©Marilyn McCord Adams

Presented at Logos 2016, Center for Philosophy of Religion, Notre Dame, IN

I. Identifying the Doctrine:

According to patristic, medieval, Calvinist and Lutheran theologies, all
human beings on earth (except for Jesus and possibly his mother) are born into a
condition of original sin. Original sin is contrasted with actual sin, where
‘actual sin’ refers to an individual’s own voluntary acts and free choices
contrary to God’s will. For Christians, actual sin is all too familiar. But what
is original sin? How is it original? What makes it sinful? Why does it pertain to
us? What does the term ‘original sin’ even mean? In this talk, I want first to
boil down the doctrine to its bare bones and then rehearse traditional Western
attempts to flesh it out so as to answer these questions. After rejecting key
traditional moves, I will do reconstructive surgery on the doctrine to achieve a
smoother fit with my own soteriology.

The Skeleton: Pared down to essentials, original sin reduces to
non-optimalities and responsibilities. The human condition in the world as we know
it is non-optimal along at least three dimensions: [a] human empowerment, [b] the
environment in which humans live and move and have their being, and [c]
Divine-human relations. On any accounting, the first two non-optimalities [a & b]
stand as obvious empirical facts. In millions of cases, human coping power has
proved insufficient to secure human flourishing in the world as we know it.
Recognising this does not require theistic conviction, much less commitment to
(what has come to be called) the personal omni-God of majority-report Christian
theology. Believer and unbeliever, grappling with the meaning of life, have to
ponder why we exist so non-optimally empowered in a world such as this. Christian
soteriology adds the third non-optimality [c] in Divine-human relations and tries
to weave these factors into a plot that not only explains the data but holds out
hope of a way forward towards–if not optimality–at least some significant

Some Varieties of Responsibility: Besides non-optimalities, original sin
involves responsibilities. Responsibility is a social notion: agents are
responsible because they are answerable. Full coverage of this topic must be left
to other times and authors, but I want to register a few salient distinctions on
which I will draw.

First, there is a variety of things for which persons may have
responsibility: actions or failures to act, outcomes of actions or failures to
act, and situations or conditions in which one has ownership.

Second, there is a contrast between desert-laden and no-fault responsibility.
Desert-laden responsibility carries with it the prospect of praise and blame.
Among humans here below, paradigm cases include an agent’s responsibility for her
or his free choices, voluntary actions, and for some of the consequences of those
actions. Failures to live up to desert-laden responsibilities render the agent

By contrast (and here I take a page from Robert Merrihew Adams), no-fault
responsibility for a bad state of affairs is not acquired through some faulty act,
but involves a forward-looking responsibility to set or at least participate in
setting things right. Among humans here below, paradigm cases include those in
which an agent owns risks which turn out badly. For example, when one contracts to
deliver an outcome by a certain date (say, to complete a building or a road), one
takes ownership of the risk that through no individual fault of one’s own (whether
through bad luck or circumstances genuinely beyond one’s control), one might fail
to meet the deadline or complete the job on time. Here one may incur a financial
penalty, because–by signing the contract–one has put oneself forward as one who
can be counted on to deliver the outcome. Alternatively, when one’s projects or
plans necessarily and reasonably involve small risks of significant harm to others
(say, the construction of high-rise buildings), one has a no-fault responsibility
to compensate the victims and/or reverse the harms (workman’s compensation schemes
are invented to fulfil such responsibilities). Here, one is responsible, not
because one directly causes the harm, but because one has set up the wider frame
that houses the risk. One is no-fault responsible to set things right, even when
it was morally permissible to undertake the project.

Third, there is the distinction between individual and collective
My own view is that there is such a thing as collective
intentional action, especially where institutions and bodies-politic have
decision-making procedures and machinery for policy-implementation. Taking another
page from Robert M. Adams,<1> I also hold that individuals share in collective
responsibility for the actions and policies and/or their outcomes of collectives
in which they take ownership. Take the United States’ action of dropping atomic
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even though I was a toddler at the time and so
had no direct or indirect causal role in that policy decision, still–to the
extent that I identify myself as an American, to the extent that I say, “we
dropped the bombs,” not “they dropped the bombs”–I share in no-fault collective
responsibility for the outcomes. It is not that some past act makes me guilty, but
that I own a share of the responsibility to set things right for those who were
harmed. For example, I have a responsibility to pay my fair share of taxes
involved in the reparations and rebuilding.

