural goal, mankind then, like some planet detached from its sun, revolved only in crazy gyration round itself…

[M]ankind must not be regarded as a mass of homogeneous beings successively emerging and passing away, nor merely as a sum of men bound together by unity of generation, as being descendants of one original parent, but as one single man. So closely are men assimilated to one another in their natural being, in body and in mind, so profoundly are they interlocked in thinking, willing, feeling, and acting, so solitary is their life, their virtue and their sin, that they are considered in the divine plan of redemption only as a whole, only as a unity, only as one man. This one man is not the individual man, but the whole man, the totality of the innumerable expressions of that humanity which is reproduced in countless individuals.

In other words, mankind as one unit was torn — or rather tore himself — away from this divine elevation granted by God. And as a result, each individual as a part of the whole, is said to be born in sin, apart from God’s covenant friendship, and in need of salvation and restoration.

While this might seem unfair, what we must affirm is that mankind is one. We are a kind, a species, a creation, born together through progeny. And as the one goes, so goes the whole. This is the meaning behind original sin. We inherit our parents’ state — and thus we are in solidarity with them.

And consequently, this is the purpose behind the incarnation: In the incarnation, Christ was not simply visiting mankind. Rather, Christ was uniting fallen humanity and God back together again. This is the deepest meaning of Christ as the God-man. In himself, as the God-man, Jesus was becoming a new humanity; a new Adam in whom God and mankind were once again at-one (hence, the meaning of atonement: “at-one-ment”).

And so, in the incarnation, Jesus united this broken humanity to back God. Karl Adams explains,

The whole man came once more into being, permanently united with God, and so effectively united that for mankind as a whole the grace of redemption can no more be lost, although the individual man can withdraw himself from this whole. Therefore Christ, as the God-man, is the new humanity, the new beginning, the whole man in the full meaning of the phrase.

Whence it follows clearly that the Church was already, in the mystery of the Incarnation, established as an organic community. The “many,” the sum total of all who are redeemed in Christ, are in their inner relationship to one another, in their interrelation and correlation, in their organic communion, objectively and finally the Body of Christ, for this Body is redeemed humanity, the “reconciled world”.

In other words, the church is a new mankind in Christ. Why? Because Christ took upon himself this fallen humanity, died in its place — thus taking the covenant curses — and raised it back to glory (view this post for more info on atonement/resurrection). And so, in Christ, we are dead to sin, and raised to a new state of being — back to divine sonship.