Toward a Wesleyan Understanding of ‘Original Sin’

June 1, 2020 Bill T. Arnold



Image: Detail from “The Fall of Man” by Hugo van der Goes (after 1479)

Recently, it was announced that the Wesley One Volume Commentary has been published (edited by Ken Collins and Rob Wall; Abingdon, 2020). I was honored to contribute the commentary on Genesis for that work, and its appearance has given me reason to rethink something I wrote there for the first time. That is, how do we Wesleyans understand the doctrine often referred to as “Original Sin”? 


Most Christians will hear in those words, “original sin,” an idea that all humans are alienated from God at birth, by virtue of our common descent from Adam and Eve. Working with the text of Genesis 3, Paul provided in Romans 5 a theological account of the pervasiveness of sin among humankind. Augustine took up Paul’s arguments and launched them on a distinct theological trajectory. Some would say that Augustine offered a fair development of Paul’s ideas. Some, like David Bentley Hart, insist he distorted them. Those influenced by Augustine took up his ideas and developed them in a variety of ways, though not always in agreement with one another. The truth is, the ecumenical Church (by which I mean the largest number of Christians in the largest number of places throughout Church history) has never come to agreement about what we mean by this doctrine. Neither the Apostles’ Creed nor the Nicene Creed states clearly what we mean, although both refer to the “forgiveness of sins.” In other words, both creeds acknowledge that we all need forgiveness, and that sin in our lives has created that need. So while we may not have a common understanding of original sin, we agree that all humans commit sinful deeds, and in fact that we sin frequently and boldly, and we do so without fail, until and unless the Holy Spirit of God changes one’s heart by faith. 


Beyond this, however, we have always had problems with how we understand the specifics of this idea, such as the precise manner in which Adam’s sin was passed along, not to say “transmitted,” to all of us. Some assume a kind of genetic diffusion of sin from parent to child through the centuries in some sort of biological sharing of sin and guilt. But this raises a further complication, especially for those of us who believe the Old Testament creation accounts are entirely compatible with today’s scientific explanations of cosmic origins, sometimes known as evolutionary theism. Must one believe in the historicity of a first human couple in order to believe also in Original Sin? What becomes of this doctrine if we accept the conclusion that humans are descended from an estimated population size in the range of 10,000 individuals approximately one hundred thousand years ago, as recent advances in the study of DNA have convincingly proven? Must we insist that humans are biologically independent creatures, without a common ancestry with other life forms on the planet, before we can embrace a thoroughly Christian understanding of the pervasive nature of sin in our midst? If we accept that God was at work in and through an evolutionary process in creation, how then are we to understand the doctrine of Original Sin? 


Perhaps the doctrine itself should be jettisoned. Some have thought so. Wesley was aware of some in his day who denied the relevance of any such doctrine, teaching instead that education, positive social action, and intellectual enlightenment was the answer to humanity’s ills. Indeed, today’s liberal Protestantism has hardly moved beyond such Enlightenment era optimism. But this is a seriously anemic and undeveloped epistemology when it comes to the doctrine of sin (harmartiology). Wesley would have none of that! Instead, he appears to have read Genesis 1-3 deeply and carefully in order to come to an understanding of Original Sin that distinguished between the transfer of guilt to posterity (which he rejected) and the conveyance of a corrupt nature (which he accepted; cf. Ken Collins, The Theology of John Wesley [Nashville, 2007], 64-65).  None of us is individually guilty because of sins another person has committed, or at least it should be said, none of us is eternally lost because of inherited guilt. We all bear our own responsibility for sin. On the other hand, we all share an innately corrupt nature, which can only be described as a natural propensity to sin. In this way, Wesley embraced a thoroughly “evangelical” understanding of sin (note the lower-case “e”) but without the determinism of his Augustinian/Calvinist peers. 


