The teaching of the Council of Trent on original sin clearly and explicitly relies far more upon St. Paul than it does upon Genesis. Luther and others had relied heavily upon the Epistle to the Romans for their account of justification. Trent appeals to the same text, together with other New Testament books, to buttress Catholic teaching.
Romans begins by showing how disastrous the human condition without Jesus would be. Paul points out that the pagans worshipped idols and in consequence fell into all sorts of sins, although the true God is knowable even by the light of reason (see Rom 1.18–31). Moreover, the pagans are not excused by their lack of guidance from a revealed law, for conscience and natural knowledge of the law written in one’s heart are sufficient to make clear that wrong acts are sins and deserve punishment (see Rom 1.32; 2.12–16).
Paul also points out that although the Jews enjoy the gift of God’s word, which protects them from idolatry and gives them sound moral guidance, they are hardly better than the pagans. They do not fulfill the requirements of God’s law, which serves only to make clear their sinfulness (see Rom 2.1–11, 17–29; 3.1–20).
The only escape from sin is faith, and this way out is available both to pagans and to Jews (see Rom 3.21–31). Even Abraham is saved not by observing a law, but by faith in God, a faith which implicitly stretched forward to redemption through Jesus (see Rom 4). Christians likewise are saved by living faith in God, faith received through the sacrificial and redemptive work of Jesus (see Rom 5.1–11). Saved by faith, Christians have a solid hope of heavenly glory, because the love of God has been poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (see Rom 5.5).
In this context—after reviewing the universal disaster of sin and asserting the universal redemptive power of faith in God—Paul brings up original sin in order to show that like Man, Jesus is a unique and universally significant principle in humankind’s relationship to God, and, in fact, that Jesus is a far more powerful principle than Man. Paul begins: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned . . .” (Rom 5.12).35 This is the verse on whose significance Trent was to insist. One person introduces sin and death, and in doing so truly is a principle of sin and death for all. At this point, Paul breaks off to comment upon the situation of humankind between Man and Moses, when there was no law but there was sin and death (see Rom 5.13–14).
It seems clear enough that Paul is proceeding here from the causality of sin and death by Man to the causality of grace and life by Jesus. Paul takes it that the story of Man’s sin is well known and accepted. The analogy would not work unless Man is as truly a principle of sin and death as the Lord Jesus is of grace and life. If, for instance, one assumed that Man merely initiated sin as a bad example which others follow, the conclusion could not be stronger than that Jesus provided a unique example of obedience for others to imitate.
Paul goes on to point out the limits of the parallel. The gift is far more powerful than the offense; Man’s sin only spoiled things, whereas our Lord’s redemptive work is constructive (see Rom 5.15–17). In indicating the limits of the parallel, Paul would be omitting a very powerful point, which he hardly would have ignored, had he thought but not said that Man’s sin is inefficacious for us without our willing consent. Instead of saying any such thing, Paul goes on to reaffirm the parallel within the limits he has indicated. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5.18–19). If the universal human disaster of evil has a unitary principle, the act which introduced sin and death for all humankind, so much more does the universal grace of redemption have a unitary principle: the redemptive work of God in our Lord Jesus, which Paul proposes for acceptance in faith.
Trent’s definition says a good deal more than Paul, but says nothing inconsistent with what Paul says. Paul’s expression of faith makes clear that the whole of humankind became sinners and so subject to death, because of the sin of one man. The context makes it clear that this basic condition of every human person as sinner is only the beginning of universal human sinfulness, which the basic sin helps to explain.
Another important passage in Paul on original sin is his treatment of the resurrection in First Corinthians. Insisting that Jesus really lives, Paul says: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor 15.20–23). The parallelism here makes clear Paul’s belief that the death which came through Man includes precisely that biological process which Jesus underwent and from which he rose.