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I. The Origin of Sin

THE PROBLEM of the origin of the evil that is in the world has always been considered as one of the profoundest problems of philosophy and theology. It is a problem that naturally forces itself upon the attention of man, since the power of evil is both great and universal, is an ever present blight on life in all its manifestations, and is a matter of daily experience in the life of every man. Philosophers were constrained to face the problem and to seek an answer to the question as to the origin of all the evil, and particularly of the moral evil, that is in the world. To some it seemed to be so much a part of life itself that they sought the solution for it in the natural constitution of things. Others, however, were convinced that it had a voluntary origin, that is, that it originated in the free choice of man, either in the present or in some previous existence. These are much closer to the truth as it is revealed in the Word of God.


The earliest Church Fathers do not speak very definitely on the origin of sin, though the idea that it originated in the voluntary transgression and fall of Adam in paradise is already found in the writings of Irenæus. This soon became the prevailing view in the Church, especially in opposition to Gnosticism, which regarded evil as inherent in matter, and as such the product of the Demiurge. The contact of the human soul with matter at once rendered it sinful. This theory naturally robbed sin of its voluntary and ethical character. Origen sought to maintain this by his theory of pre-existentianism. According to him the souls of men sinned voluntarily in a previous existence, and therefore all enter the world in a sinful condition. This Platonic view was burdened with too many difficulties to meet with wide acceptance. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, it was advocated by Mueller and Rueckert, and by such philosophers as Lessing, Schelling, and J. H. Fichte. In general the Greek Church Fathers of the third and fourth centuries showed an inclination to discount the connection between the sin of Adam and those of his descendants, while the Latin Church Fathers taught with ever-increasing clearness that the present sinful condition of man finds its explanation in the first transgression of Adam in paradise. The teachings of the Eastern Church finally culminated in Pelagianism, which denied that there was any vital connection between the two, while those of the Western Church reached their culmination in Augustinianism which stressed the fact that we are both guilty and polluted in Adam. Semi-Pelagianism admitted the Adamic connection, but held that it accounted only for the pollution of sin. During the Middle Ages the connection was generally recognized. It was sometimes interpreted in an Augustinian, but more often in a Semi-Pelagian manner. The Reformers shared the views of Augustine, and the Socinians those of Pelagius, while the Arminians moved in the direction of Semi- Pelagianism. Under the influence of Rationalism and evolutionary philosophy the doctrine of the fall of man and its fatal effects on the human race was gradually discarded. The idea of sin was replaced by that of evil, and this evil was explained in various ways. Kant regarded it as something belonging to the supersensible sphere, which he could not explain. For Leibnitz it was due to the necessary limitations of the universe. Schleiermacher found its origin in the sensuous nature of man, and Ritschl, in human ignorance, while the evolutionist ascribes it to the opposition of the lower propensities to a gradually developing moral consciousness. Barth speaks of the origin of sin as the mystery of predestination. Sin originated in the fall, but the fall was not a historical event; it belongs to superhistory (Urgeschichte). Adam was indeed the first sinner, but his disobedience cannot be regarded as the cause of the sin of the world. The sin of man is in some manner bound up with his creatureliness. The story of paradise simply conveys to man the cheering information that he need not necessarily be a sinner.


In Scripture the moral evil that is in the world stands out clearly as sin, that is, as trangression of the law of God. Man ever appears in it as a transgressor by nature, and the question naturally arises, How did he acquire that nature? What does the Bible reveal on that point?

1. GOD CANNOT BE REGARDED AS ITS AUTHOR. God's eternal decree certainly rendered the entrance of sin into the world certain, but this may not be interpreted so as to make God the cause of sin in the sense of being its responsible author. This idea is clearly excluded by Scripture. "Far be it from God, that He should do wickedness, and from the Almighty, that He should commit iniquity," Job 34:10. He is the holy God, Isa. 6:3, and there is absolutely no unrighteousness in Him, Deut. 32:4; Ps. 92:16. He cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempteth no man, Jas. 1:13. When He created man, He created Him good and in His image. He positively hates sin, Deut. 25:16; Ps. 5:4; 11:5; Zech. 8:17; Luke 16:15, and made provision in Christ for man's deliverance from sin. In the light of all this it would be blasphemous to speak of God as the author of sin. And for that reason all those deterministic views which represent sin as a necessity inherent in the very nature of things should be rejected. They by implication make God the author of sin, and are contrary, not only to Scripture, but also to the voice of conscience, which testifies to the responsibility of man.

