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MORAL PHILOSOPHERS AND

ORIGINAL SIN

Original sin is one of these issues in Christian doctrine on which


Catholics are not making themselves as explicit as they could and
should. Their counterparts in other denominations are often engaged
on the subject, but seldom with complete success. For this question
of original sin is one in which the moral philosopher has a very
direct interest and some modern philosophers have been very
impatient with the lack of clarity and cogency which characterizes
most theological writing on the subject. They do not like the idea
of a sin which is transmitted by physical generation, of guilt which
attaches to a person without his own free activity, of a weakness of
will and a blindness of intellect which is inflicted upon a person
for no crime which he himself committed but which still leaves
him fully responsible for any crimes he may commit. They have a
host of complaints against the normal theological presentation of
this doctrine of original sin and they feel that the theologians are
making no real effort to answer them. Indeed their most bitter
complaint is that theology often ignores the ordinary certainties of
the moral reason with something suspiciously akin to a contempt
for natural reason. That this is a serious matter for theology few
would deny, for the doctrine of original sin is at the basis of the
whole teaching on Christian redemption. It is a task for theology,
therefore, to satisfy philosophers on this issue or, rather, to reassure
natural reason. This is one realm in which a conflict between reason
and faith could become particularly acute unless both take the
trouble to explain their positions accurately.

begin with the theological presentation of the doctrine of


sin
and, since they have been mostly engaged on the subject
original
in recent times and mostly under attack by the moral philosophers,
with the exponents of what has become known as the New Theology
- mainly with Karl Barth and Emil Brunner.
Let

us

1
Cf. H. D. Lewis, Morals and the New
and Revelation, London, 1951.

, London,
Theology

1947. Also his Morals

224
EMIL BRUNNER
It is Emil Brunners conviction
and he claims to share it fully
with Karl Barth - that &dquo;the original image of God in man has
been destroyed, that. the ju.rtitia origil1alis has been lost and with it
the possibility of doing or even of willing to do that which is good
in the sight of God, and that therefore the free will has been lost&dquo;,
that, although the spirit of the Creator is recognizable in his creation,
man is blinded to this revelation. But it is necessary to understand
all this precisely as Brunner understands it. It is meant to be a
concise description of what he calls the empirical state of man, or
the state of man in this world without grace. It is to his mind a
consequence of the Fall, it is the state of original sin. Yet he is not
prepared to accept fully the account of the Fall and of the transmission of original sin which is found in traditional theology
in
the writings of Augustine, for instance. He cannot believe that the
guilt incurred by an individual man as recounted in the Book of
if the account is historical at all, which he doubts Genesis
and transmitted by means of physical procreation can become in
that way the guilt of each man, the personal sin of each individual.
He insists that original sin, the origin of our moral slavery and
mental blindness, is real sin, that means that it is an affair of each
mans will. For he is in full agreement with Kant and with moral
philosophy that moral good and moral evil is found in the activity
of the individual human will and there alone. Original sin to
Brunners way of thinking is a real wilful revolt, the personal revolt
of each man against God.22
-

decided, then, that original sin is sin in the full moral


of the word, an act of the individual human will, and he has
seen that such a sin cannot be transmitted by the physical process
of propagation. But there is an aspect of the traditional doctrine
that Brunner wants to retain and he finds great difhculty in reconciling it with his present position. I refer to the absolute universality
of original sin and, hence, its inevitability for every man who is
born into this world. It is here that Brunner comes face to face
with one of the classic dilemmas of the doctrine of original sin. If
the state of original sin is the inevitable state of the whole human
He has

sense

1
E. Brunner and K. Barth, Natural Theology
, London, 1946. (This is a translation
of Brunners Natur und Gnade and Barths Nein
! Antwort an Emil Brunner, both
written originally in 1934.)
2 E.
Brunner, Man in Revolt, London, 1939, pp. 96 ff., esp. p. 132.

