Saturday, October 01, 2011

St. Augustine did not "invent" Original Sin

I am amazed how historians who seem to have an otherwise good grip on history will, when it comes to the Church or sacred history, make grossly erroneous statements that reveal how ignorant they are on the subject matter. I was recently reading a best-selling economic history book by a Harvard professor that had some statement in there about Solomon asking the Lord to stop the sun; this episode happened not to Solomon, but to Joshua, of course, who lived several centuries before Solomon. Almost everybody, even people not knowledgeable in the Old Testament, have at least heard of how Joshua commanded the sun to stop at the Valley of Aijalon. For a Harvard historian to get the wrong person by two centuries is pretty bad, especially when the data is right in front of your eyes and you just have to do the research. But who cares; it's only the Bible, right?

I have encountered a similar but more widespread problem when it comes to the doctrine of original sin and its alleged "invention" by St. Augustine of Hippo. I have seen this in textbooks, history books, historical programming, even materials put together by Catholic organizations - all asserting, almost as if it is without contest, the "fact" that the Church's teaching on original sin was an invention of St. Augustine of Hippo and is not found in either the Scriptures or the Fathers.

This baffles me, as it seems that just a cursory reading of Scripture and the Fathers, with a bit of understanding of the historical context of Augustine's teaching on original sin, is enough to disprove this oft repeated error of fact. St. Augustine was certainly integral to the development of the doctrine of original sin, even as St. Thomas was integral to the development of the doctrine of the Real Presence or St.Cyprian was integral in the development of ecclesiology. Nevertheless, just as it is wrong to say St. Thomas invented the Real Presence or St. Cyprian invented the concept of episcopal unity, so it is equally wrong to state that St. Augustine invented the doctrine of original sin. This error becomes culpable when done in textbooks and other contexts that are supposed to be shedding light on history but actually just obscure the facts.

First, let us define Original Sin. Original sin, in the context I am using it, refers to the teaching that death comes to man through the sin of our first parents, and that the grace of God is necessary to overcome this sin and perform any salutary works. The traditional teaching on original sin is summarized in the canons of the Council of Carthage against Pelagianism (418):
  1. Death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin.
  2. New-born children must be baptized on account of original sin.
  3. Justifying grace not only avails for the forgiveness of past sins, but also gives assistance for the avoidance of future sins.
  4. The grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God's commandments, but also imparts strength to will and execute them.
  5. Without God's grace it is not merely more difficult, but absolutely impossible to perform good works.
For many, this Council represents the "invention" of a novel doctrine. But this assertion reveals, I think, an ignorance of the words of Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers.

Let us first turn to what I believe in the classic proof-text for original sin in the Scriptures, the words of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, chapter 5:

"Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death [contra the Pelagians who taught that death was natural and not the result of sin]: and so death passed upon all men [death is what was passed, not simply a bad example], in whom all have sinned. For until the law sin was in the world: but sin was not imputed, when the law was not. But death reigned from Adam unto Moses, even over them also who have not sinned, after the similitude of the transgression of Adam, who is a figure of him who was to come. But not as the offense, so also the gift. For if by the offense of one, many died: much more the grace of God and the gift, by the grace of one man, Jesus Christ, has abounded unto many. And not as it was by one sin, so also is the gift. For judgment indeed was by one unto condemnation: but grace is of many offenses unto justification. For if by one man's offense death reigned through one; much more they who receive abundance of grace and of the gift and of justice shall reign in life through one, Jesus Christ. Therefore, as by the offense of one, unto all men to condemnation: so also by the justice of one, unto all men to justification of life. For as by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners: so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just" (Rom. 5:12-19).

St. Paul here clearly states that death came into the world through the offense of one man, and that through this offense, "many were made sinners" and "many died." This is precisely what is taught by the Council of Carthage, and it is here found in the Scriptures. Also relevant are Wisdom 2:24 (""But by the envy of the devil death came into the world") and 1 Cor. 15:21: "For by a man came death and by a man the resurrection of the dead." The Catholic Encyclopedia points out that this can only refer to physical death, since it is using the physical Resurrection from the dead as a contrast.

