Monthly Archives: May 2012

Proofs of God

A short reflection on Thomas Aquinas second proof for the existence of God.


The principle of sufficient causality tells us that the greater does not come from the lesser.  One cannot give what one does not have.  It is to this basic principle that all of the five proofs of Aquinas seem to fall back upon.


For me the case is made most strongly in the second of Aquinas’ proofs, that from efficient causality:


“There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.”


The procedure of this proof is much like that of the first proof.  For in the first proof, it was also the denial of an infinite regress of accidental causes as sufficient that was expressed.  In both proofs, Aquinas need not demonstrate that there is in fact no infinite regress in accidental causes.  This is important, for Aquinas likewise never thought that it was contrary to reason to posit an infinite past; an eternal universe (revelation tells us there was a beginning, but reason cannot say one way or the other; here Thomas disagrees with, for example, his friend St. Bonaventure, who would say that the world’s beginning can be known by reason alone)


But in point of fact, it is not the infinite past and series of causes that is as important as the essence of the cause. If we look at the first argument, from motion, we could in some way imagine a clock with a large number of cogs. We can perhaps explain the rotation of a certain cog by the force applied to it by another cog, but we cannot explain the rotation of all the cogs merely by the large number of cogs.  In fact, we could in some way imagine an infinite amount of cogs, yet this would not suddenly explain the motion of the entire series. Rather, something outside the series must explain it. Likewise, we cannot move a train, long or short, by adding one more boxcar.  We must add an engine, something completely unique.


The difference in the second argument (from causality) from the first (motion) is that it seems to tell us a little more about God.  It is closer to letting us contemplate the fact that God is pure act, with no potency.  The act/potency distinction may well be the most important in all of Aquinas’ philosophical arsenal.  Knowing God as pure act, and therefore necessary and self-subsisting being, is probably the primary key to all of Thomas Aquinas’ reflections in the Summa from Q.3 through Q.26, known as the Treatise on the One God. Almost everything we can know of God by reason alone is a by-product, so to speak, of our unpacking what it means to be pure act, self-subsisting being.

New Age

It has always been tough for me to really define what New Age actually is. But that seems permissible, for it is no easy for two New Agers to define it either. It seems to just be a sort of spiritual and metaphysical eclecticism, and so it can take as many forms as there are people that adhere to “it.”

Of course, I have met people who think they are spiritual because they “eat a lot of fruit” or do yoga while reading the Bible. New Age seems to me to be a mixing of error with error, or sometimes truth with error. But if truth is one, no mixture can be permissible. If we have one “mathematician” who says that 4+4 is 8, and another who claims that 4+4 is 10, do we have an eclectic math when we say 4+4 is 9? Or when we say it can equal 8 or 10? No, we either have it right, or we have an erroneous math.

I have heard some New Age followers who are at least a little more learned try and claim that, for instance, the Catholic Church has Franciscan spirituality and Carmelite spirituality, etc, and thus, a similar trend. But this is obviously a failure to grasp differences in the way a life geared towards truth can have different emphases rather than a split personality (or split truth) disorder that is objectively what happens with the New Age movement.

To emphasis works of mercy or contemplation in life, all according to the one true God, cannot be equated to accepting the teachings of Jesus, but also worshipping many gods (or none at all) in a mixture of eastern and western mysticism. One can say that Jesus and Mohammed and that the tradition of the Vedas and the Brahmans all have good uses, but to turn this into a mixture of the truth of Jesus along with the truth of the others is merely to muddy the water when seeking purity.

One of my favorite modern authors, on the subject of the philosophy of religion as well as other things, is Peter Kreeft. I have done little real study of New Age outside of personal experiences with other people, but listening to several of his lectures has at least helped develop my understanding to at least an elementary level.

I know that many New Age thinkers will place someone like St. John of the Cross in their “camp.” I have to say that, a relative of mine who is deep into New Age thinking did send me, as a gift, a copy of the works of St. John of the Cross, and I am thankful to have been able to add it to my library. But obviously, she and I have very different interpretations of what the holy Carmelite meant.

Like any group of people, you have well intentioned souls and you have ignorant and even very strange people in all camps. Often I find that, rather than try to see exactly what they believe, why, and how this came to be (although all of this effort can truly be a labor of love) it is simply best to present the truth boldly as it truly is and let its own weight take hold if it be the will of God.

