Original Sin

I have heard that the Greek biblical texts of Rom. 5:12 do not contain the phrase “in whom all have sinned” relating to Adam’s sin. Consequently, I gather that the Eastern churches’ doctrine of original sin developed differently than that of the Western churches. Is this correct?

The Greek biblical text of Romans 5:12 does contain the phrase “eph’ho pantes hemarton.” The Western Church has traditionally translated this as “in whom all have sinned.

In contrast, the Eastern Fathers understood the word “eph’ho” to modify the preceeding word “thanatos,” which means “death.” Therefore the Eastern Church translates the phrase in question as “because of which (death) all have sinned.” Both are legitimate translations of the text. However, this difference in translation changes the meaning of the entire verse.

Thus, the Western Church has traditionally translated the entirety of Romans 5:12 as such:

“Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned,” (Douay-Rheims Version).

The Eastern Fathers translated the second part of Romans 5:12 as follows:

“…and so death passed upon all men, because of which all have sinned.”

In part because of this difference the Eastern Christian teaching on original sin developed differently. In our traditon, the primary effect of original sin is not a “stain,” passed on from generation to generation. Rather, it is death. Because “death passed upon all men,” all of us now sin. It is death itself that causes us to sin.

Do you view death itself as the “stain” or original sin, and if so, how does death cause us to sin?

Yes, perhaps one could say that in a certain sense death itself is the “stain” of original sin. Because of the certainty of physical death, we try to evade the inevitable. This leads us to try and cheat death, which results in sin. We store more food than we need (gluttony), we horde wealth and resources (avarice), we use our reproductive potential wantonly (lechery), etc… In the quest to cheat death we distort natural God-given gifts. Thus, death causes us to sin.

Can you explain the difference in the way the East views Original Sin?

I’ll try to briefly summarize the issue, but I can’t do it justice in so little space.

In the East: The primary consequence of Original Sin is death. The reality of death causes people to desire that which can distract them from the realitiy of their impending death. Hence, people turn to sex, money, and power as a way to forget about death. In this way, death leads to sin.

In the West: The primary consequence of Original Sin is a “stain” of guilt. People are born with a guilt that needs to be washed away as soon as possible.

Both the East and the West agree that original sin causes an ABSENCE of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Through baptism, the Holy Spirit can again dwell within man.

It should be noted that the Catholic Church has adopted a much more Eastern understanding in recent years. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is very Eastern in its approach to original sin.