Original Sin and the Innocence of Children

Posted: September 24, 2010 by Sentinel in Doctrines, Original Sin
Tags: , , , ,

The doctrine of Original Sin is very challenging to our sensibilities. The idea that every human is “born sinful” seems so judgmental and negative that we shy away from it. Sure, we can agree that “Everyone makes mistakes”, but Christianity maintains that every human being is inherently sinful and separated from God.

But babies? Surely someone who has spent their life crying, sleeping and occasionally soiling the odd nappy (ok, more than occasionally) cannot be considered sinful? What can they possibly have done to merit such a charge?

Augustine of Hippo wrote his Confessions when he was in his 40s, and in it he reflected on the entirety of his life thus far – including his very earliest years. Of course, like any of us, he didn’t remember his time spent as a mewling babe, but he did use keen observation of other infants to draw some general assumptions about his own behaviour. He considers the actions of a baby through the understanding of an adult, and in doing so, he raises some profound challenges to the “innocence” of children.

“Nor was it good, even in that time, to strive to get by crying what, if it had been given me, would have been hurtful; or to be bitterly indignant at those who, because they were older… and wiser than I, would not indulge my capricious desires. Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed?”

God is not concerned purely with our actions, but also with our intents, and the desires of our heart. The desires of an infant’s heart are selfish and often self-destructive, and is this entirely absolved by its lack of power to act? Watching a baby flailing his arms petulantly – but ineffectually – against his mother, Augustine wryly notes:

“…the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind.”

Satirist and social critic P. J. O’Rourke, reflecting on his own experiences as a father, writes:

“When Saint Augustine was formulating his doctrine of Original Sin, all he had to do was look at people as they are originally. Originally, they’re children… But it’s wrong to use infantile as a pejorative… What children display is adultishness. Children are, for example, perfectly adultish in their self-absorption. Tiny tots look so wise, staring at their stuffed animals. You wonder what they’re thinking. Then they learn to talk. What they’re thinking is, My Beanie Baby!”

Of course we should treat children differently and make allowances for behaviour that we would find unbearable in an adult. Augustine makes exactly this point, in fact:

“In what ways, in that time, did I sin? Was it that I cried for the breast? If I should now so cry – not indeed for the breast, but for food suitable to my condition – I should be most justly laughed at and rebuked. What I did then deserved rebuke but, since I could not understand those who rebuked me, neither custom nor common sense permitted me to be rebuked. As we grow we root out and cast away from us such childish habits.

“…Yet we look leniently on such things, not because they are not faults… but because they will vanish as the years pass. For, although we allow for such things in an infant, the same things could not be tolerated patiently in an adult.”

But children aren’t actually little angels – they’re human.

——

The preceding post is the property of Christian Diversity (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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Comments
  1. J.W. Wartick says:

    Sentinel,

    I really enjoy this article. I wonder how this would apply to those who advocate an “age of accountability” view of sinfulness. Do you think such a view is permissible within the framework of your views on original sin?

    • Disciple says:

      Well, for a Catholic view: The age of accountability among the Hebrews and Christians was considered to be the age of reason, the time when one could become, in Hebrew culture, a child of the commandments (Bar Mitzvah). To commit a sin, one needs to be aware of right and wrong, and then intentionally choose it. Few children are able to do this until they reach a certain age. Until then their parents are considered to be responsible for them. This is accepted practice even in secular civil society.

      And, of course, we know that infants inherit fallen human nature from their parents and this goes all the way back to the beginning, back to Adam. We aren’t born untouched by Original Sin, not me or you or Augustine either. Only Christ, the Second Adam, can make us new creations, undoing what Adam did.

      • Disciple says:

        I should have said, “be aware of right and wrong, intentionally choose it and commit it”. Although Jesus does mention that one who lusts in his heart has already committed sin. The Way of the Cross is more demanding than the older covenant ever was. But Christ makes it possible to follow Him. If we will…

  2. Sentinel says:

    Well, I think that point also draws a distinction between human justice and Divine justice. Sin is not the same as crime: God has perfect knowledge of our hearts and actions, and can thus discern on an individual basis our appropriate level of accountability for a given action.

