4.1 Theological Method
4.2 De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione (412)
4.2.1 Death as Punishment for Sin
4.2.2 Inherited Corruptibility
4.2.3 Need for Infant Baptism
4.2.4 Fate of Unbaptized Infants
4.2.5 Carnal Desire and Original Sin
4.2.1 All Sinned in Adam
4.3 Other Early Anti-Pelagian Writings
4.4 St. Jerome's Dialogi contra Pelagianos
4.5 On the Grace of Christ, and On Original Sin (418)
4.5.1 Necessity of Grace in Volition and Action
4.5.2 Original Sin as Central Christian Doctrine
4.5.3 The Mass of Perdition
In his anti-Pelagian writings, St. Augustine frequently had recourse to the traditional doctrine of original sin, and saw a need to defend and explain it. In the course of these theological elaborations, he attempted to define more precisely how original sin affected human nature and why sanctifying grace was necessary to remove its stain. These explanations were not themselves received doctrines, though in many cases they were logical consequences of the Church's tradition. We ought to distinguish, therefore, between the traditional doctrines declared at Carthage in 418 and the explications of these doctrines found in St. Augustine's writings. This does not mean that Augustinian soteriology is an invention or construction, for we find that it is generally well grounded in Scripture and Tradition. It is for this reason, more than any cultural idiosyncrasy, that St. Augustine's teaching on original sin was consistently and universally received throughout Latin Christendom.
Much, but not all, of St. Augustine's soteriolgical teaching has subsequently been defined as doctrine by the Catholic Church, especially at the Council of Trent (5th and 6th sessions). Some teachings, though lacking the status of dogmas, have become dominant theological opinions among Catholics. These developments have widened the rift between East and West, as the Orthodox do not admit these doctrines as formal dogmas, and in some cases even reject them. This disagreement frequently has much to do with a lack of familiarity with the other's vocabulary and usage, as well as cultural hostility. In the course of confessional polemics, some Orthodox appear to disparage the ability and authority of St. Augustine, which is strange in light of how widely acclaimed he was in the East during his own lifetime. We must keep in mind, however, that the saint's anti-Pelagian writings were not circulated among the Greeks, so from their perspective, the Augustinian doctrine of original sin seems to be a late, post-Patristic development. Couple this perception with the post-schism Orthodox aversion to any form of doctrinal development, and we can better understand why the Augustinian teachings have not been received by the East.
Still, when properly understood, much of St. Augustine's teaching is just a logical explication of what was already accepted by Christians of the East and the West. Some of his speculations, admittedly, have not held up well or lead to implausible consequences. Yet if we take into account the sheer volume of his writing on this subject and its apologetic context, we will find that on the whole the Church is indebted to the saintly bishop of Hippo for elucidating her doctrines in terms and theses that the authentic magisterium has seen fit to declare as dogmas of faith.
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St. Augustine's approach to theology is predominantly Biblical, as opposed to being grounded in abstract considerations. He does not worry too much about philosophical claims (except to answer objections), nor about analysis of the original languages of Scripture or the human intentions of the inspired authors. He does sometimes appeal to the original Greek, not to oppose the Latin, but to clarify a reading. Even here he never makes his interpretation dependent on a particular translation. For St. Augustine, the Bible speaks with a coherent voice, and it is licit to compare statements across books written by different human authors and expect consistency of intent, since they are all authored by the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that the text of Scripture should be seen as mere dictation taken by various holy stenographers. On the contrary, St. Augustine is attentive to the person who authored a particular book, be it Moses, a prophet, or an apostle. In fact, the authority of Scripture derives largely from the favored status of the author as inspired by God. The New Testament canon was determined mainly by judgments as to which books or letters were authentic writings of the Apostles.
St. Augustine's Bible-based approach to theology does not suppose a naive literalism in the interpretation of every text. When he departs from a plain literal reading, he justifies this not with a philosophical thesis, but by comparison with other Biblical texts, and the supposition of an underlying unity of divine authorship. He does not believe an inspired author's choice of words is ever casual or accidental, much less is anything said in vain. The reader can hardly help but be impressed with the saint's staggering Biblical knowledge, and his facility with citing verses from even the more obscure minor prophets. Unlike many modern theologians with this ability, however, St. Augustine does not simply mine for verses to support an argument, but interprets each quotation in its context in order to determine its true intent. He interprets the Bible the way a conscientious originalist might interpret the Constitution. He does not presume to decide whether a doctrine is fair or unfair according to some philosophical ethic. For him it suffices to ascertain what the Scripture asserts, and that decides the doctrinal matter. When possible, he does take care to answer philosophical objections, but often he will simply admit humility before the mystery of faith and enjoin fellow Christians to do likewise. It is not the task of the theologian or exegete to explain the "why" of everything God demands, but to expound "what" God asserts in Scripture.
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St. Augustine did not take up the pen against Pelagius until after the latter's disciple Coelestius had been condemned at Carthage in 411. The bishop of Hippo did not attend this council, so he can hardly be considered an initiator of anti-Pelagianism. On the contrary, it is consistent with his life's work that St. Augustine only dared to assert what was received tradition as expressed through high ecclesiastical authority. Though he was famed for his writing, his was not the most important see in North Africa, so he deferred to the judgment of regional councils. His genius was not in developing new doctrine, but in expounding doctrines already believed, so that they could be defended on rational grounds against heretics. For this stalwart orthodoxy, he was greatly esteemed in the East as well as the West.
In De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione (412), St. Augustine argues first that bodily death was a punishment for Adam's sin. For God reproved Adam thus: "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return." (Gen. 2:17) This clearly refers to bodily death, for it is the body, not the soul, that was made from dust. This does not mean that Adam's body was created in an incorruptible state, but only that, had he not sinned, he would have been permitted to pass into the incorruptible state promised to the saints without undergoing bodily death. Just as God preserved the clothes of the Israelites from wear during their wanderings (Deut. 29:5), He could certainly preserve Adam's body from wear until that time he should be allowed to pass from mortality to immortality. St. Augustine supposes that the body was sustained by the trees in the Garden of Eden, but he does not assert this as a teaching.
St. Augustine makes an important distinction, saying that Adam's body was always mortal, though he would not have died had he not sinned. He finds support for this distinction in St. Paul, who says that the body is "dead" because of sin, and the spirit of Christ shall quicken our "mortal" bodies. (Rom. 8:10) Here is a clear affirmation that bodily death is caused by sin, while at the same time asserting that Christ will deliver us not only from death, but also mortality. In Latin, this distinction is expressed by the words mortale (capable of death; mortal) and moriturus (destined to die). Adam, before he sinned, was mortale, but not moriturus. There is no contradiction here, since a man can be capable of sickness yet never actually get sick (as with those who die young); similarly, one could be capable of dying yet protected from actually dying. (I, 5)
It would also be consistent with Scripture if Adam had an immortal body before he sinned, but St. Augustine is conceding the most that Scripture will allow to the Pelagians. Ultimately, there is no Scriptural basis for their assertion that Adam was subject to death before he sinned, even if it be acknowledged that his body was physically mortal.
