St. Symeon on Original Sin

st_simeon_the_new_theologianRecently I have come up on a common view among many well meaning Orthodox in regards to the “western” idea of Original Sin. Many people have a major problem with the ‘western’ formulation of this, for whatever reason. I would like to spent the next few posts focusing on this controversial topic and what it means for Orthodox theology. For my first post on this subject, I would like to look at a quote by one of the foremost theologians in Orthodox theology, St. Symeon the New Theologian

“That saying that calls no one sinless except God, even though he has lived only one day on earth, does not refer to those who sin personally, because how can a one-day old child sin? But in this is expressed that mystery of our Faith, that 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 but from pride alone, and became corruptible and mortal, all people also who come 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.”
(The Sin of Adam, Homily 37, Ch. 3)

Here Symeon tows the line in a very careful exposition of the doctrine of original/ancestral sin that – IMHO- is able to tie together the Augustinian approach with that of later Orthodox who have- unfairly perhaps- been accused of being semi-Pelagians.

Particularly of interest is the line, “all people also who come from the seed of Adam are participants of the ancestral sin from their very conception and birth.” Symeon is very clear and susinct here. From our conception we are heirs of  sin, via our ancestral ties to Adam. This seems to line up quite well with some of Augustine’s thought on the subject in The Confessions (Book I, Ch. XVI). In this passage, (which I will go into more detail in my next post,) St. Augustine converses about the “great torrent of human custom.” Essentially the idea is that man, upon birth is thrown into what is like, by way of analogy, a vat of sewage (along the lines of the modern explanation of “genetic inheritance of the tendency to sin.”) The tendency to sin is so great that it manifests itself very early on. (An example of this- however supurfulous it may be- is of the remembrance of beating his mother, St. Monica’s, breasts in order to attain what he desired.)

While not focusing at all on any idea of “original guilt,” St. Symeon, like St. Augustine, makes the unmistakable connection between the seed of Adam and the participation of said group in the sin first committed by him, which was the same sin committed by Lucifer- pride. Consider the following passage, also from The Sin of Adam- Homily 1:

“Thus, in soul, Adam died immediately [upon his sin of pride]. After he had tasted; and later after nine hundred and thirty years, he died also in body. For as death in the body is the seperation of it from the soul, so the death of the soul is the seperation of it from the Holy Spirit, by Whom God Who had created him had been pleased that man be overshadowed, so that he might live like the angels of God, who, being enlightened by the Holy Spirit, remain imovable towards evil. Later, for this reason, the whole human race also became such as our forefather Adam became through the fall- mortal, that is, both in body and soul. Man such as God had created him no longer existed in the world. And there was no possibility that anyone should become such as Adam was before the transgression of the commandment. But it was necessary for there to be such a man (Jesus).

So, Adam’s sin set in motion an ontological problem brought about by pride- death, both spiritual (the Loss of The Holy Spirit,) and physical (the decay of the human body). Though framed in juridical words even here (as in Scripture and, sometimes in the extreme- by St. Augustine) the real problem is not necessarily the curse or sentence pronounced upon Adam- and those who are his inheritence- but death. This death curse was reversed through the passion, cross, descent into hell, and ultimately through the resurrection of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Through him man, through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit in the waters of Baptism and the seal of the Holy Spirit upon Chrismation (Confirmation) begins to heal the ontological problem brought about by Adam and inherited by his descendents- in synergy with the human person and his asthetical endeavors to allow the Holy Spirit to purge him of the remnants of Ancestral Sin.

More to come later. You charitable queries, arguments, and clarifications on this matter are not only acceptable but are encouraged




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