If original sin involves responsibilities, the open questions are why and for
what, whose and to whom?

II. “In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All!”

Positing the Prequel: Non-optimalities raise worries, because God is supposed
to be above reproach. The rabbis, Augustine and Western theology, perhaps even the
P-redactors of Genesis 1-3 reasoned that if God’s “Plan A” were to create us in
the world as we know it, the Creator’s performance might seem somehow defective.
Clearly, the doctrine of creation makes the existence of the world with a variety
of species including rational free creatures a necessary consequence of God’s
efficacious volition. To distance God from responsibility for the origin of
non-optimalities, traditional authors appealed to principles in the neighborhood
of Double Effect, Doing-Allowing, and New Intervening Agent, which partition the
consequences of an agent’s action into those for which s/he is more or less
responsible. The only other agents available to shoulder responsibility for the
origin of non-optimalities are creatures. The only created agents eligible to bear
desert-laden responsibility are rational free creatures. Surely angelic sin would
not, all by itself, be the reason why humankind is subject current
non-optimalities. Such serious consequences would have to be, at least partly, a
function of human performance. Yet, such non-optimalities have been with us
throughout human history. Traditional solutions posit a pre-historic prequel in
Paradise and assign desert-laden responsibility for the origin of evil to Adam’s

We are all familiar with the narrative. In the beginning, God created
everything very good. Paradise was idyllic. Human beings were functionally fit and
well-informed. Divine-human relations were intimate. But Adam and Eve spoiled
everything by misusing their free choice to disobey God’s command. The world as we
know it, with its attendant non-optimalities, is the natural and/or punitive
consequence of Adam’s fall!

Assigning the Responsibilities: Traditionally, Adam and Eve were taken to
bear desert-laden responsibility for their own individual actions in choosing to
eat the forbidden fruit. Though their sins were original in the sense of being
human first’s, Adam and Eve were seen to deserve punishment for (what later came
to be called) their actual sins. But Adam and Eve were also taken to be primal
progenitors of all actually extant humans. The doctrine of original sin assigned
responsibility to each and all of their descendants, simply on the basis of their
origin–i.e., simply on the basis of being members of Adam’s race. The condition
into which Adam’s descendants are born counts as sin because Adam owed it to God
to preserve human being in the excellent condition in which it was created.

Two ways of understanding this inheritance were proposed. The Stern View:
The later Augustine maintains that every member of Adam’s race not only endures,
but deserves the punitive consequences of Adam’s and Eve’s actual sin. Moreover,
they deserve, not only non-optimalities in this present life, but eternal
damnation in the next. The best way I can think of to reconstruct Augustine’s
thinking is this: with biblical warrant, Augustine is taking the corporate person
(this time, not Israel, but the Adams family) as primary. The pater familias acts,
not only in propria persona, but as a personification of the body-politic, so that
Adam’s act is the act of the collective. (Think of the way the monarch personifies
the nation and acts in certain contexts as the personification of the nation.)
The punitive consequences–the requirement to undergo punishments and/or to
compensate God for the offense against Divine honor–are assigned primarily to the
corporate person, to Adam’s race. Other members of Adam’s race own the acts of the
corporate person and so own Adam’s act, because they participate in the corporate
person, because they are incorporated in it: “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”
(Compare the way the monarch acts on our behalf. Her action is our action, because
her person deputizes for us. I think also of members of the General Synod in the
Church of England who argued that we ought “to let our betters make our decisions
for us”!) Consequently, every member of Adam’s race bears desert-laden
responsibility for the fall and desert-laden liability for its punitive
(Think of warring clans or gangs. The feuding parties are primarily
the corporate persons, but each clan/gang member owns the offenses and the
grievances of the clan. If a Hatfield kills a McCoy, then the McCoy that gets
killed as vengeance deserved it, and the Hatfield who does the killing is entitled
to it.)

