Mind Aflame

Chapter 6: Creation and Original Sin



Mersch's vision in both its metaphysical and theological aspects can be applied to the difficult issues that surround the doctrines of creation and original sin. Mersch, himself, tried to do this, as we saw in our overview of his Theology of the Mystical Body by placing them against the luminous depths of the mystery of the whole Christ.

At first glance it would seem to be an exaggeration to call the doctrine of creation difficult. The very ontological structure of things points to the God Who made them, but what is at stake in the dogma of creation is not this naturally discoverable truth. Rather, it is the supernaturally revealed truth in which we learn of God's plan to create the universe and the human race in such a way that they will culminate in the mystery of Christ. Mersch sums up this supernatural view of creation: "Man does not express his conclusions in it, but God declares His love in it; creation is the first token of a total donation. If God gives men their whole being, He means to give them His whole being, in Jesus Christ." (1)

There is no way in which a purely metaphysical understanding of creation can lead us to a knowledge of the Trinity. The reasons why this cannot happen are quite straightforward. The life of the Trinity is the inner life of God as God. No creature, no matter how exalted, can share by nature in that divine being. Therefore no creature, in virtue of its own nature, can manifest in itself the existence of the Trinity. Certainly once we are in the order of grace and have knowledge of the Trinity we can look at creation from the perspective of the dogma of creation and see in it powerful symbols and analogies of a creaturely sharing in the trinitarian life, but that is quite another matter.

It is this aspect of creation as a supernatural truth that Mersch wants to pursue. Then with the light of faith we see the universe and the human race fashioned from the very beginning in view of Christ. "Accordingly, when God created, when He caused the universe to be, He was raising up Christ from afar." (2)

But this kind of view of creation immediately leads to difficult questions. In what way can we say that the universe and the human race were created to culminate in Christ? Was not the principle purpose of the Incarnation redemption from sin, as many theologians have held? Or should we say that the Incarnation was willed as God's masterpiece, irregardless of the question of redemption? Mersch, like many theologians before him, tries to steer a middle course between these two positions, and so avoid the conflict, but his formulations do not appear entirely clear.

"(T)he Incarnation remains essentially, as the majority of theologians teach, the remedy for sin. Nothing indicates that the Incarnation would have taken place without sin, for without sin there would not have been so much goodness to show forth nor, consequently, so much glory for the divine love. At the same time, the Incarnation is willed for itself, for a redemptive Incarnation is but an Incarnation pushed to the extreme." (3)

But the reasoning that led up to this conclusion and this summation itself seems more a restatement of the problem than a solution of it. If we say that the Incarnation is willed primarily for the purpose of redemption, then we seem to somehow sever Christ from the creation of the universe and the human race. The greatest work of God, the Incarnation itself, then begins to look like a consequence of sin. Further, the grace of our first parents is cast in the light of a supernatural elevation somehow outside of the context of the Incarnation. Or, if we make their grace a grace that comes from Christ, it was given to them only as a result of God foreseeing original sin and the subsequent redemption coming through Christ. If we are not careful we come close to saying that original sin was somehow necessary, and that God would have chosen this universe over any other precisely because it was a universe in which sin existed. (4) Mersch writes: "No doubt sanctifying grace in this original period was not quite the same as ours. It had no sin to efface and was not the grace of the Redeemer as such. Yet, if what we have said is correct, it was given solely in view of the God-man who was to come." (5)

He goes on to say: "If, as we shall bring out later, a divinization is incomprehensible without a literal and substantial union with God, we have to conclude that in Adam too it was impossible without such a union. This does not mean, evidently, that Adam received the hypostatic union. Nor does it mean that, if Adam had not sinned, a God-man would have been born of his race, that is, a God-man free from suffering and wholly glorious. For, in the hypothesis we are discussing, Adam was chosen as the first sinner and as a man to be restored; the question of what would have happened had he not sinned does not arise." (6)

It is hard to figure out exactly what the phrase "Adam was chosen as the first sinner" means. And I can see no reason why we cannot ask ourselves the question of what would have happened if Adam had not sinned. Isn't it possible that our first parents could not have sinned and a God-man would still have been born? Let us keep these questions in the back of our minds as we turn to Mersch's chapter on original sin which completes the ideas that he is developing here.


