The New Christians

The New Christians

Original Sin: Augustine’s Addendum

The Original Sin Series

The shadow of Augustine of Hippo looms large over the entire subsequent development of the doctrine of Original Sin.  We’ll get into his authorship of the doctrine qua doctrine in a minute, but first let’s remember the importance of his biography.  If Paul was a Jew’s Jew, Augustine was a Saint_Augustine_of_Hippo.jpgNeoplatonist’s Neoplatonist.  Schooled in the philosophy of Plotinus, Augustine even converted to a Neoplatonic religion, Manicheaism, in his 20s. 


As you might guess, Neoplatonism took strands of Platonism and magnified them, most significantly, dualism.  Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Augustine’s philosophy and religion both held to a strict separation between God and humanity, good and evil, spiritual and material. (Both Doug and I have written about how Augustine’s version of the world didn’t necessarily jibe with the Hebrew worldview of Jesus and the Apostles.)  Augustine’s dramatic conversion to a religion in which God (good) took on human flesh (evil) was a tough one for him to swallow and, from one angle, much if his writing was an attempt to mesh platonic ideas with the biblical narrative.


In the comment sections of previous posts in this series, some have quoted the Catholic Encyclopedia to note that Augustine was not the author of the doctrine of Original Sin.  But it’s similar to the doctrine of the Trinity — others (e.g., Tertullian) may have written about it in primitive ways, but it was Augustine who matured the doctrine.

Likewise with Original Sin.  Augustine’s opponent on this issue was Pelagius, an English monk, whose name is now spat at me and others who question Augustine’s version of the doctrine.  It’s impossible to know what Pelagius really thought and wrote, since we know him primarily through Augustine’s refutations, so it’s better to think of Pelagius as a foil for Augustine’s doctrine than anything else.  This is not to say that he wasn’t a church leader with a massive following in his day — he was.  In fact, there’s a novel to be written by someone about what would have happened had Pelagius won the day theologically instead of Augustine.


Supposedly, Pelagius blamed the moral laxity that he saw around Rome on Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin.  According to Augustine, human beings have all inherited guilt from Adam and Eve and are completely reliant upon God’s grace for any good work.  Pelagius thought that this contradicted the biblical narrative, in which human beings are again and again told to behave in ways that accord with God’s ways and are subsequently rewarded or punished based on their behavior.

Augustine, on the other hand, argued that human beings are incapable of the very good worksAugustine_Lateran.jpg that the Bible commands.  It’s only by God’s grace, held in absolute sovereignty, that human beings are saved or capable of any good works.  Augustine does not deny free will, per se (that comes later), but he does believe that human beings lost their moral free will in Adam’s sin. Neither, it should be noted, do Pelagius’ followers, the “Semi-Pelagians,” deny the reality of sin.


So, no surprise, it turns out that we’re dealing with two nuanced positions that reallty are not as far apart as some would make them out to be.

What we should note, however, is how Augustine took the notion of inherited sin further than Paul had in Romans 5.  Here’s the bottom line:

  • Eastern (Orthodox, Coptic, and Byzantine Rite Catholic) Christians take Paul to mean that our inheritance from Adam is death.
  • Western (Augustinian) Christians take Paul to mean that our inheritance is death and guilt.

In other words, we don’t only lose our immortality because of Adam’s sin, but each of us stands guilty before God because of his sin.

Thus, you can see how, once again, our understanding of this and our possible agreement or disagreement with Augustine hinges on our reading of Genesis 2-3.  But is also hinges on whether you believe that God would punish you for the sin of another.  Augustine’s answer to this this question is Yes, for he said that unbaptized infants, bearing Adam’s guilt, were consigned by God to hell.

