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Most doctrines of the nature of man are either optimistic or pessimistic.
Some hold with Rousseau that man is naturally kind and good
and that his present miserable state is due to ignorance and false guides;
Others, with Hobbes and Freud that he is a vile, savage creature whose apparent goodness is always the product of selfishness or lust.
The Christian doctrine of man differs profoundly from both.
It is neither optimistic nor pessimistic.
Man was created wholly good but undeveloped.
He has by his own fault become a fallen being,
but even so he is not totally corrupt.
(Calvin thought he was, but Calvinism is not orthodox Christianity.)
Nevertheless, he is so far fallen from what God meant him to be
that it cost the death of the Son of God to restore him.
Sin came into human nature through the Fall.
It was not there before.
Sin is defined as deliberate conscious disobedience to God.
Therefore it can only exist in the will of a person.
It is not any kind of material taint.
And there could be no sin if there were no free will.
(Sin is to be distinguished from crime and from taboo.
Crime is disobedience to the State.
Sin is disobedience to God.
There are very grave sins that are not crimes;
and there are crimes that, but for the positive law forbidding them, would not be sins.
Taboo is a Polynesian word meaning something forbidden by custom.
No society can get on without taboos.
In all primitive societies there are innumerable taboos, some of which appear irrational because they spring from beliefs which civilized men do not share, or because they are survivals from earlier conditions which have long been forgotten.
But civilized societies have their taboos too.
For instance, the police in England would not allow a man to walk through a town stripped to the waist, which was quite usual in Switzerland.
The rules of society should be observed unless there is some very good reason for disobeying them.
The difference between sin and breach of taboo is that sin is a matter of motive, whereas taboo has nothing to do with motive.
Oedipus in the Greek legend, the foundling who killed his father in self-defence and married his mother not knowing who they were, was punished for breaking taboos.
If he had been a Christian, we could not accuse him of patricide and incest because he acted in ignorance.)
As there could be no sin without free will,
so there could be no free will without the power to sin
that is, deliberately to disobey God.
Our experience tells us that free will is universal,
and that not only the power to sin but sin itself is universal.
As St. Paul says,
All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.
Everybody finds it easier to do wrong than to do right.
It is not merely that everyone misuses the power of free will,
but that everyone has a bias in the direction of evil.
Free will is not quite free.
It is possible to deny this, but there are good grounds for believing it to be true.
It is certainly the teaching of both the Bible and the Church.
In Genesis 3 we find the story of the Fall of Man.
We cannot regard this story as historical.
God placed the first man and the first woman in a garden
and forbad them to eat the fruit of one tree.
(That one detail should have been enough to show the true character of the story,
for the tree is "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil".
It is an allegorical tree.
It would be as useless to look for it in the botany books
as to search the atlas for Bunyan's Hill Difficulty or Valley of Humiliation.)
There the serpent persuaded the man and woman to eat the forbidden fruit.
The serpent was not the Devil; that is a later interpretation.
He was simply the first snake,
which was punished by being made to crawl on the earth and eat dust.
But because this story is not historical, let no one think that it is not
It is necessary to the Christian Faith, and therefore the chapter which contains it is the most important in the Old Testament.
For if man has not fallen, he needs no Redeemer;
and if man needs no Redeemer, the Gospel is preached in vain.
Genesis 3 is an origin-myth,
a story told by primitive people to explain the origin of something.
But it is an inspired origin-myth, for it conveys the truth which man could not have found for himself that he is a fallen being.
To ask how man fell is useless.
Man has been on the earth for at least 100,000 years.
Of his spiritual life and progress before the beginning of history (at most 6000 years ago) we know hardly anything.
We know something about the shape of his head, the food on which he lived, and the kind of pots that he used. But no research can tell us anything about his moral condition.
The origin of sin, as of almost everything else that is common to the whole human race, is unknown.
We do not find any doctrine based on Genesis 3 in other parts of the Old
The doctrine of the Fall is found in St. Paul's letters: Rom.5-7; I Cor.15; Gal.5.
He does not prove it but assumes it.
We do not find any mention of it in our Lord's teaching, but this is not a sound argument against it.
The evidence for our religion is the whole of the New Testament, not the Gospels alone.
St. Paul took Genesis 3 as literal history.
So did St. Augustine and nearly all Christian theologians until quite recently.
But we cannot do so any longer, and we, therefore, have to reconstruct the Christian doctrine of the Fall in the light of what we know about the real character of the story of Adam and Eve.
St. Paul taught that sin entered into the human race by means of Adam, and
that, since death was the punishment of sin, all men are subject to death.
