The doctrine of original sin was no invention of St. Augustine, though the Bishop of Hippo did much to elaborate this dogma. We have already seen rudiments of the doctrine in Judaism, with a clearer articulation in St. Paul's epistle to the Romans. St. Augustine only entered the controversy in the fifth century, in response to Pelagius' attacks on the doctrine, which was already widely accepted at that time. Indeed, many important Church Fathers from the second century onward had already written of original sin, as we shall show. The Church's perennial custom of infant baptism reflected a common Christian belief that all are born in sin, even before one commits personal sin. We shall examine these early witnesses to the doctrine of original sin, and determine which aspects of the dogma had been articulated before St. Augustine made his synthesis.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons, of the second Christian generation after the Apostles, wrote in Adversus Haereses that the Mosaic Law did not hinder the Jews from believing in the Son of God, but exhorted them to do so,
...saying that men can be saved in no other way from the old wound of the serpent than by believing in Him who, in the likeness of sinful flesh, is lifted up from the earth upon the tree of martyrdom, and draws all things to Himself, and vivifies the dead. (Adv. Haer., IV, 2, 8)
St. Irenaeus makes a connection between man's sinful state and "the old wound of the serpent" in Genesis. Like St. Paul, he sees the healing of that ancient wound in Christ's redemptive passion and death, which is received through faith. Those who are dead in sin become vivified through union with Christ.
Later in the same work, the bishop of Lyons draws clear contrasting parallels between the Fall and the Redemption. First, as Adam disobeyed with regard to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so Christ was perfectly obedient when He hung upon a tree. Just as the virgin Eve was misled by a wicked angel in the form of a serpent, causing her to flee from God, so the Virgin Mary received the truth by the word of an angel, and came to obey God.
And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. For in the same way the sin of the first created man receives amendment by the correction of the First-begotten, and the coming of the serpent is conquered by the harmlessness of the dove, those bonds being unloosed by which we had been fast bound to death. (Adv. Haer., V, 19)
This is a perfectly lucid declaration of the doctrine of original sin, written more than two centuries before St. Augustine. The universal sin that Christ redeems is identified with the original sin of Adam and Eve. Not only do we see the traditional Jewish belief that death is a consequence of the first sin, but there is also an explicit statement that the sin of the first created man (protoplasti) is amended by Christ's redemption. The bondage to sin is ended by the coming of the dove, or Holy Spirit.
Baptism is the means by which a person first receives the Holy Spirit and becomes free from the bondage of sin. Through baptism, one joins the people of God, so baptism is effectively the circumcision for Christians, as St. Paul said. Like circumcision, baptism was conferred even upon infants. There are references to the conversion of entire households in the New Testament, and there is no indication among the earliest Christian authors that baptism ought to be denied on account of age. Indeed, Origen wrote that infant baptism was an established custom of the Church in his day (AD 244, Homilies on Leviticus 8:3:11).
In North Africa, a controversy arose regarding whether an infant may be baptized sooner than the eighth day, which was the time of circumcision in the Old Law. St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) and sixty-five fellow bishops met in council (AD 253), reaffirming as Church tradition that no-one should be denied baptism on account of age. St. Cyprian, who is revered as a Father of the Church both in the East and in the West, wrote an epistle explaining the decision, in the process expounding traditional views on the efficacy of baptism.
St. Cyprian affirms (Ep. 58 ) with his fellow bishops "that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man." He grounds this right in the "divine and spiritual equality" of all men, who "are like and equal, since they have once been made by God." The Holy Spirit may be received without distinction by anyone, regardless of age, as God shows Himself to be equally the Father of all.
