Paul, Adam, and Salvation: maybe Augustine really did screw everything up and we should just move on

(Jon) #1

Peter Enns has these inciteful comments (pun intended), on an article by David Bentley Hart.

The article is called “Traditio Deformis,” and in it Hart explains in no uncertain terms, and with his usual wit and punch, that St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) really screwed up our understanding of the story of the “fall” of Adam (Genesis 3) because he absolutely screwed up what Paul was saying about Adam in Romans 5:12-21.


This screwed up version of the Adam story via a screwed up Augustinian reading of Paul is the view usually championed in the Reformed tradition (Calvinism; and hence Hart’s title, “Deformed Tradition”) and middle-of-the-road American Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.


Romans 5:12, translated properly (as in the NRSV and other translations), says: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—“

The “one man” is, of course, Adam. And Paul seems to be saying, quite clearly in fact, that death spread because all have sinned. Now what that means exactly needs some clarification, but that isn’t the issue here. The issue is that Augustine, working from a poor Latin translation of Romans 5:12, has “in him” where the Greek has “because.”

You can see the problem. Augustine’s reading is that death spread to all because all sinned in him [in Adam]. In other words, death spread to humanity because all humanity was somehow “present” in Adam’s act of disobedience. In other words, a bad reading of Romans 5:12 has led to the notion that all humans are as culpable (guilty) as Adam for what Adam did—all humanity sinned in him.

Augustine’s reading is what many Christians believe Paul actually said, and which is why Augustine’s notion of “original sin” is defended with such uncompromising vehemence as the “biblical” teaching. But neither Romans nor Genesis supports the idea.

I thought this comment on Enn’s article by a reader was very pertinent.

Hart’s greatest service in this is, I think, his pinning it on Augustine. Fruit of the poisoned tree: next year we commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses. Luther was of course strongly influenced by Augustine and led by direct line to modern Evangelicalism. It’s not only Calvinism that is exposed by Hart; it is the entire Evangelical paradigm.

(Jon Garvey) #2

Edit - posted prematurely: more to follow

(Jon Garvey) #3

Augustine’s specific views on original sin are interesting, but a few things are worth saying, not least that they do not affect the question of Adam and the historical origin of sin and human death in him - the question of human origins which concerns BioLogos. For that reason, I don’t think too much discussion outside that question, on this forum, is particularly helpful. Nevertheless:

(1) Any problems with Augustine are not to be laid at the door only of the Reformed tradition, nor even the Protestant, but the entire Western Catholic tradition, which still affirms original sin, and leaves room for original guilt. It also applies to the Orthodox tradition, whose doctrine of birth sin from Adam is the equivalent of original sin, even though it has been challenged since the 20th century.

(2) Augustine did not originate the doctrine of original sin. I did a piece on Iraeneus and others here. But if one doubts that, the Catholic Encyclopedia points out:

It is not true that the doctrine of original sin does not appear in the works of the pre-Augustinian Fathers. On the contrary, their testimony is found in special works on the subject. Nor can it be said, as Harnack maintains, that St. Augustine himself acknowledges the absence of this doctrine in the writings of the Fathers. St. Augustine invokes the testimony of eleven Fathers, Greek as well as Latin (Contra Jul., II, x, 33). Baseless also is the assertion that before St. Augustine this doctrine was unknown to the Jews and to the Christians; as we have already shown, it was taught by St. Paul. It is found in the fourth Book of Esdras, a work written by a Jew in the first century after Christ and widely read by the Christians. This book represents Adam as the author of the fall of the human race (vii, 48), as having transmitted to all his posterity the permanent infirmity, the malignity, the bad seed of sin (iii, 21, 22; iv, 30)… It is therefore impossible to make St. Augustine, who is of a much later date, the inventor of original sin.

(3) What Hart is critiquing, as he makes clear, is only the Augustinian doctrine of imputed guilt for Adam’s first sin, not the corruption of human nature, and the consequence of death - that is, the doctrine of original sin (or birth sin in his tradition).