225
can it be the personal responsibility of each individual?
and responsibility
Or if each man is responsible for his own revolt
or not to do - so that it is actual,
freedom
to
do
presupposes
personal sin in the full moral sense, can we really go on to say that
it is inevitably universal? As Brunner himself put it, we do not
define man as sinful in the same way that we define that the angles
of a triangle realize 180 degrees or describe a mans eyes as blue.
To say that man is sinful is not a definition in that sense so much
as a factual statement, it is to say that man is always in wilful
revolt against God. But there can hardly be any inevitability about
a factual statement of this kind.
It is fair to say that Brunner cannot extract himself from ~ this
dilemma in any satisfactory way. He is well aware of the dilemma
himself and in his only attempt to escape it he forges a quasimystical identity between the individual and the race. &dquo;Certainly
each individual is a sinner as an individual: but he is at the same
time the whole in its united solidarity, the body, actual humanity
as a whole Catholic theologians will be familiar with a similar
kind of emphasis on the solidarity of the human race. This matter
will need further discussion but it can be submitted here that if
original sin is taken to be a moral fault in the full ethical sense, i.e.,
an act or decision for which an individual is freely responsible,
no amount of emphasis on the moral or spiritual unity of the race
will make it inevitably universal. Sin in this sense cannot be shared
for at this level there is no question of corporate responsibility.
Each man is responsible for his own contribution and for it alone.
In any case we can go on to ask about the consequences of this
original sin, the characteristics of this empirical state in which man
finds himself. What does Brunner mean when he says that the
image of God in man is destroyed, that man cannot even will to
do what is good in the sight of God, that he is blind to the evidence
of God in nature? In order to understand these statements it is
necessary to revert to Brunners definition of man. He will have
nothing to do with Aristotles &dquo;animal rationale&dquo;. Rather he defines
man in terms of &dquo;responsibility&dquo;. It is the characteristic of man
that he is responsible, that means in Brunners language that he
can be addressed by the word of God. Only a personal being can
be addressed, and man is fully man or fully personal only when he
is directly addressed by God.3 In short, Brunner defines man as a

race, how

1
3

Man in Revolt
, pp. 147 ff.
E. Brunner, The Word and the

2
Man in Revolt, p. 141.
World, London, 1931, p. 31.

226

only called into existence by God but called into


with
God or addressed by the word of God. Hence
relationship
is
in
revolt
when man
against this call, Brunner can say that man
is a sinner through and through. He has perverted that which
defines him, according to Brunner. It is particularly important to
understand Brunner on this point because the normal run of Catholic
text-books are too hasty in their assumptions that when any Reform
theologian speaks of the utter corruption of human nature, he is
using the Scholastic definition of human nature. Nothing could be
further from the truth where Barth and Brunner are concerned.
They mean something altogether different from what they are
normally taken to mean by Catholic controversialists.
creature not

Hence Brunner can say that man is wholly corrupt or sinful,


in the sense that all his mental and physical faculties are corrupt
in some unexplained way, but in the sense that his whole existence
is out of line with his true purpose; he can say that everything a
man does is sinful at least in the sense that he can do nothing that
is good in the sight of God. For he has revolted against God and
every act is the act of man in revolt. (It might be remarked that
Brunner has not yet said explicitly in what this revolt of each man,
this &dquo;original sin&dquo; consists. It seems now to be a rejection of the
word of God, i.e., of special revelation.) He can also say that the
free will is lost, in the sense that man is incapable of helping himself
out of this pit into which he has wilfully fallen; and we cannot be
free where we are incapable.
not

There is still a sense, although a secondary one to him, in which


he must allow that some of our acts are good and some of our
moral choices free. He allows that not all kinds of freedom are lost,
but only our &dquo;primal freedom&dquo;.2 He reminds us that the Reformers
had room for a concept of the ethically good.3 He calls St. Paul to
witness that the moral law is indelibly written on our hearts. He
insists, of course, that the works we do in obedience to this natural
law do not justify us one bit in the sight of God. They bring justitia
legalis but they do not bring salvation.4 Similarly mans sin makes
him blind to the saving knowledge of God, the true word of God,
but he knows God still in some vague way. He distorts the evidence
of God in nature and turns to the worship of idols.5 Man does
1

Man in Revolt
, pp. 147 ff.
157.
Natural Theology
, p. 25.

Man in p.
3
,
Resvolt
5

2
4

Man in Revolt, p. 135.


Natural Theology, p. 52.