St. Augustine argues that sin was passed to Adam's descendants by propagation, not by imitation alone. (I, 10) He cites St. Paul's famous teaching that "By one man, sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so passed upon all men; in which all have sinned." (Rom. 5:12) If the sins of all men were attributed to imitation, the Apostle ought to have said, "by the devil," for the devil was the first example of sin. Clearly, the Apostle is referring to the fact that all men are descended from Adam, from which it follows that the punishment of death is passed through propagation. As for the words, "in which all have sinned," this could mean either that all have participated in Adam's sin, or that all have sinned in Adam, as being in communion with him. In either interpretation, there is no room for the Pelagian doctrine of imitation. We are really united in Adam or his sin by nature, just as we are justified in Christ through a real union. Thus no one claims to be justified in Paul or Peter by imitation, and nowhere does Scripture ever say man sinned "in the devil," though all sinners may be said to imitate him. In fact, St. Augustine later argues (I, 17), the devil would be a more appropriate subject of imitation, since he actually instigated Adam to sin, while Adam never induced anyone else to imitate to him.
St. Augustine explains that the law of nature and even the law of Moses were unable to remove the penalty of death, citing the Apostle: "Death reigned from Adam to Moses even over them who have not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression." (Rom. 5:14) Even those not guilty of personal sin were subject to the penalty of being denied eternal life. Some Latin manuscripts in Augustine's day read "those who have sinned after the similitude...", but he points out that the Greek originals do not have this reading. Still, even the variant reading does not compel the Pelagian doctrine of imitation, for it suggests only that Adam's descendants are created in his likeness, "not only as men born of a man, but as sinners born of a sinner, dying ones of a dying one, and condemned ones to a condemned one." (I, 13)
The Apostle, St. Augustine notes, contrasts sin with justification by saying "through the offense of one, many are dead," while the righteousness of one man, Christ, has forgiven many offenses. (Rom. 5:15) Again: "And not as it was by one the sinned, so is the gift, for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the grace is of many offences unto justification." (Rom. 5:16) If men sinned only by imitation of Adam, the Apostle should have said "through the offenses of many," and "by the many who have sinned". On the contrary, he goes out of his way to contrast how one sin caused many condemnations, while many sins were forgiven by one man, Christ. Thus, even if there were no sin but that of Adam, all would be condemned, were it not for God's grace.
From this it follows that those who do not receive the grace of Christ will be denied eternal life, which is the kingdom of God, since they will die in Adam's sin, which suffices for condemnation. Note that all that has been established is that there is no heavenly salvation for those who do not receive Christ's grace, not that such people are necessarily punished with anything worse than deprivation of eternal life. As a matter of intuitive justice, there is nothing problematic here, since only the most vain can believe that anyone deserves everlasting life in Heaven on one's own meager merits. For the natural man, there is only natural death, which is tragic, but not unjust. It is only by a free, undeserved gift from God, or grace, that man may be received into Heaven.
Here we come, with inexorable logic, to St. Augustine's first statement on the fate of unbaptized infants. He says, "It may therefore be correctly affirmed, that such infants as quit the body without being baptized will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all." (I, 21) By "condemnation," St. Augustine means only the denial of eternal life in Heaven, which no one born in Adam can deserve on his own merits. He is on sound Scriptural ground here, for the Apostle clearly says that one trespass brought many unto condemnation. (Rom. 5:16, 18) This does not mean that infants are subjected to any pains or tortures, and whenever St. Augustine ventures an opinion on this topic, it is always to emphasize the mildness of their suffering, if any. While the word "condemnation" sounds severe, as applied to infants it has little more than formal significance, meaning their relative deprivation with respect to the heavenly life they might have had, not that their actual fate will be especially onerous. To claim that this doctrine is opposed to justice would be to assert immodestly that everyone is born deserving eternal life by human nature unaided by supernatural grace.
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What exactly is this original sin inherited from Adam, which excludes his descendants from being fit for eternal life? St. Augustine speculates that Adam, by disobeying God, lost the grace whereby his body had been completely obedient to the soul. "Then there arose men in affections common to the brutes which are productive of shame, and which made man ashamed of his own nakedness." (I, 21) This may refer not only to sexual lust, but also other animal impulses such as violent anger, fear, and other perturbations of the soul induced by our bodily nature. It is not a compelling counterargument to assert that these animal passions are a perfectly natural part of being human, as if human beings were but a class of brute beasts. Regardless of our physiological constitution or evolutionary background, the presence of rationality in human nature creates the possibility of harmony or conflict between the body and the rational soul. St. Augustine posits that, by a supernatural gift, Adam was granted the ability to subject his body into full obedience to his rational will. It is only through such a supernatural gift that man may fully realize his proper nature, which is to be found in his rationality. This is the paradox of humanity, for we cannot be truly human unless we are able to transcend human nature. This accounts for why man alone, among all animals, is not altogether satisfied being what he is, and has long aspired to the heavens.
St. Augustine further speculates that, "by a certain disease which was conceived in men from a suddenly injected and pestilential corruption, it was brought about that they lost that stability of life in which they were created, and by reason of the mutations which they experienced in the stages of life, issued at last in death." (I, 21) Here he posits some physical agent that was introduced to trigger the degenerative processes of aging, which he assumes not to have been present before. Indeed, there must not have been degenerative aging in Adam if it was possible for him to avoid death indefinitely. This corruptibility is hereditary, as seems plain from the facts of nature. What is less obvious is that human corruptibility should require some special physical agent, rather than the same general causes underlying mortality in other animals.
In light of modern scientific understanding, a more tenable hypothesis is that human aging is caused, at least in part, by the same processes of cellular corruption common to all complex organisms. Adam's immunity from aging, in this view, would have to have been the result of a supernatural gift, and our present mortality is the result of this gift's absence. St. Augustine's speculation, by contrast, would make the human body naturally immortal in its creation, a claim for which we have no definite physical evidence, save perhaps the peculiar fact that human beings have much longer lifespans than their supposed evolutionary cousins. Since the mechanisms of aging in all animals are poorly understood, science cannot decide this issue, which at any rate is not essential to the doctrine being expounded.
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Those Christians who deny original sin fail to account for why the Church baptizes infants. St. Augustine regards it as abundantly evident that infants have committed no personal sin, so the only sin that baptism might remit is what they are born with by nature. If anyone should deny that any sin is remitted by infant baptism, he responds with the words of Christ, who "came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Lk. 5:31-32) If infants were already justified, it would be an impertinence to give them a baptism they do not need and to which Christ did not invite them.
