Written by Vladimir Moss


Modern man hates the idea of sin more than all other ideas. He will do anything to avoid admitting that he is sinful in more than a superficial sense. Sin must be excused, or denied, or redefined as something different from sin. Great theoretical systems such as Marxism, Darwinism and Freudianism are constructed in order to explain how we are supposedly not sinful at all: the real causes of “sin” are our biological inheritance, our childhood training, our nationality or our position in the class system. And if sin is not sin as traditionally understood, then it follows that the traditional methods of expiating sin are invalid or based on a misunderstanding.

This being the case, it is not surprising that attempts to reinterpret the idea of sin and its expiation have crept into the Orthodox Church and Orthodox theology. The main exponent of the renovationist attitude towards sin has been the Greek-American new calendarist, Fr. John Romanides, whose admirers and followers are now to be found in the highest positions in World Orthodoxy, and even in the True Orthodox Church. Romanides has attacked the traditional concepts of sin and expiation from sin at three points: the doctrine of original sin, the doctrine of the Sacrifice for sin on the Cross, and the doctrine of Holy Baptism. Let us examine his teaching on original sin…

Can Sin be Inherited?

Nobody pretends that the doctrine of original sin is easy to understand: it is mysterious and to a certain degree counter-intuitive. But then so are several of the deepest and most central teachings of the Orthodox Faith. The temptation for the rationalist mind is to try and strip away the mystery and replace it with something that is clearer, more commonsensical. In the case of original sin, it is difficult for us to understand how sin can be passed down from Adam and Eve to all their descendants.

Of course, it is not personal responsibility for Adam’s personal sin that is inherited. For how can we be personally responsible for something that happened before we were even born? However, a certain sinful pollution of human nature is inherited by all those who have the same nature as Adam. As St. Symeon the New Theologian writes: “Human nature is sinful from its very conception. God did not create man sinful, but pure and holy. But since the first-created Adam lost this garment of sanctity, not from any other sin than pride alone, and became corruptible and mortal, all people also who came from the seed of Adam are participants of the ancestral sin from their very conception and birth. He who has been born in this way, even though he has not yet performed any sin, is already sinful through this ancestral sin.”[1]

This is the teaching of the Orthodox Church. And that is why babies are baptized “for the remission of sins”, even before they have committed any personal sins. So a certain mystery remains: the mystery of inherited, collective guilt that is manifest in the fact that every human being comes into this world already polluted by sin.

Now the idea of collective guilt is accepted by many even of those outside the Church. Thus there are many in the contemporary generation of Germans who feel guilt for the sins of the Nazis even though they were not born at that time. The sin of a single man can be felt to taint his whole family or even his whole nation. But the idea that the sin of the father of mankind could have tainted the whole of the human race is rejected by the Romanideans.

Of course, this rejection is not new. The British monk Pelagius (ca. 354-420) was perhaps the first openly to question original sin. And although the ideas of Pelagius are not identical to those of Romanides, there is much in the old polemic between Pelagius and his main opponent, St. Augustine of Hippo, that is relevant to an evaluation of Romanideanism.

Thus St. Augustine defends the idea of collective guilt as follows: “Why did Ham sin and yet vengeance was declared against his son Canaan? Why was the son of Solomon punished [for Solomon’s sin] by the breaking up of the kingdom? Why was the sin of Ahab, king of Israel, visited upon his posterity? Now we read in the sacred books, ‘Returning the iniquity of the fathers into the bosom of their children after them’ (Jeremiah 32.18) and ‘Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’ (Exodus 20.5)?... Are these statements false? Who would say this but the most open enemy of the divine words?”[2]

However, there are other passages of Holy Scripture that appear to deny the idea of collective or inherited guilt. Thus: “Parents shall not die for their children, nor children for their parents” (Deuteronomy 2.16). Moreover, in some cases there may be hidden reasons that partially explain the apparent injustice of children suffering for their parents. Thus St. John Chrysostom, commenting on Canaan’s suffering for his father Ham’s sin, writes: “Seeing their children bearing punishment proves a more grievous form of chastisement for the fathers than being subject to it themselves. Accordingly, this incident occurred so that Ham should endure greater anguish on account of his natural affection, so that God’s blessing should continue without impairment and so that his son in being the subject of the curse should atone for his own sins. You see, even if in the present instance he bears the curse on account of his father’s sin, nevertheless it was likely that he was atoning for his own failings…”[3]

Again, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich wrote to a “Mrs. J.”: “You complain about the bad fate of your cousin. Her suffering, you say, is unexplainable. Her husband, an officer, contracted a vile disease and died in a mental institution. She caught the disease from her husband and now she is in a mental institution as well. You praise her as a good and honourable woman and you marvel, how could the all-knowing God allow such a marriage to even happen, and then for such an innocent creature to suffer so much? If you cousin is indeed so innocent and honourable as you believe, then her suffering has befallen her, of course, without her own sin. Then you have to look for a cause in the sin of her parents. It is said for the Most High that He is ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation’ (Exodus 34.7). I know you will say that which is usually said – why should children suffer for the sins of the parents? I will ask you also – how else would the Lord God scare the people from sinning except by visiting their children with the punishment for the sin?”[4]

And in another place Bishop Nikolai writes: “All men from the first to the last are made from the same piece of clay, therefore they all, from the first to the last, form one body and one life. Each is responsible for all, and each is influencing all. If one link of this body sins, the whole body must suffer. If Adam sinned, you and I must suffer for it…”[5]

However, the Romanideans can reply to this: “We do not deny that Adam’s descendants suffer for his sin. But we cannot accept that they are guilty of his sin. Rather, they inherit, not the sin itself, but its punishment.”