227

know God and Gods law then to

some

extent

even

in his

empirical

state.
can do what is ethically good so he can do what is
legally evil. Are there degrees of guilt, then? Transof the natural moral law can hardly be sin in Brunners
first sense of the word, it can hardly measure up to the definition
of &dquo;original sin&dquo;, i.e., a rejection of the word of God, of a personal
relationship with God.. He makes it clear to us in another context
that there is no real question of sin where God is only known in the
inferential way of metaphysics, where no personal relationship
exists and can be broken. &dquo;If you speak of sin or guilt in this connection, these words mean nothing very serious or unsafe&dquo;.1 In
short, Brunner cannot have it both ways. If our moral acts are not
salutary in the empirical state, our immoral acts cannot add to our
guilt. If we sin in all our actions, the ethical distinction between
moral and immoral actions is of little importance. In fact Reinhold
Niebuhr, the American exponent of the New Theology, draws the
logical conclusion to this line of thought when he denies the distinction between the &dquo;big sinner&dquo; and the &dquo;little sinner&dquo; altogether.2
We are all equally guilty by reason of original sin, by reason of our
primary revolt against God. And if we cannot better our lot by any
morally good act we may do, it is impossible to see that we can
worsen it either by any immoral act we may perform.
if man is a sinner through and through and if there is nothing in
him that is not defiled by sin; if all that he is and all that he does
is sinful, then there can be no incentive to act morally. Our ethically
good acts have no real significance. In fact, it would seem that our
moral transgressions have more significance for Brunner, for,
according to him, this ethical or legal immorality combined with
our vague knowledge of Gods existence and that it is Gods law
we break, is an important point of contact for the preaching of the
Gospel. You can only ask a man to repent and to accept a Saviour
if he has some consciousness of sin against God. &dquo;What natural
man knows of God, of the law of his own dependence upon God,

Just

as

ethically
gression

he

or

The Word and the World


, p. 24.
R. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny ,
of Man I, London, 1941, p. 234. Although
Brunner is prepared to allow that man can do some ethically good acts and that his
blindness to natural revelation is not total, yet original sin does lessen his natural
ability to do good and does hinder his vision. This raises another problem for Brunner.
However, since this is a problem which Catholic theology has to face—it, too declares
that original sin is the cause of unruly concupiscence and this may be connected with
a certain blindness—we may deal with the difficulty in connection with the Catholic
2

view.

228
may be very confused and distorted. But

even so

it is the necessary,

indispensable point of contact for divine grace&dquo;.x So the knowledge


of this legal injustice is available to man in his empirical state. But
the knowledge of his real sin or guilt comes only from the special
revelation in the Bible. And this very knowledge which reveals the
sin, dismisses it. Which leads to another _of Brunners many paradoxes. &dquo;Without knowledge of God there can be no sin: sin is
. always in the sight of God. In sin there can be no knowledge of2
God, for the true knowledge of God is the abolition of sins
That means to say three things: (a) there is no real sin when man
breaks the moral law in his empirical state or, rather this act is no
sinful in the true sense of the word than an act in accordance
with the law in this state; (b) when man is in sin, in revolt in the
state of original sin, he has no true or saving knowledge of God,
in short he has no faith; (c) when he does have faith, when he accepts
the word of God addressed to him his sin, of which he now becomes
aware, is abolished. For only the Bible revelation shows man his
sin,3 and the same Bible revelation heals it. Faith justifies man.
more

KARL BARTH

Although it has received much elaboration in his more recent


writings, this thesis of Emil Brunner has not changed essentially
since he expounded it in his Natur und Gnade, and since Karl Barth
rejected that statement of it in his famous Nein! Antwort an Emil
Brunner. It can be seen from the brief account of his teaching just
given that Brunner is concerned with the fundamental Reformation
position sola gratia, sola fides, sola Scriptura. Barth is concerned
with this position too, and ultimately his objection to Brunner is
that the latter has allowed an equivocality in his thought which
amounts to a betrayal of the &dquo;sola&dquo; principle.
Brunner has said that the image of God is totally destroyed in
man. Rather he says that the material image of God is totally
destroyed while the formal image remains. That means that mans
response to God which defines him, his existence in faith and in
the love of God,4 is wholly destroyed. But man remains rational..
He can still be addressed. He is still in that sense responsible.
Brunner refers to this in another context as mans potential personality.5 &dquo;Potential&dquo; because he is not yet fully himself, fully
-

1 Theology
Natural
, p. 32.
3
Man in Revolt
, p. 141.
5
The Word and the World, p. 119.

Natural Theology, p. 32.