(4) Original guilt has some consequences for the understanding of theories of atonement and, of course, Paul’s theology - but the only argument that is habitually raised by original sin in the context of theistic evolution is that if Augustine is wrong, an evolutionary origin of sin and a biological origin of death can falsify the doctrine of original sin, dispense with the need for an historical Adam, and that blaming Augustine for the error makes the loss only a trivial one for Christianity.

But original imputed guilt makes not a scrap of difference to that question, and that was Augustine’s sole contribution (plus, of course, his speculation about how sin was transmitted through concupiscence).

You can’t get away from the doctrine of original sin grounded in Adam simply by rejecting Augustine and/or the Reformed or Protestant tradition: you have to rewrite, in essence, the entire Catholic and Orthodox tradition from at least two centuries before Augustine (and from strands of strands of Judaism too). Which surely entails that you must carefully answer all the exegesis on which the whole orthodox/catholic tradition has built its doctrine, since it can no longer be a matter of Augustine not reading Greek, since he is just a bit-part player in the origin of the teaching.

It may be of relevance that one of the only groups that rejects original sin is the “Amended” branch of the Christadelphians, so maybe they’re the only ones to get it right and the future is theirs!

(George Brooks) #4


I believe you will find that mostly Catholics (with surprising agreement from most Evangelicals!) that agree with your view on Original Sin.

There is plenty of commentary that Augustine applied the key “twist” in the logic to create The Fall and “Original Sin”.

The Orthodox Church is the oldest and largest denomination that does not interpret Paul’s writings in this way… and doesn’t accept Augustine’s intentions.

Natural flesh, not being of Divine Nature, comes inherently short of the glory of the Divine.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #5

Jon, thank you again for doing us this service of compiling passages from the Fathers about original sin. It appears that, as usual, simplified summaries don’t do justice to centuries of tradition. Go figure!

It seems to me there are at least three levels to this question of original sin.

  1. All humans are sinners. Everyone seems to agree on this one.
  2. There is a heritable component to our sinfulness. In general, in our modern individualistic society, this aspect is less popular. Note that the substance of what is heritable can take many forms, depending on one’s particular emphasis: mortality, the tendency to sin, the guilt of sin, bondage to Satan, total depravity, etc.
  3. That heritable component originates in a single person named Adam (whether the sole progenitor of the human race, the most recent common ancestor of all humans living at the time of Christ, or something in between).

Based on the passages you cite, it seems to me that the Orthodox have always been more comfortable with #2 than I think most modern American progressive Evangelicals (who would like to major on #1) would currently like to admit. People who want to claim continuity with historical, orthodox Christian doctrine ought to wrestle with this.

However, it also seems to me that the thrust of the argumentation in most of the passages you cite from the Fathers (especially the earlier ones) was on #1 and #2 rather than specifically on #3.

As far as #3 is concerned, it seems to me that Augustine’s understanding of the mechanism of ancestral sin, tied in as it was to ancient conceptions of biology, was particularly influential and singularly unhelpful. I’ve read this before elsewhere, but just found this random website as one example of this understanding of Augustine being espoused. From

Augustine wrote, “We all were in that one man…already the seminal nature was there from which we were to be propagated.” (City of God, 13:14). Thus all of Adam’s descendants are both corrupt and condemned because they were present inside of him (as semen) when he sinned.

At any rate, it seems to me that it may not be a huge jump to understand many of the passages in the Fathers as pushing for #1 and #2 and only incidentally appealing to #3, as it was assumed to follow logically from #1 and #2.

Just “spitballing,” as the youngsters say on our side of the pond, tossing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. Any thoughts in response?

(George Brooks) #6

The “heritable component” is being part of non-divine creation… which, of course, includes Adam, includes Eve and includes all of natural creation where the lion bites and the jackal bites.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #7

Hi George,

I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “non-divine creation.” I don’t think I see any creation as “non-divine.”


