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The Concepts of Original Sin and Grace

A Lecture By
Rudolf Steiner
Munich, 3rd May, 1911
GA 127

Translated by D. S. Osmond
First edition (Anthroposophical Publishing Co.) 1960
Second edition 1973

Translated from shorthand reports unrevised by the lecturer. The original text is published in German as Erbsünde und Gnade, to be included in the volume of the complete edition of the works of Rudolf Steiner in German, Bibl. Nr. 127.

This English edition is published by permission of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

Copyright © 1960
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The following lecture was given by Rudolf Steiner to an audience familiar with the general background of his anthroposophical teachings. He constantly emphasized the distinction be tween his written works and reports of lectures which were given as oral communications and were not originally intended for print. It should also be remembered that certain premises were taken for granted when the words were spoken. “These premises,” Rudolf Steiner writes in his autobiography, “include at the very least the anthroposophical knowledge of Man and the Cosmos in its spiritual essence; also of what may be called ‘anthroposophical history’, told as an outcome of research into the spiritual world.”


THE CONCEPTS OF ORIGINAL SIN AND GRACE

A course of lectures in Helsingfors was to have begun today, but as karma has brought us together here instead, it may be useful to speak of certain subjects belonging to Spiritual Science, and then perhaps some particular wish may be expressed in the form of a question arising from our study on this unexpected occasion.

We will concern ourselves with certain thoughts which throw light on the subject of man's evolution in connection with the evolution of the earth, and as often before, we shall try to enlarge upon many things already known to us. Many things connected with the religious life and men's view of the world may have prompted the question: How are these things related to the deeper conceptions of life and the world which arise from Spiritual Science?

To begin with, I want to speak of two important concepts which confront the soul of modern man, even though he may believe he has long outgrown them. These two concepts are usually designated by the words ‘Sin’ and ‘Grace’. Everyone knows that the concepts ‘Sin’ and ‘Grace’ are of outstanding significance in the Christian view of life. There are theosophists who — from the standpoint of karma, as they allege — give no thought to concepts such as those of Sin and Grace or to the broader concept of Sin and Original Sin. This lack of reflection can lead to no good, because it prevents such people from recognizing the deeper aspects of Christianity, for example, and of other problems connected with views of life and the world. The background of the concepts of Sin, Original Sin, and Grace, is infinitely more profound than is generally imagined. The reason why this deep background is not perceived at the present time is that the real profundities of nearly all the traditional religions — this applies, to a greater or less extent, to nearly all of them in the form in which they now exist — have been more or less obliterated. The tenets of these religions seldom contain anything even remotely comparable with what lies behind these concepts of Sin, Original Sin and Grace. For what lies behind them is actually the whole evolution of the human race.

We are accustomed to divide this evolution into two main phases: a phase of descent, from the most ancient times until the appearance of Christ on the earth, and the phase of ascent which begins with the appearance of Christ on the earth and continues into the farthest future. Thus we regard the Coming of Christ as the event of supreme importance, not in the evolution of humanity alone but in the whole of our planetary evolution.

Why must the Christ Event be given this place at the very centre of our cosmic evolution? It is for the simple reason that man has come down from spiritual heights into the depths of material existence, whence he must again ascend to the heights of spirit. We have therefore to do with a descent and an ascent of man. In respect of man's life of soul, we say: In times of remote antiquity men were able to lead a spiritual life approximating far more closely to the Divine than is possible today. They were nearer to the divine-spiritual and divine-spiritual life shone with greater strength into the human soul. It must not, however, be forgotten that this descent into the material-physical world was necessary, because when men were nearer to the divine-spiritual, their whole consciousness was dimmer, more dream-like; it was less lucid, but at the same time inwoven with divine-spiritual thoughts, feelings and will-impulses. Man was nearer to the divine-spiritual but more like a dreaming child than a fully wide-awake, conscious human being. He has descended inasmuch as he has acquired the faculty of judgment necessary in physical life, namely, reason. Therewith he has descended from the heights of divine-spiritual existence but has become more clearly conscious of himself, has found a firm centre within his own being. In order to work his way upwards again he must fill this inner kernel of his life of soul with what has been brought by the Christ Impulse. And the more his soul is filled with the Christ Impulse, the higher he will ascend again into the divine-spiritual world, reaching it not as a being with dreamy, hazy consciousness, but as a being looking into the world with alert, lucid consciousness.