The sinful condition of men is the direct consequence of their descent from Adam.
"Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the likeness of Adam's transgression" (Rom.5.14);
and the law of Moses (for St. Paul thought the whole of the Law as it stands in Leviticus and Deuteronomy to be the work of Moses) only had the effect of putting those who knew it and did not keep it in a worse position than they were before to keep it completely was found to be impossible.
But our Lord set mankind free by breaking the chain of sin;
so that, as Adam introduced sin, Christ, the second Adam, freed mankind from it.
This doctrine, which in St. Paul is very obscure,
has been the subject of controversy ever since.
We cannot accept St. Paul's belief that the story of Adam is historical,
nor can we believe that the seat of sin is the body
(though when St. Paul speaks of the flesh,
he appears to mean human nature as a whole, not merely the body).
Clearly it is the will alone that is the seat of sin.
On the other hand, we must accept his teaching that all men have sinned and therefore need redemption;
for it is confirmed by universal experience and is necessary to belief in universal redemption.
The Church, following St. Paul's teaching, has always maintained that everybody
is born with a tendency to sin, a weakness of the will which, if not checked,
will result in sin.
The Latin Fathers called this weakness ORIGINAL SIN (originale peccatum).
It is not a good name because, strictly speaking, original sin is not sin at all but a weakness leading to sin, just as a weak chest is not consumption, or weak eyes blindness.
The Church teaches that this weakness is hereditary;
though it is increased by the sinful conditions,
bad examples, etc., to which we are all exposed, more or less, throughout our lives, and also by the direct attacks of the Devil.
We promised at our baptism to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The flesh is our own nature, weakened by the flaw we have inherited.
The world is the bad example and influence of other human beings.
The Devil is the unseen enemy who continually tempts us to disobey God.
It is not enough, then, to believe that all men (except, of course, our
Lord Jesus Christ) have actually sinned.
We must believe also that all men are born with a weakness of will which inclines them towards sin, and which requires to be healed by the power of God, won for us by the death and resurrection of our Lord, and applied to each person by baptism.
The principal rival to this doctrine is the "evolutionary" theory
Evolution, since the discoveries of Charles Darwin, has coloured all modern thought.
Whereas our ancestors thought that all things remained as they were until they were changed, we think of all things as being in a continual state of change and development.
What Darwin discovered was that living beings were not always as they are now, but that all kinds of animals and vegetables have developed from a single and very simple living being.
He held that the cause of the change was natural selection and the survival of the fittest, meaning by the fittest, not the "best", either physically or morally, but the form most suited to the environment in which it found itself.
For instance, fishes living for centuries in a dark cave lose at least their power of sight because, according to Darwin, blind fish were more suited to darkness than seeing fish.
But when we apply the theory of evolution,
which properly belongs to the material world,
to things that belong to the spiritual world,
we cannot be sure that it works in the same way.
What is true of the physical nature of man is not necessarily true of his spiritual nature.
Human teeth, for instance, can be compared with the teeth of apes;
but we cannot compare the human conscience with the conscience of apes, for, as far as we know, neither the ape nor any other animal except man has got a conscience.
The evolutionary theory of sin is that sin is a relic of our animal nature.
When our remote ancestors were beasts,
they had to be angry, jealous, lustful, and so on.
Human beings do not need these qualities, but they survive from an earlier stage, just as our wisdom teeth, which we no longer use or need, survive from a period when our ancestors had much larger mouths.
They no longer fit our environment as men, and will therefore ultimately die out;
as the legs which the whale had when he lived on land have ceased to be legs since he took to the sea, and the eyes of the fish in the cave, because they were useless, have decayed and disappeared.
Those who believe in free will advise us to assist nature by hastening the
Our remote descendants, they say, will become perfectly virtuous at last, but we can make them become perfectly virtuous sooner by resisting temptations to behave like a beast. Thus Tennyson bids us
Move upward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die.
In Memoriam, 118
Such a theory is quite contrary to the traditional Christian doctrine of
sin, but those who hold it say that the traditional Christian doctrine of
sin is based on the story of Adam and Eve, which we now know to be a legend.
There are, however, very serious objections to the "evolutionary" theory
In the first place, if it were true, we should expect some evidence that sin is decreasing.
Unfortunately, there is none.
We have no reason to suppose that civilized men are more moral than savages, or that moral progress is ever or anywhere inevitable.
On the contrary, moral progress can only be preserved by constant effort,
assisted, as Christians believe, by the special power of God.
