“You have Original Sin.”- Paul of Tarsus

In the development of Christianity through primarily St. Augustine came forth the developed concept of Original Sin. In a previous post, Nicholas disagrees with the notion of Original Sin and says that Holy Scripture does not teach it and Augustine created a positive idea of the inherited sin of the flesh. After some discussion with Nicholas explaining that Augustine primarily influenced by Platonism developed the idea of the deprivation in human nature which resulted in the concept of the source of evil. In fact, the famous “Pear Story” from the Confessions gives an anecdotal experience that led Augustine to the epiphany of human deprivation:

Surely, Lord, your law punishes theft, as does that law written on the hearts of men, which not even iniquity itself blots out. What thief puts up with another thief with a calm mind? Not even a rich thief will pardon one who steals from him because of want. But I willed to commit theft, and I did so, not because I was driven to it by any need…For I stole a thing which I had plenty of my own and of much better quality. Nor did I wish to enjoy that thing which I desired to gain by theft, but rather to enjoy the actual theft and the sin of theft.

 …We took great loads of fruit from it (orchard), not for our own eating, but rather to throw it to the pigs;

 …Behold, now let my heart tell you what it looked for there, that I should be evil without purpose and there should be no cause for my evil but evil itself. Foul was the evil, and I loved it[1].

At the heart of Augustine’s pear narrative is a retelling of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. Jonathan Yates, Associate Professor at Villanova University, asserts that Augustine’s story of stealing the pears is one that parallels Genesis 3 and the fall of man. Yates examines that “In Books 1-9, it is the trees and the fruit from Genesis 3 that are most frequently referenced…by Augustine.”[2] The most important parallel between the two stories is the ownership of the tree. In Genesis 3, God gives the command that no one should eat from the tree of Good and Evil. God gives the law, as he has created an orderly world, so Adam and Eve, also being creatures, are subordinate to this order like the laws of nature. What particular separates us from the laws of nature or the animals is the powers of the soul—the intellect. Again, Augustine illustrates that humanity falters when it attempts to supplant God by disregarding its duty toward His order, and instead asserts its desire to choose whatever desires of the human will rather than God. Original Sin, often associated with the first sin, should to some degree be understood that original in the sense of its nature is the pride of choosing what one desires over the duty—or right relation—toward God.

It is in book 7 of the Confessions where Augustine gets at the heart of sinfulness being a deprivation of original holiness. As explained to Nicholas, Augustine is primarily influenced by Platonism of his age. Augustine is examining is his continuing development away from Manichean dualist theology on the nature of God into the higher forms of being within the platonic understanding of forms it appears—hence is why Augustine explains God in the manner of sunlight permeating a room. As such the highest forms within platonic philosophy are in a sense metaphysical forms, Augustine appears to understand God within the framework. In fact, the highest form within the Platonic framework being goodness, Augustine ultimately understands God as the supreme goodness in form. Therefore, God cannot be the originator of evil, because God’s existence as goodness and all his creations being created good indicates his very nature as existence. If God is the form of goodness itself then evil cannot have form because it would take away, or be a deprivation, from the good form. Augustine’s particular synthesis of platonic thought and Christian scripture is recognizing that all creatures must possess some form of Good within themselves as creations of the eternal goodness, so there can be no purely a manifestation of evil or it would cease to exist.

After a moment of examining Nicholas’s argument, after I felt that it wasn’t Augustine’s assertions that Nicholas disagreed with but rather it was Pauline Christianity to which Nicholas objected. It’s true that Augustine formed Original Sin with a notion of transmission of sin through propagation but it is an idea tied to the Pauline understanding of sin in “the flesh.” It is a concept that originates from Paul—not Augustine. Augustine is merely plainly reading from Paul and applying terminology. Naturally, Nicholas pushed backed and explain this is in contradiction to what we understand of Second Temple Judaism. However, it’s a mistake to equate that Paul must be framed in that particular worldview and not an originator of his own teaching.

