Original Sin

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In the New Testament the term "original sin" does not appear, although the basic idea of the doctrine is found in Paul's epistles, Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. But it should be noted that Paul nowhere overemphasized this idea; he asserts that men, if reborn in Christ, "will die to sin." It was not until the days of Augustine (d. 430) that the idea became a central issue of Christian anthropology and soteriology. Augustine taught that man became completely corrupt by the fall of Adam; that is he can do no good whatever (denying any freedom of the will), hence has to rely wholly upon God's forgiving grace, which the believer received undeservedly through the atoning death of Christ. Augustine defended this thesis against Pelagius (a British monk), who denied the sinfulness of man and thus asserted that man can do good of his own volition.

The Reformation, both Lutheran and Calvinistic, renewed definitely the Augustinian position of total corruption (or depravity) and of man's inability to do any good, mainly in opposition to both the Catholic doctrine of "Semi-Pelagianism" and the teachings of the humanists, above all Erasmus, who taught that man has a completely free will to decide for or against the good.

The Anabaptists were for the most part outside of all these controversies. With few exceptions they read neither Augustine nor Luther nor Erasmus; therefore the issue of original sin was for them of significance only as they found themselves in religious debates or polemics where they had to defend their position against their Catholic and Protestant opponents. In the rather extensive doctrinal literature of the Anabaptists of the 16th century there are scarcely more than a dozen pages dealing with the issue of original sin; in fact, most doctrinal tracts of the Anabaptist brethren completely bypass this idea or doctrine. John C. Wenger in his Doctrines of the Mennonites (1952) presents only one quotation from Menno Simons in his chapter on "Sin"; and Christian Neff in his article "Erbsünde" in the Mennonitisches Lexikon says that the Anabaptists avoided the term "original sin" because it is not found in the Scriptures. Hans Denck declined outright to speak about original sin (with its implication of depravity of man) since he strongly felt that an urge for the good is present in every man. The man who could write the tract Concerning True Love naturally had little use for a lamentation concerning man's inability to love. In fact, even Pilgram Marpeck, one of the few Anabaptists who developed specific ideas in this area, also stressed what he calls the Gegenerb (counter-inheritance), meaning the promise to mankind of the coming reconciliation of man through Christ and the message of brotherly love.

It is therefore fitting to ask how Protestantism and Anabaptism, both deriving their doctrines from the Bible, could develop their teachings in such divergent directions. The clue to this puzzle may be found in two arguments: (a) The Anabaptists believed in the freedom of the will, though to be sure not of the Pelagian type but rather in the sense that with the help of divine grace man may overcome evil tendencies in his character and obey the divine commandments. Without this freedom of the will, discipleship, the heart of Anabaptism, loses its meaning, (b) The Anabaptists believed in and strongly emphasized spiritual rebirth (John 3:3), the transformation of "natural" man into "spiritual" man who now can see his new way, and likewise feels his power (received through a spiritual experience) to resist evil, sin, disobedience to God, pride, and selfishness, which formerly might have dominated his character. Of course, such newly gained strength is never a complete guarantee against possible backsliding (see below, Felbinger's Confession), and life remains a continuous struggle between the two natures of man.

On both points the Reformers took a different direction, remembering Paul's cry of desperation: "For I know that in me dwelleth no good thing" (Romans 7:18, and similar words), but overlooking his assurance that the believer has actually died to sin. Thus the controversy developed between the Augustinian position on the one hand and the evangelical on the other: the awareness of one's basic corruption versus the divine call to discipleship, something which the Reformers considered well-nigh impossible and indeed held to be a sort of pharisaical self-righteousness and pride.

