Original sin

January 19, 2004 | 23 comments
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Kristine pointed out the other day that if we want to understand the Protestant concept of grace, we have to understand their concept of original sin. That got me to thinking. Sometimes when Latter-day Saints speak of the Fall, we deny original sin, However, we also say that, because of Adam?s transgression, we inherit a fallen nature. It is not clear what the difference is between inheriting a fallen nature or disposition and original sin. Without intending to, we may sometimes be teaching something that is difficult to distinguish from the doctrine of original sin.

As far as I can tell, the scriptures never speak of us inheriting a fallen nature from Adam. Certainly nothing in the Bible teaches us of the Fall of Adam as Christianity has come to understand the events of the Garden and our first parent?s entry into this world. We can read the story of the Garden of Eden and of Adam and Eve?s transgression and expulsion, but no biblical writer speaks of that event as a fall. Given the traditional Christian belief in original sin and our rejection of that doctrine, it is ironic that the only scriptural references to the Fall of Adam and Eve are in Restoration scriptures. (See 1 Nephi 10:6; 2 Nephi 2:4, 22-26, and 9:6; Mosiah 3:11-26, 4:5-7, 16:3-5, and 27:25; Alma 12:22, 18:36, 22:12-19, 30:25, and 42:6-14; Hellman 14:16; Mormon 9:12; Ether 3:2 and13; D&C 20:20, 29:44, and 138:19; and Moses 5:9 and 6:48 and 59.)

Paul teaches that all die because of Adam?s sin (1 Corinthians 15:22, for example), but he gives no explanation for how that happens. The explanation comes later when, in the fifth century C.E., Augustine creates an explanation: Adam?s sin was transmitted to humanity by heredity?original sin. Augustine gives an explanation of that for which Paul gives us no explanation, and that explanation has been part of much Christian teaching since then. But it is not a scriptural doctrine.

Unlike the Bible, the scriptures of the Restoration do speak specifically of the Fall, but they do not use the word “fall” in the same way that traditional Christians do. I think that comparison of the various ways that “fall” is used in the Book of Mormon show that it means ?to be lost,? ?to be in sin? or ?to die.? All of these meanings are appropriate descriptions of Adam and Eve?s experience on leaving the Garden of Eden, but the uses of the word “fall” in the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price do not suggest that prior to the Fall Adam and Eve lived in a state of supernatural grace, as the traditional Christian doctrine of the Fall teaches. In addition, though the Book of Mormon teaches that we live in a fallen world, it gives us no explanation for how that occurs, though I think that it suggests one.

The explanation suggested by the Book of Mormon is quite different from that given by Augustine. King Benjamin says that we fall ?in Adam, or by nature? (Mosiah 3:16). At first glance that sounds like it may be the same as the Augustinian doctrine that we are fallen because we inherit a sinful human essence. However, what King Benjamin teaches here is quite different. I believe that King Benjamin identifies being ?natural? with not having the Holy Ghost rather than with having a particular essence or nature:

“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19)

If the enticing of the Holy Ghost changes us from a fallen, natural state to the state in which we can be the friend and child of God, then perhaps we become fallen when we enter into a world in which we do not have immediate access to divine enticings. Thus, as I read these verses, King Benjamin says that we become fallen when we enter into a state in which we do not have the Holy Ghost (in other words, when, like Adam and Eve, we leave the presence of the Divine).

King Benjamin?s explanation helps us see that Paul says something similar, and what Paul says shows us how we might explain the Fall without taking recourse to anything resembling original sin. In a verse similar to Mosiah 3:19, Paul says, ?The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God? (1 Corinthians 2:14). In that verse, the word translated “natural” is psychikos. We might expect to see the word physikos, meaning ?in accordance with nature,? but that is not the word that Paul uses. Instead, he uses psychikos, meaning ?pertaining to life or the soul as it exists in this world. (See 1 Corinthians 15:44 and 46, James 3:15, and Jude 19 for other uses of the word psychikos.)

In other words, when Paul says that the natural man does not receive spiritual things, he is not speaking of the body or of a bodily inheritance. He is speaking of the way we live in this world: to be living with an orientation to this world is not to receive the things of the Spirit. (We see a similar way of speaking in Enos 1:20, Mosiah 16:5, and Alma 26:21, 41:11, and 42:10. I think we also see this usage in D&C 29:35, where we are told that none of the Lord?s commandments are natural. See also D&C 67:12 and 88:28 and, perhaps, 121:39 and Moses 1:10-14.)