Paraphrasing Cyprian's argument, Jewish circumcision was but a form and figure of what was fulfilled in truth by Christ. The eighth day of circumcision signified the day after the Sabbath when Christ would rise, ushering in the new creation and the circumcision of the spirit, or baptism. Once this figure was actually fulfilled by Christ's resurrection, there was no longer a need for the figure of the eighth day, as the truly effective circumcision, baptism, was now available to all. It would thus be a step backward to constrain the administration of baptism with the custom of Jewish circumcision, which is only a figure of the truth that baptism fulfills. This style of argument concerning the relation between Jewish and Christian rites was ubiquitous among early Christians, from St. Paul through the Fathers, so Cyprian is not advancing anything novel.
St. Cyprian approaches the heart of the matter when he notes that baptism is administered even to those who have committed heinous sins, so it would be inconsistent to deny God's grace to infants who have committed no personal sin:
...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 ó that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.
The only sin that a newborn infant has to be remitted is not his own, but that of Adam. Here we have an unequivocal declaration of a supposedly Augustinian doctrine more than a century before St. Augustine, uttered by a saint revered as a pillar of orthodoxy among the Greeks. Indeed, an infant's need for remission of sins in baptism would be inexplicable if personal sin alone were remitted. St. Cyprian, expressing the faith of the Church since St. Paul, describes the original sin remitted in baptism as "the contagion of the ancient death," which is contracted by virtue of "being born after the flesh according to Adam." Here we have all the basic elements of the Catholic doctrine of original sin. It is truly a sin, the sin of Adam, yet it is to be remitted even in Adam's descendants who do not share in his guilt. It is a "contagion" or stain that corrupts human nature, leading to death, and it is transmitted by natural generation according to the flesh.
St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368), renowned for his doctrine and his zealous opposition to heresy, is another Patristic witness to the doctrine of original sin. In his commentary on the 118th Psalm (119th by modern reckoning), he wrote regarding Christ's flesh:
Having been sent in a flesh in the likeness of that of sin, He did not have sin in the same way that He had flesh. But as all flesh comes from sin, that is, it derives from the sin of Adam the progenitor, He has been sent in a flesh similar to that of sin, because in Him sin does not subsist, but the image of sinful flesh.
St. Hilary makes the strong statement that all human flesh derives from Adam's sin. Christ has flesh in the likeness of sinful human flesh, yet there is no sin in Him since He was not conceived by natural generation or descent from Adam. This identification between natural generation and the inheritance of Adam's sin is made clearer when the saint comments on verse 175 of the same psalm ("My soul will live and will praise you"). St. Hilary says, "The psalmist considers [himself] to not have life in this life, as he has said, 'Behold, I have been conceived in iniquity and my mother has given birth to me in guilt.' [Ps. 50:7] He knows [himself] to have been born from an origin of sin and under the law of sin." Natural generation is the means by which man receives the iniquity and guilt of Adam, and comes to live under the law of sin. Somehow, Adam's descendants receive the guilt of Adam's sin, though the sin is properly Adam's.
The Fathers of the East were by no means silent on the issue of original sin; St. Gregory of Nazianzus (325-389) in particular expounded the doctrine in some detail. He observed that Adam had been placed in paradise with the gift of free will, and a commandment for his will to act upon. This commandment forbade touching the Tree of Knowledge, which St. Gregory theorizes (but does not assert as doctrine) may have been Divine Contemplation, which man may not seek prematurely lest he fall into ruin. Misled by Eve and the serpent, Adam forgot the commandment, and St. Gregory laments his own weakness, "for that of my first father was mine." The same weakness by which Adam sinned also exists in his descendants. The punishment for Adam's sin is banishment from paradise, and the putting on of coats of skins, which St. Gregory speculates may be the coarser, mortal flesh that opposes the spirit, as evidenced by Adam's shame. Yet St. Gregory sees mercy in the fact that banishment from paradise entails death, guaranteeing that sin will not be immortal.
As the sins of men grew worse, despite numerous chastisements (which St. Gregory sees as merciful, as God always punishes in mercy), a more perfect remedy was needed, so the Word "took on Him flesh for the sake of our flesh, and mingled Himself with an intelligent soul for my soulís sake, purifying like by like; and in all points except sin was made man." (Oration 38) Following St. Paul, St. Gregory preaches that those who died in Adam might live in Christ. "For where sin abounded grace did much more abound, and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify us?"