To understand the Anabaptists' position one must consider their scattered utterances concerning man and his predicament. "One must discriminate between having sin and committing sin," said Claus Felbinger in 1560. Of course, as careful Bible readers the Anabaptists knew very well Paul's thesis that all mankind has inherited from its first parents some corruption, some evil tendencies, and an inclination toward disobedience to God, in short "sin." But this inheritance must under no condition be taken as an inescapable fate that cannot be mended. Hubmaier's booklet Concerning Free Will (1527) refers expressly to a passage by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18:4, and Ezekiel 20) that "the soul that sins shall die" (i.e., the soul may either sin or not die), and he quotes Ezekiel's dictum that "the son shall not bear the iniquities of the father nor shall the father bear the iniquities of the son." This reference to Ezekiel is particularly significant for Anabaptist thought because it removes the fatalistic character of "inherited" sin which became so oppressive in Protestant orthodoxy and so hopeless as to life's possibilities. Later Peter Riedemann used the same argument in his great Rechenschaft of 1540. The Handbüchlein wider den Prozess (see Bedenken) of 1558, which elaborates on this issue, repeats Riedemann's quotation from Ezekiel.

It is quite probable that the idea of original sin came into Anabaptist thought not so much through the Apostle Paul's writings (where the idea is by no means dominating), but rather through the apocryphal book known as "The Fourth Book of Ezra," which was a favorite of the Anabaptists. In chapters 3 and 7 of this volume, often quoted in Anabaptist and Mennonite tracts, the idea of original sin is elaborated upon and lamented. "O thou Adam, what hast thou done! For though it was thou that sinned, thou art not fallen alone but we all that come of thee" (IV Ezra 7:48). But inasmuch as the Anabaptist brotherhoods were gatherings of "reborn" souls who in accepting baptism upon faith had pledged themselves to walk the narrow path and to fight sin, and to help each other in this fight both by discipline and order, this recognition of man's fall did not at all lead to despair and an exclusive "sola fide" theology, as with the Reformers. "We should fear God," wrote Jakob Hutter in 1535, "and be careful concerning our inherent sin and inborn weakness, so that we do not allow that sin any longer to dominate in our mortal body, and also that we will no longer be obedient to sin and the devil and may not use our limbs any longer for sinning." This was the meaning of the pledge given at the time of the believer's baptism.

In dealing with the problem of original sin—mainly on the occasion of debates with authorities or when rejecting accusations - the Anabaptists appropriately distinguished between two separate problems: (a) the function of original sin in infants who do not yet know the distinction between good and evil, and (b) the role and working of original sin in the life of adults before and after conversion.

(a) The first problem deals of course also with infant baptism as considered necessary by the Catholic Church to save these infants from hell. On this point all Anabaptists were unanimous. Although sin, handed down through the generations through the Adamic nature, inescapably leads to temporal or physical death ("The wages of sin is death"—an oft-quoted verse in Anabaptist tracts) of both children and adults, it does not mean condemnation to eternal death or hell, since Christ has died for all mankind (no predestination!) and thus reconciled God and man. Thus He died also for the innocent children. In this regard they were sure of God's bountiful grace made efficacious through Christ's supreme sacrifice. Whether we read Riedemann or Marpeck or Menno Simons or the Hessian Confession of 1578, there is no difference on this point: infant baptism as a saving sacrament has no justification in evangelical faith. Indeed to claim that unbaptized children should be eternally lost was in their eyes a climax of blasphemy and an expression of lack of faith.

(b) Quite different is the understanding of the brethren concerning sin in adult life. They did not deny its presence or power in the body, the inclination or tendency toward evil (Neigung or Neiglichkeit), in a still stronger term also "temptation." It is helpful to remember that the Anabaptists shared the radical dualism of the writers of the New Testament, that is, the contraposition of the world of the devil and darkness and the world (or kingdom) of God and of light. Similarly they accepted the Pauline dualism of flesh and spirit, nature and supernature. "Through conversion," Pilgram Marpeck asserts, "man came from nature into supernature (aus der Natur in die Uebernatur) and became a spiritual being." Without such dualism the experience of true conversion and rebirth would completely lose its existential meaning. As soon as man enters the new "covenant of a good conscience with God" (1 Peter 3:21), that is through baptism, he is determined to resist this inclination to sin, and will bring his flesh under the discipline (Zuchtrute) of the spirit. Only thus can he try to be obedient to God's commandments and be assured that it is possible "to be as pure as the newborn babes" (Ulrich Stadler (1536), quoting 1 Peter 2:2).

