7.1 Medieval Doctrines
7.1.1 Divergence of Latin and Greek Theology
7.1.2 Weakening of Free Will
7.1.5 Definition of Trent
7.2 Reformation Era Interpretations
7.3 The Limbo of Infants
7.4 Implications of Evolutionary Theory
The full-blown doctrine of original sin, at least as much as was ever solemnly defined by the Catholic Church, was already fully expounded by St. Augustine. All subsequent Western theologians took his discussion as their starting point, following not only his unequivocally Catholic doctrine, but also his more speculative theology. This led to a significant theological divergence from the East, as Latin Scholastics tended to interpret the Fall and Redemption in increasingly juridical terms, and repeatedly emphasized that “original sin” was really a sin deserving punishment.
The Greeks, by contrast, found this a strange way of speaking, since it seemed to treat original sin as a personal sin. This was especially the case when Latins espoused the view that “all sinned in Adam,” following the Vulgate’s doubtful rendering of Romans 5:12. It seemed that all men were somehow culpable for the first sin, not merely liable (reos) to its penalty.
The distinction between culpa and reatus likely would not have appeased many medieval Orthodox, however, since they were generally averse to conceiving Christ’s redemptive act in juridical terms, as though He were paying a penalty demanded by strict legalistic justice. Rather, Christ reconciles God and man in His own Incarnation, and this is conveyed to all men through His freely offered self-sacrifice on the Cross. Although the Greeks recognized that death is certainly a punishment for Adam’s sin, to them the corrupted state of his descendants did not imply that we too are punished for Adam’s sin. Rather, as a result of sin, we are less inclined toward God, and less capable of theosis. It is only through Christ that we may again approach the Father and attain theosis.
While the Greeks acknowledged that man is subject to mortality and corruptibility in consequence of Adam’s sin, there was no notion that anything that could properly be called sin (`amartia) was inherited. Thus the few Greek Fathers who discussed the problem of unbaptized infants took it for granted that they had no sin to be punished, though some supposed that they might be excluded from the Kingdom on account of the necessity of baptism for salvation.
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A further distinction between Greek and Latin theology is that the former gave considerable credit to the role of free will in salvation, while the latter greatly circumscribed the power of the will, in reaction to the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian controversies.
We have already seen how St. Augustine upheld against Pelagius the Catholic teaching that grace is absolutely necessary to salvation; i.e., man cannot save himself. This is part of basic Christianity shared with the Greeks. In the sixth century, however, a more subtle doctrine was espoused by some, namely that men could somehow merit the reception of sanctifying grace by prior acts of the will. This was different from Pelagianism insofar as it admitted the absolute necessity of grace for salvation. (We set aside the historical question of whether the “semi-Pelagians” actually held the doctrine imputed to them.) Invoking the arguments of St. Augustine, this doctrine was condemned by the Latin Church, but various Greek Fathers made statements in apparent agreement with it. Yet Catholics have not pretended to circumscribe the inscrutable judgment of God, who might choose to grant sanctifying grace in honor of some human action. We only deny, with the Apostle, that the grace of salvation is merited by prior human acts; i.e., that it is received as wages due.
Since the fourth century, Latins have spoken of this problem mainly in terms of liberum arbitrium, “free decision.” This is distinct from simple volition (voluntas) in that it also involves intellectual deliberation. Such a distinction was known even to Origen, who defined free decision or choice as a power of two faculties: a power of reason to discern between good and evil; of will, to choose the one or other. St. Augustine did not describe voluntas as a faculty of the soul, but he evidently considered liberum arbitrium to pertain to the will, as he sometimes called it liberum arbitrium voluntatis.
In his early works, St. Augustine upheld free choice against the Manichaean notion that there are two minds, good and evil, fighting each other. Instead he taught that there is only one mind in man, who weighs good and evil options, and then chooses one or the other. In this autonomous power of choosing, which is altogether distinct from sensitive appetite, the human soul at least superficially resembles that of the Stoics. Epictetus the Stoic (1st cent.) used the term prohairesis to refer to a deliberate, purposive choice, giving or withholding assent to the impressions presented. Prohairesis was conceived as autonomous and in command of all other faculties, similar to what modern neuroscientists call executive function. This notion of free choice as rational was sometimes uncritically followed by early Christians, as witnessed in Patristic writings.
In the anti-Pelagian controversies, however, St. Augustine emphasized the limitations of free choice. While man still had the power to choose between good and bad, he could choose the good only with the assistance of supernatural grace. In the absence of grace, he would invariably choose the bad. This defect of nature was not simply ignorance, for the will could know what is good and still choose evil, as St. Paul said.
As the implications of the doctrine of original sin were expounded, the introduction of an irrational component to choice or volition itself seemed appropriate. The will was not absolutely free to choose among impressions, for the will itself was affected in its intrinsic disposition or inclination by irrational concupiscence. Medieval Latin theology consistently compromised the freedom of the will, in contrast with the voluntarist statements made by Origen and several Greek Fathers.
With the West’s rediscovery of the Aristotelian corpus in the thirteenth century, a properly philosophical treatment of this moral theological issue of liberum arbitrium could begin. The rational faculties of the soul, namely intellect and will, were the locus of free choice. St. Thomas considered liberum arbitrium to be an elective power, combining intelligence and appetite, though primarily concerned with appetite. Arbitrium has to do with discerning options to be weighed, i.e., good and evil, which is a function of intellect. Yet the libertas seems to pertain primarily to an appetite, since moral theology is concerned with the ability to actually choose the good or evil and act upon it. Voluntas in Latin is desiring, wishing, or willing in the sense of prompting action, so it seems a most appropriate designator of this ability for moral choice, so St. Thomas considered voluntas libera an acceptable equivalent to liberum arbitrium. [Risto Saarinien. Weakness of will in medieval thought (New York: Brill, 1994) pp.21-25.]
The Aristotelianization of the issue threatened to restore a purely rationalistic account of moral choice, as the will is a rational, not sensitive, appetite, which simply acts upon what is presented to it by the intellect. Yet the Scholastics consistently subordinated philosophy to theology, and retained the Augustinian teaching that original sin makes human will somehow intrinsically inclined to sin. With the loss of original grace, the Greek philosophical ideal was impossible, as there was no longer a single rational order over conflicting desires, so man could not always choose the good, though he might do so in any particular instance. In fairness, Aristotle himself recognized that man could act perversely, knowing what is good and yet choosing bad. He described this tendency as akrasia, which was translated as incontinentia, generally conceived as a type of concupiscence or sensitive appetite by Latins, though Aristotle may have regarded it as a defect of the will. Notably, Aristotle’s ethical notion of prohairesis, or purposive choice, differed from the Stoics in that it was not a purely rational function, but a process by which the rational and irrational faculties assist each other. [Charles Chamberlain. “The Meaning of Prohairesis in Aristotle’s Ethics.” Transactions of the American Philological Association Vol. 114 (1984) 117-57.] The medieval Latin belief that the order among the faculties was confused by original sin would account for why liberum arbitrium in practice does not have the harmonious synthesis of reason and sensuality prescribed by Aristotle.
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The Latins did not uniformly follow St. Augustine in all things. St. Anselm rejected the identification of original sin as concupiscence, and instead saw it as the privation of original justice, where justice was simply uprightness of will. Duns Scotus expounded and promoted this view, seeing concupiscence as a mere sensitive appetite, therefore not a sin without volition. Further, he held that even inordinate appetitive desires are natural. Original justice, however, prevented them from becoming actual. This account is consistent with modern evolutionary theory, and with the notion that original sin is a privation, i.e., of original justice.
Scotus conceives of original sin and Adam’s original state in juridical terms. Further, as was his wont, he considers most divine law to be positive law rather than natural law. By positive law, God imposed on man the duty to have the gift of original justice. By a further positive law, God has willed to grant original justice to Adam unless Adam should sin. By sinning, Adam is denied the gift of original justice, and likewise his descendants, who cannot inherit it. Even though Adam and his descendants have simply reverted to what might be considered their natural state, they are under the wrath of God, whose positive law obligates them to have the gift of original justice.