A Moderated View: The Stern View asserts individual liability for corporate
action and so in effect denies that the Adams family is a limited liability
corporation. A less stringent position denies that Adam’s descendants are guilty
for Adam’s sin or deserve the punishments. Nevertheless, it is fitting that Adam’s
descendants should participate in the consequences of Adam’s fall. (Think of the
way the family of a disgraced courtier participated in his social and financial
ruin. Think of the way Germans and Japanese who were babies when World War II
ended still participated in the punitive consequences of their country’s loss.)
On this view, Adam’s individual descendants may own his sin because their
collective owns his sin, but they do not have desert-laden ownership of his sin.
Their responsibility for their fallen condition is no-fault. That is, they do
not–in the first instance–acquire it as a result of any faulty action of their
own. But geneaology still gives them ownership in the consequences.

Characterizing the Consequences: A little more should be said about
traditional assessments of the non-optimalities. Abelard features a three-fold
of the self from itself, from others, and from God. Where non-optimal
human empowerment is concerned, Augustine points to ignorance, difficulty, and
Difficulty is a natural consequence of psychological disorder: when the
soul refuses to submit to God, the senses rebel against reason’s rule. This makes
it difficult to follow through and carry out what reason commands. Moreover, the
soul lacks power to love God above all and for God’s own sake. As for ignorance,
Augustine stresses how our psycho-spiritual disarray clouds our judgment of what
is right and wrong, good and bad. Finally, the soul lacks power to keep body and
soul together, which leaves us vulnerable to diseases, shortages, and death.

Anselm expands on the nature of difficulty. The soul by nature has an
affection for its own advantage (an inclination to love things insofar as they are
good for the agent itself), but in the beginning receives an addition affection
for justice (an inclination to love things for their own intrinsic worth). As a
punitive consequence of the fall, the affection for justice is lost (one didn’t
deserve to have what one refused to keep). Since no unmotivated willing is
possible, the loss of the affection for justice hands the agent over to
self-interested willing, which precipitates a downward spiral into psychological

Analysing the Disempowerment: Traditionally, three accounts were advanced of
what human dis-empowerment metaphysically involved. The Damaged-Nature Hypothesis
(held by Augustine, Anselm, and Henry of Ghent) maintains that the fall damages
human nature itself, so that it loses some of the powers that naturally belong to
it. On this view, the soul naturally has power to keep body and soul together and
naturally has power to subordinate sensory appetites to reason, but these powers
are lost and/or damaged as a natural and/or punitive consequence of Adam’s fall.
The Lost-Upgrades Hypothesis: Scotus protests that death and lack of appetitive
harmony is natural to all animals, to humans as much as to sheep. In the prequel,
God provided supernatural habits to make it easier for the will to master sensory
appetites and for the intellect to carry out wise practical calculations. Apart
from the fall, God would have kept on systematically obstructing corrupting
causes, so that–while humans are naturally mortal–they would not in fact have
died. Aquinas perhaps thinks that both jobs were accomplished by the infused habit
of original justice. The punitive loss of supernatural habits and/or a change of
Divine obstruction policies, both of which leave human being to its natural
devices–go a long way towards explaining our current non-optimal empowerments.
Added Damage from Misuse: Aquinas holds, not only that supernatural upgrades are
lost, but also that natural soul-powers are damaged by the fall. Anselm emphasizes
how the loss of upgrades yields dysfunction that produces further damage. Both
Aquinas and Scotus agree that misuse gives rise to bad habits that further distort
human functioning.

Fatal Flaws: The Prehistoric-Prequel-in-Paradise is forwarded as an
explanatory hypothesis to account for current human non-optimalities without
assigning God direct responsibility for the origin of evil. I have argued
elsewhere that this strategy is theoretically deficient. Doing-Allowing and New
Intervening Agent apply, only where the “new agent” is at least a near-peer so far
as personal competence is concerned. But the size-gap between God and creatures
makes that impossible. Moreover, there is a limit to how bad a side-effect
Double-Effect can excuse. Put otherwise, even if there are morally significant
differences between means and side-effects, agents are still responsible for
counting the costs of the side-effects as well as the means to their ends and for
eliminating options where the collateral damage is too high. Yet, even traditional
theology recognizes, God’s projects with human beings in this world carry
horrendous costs. If so, there is no point in positing the
Prehistoric-Prequel-in-Paradise to lessen Divine responsibility for the origin of
non-optimalities. One may as well bite the bullet: when it comes to responsibility
for the world as we know it, the buck stops with God!<2>