If the Scriptures clearly testify that the concept of original sin is biblical, evidence from the pre-Nicene Fathers confirms it. Though we could find several examples, those offered by St. Cyprian is especially notable because he illustrates the Catholic understanding of original sin explicitly in his Letter 58, which deals with infant baptism (a teaching repudiated by the Pelagians). In these readings, notice the assumptions Cyprian makes about infant baptism: that is communicates grace and saves souls; i.e., that it remits sin. Cyprian says:
"But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. For as the Lord says in His Gospel, "The Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." As far as we can we must strive that, if possible, no soul be lost. For what is wanting to him who has once been formed in the womb by the hand of God? To us, indeed, and to our eyes, according to the worldly course of days, they who are born appear to receive an increase. But whatever things are made by God, are completed by the majesty and work of God their Maker. Moreover, belief in divine Scripture declares to us, that among all, whether infants or those who are older, there is the same equality of the divine gift" (Letter 58:2-3).
But if that doesn't convince you, here is a more explicit example in which original sin is very plainly taught:
"If anything could hinder men from obtaining grace, their more heinous sins might rather hinder those who are mature and grown up and older. But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted— and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace— how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins— that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another?" (Letter 58:5)
This letter was written around 253, so clearly this is way before Augustine and Pelagius. Yet here we have all the tenets of the doctrine of original sin - catching the "contagion" of Adam just by virtue of birth, the effect of this contagion being death, and this understood as a "sin" that comes to all who are "born of the flesh." St. Augustine himself, in refuting the Pelagians, mentions thirteen other Fathers, both Greek and Latin, who before his own time had clearly taught the doctrine of original sin, in his Contra Julianum, Book II.

Looking at the manner in which the Pelagian controversy itself played out gives further evidence that original sin was indeed taught prior to Augustine. In 411, before Augustine had even gotten involved in the Pelagian controversy (for he was still putting down the Donatist heresy), the Bishop Aurelius of Milan condemned the six main tenets of Pelagianism as heretical. The condemned propositions were:

1. Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died.
2. Adam's sin harmed only himself, not the human race.
3. Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall.
4. The whole human race neither dies through Adam's sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of  Christ.
5. The (Mosaic Law) is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel.
6. Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin.

This condemnation was made not by one of the Church's great theological luminaries, but by a regular ordinary, who had the common sense to see immediately the heretical import of these statements. Clearly, the Catholic concept of original sin was plainly understood at this point prior to Augustine's writings on the subject.

It is interesting to see how the Church proceeded from this point on. After the condemnation of Aurelius, Caelestius, a lay-monk seeking ordination and principle teacher of the Pelagians, was summoned to appear at a synod at Carthage to retract his statements. Had original sin been not clearly taught, would he have been summoned to defend his positions? It is note worthy that Caelestius replied that Adam's sin and its consequences were still open to debate, and refused to recant. He was immediatelt excluded from ordination and his six theses condemned. So, we have the summoning of a synod to compel Caelestius to recant, the refusal of ordination and the formal condemnation of the Pelagian premises before Augustine even wrote one word on the subject. Clearly, as Church praxis here shows us, the matter was not considered "open to debate." If it was open to debate, it must have been in the same sense that modern dissenters claim that contraception and homosexuality are still "open to debate."

St. Augustine tells us that, from 411 to 412, Pelagianism began to spread rampantly around Carthage, prompting many sermons and condemnations of it by local bishops. It was not until late in 412 when Augustine finally got involved, by which time Pelagianism was already recognized as a heresy and deviation of the Catholic teaching on original sin. It was then, around 412, that St. Augustine composed On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, where he laid out the Catholic teaching on original sin and backed it up with an appeal to the Church's practice of infant baptism. Far from inventing or bringing out original sin for the first time, Augustine was simply putting into writing what the Church already believed, as is evidenced by the manner in which the controversy was handled prior to Augustine putting pen to parchment.

Jerome condemned Pelagianism as soon as he heard of it, in 415. It is true that Pelagius was exonerated at two regional synods, but this has nothing to do with the issue being open to debate; rather it had to do, in the first case, with the Catholic defendant (Orosius) being unable to argue in Greek against Pelagius, and in the latter case of Pelagius accuser's simply not showing up to the synod.

Nevertheless, two synods, one in Carthage and one in Numidia, condemned Pelagianism, comprising over one hundred twenty six bishops. Clearly, original sin was no novelty is 126 bishops were willing to come together and issue joint condemnations. Finally, in January of 417, Pope Innocent I entered the controversy and formally condemned Pelagianism and excommunicated Pelagius and Caelestius. Another condemnation by Pope Zosimus followed in 418. Would the Bishop of Rome issue these condemnations based on a novelty of St. Augustine? In Innocent's condemnation of Pelagius, the writings of St. Augustine are not appealed to; rather, the Church's practice of infant baptism and St. Paul's letter to the Romans are. The popes condemned Pelagianism because they held the teaching of original sin to be apostolic, as judged both by Scriptural standards and the constant practice of the Church in baptizing infants.