Man in Revolt
, p. 104.

229
His rationality does not define him; we must add the
&dquo;whence&dquo; and &dquo;whither&dquo; of this rationality. The &dquo;whence&dquo; and
&dquo;whither&dquo; is his call to salvation, his existence in the love of God-.
This is his true definition, only now is he materially in the image of
God. But even in his corrupt state he retains rationality; he can be
addressed and that fact Brunner expresses by saying that man
retains the formal image of God. He regards this as the minimum
necessity, the minimum point of contact for grace or revelation.
Perhaps Barth is a little unfair to Brunner when he rejects the
reasoning at this stage, when he writes that this formal image of
God if it is not to be conceived as a positive potency for salvation
is the most uninteresting and unimportant
and that is impossible
2
he may well be more justified when he
about
man.2
But
thing
that
Brunner
complains
begins with this purely formal point of
contact for grace, yet enlarges this point of contact as he proceeds
until something which Barth must regard as a partial material image
of God is found in mans empirical state. Barth is referring to the
naturally good acts we perform and to the natural knowledge of
God which Brunner says we achieve. Now Barth does not want to
discuss natural ethics or natural theology at all. He will not be led
into an argument about the achievements of the human reason or
the human will without grace. He takes his stand on the Bible
teaching and on it alone and he will set no a priori limits to what
his faith can tell him. He feels that if he ever found himself mapping
out the realm of natural theology or natural morality he would
have already set limits to the extent of true biblical revelation
before he had explored it fully; and this he will not do. &dquo;For of
what use would be the purest theology based on grace and revelation
to me if I dealt with the subjects of grace and revelation in the same
way in which natural theology usually deals with its soi-disant
data derived from reason, nature and history, i.e., as if one had
them pocketed, as if one had the knowledge of them below one
instead of always behind and in front&dquo;.33
But he has this to say to anyone who does allow a natural
-knowledge of God and a natural or legal goodness: if man in his
blind condition achieves a knowledge of God, however imperfect
that may be, it is knowledge of the one true God and it cannot be
other than salutary.4 Similarly if man can know to some extent
and at least partially realize the ordinances of nature by his own

personal.

Man in Revolt
,

Natural Theology
, p. 77.

p.

103.

2
4

Natural Theology, p. 82.


Natural Theology
, p. 82.

230
resources, then he can get on good terms with God without the
sola Scriptura
grace of Christ. And where now is the sola gratia
-

principle ?2

nothing that Barth is widely regarded as the most


of
all
the Reformation theologians. And yet it is true to
consistent
he
is
more
consistent with the principles of the Reformation
that
say
when he refuses to treat with natural theology and natural ethics
than he is when he declares that there cannot be a good act which
is not a salutary act nor any knowledge of God which is other than
the faith that saves. If he will take his stand on the biblical revelation
he must confine himself to the Bible and he can hardly claim that
it settled that issue in any definitive manner. Barth may be speaking
an historical truth when he says that no good is or has been achieved
by man which is not eo ipso salutary. But the Bible does not bear
this out in any explicit way. His own positive thesis, however, is
utterly consistent with the sola Scriptura - sola gratia principle
of the Reformers.
Whenever he takes up the question of morality in his Church
Dogmatics his insistence is always the same: there can be for the
Christian no ethics independent of dogmatics, independent of the
elaboration of revealed truth. Dogmatics is ethics for it bases itself
It is not for

solely on the word of God and describes human existence and the
life of the holy man exclusively from that point of view.3 The
word of God declares that all men are sinners and Barth again
takes this to mean that men are sinners in all that they are and in
everything they do. Of course he is aware that moral systems have
been elaborated after the models of Aristotle or the Stoics. &dquo;Strange
as it may seem&dquo;, he remarks, &dquo;the general conception of ethics
coincides exactly with the conception of sin&dquo;.~4 It is simply an
attempt to ignore the grace of God. Once again this is sin for Barth,
this existence.and action without the grace of God. In this empirical
state of man everything is sin. Man exists and acts in a state of
revolt.
In one of his most recent publications Barth takes up the question
of freedom and it soon becomes clear that he is not using that term
in any sense in which moral philosophers are accustomed to using
it. It is not the freedom to do good or evil under the natural moral
law which underlies all our ethical judgments. Rather it is a freedom
1

