Augustine and the Doctrine of Original Sin (Part 2): Background About the Ultimate STD

As you might have noticed in the previous post, when it comes to the doctrine of original sin, YECist groups like Answers in Genesis tie it directly in with the creation/evolution debate in general, and the question of the historicity of Adam in particular. In many ways, though, their basic view regarding the doctrine of original sin is, at least on the surface, pretty similar to that of most Christians in the West: (A) God created everything perfect; (B) Adam “fell” from that state of perfection when he sinned; (C) when Adam sinned, that sin both infected the entire created order and was passed on to every human being ever since.

Now obviously, if evolution is true, that throws a monkey wrench into the doctrine of original sin, doesn’t it? For it implies there was no initial state of “perfection,” and that there was no historical Adam. Furthermore (and you don’t need evolution for this), it does seem rather unjust for people to be born into sin, and then be held guilty for sinning, all because of what Adam did.

As with YECism’s claims of a young earth, though, we need to first ask two things: (A) where did the doctrine of original sin come from, and (B) is that actually what the Bible teaches? Too often, we jump to debating the implications of a particular theory or doctrine, without first assessing whether or not that theory or doctrine is, in fact, true, and where, in fact, it came from.

Most scholars will tell you that the doctrine of original sin was essentially formulated by Saint Augustine (354-430 AD), and that it took hold in Western Christianity. But there doesn’t seem to be much readily available about the circumstances that lead to him articulating the doctrine. So what I want to do in this post is to provide a little historical background on this very thing.

Christian Reactions to the Sexual Anarchy of the Roman Empire
The first thing to realize is that the Roman Empire in the early centuries of Christianity was not only cruel, but also rather sexually perverse. Pagan temples had sacred prostitution; the practice of going down to the local temple and “worshipping” your particular god by having sex with a temple prostitute—be a woman or a young boy—was common place and expected. One can just look at the mosaics and artwork from Pompeii to get an idea of the sexual anarchy that typified Roman culture.

That is important to realize because Christianity was a complete counter-cultural movement in this respect. But nevertheless, given the sexual excesses of Roman society, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that some Christian groups went to the other extreme, not simply arguing against forced temple prostitution and the like, but that the very act of sex itself was sinful and shameful. In this respect, many Christian thinkers in the early centuries of the Church were heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism and Stoicism, both of which held to a kind of spirit-matter dualism: namely, that everything material and physical was tainted and bad, and that everything that was good was purely non-material and “spiritual.”

In fact, one specific heretical group of early Christianity proposed a way of thinking called Encraticism, which taught basically three things:

  1. First, that marriage itself was a sin because it was ‘stained’ by the uncleanliness of sexual relation. Sex discouraged any kind of spiritual relationship with God. Therefore, only perfect chastity could signify the resurrection of Christ.
  2. Second, marriage belongs to the old order of reality. In other words, Christ came to put an end to the Law; and marriage was part of that law. Julius Cassianus, who supported Encraticism, was reported by Clement of Alexandria as saying, ‘The Savior has transformed us and sets us free of the error of the union of the sexes’ (Stromata 3:13).
  3. Third, since Christ wasn’t married, chastity is part of the imitation of Jesus. Encraticism linked sexuality and procreation with the continuation of the kingdom of death. As long as people continued to get married and have children, death would reign.
Clement of Alexandria

Church Fathers Come to the Defense of Marriage…Sort of…
It was Clement of Alexandria, (150-216 AD), who was instrumental in defending marriage against the charges of Encraticism. He argued that marriage was instituted by God, and that sexuality was willed by God for the procreation of the human race. He went on to say that it was in marriage that man can take part in the creative work of God. In short, he was trying to affirm a positive view of marriage and of creation.

Unfortunately, the influence of Stoicism and Neo-Platonism came out in Clement’s thought too. Although it is true that people share in God’s creative work through procreation, Clement soon came to the conclusion that this was the only reason for sex in marriage. He believed that husbands should “cohabit with their wives with self-control and only for the purpose of begetting children” (Stromata 3:11). He also believed that to have sex without intending children was an outrage against nature. And finally, he said, “A man who marries for the sake of begetting children must practice continence so that it is not desire he feels for his wife, whom he ought to love (Stromata 3:7).

At first, it seemed that Clement succeeded in defending the sanctity of marriage against heretical groups like the Encratists. But with a simple look at what transpired in the following centuries concerning Church teaching on sexuality and marriage, one can see that the spirit-matter dualism of Neo-Platonic thought continued to infect Christian theology. In short, Stoic thought had its foot in the door of Christian theology.

In the following centuries, the thoughts of many early Church Fathers toward sexuality and marriage continued to become more and more pessimistic and negative. V.A. Demant, in his book, Christian Sex in Ethics, crystallized the evolution of the Church’s theology of sexuality and marriage in this way:

“It is the period from the second century until well into the Middle Ages where sex was regarded as an enemy of the Spirit, where virginity is exalted, where there is a flight from erotic love and from all earthly ties, where woman was held to be the embodiment of sex and the mediatix of damnation” (36).