This is plausible, and yet it does not go to the heart of the matter. For let us recall the distinction made earlier between personal sin and the sinfulness of nature or “the law of sin” (Romans 7.23). This is the distinction between sin as the act of a human person, and sin as the state or condition or law of human nature. Archbishop Theophan of Poltava points out that St. Paul “clearly distinguishes in his teaching on original sin between two points: paraptwma or transgression, and amartia or sin. By the first he understood the personal transgression by our forefathers of the will of God that they should not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, by the second – the law of sinful disorder that entered human nature as the consequence of this transgression. When he is talking about the inheritance of the original sin, he has in mind not paraptwma or transgression, for which only they are responsible, but amartia, that is, the law of sinful disorder which afflicted human nature as a consequence of the fall into sin of our forefathers. And hmarton - ‘sinned’ in Romans 5.12 must therefore be understood not in the active voice, in the sense: ‘committed sin’, but in the middle-passive voice, in the sense: amartwloi in 5.19, that is, ‘became sinners’ or ‘turned out to be sinners’, since human nature fell in Adam.”[6]

We find essentially the same distinction in St. Maximus the Confessor: “There then arose sin, the first and worthy of reproach, that is, the falling away of the will from good to evil. Through the first there arose the second – the change in nature from incorruption to corruption, which cannot elicit reproach. For two sins arise in [our] forefather as a consequence of the transgression of the Divine commandment: one worthy of reproach, and the second having as its cause the first and unable to elicit reproach”.[7] Thus the original sin of Adam, in the sense of his personal transgression, the original sin which no other person shares or is guilty of, has engendered sinful, corrupt, diseased, mortal human nature, the law of sin, which we all share because we have all inherited it, but of which we are not guilty since we cannot be held personally responsible for it. And if this seems to introduce two original sins, this seems to correspond to the teaching of the Holy Fathers.

We have inherited the “second” original sin, the law of sin, in the most basic way: through the sexual propagation of the species. For “in sins,” says David, - that is, in a nature corrupted by original sin, - “did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 50.5). It follows that even newborn babies, even unborn embryos, are sinners in this sense. For “even from the womb, sinners are estranged” (Psalm 57.3). And as Job says: “Who shall be pure from uncleanness? Not even one, even if his life should be but one day upon the earth” (Job 14.4). Again, St. Anastasius of Sinai writes: “In Adam we became co-inheritors of the curse, not as if we disobeyed that divine commandment with him but because he became mortal and transmitted sin through his seed. We became mortals from a mortal…”[8] Again, St. Gennadius Scholarius, Patriarch of Constantinople, writes: “Everyone in the following of Adam has died, because they have all inherited their nature from him. But some have died because they themselves have sinned, while others have died only because of Adam’s condemnation – for example, children”.[9]

Christ was born from a virgin who had been cleansed beforehand from all sin by the Holy Spirit precisely in order to break the cycle of sin begetting sin. For, as St. Gregory Palamas writes: “If the conception of God had been from seed, He would not have been a new man, nor the Author of new life which will never grow old. If He were from the old stock and had inherited its sin, He would not have been able to bear within Himself the fullness of the incorruptible Godhead or to make His Flesh an inexhaustible Source of sanctification, able to wash away even the defilement of our First Parents by its abundant power, and sufficient to sanctify all who came after them.”[10]

We conclude that children can indeed inherit sin from their parents, not simply in the sense that they inherit the punishment for their parents’ sin, but also in the sense that they inherit sin itself – although this inherited sin is not the personal sin of their parents, but the sinful nature that they inherit from them. This takes place on the level of the family, of the nation, and of mankind as a whole. Thus just as the sin of a father can poison the life of his children, and the sin of a Lenin or a Hitler can poison the lives of generations of Russians or Germans, so the sin of Adam and Eve has poisoned the lives of all their generations after them.

This is possible because, while human persons are multiple and distinct from each other, human nature is one. For, as St. Basil the Great writes, what we inherit from Adam “is not the personal sin of Adam, but the original human being himself”, who “exists in us by necessity”.[11] That is why St. Gregory Palamas calls Adam’s sin “our original disobedience to God”, “our ancestral sin in Paradise”.[12] It follows, as St. Athanasius the Great writes, that “when Adam transgressed, his sin reached unto all men…”[13] And this, as St. Cyril of Alexandria writes, “not because they sinned along with Adam, for they did not then exist, but because they had the same nature as Adam, which fell under the law of sin”. [14]

What is Sin?

