Original Sin: The West-Haters Strike Back

by EPHREM HUGH BENSUSAN   [source]  [underlines mine – RAS]

haters-will-hateMy essay, Original and Ancestral Sin: A False Dichotomy, has received, interestingly, more attention than anything else I’ve ever written. The bulk of it has been quite positive. It was inevitable, though, that a certain set of convert-Orthodox, the segment that, whether from a very superficial mindset in general or from a desperation to justify their conversion by maximising East-West difference by any means possible, would respond with rabid tirades that put on display their knee-jerk hatred of anything “Western”, as well as their propensity to simply assert when they ought to argue. These responses have been quite illustrative, in that they show how the anti-Occidentalists, like the Leftists in the Democratic Party, try to portray themselves as “more compassionate” and “more loving”, make their specious “Your God is mean; our God is nice – come worship the nice God” evangelistic pleas, and then boil over with vitriol when challenged. The first volley came, in an online forum in which Orthodox and Evangelicals interact, from one D.R., who wrote:

Nah, I blame Barlaam of Calabria. It is God’s will that everyone beholds the uncreated light. Satans great lie is that we cannot. The Palamite Councils officially condemned the epistemology represented by Barlaam. When I look at western theology I see nothing but Barlaamism.

He then followed up with this, following the idea that, if you can’t really make an argument against someone’s writing, attack his credentials:

In final analysis I must ask, since you speak with such great authority and knowledge. 1. Are you an Orthodox Priest or Bishop? 2. Do speak with the blessing representing the mind of the Church? 3. Do have a graduate education from an Orthodox Seminary? If not, do you at least have a Ph.D in Patristics or Historical theology…and if so, what was your specialty? 4. In consideration of these questions, How can you have such confidence that you are correctly representing the mind of the Church? Are you somehow a greater intellect and spiritual authority that you feel at liberty to disagree with these great men. 5. No matter how you wish to represent “Your” preferent version of things. The fact is the Eastern Orthodox Church absolutely does not share a common epistemology with the Western churches.


The second volley was from T.V., who wrote:

Anyone who wants to know the Orthodox teaching regarding Ancestral Sin would do far better reading Dr. Alexander Kalomiros’ _River of Fire_ than reading the piece of utterly unedifying piece of logorrhoea which started this thread. To cut to the core of the issue: it is extremely commonplace amongst Protestants (though, because Protestantism is ‘all over the map’ on any Christian teaching one might imagine, it is impossible to categorically state Protestants believe any particular thing) to view God as a ‘Mean God’. Just read Jonathan Edwards’ _Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God_. Listen to what Protestants typically say. For instance, during the drama of trying to save the miners trapped in the West Virginia (USA) coal mine about a year ago, the daughter of the Baptist pastor said that if it was God’s will that the coal miners die, they were praying to be able to accept it. That’s the ‘Mean God’ view — a view wholly incompatible with the Orthodox understanding of God. Even the _Baltimore Catechism_ cited in that utterly unedifying piece of logorrhoea teaches that God took away gifts previously given to Adam and Eve — IOW, it teaches that God is an ‘Indian Giver’. Again, a view wholly incompatible with the Orthodox understanding of God. The Western Christian view of ‘Original Sin’ is very different than the Orthodox Christian view of ‘Ancestral Sin’. No amount of obfuscation is going to alter that fact.


Then, T.R. followed up with something that is, at least, an some measure of attempt at an argument:

A couple of citations may be of use to demonstrate the real dichotomy between ‘Original Sin’ and ‘Ancestral Sin’. The first is from the venerable and recently reposed Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, a scholar of the highest rank and esteem. >>>BEGIN QUOTE>>> In a famous and controversial passage of _On Nature and Grace_, one of the most important treatises that he devoted to the defense of the doctrine of original sin, Augustine had listed the great saints of the Old and New Testaments, who had nevertheless been sinners. Then he continued: “We must make an exception of the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honor to the Lord. For from him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular [_ad vincendum omni ex parte peccatum_] was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear him who undoubtedly had no sin” When he made such a statement, Augustine was being MORE FAITHFUL TO THE GREEK TRADITION IN HIS DOCTRINE OF MARY THAN HE WAS IN HIS DOCTRINE OF HUMAN NATURE. As suggested in chapter 6, THE EAST AND THE WEST TOOK SIGNIFICANTLY DIVERGENT DIRECTIONS in their handling of the distinction between nature and grace — perhaps MORE DIVERGENT FROM EACH OTHER THAN WERE, for example, THOMAS AQUINAS AND MARTIN LUTHER. In spite of these differences between Augustine’s theory of original sin and the definitions of “ancestral sin” [_propatrikon hamartema_]” in the Greek fathers, however, they were agreed about the Theotokos, as this quotation from _On Nature and Grace_ indicated. < <<>>BEGIN QUOTE>>> [The tenets of their heresy, to summarize, are these: They say that men fall not by their reasoning but by their nature. They do not mean the nature in which Adam subsisted when he was first created (for they say this was the good creation of a good God), but that which he later inherited on account of sin, having exchanged good for evil and the immortal for the mortal by his own evil action. Therefore, [they say], having first been good by nature, men became evil, and it is by nature and not by choice that men acquire sin. Secondly, they go on to say that not even children, not even newborns, are exempt from sin. This is so, according to them, because nature subsists in sin on account of Adam’s transgression, and the sinful nature, as they would call it, extends to the entire race which comes from him.] Thus we see that the doctrine of Original Sin, a cornerstone of Western theology, was viewed as a “sickness” and a “heresy” by one of the East’s most important theologians. That Photios does not mention Augustine in his condemnation of this doctrine, which he rightly states was common in the West, indicates that he really knew very little about the North African saint and that what mention of him there is in his work is mere name-dropping. It is unmistakable that the doctrine Photios attacks is identical to that of Augustine, right down to the conclusion that even newborn babies are guilty of Adam’s sin. It is all the more remarkable how vehemently Photios attacks the Western view of sin given that the authority he cites in favor of his own views is Theodore of Mopsuestia, a Nestorian regarded as a heretic by the Orthodox Church. The Nestorian Schism, dating back to the Council of Ephesus in 431, was, in Photios’s time, the longest-standing division among Christians, yet Photios still believed that a Nestorian was better than a “heretic” who believed in Original Sin.