Although they are guilty of no personal sin, infants are indeed included among the penitents invited by Christ. They are penitents in the same sense that they may be counted among the faithful, though they are not yet capable of moral acts. That is, they are called believers by virtue of the parents who profess on their behalf, and similarly they are repentant by virtue of the parents' vows by proxy to renounce the devil and this world. The infant will not fully benefit from baptism if he does not believe and repent of sin once he reaches the age of reason, but if he does, then the path of salvation is open to him, since original sin has been remitted, and "sins alone separate between men and God". (I, 25)
The Pelagians were aware of Christ's statement, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:5) This forced them into the position of saying that unbaptized infants merit salvation and eternal life, but not the kingdom of heaven, as if these were different things. St. Augustine presents, as evidence that eternal life is only for those who are baptized, the Lord's saying about the Eucharist: "Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye shall have no life in you." (John 6:53). The Eucharist, of course, is not received by the unbaptized.
Christ also says, "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, while he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him." (John 3:35-36) The Pelagians say that infants should be counted as neither believers nor unbelievers, since they cannot yet actually believe anything. "This, however, the rule of the Church does not indicate, for it joins baptized infants to the number of the faithful." (I, 28) If baptized infants are counted among the faithful by virtue of the sacrament's power, though they can profess nothing, "surely they who lacked the sacrament must be classed among those who do not believe the Son." Consequently, "they shall not have life, but the wrath of God abideth on them." Since they have no sins of their own, this fate must be the result of original sin.
Some clarification is in order here. As St. Augustine says, only sin causes separation from God. By this is meant an objective condition whereby man is incapable of communion with God in Heaven. It is not too difficult to perceive that man, as he is born of Adam, is unfit for heavenly communion with God. Even if he is guilty of no actual sin, his bestial inclinations have no place in Heaven. This is why St. Augustine assumes, without explicit Scriptural evidence, that Adam was without lust or any other brutish inclinations prior to his sin, insofar as such passions are incompatible with the heavenly life to which he was originally destined. As long as these passions and inclinations (collectively called "concupiscence") rule a man, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Baptism is a freely bestowed gift whereby this original sin is remitted, removing the barrier between man and God. It should be obvious to anyone but the vulgar that animalistic passions are utterly incompatible with the heavenly life. Those who are base enough to wish to cling to such carnality for all eternity are in no position to complain if they are denied admission to Heaven, for they are only denied a spiritual glory they do not desire.
Since salvation is a free gift that is merited by no one, it is an inscrutable mystery why some are saved and not others. God is generous and merciful to whom He wills, offering salvation to all, yet only some will receive it. The reason for saving some and not others may be hidden, "but it cannot be unjust" (I, 29), since no one is given worse than what he deserves, and God is free to bestow greater gifts on whomever He pleases. By similar reasoning, there is no injustice in the fact that only baptized infants are saved, since on the basis of merit alone, no one would be saved. Again, we should clarify that lack of heavenly salvation does not imply pains or torments. Once a Christian acknowledges that all salvation comes through unmerited divine graceand indeed, without this doctrine, there is not much of Christianitythen there is no basis for complaining that unbaptized infants are not saved on their own merits, any more than any other person. No one is entitled by birth to heavenly salvation, though Christ freely offers it to all. This can be difficult to accept in our day, when we are always inventing new rights and entitlements that we supposedly possess by virtue of being human.
Only the Son of God can deliver man from the sickness of sin. He came not for the healthy, but for the sick; not for the just, but for sinners. The doctrine expounded by St. Augustine is not intended to be detrimental to infants, but on the contrary acknowledges that Christ's salvific work extends even to them.
For who would dare to say that Christ is not the Saviour and Redeemer of infants? But from what does He save them, if there is no malady of original sin within them? From what does He redeem them, if through their origin from the first man they are not sold under sin? Let there be then no eternal salvation promised to infants out of our own opinion, without Christ’s baptism; for none is promised in that Holy Scripture which is to be preferred to all human authority and opinion. (I, 33)
St. Augustine is not being "stingy" with the salvation of infants, but rather he is keeping to a strictly Scriptural theology. The idea that unbaptized infants must be saved is not grounded in Scripture, but in sentiment and abstract ethical opinions, as well as a false assumption that lack of salvation necessarily involves pain or torment. A Christian should stick to what is known Scripturally, namely that all men are under sin, which entered the world through Adam and passed to his descendants, and that nothing can free us from this but the grace of God through Jesus Christ. (I, 33) If we acknowledge this, which is but a summary of the central truth of Christian redemption, then the Augustinian doctrine about infant salvation follows most naturally.
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After providing copious Biblical citations supporting the doctrines adduced, St. Augustine again returns to the theme of infant baptism when discussing the last judgment. At the resurrection of the dead, only some will be called to eternal life with God, while others will be subjected to the "second death." Only those who are justified in Christ are endowed with eternal life. "Nor is there any middle place for any man, and so a man can only be with the devil who is not with Christ." (I, 55) By "middle place," St. Augustine specifically means a place for unbaptised infants where "as if, by reason of their innocence, they were embraced in eternal life, but were not, because of their unbaptized state, with Christ in His kingdom." St. Augustine is perfectly correct to deny that there is eternal life outside of Christ's kingdom, so there cannot be a "middle place" in this sense. As for the seemingly harsh judgment that those who are not with Christ are with the devil, this is no more harsh than Christ's own words, "He that is not with me is against me." (Matt. 12:30)
Take then the case of any infant you please: If he is already in Christ, why is he baptized? If, however, as the Truth has it, he is baptized just that he may be with Christ, it certainly follows that he who is not baptized is not with Christ; and because he is not “with” Christ, he is “against” Christ; for He has pronounced His own sentence, which is so explicit that we ought not, and indeed cannot, impair it or change it. And how can he be “against” Christ, if not owing to sin? for it cannot possibly be from his soul or his body, both of these being the creation of God. Now if it be owing to sin, what sin can be found at such an age, except the ancient and original sin? (I, 55)
So far there is nothing expounded but what can be deduced from the core Christian teaching that Christ is the sole Mediator who can reconcile man to God, and that sin alone separates man from God. Yet not much has been said to specify the nature of this original sin, except that it is manifested in bestial desires.
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St. Augustine contrasts the sin of Eve, who trusted the serpent and was corrupted by desirethe fruit was a "delight to the eyes" (Gen. 3:6)with the Blessed Virgin's act of faith, whereby she "believed the angel and so conceived without desire (sine libidine)." (I, 56)
Here St. Augustine posits a broad notion of carnal desire, ranging from visual delight to sexual lust, encompassed by the Latin term libido. He seems to identify such desire or inclination with original sin, or at least as consequent to original sin. This identification of animal desires as sinful rather than proper to man creates an apparent difficulty for the African Doctor, as he must now explain why marriage, which was ordained from the Creation, is not to be considered sinful or at least consequent to sin.
St. Augustine resolves the conundrum by declaring that marriage is good because it makes good use of an evil thing, namely the passion of desire. Matrimony restrains a man's "concupiscence," so that he uses it for "the propagation of children, not the gratification of lust." (I, 57) While it is certainly debatable whether the propagation of children is the only good use of the marital act, we can hardly avoid admitting that sexual passions are to some degree not consonant with a holy life. Indeed, any vulgar hope that such passions have any place in the kingdom of heaven has been directly refuted by Christ: "For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven." (Matt. 22:30; also Mark 12:25) It was certainly not accidental that Christ, who would redeem the world from Adam's sin, was to be born of a virgin who conceived "not by the concupiscence of the flesh, but by the obedience of her mind." (I, 57) The Christian ideal of chastity was no invention of St. Augustine, but is rooted in the Annunciation. As if to confirm indirectly the necessity of chastity in Christ's kingdom, those who oppose Christianity invariably lapse into base sexual indulgence, notwithstanding their pretensions of enlightenment and rationality.
