original sin and the eastern church

Like Pelagius in the 4th century, Emergent leaders Doug Pagitt and his best friend Tony Jones deny the doctrine of original sin.  And just as Pelagius and his followers found refuge in the East, so Pagitt and Jones say that their view, while heretical to Western Christians, is acceptable in the (Eastern) Orthodox Church. 

This is an interesting claim, and deserves a historical and theological response.

1. Historically:  it is true that Pelagius was not condemned in the East, but that was because the slippery Pelagius denied his views before the Jerusalem Council and the Synod of Diospolis.  There he anathematized some of the statements of his student, Coelestius, who had learned those ideas from Pelagius himself.  Other reasons for Pelagius’ acquittal were the inability of his accuser to speak Greek and the desire of the assembled bishops to be reassured of his orthodoxy.  When Augustine learned that Pelagius had been let off the hook, he replied that “it was not the heresy that was acquitted, but the man who denied the heresy.”

2. Theologically:  Timothy Ware, an important bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church (he is a titular metropolitan bishop of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate), wrote in his book, The Orthodox Church (Penguin, 1963; reprinted 1985), 228-29, that the Orthodox believe that “the consequences of Adam’s disobedience extended to all his descendants.  …Man’s will is weakened and enfeebled by what the Greeks call ‘desire’ and the Latins ‘concupiscence.’  We are all subject to these, the spiritual effects of original sin.”

“Certainly, as a result of the fall man’s mind became so darkened, and his will-power was so impaired, that he could no longer hope to attain to the likeness of God.”

“Men (Orthodox usually teach) automatically inherit Adam’s corruption and mortality, but not his guilt.”

Me:  while it’s true that the Eastern church has a less severe view of original sin than is found in Augustine and the West (i.e., the West thinks that original sin consists of both corruption and guilt, while Ware only includes the former), yet it is apparent that the Eastern church does believe that everyone is born corrupted because of Adam’s sin.

Here is the point:  those who deny original sin cannot sustain their claim that their view was or is acceptable to the Eastern church.  Their antecedents include Pelagius, the rationalistic Socinians of the 17th century, and modern liberals such as Albrecht Ritschl.  None of these adhere to the historic, orthodox faith.  What are the implications for Jones and Pagitt? 







25 responses to “original sin and the eastern church”

  1. The implications are tremendous. To deny sin is to deny the overarching narrative of Scripture (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation). This has implications for how we view humanity, Christ and his work, the meaning of the Gospel, etc, etc.

    However, Jones is more subtle. He may deny original sin, but he says on his blog very recently that he does not deny sin. I think what he is struggling with is the origin of our sin. This strikes me as similar to someone who believes in theistic evolution. They acknowledge God has Creator but questions the traditional understanding of HOW. Jones acknowledges sin, but questions the traditional understanding of HOW. Therefore, he can maintain the narrative.

    Who else in history has taken this approach?

  2. I don’t know much about Doug Pagitt, but I see his newest book is called “A Christianity Worth Believing.” Interesting.

    I mean this in the kindest way, Dr. Wittmer — your rebukes are like “Knuckle Sandwiches Worth Eating.”

    Hey, you should retitle “Program Introduction Seminar” as “A Knuckle Sandwich Picnic”!

  3. I just reread my post. Horrible grammar and spelling, but the point is the same!

  4. Justin

    For one thing, this denial of original sin seems to reveal a capitulation to 20th century humanist psychology wherein there is the assumption of the fundamental goodness of humanity. All people must then be born good…we are then made sinful by the circumstances around us and by the decisions we make. Particularly with the circumstantial cause of sin, there seems to create here wiggle room for trying to get people out of the guilt of sin. Does this lead us down the road of universalism?

    On a more biblical level, would the denial of original sin (as a condition) also mean the denial of the fallout from this event (the original sin of Adam and Eve exercising autonomy over God’s Word) to all creation? Either sin spread into all creation as a consequence of the event that is the original sin (Genesis 3), corrupting it in every way and leading to the condition called original sin inherited by all, or this original sin and its effects remained localized to Adam and Eve. Why then is there a need for a new creation? Why then is there the need for us to be regenerated? Why then is there the need for us to be made new in the eschaton?

    I also wonder what sort of gymnastics they would do with passages like Romans 5:12ff. I can see what they might argue with v. 12 itself, trying to assert that death enters for each because each sins. But if that is the interpretation of v. 12, what then do they do with v.15, “For if the many died through the transgression of the one man…” Here we must affirm some sort of inherited consequence for sin, right? Or what of v. 17: “For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one…”. Here too must we not affirm some sort of inherited consequence from Adam? If not guilt, we must at least affirm corruption!