Others contend that the Prehistoric-Prequel-in-Paradise hypothesis is
empirically deficient. Evidence about the evolution of the cosmos and the origin
of the species leaves it at best empirically ambiguous whether the human race
descended from a single pair. Current theories favor the idea that homo sapiens
evolved in multiple spots in Africa and then migrated to the rest of the world.
This multiple-origins theory would at least complicate the traditional story into
multiple simultaneous falls precipitating a universally worsened human condition.
More serious is the overwhelming evidence that cousins of our present
non-optimalities afflicted life forms long before the appearance of hominids and
homo sapiens on the scene and so did not originate with erring human choice. Many
conclude that the Prehistoric-Prequel-in-Paradise hypothesis has been empirically
as good as falsified.

III. The Original Condition, Responsibilities Reassigned:

Natural Non-Optimalities: My own view is that the
Prehistoric-Prequel-in-Paradise is not needed to explain our current
non-optimalities, because they are just what you would naturally (always or for
the most part) expect from human beings in a world like this. Theologically noted
and regularly experienced non-optimalities are naturally consequent on what it is
to be human together with the natural dynamics of this world, the world in which
humankind evolved and which is therefore our natural home.

To my mind, this-worldly human non-optimalities are rooted in Divine
hiddenness, “Darwinian”-biased motivations, and our radical vulnerability to
horrors. [1] Divine Hiddenness: Theists hold that the world is God-infested. God
is omnipresent: nothing else could be or do anything without God’s concurring
presence. If–like the scholastic human soul of Christ–we had continual beatific
vision, we would be clear about God’s pre-eminent worth. We would also be
thoroughly convinced of God’s will and power to preserve us in life and secure our
individual and collective flourishing. In short, we would not doubt that we are
safe and loved, and that God means to be everything to everyone. This would go a
long way towards dispersing the fog that obscures our discernment of values and
confuses our practical calculations.

The empirical fact is, however, that human beings in this world have at most
episodic cognitive access to Divine real presence. Tradition saw beatific vision
as a (mostly) future gift and chalked up biblically referenced mounting
difficulties in “hearing a Word from the Lord” to the cumulative punitive
consequences of the fall. John Hick celebrates the epistemic religious ambiguity
of the world as strategic: if God made Godself too obvious, that would interfere
with our free choice.<3> My own contrasting view is that Divine hiddenness is
easily explained by the fact that our cognitive capacities have evolved in this
world to cope with small, medium, and large objects of our ordinary experience. I
think that–whether or not we also have a “God-module”–we do have a sensus
in the form of a variety of built-in cognitive capacities that can be
trained and coordinated so that we can learn to perceive God better. (Perhaps–as
Tanya M. Luhrmann suggests–it is like acquiring the skill of wine-tasting.<4>)
But–given our evolution as personal animals in the world as we know it–these
capacities are difficult to awaken, and usually require long and deliberate,
assisted religious practice to “kick in.” Moreover, the coordinated exercise of
these faculties is easily obstructed, aborted, and/or interrupted as much by
resolute horizontal preoccupations as by trauma and horrors.

[2] “Darwinian-”Biased Motivations: It is an empirical fact that
always-or-for-the-most-part human motivation neither begins nor arrives at such a
level of fine-tuning as to be able reliably to keep the First and Second Great
Commandments. Thus, the BCP scripts devotees regularly to confess: “we have not
loved you with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves”
(where the category of neighbor is extended, not only to immigrants and resident
aliens, but to all human beings).

Once again, I find such motivational misfits an unsurprising natural
consequence of our being personal animals, who evolved into what we are in this
material world. “Pop” evolutionary theory explains natural empowerments in terms
of their contribution to individual or species survival and reproductive success.
This most readily serves up a moralty of tribalism in which we privilege the
interests of those closest to us on whom we depend for survival. Some<5> argue
that altruistic action and motivation might arise as a by-product generalization
of our natural instinct to care for young. Still others<6> reduce morality to
solutions to coordination problems that must be solved in the groups upon which we
depend for survival.