If we use the teachings of Paul and Mosiah to understand the Fall, then it seems to me that the Fall occurred when Adam and Eve were driven from the presence of God, not when they ate of the fruit?though eating the fruit did involve a spiritual separation from the presence of God and, so, a fall. To be fallen is to be without the presence of God.

We live in a fallen world, a world made possible by the transgression of Adam and Eve, as long as we do not have the Holy Ghost, the being who, as a member of the Godhead, restores us to the divine presence. To the degree that we understand ourselves and our lives as if there were no God, as if the world is all there is to guide our lives, we are fallen. Of course a person without the Holy Ghost has little else by which to orient himself or herself in the world (though, of course, everyone has the light of Christ). Thus, we should not be surprised that those who orient themselves in the world in a fallen way do so. In other words, we should expect the ?natural man,? people without the promptings of the Holy Ghost as well as we when we ignore those promptings, to live in a fallen way.

However, we are not fallen because we have inherited a psychological or spiritual disability. We are fallen because, without the Holy Ghost, we know nothing else but the world without God’s presence.

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23 Responses to Original sin

  1. Stephen Clarke on January 19, 2004 at 2:34 am

    I enjoyed reading your thoughtful remarks. I was particularly interested to learn of Paul’s use of psychikos in 1 Cor. 2:14. I think this does point to a reading of the “natural man” along the lines you suggest. I initially wondered what to make of the descriptions of fallen humanity as “carnal” and “sensual” in Mosiah 16:3-5, but I suppose these too refer to an “orientation to this world” rather than a simple equation of the mortal body with sin.

  2. Clark Goble on January 19, 2004 at 2:46 am

    ” but no biblical writer speaks of that event as a fall. ”

    It is fairly common in Jewish literature though. Of course Mormons might see that as already products of the apostasy.

    I think I agree with your comments, to the extent that the fall takes place when they are cast *out* of Eden. Still, there is a tradition in Mormonism which sees some *physical* different between celestial, terrestrial, and telestial bodies. Certainly our bodies now seem dominated by DNA and its manifestation as the body develops. (Often determined by environmental stimulus as children) With Adam and Eve we don’t appear to have that. While I recognize that there is that ever present problem of the incommensurability of scientific and religious narratives, if we accept some degree of history to the story, it raises lots of interesting scientific questions.

    There is also the sense in which Adam and Eve are typological. We each inherit the fall because we literally fall from heaven. Our doctrine of a pre-existence and choosing this life dramatically affect how we view the fall (as well as the return – at least typologically)

  3. Clark Goble on January 19, 2004 at 2:47 am

    Just to go along with Jim’s excellent comments, I discussed a few related themes last week. (Last blog entry on the page)

    http://www.libertypages.com/clark/arc1229-0109.html

    I found a quite interesting page on the “anthropology” of Paul’s discussion that seems somewhat relevant to Jim’s comments.

    http://www.abu.nb.ca/courses/Pauline/Human.htm

  4. JWJ on January 19, 2004 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks much for this post.

    I have one question:

    JEF: “the uses of the word “fall” in the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price do not suggest that prior to the Fall Adam and Eve lived in a state of supernatural grace, as the traditional Christian doctrine of the Fall teaches.”

    The Christian tradition also teaches that Adam and Eve’s nature had a natural perfection before the fall–God looked upon his creation as it was good. A key disagreement between Catholic and Protestant thinkers is on the question of how much postlapsarian natural reason can achieve. The Thomistic answer is that natural reason is dimmed (and has its dangers), but can achieve quite a bit, for which Aristotle is given as a prime example. The conventional Lutheran answer is that our natural reason leads us astray at every turn, especially on practical issues.

    The Mormon division of telestial-terrestrial-celestial has always suggested to me the distinction between fallen, corrupted nature, perfected nature, and superadded grace. Jim, how well do these match up in your mind, and where might Mormonism come down on the perennial Christian question of the status of postlapsarian natural reason?

  5. Kristine on January 19, 2004 at 1:23 pm

    JWJ: This is completely frivolous, but since I spend most of my days with my small children, I don’t often get to hear (or read) words like “postlapsarian,” and I just have to remark that it is a GREAT word. It sounds good, trips off the tongue with that nice “l” in the middle–all in all, it makes me feel not so bad about my fallen nature :)

  6. clark goble on January 19, 2004 at 2:11 pm

    One further comment. While I think there is a lot to what Jim says, I wonder how he deals with the “Adam fell that man might be.” How does merely losing the spirit allow us to exist? It seems the more traditional notion of fall as a change of physical state explains that verse a tad better.