In regard to the quotation from Jaroslav Pelikan, it must be said that I have never posited that there are no differences at all between East and West regarding Original Sin; only that the differences are really not so great, and should certainly not be presented in the misrepresentative, hyperbolic, and generally exaggerated form that has become customary of late. But then, this quotation really only applies to St. Augustine, who, admittedly, said a number of rather bizarre things on a number of topics. (I don’t mean, of course, that what he said in the passage quoted by Pelikan is bizarre.) Certain peculiarities of St. Augustine’s teaching on Original Sin are not necessarily characteristic of the West as a whole. The passage in question does not examine anything more than the Saint’s alleged inconsistency in his view of the sinlessness of the Virgin vis-a-vis his teaching on Nature and Grace, and, despite noting the “differences between Augustine’s theory of original sin and the definitions of “ancestral sin” [_propatrikon hamartema_]” in the Greek fathers”, does not warrant (and was not, if I recall correctly, intended to posit) any hard division between the views of East and West in general. The second quotation, from Christopher Livanos’ doctoral dissertation, begins with a citation from St. Photios the Great who calls “heresy” the idea that human nature itself has become sinful because of Adam’s transgression. It is. Human nature was not fundamentally changed into evil by the fall – if it were, how could the nature assumed by the hypostasis of the Logos been sinless? The true doctrine, propounded by both East and West, is that all sin is of hypostatic provenance, not natural origin. A nature cannot sin – only a person can. Sin is rooted in the gnomic, not the natural, will. Sin has introduced corruption to each person descended from Adam, but it is not part of the physis of man. If St. Photios means, by saying

“Secondly, they go on to say that not even children, not even newborns, are exempt from sin. This is so, according to them, because nature subsists in sin on account of Adam’s transgression, and the sinful nature, as they would call it, extends to the entire race which comes from him”

he is in contradiction to the 112th Canon of Carthage*, which all Orthodox are bound to accept, since it is given oecumenical acceptance in Trullo, and this also makes his reliance on Theodore (who was not a Nestorian – he died before the controversy broke – but was the decisive influence in Nestorius’ formulation, and an advocate for the Pelagian cause) somewhat suspect, and out of line with the general thought of the East which I have documented elsewhere. But if he is speaking on a deeper level, not denying the sinfulness of infants, but rather the basis for the sinfulness of infants, I cannot disagree. Not having either the source document or Dr. Livanos’ dissertation at hand, I cannot really make an educated determination, and hesitate to say anything more in this context. A significant thing occurred on this email forum in the wake of D.R. and T.V.’s vehement condemnations of my essay. A (persumably Evangelical) woman thought it rather bad form for D.R. to jump straight to questioning credentials rather than interacting with content. Both D.R. and T.V. turned on her forthwith, and we should consider her reply, with which I close, most enlightening with regard to our behavior both before and toward other Christians:

Personally, I have a lot more respect for a chimney sweep who speaks sense than for an archbishop who waffles garbage, no matter how many carpets are rolled out in front of him…[U]nfortunately I’m quite fed up with orthodoxy. When I first joined this forum a few years ago I was very interested in orthodoxy, after reading books by Father Alexander Schmemann and Kallistos Ware. But most orthodox people I met, including on this forum, came across as rather arrogant and exclusive. I find it rather funny that they want to evangelise by opposing the ‘mean God’ of evangelicals, but that love of which they speak I have not seen displayed much. But I see a lot of bowing, hand kissing, and carpet rolling.


It makes me wonder if the “niceness” of one’s God-concept bears an inversely proportional relation to one’s own personal level of “meanness”.

* CANON CXII of Carthage That infants are baptized for the remission of sins. LIKEWISE it seemed good that whosoever denies that infants newly from their mother’s wombs should be baptized, or says that baptism is for remission of sins, but that they derive from Adam no original sin, which needs to be removed by the laver of regeneration, from whence the conclusion follows, that in them the form of baptism for the remission of sins, is to be understood as false and not true, let him be anathema. For no otherwise can be understood what the Apostle says, “By one man sin is come into the world, and death through sin, and so death passed upon all men in that all have sinned,” than the Catholic Church everywhere diffused has always understood it. For on account of this rule of faith (regulam fidei) even infants, who could have committed as yet no sin themselves, therefore are truly baptized for the remission of sins, in order that what in them is the result of generation may be cleansed by regeneration.

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