Creationism and original sin

Last fall, during a reading from Genesis chapter two, verses 18-24, an uncomfortable thought occurred to me. I have refused to take a position on creationism because it has seemed of no consequence, but that may not be true. And I raise this concern not rhetorically because I have an answer in mind, but rather because I don’t know what the answer is. It’s a little question with big implications: Many of us have taken positions on evolution, creationism, and so forth, and I understand that protestantism offers the possibility of doing so without theological consequences. But how can Catholics reject a literal Adam and Eve? What then becomes of original sin?

First things first: There is no significance to what we call these ancestors, and it doesn’t matter whether they were the first humans, or whether they were made in the precise manner recorded in Genesis. The literalism of Genesis qua an  account of the creation of the world is not at issue, and in that sense, creationism continues to strike me as inconsequential debate.

Nevertheless, no matter the origins of Earth and man, there had to be a moment when sin entered the world. One may certainly treat the garden narrative as an allegorical or poetic account of the origins of sin. And if one takes the view that the only sins for which we are culpable are our personal sins, then all this is academic. For those Christian traditions that accept the premise of original sin, however, a common ancestor is necessary to link us to the substance of whatever happened on that day, no matter how much poetic license one chooses to believe that Genesis takes in describing its form. And this is by no means only a Catholic problem. The Orthodox and most of the reformed traditions have skin in this game, too; the Longer Catechism of Philaret, no. 168 (1823) (orthodox), the Savoy Declaration, ch. 6 (1658) (congregationalist), the Articles of Religion, art. 9 (1563) (anglican), the Gallic Confession, art. X (1559) (calvinist), the Westminster Confession, ch. 6 (1646) (presbyterian), and the Augsburg Confession, art. 2 (1530) (lutheran), all confess a common ancestor in whose guilt we partake. 1

Let’s get down to brass tacks. St. Thomas Aquinas says that “[a]ccording to the Catholic Faith we are bound to hold that the first sin of the first man is transmitted to his descendants, by way of origin.” 2 Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, and Leo the Great all concur. 3 The manualists said much the same. 4 The Council of Orange (AD 529) teaches that “Adam’s transgression injured [not only] him alone … [but also] his descendants … [whereupon sin] passed through one man into the whole human race,” 5 and the Council of Trent insists that original sin is “transfused into all by propagation, not by imitation, [and] is in each one as his own.” 6 The Baltimore Catechism says that “On account of the sin of Adam, we, his descendants, come into the world deprived of sanctifying grace and inherit his punishment, as we would have inherited his gifts had he been obedient to God. This sin is called original because it comes down to us through our origin, or descent, from Adam.” 7 The Catechism of St. Pius X says that “This sin is not Adam’s sin alone, but it is also our sin … because Adam, having committed it in his capacity as the head and source of the human race, it was transmitted by natural generation to all his descendants: and hence in us it is original sin..” 8 And the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings. Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called ‘original sin.’” 9 Even the Orthodox Church, which has a distinct understanding of the doctrine, teaches that “[b]ecause all have come of Adam since his infection by sin, and … from an infected source there naturally flows an infected stream, so from a father infected with sin, and consequently mortal, there naturally proceeds a posterity infected like him with sin, and like him mortal.” 10

Saint Paul teaches that “it was through one man that sin came into the world, and through sin death,” leaving death to reign “over all from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sin was not the breaking of a commandment, as Adam’s was.” 11 And again: “If death came to many through the offence of one man, how much greater an effect the grace of God has had, coming to so many and so plentifully as a free gift through the one man Jesus Christ!” 12 And again: “One single offence brought condemnation, but now, after many offences, have come the free gift and so acquittal! It was by one man’s offence that death came to reign over all, but how much greater the reign in life of those who receive the fullness of grace and the gift of saving justice, through the one man, Jesus Christ. One man’s offence brought condemnation on all humanity; and one man’s good act has brought justification and life to all humanity. Just as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience are many to be made upright.” 13 And again: “Just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be brought to life….” 14 The reformers, insisting on scripture as their criterion, might have chafed at the doctrinal apparatus of original sin, but they could hardly discard the substance of it; the New Testament hammers home the point very clearly. 15

Scripture and Tradition appear to uniformly frame and ground their accounts of original sin in terms of a lineal relationship that connects us back to an original transgressor (traditionally but superfluously designated “Adam,” and traditionally but superfluously situated in a “garden” called Eden). And so we find ourselves left with uncomfortable questions. St. Ambrose wrote that

although through the sin of one alone, yet it passed upon all; that we may not refuse to acknowledge Him to be also the Author of death, Whom we do not refuse to acknowledge as the Author of our race; and that, as through one death is ours, so should be also the resurrection; and that we should not refuse the misery, that we may attain to the gift. For, as we read, Christ ‘is come to save that which was lost,’ and ‘to be Lord both of the dead and living.’ In Adam I fell, in Adam I was cast out of Paradise, in Adam I died; how shall the Lord call me back, except He find me in Adam; guilty as I was in him, so now justified in Christ.” 16

How could Ambrose say this without understanding himself as an inheritor to Adam’s line?

