The Origins of Original Sin - Part V

Daniel J. Castellano

(2011, 2014-15)

Further Augustinian Doctrine: The Role of Concupiscence

5.1 Concupiscence as an Inheritance of Sinful Humanity
5.2 Concupiscence as the Propagator of Original Sin
5.3 Goodness of Marriage against Evil of Concupiscence
5.4 Goodness of Human Nature and Its Corruption
5.5 Why Concupiscence is Accounted as Sin
5.6 Baptism Redeems Liability, yet Concupiscence Remains

The diverse schools of Thomists, Molinists, Jansenists, Lutherans, and Calvinists all find some defense of their doctrines on justification, grace and original sin in the writings of St. Augustine. This should teach us, if nothing else, that the saint’s discussion of such topics is not always perspicuous. Without pretending to provide a definitive interpretation of St. Augustine where great minds have failed, we may at least avoid some of the more egregious misrepresentations, showing due regard for context and Latin word usage.

While most of St. Augustine’s theology of original sin merely follows the unequivocal teaching of Scripture and Tradition, there are parts of his discussion that involve some speculation. This is especially the case when dealing with the mode of transmission of original sin. While it seems clear from the voices of the Apostles and the Fathers that original sin is transmitted via propagation, it is far less clear exactly how this can be so. Exactly what is transmitted, and what causes it to be transmitted? These questions admit more equivocal answers, and St. Augustine’s speculations here, while worthy of consideration, do not bind the Catholic conscience with the same force.

In the later chapters On Original Sin (418) and the first book On Marriage and Concupiscence [De Nuptiis et Concupiscentia] (419), vicious desire or concupiscence is given a prominent role in the transmission of original sin. Readers get the impression that sensual appetites, especially those pertaining to the conjugal act, are inherently sinful or at least the mark of inherited corruption in man. The Pelagians responded by accusing St. Augustine of condemning marriage as evil, and making human nature into a monstrous Manichaean union of good and evil components.

In particular, Julian, the bishop of Eclanum in Italy who led eighteen dissident bishops opposing original sin, wrote four books against the first On Marriage and Concupiscence, defending carnal appetites as naturally good and accusing Augustine of Manichaeism. In response to these accusations of heresy, St. Augustine wrote his second book On Marriage and Concupiscence (420), and six books Against Julian [Contra Iulianum] (421), only the last two of which will concern us. The earlier books Against Julian cited numerous Patristic witnesses to the doctrine of original sin, which we have already discussed in Part II.

These witnesses defend St. Augustine against the charge of Manichaeism. In fact, he argues, Julian is more Manichaean than the Manichaeans, since the Pelagians deny that human nature has any evil in it that needs healing, yet they cannot, as Christians, deny that Christ cures us of evil. This implies that the evil healed by Christ is altogether alien to human nature, not even a second principle of our nature as the Manichaeans claim. St. Augustine, instead, holds with all Christians that there is one human nature, essentially good, but sick and in need of Christ’s healing.

[Top of page]

5.1 Concupiscence as an Inheritance of Sinful Humanity

While no Christian can deny that man is diseased and in need of healing, it remains to specify what this disease is. Our propensity to evil is generally explained in terms of disordered desires. Early Christians called such censurable desires concupiscentia or passio, though these Latin terms were morally neutral in their ordinary meaning. St. Augustine follows this usage in his discussion of concupiscentia, but his emphasis on the transmission of original sin by propagation leads him to focus on a particular kind of concupiscence, namely lust (libido) or carnal concupiscence.

First, it should be established that lust is a disease or malady. “Shameful lust, however, could not excite our members, except at our own will, if it were not a disease.” (De nuptiis et concupiscentia, II, 55) The desire’s ability to oppose the will characterizes it as a disease, since it is not obedient to mind, like the limbs of the body. “Nor would even the lawful and honorable cohabiting of husband and wife raise a blush, with avoidance of any eye and desire of secrecy, if there were not a diseased condition about it.” There is an intuitive sense of shame about it even when it is lawful, i.e. socially accepted. This indicates that the sense of shame is not something socially constructed.

St. Augustine is aware of the Greek rendering of St. Paul’s teaching that Christians should not have wives “in the passion of lust” (en pathei epithumias). (1 Thess. 4:5) This is translated in Latin most literally as in passione concupiscentiae, but Latin Bibles also had in morbo desiderii or in morbo concupiscentiae, i.e., in the disease of desire. Even the more literal passio, in Christian usage, was a term of censure. While pagans who know not God may see no fault in lust, it is hardly tenable for Christians to do likewise. Pagans have enough shame to gratify their lusts in private, but Christians, recognizing this shame as a sign of disease, ought not to take their wives in lust at all. (De nuptiis, II, 55)

Then as now, many would object that a marital act without lust is impossible, so condemning lust condemns marriage. Yet any insistence that there is no evil in lust leads to confused moral consequences. St. Augustine asks us to suppose that lust really existed in paradise before sin, and that it was indulged without repression or shame.

Far be it from being thought that such blessedness could in such a spot fail to have what it wished, or ever experience in mind or body what it disliked. And, so should the motion of lust precede men’s will then the will would immediately follow it. (De nuptiis, II, 59)

Surely the will would consent to lust in this scenario of perfect bliss. The wife likewise would be urged on, whether ovulating or already pregnant, and “either a child would be begotten, or a natural and laudable pleasure would be gratified.” They may indulge as long as their use is not contrary to nature.

But what if this very use, which is contrary to nature, should perhaps give them delight; what if the aforesaid laudable lust should hanker even after such delight; I wonder whether they should pursue it because it was sweet, or loathe it because it was base. If they should pursue it to gratification, what becomes of all thought about honour? If they should loathe it, where is the peaceful composure of so good a happiness? (Loc. cit.)

Far from being out of touch on sexual matters, St. Augustine understands the implications of the modern sexual revolution with a depth that makes others seem naive. Once you adopt the position that the gratification of lust per se is good, there is no obstacle to pursuing unnatural acts when the desire arises. It only took enlightened liberals the better part of a century to figure this out.

As a way out, perhaps we could conceive an original state where lust was only posterior to the will. The first man could summon lust whenever he wished to procreate, so no seed was ever wasted. Still, it cannot be denied that this hypothetical state is not what presently exists among men, so lust is corrupted from its (hypothetical) original condition. It is not obedient to the chaste-minded, “so that it is excited when it is not wanted; and whenever it is necessary, it never, indeed, follows their will, but sometimes too hurriedly, at other times too tardily, exerts its own movements.” (De nuptiis, II, 59) [It should be noted that “movements” here refers to all kinds of physical change, including emotions and sensations.] So concupiscence is currently in a state of disorder.

Granting that concupiscence in general, and lust in particular, is a sort of malady or disorder, we should explain why such a disease or wound has the name of sin, which ordinarily refers only to voluntary moral acts. “This wound was at that fatal moment of the fall inflicted by the devil to a vastly wider and deeper extent than are the sins which are known among men.” (De nuptiis, II, 57) Original sin is deeper and more widespread than any personal sin. Through it, St. Augustine says, our nature was made a sinner, and to generate sinners. While it is not sin in the ordinary sense of a morally culpable act, it deserves the name of sin because it is the fount of so much evil in men. This weakness “is not really nature, but corruption; precisely as a bad state of health is not a bodily substance or nature, but disorder,” so we are not denying the essential goodness of human nature. Although it is not nature, but a corruption of nature, it is nonetheless heritable, just as sickliness in parents is often found in children.

If carnal concupiscence is a consequence of the temptation of the first parents, it follows that this was not present in their original state. St. Augustine finds Biblical support for this position, as Adam and Eve went uncovered because they had no concupiscence, but after sinning made clothes to cover signs of arousal in their generative organs. Julian of Eclanum had argued that they made clothes in general, not specifically for the generative organs. (Contra Iulianum, V, ii) This is implausible, given the makeshift nature of their covering and the Scripture’s explicit reference to their shame, which is not caused by the body in general. We find corroboration in the practices of savage peoples, as all who wear any clothing at all cover at least the genitals with mud or vegetation; some do this and nothing more.

Those who deny that concupiscence is a disease must show some positive value for it. Julian tried to show that disobedience of the flesh is praiseworthy if it is inflicted as a punishment for sin. (Ibid., V, iii) St. Augustine retorts that concupiscence does not chastise knowingly, so any good that results should be attributed not to it, but to God who wisely punishes. St. Paul expressly teaches that falling into a depraved lust can be a punishment, yet is no less a culpable evil. (Rom. 7:23-28)

The corruption due to original sin applies to both body and soul:

But the whole man committed the sin, and it was then that the flesh was made sinful flesh, whose faults can be healed only by the likeness of sinful flesh. In order, then, that, unless what is born be cleansed by rebirth, soul and body shall be equally punished, both are faulty when derived from man, or the one is corrupted in the other as in a faulty vessel, and this contains the hidden justice of the divine law. (Contra Iulianum, V, iv, 17)

St. Augustine gives no opinion as to whether body and soul are independently faulty or one is corrupted by the other, “lest I dare say what I do not know.” Only the doctrine of original sin is essential to faith, not the exact relationship between soul and body in the propagation of original sin. “Whether it be in infants or in adults, we must be more concerned with the aid by which the soul is healed than with the fault by which it has been vitiated; but, if we deny it has been vitiated, then neither will it be healed.” (Loc. cit.)