    And if we follow Paul’s logic here, if there is no inherited consequence for sin, can there be any inherited consequence for the righteousness of Jesus Christ as adopted children? It seems to me this would violate the logic Paul is using in Romans 5. Just as sin disseminates to all from one, wherein the many are inheriting the works of the one, so also those who receive the gift of God’s grace inherit the righteousness of Christ.

    Need I even mention that we really wouldn’t need to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus if we deny original sin?

    Am I missing something here? Or is this denial of the doctrine of original sin truly as ridiculous as it seems?

  5. Yooper

    Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—

    Romans 5:18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.

    John 3:6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’

    II Timothy 4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.

    Proverbs 18:2 A fool has no delight in understanding, But in expressing his own heart.

  6. They’re heretics.
    Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

  7. I haven’t studied the positions of those involved enough to comment on them specifically. But, one of the things I hear people say in a positive way about the emergent church is that they are less individualistic.

    However, this position on original sin seems more individualistic. Murray said, paraphrased, that a way of thinking that makes us aloof to solidarity with Adam also undermines our solidarity in Christ . . .

    So, I’m asking. Isn’t this more individualistic?

  8. mikewittmer


    Tony may not be as subtle as you think. Does he ever define what he means by “sin”? Does he think that people are born sinful, or merely that they all eventually do sin? It seems that he holds the latter, which logically implies that some people could avoid all sin if they wanted, and thus wouldn’t even need to be saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This position is not new or even all that subtle. It is the same thing that Pelagius taught, and Augustine clearly explained why it was heretical.


    I haven’t had a chance to study Tony’s post in depth (I’m working with dial-up at the moment, which even the Amish think is slow), but from what I saw it seems that Tony thinks that Paul is wrong in Romans 5. At which point I throw up my hands and say it’s over. If we can dismiss the Bible because it doesn’t fit our intuition, then I don’t know what else to say. If, as Tony says, the community is the new magisterium, then apparently he and whoever is sitting beside him on the couch at Solomon’s Porch has more authority than the clear teaching of the Word of God.


    You are right. I mean this in a descriptive rather than a mean way, but I am discovering that several Emergent strengths don’t come as advertised. For example, I have not found them to be as humble and concerned for relationships as they claim. So I’m not surprised to find strains of hyper-individualism either.

  9. Yooper

    Chris Brauns,

    The following is from an interview with Doug Pagitt, found at Pagitt’s website:

    “…Todd: I’m a good Muslim. What happens to my soul when I die?
    Doug: You are… you interact with God, just as every other human being interacts with God.
    Todd: You mean Hebrews 9: “It is appointed to a man once to die and then judgment?”
    Doug: Right, yea, that’s interaction with…
    Todd: So he gets judged?
    Doug: Right, that’s interaction with God.
    Todd: Uh huh, and so…
    Doug: Yeah.
    Todd: What’s… what’s going to happen to the… How is God going to judge the good Muslim?
    Doug: Does it.. God’s going to judge the life and repair and restore and heal the life of everybody in the same way. There’s gonna be no difference between what God…
    Todd: So the Muslim is ultimately not going to be… go to a bad place. He’s ultimately going to be restored with God when he dies?
    Doug: No, there’s going to be no difference between the way God going to interact with you when you die and the way God’s going to interact with a Muslim when a Muslim dies.
    Todd: So I wanna put… I wanna put this into my fundamentalist language. What I just heard you say is: There is no difference between the Christian and the Muslim afterlife. God is going to have a good place prepared for both of us.
    Doug: No, I… No I didn’t say a place. See, here you go again.
    Todd: Ok, a good thing, a good event, a good existence.
    Doug: I didn’t say a place. What I said was, the way God’s going to interact with you is the same way that God’s going to interact with everybody. The same experience of all of humanity. God will… God will interact with all of humanity in judgment the same, no matter who you are, or what your parents have taught you, or what you believe.

