Sin & Death – a moebius strip

For a while now I have thought about posting something about one of the most theologically influential verses in the New Testament, Romans 5:12, on which Augustine famously depended for his teaching on original sin. Readings from a recent daily Mass brought me back to it. The passage that caught my eye was this:

Since the children share in blood and Flesh,
Jesus likewise shared in them,
that through death he might destroy the one
who has the power of death, that is, the Devil,
and free those who through fear of death
had been subject to slavery all their life. (Heb 2:14-15)

These verses express perfectly our predicament as fallen creatures and the pivotal importance of Paul’s allusion to it in the fifth chapter of Romans. The Revised Standard translation of that verse is:

Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned.

It was not idle theological curiosity that gave rise to the doctrines of Christian faith. Rather these doctrines were forged in the furnace of often fierce theological controversies, and this is certainly true of Augustine’s interpretation of Romans 5:12. The Bishop of Hippo waged a bitter struggle against Pelagius and the Pelagian teaching which, though it may have been more nuanced than later readers of Augustine are led to believe, nevertheless fostered a rather more optimistic assessment of the human predicament than Augustine and the Catholic tradition that followed him felt warranted. Citing Paul’s “all men have sinned” as a result of the sin of Adam, Augustine insisted that all humans have inherited the guilt of Adam. (There is obviously much to be said on that, sin being necessarily a willful and conscious act, but that is for another day perhaps.)

The Eastern Church, and many of the Eastern Fathers, found in Romans 5:12 another meaning, one not necessarily incompatible with the now standard Augustinian reading, but one that nevertheless gives a significantly different emphasis. Weblogs are not the ideal place for exegetical complexities, nor am I an exegete. Here, however, are the outlines of the matter as I understand them. (I draw on the work of the Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff.)

Meyendorff argues that the Western Church’s Latin translation of the Greek for “because all men have sinned” — in quo omnes peccaverunt — is subject to question. The original Greek is eph ho panes hemarton. “The form eph ho — a contraction of epi with the relative pronoun ho — can be translated as ‘because,'” writes Meyendorff, who then points out that the pronoun can as well be masculine as neuter, and that, if a masculine pronoun, it would refer back, not to sin, but to death. Meyendroff:

The sentence then may have a meaning which seems improbable to a reader trained in Augustine, but which is indeed the meaning most Greek Fathers accepted: “As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men; and because of death, all men have sinned.”

Meyendorff proceeds to quote a number of the Easter Church Fathers in defense of this translation, an example being this from Theodoret of Cyrus: “mortal beings are necessarily subject to passions and fears, to pleasures and sorrows, to anger and hatred.”

But I think we can do better than that. It seems that the upshot of the Eastern Church’s reading, if Meyendorff is accurate here, is that sinfulness is the consequence of death, or perhaps better, the fear of death that suffuses life with a suppressible dread from which mortal creatures flee, and, in doing so, flee from God, from themselves, and from one another — Christ having died to “free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life” (Hebrews 2:15).

What is sin if not the expression of the creature’s deep-seated self-regard and attempt to manipulate circumstances and others for selfish self-preservation and self-aggrandizement? As such, sin is life lived under the fear of self-annihilation, as the author of Hebrews suggests. If this is so, nothing short of the Resurrection could free humanity from the grip of sin and death. Neither the eat, drink and be merry ruse of the shallow worldlings, nor the morbid stoicism of the “realist,” nor the death-romanticism of the nihilist finally avails.

Rather than throw in completely with what Meyendorff argues is the Eastern Church’s position, I would rather want to find common ground, and it is not far to seek. Sin darkens the mind and shrinks the soul; it contracts the horizon, imprisoning the spirit. Sebastian Moore once said that death as the ultimate horizon lets sin make as much sense as sin can make. But then sin has the effect of making death the ultimate horizon. It blinds the sinner to the very eschatological horizon that would, Moore implies, render sin senseless were it to be visible.

So “the power of sin” and “the power of death” form a kind of moebius strip from the mesmerizing tangle of which we humans are incapable of extricating ourselves.

It has long been said, and it is being said more frequently lately, that the Church flies on two wings, constituted by the Eastern and Western traditions. It seems to me that this is exemplified by the two distinct approaches to that crucial passage in Romans, if only we can allow these traditions to mutually enhance one another.

(A version of this was originally posted on in January 2007)

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