In his classic book, Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton quipped that Christianity begins with the doctrine of Original Sin, which, he says, “is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.” His point is that all men must agree on the doctrine of the Fall regardless of whether they profess it or not. Each of us experiences tugs in different directions that reveal a war going on in our members. As we near the close of Advent and prepare to celebrate Christianity’s beginnings, meditating on this most important doctrine can bear much fruit.
Any discussion on Original Sin has to begin by recognizing the platypus-like quality of man whose nature is a spirit/matter composite. He is formed out of the “dust of the ground” that is animated by the breath (or pneuma, from which we get the word spirit) of God. This leaves man with in a state of being tugged in two directions. Like all matter, his material being always tends towards decay and death. His spirit, because it is not composed of parts cannot be subject to decay, is immortal. As a material creature, man will strive to preserve his material being. As spiritual creature, man will always feed on truth and goodness. Despite these incompatibilities there is also a mutual dependence of the various faculties in man. The material depends upon the spiritual in order to have life and fuller sensation while the spiritual depends on the material in order to know and love.
It would seem based on this description that man, by nature, is at war within himself. But the spirit/material composite of man is not merely some haphazard mixture. The spirit has a certain precedence over the material and the material is in the service of intellectual knowing and loving. This integration in man’s faculties means that the will perfectly follows the intellect while the material faculties such as the passions enable the will to act with a certain intensity that spills into the body.
Even with this integration in man’s faculties, there is still the problem of death. Because the body is material and subject to decay, the spirit will no longer be able to act through it when that decay reaches a certain level. This leads to a monstrosity of a soul separated from its body. To alleviate what appears to be a fundamental “flaw” in human nature, God bestowed Adam and Eve with the preternatural gift of immortality; the whole person, body and soul. This gift however was conditional. It was conditioned on the fact that Adam always oriented his faculties toward God and His will. This immortality was also a result of a share in God’s eternal life which is called sanctifying grace.
Summarizing we can say that, prior to the Fall, man was gifted with sanctifying grace at his creation and bodily immortality. It is important to remember as well that the perfect integration of his faculties was a natural endowment rather than a supernatural gift.
While we do not know what the actual sin was that Adam committed, we can say what it was not. It was not a sexual sin like lust as is often suggested. To suggest that is more telling of us as fallen men rather than Adam as unfallen. Because he enjoyed the perfect integration of body and soul, it had to be a spiritual sin. That is why most theologians think that it was the greatest of spiritual sins, pride. What we do know is that when Adam sinned he lost the gift of sanctifying grace. In trying to “be like God” in knowing good and evil, he forfeited the way in which he was actually like God (sanctifying grace). For being like God was not something to be grasped (Phil. 2:6) but instead something to be received as a free gift. This loss of sanctifying grace is called Original Sin. In God’s plan, Adam and all his offspring were to be gifted with sanctifying grace at their conception. When Adam sinned as the head of mankind, he lost that gift for all his offspring. He also lost the gift of immunity from death so that he and his offspring were made subject to their material limitation (“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—Gn 3:19).
Because of the supernatural height, from which he fell, Adam also did damage to his nature. This damage is what we call concupiscence. No longer did he have the perfect integration of his faculties. The intellect became darkened so that the truth became blurry, the will was weakened so that the good became less desirable and the passions ran amok, inclining man towards unreasonable pleasure. In other words, man was left worse off for having lost Sanctifying grace than if he had not been gifted with it to begin with.
Why would God leave man worse off? In short it is because man has a supernatural end. He was made to be with God. Because friendship can only occur between equals, man cannot reach this end on his own. Therefore God must raise man up by giving him a share in His nature.
If man was left with his natural faculties intact, he would tend only towards his natural end, which is virtue. By leaving his nature wounded, God knew that man cannot even reach his natural end. This experience of frustration leaves man to seek outside help so that when God reveals the path out, man knowingly will follow (this is why the Bad News always must precede the Good News). God offers this help to mankind through Baptism where the spirit is given the gift of sanctifying grace. This is why it is said to “forgive” Original Sin. But the effects or stains remain. He may endow the soul with actual graces in overcoming these defects, but he leaves it to us to heal from the effects. It is like when medicine is given for a disease—it is not the medicine that heals, but the body itself. The medicine simply aids the natural healing process of the body. This is why the distinction between Original Sin and its effects is important. We are given an initial “shot” of sanctity, but we must then struggle to grow the divine life within us. The full effects of the Fall will only be healed at the resurrection of the body.
Viewed through our post-Fall lenses, it seems somehow unfair that we all lost the preternatural gifts because of the act of one man. To that I would reply that it is just as unfair that the actions of one man should redeem us. Looked at from a deeper level, we see that we have everything upside down.
This deeper level has to always be from the standpoint of Christ and His act of restoration. His intention is to restore us as a single people, so closely united that we are referred to as His Mystical Body. From the economy of salvation God does not look at us as a collection of individuals but as a single body. This is the doctrine of the Communion of Saints—there can be no good done by an individual member of the Church that does not redound to the welfare of all. Among the members of the Mystical Body there is a spiritual commonwealth of riches which includes all the wealth of graces acquired by Christ and all the good works performed with the grace of Christ. We have difficulty seeing this because there exists so much division even within the Church, but it does not take away from the truth that God’s intention for mankind was for us to be one. Therefore it ought to be very clear that God would deal with us as one. Otherwise Jesus taking on a human nature to redeem all mankind would not make sense. Through the Hypostatic Union humanity is now by nature united to God and we, in response, must now become a mixture of Christ nature (both human and divine).
In truth, the question of fairness should really enter into the discussion. The nature that has been transmitted to us as offspring of Adam may be damaged, but it is still a gift that we have no right to. If we have no right to our nature, then we certainly have no right to the super-nature that Adam had. In the end, it makes little difference because maintaining the divine nature requires a period of trial for all of us. Now God simply grades on a curve by giving us a share in Christ’s virtues. That is something Adam never had and certainly more than levels the playing field.