Baptism is the ordinary means by which a person enters the new life in Christ. This new creation is...
...a restoration of the image which had fallen through sin, that we may not, by becoming worse through despair... fall altogether from good and from virtue... but... we should be enabled to accomplish the rest of the road fresh and full of courage.
Such is the grace and power of baptism; not an overwhelming of the world as of old, but a purification of the sins of each individual, and a complete cleansing of all the bruises and stains of sin. (Oration XXXIII)
The power of baptism is described exactly as in modern Catholic doctrine. The only pertinent question remaining is: Do all people need this cleansing? Are even infants without personal sin, or virtuous heathens ignorant of the Gospel, in need of this purification? The answer depends on the effect of Adam's sin on his posterity, abstracted from their personal sins.
St. Gregory, in his Oration on Baptism, implores Christians not to delay in receiving baptism, as many did so that they might have all their sins remitted immediately prior to death. St. Gregory says baptism does more than remit sins, but it cultivates the gift of the new creation, the reward of the kingdom of heaven beginning in the present life. "For to men of little soul it is a great thing to escape torment; but men of great soul aim also at attaining reward." Baptism saves man from damnation, but does not necessarily guarantee the reward of heaven, for it is a poor service to postpone devotion to God to one's old age, and dangerous as well.
In his exhortations not to postpone baptism, St. Gregory addresses the issue of baptizing infants. "Have you an infant child? Do not let sin get any opportunity, but let him be sanctified from his childhood; from his very tenderest age let him be consecrated by the Spirit." Later (part XXVIII), he says that even children who are "conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace" are to be baptized, if they are in danger of death, using the rite of circumcision as a precedent. Otherwise, they should be baptized around the age of three, when they have at least a basic understanding of the sacrament.
St. Gregory acknowledges that not all who fail to receive the gift of baptism do so out of wickedness. He distinguishes three kinds of unbaptized people who are at least aware of the sacrament. The first kind "are altogether animal or bestial, according as they are either foolish or wicked;" these have no reverence for the gift of baptism, and their neglect is culpable. "Others know and honor the gift, but put it off; some through laziness, some through greediness." A third group is not in a position to receive it, either because they are infants whose parents have not requested baptism, or because of coercion or some other involuntary circumstance. St. Gregory opines that the first group will be punished not only for their sins, but for their contempt of baptism, while the second group will be punished less, since they were guilty more of folly than of wickedness. The third group "will be neither glorified nor punished by the righteous Judge, as unsealed and yet not wicked, but persons who have suffered rather than done wrong." For St. Gregory, the desire of baptism is not equal to the reception of baptism, any more than one disposed to murder is counted as a murderer. The desire for glorification is not itself glorification, so even those of the third group may not be glorified in heaven. Nonetheless, he also denies that they are punished, leaving them in a state akin to what would later be called limbo.
St. Basil the Great of Caesarea (329-379) was among the most highly influential of the Greek Fathers, being responsible for our Trinitarian formula of three hypostases in one ousia. A literalist interpreter of Genesis, he sought to receive humbly from revelation rather than impose an allegorical scheme of human devising onto Scripture. In his homily on fasting, St. Basil explained the fast as originating in the Garden of Eden.
In Paradise fasting was established by law. The first order that Adam received was: You shall not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. "You shall not eat" is the fast: the constitutive beginning of the law. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not have need of this fast. "It is not the healthy who have need of the physician but the sick." We are sick through sin and we will be cured by penitence. Penitence without fasting is empty. "The cursed land produces thorns and thistles." You have been commanded to become sorrowful, or perhaps to rejoice?... We are fallen from Paradise because we have not fasted. Let us fast, therefore, and we will return.