But Romanides’ radicalism goes further than his denial of the inheritance of sin: it extends to his understanding of sin as such. Thus even Adam’s sin is not deemed by him to be sin in the usual sense. “Many understand the fall now as an ethical fall, whereas when St. Symeon the New Theologian speaks about the fall, he does not have in mind an ethical fall… Symeon the New Theologian is an ascetic. He teaches asceticism and not ethics. He has in mind that men do not have noetic prayer. That is what he means…

“In the Augustinian tradition sin has appeared under an ethical form, whereas in the Fathers of the Church it has the form of illness and the eradication of sin is presented under the form of therapy. When we have illness, we have therapy. Sin is an illness of man and not simply a disorder of his when he does not obey God like a subordinate. For sin is not an act and transgression of the commandments of God, as happens with a transgression of the laws of the State, etc. There exist laws, a transgressor transgresses the law and must be punished by the law. Augustine understood sin in this way, that is, that God gave commands, man transgressed the command of God and consequently was punished.”[15]

This is nonsense. First of all, the contrast Romanides draws between ethics and asceticism is artificial and false. Sin is the primary category of ethics, and asceticism is the science and art of the struggle against sin. So the sin of Adam and Eve was both an ethical and an ascetic fall. Ascetics train themselves to guard themselves against sinful thoughts coming to them from the world, the flesh and the devil. Eve failed to guard herself and therefore sinned. As St. Paul says, “the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (I Timothy 2.15) – and transgression (parabasis) is an ethical category…

Secondly, the darkening of the mind and the loss of noetic prayer are the consequences of the original sin, not the sin itself. Romanides defines the fall as “the identification of the energies of the mind [nous] with the energies of the logical faculty [tis logikes]. When the mind was darkened, [it] was identified in energy with the logical faculty and the passions.”[16] Maybe. But this is the consequence of the fall, not the fall itself. Nor does St. Symeon the New Theologian teach anything different. As we have seen, his teaching on original sin is completely traditional - what Romanides calls “Augustinian”!

Thirdly, while sin can be called illness, and the process of removing sin – therapy, this in no way implies that the illness is not the illness of sin. Therefore while there are obvious analogies with physical illness, it is more than a physical illness. Whereas an ordinary physical disease is morally neutral, so to speak, the disease of original sin is far from being such: it is a sinful condition, which therefore requires, not simply treatment, but expiation through repentance and sacrifice - which cannot be identified with any changes in the relationship between the mind and the logical faculty.

Fourthly, it is nonsense to say that “sin is not an act and transgression of the commandments of God”. Both the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers understand personal sin as a transgression of the commandments of God. “The strength of sin is the law” (I Corinthians 15.56), and “where no law is, there is no transgression” (Romans 4.15). Therefore sin is precisely a transgression of the law or the commandment of God – in this case, the law that Adam and Eve were not to eat of the fruit of the tree of life.

As for the idea that “sin is an illness of man and not simply a disorder of his when he does not obey God like a subordinate”, does Romanides not think that man is God’s subordinate?! Of course, man in the unfallen state is not merely a subordinate: he is also God’s son. But even the sinless son is subordinate to his father, as Adam was to God in Paradise, and as Christ Himself will be to the Father at the Second Coming (I Corinthians 15.28).

Sin and Death

According to Romanides, what is passed down from Adam to his descendants is not sin, but death. Nor is death to be considered a punishment for sin, but God’s mercy. “God did not impose death on man as a punishment for any inherited guilt. Rather, God allowed death by reason of His goodness and His love, so that in this way sin and evil in man should not become immortal.”[17]

This is half true. What is true is that God did not create death, and that man (with the devil), rather than God, is the cause of the entrance of death into the world. Moreover, death is a mercy insofar as it stops the continuation of sin, and allows sinful human nature to be dissolved into its elements and resurrected in a sinless form at the General Resurrection from the dead. But none of this entails that death is not also a punishment.

That death is both punishment and mercy is indicated by St. Athanasius the Great: “By punishing us with death, the Lawgiver cut off the spread of sin. And yet through that very punishment He also demonstrated His love for us. He bound sin and death together when He gave the law, placing the sinner under punishment of death. And yet He ordered things in such a way that the punishment might in itself serve the goal of salvation. For death brings about separation from this life and brings evil works to an end. It sets us free from labour, sweat and pain, and ends the suffering of the body. Thus the Judge mixes His love for us with punishment.”[18]

So what we inherit from Adam and Eve, according to Romanides, is not sin in any shape or form, but only death, including the process of corruption and ageing that leads to death. It follows that for him every human being is born in complete innocence, and only becomes sinful later. “The Fathers emphasize that every man is born as was Adam and Eve. And every man goes through the same fall. The darkening of the mind happens to everyone. In the embryo, where the mind [nous] of man exists, it is not yet darkened. Every man suffers the fall of Adam and Eve by reason of the environment.”[19]

As we have seen, this teaching is directly contradicted by St. Symeon the New Theologian, one of Romanides’ “heroes”: “Human nature is sinful from its very conception”. And another of his heroes, Nicholas Cabasilas, writes: “We have not seen even one day pure from sin, nor have we ever breathed apart from wickedness, but, as the psalmist says, ‘we have gone astray from the womb, we err from our birth’ (Psalm 58.4).”[20] And perhaps the Father he admires most of all, St. Gregory Palamas, writes: “Before Christ we all shared the same ancestral curse and condemnation poured out on all of us from our single Forefather, as if it had sprung from the root of the human race and was the common lot of our nature. Each person’s individual action attracted either reproof or praise from God, but no one could do anything about the shared curse and condemnation, or the evil inheritance that had been passed down to him and through him would pass to his descendants.”[21]

Since Romanides regards every human being as pure when he first comes into the world, without any specifically sinful inheritance, he is forced to see the consequent fall of every man as coming, not from inside his nature, but from outside, from his environment. “The fall of the child comes from the environment, from parents, from uncles, from friends, etc. If the child is in the midst of a good environment, this child can grow without a problem, with noetic prayer. The child has less of a problem than the adults. He learns quickly. The child is destroyed by the environment…”[22]

Only one thing from within human nature contributes to man’s fall, according to Romanides: the process of ageing and corruption. For this engenders the fear of death, which in turn engenders the multitude of passions. This was Romanides’ revolutionary thesis in his first major work, The Ancestral Sin (1957), but became less prominent in his later work. There he writes: “Because of the sins that spring forth from the fear of death ‘the whole world lieth in wickedness’. Through falsehood and fear, Satan, in various degrees, motivates sin.”[23]

Again he writes: “All human unrest is rooted in inherited psychological and bodily infirmities, that is, in the soul’s separation from grace and in the body’s corruptibility, from which springs all selfishness. Any perceived threat automatically triggers fear and uneasiness. Fear does not allow a man to be perfected in love… The fountain of man’s personal sins is the power of death that is in the hands of the devil and in man’s own willing submission to him.”[24]

Now there is an important element of truth in this thesis, which is valuable and should not be denied. But it is also an exaggeration, which ignores and obscures certain vital facts. We shall come to these facts after citing his most extensive exposition of his thesis in full:-

“When we take into account the fact that man was created to become perfect in freedom and love as God is perfect, that is, to love God and his neighbour in the same unselfish way that God loves the world, it becomes apparent that the death of the soul, that is, the loss of divine grace, and the corruption of the body have rendered such a life of perfection impossible. In the first place, the deprivation of divine grace impairs the mental powers of the newborn infant; thus, the mind of man has a tendency toward evil from the beginning. This tendency grows strong when the ruling force of corruption becomes perceptible in the body. Through the power of death and the devil, sin that reigns in man gives rise to fear and anxiety and to the general instinct of self-preservation or survival. Thus, Satan manipulates man’s fear and his desire for self-satisfaction, raising up sin in him, in other words, transgression against the divine will regarding unselfish love, and provoking man to stray from his original destiny. Since weakness is caused in the flesh by death, Satan moves man to countless passion and leads him to devious thoughts, actions, and selfish relations with God as well as with his fellow man. Sin reigns both in death, and in the mortal body because ‘the sting of death is sin’.

“Because of death, man must first attend to the necessities of life in order to stay alive. In this struggle, self-interests are unavoidable. Thus, man is unable to live in accordance with his original destiny of unselfish love. This state of subjection under the reign of death is the root of man’s weaknesses in which he becomes entangled in sin at the urging of the demons and by his own consent. Resting in the hands of the devil, the power of the fear of death is the root from which self-aggrandizement, egotism, hatred, envy, and other similar passions spring up.”[25]

In another work, Romanides writes: “Because [a man] lives constantly under the fear of death, [he] continuously seeks bodily and psychological security, and thus becomes individualistically inclined and utilitarian in attitude. Sin… is rooted in the disease of death.”[26] But this is an exaggeration: the fear of death is not the root of all evil. Many pagan vices have nothing to do with the fear of death. When the warrior risks his life in order to rape and plunder, is his motivation the fear of death? No, it is lust and greed – which are stronger than the fear of death that threatens rapists and plunderers. As for the more subtle but still more serious sins, such as pride, these are much more primordial than the fear of death. The devil did not rebel against God out of fear of death, but simply out of pride.

