Original Sin “Proof Texts”?
By George Desnoyers
What can be said about the commonly used “proof texts” for the doctrine of original sin?
The Bible verses usually cited as the “proof texts” for the doctrine of original sin have been around for two thousand years, and they haven’t yet proved anything. There has long been a serious division of opinion concerning them. It goes all the way back to the second or third century, and it persists today. Consequently, it must be said that the verses fail as proof texts, simply not rising to the level of clarity necessary to be considered such. Proof texts, by definition, ought to be texts that prove something, that absolutely compel acknowledgement of, and require the assent to (the embracing of), the doctrine said to be contained within them.
The Bible verses most frequently quoted to prove the doctrine of original sin are Romans 5:19, Ephesians 2:1-3, and Psalms 58:2-3. Of these three, perhaps the most frequently cited text sin is Romans 5:19. Its value as a proof text might be suspect just by the fact that many people who reject the doctrine of original sin cite the very same text to prove their position. I’ll return to that later, but so much for the usefulness of Romans 5:19 as a proof text!
First, let’s look at Ephesians 2:1-3: "And you [hath he quickened], who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others." (KJV)
For centuries, commentators have not agreed over who is meant by “you” and “we” in this section of Scripture.
[The “we’s” and “you’s” in the Epistle to the Ephesians are divided into two groups by scholars, the ambiguous ones, and the unambiguous ones. Ephesians 2:1-3 is in one of the “ambiguous” sections. Also, I should note that some of the oldest and finest manuscripts do not have the words, “at Ephesus,” in Eph. 1:1, and many scholars feel that the Epistle was originally a general epistle, or one meant for churches in several cities. Thus there is even a little question about the unambiguous “you’s” of the epistle, thought to be the original receivers of the Epistle.]
In Eph. 2:1-3, many people maintain that Paul is speaking about Gentile Christians (“you”) and Jewish Christians (“we”).
But, throughout this text, one thing is absolutely clear. Paul is not speaking to infants, or about infants. From the opening words of verse 1, it could not be plainer that Paul is talking to people who had been experienced sinners. Consider the words, “And you [hath he quickened] who were dead in trespasses and sins.” [The words “hath he quickened” are not found in the Greek text.] Note that it is neither “trespass,” nor “sin.” It is “trespasses and sins.” Scholars take note of the plural and emphatic nature of the expression, “trespasses and sins.” This is not a reference to a sinful condition that Adam gave to them. These are their own trespasses and sins, and plenty of them. These people had been experienced sinners in their own right. This section is addressing neither Adam, nor babies.
Look at some other expressions in this text: “wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world,” “among whom we all had our conversation in times past,” and “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” Again, these people had been experienced sinners, and had walked regularly with others of their kind. Again, there is no hint in these words of any thought of Adam, infants, or a sinful state at birth.
So, what are we left with that could possibly reflect on a natural sinful state of infants, or original sin? Some cite the words, “and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others,” to make the case for original sin. But scholars have suggested several possible meanings for these words. One very plausible interpretation has them meaning, “and were the natural fruit of the wrathful world we were a part of (the world at enmity with God).” Though perhaps less plausible, it has also been suggested, from an examination of extra-Biblical writings, that the expression “the children of wrath” was idiomatic for “a joyless and unhappy people.” In that case the entire phrase would mean, “and were naturally (by our sinful lives) a joyless and unhappy people.”
Considering that this is a passage of Scripture dealing with people who had been experienced and full-fledged adult sinners, and considering the vagueness and alternate meanings available for the phrase, “and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others,” could anyone reasonably suggest that Ephesians 2:1-3 is a proof text for the doctrine of original sin, for babies being born as sinners on account of Adam? Could they still do that after contrasting the vagueness of the words, “and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others,” with the clarity of other texts such as Ezekiel 18:19-20? The overall teaching of Scripture clearly favors the idea that we are held accountable for our own sins, and not the sins of others. [The exception to this is when we sin by leading others into sin. Then God does hold us responsible for the sins of others.]