It is an empirical fact that, in the world as we know it, virtues and wider
moral sympathies are fragile and readily trumped in harsh circumstances.<7>
Studies<8> show that in certain kinds of social surrounds, the vast majority of
individuals can be brought to participate in mass killings. Others<9> show that
acquired virtue is highly situational: tendencies to behave decently and
generously do not reliably transplant to radically different contexts (e.g., good
manners and readiness to share from refined society to the concentration camp).
Stabilizing in love of God above all and neighbor as self, readiness to lay down
life for friend or stranger requires not only good upbringing, lucky
circumstances, and Divine helps. It is necessary to be so sure that God is for us,
so certain that one is safe and loved by God, that one can afford to risk
anything. Just as–always or for the most part–sufficiently hostile circumstances
override altruism (as during the seige of Jerusalem, when starving mothers ate
their children), so evident really present Divine good will would eventually
override and be needed to override desperate self-seeking and competition for

[3] Radical Vulnerability to Horrors: Paul declares that Death is our last
enemy. Hebrews insists that fear of Death is what twists our motivation away from
sainthood. Augustine chimes in with his declaration that mortality is a
consequence of the fall. Elsewhere, I have argued that horror is the broader
category, where horrors are evils the participation in the doing or suffering of
which constitutes prima facie reason to believe that the horror participant’s life
cannot have overall positive meaning.<10> I have singled out meaning-making as a
central personal function, and pointed to the empirical fact that human beings in
this world are radically vulnerable to horrors. In millions of cases, horror
participation, not only damages, but effectively breaks the person’s
meaning-making capacities and so stymies natural functioning. Once again, my own
analysis has been that human radical vulnerability to horrors is a function of
natural misfits: a misfit of what we naturally are and what the world as we know
it is; and a misfit between what we naturally are and what God naturally is. My
own view is that millions of individual horror participants, almost universal
complicity in horror perpetration on others, is just what we should expect from
the nature of things.

Sourcing the Power Shortage: Western tradition explains in terms of prequels
and punishments. God made everything excellent, but actual sin results in natural
and punitive damages to what God has made and/or in a loss of supernatural
upgrades that abandons creatures to their own natural devices. My position begins
with undamaged natures placed in a world where they naturally interfere with one
another to such an extent that an individual’s natural functional capacities may
be wrecked and ruined. In the human case, this predicament is exacerbated by the
fact that human beings are developmental by nature: we are born immature and take
a long time to grow up, a highly vulnerable process that goes well only with
sustained and benevolent adult care-taking. Immaturity and haphazard development
make non-optimal functioning inevitable and (in the rough and tumble) damage to
individual’s natural capacities likely. Pace Peter van Inwagen,<11> it would help
a lot if God were more obvious. The sad irony is that it belongs to our nature
that our sensus divinitatis can be fully functional only in the mature state that
we are scrambling in semi-darkness to achieve.

How Original? Thus, on my view, human non-optimalities are original to us,
not because we are inheriting the punishments of our primal progenitors, but
because they go with the turf of being a human being in this material world, where
homo sapiens evolved. We own this condition with its non-optimalities, such
non-optimalities belong to us, they are ours, not because human beings originally
caused them, but because being human beings in this material world is what we are.
Note: On Anselm’s view, it is genealogy that implicates us. Accordingly, he
maintains that if God were to start another human family, they would not be
partakers in Adam’s fall and its consequences. My own view makes exemplification
key and so generalizes to any material persons (whether or not of the human kind)
in a surround that afflicts them with the threefold non-optimalities or their near

Sin, Reassigned: The sinfulness of the human condition involves two factors:
norm-deficiency and responsibility. Non-optimalities mean that human being in this
world falls short of its norms–the natural norm of human flourishing, and the
supranatural norm of Divine aims for it in creating it. Calling it sinful implies
responsibility for human being to be such as to satisfy such norms. My own view is
that we share the original non-optimalities with every other human being born into
this world. But we share the responsibility to be otherwise (i.e., for
norm-satisfaction), not only with one another, but with God!

