The Approach of the Orthodox Fathers
As pervasive as the term original sin has become, it may come as a surprise to some that it was unknown in both the Eastern and Western Church until Augustine (c. 354-430). The concept may have arisen in the writings of Tertullian, but the expression seems to have appeared first in Augustine’s works. Prior to this the theologians of the early church used different terminology indicating a contrasting way of thinking about the fall, its effects and God’s response to it. The phrase the Greek Fathers used to describe the tragedy in the Garden was ancestral sin.
Ancestral sin has a specific meaning. The Greek word for sin in this case, amartema, refers to an individual act indicating that the Eastern Fathers assigned full responsibility for the sin in the Garden to Adam and Eve alone. The word amartia, the more familiar term for sin which literally means “missing the mark”, is used to refer to the condition common to all humanity (Romanides, 2002). The Eastern Church, unlike its Western counterpart, never speaks of guilt being passed from Adam and Eve to their progeny, as did Augustine. Instead, it is posited that each person bears the guilt of his or her own sin. The question becomes, “What then is the inheritance of humanity from Adam and Eve if it is not guilt?” The Orthodox Fathers answer as one: death. (I Corinthians 15:21) “Man is born with the parasitic power of death within him,” writes Fr. Romanides (2002, p. 161). Our nature, teaches Cyril of Alexandria, became “diseased…through the sin of one” (Migne, 1857-1866a). It is not guilt that is passed on, for the Orthodox fathers; it is a condition, a disease.
In Orthodox thought Adam and Eve were created with a vocation: to become one with God gradually increasing in their capacity to share in His divine life—deification (Romanides, 2002, p. 76-77). “They needed to mature, to grow to awareness by willing detachment and faith, a loving trust in a personal God” (Clement, 1993, p. 84). Theophilus of Antioch (2nd Century) posits that Adam and Eve were created neither immortal nor mortal. They were created with the potential to become either through obedience or disobedience (Romanides, 2002).
The freedom to obey or disobey belonged to our first parents, “For God made man free and sovereign” (Romanides, 2002, p. 32). To embrace their God-given vocation would bring life, to reject it would bring death, but not at God’s hands. Theophilus continues, “…should he keep the commandment of God he would be rewarded with immortality…if, however, he should turn to things of death by disobeying God, he would be the cause of death to himself” (Romanides, 2002, p. 32)
Adam and Eve failed to obey the commandment not to eat from the forbidden tree thus rejecting God and their vocation to manifest the fullness of human existence (Yannaras, 1984). Death and corruption began to reign over the creation. “Sin reigned through death.” (Romans 5:21) In this view death and corruption do not originate with God; he neither created nor intended them. God cannot be the Author of evil. Death is the natural result of turning aside from God.
Adam and Eve were overcome with the same temptation that afflicts all humanity: to be autonomous(free), to go their own way, to realize the fullness of human existence without God. According to the Orthodox fathers sin is not a violation of an impersonal law or code of behavior, but a rejection of the life offered by God (Yannaras, 1984). This is the mark, to which the word amartia refers. Fallen human life is above all else the failure to realize the God-given potential of human existence, which is, as St. Peter writes, to “become partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4). St. Basil writes: “Humanity is an animal who has received the vocation to become God” (Clement, 1993, p. 76).
In Orthodox thought God did not threaten Adam and Eve with punishment nor was He angered or offended by their sin; He was moved to compassion. The expulsion from the Garden and from the Tree of Life was an act of love and not vengeance so that humanity would not “become immortal in sin” (Romanides, 2002, p. 32). Thus began the preparation for the Incarnation of the Son of God and the solution that alone could rectify the situation: the destruction of the enemies of humanity and God, death (I Corinthians 15:26, 56), sin, corruption and the devil (Romanides, 2002).
