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‘Not every wrong is done with pride’

Augustine's proto-feminist anti-Pelagianism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 February 2008

Jesse Couenhoven*
Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions, Villanova University, 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, PA 19085,


This paper provides a reading of the late Augustine which supports the hypothesis that, while the early Augustine believed that pride is the basic sin, he changes his views during the Pelagian controversies, and advocates instead (contra Pelagius) the thesis that sin, post-fall, does not take on any one form. Augustine makes some key, though rarely discussed, statements about the nature of sin that, particularly when his views are put into perspective within his larger doctrine of sin, indicate that Augustine does not think all sin can be reduced to pride. Indeed, Augustine's controversial views about original sin incline him to believe that, far from being self-aggrandising, sin often takes the form of (and is often a sign and result of) ignorance and weakness. Thus, a careful reading of Augustine's doctrine of sin shows that he has significant commonalities with his feminist critics, precisely at one of the points on which he has been most criticised.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2008

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1 Daniel Migliore's balanced and widely used introduction to theology, for instance, states that traditional doctrines of sin have been grossly one-sided, preoccupied with understanding sin as pride. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), p. 131. This terminology of the ‘basic’ sin is not standard, but I find that there is no standard way to refer to the main issue dealt with in this essay. One might speak of the root of sin, or the fundamental form of sin, or what sin can be reduced to, but I have chosen to speak of the basic sin, in part as an easy way to formulate the distinction between the question of the beginning of sin, and the separate issue of what, if anything, counts as the basic sin.

2 Cf. John, Cavadini, ‘Pride’, in Fitzgerald, Allan D. (ed.), Augustine through the Ages (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 679–84Google Scholar. Whether the tradition of Christian thought after Augustine came to view sin as pride is another question, of course, and one I have little space and less competency to consider. It is notable that Luther called unbelief the chief sin (see his ‘Sermon on the Gospel of St John’, 16:5–15, in The Sermons of Martin Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), vol. 3, pp. 121, 141; ‘Preface to Romans’, in Martin Luther, Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillengerger, trans. and ed. Bertram Lee Woolf (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1951), p. 22, and that while the Augsburg Confession says sin is concupiscence it fails to mention pride (cf. Wolfhart, Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985, p. 119Google Scholar). Calvin gives pride a high place (Institutes II.2.11), yet he argues that unfaithfulness was the basis of the fall, and that pride arose only after (Institutes II.2.4; cf. Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), ch. 5). The scholastic tradition, classically expressed in St Bernard's The Twelve Degrees of Humility and Pride, and endorsed by Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (I-II.77.4a; I-II.84.2a), does makes proud self-love the basic sin. I am uncertain, however, whether many church fathers shared this view.

3 Valerie Saiving, ‘The Human Situation: A Feminine View’ (1960), in Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (eds), Womanspirit Rising, 2nd edn (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992), p. 27.

4 Saiving's account of human development has much in common with the views developed by the psychologist Nancy Chodorow (The Reproduction of Mothering). See Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Gender and Grace: Love, Work and Parenting in a Changing World (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), pp. 395–9, and ‘Re-Inventing the Ties that Bind: Feminism and the Family at the Close of the Twentieth Century’, in Anne Carr and Van Leeuwen (eds), Religion, Feminism, and the Family (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), pp. 43–5, for short introductions to object relations theory. Some feminists still draw heavily on that theory, for instance, Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: Crossroad, 1988), ch. 1; Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), ch. 5. For criticism of such accounts, see Lorraine Code, What can she Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), ch. 3.

5 Cf. Andolsen, B. H., ‘Agape in Feminist Ethics’, Journal of Religious Ethics 9/1 (1981), p. 74Google Scholar; B. H. Andolsen, C. Gudorf and M. D. Pellauer, ‘Introduction’, to Christine Gudorf, E., Women's Consciousness, Women's Conscience, ed. Andolsen, B. H. and Pellauer, M. D. (New York: Winston Press, 1985Google Scholar), p. xxii; Hampson, D., ‘Reinhold Niebuhr on Sin: A Critique’, in Harries, Richard (ed.), Reinhold Niebuhr and the Issues of our Time (Oxford: Mowbray, 1986), pp. 4660.Google ScholarPlaskow, J., Sex, Sin, and Grace: Women's Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1980)Google Scholar. Vaughn, J., Sociality, Ethics, and Social Change: A Critical Appraisal of Reinhold Niebuhr's Ethics in the Light of Rosemary Radford Ruether's Works (New York: University Press of America, 1983), p. 198Google Scholar.