E.P. Sanders considered one of the great authorities on comparative scholarship on Judaism and Christianity in his monumental work Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion does agree with Nicholas that Rabbinic Judaism had no concept of original sin. (E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 114.) Nonetheless, in disagreement of Nicholas who claims that scripture explains that all men sin, Rabbinic Judaism maintained that those who lived in such a system the possibility existed that one might not sin. Again, as the point I made to Nicholas, this would be the only logical conclusion. The understanding that free will is the catalyst to sin, the possibility to use that free will to not sin must also be granted. The premise of that system of free will is the framework of Pelagianism. In fact, it is a reworking of the Pelagius argument that our nature—without original sin need not a physician—counter to Holy Scripture Augustine replies, “Men no doubt seem to urge acute opinions on these points, but it is only word-wisdom, by which the cross of Christ is made of none effect.”[3]

What is interesting is that comparing the author in the dialogues of IV Ezra with the writings of Paul, Sanders does not see an agreement with the “Paul’s pessimism concern life in ‘the flesh.’ Sanders, 546) The Qumran is compared to the writings of Paul where in the Qumran “the weakness of sinful flesh is not a power out of the hands of the elect.” In comparison to Paul, “on the matter of sin, the ideas are fundamentally different.” (Sanders, 547) The differences have to do with Judaism atoning for transgressions—not death. Sanders goes into to explain, “However close the feeling of corporate unity with Judaism there are no expressions parallel to Paul’s statement that Christians become one person in Christ…the body of Christ is not analogous to Israel.”(Ibid.) It’s clear from Sanders that Paul’s teaching is something innovative and must be separated from the lens of 1st century Palestinian Judaism.

Finally, Sanders concludes, “This in all essential points—the meaning of ‘righteousness, the role of repentance, the nature of sin, the nature of the saved ‘group,’ and most importantly, the necessity of transferring from the damned to the saved—Paul’s thought can be sharply distinguished from anything to be found in Palestinian Judaism. (Sanders, 548).

The importance of Sander’s work is the understanding that one cannot simply use Judaism to jump over Jesus Christ and St. Paul in an attempt to abrogate central doctrines of orthodox Christian teaching because they find disagreement with them for whatever reasons. As I discussed with Nicholas, Augustine did not originate the idea of sinful flesh that is transmitted to every human. The idea is very much in the writings of Paul that Augustine plainly put into terminology. Judaism cannot be used in a manner to reinterpret what Paul really meant against Augustine because the idea originated in Paul’s own work, thus Divine Revelation of Holy Scripture, that made the separation from Judaism.

[1] Augustine, and John K. Ryan. The Confessions of St. Augustine. (New York: Image Books, 2014), 28.

[2] Dr. Jonathan Yates, “Augustine and Genesis 3” Confessions Version 2.1.4 Villanova University.

[3] Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on Nature and Grace,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 123.

27 thoughts on ““You have Original Sin.”- Paul of Tarsus

  1. Nicholas

    Most of this I am in agreement with. I do not posit that Paul is slavishly following the Rabbis or that one can use the Talmud or other material to override Paul’s authority as an expositor of the Bible and teacher of theology. Nor do I dispute Augustine’s understanding of evil as deprivation of good (but it should also be described as a distortion of good). But I invite the reader to consider the possibility of the difficulty of the concepts, rhetoric, and grammar of Romans 5, which is the key text in this dispute.

    Regarding free will and the possibility of not sinning: it seems to me that angels who did not sin with Satan and the Sons of God exercised this free will in that manner. They are without sin. Why then are there no humans who have free will but do not sin? The inference seems to be that we are subject to something that the angels are not. Paul identifies this as “the flesh” and Augustine builds on this. It seems to be that our being human is at least part of the problem.

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    1. Augustine explains in it forms. God created all things good. So when you have a whole pie let’s say that’s good. Sin is the cutting of slices out of their pie. If you’re purely evil you’d have no pie. We’re more like portions of the pie. I find Augustine to be solid on this ground.

      In regards to Angels, Aquinas explains that their free will decision is prior to the beatific vision. So, in that sense, I cannot compare with humanity. Apples and oranges.

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      1. Nicholas

        Okay – so when people sin, there is something lacking in them. To put it another way, humans are incomplete relative to God and so they do evil, because they lack sufficient goodness. Is that basically what you are saying?

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      2. Nicholas

        Okay – but the point is that something is missing. We do not conform perfectly to the blueprint (for want of a better word) and so we sin. The model is essentially comparative – just as Paul compares Adam and Christ and the Gospel writers in their genealogies and accounts of the Temptation in the Wilderness.

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      3. It’s an essential point because you want to blame God. Saying incomplete implies God responsibility and being wound places the responsibility on the nature of humanity.

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      4. Nicholas

        It matters at least to me because I want to be sure I am understanding the position correctly. If I understand Augustine correctly and his reading of Paul is correct and I can accept that – then there is a road back to conventionality and there is peace. I would like to hold on to that possibility for as long as possible. The fact that I currently do not agree with parts of Augustine’s analysis as I understand it does not mean that I am closed to persuasion. Parts of what you have already said do in fact persuade me: but fitting all the pieces together is problematic. We also have the difficulty that you and I have fundamentally different approaches: as a Protestant, my engagement with tradition is very different from yours, which hampers our discussion. My use of more fine grain analysis is not intended to be pretentious or patronising but to hone in on the problem. Either way, it seems to trace back to God, because God is the author of creation. I think free will needs to be part of the equation somehow otherwise we end up with a picture of God who wants sin – so, as in your post – there must be something that separates the existence of sin from the will of God in that sense – namely, our own agency.

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      5. You cannot leave Augustine in complete isolation. I once heard the Reformation is basically the question, “What did Augustine mean?”

        So, where you would say Paul is complex, I’d say rather that Augustine is complex. So, there’s the Calvinist Augustine—which you’ve most encountered; there’s the Lutheran Augustine—and then there’s the Thomistic Augustine. I often argue that Thomas is the greatest example of Augustinian tradition. He quotes him more than any thinker. The theologian most quoted in the Catholic Catechism overwhelmingly—Augustine; not Thomas. So, Augustine cannot be views in a monolith.

        You say Augustine is reading Paul from his time—which yet closer to Paul than Calvin was to Augustine. So, why do you accept Calvin’s reading of Augustine?

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      6. Nicholas

        Re: Calvin’s reading of Augustine, I’m not committed to Calvin’s model, but I note that Calvin puts emphasis on the sovereignty of God.

        The sovereignty of God is hard to ignore. I dare say there are important points to note in the other formulations, and I am not saying that Calvin properly understood Augustine – only that he found something in Augustine’s formulation and ran with it – and that something is scary.

        Now, I could ignore Calvin and just say his understanding of Augustine is wrong and revisit the original text: indeed that is part of the process. But I will still have the problem of the sovereignty of God, trying to understand how it fits into the picture.

        In the past, I would have just accepted that as a mystery and left it alone. I do not feel able to do that now. To not have an answer to the question of why people sin is concerning. What do we do in conversations when that question comes up? I can start presenting the Gospel by saying that we all sin and therefore we all need a Saviour. If someone asks me why we sin – beyond saying we are weak, I am not sure there is much more I can say. If someone asks me why we are weak, i can either say that God made us that way, which does not seem like a satisfactory answer or I can posit something else. But if I cannot say what that something else is, then the Gospel looks made-up.

        Have you ever had that sort of conversation when talking with an unbeliever?
        Romans 5 is vague on the relation between God and the spread of sin and death: Adam is the agent in that passage and the rest of humanity is somehow affected.

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      7. Most Atheist understand that that soteriology of Christianity and Judaism have different systems and generally place the originality of it to Pauline Christianity not Augustine. And quite frankly, like I should with Athanasius does exists prior to Augustine—so I can’t place it with Augustine. What I do show with Augustine is the origin of terminology and codifying it.

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      8. Nicholas

        I certainly don’t think we can save ourselves. I would not describe myself as a Pelagian. I agree with Christ’s and Paul’s criticism of the Judaism of their day (and seemingly now) that seems to think obedience to the Torah is enough. In that sense I can understand the mirroring in Romans 5 and in Augustine: Adam caused our ruin; Christ causes our salvation. The terminology is essentially a secondary issue, provided people understand the referents and their relationship. I think modern society has a hard time swallowing the descent theory because modern society does not believe we are all descended from Adam.

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      9. I don’t know if you’ve followed any of Jordan Peterson’s work. I’m not that familiar with his work but I did get his book and he does believe that Original Sin is archetypal. He examines that soldiers that suffer from PTSD are not usually disturbed by what they see in battle. What bothers the majority is the things that they had to do when in battle. They are afraid of the monster that exists inside themselves.

        I don’t know what to make of all of it, but it’s an interesting take on it.

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      10. Nicholas

        I used to follow him, but I don’t these days. I believe Adam was a real person and I think the best way of understanding him is by reference to the priest-king metaphor, recapitulated in Israel as the kingdom of priests. I understand him also archetypically as the “everyman” and of course in Hebrew, it often is simply the word for human. In that sense, it doesn’t matter which particular human was in Eden because we all would have done exactly the same thing. If the perfect human (as then before the Incarnation) ended up failing – what hope do the rest of us have?