If we look at the manner in which the Church proceeded here, with its regional synods, episcopal preaching against Pelagius, condemnation of the teachings of Caelestius, the letters of Jerome and Augustine, it is clear that the Catholic dogma of original sin was not something invented by Augustine. Was St. Augustine the most thorough expositor of the dogma up to that time? Yes. Was he called upon because of his reputation for erudition and eloquence to use his pen to explain the Catholic position? Yes. Was he fundamental in the development of the doctrine. Absolutely. Was original sin "invented" by St. Augustine, in such a way that it can be asserted that this doctrine did not exist before he defended it in writing? By no means. To assert otherwise is to misunderstand history and ignore Scripture and the Fathers.


Anonymous said...

On this case I always like to quote the Doctor himself:

On Marriage and Concupiscence, Book II:25
“It was not I who devised the original sin, which the catholic faith holds from ancient times; but you, who deny it, are undoubtedly an innovating heretic. In the judgment of God, all are in the devil’s power, born in sin, unless they are regenerated in Christ.”

Can't get clearer than that :)

Anonymous said...

I've been doing some research on this topic recently and have a quesion for you. Is it true that for centuries the Catholic Church taught that the fate of unbaptized infants were consigned to hell? I'm a bit confused on the historical position on the matter and hope you can help clarify it for me. Thank you.

BONIFACE said...

It is true that the Church has always taught that those who die even with original sin only are deprived of the Beatific Vision (heaven). This is certain.

However, no adult human ever has only original sin - they have actual sins as well. The only persons who ever die with only original sin are unbaptized infants. This places one in a conundrum, because it involves asserting that, therefore, unbaptized infants go to hell, which seems repugnant to our natural sense of justice.

However, the Church never taught this. The Church did attempt to explain ways why, despite dying with original sin, unbaptized infants did not go to hell. For many centuries, the prevailing theory was something called the limbo of unbaptized children, a place of pure natural happiness where children who died unbaptized went. It was a state of perfect natural happiness, but not heaven.

Some more recently have speculated that, while they do die with original sin, God, in a way known to Himself alone, remits this sin, allowing them entry into heaven.

Either way, the Church has never taught that unbaptized children go to hell (although I have to admit that some theologians, not the Church as a whole, did speculate on the possibility). The Church has tried to find ways to explain why unbaptized infants probably do not go to hell despite the fact that original sin alone can deprive one of heaven.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much Boniface for your reply. However, I'm still not satisfied because I've been doing some of my own research on this subject.

You stated that "the Church has never taught that unbaptized children go to hell (although I have to admit that some theologians, not the Church as a whole, did speculate on the possibility)."

I don't mean to be disagreeable with you. However, in my quest for understanding this topic, I've come across different councils declaring the fate of unbaptised infants who die.

Here is what I've discovered:

Council of Carthage XVI, Pope St. Zosimus, Original Sin and Grace, 418: “Canon 2. Likewise it has been decided that whoever says that infants fresh from their mothers’ wombs ought not to be baptized, or says that they are indeed baptized unto the remission of sins, but that they draw nothing of the original sin from Adam, which is expiated in the bath of regeneration, whence it follows that in regard to them the form of baptism ‘unto the remission of sins’ is understood as not true, but as false, let him be anathema. Since what the Apostle says: ‘Through one man sin entered into the world (and through sin death), and so passed into all men, in whom all have sinned’ [cf. Rom. 5:12], must not to be understood otherwise than as the Catholic Church spread everywhere has always understood it. For on account of this rule of faith even infants, who in themselves thus far have not been able to commit any sin, are therefore truly baptized unto the remission of sins, so that that which they have contracted from generation may be cleansed in them by regeneration.” (D. 102)

Council of Carthage XVI, Pope St. Zosimus, Original Sin and Grace, 418: “Canon 3. It has been decided likewise that if anyone says that for this reason the Lord said: ‘In my Father’s house there are many mansions’ [John 14:2]: that it might be understood that in the kingdom of heaven there will be some middle place or some place anywhere else where blessed [beati] infants live who departed from this life without baptism, without which they cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, which is life eternal, let him be anathema. For when the Lord says: ‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he shall not enter into the kingdom of God’ (Jn. 3:5), what Catholic will doubt that he will be a partner of the devil who has not deserved to be a coheir of Christ? For he who lacks the right part will without doubt run to the left.” (D. 102, footnote 2.)

Pope Gregory X, Second Council of Lyons, 1274: “The souls of those who die in mortal sin or only with original sin go down into hell, but there they receive unequal [disparibus] punishments.

Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, 1439: “The souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin or in original sin only, descend immediately into hell but to undergo punishments of unequal [disparibus] kinds.”

I think I've found my answers but I am a bit disturbed how the Church today is redefining her history. But, that's another topic.

Thank you for your time and kindness. God Bless, Pam

BONIFACE said...


You are misunderstanding some things here...these quotations do not prove what you think they prove.