There is no doubt that the fear of death, which is natural to man in his corrupted state, provides an incentive to sin. Nevertheless, this fear is not sin in itself, which is proved by the fact that Christ, having assumed a corruptible but sinless body, allowed Himself to feel the fear of death in the Garden of Gethsemane. The fear of death is an innocent passion in itself, otherwise Christ, Who is completely sinless, would not have allowed Himself to feel it. Personal sin begins only when out of fear of death we turn away from God’s commandments. Christ feared death in the Garden, but He did not allow this fear to turn Him away from the feat of dying for the salvation of the world, but trampled on His fear, showing Himself perfect in love. The holy martyrs also conquered the fear of death in their martyric exploits. But the exploit was not in the fact that they did not fear death, but in that they did not allow this fear to turn them away from the confession of Christ.

The root of all evil is the desire to live in defiance of God and His law, which is pride. That was the motivation of Eve when she took of the forbidden fruit. She feared neither God nor the death that God prophesied would take place if she disobeyed Him. If we look for a cause of her pride in her own nature or in her environment, we look in vain. For sin, as Dostoyevsky powerfully demonstrated in Notes from Underground, is ultimately irrational.

If sin were not irrational, but the determined effect of a definite cause, it would not be sin. Thus if all the blame could be placed on the devil, it would not be her sin, but the devil’s. And if the blame could be placed on her nature alone, again it would not be her sin, but simply an inevitable product of her nature, like the behaviour of animals. But her nature was not fallen and not purely animalian. The mystery and the tragedy of sin – both before the fall and after the fall – lies in the fact that, whatever incitements to sin exist in our nature or in our environment, they do not explain the sin, and therefore do not excuse it. The much-maligned St. Augustine was surely right in attributing the cause of the fall to pride, and in not seeking any cause of that pride in anything beyond itself.

Romanides continues: “In addition to the fact that man ‘subjects himself to anything in order to avoid dying’, he constantly fears that his life is without meaning. Thus, he strives to demonstrate to himself and to others that it has worth. He loves flatterers and hates his detractors. He seeks his own and envies the success of others. He loves those who love him and hates those who hate him. He seeks security and happiness in wealth, glory, bodily pleasures, and he may even imagine that his destiny is a self-seeking eudaemonistic and passionless enjoyment of the presence of God regardless of whether or not he has true, active, unselfish love for others. Fear and anxiety render man an individualist. And when he identifies himself with a communal or social ideology it, too, is out of individualistic, self-seeking motives because he perceives his self-satisfaction and eudaemonia as his destiny. Indeed, it is possible for him to be moved by ideological principles of vague love for mankind despite the fact that mortal hatred for his neighbour nests in his heart. These are the works of the ‘flesh’ under the sway of death and Satan.”[27]

In support of his thesis Romanides quotes from St. John Chrysostom on the phrase “sold under sin” (Romans 7.14): “Because with death, he is saying, there entered in a horde of passions. For when the body became mortal, it was necessary for it also to receive concupiscence, anger, pain, and all the other passion which required much wisdom to prevent them from inundating us and drowning our reason in the depth of sin. For in themselves they were not sin, but in their uncontrolled excess this is what they work.”[28]

But Chrysostom does not so much support Romanides’ thesis here as limit and correct it. He limits it by referring only to what we may call physical passions, such as concupiscence, anger and pain: there is no reference to pride. He corrects it by indicating that these passions are not in themselves sinful. They may incite sin by attempting to inundate our reason. But it is our reason that sins or refrains from sin by giving in to, or resisting, passion.

God allowed the introduction of the physical passions into our nature in order to counteract the effects of death (here we leave aside the question whether these passions existed in a different, unfallen form in Paradise). Thus concupiscence was introduced in order that man should want to reproduce himself; pain in order that he should learn what is dangerous for his existence; and anger in order that he should fight against such dangers. Since these passions are useful and good for our continued existence in the conditions of the fall and death, the saint does not call them sinful as such, even though they can lead to sin. Nor are they the direct product of death, but rather a form of resistance to death. So Chrysostom does not support Romanides’ thesis that death is the direct cause of sin.

More in favour of Romanides’ thesis are the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria: “Because he [Adam] fell under sin and slipped into corruptibility, pleasures and filthiness assaulted the nature of the flesh, and in our members was unveiled a savage law. Our nature, then, became diseased by sin through the disobedience of one, that is, of Adam. Thus all were made sinners, not by being transgressors with Adam, something which they never were, but by being of his nature and falling under the law of sin… Human nature fell ill in Adam and subject to corruptibility through disobedience, and, therefore, the passions entered in.”[29]

However, even here it is not said that death and corruptibility are the cause of our nature’s sickness, but the other way round: our nature’s sickness is the cause of death and corruptibility, and the cause of that sickness is sin (“our nature… became diseased by sin”), which is, of course, a perfectly Orthodox thought. So the only difference between St. Cyril and St. John Chrysostom is that while Cyril prefers to speak about our nature falling under the law of sin, Chrysostom prefers to speak about the introduction of passions (concupiscence, anger, pain) which, if not checked by our reason, lead to sinful acts, but which are not sinful in themselves. This difference, as Romanides himself admits, is only a matter of terminology.[30]

