Original Sin: Augustine's Addendum

The Original Sin Series

The shadow of Augustine of Hippo looms large over the entire subsequent development of the doctrine of Original Sin.  We’ll get into his authorship of the doctrine qua doctrine in a minute, but first let’s remember the importance of his biography.  If Paul was a Jew’s Jew, Augustine was a Neoplatonist’s Neoplatonist.  Schooled in the philosophy of Plotinus, Augustine even converted to a Neoplatonic religion, Manicheaism, in his 20s. 

As you might guess, Neoplatonism took strands of Platonism and magnified them, most significantly, dualism.  Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Augustine’s philosophy and religion both held to a strict separation between God and humanity, good and evil, spiritual and material. (Both Doug and I have written about how Augustine’s version of the world didn’t necessarily jibe with the Hebrew worldview of Jesus and the Apostles.)  Augustine’s dramatic conversion to a religion in which God (good) took on human flesh (evil) was a tough one for him to swallow and, from one angle, much if his writing was an attempt to mesh platonic ideas with the biblical narrative.

In the comment sections of previous posts in this series, some have quoted the Catholic Encyclopedia to note that Augustine was not the author of the doctrine of Original Sin.  But it’s similar to the doctrine of the Trinity — others (e.g., Tertullian) may have written about it in primitive ways, but it was Augustine who matured the doctrine.

Likewise with Original Sin.  Augustine’s opponent on this issue was Pelagius, an English monk, whose name is now spat at me and others who question Augustine’s version of the doctrine.  It’s impossible to know what Pelagius really thought and wrote, since we know him primarily through Augustine’s refutations, so it’s better to think of Pelagius as a foil for Augustine’s doctrine than anything else.  This is not to say that he wasn’t a church leader with a massive following in his day — he was.  In fact, there’s a novel to be written by someone about what would have happened had Pelagius won the day theologically instead of Augustine.

Supposedly, Pelagius blamed the moral laxity that he saw around Rome on Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin.  According to Augustine, human beings have all inherited guilt from Adam and Eve and are completely reliant upon God’s grace for any good work.  Pelagius thought that this contradicted the biblical narrative, in which human beings are again and again told to behave in ways that accord with God’s ways and are subsequently rewarded or punished based on their behavior.

Augustine, on the other hand, argued that human beings are incapable of the very good works that the Bible commands.  It’s only by God’s grace, held in absolute sovereignty, that human beings are saved or capable of any good works.  Augustine does not deny free will, per se (that comes later), but he does believe that human beings lost their moral free will in Adam’s sin. Neither, it should be noted, do Pelagius’ followers, the “Semi-Pelagians,” deny the reality of sin.

So, no surprise, it turns out that we’re dealing with two nuanced positions that reallty are not as far apart as some would make them out to be.

What we should note, however, is how Augustine took the notion of inherited sin further than Paul had in Romans 5.  Here’s the bottom line:

  • Eastern (Orthodox, Coptic, and Byzantine Rite Catholic) Christians take Paul to mean that our inheritance from Adam is death.
  • Western (Augustinian) Christians take Paul to mean that our inheritance is death and guilt.

In other words, we don’t only lose our immortality because of Adam’s sin, but each of us stands guilty before God because of his sin.

Thus, you can see how, once again, our understanding of this and our possible agreement or disagreement with Augustine hinges on our reading of Genesis 2-3.  But is also hinges on whether you believe that God would punish you for the sin of another.  Augustine’s answer to this this question is Yes, for he said that unbaptized infants, bearing Adam’s guilt, were consigned by God to hell.

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  • As far as I’m concerned, your last sentence here answers the issue. Does anyone still believe infants go to Hell? If not, does this not become the thread that unravels the whole sweater? If so, how do these people reconcile a god who condemns those incapable of rational thinking to eternal torment with the G-d of John 3 who loves us _so much_ that G-d was willing to be humbled into human form and _save_ us?

  • Jeff

    “So, no surprise, it turns out that we’re dealing with two nuanced positions that reallty are not as far apart as some would make them out to be.”
    This is an unproven assertion. If this is true, I’d like to see how it is true.
    Pelagius’s commentary on Romans is available for a hefty sum. So, rather than call him a “foil” as if no one had access to any of his writings, we can even see what he says about Romans 5! http://www.amazon.com/Pelagiuss-Commentary-Epistle-Christian-Studies/dp/0198269803/ref=ed_oe_p

  • Kyle

    Humans, by their nature, aren’t “good” at all:
    “They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt;
    There is no one who does good, not even one.” – Psalm 14:3
    “For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
    And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
    And all of us wither like a leaf,
    And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” – Isaiah 64:6
    “as it is written,
    Therefore, Pelagius was wrong, and there is no “core goodness” in humanity.
    Also, about infants going to hell, it really depends on whether or not they’re chosen by God to go to heaven. We won’t really know until the day of judgment, but know that whatever God’s plan for them is, it is without a doubt right and good.