  7. JWJ on January 19, 2004 at 4:09 pm

    Kristine: I’ve warmed up to “postlapsarian” myself, especialy since it is a construction not from a latinate root but from an actual word–“lapse”. It’s used quite a bit in political theology which concerns itself with natural law and thus nature. You need a neutral adjective for the stuff that you have after the Fall. “Post-Fall” or “after-Fall” are somewhat clumsy and aren’t clearly adjectives, so “postlapsarian” works pretty well, despite the fact that it makes the thing sound more complicated than it really is.

    Clark: Your question is at the heart of my point. Personally I find that the core of the traditional Christian account (i.e. excluding things like Augustine’s hereditary interpretation of original sin) of the Fall makes much more sense than the very preliminary Mormon ruminations do, like the idea that the Fall did not involve any sin but only “transgression”, the latter being somewhat like breaking the speed limit.

  8. Clark Goble on January 19, 2004 at 5:43 pm

    JWJ, I don’t think Mormons can really utilize the traditional Christian approach either, if only because of how the notion of a pre-existence affects things. The issue of whether Adam and Eve were “heavenly” is interesting. I think that for various reasons Mormons would likely say they were terrestrial and that Eden represents the terrestrial kingdom. There are various arguments for that.

    The more interesting perspective is Brigham Young’s. While clearly many elements of his theology have been downplayed or outright rejected, it still strongly influences Mormon views on Adam’s fall.

    The big issue though is the relationship between having children and the fall. And there tradition between Mormons and traditional Christians is quite different.

  9. Logan on January 19, 2004 at 5:53 pm

    Not to go off on a tangent, BUT. . .

    When I think of the transgression, I think of it being an act that has consequences attached, but that isn’t necessarily *bad.* For example, if we break the law of tithing, not only do we not get the promised blessings/consequences (temple worthiness, the “windows of heaven” opening, etc.), but it’s also *bad,* therefore a sin. God said that if Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they would surely die. Well, they ate it, now they’ll die, but it doesn’t have the same *bad*-ness attached.

    JWJ, does that fit in at all with your speeding example?

  10. Clark Goble on January 19, 2004 at 6:15 pm

    I agree with Logan. I think that while the transgression/sin dichotomy is a bit of a cop out that there is something to it. We recognize that it is sometimes *right* to break a law. Sin implies something is wrong. So sin and transgression don’t overlap exactly.

    Put in other terms, even if any law attempts to describe the good, it may well be that it can’t describe it perfectly. In that case there will always be a distinction between the lawful and the good.

  11. Logan on January 19, 2004 at 6:23 pm

    “I agree with Logan.”

    This may be a first (even though Clark had to qualify it)! (a very good-natured grin)

  12. Jim F. on January 19, 2004 at 11:28 pm

    My apologies to those who have commented so far. You’ve said a lot of interesting things that I need to respond to. But I have a big presentation to make tomorrow and two classes to prepare for, so I won’t get around to responding until late Tuesday night or perhaps Wednesday.

  13. JWJ on January 20, 2004 at 5:09 pm

    Logan, you make a sensible enough distinction, but my problem is that Adam and Eve knew both of their commandments as laws of God. 2 Nephi 2, and Eve’s remarks after the Fall (in Moses), teach that things turned out for the best, i.e. that the Fall was necessary in the plan of God in some sense. But does that mean that it wasn’t a sin to eat of the fruit? To use two extreme examples, does the fact that Lucifer’s fall from grace and the murder of Jesus were perhaps important for or essential to God’s plan make them less heinous? Of course there is the question of intent–but where Adam and Eve’s motives completely pure? It seems a rigid legalism to see the sin *only* in behavior contrary to the language of the law–did they not also commit the sin of pride in thinking that their own wisdom gave them license to break the law of God? If not, why did Adam and Eve blame others for their transgression rather than say: “Okay, God, we figured it out. Even though you commanded us to not eat the fruit, we understood that we had to do it anyway, and out of a desire to further your plan, we did it.” It would also be strange that God forgave Adam his transgression (reported in the Book of Moses) if it was no sin to do it.

    I have no problem with saying that I do not understand the purpose of countervailing commands given to Adam and Eve, that God is just at any rate, but the distinction between sin and transgression does not make this intelligible or edifying to me.

  14. Adam Greenwood on January 20, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    We came up with some other rough-and-ready distinctions in the comments to this post:

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000132.html

  15. Logan on January 20, 2004 at 7:27 pm

    Oh yeah, I remember that post, Adam. I had a lot to say then.

    JWJ: Your objections are interesting, but I will try to respond to them. First, I don’t mean to say that any “sinning” that furthers God’s plan is not a “sin.” Second, you’re right when you point out that Adam and Eve tried to escape responsibility, so a clear understanding of and desire to further God’s plan seems no to be the case. They may well have been prideful.