Obliging Godhead? I join patristic and medieval theologians in denying that
God has obligations to creatures. Patristic and medieval authors find this so
obvious that they rarely argue for it. To give a feel for their motivation, let me
mention two that come up from time to time. (1) The first roots obligation in
dependence. More precisely, it assumes that agents have obligations to those on
whom they depend for their existence. Humans tend to survive only in social
groups. Accordingly, humans have social obligations: since they owe their being to
society (because it originates and sustains them), they owe it to society to do
their part by performing well in a variety of social roles. Anselm reasons by
analogy: since all creatures owe their being to God, they owe it to God to be that
for which God made them. But God is utterly independent, so far as being and
excellence are concerned. God has obligations to no one.

(2) The second focuses on obligation to love or do well by someone or
something. since everything has good-making features, there is always some reason
to love it. But creatures are only finite goods. Where finite goods are concerned,
the reason to love and benefit is always defeasible. Only infinite goodness (=
Divine Goodness) is compelling. Scotus concludes that God has no obligation to
love or benefit creatures, but creatures have an obligation to love God above all
and for God’s own sake.

Both arguments assume that where obligation is concerned, the fact that an
agent is personal is not the only relevant consideration. Divine aseity and
infinity are also relevant and–in the minds of medieval and early reformation
thinkers–keep God from having moral obligations to us. Medievals conclude that
Divine actions in relation to creation are not desert-laden: no matter what God
does in relation to creation, God will not be unjust or deserving of blame.

Divine Responsibilities: Immunity from obligation and blame does not
automatically free God of responsibilities, however. According to the Honor Code,
patrons are not obliged to take on clients, but if they do, they put themselves
forward as someone to be counted on to secure life and well-being. In raising
relational expectations, they acquire “no fault” responsibilities to follow
through. Where clients have suffered because the patron has–for whatever
reason–not yet delivered, the patron has “no fault” responsibility to set things
right by compensating the client, reversing the damages, and moving the clients’
standard of living towards what they had been led to expect.

So also, and all the more so, with God. God is the ultimate patron.
Creatures, especially but not only personal creatures, especially but not only
human beings are God’s clients. Creation is God’s project. God makes this material
world, especially but not only because God wants to enjoy life together with human
beings in this world, which is our natural home. In doing so, God puts Godself
forward as someone who can be counted on to deliver. The bible tells us: nothing
in the universe is surer than God’s Word! Thus, Divine projects and action in
creation put God in a position analogous to that of the high-rise builder. Not
only does God’s project set human beings in harm’s way. Given what we naturally
are, our life in this world is beset with the three-fold non-optimalities of
Divine hiddenness, “Darwinian”-biased motivations, and radical vulnerability to
horrors. Even if the material world is not utterly deterministic, the world as God
made it with us in it is sure to serve up horror-participation for millions.
There is no need to speculate. Ab esse ad posse valet consequentia. It is an
empirical fact. Not unlike the high-rise builder, God has no-fault responsibility
to set things right by compensating horror participants, by reversing the damages,
and by remodelling our environment so that we can be safe and secure. Mutatis
with those of us who labor under non-optimalties but suffer lesser harms.

God’s responsibility for human non-optimality is trivially “no fault,”
because desert-laden, guilt-making actions are impossible for God. God violates no
obligations, does nothing wrong by making us in this world. God does nothing wrong
by nudging the material cosmos to evolve forms that can host life, violates no
obligations by nudging it again to evolve forms that can host personal life. But
(as Anselm noted) launching the project carries with it a forward-looking
responsibility to make good on it, among other things to work to bring human being
up to a norm-satisfactory condition. Compensating victims and reversing their
damages is no distraction from God’s objective. On the contrary, it is a condition
of the possibility of achieving God’s purpose, which includes harmonious life
together with them.