Let’s move on to Psalm 58:2-3: "Yea, in heart ye work wickedness; ye weigh the violence of your hands in the earth. The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies." (KJV)
A proof text? Should the doctrine of Original Sin hang on those two verses? Let's look at the passage through verse 5.
First of all, verses 2 through 5 contain unmistakable poetic language in which David is describing the wicked. The very figurative language never mentions Adam, and newborns do not really speak lies from the moment they are born. The psalmist is using figurative language, in this case a form of hyperbole.
Second, look at the opening words of the following verse, verse 4: “Their poison is like the poison of a serpent.” Do you think that the sinners are literally venomous? That’s a use of simile.
Clearly, Psalms 58:2-5 is the language of poetry, and contains figures of speech. Doctrines are not proved from this kind of text.
Now let’s get back to what is probably the most commonly used “proof text” for the doctrine of original sin, Romans 5:19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (KJV)
Interestingly, the same text is used by Universalists to argue on behalf of universal salvation. That use of the verse may be too extreme considering that the rest of the Epistle to the Romans doesn’t support the idea.
But there’s another use of the verse that is not ridiculous at all, especially considering the whole passage (verses 12-21, or even 1-21). It is the use some people make of Romans 5:19 to argue against the doctrine of original sin. Basically, they claim that the verse is saying that Christ has undone what was done by Adam. They say the verse is confirming that the judicial condemnation upon all mankind (Romans 5:12) was reversed by the obedience of Christ. Any sin, stain, guilt, or punishment owed that was present on account of the work of Adam has disappeared due to the work of Christ. Since the judicial condemnation has been undone, infants are born safe. If they wished, theologians could argue that the infants nevertheless depend upon the work of Christ for their safety. But the infants are born safe, in a state of innocence rather than a state of sin.
This view of Romans 5:19 isn’t unreasonable and seems stronger in the context supplied by the entire chapter. It faces a challenge that I will discuss in the following two paragraphs, but the use of the verse as a proof text for original sin faces an even larger hurdle, namely the clear teaching of other parts of Scripture that a person is only responsible for his/her own sins (e.g., Ezekiel 18:19-20).
The only serious challenge to the use of Romans 5:19 to disprove original sin is that such a use seems to run counter to Scriptural texts suggesting that there is something besides just being born that is necessary for salvation, namely faith. See, e.g., John 3:36 and Hebrews 11:6.
However, those who use Romans 5:19 to argue against the doctrine of original sin have an answer to that objection. They say that faith is a normative requirement rather than an absolute one. In other words, faith is normally a requirement for salvation for people who reach an age at which they can sin, but not a requirement for young children (or infants) who have not yet been given the capability of faith. God is long-suffering and not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). Would God allow infants to perish because they were not able to believe? Since the seventeenth century the predominant answer theologians have given to that question is, “Of course not.” Such an outcome (the punishment or annihilation of infants) would make the work of Adam stronger in effect than the work of Christ. That is certainly not the message Romans 5 is trying to convey!
Infants are pure, innocent, and safe, whether baptized or unbaptized. Also, there is no limbo, so it’s really good that the Catholic Church has never officially declared that there is one. Suffice it to say that, when the term “limbo” was first used (by Pelagius, I believe, although RCC theologians and historians sometimes say otherwise), the word didn’t refer to a place of eternal existence – like heaven and hell, but was simply a name used for the unknown fate of infants. Under pressure to adopt the theory that infants were sent to hell, Pelagius said, “Where they are not, I know; where they are, I know not.” If the word “limbo” is going to be used today, it should be used the way Pelagius used it, simply to represent the unknown fate of souls.
Romans 5:19, Ephesians 2:1-3, and Psalms 58:2-3 clearly must be rejected as “proof texts” for the doctrine of original sin. Instead, the doctrine of original sin itself proves that the Church should have paid more attention to what Romans 5 says of the power of the work of Christ.
November 25, 2000