        This seems to be the only way to make sense of Paul and maintain our sin link: because we all would have done it -because there is no superior human short of the incarnation – we’re all damaged in our current state and thus need repair. In other words, humans short of Christ and the Christ-process are simply not capable of living with God. The rest of us sinning therefore becomes, in a sense irrelevant – it doesn’t matter how it works, it’s just a feature of what this sort of human is.

        The question remains of why God chose to make us this way and the answer seems to be along the lines of Him wanting us to go through the Christ-process. God had to know the crucifixion in advance, so He made the universe in a way that entailed the crucifixion.

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      11. I think this begins to approach a Thomistic understanding of the Incarnation that is fitting and not necessary. Could God have done it differently? Aquinas says “Of course.” But there is something to be learned by the Incarnation, in some manner, in God’s divine pedagogy Christ is always the plan.

        Perhaps, the lesson is as simply as consenting to Divine Providence freely.

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      12. Look on Douglas’ post as we’re discussing this more with quotes from Athanasius’ argument On the Incarnation.

        Also, Ludwig Ott, in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma in the chapter under the Doctrine is God the sanctifier makes the same connection that I did naturally that any denial of original sin is Pelagianism. Ott ties it as a tenet of rationalism, “Modern Rationalism, which denies everything supernatural and also original sin, in effect accepts the doctrine of Pelagianism.”

        I know you’ve been critical of rationalism, so perhaps, a reflection on why you concluded that early Christianity is wrong about original sin in the aftermath of the Incarnation? It seems it’s either a personal disagreement or an influence of modernism.

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      13. Nicholas

        Thanks, but I think I should avoid any future discussion as I don’t want to damage our friendship or let the pride that comes with trying to win an argument cause me to reject the good points you have made. I am still mulling this material and I think I want to visit the key passages in Augustine’s works to make sure I have as clear an idea of his text as possible and reduce the post-Augustine filters if possible, especially Reformation ones. I believe in trying to get as close as possible to the text and in giving texts the benefit of the doubt (“philosophical principle of charity”).

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      14. Fair enough. Interesting enough, I’ve been reading a thesis that’s a revisionist approach arguing that we should only consult biblical texts that’s utilize the vulgate due to Jerome being the closest into proximity of the original text. The argument is that modern translations that use Hebrew Masoretic text are translations made by translators too from the original culture. The whole premises rely on a notional of an “original text” we do not have or ever may have. The thesis is appealing to me because it’s the argument I use to reject Q source for the Gospels. I find it ahistorical to push a theory without any hard evidence for a literary analysis. In my opinion, we can only use what we actually have to make any argument.

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      15. Nicholas

        I think we should use everything and learn what we can. Through comparison we learn how various people understood the message and as long as we hold that in suspension, we can gain valuable insight. Reading the Vulgate tells us that Jerome thought the Hebrew of Ezekiel 38 and 39 meant “chief [rosh] prince of Meshech and Tubal”; reading the LXX tells you that the Seventy thought Rosh was not the common noun “head/chief”, but a place, and so they transliterated it. Comparing the NT with as contemporary texts as possible in Koine helps us with the grammar, etc, but comparison with the LXX helps us understand the code – because it is foreigners’ Greek. To express the thoughts as if you were a Greek would produce a very different text.

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      16. The author makes the point that the Hebrew text are not in agreement, so to use them authoritatively over the Vulgate isn’t credible either. He argued that Geniza differ from the Dead Sea Scrolls and those text predate the Masoretic texts. In fact, the author points that Dead Sea Scrolls contained Deutero-Canonical that challenge the Masoretic text that removed books. The Dead Sea Scrolls that predate Masoretic texts may the Septuagint and Vulgate in the historic books and Psalms.

        At any case, although it works the other way, the Masoretic texts being “original” cannot be concluded.

        Another aspect that I found interesting is the challenging of the Torah being a product of Babylon Captivity because we have manuscripts that predate it—the Samaritan Pentateuch with only minor variations.

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      17. Nicholas

        The Dead Sea Scrolls have been a wonderful discovery, as have the Ugaritic texts, which are the closest linguistically to the Hebrew of the Bible out of the surrounding Semitic texts.

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    2. I would say to this that Angels have Angel natures and humans have human nature. They are not the same. The Angels are not deserving of a savior for they had a nature with an intellect and the same timelessness that God possesses. Rebellious angels do have free will however and thereby if they decide that which the consequences of theirs actions is known as sure as the sun is going to rise have freely chosen to break ranks with God. There is no coming back from that.

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