Psalm 6 in the NT (brief)

Ps 6:9             Lk 13:27 and Matt 7:23                     “depart from me, all you workers of iniquity”


Psalm Six is one of the seven penitential psalms, and the first. The Navarre Commentary states of this Psalm that “The peaceful nights referred to in the previous psalms are sometimes disturbed by sorrowful feelings. This psalms provides a pattern for prayer in such circumstances, particularly when a person is very conscious of his own sinfulness.”


Saint John Fisher comments at length on this Psalm of the need for us to recognize our sinfulness and do penance.  God will not punish twice the offenses of the sinner.  If we recognize our sinfulness, ask forgiveness, and do penance out of the love of God, we will be forgiven.  In the passage from Luke, as well as a similar passage from Matthew (from the Sermon on the Mount), many claim “Lord, we ate and drank in your company.” But it is not merely those that know of Christ that will be saved.  Jesus says that God could raise of children of Abraham from the rocks.  Jesus elsewhere asks “who are my brothers and sisters and my mother?” It won’t be blood relation or acquaintance that is our key to Heaven.  It will be, rather, our humility, our rejection of pride, and our recognition of our own sinfulness and therefore helplessness before God, and a loving turn to His mercy.


Verse 9 is referenced in the passages from Luke and Matthew, but the following verse of the psalm gives us hope: “The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.” So it won’t be the Pharisee that thanked God he wasn’t “like this tax collector” but rather, the sinner that beats his breast and asks forgiveness that will “go away justified.”

Delusional Dawkins

The God Delusion: by Richard Dawkins…

What do we mean “by Richard Dawkins?” Is it that, at least when book royalties are concerned, the author recognizes the validity of causality?  It seems that he does not believe the book “just is.” But it would at least be a possibility, if he were consistent.  Of course, every skeptic who writes books about how the door may not really exist still seems to reach out and turn the knob, not just some of the time, but every single time.  They never run into doors.  Odd thing, indeed, if they doubt, in reality, that objective things outside the mind exist.

Dawkins writes a book that, true, is full of absurdities, ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments, and is a demonstration of repeated logical and ontological fallacy.  But he has made some dough off of his books, recognizes that an intelligently designed thing needs an intelligent creator.  Of course, the fact of this book being one of “intelligence” certainly is debatable, depending on how you use the analogous term “intelligence.”

Any book that has as its main thesis the non-existence of God, proved or nearly proved, would at least give some real effort to debating the arguments for God.  But Dawkins, perhaps a decent biologist (I am not sure, as I am not a biologist, but I assume that a good biologist would be a decent logician as well) is not prepared to meet the philosophical arguments for the existence of God.  He certainly fails in this regard, and many atheist and agnostic philosophers concur with me here.

For example, he “refutes” the arguments, commonly known as the five ways, of Thomas Aquinas in a mere three pages.  Three pages, mind you, that tell more jokes than deliver argument.  And the argument offered merely shows that Dawkins has practically no understanding of the arguments themselves.  Dawkins does go on to attempt to refute the so called ontological argument, and devotes much more space to this.  As a Thomist, I believe the ontological argument of St. Anselm (God bless his holy soul) is refutable, but Dawkins fails to do a good job refuting it.  Funny thing, if Dawkins had any real understanding of Aquinas’ understanding of the proofs of God, he would and could simply use Thomas Aquinas’ own brilliant refutation of this proof. As already mentioned, however, Dawkins has no such understanding, and probably does not want to understand. Those who actually seek truth seek to understand the real arguments of the “other side.” Thomas Aquinas does this; Dawkins does not.

Dawkins also refutes the arguments from “personal experiences.” But why, other than to make his book thicker? Personal experiences are not demonstrations, and only hold force, perhaps, to those who had the experience.  No serious philosophers or theologians claim to argue in such a way.  Perhaps, after his very sad attempts to refute other arguments for God’s existence, he needed something to “pad the stats” his way.  Lastly, Dawkins “refutes” Pascal’s wager.  But what does that even mean? Pascal’s wager is not an argument for the existence of God at all.  It is a moral argument that the truth about the existence of God is worth seeking.  Dawkins misses this entirely, as he has no desire to actually know if there is a God or not.  Pascal’s wager may fail in Dawkins case to persuade him to seek whether or not God exists, but it never was an attempt to prove the existence of God.  Dawkins, nevertheless, feels a victory in refuting a proof that, well, unlike God, doesn’t exist.