2. SIN ORIGINATED IN THE ANGELIC WORLD. The Bible teaches us that in the attempt to trace the origin of sin, we must even go back of the fall of man as described in Gen. 3, and fix the attention on something that happened in the angelic world. God created a host of angels, and they were all good as they came forth from the hand of their Maker, Gen. 1:31. But a fall occurred in the angelic world, in which legions of angels fell away from God. The exact time of this fall is not designated, but in John 8:44 Jesus speaks of the devil as a murderer from the beginning (kat' arches), and John says in I John 3:8, that he sins from the beginning. The prevailing opinion is that this kat' arches means from the beginning of the history of man. Very little is said about the sin that caused the fall of the angels. From Paul's warning to Timothy, that no novice should be appointed as bishop, "lest being puffed up he fall into the condemnation of the devil," I Tim. 3:6, we may in all probability conclude that it was the sin of pride, of aspiring to be like God in power and authority. And this idea would seem to find corroboration in Jude 6, where it is said that the fallen angels "kept not their own principality, but left their proper habitation." They were not satisfied with their lot, with the government and power entrusted to them. If the desire to be like God was their peculiar temptation, this would also explain why they tempted man on that particular point.

3. THE ORIGIN OF SIN IN THE HUMAN RACE. With respect to the origin of sin in the history of mankind, the Bible teaches that it began with the transgression of Adam in paradise, and therefore with a perfectly voluntary act on the part of man. The tempter came from the spirit world with the suggestion that man, by placing himself in opposition to God, might become like God. Adam yielded to the temptation and committed the first sin by eating of the forbidden fruit. But the matter did not stop there, for by that first sin Adam became the bond-servant of sin. That sin carried permanent pollution with it, and a pollution which, because of the solidarity of the human race, would affect not only Adam but all his descendants as well. As a result of the fall the father of the race could only pass on a depraved human nature to his offspring. From that unholy source sin flows on as an impure stream to all the generations of men, polluting everyone and everything with which it comes in contact. It is exactly this state of things that made the question of Job so pertinent, "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one." Job 14:4. But even this is not all. Adam sinned not only as the father of the human race, but also as the representative head of all his descendants; and therefore the guilt of his sin is placed to their account, so that they are all liable to the punishment of death. It is primarily in that sense that Adam's sin is the sin of all. That is what Paul teaches us in Rom. 5:12: "Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned." The last words can only mean that they all sinned in Adam, and sinned in such a way as to make them all liable to the punishment of death. It is not sin considered merely as pollution, but sin as guilt that carries punishment with it. God adjudges all men to be guilty sinners in Adam, just as He adjudges all believers to be righteous in Jesus Christ. That is what Paul means, when he says: "So then as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous," Rom. 5:18,19.


1. ITS FORMAL CHARACTER. It may be said that, from a purely formal point of view, man's first sin consisted in his eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We do not know what kind of tree this was. It may have been a date or a fig tree, or any other kind of fruit tree. There was nothing injurious in the fruit of the tree as such. Eating of it was not per se sinful. for it was not a transgression of the moral law. This means that it would not have been sinful, if God had not said, "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat." There is no unanimous opinion as to the reason why the tree was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A rather common view is that the tree was so called, because the eating of it would impart a practical knowledge of good and evil; but this is hardly in keeping with the Scriptural representation that man by eating it would become like God in knowing good and evil, for God does not commit evil, and therefore has no practical knowledge of it. It is far more likely that the tree was so called, because it was destined to reveal (a) whether man's future state would be good or evil; and (b) whether man would allow God to determine for him what was good and evil, or would undertake to determine this for himself. But whatever explanation may be given of the name, the command given by God not to eat of the fruit of the tree simply served the purpose of testing the obedience of man. It was a test of pure obedience, since God did not in any way seek to justify or to explain the prohibition. Adam had to show his willingness to submit his will to the will of his God with implicit obedience.

