Dr. Adam Harwood, 2013 John 3:16 Presentation, Part 3/4

Below is a portion of a March 21-22, 2013 John 3:16 Conference presentation.
Read the Baptist Press article about the conference here: http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=39992
A free e-book containing the 2013 John 3:16 Conference presentations is scheduled to be released at SBC Today on May 30, 2013.
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Historical Theology:

Have Christian theologians denied inherited guilt?

            In A Theology for the Church, Stan Norman writes: “First, the Augustinian doctrine of original sin has exerted profound influence upon the theology of the church. Since his time, theologians have affirmed, rejected, or modified the Augustinian position.” Norman adds: “Second, no consensus exists within Christianity on the effects of sin upon humanity.”[1] Many theologians have denied inherited guilt.

Eastern Tradition

            John Chrysostom (374–407), known as “Golden Mouth” for his oratorical skill, is regarded as one of the most significant preachers in the first thousand years of Christian history. He wrote: “We do baptize infants, although they are not guilty of any sins.”[2]

Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335–394) was a leading participant at the Council of Constantinople (381). In On Infants’ Early Deaths, he addresses the spiritual condition of infants. Gregory considers them to be neither good nor bad; infants who died would be with God because their souls had never been corrupted by their own sinful actions.[3]

Western Tradition

            Eastern theologians were not alone in rejecting--at least failing to appeal to--inherited guilt. Tertullian (ca. 145–ca. 220) mentions that infant souls are unclean in Adam (consistent with inherited sinful nature view). And he questions why there was a rush to baptize them. Consider: those who taught inherited guilt insisted on infant baptism, wrongly assuming that water baptism cleaned the infants of Adam’s guilt. Tertullian referred to the souls of infants as “innocent” and he differentiated between infants and children based upon their capability to commit sin.[4] Eric Osborne concludes, “While Tertullian displays the origins of the idea, one cannot attribute the later doctrine of original sin to him.”[5]


            Inherited guilt was rejected by one of the Magisterial Reformers, Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531). Zwingli affirmed Adam’s unity with humanity and sin’s devastating effects. But he calls original sin a “sin that they never had.” Luther attacked Zwingli’s position as Pelagian. Zwingli defended his view of original sin by asking: “For what could be said more briefly and plainly than that original sin is not sin but disease, and that the children of Christians are not condemned to eternal punishment on account of that disease?”

Also, Zwingli distinguished between disease and sin. Disease refers to the “original contamination of man,” “defect of humanity,” or “the defect of a corrupted nature.” Adam’s fault brought this to every person (Rom 5:14). The word sin, however, “implies guilt, and guilt comes from a transgression or a trespass on the part of one who designedly perpetrates a deed.” Zwingli was unwilling to state that the inheritance from Adam should even be called “sin” because Zwingli denied that the inheritance from Adam involves “guilt,” which would imply a sinful deed.[6]

Pilgram Marpeck (1495–1556) was an Anabaptist Reformer who, like Zwingli, also had to refute the charge of Pelagianism. Marpeck wrote:

Our witness is that for children neither inherited nor actual sin counts before God because a child remains in ignorance and in created simplicity until it grows up into understanding and the inheritance is realized in and through it. Before that, sin has no damning effect; neither inherited nor actual sin is counted against a child before God. . . . When children come to a knowledge of good and evil, that is, when they reach understanding, then the inheritance which leads to damnation becomes effective in them. Then inherited sin becomes inheritable.[7]

Affirmations of inherited sinful nature (or denials of inherited guilt) haven’t been universal in Christian history but they have been frequent. This was demonstrated by theologians of both the Eastern and Western traditions and the Magisterial and Anabaptist Reformers. The view has been affirmed frequently among Baptists. Consider as examples: a 400-year old confession of a Baptist “founder,” 100 years of theology at  Southwestern Seminary, statements from all three SBC Presidents who presided over BFM Study Committees, and a recent doctrinal statement affirmed by a variety of Southern Baptist statesmen.

A Baptist “Founder”

            From Article 5 of “A Short Confession of Faith in Twenty Articles” by John Smyth (1570-1612): “That there is no original sin (lit., no sin of origin or descent), but all sin is actual and voluntary, viz., a word, a deed, or a design against the law of God; and therefore, infants are without sin.”[8] John Smyth, an early Baptist "founder," clearly denies inherited guilt.

100 Years of Theology at Southwestern Seminary

            James Leo Garrett, Jr., in personal correspondence quoted with his permission, provides the following historical perspective: “Southern Seminary has had a wide divergence of views on your topic; for example, between Boyce and Dale Moody and between Dale Moody and Al Mohler. Southwestern Seminary, on the other hand, has consistently been on one side, i. e., we are not guilty of Adam's sin. Walter T. Conner repeatedly took this stance.” After citing examples to support this claim,[9] Garrett explains: “Conner was the theology department at SWBTS from 1910 to 1949. I have known, I believe, every person who has taught theology as a full faculty member since 1949, and I cannot identify any one of these who taught that we are all guilty of the sin of Adam (and Eve), with one possible exception.”[10] It is the testimony of Dr. Garrett that for over 100 years the theology faculty at SWBTS has affirmed: we are not guilty of Adam’s sin.

