In the 2d chp of Alan Jacobs, Original Sin, we learn about the contribution of Augustine to the idea of original sin. Here’s what we learn:
1. That sin came into the world through one man — Adam.
2. That humans die because of that one man’s sin.
3. That that one sin brought judgment.
4. That that one man’s sin gave death the power to reign in this world.
5. That Adam’s sin led to condemnation.
6. And that Adam’s disobedience made everyone disobedient.
So, Augustine … well, I’m playing a trick. Those six points come from Paul in Romans 5:12-21. And now I’ve got a point that needs to be made:
There is an instinctive reaction by many today against Augustine and a regular statement that he was the one who invented the dogma of original sin. On that accusation many people think they can prop themselves up high. The problem with this viewpoint, other than many believe it, is that it is wildly wrong.
Alan Jacobs shows not only that prior to Augustine, in North Africa, both Tertullian and Cyprian taught largely the same thing. The real issue is that many don’t like the idea and they’d rather blame crusty Augustine than the Bible. Which leads me to my next point…
Jacobs shows that those who make this claim tend to be attached to the Christian faith, while it seems to him that many who think Augustine interpreted Paul aright are not attached to the faith. He quotes Freud a bit on this one. Guess who is making Paul in their own image? is what Jacobs is asking.
Back now to Augustine … Jacobs explores his thinking a bit (he could have done more, so I think) and gets to this question that haunted Augustine: “Why in the world did I do that?” He’s talking about Augustine’s famous swiping of pears, but that is only an instance of the bigger problem — why is it that humans, all of us, do things we don’t want to do? Jacobs, who downplays Augustine’s sexual lusts in favor of a more general lusting, thinks the point is this: Augustine realized that he was “internally divided, driven here and there by multiple pressures and desires.” (Implicit here is the big one: Where do these desires come from?)
So, what’s the big deal? Well, if we take Paul as gospel and see Augustine getting him basically right, then we’ve got this: the human problem of sin and sinning is inherited, and it leads to death and judgment. So, with this as gospel, all humans start on the same (damned) page. And if that is the gospel truth, then the solution to that problem is the need for new life, the life that comes not by simply joining in on the big game of God’s work in this world, but going straight to the cross with Jesus, down into the depths with Jesus after the cross, and then up from the grave with Jesus so that we become the new creation Jesus came to start. The solution comes by dying and being raised with Christ. (In my old Greek classes I used to say Paul was a “thanatologist” and an “anastasiologist.”)
I’m thinking this makes a big difference. I’m also thinking that getting original sin wrong distorts the gospel from the get-go. To use my words, if we don’t see that we are created and then cracked Eikons, we don’t see what we were designed to do and we don’t see the problem we’ve gotten ourselves into. Nor will the solution of the cross and resurrection make sense.
I agree totally with Jacobs: those who want to soften original sin by pointing their finger at Augustine need to know that Paul was the man to whom he turned when he heard two words: “tolle, lege” — “take and read.”
Is there a gospel without original sin?