  • Scott M

    Brian, as far as I’ve been able to tell, Augustine’s developed idea of original sin (guilt inherited through the philosophical means of seminal reasons) didn’t particularly even begin to take hold in the West until several centuries later. It never gained any traction in the East at all. Nor can it be easily tied to Rome or Roman influence. The center of the Empire at this time was shifting eastward and if the adoption of the idea were tied to the Roman Empire, we would expect to see it stronger in the East.
    I wasn’t really going to comment since I thought Tony did a good summary, but I ran across a statement that seems to capture the heart of the Orthodox understanding beautifully.
    “Every sin is the original sin.”
    It’s a sickness we keep passing around and which keeps mutating and growing. It’s never individual. No matter how personal or private we think our sin might be, we are participating in death — the death of all — when we sin.

  • I’ve grown weary of asking for clarifications which never come, a factor, I suspect, of the lack of a “subscribe to this thread” feature on each post (near as I can tell), but I’ll ask anyway.
    Could someone please document at what point in the church tradition we began to interpret passages such as Romans 3 (quoted above) as a 100%/0% proposition, and all or nothing? Has it been “from the beginning” that we believed that because we are finite, and limited, and cannot live up to G-d’s perfection that we have _NO_ good in us in any way shape or form? Or is this a product of the doctrine of Original Sin, itself? That Adam’s sin twisted him so completely out of G-d’s image (as he was made) that ever after there was no longer anything good in him whatever and that we have inherited not just Adam’s sin, not just Adam’s sin nature, but that we have inherited a nature of utter and complete corruption?
    Again, I think I must just be at the limits of my own education on these topics. Because it seems to me to run completely counter to the entire Biblical narrative both to conclude that there is no good in us whatever (the entire Old Testament makes little sense if G-d knows we are utterly incapable of good) and to conclude that we are born into this condition, condemned to eternal torment if we cannot survive to the age of reasoned consent so that we can embrace the Gospel (which runs completely counter to John 3).
    Combined with the discussion of free will (or lack thereof) which has been going on (and thus even our inability to -choose- that reasoned consent to embrace the Gospel) and the picture of G-d that we are painting seems a very long way from James’ assertion that G-d is love.
    Any clarification or illumination would be deeply appreciated.

  • Scott M

    I’ve actually read a moderate amount on the perspective of Pelagius by the Orthodox, which is overall more balanced. However, he did not offer a third way. He was a heretic or at least a schismatic. The Orthodox don’t have the strong reaction against him you see in the West and certainly not as strong as their reaction against Arius and others of similar caliber. As I recall, the East sees Pelagius’ heresy in that he reduced Christ’s role to mere example. They aren’t concerned about a requirement for participation in our salvation. They take that as self-evident.

  • Jonathon

    I wonder why Tony never asks some real “theologians” like Piper, Mohler, MacArthur or D.A Carson to dialogue with him on these complex issues.
    I would love to see that.

  • Jonathon,
    He does and has. I just think he is at this point in which he is not interested in calling out to his critics with a “hey, what do you think?” when they have made it clear what they think. It is okay to be a theologian and have deep conversations without personally inviting your critics. I personally got tired of putting out public questions and finding this certain small group of critics yelling “heretic” at me every time I got into a good conversation (not the critics you mentioned). To his credit, it gets old and it really gets in the way of furthering conversation. And it does not promote unity to constantly have to defend yourself. It just became time to move on, I think.
    Don’t you love it when we start talking about you like you aren’t here? Like parents talking about their kids. 😉 JK Peace.

  • Jennifer

    Augustine is not a Neoplatonist’s Neoplatonist! On the contrary, by virtue of being a dualist and a Manichean, his slide into Christianity and away from neo-Platonism was made virtually inevitable. The doctrine of original sin owes more to the notion of an absolute evil than anything in a Plotinian emanational system. After 1800+ years, it is time to stop the slandering of neo-Platonism; it has provided an effective foil for Christians to evade their own complicity in creating the fault lines of western culture.

  • Ben Hammond

    Are you saying that his “slide” into Christianity was inevitable because you see Christianity as a dualistic religion in the same way you would say Platonism was/is “dualistic”?
    I don’t point the dualism of Augustine vs the lack of dualism in Judaism because I think western culture in “evil” necessarily. I point it out because when we try to read the Bible through that same kind of dualism we read into it questions and answers that the authors probably weren’t asking or answering. That becomes a big problem. Augustine was/is awesome, but he wasn’t right about all he thought. Just like St Francis. Just like Luther, Just like Boenhoffer. And like me (minus the awesome part.