    But I think you dismiss God’s language as a “rigid legalism” too quickly. I think this is a very specific, unique commandment. It’s unique in that it seems to contradict an earlier commandment, and also in that we refer to breaking it as Adam’s “transgression.” God says in Moses 3:17, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

    I admit that it may take an a priori understanding of transgressions as I described them, but I feel like it helps explain this puzzling doctrine. Another way I think this commandment is unique is in spelling out that “thou mayest choose for thyself.” Of course we have agency, and can always choose for ourselves, but God mentions it here specifically, as though it were a valid choice. I’m not aware of other instances of that. God does say that He “forbids it.” But if that forbidding is understood as the attachment of the consequences (which are quite unpleasant, even though they are necessary) specific to the act, I think it makes the use of the term “transgression” for describing Adam’s fall much clearer. It also is a possible explanation for the seemingly contradictory commandments.

    That understanding of “transgression” has served me well so far as I’ve wondered about these things, although I’m sure it could be improved on. I was mostly curious about your speeding analogy, and wanted to hear if it might fit in at all with my understanding. I didn’t intend to throw it out. I’d still be interested in hearing you elaborate.

  16. Clark Goble on January 20, 2004 at 8:18 pm

    Transgressions seem somewhat “intent” independent. (Except perhaps for hate crime laws or conspiracy laws where intent is paramount) The point is, that it seems the concept of sin is intrinsically tied to intent towards good while transgressions, even to the degree the acknowledge intent, are not tied to the intent towards good. One is a kind of description of the other. As such I don’t think we can treat them as the same.

    Put an other way, the fact God said “no” doesn’t imply that God intends in every instance “no.” Now I agree that in the context of the story in Genesis, that distinction (the distinction between transgression and sin) may not hold. I simply don’t think we have enough information to say. That’s why I said it was a bit of a copout. It assumes a potential solution is the solution to the problem. But I don’t think anyone has established that it does solve the problem.

    And of course Joseph Fielding Smith is but one view here. Brigham Young obviously held an other quite more radical view.

    My gut instinct is to say that we simply don’t know what was going on. However I’m inclinded to follow JFS and say that a limited transgression can be turned to good if it is for the greater good. As such I understand the account of Adam and Eve to be saying something about life in general. i.e. that good and evil can be discerned only in the big picture and not the small. (Or put more simply: context matters)

  17. chris on January 20, 2004 at 8:34 pm

    In Moses 3:17, I always like the phrase “…thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee..” What are we being given? Is it free agency, or something else. If free agency is something inherit in our being, rather than something God gives directly, does this lead to other changes in a view of the fall? Perhaps what was given to us from God here is enough knowledge to enable us to make decisions. To me this has always seemed more reasonable.

    I also like how it is the fruit of the tree that we were commanded not to eat. It is the ACTIONS that result from knowing good and evil that cause spiritual death. When you know both good and bad, and aren’t perfect at distinguishing between them, then any actions you do will have a tinge of both in them. ie you do something wrong for the right reasons. Unless Adam and Eve had the wisdom to see the end results of actions that can mix both good and bad, those actions would always end up corrupted. Thus they were forbidden from mixing good and bad to do something. They were not forbidden from exploring the source of the tree – ie the difference between good and bad, but rather forbidden from trying to apply the fruits of that knowledge. Way off base? Perhaps, but it is what I have been thinking of late.

  18. Grasshopper on January 20, 2004 at 8:53 pm

    Could it be that the “it” in “it is given unto thee” is the tree/fruit? I mean, if God planted the garden, surely he planted this tree along with everything else…

  19. Jim F. on January 21, 2004 at 8:59 pm

    Sorry to have waited to respond to these comments. I’ve enjoyed reading them and I hope I’ve not waited so long that you’re no longer interested in my responses.

    Clark, thanks for that reference to the site on Pauline anthropology. It was interesting and helpful. I think I agree with its conclusions.

    As for your question about “Adam fell that men might be”: I take “exist” to mean “to exist as human beings,” which also seems to me to mean “to exist in a state in which the Divine is absent.” No longer to live in the presence of the Divine may mean also a change of our physical state. I don’t have any problem with that, but I think that the important feature is the loss of access to the Divine rather than the change of the body to a corruptible form. By being separated from God, we live in a state in which we are meaningfully able to choose the life we prefer, a life with him or a life without him. Being human is being able to make that choice.

