If Augustine’s Theory of the “Fall” is Right, What About Righteous Noah?

If Augustine’s Theory of the “Fall” is Right, What About Righteous Noah? December 10, 2016

Augustine’s theology of “original sin” has dominated and corrupted western theology for thousands of years.

By Nilanjan Majumdar [CC BY-SA 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons
By Nilanjan Majumdar [CC BY-SA] 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
According to Augustine’s reading of Genesis 3, the disobedience of Adam and Eve results in severe consequences: a dramatic change in human nature, which means that all subsequent human beings are sinners, too — from the point of conception. We all inherited a corrupted sin nature, and also the guilt of Adam and Eve’s sin. This inheritance is passed along through the procreative act.

This interpretation of Gen. 3 known as “The Fall.” Adam and Eve, though created perfect, are also given freedom to choose to disobey God’s commands. When they did choose to disobey, by eating of the forbidden fruit, their perfect natures were transformed to imperfect, unregenerate, sinful, natures. Human freedom now only turns one direction: toward desire for self and against God. Apart from the intervention of redemptive grace they–and their descendants– are sinners: dead in our sins, from the point of conception.

Patricia Williams in Doing Without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin, points out several flaws in his theology (including the well-known misinterpretations of Romans 5, a misinterpretation based on a mis-translation). But one caught my attention, because I’d never made the connection before.

If the Fall, and original sin, subsequently effects all of Adam and Eve’s progeny, what are we to make of Noah, a righteous man?

Augustine’s assessment of the change in human nature does not correspond to what is said in the text of Genesis and sometimes directly contradicts the text. First, the list of punishments in Genesis 3 does not include a change in human nature. As [Harold] Bloom emphasizes, and almost all scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures agree, there is no fall in the narrative. Furthermore, some of Adam and Eve’s progeny are able to be good and obey God. For example, Genesis refers to Noah as “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). Genesis 6 maintains that he obeys God exactly in his construction of the ark and the rescue of the animals–“Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22).

I suppose Augustine might argue (and perhaps he addresses this specifically) that God had already intervened in Noah, via a special (Old Testament dispensation style) covenant whereby Noah could be “saved” from original sin via divine grace.

But if Augustine’s doctrine of original sin is supposed to be so straightforward, theologically consistent, and universally applicable, it runs into complications very quickly.



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