Closer investigation of the process of human evolution discloses that it is the ‘I’, the ego, of man which alone has made it possible for him to acquire the faculty of clear, intelligent perception of the physical world of sense, but that the ego was the last member of his being to develop; the astral body had developed earlier, the etheric body still earlier, and again earlier, the first rudiments of the physical body. We will remind ourselves especially today that the first stage of the development of the astral body preceded that of the ego. Many things we have heard in the course of time will have made it clear to us that before man could pass through the stage of ego-development, he must have passed through a stage where he consisted of three members only: physical body, etheric body, astral body. But already then he was involved in the process of the evolution of the ego; he lived within this evolutionary process, waiting, as it were, for the later bestowal of his ego. Rightly understood, this enables us to conceive that certain things must have happened to man and to the whole process of his development before he actually received his ego. These happenings belong to an epoch preceding that of the development of the ego. This is of great significance, for if man had passed through a phase of evolution before receiving his ego, what happened during that phase cannot be attributed to him in the same sense as what has happened since the bestowal of the ego is to be attributed to him.

There are beings who obviously have no ego in the human sense, namely, the animals. They consist of physical body, etheric body and astral body only. Everyone who thinks rationally recognizes something about the animals. Whatever fury may be exhibited by a lion, for example, we shall not say of a lion as we might say of a human being: he can be evil, he can sin, he can commit immoral deeds. We shall never speak of immorality in connection with the actions of an animal. This in itself is significant because even if we give no thought to it, we are thereby recognizing that the difference between man and animal consists in the fact that the animal has physical body, etheric body and astral body only, whereas man has the ego in addition. Man passed through a phase of evolution when the astral body was the highest member of his being. Did something happen to him during that stage which must be regarded in a different light from that in which the actions of animals are to be regarded? Yes indeed! For it must be clearly understood that although man was once a being consisting of physical body, etheric body and astral body, his nature was never the same as that of the animals as we know them today. Man was never an animal, but in other epochs he passed through a stage of evolution when he had these three bodies only — epochs when there were as yet no animals in their present form and when the conditions of existence on the earth were quite different.

What was it that actually happened to man at that time? As he had not received his ego, we cannot attribute to him what we now do in distinguishing him from the animals. What arose through him cannot be judged as it is to be judged today, when he has an ego. In the last stage of transition, when man was on the point of receiving his ego, there came the Luciferic influence. In that epoch of his evolution man was not the being he is today, but neither is he to be identified with the animals. Lucifer approached him. At that time man could not — acting as it were with full moral responsibility — choose whether he would or would not follow Lucifer; nevertheless he could be drawn into Lucifer's toils in a way other than that which applies to the animals today. This temptation by Lucifer occurred at the time when man was actually at the point of receiving his ego. This temptation was a deed to which man yielded before the period of ego-development but which has cast its shadows into the whole of this development. Who then, in the real sense, was the sinner? Not man as an ego-endowed being. Through Lucifer, man became a sinner with one part of his being — the part with which, properly speaking, he can no longer be a sinner today, for now he has his ego. At that time, therefore, he sinned with his astral body. That is the radical difference between the sin we now incur as men and the sin which at that time crept into our human nature. When man succumbed to the temptation of Lucifer, he succumbed with his astral body. This, therefore, is a deed which belongs to the period prior to that of ego-development and is entirely different in character from any deed of which man has been capable since his ego entered into him — even in its very earliest rudiments. It was therefore a deed of man which preceded the entry of the ego, but it cast its shadows into all subsequent ages of time. Man's nature was such that before receiving his ego, he was able to perform the ‘deed’ of lending himself to the Luciferic temptation but through all later time he has been under the influence resulting from this deed. In what sense under its influence? The consequence of the astral body having incurred guilt before man became an ego-endowed being has been that in each successive incarnation he sank more deeply into the physical world. The impetus for this descent was this action, this deed, which was enacted then in the astral body. Man found himself on a steep downward gradient, and with his ego he now lends himself to forces in his nature deriving from the stage of his evolution preceding that of the development of his ego.

