Roman Catholic and Orthodox differences on Original Sin

In a couple of the last posts there has been an ongoing discussion of the differences in the concept of Original Sin between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. So, let me put a couple of citations from the Wikipedia that may help people to see the differences. Why from the Wikipedia? Well, because they are better at summarizing than theologians. 😯   I am aware that any summary always is insufficient, but sometimes we need summaries rather than details.

Roman Catholic summary

Augustine believed that the only definitive destinations of souls are heaven and hell. He concluded that unbaptized infants go to hell as a consequence of original sin. The Latin Church Fathers who followed Augustine adopted his position, which became a point of reference for Latin theologians in the Middle Ages. In the later mediaeval period, some theologians continued to hold Augustine’s view, others held that unbaptized infants suffered no pain at all: unaware of being deprived of the beatific vision, they enjoyed a state of natural, not supernatural happiness. Starting around 1300, unbaptized infants were often said to inhabit the “limbo of infants”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1261 declares: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.” But the theory of Limbo, while it “never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Magisterium … remains … a possible theological hypothesis”.

Augustine’s formulation of original sin was popular among Protestant reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin . . .

Eastern Orthodox summary

In Eastern Orthodoxy, God created man perfect with free will and gave man a direction to follow. Man (Adam) and Woman (Eve) chose rather to disobey God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus changing the “perfect” mode of existence of man to the “flawed” mode of existence of man. This flawed nature and all that has come from it is a result of that “original sin”. All humanity shares in the sin of Adam because like him, they are human. The union of humanity with divinity in Jesus Christ restored, in the Person of Christ, the mode of existence of humanity, so that those who are incorporated in him may participate in this mode of existence, be saved from sin and death, and be united to God in deification. Original sin is cleansed in humans through baptism or, in the case of the Theotokos, the moment Christ took form within her.

This view differs from the Roman Catholic (Augustinian) doctrine of Original Sin in that man is not seen as inherently guilty of the sin of Adam. According to the Orthodox, humanity inherited the consequences of that sin, not the guilt. The difference stems from Augustine’s interpretation of a Latin translation of Romans 5:12 to mean that through Adam all men sinned, whereas the Orthodox reading in Greek interpret it as meaning that all of humanity sins as part of the inheritance of flawed nature from Adam. The Orthodox Church does not teach that all are born deserving to go to hell, and Protestant doctrines such as Predeterminism that derive from the Augustinian understanding of original sin are not a part of Orthodox belief.


  1. Rick says

    Helpful thoughts.

    How does the “flaw” impact one’s will and how does it counter Pelagianism? In short, would you please explain more about the “flaw”.


    • says

      Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and traditional Protestants all agree that a human’s free will is damaged. How much is a matter of argument. However, what it means is that all Christians agree that sooner or later we will all sin. Pelagius taught that human free will is undamaged, so that it is fully possible to live a perfect human life. So, for Pelagius there could be people for whom salvation would not be necessary. This is rejected by all Christians.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and traditional Protestants all agree that a human’s free will is damaged.

        i.e. There is always Imperfection, and this Imperfection will show itself sooner or later.

        From the preface to “Dyads: Part 2”, penned by a travelling priest in a future space-opera universe (emphasis mine):

        “The Church’s First Contact contingency plans gave much thought to the possibility and danger of encountering an unfallen race. So far, we have not encountered any… All … are as fallen and stained with sin as humanity, just in different ways. Apparently true sentience carries with it the potential for sin; the Imago Dei, expressed in whatever form, is always vulnerable. And if the potential for a Fall is there, someone, somewhere, sometime is going to try it.“—the Travel Diaries of Father Heidler

  2. says

    In a Protestant statement of the doctrine, the C of E’s XXXIX Articles state that “the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation” and my understanding of Orthodoxy is that, in fact, until we do commit sin we are not deserving “God’s wrath and damnation”. The flesh may be weak, but (as with the Theotokos) we may be held above sin in God’s Grace. As Abba Joseph says, “If you will you may become wholly fire.”

  3. henry says

    From our Lutheran Confessions ( Augsburg Confession ):
    II. [Original Sin]
    1 It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers?’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. 2 Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin?2? is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.?
    3 Rejected in this connection are the Pelagians? and others who deny that original sin is sin, for they hold that natural man is made righteous by his own powers, thus disparaging the sufferings and merit of Christ?.

  4. Rick says

    The paragraph quoted doesn’t even address the Catholic conception of original sin. It describes a disputed conclusion made by Augustine over a very real theological question in the West: is Baptism required for salvation? The teaching of one theologian should not be confused with the teaching of the church.

    The Catholic teaching on original sin is very close to the Othodox teaching. Contray to what you imply the church does not teach that original sin is a personal sin for people after Adam and Eve. As the Othodox believe, Catholics also believe that impact of the original disobedience was death, sickness and alienation form God. Original sin describes the state of our relationship with God, not a personal act or personal guilt (which the Wikipedia article does mention).

    • says

      The other post I wrote on this subject led on to quite a discussion. There I quote from a 2007 document approved by Pope Benedict XVI which talks about the changing conception within Roman Catholicism. You are correct that the post-Vatican Council II conception is significantly closer to Orthodoxy than before. The paragraph above summarizes over a thousand years, which is why it can be unclear. However, the 2007 document also clearly says that the Church’s conception was the Augustinian one until a better understanding of revelation developed. Yet, it is that document that also says that limbo is still a possibility. The more modern conception is not that of personal sin but of a missing grace.

