Is sin transmitted from parent to child? Is the Roman Catholic notion of original sin true?
The question we are examining here is what is the nature of the sin that caused death to spread to all men (Rom. 5:12)? Paul wrote that “death spread to all men because all sinned” (v.12). What kind of sin is Paul talking about when he says “all sinned”? We will look at the Roman Catholic view of sin, traditionally understood as “original sin,” in this essay.
One crucial issue with the Roman Catholic view of sin is the question of how it finds its way from Adam to each and every one of us. It asserts that sin is transmitted to every person in some biological or imperceptible-though-real (metaphysical) way through the process of procreation. Developed since the days of Augustine (354-430 AD), it finds its culmination in the decree of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which asserted that Adam “has transfused” death, body pains, and, most importantly, sin to the whole human race. Original sin is said to deprive us of holiness and justice.
The Romanist church certainly wasn’t unanimous in this view at the time, though. Murray points out in his book The Imputation of Adam’s Sin that contemporary Roman Catholic theologians Ambrosius Catharinus and Albertus Pighius believed Adam’s sin was imputed to all people on the basis of Adam’s covenantal representation of mankind. Their voices were drowned out by those at Trent.
ORIGINAL SIN DEFINED AND REFUTED
As Murray describes it, Trent’s doctrine of sin “is conceived of not as the actual sin of Adam imputed but as the habitual sin that is conveyed by natural generation…In a word, the sin of Romans 5:12 on account of which death passed on to all is transmitted sinfulness.” [p.14-15]
Murray provides us three primary reasons why this idea of original transmitted sin, as distinguished from imputed sin, cannot be what Paul was talking about:
- The first reason is that the grammatical structure of Paul’s phrase doesn’t neatly fit the idea. This version of original sin which is conceived by the Roman Catholic church, and even by many Protestants, is one which is undergoing continual transmission. Paul’s verb-tense in verse 12 is the past-tense: “for that all have sinned” (KJV) or “because all sinned” (ESV). The language, plainly read, suggests a single historical act resulted in our sin, not some continuous process of transmission. To make the Romish interpretation fit, you would have to imagine that Paul meant “death spread to all men because the process of the continuous transmission of sin through procreation came into the world.” Nevertheless, Paul’s grammatical structure alone cannot rule out this interpretation; it just seems highly presumptive that such an idea is what Paul really meant.
- Similar to the refutation of the Pelagian view of sin, for Paul to have meant original transmitted sin instead of imputed sin then the analogy that he sets up in this chapter between Adam and Christ would be broken. Paul teaches that we are justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone; Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is that righteousness is somehow infused into us. The Protestant Reformation was fought over the doctrine of justification by faith. Paul specifically teaches the imputation to us of Christ’s righteousness by grace through faith. He does not teach an infusion of righteousness, through baptismal waters or any other means, into us. So, since Paul teaches that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, and since he sets up an analogy between Christ and Adam, the mode of transmission of sin must be the same as that of righteousness. If Christ’s righteousness is imputed, then Adam’s sin cannot be transmitted biologically, metaphysically, or any other way because, by varying the mode of application, the analogy breaks down. Murray summarizes this by saying “the requirements of the analogy instituted are not fulfilled but rather violated by importing into Paul’s thought in this passage the notion of transmitted and inherited sin.” [p.17]
- Finally, and again as mentioned in the refutation of the Pelagian view, the idea of transmitted sin does not accord with the five-fold repetition of Paul’s assertion that sin and death came into the world by one man (verses 15, 16, 17, 18, 19). Paul emphasizes the oneness of the sin of men as having originated with Adam. The Romanist view creates two distinctions in the kind of sin: Adam’s sin, which occurred once; and original sin, which is transmitted or transfused to his progeny. Paul said that “through the offence of one many be dead” and “by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation” because “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.” The Scriptures teach that sin comes from one man; the notion of original sin means that your sin came from someone else (your parents) and not Adam. This means sin does not come from one man, but many different people. The sources of sin are different. Scripture says the source is Adam. The Romanist view of original sin says the source is natural generation.
Based on these three objections, the kind of sin that Paul refers to in his phrase “all sinned” cannot be the traditionally understood concept of “original sin.”
In section two of his book, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, John Murray examines the Roman Catholic view of sin, traditionally called original sin. He doesn’t examine the soundness of the doctrine itself, only whether Paul could have meant it by a certain interpretation of his clause “in that all sinned” in verse 12 of Romans 5.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of original sin says that sin is transmitted or transfused by the process of natural generation. It flows from parents to children.
He gives three reasons that, when taken together, show that we must reject this interpretation of sin given to Paul’s phrase “because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
The Roman Catholic view recognizes that sin originates with Adam, but it errs by presuming an incorrect mode of transmission that cannot be reconciled with the teaching of Scripture.