(George Brooks) #8



I am attempting to find the best words to distinguish between the creation of
Angels vs. the creation of all mortal life.

And even then… we might conclude that Angels aren’t so perfect either.
Which basically means that the phrase Only God is Perfect should be the baseline for the problem with humanity - - rather than to think that Adam & Eve were a “slice of perfect” right up until they made an immoral choice!

(Jon) #9

Yep. And there are obvious problems with their thoughts on #1 and #2. Remember, some of these people actually believed sin was transmitted through sperm. They were not exactly giants of intellect. I’d give them a pat on the head and send them back to Sunday School. I’ll respond later in detail to Jon’s optimistic appeal to the 1915 Catholic Encyclopaedia (!), and Irenaeus.

However I will say this for now.

You don’t need to rewrite them. You can simply ignore the various forms of original sin which were invented in the post-apostolic era (basically gibberish), and point to the dominant thread of the etiology of sin in Second Temple Period Judaism, as well as pre-Augustinian Christianity. And how surprising that you completely omitted any reference to Clement of Alexandria, not to mention Pelagius (!).

The idea that Adam’s sin introduced concupiscence into the world, and/or introduced death into the world, are both contradicted by very basic scientific facts which don’t have anything to do with evolution whatsoever. The idea that sin or concupiscence (or both), are transmitted by sperm, really doesn’t even merit comment by rational people.

(George Brooks) #10

@Jon_Garvey, plus, to add on to @Jonathan_Burke’s concise discussion …

… even in Adam’s purportedly new state (which I would suggest is not new at all, but a fulfillment of the imperfection of flesh!), he would still have access to immortality by God’s own testimony - - leading God to put a flaming sword between Adam and the Tree of Life !!!

(Jon Garvey) #11

Thanks Sir, you’re too kind.

On “3”, without unpacking all the Patristic sources, I’ll just comment on Irenaeus, as the one whose work I’ve studied most, and who is often cited as a witness against birth sin. As I say in the linked article, he deals with original sin almost in passing in dealing with an heretical view that Adam was not saved.

In other words in his case at least it is the discussion of the fate of Adam, whose existence he assumes as fact, on which he bases his teaching on original sin. The form of the argument is “If God saves the children born in captivity, he will surely save the father who put them there.”

Otherwise I agree with your points - just note, though, that one needs to be cautious in employing the idea of “hereditary” sin. To take one example from the OP, the concept of “original guilt” is based on, or at least led to in Reformed thought, the concept of Adam’s “federal headship” of the race. So though ones solidarity with Adam, in that view, is hereditary, the “original guilt” is a forensic matter.

Thinking “heredity” tends to lead to speculation on (and usually rejection of) a “sin gene” - and even in Augustine’s “concupiscence” proposal sin was less an inheritance than a sexually transmitted disease (actually, if you study Augustine’s thoughts on this charitably, it’s not an unreasonable suggestion, though in my view erroneous - but it does NOT form the basis of the doctrine of original sin).

(Jon Garvey) #12

My God, I hadn’t realised how stupid all the orthodox theologians of the Church were down the centuries. Dan Brown didn’t tell us the half of it! Well, we’re all brighter now, as Richard Dawkins reminds us, so I’d advise all Evangelicals on BioLogos to avoid reading any of them and stick to the intelligent people you find nowadays, especially on sites like this. You can’t be too careful where primitive man is concerned.

Thank God there was Pelagius as a light in the darkness.

(Jon) #13

Most of them weren’t stupid, they were just hopelessly mislead by a mishmash of Greek thought, personal speculation, and almost complete ignorance of the socio-historical context of the Old Testament. The results were never going to be fantastic. But there are gems within the dross.