Romanides tries to encapsulate the argument that death is the cause of sin by asserting that “death is a kind of parasite in which sin dwells”.[31] This is an elegant phrase, but it is not immediately clear what it means. He comes closest to a clarification a little later: “Because of the action of the devil through the death of the soul, that is, the loss of divine grace, and the infirmity of the flesh, men are born with a powerful inclination toward sin. And all, whether in knowledge or in ignorance, violate the will of God. All are born under captivity to the devil, death, and sin. Moreover, as a result, they fail to attain to their original destiny, that is, to moral perfection, immortality, and theosis, and are bereft of the glory of God.”[32]

As it stands, this is perfectly acceptable – distinctly more so than his earlier statements. For his earlier statements stressed the fear of death, physical death, as the cause of sin, which is patently not true for many sins; whereas here he places the emphasis on the much broader and deeper category, “the death of the soul, the loss of divine grace”. Nevertheless, this passage still begs the question: what is the cause of the death of the soul? Is it not sin? And whose sin could this be, if not Adam’s, insofar as we are already born in the condition of spiritual death before we have committed any personal sin?

Romanides’ account reverses the true relationship between sin and death. “Instead of the wages of sin being death,” writes Patrick Pummill, “it is turned upside down and the wages of death becomes sin. No doubt, death fuels the fire of sin, but the inner fallenness/corruption we inherit from Adam is the root of human sin”.[33]

St. Augustine expressed essentially the same thought, against a very similar error of the Pelagians, as follows: “People speak in this way, who wish to wrest men from the apostle’s words into their own thought. For where the apostle says, ‘By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so passed upon all men’, they wish the meaning to be not that sin passed over, but death… [But] all die in the sin, they do not sin in the death.”[34]

The Council of Orange (529) also condemned the Romanidean thesis: “If anyone asserts that Adam’s transgression injured him alone and not his descendants, or declares that certainly death of the body only, which is the punishment of sin, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul, passed through one man into the whole human race, he will do an injustice to God, contradicting the Apostle who says: ‘As through one man sin entered into the world, and through sin death, so also death passed into all men, in whom all have sinned’” (canon 2).

Romans 5.12

However, Romanides’ seemingly most powerful argument rests on his rejection of the translation of Romans 5.12 used by the Council of Orange above. His translation goes: “As through one man sin came into the world, and through sin death, so also death came upon all men, because of which [ejw in Greek] all have sinned.” This implies that all men sin because of death; so death is the cause of sin. Another translation favoured by many theologians is as follows: “As through one man sin came into the world, and through sin death, so also death came upon all men, because all have sinned.” This implies that sin is the cause of death, but everyman’s sin, not Adam’s. The traditional translation, however, which was adopted not only in the Orthodox West but in the Slavonic translation of SS. Cyril and Methodius, is as follows: “As through one man sin came into the world, and through sin death, so also death came upon all men, in whom [i.e. in Adam] all have sinned.” This implies that all men are sinners because they are “in” Adam by nature.

If we open Joseph Thayer’s authoritative Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, and look at the various usages of the preposition επι with the dative case, we find that both the second and third translations are possible from a purely grammatical and linguistic point of view, but not Romanides’ translation. Thus ejw, according to the Lexicon, is sometimes equivalent to επι τουτω, οτι, meaning “on the ground of this, because”, and is used in this sense in II Corinthians 5.4 and Philippians 3.12. On the other hand, in other places – for example, Mark 2.4, Mark 13.2, Matthew 9.16, Luke 5.36, Mark 2.21, Matthew 14, 8, 11, Mark 6.25, Mark 6.55, Mark 6.39, John 11.38, Acts 8.16 and Revelation 19.14 - επι with the dative case is equivalent to the Latin in with the ablative case, indicating the place where or in which something takes place or is situated. This place can also be a person, as in the famous passage: “Thou art Peter, and on this rock (επι ταυτη τη πετρα) I will build My Church” (Matthew 16.18; cf. Ephesians 2.20).[35]

Romanides’ translation is excluded, not only because “because of which” corresponds to neither of the two possible translations of ejw, but also because the second half of the verse, in his translation, is in direct contradiction to the first. For while the first half says that death came into the world through sin, the second half says that sin came into the world through death! It seems very unlikely that St. Paul would have meant to contradict himself in one and the same sentence!

For, as Archbishop Eleutherius of Lithuania writes: “The two halves into which we can divide the content of this verse [Romans 5.12] through the conjunctions ‘as’ (ωσπερ) and ‘so also’ (και ουτως) represent, not a parallelism, and not a comparison, but a correspondence, according to which the first is the base, the common thesis, while the second is the conclusion from it. This logical connection is indicated by the conjunction ‘also’… With the universalism characteristic of the Apostle, and the highly generalizing flight of his thought, St. Paul in the first half speaks about the sin of the forefathers as being the cause of death in the world generally, and not in humanity alone. For the whole of creation is subject to corruption and death, not willingly but ‘by reason of Him Who hath subjected the same’ (Romans 8.12-22), because of the sin of Adam… From this general proposition the holy Apostle draws the conclusion concerning people that for the very same cause, that is, because of the sin of one man, they also die.”[36]

Having established that, from a purely grammatical and linguistic point of view, the Greek conjunction ejw can be translated as “because” or “in whom”, but not as “because of which”, let us try and determine which of the two linguistically possible translations is correct. This decision will be made on grounds of (1) coherence with the context of the passage, and (2) conformity with the general dogmatic teaching of the Apostle Paul.

