Monday, April 18, 2011

Original Sin: The Later Fathers

J. N. D. Kelly resumes his discussion of original sin in Chapter XIII of Early Christian Doctrines, “Fallen Man and God's Grace.” Having dealt with the earlier Fathers, up to the 3rd Century, he now turns to the later Fathers. He once again contrasts the relative optimism of the Greek Fathers with the decidedly pessimistic Western view of man, especially the Augustinian tradition that was passed on to the Western Middle Ages. He then notes the unsettled state of opinion regarding the origin of the soul. Early Christians were in general agreement that man is composed of body and soul, but there was some disagreement on the specifics. The opinion of most of the Greek Fathers--that the soul for each individual is created by God at the moment that the body is ensouled--ultimately won the day.

That, however, was not at the time a universal opinion. We have seen that Origen—an influential figure—held that the soul pre-existed the body and was attached to a body as punishment for sins that were committed by the soul in its pre-existing state, i.e., before being “assigned” to a body. This was definitely a minority opinion, but was not formally condemned until the 6th Century. Hilary, Ambrose (d. 397) and Jerome all accepted the dominant Greek view, which was to become the orthodox view in both East and West. Pelagius (d. 420), of course, also held that view.

There was also a third view, the traducian view of Tertullian, which held that the soul of the offspring is somehow generated from the souls of the parents. Tertullian, as we have seen, held a materialist view of human nature. In the East, Kelly notes (345) that Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) seemed to share something like Tertullian's view, for he argued (against Origen) to the effect that the soul comes into being simultaneously with the body but that “the power of God work[ed] mysteriously on the human sperm to change it into a precious living being.”

However, by far the most important figure who tended toward Tertullian's views was Augustine (d. 430). While Augustine never fully made his mind up on the matter, and while he was critical of Tertullian's materialist views, he also realized that “a spiritual version of the same theory [traducianism] fitted in best with his teaching about original sin.” (345)

Athanasius and the Fall

Kelly begins his discussion of the Greek Fathers with Athanasius (d. 373), in view of Athanasius' enormous influence on the later Fathers. What is most striking, in Kelly's estimate, is the way in which Athanasius contrasts man considered as a natural creature and the state of man in Eden. This position, says Kelly, amounts to “a blend of Platonizing metaphysics and the Genesis story.” Considered as a creature, Athanasius regards man much as any other finite being—subject to change and, as finite, incapable of knowing God. However, according to Athanasius, a state of nature was not the original state of man. Rather, God created man able to know God, but in order to maintain himself in such a state man was required to “contemplate the Word without remission.” (346) When man turned from contemplation of God and allowed himself to be distracted by material things, such as his body, he began a gradual descent away from this original state of grace. Still, Athanasius repeatedly (cf. especially Against the Heathen and On the Incarnation) appears to state that it was always in man's power to return to God, if only he would scrub his soul of the matter that impaired its vision. Indeed, in Discourse 3 Against the Arians, 33, he writes:

Many for instance have been made holy and clean from all sin; nay, Jeremiah was hallowed even from the womb, and John, while yet in the womb, leapt for joy at the voice of Mary Bearer of God; nevertheless 'death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression Romans 5:14;' and thus man remained mortal and corruptible as before, liable to the affections proper to their nature.

It is doubtful that a fully consistent doctrine of the Fall can be constructed from Athanasius' writings, even though it plays a central role in his thought. He clearly sees some lasting effect from the sin of Adam, yet Athanasius has allegorized the Genesis narrative in a Platonizing direction. Thus, we see the overall Platonic cast of Athanasius' thought, with its emphasis on contemplation as the proper state of man and of matter as dragging man away from God. It is hard to escape the impression that for Athanasius, as for other Platonizing Christians like Origen, the true essence of man is his mind. Christianity in some sense has become an allegory for the Platonic worldview. And, while Athanasius' thought is centered on the Incarnation, even that is given a Platonic cast:

For men's mind having finally fallen to things of sense, the Word disguised Himself by appearing in a body, that He might, as Man, transfer men to Himself, and centre their senses on Himself, and, men seeing Him thenceforth as Man, persuade them by the works He did that He is not Man only, but also God, and the Word and Wisdom of the true God. (On the Incarnation, 16)