  3. sabepashubbo says:

    J.W.,

    Do you think the “age of accountability” applies to sinfulness, or understanding of salvation? I’ve always heard it positioned as an age or time when a child has enough knowledge to be considered “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Sentinel, do you have any thoughts on this as well?

    • Sentinel says:

      I think that there is a distinction which can be made between “sinful” and “condemned”. I would say that humans are born sinful, but I do not think that it necessarily follows that we are born under condemnation.

      We have a tendency towards sin, but just as we do not condemn an infant for striking his mother in anger, is it possible that the redemption offered by Jesus grants absolution for those who are not yet accountable?

      Acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice requires a knowledge and understanding of what is being accepted, but that does not mean that a child too young to understand the Gospels is beyond salvation.

      • Disciple says:

        But the doctrine that all are born under condemnation is Biblical:

        18 Therefore, as by the offence of one, unto all men to condemnation; so also by the justice of one, unto all men to justification of life. 19 For as by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners; so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just. (Romans 5:18-19.)

        Through Adam all of humanity was condemned, everyone who would be born from him. Through the Second Adam, Christ, all are redeemed. No physical action performed by us is required for either condemnation or redemption.

      • Disciple says:

        I wanted to edit my comment, “that no physical action is required on our part to obtain redemption”. Actually, I meant that we did not personally earn condemnation, but neither did we personally earn redemption. Because to have that redemption applied to ourselves, we do need to be baptised. An infant or child can be baptised without having to seek it, but adults do have to request baptism. Baptism changes us from being in the state of Original Sin to being a new creation in Christ.

        We don’t need to understand that for it to work. Baptism is an action of the Holy Spirit upon us. He can work whether or not we understand it or know it. Christ’s sacrifice is efficacious for all, infant, adult, there is no cut-off or age limit on that.

  4. Mike says:

    Have you considered viewing sin as merely distance from God? Certainly evil qualifies as such distance, and is the most common example. But, there are other things that qualify as distance from God that aren’t a result of the individual doing evil. Jesus on the Cross is the perfect example. He did no evil, but He suffered the ultimate distance from the Father, committing in some non-evil sense the maximum sin that any would commit in this world.

    I would say that babies are born with a distance between them and God, which is inherent in being human. Formulated in this way, perhaps Original Sin is less synonomous with “Original Evil State” than with “Original Distance From God”.

    Applying the verse that says Jesus has become our sin, it means that He has become our distance from God. If you accept this, then I can reframe the “age of accountability” issue in the following manner: Perhaps Jesus will automatically bridge the distance that is not the result of evil actions (i.e., being born, crying for food, crying for a diaper change, forgetting to close the garage), but He must be asked to bridge the distance that results from evil action. That would be the sinner’s prayer.

    The last step then is to distinguish between evil actions that result from distance from God, and distance that results from evil actions. There is an age by which this distinction no longer matters, as both feed in on each other. But, as a child, I believe there is a time during which reflexive actions toward selfishness is a product of distance, without introducing more; there is another season during which experimentation with limits (e.g., “At what point does something hurt?” “Can I just make things up and they’re automatically true?”) is not inherently evil per se, but teaches the child about evil (“Hurting people is wrong” “Lying is wrong”). Such experimentation does not add distance to God, but the need results from it.

    At some point, everyone reaches an age where they can intentionally choose to do evil (e.g., lie for gain), knowing it is wrong, knowing it is against the law God has written on their heart. That is the moment when the heart comes into play; it defines the child’s age of accountability, and it varies from person to person. And so begins the distance that we must repent for.

    • Sentinel says:

      Mike says:
      Have you considered viewing sin as merely distance from God?

      That’s an interesting take. My first thoughts are that this phrasing is too limited: I think that sin distances us from God, and that an act of sin inevitably involves turning away from God’s plan for us. But I wouldn’t reduce sin to “merely” the distance: I think that the distance is a result of the sin.