The passion and pleasure of sex was seen as a curse of original sin, and marriage was seen as instituted by God for those who were unable to renounce passion in their own lives. Gregory of Nyssa, who ironically was married himself, wrote, “Marriage is the proper state for those who cannot renounce passion” (Treatise on Virginity 14:8). He believed that marriage was a consequence of sin, “a lesser evil which collaborates in the end with the reign of death because it constantly furnishes that kingdom with new occasions for triumph” (14:2).

Enter Augustine…Sex and Original Sin
So to be clear, by the time Augustine came along, there was a very influential strand of Christian thought that viewed sex itself—even within marriage—as sinful. It was that mindset that Augustine found himself arguing against. Now, no other theologian has influenced the Western Church as much at Saint Augustine. It was he who gave the Western Church the systematic doctrines of the Trinity and Original Sin, as well as the classical writings of Confessions and The City of God.

Although he was indeed a brilliant man, it seems that Christians in the West have forgotten that he was only a man who was influenced by the prejudices and philosophies of his own time, as well as his own personal experiences. Before he became a Christian, Augustine was quite the playboy, as he writes about in his Confessions. Simply put, he was a man who struggled tremendously with his passions and lusts. That is important to remember when discussing his teaching of original sin.

Unlike his predecessors, Augustine actually affirmed the goodness of sexuality. In fact, he was the one who first made marriage a sacrament, and thereby giving it theological status. Augustine was clear: sex was a good thing; it wasn’t the result of sin. In fact, sex was God’s ordained way for couples to procreate. In this sense, Augustine could be considered quite liberal for that time in Church history. But what he objected to was the concupiscence (i.e. lust) and passion that happened in the act of sexual intercourse. Simply put, sex wasn’t the result of sin; passion was.

Augustine proposed that because of the Fall, that the sexual union was “tainted” by the devil with concupiscence, manifested by passion, and outside the control of reason:

“Who denies that marriage would have existed even if sin had not preceded it? But it was to have existed so that the reproductive members would be moved by the will, like the other members, not aroused by lust; they would not have been around by lust such as now exists, but by lust obedient to the will.” (Contra Julianum 4:11).

“Increase and multiply and fill the earth—Although it seems that this could not happen without the intercourse of a man and a woman…still we may say that in their mortal bodies there could have been another process in which, by the mere emotion of pious charity, with no concupiscence, that sign of corruption, children would be born.”

Furthermore, Augustine believed that that the male erection was the very sign of irrationality and concupiscence. Whenever a man gets excited, it’s something that just happens; he can’t control it—and therefore, for Augustine, the erection was essentially the sign of original sin. He went on to say, “It is impossible for them to be occupied in laudable procreation without shameful lusts. Because of this, it was that even they were ashamed who first covered their nakedness…when…they felt their members disobedient to themselves” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 2:5).

The problem with Augustine’s view of sexuality and marriage is that it is completely contradictory. He affirmed marriage and made it a sacrament, but then said that the passion that happens in sexual intercourse was a sign of original sin and evil. Then to top it off, he said that it was impossible to engage in sexual intercourse without, “shameful lusts.” In the end, even though marriage was a sacrament, sexual expression, even within marriage, was considered sinful and shameful. In fact, one could argue that making marriage a sacrament furthered this negative view of sex. Amazingly, Augustine wrote, “For he who is intemperate in marriage, what is he but the adulterer of his own wife” (Contra Julianum, 2:7).

The result of all this was that even though marriage was held in high esteem, sexual pleasure, even within marriage, was considered shameful and a sign of sin. And therefore, the only purpose for sex was for the procreation of children, and not for pleasure. Sex, because it was pleasurable, was not considered spiritual.

Furthermore, what this meant was that everyone in history is literally conceived during a sinful and shameful act. For nine months before you were born, your mother and father engaged in a sexual act in which your father had an erection, and hence, you were conceived in sin.

Sin thus becomes the ultimate STD.

Conclusion
It should come as no surprise to see why Augustine felt this way: he struggled with his lusts as a young man. For him, passion was uncontrollable. The Bible clearly affirmed marriage, and sex was clearly the way God intended for human beings to procreation, so Augustine wasn’t going to condemn those things. But what he could condemn was the very passion that he himself struggled with. And it was that struggle, along with some rather questionable biblical exegesis, that led to the doctrine of original sin. And that is what we will cover next time.

3 Comments

  1. Grad student in Roman archaeology, here. FYI I love your posts (reading your blog late at night right outside Pompeii right now, haha) and I agree with most of it, but do note that the consensus position today is that there was no sacred prostitution in the Roman Empire. Or more accurately, there is zero evidence for it.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: