Original sin

Romans 8:1

Are you a sinner? I think most people if not all people would answer yes to that question. I think the better question is, are you evil? Now most people would answer no to that question. How you answer that question will manifest your anthropology (study of man). There is a big difference between the two questions. The former see sin in terms of action, where as the latter see sin as something that is innate in humanity. Is sin some wrong actions or is sin something innate in humanity? According to Augustine sin is something innate and the wrong actions are simply the fruit of the “innateness” of sin in man. In other words this is the doctrine of original sin. How did original sin come to affect the whole human race from an Augustinian perspective?

Augustine understood the transmission of original sin from Adam to the whole human race from a Latin reading of Romans 5:12 instead of the Greek version.[1] His exegesis of that verse from the Latin version is incorrect because the Greek version does not support an “in whom” reading. [2] His understanding of the exegesis of the text was deprived from Ambrosiaster who exegete the words in quo as a reference to Adam.[3] Augustine never doubted that interpretation because his understanding of how original sin was transmitted was confirmed in the writings of Cyprian and St. Ambrose.[4]

Augustine’s exegesis of the text is incorrect but it does not affect his development of the doctrine of original sin. [5] As Weaver states, “Augustine was convinced that his own doctrine of original sin was in continuity with the tradition of the church. Not only the Creed, but scripture and fathers also bore witness to it.”[6] Others have argued that because Augustine’s interpretation of Romans 5:12 is incorrect therefore he was wrong in his understanding of how original sin was transmitted.[7] Azkoul writes, “Quite simply, then, Augustine strayed from the truth, the Apostolic Tradition, and any attempt to justify his innovations by an appeal to some questionable principle of historical interpretation – doctrinal development- will not help.”[8] This is too harsh a statement by Azkoul because Augustine’s conclusion on the transmission of original sin was the truth, was in line with tradition, and has correct hermeneutics.[9] Bonner after examining the exegesis of Augustine on Romans 5:12 writes:

It also appears that Augustine consider the meaning of the text to be virtually self-evident and saw it as confirmation of the doctrine of Original Sin which he believe to be the doctrine of the whole Catholic Church of Christ, which he himself learned in his first days as a Catholic Christian. Augustine’s declaration seems very likely historical correct, and so the so-called Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin would seem, in fact, to be one held not only in Africa but in Italy as well.[10]

In Romans 5:12, Augustine came to the conclusion that all of humanity was affected by Adam’s sin through seminal identity. This theory views Adam as containing the seed of all his posterity so when Adam sinned all of humanity also sinned.[11] When Adam committed the one act of sin in a physiological sense everyone that will proceed from his lions were included in that one act.[12] He writes, “by the evil will of that one man all sinned in him, since all were that one man therefore, they individually derived original sin.”[13] The one act of Adam involved the whole human race.

Augustine’s understanding of seminal identity is taken from Hebrews 7:9-10. In this passage it states that Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek even though he was not yet born because he was in Abraham. Levi was in the lions of Abraham. When Abraham paid the tithes to Melchizedek, though Levi was not born he also paid it by extension of being united to Abraham. The concept of organic union of Levi to Abraham is the same as humanity to Adam.

The implication of the doctrine of original sin is we are all stand condemned before a Holy God and in need of a Savior. Only the blood of Christ is able to liberate us from the condemnation of original sin as the apostle Paul writes, “therefore is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8.1). The question is, are you free from condemnation? Do you have Jesus as your Savior? Are you in the Second Adam? How you answer those few questions will determine your destiny: saved or not saved.


[1] There is no debate that Augustine exegete Romans 5:12 from a Latin version. He read “in quo omnes peccaverunt” from the Latin version and automatically came to the conclusion that it “referred to the seminal identity of the human race with Adam.” The Greek version does not support an “in whom” reading but a “because all sinned.” Taken correctly then what Romans 5:12 speaks about is “death is the cause of sin and human misery.” See Michael Azokoul, “Peccatum Originale: The Controversy,” The Patristic and Byzantine Review 3 (1984): 43.

[2] Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies, 372-374.

[3] David Weaver, “From Paul to Augustine: Romans 5:12 in Early Christian Exegesis,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 27 (1983): 203.

[4] Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies, 373.

[5] For a more thorough treatment of Augustine’s exegesis on Romans 5:12 Gerald Bonner, “Augustine on Romans 5:12,” In Studia Evangelica Vol. IV-V: papers presented to the Third International Congress of New Testament Studies held at Christ Church, edited by F.L. Cross, (242-247) (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1968) 242-247.

[6] Weaver, “From Paul to Augustine: Romans 5:12 in Early Christian Exegesis,” 202.

[7] Michael Azokoul, “Peccatum Originale: The Controversy,” The Patristic and Byzantine Review 3 (1984): 43.

[8] Azokoul, “Peccatum Originale: The Controversy,” 43.

[9] Augustine arrived at his understanding of the doctrine of original sin through four different sources: Scripture, tradition, the practice of the church in infants baptism, and man’s depraved condition. So to say that Augustine’s understanding of the transmission of original sin “strayed from the truth, the Apostolic Tradition” would be incorrect. To say that Augustine strayed from the truth would imply that the church also strayed from the truth because Augustine’s understanding of it was in line with the church. To say that Augustine strayed from the Apostolic Tradition would imply that all of the fathers Augustine used as proof to show the development and transmission of original sin were wrong. He quoted “Irenaeus, Cyprian, Hilary, Ambrose, Ambrosiaster, Reticius of Autun, Jerome: amongst Eastern writes, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil, John Chrysostom” N.P. Williams, The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin, 379.

[10] Gerald Bonner, “Augustine on Romans 5:12,” In Studia Evangelica Vol. IV-V: papers presented to the Third International Congress of New Testament Studies held at Christ Church, edited by F.L. Cross (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1968) 246.

[11] Williams, The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin, 372.

[12] Ibid., 372.

[13] On Marriage and Concupiscence, 2.15.

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