Category Archives: Sin

Adventures in Thinking about What’s Wrong with Us (Part 3)

Is my series title a little too cheery (“Adventures”!) for such a seemingly grim topic? If so, then maybe it is meaningful for us to remember not to take ourselves too seriously! (Especially if taking ourselves too seriously is part of what’s wrong with us.)

I would not be surprised if human cultures had long believed that something is wrong with humanity, and if they had tried to explain why that is the case. As for the Judeo-Christian tradition, some postbiblical Jews wrote reflections on Adam and Eve that extended that story further than the biblical story itself. The Christian apostle Paul did a similar thing in some of his letters (Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15). Then in turn, postbiblical Christian thinkers wrote extensively on human nature and the human condition.

After reading James Smith’s essay, “What Stands on the Fall?” — including his discussion of Augustine and the Reformed tradition of Christianity — I was compelled to revisit some of these strands of thought that have had such significant influence on Christian beliefs over the centuries. I love chasing these rabbits!

One other quick note before proceeding. In this discussion of the Fall, we might also use another expression that frequently occurs alongside of “the Fall,” and that expression is “original sin.” Part and parcel of much Christian thinking about what is wrong with humans is discussion not only of how sin originated in humanity, but also whether or not sin is something that can be passed from one generation to the next, from parents to their children. Christian traditions have answered this question differently.

Church Fathers on What’s Wrong with Us

If you like history and/or are interested in the history of Christian beliefs, I recommend a book to which I was introduced in graduate school: Donald McKim, Theological Turning Points: Major Issues in Christian Thought (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988). McKim’s discussion of the Fall and original sin occurs in chapter 4, “Anthropological Controversy: What Is Humanity?”

Theological Turning Points (from Amazon)

Justin Martyr (ca. AD 100-165) was a man from Samaria who studied philosophy and later converted to Christianity. He would travel to Rome to teach, and would be opposed, tried, and beheaded there. He was one of the earliest Christian “apologists”: thinker-writers who defended the Christian faith against social and political charges frequently made against the Christians.

Justin Martyr (from Wikipedia)

In Justin’s setting, there were various explanations on offer for what is wrong with us humans. Several thinkers concluded that humans are powerless over their own lives because of either the world’s basic structure (Stoicism), or the arrangement of the stars and other celestial bodies (astrology), or having to live a physical existence (Gnosticism). Against all of these beliefs, Justin argued that spiritual forces of evil lured Adam and subsequent humans into sinful actions, but that humans retained free will, as well as their capacity to choose and do good things. Moreover, Justin did not believe that Adam’s sinful nature was inherited by subsequent generations of humans. Each individual of each generation is responsible for his or her choices, for good or evil (McKim, 1988, pp. 65-66).

McKim goes on to discuss several other early Church Fathers on the topics of the Fall, human nature, and original sin. Several Eastern Fathers believed and taught that humans after Adam tended to lean more toward sin than good, but that they had the capacity to will and choose and do good: into this category fits thinkers like Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 130-202), Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), Origen of Alexandria (AD 185-254), Athanasius of Alexandria (AD 296-373), the Cappadocian Fathers (ca. AD 330s-380s/390s), and John Chrysostom (ca. AD 349-407) (pp. 66-69).

Into this category also fits someone we will treat more extensively next time: Pelagius (AD 360-420). This Christian monk believed strongly enough in the human capacity to do good that he found himself the target of someone who would turn out to become one of Christianity’s most influential thinkers: Augustine of Hippo.

In contrast to the thinking that seems to have typified the Fathers of the Eastern Church — the Greek-speaking churches that predominated the Eastern portions of the Roman Empire — there seems to have emerged a gradual-but-influential strand of thinking in the Western Church — the Latin-speaking churches that predominated in the Western Empire. From this region came the reflections of Tertullian, Ambrose, and Augustine.

(Note: This difference between East and West is consequential, because Protestants will emerge from the Western Church and its habits of thought pertaining to the Fall, human nature, and original sin. So please keep this fundamental East / West difference in mind.)

Tertullian of Carthage (AD 160-220) taught that humans inherit a sinful nature from Adam, but do not inherit his guilt. Despite their sinful nature, humans are still capable of doing good (McKim, pp. 66-67). Ambrose of Milan (AD 337-397) shared Tertullian’s views about humans inheriting a sinful nature from Adam, and about humans still being capable of doing good. In contrast from Tertullian, however, Ambrose taught that humans inherited Adam’s guilt. That is, we are born guilty of sin (McKim, pp. 69-70).

Ambrose of Milan (from Wikipedia)

Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) shared Tertullian’s belief that humans inherit Adam’s sinful nature, and he shared Ambrose’s belief that humans inherit Adam’s guilt. In contrast to both of these predecessors, however, Augustine taught that humans are incapable of doing good: their nature is so altered by Adam’s choice and action that their free will no longer wills to do good, let alone carry it out (McKim, pp. 70-73). For Augustine, what’s wrong with us is that we are born with a sinful nature, guilty of sin that occurred before us, and incapable of doing good and improving our condition.

This is not the last word from Augustine, however. He develops his doctrine of grace to explain how God goes about responding to the human predicament and giving humans the opportunity to have fixed what is so horribly wrong with them. In the next post, we will look more closely at Augustine’s dispute with Pelagius over what is wrong with us and what we can (or can’t) do about it.

Core Questions

I hope you find this brief survey of early Church Fathers helpful. Specifically, I hope you let them push you to do your own thinking about what is wrong with us humans.

To promote this thinking, let me ask the core questions that I have after revisiting these Church Fathers. First, do people inherit their moral nature from their parents and other ancestors? What arguments can you devise for and against such a view? Second, do people inherit the guilt of what others do, and, especially in this case, what others did before they came along? Again, what evidence do you find for thinking that people do or do not inherit guilt from their ancestors? Third, are people capable of wanting to do good, choosing to do good, and successfully carrying out the good? What evidence suggests that people do possess this capacity? Is there evidence suggesting that people are not capable of good?

Thanks for journeying with me!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4