One reason carnal passions are inconsistent with holiness, apart from their gross indignity, is that they thwart obedience to God and the exercise of right reason. The Blessed Virgin conceived through an act of humble obedience, while Eve disobeyed God and her better nature by following carnal desires. The passions are unruly, and violently disturb the soul so that it is ruled by the body that ought to be its subject. The apparent disorder of this state of affairs undoubtedly influenced St. Augustine to suppose that, in Adam's original state, his body was completely subservient to his mind.
It is still not clear whether the passions are themselves sinful or concomitant with sin. St. Augustine, while defending the thesis that infants do not commit any personal sins, acknowledges that any superficially sinful acts they perform, such as striking one's mother or crying for attention, are done out of ignorance. People recognize this, which is why we do not resent infants, but on the contrary love them with a carnal affection, similar to that which makes us laugh at a joke. (I, 66)
Still, this ignorance, though not the fault of the infant, is an evil that needs to be removed. There can be sins of ignorance, as is proved by the Psalm: "Remember not the sins of my youth and of my ignorance." (Ps. 24:7) Why should an infant be born with the evil of ignorance? If it is simply man's nature to be born thus, though he is a rational creature, "then why was not Adam created thus?" (I, 67) St. Augustine suggests, only as an opinion, that this infirmity is penal. (I, 68) As evidence, he notes that human infants are far less capable than infant animals. Human babies are born with feet unfit for walking, and are not even capable of finding the mother's breast on their own. Even though humans are born with a rational soul, they seem to be the most ignorant at birth, as if the soul is oppressed by sinful flesh. St. Augustine expressly offers this only as speculation. (I, 69)
If infants come into this world with sinful flesh, then what is the effect of baptism? St. Augustine says that the sinful flesh is done away, but the innate concupiscence "is not removed all at once, so as to exist in it no longer; but only that that might not be injurious to a man at his death, which was inherent at his birth." (I, 70) Thus the baptized find that they still have to fight and overcome the flesh, or the "law of sin" in their members, of which the Apostle wrote. What is abolished is not the desire, but "whatever of evil has been done, said, or thought by a man whilst he was servant to a mind subject to its concupiscence, should be abolished, and regarded as if it had never occurred."
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[The second book of De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione does not concern us, as it deals with other aspects of Pelagianism.]
The third "book" is actually a letter to Marcellinus. Here St. Augustine revisits some anti-Pelagian arguments. He elaborates on the notion that "all sinned in Adam." The Scripture says, "in which all have sinned," (Rom 5:12) so it is not as though the original sin belongs to Adam alone. Rather, "all then sinned in Adam, when in his nature, by virtue of the innate power whereby he was able to produce them, they were all as yet the one Adam." Still, the original sin is Adam's in the sense that the descendants were not yet living their own lives. (III, 14)
St. Augustine's speculation here makes little sense in terms of modern biological knowledge, which teaches that genetic material is not entirely contained in the father. Still, his point would require only minor modification, since Eve had also sinned. Even in his own time, St. Augustine was aware of an objection, namely that this thesis would only affect propagation of the flesh. It was by no means generally accepted that the soul was also propagated, for many Christians held that it was specially created by God at conception. St. Augustine does not presume to decide the question if the soul is propagated, since there is no clear Scriptural evidence on the matter. On the assumption that it is not propagated, he notes, the Pelagian position is no less problematic, for why should a soul free from the contagion of sin be compelled in infants to endure passions and other fleshly torments? St. Augustine admits, nonetheless, that a solution cannot be demonstrated. (III, 18)
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St. Augustine's other early anti-Pelagian works deal only obliquely with the issues with which we are concerned, so we pass over them in brief summary.
De Spiritu et Littera (412) deals only with the possibility of life without sin. St. Augustine denies that this is possible without supernatural grace, against the Pelagian position that personal sin can be avoided completely (at least in principle) by natural human efforts.
De Natura et Gratia (415) addresses issues of present concern to us only in a few places. First, St. Augustine explains how nature can be vitiated by sin, even though sin is not a substance. For example, not eating can cause the body to languish, even though "not to eat" is not a substance. (DNG, 22) This answers the philosophical objection that only substances, not privations, can be efficient causes. It is not that the privation as such causes anything, but rather the removal of something beneficial enables something injurious to occur. In this way, sin, which is a privation, can effectively cause injury to our nature.
In another section, St. Augustine indicates that sin may sometimes be itself a penalty for sin. That is to say, once abandoned to sinful inclinations, a man commits more grievous sins, as St. Paul discusses in Romans 1:18-32. (DNG, 24)
The Blessed Virgin Mary is a possible exception to the rule that none are without sin, but this is due to an abundance of grace rather than natural effort. St. Augustine declines to inquire as to whether the Blessed Virgin was absolutely without sin, out of honor to the Lord. (42) Here we have an early witness to the belief that the Blessed Virgin was absolutely spotless, with the implication that she was free even from original sin. At the same time, we see why the early Fathers did not elaborate much Marian doctrine. This was not due to a lack of esteem, but on the contrary, deep reverence for Our Lady mandated a decorum whereby one did not inquire too closely or even tentatively impute any defect to the Mother of God.
Possidus, the African bishop who was the friend and biographer of St. Augustine, lists De Perfectione Iustitiae Hominis (414 or 415) after De Natura et Gratia in his index, but it is possible that the former was written first. In any event, it deals with other Pelagian issues, such as sinlessness and the role of free will in justification, which are not our immediate concern.
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St. Jerome, impressed with St. Augustine's arguments, wrote his own anti-Pelagian treatise, the Dialogi contra Pelagianos, in 417, three years before he died. He came to similar conclusions as St. Augustine using a very different approach. He was able to be more detached, since he was not personally involved in the controversy, being geographically far removed. Unlike St. Augustine, he did not shrink from using overtly philosophical and rhetorical techniques to develop theological arguments, and he had an impressive background in the study of Greek and Hebrew. His treatise takes the form of a Socratic dialogue, and unlike many other attempts at this form, he does an excellent job of giving both sides the full strength of their arguments and objections. St. Jerome's dialogue is instructive because it helps us understand how much of St. Augustine's doctrine was not peculiar to that saint, but in fact followed from the logic of Christian orthodoxy.
In order that his work would not be construed as a personal attack, but as a criticism of doctrines, St. Jerome presented a dialogue between fictional characters, Atticus (representing the orthodox position) and Critobulus (representing the Pelagian position). Recall that at this time Pelagianism had already been soundly condemned by all relevant ecclesiastical authorities, so now the Pelagians were forced to modify their positions with some nuance in order to persuade others that they were orthodox.