This was the opinion of practically all Anabaptists and it appears that teachings of this kind must have developed in many places at a rather early date. Sebastian Franck's famous Chronica, Zeitbuch und Geschichtsbibel of 1531 contains exactly these ideas as the gist of the Anabaptist position concerning original sin. In the section "Chronica der Römischen Ketzer" (Fol. 447) he says: "Concerning original sin nearly all Anabaptists teach as follows: just as the righteousness (Gerechtigkeit) of Christ is of no avail to anyone unless he makes it a part of his own being through faith, so also Adam's sin (i.e., original sin) does not impair anybody except the one who makes it a part of his own being through faith, and likewise brings forth fruit of this sin. For, as foreign righteousness does not save anybody, so will foreign sin not condemn anybody either, [See below, the reference to Ezekiel 18.]."

"On the other hand, if Adam's sin condemns all men at once merely by its (inherent) nature, it necessarily follows that Christ's righteousness would save all men at once. But if Christ's righteousness saves only those believers who by faith have become transformed into Christ Himself, that is, who no longer live themselves but Christ lives in them, then it follows clearly that Adam's sin likewise condemns only nonbelievers who became Adam not by the mere fact of having been born but by their particular faith or rather unfaith, and by the fact that they bring forth fruit of this kind of faith; in other words, that they are rooted and planted in Him and He in them. That is how they speak of that matter."

On Fol. 446, he says, "Nearly all Anabaptists consider children to be of pure and innocent blood, and they consider original sin not a sin which of itself condemns both the children and the adults. They also claim that it does not make anyone unclean except the one who accepts this sin, makes it his own, brings forth fruits of it and is unwilling to part from it. For they claim foreign sin does not condemn anybody, and in this they refer to the Ezekiel 18."

We shall now discuss in greater detail this concept of original sin as held by the southern Anabaptists, examining first several Hutterite doctrinal writings (1536-1558) since they furnish relatively the richest yield, and shall then undertake a similar study in the writings of Pilgram Marpeck, the man whom Horst Quiring rightly claimed to have been one of the very few Anabaptist leaders to develop a real doctrine of original sin.

The earliest Hutterite documents on this point are Ulrich Stadler's two epistles of 1536 to the brethren in Crasniktau in Poland. In them he states categorically, "What does not derive from faith is sin."' His first letter has clearly two parts: a gloomy one dealing with God's wrath and punishment, and a hopeful one showing that there is a way out. "The spirit in us that does not consent to sin has pleasure in the Law and agrees that it is good." And then he continues that the new man will certainly receive the strengthening help of Jesus Christ so that the spirit will rule in him and compel the flesh to become obedient to this spirit.

It is interesting to find exactly the same phrase in Peter Riedemann's Rechenschaft. Repentance brings about a real turning point, after which man begins to "bring his flesh into subjection." But of course this is by no means the entire story. As mentioned above, Riedemann affirms that no one may attain what is good unless he is born again. If Christ had not come into the world, there would be no more hope for life. But now, since He became the reconciliation for the whole world (Colossians 1:20;1 John 2:2), He has brought it about that original sin, "before it stirreth within man, leading to further sin, now causeth physical death only and not eternal, that the word might be fulfilled: the children shall not bear the iniquities of the fathers but he who sinneth shall himself die. Ezekiel 18."

Further, he who is genuinely sorry for his sin must henceforth guard himself against it and flee from it as from a serpent. Ecclesiasticus 21. Do not misinterpret, however, this Hutterite position as gloomy and puritanically stern. Right after this chapter concerning original sin, Riedemann deals joyously with the New Covenant and assures the reader with words taken from the Epistle to the Galatians: "This then is the covenant of childlike freedom of which we also are the children, if and when we submit and surrender ourselves to its working."

In 1558 a Hutterite brother, probably Peter Walpot, drew up a reply to Melanchthon's (and other Lutheran theologians) pamphlet of 1557, called Prozess wie es soll gehalten werden, titled Handbüchlein wider den Prozess. In its seventh book or chapter, answer is given to Melanchthon's claim that the Anabaptists teach that children have no original sin. In this tract three different connotations of the idea of original sin are presented, which is perhaps the most succinct exposition of the Anabaptist "theology of sin." (1) Adam fell and drew with him all posterity (IV Ezra 7:48), including infants. The result is temporal death for all, infants and adults. But Christ is the reconciliation of the whole world, hence children will gain God's eternal grace, to be sure without any merit on their part. (2) Other original sin is the sinful inclination of man in general which is found in all. However, if this inclination is not yielded to (nicht ins Werk gebracht wird), then it does not condemn or lead to eternal death. "There is . . . now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). (3) "Inheritance" has no power over the one who believes in Christ (apparently he is thinking here of temptations and Anfechtungen). "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin" (1 John 3:9). The Handbüchlein repeats once more the reference to Ezekiel, obviously borrowing from the Rechenschaft.