The Greek Fathers

When we turn to the Cappadocian and Antiochene Fathers, Kelly sees immediately the influence of Athanasius, with his Platonizing allegorization of the Genesis narrative. The Cappadocian Fathers, who were strongly influenced by Platonism and favored an allegorical approach to Scripture, depict Adam as a semi-divine figure in Eden, free of all weaknesses that are natural to a finite creature. Indeed, Gregory Nazienzen (d. 390) portrays Adam as communing in a garden that is “the Platonists' intelligible world of ideas.” (348) Gregory of Nyssa in his allegorizing goes so far in On the Making of Man as to suggest that woman was made as a sort of secondary, follow-on creation that God undertook based on His foreknowledge that man, Adam—the first creation—would inevitably sin and would then be in need of some means of procreation. This, of course, raises the question as to how procreation would have been accomplished before the Fall, and Gregory is ready with a theory: however it was accomplished, it would have been asexual, along the lines of the angelic life we will enjoy in Heaven where “they [the saints] neither marry, nor are given in marriage” (Quoting Luke 20:35-36).  Thus, sexual procreation is seen by Gregory to be the result of sin.

The Antiochene Fathers, on the other hand, eschewed the allegorical approach in favor of a more literal interpretation of Scripture. But here, too, we see the influence of Athanasius and Platonism. For example, John Chrysostom (d. 407) in his Homilies on Genesis suggests that man can by his own efforts turn to “spiritual things,” from those (presumably material) things that suffocate us.

Kelly stresses (349) that the primary concern of the Greek Fathers was to protect the faith against the charge of Manicheism, against the imputation that God was somehow responsible for evil. He admits that at first glance there is little that would suggest that Adam's sin is inherited. Both of the Gregories as well as John Chrysostom teach that newborn children are free of all sin. Rather, their tendency is to view the result of Adam's sin as “a wound inflicted on our nature.” (350) On the other hand, Kelly points out a number of factors that suggest the outlines of a doctrine of original sin. First, he notes, all the Greek Fathers appear to take it for granted that all men are somehow involved in Adam's sin. Second, they also clearly presuppose that man's “moral nature” has been affected, although man remains free to reject sin. Here we see the strong implication in the Cappadocian Fathers that the Fall was caused by an involvement in matter, much as we saw with Athanasius. Finally, Kelly points out that several Fathers appear to maintain that even Adam's guilt may be inherited. We are not surprised that, first among these Fathers, is Gregory of Nyssa, who was one of the few Greek Fathers who held something like Tertullian's traducianism. Again, these Fathers imply that the guilt is transmitted by the sexual union of the parents. (351)

Nevertheless, Kelly is clear that the Greek Fathers are operating in a different world than that of Augustine:

The orbit within which they worked was quite different, being marked out by the ideas of participation in the divine nature, rebirth through the power of the Spirit, adoption as sons, new creation through Christ—all leading to the concept of deification. ... Grace thus conceived is a state of communion with God, and if a man must use his free will to attain it, there can be no question but that the blessedness in which it consists is wholly the gift of God. (352)

The West before Augustine

Kelly uses the teaching of Ambrose (397) and his anonymous contemporary, the exegete “Ambrosiaster,” as examples of the general state of thinking on man's origins in the 4th Century West. The general Western view of man before the Fall was strongly influenced by the Cappadocian Fathers. Ambrose, for example, painted the picture of man in the most glowing colors, portraying Adam as a virtual demi-god: immortal, in intimate communion with God, complete master of his carnal appetites. Along with Eve he possessed every virtue and was free even from the need for food. Adam's fall was due to pride, a desire for equality with God. (353)

Ambrose and Ambrosiaster both stress the solidarity of the entire human race with Adam, even more strongly than the Greek Fathers had. In Adam, they repeatedly state, all men fell, and Ambrosiaster makes the Old Latin NT's false reading of Romans 5:12 “the pivot of the doctrine of original sin.” (354) In the Greek text Paul states that “death passed to all men because all sinned,” whereas the mistranslation in the Old Latin text reads, “in whom [in quo, i.e., in Adam] all sinned.”

Nevertheless, despite first impressions, Ambrose did not teach that the human race inherits Adam's guilt. He certainly maintains that all men sin--even a day old infant sins. Still, come the day of judgment, we will only be held accountable for our personal sins. Baptism is necessary for infants, but not because it washes away original sin. Rather, it is required “because it opens the kingdom of heaven to them.” On the other hand, Ambrose does hold to a doctrine of inherited corruption, a “congenital propensity to sin,” which is removed by the rite of the washing of the feet, while baptism removes personal sins (On the mysteries, 32):

Peter was clean, but he must wash his feet, for he had sin by succession from the first man, when the serpent overthrew him and persuaded him to sin. His feet were therefore washed, that hereditary sins might be done away, for our own sins are remitted through baptism.

This inherited corruption is inherited from Adam, and is transmitted in the procreative act. Not surprisingly, therefore, Ambrose also maintains that Christ was free from all taint of this inherited corruption because of his virginal conception! (355)

Ambrosiaster, like Ambrose, holds that man's body is a prey to sin, and that this taint is inherited through physical descent from Adam. Still, Ambrosiaster recognizes degrees in individual men's subjection to sin and the devil—not all turn absolutely away from God. Kelly summarizes:

The point is that for Ambrosiaster, as for Ambrose, we are not punished for Adam's sin, but only for our own sins. As he says, “You perceive that men are not made guilty by the fact of their birth, but by their evil behavior. Baptism is therefore necessary, not as abolishing inherited guilt, but as delivering us from death and opening the gates of the kingdom of heaven.” (355-356)

The Doctrine of Pelagius

Pelagius (d. 420) was a British monk who became a popular preacher in Rome, specializing in the practicalities of the moral and spiritual life. He was shocked at the teaching of Augustine, with its determinedly negative assessment of human nature. To Pelagius, the Augustinian attitude was little less than blasphemy, a denial of the goodness of God's creation. The emphasis of Pelagius' preaching was on the development of holiness and virtue through exercise of man's free will. Kelly summarizes Pelagius' point of view succinctly:

If a man enjoys freedom of choice, it is by the express bounty of his Creator, and he ought to use it for the ends which He prescribes. (358)

Kelly presents Pelagius' critique of the complex of ideas surrounding the theory of original sin under two points.

First, Pelagius denies that the human race has any intrinsic bias toward sin as a result of Adam's sin. Pelagius' conviction in this regard is to a great degree based on his acceptance of what has become the orthodox position regarding the soul—that it is directly created by God. Augustine, as we have seen, tended toward the heretical view of Tertullian—traducianism--which held that each individual's soul is generated by his parents. This Pelagius viewed as “tantamount to Manicheism.” From this position Pelagius points out the difficulties inherent in Augustine's doctrine of original sin as well as its logical implications:

Since each soul is, as he [Pelagius] believes, created immediately by God, it cannot come into the world soiled by original sin transmitted from Adam. To suppose that it does savours of the traducian theory that souls, like bodies, are generated from the parents, and is tantamount to Manichaeism. Even if true, however, would not the theory entail that the offspring of baptized parents are not only free from Adam's taint but inherit their sanctification? In any case God, Who forgives human beings their own sins, surely cannot blame them for someone else's. Adam's trespass certainly had disastrous consequences; it introduced death, physical and spiritual, and set going a habit of disobedience. But this latter is propagated, not by physical descent, but by custom and example. Hence there is no congenital fault in man as he is born: 'before he begins exercising his will, there is only in him what God has created.' Pelagius' baptismal teaching naturally fitted in with this. For adults the sacrament was medicinal and regenerative, but its effect on infants [provided] adoption as children of God. (358-359)

It can easily be seen that Pelagius' views are very much in accord with the spirit of modern Catholic views, which stress man's free will and responsibility, as well as generally with Eastern views. The Church has long since rejected traducianism and Augustine's belief that we inherit Adam's guilt. The revocation of the theological construct of “limbo” is another clear indication that the Church no longer feels the Augustinian doctrine of original sin to be viable nor likely to be revived as a danger to the faithful. Kelly himself points out that Pelagius' views on baptism reflect those of Ambrose and Ambrosiaster.

Second, Pelagius forcefully asserts man's full freedom—there can be no question of “any special pressure on man's will to choose the good.” (359) Grace, for Pelagius, consists of “external aids,” what could be considered “general revelation”--what we can know about God, man and morality through reason—as well as God's special revelation in Jesus. Grace is bestowed upon all and there can be no question of predestination.