In the third book, St. Jerome argues that baptism is necessary only for those with sin. He cites the "Gospel according to the Hebrews" used by the Nazorean sect in Syria, which has Jesus say, "What sin have I committed that I should go and be baptized by him [i.e., John the Baptist]?" St. Jerome does not appeal to the authority of this text, but only its antiquity, as demonstrating an early Christian belief that baptism presumes the presence of sin. Similarly, he quotes St. Ignatius as an early witness that "The Lord chose Apostles who were sinners above all men." Even the most perfect disciples of Christ were great sinners.
The point of insisting that all are with sin is that no one can be free from sin without God's mercy. This is true even of someone who dies shortly after baptism.
Suppose a person who has been baptized to have been carried off by death either immediately, or on the very day of his baptism, and I will generously concede that he neither thought nor said anything whereby, through error and ignorance, he fell into sin. Does it follow that he will, therefore, be without sin, because he appears not to have overcome, but to have avoided sin? Is not the true reason rather that by the mercy of God he was released from the prison of sins and departed to the Lord? (III, 2)
Even in such a scenario, "that time of sinlessness is by no means to be referred to human ability, but to the grace of God." (III, 3) St. Jerome's primary point is not that there can be no life where sin is absent, but that such sinlessness is never attributable to human effort without God's supernatural grace.
Later in the dialogue, the Pelagian character Critobulus insists that infants, at least, have committed no sin, not even of ignorance. "They cannot sin, and they can perish... they utter inarticulate cries; we laugh at their attempts to speak; and, all the while, poor unfortunates! The torments of eternal misery are prepared for them." Surely, the Augustinian "must at least allow that they have no sin who cannot sin." (III, 17)
The Augustinian character Atticus answers:
I will allow it, if they have been baptized into Christ; and if you will not then immediately bind me to agree with your opinion that a man can be without sin if he chooses; for they neither have the power nor the will; but they are free from all sin through the grace of God, which they received in their baptism. (III, 17)
Only baptized infants are without sin, and this is by grace, not by any human effort. The very purpose of the rite, for infants no less than adults, is "that their sins may be forgiven them in baptism." (III, 18)
What sin do infants bear? The Apostle teaches that death reigned "even over those who did not sin after the likeness of the transgression of Adam", (Rom. 5:14) so it is not necessary to repeat Adam's sin in order to justly share in his punishment. Thus "all men are held liable either on account of their ancient forefather Adam, or on their own account."
St. Jerome frankly acknowledges that one may be liable for another's sin: "He that is an infant is released in baptism from the chain which bound his father. He who is old enough to have discernment is set free from the chain of his own or another's sin by the blood of Christ." In defense of this position, he quotes St. Cyprian, regarding an infant's baptism: "He has only, being born according to the flesh among Adam's sons, incurred the taint of ancient death by his first birth. And he is the more easily admitted to remission of sins because of the very fact that not his own sins but those of another are remitted to him." In short, Scripture and Tradition plainly affirm that baptism remits not only our own sins, but also that of Adam.
In closing, St. Jerome mentions with approval St. Augustine's two treatises on infant baptism to Marcellinus (i.e., the first two books of De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione), and declines to elaborate his own views further, for the venerable bishop has more writings "on the anvil".
Wherefore, I think I must abandon my task, for fear Horace's words may be thrown at me, Don't carry firewood into a forest. For we must either say the same as he does, and that would be superfluous; or, if we wished to say something fresh, we should find our best points anticipated by that splendid genius. (III, 19)
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Among the future writings alluded to by St. Jerome, we find St. Augustine's two books On the Grace of Christ, and On Original Sin, which addressed the more nuanced doctrines now confessed by Pelagius and his followers.
In the first book, St. Augustine addresses Pelagius' equivocal confession of faith. Pelagius now admitted that "the grace of God, whereby 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners'" is necessary at all times "for every act of our lives". Yet in their other publicly declared opinions, St. Augustine notes, Pelagius and his followers make this constant necessity of grace consist in our recollection of the remission of our past sins, so that "we sin no more, aided not by any supply of power from without, but by the powers of our own will as it recalls to our mind, in every action we do, what advantage has been conferred upon us by the remission of sins." Likewise, they say that Christ assists us in avoiding sin, by having taught and lived as an example for us to follow, and this example is the grace to which our good actions are indebted. (I, 2)
This equivocal notion of the necessity of grace is further indicated by Pelagius' distinction of faculties: capacity, volition and action. The Creator gives us the capacity to do good, but volition and action are our own. (I, 4) What is more this capacity is present in all men. St. Augustine quotes Pelagius at length:
The first, that is, the 'ability,' properly belongs to God, who has bestowed it on His creature; the other two, that is, the 'volition' and the 'actuality,' must be referred to man, because they flow forth from the fountain of the will. For his willing, therefore, and doing a good work, the praise belongs to man; or rather both to man, and to God who has bestowed on him the 'capacity' for his will and work, and who evermore by the help of His grace assists even this capacity.
That a man is able to will and effect any good work, comes from God alone. So that this one faculty can exist, even when the other two have no being; but these latter cannot exist without that former one. I am therefore free not to have either a good volition or action; but I am by no means able not to have the capacity of good. This capacity is inherent in me, whether I will or no; nor does nature at any time receive in this point freedom for itself.
Now the meaning of all this will be rendered clearer by an example or two. That we are able to see with our eyes is not of us; but it is our own that we make a good or a bad use of our eyes. So again (that I may, by applying a general case in illustration, embrace all), that we are able to do, say, think, any good thing, comes from Him who has endowed us with this 'ability,' and who also assists this 'ability;' but that we really do a good thing, or speak a good word, or think a good thought, proceeds from our own selves, because we are also able to turn all these into evil.
Accordinglyand this is a point which needs frequent repetition, because of your calumniation of uswhenever we say that a man can live without sin, we also give praise to God by our acknowledgment of the capacity which we have received from Him, who has bestowed such 'ability' upon us; and there is here no occasion for praising the human agent, since it is God's matter alone that is for the moment treated of; for the question is not about 'willing,' or 'effecting,' but simply and solely about that which may possibly be. (I, 5)
God gets "credit" for man's good works only insofar as He created the capacity to do good, without which no subsequent virtuous volition and action would be possible. Yet the volition and action properly belong to man. Further, according to Pelagius, this capacity to do good is always present in every man, whether he wills it or not, and does not become present at some point in time (e.g., baptism). In Pelagius' scheme, then, the only distinction between those who do good and those who do evil is in their volition and action, not in God-given capacity. This would make salvation and damnation determined not by grace, but by human effort, contradicting a core doctrine of Christianity.
Pelagius' teaching seems superficially reasonable, since it has a common sense quasi-secular account of man choosing the good by his own effort. It might be brought in closer harmony with Christian orthodoxy if it were admitted that when God "assists this 'ability'", such assistance is a necessary and supernatural grace. Even then, it would contradict the Apostle, who teaches, "For it is God which works in you both to will and to perform of His own good pleasure." (Philippians 2:13) St. Paul explicitly teaches that God assists us even in willing and acting, not merely in our ability or capacity.