In a more practical vein Claus Felbinger repeats the same ideas in his trial before Bavarian authorities at Landshut in 1560. As the child grows, his inclinations to sin will likewise become stronger. "Therefore one must teach them the fear of the Lord and keep them with the rod until they reach understanding." The adult finally, if he desires to enter into the bond of God and to spend his life in godliness, and if this desire is well proved, will be baptized upon confession of faith. But even the devout are never exempt from original sin, that is, the rising urge in the flesh, evil occurrences, and sinful thoughts. It will trouble and sadden them. Although we have died to sin (Romans 6), original sin still remains with us; as long as man is in the flesh he must fight against it ceaselessly.

Pilgram Marpeck does not add much to the above "theology" except that his presentation is slightly more intellectual. According to Jan Kiwiet, Marpeck followed strongly the line of Hans Denck (a sort of mysticism of love), mainly in his anthropology. He taught that even after Adam's fall God remained a gracious God and did not withdraw His breath from man. In other words, the "image of God" (also called "breath of God") remains with man and distinguishes him from the rest of creation. Man, created in God's image and capable of loving, therefore has the freedom of conscience to deliberately accept or reject God's commandments, that is, the freedom to either obey or disobey. Not the flesh, not procreation, not any natural process as such is sinful; rather sin must be understood as being rooted in "knowledge": Die Sünde steht im Wissen.

Man is born with a tendency toward evil (as we now know), which tendency can be observed even in a young child, but such a tendency may not yet be called "sin," as it has not become a conscious act of the will. Only conscious acts have the quality of obedience or disobedience, faith or sin, and it is only when we are sinning consciously and deliberately that this inborn tendency may be understood as "original sin." It is at the same time that man is called to repentance and conversion. Baptism upon faith is dying to sin, for it means that we have freely decided for Christ.

Original sin draws its inevitable consequences: a troublesome and sorrowful life, and eventually natural death. And it is universal. Marpeck emphasizes the power and inevitability of sin in man as he comes to the time of knowledge. Marpeck therefore rejects Schwenckfeld's charge that he is a Pelagian, and indeed as Bergsten says, his emphasis on the power and universality of sin "saves him from any Pelagian optimism in his concept of man." Marpeck however also holds the idea of the real image of God in man even after the Fall (which was also an idea in Hubmaier's writings). Whatever heritage we have received from Adam does not deprive us of our own final responsibility before God. "The old heart is of no avail, therefore God must give us a new heart." Marpeck like all the other Anabaptists refers expressly to Ezekiel 18 as his main locus against an overworked doctrine of original sin. In the Vermanung of 1542 we read: "Inasmuch as Ezekiel says that neither the child shall bear the iniquities of the father nor the father the iniquities of the child, who then will charge the unknowing children with sin?"

Horst Quiring, who analyzed Marpeck's anthropology for the first time, concluded from the fact that Marpeck speaks so seldom of man's sinfulness that there is a certain "optimism" in him with regard to his evaluation of man (somewhat like Hans Denck); in other words, Marpeck believes in man's basic capacity to overcome sin and to return to God as God's child. What characterizes Marpeck in particular is his refusal to identify sin and flesh (as many Hutterites seem to have believed), and to center the concept of sin in the "knowledge of good and evil." Even though fallen, man has never lost sight of God, and the way back, though it may be a hard one, is yet a glorious possibility. -- RF

The Dutch Mennonites of the present time do not hold the doctrine of original sin. This is not a consequence of predominant Liberalism, but of Mennonite aversion to this doctrine from the earliest period of Anabaptism. In the numerous accounts written by or about the Dutch 16th-century martyrs, original sin is rarely mentioned. When the doctrine came up for discussion during the trials, as in the cross-examination of Jacques d'Auchy and Adriaen Cornelis, the martyrs rejected the Roman Catholic view. This Mennonite position may have been due in part to the fact that they were usually not scholarly theologians and did not understand fine theological distinctions, but it was still more due to their fundamental aversion to this doctrine. Their denial of the effects of original sin was one of the principal themes during the great disputations held with Calvinists (Frankenthal 1571, Emden 1578, Leeuwarden 1596). Calvinist theologians writing against the Mennonites in the 16th-18th centuries regularly charged them with the heresy of not accepting the doctrine of original sin.