Scotus further distinguishes the supernatural gifts that were given to the first man and woman. Original justice is rectitude of the will, which brings the sense appetites into peace or tranquility. A consequence of original justice is immortality, but not bodily indestructibility. Original justice did not entail sanctifying grace, the latter being that which gives our actions merit before God, enabling us to advance in holiness. Nonetheless, original justice is a necessary condition for receiving sanctifying grace.
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St. Thomas Aquinas, though frequently presenting doctrine in juridical terms, appreciated that these did not adequately grasp the realities of salvation history. In particular, he held that, although penal satisfaction was made at Calvary, this is not what was essential or necessary to Christ’s act of redemption. Once this is understood, it is no longer essential to conceive original sin in strictly penal terms.
St. Thomas posited that “original sin” in the sense of the consequent state of Adam and his descendants should be understood as a privation of original supernatural grace. This “original justice” whereby man’s will was subject to God also entailed sanctifying grace, i.e., the capacity for meritorious action. In Adam’s descendants, original sin is a privation of grace, not some positively existent disease or contagion.
Nonetheless, in deference to St. Augustine’s teaching, St. Thomas acknowledged that concupiscence may be called original sin in the sense of a kind of material principle. The formal principle of original sin is the privation of original justice, yet original justice is that which keeps our sensitive appetites tranquil and ordered. In its absence, the appetites become disordered, inordinately pursuing mutable goods, and this inordinateness is called concupiscence (in the negative sense). It seems strange that he calls this a material principle, rather than an accident or consequence of original sin.
Still, St. Thomas recognizes that concupiscence is not the material of original sin in a strictly substantive sense, for men vary in concupiscence, while original sin is equally in all. Since original sin is the privation of original justice, which binds the sensitive appetites, keeping them under control, all are equally subject to original sin (considered as a consequent state), as the bonds of original justice are absent in all. Without these bonds, the sensitive appetites are free to roam according to their strengths, which vary by the temperament of each man.
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Some, but not all, aspects of medieval Latin theology on original sin were solemnly defined as doctrine at the fifth session of the Council of Trent.
By transgressing the law of God…
Adam… immediately lost the holiness and justice wherein he had been constituted; and… incurred… the wrath and indignation of God, and consequently death… and, together with death, captivity under… the devil, and… was changed, in body and soul, for the worse… (Decree on Original Sin, 1)
The state of original sin is described as a loss or privation of original sanctity and rectitude of will. The consequence of this loss is bodily death, which in turn implies captivity to the devil, the lord of death. The Council does not specify exactly how Adam was changed, but it is incontrovertible Christian doctrine that he was changed in body and soul.
The Council anathematizes anyone who asserts that…
…the prevarication of Adam injured himself alone, and not his posterity… or that he… has only transfused death, and pains of the body, into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul… [Follows with Romans 5:12] (Ibid., 2)
Note that the Council does not invoke Romans 5:12 as proving that all sinned in Adam as if they were there at the beginning, but only that Adam transferred sin to the human race, where sin is understood as the “death of the soul.” This same expression was used by the Second Council of Orange (AD 529). It may be understood as a privation of sanctifying grace, but the Council imposes no formal definition.
Also anathematized are those who assert that:
…this sin of Adam—which in its origin is one, and being transfused into all by propagation, not by imitation, is in each one as his own—is taken away either by the powers of human nature, or by any other remedy than the merit of the one mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath reconciled us to God in his own blood, made unto us justice, sanctification, and redemption… (Ibid., 3)
No one is saved in any other name but Jesus Christ. The Council does not specify exactly how this reconciliation was achieved. The mention of Christ’s “merit” need not imply a purely penal satisfaction. Speaking of sin as being “transfused” seems to suggest it is a positive entity, but we have seen that neither Thomism nor Scotism regards it as such. We cannot overcome or remove this sin (i.e., that by which we are liable to death of body and soul) without the aid of Christ.
The redeeming merit of Christ is applied through baptism, for adults and infants alike. Infants are to be baptized for the remission of sins, so they must derive something of original sin from Adam, or it could not be true that they are baptized for the remission of sins. Again Romans 5:12 is cited to show that, by apostolic tradition, “even infants, who could not as yet commit any sin of the themselves, are for this cause truly baptized for the remission of sins, that in them that may be cleansed away by regeneration, which they have contracted by generation.” (Ibid., 4)
…by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the liability of original sin is remitted (reatum originalis peccati remitti)… (Ibid., 5)
Again, it is reatus, not culpa, that is remitted. Nonetheless, it appears that something that is truly, not equivocally, sin is removed from the baptized, for the Council anathematizes anyone who…
…asserts that the whole of that which has the true and proper nature of sin (veram et propriam peccati rationem) is not taken away; saying that it is only rased or not imputed… (Loc. cit.)
This last phrase addresses some Protestant errors, to be discussed later. At present, we note that original sin is said to have the “true and proper nature of sin,” except the Latin more exactly says rationem instead of nature. That is to say, the true and proper reason of sin. Ratio, like the Greek logos, may have the derivative meaning of some rational principle of nature.
St. Thomas says, “Sin may be found in any power whose act can be voluntary and inordinate, wherein consists the ratio peccati.” (Summa Theol., I-II, 74, iii) Yet if this is so, how can there be a ratio peccati to be removed from infants? They are capable of inordinate acts, but not voluntary ones. Evidently, the Council wished to affirm that original sin is true, voluntary sin, but did not specify how this volition should be attributed. Since infants are incapable of willing, it seems we are left only with the volitional act of Adam, for which we are liable, or else the interpretation that “all sinned in Adam” by participation.
Another possibility seems to be opened by St. Thomas’s contention that the ratio peccati may be found even in the sensitive appetite. Yet such sin can only be venial at best, since it does not involve the full consent of the will, so this cannot be what is remitted for the salvation of souls at baptism.
Original sin is said to be removed only in reatu, while it continues in actu, as proved by the persistence of sinful inclinations. Yet remission in reatu is not to be construed in some legalistic sense of God simply ignoring our liability, refusing to impute the sin to us. He truly does remove the sin, which the above cited decree takes care to emphasize. Yet if sin is essentially an offense against God, in word, deed or desire, it is difficult to see in what sense God removes sin except by no longer considering it an offense. Past words and deeds are not undone, and sinful desires remain even in the baptized. The Roman Catechism considers the remission of sins to be analogous to canceling a debt, yet it is a divine power by which we are made truly justified and holy. That is to say, it is not some merely external act, as when a prosecutor declines to press charges, but a real interior transformation, making the accused into a genuinely good, righteous person.
All this implies that there was something evil, unholy, or unrighteous in us prior to baptism. This need not have been a positive entity, but could simply be a defect or privation. The lack of original justice is such a defect, and while this evil might not suffice to make infants deserve the pains of Hell, it suffices so that neither they nor anyone else unbaptized should deserve eternal life in Heaven. Baptism does not merely ignore our evil, but removes it. Since the evil of original sin is the privation of original justice, its removal would entail the restoration of original justice. This restoration is superabundantly accomplished by sanctifying grace. The above cited Tridentine decree insists that the laver of regeneration truly cleanses what was dirty, as opposed to merely pointing at something still dirty and calling it clean, or cleansing that which was already clean.
Early Christians were so convinced of the reality of the new life of holiness generated within them, that many found it unthinkable that a Christian should ever return to sin. From this testimony some Protestants have derived the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Yet, as the Church was no longer a self-selected group of the devout, but began to encompass entire populations and nations, it became clear that relapse into grave sin was not only possible, but common and frequent for many Christians. This is because concupiscence, the incentive to sin, remains in actu, providing many opportunities for backsliding.