This discourse touches on several points directly related to original sin. Man is cast out of paradise by virtue of the sin of our first parents. The first sin is the cause of us being sick with sin and in need of redemption. Had Adam and Eve not sinned, we would not need redemption through penitence. We are in some sense born subject to the sin of the first man, as we suffer a penalty for that sin, namely the sickness of sin and need for redemption. All this reiterates the basic Christian doctrine of original sin as articulated by St. Paul, but St. Basil does not elaborate on how this sin is transmitted save to say that we are sick with that sin. Nonetheless, St. Basil does clearly identify our sickness as sin, and not a mere concupiscence or inclination.
St. John Chrysostom (347-407), the most illustrious Greek Father and Bishop of Constantinople, expounded on the topic of baptism and its effects in his Homily to Neophytes (or Catechumens). Like St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. John exhorts believers not to postpone baptism until old age or the hour of death. Indeed, as one of the principal effects of baptism is illumination, it would be useless to administer the sacrament to one who is unconscious.
For he who is about to approach these holy and dread mysteries must be awake and alert, must be clean from all cares of this life, full of much self-restraint, much readiness; he must banish from his mind every thought foreign to the mysteries, and on all sides cleanse and prepare his home, as if about to receive the king himself. (I, 2)
St. John believes this preparation for baptism is necessary because baptism does not merely remit sins, but is also a "laver of regeneration" (Titus 3:5) and an "illumination" (Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:32), among many other things. St. John regards the name "laver of regeneration" as most explicitly defining the effect of baptism. This laver truly cleans the soul from all its past defilements, whether fornication or idolatry or any other ill, so that even the most wicked man "comes up again from the divine fountain purer than the sun's rays." (I, 3) This purification is attested by St. Paul, who says to former fornicators and idolaters, "And such some of you were. But you are washed: but you are sanctified: but you are justified: in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:11). St. John observes that the Apostle does not merely say that sinners were cleansed of their sins, but they were even made holy and just. Such is the power of baptism that it makes men righteous "without toil, and exertion, and good works." (I, 3) Baptism is not merely a laver of remission of sins, but a laver of regeneration, because it does not simply remove sins, but creates something holy in its place.
For it does not simply wipe the vessel clean, but entirely remolds it again. For that which is wiped clean, even if it be cleaned with care, has traces of its former condition, and bears the remains of its defilement, but that which falls into the new mould, and is renewed by means of the flames, laying aside all uncleanness, comes forth from the furnace, and sends forth the same brilliancy with things newly formed. (I, 3)
The newly created holiness serves to make subsequent struggles against temptation easier. In particular, the baptized has hope in the resurrection, and, fearing neither death nor disease nor poverty, becomes less susceptible to the craving of worldly goods. (II, 1)
Baptism is the putting on of Christ as a raiment (Galatians 3:27). The baptized becomes a friend of Christ (John 15:15), and even a brother to Christ (Romans 8:29) as a fellow child of God. This level of intimacy is often expressed as being members of Christ's very Body. However we express it, it is clear that baptism entails a close union with Christ, whose holiness we receive. St. John implores catechumens, out of reverence for the holy gift they will receive, to correct their moral habits prior to baptism.
For the laver is able to remit former sins, but there is no little fear, and no ordinary danger lest we return to them, and our remedy become a wound. For by how much greater the grace is, by so much is the punishment more for those who sin after these things. (II, 2)
Repentance, which entails renouncing evil habits, ought to precede baptism. St. John does not see the laver as magically removing our inclination to sin, but as remitting past sins. The resolution to renounce the life of sin ought to be made before baptism, for sins after baptism are graver on account of the fact that we have received much divine favor, yet continue to defy God. St. John encourages catechumens to amend their lives through the exertion of self-discipline.
Away with the habit, in order that you may not return to it, after baptism. The laver causes the sins to disappear. Correct your habits, so that when the colors are applied, and the royal likeness is brought out, you may no more wipe them out in the future; and add damage and scars to the beauty which has been given you by God.