2. ITS ESSENTIAL AND MATERIAL CHARACTER. The first sin of man was a typical sin, that is, a sin in which the real essence of sin clearly reveals itself. The essence of that sin lay in the fact that Adam placed himself in opposition to God, that he refused to subject his will to the will of God, to have God determine the course of his life; and that he actively attempted to take the matter out of God's hand, and to determine the future for himself. Man, who had absolutely no claim on God, and who could only establish a claim by meeting the condition of the covenant of works, cut loose from God and acted as if he possesed certain rights as over against God. The idea that the command of God was really an infringement on the rights of man seems to have been present already in the mind of Eve when, in answer to the question of Satan, she added the words, "Neither shall ye touch it," Gen. 3:3. She evidently wanted to stress the fact that the command had been rather unreasonable. Starting from the pre-supposition that he had certain rights as over against God, man allowed the new center, which he found in himself, to operate against his Maker. This explains his desire to be like God and his doubt of the good intention of God in giving the command. Naturally different elements can be distinguished in his first sin. In the intellect it revealed itself as unbelief and pride, in the will, as the desire to be like God, and in the affections, as an unholy satisfaction in eating of the forbidden fruit.


1.THE PROCEDURE OF THE TEMPTER. The fall of man was occasioned by the temptation of the serpent, who sowed in man's mind the seeds of distrust and unbelief. Though it was undoubtedly the intention of the tempter to cause Adam, the head of the covenant, to fall, yet he addressed himself to Eve, probably because (a) she was not the head of the covenant and therefore would not have the same sense of responsibility; (b) she had not received the command of God directly but only indirectly, and would consequently be more susceptible to argumentation and doubt; and (c) she would undoubtedly prove to be the most effective agent in reaching the heart of Adam. The course followed by the tempter is quite clear. In the first place he sows the seeds of doubt by calling the good intention of God in question and suggesting that His command was really an infringement of man's liberty and rights. When he notices from the response of Eve that the seed has taken root, he adds the seeds of unbelief and pride, denying that transgression will result in death, and clearly intimating that the command was prompted by the selfish purpose of keeping man in subjection. He asserts that by eating from the tree man would become like God. The high expectations thus engendered induced Eve to look intently at the tree, and the longer she looked, the better the fruit seemed to her. Finally, desire got the upper hand, and she ate and also gave unto her husband, and he ate.

2. INTERPRETATION OF THE TEMPTATION. Frequent attempts have been made and are still being made to explain away the historical character of the fall. Some regard the whole narrative in Gen. 3 as an allegory, representing man's self-depravation and gradual change in a figurative way. Barth and Brunner regard the narrative of man's original state and of the fall as a myth. Creation and the fall both belong, not to history, but to super-history (Urgeschichte), and therefore both are equally incomprehensible. The story in Genesis merely teaches us that, though man is now unable to do any good and is subject to the law of death, this is not necessarily so. It is possible for a man to be free from sin and death by a life in communion with God. Such is the life portrayed for us in the story of paradise, and it prefigures the life that will be granted to us in Him of whom Adam was but a type, namely, Christ. But it is not the kind of life that man now lives or ever has lived from the beginning of history. Paradise is not a certain locality to which we can point, but is there where God is Lord, and man and all other creatures are His willing subjects. The paradise of the past lies beyond the pale of human history. Says Barth: "When the history of man began; when man's time had its beginning; when time and history commenced where man has the first and the last word, paradise had disappeared."3232God's Search for Man, p. 98 Brunner speaks in a similar vein when he says: "Just as in respect of the Creation we ask in vain. How, where and when has this taken place, so also is it with the Fall. The Creation and the Fall both lie behind the historical visible reality."3333Man in Revolt, p. 142