St. Thomas allowed that there can be sin (ratio peccati) even in the sensitive appetite, since this “is naturally inclined to be moved by the will.” (Summa Theol., I-II, 74, iii) It may seem strange that a non-rational faculty can have sin, for then there ought to be sin in brute animals. St. Thomas answers that sensuality in man, unlike that of animals, is not by itself, but united with reason. In man it has an additional perfection, “its natural aptitude to obey the reason, and in this respect it can be the principle of a voluntary action, and, consequently, the subject to sin.”
The corruption of our fomes (incentive), which persists even in the baptized, does not hinder us from using our rational will to check individual inordinate movements. Yet the thoroughness of this corruption practically guarantees that we cannot avoid all such movements. Still, St. Thomas holds, since it is possible to resist each individual movement, we are responsible for the ones to which we do succumb.
This is not a perfect act of sin, because there is no deliberation of reason; rather the will is guilty only of the negative fault of failing to hold an appetite in check. Due to this imperfection, such sin is only venial.
St. Thomas admitted that concupiscence can have the ratio peccati, but not the ratio peccati propria. This is an important distinction, recognized by the Fathers at Trent, who did not wish to condemn the Thomist teaching (though neither did they endorse it on this point). Passions can be voluntary “either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way.” (Ibid., I-II, 24, i) We are responsible for failing to stop them, even though they are not themselves good or evil. There is moral good or evil in them insofar as they engage the reason and will, even negatively.
Concupiscence is an incentive to sin (fomes peccati), not sin itself. St. Paul sometimes calls it sin, as when he says, “Let not sin reign in your mortal body.” St. Thomas finds significance in that St. Paul says only that Christians can prevent sin (fomes peccati) from reigning in our bodies, not from existing in it. The baptized can refuse to give their deliberate consent, and thus will succumb to nothing but venial sin.
The decrees of Trent affirm only that the ratio peccati propria, not the fomes peccati, is removed at baptism. It leaves unresolved the question of whether there is a ratio peccati in inordinate motions of the sensitive appetite without deliberation. In any event, such inordinate motions do remain in the regenerate, as we know from common experience and as described by the Apostle: “With the mind I serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”
The Council declares that in the baptized there remains concupiscence or an incentive to sin (conupiscentiam vel fomitem), yet this cannot injure those who do not consent. This concupiscence, which the Apostle sometimes called sin, “the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin, as being truly and properly sin in those born again, but because it is of sin, and inclines to sin (quia ex peccato est ad peccatum inclinat). (Decree on Original Sin, 5) That is, it comes out of sin and tends toward sin.
This last decree seems to contradict the opinion of St. Thomas, who says there can be venial sin in the sensitive appetite or concupiscence. Yet St. Augustine and all the Fathers agreed that concupiscence is not accounted as sin in the regenerate. The Council clarifies that this is not merely a formality, but that there really is no sin in the concupiscence of the regenerate. Nonetheless, the Church retains the conviction that sin is an “utterance, deed or desire, contrary to eternal law,” even today. (CCC 1849) Insofar as there is a rational will that is capable of holding concupiscent desire in check, any failure to do so may be considered a culpable personal sin. Such sins are only venial, however, as long as the will has not given its deliberate consent.
The Council excepts the Blessed Virgin Mary from its decree that concupiscence remains in the regenerate, following the norm set by Pope Sixtus IV in Grave nimis (1483), which forbade any disputation as to whether the Blessed Virgin had been conceived in sin. He subsequently endorsed the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and this devotion was promoted by his successors. The Council’s exclusion of the Blessed Virgin makes sense only on the assumption that concupiscence is sinful in some sense. That there is something deeply shameful about our unconscious vicious desires is perceptible even to non-Christians.
However we choose to categorize concupiscence, it is clearly inconsonant with the perfect chastity attributed to the Blessed Virgin. The absence of this defect in her is explained by the doctrine that she was redeemed from original sin at conception, yet her redemption was more perfect than any other, as it removed even the fomes peccati in this life. Thus she enjoyed original justice as did Eve.
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During the Age of Reformation, the roles of grace and free will in salvation were a central issue in theological controversies. Most Protestant Reformers took a strong view on the absolute necessity and sufficiency of sanctifying grace, to the exclusion of any role for the consent of the will. In this vein, they disparaged the will’s capacity for meritorious action, attributing this to man’s fallen state. Accordingly, they held strongly negative views about fallen human nature, bringing about a highly distorted Augustinianism that even affected some movements among Catholics.
Until now, we have casually used the term ‘Fall’ to refer to the event of man’s loss of original bliss as a result of his sin. This term, however, is not found in the Bible. The Jews generally conceived of Adam’s later state as an exile, not a fall. Still, it is easy to see how the image of a fall can be applied: (1) Adam’s act of disobedience was an error, a slip or fault; (2) Adam’s state after disobeying was inferior or lower than his more exalted state in the earthly paradise, so we may say he fell from this higher state. This last view was depicted dramatically in the Wakefield mystery plays, where Adam steps down to a lower stage, middle-earth, after being cast out of the earthly paradise.
According to John Toews in The Story of Original Sin (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2013), the term ‘fall’ was first applied to Adam’s post-sin state by St. Methodius of Olympus (d. 311). His term is rendered in Latin as lapsus, which means an error or slip, not really a fall in the physical sense. Nonetheless, this term is commonly rendered as “fall” in a theological context, and it gives us the terms ‘prelapsarian’ and ‘postlapsarian’ still used by many Protestants.
Another Latin term for “fall,” casus, seems to have been first used in the Codex Sangermanensis (AD 822), which translates the fourth book of Ezra: “For though it was you who sinned, the fall (casus) was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants.” (4 Ezra 7:16-26) This rendering misattributes Latin theology to the Jewish author, who certainly had no notion that the descendants of Adam participated in his error. Rather, the term translated as casus should be rendered as “evil” in the sense of “damage done” (as confirmed by other translations). (Toews, p.29) IV Ezra only says that Adam’s sin caused death for all men and was the occasion for all subsequent sin; i.e., later sin would have been impossible if not for it. In this way, Adam has brought evil upon all men.
The Catholic Church consistently taught that Adam’s state after the Fall, both in body and soul, was for the worse, but defined no further than to say that he became subject to death of the body and death of the soul. Several Reformers went much further in explicating the postlapsarian state.
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Martin Luther’s views on original sin varied over the course of his life after breaking from the Catholic Church. He consistently held, nonetheless, that concupiscence is truly and properly sin, and that fallen human nature is so vitiated that it actually prefers evil. His thought is clearly influenced by St. Augustine, as to be expected in a former Augustinian monk, but he takes the saint’s interpretations to new extremes.
In his early period, Luther identified Adam’s sin as concupiscence, for which we all were punished. This already goes beyond anything St. Augustine ever said. Although St. Augustine held that concupiscence was the means by which original sin is transmitted, he never stated that Adam’s original offense was concupiscence as such, but rather it was disobedience. Nor did he ever explicitly identify concupiscence with original sin in Adam’s descendants, though he strongly associated them, and more than once characterized concupiscence as sinful.
By identifying original sin and concupiscence more strongly than St. Augustine ever did, Luther did not need to show how it was just for God to penalize mankind for the crime of its ancestor. Original sin, being nothing other than concupiscence, is a “sin” that is in all of us personally and properly, so we are being justly punished for our own sin. This has the unseemly consequence that we are mortally culpable for an involuntary aspect of our nature. This would not be irregular for Luther, given his negative views about human volition.
Luther denied that postlapsarian people could earn God’s favor. At first, this was simply consistent with the Church’s condemnation of semi-Pelagianism, the doctrine that man received sanctifying grace in honor of his prior meritorious acts. Luther went further than orthodoxy, however, in denying that man could do anything to merit salvation even by his acts after the reception of grace. This, of course, was expressed in his famous denial of salvation through works.