I wish you to know chiefly of all, that the Christian, and faithful man, no one is able to injure in regard to the soul, not even the devil himself; and not only is this wonderful, that God has made us inaccessible to all his designs, but that he has constituted us fit for the practice of virtue, and there is no hinderance, if we will, even though we be poor, weak in body, outcast, nameless, bondservants.
It is through the exercise of the will informed by grace that the faithful man amends his life, for not even the devil can take away this freedom to do good, nor can any bodily infirmity prevent grace from entering the soul. The practice of natural virtue depends not on baptism, but is in fact a necessary precursor to its dignified reception. Before entering the service of Christ, we must renounce service to Satan. Then Christ will join us through baptism as our co-combatant and restore us as children of God. (II, 3-5)
St. John Chrysostom sees baptism as having the effect of remitting sins and uniting the baptized with Christ, restoring our status as sons of God. In this regeneration we are freed from death. St. John does not elaborate the doctrine of original sin beyond the Pauline account, but he does attest that baptism does not remove concupiscence; rather, sinful habits are voluntarily renounced prior to baptism.
Ambrose of Milan (340-397) was a saint among saints, a towering figure who commanded the respect of emperors, kings and bishops, a man who was conversant in both worldly and spiritual affairs. It is no small concern to ascertain what this most esteemed of patriarchs had to say on the question of original sin. In his Exposition of the Gospel according to St. Luke, he writes:
We can see the flesh and the spirit divided from the odor, touch and taste of luxury, separating themselves in one house from the opposing vices and subjecting themselves to the Law of God and removing themselves from the law of sin, and their dissension turned to nature through the transgression of the first man, so that they could not agree with each other in equal zeal for virtue; yet through the Cross of the Lord our Saviour, who made void the enmities as well as the Law of the commandments, they accorded in mutual harmony after Christ our peace, descending from heaven, made both one.
St. Ambrose is commenting on Luke 12:52: "From now on, a house of five will be divided three against two..." The saint finds the spiritual significance of this verse to be that the flesh and the spirit (two) were divided from the "odor, touch and taste of luxury" (three). Before the coming of Christ, the flesh and spirit could not agree with each other to pursue virtue. Now, through Christ's redemptive sacrifice, flesh and spirit are made one, so that they agree to remove themselves from the law of sin and subject themselves to the Law of God. St. Ambrose's thinking is faithful to the teaching of St. Paul, who perceived that there is a law in our flesh that is opposed to the spirit. This disharmony is healed through Christ, so that flesh and spirit are united in opposition to the law of sin. While St. Ambrose's interpretation of Luke 12:52 does not constitute an act of the universal magisterium, his teaching about the opposition between the flesh and the spirit does not depend on his construction of this verse. Quite the contrary, he presents the doctrine as something already known, and uses it to interpret the verse.
St. Ambrose gives an even clearer testimony to the doctrine of original sin in the same commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke. He writes:
Reason is the food of the mind, and a noble and sweet nourishment, which does not burden the body, and changes not into something shameful in nature, but into something glorious, when the wallowing place of lust is changed into the temple of God, and the inn of vices begins to be the shrine of virtues. This takes place when the flesh, returning to its nature, recognizes the nurse of its strength and, putting aside the boldness of its obstinacy, is joined to the will of the regulating soul - such as it was when it received the secrets of dwelling in paradise, before it was infected with the poison of the pestilent Serpent and knew that wicked hunger, and through gluttonous greed brushed aside the memory of the divine commandment which inhered in the senses of the soul. It is hence, we are told, that sin flowed from body and soul as though from its parents; the nature of the body being tempted, the soul suffered with the body's disorderly health. For, if it had restrained the appetite of the body, the soul would have destroyed in its very beginning the origin of sin; but the soul, in its now corrupt vigor, heavy with burdens not its own, gave birth to sin as though in an evil pregnancy by the action of the male, the body. [Emphasis added]
Again, the bishop speaks of a tension between a law of the spirit and a law of the flesh. A rightly ordered rational soul elevates our carnal nature, so that our body becomes a temple of God instead of an "inn of vices". He expounds that when this happens, the flesh is actually returning to its true nature, recognizing the spirit as the nurse of its strength, and submitting to the rational soul, much as it did in the paradise of Eden. The conflict that we observe between the flesh and the spirit is a consequence of Adam's fall. At the serpent's prompting, the first man learned to follow the gluttonous appetites of the flesh in opposition to the law of God. St. Ambrose, like some other early Fathers, adopted a strictly literal interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden, holding that Adam's sin really was a matter of gluttony for a particular forbidden food. It is not germane to St. Ambrose's argument whether the sin was gluttony for food or some other sin, as long as we acknowledge there was an aspect to it that involved some disordered carnal appetite.