Each of these will be dealt with in more detail later, as well as other parts of Dawkins’ book, especially his chapter “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” in which he makes the constant error of confusing the physical empirical sciences with philosophy, even as he mentions constantly how he is not doing so. We will also, over the next few months as I find time to write them, look as his beliefs that teaching kids religion is child abuse, that the origin of religion is a Darwinian side effect of a survival node in the brain, and other various topics.

We will enjoy the delusion that Dawkins has strong arguments against the existence of God.

I do not, of course, propose to have here argued against Dawkins’ book, but only to excite some interest in it, for or against it.  The actual arguments will come in future blogs, related to this post.  I do not, after having brought up the silliness which Dawkins calls “reason” or “argument,” desire to be classed right there with him.

Virtue and Power

Virtue as Power


It has already been clearly stated above that the thesis presented here is magnanimity as the key virtue in restoring the idea of nobility in men. Can women not be virtuous? Can they not be magnanimous? Is men being used here in the universal sense of humanity? It is not.  Women are certainly capable of virtue, and almost everything to be stated from here forward is applicable to them.  However, the topic is being expressed purposely with men in view.


According to its etymology the word virtue (Latin virtus) signifies manliness or courage.[1] For the ancients, to be manly was to be virtuous…Thus the virtues are habits that give us the power to act in a manly way…Without virtues we will neither be godly nor manly.[2] While almost everything said thenceforth, then, applies equally to men and to women, and while meaning no disrespect to the equal dignity of women, the following is directed most immediately at men.


A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.[3] Aristotle says “virtue is that which makes its possessor good, and his work good likewise.”[4]


Before we discuss virtue any further, we are well advised to reflect on power. Power can be seen as potential.  When we think of something as powerful, we rightly see it as something with great capability. If one is a powerful athlete, he possesses great speed or strength. If an army is powerful, it has the men, equipment, and training to defeat other armies. Rightly, then, we understand power as a potency, and not as an act.


In the Summa Theologica, Thomas speaks of virtue and power according the Aristotelian divisions of matter and form. “Virtue denotes a certain perfection of power. Now a thing’s perfection is considered chiefly in regard to its end. But the end of power is act. Wherefore power is said to be perfect, according as it is determinate to its act.”[5] “Power in reference to act is on the part of the form, which is the principle of action, since everything acts insofar as it is in act.”[6] Elsewhere, he speaks of properly placing virtues as habits and not as acts themselves:


The potency which only acts does not require, in order to be a principle of action, that anything be brought to bear on it; hence, the virtue of such a potency is nothing other than the potency itself. Such is the divine power, the agent intellect and natural powers; that is why the virtues of such powers are not habits but the potencies themselves as complete in themselves.[7]


It can be proved in three ways that virtue belongs to a power of the soul. First, from the notion of the very essence of virtue, which implies perfection of a power; for perfection is in that which it perfects. Secondly, from the fact that virtue is an operative habit, as we have said above (Question 55, Article 2): for all operation proceeds from the soul through a power. Thirdly, from the fact that virtue disposes to that which is best: for the best is the end, which is either a thing’s operation, or something acquired by an operation proceeding from the thing’s power. Therefore a power of the soul is the subject of virtue.[8]


Why is it important to go into depth on the subject of potency and act, habits versus actions, and the like when seeking to develop an understanding of magnanimity? It crucial because a virtuous man, a magnanimous man, cannot necessarily be known by his actions alone. One may have little virtue and yet seem to accomplish something great, while a more noble man does not accomplish a comparable outward task. While we fully seek to do great things for the glory of God, we do not know that He has called us to do great outward things.  However, we certainly know that He has called every individual to perfection.[9] And this perfection is interior.  It is the humble following of the will of God.