Sexual lust is singled out as an example of vicious desire since it is related to the reproductive act whereby original sin is transmitted. St. Augustine takes care to distinguish this desire from the well-ordered desires of the body. In general, the body obeys the commands of the will, but the reproductive members do not. (Ibid. V, v, 19) Other natural desires, such as hunger and thirst, are involuntary yet not vicious. Lust is distinguished from these because the latter are needed to relieve the body, lest it be injured or die, but the body will suffer no injury if it does not assent to lust. Hunger and thirst are evils endured through patience, while lust is an evil restrained through continence. (Ibid., V, v, 22)

This argument seems to ignore that natural desire may be no less concerned with the survival of the species than the individual, thus explaining the compulsive, involuntary aspect of sexual desire. St. Augustine, in line with classical Greco-Roman thought, prizes rationality as a higher good, so it seems logical that bodily opposition to the rational will is a defect. Thus he speculates that in heaven the power of eating and other sensations may become completely voluntary. (Loc. cit.) If we do not subscribe to this philosophy, however, the non-volitional aspect of lust is no proof of its evil, so we might instead point to its immoderate and undignified aspects.

It should be clear that concupiscence is a disturbance of the soul, and is not confined to external bodily signs. Thus St. Augustine rightly asserts, against Julian, that even women are capable of concupiscence. (Ibid., V, v, 23) It is the duty of Christians to battle against this desire, and even Julian admits that the saints warred against concupiscence, so they would surely rather hear lust condemned than praised.

Against Julian’s accusation that the Augustinians “assert with the Manichaeans that a compulsion to evil exists in their own flesh,” St. Augustine answers:

The Manichaeans falsely assert an evil in the flesh, co-eternal with God, having the nature of substance. Christians declare with the Apostle: ‘I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind,’ but this other law, by the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, is under the power of the mind, to be chastised in the body of this death; to be dissolved in the death of the body; to be healed in the resurrection of the body and the death of death. (Contra Iulianum, V, vi, 24)

In Christian teaching, vicious desires do not come from eternity, nor are they a substantial nature. Rather, they exist only temporarily, as a corruption or deficiency of our nature that can be healed.

This sickness or injury to our nature is attributed to the first temptation: “The disobedience of the flesh which appears when the flesh lusts against the spirit is a result of the diabolic wound…” (Ibid., V, ix, 36) Note that lust is not itself the diabolic wound, but one of its results.

This sickness does not compel the baptized to commit evil, for they may struggle against it.

Although we see another law in our members, warring against the law of our mind, we are not thereby forced to commit crimes; he whose spirit lusts by the spiritual gift against the concupiscence of the flesh is worthy of praise.

Quamvis ergo aliam legem videamus in membris nostris, repugnantem legi mentis nostrae: non solum tamen necessitatem criminis non habet; sed habet potius honorem laudis, cuius spiritus spiritali munere adiutus adversus carnis concupiscentiam concupiscit. (Ibid., V, xiv, 56)

Here “lust” is used in a positive sense, when spoken of the spirit’s striving. Concupiscere literally means to covet or to desire ardently. St. Augustine is not making a blanket condemnation of ardent desires, but only those that are vicious.

Julian acknowledges, as any good Christian must, that the saints have fought against certain desires of the flesh. From this it follows that these desires are not good. “No matter where you turn… how you expand and sputter— what the good spirit combats is not good.” It would not be good for the good spirit to fight against another good, even a lesser good. If you are going to say that lust is even a minor good, then it is wrong to praise the saints for combating lust. Modern Christians should keep this in mind when tempted to defend lust in order not to be seen as Puritanical or prudish by non-Christians.

Christian baptism frees us from evils by which we were liable (rei), “not from the evils we must still combat lest we become liable (rei).” (Contra Iulianum, VI, xviii, 55) Thus it does not remove the evil of concupiscence. For example, men after baptism must still resist drunkenness, a habit that they developed after birth. “In like manner, against the concupiscence of the reproductive members which is born in us through original sin, a widow combats more vigorously than a virgin, and a harlot who wants to be chaste combats more vigorously than a woman always chaste.” (Loc. cit., emphasis added) Concupiscence is given greater power by habit, though we are all born with it through original sin.

According to St. Augustine, the sexual desire consequent to original sin is that which is indifferent to the distinction between lawful and unlawful. (Loc. cit.) Yet evolutionary theory would have this desire be naturally amoral in man; the animal precedes the man. The Eastern Orthodox likewise had a problem accepting that carnal desire is a consequence of original sin, rather than natural to man. It may be evil in a relative sense of a lesser, animal good. For example, hunger per se is indifferent to morality, and may lead to gluttony, yet it is not on that account evil. The same might be said of all our carnal desires.

On the other hand, it is hardly credible that carnal concupiscence is a perfection of human nature. Julian contends that “Concupiscence is a sensation… Therefore, when concupiscence is diminished, sense-perception is diminished.” (Ibid., VI, xviii, 56) By that standard, St. Augustine replies, the one who achieves continence would be diminished, rather than healed. This is a good rebuttal, but it may go too far in suggesting that, because continence is a higher perfection, all sexual desire must be evil.

If you accept that by good concupiscence, one overcomes drunkenness and fornication, so that they no longer tempt him, and he has fewer enemies… if you accept that such a person is in a better condition, how can you deny that his good quality has increased, and his evil quality has decreased? (Contra Iulianum, VI, xviii, 56)

This seems to show that carnal concupiscence itself must be an evil quality, but this need not follow. The bad use of concupiscence, e.g., fornication, is an evil quality, and it may be that the desire for fornication is an evil quality, but the same carnal desire is not evil when it has no evil object. Perhaps concupiscence is an “evil” temptation for those committed to continence, but not absolutely for all people, especially the married.

The association of lust with original sin does not mean that the desire was positively introduced by the devil, which would be strange for a spiritual being.

Eve was not seduced in the sense of having carnal relations with the Serpent, as the Manichaeans say she did with their “prince of darkness,” who was also her father. Rather her mind was corrupted. Then she felt lust for sin, as did Adam, and so they covered their shameful parts, “not at the approach of the Devil… but upon the departure of the spiritual grace of God.” (Contra Iulianum, VI, xxii, 68)

It is the removal of divine grace that introduces the lust for sin. Here we have a better formulation that enables us to uphold that concupiscence is something latent in the flesh, actualized only upon the removal of divine grace. Thus we do not need to deny the probable facts of evolutionary history, and can admit that the human animal had the capacity for lustful desire, but this and other unruly faculties were held under the command of the spirit by divine grace. When this grace was lost, the animal could no longer be held in check.

The Augustinian teaching that concupiscence is consequent to original sin is basically sound, but we should avoid certain excesses. First, the concupiscence that is consequent to original sin is not restricted to lust, but encompasses all vicious desires. These desires are attributed to what St. Paul calls the “flesh,” i.e., corrupted human nature, body and soul. Second, although St. Augustine frequently indicates that concupiscence as such is evil, it should be understood that it is evil in the sense of a malady or sickness, something that leads us to sin, but need not be sinful in itself. Concupiscence is not sinful if the will does not consent to it. Still, St. Augustine calls it sin because it is the source of sin and because those born in concupiscence are held liable for original sin until this liability is remitted by baptism. Thus concupiscence is accounted as sin in the unbaptized. This should not be taken to mean that concupiscence literally is sin, even in the unbaptized. Rather, it is a mark of our fallen nature, which is in need of redemption.

[Top of page]

5.2 Concupiscence as the Propagator of Original Sin

Since St. Augustine is committed to defending the Christian doctrine that original sin is transmitted by propagation, he emphasizes the species of concupiscence associated with the reproductive act. This can give the misleading impression that lust is original sin or its principal effect.

Thus it comes to pass that marriage is permitted to effect all that is lawful in its state, only it must not forget to conceal all that is improper. Hence it follows that infants, although incapable of sinning, are yet not born without the contagion of sin—not, indeed, because of what is lawful, but on account of that which is unseemly: for from what is lawful nature is born; from what is unseemly, sin. Of the nature so born, God is the Author, who created man, and who united male and female under the nuptial law; but of the sin the author is the subtlety of the devil who deceives, and the will of the man who consents. (On Original Sin II, 42)

Here, as elsewhere, St. Augustine seems to identify the “contagion of sin” with the lust involved in conception. This seems to confuse two things: original sin from Adam, and consent to lust in the marital act, which is but one of many consequent personal sins. This may be St. Augustine’s speculative attempt to account for how original sin is propagated. Still, he is careful not to posit a Manichaean equipotence of good and evil, for only the good is ascribed to man’s nature and its Creator, while sin is the result of the deceiver and the man who consents.

Although concupiscence may be seen as a sign and consequence of original sin in the parents, it need not be the case that this lustful ardor is itself the means by which the defect of sin is transmitted. Rather, as St. Thomas would later articulate, it may be simply that, by natural propagation, we can only pass on a nature lacking original supernatural grace, having no power thereby to restore what Adam had lost. Since sin is a privation, the “stain” or “contagion” must be a deficiency or lack; in particular, it may be a lack of supernatural grace.

