July 7, 2008 Length: 12:29
Looking more closely at the Augustinian view of God, Matthew examines the concept of "original sin".
Last time, we ended by making some observations about the image of God that develops in the Christian West as a result of the influences of Greek philosophy, and in particular, Platonic philosophy. We saw that, rather than a perfectly selfless God of love whose supreme objective is to heal humankind and restore it to intimacy with the Trinity, the West, under the influence of a Platonic-interpreted God, has come to see God as a self-concerned God of order, who is, above all things, protective of his own righteousness, and when it comes to humanity, his main concern, really, is in righting the wrong that human beings have done to him. I said that this teaching is evident in the works of Augustine, who, by all accounts, stands as the fountainhead of Western Christian theology, and I want to begin to examine that.
As I said, in the Eastern Christian view, when humankind falls into sin, the selfless God of love is compelled to empty Himself, and to join Himself to His human children, and thereby put an end to the sin and death that separate humanity from him. But the West’s God of absolute order has a different primary agenda. Healing humanity is not the issue, really, it is the restoration of moral order. In Eden, Adam and Eve offended God, and heinously upset the moral applecart of the universe. To set things right again, the God of the West does not look to his self-denying love, instead He leans on the very mechanism that human beings employ when wrongs are done to them: God inflicts punishment on his human children.
According to Augustine, this punishment restores order, that is to say, moral balance, to the universe. It evens the scales of God’s self-concerned justice. As Augustine puts it, “God applies punishment in such a way that it places natures in their right order, and forces them to comply with the beauty of the universe, so that the punishment of sin corrects the disgrace of sin.” That is from “On Free Choice of the Will,” Book 3, Chapter 9, Sections 95 and 96. That short passage captures just about everything I have been saying about the Western Augustinian understanding of God and his ultimate desire for creation. Is God concerned about making human beings able to enter into intimate communion with the Trinity? Does He want to heal fallen human nature? No, he just wants to correct the disgrace of sin. God desires to erase the smudge humanity has inflicted upon his pristine universe by forcing humanity to comply with the overall beauty of His perfectly ordered universe—and punishment accomplishes that.
As Augustine explains, “If sin occurred and happiness did not result from it, then evil would violate order. As long as men who do not sin gain happiness, the universe is perfect. When sinners are unhappy, the universe is perfect. Since there are souls that gain happiness because they do right, or unhappiness because they sin, the universe is always full and perfect.” That is from “On Free Choice of the Will,” Book 3, Chapter 9, Sections 93 and 94.
The Eastern Christian God of selfless love longs to heal humanity. The Western Christian God of order is, by contrast, according to Augustine’s words, eternally committed to assuring that at least some of them are unhappy. His divine sense of order and perfection demand it. In fact, in Augustine’s mind, the only difficult part of this whole orderly balancing act, is making certain that some human beings gain happiness by not sinning. Augustine’s own theology, specifically, his doctrine of original sin, makes this problematic.
I do not want to get too involved in a treatment of the doctrine of original sin, but it does go hand-in-glove with the rest of Augustine’s Platonic perfect order theology. What is more, the Eastern Church does not teach it. So, I want to briefly, at least, address it. The Augustinian doctrine of original sin is widely accepted by Christians in the West. They believe, as Augustine taught, that all human beings bear the guilt of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. As his descendants, we are answerable for his disobedience. In a genetic sense, we were all present within Adam when he sinned against God, and as a result, Adam’s guilt was, in a sort of genealogical way, passed on to all succeeding generations.
For a theology built upon God’s need to re-establish moral order, original sin is a very useful doctrine. Holding all human beings collectively, as a group, to be culpable for the initial dishonor done to God by Adam, keeps the moral scenario nice and tidy. It makes the human race easier to deal with. Righting the scales of justice would be a lot messier if God had to deal with us as billions of individuals. It is not hard to see that people vary greatly in the degree of their moral goodness or badness. Restoring the moral beauty of the universe to some absolutely perfect balance would be trickier if God had to work with some who were completely corrupt, and others who were basically good moral folk, and all those who fall somewhere in between. Given Augustine’s view of what God needs to accomplish, it is theologically and philosophically much tidier to declare the entire human race to be, as Augustine does, in “Ad Simplicianum,” a massa peccati—one big, single lump of sin. Also, this lumping together of humanity fits well with Augustine’s understanding of why God created human beings. As we saw earlier, Augustine teaches that human beings exist because the orderly completeness of God’s universe requires it. The cosmos must contain a creature which can sin against God, if it so wills. That means that God does not need for specific human beings to exist, He just needs their kind of being in His universe. Scholars frequently point out that for all of its importance in His grand scheme of things, the scriptural foundation for Augustine’s original sin doctrine is frail. It rests on the questionable exegesis, and in a couple of cases, the mistranslation of just five biblical passages: Psalm 50:5 (Septuagent numbering —it is 51:5 in the more common Hebrew numbering), Job 14:4-5, John 3:5, Romans 5:12, and Ephesians 2:3. Philosophers recognize that Augustine leans more heavily upon the stoics, than upon the scriptures. The stoics held a doctrine called Seminal Reasons, which very briefly, is a belief that all existing things pre-exist as potentials in the fundamental patterns and principles that govern the various forms which matter can take. Augustine’s original sin doctrine seems just a Christianized version of this teaching. Because the potential existence of each human being was in Adam’s semen, Augustine concludes that each individual is Adam.
As I pointed out, many philosophers and theologians question Augustine’s exegesis of the scriptures on which he bases this doctrine, and in fact, there are scriptures that seem to repudiate the teaching. The doctrine of original sin holds that we are all punishable for Adam’s sin, yet as we read in II Kings 14:6, God commands Israel that, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers, but a person shall be put to death for his own sin.”
Despite this, the doctrine of original sin seems, for many Christians, the only logical explanation as to why all of us—all of Adam’s descendants—die. To them, it seems that just as God punished Adam with death, so He punishes all his progeny with the same fate. It does not matter what sort of life we lead. From the moment we are born, we are bound for death. Even infants, who have had no opportunity to sin, themselves, sometimes die. Certainly, these Christians insist, God must have some justification for this, and to them, the most reasonable explanation seems to be that God does hold us all culpable, and punishable, for the sin of our forefather, Adam.
The flaw with this view of things, is that it is founded on a serious misunderstanding of what happened in the Garden of Eden, and we will talk about that next time.