When Pelagius speaks of the grace of God assisting our natural capacity, it is not clear what he means. Elsewhere, however, he says: "God helps us by His teaching and revelation, while He opens the eyes of our heart; while He points out to us the future, that we may not be absorbed in the present; while He discovers to us the snares of the devil; while He enlightens us with the manifold and ineffable gift of heavenly grace." (I, 8) This grace seems to be in the form of an intellectual illumination, as opposed to a direct aid to our volition. While Pelagius might thereby escape the more grievous charge of denying the necessity of divine grace, he still falls afoul of the apostolic teaching that God assists our volition and action.
Pelagius attempts to reconcile his doctrine with Philippians 2:13, saying:
He works in us to will what is good, to will what is holy, when He rouses us from our devotion to earthly desires, and from our love of the present only, after the manner of brute animals, by the magnitude of the future glory and the promise of its rewards; when by revealing wisdom to us He stirs up our sluggish will to a longing after God; when (what you are not afraid to deny in another passage) he persuades us to everything which is good. (I, 11)
Again, Pelagius' "grace" seems to be limited to intellectual illumination, leading St. Augustine to suspect that it is nothing more than the law and the teaching of Christ. If Pelagius is truly a Christian, St. Augustine says, he must admit that by God's grace, we not only see wisdom but love it, and we not only hear the promise of heaven, but believe and hope in it. Whether the later Pelagius was in fact personally orthodox on these points is beyond our concern. What matters is that the grace necessary for salvation cannot be a purely intellectual revelation, but must also include faith, hope and charity themselves.
Pelagius does not merely err by omitting the role of God's grace in volition and action, but also by extolling our natural capacity. By contrast, St. Ambrose taught, "To be spotless from the beginning is an impossibility to human nature," attesting to the feebleness of our capacity. (I, 55)
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The second book deals with the current Pelagian teachings about original sin, which have been modified since the condemnations of Coelestius at Carthage and Rome. Accordingly, "they no longer openly deny the laver of regeneration and remission of sins of infants". (II, 1)
Still, Coelestius, at his trial in Carthage, refused to condemn the error, "That Adam's sin injured only Adam himself, and not the human race; and that infants at their birth are in the same state that Adam was in before his transgression." As an excuse, he claimed he had heard presbyters teach different opinions regarding the transmission of sin, but could only name Rufinus as teaching that there is no such transmission. He also told Pope Zosimus "that original sin binds no single infant". (II, 2-3)
Much of the book deals with how Pelagius and Coelestius, through crafty and ambiguous language, still held to their denial of original sin, while accepting infant baptism by the same formula as adults. It is no longer controversial that these men actually denied original sin, so we will proceed directly to their contention that this doctrine is not essential to the faith.
The Pelagians claimed that one could question the doctrine of original sin without danger to the faith, as though the subject were outside the domain of Christian faith. (II, 26) St. Augustine challenges this plea as patently untrue. He first gives examples to show the distinction between questions of faith and questions outside the faith. The question of where was the Paradise where God placed the first man, for example, is outside the faith, as it does not disturb faith that "there is undoubtedly such a Paradise." Likewise, there can be differing opinions on where Elijah and Enoch are now (in Paradise or elsewhere), "although we doubt not of their existing still in the same bodies in which they were born." (II, 27)
The error of Pelagius and Coelestius, by contrast, is a heresy aiming at the foundations of the faith. Their denial of original sin undermines the notion that Christ is the sole Mediator between God and man.
This is, however, in the matter of the two men by one of whom we are sold under sin, by the other redeemed from sinsby the one have been precipitated into death, by the other are liberated unto life; the former of whom has ruined us in himself, by doing his own will instead of His who created him; the latter has saved us in Himself, by not doing His own will, but the will of Him who sent Him: and it is in what concerns these two men that the Christian faith properly consists.
For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; since there is none other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved; and in Him has God defined unto all men their faith, in that He has raised Him from the dead. (II, 28)
Christ's activity as Redeemer is unintelligible without reference to the sin redeemed. If human nature is not vitiated, but can attain beatitude by its own effort, then Christ is not the sole Mediator between God and man. Whatever one's opinion may be regarding original sin and its transmission, it can hardly be denied that this subject pertains to the heart of the faith.
Christ's status as sole Mediator is so absolute, that even the righteous men under the Old Law were saved not by that law, but by his grace.
For it was by the self-same faith in the one Mediator that the hearts of these, too, were cleansed, and there also was shed abroad in them "the love of God by the Holy Ghost," [Rom. 5:5] "who blows where He wills," [John 3:6] not following men's merits, but even producing these very merits Himself. For the grace of God will in no wise exist unless it be wholly free. (II, 28)
St. Augustine is not unique in his belief that the Old Testament patriarchs were saved by faith in Christ. Such conviction is widespread among the early Fathers of the Church, who find various prooftexts, especially in the books of Genesis, Job, Psalms, and Isaiah. Many modern Christians have some difficulty believing that the ancients really had explicit knowledge of Christ the Redeemer, but few would deny that they were saved by the grace of the Cross, and not by their own human efforts in keeping the Law.
The Pelagians, by contrast, deny that the old patriarchs were saved by Christ. They say men first lived righteously by nature (from Adam to Moses); then by the Law (from Moses to Christ); and then by grace (from Christ onward). This plausible-sounding account would make the ancients exempt from Christ's mediation, and "...in vain would the apostle say: By man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead; for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." [1 Cor. 15:21-22] (II, 31) In fact, the patriarchs benefited from their faith in the day of redemption, even though it had not yet happened, as Christ himself attests: "Abraham desired to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad." [John 8:56] (II, 32)
Now, whoever maintains that human nature at any period required not the second Adam for its physician, because it was not corrupted in the first Adam, is convicted as an enemy to the grace of God; not in a question where doubt or error might be compatible with soundness of belief, but in that very rule of faith which makes us Christians. (II, 34)
The central rule of Christian faith is that salvation is possible solely through Christ's redemptive mediation. Any doctrine that asserts human nature was not in need of a physician rejects the core of Christianity, and makes Jesus a mere teacher and moral example rather than the Savior. If the world before Christ had no need of grace, it is hardly sensible that Abraham and the prophets should have longed for the day of the Lord. Denial that human nature was corrupted entails a denial of the necessity of grace. It is no surprise, then, that the only Christians who have denied original sin are also those who denied the necessity of grace.
In any event, it is plainly obvious from Scripture, and indeed from human history, that the human race has always been full of sinfulness and depravity. According to Genesis, the antediluvian world was so depraved that all were justly destroyed except Noah and his family.
