I. Definition. — Original sin is usually defined as "that whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil." This absence of "original righteousness" is not only a deprivation, but also a depravation; such an estrangement of the heart from God as to lead to a defiance of his authority and law. Original sin is not only negative, but positive; it is not merely the lack of a thing — viz., original righteousness — but the presence of an inherited tendency towards evil, which tendency is the controlling principle (Eph 2:1-3; Col 1:13; 2Ti 2:26; 1Jo 3:4); and the inexhaustible source of all actual sins (Ro 5:12-19). But original sin, or this tendency of the mind to evil, is by no means to be regarded in the same sense as guilt; inasmuch as involuntary developments of natural susceptibilities have no moral character. A mere desire, growing out of the natural constitution of the mind, excited by temptation, may be innocent. Moral evil only commences when the desire or temptation is followed by the determination, or volition, to gratify the desire or yield to the temptation. SEE SIN, ACTUAL. All men, as the descendants of Adam, have this original depravity (1Co 15:21-22), derived by continual descent from father to son. SEE DEPRAVITY.
II. Theories. — There are four principal hypotheses, to one or the other of which all the various explanations offered on this subject may probably be reduced.
1. The first theory is that the whole human race was literally in Adam as the oak is in the acorn, and thus participated in his transgression. In other words, the race is a unit, and God deals with it as a unit — not with individuals as individuals. Thus, though unconsciously, every soul participated in the first great transgression, and, in the words of the catechism, "sinned in him (Adam), and fell with him in that first transgression."
2. The second theory is that Adam was the representative of the race; that as a king, or as an ambassador, or a congress represent the nation, and the entire nation is held responsible for the act of its representative, so Adam represented the human race, was, chosen as the type to stand for humanity, and by his trial the whole race was tried, thus sinning in his sin and falling in his fall. Acting thus as representative for the race, his sin was imputed, i.e. charged, to the whole race. It is said, moreover, that in point of fact this choice of Adam as a representative was not arbitrary; that Adam and Eve fairly represented the race, and that the continual sin of his descendants, placed in similar circumstances of trial, shows that no injustice was done by submitting them to a trial in the person of such a representative. These two views are held, one or the other of them, by those who are known in modern times as belonging to the old school. In them the entire race is treated by God as a unit, and, is, because of Adam's sin, under divine condemnation; and, irrespective of the sin or the virtue of the individual, requires to be pardoned and redeemed.
3. The third theory holds that Adam fell, and in falling became a sinner. The universal law of nature is that like begets like. So all his descendants have inherited from him a nature like his own, a nature depraved and prone to sin. Those who maintain this theory add, usually, that man is not responsible for this depraved nature, and that he is not in any strict sense guilty before God for it; that while infants must be redeemed from it through the power of God in Christ Jesus, because nothing impure can enter heaven, still they cannot be said to be guilty until they have arrived at an age when they are capable of choosing between good and evil, and that they are then held responsible for that voluntary choice, and for that alone. In other words, this school distinguishes between sin and depravity, holding all sin to consist in voluntary action, and depravity to be simply that disordered state of the soul which renders it prone to commit sin, This view is the one generally entertained by the new school divines in the Presbyterian Church, by a majority of the Congregationalists, and by many of the Episcopalians and the Methodists. According to this view, mankind are overwhelmed in ruin, which Adam brought upon the race, but are not guilty except as they become so by personal conduct.
4. The fourth theory, known in theological language, from its most eminent expounder, Pelagius, as PELAGIANIS SEE PELAGIANIS (q.v.), denies that there is any connection between Adam and his posterity, or that the race is in any sense held responsible for, or on account of Adam's sin. Each soul, according to this theory, is created as was Adam, pure and innocent, and undetermined towards either sin or holiness. Each soul, for itself, chooses its own destiny by its voluntary choice of good or evil, right or wrong. The universality of sinfulness, it is said, is sufficiently explained by the evil influence and example of those by whom the young are from their earliest years surrounded. According to this theory it is possible, or at least quite conceivable, that a man should be utterly sinless; and in such a case there would be no need of any divine Savior or any regenerating Spirit. That need is occasioned in each individual case by each individual deliberately choosing for himself the way of sin. A modification of this view, by which there is an endeavor to combine it with the others, is termed Semi-Pelagianism (q.v.). According to this view there is no ruin except that which each individual brings upon himself; and, consequently, no need of redemption except such as springs from the individual's own guilt in departing from God and disobeying his law.
III. History of the Doctrine. — The early Church, it is maintained by some, was unacquainted with the doctrine; and the most orthodox admit that the doctrine had not at that time been fully developed. We offer the opinions of some of the early fathers. Gregory of Nazianzum maintained that both the νοῦς and the ψυχή have been considerably impaired by sin, and regarded the perversion of consciousness seen in idolatry, which previous teachers had ascribed to the influence of daemons, as an inevitable effect of the first sin. But he was far from asserting the total depravity of mankind and the entire loss of the free will. Athanasius maintained man's ability to choose good as well as evil, and even allowed exceptions from original sin, alleging that several persons prior to Christ were free from it. Cyril of Jerusalem assumes that the life of man begins in a state of innocence, and that sin enters of the free will. Chrysostom insisted upon the liberty of man and his self-determination. Augustine laid down that every natural man is in the power of the devil, and upheld the justice of this as a punishment for the share which the individual had in Adam's transgression. Pelagius, on the other hand, who rejected the Traducian theory, denied that the fall of Adam has exercised any prejudicial influence on the moral condition of his posterity. He maintained that all men are born in innocence, possess the power of free will, and may live without sin. The views of Augustine never secured a footing in the Eastern Church, and even in the West they:met with opposition. The Reformers of the 16th century made original sin a leading doctrine, and thus were enabled effectively to combat the Roman Catholic doctrine of the merit of works.