Kelly adds an important perspective on Pelagius:

Pelagius' teaching is often described as a species of naturalism, but this label scarcely does justice to its profoundly religious spirit. Defective though it is in its recognition of man's weakness, it radiates an intense awareness of God's majesty, of the wonderful privileges and high destiny He has vouchsafed to men, and of the claims of the moral law and of Christ's example. (360-361)

Much is made of the claim attributed to Pelagius that a sinless life is possible by human effort. As we have seen, this is not so far out of the mainstream of the Greek Fathers—such as Athanasius. Once again, however, this a distortion of Pelagius' actual views. As Kelly writes:

What he envisages is not a state of perfection acquired once for all, but rather one which is attained by strenuous efforts of the will and which only steadily increasing application will be able to maintain. (360)

Even this falls somewhat short of a fair portrayal of Pelagius' sensitivity to the spiritual life, to the day to day growth in character and virtue that he teaches, to his embrace of the nobility of man's cooperation with God to which we have been called. To be sure there are shortcomings in Pelagius' overestimation of man's power to exercise true freedom, but on the whole this is probably less problematic, more easily balanced, and less of a threat to a true Christian anthropology than the Augustinian teaching. Still, even in this basic optimism he is not far removed from other Fathers who had also pointed out—like Paul in his admonitions to the Corinthians—that even pagans were capable of virtue.

Augustine and Original Sin

Long before his controversy with Pelagius, Augustine had a well developed theory of original sin. Augustine carries to new heights, surpassing even the Cappadocian Fathers, the tendency to attribute all manner of perfections to Adam—immunity from physical ills, surpassing intellectual gifts, a “settled inclination toward virtue,” the “gift of perseverance,” etc. (361-362)

Augustine attempts to prove original sin from Scripture as well as tradition. Augustine presents the following texts as proof (in addition, of course, to the Genesis narrative):

Psalm 51:5 “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Job 14:4 "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one."
Job 15:14 "What is man that he should be clean? And he that is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?"
John 3:3-5 Jesus answered and said to him, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you're born from above, you cannot see the Kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he's old? Surely he can't go into his mother's womb and be born a second time?" Jesus answered, "Amen, amen, I say to you, if you're not born of water and the Spirit you cannot come into the Kingdom of God.
Rom. 5:12 "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”
Eph. 2:3 "We all once lived among them in the desires of the flesh; we did what the flesh and our imagination wanted and were, by nature, children of wrath, like the rest of them."

Here we see, yet again, the difficulties caused by a lack of an adequate theory of revelation. Briefly, we may note the following. The texts from the Israelite/Jewish scriptures are clearly rhetorical statements of man's imperfection, not doctrinal definitions. In any event, as we have seen, a doctrine of original sin was unknown to Jewish thought and even offensive to the Jewish emphasis on freedom and responsibility. Moreover, the characteristic Jewish theory of the two tendencies—the yetzer ha ra and the yetzer ha tov—was clearly shared by Jesus as well as by the early Christians of Apostolic and sub-Apostolic times, who shared similar concerns regarding man's freedom and responsibility. The passage from John is just as clearly without any implication regarding original sin—it is a call to conversion through faith in Jesus and dedication to the new life in the Spirit. Regarding the Pauline texts, we have already dealt with Romans 5:12 at some length (Augustine, of course, utilizes the Old Latin mistranslation). The passage from Ephesians is simply a description of the life that the early Christians led before conversion, among the pagans, and is nothing like a doctrinal definition.

As for arguments from tradition, Augustine maintains that the practice of infant baptism is proof positive that newborns are infected with sin. However, as we have seen, this was by no means the interpretation that other Church Fathers put on the practice, many of whom expressly stated that infants were free from sin and some of whom even maintained that specified venerated individuals had led lives free from personal sin. In that regard, it is interesting to note that, in opposition to the Pelagians, Augustine himself maintained that the apostles were free from concupiscence and the lust of the flesh. Small wonder that modern commentators are impressed by the acuity of the arguments that the Pelagians brought against Augustine.