      I do like the way you extend this to salvation, though – as much as Jesus came to reconcile us to God, that involves bridging the distance that we have put between ourselves and God through sin. Thinking of original sin as a starting distance certainly has strength as a metaphor, but I would still distinguish between the action (sin) and the result (separation from God). So although it has good illustrative power, I think it’s a rephrasing of the same idea: we are born into a sinful condition. (For more on the implications of that, see my reply to sabepashubbo above).

      • Mike says:

        >>I think that sin distances us from God, and that an act of sin inevitably
        >> involves turning away from God’s plan for us. But I wouldn’t reduce sin
        >> to “merely” the distance: I think that the distance is a result of the sin.

        How do you interpret 2 Corinthians 5:21?

        “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

        If Jesus is our sin as Paul says, but sin results in distance as you say, then why are we less distant from God instead of more? Some would say that the description of Jesus as sin really means “sin offering”, but that isn’t what the greek says. It says “sin”.

        If you look up the word sin, the greek is hamartia, and it is the same word used both times in 2 Cor 5:21. According to Strong’s, it derives from Hamartano, which as a verb means “to miss the mark (and so not share in the prize)”. This is most easily illustrated like an arrow missing the center of a target. The arrow doesn’t miss until it lands, and so the landing off the mark, which is our offence, is what we call sin, and is defined by how far off the mark we are… the distance.

        Notice that “offence” is not really inherent in the word’s meaning, but is merely how the word is used. **That** is why Paul can call Christ our sin without contradiction. Christ really becomes our distance from God, that distance between our arrow and God’s righteousness. But, where our offence lands off the mark and separates us from God, Christ’s action starts **from** the mark reaches to where we are **off** the mark to connect us to God.

        If your definition were literally correct, then Christ’s sacrifice in 2 Cor 5:21 would not connect us to God, but would further separate. Or you would have to replace the word “sin” with “sin offering”, as others do, adding words that are not in the scripture. Paul however, was using the word sin properly. Christ is indeed our sin… not an offence (for that would create distance), but He is our distance (which was created by our offence).

      • sabepashubbo says:

        Mike,

        You have an interesting point definitely. It seems like you might be pushing this a bit too literally though. If Christ became sin in a literal sense, then that would equate God with sin, and sin is absent from God’s nature. It’s not possible for God to sin, so I think Paul is trying to paint the picture of intercession here rather than place sin’s responsibility in a specific place. The language here is clearly more symbolic or analogous than literal, in my opinion.

        It also seems to beg the question how some sins can place us at further distance than others, as it seems you might be saying here: “The arrow doesn’t miss until it lands, and so the landing off the mark, which is our offence, is what we call sin, and is defined by how far off the mark we are…the distance. How do we know some sins are worse than others, and how do we know which sins those are?

        I think I’m with Sentinel on this one. Sin separates from God in a way that is irreparable on our own strength. But it is the necessary intercession of Christ to pay the ransom for our sins that allows us to put on the righteousness of God and be fit for heaven.

      • Mike says:

        sabepashubbo,

        You misunderstood much of my meaning.

        >> If Christ became sin in a literal sense, then that would
        >> equate God with sin, and sin is absent from God’s nature.
        I think you missed my analysis of the Greek translation of sin. If sin means “evil work” then of course you are right. But while all evil works are sin, not all sin is from evil works. A person who has touched a dead body is in a state of sin, though no evil has been done. Likewise, I am not suggesting that Jesus has done evil.

        >> It’s not possible for God to sin, so I think Paul is trying to paint the
        >> picture of intercession here rather than place sin’s responsibility in
        >> a specific place.
        Yes, Paul talking of intercession. But once again, Paul is using the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, which is basically distance from God. I agree God cannot commit evil. What Christ does is cover our distance from God, become in essence that distance. In a literal sense, He become our “sin”. This does not mean He becomes our evil.