Fortunately he wasn’t the only one. And let’s remember, just while you’re indulging in this spree of sarcasm, that there are quite a few ideas and practices which those theologians had over the centuries which you wouldn’t dream of accepting. So let’s put your enthusiasm for them in context; like me you don’t regard them as authoritative, and you differ from me only in the extent to which you think they were in error.

(George Brooks) #14

In St. Augustine’s view, Adam and Eve were perfect. Then they messed things up !

It makes much more sense to accept that Adam and Eve were not capable of perfection, even though created by God. Would we expect God’s creation of an Elephant to be perfect as well?

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) taught that Adam’s sin is transmitted by concupiscence, or “hurtful desire”,[26][27]
resulting in humanity becoming a massa damnata (mass of perdition, condemned crowd), with much enfeebled,
though not destroyed, freedom of will. When Adam sinned, human nature was thenceforth transformed.

Adam and Eve, via sexual reproduction, recreated human nature. Their descendants now live in sin, in the
form of concupiscence, a term Augustine used in a metaphysical, not a psychological sense.[28] Augustine
insisted that concupiscence was not a being but a bad quality, the privation of good or a wound.[29]

He admitted that sexual concupiscence (libido) might have been present in the perfect human nature in
Paradise, and that only later it became disobedient to human will as a result of the first couple’s disobedience
to God’s will in the original sin.[30] In Augustine’s view (termed “Realism”), all of humanity was really present
in Adam when he sinned, and therefore all have sinned. Original sin, according to Augustine, consists of the
guilt of Adam which all humans inherit. As sinners, humans are utterly depraved in nature, lack the freedom
to do good, and cannot respond to the will of God without divine grace. Justo Gonzalez interprets
Augustine’s teaching that grace is irresistible, results in conversion, and leads to perseverance.[31]


FN.26] ORIGINAL SIN- Biblical Apologetic Studies - Retrieved 17 May 2014. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) taught that Adam’s sin is transmitted by concupiscence, or “hurtful desire”, sexual desire and all sensual feelings resulting in humanity becoming a massa damnata (mass of perdition, condemned crowd), with much enfeebled, though not destroyed, freedom of will. [ ]

FN.27] William Nicholson - A Plain But Full Exposition of the Catechism of the Church of England… (Google eBook) page 118. Retrieved 17 May 2014.
[GOOGLE BOOKS>,+or+"hurtful+desire"&source=bl&ots=625Trlcg97&sig=s0voWp6ENrROdPRPxKOVKAKHcSM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=7Lx2U67yH42NqgatjYHwCQ&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=concupiscence%2C%20or%20"hurtful%20desire"&f=false ]

FN.28] Thomas Aquinas explained Augustine’s doctrine pointing out that the libido (concupiscence), which makes the original sin pass from parents to children, is not a libido actualis, i.e. sexual lust, but libido habitualis, i.e. a wound of the whole of human nature: Libido quae transmittit peccatum originale in prolem, non est libido actualis, quia dato quod virtute divina concederetur alicui quod nullam inordinatam libidinem in actu generationis sentiret, adhuc transmitteret in prolem originale peccatum. Sed libido illa est intelligenda habitualiter, secundum quod appetitus sensitivus non continetur sub ratione vinculo originalis iustitiae. Et talis libido in omnibus est aequalis (STh Iª–IIae q. 82 a. 4 ad 3).

FN.29] Non substantialiter manere concupiscentiam, sicut corpus aliquod aut spiritum; sed esse affectionem quamdam malae qualitatis, sicut est languor. (De nuptiis et concupiscentia, I, 25. 28; PL 44, 430; cf. Contra Julianum, VI, 18.53; PL 44, 854; ibid. VI, 19.58; PL 44, 857; ibid., II, 10.33; PL 44, 697; Contra Secundinum Manichaeum, 15; PL 42, 590.

FN.30] Augustine wrote to Julian of Eclanum: Quis enim negat futurum fuisse concubitum, etiamsi peccatum non praecessisset? Sed futurus fuerat, sicut aliis membris, ita etiam genitalibus voluntate motis, non libidine concitatis; aut certe etiam ipsa libidine – ut non vos de illa nimium contristemus – non qualis nunc est, sed ad nutum voluntarium serviente (Contra Julianum, IV. 11. 57; PL 44, 766). See also his late work: Contra secundam Iuliani responsionem imperfectum opus, II, 42; PL 45,1160; ibid.
II, 45; PL 45,1161; ibid., VI, 22; PL 45, 1550–1551. Cf.Schmitt, É. (1983). Le mariage chrétien dans l’oeuvre de Saint Augustin. Une théologie baptismale de la vie conjugale. Études Augustiniennes. Paris. p. 104.

FN.31] Justo L. Gonzalez (1970–1975). A History of Christian Thought: Volume 2 (From Augustine to the eve of the Reformation). Abingdon Press.

(Jon Garvey) #15

Be careful where you go with Clement and Pelagius on original sin. The basis of their positions was the inviolability of free will. No propensity to sin could be inherited.

That would necessarily exclude several popular evolutionary explanations for sin.

I didn’t mention them because my Orthodox source didn’t - but then you didn’t either, implying that Augustine was the culprit and the Reformers the principal victims. But I could have mentioned the Cappadocian Fathers, Cyprian etc in the east, Tertullian and Ambrose amongst mnany in the west.

The fact remains that one or other version of original sin has been the orthodox doctrine of all the major branches of Christianity, and for Evangelicals to reject it requires far, far more than a critique of an interpretation of Augustine. Neither is the rejection of Augustine in any way relevant to, or necessitated by Evolutionary Creation.

(George Brooks) #16


The multiple Orthodox Churches reject the doctrine of Original Sin.

(Jon Garvey) #17

No, sorry. You’re just wrong.

(George Brooks) #18


So you are going to cite a “blog” as defense, against specific Orthodox FAQ’s?

Perhaps you would care to explain how you interpret this text from an official organ of the Orthodox Church?:

“In the Orthodox Christian understanding, while humanity does bear the consequences of the original, or first, sin, humanity does not bear the personal guilt associated with this sin. Adam and Eve are guilty of their willful action; we bear the consequences, chief of which is death.”

Thanks, Jon! I’m sure it will help reduce the differences in our two opposing opinions.

Below is the link where this comes from:
[Orthodox Church in America aka: ]

(Jon Garvey) #19

No problem. I’ll give David Bentley Hart’s own opinion, since it was his article that prompted the OP.

“Original sin” is the inherited corruption of the human heart by sin, since Adam’s first sin. Nowadays the Orthodox tend to call it “birth sin”, but the idea has historically been held by every major branch of the Church. Hart holds to this, and also claims it as mainstream doctrine in the Eastern Church (incidentally you can find an essay of his online in which a cynical ghost visits him and says of modern man that his major, predictable, flaw is not believing in original sin).

“Original Guilt” is the more specific (and additional) concept based on Romans 5 that in a forensic sense, guilt from Adam’s first sin rests on each member of the race. It is this that was expressed clearly for the first time by Augustine (though he also confirmed the existing doctrine of original sin), and which has been held in the West far more than the East (Hart implies it’s not in the East at all, but that’s an exaggeration). The Catholic Church has varied in whether it accepted that aspect of Augustine’s teaching, but it never became church dogma.

In fact, both Luther and Calvin in their commentaries of Romans major on original sin, more than original guilt.

Using contemporary sources one needs to be aware of the controversy within 20th century Orthodoxy which has sought toi polarise the differences between East and West (Romanides being one of the major names involved). Although Hart writes against original guilt he is one of those who opposes the idea that Eastern and Western doctrine are fundamentally different.

Does that clarify things a bit?

(George Brooks) #20


I am having a problem reconciling Hart’s opinion to what the Orthodox website says!

It says humans are not guilty … we simply pay the price of Adam’s guilt.

Can you agree with that short sentence, Jon?