Original sin

I got nailed by my Sunday School class yesterday. It happened like this…

I was doing my part-time duty teaching Adult Sunday school and we were studying Psalm 51. When we got to the verse “in sin did my mother conceive me”, I asked whether David was expressing the depth of his sin (much as Job expressed the depth of his suffering by cursing the day of his birth) or whether this was a statement about “Original Sin”. (I should have been better prepared, but…) I defined Original sin as an inherited guilt from Adam which is removed by Baptism and then I went on to stick my foot in it by describing the doctrine as “Catholic” (which, it is). After which the good Lutherans in the class said this was Lutheran belief also. “Really?” My class then reminded me that (as an ex-Southern Baptist) I had never gone through Catechism.

So properly put in my place, I’ve poured through the Book of Concord and read extensively about Original Sin yesterday and today. Having studied these texts, I am left with one question I need to answer before class next week and another question for myself.

The first question deals technically with what Original Sin is. The reformers use the word “inherited” for Original Sin and then go on to talk about a human being being born without righteousness or the power to become so. What I wish to know, for the class, is whether original sin means that Adam sinned and was thereby transformed from a righteous person to an unrighteous person, and that trait has been inherited by all of his children, or whether the guilt of his particular sin is imputed to all of his descendents. I know the reformers teach the former, but I’m not sure about the latter.

The second question deals with my own encounter with the teaching. I gained a rather negative view of the idea of Original Sin (as I quoted it to my class up in the first paragraph) when I saw the theological knots it caused the Catholics who tried to answer the question of how Jesus avoided original sin (leading them to some strange [IMO] ideas about the Virgin Mary and formally to doctrine of the Immaculate Conception).

Now I fully appreciate that a bent towards sinning is universal among human beings and we cannot save ourselves from sin and death. But what does original sin mean if one believes (as I do) that Adam was not a historical person, and that (as all biologists do) that acquired traits are not inherited. If we cannot blame our sinful nature on a real historical Adam, then does that say (what the reformers denied) that mankind was created sinful? If the answer to that question is “no”, then how can I affirm original sin, either as inherited guilt or as pre-installed unrighteousness?

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