in the recent and still on-going discussion on the Immaculate conception, it came as a result that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian views on sin are noticeably different. For the sake of clarifying this point of view, I propose to face this topic again – hoping that this might interest you and also clarify our position, especially in regards to our denial of the immaculate conception without getting off-topic on that thread...
As a result of the discussion with our Eastern Catholic brother Marduk, Orthodoxy came to be accused of Pelagianism.
was invented by Pelagius, who thought that man at conception is entirely immaculate and needs no intervention of God's grace: free will is the only instrument of salvation, and anyone can merit salvation through his own efforts. Bringing to strong anti-Christian conclusions, this doctrine, manipulated by Celestius was condemned and anathematized as heresy in the decrees of the 3rd Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431 AD. This included an excommunication, deposition and condemnation of Celestius in Canon 4. Also, there's also the condemnation of Pelagius at the local Council of Carthage, which is among the synods confirmed at the Council of Trullo, whose canonicity is clarified at the 7th Ecumenical Council. So, no doubt the ideas of Pelagius have been authoritatively and infallibly condemned
by the Universal church.
Now, it must be said, no Ecumenical Council of the Orthodox Church mentions directly the opposite view, namely Augustinism
. Augustine believed in the total depravity of humanity. Even if the Second Vatican Council mitigated this concept, it is well known that according to Augustine of Hippo men are conceived in a condition of total disgrace and can't be saved except by God's will and grace. This position held by the African Church was never adopted officially by Eastern Christianity, nevertheless Augustine's contribution occurred to be useful in the condemnations of Pelagius and Celestius.
A third school of thought emerged, anyway, in Gaul. It is called Semipelagianism
, but this name was a later Western invention. The theory was initially proposed as a condemnation both of Pelagianism and of Augustinism by st. John Cassian, and was even supported by st. Vincent of Lérins and his monastery in Marseille. This doctrine was never officially anathematized in the Ecumenical Councils, but only in the Second Council of Orange, a French local synod approved by papal signature in 529 AD. No Ecumenical council ever listed this synod as “canonical” so the Orthodox are not bound to its decrees.
Semipelagianism teaches a limited depravity view. In other words, as an Orthodox theologian admitted, "if Latin babies are born blind, and Pelagian babies are born with 20/20 vision, then Greek babies are born in need of spectacles
". Since the Roman Catholic Church affirms papal infallibility, the decrees of the Second Council of Orange – being signed by the pope – constitute at least an official statement and, I think, also a proclamation de fide and ex cathedra. The Latin Church is bound to believe this theory as dogma. On the contrary, the position of the Orthodox Church seems to be more similar to Semipelagianism then to Augustine's view, yet none of them is “official” in our interpretation of the Scriptures. A position similar to Semipelagianism was held not only by the aforementioned John Cassian and Vincent of Lérins, but also by Irenaus, Origen, Justin Martyr and Ignatius. I'll copy and paste this citations from Wikipedia of these Fathers:
"If a man were created evil, he would not deserve punishment, since he was not evil of himself, being unable to do anything else than what he was made for." Justin Martyr (First Apology Chap. 43)
"If anyone is truly religious, he is a man of God; but if he is irreligious, he is a man of the devil, made such, not by nature, but by his own choice." Ignatius (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume One, p. 61)
"The Scriptures…emphasize the freedom of the will. They condemn those who sin, and approve those who do right… We are responsible for being bad and worthy of being cast outside. For it is not the nature in us that is the cause of the evil; rather, it is the voluntary choice that works evil." Origen (A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 289, published by Hendrickson Publishers)
"Those who do not do it [good] will receive the just judgment of God, because they had not work good when they had it in their power to do so. But if some had been made by nature bad, and others good, these latter would not be deserving of praise for being good, for they were created that way. Nor would the former be reprehensible, for that is how they were made. However, all men are of the same nature. They are all able to hold fast and to do what is good. On the other hand, they have the power to cast good from them and not to do it." Irenaeus (A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs by David Bercot, p. 287, published by Hendrickson Publishers)
Now, the doctrine outlined here is what we call “Ancestral Sin” (in Greek προπατορικό αμάρτημα) and was also held by st. Gregory Palamas.
In other words, while Augustine's "Original Sin" doctrine has never been condemned and can be confessed by Orthodox theologians (as it seems its been in some cases), in general Semipelagian Ancestral Sin seems to be more "in line" with modern Orthodoxy, as it was never canonically anathematized by the Ecumenical Councils.
In conclusion of this long and, I hope, clarifying personal study I'm glad to partake and discuss with you all, I hope this might have dissolved the misunderstandings from the Roman Catholic members.
In Christ, Alex