In Luther’s soteriology, the notions of merit and satisfaction, and even volition, are utterly irrelevant to salvation. This anti-juridical and anti-ethical approach logically leads to ethical nihilism, as Nietzsche aptly perceived, noting that the doctrine of salvation solely by undeserved grace points beyond good and evil. Luther already showed some inkling of this in his infamous exhortation to “sin boldly.” Salvation was completely disconnected from ethical deeds and volitional dispositions. Nihilism was avoided only by insisting that good works are an inevitable sign of faith, but not a cause of salvation.
All Christians acknowledge that man cannot save himself, but needs divine mercy through Christ. St. Augustine inferred from this that fallen man cannot improve himself by his own effort, but needs some preceding grace. Luther went further than this, effectively denying that there is even such a thing as natural ethical virtue. Man can do no good at all by his effort; it is grace alone that effects good.
In his earlier period, Luther expressed this by saying that all the works of fallen man are mortal sins. Later, he adopted the view that man is so corrupted by original sin that his will is deprived of freedom. All his apparent works are therefore attributable to God alone.
The Augsburg Confession (1530) did not include the later, more extreme views of Luther. In fact, the article on original sin may even be understood in a Catholic sense:
…all are born in sin, that is without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence, and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost. (Augsburg Confession, Art. II)
Sin is described as a privation or lack of orientation toward God. Concupiscence is indicated separately, though it too is truly sin, as even Catholics have confessed in the sense explained previously. It is called the “vice of origin,” following St. Augustine. It is this vitiation of our nature that makes us liable to judgment. All of this can be understood in a manner consistent with Catholic doctrine.
The article on free will, however, treats fallen nature as though it were positively impaired in the exercise of its powers.
…man’s will has some liberty to choose civil righteousness and to work things subject to reason. But it has no power, without the Holy Ghost, to work the righteousness of God, that is spiritual righteousness. (Ibid., Art. XVIII)
This stops short of Luther’s more extreme views on the incapacity of human will. It goes on to specify the matters in which the will has some freedom:
We grant that all men have a free will, free, inasmuch as it has the judgment of reason; not that it is thereby capable, without God, either to begin, or, at least, to complete aught in things pertaining to God, but only in works of this life, whether good or evil. “Good” I call those works which spring from the good in nature, such as, willing to labor in the field, to eat and drink, to have a friend, to clothe oneself, to build a house, to marry a wife, to raise cattle, to learn diverse useful arts, or whatsoever good pertains to this life. For all of these things are not without dependence on the providence of God; yea, of Him and through Him they are and have their being. “Evil” I call such works as willing to worship an idol, to commit murder, etc. They condemn the Pelagians and others, who teach that without the Holy Ghost, by the power of nature alone, we are able to love God above all things; also to do the commandments of God as touching “the substance of the act.” For, although nature is able in a manner to do the outward work (for it is able to keep the hands from theft and murder), yet it cannot produce the inward motions, such as the fear of God, trust in God, chastity, patience, etc. (Loc. cit.)
In this account, we have free will only with regard to outward acts, not inward virtues. There can be no moral uprightness produced by human volition or habit. Man is granted freedom of will in everything except true moral choice. Yet our belief that people are morally responsible for their actions is bound to the notion of free will. Luther denies free will in precisely the place where it would have greatest significance. Without free will in the realm of moral choice, the notion of human merit disappears.
Postlapsarian humanity is incapable of choosing the moral good, so the will has been deprived of an essential function. While Catholics have confessed, against the Pelagians, that faith is impossible without the prior gift of the Holy Ghost, they have allowed a positive role for free will in giving assent to this grace. Luther has made the will so impaired that it cannot even give free assent, so that the will is not truly will. Original sin has wounded us not merely by privation of grace, but by positive injury to our nature, making us less than fully human.
The idea that human nature is positively vitiated or harmed, deprived even of its natural powers, casts into doubt the justice of this punishment. It is one thing to deny Adam’s descendants a supernatural endowment to which they have no rightful claim, and another thing to cripple them in punishment for Adam’s sin. The analogy of a disloyal prince whose descendants lose all privileges no longer applies, for we are not speaking of a privilege, but of what belongs to our proper natural good.
With this negative view of human nature, Luther can only see value in what pulls us away from our nature, out of ourselves toward God. He carries this idea to an extreme, regarding all self-love as evil, and placing the good entirely in caritas or self-giving. This way of thinking would cast a long shadow on Anglo-German ethics, creating a Manichaean dichotomy between altruism and egoism. This was repeatedly emphasized by English idealists, and also Kant, who famously insisted that real virtue must always be disinterested. German philosophy eventually rebelled against this pathological altruism, but traces of it remain even today in Anglophone liberalism. As with Luther, the devaluation of egoism by modern liberals goes hand-in-hand with a denial of the existence of personal merit.
Although Luther never tackled the problem of the fate of unbaptized infants in any depth, he upheld traditional belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation. By implication, unbaptized infants would be damned unless they received some sanctifying grace. Although they were incapable of willing, this hardly made a difference, since Luther considered that even adults were incapable of willing in matters of salvation. Infants would possess the same vitiated nature by which each of us personally deserves death of body and soul.
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John Calvin’s ideas about original sin are similar to Luther’s later views in some respects, though he brought forth the logical implications more clearly and systematically. He held that fallen human nature was totally depraved and incapable of choosing the good, so that will and concupiscence were practically identical. His controversial doctrine of double predestination was merely derived from his belief, shared with Luther, in the absolute necessity of grace and the total incapacity of the will in matters of salvation.
Calvin considered that we are condemned not because we are held responsible for Adam’s sinful act, but for our corrupted nature, which makes us repugnant to God. Unlike Luther, he did not think Adam’s sin was concupiscence, so there is no identity between Adam’s sin and the concupiscent nature for which we are condemned, though the latter is a consequence of the former. Original sin annihilates freedom so thoroughly that we are incapable of choosing to seek God. The imago Dei is not completely effaced, for man still has reason, yet our nature is so depraved that, not only do we fail to seek God, but we actively seek to sin. God therefore rightly condemns those without grace, since they do nothing but seek sin. Man sins of necessity, but not by external coercion, so only in that weak sense is his choice free.
Calvin did not think that Adam’s sin was sensual intemperance. He found that to be a childish idea, as God would not impose such a grave punishment for a minor sin. Rather, Adam was given a trial of obedience, and he sinned by pride and ambition, as St. Augustine says. He sinned yet more gravely, Calvin holds, by despising the word of God who warned against it, thereby despising the truth and turning to the lies of the devil. “Hence infidelity was at the root of the revolt. From infidelity, again, sprang ambition and pride, together with ingratitude.” The offense was compounded by insulting God by assenting to the Devil’s calumnies against Him. (Christianae Religionis Institutio, 4th ed. 1581, trans. Henry Beveridge, 1845, II, i, 4)
Citing Romans 8:20, Calvin notes that all creation “bears part of the punishment deserved by man, for whose use all other creatures were made. Therefore, since through man’s fault a curse has extended above and below, over all the regions of the world, there is nothing unreasonable in its extending to all his offspring.” (Ibid., II, i, 5) All creation is cursed not to punish other creatures, but to punish man who uses them. Likewise Adam’s offspring are cursed with a depraved nature in order to punish Adam, not to punish them. This depravity in turn makes them deserve condemnation on their own account.
Calvin describes this depravity as a withdrawal of “wisdom, virtue, justice truth, and holiness,“ and their substitution with “blindness, impotence, vanity, impurity, and unrighteousness.” Adam himself was punished with this depravity, and his posterity inherited the same corruption.
Citing Psalms 51:5, Calvin does not doubt that this corruption is hereditary. He explains this by saying that Adam “infected his whole seed” through his own corruption. In other words, since Adam’s nature was totally corrupt, this must have included his seed. “Adam, therefore, when he corrupted himself, transmitted the contagion to all his posterity.” (Ibid., II, i, 6)
Original sin, then, may be defined a hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul, which first makes us obnoxious to the wrath of God, and then produces in us works which in Scripture are termed works of the flesh. (Ibid., II, i, 8)
In this view, we are justly condemned by God on account of the repugnance of our nature to God, who accepts only righteousness, innocence and purity.