Not surprisingly, considering the nature of Augustine's arguments and conclusions, the Pelagians—especially Julian of Eclanum—accused Augustine of being a Manichee. In that regard, it is worth citing Kelly's summary at some length:

Finally, the general wretchedness of man's lot and his enslavement to his desires seemed to clinch the matter. Like others before him, he believed that the taint was propagated from parent to child by the physical act of generation, or rather as the result of the carnal excitement which accompanied it and was present, he noticed, in the sexual intercourse even of baptized persons. As we have seen, Augustine was divided in mind between the traducianist and various forms of the creationist theory of the soul's origin. If the former is right, original sin passes to us directly from our parents; if the latter, the freshly created soul becomes soiled as it enters the body. (363)

Augustine, of course, vociferously denied that he was a Manichee, but it appears to us that his view of the propagation of original sin under a creationist theory of the soul is a dead giveaway for Manichean tendencies of thought that are everywhere present in Augustine's writings. Reading these ancient controversies, one is struck continually by the logical acuity of the Pelagians and how similar in spirit their position is to the Catholic Faith as we know it today. Augustine, on the other hand, shows scant regard for consistency, for the need to harmonize various conclusions, and even for the clear meaning of Scripture, preferring instead to argue from Scriptural proof texts taken out of context. An obvious example of these differences is Augustine's approach to marriage. The Pelagians quite naturally rebuked Augustine for his depreciation of marriage and its sacramental nature. Augustine found himself in the position of explaining that, before the fall, man would have procreated on a strictly rational basis, while experiencing no sexual desire or pleasure. This is very difficult to reconcile with modern Catholic theories regarding the twin aspects of marriage, procreative and unitive, or even with the sacramental character of marriage. It is, however, fully in accord with Manichean and other gnostic views. Augustine's own behavior in abandoning his common law wife and their son (Adeodatus, “Given by God”) for a clerical career is a striking illustration of the fact that Augustine's views on marriage were not in harmony with those of Christianity. The Pelagian position, by and large, strikes us as exhibiting the type of humanistic approach that has become the hallmark of true Christianity.

Grace and Predestination

This is too vast a topic to attempt at this stage, but it can hardly be a surprise that it poses serious problems for Augustine. Kelly summarizes those problems ably:

Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text 'God wills all men to be saved' (1 Timothy 2:4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect... God's choice of those to whom grace is to be given in no way depends on his foreknowledge of their future merits... Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. … Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. (368-369)

One could say that the methods employed by Augustine's God are a bit like those of an in vitro fertilization lab: He creates more than enough human beings to restock the ranks of the angels--depleted by Lucifer's rebellion--and then simply disposes of those that aren't needed by depriving them of grace and sending them to eternal torment. Any resemblance between this view of God and that of the God whom Jesus called Father is highly coincidental.

The Western Settlement

Augustine's prestige and influence in the West made it close to a foregone conclusion that he would secure a condemnation of Pelagianism in the West. This is not to say, however, that all were happy with Augustinianism:

On the other hand, Augustine could not fairly claim that the Church had ratified his distinctive teaching in its fullness. So far as the East was concerned, his ideas, as we shall see, had no noticeable impact. In the West … there were many … who found some of [Augustine's ideas] wholly unpalatable.

Chief among these were St. John Cassian and the “semi-Pelagians.” Nevertheless, the “powerful and increasing influence of Augustine in the West” insured that, while some of the most outrageous Augustinian teachings (such as those regarding predestination and free will) were “tacitly dropped,” the bulk of them became mainstream teaching throughout most of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the root of the problems that Augustinianism caused for the Church were rooted in the heavy Manichean and Neoplatonic influence that marks Augustine's thought, as well as in the theory of original sin itself--as he taught it and interpreted it through forced and inaccurate interpretations of Scripture. As long as that theory remained mainstream, as long as the Neoplatonic (and generally gnostic) influence of Augustine remained preponderant, there would always be those who would work out the logical implications of Augustine's ideas—as is amply evidenced by the recurring disputes over free will and grace that tore at the fabric of the Church in the West throughout much of its history. Augustine's thought and his view of a God who is ruthless and arbitrary has, thanks in part to Augustine's status as a Father and a Doctor of the Church, exercised an enormous influence down to the present day. His views, in fact, have crucial elements in common with the Muslim view of God and man. Benedict XVI was honest enough to point this out in his address at Regensburg, although he chose to lay the blame at the feet of a later thinker in the Augustinian tradition rather than trace the problem to its source. The baneful influence of Augustine's development of Platonism can be seen in areas as various as: scriptural interpretation, grace and predestination, freewill, and human knowledge. If "the recovery of reason [is] essential for the spiritual recovery of the West," then it is high time that the Church forthrightly confronted Augustinianism's frontal assault on reason and human freedom.

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