6 E.g. Robin, Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 147–51Google Scholar; Gene, Outka, Agape: An Ethical Analysis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 275Google Scholar; Edward, Collins Vacek, Love, Human and Divine (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1994), pp. 184–5Google Scholar; Van Leeuwen, Gender and Grace, pp. 42–8. See Kathryn, Greene-McCreight, ‘Gender, Sin and Grace: Feminist Theologies Meet Karl Barth's Hamartiology’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 50 (1997), pp. 415ffGoogle Scholar. for a good discussion of Karl Barth's insightful attempt to deal with the relationship between pride and sloth.

7 Cf. Hampson, ‘Niebuhr on Sin ‘, p. 46; Andolsen, ‘Agape’, pp. 69–70; Susan Nelson Dunfee, ‘The Sin of Hiding: A Feminist Critique of Reinhold Niebuhr's Account of the Sin of Pride’, Soundings 65/3 (1982), p. 317; Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (1985), p. 40. In my view, Nygren is a better example than Niebuhr of a theologian who considers selfish pride the basic sin. After all, Nygren makes the distinction between a love that gives and a love that wants for itself central to his account of the difference between agape and eros, forms of love which he considers fundamentally opposed attitudes towards life (cf. Outka, Agape, pp. 56ff.). For Nygren, eros (acquisitive love) is always egocentric, whereas agape (love that is value-creating and giving) is other centred: Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), p. 210. In his view, the paradigm of Christian love is Christ's suffering love, the polar opposite of pride (ibid., pp. 118 and 741).

8 Though it is not my goal to defend Niebuhr in this paper, there are two points in his favour which critics often overlook. Niebuhr speaks of the primal sin not as pride but as unbelief and idolatry, saying that human beings would not fall into the anxiety which is the precondition of sin if they did not lack faith (he also says insecurity is one part of the will-to-power: Human Nature, p. 194). However, he also seems to think that a lack of faith presupposes a self centred on itself – not trusting God means trusting yourself instead – and this reinstates pride as fundamental (ibid., pp. 140, 183, 198, 250–2, 289–90, 293; cf. Hampson, ‘Niebuhr on Sin’, pp. 52–3). Still, Niebuhr is more subtle in his discussion of the nature of the basic sin than many have allowed. Second, and significantly, Niebuhr was aware that sin may take the form of hiding. He even notes that there may be different forms of sin particular to each sex: ‘the more active part of the male and the more passive part of the female in the relation of the sexes may seem to point to self-deification as the particular sin of the male and the idolatry of the other as the particular temptation of the woman’ (Human Nature, p. 237). He is able to speak of sensuality as ‘the flight of the ego into another’ (p. 236), ‘a flight. . . to nothingness’ (p. 237) and ‘finding a god in a process or person outside the self’ (p. 240). Given such statements, one can take Niebuhr's critics to be expanding his doctrine of sin in ways not alien to him, putting him in fruitful conversation with himself, rather than simply criticising him. It seems, therefore, that Niebuhr's fundamental differences with his feminist critics lie not in his doctrine of sin – where there is room for, and the first strains of, an emphasis on sloth – but, rather, in his understanding of the nature of Christian love (where he owes much to Nygren and Kierkegaard), his doctrine of grace and his doctrine of God.

9 References to Augustine's works are by book, if any, in Roman numerals, and chapter and paragraph, in Arabic numerals – not to page numbers. I refer to his texts by English titles in the body of my paper, but by Latin abbreviations in parenthetical citations. See the note at the end of this paper for a list of abbreviations.

10 Some will find it odd that Augustine thought it possible to sin in ignorance, but controversial as his view may be, this is indeed what Augustine thought, as he makes clear in any number of works (e.g. CJul V.3.8; PeccMer I.36.67; GLA 3.5; on this and a number of other points below, cf. Jesse Couenhoven, ‘Augustine's Doctrine of Original Sin’, Augustinian Studies, 36/2 (2005), pp. 359–96.

11 Burns, ‘Augustine on Evil’, p. 24, seems sympathetic to this reading of Augustine, though he does not draw out its implications.

12 Augustine writes that sexual activity in Eden might have involved either the sexual organs obeying the will without any passion, or a proper kind of passion that would have arisen at a sign from the will (C2Ep I.17.34–5). He keeps both possibilities open in his later works, suggesting that sexual desire that neither preceded the will nor went beyond it might have been present in the garden (CJul IV.14.69; CJul V.5.21; OpImp II.122; Ep 6*).

13 Eugene Durkin claims that, in his sermons, Augustine often links cupidity and fear as the source of all sins: The Theological Distinction of Sins in the Writings of St. Augustine (Mundelein, IL: St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, 1952), p. 61. I am not in a position to substantiate this claim but, if true, it would support my thesis.

14 In The Predestination of the Saints, Augustine later approvingly quotes his earlier self speaking of faith as the beginning of all human merit, and unbelief as the beginning of impiety (DPS 3.7).

15 ‘Human covetousness. . . has as its source either a human being or the deceiver of human beings, not their creator. For it is “the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes and the ambition of the world, and it does not come from the Father, but from the world”’ (GPO 1.20.21). See Mathijs, Lamberigts, ‘A Critical Evaluation of Critiques of Augustine's View of Sexuality’, in Dodaro, R. and Lawless, G. (eds), Augustine and his Critics: Essays in Honor of Gerald Bonner (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 179–80Google Scholar; Miles, Margaret R., Augustine On the Body (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979), pp. 67–9Google Scholar, amongst others, for the argument that Augustine does not think of concupiscence as primarily sexual in nature, but simply as desire in general – a desire which can be good or bad.

16 Mary, Potter Engel, ‘Evil, Sin, and Violation of the Vulnerable’, in Thislewaite, Susan Brooks and Engel, Mary Potter (eds), Lift Every Voice (San Francisco: Harper, 1990), pp. 152–64Google Scholar. The discussion above is not exhaustive, since it does not consider Augustine's late letters, sermons and commentaries, but it is worth noting that the sermons most often cited as proving Augustine's view that pride is the basic sin were written prior to 415; cf. Cavadini, ‘Pride’.

17 However, he never seriously questions whether the devil's sin was, basically, pride; see Adkin, N., ‘Pride or Envy: Some Notes on the Reason the Fathers Give for the Devil's Fall’, Augustiniana 34 (1984), pp. 349–51Google Scholar.

18 Perhaps this helps to explain why Augustine typically – though, we have seen, not always – argues that the primal sin must have been pride: perhaps he thought that those living in and with a unified good have just one way to oppose it, pride.

19 For a long list of other references, see Burns, J. Patout, The Development of Augustine's Doctrine of Operative Grace (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1980), p. 105 n. 84Google Scholar. Those put off by Augustine's claims about sins of ignorance might consider Robert Adams' defence of the idea of involuntary sin, among which he includes sins of ignorance: ‘Involuntary Sins’, Philosophical Review, 94 (1985), pp. 3–31.

20 When Augustine speaks of the ‘flesh’, he does not mean the body as such, but (following St Paul) rather the entire person when the person is sinful; the ‘spirit’, by contrast, is not the soul, but a power for good given by the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. For good treatments of this issue, see Paula Fredrickson, ‘Beyond the Body/Soul Dichotomy: Augustine on Paul against the Manichees and the Pelagians’, Recherches Augustiniennes, 23 (1988), pp. 87–114, and ‘A Response to Vitiated Seeds and Holy Vessels’, in Karen L. King (ed.), Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1988), p. 403; Paul Rigby, Original Sin in Augustine's ‘Confessions’ (Ottawa, Canada: University of Ottawa Press, 1987), pp. 59, 74; Eugene TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), p. 70.

21 For a defence of this claim, see Couenhoven, ‘Augustine's Doctrine’.

22 Accounts of how this happens vary widely, however, and include influences from object relations theory, structuralism and theologising about the Trinity and being made in the image of God.

23 A version of this point is insightfully made in Alistair I. McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), though he does not connect it to Augustine's opinions about the basic sin, and there are some significant differences between our understandings of Augustine's doctrines of sin and grace. See also the brief comments on sin in Kathryn Greene-McCreight, ‘Feminist Theology and a Generous Orthodoxy’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 57 (2004), pp. 95–108.

24 As Rowan Williams has argued, creating an identity is not the same as imposing a definition, since there is nothing to impose on prior to the creating: Williams, On Christian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 67–8; cf. Gary Watson, ‘Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme’, in Ferdinand Schoeman (ed.), Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 278.

25 For some important – though to my mind confused, in ways too complex to mention here – discussions of this topic see Engel, ‘Evil, Sin, and Violation of the Vulnerable’ McFadyen, Bound to Sin; and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum, 1994), pp. 12, 29, 45.

26 It is worth noting, however, that Augustine might characterise his doctrine of grace as a better balm for upbuilding those wounded by sin than a Pelagian call for those entrapped by sin to rescue themselves from it. In addition, and despite criticism by a number of feminists, Augustine does not typically view self-love negatively, and he does not believe that Christian caritas aims ultimately at sacrifice, but at a kind of happy mutuality with the triune God (cf. John, Burnaby, Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St Augustine (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938)Google Scholar; Oliver O'Donovan, The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980). Correspondingly, his emphasis on humility – which he views simply as finding one's rightful place – is at odds neither with his desire for proper self-love (cf. Outka, Agape, p. 71, n. 30), nor his conviction that sin takes many forms.