1. The Context of the Passage. In order to clarify his meaning in Romans 5.12, St. Paul goes on, in the following verses (5.13-14, cf. 7.8-9), to point out that before the Law of Moses the personal sins of men were not imputed to them; they were not counted as having committed them. [37] And yet they died. But death is “the wages of sin” (Romans 6.23). So of what sin was their death the wages? There can only be one answer: Adam’s. Thus those who died before the Law of Moses died in spite of the fact that no personal transgressions were imputed to them, so that their death was “the wages of sin”, not in the sense of being the result of their personal transgressions, but of the sin of Adam. For before the Law only Adam was condemned to die because of his personal transgression.

Let us restate this point, using the distinction between a personal transgression (paraptwma) and the law of sin (amartia) that was outlined earlier. Those who died before the Law – including the pre-Flood Patriarchs, the victims of the Flood, Abraham, the Sodomites, etc. – died, not because they were accounted guilty of any personal transgression (paraptwma), “for sin is not imputed where there is no law” (Romans 5.13), but because of the law of sin (amartia) which they inherited from Adam. Of course, in the case of the Sodomites, for example, there was grave sin among them, and their deaths were not unrelated to that sin. But this personal element did not directly cause their deaths, but only, as St. Theophan the Recluse points out, hastened it[38]: the primary cause of their deaths was not their personal transgressions (paraptwmaτα) but the law of sin (amartia) living in them as in every other descendant of Adam. Later, after the Law, personal sin and guilt is imputed to men because of their transgression of the Law, and as a result they incur the curse of death not only on Adam’s account but also on their own. So those living after Moses die for a double reason: their personal transgressions and the law of sin they inherit from Adam.

The modernists define sin as exclusively personal transgression, while redefining what we have called “the law of sin” as “the consequences of sin”. In other words, for the modernists sin can only be personal and individual, the result of a free and conscious act of a single man. Any other form of “sin” is in fact not sin properly speaking, but the consequences of sin – consequences which are harmful and tragic, but not sinful in themselves.

Now this kind of thinking is very congenial to the western, individualist and rationalist mind. But according to the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers, there is both a sin that is strictly personal, which cannot be attributed to any other person than the one who freely and consciously committed it, and a sin which, although caused by a personal sin (that of Adam), spreads from the individual person and his human nature to every human being who inherits that same human nature quite independently of their free and conscious acts. These two forms of sin should be distinguished for clarity’s sake, but they are both sin; both defile man and alienate him from God.

2. Other Passages in St. Paul’s Epistles. Now the question arises: are there any other passages in St. Paul’s works which would indicate that are consistent with the traditional interpretation of ejw in Romans 5.12 as meaning “in him” (i.e., in Adam)? And the answer is: yes. For in I Corinthians 15.22 we read: “As in Adam (εν τω Αδαμ) all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” If we all die in Adam, then there can be no objection to saying that we all become sinners in him, as the traditionalist translation of Romans 5.12 asserts, insofar as “death is the wages of sin” and sin is “the sting of death”.

Adam and Christ

But in what sense are we “in” Adam? In a rather literal, physical sense, as we have seen earlier. Adam, “the original human being himself”, is in us; he “exists in us by necessity” (St. Basil the Great). For all men, “from the first to the last, form one body and one life” (Bishop Nikolai). So if Adam is in us, his sinful human nature is in us, too.

We can see this more clearly if we recall St. Paul’s teaching on the exact correspondence between Adam and Christ, between Adam who made all his descendants by carnal birth sinners and Christ Who makes all His descendants by spiritual birth righteous: “As through one man’s transgression [judgement came] on all men to condemnation, so through one man’s act of righteousness [acquittal came] to all men for justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5.18-20)

Just as personally we do not have the life and holiness of Christ, and yet receive His life and holiness through receiving His Body and Blood – that is, by His being in us, so we did not commit the personal transgression of Adam, and yet receive his sinfulness and death through his being in us.