    Todd: OK, so when God creates a new heaven and a new earth, what is that going to be if it’s not an actual place?
    Doug: It’s a recreated … heaven and earth.
    Todd: OK, fine. Who’s gonna be there?
    (Silent Pause)
    Doug: There?
    Todd: (unintelligible mumbling.)
    Doug: See, here we, oh boy. Here we go again. This is just not working.
    Todd: I agree!
    Doug: (laughing) It’s unbelievable. See I have a very difficult time working with the dualistic Platonic, Platonist like yourselves, because I have to be taken back into … remind myself, that rather than following the Jesus narrative, I have to go into Plato, and Socrates understanding of the cosmos, so they can end up with a Heaven in one place, in one sphere, and functioning by one set of rules…

    Todd: Alright, sir. Now you recognize, and, and I’m not gonna sling this around recklessly, but if I understand, IF I understand you correctly…. what you’re presenting is outside of orthodox, historic Christianity. You do ahh, realize that, don’t you?
    Doug: No, what YOU’RE suggesting in this phone conversation is outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity because it’s riddled with Platonism, and it’s riddled with the cosmology that would never be acceptable to uh, Christians through the ages.
    Todd: Like Luther, and Calvin, and Spurgeon, and Whitefield, and Moody? Those guys wouldn’t agree with me, they’d agree with you?
    Doug: Yeeaaaa… well, I can’t tell you everything that you believe about things, but if they had to listen to this conversation, I think they’d be terrified by the … [theme music cut off his sentence.]
    Todd: I think they’d be terrified too, sir. Doug Pagitt of SolomonsPorch.com. We’ll let everybody decide. Do you understand what just happened here? This is way of the Master radio.
    [End transcript.]”


  10. taddelay

    I don’t know how closely any of you are reading Tony Jones’ blogs on this, but he in no way is denying that every single person sins and is guilty because of it. He’s basically just toying with the idea that came into vogue with Augustine (not saying he was the first ever to think it, but his writing made it popular) that sin is passed through the father’s semen.

    He is writing nothing of denying sin.

  11. I haven’t read all of Tony’s posts, but I think I agree with taddelay in that Jones is not denying sin in these posts, he’s interacting with the origin of sin. Again, I refer to my analogy of theistic evolution. I think he’s reengaging the HOW of sin.

    But let’s get to his definition of sin, which is of primary concern to me. Here is what he put in print in The New Christians: “Indeed, many emergent Christians will concur that we live in a sinful world…But they will be inclined to attribute this sin not to the distance between human beings and God but to the broken relationships that clutter our lives and our world” (p. 78). The atonement, then, “attempts to explain how human sins are forgiven by God, particularly in relation to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (p. 116).

    Thus the real issue is not his search for how sin is transmitted. The real issue is that he defines sin merely in terms of human relationships and seems to completely ignore sin in terms of our relationship with God. WOW!

  12. On a different note, less important than my previous post, I’m interested about your response. I completely agree with the doctrine of original sin. I think it is biblical. But I want to learn from your comment: “Does he think that people are born sinful, or merely that they all eventually do sin? It seems that he holds the latter, which logically implies that some people could avoid all sin if they wanted, and thus wouldn’t even need to be saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.”

    I’m not sure this is the logical implication. It seems possible for someone to hold the view that all people are born without guilt yet will in fact sin. The “will in fact sin” shows that it is impossible to avoid sin all their lives. This does seem closer to the Orthodox position of being born with an inclination to sin and also seems closer to how Roman Catholics view a baptized baby (original sin is gone, but they will sin). So I can see how he could deny original sin but still claim that each person will in fact sin, therefore needing Christ.

    I don’t agree with the above position, but it does seem logical.

  13. Yooper

    Keep it simple, I don’t see how the Word of God could be any clearer about original sin. And as I’ve experienced with my children and seen discussed on this blog – you don’t have to teach a child to do wrong.

    Beliefs don’t matter, and at the judgment everything will be made right for everyone…Doug Pagitt’s “theology” is very dangerous.

  14. mikewittmer

    Brian and Tad:

    Original sin includes more than guilt, but also pollution. We receive both pollution and guilt from Adam’s sin (Eastern Orthodox deny the guilt but affirm the pollution). Are you suggesting that Tony believes that either one is true?

    Brian: If we are not born polluted by Adam’s sin, then it is theoretically possible to avoid sinning. So said Augustine against Pelagius. If you say that sin is inevitable, then you’re suggesting that we are somehow born with an inclination to sin, and you’re back to original sin again. It’s not logically possible to deny original sin (which includes corruption, not merely guilt) and affirm that everyone must eventually sin.

    Tad, the issue here is not whether every person in fact does eventually sin, but whether they sin because they have inherited a corrupt/polluted nature from Adam. Tony realizes that this is what Paul is saying in Romans 5, and is also why he suggests that Paul is wrong. Are you seriously defending this, Tad?

