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St. Augustine and Original Sin in the West

compiled by Lewis Loflin

Augustine invented the concept of Original Sin as we have it in the West today. From the Encarta Multimedia Encyclopedia on Original Sin,

Original Sin, in Christian theology, the universal sinfulness of the human race, traditionally ascribed to the first sin committed by Adam. Theologians advocating original sin argue that the concept is strongly implied by the apostle Paul, the apostle John, and even by Jesus himself.

Late Jewish apocalyptic writings attribute the world's corruption to a prehistoric fall of Satan, the temptation of Adam and Eve, and the resulting disorder, disobedience, and pain of human history.

Saint Augustine appealed to the Pauline-apocalyptic understanding of the forgiveness of sin, but he also included the notion that sin is transmitted from generation to generation by the act of procreation. He took this idea from 2nd-century theologian Tertullian, who actually coined the phrase original sin.

Medieval theologians retained the idea of original sin, and it was asserted by 16th-century Protestant reformers, primarily Martin Luther and John Calvin. Liberal Protestant theologians later developed an optimistic view of human nature incompatible with the idea of original sin.

Tertullian of Carthage: (150-225) advised that: "Divine revelation, not reason, is the source of all truth." The struggle between reason and revelation has been the hallmark of the church. See Deism. The ancient Greeks knew the world was round and the earth circled the sun, but "revelation" said the opposite so scripture was right, reason was wrong. Augustine would further expand on this.

Augustine's idea that we are responsible for Adam's "Fall" is a direct contradiction of Ezekiel 18 where God clearly says only the sinner will die and their children are innocent. The Bible never mentioned Original Sin as such, and Jesus never implied it in this manner.

In 410, when Augustine was in his fifties, Visigoths sacked Rome, a disaster for which the classical consciousness was unprepared. Pagans and Christians blamed each other for the disaster. Even Christians expressed anxiety, "Why were the righteous also suffering?" Where was the kingdom of God on earth that had been prophesied? Augustine was further shattered emotionally.

Augustine's The City of God was a response to the crisis of the Roman Empire in the same manner that Plato's Republic was a reaction to the crisis of the Athenian polis. But whereas Plato expressed hope that a state founded on rational principles could remedy the abuses of Athenian society, Augustine maintained that the worldly city could never be the central concern of a Christian. He said that the ideal state could not be realized on earth, that it belonged only to heaven.

The misfortunes of Rome, therefore, should not distress a Christian unduly, for Christianity belonged to the realm of the spirit and could not be identified with any state. The collapse of Rome did not diminish the greatness of Christianity, for the true Christian was a citizen of a heavenly city that could not possibly be pillaged by ungodly barbarians, but would endure forever. Compared to God's heavenly city, the decline of Rome was unimportant. The welfare of Christianity was not to be identified with Rome's material progress or even its existence. Thus like the Manichees he saw nothing worthy in world at all, but that doesn't mean he would ignore it.

He stipulated that although the earthly city was the very opposite of the heavenly city, it was a reality that people must face. Christians could not reject their city entirely, but must bend it to fit a Christian pattern. The city that someday would rise from the ruins of Rome must be based upon Christian principles. Warfare, economic activity, education, and the rearing of children should all be conducted in a Christian spirit. Although the City of Man was ever evil, imperfect, and of no consequence in comparison to the City of God, it was not about to disappear and be replaced by the Kingdom of God on earth.

The church could not neglect the state, but must guide it to protect human beings from their own sinful natures. The state must employ repression and punishment to restrain people, who were inherently sinful, from destroying each other and the few good men and women that God had elected to save from hell. It was in "warfare" and terror this perversion of Jesus' Church would excel.

See Good Wars by Darrel Cole.

Finally, like Tertullian, Augustine repudiated the distinguishing feature of classical humanism-the autonomy of reason. (This wasn't the atheistic secular humanism of today.) For him, ultimate wisdom could not be achieved through rational thought alone; reason had to be guided by faith. Without faith there could be no true knowledge, no understanding. Philosophy had no validity if it did not first accept as absolutely true the existence of God and the authority of his revelation.

Valid ethical standards could not be formulated by reason alone, but were revealed to people by the living God. Christian truth did not rest on theoretical excellence or logical consistency; it was true because its source was God. Yet Augustine continued to insist "revelations" were true even if in direct contradiction of both Jesus or the Old Testament. Without reason all we have is blind superstition and a cult. See Humanism Rejected

In conclusion Augustine's influence on Western Christianity is second only to Paul and Jesus. His great influence on Luther and Calvin would distort Protestant outlooks as well. His outlook on the City of God and City of Man is still the vision of repressive Puritanism and modern Protestant fundamentalism.

Marvin Perry, Western Civilization, Ideas, Politics, and Society, 2nd edition. Pages 167-70