Others who do not deny the historical character of the narrative in Genesis, maintain that the serpent at least should not be regarded as a literal animal, but merely as a name or a symbol for covetousness, for sexual desire, for erring reason, or for Satan. Still others assert that, to say the least, the speaking of the serpent should be understood figuratively. But all these and similar interpretations are untenable in the light of Scripture. The passages preceding and following Gen. 3:1-7 are evidently intended as a plain historical narrative. That they were so understood by the Biblical authors, can be proved by many cross-references, such as Job 31:33; Eccl. 7:29; Isa. 43:27; Hos. 6:7; Rom. 5:12,18,19; I Cor. 5:21; II Cor. 11:3; I Tim. 2:14, and therefore we have no right to hold that these verses, which form an integral part of the narrative, should be interpreted figuratively. Moreover, the serpent is certainly counted among the animals in Gen. 3:1, and it would not yield good sense to substitute for "serpent" the word "Satan." The punishment in Gen. 3:14,15 presupposes a literal serpent, and Paul conceives of the serpent in no other way, II Cor. 11:3. And while it may be possible to conceive of the serpent as saying something in a figurative sense by means of cunning actions, it does not seem possible to think of him as carrying on the conversation recorded in Gen. 3 in that way. The whole transaction, including the speaking of the serpent, undoubtedly finds its explanation in the operation of some superhuman power, which is not mentioned in Gen. 3. Scripture clearly intimates that the serpent was but the instrument of Satan, and that Satan was the real tempter, who was working in and through the serpent, just as at a later time he worked in men and swine, John 8:44; Rom. 16:20; II Cor. 11:3; Rev. 12:9. The serpent was a fit instrument for Satan, for he is the personification of sin, and the serpent symbolizes sin (a) in its cunning and deceptive nature, and (b) in its poisonous sting by which it kills man.

3. THE FALL BY TEMPTATION AND MAN'S SALVABILITY. It has been suggested that the fact that man's fall was occasioned by temptation from without, may be one of the reasons why man is salvable, in distinction from the fallen angels, who were not subject to external temptation, but fell by the promptings of their own inner nature. Nothing certain can be said on this point, however. But whatever the significance of the temptation in that respect may be, it certainly does not suffice to explain how a holy being like Adam could fall in sin. It is impossible for us to say how temptation could find a point of contact in a holy person. And it is still more difficult to explain the origin of sin in the angelic world.


Naturally, a consistent theory of evolution cannot admit the doctrine of the fall, and a number of liberal theologians have rejected it as incompatible with the theory of evolution. It is true, there are some rather conservative theologians, such as Denney, Gore, and Orr, who accept, though with reservations, the evolutionary account of the origin of man, and feel that it leaves room for the doctrine of the fall in some sense of the word. But it is significant that they all conceive of the story of the fall as a mythical or allegorical representation of an ethical experience or of some actual moral catastrophe at the beginning of history which resulted in suffering and death. This means that they do not accept the narrative of the fall as a real historical account of what occurred in the garden of Eden. Tennant in his Hulsean Lectures on The Origin and Propagation of Sin3434Chap. III. gave a rather detailed and interesting account of the origin of sin from the evolutionary point of view. He realizes that man could not very well derive sin from his animal ancestors, since these had no sin. This means that the impulses, propensities, desires, and qualities which man inherited from the brute cannot themselves be called sin. In his estimation these constitute only the material of sin, and do not become actual sins until the moral consciousness awakens in man, and they are left in control in determining the actions of man, contrary to the voice of conscience, and to ethical sanctions. He holds that in the course of his development man gradually became an ethical being with an indeterminate will, without explaining how such a will is possible where the law of evolution prevails, and regards this will as the only cause of sin. He defines sin "as an activity of the will expressed in thought, word, or deed contrary to the individual's conscience. to his notion of what is good and right, his knowledge of the moral law and the will of God."3535p. 163. As the human race develops, the ethical standards become more exacting and the heinousness of sin increases. A sinful environment adds to the difficulty of refraining from sin. This view of Tennant leaves no room for the fall of man in the generally accepted sense of the word. As a matter of fact, Tennant explicitly repudiates the doctrine of the fall, which is recognized in all the great historical confessions of the Church. Says W. H. Johnson: "Tennant's critics are agreed that his theory leaves no room for that cry of the contrite heart which not only confesses to separate acts of sin, but declares; 'I was shapen in iniquity; there is a law of death in my members.'"3636Can the Christian Now Believe in Evolution? p. 136