How did these forces take effect in the evolution of humanity? They took effect in the following way. We know that until approximately the seventh year of life the physical body of the human being develops, from the seventh to the fourteenth years the etheric body, from the fourteenth to the twenty-first years the astral body, and so on. When the development of the etheric body has been completed, man reaches the stage when he is able to propagate his kind. (We will not now consider what form this takes in the animal kingdom.) When the etheric body has fully developed, the human being is able to reproduce his kind. Anyone who gives a little thought to this — he need not be clairvoyant but only reflect a little — will say: when the development of the etheric body is complete it is possible for a human being to bring forth another of his kind in the fullest sense. This means that as he grows on into the twenties he can develop no new procreative powers. It cannot be said that a man of 30 adds anything to this capacity to propagate his kind; he possesses it to the full as soon as the development of his etheric body is complete. What factor is added later? Nothing that he himself subsequently acquires is added, for he already possesses the power of propagation to the full when the etheric body is completely developed. What, then, is added? As far as the full power to propagate his kind is concerned, the one and only capacity subsequently added by the human being is that of being in a position to vitiate, to weaken it. What he can still acquire after the full development of his etheric body cannot enrich the actual power to propagate his kind, but can only impoverish it. The fact is that qualities acquired after the onset of puberty contribute nothing to the improvement of the human race but only make for its deterioration. This is due to the influence of the impulse which proceeds from the guilt incurred by the astral body. After the etheric body has fully developed, that is to say, at about the fourteenth year, the astral body develops further. Yes, but the influence of Lucifer is implanted in the astral body! What works back again from there into the functioning of the etheric body can only have the effect of weakening the forces of the etheric body which enable man to propagate his kind. In other words: what the astral body has become as the result of the temptation of Lucifer is a perpetual cause of degeneration and deterioration of the human race. And this has actually happened.

There has been continuous deterioration in man through the course of the incarnations. The farther we go back towards the Atlantean epoch, the more do we find in the physical endowments of man, higher forces than were working in later times. Where, then, was the impulse activated in the astral body through the temptation of Lucifer, implanted? It was implanted in heredity, causing increasing deterioration in that process. Sin that man incurs with his ego may work back upon the astral body and can only take effect in karma; but the sin incurred by man before he had an ego, contributes to a continual degeneration and deterioration of the human race as a whole. This sin became an inheritance. And just as it is true that no human being can inherit anything from his ancestors in the higher, spiritual sense — for nobody is clever because he has a clever father but because he learns things that make for cleverness (nobody has yet inherited the principles of mathematics or other such concepts from his ancestors) — just as we cannot inherit these capacities but acquire them through education, it is equally true that what works back into the etheric body from the astral body, contributes only to the undermining of the faculties of the human race. There we have the true meaning of the concept of ‘Original Sin’. The Original Sin which still persisted in the human astral body was handed down by gradual transmission and imparted itself to the hereditary qualities — which were themselves involved in the process of physical degeneration — as a factor in man's descent from spiritual heights into physical degeneration. So the legacy of Lucifer's influence has been a continuous impulse which in the very truest sense must be designated as Original Sin; for what entered into the human astral body through Lucifer is transmitted from generation to generation. There is no more appropriate term for the real cause of man's fall into the material-physical world than the expression: Original Sin, Inherited Sin. But our conception of the Original Sin must differ from that of other sins of ordinary life which are to be attributed entirely to ourselves: we must think of Original Sin as a destiny of man, as something that had inevitably to be imposed upon us by the World Order, because this World Order was obliged to lead us downwards — not in order to worsen us but in order to awaken in us the forces wherewith again to work our way upwards. We must therefore conceive of this Fall as something that has been woven into human destiny for the sake of the freeing of mankind. We could never have become free beings had we not been thrust downwards; we should have been tied to the strings of a World Order which we should have been obliged to follow blindly. What we have to do is to work our own way upwards again.

Now there is nothing that has not its opposite pole. Just as there can be no North Pole without a South Pole, so there can be no phenomenon such as this sin of the astral body without its opposite pole. Without being able to speak in the ordinary sense of moral wrong on our part, it is our destiny as men to be permeated by Luciferic forces. In a certain respect we can do nothing about it, indeed we must rather be thankful that it happened so. We were obliged, then, to incur a burden for which we cannot in the full sense be held responsible.

In human evolution there is something that is related to this as the North Pole is related to the South Pole. This sin which, in its consequences, is inherited, which represents sin in man of which he is not guilty in the real sense, must be counterbalanced by the possibility of re-ascent, also without merit of his own. Just as without guilt of his own, man was obliged to fall, so he must be able to re-ascend without merit of his own — that is to say, without full merit of his own. We fell without being ourselves guilty and we must therefore be able to ascend without merit of our own. That is the necessary polarity. Otherwise we should be obliged to remain below in the physical-material world. Just as we must place at the beginning of our evolution a guilt which man did not himself incur, so at the end of evolution we must place a gift that is bestowed upon him without merit on his part. These two things belong together. The best way of understanding why it is so is to think of the following.

What a man does in ordinary life proceeds from the impulses of his feelings, his emotions, his natural urges, his desires; he gets angry and does certain things out of anger; or he loves in the ordinary way and his actions are prompted by this emotion. There is one word only that can aptly express what man does in this way. You will all admit that in what a man does out of passions, out of anger, or out of ordinary love, there is an element that defies all abstract definition. Only a prosaic, academic brain would attempt to define what actually underlies some particular action of a human being. Yet there is a word which indicates the antecedents of the actions of a man in ordinary life — it is the word ‘Personality’. This word embraces all the indefinable factors. When we have really understood a man's personality, then we may be able to judge why it was that he developed this or that passion, this or that desire, or whatever it may be. Everything that is done out of these impulses bears a personal character. But we are so entangled in material life when we act out of our impulses, desires and passions! Our ego is submerged in the ocean of the physical-material world, is anything but free when it follows the dictates of anger, of passions, or also of love in the ordinary sense. The ego is unfree because it is ensnared in the toils of anger, of passion and the like.

If we observe our present age we shall find something that simply did not exist in ancient times. Only those who have no knowledge of history and who can scarcely see farther than their noses will declare that in the earlier periods of ancient Greece, for example, there were present such things as we today express with words that have been famous now for more than a century — words such as ‘liberty’, ‘equality among men’, and the like. These words signify moral and ethical ideas, as in the first declared object of the Theosophical Society: ‘To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Man without distinction of race, creed, caste or sex.’ For us, as men of the modern age, this is an ideal. It was not at all the same among the ancient Egyptians, among the ancient Persians, or indeed among any of the other peoples of antiquity. In the present age men adhere to such ideals but, in most cases, what they do in the name of liberty, brotherhood, and so forth, bears all the characteristics of abstraction, and admits of definition. For the majority of men, what they grasp of the real import of these ideals of freedom, brotherhood and so on, is capable of definition because they grasp so very little. Passions may become inflated but, for all that, numbers of human beings give us the impression that we have before us something that is withered and sapless. These ‘ideals’ cannot be called personal; they are abstract ideas, lacking the full-blooded vigour of personal life. Yet we attribute greatness to individuals in whom the idea of liberty, for example, seems to have become an out-streaming elemental force, as if it were issuing from wrath, passion, or ordinary love. In many respects today ideas which are to be regarded as the very highest moral ideals are allowed to lie fallow; yet these ideas could be the beginning of momentous development. Just as man has plunged with his ego into the physical-material world, has unfolded personality while acting under the influences of passions, impulses and desires, so he must rise, not merely with abstract concepts but with personality to the heights of ideas which are still abstract today. When this happens, spiritual ideals will be imbued with the same elemental force that can be perceived in actions springing from hatred or love in the ordinary sense.