We may be judged by men on what we accomplish in their eyes, and we should repeat here that we ought to do everything we can with the intention of objective success in this world, declaring our successes to the glory of God and accepting full culpability for our failures.  But if outward success always followed from a right interior disposition, we may be tempted to pride. What good would it be to gain the whole world and lose our soul?[10]


We must know, then, that magnanimity, indeed all the virtues, are interior dispositions that are preparations for doing the good, whether these good things come to fruition or not.  Not understanding this can lead to two related dangers.  We may, despairing of ever accomplishing great things, not seek to do the things daily that would possibly lead to the “great deed.” Likewise, if we fail to accomplish a great task that seems to have been set before us, we may tend to despair, having worked so long for, what seems to us, nothing. Again, God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful.


A soldier will train day after day, year after year, and may or may not ever enter into battle.  If he trains and never fights, he should be glad for the peace that has allowed it.  But if he grows negligent in his training, the battle that is suddenly upon him may prove his end.  Years of arduous training are suddenly seen to be worth it in the mere minutes of close-quarters combat. Likewise, we must train ourselves in the virtues daily, not knowing in what ways we may or may not be tested.


Training in virtue is preparation to serve the will of God in whatever small or large way is asked of you. To quote Joseph Pieper again, “Magnanimity is the expansion of the spirit towards great things; one who expects great things of himself and makes himself worthy of it is magnanimous.”[11] To quote my earthly father, “Life is too long to do nothing and too short to do anything great.  But great things are done in a short time by those who have been long in preparing.” We therefore strive at each moment to create in ourselves the dispositions, the powers, to meet our calling.


Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.[12]


There is much to be pondered in these rich passages from the Catechism, but for our purposes, two stand out here. First, virtues allow us to guide our conduct according to both faith and reason.  We live by faith, but we must not neglect that this is a lived faith.    “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge.”[13] Here we see faith, reason (knowledge) and virtue all expounded. Faith involves effort, physical, intellectual, and otherwise.


Secondly, the virtues involve joy and ease in living a morally good life.  This ease is not to be confused with a lack of effort in the forming of the virtues, of course. A powerful weightlifter can pick up objects that seem heavy to the rest of us with ease, but this is not because of the relaxed effort he has made throughout his life. It is rather because of the great effort in building his strength previously.  Likewise, a virtuous man finds it easy to do the right things, for he has long ago formed the disposition of doing the right thing, and this habit is natural to him now. Like the athlete, the virtuous man cannot, however, become slack, for what was tediously gained can be easily lost if we are not always seeking to remain strong.[14]

[1] Catholic Encyclopedia

[2] Tim Gray and Curtis Martin, Boys to Men, pp. 17

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1803

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics ii 6

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I II Q.55, art. 1 Respondeo

[6] Ibid, art. 2

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues, Q. 1

[8] ST I II Q.56 Respondeo

[9] Matt 5:48

[10] Matt 16:26

[11] J. Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, pp. 37

[12] CCC, 1804

[13] 2 Peter 1:5

[14] see Matt 12:44-45







What, then, of nobility? The term derives from Latin nobilis (well-known, famous), indicating those who were “well-known” or “notable” in society, and was applied to the highest social class in pre-modern societies.[1] We previously defined magnanimity in several ways, to include “the expansion of the spirit towards great things; one who expects great things of himself and makes himself worthy of it.”[2] Granted, there is often a great separation between those of high social class and those of high moral class. This may be the case, but it is certainly not a necessity.  In fact, the point of our discussion is to seek the remedy to this state.


What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.[3] Sin, however, has done just that.  It has separated great virtue and great fame.  It has separated the marital act and the marital bond.  It has separated courage and morality. In a quote often attributed to Thucydides, we read that “That [state] which separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”


The magnanimous man will be known for his wisdom and his courage, if he is known at all.  He will be known for the great love with which he does things, and the great cause that is the foundation of his task. In a world of such great confusion, we have somehow managed not to, at least yet, call the world of Hollywood noble, even though so much of our culture seeks to copy that of these “well-known, famous” people. If they are “well known and notable in society” and counted among the “highest social class,” something in us still recognizes that this is not what we would mean by the Latin nobilis.


Only the magnanimous can unite what sinful man has “put asunder.” Only the great deeds, done before men, and that “greatness of spirit that is derived not from a man’s estimation of his person, but rather from his confidence and esteem in God,” is deserving of the title of nobility, and our hearts still know this.