2
Natural Theology, p. 87.
Natural
K. Barth, Church Dogmatics
, I, 2, par. 22, sec. 3.
4
Church Dogmatics
, II, 2, par. 36, sec. 1, p. 518.

Theology, p. 89.

231
conferred by God in his self-revelation to man. &dquo;Human freedom
is the gift of God in the free outpouring of his grace&dquo;. (Barth
writes of a &dquo;natural freedom of creation&dquo;, which corresponds to
Brunners &dquo;primal freedom&dquo;, which we lost by original sin and
which is restored, or a freedom similar to it, by grace.)2 It is simply
that God communicates his word to man. It is in enectthe capacity
(or freedom) to be saved. Under the word of God man has not the
freedom to be damned.3 Freedom here means capacity simply, a
capacity conferred by God, a capacity to be saved - not to be
damned, and, once again, in this sense of the word &dquo;freedom&dquo;,
man in the empirical state is not free.

Little sympathy should normally be shown the tendency to


describe the theological differences of history as mainly verbal
differences. If theologians are intelligent enough to differ on
fundamental points the presumption is that there is a real and not
merely a verbal difference between them. There is a real difference
of opinion between Barth and Brunner and it can probably be
expressed in a very concise way. Brunner believes that there can
be and presumably that there has been and is an ethical goodness
and a natural knowledge of God which is not salutary. Barth denies
this. Yet it is true to say that this difference of opinion should not
be important to them (we may for the moment leave the question
as to which of them may be right) or at least that it should not be
as important as the overall agreement of their teaching. Because if
Barth adheres strictly to the Bible he can hardly be dogmatic on
this point and if Brunner follows his own principles to their logical
conclusions then the ethically good acts are sinful and even less
important to his theology than the ethically bad. Both of them are
in agreement that man without faith is in a state of sin and all he
does is sinful.
It is characteristic of Barth and Brunner that they adopt a very
specific standpoint, that all their judgments on man are passed
from this standpoint and must be evaluated accordingly by reference
to it. Brunner accepts an existential definition of man - one who
is called in his very creation to faith and to existence in the love of
God. When he says that mans whole being is sinful and that all
his acts are sinful, he does not mean that mans natural constitution
1

K. Barth, The Humanity ,


of God London, 1961, p. 75.
The Humanity of God, p. 78.
3
The Humanity of God, pp. 76-7.

232

is somehow corrupt and that his acts all offend against a moral law
such as the ethicians know. He means simply that man is in revolt
against that very status which defines him, that his whole life is
alienated from his proper goal. That is Brunners definition of
man and his concept of sin and there is something to be said for
both of them.
Barth accepts the biblical teaching that all men are sinful and in
need of redemption and once again he does not restrict this to a
statement that all men in fact sin against a general moral law.
And nothing that he says can allow us to understand this universal
sin in anything less than its full moral and personal sense. Barth
and Brunner are in agreement that the free will is lost. From their
standpoint this means that man is incapable of reversing his revolt,
of supplying for his lack of faith. Sin for both of them means the
loss of faith and only Gods free gift of faith can cure it.
If the moral philosopher makes use of the term &dquo;sin&dquo; at all he
demands the presence of some conditions before it can be applied.
An act must be performed by an individual which is contrary to the
moral law or which clashes with his duty. He must perform this
act of his own free will, knowing what it is that he is doing. Then
he is said to be responsible for the act. If the moral philosopher
makes any distinction between the act of sin and the state of sin
he can only take the state of sin to mean a continuance of the
willing of evil, an unrepenting adherence to the rejection of ones
duty. But even in this state there is freedom and that means at once
personal responsibility and the ability to discontinue this state of

affairs.
It is clear from the
.