From the moment, then, when by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all sinned, [Romans 5:12] the entire mass of our nature was ruined beyond doubt, and fell into the possession of its destroyer. And from him no oneno, not onehas been delivered, or is being delivered, or ever will be delivered, except by the grace of the Redeemer. (II, 34)
Central to Christianity is that man cannot save himself, and that only by the free gift of the Redeemer are his sins forgiven so that he may attain communion with God. We cannot raise ourselves to Heaven by our own strength.
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When St. Augustine says "the entire mass of our nature was ruined", it is not immediately clear what he means. Ordinarily, massa in Latin means a mass or lump of stuff, in which case it seems he is saying our nature is completely ruined throughout. Yet from the context, it seems St. Augustine means by "the entire mass" all the individual humans who have lived and sinned, as they collectively constitute the universal "humanity". It is not that each of us is thoroughly corrupt, but rather every individual who ever lived is corrupt to some degree, so that the entire mass of humanity has this corruption.
The metaphor of a "mass" is taken from St. Paul, who teaches that a man should not blame God for his sins, on account of the way he was made:
Or hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump (massa), to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction, That he might shew the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he hath prepared unto glory? (Romans 9:21-23; see also 2 Tim 2:20-21)
God is free to make vessels of honor and dishonor out of the same mass, just as a potter may make works of varying quality out of the same clay. No vessel had a prior right to exist at all, so he has no right to complain that he was not raised to a higher status.
Neither St. Augustine nor the Apostle pretend to explain why God raises some and not others to heavenly glory. They only insist that a man has no right to demand such an honor as a birthright. God may create diverse vessels of varying qualities out of the same mass of humanity.
St. Augustine frequently calls this mass the "mass of perdition" (massa perditionis), signifying that human nature without the assistance of saving grace merits only the loss of Heaven. Only God can make a vessel of honor out of this mass:
...out of the mass of perdition which arose from Adam, none but God distinguishes a man to make him a vessel to honour, and not to dishonour. (Letter 214:3, to Valentinus)
...from that mass of perdition which originated through the first Adam, no one can be made to differ except he who has this gift, which whosoever has, has received by the grace of the Saviour. (On Rebuke and Grace, 12)
God will show either mercy or judgment; mercy, indeed, if he who is rebuked is made to differ by the bestowal of grace from the mass of perdition, and is not found among the vessels of wrath which are completed for destruction, but among the vessels of mercy which God has prepared for glory (On Rebuke and Grace, 25)
On their own, the descendants of Adam merit only death and the loss of Heaven, yet God in His mercy may freely elevate some from this "mass of perdition" into vessels of honor.
...it is given indeed without deserving, and freely, because he is of the same mass to whom it is not given; but evil is deservedly and of debt repaid, since in the mass of perdition evil is not repaid to the evil unjustly. (Against Two Letters of Pelagians, II, 13)
Those who are saved are made of the same mass, i.e., the same fallen humanity, as those who are not, so their salvation is not something deserved, but a free gift. Yet those who are condemned are getting only what they deserve, so they cannot complain of injustice.
It is important to emphasize that the perdition or damnation of which St. Augustine speaks means, in the most general sense, the loss of Heaven and eternal life with God. It does not necessarily entail pain and torments, as in the case of unbaptized infants who have little or no suffering. The fate of the damned is by no means uniform, but varies according to the mildness or severity of their sins, and their state of knowledge or ignorance. This variability is frequently forgotten or ignored when reading the expression massa perditionis.
A common misunderstanding of St. Augustine's massa perditionis is to suppose that human nature is "bad stuff" (or has "bad stuff" in it), while only God can change his elect into "good stuff". This ignores St. Augustine's repeated emphasis that original sin (and indeed all sin) is a privation or defect, not a positive substance or quality, as the Manichaeans held. The lazy accusation that the saint retained some of his former Manicheanism, so common among second-rate scholars of our day, was already used by his Pelagian opponents. It is impossible for St. Augustine to have held Manichaean ideas unconsciously, as he was made highly aware of such accusations. It is not "Manichaean," but only moral, to believe in a dichotomy of good and evil. Original sin, likewise, was already taught by many Catholics who were not former Manichaeans. The idea that God makes vessels of honor and dishonor out of the same mass is not St. Augustine's invention, but is found plainly in the teaching of the Apostle.
The "mass" of the massa perditione is all men born in Adam considered collectively. Christian theology does not depend on a Platonic idea of human nature abstracted from existing individuals, but rather the universal "humanity" may refer simply to all human beings who have existed and are to exist. It is this collection of real individuals who are the "mass" that merits nothing better than perdition. Again, the idea that man, by his own nature, does not merit eternal life, is no invention of St. Augustine, but is a central raison d'etre of Christianity. It is not that each man is thoroughly depraved with nothing good in him, but that the entire mass of individuals who have ever lived are all subject to sin, having varying degrees of evil inclinations. The presence of evil inclination in all men is no Augustinian novelty, but is found in the New Testament, in Judaism, and indeed various moral philosophies and religions.
Those who are not chosen as vessels of righteousness, that is, those who are not given the special graces of the Gospel message and faith in its truth, remain as they were in the mass of perdition.
But where are the rest left by the righteous divine judgment except in the mass of ruin, where the Tyrians and the Sidonians were left? Who, moreover, might have believed if they had seen Christ's wonderful miracles. But since it was not given to them to believe, the means of believing also were denied them.
From which fact it appears that some have in their understanding itself a naturally divine gift of intelligence, by which they may be moved to the faith, if they either hear the words or behold the signs congruous to their minds; and yet if, in the higher judgment of God, they are not by the predestination of grace separated from the mass of perdition, neither those very divine words nor deeds are applied to them by which they might believe if they only heard or saw such things.
Moreover, in the same mass of ruin the Jews were left, because they could not believe such great and eminent mighty works as were done in their sight. (On Predestination of the Saints Book II, 35)
This passage refers to Luke 10:13, "For if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the mighty works that have been wrought in you, they would have done penance long ago, sitting in sackcloth in ashes." The Tyrians and Sidonians were not among those chosen for faith, so they were not presented the miracles in which they might have believed. Natural moral excellence does not suffice, for they still need the grace of witnessing the Gospel. The unbelieving Jews, including those of Corozain, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, whom Jesus was addressing, likewise remained in the mass of perdition, as they did not believe even though they had witnessed Christ's saving works.
This teaching need not imply a categorical condemnation of all who did not have explicit knowledge of the Gospel, but only that none are saved unless they are chosen by the grace of God for faith. By nature, man is lost, and it is only by a special calling that some are saved.
The pagans had an analogous belief that only some may be raised out of the common mass of humanity to eternal life. Most descended into shadowy Hades, yet a few heroes were elevated to share in the heavenly life of the gods, on account of their own special excellence. Christianity differs from the pagan conception in that those who are elevated attain Heaven not by their own heroic exertions or natural virtues, but by the free gift of God.
Modern egalitarians are scandalized by any notion that some should be chosen over others. They think everyone is deserving by virtue of being born in the mass of humanity, and they can hardly contain their resentment toward anyone who pretends to rise above the crowd. With an insufferable self-righteousnesswho but the self-righteous would call himself "enlightened"?they consider themselves justified at birth. Yet if this be so, how can they account for the suffering to which all are subjected under nature? They must deny that God is just, or even that He exist, in order to vindicate themselves.