It is important to note that salvation as deification is not pantheism because the Orthodox Fathers insist on the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (Athanasius, 1981). Human beings, along with all created things, have come into being from nothing. Created beings will always remain created and God will always remain Uncreated. The Son of God in the Incarnation crossed the unbridgeable chasm between them. Orthodox hymnography frequently speaks of the paradox of the Uncreated and created uniting without mixture or confusion in the wondrous hypostatic union. The Nativity of Christ, for example, is interpreted as “a secret re-creation, by which human nature was assumed and restored to its original state” (Clement, 1993, p. 41). God and human nature, separated by the Fall, are reunited in the Person of the Incarnate Christ and redeemed through His victory on the Cross and in the Resurrection by which death is destroyed (I Corinthians 15:54-55). In this way the Second Adam fulfills the original vocation and reverses the tragedy of the fallen First Adam opening the way of salvation for all.
The Fall could not destroy the image of God; the great gift given to humanity remained intact, but damaged (Romanides, 2002). Origen speaks of the image buried as in a well choked with debris (Clement, 1993). While the work of salvation was accomplished by God through Jesus Christ the removal of the debris that hides the image in us calls for free and voluntary cooperation. St. Paul uses the word synergy, or “co-workers”, (I Corinthians 3:9) to describe the cooperation between Divine Grace and human freedom. For the Orthodox Fathers this means asceticism (prayer, fasting, charity and keeping vigil) relating to St. Paul’s image of the spiritual athlete (I Corinthians 9:24-27). This is the working out of salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Salvation is a process involving faith, freedom and personal effort to fulfill the commandment of Christ to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
The great Orthodox hymn of Holy Pascha (Easter) captures in a few words the essence of the Orthodox understanding of the Atonement: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs bestowing life” (The Liturgikon, Paschal services, 1989). Because of the victory of Christ on the Cross and in the Tomb humanity has been set free, the curse of the law has been broken, death is slain, life has dawned for all. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580 – 662) writes that “Christ’s death on the Cross is the judgment of judgment” (Clement, 1993, p. 49) and because of this we can rejoice in the conclusion stated so beautifully by Olivier Clement: “In the crucified Christ forgiveness is offered and life is given. For humanity it is no longer a matter of fearing judgment or of meriting salvation, but of welcoming love in trust and humility” (Clement, 1993, p. 49).
The piety and devotion of Augustine is largely unquestioned by Orthodox theologians, but his conclusions on the Atonement are (Romanides, 2002). Augustine, by his own admission, did not properly learn to read Greek and this was a liability for him. He seems to have relied mostly on Latin translations of Greek texts (Augustine, 1956a,
p. 9). His misinterpretation of a key scriptural reference, Romans 5:12, is a case in point (Meyendorff, 1979). In Latin the Greek idiom eph ho which means because of was translated as in whom. Saying that all have sinned in Adam is quite different than saying that all sinned because of him. Augustine believed and taught that all humanity has sinned in Adam (Meyendorff, 1979, p. 144). The result is that guilt replaces death as the ancestral inheritance (Augustine, 1956b) Therefore the term original sin conveys the belief that Adam and Eve’s sin is the first and universal transgression in which all humanity participates.
Augustine famously debated Pelagius (c. 354-418) over the place the human will could play in salvation. Augustine took the position against him that only grace is able to save, sola gratis (Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, 7). From this a doctrine of predestination developed (God gives grace to whom He will) which hardened in the 16th and 17th centuries into the doctrine of two-fold predestination (God in His sovereignty saves some and condemns others). The position of the Church of the first two centuries concerning the image and human freedom was abandoned.