St. Ambrose regards it as received tradition ("we are told") that after Adam's error, sin flowed from both body and soul. First the flesh was tempted, and then the soul suffered with the body's disorder. It was indeed common doctrine among early Christians that the disorders of the body, including the inclinations to lust, gluttony, sickness and death, were a consequence of Adam's sin, and in this they did not differ much from the Jews. Yet where the Jews considered only death to be a direct consequence of Adam's sin, while the other maladies of the flesh were only occasioned by it, Christians considered all carnal defects to be direct consequences of the Fall. This was because of St. Paul's doctrine that all sin entered the world through Adam and all flesh shall be restored in Christ. Those who are eternally joined to the body of Christ shall no longer know sickness, death or carnal sin, for their nature has been restored to what it was originally. While the Jews also believed in an exalted natural state for the first man and in the subsequent natural depravity of humanity (though admixed with an inclination to good), most of them were loath to draw the inference that the latter state was caused by Adam's sin. St. Paul made this inference explicit, and subsequent Christian thinking was bound to admit it, consistent as it was with all apostolic teaching.
Yet St. Ambrose goes beyond the received tradition that we have received sin in body and soul because of Adam, and offers a counterfactual supposition. He claims that, if Adam had controlled his carnal appetite, "the soul would have destroyed in its very beginning the origin of sin." This seems to be a logical inference from the fact that sin entered the world through Adam's fall. If this is the case, then it would seem that sin would have been killed in the womb, so to speak, if Adam had been able to control his appetite. This counterfactual, of course, leaves unanswered the questions of whether Adam might not have been tempted again, or how it was that his soul was unable to control his appetite, or why his appetite inclined him contrary to the law of God.
More significantly, St. Ambrose speaks of the actually fallen soul as being in "corrupt vigor, heavy with burdens not its own". That is, the appetites of the flesh have been permitted to corrupt the soul itself, so that it is now inclined against the law of God. He offers the analogy of an "evil pregnancy" to explain how the body and soul combined to give birth to sin. To understand the analogy, it must be understood that the ancients considered that the moral state of the parents could affect the disposition of an unborn child. Thus a father who had committed an evil deed might impart a bad seed to the mother, and an evil pregnancy would result. It is not necessary for this notion to be biologically correct, since it is only used here as an analogous illustration. The father who has done evil represents the body, while the pregnant mother represents the soul. The mother or soul gives birth to sin not because she is intrinsically corrupt, but has become burdened or corrupted by the influence of the bad seed, which is the flesh with disordered appetite. In short, Adam's soul gave birth to sin (which must arise from spirit, not flesh, since sin is necessarily voluntary) because it had become tainted by the disordered appetites of the flesh it had failed to master. From this point onward, the soul would retain this corruption.