See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The mind of the rash will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected. For the fool speaks folly, his mind is busy with evil: He practices ungodliness and spreads error concerning the Lord; the hungry he leaves empty and from the thirsty he withholds water. The scoundrel’s methods are wicked, he makes up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just. But the noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands.[4]

[2] J. Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, pp. 37

[3] Mark 10:9

[4] Isaiah 32:1-8

Introduction to Magnanimity and Nobility

Introduction to Magnanimity and Nobility


Perhaps the greatest of men are those who never seek greatness at all, but who personify the virtues which posterity calls great.[1] Magnanimity is the expansion of the spirit towards great things; one who expects great things of himself and makes himself worthy of it is magnanimous.[2] In a Christian sense, magnanimity is a greatness of spirit that is derived not from a man’s estimation of his person, but rather from his confidence and esteem in God, and subsequently of his Faith, his family, his patriarchal office, and his dedication to these great causes.[3] Magnanimity, which trusts not in oneself for its greatness, but in God for His glory, is the key virtue in restoring the idea of nobility in men.


But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light.[4] Magnanimity is therefore a gift, and yet it is a gift that must be cooperated with. A man receives the gift of faith from God, and yet he must live this faith boldly.  He does not live it, however, for personal glory, but that through him, as an instrument, the glory of God might be seen by all.

Such a man bears himself in a manner suited for the nobility of his office or cause. The magnanimous man’s noble bearing demands that others treat him accordingly. But he does not derive his nobility from human respect, rather from a cause espoused.[5]


You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.[6] It is by the objective good that a man does, in the following of God’s will, that he is what he is. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.[7] Whether or not other men acknowledge this is secondary, although it is certainly hoped that they not only acknowledge it, but recognize it for what it is; the work of God. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.[8] As Mother Teresa has told us, we are not called to be successful, but faithful.


I venture to say that our attitude, however, must be more than to merely follow our calling and let the world see it. We should rather become what we are meant to be, and let the world deal with it.

[1] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, Preface

[2] J. Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, pp. 37

[3] G.C. Dilsaver, The Three Marks of Manhood, pp. 39

[4] Luke 8:15-16

[5] Dilsaver, pp.39

[6] Matt 5:14

[7] 1 John 3:7

[8] Matt 5:16


From the Office of Readings, May 9, 2012

From a Letter to Diognetus: The Christian in the world

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonour, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

Augustine and Original Sin

Augustine and Original Sin



Original sin* is the privation of sanctifying grace in consequence of the sin of Adam.1 Augustine recognized this, but can be interpreted to have implied some sort of direct physical existence of this sin in much of his writing, a point that would tie some positive aspect of sin as inherited rather than a pure negation of the gifts of grace. In much of his writing, original sin can be seen as a positively inherited disease as much as it is a negation of an inheritance of grace. This may likely be tied with his theories of the origin of the human soul, which he never seemed to work out to his own satisfaction.2 Augustine certainly came to recognize that evil is not a substance but a privation of existence, yet his writings have been interpreted by some as implying a sort of actually existing thing, “original sin,” in his doctrine of the fall, as the way to understand the handing on of what we call original sin. The question is whether or not what is passed on from Adam to humanity thereafter is a positive thing or the absence of something.  Is it some “substance sin” that is passed on, or is it the lack of grace, for example, that constitutes original sin as something inherited?

Misunderstandings and misuses of Augustine have lead to many modern errors regarding the doctrines of sin, man, grace, and salvation. While these errors should be seen for what they are in light of the rest of the Bishop of Hippo’s writing, many problematic passages, when read away from the context of his voluminous work, can certainly be wrongly interpreted. This can be seen, for example, when he speaks of the Incarnation, in which Christ, to avoid being conceived in sin, had to be born of a virgin, avoiding the seed of man, where each man inherited Adam’s sin.3

While Augustine cannot be said to be a systematic writer in the way we see such later thinkers as Aquinas and Duns Scotus, we can build a doctrine from his works on many topics. The difficult and troublesome passages must be read in light of this doctrine of Augustine, and here is the proper place to set forth his principle understanding of evil, the human soul, and sin before doing so.  Only in this context can we approach the more difficult passages of Augustine with facility.

Augustine’s Doctrine of Evil

No doctrine of sin can be understood apart from the doctrine of evil. It is advisable to first, therefore, briefly examine Augustine’s teachings on evil. One of the most basic problems for all theologians and philosophers is the reconciling of the existence of a good God with the reality of evil.