The first transgression of man had the following results:

1. The immediate concomitant of the first sin, and therefore hardly a result of it in the strict sense of the word, was the total depravity of human nature. The contagion of his sin at once spread through the entire man, leaving no part of his nature untouched, but vitiating every power and faculty of body and soul. This utter corruption of man is clearly taught in Scripture, Gen. 6:5; Ps. 14:3; Rom. 7:18. Total depravity here does not mean that human nature was at once as thoroughly depraved as it could possibly become. In the will this depravity manifested itself as spiritual inability.

2. Immediately connected with the preceding was the loss of communion with God through the Holy Spirit. This is but the reverse side of the utter corruption mentioned in the preceding paragraph. The two can be combined in the single statement that man lost the image of God in the sense of original righteousness. He broke away from the real source of life and blessedness, and the result was a condition of spiritual death, Eph. 2:1,5,12; 4:18.

3. This change in the actual condition of man also reflected itself in his consciousness. There was, first of all, a consciousness of pollution, revealing itself in the sense of shame, and in the effort of our first parents to cover their nakedness. And in the second place there was a consciousness of guilt, which found expression in an accusing conscience and in the fear of God which it inspired.

4. Not only spiritual death, but physical death as well resulted from the first sin of man. From a state of posse non mori he descended to a state of non posse non mori. Having sinned, he was doomed to return to the dust from which he was taken, Gen. 3:19. Paul tells us that by one man death entered the world and passed on to all men, Rom. 5:12, and that the wages of sin is death, Rom. 6:23.

5. This change also resulted in a necessary change of residence. Man was driven from paradise, because it represented the place of communion with God, and was a symbol of the fuller life and greater blessedness in store for man, if he continued steadfast. He was barred from the tree of life, because it was the symbol of the life promised in the covenant of works.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. What different theories are there as to the origin of sin? What Scriptural proof is there that sin originated in the angelic world? Can the allegorical interpretation of the narrative of the fall be maintained in the light of Scripture? Is there any place for the fall in the theory of evolution? Did God will the fall of man or did He merely permit it? Does our Reformed doctrine make God the author of sin? What objections are there to the notion that the souls of men sinned in a previous existence? Was God justified in making the spiritual state of mankind in general contingent on the obedience or non-obedience of the first man? What do Barth and Brunner mean when they speak of the fall of man as super-historical? Why is it that the doctrine of the covenant of works finds so little acceptance outside of Reformed circles? What accounts for the widespread neglect of this doctrine in our day? Why is it important to maintain this doctrine?

LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 605-624; III, pp. 1-60; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Foedere, pp. 23-117; De Peccato, pp. 17-26; Vos. Geref. Dogm. II, pp. 32-54; Hodge, Syst. Theol., pp. 117-129; Dabney, Syst. and Polem Theol., pp. 332-339; Alexander, Syst. of Bibl. Theol. I, pp. 183-196; 216-232; Schmid, Doct. Theol. of the Ev. Luth. Ch., pp. 239-242; Valentine, Chr. Theol. I, pp. 416-420; Litton, Introd. to Dogm. Theol., pp. 133-136; Pope, Chr. Theol., II, pp. 3-28; II, p. 108; Raymond, Svst. Theol. II, pp. 50-63; 99;111; Macintosh, Theol. as an Empirical Science, pp. 216-229; McPherson, Chr. Dogm. pp. 220-242; Orr, God's Image in Man; pp. 197-240; Candlish, The Bibl. Doct. of Sin, pp. 82-89; Talma, De Anthropologie van Calvijn, pp. 69-91; Kuyper, Uit het Woord, De Leer der Verbonden, pp. 3-221; Tennant, The Origin and Propagation of Sin; ibid, The Concept of Sin.

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