“No-Fault” Responsibilities of Human Beings: Human beings in this world own
the non-optimal human condition, because we exemplify it. That is what makes the
non-optimalities ours. Ownership-by-exemplification brings with it “no fault”
responsibility for the human condition, a forward-looking responsibility to
participate in moving human being towards norm-satisfaction. Unaided human beings
such and where we are, do not–all by themselves–have what it takes to bring
human non-optimalities to an end. So the first responsibility of human beings in
this world is metanoia, literally to repent, to turn again. More precisely (as
Augustine already noted), our first responsibility is to turn to God to ask for
help, to clear up our moral confusion, to work in us to will and to do God’s good
pleasure. Our second responsibility is to cooperate with God as God works to
overcome our dysfunctions, to bring our Darwin-biased motives under control, to
train and coordinate the faculties lumped together under the rubric sensus
, so that we become ever more sensitive to the real presence of Divine
Goodness. Put otherwise, we have a responsibility to cooperate with God’s attempt
to heal and rear us up through the developmental cycles, up into the adulthood of
autonomous egos, and beyond that into perichoresis, into the restructuring of our
personalities around friendship with God. Our third responsibility is to partner
with God in root and branch reform of human society. Our fourth responsibility is
to work with God to reorder human relations to God’s other creatures, to do our
part to move individually and collectively away from rapaciousness towards
courtesy. Nor is this list of responsibilities temporally ordered. Rather, because
human being is developmental, we should expect to be working on each and all of
them at every developmental stage.

IV. Savior and Sacraments:

Christ, Originally Sinful? Stern fall-theorists maintain that if Christ were
born in original sin, Christ would not be able to be our Savior. According to
their soteriological plots, it is crucial (pun intended) that Christ lead a
cradle-to-grave sinless career. If the Divine Word assumed a damaged human nature,
then His human will would be no more able to will what God wills us to will, no
more able to keep the First and Second Great Commandments, than any other member
of Adam’s race. Moreover, if Christ were born into original sin, He would be
guilty for Adam’s fall, and so–in His human nature–would stand as much in need
of salvation as anyone else. Even moderate fall-theorists insist that Christ’s
human career has to be sinless. Accordingly, they move to exempt him from our
non-optimalities as well as any individual liability to make satisfaction or to
pay the penalty.

My own soteriology licences the opposite answer. Original sin involves
norm-deficiency and responsibility for norm-satisfaction. According to my account,
God has present and backward-looking no-fault responsibility for human
non-optimalities, because God set up and maintains the frame in which they are
sure to occur. For the same reason, God has forward-looking no-fault
responsibility to compensate us and to bring us up to norm-satisfactory condition.
We own the present non-optimal human condition by exemplifying it. Such ownership
assigns us a forward-looking responsibility to repent and cooperate with God
through a process that keeps transforming us until we are norm-satisfactory. God
and we own our current non-optimalities in different ways and acquire
responsibility for them for different reasons. But at the deepest level, we are in
this together. Original sin is something that we share, not only with one another,
but with God.

The obvious next question is: does God in the Incarnation also own human
non-optimalities by exemplifying them? Certainly, it is uncontroversial that Jesus
shared [b] our non-optimal environment, both natural and social. I have
elsewhere<12> insisted that Jesus thereby has no-fault responsibility for the
systemic evils spawned by the Roman Empire and Palestinian protectorate as well as
the Jewish religious and cultural institutions of his day. Gospel passion
narratives make clear: Christ crucified was not only [3] radically vulnerable to,
but individually participant in horrors. But what about [1] Divine hiddenness and
[2] Darwinian-biased motivation? Did Christ in his human nature participate in

My answer is a qualified “yes.” Qualified, because tradition is right: Christ
couldn’t accomplish his saving work so long as–for him–God were utterly eclipsed
or so long as his motivational structures were tribal or ego-centric. Tradition is
also wrong: Christ does not have to be utterly sinless to be our Savior.<13>
Among other things, salvation involves transforming non-optimal into
norm-satisfactory human being. Even for those of us whose agencies have not been
wrecked and ruined by individual horror-participation, introspection readily
prompts Mary’s question: “how can this be?” Among other things, we need
reassurance that this is even possible. Arguably, John’s Gospel shows us the
developmental goal at which we are aiming, when it presents Jesus in his human
nature as a paradigm of perichoretic personality. What if the Divine Word assumed
human nature in its non-optimal condition, what if Jesus owned our present
non-optimalities the way we do, but cooperated with the Father through a messy
developmental process to reach spiritual maturity? Wouldn’t that be just the
encouragement we need?

Sacramental Remedies: Scholastic soteriology saw sacramental
participation–perhaps circumcision under the Old Law; under the New Law,
baptism–as the Divinely ordained method of original-sin removal. Rites of
initiation make us party to Christ’s merits. On the Stern View,
circumcision/baptism cancels original guilt; on both Stern and Moderated Views, it
cancels the need to pay off the devil (the Ransom Theory) and/or our liability to
compensate God for Adam’s fall. Baptism and other sacraments (particularly,
penance and the eucharist) also bring on a Divine infusion of virtues (grace,
faith, hope, and charity) that raise the level of human empowerments.

