#12 of a Series on Psalm 50
“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me..” Psalm 50:5 NIV
“For behold, I was conceived in transgressions and in sins my mother bore me.” Psalm 50:5 OSB
Today’s verse[i] is puzzling, or perhaps much better, mysterious. What is the prophet saying here? Is he commenting about the state of souls universally in some theological – anthropological exercise? Or is what he saying more intimate, more personal?
Sin and Missing the Mark
The interpretation of this verse[ii] has wreaked havoc over Christendom for well over a millennium and a half. Certainly, in the West, it was one of verses that cemented the doctrine of Original Sin as understood by Augustine, and served as something of a template for western Christian thought through the Reformation until today. From this doctrine we have the Roman Catholic teaching of a ‘guilt from moment of conception’ due to Original Sin, as a spiritual heritage passed through the conception process (sex) and having a spiritual end – guilt and finally death. This thinking required a special grace of the Immaculate Conception which freed Mary from Original Sin, so that she could bear Jesus (no male human involved) in a sin-free state. While the Reformers struggled to deal with this idea of the passing on of guilt from Augustine [iii] (the go-to Father of the Church in the West), there was no real rejection of a universal guilt per se, but some saw the universality of the fallenness of the human state in juridical form in the notion of ‘total depravity of man’, which is the utter lack of goodness of any sort in man’s human character or behavior – leaving mankind as horribly evil.
I cannot go into depth to speak to these things which have been argued about over the centuries, except to say that the Eastern Orthodox Churches do not deny that sin and death are at work in every human being – for this is what the Psalm and other scriptures say explicitly or implicitly. Many/most Eastern Fathers however express this more in terms of the state of the spiritual affliction of sin carried on in human nature not as a personal guilt for evil offenses from conception (if somehow possible) or even from Adam’s offense, but more as a inherent weakness or predisposition to fall into sin or to be deceived by the Devil and choose wrongly in life, as Adam did, even from our earliest days as the human will is emerging in maturity. The newborn child is incapable of personal sin and Jesus even mentioned that in children there is an innocence which reflects the Kingdom of God. (Mt. 18:3) Part of the discussion about sin must address the idea of what sin is – in Orthodoxy as in the bible[iv] it is to ‘miss the mark’ akin to the image of the archer who misses his target if his arrow goes awry. It is a description of a failure, not so much an internal state human state. However, when we miss the mark with regularity (sin) our entire being becomes incapable of (ever?) hitting the bullseye. (God’s will)
Flesh and Impurities
I find that the patristic notion of the flesh and skins and coverings, mentioned previously, might be helpful here.[v] Even from conception, we are clothed in the flesh from our mother’s wombs by God (Ps.139:13), which is not evil, rather in some way makes us human and hence, good. The flesh that Christ took on, becoming human, cannot be evil! Nevertheless, the flesh as we bear it, in our spiritual sickness, has this tendency and weakness to be led into sin (through desire – passion) and hence this weakness of the flesh is what we are ‘conceived in’, not guilt.
This weakness is not to be underestimated – because it is impossible to be strong in life action if weakness interiorly exists. Hence at some point, we all fail and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) – the glory held in his Image in which we were created and which our likeness is to radiate. Sin collapses us and darkens the image, but does not destroy it.[vi]
To find a metaphor for this, I’ll go back to my metallurgical training. When you have a metal and you stress it enough, the forces of physics being such, it breaks. But if there are certain kinds of impurities in the metal, even in its very structure, it will fracture when subjected to far less stress. Refining of the metal removes the impurities and restores it to the original strength. This analogy works somewhat similarly in that the working of the frailties of the flesh within our humanity – with inherent weaknesses spiritually which lead to the entrapment of the will. If the Original sin of Adam was universal, it is in the passing on of this inherent tendency, or weakness to fail. Born to fail, bound to fail.
