Most of the scholarly literature on sin has focused on theological issues, making book-length philosophical treatments of the topic hard to find. Sin, the newest book by Gregory Mellema, fills the gap by providing a short and lively summary of what contemporary philosophers are saying about the relationship between the traditional theological category of sin and contemporary philosophical ethics. Topics covered include the doctrine of original sin, accessory sins, mortal (or cardinal) sins, and venial sins. Mellema also examines Islamic codes of ethics, which include a category of acts that are “discouraged,” some of which qualify as sins, and the final chapter surveys the teachings of six major world religions concerning sin. The overarching link between the chapters is that sin is fundamentally connected to the subject matter of morality.
From Chapter One: Original and Inherited Sin
It has often been stated that original sin (although not necessarily the Augustinian version) is the one theological doctrine that is capable of empirical verification. In his book Shanting Compound Langdon Gilkey describes his experiences in a prison camp. He states that the “unpadded” conditions revealed human nature as it truly is, namely a fundamental inclination of the self toward its own welfare. Edward Langerak contends that Gilkey was here influenced by the “realist” theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. Gilkey sees the behavior of prisoners in a prison camp as empirical verification of the doctrine of original sin.
Michael Ruse likewise believes that the doctrine is capable of empirical verification. He claims that Darwinian biology empirically supports it. According to him, self-interest runs rapidly into traits such as greed, lust, and boastfulness. There are good biological reasons for this, he says, because original sin is part of the biological package.
In the Orthodox faith the term “original sin” refers to the first sin of Adam and Eve. As a result of this sin, humanity bears the consequences of sin, the chief of which is death. In western traditions humanity likewise bears the consequences of sin. But the west also understands that humanity is guilty of the sin of Adam and Eve. In the Orthodox Christian understanding, while humanity does bear the consequences of the original sin, humanity does not bear the personal guilt associated with this sin. Adam and Eve are guilty of their willful action; we bear the consequences, chief of which is death. In the Orthodox faith the term “ancestral sin” is sometimes used to reflect the belief that what is transmitted is not guilt.
The remainder of this section will summarize the account of original sin furnished by the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic theology envisions original sin as a condition of being deprived of grace. The sin of Adam consists in the lack of sanctifying grace and signifies a turning away from God. Adam was the representative of the whole human race. On his voluntary decision depended either the preservation or the loss of the supernatural endowment, which was a gift to human nature as such. His sin was the sin of the whole human race.
Original sin is transmitted through the natural act of generation. The single sin of Adam is multiplied over and over through natural generation whenever a child of Adam is born.
The soul created by God is good, according to its natural constitution. But God is not obliged to create the soul with the gift of sanctifying grace, and God is not to be blamed for creating new souls without a supernatural endowment. The blame rests with people who misused their freedom. Thus, in the state of original sin a person is deprived of sanctifying grace as well as the gifts of integrity. The lack of the gifts of integrity results in the human race’s being subject to concupiscence, suffering, and death. The person stained by original sin is in the imprisonment and slavery of the devil.
This condition should not be thought of as the complete corruption of human nature (in contrast to the reformers). In the condition of original sin God’s creatures are able to know religious truths and perform morally good actions. Moreover, free will was not lost because of the sin of Adam.