SBC Presidents Who Presided Over BFM Study Committees

            E. Y. Mullins (1860-1928) served as President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1899-1928). He was also President of the SBC when the Baptist Faith and Message was adopted as its first statement of faith in 1925. Mullins rejected the doctrine of inherited guilt. Rather, man “is guilty when he does wrong.” Mullins explains, “Men are not condemned therefore for hereditary or original sin. They are condemned only for their own sins.”[11]

Herschel Hobbs (1907-95) presided over the BFM 1963 Study Committee. In a 1979 article in which he describes the changes between the 1925 and 1963 editions of the BFM, Hobbs comments specifically on Article 3:

Thus the result of the fall is that men inherit, not “a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin” (1925), but a “nature and an environment inclined toward sin” (1963). In the latter “condemnation” comes upon individuals following transgression “as soon as they are capable of moral action.” This, of course, agrees with the position generally held by Baptists concerning God’s grace in cases of those under the age of accountability and the mentally incompetent.[12]

Hobbs is clear: people do not inherit “a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin” (per 1925) but a nature “inclined toward sin.” Also, condemnation follows transgression, which comes as soon as people are capable of moral action. Although it was possible to read inherited guilt into the BFM 1925, the 1963 revisions made such a move nearly impossible. This was the view of the President of the SBC who convened the Study Committee which revised the BFM in 1963.

In 2000, Paige Patterson (b. 1942) served as President of the SBC when the BFM Study Committee recommended its most recent revision. It was unnecessary to scour Patterson’s writings to ascertain his view of inherited guilt because he supervised my PhD dissertation, which argues against it. After describing the method and goal in the foreword of my book, Patterson writes: “Harwood’s conclusion that an infant is born with a sin nature, which makes the commission of rebellious acts inevitable, though the infant as yet carries no guilt, is not unusual or novel.” Patterson finds nothing “unusual or novel” about rejecting Adam’s guilt and affirming a sinful nature.

In 2012, Patterson affirmed a doctrinal statement which denies inherited guilt. More on that statement in a moment.

Every SBC President who presided over a BFM study committee denied inherited guilt.

The Traditional Statement

            In 2012, after interacting with several Southern Baptist professors and pastors, Eric Hankins penned “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” One line states: “We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.”[13] That’s a clear denial of inherited guilt. Prior to its release, a host of Southern Baptist statesmen affirmed it by publicly attaching their name and reputation, including: former SBC Presidents, current SBC Seminary Presidents, members of the BFM 2000 study committee, state executive-directors, and a variety of SBC pastors and professors. Technically, the affirmation of the Traditional Statement by these leaders is not an argument for or against its content. But their affirmation supports the claim that many Southern Baptists hold this view: we’re not guilty of Adam’s sin.

The list of theologians from Christian and Baptist history who are comfortable ignoring or denying inherited guilt is impressive. If the accusation of Pelagianism is once again wrongly leveled against the view (as it was against Zwingli and Marpeck), then I’ll be in good company.

Click HERE to read part 4.

Adam Harwood, PhD
Assistant Professor of Christian Studies
Truett-McConnell College
Cleveland, Georgia


                  [1]Stan Norman, “Human Sinfulness,” in A Theology for the Church (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 449.

                  [2]John Chrysostom, On Infants, ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson, in The Later Christian Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 69.

                  [3]Gregory of Nyssa, On Infants’ Early Deaths, in NPNF2 5: 372-381.

                  [4]See Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul 39–41, 56, in ANF 3:219–21, 232; and On Baptism 18 in ANF 3:678.

                  [5]Eric Osborn, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 167.

                  [6]Ulrich Zwingli, On Original Sin, in On Providence and Other Essays, trans. Samuel Jackson (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1983), 3-10.

                  [7]Pilgram Marpeck, Response to Caspar Schwenckfeld’s Judgment, in The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, ed. and trans. Walter Klaassen and William Klaassen, in CRR, vol. 2 (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), 89.

                  [8]“A Short Confession of Faith in Twenty Articles by John Smyth,” http://www.baptistcenter.com/baptist_confessions/general_baptist/A-Short-Confession-of-Faith-in-Twenty-Articles.html (accessed January 24, 2013).

                  [9]See W. T. Conner, The Faith of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1940), 286-289; A System of Christian Doctrine (1924); and the revision of its second half, The Gospel of Redemption (1945).

                  [10]James Leo Garrett, Jr., in correspondence to the author dated January 22, 2013. Emphasis mine.

                  [11]E. Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1917; reprinted 1974), 302.

                  [12]Herschel H. Hobbs, “Southern Baptists and Confessionalism: A Comparison of the Origins and Contents of the 1925 and 1963 Confessions,” Review and Expositor 76.1 (1979): 63. I am indebted to Peter Lumpkins, who drew my attention to this journal article.

                  [13]See http://sbctoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/A-Statement-of-Traditional-Southern-Baptist-Soteriology-SBC-Today.pdf (accessed January 24, 2013). Quote is from Article 2; emphasis mine.