Mennonite authors in general do not give this doctrine much attention. Even Menno Simons and Dirk Philips, the basic "theologians" of 16th-century Mennonitism, only incidentally deal with original sin. Menno uses the term in his Foundation Book and says, "We confess and believe that we are all born of unclean seed, that we through the first Adam became wholly depraved and children of death" The Catholic Church, he continues, claims that we obtain remission of original sin by baptism; but we do not accept this view, since we believe that we receive forgiveness and remission by the death of the Son of God, the second Adam. "By him we have obtained grace, favor, and the forgiveness of our sins" (Writings: 130). In his Een Weemoedige ende Christelycke Ontschuldinge (Reply to False Accusations) (Writings: 563), Menno argues similarly: We are all conceived and born in sin and have a sinful nature, and "this is not ineptly called original sin"; but we have been reconciled by Christ and thus "for Christ's sake [the original sin] is not counted as sin unto us."

Dirk Philips is somewhat more minute in his expositions on this theme, but basically takes the same view as Menno. He admits the fact—at least theoretically—of total corruption (according to Psalm 51:7; Romans 5:12, 18 f). In Van der Doope he writes, "Man has become wretched, poor, and bare by Adam and has thus been born from him...," but the Lamb of God has "removed and covered the sin of Adam and of the whole world. For this reason now the sin of Adam and Eve will not condemn nor damn anybody, because Jesus Christ by His death and blood has removed it." At present children are "still" conceived and born in sin, but this "original sin, as it is called, is not imputed to them.to damnation for Christ's sake. Children are somewhat like Adam and Eve before the fall, namely, they are simple and good and know neither good nor bad."

The Dutch Mennonite confessions scarcely deal with original sin. Jan Cents' Confession (1630), without mentioning the term original sin, simply states that mankind has fallen in Adam and has been reconciled by the mercy of God (Article 3). The Dordrecht Confession (1632), likewise avoiding the term, writes similarly (Articles 2 and 3).

Only the Cornelis Ris Confession (1766) is somewhat more circumstantial on this topic. Although Ris was somewhat influenced by Calvinism, he nevertheless rejected the consequences of the doctrine of original sin as taught by the Calvinists.

About 1700, when some Dutch Mennonites were leaning toward Calvinism, even adopting the Calvinist views on original sin, e.g., Lambert Bidloo and Douwe Feddriks, influential Mennonite leaders both among the Zonists and the Lamists, such as Herman Schijn, Galenus Abrahamsz, and Jan Klaasz, plainly rejected the doctrine of original sin. In Verdediging der Christenen (1699) Galenus formulates his concept thus: We believe that man, created good and right by God, has by his own trespass and fault fallen from this good estate, but that all has been abundantly restored by the Lord Christ...; that consequently innocent children are not born with damnable and deadly guilt; and nobody will be punished by the righteous God except for his own trespasses and his own sins (Korte Grondstellingen, No. XXV). In the 19th century a few Mennonites, influenced by the Reveil, like Jan de Liefde, showed some leaning toward the strict Calvinist views on original sin.

In summary it may be said that Dutch Mennonitism has rejected the doctrine of original sin for these three reasons, (a) because the term is unscriptural, (b) because Christ has removed the consequences of original sin, (c) because they could not admit that "the new life" (conversion) was hindered by an unfree will corrupted by original sin. -- vdZ

See also Sin


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Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Friedmann, Robert and Nanne van der Zijpp. "Original Sin." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 24 Jul 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Original_Sin&oldid=162913.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1959). Original Sin. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 July 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Original_Sin&oldid=162913.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 79-83. All rights reserved.

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