Man will eventually ascend to higher spheres with his personality. But something else is required. When the human being dives with his ego into the ocean of physical-material life, he finds his personality, he finds his warm blood, he finds the surging impulses and desires in his astral body — in short, he dives down into his personality. But now he must ascend into the realm of moral ideals — which must no longer be a realm of abstraction. He must rise to the Spiritual, and then there must stream towards him a reality in every sense as ‘personal’ as the reality streaming to him when he dives with his ego into his warm blood and surging passions. He must now scale the heights without lapsing into abstraction. How, then, as he rises into the Spiritual, can he enter into something that is a ‘personal’ reality? How can he develop these ideals in such a way that they are invested with the character of personality? There is only one way whereby this can be achieved. In these heights of spiritual life man must be able to draw to himself a Personality as inwardly real as the personality below in the flesh is real. Who is this Personality Whom man must draw to himself if he is to ascend into the Spiritual? This Personality is none other than Christ! One who speaks in the sense contrary to St. Paul may say: ‘Not I, but my astral body’ — but St. Paul says, ‘Not I, but Christ in me’ — indicating that when Christ lives in us, abstract ideas are invested with a personal character. Herein lies the significance of the Christ Impulse. Without the Christ Impulse humanity would reach abstract ideals only, abstract ideas of morality and the like, such as are described as ideas working in history by many historians today but which can neither live nor die because they have no creative power. When reference is made to the part played by ideas in history, it should be realized that these are dead, abstract concepts, incapable of exercising sway over epochs of civilization. Living reality alone can exercise such sway. The task before man is to unfold a higher Personality. This is the Christ-Personality Whom he draws to himself, receives into himself.

Man cannot rise again to the Spiritual by merely talking about the Spirit but only by taking the Spirit into himself in the living, personal form presented to him in the Events of Palestine, in the Mystery of Golgotha. Thus does man rise upwards again under the influence of the Christ Impulse. In no other way can abstract ideals be invested with the force of personality than by allowing the Christ Impulse to permeate the whole of our spiritual life. If on the one side, through guilt incurred before the development of the ego, we have burdened ourselves with what is called Original Sin, if there we have something for which we cannot be held wholly responsible, neither are we ourselves responsible for the fact that it is possible to draw the Christ to ourselves. Our ego plays a part in what we do or endeavour to do in order to come near to Christ, and there we can truly speak of merit. But the fact that Christ is present, that we are living on a planet where He once dwelt and in times after this actually happened — this is not due to any merit of our own. Therefore what flows from the Living Christ in order to bring us upwards again into the spiritual world, comes from beyond the sphere of the ego and draws us upwards as irresistibly as we incurred guilt without ourselves being guilty. Through Christ's existence on earth we have the strength to rise again into the spiritual world without merit of our own, just as we incurred guilt without sin of our own. Neither fact has to do with the element of personality in which the ego lives, but both are connected with happenings that precede and follow the coming of the ego. Man has evolved from a state of existence when he had only physical body, etheric body and astral body, and he evolves further through transforming his astral body into Manas (Spirit-Self). Just as man has worsened his astral body through incurring Original Sin, so he heals it again through the Christ Impulse. An inflowing power repairs the astral body to the same extent to which it has deteriorated. That is the Atonement, that is what in the true sense is called ‘Grace’. Grace is the concept that is complementary to that of Original Sin. So the Christ Impulse has made it possible for man to become one with Christ, to say with St. Paul: ‘Not I, but Christ in me’, thus giving expression to everything that is designated by the concept of Grace.

Therefore to speak of the existence of Original Sin and of Grace does not denote misunderstanding of the idea of karma. For in speaking of the idea of karma we are speaking of the reincarnation of the ego in the different earth-lives. Karma is inconceivable without the presence of the ego: Original Sin and Grace, impulses which lie below the surface of karma, [are] in the astral body. We can say with truth that human karma was first brought about because man had burdened himself with Original Sin. Karma flows through the incarnations and before and after there are happenings which introduce and subsequently expurgate it. Before karma — Original Sin; and after — the victory of the Christ Impulse, the fullness of Grace.