Here we see, in its clearest form yet, "Augustinianism" before Augustine. Human nature, both carnal and spiritual, is corrupted after the Fall. St. Ambrose derives this thesis from principles already found in the New Testament and in the Latin Catholic tradition. It is entirely wrongheaded, then, to attribute this doctrine to the personality of St. Augustine, much less to his former adherence to Manichaeism, as many modern scholars have done. In this, they unwittingly imitate the error of the bishop Julian, who was refuted by St. Augustine with extensive citations of the Church Fathers such as those we have discussed.
St. Ambrose also comments on the effect of baptism, which remits the sin inherited from Adam. In his treatise On the Mysteries, he explains why the baptized have their feet washed after baptism. The relevant Scripture is John 13:8-10, where Jesus approaches Peter to wash his feet.
Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well." Jesus said to him, "Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over, so you are clean, but not all." (John 13:8-10)
St. Ambrose, like many of the Church Fathers, interprets this passage as referring to baptism, and with good reason, for the word translated as "bathed" is used in reference to baptism elsewhere in the New Testament. Clearly this passage is the basis of the old Latin custom of washing the feet of the baptized after baptism. The reply of Jesus in verse 10 is puzzling, taken literally, for he acknowledges that Peter is clean all over, so he does not need to have his other body parts washed, yet he does need to have his feet washed. St. Ambrose solves the puzzle by appealing to the spiritual sense of the passage, which refers to baptism.
Peter was clean, but he must wash his feet, for he had sin by succession from the first man, when the serpent overthrew him and persuaded him to sin. His feet were therefore washed, that hereditary sins might be done away, for our own sins are remitted through baptism. (VI, 32)
To understand this passage, we must recall that St. Ambrose is discussing adult baptism. When adults are baptized, their personal sins committed throughout their life are considered remitted after being baptized (literally, "immersed") in water. The additional custom of washing the feet reflected the need to also wash away hereditary sins, i.e., sins that come from the root, represented by the feet. St. Ambrose's characterization of original sin is, if anything, stronger than St. Augustine's, since he explicitly speaks of sins that are inherited, rather than merely a "stain" or weakening of nature resulting from Adam's sin.
We can now summarize St. Ambrose's overall position, which may serve as a starting point for a discussion of the thought of St. Augustine, whom he mentored. Man in his original state was without sin, yet through the prompting of the serpent, he chose to pursue a disordered carnal appetite contrary to the Law of God. This failure to control the flesh gave birth to sin in Adam's soul, so that henceforth it would have a natural inclination to sin. All of Adam's descendants inherited such inclinations or tendencies to sin, which might themselves be called hereditary sins. Before the coming of Christ, the spirit and the flesh were often at odds with each other, as they did not have an equal desire for virtue, and the flesh was no longer obedient to the rational soul. With Christ's redemptive sacrifice, it is now possible for man to return to his original natural state, with the flesh being subject to the soul. This is accomplished first through baptism, which remits all the sins a man has committed during his life, so he is no longer bound by them. The last part of baptism, the washing of the feet, signifies that even the aforementioned hereditary sins are remitted.
This talk of hereditary sins may raise an objection, since it would seem that we are born culpable for crimes that Adam committed. It will need to be expounded in what sense the corrupted nature inherited from Adam can be considered sin, as well as in what sense baptism can be said to remit this sin. This must be done in a way that is consistent with Christian revelation and involves no injustice. In particular, our doctrine ought to respect the just principle that we are culpable only for offenses that we have committed voluntarily.
Although we have shown that there is a strong universal Patristic tradition that man has inherited a corrupt, sinful nature from Adam, there is an equally strong tradition of human free will in Christianity. St. Paul, who taught that men are saved through Christ's gift of redemption from Adam's sin, (Rom. 5:1-21; Tit. 3:5) also proclaimed that men are judged according to their works. (Rom. 2:6, 2 Cor. 11:15) Indeed, all moral teaching and exhortation is predicated on the assumption that man has a free moral agency, which can be persuaded or dissuaded with respect to virtue and vice. If original sin is a doctrine that is worthy of Christian belief, it should be possible to reconcile it with basic principles of morality and justice.
Continue to Part III
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