Correct me if I'm wrong, but from what I understand, one of the major differences between Eastern Orthodox and Protestant theology is "ancestral sin."


Although Roman Catholicism's definition of original sin and Orthodoxy's view of ancestral sin are very similar, they do have subtly important differences.

These differences stem from the translation of the New Testament Greek text into Latin.

The consequences of the Fall spread to the whole of the human race. This is elucidated by St Paul: 'Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned' (Rom.5:12). This text, which formed the Church's basis of her teaching on 'original sin', may be understood in a number of ways: the Greek words ef' ho pantes hemarton may be translated not only as 'because all men sinned' (Greek translation), but also 'in whom [that is, in Adam] all men sinned' (Latin Translation). Different readings of the text may produce different understandings of what 'original sin' means.

If we accept the first translation, this means that each person is responsible for his own sins, and not for Adam's transgression. Here, Adam is merely the prototype of all future sinners, each of whom, in repeating Adam's sin, bears responsibility only for his own sins. Adam's sin is not the cause of our sinfulness; we do not participate in his sin and his guilt cannot be passed onto us.

However, if we read the text to mean 'in whom all have sinned', this can be understood as the passing on of Adam's sin to all future generations of people, since human nature has been infected by sin in general. The disposition toward sin became hereditary and responsibility for turning away from God sin universal.

St. Augustine obviously took the Latin road in interpreting this verse, and consequently developed and elaborated on the nature of original sin. All of the Protestant Reformer's theology concerning the fall of man was rooted in the Augustinian school of thought, and consequently is slightly more similar to Catholicism than Orthodoxy.

What I'm trying to wrap my mind around is how this difference in interpretation reciprocally translates to rebirth in Christ.

The hinge-verse for me is:

...As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous...so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom.5:18-21)

Orthodoxy teaches that through birth we inherit Adam's fallen nature, but not his personal guilt. Likewise, in rebirth (baptism) we inherit Christ's redeemed nature.

Calvinism adheres to the doctrine of total depravity, leaning heavily on Augustine's view of original sin. According to this belief, man inherits not only a fallen nature, but Adam's personal guilt as well.

What are the doctrinal consequences of these differences in light of Romans 5:18-21?

This question is intended to specifically focus on how the Orthodox definition of "ancestral" sin differs from the John Calvin's Augustinian (Catholic) view of the fall of man.

  • 1
    Consider this blog post on the subject.
    – metal
    Jan 16, 2014 at 17:47
  • @metal Thank you...good read. I have been studying and comparing the subtle-yet-important differences between the Roman Catholic/Augustinian view of "original sin" in the West and "ancestral sin" in the East for some time now, and I think I'm ready to contrast Eastern theology with reformed theology. It appears to me that - as far as "original sin" is concerned - Calvinism is closer to Augustinian Catholicism than it is Orthodoxy. Calvinism is deeply rooted in Augustine, which would make Calvinism soaked in the Latin translation from very early on.
    – user5286
    Jan 16, 2014 at 21:12
  • 1
    Here's a thorough counterpoint to the answers and comments so far: orthodox-christianity.com/2013/08/… Jan 18, 2014 at 17:18
  • @CharlesAlsobrook it's not true that Catholic conflate original sin with guilt. christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/4814/… Feb 16, 2015 at 22:47

2 Answers 2


It's probably important to emphasize here that Calvin, as far as I know (and I think we are in agreement on this point), did not believe "Original Sin" to have been completely absolved by the birth of Christ. Indeed it was also in Romans(9:18-23) that one of the early Calvinists' favorite quotes appears:

Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. 19 One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" 20 But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' " 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? 22 What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction? 23

That is (for this type of Calvinist), whilst the doorway to absolution had been opened by the death of Christ, this did not mean that many (or even most) of the human race were part of the elect: they were still endowed with an original imperfection. At least one seventeenth century theologian (really wish I could remember where I read it!) argued that the pots "prepared for destruction" served to demonstrate the goodness and the beauty of God, because the apprehension of goodness depended on the presence of its opposite.

This brings us to the next question. There have been many different views on the matter of original sin. My memory of Luther, for instance, is that the best humans strive to be perfect, but it is only through the grace of God that this is ever actually achieved. Redemption, for Luther, seems to be open to those willing to work at it, so long as God is also willing. Absolution from the sin of Adam and his punishments is therefore, in theory, possible for any member of the human race. It is probably clear form this, that doctrines of Orignal Sin have an interdependency with doctrines of Free Will vs Determinism.

There are some other interesting passages relating to this that you may want to consider. Whilst many would argue that the discussion of the Jeremahic Covenant (in particular Jeremiah 31:29) is really a discussion of contemporary Jewish law and the practice of holding children accountable or punishable for the sins of their parents, it can also be read as a discussion of the right of men to a moral existence independent of that of their parents:

As I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy and to bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant," declares the LORD. 29"In those days they will not say again, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children's teeth are set on edge.' 30"But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge

It is, therefore, also a comment on Original Sin - the sin that was endowed upon the human race by their first father, Adam, and their mother, Eve.

As for the specific doctrinal consequences - to attempt a succinct answer, we are going to have to at least start off with the question "differences for whom (which Protestant theologians, which Orthodox scholars)" and also I think, wonder in passing why the Catholic church seems to be left out of the analysis, since it was within the Catholic church (particularly after waning Constantinople was stormed by the Crusader armies) that the doctrine of Original Sin was most successfully and forcefully promulgated (in my view).


The eastern Othordox view of original sin is just like the Roman Catholic view. Calvinism is very different. They key difference between the two views is that for Calvin, Luther and the reformers, an infinite transaction occurs in a single moment when a sinner believes in Christ. At this moment all guilt for sin is removed for all past, present and future sin. In other words guilt and sin is absolutely removed from a 'legal standpoint' before God as though it actually never existed. Luther called it an external righteousness to make sure people did not confuse it with sanctification. In the exchange, a perfect human righteousness under the law, i.e. a perfect lifelong loving of God and our neighbor is considered to have been performed by the sinner so that not only is he viewed by God as never sinning, but positively performing all righteousness through out his past, present and future. This concept of obtaining a full, perfect and endless redemption in a moment of simple faith apart from any human effort or meritorious inclination is entitled 'justification by faith' or the 'imputation of the righteousness of Christ'. This concept is foreign to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology.

Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism deny there is such a thing as a momentary justification or external righteousness given to a sinner the moment they believe in Christ. They deny in a kind of external, legal perfect righteousness that can declare a sinner perfect forever 'in a moment'. Their view is that in a literal baptism the essential depravity inherited through Adam is removed but only like a re-boot into a more-or-less righteous life that can be lost through mortal sin. it is similar to the concept or Protestant re-birth, but with much less power or benefit to the sinner. The two views are entirely irreconcilable as one says you can't be justified unless you obey God through cooperative sanctification until you die (Orthodox view), and the other (Protestant view) says you can't cooperate with God and walked in a sanctified way unless you are already declared perfect forever, making your sanctification have no bearing on your justification except as being a fruit, benefit and proof of it.

One way to understand the difference is that Calvinism deals with a balance of extremes while the alternate view avoids extremes. For example, an Orthodox or Catholic believer who commits a venial (non serious sin) such as, say 'a lustful thought' does not think it so serious as to loose their personal righteousness. Calvinism would say, 'No, if you were not shielded with Christ's eternal and perfect righteousness forever, given to you in a moment as a free gift from an eternal election, then that 'one lustful thought' would otherwise cause you to deserve an eternal torment for it's rightful desert under God's law.'. In other words, everything is extreme. Mortal and venial sins have no difference, any one of them would cause you eternal wrath under God's justice. the only hope is an extreme gift that abolishes all that and declares you perfect.

Calvinism basically goes this way: Because we were included in Adams guilt, we were condemned and punished. We are thus born with a sinful nature because we are born guilty and condemned under law, the sentence is sin and death. Under this condemnation we have no inclination towards good. We are lost forever, with no hope whatsoever at working towards God. The curse is extreme and all effecting. The gift of salvation is also so extreme, even more so. The death of Christ being of infinite worth is able to override the world of sin, remove its quilt and in its place give perfect righteousness that makes a sinner deserve eternal rewards forever by grace, all as a gift without human merit involved. This extreme hell of original sin, replaced by extreme glory and joy, in a moment a sinner believes in Christ, is simply a foreign and confusing concept to Orthodox thought. In the place of this legal transaction Orthodox theology puts the idea of sanctification in its place. In fact, if a Protestant wants to understand what Catholics / Eastern Orthodox believers mean by 'justification' it means more or less what Protestants mean by sanctification. In other words to Eastern Orthodox / Catholic faith there is no real difference between sanctification or justification. To them justification is just the beginning of a life long work of sanctification. The implication is that works are inherently involved from beginning to end, without this instantaneous extreme legal exchange between sinners and Christ under the Protestant view.

Regarding the specific question concerning the difference in the term original sin as understood by classical Augustine theology and Eastern Orthodox theology this article summarizes it well http://orthodoxwiki.org/Original_sin

Augustine, like Luther and Calvin assigned the guilt of Adam's sin upon all their posterity being a federal head upon which all humanity was judge 'guilty' or 'not guilty'. Eastern Orthodox and non Augustinian Catholicism does not accept the transfer of guilt but only the consequences of it, being death and the inclination of a sinful nature which is supposedly removed in its primary sense through infant baptism according to each own sacramental tradition to that effect.

The obvious initial consequence of not believing in hereditary guilt is that the concern over the final state of infants who die seems less controversial as they have no guilt to be punished with as outlined in the article. It would also seem to me that the extremity of the bondage to which humans are born under is generally less serious as the punishment for guilt is not a curse threatening a soul until they are able to commit personal sin in some manner that is acknowledged by a developed conscience through age, at whatever age that might be.

  • Thanks. 2 things: First - The Orthodox view and the Catholic (Augustinian) view of the Fall are slightly different (which is kind of the point of this question) See my edit. 2nd - a lustful thought according to Jesus is adultery...so lust is technically a mortal sin :(
    – user5286
    Jan 18, 2014 at 17:56
  • Your question is clearer now. If I get some time I may revert. A quick unintentional lustful thought would be considered as venial by most Catholics but I see your point as who can really be confident at this sort of distinction anyway. Technically Calvinism would assign every human being to be guilty of a new mortal sin, every second...its just that those sins are not counted against the righteous. Cheers.
    – Mike
    Jan 19, 2014 at 2:31
  • @CharlesAlsobrook - added a view for your specifically stated area.
    – Mike
    Jan 19, 2014 at 7:04
  • +1 Thanks! That spells it out very well...the only thing preventing me from accepting it as completely satisfactory is that last sentence :))
    – user5286
    Jan 19, 2014 at 22:57
  • @CharlesAlsobrook - last sentence did not really add any objective value anyway.
    – Mike
    Jan 20, 2014 at 9:49

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