    • says

      Certainly, the document is called The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized. It was approved for publication by the Holy Father on 19 January 2007. It is found on the Vatican website at

      I will read the blog post you mention. But, let me point out that I refer to that Vatican-approved document not only because it is the latest official thinking on the whole issue of original sin, limbo, salvation, etc., but also because it contains the acknowledgment that historically the West’s viewpoint was that of original guilt. In fact the document specifically says, “The treatment of this theme must be placed within the historical development of the faith. According to Dei Verbum 8, the factors that contribute to this development are the reflection and the study of the faithful, the experience of spiritual things, and the teaching of the Magisterium. When the question of infants who die without baptism was first taken up in the history of Christian thought, it is possible that the doctrinal nature of the question or its implications were not fully understood. Only when seen in light of the historical development of theology over the course of time until Vatican II does this specific question find its proper context within Catholic doctrine.”

  5. Chris McAvoy says

    What you are quoting from does not carry the serious weight of authority it may be presumed to carry.
    The International Theological Commisson, under whose authority it the statement on the vatican website was drafted, acts as an advisory board and its documents are not considered expressions of Church teaching. Because the ITC’s study on Limbo is neither a papal document, nor a magisterial document, but a modern theological exercise that does not bind the conscience of Catholics in any way; I believe strongly that these theologians are in error in the way which they speak of original sin. Additionally to frequently the way in which many reject Limbo tends to strengthen the implicit denial of Original Sin, a chief error of our age;

    Father Richard P. McBrien, a noted modernist, whose books are condemned by the USCCB (council of catholic bishops), goes on to note that “if the doctrine of limbo has fallen can the doctrine of original sin be far behind.” He notes that if limbo goes, so, too, does the traditional view of original sin. He says “It may be that everyone is born in the state of grace, and that grace is ours to lose through mortal sin alone. ”

    This is why there are serious problems with those Orthodox who deny original sin.
    I remain firm in my belief that one can be an Orthodox Christian and also believe in Original sin.
    I am one of these very people.

    Orthodox christianity has always acknowledged these words of the bible:

    “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children for their
    fathers; only for his own guilt shall a man be put to death.” Deut. 24:16

    And as the vatican website said:

    “Alone among the Greek Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa wrote a work specifically on the destiny of infants who die, De infantibus praemature abreptis libellum.[14]The anguish of the Church appears in the questions he puts to himself: the destiny of these infants is a mystery, “something much greater than the human mind can grasp”.

    Thus, a Limbo for the unbaptized unborn and born infants continues to be held as worthy of belief within the Latin Catholic Church, but in the mercy of God perhaps not all unbaptized infants go there.

    Nevertheless after the local Council of Florence in the 15th c, the teaching on Limbo was considered open for theological speculation and was never formally considered an infallible dogma which required belief.

    I can not say with certainty what this implies an Orthodox christian must believe, regarding limbo or purgation

    But I do know it means they must believe in Original sin.

    Christopher McAvoy,
    Emmitsburg, MD

    • says

      It is all well to quote a modernist, but, uhm, somewhat useless, as many modernists are trying to undo as much of the faith as they are able to. Having said that, let me also point out that both Orthodox and Protestants have been able to do without a doctrine of limbo for quite a long time, and Protestants quite clearly believe in original sin.

      As to whether the Orthodox must believe in Original Sin, if you are right then there are an awful lot of gravely mistaken hierarchs and theologians. But, perhaps we have the same view and are simply using different terminology. Here is what I mean.

      According to Saint Gregory Palamas, as a result of ancestral sin man’s image was tarnished, disfigured, as a consequence of Adam’s disobedience. Inevitably man will sin. But, there is little doubt that something much closer (and perhaps identical) to original sin is taught by such Eastern Fathers as St. John Cyprian, etc. Nevertheless, the Roman view is usually criticized as being Original Guilt.

      To bring it about full circle, the reason Saint Gregory of Nissa wrote the way he did was because he saw the damage that could be done to our conception of God if infants went to hell without even the opportunity to respond to God, in the same way that Saint Paul in Romans 1 had to deal with the question of those who had never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel. Nevertheless, as he pointed out, there is a mystery there.

      The question of both the unbaptized infant who dies and the unbaptized heathen who has never had the opportunity to hear are linked.

  6. says

    The passage said: “Original sin is cleansed in humans through baptism or, in the case of the Theotokos, the moment Christ took form within her.”

    Firstly, there is no evidence anywhere in scripture that Mary’s original sin was cleansed when Christ took form in her. In fact, all evidence suggest otherwise. Mary needed a Savior as much as they thief on the cross. Peter, Paul and even her own sons, James and Jude, never once mentioned her in any of their Epistles, nor did John the Apostle, who out lived her and looked after her until her death in Ephesus mentioned anything about a “Theotokos”. Not even her alleged bodily assumption got a mention.

    Secondly, if original sin is cleansed with baptism, why is it that a majority of orthodox people (who are baptized) sin? If you lose your tendency to sin, how can you sin again?

    The passage said- “According to the Orthodox, humanity inherited the consequences of that sin..”

    If baptism removes original sin, then you don’t have to bear the consequences of sin, which means you don’t have to suffer death. But contrary to that, orthodox people die. Their bodies decay.

    It seems to me that the orthodox view point on original sin is heavily flawed. A little common sense can debunk the entire doctrine built around it.


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