Gerald O’Collins on original sin

I’ve been thinking about original sin a little more, partly because we’re having our son baptized next month, and we met last week with our pastor to discuss the theology of baptism, as well as some of the practical details. (She observed that most of the parents who seem to have a problem with the church’s teaching on original sin are first-time parents.)

Catholic theologian Gerald O’Collins has a helpful discussion of the issue in his book Jesus Our Redeemer. He says that the story of the fall in the opening chapters of Genesis tells the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience “initiating an avalanche of sin.” “The opening chapters of Genesis present the sinfulness that emerged at humanity’s origins and left an enduring heritage of evil in options against God, oneself, other human beings, and created nature” (p. 51).

He goes on to ask whether these stories are myths, history, or something in between:

These stories, as we have just seen, express the perennial human condition. But what kind of stories are they? What is their historical status? Traditionally the Adam story has been understood, as in the classical treatment by John Milton’s Paradise Lost, to present an initial period of perfection in creation and an original innocence that ended with a ‘one-point’ event, the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. Yet the Adam story need not be interpreted as necessarily entailing the first human couple (monogenism) spoiling a state of primordial happiness by one spectacular sin. It could also apply to a number of original human beings (polygenism), who, right from the start of their existence, through sin drifted away from what God intended for them and so left to their descendants a world which lacks what God wanted, a world in which manifold evil hampers the proper exercise of freedom. (pp. 51-2)

O’Collins later connects this with what it means to say that children are “born into sin.”

Serious reflection on the practice of infant baptism involves us in pondering the nature of original sin itself. First, since as such it is not voluntary, personal sin or sin in the primary sense, we do better to put inverted commas around the term and so indicate that ‘original sin’ is sin by way of analogy. Some Christians speak of ‘original sin’ as involving collective guilt inherited from the sin of the first human beings. To be sure, it is important to recall how the whole human race, right from birth, is afflicted by the presence of evil. Yet here also it is advisable to use inverted commas, since any such ‘collective guilt’ which we inherit simply by being born into the world does not entail the personal responsibility and guilt (or guilt in the primary sense) of newborn children. Second, Christians have often spoken of ‘original sin’ as a taint or stain which is transmitted biologically through human history and from which baptism washes us clean. It could be better to lay the emphasis on what human beings lack at birth and on the context into which they are born. We are born lacking the incorporation into Christ (or life ‘in Christ) and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (e.g. Rom. 6: 11, 23; 5; 1 Cor. 3:16) to which we are called but which we do not yet enjoy. Furthermore, our full freedom and spiritual growth are circumscribed and hampered by the manifold presence of evil in the world into which we come. This lack and the context translate and summarize more convincingly what ‘original sin’ entails. (pp. 74-5)

This accounts for the experience of original sin as something that precedes and binds us (as I tried to describe here) without the more objectionable features of some popular versions of the doctrine.

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2 thoughts on “Gerald O’Collins on original sin”

  1. “We are born lacking … the indwelling of the Holy Spirit”

    It’s thought that people don’t automatically have the indwelling Spirit when born but only have it through baptism? So people who aren’t baptized, not Christians, don’t have this?

  2. (Sorry for taking so long to reply to this.)

    I think most Christians, at least historically, would say that baptism is when we “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” in the sense that it is through baptism that we are united with Christ and his church and receive the gift of new life. That doesn’t mean that the Spirit isn’t at work elsewhere, but as the Spirit is the spirit of Jesus, there is a sense in which baptism initiates a special relationship with the Spirit.

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