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
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. (NewAdvent.org, Original Sin)
- CCC #406ff
- Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 136
- Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. (New York, NY: Harper Collins. 1978), 365
- Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 40
- Augustine. Confessions. by Trans, J.M. Lelen, (New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing. 1997.), 100
- Augustine. City of God. by Trans, Edmund Hill, (New York City: New City Press. 2005.), 245
- Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines, 345
- Ibid, 345
- Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 121
- Ibid, 121-122
- Augustine. City of God, 271
- Ibid, 279
- Ibid, 272
- Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 47
- Augustine. City of God, 278
- Augustine. The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity, 43
- Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines,365
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. http://www.newadvent.org.
Augustine, On the Grace of Christ and On Original Sin. At New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org.
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.