In De nuptiis et concupiscentia, St. Augustine clearly indicates his moral theology on sexuality:

…excesses of cohabitation motivated by lust for pleasure are venial sins in man and wife. Yet even when this venial sin is absent, the act itself cannot be effected without ardour of lust… (De nuptiis, I, 27)

Clearly, it is possible for the marital act to be performed without even venial sin, even though it is biologically impossible without the presence of lust. Marriage is without sin as long as it is not motivated by lust.

While in no case is this carnal concupiscence accounted sin in the regenerate, “yet in no case happens to nature except from sin. It is the daughter of sin, as it were; and whenever it yields assent to commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins.” (De nuptiis, I, 27) Concupiscence itself is not sin, nor is it even accounted as sin in the baptized, but it is the product and progenitor of sin.

St. Augustine thinks it necessary that Christ should be born of a virgin in order to born without sin, since this alone would be unaccompanied by the ardour of lust, which is a daughter of sin. He finds support for this in St. Ambrose’s comment on Isaiah:

Christ was tempted in all things as a man, and bore all things, but as He was born of the Spirit, he avoided sin. There is none without sin but God alone. Therefore, no man born of husband wife is free from sin. The one who is free is also free from conception of this kind. (De nuptiis, I, 40)

St. Ambrose does not say concupiscence causes sin, but strongly suggests that the marital act is correlated to being born in sin.

Some distinction between Christ’s flesh and the rest of humanity seems necessary to account for the sinlessness of the former. Julian argued that Christ’s flesh came from propagation from Adam, so it did not differ from sinful flesh. “There is no sinful flesh, lest the flesh of Christ also be this.” (Contra Iulianum, V, xv, 52) Yet St. Paul says Christ was in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3), not in sinful flesh. St. Augustine asks: “Then what is the likeness of sinful flesh, if there is no sinful flesh?” (Loc. cit.) How can one resemble that which is not?

We see, moreover, that the concupiscence through which Christ willed not to be conceived produced the propagation of evil in the human race, for though the body of Mary was thence derived, it did not transmit concupiscence to the body it did not thence conceive. (Contra Iulianum, V, xv, 52)

Here the lack of original sin in Christ is explained by the absence of lust in the act of His conception. Yet this seems to imply that there could, at least in principle, have been original sin in Mary’s conception, as her parents were not free of concupiscence. Alternatively, if we deny that the mechanism of transmitting original sin is carnal lust, the absence of original sin in Christ again becomes a mystery. The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, redeeming her even from original sin at the moment of her conception, is sufficient reason that her “flesh” (i.e., her nature, including her soul) would impart no original sin to the flesh of Christ.

St. Augustine, nonetheless, holds that original sin “passes by means of the concupiscence of the flesh,” so “it could not have passed to flesh that a virgin conceived, not through concupiscence.” (Contra Iulianum, V, xv, 54) Concupiscence is the means of transmitting Adam’s sinful nature. Quoting his earlier work, De peccatorum meritis et remissione (1:15): “By this hidden corruption, that is, his carnal concupiscence, he infected in himself all who were to come from his stock.” Concupiscence is a disease not merely in the sense of being a consequence of sin, but also as something that propagates corruption. “Thus he did not infect flesh in whose conception this corruption was not present.” The absence of lust seems to suffice to prevent transmitting original sin. “The flesh of Christ received mortality from the mortality of His mother’s body, because it found her body mortal; it did not contract the taint of original sin, because it did not find the concupiscence of one carnally seminating.” (Contra Iulianum, V, xv, 54)

Christ’s body had mortality, and therefore the “likeness of sinful flesh,” that is, the carnal penalty of original sin. This was so He could give us an example of suffering, bearing the iniquities of others, yet He never had the taint of original sin itself. St. Augustine maintains that this taint is incurred by the sin of carnal lust. Put bluntly, my birth is tainted by the fact that my parents conceived me in lust.

Yet original sin surely encompasses much more than sexual lust. St. Augustine later seems to speak of concupiscence more generally, as that “by which the flesh lusts against the spirit.” (Contra Iulianum, V, xv, 55)

It should not be pretended that lust is the sole, sufficient means of transmitting original sin. St. Augustine admits no simple solution, acknowledging that the means of propagating sin is not easily expressed, though it is expressible. (Contra Iulianum, VI, v, 11) Still, he holds that lust plays a role in the transmission of liability. Grace “absolves man of the liability (reatum) of this evil, by which concupiscence made him liable (reum) by way of origin.” (Contra Iulianum, VI, v, 12) The presence of concupiscence in the baptized is indisputable: “For we are aware of this evil in its opposition by our restraint of it.” We did not sense the liability with which we were born, so neither do we sense its removal by flesh or mind, but only accept it by faith, he says. St. Augustine is arguing within faith, not appealing to faithless carnal man, as the Pelagian doctrine does. In this conscious faith, he is aware of what he is accepting without empirical evidence.

Humans, unlike the devil, have original sin in addition to personal sin, since they, unlike him, are begotten from other men. More specifically, the devil is not begotten through a law in members warring against the law of mind (i.e., carnal lust). (Contra Iulianum, VI, xx, 63) St. Augustine seems committed to identifying carnal lust as a condition of transmitting original sin (though it need not be the sole condition). The devil “by misleading the woman slew man at the beginning when man was made, and who through free choice did not stand in the truth.” (cf. John 18:44) Original sin does not deny personal sin, for which we are culpable by our free choice, but is in addition to it.

The notion of carnal concupiscence as a means of transmitting original sin is subordinate to St. Augustine’s more fundamental aim of showing how it is coherent to attribute original sin to natural propagation without implying that Christ was conceived in sin. While concupiscence in the conjugal act may be a sign or mark of the transmission of original sin, it need not be the efficient cause or means of such transmission. St. Augustine’s opinion on this point appears to be informed by ancient biology, which held that the quality of the conjugal act is conveyed to offspring. It is fair for us to invoke modern biology in objection, since Christian doctrine admits that original sin is transmitted by natural propagation, not some process alien to human nature.

[Top of page]

5.3 Goodness of Marriage against Evil of Concupiscence

Although original sin is transmitted to offspring through procreation, this does not make marriage evil, for we should distinguish between the good of marriage and the disease of concupiscence:

As if the good of the married life were that disease of concupiscence with which they who know not God love their wives—a course which the apostle forbids; [1 Thessalonians 4:5] and not rather that conjugal chastity, by which carnal lust is reduced to the good purposes of the appointed procreation of children. Or as if, forsooth, a man could possibly be anything but God’s work, not only when born in wedlock, but even if he be produced in fornication or adultery. (On the Grace of Christ, and On Original Sin, II, 38)

Here, “concupiscence” refers specifically to sexual lust. Christian marriage is not subject to lust, not in the sense that carnal desire is absent, but that this is not the driving force of marriage. Christians use concupiscence toward a good end of raising children to be regenerated in baptism. They are not necessarily thinking of this good end during the act, but beforehand, choosing to order their lives toward this good. Similarly, St. Augustine remarks, one may choose to sleep for the good of one’s health, without thinking about health while sleeping.

Marriage is not sinful, for it existed even before original sin, as proved by God blessing the fertility of the first humans: “Be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen. 1:28)

Suppose, however, that nature had not been dishonoured by sin, God forbid that we should think that marriages in Paradise must have been such, that in them the procreative members would be excited by the mere ardour of lust, and not by the command of the will for producing offspring—as the foot is for walking, the hand for labour, and the tongue for speech. Nor, as now happens, would the chastity of virginity be corrupted to the conception of offspring by the force of a turbid heat, but it would rather be submissive to the power of the gentlest love; and thus there would be no pain, no blood-effusion of the concumbent virgin, as there would also be no groan of the parturient mother.

This, however, men refuse to believe, because it has not been verified in the actual condition of our mortal state. Nature, having been vitiated by sin, has never experienced an instance of that primeval purity. But we speak to faithful men, who have learned to believe the inspired Scriptures, even though no examples are adduced of actual reality. For how could I now possibly prove that a man was made of the dust, without any parents, and a wife formed for him out of his own side? And yet faith takes on trust what the eye no longer discovers. (Ibid., II, 40)

St. Augustine speculates that conjugal unions, had they not been preceded by original sin, would have been free from lust. He recognizes that there is no way to prove this empirically, since humanity “never experienced an instance of that primeval purity,” and this is certainly not the present human condition. This is no sound objection for a Christian, however, for Holy Scripture reveals many occurrences that are not repeated in our day, which we nonetheless accept on faith.

While acknowledging that his opinion is speculative, St. Augustine nonetheless finds reasonable grounds for this belief to be inferred from Scripture.

Granted, therefore, that we have no means of showing both that the nuptial acts of that primeval marriage were quietly discharged, undisturbed by lustful passion, and that the motion of the organs of generation, like that of any other members of the body, was not instigated by the ardour of lust, but directed by the choice of the will… still, from all that is stated in the sacred Scriptures on divine authority, we have reasonable grounds for believing that such was the original condition of wedded life. Although, it is true, I am not told that the nuptial embrace was unattended with prurient desire; as also I do not find it on record that parturition was unaccompanied with groans and pain, or that actual birth led not to future death; yet, at the same time, if I follow the verity of the Holy Scriptures, the travail of the mother and the death of the human offspring would never have supervened if sin had not preceded. Nor would that have happened which abashed the man and woman when they covered their loins; because in the same sacred records it is expressly written that the sin was first committed, and then immediately followed this hiding of their shame. (Ibid., II, 41)

Since death and labor pains were penalties of original sin, it reasonably follows that these would not have been present had man not sinned, even though Scripture does not say so explicitly. Likewise, since Adam and Eve experienced shame over their generative organs as a consequence of their sin, it reasonably follows that they had no cause for such shame before they sinned.