Comments read comments(15)
post a comment

posted February 24, 2009 at 6:29 pm

As far as I’m concerned, your last sentence here answers the issue. Does anyone still believe infants go to Hell? If not, does this not become the thread that unravels the whole sweater? If so, how do these people reconcile a god who condemns those incapable of rational thinking to eternal torment with the G-d of John 3 who loves us _so much_ that G-d was willing to be humbled into human form and _save_ us?

report abuse


posted February 24, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Augustine’s theology of “original sin” became normative as Christianity fell into favor with the Roman Empire in the late 4th century C.E. At this time things such as equality and freedom weren’t important theological concerns for the Christians who were suddenly in the dominant group. The rhetoric and theology needed to be toned down. Christians needed to be more friendly toword the Roman Empire. Pride in one’s self became seen as sinful as patriotism to one’s Empire became seen as faithful.
Augustine stated that original sin resulted from Adam’s prideful attempt to establish self-rule. Self-rule was wrong to Augustine. He argued that all people inherited both a sinful nature from Adam. Moreover, Augustine argued that humans need governments in order to maintain order against the forces of sin. This theology lent itself well to a growingly institutionalized church and a religion that was favored by the state. The doctrine of “original sin” justifies – and in some ways ordains – governmental bodies. John Chrysostom attempted to offer a counterargument – stating that God honored humanity with sovereignty – but to little popular avail. Thus, Augustine’s once minor theory had become the dominate theology of the Catholic Church, which carried it into modern Western history.

report abuse


posted February 24, 2009 at 8:21 pm

John Philip Newell’s book “Christ of the Celts” explores a Celtic Christology. A Christology that honors the wisdom of Pelagius. A Christology that honors humanity’s core goodness. A Christology that honors the miricle of children. Thus, Newell deserves to be added to this conversation about Pelagius:
“I think that Matthew Fox’s book “Original Blessing” was a very significant work in many respects and it’s in “Original Blessing” that Fox flags up a type of realization that the Celtic tradition has some important perspectives to speak into today. I think Fox was prophetic on that front. That book came out before people had seen the big contribution of the Celtic stream of today. And, certainly on that point, the understanding that what is deepest in us is blessed — and is essentially is “of God” instead of “opposed to God” -– is so much at the core of his thinking. And, that’s what I find at the center of the Celtic Christian tradition, as well.”
“I do not believe that the gospel, which literally means “good news,” is given to tell us that we have failed or been false. That is not news, and it is not good. We already know much of that about ourselves. We know we have been false, even to those whom we most love in our lives and would most want to be true to. We know we have failed people and whole nations throughout the world today, who are suffering or who are subjected to terrible injustices that we could do more to prevent. So the gospel is not given to tell us what we already know. Rather, the gospel is given to tell us what we do not know or what we have forgotten, and that is who we are, sons and daughters of the One from whom all things come. It is when we begin to remember who we are, and who all people truly are, that we will begin to remember also what we should be doing and how we should be relating to one another as individuals and as nations and as an entire earth community.”

report abuse


posted February 24, 2009 at 11:02 pm

“So, no surprise, it turns out that we’re dealing with two nuanced positions that reallty are not as far apart as some would make them out to be.”
This is an unproven assertion. If this is true, I’d like to see how it is true.
Pelagius’s commentary on Romans is available for a hefty sum. So, rather than call him a “foil” as if no one had access to any of his writings, we can even see what he says about Romans 5!

report abuse


posted February 25, 2009 at 1:45 am

Humans, by their nature, aren’t “good” at all:
“They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one.” – Psalm 14:3
“For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” – Isaiah 64:6
“as it is written,
Therefore, Pelagius was wrong, and there is no “core goodness” in humanity.
Also, about infants going to hell, it really depends on whether or not they’re chosen by God to go to heaven. We won’t really know until the day of judgment, but know that whatever God’s plan for them is, it is without a doubt right and good.

report abuse

Scott M

posted February 25, 2009 at 6:53 am

Brian, as far as I’ve been able to tell, Augustine’s developed idea of original sin (guilt inherited through the philosophical means of seminal reasons) didn’t particularly even begin to take hold in the West until several centuries later. It never gained any traction in the East at all. Nor can it be easily tied to Rome or Roman influence. The center of the Empire at this time was shifting eastward and if the adoption of the idea were tied to the Roman Empire, we would expect to see it stronger in the East.
I wasn’t really going to comment since I thought Tony did a good summary, but I ran across a statement that seems to capture the heart of the Orthodox understanding beautifully.
“Every sin is the original sin.”
It’s a sickness we keep passing around and which keeps mutating and growing. It’s never individual. No matter how personal or private we think our sin might be, we are participating in death — the death of all — when we sin.