Christians worthy of the name can never be self-righteous, for they realize that their election is not due to their own efforts or virtues, but by the undeserved grace of God. This realization should lead to humble gratitude, and mercy toward the rest of humanity, for it is only by the grace of God that we are spared a deserved perdition.
This point can be, and often has been, exaggerated, to make man much more evil than he really is. To vindicate God, as though He needed an advocate, some have sought to make man seem as vicious and depraved as possible, so that everyone deserves horrific fiery torments. This misanthropic tendency distorts the Gospel, which is a message of mercy and love toward all men, not a condemnation. While no man deserves eternal life with God on his own merits, it does not follow that this "perdition" or "loss" (damnum) in all cases entails some punitive torment. There are varying degrees of culpability, from the most fiendish criminals to those who sin out of ignorance to those infants who commit no sin at all. If one's purpose is to affirm God's justice, it is hardly tenable that all of these should share the same fate, except in the most generic sense of the loss of Heaven.
Returning to On Original Sin, St. Augustine finds the old law of circumcision and its penalty to be proof that infants are liable for the sin of Adam:
"That soul shall be cut off from his people, whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised on the eighth day." [Gen. 17:14] If inquiry be made into the justice of so terrible a penalty, will not the entire argument of these men about free will, and the laudable soundness and purity of nature, however cleverly maintained, fall to pieces, struck down and fractured to atoms? For, pray tell me, what evil has an infant committed of his own will, that, for the negligence of another in not circumcising him, he himself must be condemned, and with so severe a condemnation, that that soul must be cut off from his people?
It was not of any temporal death that this fear was inflicted, since of righteous persons, when they died, it used rather to be said, "And he was gathered unto his people;" [Gen. 25:17] or, "He was gathered to his fathers" [1 Macc. 2:69] for no attempt to separate a man from his people is long formidable to him, when his own people is itself the people of God. (II, 35)
The uncircumcised infant was penalized not by temporal death, but by expulsion from the people of God. This penalty could only be just if it is due to some sin, and since the infant has committed no sin, it follows that it is due to the sin of another, which is in him even at birth. The law of circumcision attests that man is subject to penalty at birth, contrary to the Pelagian implication that we are justified at birth.
It cannot be that the infant freely committed sins before he was born or in some pre-existence of the soul, such as the Neoplatonists and Origenists held, "since the Apostle Paul says most plainly, that before they were born they did neither good nor evil." [Romans 9:11] (II, 36) St. Augustine refutes pre-existence not on philosophical grounds, but by appeal to apostolic teaching. His approach is consistently that of Biblical theology, in contrast with his opponents, who lean heavily on philosophy and philosophical ethics.
On what account, therefore, is an infant rightly punished with such ruin, if it be not because he belongs to the mass of perdition, and is properly regarded as born of Adam, condemned under the bond of the ancient debt unless he has been released from the bond, not according to debt, but according to grace? And what grace but God's, through our Lord Jesus Christ?
Now there was a forecast of His coming undoubtedly contained not only in other sacred institutions of the ancient Jews, but also in their circumcision of the foreskin. For the eighth day, in the recurrence of weeks, became the Lord's day, on which the Lord arose from the dead... (II, 36)
Again, the "mass of perdition" refers to the many, or the mob of humanity, since the vast majority of people were not circumcised, and thus not of the people of God. Only a few were selected out of this mass to become God's people by circumcision. The practice of eighth-day circumcision is a foreshadowing of the Resurrection, in which all arise anew in the regenerated life of the kingdom of God. Even the Old Testament circumcision points to Christ, since it shows that man was born under a debt, and this debt could only be ended by the grace of God. By Christian faith, all such saving grace comes through the sole Mediator, the Lord Jesus.
St. Augustine's image of a "mass of perdition" need not imply definite knowledge that the vast majority of humanity is in fact damned. We have no public revelation as to what fraction of humanity has in fact been chosen out of the "mass," and the question is further obscured by the modern Catholic teaching that saving grace through Christ Jesus may reach even those who are inculpably ignorant of the Gospel. Still, the "mass of perdition" is undoubtedly vast, since all of us have belonged to it at some point; the only question is how many will remain in it.
Holy Scripture teaches that man is unclean even in his conception: "Who can make him clean that is conceived of unclean seed? is it not thou who only art?" [Job 14:4] St. Augustine only follows Scripture, advancing no doctrine of his own, when he says, "For no one is pure from uncleanness (what uncleanness, pray, but that of sin?), not even the infant, whose life is but that of a single day upon the earth."
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St. Augustine's basic teaching on original sin is generally well grounded in Scripture and Tradition. It is unquestionable that death, the penalty for Adam's sin, is imputed to all men at birth, so we are in some sense held liable for this sin. This is not unjust, since no one deserves eternal life on his own merits. It is strongly indicated by Scripture, and by common experience, that we are born with bestial inclinations that often lead us to commit evil, and are inconsonant with the original dignity granted to Adam. While it is unclear if such desires always deserve to be called sin, it is unquestionable that they have no place in the kingdom of heaven.
Baptism is effective even for infants, as it removes from them the liability for Adam's sin, opening the door to eternal life. We still have concupiscence after baptism, but this is no longer held against us as long as we do not consent to it by actual sin.
The necessity of infant baptism is consequent to the fact that Christ is the sole Mediator who can bring men to God. It is not by our own natural capacity, but by the supernatural grace of God, which aids us in volition and action, that we can be saved. As these beliefs are central to Christianity, a denial of original sin in infants is injurious to the faith, and not merely a matter of theological opinion.
Since the entire mass of mankind is born liable to the penalty of Adam's sin, which includes the loss of eternal life, it may be characterized as a "mass of perdition," following the image used by the Apostle of "vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction," and "vessels of mercy," all made from the same mass of clay. This does not mean that human nature is "bad stuff", but only that all individuals who have ever lived collectively constitute a "mass" that would not merit eternal life. (St. Augustine expressly indicates that those without personal sin would suffer little or no pain.) While the world teaches that man is righteous by birth, or can make himself righteous by his own effort, Christianity teaches that man needs the grace of God to attain righteousness, so that the justified should be humble instead of prideful. No one has any right to complain that he was not made a vessel of glory, nor should the vessels of glory boast, for they were formed by God out of the same mass as everyone else.
There are further theological questions that St. Augustine would elaborate in the remainder of On Original Sin (418), as On Matrimony and Concupiscence (419-420), and Against Julian (421). These include: how is original sin transmitted by propagation?, what is the role of concupiscence?, how is human nature vitiated?, and finally, elaborating distinctions among the guilt (culpa), liability (reatus) and penalty (poena) of original sin. Although the saint's teachings on these latter points do not always have the unequivocal backing of Scripture and Tradition, they nonetheless have constituted an important framework for discussion by all subsequent Western theologians of note.
Continue to Part V
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