The young Augustine, as a Manichean, understood a world with two principle causes.4 The good world, or rather the good within the world, was caused by a good being. Likewise, the evil world was caused by an evil being.  This evil world is what we know as the world of matter.  For Augustine at this stage of his life, good is already understood as an ontological reality, but evil has a real ontological status as well.  This is the dualist approach of the early Augustine. “But what did this further me, imagining that Thou, O Lord God, the Truth, wert a vast and bright body, and I a fragment of that body? Perverseness too great! But such was I.”5

As his understanding grew and his faith changed, Augustine was able to begin to comprehend a purely spiritual world. He also came to realize that being, as being, is good, for it participates in existence, and all true existence is good.  Evil is a privation of being where it should be. In other words, it is not evil for a rock to be “blind,” for the nature of a rock does not include seeing. However, it is an evil (at least a physical evil) for an eye to not be able to see, for an eye, by nature, is for seeing.  Evil, then, is a lack of goodness where goodness should, by design, be.

It is Augustine’s understanding of creation ex nihilo that establishes this point for him.  A God who creates from nothing is a God who is completely sovereign, and there can only be one sovereign God. Eliminating the efficient cause of evil leads to eliminating evil itself as an ontological reality.

“All things which He has made are good because made by Him, but they are subject to change because they were made, not out of Him, but out of nothing.”6

It is now the mutability as the possibility of a defect in the way a thing should be that is evil.  Moral evils, because they are done by one who should choose God and yet rejects Him for some lesser good, are the responsibility of the one committing them.  One cannot simply blame the body and the matter for evil. Moral evil is directly linked to the will of the one doing the evil.

Augustine’s Doctrine of the Soul

It was generally an uncontested doctrine, at least among Christians, that man was a composite being made up of body and soul.  But there were several theories about the time of the soul’s creation and when it “entered” the body.


One view was that of Origen, who maintained a view similar to that of Plato, where the soul was created beforehand and then placed, in time, in a body.  This view was rejected, by Augustine’s day, by most of the Christian fathers. The most common view was that of creationism, by which God created the soul at the moment He placed it in the body.


J.N.D. Kelly states “The explanation to which Augustine on the whole leaned, although with many hesitations, was the traducianist one associated with Tertullian.”7 Traducianism is that view whereby each soul is somehow generated from the parent’s soul. “Augustine himself was critical of the materialist strain in Tertullian’s brand of traducianism, but observed that a spiritual version of the same theory fitted in best with his teaching about original sin.”8


Augustine’s thought developed over time, and the changes from his earlier materialist days led him to a long struggle with understanding the origin of the soul.  It certainly was of the spiritual realm, but Augustine nevertheless seems to have held to a trudacianist view of the soul’s origin. If the soul was created immediately by God and in no way linked to the parents of the new child, then it seemed to make little sense how original sin might be passed on.  Could it be purely through the matter? This would not make sense if the sin was committed by the complete person, most especially because the powers of the intellect and will are in the soul, and this is where the decision to sin or not to sin resides. The body is the instrument, and although the passions have their place in the complete person, it is in the will that the fall occurred, and it must be here that it is passed on to each generation.


Augustine himself, however, “claimed in his Retractationes (I.I.3) that he did not know…whether souls come to be in the body from the one soul of Adam or are individually created.”9


Certainly, then, this doctrine of the complete person being the composite of the soul and the body is difficult to reconcile with the passing on of original sin from one generation to the next.


“While traducianism seems most easily to explain the common inherited guilt of original sin and the need for infant baptism, it seems to endanger the incorporeality of the soul…While creationism is thoroughly compatible with the incorporeality of the soul made in the image of God, it makes it more difficult to understand how a soul could be created by God with the guilt of Adam’s sin.”10


We cannot know for certain what final conclusion, if any, Augustine came to on the origin of the soul.  We do know, however, that it presented a great difficulty for him, and his view of original sin cannot be separated from his search for an understanding of the way in which it might be passed on from Adam to the rest of man.

Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin

Augustine’s masterpiece, the City of God, gives great insight into his thought on original sin. The work focuses on the fall of the angels and man and the two cities that are lived out side by side by those who are members of this world and members of the Kingdom of Heaven.  While there are certainly many sources to contemplate while discerning Augustine’s understanding of original sin, it will suffice for now to take a few passages from his opus magnum and see just what it is that Augustine understood by the belief in the Fall.