So again from this point of view, Spiritual Science has a great and significant mission, particularly in our time. For true as it is that humanity has only lately come to recognize ideals in the form of abstractions, to unfold abstract ideas of liberty, brotherhood and the like, it is also true that we are facing a future when these ideas must no longer hovel before us as abstractions but approach us as living forces. True as it is that men have passed through the transitional stage of forming abstract ideals, it is equally true that they must advance to the stage where these ideals come to personal fulfillment within them; they must advance to the portal of the new Temple. That is the prospect before us. Men will be taught that what works down from spiritual heights is not mere abstraction but living reality. When the new faculty of vision that is to arise in the next phase of evolution begins to function, when men give up thinking, ‘How well I am getting on!’ but with etheric vision behold the living power of Christ Who will reveal Himself in an etheric body — as we know, this will happen to certain individuals before the middle of the century — when they begin to behold the Living Christ, they will know that what they have glimpsed for a time in the form of abstract ideas are in very truth living beings within our evolution. For the Living Christ Who first appeared in physical form — which at that time was the only form in which He could convey to men that even those who were not His contemporaries could believe in Him — the Living Christ will reveal Himself in a new form. The fact that He lives will need no proof, for then there will be actual witnesses — men who themselves experience, even without special development but with a kind of matured vision, that the moral powers of our World Order are living realities, not merely abstract ideals.

Our thoughts cannot carry us into the true spiritual worlds because they have no life. Not until we cease to regard these thoughts as our own creations but as testimonies of the Living Christ Who will appear to men, shall we rightly understand these thoughts. Then, as truly as man became a personality through descending with his ego into lower spheres, as truly will he be a personality when he ascends to the heights of spirit. This is beyond the comprehension of materialistic thinking. All that materialism can understand, and readily understand, is that there are abstract ideals, ideals of the Good, the Beautiful, and so forth. That there are living Powers who draw us upwards through their Grace — this can be realized only through spiritual development. That is what the renewed Christ Impulse means. When we no longer regard our ideals simply as ideals but through them find the way to Christ, then we help Christianity forward in the sense of Spiritual Science; then Christianity will enter a new stage and cease to be merely a preparation. Christianity will itself make evident that it contains the greatest of all impulses for all time to come. And then those who believe that to speak of developing Christianity is only to endanger it will see how greatly they are in error. These are the people of ‘little faith’, who are alarmed when it is said that in Christianity there are glories still greater than have yet been revealed. Those whose conception of Christianity bears the hallmark of greatness are men who know that the words that Christ is with us to the end of time are true — meaning that He is the constant Revealer of the New and at the same time its origin and source.

By realizing that Christianity will bring forth from its depths an increasing flow of new and more living creations, we enhance its greatness. Those who are always saying: ‘That is not in the Bible, that is not true Christianity and those who maintain that it is, are heretics’, must be reminded that Christ also said: ‘I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now’. He did not say this in order to indicate that He wished to withhold anything from men, but that from epoch to epoch He would bring them new revelations. And this He will do through those who are willing to understand Him. Those who deny that there can be new revelations do not understand the Bible, neither do they understand Christianity. For they have no ears for what is implied in the admonition given by Christ: ‘I have still much to say to you — but prepare yourselves in order that you may be able to bear it and understand it.’

The true Christians of the future will be those who are willing to hear what the Christians who were contemporaries of Christ were not yet able to bear. Those who allow Christ's Grace to flow into their hearts in ever increasing abundance — they will be the true Christians. The ‘hard of heart’ will resist this Grace, saying: Go back to the Bible, to the literal text of the Bible, for that alone is true. This is a disavowal of the words which in Christianity itself kindle light, words which we will take into our hearts: ‘I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.’ Good it will be for men when they can bear more and more in this sense: for thereby they prepare themselves for the ascent into the spiritual heights. And to these spiritual heights Christianity leads the way.




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