For unless some indelicacy of motion had announced to their eyes— which were of course not closed, though not open to this point, that is, not attentive— that those particular members should be corrected, they would not have perceived anything on their own persons, which God had entirely made worthy of all praise, that called for either shame or concealment. (On Original Sin, II, 41)

St. Augustine speculates that some visible sign of lust caused Adam and Eve to feel shame and wish to cover their loins. This need not have been the case; rather, they might have become aware of immoderate desires recognized as coming from their loins, even without a visible change. In other words, the change need not have been physiological so much as psychological. While it is not necessary to sustain St. Augustine’s peculiar thesis that the generative organs were originally governed by conscious rational volition, we may still accept his broader point that there was no immoderate shameful desire or lust prior to sin, as this is strongly implied by Holy Scripture.

This distinction in origins between marriage and lust is not purely theoretical, for it helps to defend marriage as a value above and independent of lust:

Such, however, is the present condition of mortal men, that the connubial intercourse and lust are at the same time in action; and on this account it happens, that as the lust is blamed, so also the nuptial commerce, however lawful and honourable, is thought to be reprehensible by those persons who either are unwilling or unable to draw the distinction between them.

They are, moreover, inattentive to that good of the nuptial state which is the glory of matrimony; I mean offspring, chastity, and the pledge. The evil, however, at which even marriage blushes for shame is not the fault of marriage, but of the lust of the flesh. Yet because without this evil it is impossible to effect the good purpose of marriage, even the procreation of children, whenever this process is approached, secrecy is sought, witnesses removed, and even the presence of the very children which happen to be born of the process is avoided as soon as they reach the age of observation. (On Original Sin, II, 42)

There are three goods of marriage: offspring, chastity, and the pledge. Chastity cannot mean merely restraining concupiscence, for there would have been no such need before sin. It is a positive value in its own right, which is why St. Augustine calls it a “glory.” Marriage also cultivates virtue by its pledge of fidelity, a feature we now call the “unitive” aspect of marriage.

Although marriage is not shameful, all decent people blush at the expression of lust, which, in our fallen state, is a necessary evil for accomplishing the good purpose of marriage. It is morally licit, even praiseworthy, to use such evil, since the sin in such cases is excusable or venial, and practically unavoidable. Moralists might quibble over whether marital concupiscence deserves to be properly called a sin, but no one with a sense of decorum can deny that it involves something shameful. This is why conjugal acts are conducted in private, excluding even the presence of one’s own children.

A distinction between “carnal” and “spiritual” generation (cf. On Original Sin, II, 44) accounts for why baptized parents nonetheless bear children with original sin. This does not mean, however, that the parents commit sin in the conjugal act.

In the case, therefore, of regenerate parents, if they continue in the same state of grace, it will undoubtedly work no injurious consequence, by reason of the remission of sins which has been bestowed upon them, unless they make a perverse use of it—not only all kinds of lawless corruptions, but even in the marriage state itself, whenever husband and wife toil at procreation, not from the desire of natural propagation of their species, but are mere slaves to the gratification of their lust out of very wantonness. (Ibid., II, 43)

In this account, Christian parents suffer no evil from making use of marriage, as long as they are motivated by the desire for procreation. This is because such venial sins are excused for those in the state of grace. Some modern theologians might add that marriage is also rightly used when directed toward its unitive purpose, as long as it is not opposed to procreation. In no case, however, is it licit to use marriage for the gratification of wanton lust. As St. Jerome said, nothing is more shameful than to use one’s wife as an adulteress.

As for the permission which the apostle gives to husbands and wives, not to defraud one another, except with consent for a time, that they may have leisure for prayer, [1 Cor. 7:5] he concedes it by way of indulgent allowance, and not as a command; but this very form of the concession evidently implies some degree of fault. (Ibid., II, 43)

In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul seems to indicate that spouses are ordinarily obligated to honor the “marriage debt” (as the right to conjugal relations would later be called). St. Augustine interprets this as an indulgence rather than a command, so married people are not obligated to have carnal relations, but this is merely allowed to them. More likely, the Apostle intended that conjugal relations should ordinarily be an obligation of marriage, though he saw marriage itself as a lesser state than that of perfect chastity. Marriage may be considered a “concession” to human weakness insofar as it protects us from being unduly tempted to debauchery, yet it also has a positive value, as St. Augustine admits. Further, such value necessarily includes conjugal acts, which are not sinful in themselves, but in their concomitant lust. Once marriage is contracted, the parties are indeed bound not to deny the other the marriage debt, and this is by right, not by mere concession.

The connubial embrace, however, which marriage-contracts point to as intended for the procreation of children, considered in itself simply, and without any reference to fornication, is good and right; because, although it is by reason of this body of death (which is unrenewed as yet by the resurrection) impracticable without a certain amount of bestial motion, which puts human nature to the blush, yet the embrace is not after all a sin in itself, when reason applies the concupiscence (libidine) to a good end, and is not overmastered to evil. (On Original Sin, II, 43)

Even the austere St. Augustine does not assert that the conjugal act is intrinsically sinful, and on the contrary he says it is “good and right” when intended toward procreation. This intention is explicitly present in the marriage-contract, though it need not be consciously present during each act.

Pelagian opponents of St. Augustine accused him of effectively condemning marriage, since the marital act is always accompanied by concupiscence. His first book On Matrimony and Concupiscence (419) responds to this criticism by elaborating the distinction between marital union and vicious lust.

St. Augustine addressed his book to Valerius, who practiced continence in the married state. Perfect chastity in Christians is a gift of God, yet those unbelievers who practice chastity not to please God, but rather men or devils (i.e., pagan deities), or to avoid troubles, only subordinate one sin (lust) to another (idolatry). (De nuptiis, I, 4) Thus they fall under the Apostle’s condemnation: “Whatever is not of faith is sin,” (Rom. 14:23) which applies to the deeds of men, not their natural endowments of body and soul.

The union of the sexes for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage. To merely gratify lust is to make a bad use of this good. Even the birds, with their cooperative nest-building, caring for eggs and feeding chicks, seem to mate with the intent of procreation.

Note that the gratification of lust, not just lust itself, is evil. Otherwise, St. Augustine would be in the position of claiming that a desire for a good object is bad. That would still be defensible, since we could want to attain a good object in a bad way. Still, he takes the stance that the fulfillment or enjoyment, not just the desire, is evil. This idea that the pleasure of coition is evil is not supported in Jewish tradition or Eastern Orthodoxy. While it might not be sustainable that such pleasure is altogether evil, it can hardly be denied that, in actual experience, there is no sharp distinction between the desire and its gratification. Indeed, the desire itself engenders an enjoyment which falls under the same sense of shame and decorum as the desire. Thus St. Augustine seems to be more psychologically astute than the thinkers of the East on this point. Modern objections to the above are mostly reducible to simple hedonism.

Those who would perform conjugal acts while refusing to procreate with each other are “fraudulent companions,” in St. Augustine’s view. They are mates who are not really mates. Sexuality is essentially a form of reproduction; indeed, the male and female sexes are defined by their roles in procreation. “Non-procreative sex” is an oxymoron, intelligible only to a hedonist. The procreative function or purpose of sexuality is not merely a dry biological fact, but also has a moral character. Those who perform conjugal acts without intending to ever attempt procreation are feigning an intimacy and unity of purpose. In fact, they are merely using each other for pleasure, regardless of how they may dress this in beautiful terms. They are not embarking on any project to unite their flesh in their offspring, which is what makes such a sentimental union desirable and necessary.

On the other hand, mere abstinence from conjugal relations does not suffice to attain chastity. How, St. Augustine asks, can there be real chastity in a pagan, whose soul is unchaste? The Old Testament repeatedly identifies idolatry as a form of adultery or fornication. The principal crime of unchastity is not a mere lack of discipline over the passions, but the infidelity this entails. For a Christian virgin or widow, chastity is a mark of fidelity to God. Thus a previously married Christian is to be more greatly esteemed for her chastity than the vestal virgins or heretical virgins, in whom there is no true chastity. From this it is clear that the Christian virtue of chastity is not grounded in a Stoic disdain for the passions, but in self-giving devotion to God.

When the first man transgressed the law of God, he began to have another law in his members which was repugnant to the law of his mind, and he felt the evil of his own disobedience when he experienced in the disobedience of his own flesh a most righteous retribution recoiling on himself. (De nuptiis, I, 7)

The opening of Adam’s eyes in Genesis 3 is the perception of vicious desires within himself. Here it seems that such concupiscence is consequent to Adam”s disobedience, rather than its cause. This implies that the devil did not immediately introduce lust into humanity. Rather, he tempted man to sin volitionally, and in consequence man lost divine grace and was introduced to concupiscence: “…then did he distinguish evil from good—not by avoiding it, but by enduring it.” (Loc. cit.)