report abuse


posted February 25, 2009 at 9:13 am

I’ve grown weary of asking for clarifications which never come, a factor, I suspect, of the lack of a “subscribe to this thread” feature on each post (near as I can tell), but I’ll ask anyway.
Could someone please document at what point in the church tradition we began to interpret passages such as Romans 3 (quoted above) as a 100%/0% proposition, and all or nothing? Has it been “from the beginning” that we believed that because we are finite, and limited, and cannot live up to G-d’s perfection that we have _NO_ good in us in any way shape or form? Or is this a product of the doctrine of Original Sin, itself? That Adam’s sin twisted him so completely out of G-d’s image (as he was made) that ever after there was no longer anything good in him whatever and that we have inherited not just Adam’s sin, not just Adam’s sin nature, but that we have inherited a nature of utter and complete corruption?
Again, I think I must just be at the limits of my own education on these topics. Because it seems to me to run completely counter to the entire Biblical narrative both to conclude that there is no good in us whatever (the entire Old Testament makes little sense if G-d knows we are utterly incapable of good) and to conclude that we are born into this condition, condemned to eternal torment if we cannot survive to the age of reasoned consent so that we can embrace the Gospel (which runs completely counter to John 3).
Combined with the discussion of free will (or lack thereof) which has been going on (and thus even our inability to -choose- that reasoned consent to embrace the Gospel) and the picture of G-d that we are painting seems a very long way from James’ assertion that G-d is love.
Any clarification or illumination would be deeply appreciated.

report abuse


posted February 25, 2009 at 9:50 am

Pelagius brought up good points that are often ignored. First, he argued that humanity has salvation through God’s “original grace.” This prevenient grace is God’s free gift to humanity. Second, Pelagius sugguested that humanity has a “grace of revelation” whereby God gives us divine guidence to follow, if we so choose to follow it. Scripture and Christ both point the way we are to follow. Third, he affirmed that God gives the “grace of pardon” to those who freely change their lives and attempt to live faithfully. So we have a morally neutral human condition that is faced with the decision of choosing between faith and sin, good and bad.
For Pelagius, our human condition isn’t defined by original sin, yet he still understands that our lives are impacted by sin. He says, “By force of habit, sin attains a power akin to that of nature – sin becomes as it were ‘second nature’.” Therefore, he takes the reality of sin seriously. But he also thinks that we have the power and responsibility to overcome this “force of habit” through God’s grace and guidence. And that is where Augustine departs from Pelagius. Augustine relinquishes human responsibility.
Pelagius wanted Christians to live according to the Gospel instead of according to the Roman Empire. His theology demanded change. It questioned the status quo of the increasinly institutionalized Church in Rome. It made those in power uneasy. It made the morally lax look responsable for changing their own lives. It made people realize they were wasting the gift of life, which God gave humanity, by choosing sinful behaviors. It made this charge to every Christian: “You must avoid that broad path which is worn away by the thronging multitude on their way to their death and continue to follow the rough track of that narrow path to eternal life which few find.”
Pelagius’ theology was a realistic description of human responsiility and God’s graciousness. It wasn’t perversly optimistic like the Social Gospel movement and it wasn’t perversly pessimistic like Augustine. It was a “third way” between the two extremes. Pelagius says it well in his own words: “I did indeed say that a man can be without sin and keep the commandments of God, if he wishes, for this ability has been given to him by God. However, I did not say that any man can be found who has never sinned from his infancy up to his old age, but that, having been converted from his sins, he can be without sin by his own efforts and God’s grace, yet not even by this means is he incapable of change for the future.”

report abuse

Scott M

posted February 25, 2009 at 10:04 am

I’ve actually read a moderate amount on the perspective of Pelagius by the Orthodox, which is overall more balanced. However, he did not offer a third way. He was a heretic or at least a schismatic. The Orthodox don’t have the strong reaction against him you see in the West and certainly not as strong as their reaction against Arius and others of similar caliber. As I recall, the East sees Pelagius’ heresy in that he reduced Christ’s role to mere example. They aren’t concerned about a requirement for participation in our salvation. They take that as self-evident.