This is not liability for another’s fault. For when it is said, that the sin of Adam has made us obnoxious to the justice of God, the meaning is not, that we, who are in ourselves innocent and blameless, are bearing his guilt, but that since by his transgression we are all placed under the curse, he is said to have brought us under obligation. Through him, however, not only has punishment been derived, but pollution instilled, for which punishment is justly due. (Loc. cit.)
Here Calvin effectively makes a distinction between reatus culpae and reatus poenae. We do not bear the guilt of Adam, but only his punishment, and in this latter sense we have a kind of obligation. This is because the penalty itself, which is pollution or corruption, is an offense for which we are responsible.
Accordingly, he interprets Romans 5:12 as showing that all “are involved in original sin, and polluted by its stain,” not that we all committed Adam’s sin of disobedience by participation. He does follow the translation that “all sinned in Adam,” but understands this universal sinning to occur by our own concupiscence.
Hence, even infants bringing their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb, suffer not for another’s, but for their own defect. For although they have not yet produced the fruits of their own unrighteousness, they have the seed implanted in them. Nay, their whole nature is, as it were, a seed-bed of sin, and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God (Ibid., II, i, 8)
While this line of thinking has an Augustinian basis, Calvin greatly amplifies the severity of our depravity. We do not merely have concupiscence, but we are thoroughly concupiscent beings. By magnifying the evil of our nature, Calvin is able to justify the condemnation of infants as abominable to God. The implication is that infants deserve Hell as much as adults, for which the Calvinists have been disparaged as torturers on infants, though we will later see that Calvin’s teaching is more nuanced.
…those who have defined original sin as the lack of the original righteousness with which we should have been endowed, no doubt include, by implication, the whole fact of the matter, but they have not fully expressed the positive energy of this sin. For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive. Those who have called it concupiscence have used a word by no means wide of the mark, if it were added (and this is what many do not concede) that whatever is in man from intellect to will, from the soul to the flesh, is all defiled and crammed with concupiscence; or, to sum it up briefly, that the whole man is in himself nothing but concupiscence… (Loc. cit.)
Calvin claims that original sin is not a mere privation, and that the saints who describe it as such did not intend to exclude its positive aspect, i.e. concupiscence. He goes so far as to characterize all human desire as concupiscence, for fallen human will only seeks what is sinful and opposed to God.
While this doctrine logically implies that there is really an evil principle in human nature, Calvin does not consider himself a Manichaean, for he believes that God created human nature as good and pure.
We say, then, that man is corrupted by a natural viciousness, but not by one which proceeded from nature. In saying that it proceeded not from nature, we mean that it was rather an adventitious event which befell man, than a substantial property assigned to him from the beginning. (Ibid., II, 1, 11)
The evil in man is not to be attributed to the Creator, nor to some malevolent demiurge, but to man himself.
Let us have done, then, with those who dare to inscribe the name of God on their vices, because we say that men are born vicious. The divine workmanship, which they ought to look for in the nature of Adam, when still entire and uncorrupted, they absurdly expect to find in their depravity. The blame of our ruin rests with our own carnality, not with God, its only cause being our degeneracy from our original condition.…
It is true that nature has received a mortal wound, but there is a great difference between a wound inflicted from without, and one inherent in our first condition. It is plain that this wound was inflicted by sin; and, therefore, we have no ground of complaint except against ourselves. (Ibid., II, i, 10)
Again, our corruption is explained as having an accidental origin, rather than arising from our essential nature. The occasion of this corruption was Adam’s sin, so man alone bears responsibility. Still, it is difficult to see how corruption as a positive existent can come into being without a creative act.
Calvin explains that man is said to be naturally corrupt only in an equivocal sense, to show that this is passed by heredity, not imitation.
How could God, who takes pleasure in the meanest of his works be offended with the noblest of them all? The offence is not with the work itself, but the corruption of the work. Wherefore, if it is not improper to say, that, in consequence of the corruption of human nature, man is naturally hateful to God, it is not improper to say, that he is naturally vicious and depraved. (Ibid., II, i, 11)
Again, this doctrine would be better served if corruption were considered merely a privation. As a positive entity, it must be considered something accidental, not essential to man. Thus man is hateful to God on account of an accident he inherits, not on account of his created nature.
The unintuitive notion that we can be culpable for our sins while being incapable of acting otherwise has been a stumbling block for most against Calvinism. Yet Calvin was not entirely original here, for he is able to find necessitarian statements in St. Augustine: “Man through liberty became a sinner, but corruption, ensuing as the penalty, has converted liberty into necessity.” (August. lib. de Perf. Justin). Although man’s will was created free, it is intrinsically compelled to sin in its corrupted postlapsarian state.
Man, since he was corrupted by the fall, sins not forced or unwilling, but voluntarily, by a most forward bias of the mind; not by violent compulsion, or external force, but by the movement of his own passion; and yet such is the depravity of his nature, that he cannot move and act except in the direction of evil. If this is true, the thing not obscurely expressed is, that he is under a necessity of sinning. (II, ii, 5)
Calvin takes the medieval tradition of a weakened will to a new extreme, arguing that irrational concupiscence thoroughly permeates the faculty of choosing or willing. The postlapsarian will, in its corrupted nature, is no longer that which chooses between good and evil, but only that which chooses evil. This is not a disparagement of created human nature, for “as man was originally constituted, he could incline to either side.” (II, ii, 10)
According to Calvin, “original sin is the depravity and corruption of our nature,” which makes us liable to divine wrath and productive of sinful works. Since he identifies original sin with concupiscence, he denies “that by baptism we are exempted and set free from original sin, and from the corruption which was propagated by Adam to all his posterity, and that we are restored to the same righteousness and purity of nature which Adam would have had…” (Ibid., IV, xv, 10) Infants “bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; for although they have not yet brought forth the fruits of their unrighteousness, they have its seed included in them. Nay, their whole nature is, as it were, a seed of sin, and, therefore, cannot but be odious and abominable to God.” (Loc. cit.) Concupiscence itself deserves condemnation, and since this remains even after baptism, we are still objectively deserving of punishment. Thus he denies that we are granted full remission of guilt and penalty. Rather, the baptized are made righteous in this life “by imputation only, God, in his mercy, regarding them as righteous and innocent.” (Loc. cit.) This doctrine of imputation was condemned by the Council of Trent, though Calvin denies only that we are made righteous in this life, rather than the next.
Oddly, despite his overall severity, Calvin uniquely advocates that infants who die before baptism are saved, though they deserve damnation, on account of their being incapable of willing unbelief. Grace is unconditionally applied to their souls. This not a contradiction, since they are saved by grace, not nature.
Nonetheless, he exhorts that infants should be baptized.
For if they are to be accounted sons of Adam, they are left in death, since, in Adam, we can do nothing but die. On the contrary, Christ bids them be brought to him. Why so? Because he is life. Therefore, that he may quicken them, he makes them partners with himself; whereas these men would drive them away from Christ, and adjudge them to death. For if they pretend that infants do not perish when they are accounted the sons of Adam, the error is more than sufficiently confuted by the testimony of Scripture. (1 Cor. 15:22) For seeing it declares that in Adam all die, it follows, that no hope of life remains unless in Christ. …we are all by nature the children of wrath (Eph. 2:3), and conceived in sin (Ps. 51:5), of which condemnation is the inseparable attendant… And what can be clearer than the expression, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”? (1 Cor. 15:50.) (Ibid.IV, xvi, 17)
Infants still need grace to be saved, so they are baptized. It may seem that this contradicts the doctrine of justification by faith alone. How can baptized infants be saved if they can make no profession of faith? “We answer, that the work of God, though beyond the reach of our capacity, is not therefore null.” Since no one doubts that some infants at least are saved, it follows that they “must be purified before they can be admitted into the kingdom of God, into which shall not enter anything that defileth…” (Loc. cit.) God “sanctifies whom He pleases,” His action is not confined within limits.