The doctrine of original sin is often treated with averted eyes as if looking squarely at it would soon immerse us in insoluble difficulties. Mersch has little of that kind of timidity. He leads off his treatment of original sin by quoting the Council of Trent to the effect that the sin of Adam lost supernatural life for us and his sin has in some way become our own and the death of our souls.

Clearly this sin cannot be our personal sin, and so the crux of the problem becomes understanding how it can be called our own sin and have such devastating consequences if we did not commit it. Mersch searches for a solution by reviewing briefly what the Scriptures, Fathers and theologians have said on the matter, and he finds that they treat the question of original sin in relationship to our unity in Christ. But even in St. Thomas this well developed sense of the union we possess in Christ is not transferred to our first parents to shed maximum light on the union we have with them. "To complete the saint's doctrine an investigation should have been made, we believe, into the natural, mystical, real, almost organic, and in any case vital unity that combined all men together in Adam, as that sort of unity does bind them together in Christ. But the commentators, even the best of them, have not pursued that line of thought." (7) And we can add that neither have they expended much energy on exploring the natural unity of the human race and applying the fruits of that kind of study to the question of original sin.

Instead, a juridical view of original sin prevailed. But such a juridical view hinged on God seeing us without grace. But how can we be expected to have grace if it was gone long before we were born? If God has not given us that gift, how can God hold its absence against us?

"After all, the privation, if there is privation, does not exist except in Him, that is, in the sort of deception He practices in seeing that men are born merely as men. Or, if we insist that the privation exists in men themselves, it exists in them only with reference to Him and because of the way He regards them. The sin is said to consist precisely in this privation; hence the consequence follows - we scarcely dare express the thought - that it exists in Him or because of Him." (8)

A genuine solution does not lie in this direction, but rather in an "explanation that might enable us to understand a certain physical, ontological presence of all nature in Adam, a real union of all men in their first origin." (9) It is in the light of this unity that Mersch will begin to sketch a more adequate solution.

Our first parents in some way contain the whole human race in virtue of being its point of origin and the mysterious union of all human beings with each other because of their form. The human race is not a collection of individuals as much as a mysterious interpenetration of persons who vitally depend on each other for their birth, development and fulfillment. If this is true today, it was even more true of our first parents who concentrated in themselves the entire human race in its most tender beginnings.

All the insights that Mersch has developed about the philosophical unity of the human race must be applied in a special way to our first parents. Then this unity must be increased because of their supernatural elevation to the life of grace which would have the effect of intensifying their natural being and its profound union with all the human beings to come. This union would be all the more powerful because it is generated by a human nature in a pristine state which offered no resistance to the divine intensification that comes through grace.

Our first parents were meant not only to pass on physical life to us, but they had a much greater mandate. Even on a purely natural plane, they were to be the source of our psychological and intellectual lives. On the supernatural level they were to pass on to us the life of grace, itself. How was this to happen? The communication of grace is now so linked in our minds with the Church and the sacramental system that it takes some effort to realize that both have been shaped by the fact of original sin and the sins that have confirmed it and the necessity for redemption that comes from them. Baptism, penance, confirmation, holy orders, the anointing of the sick, and even the Eucharist, itself, are molded by the fact that we live in a fallen, redeemed world. They simply would not have existed in the same way in the beginning.

How, then, would grace have been communicated to us? It would have come to us the same way as natural life does, as a gift from our parents, and by the very act of creating new life. As Mersch puts it: "(M)arriage in that state would have been a sort of equivalent of our present sacraments." (10) The one family of human beings would have been the Church and all of us its priests.

It is only if we begin to get a sense of this pristine original state that we will be in a position to understand the devastation wrought by original sin. The gift of participating in the inner life of God had to be precisely that, a gift. No creature by nature shares in the divine life. Grace has to be freely given by God, and it has to be freely accepted by us, for there can be no love without freedom, and no freedom without the possibility of sin.

God from the beginning created the universe and our first parents with that gift in mind, but when they sinned they lost this supernatural life. "But the offer of the gift was not retracted." (11) It is not as if God wills to look at our lack of supernatural life and see us as sinners, as the juridical point of view would have it. The gift of supernatural life was built into the concrete structure of things, especially the souls of our first parents. It formed the center and goal of all their inner activities. It was the highest principle and focus of their spiritual and psychological orientation, and when they sinned and lost it, the very fabric of their souls was twisted out of shape.

Here is the way Mersch puts it: "There is no inexplicable divine decree declaring men sinners when they have as yet done nothing; there is nothing but an inconceivable tenderness that continues to pursue men, whatever evil they may have committed. The privation of grace which is their sin is but the negative expression of an interior orientation toward the grace that God is keeping for them, and this orientation itself is but the effect corresponding in them to the eternal offer that refuses to be withdrawn." (12)

The loss of this divine life is the result of a personal sin of our first parents, and having lost this life for themselves, they can no longer pass it on to us. The human nature we receive from them is a wounded human nature, not because of any personal sin of our own that could be called original sin, nor because our nature as human nature has become fundamentally flawed, but because our nature is still oriented to the supernatural life that is meant to complete it. Concretely our souls are twisted and disordered, for they lack their true center, and this disorder assails us from both within and from without. The disorder of the society we live in magnifies and reinforces the disorder that is in our own souls.

Is this all some sort of poorly fashioned theology tainted with a dualistic world view and passed on to us by St. Augustine? I don't think so. As Mersch indicates, original sin is not a completely negative reality, but springs from the orientation we have to share in the divine life. Further, two very powerful reasons argue for the existence of original sin. The first is the evil we see all around us and, unfortunately, inside us, as well. If we are tempted to forget it for a moment, the media is constantly there to remind us of its existence. Even our children who start off so innocent and whom we would like to shield from this pervasive disorder grow up to discover it for themselves both inside and out.

The second reason is equally persuasive. We have only to contemplate the passion and death of Jesus to be confronted by the magnitude of sin. How serious must sin be to call for such a remedy.

Mersch sums up the nature of original sin as follows:

"For if nature is complete without grace so long as it has never had grace, once it has received grace it is wounded to death when it loses grace, because the gift has actuated splendors of life which were but possible before and which, vanishing with the grace that departs, leaves nature bereft of what had become its supreme necessity, and so it is desolated by the strictest kind of privation." (13)

In a certain way original sin is both the pain of having lost supernatural life and the promise that we are still called to it. Original sin stands between the metaphysical truth of the natural unity of the human race and the unity we are meant to have in Christ, and in this way we return to the questions posed by the doctrine of creation and the traditional debates about the purpose of the Incarnation. There are no easy answers here, but it is worthwhile venturing an opinion.

Let's imagine that from the first moment God decided to create the human race He willed it to share in the life of the Trinity through the Incarnation of the Word. With that goal in mind He created the universe, which creation was crowned by the human race, and our first parents received the life of grace in view of the Incarnation to come. In this way there is one divine plan from the beginning.

But our first parents sinned, and this original sin effects us all. But despite this sin God's intention, which springs from love, is not thwarted. God continues to offer us the gift of divine life and to will the Incarnation in virtue of which it will be given. But now the Word becomes flesh and part of a sinful human race, and the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus flow almost inevitably from this meeting of sin and divine love.

God does not in some way prefer a world in which sin exists. God does not somehow will our first parents to be sinners in order that the divine plan can be fulfilled. The loving summation of all things in Christ goes forward despite their sin, and shows forth God's love all the more.

What would have happened if our first parents had not sinned? Is this really an unthinkable question? They would have given birth to the human race, and the unity of that race, intensified by grace, would have remained intact. The life of grace would have flowed through the life of this extended family. But this does not mean we would not have had the need to grow psychologically, intellectually and spiritually. Could not this original age of the human race have been a preparation for the coming of the Word, much like the Old Testament was, but this time without sin? Could we have not striven to understand the deepest implications of the supernatural life that animated our being and slowly begun to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation to come, and tried to prepare ourselves for it?

In this hypothesis the grace of our first parents is one with and given in view of the Incarnation of the Word. There is no need to puzzle over possible alternative ways in which our first parents could share in the trinitarian life. Perhaps participation in the inner life of God can only take place through the Incarnation of the Word. What else but a human nature united to the person of the Word could be transformed by that entity of union which allows it to share in the trinitarian life, and through that transformation communicate that life to all other human beings? Is a literal and substantial union with God like our first parents had possible outside of the context of the hypostatic union? Can a human nature share in the divine life if it does not in some way become divine because of its union with one of the divine persons?

Perhaps we will never know in this life the answers to these kinds of questions, but this view of things, while not in complete accord with Mersch's words, seems to be in harmony with the general principles of the primacy of the whole Christ that he sets forth throughout his Theology of the Mystical Body.



Back to Theology

Chapter 7