Original Sin and Limbo
By Fisher Humphreys, Professor of Theology
Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, AL
On January 19 Pope Benedict XVI approved a report from an International Theological Commission of thirty Roman Catholic theologians which said that there is good reason to believe that babies who die without baptism go to heaven. Two weeks ago that report was published on the internet. This has alerted many people to the fact that the Catholic Church is in the process of dropping its long-standing teaching that unbaptized children go, not to heaven, but to a place (or condition) known as "limbo."
Limbo was never a formal doctrine. In the 1950s the church began quietly to drop its teaching about limbo; the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the Catholic Catechism (1992) said nothing about it; and Pope Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, expressed serious doubts about it. It is not surprising that the Catholic Church is now officially moving away from it.
Those of us who are not Catholics may applaud this move. Most Protestants rejected limbo because we are averse to creating speculative doctrines without any biblical justification.
But limbo is closely connected to another teaching with which most Protestants have been sympathetic, namely, original sin. Catholics reasoned that, since unbaptized infants cannot go to heaven because they bear the stain of original sin, and because God is too merciful to send them to hell, there must be another place, limbo, to which they go.
The towering figure in the history of the doctrine of original sin is Augustine of Hippo (354-430).
Augustine's Latin phrase "peccatum originale," original sin, is not found in the Bible.
It has been used by theologians in two distinct ways. It is sometimes used in the quite natural sense to refer to the first sin committed by human beings, the story of which is told in Genesis 3.
But in the west, especially after Augustine, the phrase came to be used not only of that first sin but also of the effects of that sin on the descendants of Adam and Eve. Augustine and the western church after him said that all human beings inherit original sin at their birth.
There are two versions of the effects of the first sin. One is a common-sense idea, namely, that the actions of parents have effects on their children. For example, when an alcoholic does not work to support his family, he hurts his children as well as himself. It is not difficult to see that the religious disobedience of the first human beings to God would have serious consequences for their descendants.
But Augustine added something to this idea. He said that following the fall of our first parents all human beings inherit not only a general problem but a guilt problem in particular; he believed that the entire human race is in solidarity with Adam not only in the consequences of his sin but in the sin itself.
That idea is more problematic. It is difficult to see how the sin of parents could render their children guilty.
Augustine elaborated this doctrine while engaging in a controversy with the English theologian Pelagius. Pelagius was extremely optimistic about the ability of human beings to live good lives without God's grace. The entire church has benefitted from the fact that Augustine insisted against Pelagius that the human predicament is more intractable than that, and that it is only by the grace of God that human beings can ever be saved.
The question is, did Augustine go too far when he said that human beings inherit guilt? For an answer to that, we must turn to the Bible. We will begin with what the Bible teaches about our human predicament in general.
The Bible and Our Spiritual Predicament
The Bible teaches that there are two components to the human predicament. To use the language of detective stories, we are both perpetrators and victims. Perpetrators commit crimes such as stealing. Victims are the persons against whom the crimes are committedﾖthose whose money is stolen, for example. Spiritually we are both perpetrators and victims.
We are perpetrators because there are occasions in our lives when we know right from wrong and have the power to choose the right rather than the wrong, but we choose to do the wrong. We are responsible for what we have done, and, because what we have done is wrong, we are guilty. God condemns what we have done, and we are liable to be punished for it. The Bible is filled with references to our wrong-doing; a representative passage is Romans 1.
Let us call this part of our problem "sins." If it were possible to eliminate all human sins (it is not), the world would be a very different place.
But it would not be perfect. The Bible tells us that there is another component to the human spiritual predicament. We are victims; we are enslaved by evil forces and powers that have us in their grasp, as a spider web can have a fly in its grasp. No more than the fly can we escape.
The Bible speaks forcefully about these powers. A traditional list of them includes the world, the flesh, and the devil, all of which are mentioned in Ephesians 2. To these we may add others such as suffering and death.
All human beings are victims of these powers. The powers enslave us before we begin to commit sins; an infant who does not yet know right from wrong nevertheless suffers and may die. That infant was born into a fallen world, a world which will cause the infant to suffer. This fallen condition into which we are all born is a consequence of the sin of our first parents.
The Bible and Original Sin
Recognizing that the human problem includes both evil powers and human sins is a helpful background for the Bible's teaching about original sin. There are three principal texts about original sin.
The first is Genesis 3, which teaches that Adam and Eve were driven from the garden and punished for their sin. It says nothing specific about their children, but we naturally assume that their children were born, not in the garden, but in a world where the ground must be worked by hard labor and children must be born by hard labor.
The second is Psalm 51:5. The tradition is that David prayed this psalm when Nathan confronted David about his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and of murdering her husband Uriah. David wrote, "I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me." While it is certainly understandable that Augustine and others who think that original sin includes guilt would see their view in this verse, it is not certain that David intended that; he may simply have been expressing a profound awareness of his sinfulness and need for God's forgiveness. The Jewish people understand the psalm that way; they have no doctrine of original sin.
The final passage is the most important of the three; it is Romans 5:12-21. It was this passage that led Augustine to his convictions about original sin.
Interestingly, he worked with an inaccurate Latin translation of the passage. Verse 12 says that sin came into the world through Adam and that death spread to all because all sinned (Greek: "eph hoi pantes hemarton"). But Augustine's Latin translation mistakenly rendered "eph hoi" with "in quo" (in whom) , so his Bible read that sin and death came to all through Adam in whom all sinned.
The passage states that all human beings are condemned to die as a consequence of Adam's sin; it is not certain that it adds that all are guilty because of Adam's sin.
To use the distinction introduced above, the passage says that all are victims (of death, in this case) because of Adam's sin but not that all are perpetrators (guilty) because of Adam's sin.
Baptists and Original Sin
Having considered what the Bible and Augustine have said, we may now consider what Baptists have said.
The Baptist Faith and Message of 1963 and 2000 says simply that Adam transgressed and fell from his innocence and that consequently "his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin." Many Baptist theologians in the twentieth century, including E. Y. Mullins, W. T. Conner, and Dale Moody, said that what we inherit is an inclination or tendency to sin.
However, some Southern Baptist theologians have retained the Augustinian view and asserted that human beings inherit guilt as well as other consequences from our first parents. In doing this they are in the tradition of earlier Baptists who, like themselves, have been influenced by John Calvin, who shared Augustine's views.
One of the problems which Baptists today have with Augustine's view is that it was linked to other ideas which most Baptists today reject. I will mention three examples. Augustine taught that God predestines some people to salvation and not others; he taught that original sin is transmitted by sexual desire ("concupiscence"); and he taught that baptism washes away original sin. Since most Baptists reject these ideas, it is hardly surprising that they would resist the associated idea that original sin includes guilt. Instead, they believe that original sin is a tendency to sin.
Such Baptists can welcome the fact that the Catholic Church, in rejecting the idea that God will not give the full gift of salvation to infants who die unbaptized, may have moved a step closer to the view of most Baptists that we inherit the consequences of the sins of those who went before us but not their guilt. We may all hope for those who die in infancy that God will in grace liberate (redeem) them from the powersﾖincluding deathﾖthat enslave them and all of us. Our reasons for this hope are not that children need no salvation, for they do, but that God loves all people and wants all to be saved, and that Jesus welcomed the little children who came to him.