    JWJ: As I’m sure you know, the question of postlapsarian reason is even more complicated than you portray it, since Catholics are not only Thomists, they can also be Augustinians (e.g., Duns Scotus and Occam). In fact, I think that Augustinian ideas and explanations of doctrine are making something of a comeback among Catholics. I’m hardly an expert on the question. I’m just reporting what I see among my Catholic philosophy buddies. But Thomism is running up against the failure of Aristotlean metaphysics, which for example is required for the standard explanation of the doctrine of transubstantiation. In the face of that failure, some are turning to Augustine’s ideas for their theology. Perhaps oddly, Platonic and neo-Platonic metaphysics seems to have weathered the modernist shift better than has Aristotelian.

    Though I’ve never seen it that way before, your correlation of telestial-terrestrial-celestial with fallen-perfected-grace is tantalizing. I need to think about that.

    But your question was about an LDS understanding of postlapsarian natural reason, and my most honest response is, “I haven’t got a clue.” However, being a philosopher, I’m not one to let either honesty or ignorance stand in the way of saying something. It seems to me that the Church has a tradition of giving considerable credence to reason. Lately some, especially some within CES, may have begun to question that. Or perhaps they are questioning the Enlightenment, rationalist version of reason that I think was often at the heart of early LDS discussions of reason. My personal understanding of reason is heavily influenced by the fact that I read Nietzsche and contemporary French philosophers—and I like a lot of what they have to say. It isn’t referenced on my web page, but anyone interested in a longer but still sketchy explanation of what I think about reason and faith can read a short paper on the topic at http://jamesfaulconer.byu.edu/reason&f.htm.

    The pedant in me won’t allow me to resist adding a small correction of your etymology: indeed, “prelapsarian” has as one of its roots “lapse,” but it is nevertheless a Latinate construction for according to my OED “lapse” is derived from the Latin “lapsare,” to slip, stumble, or fall.

    Kristine: “Prelapsarian” is a very nice word, much nicer than its brother “postlapsarian.” I think it is because the “e” keeps us in the same vowel range as the other vowels in the word, and the “o” doesn’t. It is too bad that the only place I can imagine using the word is here or in High Priests Quorum where it would, at most, draw puzzled looks. When I use an uncommon word that I like, such as this one, I often tell my students that they can use it as evidence to their parents that they got their money’s worth. You got the word here, and you didn’t even have to pay!

    Logan: What you say about sin and transgression is similar to what many of us believe. It is, I think, similar to what most LDS would say when talking about the Fall. But it isn’t without its problems. For example, as JWJ points out, in Moses 6:53 the Lord says to Adam, “I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden.” If Adam’s transgression required forgiveness, then it seems that it was a sin. If no “badness” is attached to an act, why does it require forgiveness?

    I also think that another of JWJ’s points is good: We know what Adam and Eve objectively did. They ate the fruit. We are a lot less clear about their reasons. Is it possible that there was another way? What if they had gone to God and said, “We’ve got a problem with these two laws. We don’t see how we can keep them both. Can you help us out here?” You explain why there could be two seemingly contradictory commandments, but you don’t explain why eating the fruit in contravention of divine command and in direct obedience to satanic suggestion was the only alternative available.

    Like Clark, I think we simply don’t know enough about what happened to know what happened. We know that in God’s hands our transgressions can turn out to work for our good—though that doesn’t justify our transgressions—and we know that the story of Adam and Eve has a great deal to teach us about our origins, our present state, and the need for redemption. But I don’t think it answers the kinds of questions we are asking because they aren’t important to its purposes.

    Chris: Like Grasshopper, I think the most plausible reading of Moses 3:17 is that “it” refers to the tree.

  20. JWJ (Jeremiah) on January 21, 2004 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks much for this post and your response, as well as the correction of my etymology! I didn’t know that lapse was from the Latin lapsare; but my main source of satisfaction was that whatever its origins, ‘lapse’ is an actual English word.

  21. Kristine on January 21, 2004 at 9:58 pm

    I actually like “postlapsarian” better than “prelapsarian”–the st just preceding the l forces the l to sound a little further forward in the mouth. (um, yeah, one too many diction classes)

    I keep thinking of a store sign reading “Postlapsarian Lapidary: Jewels for Fallen Women” :)

  22. Jim F. on January 22, 2004 at 1:04 am

    JWJ: We don’t use the word “lapse” much, but lapsed Catholics do.

    Kristine: I’m lapping up your responses!

  23. Clark Goble on January 23, 2004 at 12:12 am

    For those interested, I wrote up a bit on this topic on my blog.

    http://www.libertypages.com/clark/arc0121.html#jan21grace

    I can’t promise it will be interesting to all, but I tried to keep the technical talk to a minimum.