“Wherefore we must say that the first men were indeed so created, that if they had not sinned, they would not have experienced any kind of death; but that, having become sinners, they were so punished with death, that whatsoever sprang from their stock should also be punished with the same death. For nothing else could be born of them than that which they themselves had been. Their nature was deteriorated in proportion to the greatness of the condemnation of their sin, so that what existed as punishment in those who first sinned, became a natural consequence in their children.”11


Augustine argues, against the Pelagians, that sin is innate and not acquired. It is not something that is merely learned by example, but is transmitted by propagation, not imitation. His voluminous writings against the Pelagians provide a wealth of information on the intricacies of mans freedom and its relation to man’s condition both before and after the fall, and cannot be ignored by one who seriously ponders the Fall.  However, for brevity and the relative clarity in which Augustine presents his argument, we will here stay within the framework of the City of God.


“We all existed in that one man, since, taken together, we were the one man who fell into sin through the woman who was made out of him before sin existed. Although the specific form by which each of us was to live was not yet created and assigned, our nature was already present in the seed from which we were to spring.”12


The sin of our parents is passed on to all of humanity.  It is a privation of the graces and gifts we had when we were first created by God, and this original sin, although often called a stain, can just as accurately be described as the loss of an inheritance. A stain would seem to be a positively existing thing handed on from one generation from the next, while the loss of an inheritance is more likely to be viewed as a negative form of the same consequence.  Which direction Augustine actually leaned in his understanding and preaching of original sin must be extracted through much reading and contemplation, and is a task that cannot be settled in just a few short passages.

Questions on Augustine’s Doctrine and Difficulties Related to Sin as a Deprivation

Almost all Christians recognize some authority in Augustine as a Christian writer and theologian. Among them, the reformers, especially of the Calvinist or Reformed camp, highlight Augustine’s emphasis on grace.  He is, indeed in the Catholic tradition, called the Doctor of Grace.  One of what is known as the five points of reformed theology is that, without making the finer distinctions that have developed within this tradtion, man is totally depraved.  The five points are primarily an emphasis of God’s grace and its necessity for any good in the world, including that of man’s free choices. This first point, that of total depravity, is directly related to man’s nature after original sin.

Our purpose here will not be a broad look at this doctrine, but of examples of Augustine’s writings that could be misinterpreted to say that the good in man’s nature that was created by God (God said that it was very good) was itself changed. Certain passages of Augustine could be seen to lean in the direction of an actual change in man’s nature. One such passage is from his City of God:

“And what was born was not human nature as it was originally created but as it becomes after the first parents’ sin and punishment – as far, at least, as concerns the origin of sin and death.”13


Augustine, however, had earlier argued that man had supernatural and preternatural gifts in his original state before the fall.  Some of these gifts had the effect of allowing man’s rational soul complete power over his appetitive desires.  This meant that his passions would be controlled by his reason.  One result of the fall is that this is no longer the case.  The passions sometimes dominate the reason in the man.  This has an effect on the nature in man in that the man was created to have these gifts from God and be “whole” thereby. The nature itself, however, was not changed, and the rest of the context of Augustine’s writings verify that this was his thought:


“One can argue that an alteration of the soul’s native abilities would be tantamount to the creation of a new species. It is awful enough to be told we are at present disadvantaged because of the misdeeds of our ancestors. It would be monstrous to be told that our kind was created as a punishment for misdeeds perpetrated by superior beings of a different species.”14


We see that in fact we must retain the same nature if we are to inherit original sin.  Original sin includes within it the guilt of what a man did, and if Adam before the fall was not the same as Adam after the fall, then we would be using Adam the man that lost the grace of God and Adam after he lost the grace of God in an equivocal way.

“As soon as our first parents had disobeyed God’s commandments, they were immediately deprived of divine grace…The fact is that the soul…was now deprived of its original mastery over the body…being unable to hold the flesh completely in subjection as would always have been the case, if only the soul had remained subject to God.”15

So man’s nature itself is not altered. The intellect is still aimed at truth; the will to love, and the passions to obey reason. They just cannot do it well. The body now suffers and dies because God withdraws his protection. Had Adam not sinned it seems likely that he would have passed on his nature intact with all the gifts and further, if each man were now created from the dust of the earth, he would not inherit original sin.