The Holy Fathers confirm this critical point of the exact correspondence between Adam and Christ. Thus St. Ephraim the Syrian writes: “Just as Adam sowed sinful impurity into pure bodies and the yeast of evil was laid into the whole of our mass [nature], so our Lord sowed righteousness into the body of sin and His yeast was mixed into the whole of our mass [nature]”.[39]

Again, St. Ambrose of Milan writes: “In Adam I fell, in Adam I was cast out of paradise, in Adam I died. How shall God call me back, except He find me in Adam? For just as in Adam I am guilty of sin and owe a debt to death, so in Christ I am justified.”[40]

Again, St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “Evil was mixed with our nature from the beginning… through those who by their disobedience introduced the disease. Just as in the natural propagation of the species each animal engenders its like, so man is born from man, a being subject to passions from a being subject to passions, a sinner from a sinner. Thus sin takes its rise in us as we are born; it grows with us and keeps us company till life’s term”.[41]

Again, St. John Chrysostom writes: “Adam is a type of Christ in that just as those who descended from him inherited death, even though they had not eaten of the fruit of the tree. So also those who are descended from Christ inherit His righteousness, even though they did not produce it themselves… What Paul is saying here seems to be something like this. If sin, and the sin of a single man moreover, had such a big effect, how it is that grace, and that the grace of God – not of the Father only but also of the Son – would not have an even greater effect? That one man should be punished on account of another does not seem reasonable, but that one man should be saved on account of another is both more suitable and more reasonable. So if it is true that the former happened, much more should the latter have happened as well.”[42]

Again, St. Gregory Palamas writes: “Just as through one man, Adam, liability to death passed down by heredity to those born afterwards, so the grace of eternal and heavenly life passed down from the one divine and human Word to all those born again of Him”.[43]

May 27 / June 9, 2011.

[1] St. Symeon, Homily 37, 3.

[2] St. Augustine, Against Julian, 6.25.82.

[3] St. John Chrysosom, Homilies on Genesis, 29.21.

[4] Velimirovich, in Fr. Milorad Loncar (ed.), Missionary Letters of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, Grayslake, IL.: New Gracanica Monastery, 2009, part 2, Letter 177, p. 215.

[5] Velimirovich, “The Religious Spirit of the Slavs”, Sabrana Dela (Collected Works)), vol. 3, p. 124.

[6] Archbishop Theophan, “The Patristic Teaching on Original Sin”, in Russkoe Pravoslavie, № 3 (20), 2000, p. 22.

[7] St. Maximus the Confessor, Quaestiones ad Thalassium, 42.

[8] St. Anastasius, quoted in Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, Ridgewood, NJ: Zephyr, 2002, p. 34, note 64.

[9] St. Gennadius, in K. Staab (ed.) Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church: Collected and Edited Catena, Munster in Westfalen, 1933, 15:362.

[10] St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 14, 5; in Christopher Veniamin, The Homilies of Saint Gregory Palamas, South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002, volume 1, p. 159.

[11] St. Basil, quoted in Demetrios Tzami, I Protologia tou M. Vasileiou, Thessaloniki, 1970, p. 135.

[12] St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 31, col. 388C.

[13] St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Four Discourses against the Arians, I, 12.

[14] St. Cyril,

[15] Romanides, in Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), Empeiriki Dogmatiki tis Orthodoxou Katholikis Ekklesias kata tis Proforikes Paradoseis tou p. Ioannou Romanidi (The Empirical Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church according to the Oral Traditions of Fr. John Romanides), Levadeia: Monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos, 2011, volume 2, pp. 186, 187-188.

[16] Romanides, in Vlachos, op. cit., volume 2, p. 190.

[17] Romanides, in Vlachos, op. cit., volume 2, p. 193.

[18] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, 6.1.

[19] Romanides, in Vlachos, op. cit., volume 2, p. 197.

[20] Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, II, 7; Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974, p. 77.

[21] St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 5: On the Meeting of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, in Veniamin, op. cit., p. 52.

[22] Romanides, in Vlachos, op. cit., volume 2, p. 197.

[23] Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, p. 77.

[24] Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, pp. 116, 117.

[25] Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, pp. 162-163.

[26] Romanides, “The Ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch”.

[27] Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, pp. 163-164.

[28] St. John Chrysostom, quoted in Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, p. 167, note 45.

[29] St. Cyril, Commentary on Romans, P.G. 74: 788-789; quoted in Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, p. 168.

[30] Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, p. 167, note 45.

[31] Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, p. 164.

[32] Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, p. 165.

[33] Pummill, personal communication.

[34] St. Augustine, Contra duas Epistolas Pelagianorum, IV, 4.7.

[35] Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Edinburgh, 1901, pp. 232, 233.

[36] Archbishop Eleutherius, On Redemption, Paris, 1937 p. 47 (in Russian).

[37] As St. Augustine writes: “He says not that there was no sin but only that it was not counted. Once the law was given, sin was not taken away, but it began to be counted” (On Romans, 27-28).

[38] Bishop Theophan, Interpretation of the Epistles of the Holy Apostle Paul, St. Petersburg, 1912, Moscow, 2002, p. 345 (in Russian).

[39] St. Ephraim, quoted by Archbishop Theophan, op. cit.

[40] St. Ambrose of Milan, On the death of his brother Satyrus.

[41] St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes, 6, PG. 44, 1273.

[42] St. John Chrysostom, Homily 10 on Romans.

[43] St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 16, 17; Veniamin, op. cit., p. 190.

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