Where that effort is lacking, men sink back at once into worse than beasts.
Second, the upholders of this theory think of sin as chiefly bodily sin.
But spiritual sins, such as pride, are more deeply rooted than bodily sins;
and since they belong to human nature as such,
they cannot be relics of animal nature.
An ape may appear to be cruel or lustful; he cannot even appear to be proud.
To speak of an idolatrous wolf or an irreverent sheep means nothing.
Yet idolatry and irreverence are grave sins.
Third, even sins of the flesh cannot be committed by the other animals
because they have no free will.
Gluttony is the sin of choosing deliberately to eat more than is good for you.
A tame dog may eat more than is good for him (I doubt whether a wild one would);
but he cannot commit gluttony because the sin is not the eating, but the choosing to eat.
The dog does not choose but acts by instinct.
The "evolutionary" theory of sin is based on a doctrine of human
nature that we believe to be false.
Man is partly spiritual and partly material.
Our animal nature is the material part of us.
But sin is a defect in the spiritual part of us.
Therefore it cannot be a relic surviving in our animal nature.
The "evolutionary" nature of sin also implies a false view of
the nature of sin,
which is a disorder of the will.
The other animals, so far as we can see, have no free will.
Therefore sin, which can only exist in a being possessing free will, cannot exist in the other animals, and cannot in man be a survival from a period when man presumably did not possess free will either.
This argument is, we must admit, speculative, because we know nothing about the ancestors of the human race before it became human. But it is certain that no man can behave like an animal (unless he loses his reason).
A man must be either better or worse than an animal.
A wicked man does not behave like an animal but like a devil (who is also a being possessing free will).
The "evolutionary" theory of sin is subject to a further difficulty
if we are to believe in God.
For if sin is a relic of our animal nature, God made it.
Either sin is good because God made it, or God who made sin is not good.
We believe, on the contrary, that all that God made is good.
He did not make sin, for sin is always contrary to His will.
Therefore sin is not part of nature, animal or human.
It is always and necessarily unnatural.
But the Christian doctrine of the Fall has been interpreted in many different
The power of God and the free will of man form an "antinomy", a contrast that cannot be completely reconciled.
As there have always been two tendencies in the belief held about the Incarnation the tendency to emphasize the Godhead of our Lord, which in its extreme form led to the Monophysite heresy, and the tendency to emphasize His Manhood, which in its extreme form led to the Nestorian heresy so there have always been two tendencies in the belief held about the Fall the tendency to emphasize human free will, the extreme form of which is Pelagianism, and the tendency to emphasize the power of God, the extreme form of which is Calvinism.
The controversies about the Incarnation have always been Greek controversies;
the controversies about the Fall, Latin controversies.
Nestorius and Eutyches were Greeks.
Pelagius and Calvin were Latins.
There is a middle way between these two tendencies, corresponding to the
way marked out by the Council of Chalcedon in the controversies about the
It is the way followed by the Greek Fathers, by the Council of Trent, and by the best Anglican divines such as Jeremy Taylor.
According to Dr. N. P. Williams, this middle way may be summed up in seven propositions, here somewhat simplified (Ideas of the Fall and Original Sin, pp. 452-460):
We may accept this position without committing ourselves to the historical
character of the story of Adam and Eve, or to any of the theories that have
been derived from it.
For instance, the theory of "original righteousness" that is, the belief that man in the Garden of Eden before the Fall was not merely innocent but morally and intellectually perfect plays a large part in the literature of this subject.
[It is assumed by Article 9 in the phrase "very far gone from original righteousness" which was intended to satisfy the Calvinists without surrendering to them.]
The extreme form of it was expressed by Dr. Robert South (1634-1716) in the words: "Aristotle was but the rubbish of an Adam" that is, Adam had all the intellectual powers of the wisest of his descendants, and lost them through the Fall.
We are not committed to any such belief for which neither Scripture nor reason provides any basis.
We know nothing about man before the Fall.
We may be sure that he was a very primitive and undeveloped creature,
little removed from the other animals.
But we must believe that there was a Fall,
that at some remote period man began to disobey God.
He could not have disobeyed God without possessing, in however crude a form, the power of free will.
He might have resisted temptation.
In order to do so, he required God's help;
for temptation must have come from the Devil,
and the Devil is stronger and cleverer than man,
especially primitive and innocent man.
By yielding to temptation, he lost the divine help;
and this is the state of fallen man.
It is not, then, necessary to believe that we inherit particular characteristics from our first parents, but merely that we, like them, are in a fallen condition and that from our birth.