As I noted at the outset, none of this requires that “Adam and Eve” were the only humans in early creation, only that they were the only ones whose progeny survived into the era of early Israel. We cannot exclude, on this basis, the possibility that Adam was simply one man among many. But we have accounted only for the passage of sin from the devil to Adam and his descendants, and if all men today are (and were by the day of St. Paul) “implicated in Adam’s sin,” 17 one would have to ask obvious questions like “where are” (or “what happened to”) “the descendants of other men who did not fall, and who are therefore not implicated? What need have those not descended from Adam for salvation?” 18 The most straightforward explanation for a common ancestor in sin is a common primogenitor.

Either way, however, if one relegates Adam and Eve to myth, or severs their connection to successive generations, the foundation of original sin begins to crumble, and with it, all the theological superstructure that is built on it (baptism, for instance). It seems to me that we are left with there options:We can accept the traditional teaching of the Church, we can accept the elimination of the doctrine of original sin, and everything that rests upon it, or we can formulate an alternative (and novel) account to explain the doctrine.


  1. Baptists are off the hook; the Schleitheim Confession (1527) (anabaptist) says nothing about it.
  2. Summa Theologica, II:1 qq. 81-82.
  3. The Teachings of the Fathers of the Church 258, 268, 273, 277 (Willis, ed. 1966) (+1965).
  4. E.g. 1 Tanquerey, Manual of Dogmatic Theology 421 § 678 (Byrnes, trns. 1959) (+1959) (“All men and ever man naturally born of Adam, with the exception of the Blessed Virgin, in their conception contract a sin which is rightfully called original sin”); 2 Wilhelm & Scannell, Manual of Catholic Theology 24 (1908) (+1898) (“[T]he loss of original integrity, the deterioration of nature and the evils connected therewith, passed from Adam to his progeny”); Geiermann, Manual of Theology for the Laity 126 (1906) (+1906) (“Original sin is the privation of original justice and holiness which we inherit from Adam. … It is transmitted to all his descendents, because in Adam all have sinned”); Coppens, Systematic Study of the Catholic Religion 170-71 § 177 (1903) (+1903) (“These same consequences have descended to every one of Adam’s posterity, all of whom are born deprived of those privileges. His sin was his own individual act; while our sin is the consequence of our origin from Adam, and is therefore called original sin; it is the sin in which we are born”); 2 Scheeben, Manual of Catholic Theology 24 § 162 (2d ed. 1901) (+1898) (“The transmission of the sin of Adam and its deteriorating effects on all mankind is a fundamental dogma, because on it is founded the necessity of redemption for all men” and “that … the deterioration of nature and the evils connected therewith[] passed from Adam to his progeny is distinctly revealed in Scripture”).
  5. Denz. 75
  6. Sess. 5, no. 3.
  7. Nos. 57, 59.
  8. On the First Article of the Creed, no. 41.
  9. ¶¶416-17.
  10. Longer Catechism of Philaret, no. 168.
  11. Rom 5:12, 14 (NJB).
  12. Id., v.15.
  13. Id., vv.16-19.
  14. 1 Cor 15:22 (NJB).
  15. Cf. Simon Dodd, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, 3 MPA __, __ (2013).
  16. Two Books on the Decease of Saytrus, 10 Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 159, 175 (Schaff et al, eds. 1899).
  17. CCC ¶ 402
  18. Cf. 2 Cor 5:15. It is conceivable, but it seems hardly believable, that some humans are descended from Adam, and are therefore implicated by both original and personal sin, while others are not, and are therefore implicated only by their personal sin. But even suspending disbelief for a moment, this, too, creates friction with authoritative teaching: It is “a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful” that the Blessed Virgin Mary was “preserved free from all stain of original sin,” and that this was a “sublime and singular privilege.” Ineffabilis Deus (Pius IX, 1854). But that freedom from original sin can only be a “singular privilege” if everyone else is a descendant of Adam’s line.