    To the point: once you deny original sin (inherited corruption and guilt from Adam), then you open the door to the possibility that some people may never sin and so will not need a Savior. This is the theological issue. Tony’s dismissal of Paul is an even larger problem.

  15. taddelay

    I was just seeking to point out that tony is not denying that every single person is a sinner (as some have mockingly suggested otherwise on this post’s comments).

    I didn’t say i agreed with all he said. He did make me a uncomfortable with his asking if paul could be wrong. Notice, he did not say Paul was wrong, but only asked if you could still be a christian if you thought Paul was wrong on an item. In this case, he was discussing Paul’s perception of sin in terms of evolution. Tony is suggesting that Paul might have explained it differently if he knew of evolution, not that Paul had flat out bad theology.

    So no, of course i didn’t say i’m defending Tony. I’m just pointing out that he didn’t quite say what is being accused of him here. And notice that he does take note to affirm his belief in inspiration of all scripture as well- but just because scripture tells a story in which the earth is made in 6 days, when that’s not how it happened, doesn’t mean it’s not inspired and true.

  16. Mr. Wittmer,
    Jones also said that the doctrine of original sin ‘didn’t play much of a role in medieval and Scholastic theology.’ While I’m sure some of that depends on how you define ‘didn’t play much of a role’, it seemed to me to be another issue of unfaithful historical theology.

    I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that?

    Tim B

  17. This is helpful. I’m learning. One more question: so you see Jones as different from the New School Calvinists of the 1800s who denied any form of imputed/inherited sin but merely spoke of being born with an inclination to sin. So this view stands as “original sin”? I guess I thought of Jones as something of a New School Calvinist (except for the Calvinist part!)

  18. mikewittmer


    You do need to read more carefully. Tony is not merely asking about how original sin is passed (through the sex act or not), but whether everyone is born polluted by Adam’s sin. If he only means what you say he means, then he shouldn’t use the term “original sin” to describe what he is against.

    And note that his view is different from what Paul is saying in Romans 5, so he is not merely asking if it’s okay to disagree with Paul (which alone would raise insurmountable questions for his belief in inspiration), but is actually taking up a position that is different from what Paul says. You really shouldn’t let people off the hook simply because they state their views in question form.

    I didn’t accuse Tony of denying that all people sin, but I am saying that without the doctrine of original sin he cannot logically maintain his view that all people do inevitably sin. And to the point, his view is heretical in every branch of the Christian church.

    As for the mocking tone, I didn’t notice anything particularly flagrant in the comments posted here. If anything, given what some Christian leaders are now asserting and/or tolerating in others, I could make the case that the comments here have been notably restrained. What do you think the Apostle Paul would say to Tony?

  19. mikewittmer


    The New Haven school (such as Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight—Jonathan Edwards’ grandson) believed in the mediate imputation of Adam’s guilt. They said that we are born with Adam’s corruption, and on that basis we are also considered guilty (rather than guilty by the direct imputation of Adam’s federal headship). This view may also have been held by Jonathan Edwards. It differs from Tony’s view, which denies that we inherited any part of original sin from Adam.

    Tim B.

    Who knows what Tony meant by that, but it sounds to me like Tony hasn’t read much medieval theology. Perhaps he should start with Aquinas.

  20. Mike,
    In your closing sentences you directly question if Jones and Pagitt maintian “historic, orthodox faith.”

    ~ This is where it seems the theological right has difficulty engaging with emergent(ish) ideas. There is nearly always a litmus test to see if someone is orthodox. If they are not orthodox according to a perscribed set of values, then their very faith is questioned.

    ~ The consequences of such a looking glass is that the looking glass becomes the means of salvation. So, the way that I believe things in my head becomes the means of salvation.

    This is where Daryl Underwood stands correctly in his ‘centered set’ understanding of the Christian faith. If we would recognize that we are all trying to follow Jesus, if we all recongize that the Spirit is moving within our lives, then we don’t have to question if people follow the God of the Scriptures.

    As for ‘original sin,’ regardless of our position, in all fairness, we need to recognize that not all views of original sin are equal.

    In a recent panel at Calvin College, even you left open the possiblity for salvation of infants who die, for special needs children, etc.

    Even these concessions poke holes into the matter of original sin. From a baptist perspective, salvation is a personal issue between the individual and God.

    So, somehow original sin is forgiven or not present in your allowances for infants to enter God’s eternal goodness in these particular cases.

    In fairness, I could argue that you believe original sin is usually present but not always… which actually seems stranger than Doug or Tony’s perspectives.