Here is what I mean. With regard to the creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2, Wesley appears to have understood clearly their message about the beauty and nature of human existence, including the rich intimacy of human relationships with the earth, with animals, with each other, and especially with God. Genesis 3 explains the brokenness of human existence and the loss of such intimacy in our relationship with God and in all other relationships (Gen 3:1-24). Although this text is never called “the Fall” in the Bible, it later became the cornerstone for the Church’s reflection on the human condition. Wesley, for his part, explained the presence of pain and evil in the world as a result of the liberty of humanity, “a will exerting itself in various affections,” without which the rest of God’s grand creation would have been of no use. “Had he not been a free as well as an intelligent being, his understanding would have been as incapable of holiness, or any kind of virtue, as a tree or a block of marble” (Sermon 57: “On the Fall of Man,” §1). But having this freedom, humankind chose evil over good, and sin entered the world, bringing with it misery of every kind. 


Christians agree that Genesis 3 explains in some way the general fallen nature of humanity, and that the rest of the Primeval History in Genesis 4–11 illustrates the depth and breadth of sin’s penetration and ruination of the cosmos. Once sin was introduced into the human experience, it almost immediately ruined God’s good creation. In the theological traditions of western Christianity, early theologians used the expression peccatum originans, or “originating sin,” to explain that the first act of human sinfulness somehow brought about all subsequent sinfulness. The strong influence of Augustine among Protestants led to the widespread belief that all humanity is implicated in Adam’s sin. As the New England Primer put it in 1690: “In Adam’s fall / We sinned all.” And the determinism implicit in Augustinian thought resulted in a concept more like “original guilt” that by implication considered that each human being deserves judgment for Adam’s sin. 


But surely we Wesleyans mean something slightly different by the doctrine of Original Sin, and by its corollary “total depravity.” Fortunately, Wesley had already worked out the answer. His understanding of Original Sin was consonant with Augustine’s, although nuanced considerably. Thus we also hold to total depravity, but with a slightly different definition. For example, Wesley edited Article IX (“Of Original or Birth-Sin”) of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the doctrinal standards of the Church of England, to emphasize the transmission of a corrupt nature but not a transmission of guilt to all future generations of people. Prior to Augustine, the earliest Christian traditions generally didn’t read Genesis 3 in the terms that would eventually be formulated as a distinct doctrine of the church. Indeed, Genesis 3 doesn’t support the traditional doctrine of Original Sin, either as a genetic transmission of sin and guilt or as an attribution of blame to all humanity through the rebellion of the first set of human parents. Objections to this way of understanding Original Sin are raised by the Bible itself, as well as by evolutionary biology and ethical, philosophical, and theological reflection on the idea that God holds humans responsible for the brokenness and rebellious actions of past generations. Indeed, the Bible shows little interest in the origins of human sinfulness among our ancestors but rather shows an intense interest in the universality of human sinfulness, its character as a disease infecting all humans, and its social effects. Rather than “original sin,” we might think of a strong, primal desire or tendency to continue sinning, which is characteristic of all humans. We might call it “Originary Concupiscence” (although that will hardly catch on). A Wesleyan reading of Genesis 3 acknowledges the Bible’s basic intuitions about sin, including its corrupting effects, and the notion that all humans share in its universal solidarity. This universal propensity to sin means Wesley shared a view of total depravity with western Christianity. 


What distinguishes his thought is a different understanding of God’s grace, especially that grace “which goes before” (prevenient grace). By utilizing the idea of prevenient grace, Wesley avoids Augustinian (and later Reformed) doctrines of individual predestination. To put the matter briefly, apart from prevenient grace, total depravity would mean that we could never respond to the invitation to repent and receive Christ. Our minds would be too deeply distorted. God’s work of prevenient grace in every person overcomes our total depravity to the extent that we become capable of responding to God’s saving love. Some would say that prevenient grace gives us free will, but it is more accurate to say that it gives us freed will. Prevenient grace does not save us. Rather, it makes it possible for us to receive or reject salvation. The effects of Original Sin are still with us, but, thank God, that is not the end of the story.


Dr. Bill T. Arnold is the Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.


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