Currently, the generative organ does not obey the will, but requires lust to set it in motion. Since this organ is called “natural,” St. Augustine remarks, it is fitting that the depravation of human nature should be so manifested.

The distinction between the good of marriage and the evil of lust is obvious, he says, as it holds even for married persons today. What is effected in propagation is good, but the evil of concupiscence is hidden in shame. He makes an analogy with a lame man who attains some good by limping. The attainment is not evil by his lameness, nor is lameness thereby good. Likewise, if the marital act can be accomplished only by lust, this does not make marriage evil, nor does it make lust good. (De nuptiis, I, 8)

More explicitly, carnal concupiscence “is not a good which comes out of the essence of marriage, but an evil which is the accident of original sin (sed ex antiquo peccato accidens malum).” (De nuptiis, I, 19) Again, it seems that vicious desire is posterior to Adam’ disobedience. The devil introduces these desires only indirectly, by tempting the man to obtain knowledge of evil on his own, which is through experience. Adam sins by consenting to the devil’s invitation, and so becomes exposed to vicious desires.

St. Augustine wrote at a time when even worldly people took for granted that the supreme joy of marriage was bearing a child. (De nuptiis, II, 19) This joy has been lost to many in our culture, where children are seen as expensive burdens rather than producers of wealth. This suppression of the procreative drive essential to natural life only shows how the hedonistic model of sexuality is divorced from nature.

While modern secular culture revels in indecency, discussion of original sin presupposes Christianity, so even those who object to this doctrine recognize shamefulness in lust. Thus the Pelagians used circumlocutions, speaking of “concupiscence” without saying “carnal,” even as they argued that concupiscence was given to Abraham and Sarah as a divine gift. St. Augustine replies that they already had concupiscence, but were only given fecundity.(De nuptiis, II, 23)

This last assertion is not altogether convincing, for Sarah had earlier laughed at the idea that she should give herself to pleasure, suggesting that she lacked this desire due to age. The basic Augustinian position on concupiscence may still be upheld, nonetheless, if we admit that God did restore concupiscence in Sarah, but only as a secondary effect of her miraculously restored fecundity. This secondary effect is a necessary consequence of the corruption of our nature, which makes fecundity impossible without the presence of lust. This agrees with the plain sense of Scripture, which clearly indicates that the blessing desired by Abraham and Sarah was to bear a child, not to enjoy carnal pleasure, which is but a means to that end. If this desire had subsided in them due to age, it is unlikely that this holy couple would wistfully long for a return to youthful lust, as do so many immature seniors in our time, but, instead, as sober-minded people, they accepted this absence gracefully, and may even, like Socrates, have been grateful to be freed from this frenzy.

Although the pleasure of concupiscence is a necessary condition for procreation in our corrupted state, it is not the cause of procreation. As St. Augustine notes, pleasure as such does not form the seminal elements, so it does not generate the human. When Holy Scripture praises fertility, this does not imply praise of lust, for there can be fertility without lust. We see this even today with seeds of grain. Why could not God have granted the same to man in his original state? (De nuptiis, II, 29)

It is not necessary to insist that man in his original state did not have any instinctive sexual desire, but only that this desire was not as it is today, immoderate and shameful. The wickedness in this desire is acknowledged even by modern hedonists, who use terms such as “naughty” and “dirty” to describe their delights. This is not mere ironic mockery of traditional morality, but rather they express that the perceived badness or wrongness of an act adds to its attraction, confirming a perversity or disorder of carnal concupiscence that is specific to humans.

Christ’s sanctification of marriage does not imply that concupiscence is similarly blessed. Christian marriage is not a mere vehicle for the gratification of lust, as is proved by St. Paul’s exhortations to temperance. Following the Apostle, St. Augustine says that married couples “may by consent establish times of temperance for prayer…” (Contra Iulianum, V, ix, 40) He adds that they should ask forgiveness when they return to intemperance. By intemperate, he refers to the Apostle’ warning against possessing one’s vessel in the disease of lust. It is unclear here if he thinks that all conjugal acts necessarily fall under this category.

St. Augustine’s strong stance that carnal concupiscence is always evil seems to be in tension with the goodness of the marital act. Julian found it inconsistent for Augustine to claim the use of lust is evil and to excuse, even praise, Christian spouses who intend children for the sake of the world to come. This, he argued, would not justify lust if its use were evil, just as it would not justify adultery. Likewise, one should not steal to feed the needy, or otherwise do evil that good may result. (Ibid., V, x, 41)

Further, Julian noted that people think of nothing but carnal pleasure during intercourse, which hardly seems compatible with the notion that they are using it for some higher end. St. Augustine agrees that a man thinks only of pleasure during the act, but nonetheless he may think about the good use prior to it. Similarly, one who thinks about the good of his health may decide to go to sleep, even though he cannot think of this while sleeping. (Ibid., V, x, 42)

In De nuptiis, St. Augustine had said that conjugal intercourse for procreation “is not itself sin, because the good will of the soul directs and does not follow the consequent pleasure of the body.” (Quoted in Contra Iulianum, V, xvi, 59) This answers the charge that he is justifying an evil deed with a good end. Concupiscence is not itself sin, though sin can arise from it. Julian challenges this, saying, “Sins do not arise from a thing which is free from the sin.” He extends this argument to deny that original sin can arise from propagation if conjugal intercourse is without sin. (Loc. cit.)

St. Augustine answers:

Conjugal intercourse… is not sin, because it uses well the law of sin, that is to say, the concupiscence existing in the members of the body… If this concupiscence does not hold the parent liable (reum parentem non tenet), but only because he was regenerated, no wonder it holds liable the one born (reum tenet nascentum), because he was generated from it… (Contra Iulianum, V, xvi, 59)

In this account, Christian conjugal intercourse is without sin only by virtue of baptism, so it is only consistent that the unbaptized newborn is bound by the law of sin, i.e., concupiscence, from which he is generated. Note the parallel between the regeneration of baptism and generation of birth. Christian conjugal relations are without sin because of our intention to baptize or regenerate our children.

“Further, it is false that ‘sins do not arise from a thing which is free from sin,’ for then sins would have a nature of their own, as the Manichaeans say.” (Contra Iulianum, V, xvi, 59) For St. Augustine, sin does not have a positive nature; it is a defect or fault. His notion of original sin should not be construed as some substance or nature being passed from parent to offspring, but rather as a defect. If the parent lacks a certain perfection, it will not spontaneously arise in the child by natural propagation. Even the baptized parent cannot pass his regeneration onto his child by natural propagation. The child can be regenerated only by the supernatural grace of the sacrament. The angelic nature was created free from sin, yet an angel was able to fall; likewise, the first man was created free from sin. So sin can arise in that which has no sin at first, and this is not contrary to philosophy, since a defect or lack may arise without being derived from some positive nature.

St. Augustine denies that the use of lust always entails guilt. “I say to use lust is not always sin, because to use well an evil is not sin, nor does good use by a good man mean the thing itself must be good.” (Ibid., V, xvi, 60) For example, ‘A learned son will be wise, but he may use an imprudent minister.’ This does not mean it is good to be imprudent.

The condemnation of concupiscence, as distinct from self-giving love or charity, is confirmed in the first epistle of St. John:

Love not the world, nor the things which are in the world. If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, is the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:15-16)

The term translated as “concupiscence” is epithymia, which in common usage means “strong desire,” usually of the body. Yet taking the word literally in Greek, thumia means mind or soul, making it clearer that concupiscence is upon “the flesh” in the Pauline sense of animal soul, not the body as such. This is confirmed by the term thumos, which refers to an animal temper, passion, or spiritedness. Thus when St. John speaks of concupiscence of the flesh (epithumia sarx), he refers to those passions which are stimulated in the flesh, but properly speaking the passions themselves are of the sensitive soul.

In St. Augustine’s account, good Christian spouses make use of the evil of concupiscence not because they have any love for this desire, but because there is no alternative instrument. Lust is evil, he says, because it opposes the good spirit, and good cannot oppose good. Still, we might consider that this dumb animal passion is morally neutral in itself, though it may occasion sin. Nonetheless, we have noted that there is something perverse and immoderate about lust as it is manifested in humans, so that the wrongness of an act accentuates its desirability. While we need not go as far as St. Augustine in declaring all carnal concupiscence to be evil, it can hardly be denied that there is evil tendency in it, though we are not culpable insofar as we do not consent to this.

The condemnation of concupiscence need not entail condemning marriage, if we grant that we may use it inculpably for a good end. This justification seems psychologically untrue, however, since it seems necessary to consent to the enjoyment of lust in order to procreate. In that case, if concupiscence is always sinful upon consent, then we are committing deliberate sin (however venial) that good may result, which is ethically problematic. The only way out of this conundrum is to acknowledge that not everything in concupiscence is evil, and that we consent only to what is not perverse and immoderate, while accepting these concomitant effects only begrudgingly, out of necessity. This frees Augustinian teaching from the rebuke of modern biology, which finds ardent desire even in creation before the Fall. As the original sense of the term ‘concupiscence’ admits, such ardor is not always evil. The first parents might have experienced such an involuntary desire in innocence, without the moral perversity that our experience has mistaken for an essential characteristic of the procreative impulse.