Although Calvin held baptism in great esteem, he did not consider it absolutely necessary for salvation. He cites the traditional example of a catechumen dying before the day of his baptism, which Catholics call “baptism of desire.” Further, the Lord nowhere condemned those who believed and were not yet baptised. (Ibid., IV, xvi, 26) Lastly, those who hold baptism absolutely necessary and deny it to infants consign them to eternal death.
Later Reformed theologians, notably Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) and Francois Turretin (1623-1687), adopted the view that Adam’s sin is imputed to his descendants on account of his headship of the human race. They interpreted this in the strongest sense, namely that the commission of the first sin is imputed to us in the eyes of divine justice. Such is the sense conveyed in the New England Primer: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Modern Calvinists tend to hold a softer form of this representative theory, imputing not the commission of the act, but rather the guilt in the sense of reatus poenae.
The imputation of Adam’s sin to his descendants should not be confused with the Calvinist doctrine, shared with Lutherans, that Christ’s righteousness is merely imputed to Christians, as opposed to Christians being truly justified or made righteous in their persons in this life. “Double imputation” conversely adds that our sins were imputed to Christ in order to be redeemed. The Catholic Church has rejected any form of imputation theory that would deny that God forgives and blots out our sins in this life, so that we are truly justified in our persons.
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Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) departed from Calvin on several important points, regarding the will as free from necessity, though doomed to sin unless preceded and accompanied by grace. He allowed that God could grant grace in honor of foreseen faith, seemingly admitting a role for human choice in salvation, yet all human power to choose the good was ultimately attributed to divine grace. By the same token, he allowed that God’s saving grace could be resisted by free will. In this system, God can give a particular sinner the ability to choose faith, but there is no guarantee that the sinner will do so. Arminius opposed double predestination as it seemed to impute evil to God and it limited the Atonement to a select group, contrary to the repeated Scriptural declarations that the Gospel is offered to all.
According to Arminius, Adam and Eve suffered a penalty for their personal sin.
The whole of this sin, however, is not peculiar to our first parents, but is common to the entire race and to all their posterity, who, at the time when this sin was committed, were in their loins, and who have since descended from them by the natural mode of propagation, according to the primitive benediction. For in Adam ‘all have sinned’ (Romans 5:12). Wherefore, whatever punishment was brought down upon our first parents has likewise pervaded and yet pursues all their posterity. So that all men ‘are by nature the children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3), obnoxious to condemnation…
While hinting that the entire human race was present at Adam’s sin, this is nothing more than the “condemned root” theory common among Calvinists and derived from St. Augustine. We share the punishment of our first parents since their punishment was to afflict their nature, which we share with them.
Arminius advocated baptism as a sacrament of initiation, but saw it only as a sign of receiving the divine grace, not the means of conferring grace. He allowed that infants born to Christian parents may be baptized, thereby becoming part of the people of God. (Disputation LXIII) While he did not deny that infants were born with original sin, he held that infants who die without actual sin may be saved through divine grace.
Calvinists and Arminians have accused each other of damning infants, but in reality both sects have admitted the essential truths that infants are born in original sin, and would be condemned unless they receive some sanctifying grace. Further, both have allowed that such grace may be received outside of baptism. Whether such sanctification happens as a universal rule or on a case-by-case basis has been a matter of dispute within both parties.
John Wesley, following Arminius, held that “in Adam all died, spiritually died, lost the life and the image of God…” Again, this is not taken to mean that all were personally or juridically present, only that we all lost what Adam lost. Wesley taught the total depravity of postlapsarian man in uncompromising terms, taking a hyper-literal interpretation of the Hebrew hyperbole in Genesis 6:5. (Sermon 44: Original Sin) Man was not merely infected with many vices, but constantly and thoroughly bent on evil. He went even further than Calvin in his apparent denial of any admixture of good in the thoughts of carnal man. Still, the imago Dei is not completely effaced by original sin, or we would cease to be human.
Wesley differed from classical Arminianism in postulating that, after the Atonement, God has universally dispensed a preceding grace that supernaturally negates the depravity of the will, enabling it to choose faith, but not requiring it to do so. He was undoubtedly influenced in part by the Greek Fathers, returning his theology in the direction of the traditional Church.
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Catholic theologians of the Reformation age also entertained speculative theories beyond the defined doctrine on original sin. While most Protestants moved to a doctrine that the postlapsarian will was totally depraved, many Jesuits followed Luis de Molina (1535-1600) in restoring some positive emphasis on the role of human will.
Recognizing that the image of God was not extinguished by original sin (as even the Reformers admitted), Molina considered that it was only weakened in its effect. This meant that human nature was changed only in terms of quantity or degree, not quality or character. He interpreted the medieval tradition of weakness of will in this light, seeing fallen man as less capable of doing good by his own will, and less capable of striving for good, but not absolutely impaired. This relative disability was caused by the disorder of the faculties, as rationality was now mixed with sensuality. Instead of being inclined solely to moral good, man is now pulled in different directions by various kinds of good. Man is still naturally good insofar as he naturally strives for some good, but in his fallen state this is not always a moral good. The corruption of his nature makes it possible for him to choose moral wrong and therefore be punished justly, as he is unquestionably culpable for such deeds.
Molina is arguably the strongest advocate of free will whose opinions have been tolerated by Catholic orthodoxy. Although St. Thomas says much about free will, he often describes the preceding and coincident operation of grace as fully determining the will. Molina alone seems to avoid any necessitarianism, though this comes at the expense of being difficult to reconcile with Christian doctrine on the absolute necessity of grace for salvation, and the repeated statements by Scripture and the Fathers that all that is good in man is to be ascribed solely to God.
Molina explains predestination as God choosing the elect a posteriori and contingently, based on what they will do. This presupposes some sort of scientia media, where God somehow knows in advance what a person would do in some definite circumstance. While such a supposition is not unique to Molina, it is problematic for him insofar as it is in tension with the autonomy and indeterminacy of human will.
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The Jansenist movement among seventeenth-century Catholics had certain Protestant tendencies, insofar as it emphasized the depravity of man. The Jansenists were notoriously austere, as shown by their belief that sins were not remitted in those who had only imperfect contrition.
The writings of Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638) held that Adam’s endowments prior to Fall were his due, because man by nature ought to contemplate God and be free from concupiscence. In other words, these endowments were not supernatural.
After the Fall, the will is powerless to resist concupiscence. It is a purely passive faculty, led along by pleasures, be they earthly or heavenly. If the greater enticement comes from heaven or grace, man is led to virtue. If it comes from concupiscence, i.e., carnal nature, he is led to sin. In either case, he just passively follows the stronger impulse. He is irresistibly drawn one way or the other.
In Jansenism, no free will is involved in accepting and using grace. Grace does not require any such assent, and in fact cannot be resisted. There is no merely sufficient grace that man resists. This practically implies a doctrine of double predestination, though such is not explicitly stated. Jansenists did share the Calvinist belief that we could deserve punishment even though we act from internal necessity, as long as we are not externally coerced.
Some Jansenist doctrines were declared heretical in Cum occasione (1653), particularly the theses that interior grace is always irresistible; that man’s will may be subject to interior necessity in matters of moral merit; and that Christ died only for the predestined. Though they sought a middle way between Calvinism and semi-Pelagianism, they leaned too much toward the former and wrongfully applied the latter label to orthodox or tolerable doctrines.
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Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), last of the great Scholastic doctors, analyzed original sin with the Thomist distinction between malum culpae and malum poenae. The first is a disorder or imperfection in a free action. The second is some evil that is contracted or inflicted because of sin. Sometimes the malum poenae can itself be a sin to which we are given over. All natural evils befall us as a result of sin, especially as a result of original sin. Thus death, suffering, and the defects of human nature fall under malum poenae. God wanted us to be free from suffering and death, and it is only because of our sin that we are subject to them.
Suarez held that God can only will what is not sin, so He can never will the malum culpae, only permit it. He can, however, will the malum poenae for the sake of some good, insofar as this penalty is not itself a sin. Thus it is consistent with divine benevolence that God should cause desires or disorder in human nature insofar as they are not themselves sinful.
Following St. Thomas’s view that original sin may be consider a habitus in the sense of an inclination toward evil, Suarez described original sin as a habitual turning away from God. (De vitiis et peccatis, IX, ii, 18) This formula is similar to the Greek Orthodox conception. In a Suarist context, it allows admission that God should be the causal source of original sin considered as punishment, i.e., as a weakening of human nature.
Suarez departs from the Thomist tradition by holding that the formal perfection of human operations (i.e., their natural structure) has not been altered by man’s sin. The tendency to perfection is not intrinsically less perfect than one who had not fallen. [De statibus humanae naturae, Prol. IV, ch 8, in: T.J. White The Incarnate Lord (CUA Press, 2015), pp. 135-36.] Thus human nature itself is not intrinsically wounded. (White notes the Thomist response that human nature is intrinsically wounded only with respect to the absence of grace, for which it was made.) In consequence, Suarez upheld the freedom of the will, seeing will and liberum arbitrium as really the same thing, the latter just being a mode by which the will is exercised. (De anima XII, ii, 12)
These considerations do not prevent Suarez from also accepting a juridical dimension to original sin. The notion of redemption, in his view, necessarily entails a debt to be redeemed, so there must be some debitum peccati in all men.
People cannot prepare themselves to receive a supernatural grace or call to conversion by their own power, but they can place an obstacle to it by personal sin, according to Suarez. This is consistent with other Scholastics, who thought that the will had a prior contribution to salvation by negation, i.e., by not putting up an obstacle.
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The possibility of dying in original sin without personal sin led to a conundrum regarding the eternal fate of such persons. On the one hand, unredeemed original sin rendered a person unfit for life in Heaven, and on the other, it seemed unconscionably unjust to subject someone guiltless of any personal sin to the fires of Hell. St. Augustine, we saw, was already aware of this problem, so he affirmed that, although unbaptized infants suffered the loss of Heaven (poena damni), they suffered little or no pains (poena sensi).
This state was later depicted as a distinct abode called limbus, which literally means “border.” It was technically part of the “lower place,” or infernus where all the souls exiled from Heaven would remain for eternity. Yet this infernus was generally conceived in terms of the fiery torments destined for reprobate sinners, an unseemly fate for unknowing infants. The English term ‘Hell’ carries such connotation even more strongly, instantly conjuring images of fire and torture, though it is derived from the name of the Norse goddess of the dead. Hell, like Hades, is the abode of the dead by default, the natural fate of all men, unless by some divine favor they are raised up to Heaven.
It is the medieval conception of the infernus as a torture chamber that makes the modern mind recoil from the thought of placing any but the most heinous offenders there. Yet even in the Middle Ages it was admitted that eternal punishment was not uniform, but fitting and proportionate to the crime. In the case of those guilty only of original sin, the pain of sense was negligible. If St. Augustine allowed that there could be any pain at all, it is only because he did not dare assert what was not revealed.
There was another potential group of inhabitants for this Limbo or border of Hell, where only the loss of Heaven (poena damni) was suffered. Many Christians had great esteem for the noblest pagans, such as Socrates and Cicero, and supposed that they were excluded from salvation solely on account of the misfortune of having been born before Christ. This was based on the implicit supposition that Christ’s salvific act could only operate forward in time, as though the abodes of the dead had the same time as our world. At any rate, they too were unbaptized, yet otherwise meritorious in character. It seemed that they should not only be exempt from pains, but should even be given some modicum of pleasure. This “limbo of pagans” was sometimes identified with that of infants, and sometimes distinguished from it.
In Dante’s Inferno, the first circle of Hell is Limbo, where the unbaptized experience “sorrow without torment” (duol sanza mart́ri). Virgil says, “without hope we live on in desire.” Even within Limbo fates are unequal. Soon we meet the poets Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan, who are neither sorrowful nor glad. The noblest pagans, statesmen and philosophers, enjoy a green meadow, though even there their eyes are solemn (tardi e gravi) and they speak softly. In other words, they have no spontaneous joy.
The “limbo of the Fathers” or the “bosom of Abraham” refers to the state of the Hebrew patriarchs who were exempt from suffering in the underworld. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a clear Scriptural testimony of how existence in the netherworld was not always accompanied by torment. The patriarchs enjoyed an additional comfort not shared in other forms of limbo, for they had the expectation of eternal reward. They were in fact liberated by Christ through His death and descent into Hell, showing sovereignty even there. This was a clear case of the unbaptized being saved, and a singular instance of souls being liberated from Hell. The various theological explanations given for this need not concern us here, but suffice it to note that the unquestionably Scriptural limbus patrum contains all the supposedly objectionable elements of the other states of Limbo.
The Eastern Orthodox wanted nothing to do with multiplying the abodes of souls, especially on the basis of juridical distinctions. This is why they have resisted any Latin formulations of the doctrine of Purgatory which would make it a third place besides Heaven and Hell. They also object to any assertion that Purgatory is prescribed for reparatory punishment of sin. All they will accept is that it is a necessary purification of the imperfect. Likewise, they see no need for Limbo in addition to Heaven and Hell. God either grants deification or He does not. While those who are not illuminated may suffer varying degrees of punishment, none of these require a distinction of abode. It should be noted, however, that St. Thomas understood the various abodes as corresponding to distinctions of the souls’ states, so these views are not entirely incompatible.
Most Greek Fathers refused to speculate on the final place or status of unbaptized infants. Some of those who did, however, distinguished their status from both eternal reward and eternal punishment. They were unfit for theosis insofar as they were not purified by the practice of virtue or even by baptism. Yet neither were they culpable for any sin to be punished. Thus the necessity of a third status is not unknown to Greek theology, though this is not on the basis of any supposition that infants have sin deserving punishment.
While most modern Protestants have distanced themselves from any kind of infant damnation, however mild, the early Reformers agreed that even infants needed their depraved natures to be sanctified by supernatural grace in order to be saved. They had nothing of the modern sentimentality that says babies are saved because they are cute and innocent. The Reformers emphatically denied such innocence more strenuously than Catholics, insisting that depraved nature of itself merited severe condemnation. Nonetheless, we have seen that their views on infant salvation were often misrepresented by rival sects. Most allowed that unbaptized infants could receive saving grace extra-sacramentally, but in the absence of a clear Scriptural witness, they were reluctant to say that all such infants were saved as a class, rather than by divine intervention on an individual basis.
Belief in the Limbo of infants, though it was never formally defined as Catholic doctrine, was a dominant theological opinion in the West for centuries, which affected the faith life of ordinary Catholics. Christian parents worried that their children would go to Limbo if not baptized before death, and the association of Limbo with Hell likely exaggerated their fright at this prospect. St. Augustine tells us that parents were always anxious to baptize their children, even before the doctrine of Limbo came into being. This is because those who love Heaven consider its loss a great punishment.
This raises another problem for the doctrine of Limbo. In other contexts, Catholic theologians have emphasized that the pain of loss (poena damni) is much greater than the pain of sense (poena sensi). This would seem to imply that the suffering of infants or anyone else in Limbo is actually greater than the most horrific physical tortures we can imagine. Such a result would defeat the purpose of mitigating sensory punishment in proportion to sinfulness. St. Thomas postulated that infants were exempt from subjective suffering due to poena damni, though they were aware of their objective loss.
What is meant by the pain of loss being greater than the pain of sense? Are infants even aware of their loss, or anything else, or do they retain infant intellects? Any answer to these questions is necessarily conjectural, and attempts to answer them definitively often do more harm than good, causing needless anxiety.
To alleviate such fears, Catholic pastors and theologians in the twentieth century began to emphasize hope in the extra-sacramental salvation of unbaptized infants. This already had some basis in the “baptism of desire.” Just as catechumens who die before baptism might be saved because of their desire for such, so too might unbaptized infants be saved by the desire of their Christian parents, who would have taken the baptismal vows by proxy.
