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The Genesis of St. Augustine's Idea of Original Sin

  • Ernesto Bonaiuti (a1)


The thought of Augustine on the two ethical categories of sin and grace is of great importance in the history of Christian theology. His system of grace and predestination prevailed for many centuries, although not without strong opposition, and underwent, through scholastic elaboration, substantial changes in order to save the freedom of the will; and finally it reappeared in the conception of the spiritual life shaped by Luther and the other teachers of the Reformation. It is on account of his doctrine about grace and predestination that Protestant theologians like to call Augustine “der Paulus nach Paulus und der Luther vor Luther.” Whatever may be the exactness of this genealogy, it shows at least the value and efficacy of the Augustinian conception of the natural and supernatural life on the development of the European spirit. In the Catholic tradition this thought of Augustine is at the very basis of the ethical, ecclesiological, and sacramental systems; in the Christian but non-Catholic movements this doctrine, interpreted in a rather paradoxical way, gave a starting-point to the Reformation.



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1 The success of the Augustinian doctrine was amazing. The author was still living when Prosper of Aquitania in his letter to Rufinus said: “Non solum Romana Africanaque ecclesia, sed per omnes mundi partes universi promissionis filii cum doctrina huius viri congruunt.”

2 Vide E. Troeltsch: Augustin, die christliche Antike und das Mittelalter. München, 1915, 1.

3 Förster: Ambrosius, Bischof von Mailand. Eine Darstellung seines Lebens und Wirkens. Halle, 1884.

4 “Haben Ambrosiaster und Optatus die Lehren Augustins über die Sakramente, den Glauben, und die Kirche vorbereitet, so Ambrosius die über die Sünde und die Gnade.” Dogmengeschichte, III3, 44 (Tübingen, 1897).

5 For instance, Ps. 49 5: “‘Iniquitas calcanei mei circumdabit me.’ Hoc est iniquitas Adae nan mea. Sed ea non potest mihi esse terrori; in die enim judicii, nostra in nobis non alienae iniquitatis flagitia puniuntur, unde reor iniquitatem calcanei magis lubricam delinquendi, quam rectum aliquem nostri esse delicti.” Ambrose, Comm. in Paul. III (Edition by Ballerini, Milan, 1876).

6 A. Souter: A Study of Ambrosiaster; Texts and Studies, VII, 4. Cambridge, 1905. Souter has already published a good edition of the Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti of Ambrosiaster in the Corpus Scrip. Eccl. Lat. of Vienna. A new edition of the Pauline Comment is announced by Brewer.

I believe that Augustine did not know the Quaestiones at all. The passage of the Quaest. XIX is insufficient to prove such knowledge in Augustine. Quaest. XXIII, about the possibility of a material transmission of the soul through the act of generation, is in open contradiction to the thought of Augustine.

7 I follow here the chronology of Augustinian writings as given by Rottmanner. On this evolution of Augustinian thought, see Turmel: Histoire du dogme du péché originel. Macon, 1904, 73.

8 Augustine himself in De Dono Perseverantiae, XII, 30, emphasizes the legitimacy of his spiritual evolution.

9 In Retractationes (edition by Knoell in Corpus Scrip. Ecc. Lat., XXXVI, 1, 26) Augustine says that his LXXXIII Quaestiones were revised for publication after his elevation to the episcopate, between 396 and 397.

10 Ambrose died April 4, 397, and was succeeded by Simplicianus. The treatise of Augustine must be assigned to that year.

11 Augustine recalls in this passage, while writing to Simplicianus, how deeply influenced he was by the words of Paul (1 Cor. 4 7) when he felt in himself the harsh contrast between the notions of grace and freedom of the will. By the virtue of these words, he says, “vicit gratia Dei.”

12 Although there is no doubt about the sincerity of Augustine, yet sometimes his memory played him false. For instance, when in the Retractationes he speaks of his treatises written immediately after his baptism, there is some inaccuracy in the chronology which he gives. Timme, in Augustins geistige Entwickelung in den ersten Jahren nach seiner Bekehrung (Berlin, 1908), claims to be the first to notice these inaccuracies, but the Maurin Editors had already remarked the fact in their Augustinian biography.

13 Before the end of the year 395. What Augustine says in these chapters coincides exactly with the contents of the book De libero Arbitrio, ended about 394–395.

14 The fragment that survives bears the title, Epistolae ad Romanos inchoata Expositio, and was written also in 394.

15 Tertullian too speaks of “massa frumenti.” De Prescr. III, 9.

16 Originally “massa” must have been the transliteration of μάζα (barley bread), which probably was a word of Hebrew derivation. Cf. H. Van Herwerden: Lexicon graecum suppletorium et dialecticum. Lugduni, 1910, II, 909.

17 Jerome, who besides being a good translator, is, when he likes, a subtle critic, observes (Gal. 5 9): “Male in nostris codicibus habetur modicum fermentum totam massam corrumpit, et sensum potius interpres suum quam verba apostoli transtulit; modicum fermentum totam conspersionem fermentat.” Tertullian too in De pudicitia, quoting 1 Cor. 5 6, says “conspersionem.” Cf. Rönsch: Itala et Vulgata. Marburg, 1875, 309.

18 It is known that Ambrosiaster, commenting on 1 Tim. 3, says about the Church: “Cujus rector hodie est Damasus.”

19 The passage is invariably given by all the quotations of the New Testament prior to the Vulgate. See Novum Testamentum, etc., F. Wordsworth et H. White. Partis II, fasc. I, Epistola ad Romanos. Oxford, 1913, 85.

20 This metaphor of “massa” is so characteristic that I think that Pelagius himself was acquainted with Ambrosiaster when he commented on the Pauline passage in the following words, quoted by Augustine in his De peccatorum meritis et remissione, III, 5: “Iniustum est ut hodie nata anima non ex massa Adae tam antiquum peccatum portet alienum.” I submit this remark to Mr. Souter.

21 The word “massa” is used three times by Optatus Milevitanus, edit. by Ziwsa, Corpus Scr. Ecc. Lat. XXVI. Twice (V, 9; VI, 21) the meaning has nothing to do with our purpose; the third time it is very significant. Speaking (II, 26) about the rigorous discipline imposed by Donatists upon the Catholics who had joined their party, he says that they made them “massam pœnitentium.” Augustine was acquainted with the work of Optatus or rather with its sources, but there is no reason to think of any influence from that side, because Augustine disliked Optatus, whose ideas on anthropological and political problems were very far from his own.

22 Der Ambrosiaster nach Inhalt und Ursprung, in Zeitschrift f. wissenschaf. theol. XXVI, 415–470. 1883.

23 Page 3.

24 Cf. Histoire de la théologie positive, 227. Paris, 1904.

25 Number 194 of the collection. It was written in 418.

26 The same ideas reappear in Contra duas Epistolas Pelagianorum, II, 9, even in a more definite way.

27 See the indexes of the Maurin Fathers in their Augustinian edition.

28 Julian von Aeclanum, sein Leben und seine Lehre. Texte und Untersuch. XV, 3, 66–68. Leipzig, 1897.

29 F. Cumont: Recherches sur le Manicheisme: I, La cosmogonie manichéenne, 19. Bruxelles, 1908.


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