[Top of page]

5.4 Goodness of Human Nature and Its Corruption

No doubt the two are generated simultaneously—both nature and nature’s corruption; one of which is good, the other evil. The one comes to us from the bounty of the Creator, the other is contracted from the condemnation of our origin; the one has its cause in the good-will of the Supreme God, the other in the depraved will of the first man; the one exhibits God as the maker of the creature, the other exhibits God as the punisher of disobedience: in short, the very same Christ was the maker of man for the creation of the one, and was made man for the healing of the other. (On Original Sin II, 38)

On its surface, this may sound Manichaean, as there seem to be both good and evil principles in man, contemporaneous in origin. Their equivalence, however, is only superficial. The good principle is our created nature, which has a positive existence, and comes from Almighty God. The bad principle is not a substance or quality with positive being, but a corruption or privation of the created nature. Its temporal origin is in the bad choice made by the first man, well after the Creation.

It might be objected that the good God would not create infants who are immediately subject to the devil. Yet God’s creative act pertains to what is good in humans.

No one should feel surprise, and ask: Why does God’s goodness create anything for the devil’s malignity to take possession of? The truth is, God’s gift is bestowed on the seminal elements of His creature with the same bounty wherewith He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. [Matt. 5:45] It is with so large a bounty that God has blessed the very seeds, and by blessing has constituted them.

Nor has this blessing been eliminated out of our excellent nature by a fault which puts us under condemnation (culpa damnabilis). Although this [fault (culpa)], by God’ punishing justice, will have effect, so that men are born with the vice of original sin, yet it does not have effect, so that men are not born. (Quae licet per Dei punientis jusititiam valuerit, ut homines cum peccati originalis vitio nascerentur: non tamen valuit, ut homines non nascerentur.) Just so does it happen in persons of adult age: whatever sins they commit, do not eliminate his manhood from man; nay, God’s work continues still good, however evil be the deeds of the impious. (Ibid., II, 46)

Again we impose a more exact translation of a sentence (in bold) to clarify distinctions. Adam’s fault (culpa) is what causes men to be born with vicious desires. This causation is not immediate, but through God’s just punishment recounted in Genesis. This punished fault does not result in the prevention of natural generation, however, and created human nature as such remains good. Vice in man is not attributable to the divine creative act, but to the original fault of Adam and his temptation by the devil.

For although man being placed in honour abides not; and being without understanding, is compared with the beasts, and is like them, yet the resemblance is not so absolute that he becomes a beast. … For so excellent is a man in comparison with a beast, that man’s vice is beast’s nature; still man’s nature is never on this account changed into beast’s nature. (Ibid., II, 46)

Although we colloquially describe vicious people as acting like brute beasts, this should not be taken literally. Vicious desires and consequent evil deeds do not change human nature into that of a beast. There is only a superficial similarity, since the voluntary acts of man (which are the only acts that deserve to be called sinful) are mediated by rational intellect.

And also God condemns man because of the vice whereby [his] nature is disgraced, not because of [his] nature, which is not taken away by vice. (Ac per hoc Deus hominem damnat propter vitium, quo natura dehonestatur; non propter naturam, quae vitio non aufertur.) … What, then, is there surprising or unjust in man’s being subjected to an impure spirit not on account of nature, but on account of that impurity of his which he contracted, not out of the divine work, but coming out of human will (sed propter immunditiam suam, quam non ex opere divino, sed ex humana voluntate venientem in originis labe contraxit) since also the impure spirit itself is a good thing considered as spirit, but evil in that it is impure? (Ibid., II, 46)

Impurity or uncleanness in man is the result of his will (in particular, that of Adam), not something proper to human nature, which is divinely created as good. Since it is the product of human will, it is just for God to condemn man on its account, and it cannot be said that God created man evil in order to condemn him.

For the one is of God, and is His work, while the other emanates from man’s own will. The stronger nature, therefore, that is, the angelic one, keeps the lower, or human, nature in subjection, by reason of the association of vice with the latter. Accordingly the Mediator, who was stronger than the angels, became weak for man’s sake. [2 Corinthians 8:9] So that the pride of the Destroyer is destroyed by the humility of the Redeemer; and he who makes his boast over the sons of men of his angelic strength, is vanquished by the Son of God in the human weakness which He assumed. (Ibid., II, 46)

Man’s bondage to the devil is explained by the fact that the latter possesses an angelic nature, which is stronger than human nature. Thus the devil is able to keep human nature in subjection as long as it is associated with vice. Christ, who is even stronger than the angels, frees man from this bondage, not by a greater act of force, but paradoxically through the assumption of human weakness and humility. Although man’s bondage to the devil is on account of vice, we have seen that vicious desires persist even among the baptized who are freed. It is not by directly overpowering the devil, but by humble recourse to divine mercy through repentance that we are freed from this bondage. The vicious desires in the baptized no longer make them subject to the devil, nor are they liable for Adam’s fault.

The wound that the devil inflicted on human race (concupiscence) compels everything born in consequence to be “under the devil’s power, as if he were rightly plucking fruit off his own tree.” (De nuptiis, I, 26) Human nature comes from God, but sin from the devil. An apparent problem here is that sin is treated, at least in analogy, as something with generative power, and therefore with positive existence. Still, one can harmonize this analogy with the notion that sin is only a privation. Either concupiscence is sharply distinguished from sin, or we note that inheriting a flaw or infirmity does not entail that said flaw has positive existence, only that we fail to inherit a certain perfection.

“Wherefore the devil holds infants liable (reos)…” who are born “not of the good whereby marriage is good, but of the evil of concupiscence, which indeed marriage uses aright, but at which even marriage has occasion to feel shame” (De nuptiis,, I, 27) Once more this seems to make lust the reason for transmitted liability for original sin. Yet the whole point of this argument is to show that human nature, essentially good, does not transmit original sin. Rather, a privation or defect accounts for it, not an evil nature.

In this vein, St. Augustine says the devil is the author only of our sins, not our nature (De nuptiis, II, 11), clearly rejecting Manichaeism. The Manichaeans say man was formed by the prince of darkness out of a mixture of two natures, one good and one evil. The Pelagians and Coelestians say human nature was created good by God, and is still so sound and healthy in infants at birth that they have no need of Christ’s medicine. Catholics instead teach that human nature was created good by God, but corrupted by sin, so it needs Christ as physician. This is true even of infants, as proved by infant baptism. (Loc. cit.)

Thus distinguishing doctrines, he finds that, while the Manichaeans give a cruel censure of human nature, the Pelagians give cruel praise, for those who believe that nothing needs to be saved by Christ will never bring their infants to Christ. Note that modern Catholic optimism about the fate of unbaptized infants does not derive from a denial of original sin, but from faith in Christ’s desire to have the children brought to Him. Those who defer infant baptism believing it unnecessary are sinfully keeping their children away from Christ.

Julian says that since conjugal union is a natural good, so is their product good. Augustine answers that even children of adultery are good insofar as they are a work of God, but all are born under the liability of original sin. (De nuptiis, II, 35)

All works were created good by God, yet evil arose among some of them (angels, men) where previously there was no evil, hence evil arose out of good. This evil did not arise out of good creatures by virtue of their being created by God, but by virtue of their being created out of nothing. (De nuptiis, II, 48) That is, evil is corruption in the sense of a privation, decay, deterioriation, i.e., a creature losing some of its being. Whatever is good in creation is by virtue of its positive being, made by God. Without the act of the Creator, all creatures would be nothing.

The divine creation of man does not preclude the appearance of sin in man, so this is no strong objection to the doctrine of original sin. Once it is allowed that the devil could introduce evil into the world where there was previously none, there is even less objection against man becoming able to sin. The sins of men result from the devil’s work propagated in the world (De nuptiis, II, 48)

This does not address the difficulty of how Adam was able to sin if he was in a state of innocence. One possible solution is that he did not desire to sin as such, but desired an act that was objectively sinful, without ill will on his part. The example of Eve shows that her innocence may have actually made her more vulnerable to temptation.

You say my teaching is deformed and groundless that it tries to ascribe injustice to God, the creation of man to the Devil, a substance to sin, and conscience without knowledge to infants.

It does not ascribe the creation of man, but the corruption of human origin, to the Devil; it ascribes to sin, not a substance, but the action, in the first men, and the contagion, in their posterity. It does not ascribe conscience without knowledge to infants, in whom there is neither knowledge nor conscience; he in whom all have sinned knew what he was doing, and every man contracts evil from that source. (Contra Iulianum, V, i, 3)

In Latin, contagium (contagion) is not a substance, but a “contact” or “touching.” This preserves the notion of evil as privation, so human nature as such is good even after Adam’s sin, though a heritable defect is passed to his posterity.

Augustinian emphasis on the evil of concupiscence led Julian to compare this doctrine to that of the Paternian and Venustian heretics, who said that the devil made the lower half of man’s body, which has its own domain.

In accordance with the Catholic faith, I attribute the whole man—that is to say, the whole soul and the whole body—to God the Creator, supreme and true; the Devil vitiated, but did not create, human nature or any part of it. We must fight against the Devil’s wound, which, with God’s help, is to be tended and healed until we shall be entirely freed from it; nor can man, with what purity he has in his life, keep the soul by which his body lives all pure if he consents to concupiscence of the flesh to commit crime and uncleanness. (Contra Iulianum, V, vi, 26)

St. Augustine considers concupiscence to be a fault, not a power or faculty. (See Contra Iul., V, vi, 25) This seems unsustainable insofar as concupiscence is positive desire. Rather, what is defective is not concupiscence as such, but that which is perverse or immoral in it.