report abuse


posted February 25, 2009 at 11:33 am

In the book “The Letters of Pelagius,” there is a beautiful quote from Pelagius:
“Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insect crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent…When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature; it was that his breath had brought every creature to life. Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.”

report abuse


posted February 27, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I wonder why Tony never asks some real “theologians” like Piper, Mohler, MacArthur or D.A Carson to dialogue with him on these complex issues.
I would love to see that.

report abuse

Theresa Seeber

posted March 1, 2009 at 1:32 pm

He does and has. I just think he is at this point in which he is not interested in calling out to his critics with a “hey, what do you think?” when they have made it clear what they think. It is okay to be a theologian and have deep conversations without personally inviting your critics. I personally got tired of putting out public questions and finding this certain small group of critics yelling “heretic” at me every time I got into a good conversation (not the critics you mentioned). To his credit, it gets old and it really gets in the way of furthering conversation. And it does not promote unity to constantly have to defend yourself. It just became time to move on, I think.
Don’t you love it when we start talking about you like you aren’t here? Like parents talking about their kids. 😉 JK Peace.

report abuse


posted March 18, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Augustine is not a Neoplatonist’s Neoplatonist! On the contrary, by virtue of being a dualist and a Manichean, his slide into Christianity and away from neo-Platonism was made virtually inevitable. The doctrine of original sin owes more to the notion of an absolute evil than anything in a Plotinian emanational system. After 1800+ years, it is time to stop the slandering of neo-Platonism; it has provided an effective foil for Christians to evade their own complicity in creating the fault lines of western culture.

report abuse

Ben Hammond

posted July 19, 2009 at 6:16 am

Are you saying that his “slide” into Christianity was inevitable because you see Christianity as a dualistic religion in the same way you would say Platonism was/is “dualistic”?
I don’t point the dualism of Augustine vs the lack of dualism in Judaism because I think western culture in “evil” necessarily. I point it out because when we try to read the Bible through that same kind of dualism we read into it questions and answers that the authors probably weren’t asking or answering. That becomes a big problem. Augustine was/is awesome, but he wasn’t right about all he thought. Just like St Francis. Just like Luther, Just like Boenhoffer. And like me (minus the awesome part.

report abuse

nba 2k15 locker codes

posted May 29, 2015 at 8:02 am

Enjoy the Newcastle United vs Aston Villa live scoring
summaries and highlights here in Newcastle
United vs Aston Villa live tv sports The FA Cup with Budweiser football
match. James’ Park, Barrack Road, Newcastle upon Tyne,
Tyne and Wear NE1 4ST, UK. When it comes to preventing the opposing team from making a score, Subban together with Markov will significantly help.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

My Blog Has Moved
Dear Readers, After a year with Beliefnet, I've decided to move to my own domain for my blogging.  It's been a fine year -- some things worked, other things didn't.  But in the end, I'll be a better blogger on my own.  My thanks to the ...

posted 12:13:57pm Nov. 13, 2009 | read full post »

The Most Important Cartoon of the Year
By Steve Breen, San Diego Tribune, October 18, 2009 ...

posted 8:51:22am Oct. 25, 2009 | read full post »

Social Media for Pastors
Following up on Christianity21, we at JoPa Productions are developing a series of boot camps for pastors who want to learn about and utilize social media tools like blogging, Twitter, and Facebook.  These are one-day, hands-on learning ...

posted 10:45:52am Oct. 22, 2009 | read full post »

Ending Christian Euphemisms: "Fundamentalist"
I've taken some heat in the comment section for using yesterday's post on "unbiblical" and a "higher view of scripture" as a thin foil for my own disregard of biblical standards. To the contrary, I was pointing to the use of the word unbiblical ...

posted 10:15:41am Oct. 21, 2009 | read full post »

Why You Should Get GENERATE
Last week at Christianity21, GENERATE Magazine debuted. With the tag line, "an artifact of the emergence conversation," it fit perfectly at the gathering. When I actually got around to reading it last weekend, I was truly surprised at how good ...

posted 3:14:37pm Oct. 20, 2009 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.