  21. mikewittmer


    You don’t understand my position. I never said anything that would imply that infants are born without original sin. I simply hope that God will save them outside of his normal method of regeneration, which involves confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord. I don’t know what you mean by “looking glass,” but I gladly admit that this confession is a “litmus test” for salvation. I’m curious, do you have any Scripture to support your view that there is no litmus test?

  22. So, if God has normal methods and abnormal methods of salvation, how do we know when and where God engages in these methods?

    As Pete Rollins would likely suggest, I dont’ think that mental confession is a litmus test of anything. Confession would include word and dead… orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

    In the western church, we’ve seperated the two as we’re so scared of a works based theology. As our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters would state, no works means there is no real confession.

    If confession is both orthodoxy and orthopraxis, then we can agree on the term ‘confession.’ Yet, we must also remember that the New Testament is particularly harsh on those who claim orthodoxy and practice littel orthopraxis. On the other hand, those who followed Jesus with litte or no knowledge of a historic Yahweh were given much grace.

    As for ‘looking glass’, I mean paradigm. A certain set of held beliefs becomes central to salvation rather than Jesus as Lord as central to salvation.

    So, the central set of beliefs becomes the idol that we worship rather than the Yahweh of the biblical text. Jesus as Lord is replaced with ‘believe these things’ to be saved.

    We end up with four or five or seventeen spiritual laws (or a prayer that is recited) as a means of salvation rather than an intimate experience with God…

  23. Randy, I wasn’t sure that I understand you correctly here:

    “…we must also remember that the New Testament is particularly harsh on those who claim orthodoxy and practice little orthopraxis. On the other hand, those who followed Jesus with little or no knowledge of a historic Yahweh were given much grace.”

    I presume those “with little or no knowlege of a historic Yahweh” are the Gentile converts? Are you arguing that Jesus is relatively unconcerned with their pursuit of knowledge about God?

    I bring this up because I was thinking: isn’t it true that Hebrews and parts of the Epistles instruct Gentile converts about the faith in a historic Yahweh?

    As for mental confession becoming idolatry, do you mean that mental confession proves nothing when it’s not followed by action? Or does Rollins argue that mental confession is utterly meaningless? I would have to disagree with that, because the Apostles tell Gentiles to pursue knowledge. (Some examples I’m thinking of are Philippians 1:9-10, and 2 Peter 1, especially v. 19, where Peter appears to be saying they should get to know the OT prophets.)

    PS — Have you read Gary Meadors’ book “Decision Making God’s Way”? It argues pretty well that a growing, intimate knowledge of God is intricately connected to a growing knowledge of Scripture; likewise, an ethical life is also intricately tied to a growing knowledge of Scripture.

    In other words, to the best of my understanding, Scripture is a litmus test to use on our “knowledge” of God, to see if it’s actually knowledge of God.

  24. Adam F.
    I can’t speak for Rollins; I suspect he would throw it back with another question.

    You wrote:
    As for mental confession becoming idolatry, do you mean that mental confession proves nothing when it’s not followed by action?

    Me: yes. In the protestant tradition, we want to acknowledge grace above all things; so we seperated faith and works. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the two are never seperated. In my experience, this is a more accurate picture of real belief.

    Rollins would say that we deny the resurrection every time we fail to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, give shelter to those without. Instead, we like to think our faith remains relatively the same regardless of how we respond to these issues.

    Increasingly, I think Rollins may be onto something. What if we took our actions (also our faith) as seriously as we’ve taken our mental pursuit of God?

    ~ It seems we equate knowledge of God and knowledge about God to quickly. While we should pursue knowlege about God, we need to be careful how we hold it. If knowledge of the biblical text leads to great faith, we should assume biblical scholars are always necessarily our best guides to living a right lilfe before God. I believe people on the margins such as Mother Theresa are better examples for us to follow… (no disrespect to Mike here).

  25. Randy, thanks for responding!

    I really like how you put “While we should pursue knowledge about God, we need to be careful how we hold it.” In that vein, that’s why I like 2 Peter 1 so much, because he talks about knowledge fitting into the Christian life of “moral sweat” (those are Gary Meadors’ words, from a lecture).

    In this vein, forgive me for turning into ‘reporter’ mode here, but I love this list that Peter crafted (vv. 5-8): by faith, add goodness; by goodness, add knowledge; by knowledge, add self-control; by self-control, add perseverance; by perseverance, add godliness; by godliness, add brotherly love; by brotherly love, add love.

    So in Peter’s epistle, love is the crowning virtue that sort of…rules over?…the way one engages in the other virtues, including knowledge.

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