writings of Barth and Brunner that they


of
the
universal
sin of mankind as a sin in that full
speak
moral sense of the word. If they are using the term in any other
sense, they give the moral philosopher no clue to this fact. Brunner
is particularly explicit on the point that original sin is a willed
revolt.
Yet Barth and Brunner seem also agreed that mans sin consists
essentially in the loss of grace or faith. It is this loss ~which makes
man and all that he does sinful. And the faith in question is faith
in the biblical revelation. But how can there be full knowledge and
full consent in this loss; how can it be sinful in the full ethical
sense of that word? We are simply born without this faith and we
are therefore in no position to wilfully reject it. There are apostates,
mean

to

233

of course, but they are few and this is the sin of every man who is
born. Brunner has been noted to write of mans primal freedom
and Barth of the natural freedom of creation. They both mean
freedom in the sense of the ability to believe or in the sense of faith
which gives the ability to be saved. Do they then mean to imply
that at one stage we had this faith, this freedom? And what does
&dquo;at one stage&dquo; imply? A stage in human history? Brunner certainly
will not accept that. A stage in the life of each individual? This
would be difficult to verify -- that each individual received the
revelation and then rejected it. At least before he received it he
would not have been in the state of sin as these theologians define
it. Brunner, in fact, destroys any possibility of calling this loss of
faith a sin in the ethical sense when he writes, as remarked above,
that we do not know we are sinners until the Bible tells us so. At
this stage there can be no question of full knowledge and full
consent.

It is fair to say again that there is much in favour of Brunners


definition of man and in favour of Barths regarding man from a
strictly biblical point of view. This is not a matter that can be
developed here, but anyone who reads Karl Rahners chapter on
the relationship between nature and grace, where he asks us not
to be overconfident in offering a clear and complete definition of
human &dquo;nature&dquo;, will see just how much value there is in the point
of view adopted by the New Theology. For our idea of humanity
is derived from our experience of actual, historical man, and God
has in fact been constantly involved in a supernatural way in human
history from the very beginning. It is only fair to point out also
that the definition of sin which these theologians propose has
much to recommend it. It is at least true to say that in a natural
scheme of things, as far as we can judge, a breach of the moral law
would not involve the same personal offence to God as it does
once God has personally approached the human race. That is not
to accept the above definitions of man and of sin. It is only to say
that they do contain an element of truth which must not be overlooked. In any case, Barth and Brunner ultimately fall foul of the
old dilemma: if original sin is inevitable it can hardly be sin as the
moral philosopher understands it; but if it is sin in this sense then
it cannot be inevitable.
We should turn to the Roman Catholic theology of original sin,
then. And yet anyone who is versed in the principles of moral
1

K.

Theological Investigations I, London, 1961, pp. 297 ff.


Rahner, ,

234

philosophy will not turn to this theology with any great confidence.

warn him that Brunner and his co-religionists


with
ruthless consistency assumptions which are
are carrying
Christian
in
embedded
theology at least since the time of Augustine.
Lewis
These theologians,
thinks, express the only logical conclusion to the doctrine of original sin. &dquo;It does not seem possible
to be a consistent traditionalist without eventually joining hands
with Barth and Brunner and Niebuhr&dquo;.1
Can the Catholic doctrine of original sin be expressed in such a
way as to escape the philosophers objections? In what does it
differ from the position described above according to the writings
of modern Reformation theologians? (This is not easy to decide
since Catholic theologians have misrepresented Reform. theology on
this issue as blithely and consistently as it has misrepresented them.)
At first sight Catholic theology only seems to leave itself open to
two further objections over and above those already levelled at
Barth and Brunner. First, a sin is transmitted in a physical fashion,
i.e., by procreation. Second, it is in Catholic theology rather than
in the theology of Barth and Brunner that a corruption of human
nature in the sense of an intrinsic weakening of mans normal
capacities looms large in the discussion of original sin. Think of
the normal Catholic theologians concept of concupiscence.
A critical analysis of this Catholic position will take at least
another article.
J. P. MACKEY

He had H. D. Lewis to
out

Morals and the New


1

,
Theology

p. 146.

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