On my reconstruction, we do not have guilt-laden but no-fault responsibility
for our non-optimal human condition. We do not owe God compensation for the
norm-deficiency into which we are born. Rather God has no-fault responsibility to
compensate us and reverse our damages. Nevertheless, sacraments loom large as
scenes of augmented empowerment and double attestation that we are in this
together, as focal dramas that “act out” what is at stake between God and
humankind. Godhead is the cause of augmented empowerment. The Spirit of God blows
where it will, working with and without our knowledge to heal us and to grow us up
into functional competence. But–because [c] Divine-human relations are
non-optimal–human beings are understandably insecure about God’s intentions. God
institutes sacraments to reassure us. Christ puts Himself forward as One Who can
be counted upon to be really present in the eucharist, in His Body and Blood.
Godhead puts Itself forward as reliable to provide extra helps to devotees who
participate in the sacramental rites. Instituting the sacraments, making the Body
and Blood of Christ really present, pouring down graces and virtues, God bears
witness to God’s intention, shows off Divine resourcefulness eventually to
accomplish God’s purpose of harmonious life together with humankind.
Participating in the sacraments, we exercise our responsibility to repent, to turn
again and seek God’s assistance. Participating in rites that God has ordained, we
are already cooperating, signalling our desire to be healed and to go along with
God’s program. Sacraments already celebrate life together, God and human beings
fulfilling their no-fault responsibilities in harmonious ways.

Grimness or Good Cheer? In the Pelagian and somewhat sentimental religious
context of my childhood, original sin was seen as a grim papo-calvinist doctrine
that is sure to be false. How could you believe that an innocent little baby is
guilty, much less liable to eternal punishment unless and until baptized? My own
reconstruction makes the doctrine of original sin resolutely realistic yet
appropriately optimistic. For–as I see it–the doctrine of original sin reduces
to non-optimalities and responsibilities. Our present non-optimalities are as grim
or grimmer than Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity envisioned. For millions of
individual horror participants, personal agency has been stale-mated or shattered
in ways that make it impossible to see how to go on. Cause for optimism comes with
the no-fault responsibilities that we share with God and one another to set or to
participate in setting things right. Tradition joins experience to bear witness:
we human beings lack power on our own to manage, much less reverse our current
non-optimalities. But for those of us who are not wrecked and ruined by individual
horror participation, the doctrine of original sin identifies our ante-mortem
vocation: repeatedly to turn again and to cooperate with God’s own efforts to move
us from norm-deficiency towards norm-satisfaction–to heal, restore, and rear up
each and all of us into fit citizens of the Kingdom of God.


<1>:Robert Merrihew Adams, “No-Fault Responsibility for Outcomes,” The Harvard Review of
vol. XXI (2014), 4-17. In this piece, he concentrates on no-fault
responsibility for bad outcomes. I extend his notion to consider no-fault responsibility
for conditions or situations, and–in God’s case–to Divine actions and their consequences

<2>:See Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca & London:
Cornell University Press, 1999), ch.3, 31-43.

<3>:John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Revised Edition (San Francisco: Harper & Row,
1978), ch.13, 280-291.

<4>:T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical
Relationship with God
(New York: Vintage Books, 2012); see esp. ch.7, 189-226.

<5>:C. Daniel Batson, Altruism in Humans (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press,
2011), esp. ch.2, 46-55.

<6>:Ben Fraser and Kim Sterelny, “Evolution and Moral Realism,” draft online.

<7>:Despite his extensive argument for the place of empathy-induced altruism in human
motivation, Batson recognizes that it is easily overridden and does not always result in
moral action. See Altruism in Humans, ch.8, 188-206.

<8>:See James Wallter, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass
(Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

<9>:John M. Doris, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2002).

<10>:See Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, ch.2, 26-28.
See also Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 2006), ch.2, 29-52.

<11>:Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), Lecture 8,

<12>:See Christ and Horrors, ch.3, 66-79.

<13>:As I argued in Christ and Horrors, ch. 3, 53-79.