Are you not as yet able to understand that we by virtue do not war against our nature, but our fault? … When lust conquers, the Devil also conquers; when lust is conquered, the Devil is also conquered. … There is no fighting without evil, for, when there is fighting, it is either good against evil, or evil against evil; or, if two goods oppose each other, their opposition itself is a great evil. (Contra Iulianum, V, vi, 28)

Since Julian denies that concupiscence is evil, he is forced to say that we should overcome carnal pleasure, not as good warring against evil, but as good warring against another good, and by man’s own powers. (See Ibid., V, vi, 32) St. Augustine’s view, by contrast, avoids any need for conflict within human nature, since what we are fighting is a fault or defect. In this respect, he is less Manichaean than Julian.

Christ, though lacking our fault of original sin, nonetheless truly had our nature. “But the nature of the man Christ was not unlike our nature; it was unlike our fault.” (Ibid., V, xiv, 57) Original sin is not proper to our nature, but is a corruption of it.

Chastity is attributable to the will helped by the grace of God. The fact that we must suppress something to be chaste suggests there is sin. “In order not to say with the Manichaeans, then, that this evil is mixed with us from an alien, evil nature, we must confess that in our nature there is something like a wound which must be healed…” (Ibid., V, xvi, 65)

‘Each one has his own gift from God,’ (1 Cor 7:7) whereby the desires of the flesh can be fought. Julian says we can regulate our innate desires. St. Augustine asks if these desires are good or evil.

If good, the spirit lusts against good… and this opposition of two goods could not be good. But if there are evil activities, you admit that in man there are evil activities he possesses by birth, against which chastity fights. (Contra Iulianum, V, xvi, 66)

This evil is not an alien nature of evil, as the Manichaeans claim, but a sickness in us. (Loc. cit.) This makes sense if we regard the sickness not as a foreign substance or pathogen (which is the cause of the sickness, not the sickness itself), but as the malfunction of our natural processes. Sickness so conceived is not a nature, but a defect or privation in our nature.

Concupiscence is something that we perceive as resisting our striving for chastity. “If we say it is an alien nature and must be got rid of, we agree with the Manichaeans. Let us, then, confess it is our own nature which must be healed…” (Ibid., VI, xviii, 57)

St. Augustine had long ago held Julian’s erroneous opinion about Romans 7:14-24, “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, no good dwells…,” namely that “carnal” could apply only to those under the power of concupiscence. He now recognizes that it applies even to those who struggle with desire, though they do not succumb. Saints “are still carnal in a corruptible body which is a load upon the soul.” (cf. Wis. 9:15) They are still “subject to stimulations by desires to which they do not consent.” (Contra Iul., VI, xxiii, 70) While he seems to restrict St. Paul’s sense to sexual concupiscence, the same principle may be applied to all vicious desires.

None of us accuses the substance of the body; none accuses the nature of the flesh…. We do not deny that evil desires of concupiscence are in us… They must be chastised; they must be restrained; they must be attacked; they must be overcome—nonetheless, they are with us, and they are not another’s Nor are they goods of ours, but evils. Manichaean folly says they are distinct from us and outside of us. Catholic truth says they have not been healed… (Contra Iulianum, VI, xxiii, 74)

It is not Manichaean to say that there is evil in us. It is Manichaean to say that there is an evil nature in us, as though it were some alien invader in our body, or something not proper to ourselves. St. Augustine and all Catholics assert that the evil in us belongs to us, that is, to our nature. We do not have a good nature and a bad nature, but only one nature. This nature is corrupt or sick, and is in need of healing. Indeed, this is a necessary presupposition for Christianity to be intelligible.

Still, St. Augustine’s characterization of the evil in us as something to be attacked, chastised, etc. certainly makes it sound as if it were a foreign invader, like a disease. We must keep in mind, however, that our notion of disease is informed by modern microbiology of infectious pathogens. The ancient concept of disease was that the body was somehow disordered or corrupt. A modern analog might be cancer, caused (at least proximately) not by a foreign invader, but by unregulated operations (cell divisions) of the body.

A fitting allegory for St. Augustine’s notion of evil in our nature might be a disorderly room that needs to be cleaned. We may struggle to bring order to the room, but this does not mean that the disorder comes from some external enemy, as we ourselves made the mess.

It is always difficult for any account of inner human conflict to avoid sounding like Manichaeism, since grammar requires that we speak even of privations as substantives (nouns). Nonetheless, Christians cannot deny that we are in need of healing, for that was the express mission of Christ Himself, who surely did not act in vain.

[Top of page]

5.5 Why Concupiscence is Accounted as Sin

St. Augustine regards all sexual desire as inherently concupiscent or lustful, and therefore sinful. It might be argued that such desire is not sinful if it is moderate, but in fact it is always violent and immoderate in its quality. The complete absence of conjugal relations in the kingdom of heaven, as taught by Christ, implies that all sexual desire, if not actually sinful, is at least incompatible with the life of holiness that is the goal of all Christians.

The Cynics thought that because the conjugal act itself was lawful and honorable, it should be done in public without shame. (De nuptiis, I, 24) Similarly facile “sex is good” arguments are made today. These arguments fail to appreciate the distinction between the act and concupiscence. Only the latter is shameful. Since it is practically impossible to perform the marital act or even walk around nude in public without concupiscence, these are rightfully prohibited.

Concupiscence passes on the bond of sin (Ibid., I, 25), though this is not limited to sexual desire. “In the case, however, of the regenerate, concupiscence is not itself sin any longer, whenever they do not consent to it for illicit works…” (Loc. cit.)

Note that St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin here makes concupiscence itself sin in the unbaptized. Yet this cannot be literally true, since desire of itself is not sin when there is no consent. It may be a consequence of Adam’s sin, and the means by which sin is repeated, and thus considered “sin” in that broader sense. St. Augustine here seems to mean “sin” as that which incurs liability (reatus), though we are not culpable for any sin. Elsewhere he will have to explain why we bear liability for Adam’s guilt. (See Part VI of this essay.)

St. Augustine clarifies: “As arising from sin, it is, I say, called sin, although in the regenerate it is not actually sin.” Concupiscence is called sin “as producing sin when it conquers [the will].” (De nuptiis, I, 25) Similarly, language uttered by a tongue is called a tongue, and writing is called “a hand.” (Loc. cit.)

[Top of page]

5.6 Baptism Redeems Liability, yet Concupiscence Remains

Liability for original sin is redeemed in the baptized, yet somehow “children of wrath” are born out of Christian marriages. St. Augustine explains that we are still children of the world, for “our outer man is in a state of corruption,” (De nuptiis, I, 20) yet we are also children of God, as “our inner man is renewed from day to day.” (2 Cor 4:16) St. Paul says we are still awaiting the redemption of the body (Rom. 8:23), whence it follows this has not occurred yet.

“The liability (reatum) of this concupiscence, regeneration alone remits (dimittit), even as natural generation contracts it (trahit).” By analogy, cultivated olives will still beget wild olives. No one would believe that an olive contains the embryo of a wild olive tree if it were not proved true by experiment and observation. (De nuptiis, I, 21) This analogy does not prove that the same is true of concupiscence, but it does show that it is not irrational for this to be so.

Remission of carnal concupiscence does not cause it to cease to exist, but to cease to be accounted as sin, so we are no longer held liable. (De nuptiis, I, 28) “It does not remain, however, substantially, as a body, or a spirit; but it is nothing more than a certain affection of an evil quality, such as languor, for instance.” (Loc. cit.) Again, evil is regarded as a privation.

There is nothing remaining in concupiscence to be forgiven, but it remains for our infirmities to be healed, for our bodies to be redeemed from corruption. For not to have sin means only this: not to be liable (reatus) for sin. (Ibid. I, 29) Christians may still have vicious desires in their flesh, but they are no longer held liable for these if they do not consent. We reserve for later discussion (Part VI) why we were held liable for Adam’s sin in the first place. Suffice it to note that we may retain liability (reatus) for sins we committed in past, even if we do not repeat them now. This shows that liability is temporally distinct from the act of sin.

St. Paul does not command that you should not have lusts, which is impossible, but only that you should not obey them. (Rom. 6:12) Still, St. Augustine says, we should wish for the nonexistence of these desires. That is why Apostle says “I do not what I would but what I hate.” (Rom. 7:15)

Vicious desires that oppose what the good soul wants fall under the commandments against coveting, according to St. Augustine. Those Christians who do what they hate against their will are coveting. The Apostle says: I consent unto the law that it is good. (Rom. 7:16) St. Augustine explains that this refers to the Law’s commandments against coveting. St. Paul was unwilling to covet, and yet he did covet. (De nuptiis, I, 30) Hence, “it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me.” (Rom. 7:17) Here it is clear that St. Paul regards concupiscence as sin (not as the act of sin, but possibly as liability), so St. Augustine is expounding him correctly.