The Roman idea of justice found prominence in Augustinian and later Western theology. The idea that Adam and Eve offended God’s infinite justice and honor made of death God’s method of retribution (Romanides, 2002). But this idea of justice deviates from Biblical thought. Kalomiris (1980) explains the meaning of justice in the original Greek of the New Testament:
The Greek word diakosuni ‘justice’, is a translation of the Hebrew word tsedaka. The word means ‘the divine energy which accomplishes man’s salvation.’ It is parallel and almost synonymous with the word hesed which means ‘mercy’, ‘compassion’, ‘love’, and to the word emeth which means ‘fidelity’, ‘truth’. This is entirely different from the juridical understanding of ‘justice’. (p. 31)
The juridical view of justice generates two problems for Augustine. One: how can one say that the attitude of the immutable God’s toward His creation changes from love to wrath? Two: how can God, who is good, be the author of such an evil as death (Romanides, 1992)? The only way to answer this is to say, as Augustine did to the young Bishop, Julian of Eclanum (d. 454), that God’s justice is inscrutable (Cahill, 1995, p. 65). Logically, then, justice provides proof of inherited guilt for Augustine, because since all humanity suffers the punishment of death and since God who is just cannot punish the innocent, then all must be guilty in Adam. Also, by similar reasoning, justice appears as a standard to which even God must adhere (Kalomiris, 1980). Can God change or be subject to any kind of standard or necessity? By contrast the Orthodox father, Basil the Great, attributes the change in attitude to humanity rather than to God (Migne, 1857-1866b). Because of the theological foundation laid by Augustine and taken up by his heirs, the conclusion seems unavoidable that a significant change occurs in the West making the wrath of God and not death the problem facing humanity (Romanides, 1992, p. 155-156).
How then could God’s anger be assuaged? The position of the ancient Church had no answer because its proponents did not see wrath as the problem. The Satisfaction Theory proposed by Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) in his work Why the God-Man? provides the most predominant answer in the West. The sin of Adam offended and angered God making the punishment of death upon all guilty humanity justified. The antidote to this situation is the crucifixion of the Incarnate Son of God because only the suffering and death of an equally eternal being could ever satisfy the infinite offense of the infinitely dishonored God and assuage His wrath (Williams, 2002; Yannaras, 1984,
p. 152). God sacrifices His Son to restore His honor and pronounces the sacrifice sufficient. The idea of imputed righteousness rises from this. The Orthodox understanding that “the resurrection...through Christ, opens for humanity the way of love that is stronger than death” (Clement, 1993, p. 87) is replaced by a juridical theory of courtrooms and verdicts.
The image of an angry, vengeful God haunts the West where a basic insecurity and guilt seem to exist. Many appear to hold that sickness, suffering and death are God’s will. Why? I suspect one reason is that down deep the belief persists that God is still angry and must be appeased. Yes, sickness, suffering and death come and when they do God’s grace is able to transform them into life-bearing trials, but are they God’s will? Does God punish us when the mood strikes, when our behavior displeases Him or for no reason at all? Are the ills that afflict creation on account of God? For example, could the loving Father really be said to enjoy the sufferings of His Son or of the damned in hell (Yannaras, 1984)? Freud rebelled against these ideas calling the God inherent in them the sadistic Father (Yannaras, 1984, p. 153). Could it be as Yannaras, Clement and Kalomiris propose that modern atheism is a healthy rebellion against a terrorist deity (Clement, 2000)? Kalomiris (1980) writes that there are no atheists, just people who hate the God in whom they have been taught to believe.
Orthodoxy agrees that grace is a gift, but one that is given to all not to a chosen few. For Grace is an uncreated energy of God sustaining all creation apart from which nothing can exist (Psalm 104:29). What is more, though grace sustains humanity, salvation cannot be forced upon us (or withheld) by divine decree. Clement points out that the “Greek fathers (and some of the Latin Fathers), according to whom the creation of humanity entailed a real risk on God’s part, laid the emphasis on salvation through love: ‘God can do anything except force a man to love him’. The gift of grace saves, but only in an encounter of love” (Clement, 1993, p. 81). Orthodox theology holds that divine grace must be joined with human volition.Source: http://www.stmaryorthodoxchurch.org/orthodoxy/articles/2004-hughes-sin.php