For one thing, the Councils of Carthage were not ecumenical councils, but all regional synods, and as such in no way infallible. For example, the Council of Frankfurt, convened under Charlemagne in 794, taught that icons were not worthy of veneration, contradicting the Second Council of Nicaea (787).

Second, it is not even clear that these Councils teach what you assert. The first quote merely says that infants have original sin and ought to be baptized so that this sin can be remitted. Nobody disputes this. But it does not say that infants who die without baptism go to hell.

The second quote from Carthage XVI says only that the infants who die unbaptized do not enjoy the beatific vision (they cannot enter "the kingdom of heaven"). Most theologians in the middle ages did not dispute this, which was why invented the limbo of the infants, which was not a different part of heaven, but was substantially different, since the souls in heaven see the beatific vision while the souls in the limbo of the children enjoy only a natural sort of happiness. Yet, even if you took this statement to preclude limbo absolutely, it still does not prove this is the teaching of the Church Universal since, as I said, these regional synods are not infallible.

Regional synods will also sometimes get ahead of the Church and try to declare as certain something that has only been hypothesized. For example, the Council of Cologne (1860)declared that Adam and Eve were formed immediately by God and that those who believed in a gradual development of the human body were outside the Faith. Now, I do happen to believe this is how Adam and Eve were formed, but the fact is that the Church Universal never taught this explicitly, and Humani Generis (1950) actually allows for the very possibility that Cologne condemns.

The quote from Lyons states that original sin alone is enough to exclude one from heaven, but it does not say that this is the actual state of infants who die without baptism. It allows the possibility that if an infant dies without baptism, God, in a way known to Him alone, may extend the grace of baptism to that soul. So, while it says that original sin is theoretically enough to condemn one to Hell, it does not state that this is what actually occurs when an infant dies without baptism, and the same can be said of the teaching of the Council of Florence.

I agree that the modern Church is taking a different path with this question than the medieval church, but basically this question has always been debated, and even saints were on different sides of it. We cannot pretend that there has been a universal de fide teaching when there wasn't - there have been different tendencies in different time periods; from Augustine to the 10th century theologians tended to speculate that unbaptized infants may have gone to hell, whereas in the high middle ages limbo was a more popular alternative. In the modern church, theologians are more open to considering the alternative I have suggested. But it does not constitute a real change of teaching.

Anonymous said...

Boniface, Thanks for the quick response.

I believe I am not misunderstanding this at all. I am not convinced that Carthage wasn't infallible in it's declarations. I don't think it really matters if it is considered one or not. What I do know is I trust in the fact this pope [a Saint] who said this about unbaptized infants would know a thing or two about theology did declare, "some middle place or some place anywhere else where blessed [beati] infants live who departed from this life without baptism, without which they cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, which is life eternal, let him be anathema."Pope St. Zosimus. Clearly he states there is no middle place nor can unbaptized infants have "life eternal". That leaves us with no other place than Hell for them.

As for Florence and Lyons which confirms this regarding original sin. "The souls of those who die in mortal sin or only with original sin go down into hell, but there they receive unequal [disparibus] punishments." The statement neither specifies adults or infants but says "souls". I really don't think souls have stages of growth of maturity like our physical bodies do because it's spirit. So I believe the statement from these councils doesn't distinquish between stages of human development but directly to souls. You even admit those with original sin, "However, no adult human ever has only original sin - they have actual sins as well. The only persons who ever die with only original sin are unbaptized infants." So you should know the two councils were referring to only those infants who die without baptism. Again Lyons and Florence states clearly regarding those souls "..or only with original sin go down into Hell". Yet on the other hand you swtiched back and said "it does not state that this is what actually occurs when an infant dies without baptism". But it does say that those with only original sins [which you previously admitted were infants] goes down into hell.

Perhaps it's not me who is misunderstanding this nor you for that matter. There is enough evidence to show the Church in the past believed about original sin, baptism and the need for infants to be brought into the family of God. This is why it was crucial for infants to be baptised and even more urgent for the dying ones. To say that we can hope in their salvation by trusting in God's mercy but yet make sure we baptise them seems to say we really don't trust in God's mercy. Anyway that's my thoughts. Thank you for your time. Pam

BONIFACE said...

well, earlier in your comments you said,

Is it true that for centuries the Catholic Church taught that the fate of unbaptized infants were consigned to hell? I'm a bit confused on the historical position on the matter...

sounds like you are not at all confused but have a very well thought out position with a good grasp of the pertinent statements. We shall agree to disagree.

jasbopiano@ said...

pro Catholic poppycock.Yes he did,and after he impregnated a woman out of wedlock.

BONIFACE said...


If you think Augustine invented this doctrine, then you must be ignoring what is plainly taught in Romans 5:

"Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned."

That this teaches original sin is not just affirmed by Catholics, but by all Christians (thought the orthodox have a different name for it)