        >> The language here is clearly more symbolic or analogous than literal,
        >> in my opinion.
        Read the Greek, and you see that Paul is being is quite literal. Remember, the Greek language is far more rich than English.

        >> How do we know some sins are worse than others, and how do we
        >> know which sins those are?
        We do not have to know, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. However, some people do sin more than (in this context, I do mean committing of evil that places distance between us and God), and so some people are more distant than others. However, because Christ died once for all sin (evil actions), He therefore becomes our sin (in this context, I mean the sacrifice that covers our distance from God). Note the different connotation, yet covering the same distance.

        I completely agree with your last paragraph. If you cannot see how, then I apologize for explaining myself poorly.

    • Disciple says:

      I don’t think you can view sin (especially Original Sin, which is a state and contracted and not the same as personal sin which is commited) as mere distance or missing a mark. Those are handy notions for building an understanding of sin and its effects. But they also miss the mark because they don’t really address the awful and dire condition of human nature as a result of the fall. They make it sound rather innoccuous and mild, when Original Sin left us horribly damaged and created a tremendous rift between humanity/creation and God that would only be repaired after the coming of Christ and His Sacrifice. The Divine Son of God had to DIE to repair the damage.

      • Mike says:

        Disciple,

        As with sabepashubbo, I apologize for not being clearer. If calling sin “distance” or “missing the mark” robs the word of its meaning for you, then please realize that being distant from God is the reason our “sinful nature” is as awful and dire as you correctly point out. But please also realize that by not seeing that, you are robbing the word of its meaning, by ignoring the Greek. This is not an attack on you, because we agree on how bad sin is, and how to remedy it.

        I can address however why the actual Greek meaning of sin robs it of its meaning for you. One reason is because we speak English and not Greek. If you look up “sin” in an English dictionary, it says nothing of separation, and the meaning is exactly as you say. In English, “sin” is not “mere distance”. However, read it in the Greek, and that is exactly what “sin” means, and it is the only reason why Paul can write 2 Cor 5:21. Using the “English” definition, you can only read that verse as symbolic, because how can it be literal? But in Greek, it really opens up the meaning to show exactly how are “sinful nature” is a nature that only serves to separate us from God, and only Christ can bridge that gap.

        To call this a “mere” distance is incorrect, for that discounts the severity of having such a gap between you and God. Such a gap is irreparable… by you or me. However, Christ Himself has agreed to come along and to actually “be” that gap for you. There is no “mere” about it. It is the most important and loving things that He could possibly do for you.

        Please see that your heart and mine both see Christ and our earthly nature the same way. What I am pointing out is the picture that Scripture paints of that relationship, a relationship literally gets lost in the translation.

        As for one’s view of Original Sin, I agree that it “is a state contracted and not the same as personal sin which is committed.” However, our distance from God is made from both… we are born distant from God (and we act to push ourselves even further). If you think about it, how can one man pass his distance from God onto another? When you think of it in terms like that, can you see how easy it is? Contrary to robbing “sin” of its meaning, it reveals to us sin’s nefarious mechanics. By being “merely distant” from God (or not so merely), Adam and Eve could not give birth to people who were connected to God. How could they? And neither can we, through any action you can conceive of. It makes the inheritance of “Original Sin” make a lot more sense if you of it that way.

        Well, I apologize if I am hi-jacking someone else’s blog. That was not my intention. I thought I was adding something by pointing out the Greek, because it actually made it easier for me to understand Original Sin.

      • J.W. Wartick says:

        Mike,

        I don’t think you’re hi-jacking the blog, you’ve been adding some really wonderful responses to the discussion!

  5. […] A modified version of this post was published at Christian Diversity, as part of a broader discussion on Original […]

  6. Disciple says:

    Howdy, Mike. That was a wonderful reply. Who thought you were hi-jacking anything? I’m glad you explained. It was my own ignorance of the original languages that caused my blunder. You’ve given me things to ponder and I will. Honestly, I’d come across what you had written before but I’d never had an explanation that really went into it in depth. I am thoroughly convinced by your remarks. Thank you! 🙂

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