There is no definite evidence in Scripture or Tradition that Christ extra-sacramentally redeems original sin, bringing all or most unbaptized infants to Heaven. The oft-cited verse, “Let the children come to me,” was actually used by St. Augustine in opposition to the belief that infants had no need of baptism. Christ actually wants children to be brought to Him in baptism. Yet where this is not possible due to early death, would His desire be no less ardent? So there is at least reasonable hope that most or all unbaptized infants are saved, not because they have no original sin, but because Christ willed that they should be redeemed, and they have no use of reason that could oppose this grace. The Church stops short of affirming this as doctrine, since there is no revelation on this matter.
When the International Theological Commission issued The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptised under Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, this was widely reported as the Church “abolishing Limbo.” Such is not the case. Limbo was never a doctrine of the Church, but a theological opinion, which is licit to hold even today. (Ibid., 41) This document merely affirmed that there are reasonable grounds for Catholics to hope in the salvation of any unbaptized infant, thereby encouraging pastors and theologians to give counsel and teaching accordingly.
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Traditional discussion of original sin presupposed a predominantly literal interpretation of the first three chapters of Genesis, though some allowance was made for metaphor with regard to the trees and fruit, and the “image” of God. As the Darwinian theory of evolution has become the dominant paradigm even among Catholic scientists, it remains to be seen if traditional doctrines and opinions on original sin and concupiscence can remain intelligible and cogent on the assumption of the truth of that theory.
One important implication of evolutionary theory is that death, suffering, and what we call vicious desires all existed in animals long before the origin of man, so that all of these should likely be considered natural to man, on the assumption of his bodily descent from animals. This eliminates interpretations which consider such features to be a consequence of Adam’s sin (unless one holds that the world was created thus in anticipation of that sin). Likewise, we should not see death, pain, and instinctive desire as alien to human nature, or as positive injuries to our nature. Rather, fallen man is merely natural man stripped of the supernatural blessings of immortality, incorruptibility and original justice. When these graces were lost, man was returned somewhat to the prior state of hominids. Concupiscence is not some new thing that began when Adam sinned.
Nonetheless, in another sense it may yet be true that vicious desire began after man fell. Concupiscence in irrational animals has no moral character, and so cannot properly be called vicious. It is only when there is the presence of a rational soul that we can evaluate such desires with respect to their obedience or disobedience to reason. Thus morally evil desire could not come into being until after man’s soul was thrown into disorder. He needs supernatural grace in order to realize his highest destiny. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge that his animal desires as such are not evil, insofar as they are part of creation.
Under behavioral evolutionary theory, it is common to interpret our vicious desires as having originally had some usefulness to survival, at an earlier stage of animal evolution, or even among pre-civilized men. Today we must control these desires to prevent them from interfering with more rational social arrangements. In this view, it is no longer possible to see these desires as evil in origin. This only solidifies the conclusion that St. Augustine erred in imputing sinfulness to concupiscence as such, as did Luther by asserting this even more explicitly. Rather, concupiscence is sinful only insofar as it leads to sin, and vicious habits can in turn be strengthened by actual sin.
Instead of viewing vicious desires as something that we should hate, we may accept them as part of our identity, yet also as something that we strive to improve. Most current modes of psychotherapy emphasize something to this effect. Accepting natural inclinations as part of our identity does not mean denying that they are disordered and may need to be reined in as appropriate.
This would have implications for Christian asceticism. Instead of simply denying our desires as though they were inherently evil, we impose self-restraint only insofar as it is directed to some higher good or improvement of self. Self-denial for its own sake accomplishes nothing, and can end up only hardening or embittering a person. Such has been the consistent testimony of the loftier ascetics.
Understandably, evolutionary theory tends to be most strenuously opposed by Protestants, not only because of their preference for Biblical literalism, but because the Reformed interpretations of original sin are most difficult to reconcile with it. The supposed total depravation of man after the Fall and the identification of concupiscence with original sin are rendered implausible if not outright falsified by an evolutionary account of the origin of our vicious desires. The most apt conclusion is that these desires are not sinful as such, but they take on a moral quality only in the context of their disobedience to our rational soul and their inducement of the will to sin.
Another apparent casualty of evolutionary theory is the particular theodicy implied by the Augustinian understanding of original sin. We can no longer say that the pain, suffering and death in this world originated with man’s sin, as it existed among animals long before the origin of man. Does this mean that God created man for unjust suffering? Not necessarily. It could be, and this is strongly implied in Genesis, that man was meant to have supernatural endowments to complete or perfect his nature, as the Thomists hold. Thus for man to suffer and die like other animals is indeed a consequence only of his sin, for he would have been spared this otherwise.
It might be said that brute animals suffer unjustly, yet they are not moral beings. The category of justice (or injustice) does not apply to them, for they cannot morally “deserve” anything. Still, what we perceive as the harshness and cruelty of nature creates apparent problems for theodicy. Nonetheless, even St. Augustine did not suppose that predatory and venomous animals did not exist before the Fall, only that man was preserved from such harm. In modern understanding, we tend to elevate animals to quasi-moral beings with at least some semblance of rights against needless suffering, yet even the more strident activists would hesitate to prevent predators from eating flesh. The violence in the animal kingdom serves a practical, sustainable, creative purpose, which perhaps should give us pause before declaring violence to be categorically evil. Modern liberals have learned to be sanguine regarding sexual desire, yet they are rigidly quietistic in matters of anger or aggression, which can be no less salutary in the proper context.
The doctrine that original sin is inherited by natural propagation requires at least that all humans have a common patrilineal human ancestor, which is certainly the case. The problem is actually less acute now that we recognize the effect of original sin as a loss of supernatural grace. Even if it were allowed that we had other lines of descent besides Adam, this admixture would not restore supernatural grace. So the anthropological universality of original sin is untouched, regardless of the particulars of early human ancestry. At any rate, all humans who have lived in recorded history are certainly of common human descent, and it is unquestionable that all men are in fact born with vicious desires.
Although post-Enlightenment thought has sought to downplay man’s perverse inclination to evil, its ever-present reality has repeatedly frustrated countless utopian projects. Far from becoming more rational, liberal society has practically surrendered to vice. Even the most optimistic believer in human perfectibility will be hard pressed to see monotonic moral improvement over the last two centuries of history. G.K. Chesterton was on solid ground when he called original sin “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
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 This notion of a material aspect to sin should not be confused with the modern juridical notion of material sin, i.e., an act that is objectively contrary to eternal law, but not known to be such by the willing agent.
 Wm. McGarvey. “The Articles of Religion and the Doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas” Catholic Champion, June 1894, pp. 164-66.
 Martial Rose, ed. The Wakefield Mystery Plays (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961), p. 72.
 This imagery was undoubtedly informed by temporal punishments of the time. Divine justice, being more perfect, it was thought, should be more exacting. Any lesser punishment would not have been though a sufficient deterrent. It is also possible, though unproven, that the ancients had a higher tolerance of pain.
Attempts to describe or quantify the pains of Hell can lead to two kinds of excesses. If they are too severe, God may seem cruel or arbitrary, or else we may have too low a view of human nature, making us discouraged or disheartened at our prospects of salvation. If they are too light, they are no deterrent, and some might think to sin with impunity. All we really need to know is that God is just. If this causes comfort or fear to a well-formed conscience, that shows how much we need to improve.
 The ancients supposed that patrilineal descent sufficed, based on the erroneous view that the active principle of a newly formed human came solely from the male seed. Since we now know that both sexes contribute equally, it seems necessary that we should be descended from a single pair. Yet if original sin is a deficiency, a shared lineage from either Adam or Eve would suffice. Though the doctrine of original sin may not strictly depend on our descent from a single pair (again, not necessarily to the exclusion of other lineages), the latter is still upheld as Catholic doctrine on other Scriptural grounds (see Humani Generis).
© 2016 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org