A New Birth is Necessary – Nothing Less
The Gospel of Christ is about nothing less than a rebirth and a re-fashioning of the human person. Upstream of the oft-quoted passage about the new life in Christ cited in John 3:16, we read about Nicodemus, who reacts to the words of Christ that he must be ‘born again’ from above, who asks, “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” The New Birth is one of the Spirit, which comes not from the spirit of man, or from the waters of the mother’s womb, sacred as that place is because it is the place where God fashions human beings. Rather the formation of the New Man in the waters of Baptism, in the New Mother, the Church who is born of the Spirit of God. This new ‘body’ of the newly-reborn, newly-baptized person is ‘without wrinkle or spot’. (Eph. 5:27) The re-creation removes the inherent weakness from sin – and places us in a new place of grace as a new creation. Now here note that if we yet sin again after baptism[vii], when we do we are falling back into the ways of the Old Man, mired in sin, effectively shedding the ‘garment of light’ received at baptism, for the rags of sin (the carnal flesh.) The question is whether a person will exercise the will to put aside (again) the passions/desires of the flesh and instead walk in the light of the will of God, and the love of God in the soul above all things. In this view – the ‘conception in sin’ is a universal state of the fallenness of our nature and weakness of will, but not personal guilt.
Conception and Sin – A Mystery
I’ve come to believe that the Christian understanding of things spiritual requires Baptism – and the alignment of one’s mind and heart with the teaching of the Church through the scriptures. Just as Nikodemus could not understand the teaching of Jesus about being born again, so also we cannot ‘figure out’ the meaning of things like ‘conceived in sin’ until the light of the Truth through the message of Christ illumines its meaning. This is why a simply rationalist approach to the scripture is not only meaningless, but dangerous and leads to errors and heresies. The truth of the Faith and God’s revelation is a ‘mystery hidden from all eternity’ and hence impossible to fully probe through rational thought and ‘data’. (Col. 1:26) But (only) with the revelation of Christ and the fulfillment of the divine plan of salvation does the mystery begin to unfold. This understanding is what the Church passes on to us in every generation as the Body of Christ. This is why the viewpoint of the ancient Church is so important in every age.
David’s statement is one of those ultimate ‘dead ends’ in human life. The words of the lamentation song[viii], popularized by Peggy Lee and Bette Midler, “If that’s all there is my friend, then let’s keep dancing, and bring out the booze’ more or less captures this sense of how sin from the beginning of human life seems to be so overwhelming, blotting out the possibility of real life and love and leaving in its wake only sadness, darkness, depression and anger. It is the dead-end place that sin always takes us – including our own generation – emphasis on dead.
However David goes straight up against this reality – not in despair, but in prayer. He struggles with what it means to be human – as his own sinfulness and mortality and the effects of sin have made oh so painfully evident – by pondering these things in the presence of the Lord in prayer. He searches for his real humanity in the light of God, and the truth, including his personal truth, willing to settle for nothing less.
And we do not find David blaming anyone else, including Adam, for his sinful state. +
[i] I have included the translations of the verse from the New International Version and the Orthodox Study Bible – noting that the former says “Surely I was sinful at birth…” where most translations historically used the word ‘conceived’. This raises a whole different exegetical question which can not be addressed here.
[ii] My apologies for what is a far less then thorough, and hence satisfactory treatment of these very involved issues. My focus is more a simple understand of how folks-in-the-pews can view these issues.
[iii] For his approach to the Psalm see: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf108.ii.LI.html Augustine notes that the sin does not refer to some sinfulness in the act of the conception of David by his righteous father, Jesse, in the womb of his mother as if it was somehow due to a singular personal sinful sexual act. For a short description of the differences of approach between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant thought see, https://stjohndc.org/en/orthodoxy-foundation/original-sin
[iv] Gr: ‘hamartia’, ἁμαρτία – to ‘miss the mark’
[v] The passages found in the New Testament using the terms bod/flesh – Greek: sarx and Latin: carne – present these ideas in many places in the writings of St. Paul and others, but an exegesis of all these texts is beyond this reflection.
[vi] There are arguments that say that yes, we bear the image of God in our humanity, but that we essentially lose our humanity when we sin becoming as the scriptures say, like animals. But as a human cannot not be a human genetically, so the also spiritually. Even with the greatest of sins, repentance and restoration in the Lord is possible. But sometimes we really do look like and behave like, animals.
[viii] “Is That All there Is?” by Dan Daniels