The one who consents to lust, by contrast, has no right to say, “It is not I who do it,” even if he hates himself for consenting. “The two things are simultaneous in his case: he hates the thing himself because he knows that it is evil; and yet he does it, because he is bent on doing it.” (De nuptiis, I, 31) This acute observation exhibits more sagacity than modern excuse-making psychology. The consenting will is not absolved simply because he detests his own act. Such a person “so greatly errs as not to know his own self. For whereas he is altogether himself, his mind determining and his body executing his own purpose, he yet supposes that he is himself no longer!” (Loc. cit.)

“For I know that in me dwells no good thing, that is to say, in my flesh, that which is good. For to will is present with me, but how to perfect (perficere) that which is good I find not.” (Rom. 7:18) St. Augustine comments that good is not perfected by the mere absence of evil desires. Yet the presence of evil desires, even when not obeyed, yields an intermediate state, where “good is effected in some degree… and in some degree there is a remnant of evil, because the concupiscence is present.” That is why the Apostle does not deny that he can do (facere) good, only that he can perfect (perficere) it (i.e., fully accomplish it). (De nuptiis, I, 32)

Here St. Augustine relies on the term perficere in the Latin Bible, which in this case accurately renders the Greek katergazomai, meaning “to accomplish, achieve,” or more literally, “to work down to the endpoint.” This word is used to mean “work” in Rom. 7:8,13,15,17. If we were to render it as facere in Rom. 7:18, we would make St. Paul more “Augustinian” than Augustine, denying that we can do good works.

It may be objected that the Jews never interpreted the commandments against coveting as forbidding interior vicious desires, but St. Augustine is making a distinctively Christian interpretation. He holds that the Law forbade coveting so that “we might seek the medicine of Grace.” Indeed, the only Jews who could convert to Christianity were those who recognized that it was impossible for them to keep the Law perfectly. St. Paul certainly exemplifies this thought, emphasizing the need for interior conversion even when external duties are performed. Such teaching reflects that of Christ Himself in the Gospels. We might lament that no one can be saved with such an impossible standard of perfection. St. Augustine, with faith in divine justice, recognizes that the commandment against coveting would never have been given unless perfection could somehow be attained. The Law, even if it did not overtly require perfection, at least pointed us in the right direction, away from concupiscence. By discussing coveting in general, it becomes clearer that St. Augustine intends concupiscence in general, not just sexual lust.

Only by the saving grace of God does the inward man come to delight in the Law. (Rom. 7:22) “We are truly free there, where we have no unwilling joy.” (De nuptiis, I, 33) Nonetheless, the outward man, i.e., the flesh, still labors in captivity. Thus, when the Apostle speaks of “bringing me into captivity to the law of sin,” (Rom. 7:23) St. Augustine remarks that he could mean either “endeavoring to make me captive, that is, urging me to approve and accomplish evil desire,” or “leading me captive according to the flesh.” (De nuptiis, I, 34) The latter seems to be excluded, since he says “bringing me,” not “my flesh.” Still, St. Augustine shows that it is common to speak of a person while really intending his flesh, so either interpretation is viable.

The Apostle himself offers clarification at the end of the verse, saying “the law of sin in my members.” (Rom. 7:23) This explains why he later says we are waiting for the redemption of our body. (Rom. 8:23) There is something in us still captive to the law of sin. When the Apostle says, “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24) St. Augustine responds, “What are we to understand by such language but that our body, which is undergoing corruption, weighs heavily on our soul?” (De nuptiis, I, 35)

An actual law of sin holds the flesh in captivity, which is why the flesh resists the law of mind. “Still it has not an absolute empire in our body… since it refuses obedience to its desires.” (Loc. cit.) Even the body is not completely subject to concupiscence. St. Augustine offers an analogy from war, where even the inferior side in a battle usually holds something captured. Similarly, sin is defeated in Christians, but it still holds something in us, and even this only partially.

St. Paul teaches, “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus had made me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:2)

Liberavit, quamodo? nisi quia eius reatum peccatorum omnium remissione dissolvit

How did he free, except by dissolving the liability through the remission of all sins? (De nuptiis, I, 36)

There is no condemnation in Christians for concupiscence (i.e., the partial subjection of the flesh to sin). Christ removed the liability (reatum) of “the law of sin,” i.e., concupiscence, “so it is not imputed as sin” (in peccatum tamen no imputetur). (Loc. cit.)

Conversely, the unbaptized, including infants, have the law of sin imputed to them as sin.

Id est, ut etiam reatus eius cum illa sit, quae teneat aeterni supplicii debitorem.

That is, with that [law of sin] there will be its liability, which holds them debtors of eternal suffering. (Ibid., I, 37)

It may seem unjust that we can be debtors of eternal punishment for a sin we have not committed, which is why St. Augustine elsewhere tries to show that we did sin in Adam. Yet if this punishment consists in nothing more than being denied life in heaven, there is nothing unjust, since we cannot merit heaven on our own. The infliction of suffering beyond this, however, seems problematic, unless there is personal sin. This is why St. Augustine takes care to say that unbaptized infants suffer a miniscule degree at most.

Moreover, there is nothing inherently unjust in suffering for the mistakes of our ancestors. If they established a bad society, or did not make good economic provisions, etc., we would rightly suffer for their mistakes, not because we are guilty of them, but as a natural consequence.

St. Augustine’s analogy of the olive tree regressing to wild type is supported by modern genetics, which also proves the non-inheritance of acquired characteristics. Thus it is understandable that the effect of baptism is not inherited. How is it, then, that we inherit Adam’s defect? St. Augustine answers that when Adam sinned, he was changed from a pure olive to a wild olive tree. This seems to imply a change in nature or essence, but a wild olive is still an olive tree, and corrupt man is still man. Alternatively, we may suggest that the original purity was a supernatural endowment, thereby accounting for its non-inheritance.

All regeneration is through baptism, even the final regeneration of the flesh. Pardon of personal sins is secured to the faithful by its ministration. (De nuptiis, I, 38) That is, baptism makes possible access to the Sacrament of Penance. Repentance in the faithful can result in pardon only because they are baptized. Repentance in the unbaptized would be useless if it were not followed by baptism. (Loc. cit.) Here St. Augustine extols baptism, crediting even the final resurrection and regeneration to it, to show its power to cleanse original sin.

Since baptism can cleanse all things, so we are left without spot or wrinkle, it can cleanse even evils that are not sins. (Ibid., I, 39) Still, members of the Church continue to have spots in this life, as is proved by the fact that we confess sins.

St. Augustine clarifies in Contra Iulianum that the believer is not liable (reus) for evil in his members, but “the newly born contracts liability (reatum trahat) from this evil; for rebirth, not birth, conferred this benefit on the believer…” (Contra Iulianum, V, xiii, 50)

Julian argued that God would cleanse infants of any original sin contracted from their parents, since it is He who forms them in womb. St. Augustine replies that God forms all our bodies, yet many of these bodies have faults, and some are even monsters. So just because God forms our souls, He may nonetheless permit them to have faults received from parents. (Ibid., V, 14, 53) To make another simile, “Wheat is cleansed of chaff as man is cleansed of sin, yet other wheat sprouts from it with chaff.” (Ibid., VI, vi, 15) In all of this, St. Augustine does not pretend to knowledge of how the soul is formed.

Julian thinks it is impossible for baptized parents to transmit original sin, since parents cannot transmit what they no longer possess. St. Augustine easily refutes this, noting that the children of the circumcised are born with foreskins. (Ibid., VI, vii)

St. Augustine does not deny the perfection of baptism by saying we still have concupiscence. All Christians recognize that redemption of the body is in the world to come, and that now “We ourselves groan within ourselves.” [1 Cor 3:16] (Ibid., VI, xiii) The baptized must still wage war against desires to which we do not consent, as concupiscence persists even in a eunuch. (Ibid., VI, xiv, 41)

God may form a sinful man in a baptized woman; what is more, he may form in an impure woman one chosen to be baptized. God’s power reaches everywhere without defiling His purity. That the body of one’s mother is the temple of God is a gift of grace, and grace is not passed by conception, but by regeneration. Otherwise we would not need to baptize an infant if the mother had been baptized while it was inside her. “He did not belong to his mother’s body when he was in her womb…” (Ibid.VI, xiv, 43) An unbeliever is created in a believing woman, transmitting the unbelief the parents had when they were born. “They transmitted something no longer in them because of the spiritual seed by which they are regenerated, but it was in the carnal seed by which they generated him.” (Loc. cit.) Here he articulates that the carnal seed is not changed by baptism, which is confirmed by non-Lamarckian heredity.

Julian contradicts himself when saying that the resurrected will no longer bruise their bodies or subject it to servitude. Why should they do this now, if baptism entails, on his account, the loss of every evil? He should admit the reality of sinful desires. (Ibid., VI, xv, 46)

As a layman, shortly after his conversion, St. Augustine wrote that the human race, as a consequence of original sin, has fallen into miseries in which man is like to vanity. Only Christ the Truth can set one free from vanity, according to grace, not debt, through mercy, not merit. “...we confess that our good merits themselves are but the gifts of God.” (Ibid., VI, xii)

Having shown how original sin, or at least liability for such, may be transmitted by natural propagation, which causes us to be born with vicious desires, it remains to complement this physical or anthropological account with a moral or juridical account. In other words, it should be shown how the doctrine of original sin is consonant with divine justice, particularly insofar as we seem to be held liable for the sin of another.

Continue to Part VI

© 2011, 2014-15 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.