The inheritance of original justice, while being philosophically indemonstrable, fits the context of the account of man’s creation with the supernatural and preternatural gifts. Although these gifts stand above man’s nature, there is no Scriptural reason to deny that, had Adam not sinned, the offspring of Adam would have been gifted with these same gifts.  Likewise, had each new generation been created anew from the dust, no handing on of the defect incurred by Adam’s failure would be handed on, at least in no way demonstrable from Scripture or reason.

Man, however, is co-creator with God in the generation of new human beings. The generation of new life is linked, of course, with the sexual act and the seed of man.  Augustine has often been portrayed as linking the sexual act itself, or rather the lust involved in it after the fall, with the passing on of original sin.

We see an interesting case in the Enchiridion, in which Augustine states the following regarding the Incarnation of Christ: “…no part was wanting in that human nature He put on, save that it was a nature wholly free from that taint of sin – not such a nature as is conceived between the two sexes through carnal lust, which is born in sin…but such as it behooved a virgin to bring forth, when a mother’s faith, not her lust, was the condition of conception.”16 J.N.D. Kelly takes this passage and others as speaking of the necessity that Christ be born without the seed of man and the sexual act itself in order that He not attain the stain of original sin. “Marriage as mankind knows it (after the fall) seems inseparable from sexual pleasures of which man in his innocence was ignorant. It was in view of this, to avoid the taint of concupiscence, that the Saviour chose to be born of a pure virgin.”17

Concluding Remarks

Although Augustine cannot be said to have been a systematic writer like some of his contemporaries and many of the later scholastic authors, a clear and consistent doctrine of his beliefs can be drawn from his writings.  The topic of original sin is certainly one of the more difficult of Christian theology, and Augustine certainly labored both to understand and to explain this central tenant of the faith.  What can be known for sure is that Augustine, true to the Catholic faith both before and after him, understood man to be created good in the image and likeness of God, to have fallen of his own free will, and to have therefore affected all of humanity which would come from him as father of the human race. It is also clear that Augustine described evil as a privation of existence, and that, although there are certainly difficult passages in his works, whatever the method of the passing on of original sin, it must be in conformity with this general principle that evil is no being but a lack thereof. Augustine must always be read in the context of the particular works and their purpose, as well as the totality of the writings which he has left us, which, of course, includes the development of his thought and his Retractions. Only then may we reflect properly on Augustine himself and on the all important doctrine of original sin.


*Original sin may be taken to mean: (1) the sin that Adam committed; (2) a consequence of this first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam. From the earliest times the latter sense of the word was more common, as may be seen by St. Augustine’s statement: “the deliberate sin of the first man is the cause of original sin” (De nupt. et concup., II, xxvi, 43). It is the hereditary stain that is dealt with here. (, Original Sin)



  1. CCC #406ff
  2. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 136
  3. Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. (New York, NY: Harper Collins. 1978), 365
  4. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 40
  5. Augustine. Confessions. by Trans, J.M. Lelen, (New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing. 1997.), 100
  6. Augustine. City of God. by Trans, Edmund Hill, (New York City: New City Press. 2005.), 245
  7. Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines, 345
  8. Ibid, 345
  9. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 121
  10. Ibid, 121-122
  11. Augustine. City of God, 271
  12. Ibid, 279
  13. Ibid, 272
  14. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 47
  15. Augustine. City of God, 278
  16. Augustine. The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity, 43
  17. Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines,365




Primary Sources


Augustine. City of God. by Trans, Edmund Hill, New York City: New City Press. 2005.


Augustine. Confessions. by Trans, J.M. Lelen, New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing. 1997.


Augustine. The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity. By Trans, Harbert, Bruce.  Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2008.


Augustine. On Nature and Grace. At New Advent.


Augustine, On the Grace of Christ and On Original Sin. At New Advent.


Secondary Sources


Bercott, David W. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson. 1998.


Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkley: University of California Press. 2000.


Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 1978


Stump, Eleonore and Norman Kretzmann. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001.


Willis, John R. The Teachings of the Church Fathers. San Francisco: Ignatius. 2002.