I am reading a fascinating, if moderately frustrating book (review forthcoming), and one of the more intriguing elements of the book is just how difficult and how elusive the course of orthodoxy was. A bizarre array of heresies took matters to one philosophical extreme or another, while “orthodoxy” varied from place to place and generation to generation. Those who seek to look into the pages of the Church Fathers for anything remotely approaching spiritual understanding or consensus are likely to be sorely disappointed.
Part of the problem with the solution of the (largely Hellenistic and heretical) Church Fathers is that they themselves substituted language and philosophical (non-bibilcal) explanations to attempt to answer questions that probably should be best left unanswered. Let us wrestle with merely one of the many questions that prompted accusations of heresy in the early Church, that of the question of original sin , debated by Pelagius and Augustine, and many others. According to the Roman Catholic position, mankind is born with original sin. The Bible, on the other hand, is fairly strong and clear that we are condemned for our actual sins, and that death is not a curse that falls on mankind because of the behavior of Adam, but because all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23), and so all die, even if their sin is not to the level of Adam.
But this is not a matter that can be wrapped up in a simple matter, and the way that both Augustine and Pelagius dealt with the matter is troublesome. To be blunt, Augustine’s position on irresistible grace (a position copied by the Calvinist) is highly damnable, denying the free will that man is created with, and believing in a form of divine rape that coerces people into behaving righteously and assuming that no consent to repent and follow God’s way is possible given the corruption of sin in this fallen world. And while Pelagius is to be blamed for assuming too greatly in the possibility of man to be entirely righteous, his errors, such as they are, are far less troubling and serious than the errors of Augustine.
We ought not to assume that just because the way of mankind was barred to the Tree of Life that we are not faced with the same choice that Adam and Eve failed in. We all must choose between life and death, blessing and cursing, between choosing ourselves as the origin and source of our law or in freely choosing to accept the offer of salvation which we cannot earn, though which requires our obedience. But the truth is far more complex than the philosophical language that is often used to define it into a doctrine.
After all, we must candidly admit that the sin of Adam and Eve, and of their descendants, has drastically harmed our existence. Every decision made for evil mars the earth in some way and creates problems that other people have to deal with. If we lie, if we steal, if we commit adultery, if we envy, if we betray, if we abuse others, then we harm the lives of those we hurt, making it harder for them to trust, leading them to suffer and influencing them to some extreme, either to open their heart less or to treat others as they have been treated. There have been innumerable sins that have been committed since the beginning of mankind, each of them leaving warps in our mindset and approach to life.
Since we are all both sinned against and sinning, we seek both mercy for ourselves and need to forgive others. For so long as we hold on to those wrongs committed against us, they poison us and influence us in ways that are evil, whether to commit the same evil to others or to fall into the other ditch of refusing to do good to others, both of which are among the four types of sin (missing the mark, crossing over a boundary, knowing what is right and failing to do it, and doing what we think or feel to be wrong, even if it may not actually be wrong, and so sinning against our conscience). Again, questions as large as sin do not lend themselves to easy, pat answers. We must wrestle with them.
Furthermore, our own mental filters constantly betray us in these matters. Since we all wrestle (or not) with our own sins, we know them best and can understand exactly why and how someone might struggle with them. If we have examined ourselves properly we may greatly sympathize with those who suffer from similar sins or who have suffered from similar wrongs that have led them into different but also comprehensible sins. On the other hand, we may not have any understanding or compassion on those who suffer from sins that we are alien to. There are so many ways that we may sin that it is difficult to be both just and merciful in anything approaching, much less realizing, the perfect judgment of God. This is why we are not yet qualified to be the judge of men’s eternal destinies, since our own biases are both so fierce and so limiting.
But we ought not to think that we were ever intended on being experts in knowing and looking out for all sins, or possessing all virtues in extraordinary degrees. Are we not all a part of a body? Do we not all have specific virtues and talents to develop (as well as our own characteristic weaknesses that we struggle against). One of the reasons we need to work together is that we all have blind spots that need the help of others. I know I need the help of others who are strong in those areas where I am weak, who can flatter and charm people and not be constantly irritated and offended by political behavior, and who don’t share the same irascibility and ambivalence I have toward authority and questions of honor and respect. Likewise, sometimes you need to draw a line in a sand and fight over it, and I’m generally good at those moments, and also someone who feels deeply even if my expression of my own feelings tends to be rather limited to my expressive face or fiery keyboard and pen and not in those ways that other people most easily appreciate.
I speak of myself because I know myself best. The same is true for everyone else. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, we all need to be a part of a greater whole, where our strengths can be used to help and serve others, and where we can at least learn how to manage our weaknesses by seeing good examples of how to behave (this is one of the factors that makes dysfunctional families so destructive, by removing any sort of good example that others can learn from). We all can learn from others, and we all have something to teach others as well.
And thus we see that we greatly err in viewing original sin as a strictly individual matter. Not all people and not all societies are fallen in the same ways. There are many ways that the truth can be corrupted, both to the right hand as well as to the left. The fact that there are so many heresies means we must understand the truth is a terribly difficult matter. None of us may understand the whole truth, even insofar as it relates to ourselves personally. The Bible includes no massive creeds in part because the truth in many areas may be beyond human understanding, particularly those flawed human beings who demanded a pat answer and precise language to describe every single possible aspect of doctrine and belief. We must neither arrogantly presume to know the whole truth nor be content with our lazy understanding and practice. It is a hard balance to maintain; it always is. The truth is always a difficult matter, and we ought never to pretend that it is otherwise. Perhaps that is the biggest problem one finds in reading about the fights over orthodoxy from long ago.
 This is, of course, an issue I have wrestled with: