After the Great Schism of 1054, the Orthodox East and Roman West began to look quite different from each other. One of the more subtle (but incredibly important) differences between Orthodox and Roman doctrine is our understanding of original sin. While the differences might seem small, they actually have a profound effect on our understanding of salvation.
What is Original Sin?
The term original sin was unknown in both the Eastern and Western Church until Augustine of Hippo (c. 354-430), whom the Orthodox venerate as a saint without endorsing all his doctrines. Augustine taught that original sin is transmitted to the descendants of Adam and Eve through sexual reproduction. Both the Council of Trent (1546) and the current Catholic Catechism echo this language:
The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man.” By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice […] But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.Catechism of the Catholic Church, 404, emphasis added
In other words, we enter this world with the guilt of Adam’s sin on our soul. This view is quite common among certain Protestant groups as well.
What is Ancestral Sin?
Instead of original sin, Orthodoxy uses the term ancestral sin to describe the effect of Adam’s sin on mankind. We do this to make a key distinction; we didn’t sin in Adam (as the Latin mistranslation of Romans 5:12 implies). Rather we sin because Adam’s sin made us capable of doing so.
The Greek word for sin, amartema, refers to an individual act, indicating that Adam and Eve alone assume full responsibility for the sin in the Garden of Eden. The Orthodox Church never speaks of Adam and Eve passing guilt on to their descendants, as did Augustine. Instead, each person bears the guilt of his or her own sins.
How does this change our understanding of salvation?
Because Catholicism understands sin in legal terms, the West views sin and death as a debt and crime against God. Even if God forgives your sins, you must still pay for them with temporal punishment in Purgatory. God essentially requires satisfaction both for the guilt of the sin and for the debt the believer owes God in payment. Therefore, salvation in Catholicism means satisfying God and avoiding punishment.
In contrast, Orthodox theology views sin as “missing the mark,” or failing to live up to the life expected of us by God. Therefore, our goal is not to miss the mark again. Salvation for the Orthodox means achieving theosis (becoming like God in the way we live our lives). The Orthodox Church does not teach temporal punishment, for God’s forgiveness cancels out the need for it. The Orthodox agree that forgiveness doesn’t “remedy all the disorders of sin” (CCC, 1459). However, we do not agree that the solution to this lies in making satisfaction for your sins. Instead, we teach that our behavior must change, and that we must reorient ourselves toward God.
In Roman Catholic tradition, original sin implies that we sin in Adam, and thus carry the burden of guilt for Adam’s sin. However, in the Orthodox Church, we adhere to the correct wording of Scripture: that we all sin because Adam’s transgression made us capable of it, and we only bear the guilt of our own sins. The approach we take to sin ultimately affects our understanding of salvation and of God Himself.