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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K095-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

The most archaic conception of human fault may be the notion of defilement or pollution, that is, a stain or blemish which somehow infects a person from without. All the major religious traditions offer accounts of human faults and prescriptions for dealing with them. However, it is only when fault is conceived within the context of a relationship to a personal deity that it makes sense to speak of it as an offence against the divine will. The concept of sin is the concept of a human fault that offends a good God and brings with it human guilt. Its natural home is in the major theistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

These religious traditions share the idea that actual or personal sins are individual actions contrary to the will of God. In the Hebrew Bible, sin is understood within the context of the covenantal relation between Yahweh and his chosen people. To be in covenant with Yahweh is to exist in holiness, and so sin is a deviation from the norms of holiness. In the Christian New Testament, Jesus teaches that human wrongdoing offends the one whom he calls Father. The Qur’an portrays sin as opposition to Allah rooted in human pride.

According to Christian tradition, there is a distinction to be drawn between actual sin and original sin. The scriptural warrant for the doctrine of original sin is found in the Epistles of Paul, and the interpretation of Paul worked out by Augustine in the course of his controversy with the Pelagians has been enormously influential in Western Christianity. On the Augustinian view, which was developed by Anselm and other medieval thinkers with considerable philosophical sophistication, the Fall of Adam and Eve had catastrophic consequences for their descendants. All the progeny of the first humans, except for Jesus and his mother, inherit from them guilt for their first sin, and so all but two humans are born bearing a burden of guilt. The Augustinian doctrine of original sin is morally problematic just because it attributes innate guilt to humans. It was criticized by John Locke and Immanuel Kant.

Citing this article:
Quinn, Philip L.. Sin, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K095-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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