Sex and the Single Doctrine of Original Sin

It’s not often I can link to a metal video when I discuss complex issues of theology, so I’m thrilled to introduce the band Theocracy, which often broaches complex theological matters in its songs, as it does in the video above, for its song “Hide in the Fairytale.”

The song blends several different strands of thought together to defend the notion that humanity is inextricably trapped in sin as part of our nature, and conversely that any notion of being inherently good, rather than evil, is unrealistic and unscriptural. Consider the first verse and chorus:

A child in sweet duplicity – for innocence, or slavery
To nature and the bents that haunt him straight out of the womb?
He doesn’t have to learn the things unseemly that his instinct brings
To carry like a burden from the cradle to the tomb.
You’ll never have to teach him how to lie!
If we are born in innocence, well, don’t you wonder why?
For selfishness already dwells inside –
The birthright of Adam, the curse of the old man.

Day and night –
Jekyll and Hyde in the fairytale;
This is much more frightening.
Darkness and light –
Feed the new man and tear the veil;
See the old man dying.

This more or less is an argument for the doctrine of original sin, which forms the underlying basis for most of modern-day Christian thought about our relationship to God and our understanding of ourselves. It has been this way now for about 1,500 years – ever since Augustine, bishop of the North African city of Hippo, developed it.

Yet, as this lyrical defense shows, the consensus surrounding original sin has begun to crumble – for two reasons, one scientific and the other philosophical.

First, there’s no way to put this delicately: The notion that all humanity has inherited a sin nature from Adam cannot coexist with the evidence – genetic and archaeological – increasingly showing that Adam did not exist as a historical figure, that indeed humanity as we know it did not descend from any single two people.

Second, our cultural assumptions simply cannot support the line of thought necessary to sustain the beliefs held by original sin’s formulator, Augustine.

Let’s leave the first point as self-explanatory. If Adam and Eve did not exist as literal people, it is quite difficult to posit that any sort of single rebellious event led to the so-called “fall of humanity” and the creation of a genetically inherited sin nature that infects all of us from birth. As archaeologists continue to unearth hominid species that show a clear transition from primate to humans hundreds of thousands of years ago, and as geneticists, having mapped the human genome, determine that the variety in our DNA is too complex to have originated with a single source couple (or any community of fewer than several thousand individuals), the church and her doctrines will eventually come to grips, one way or another, with these revelations of how God created this world, just as she has done for millennia.

The second point is where I want to visit today.

Because where we as 21st century Christians find ourselves philosophically – post-Luther and post-modern – is incompatible with Augustine’s fifth century assumptions in a way simply never seen until now.

In fact, what many people think of as the doctrine of original sin is not actually what Augustine believed, and we’ve been in a centuries-long process of watering it down to the point where we simply can do so no further and it be sustained as the church’s governing doctrine of humanity’s relationship to God.

So here, courtesy of an excellent 2005 study by Jesse Couenhoven in Augustinian Studies (yes, there is a whole journal devoted to studying the writings of one man not named Paul) is a helpful five-point summary of Augustine’s doctrine. It should be clear where even those who feel they unflinchingly accept the doctrine of original sin do not in fact do so:

  1. The source of original sin is the primal sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden.
  2. All human beings share this sin through solidarity with Adam.
  3. All human beings therefore have “inherited sin” in two forms: “common guilt” in the primal sin and “disordered desire and ignorance” on an ongoing basis.
  4. The penalty for this inherited sin is weakness and death.
  5. Sin and death are then transmitted genetically – Augustine believed, using the cultural assumptions of his day, that the act of sexual intercourse transmitted sin to the next generations.

Augustine was less clear on how transmission occurred, but he was very clear that it occurred, and even more clear that all human beings are in fact guilty, not just of the sins we commit ourselves, but through solidarity with Adam of the primal sin that occurred in the Garden of Eden.

Our post-Lutheran, free-will selves simply do not allow for this possibility. But Augustine was very clear on it, and it’s why he defended and encouraged infant baptism at a time when it was not uniformly (though it was largely) in practice. Augustine had no doubt that unbaptized infants were just as guilty of sin as unbaptized adults, and their souls were no less in danger of hell until they had been sprinkled by the priest.

Couenhoven summarizes:

We are judged and penalized for what Adam did because we actually participated, somehow, in the primal sin. Thus, Adam’s sin and ours are one and the same.

I hasten to add that while this is not something generally taught in churches today, it is perfectly consistent with what is taught in churches, that all humans are born with the stain of sin, guilty from birth. It’s only recently that we have tried to carve out exceptions for those who cannot decide for themselves, I would argue because we recognize the, frankly speaking, horrifically unjust God we create through literal application of Augustine’s doctrine.

The other element of Augustine’s belief is the other way in which we inherit sin from Adam – “disordered desire,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and which Augustine derives from Paul’s memorable diatribal discourse in Romans 7: We know the right thing to do, but we desire the wrong.

But here we blanch from Augustine’s full-throated embrace of the natural application of his own doctrine.

Augustine talked often about “carnal concupiscence,” which is a fancy way of saying strong temptation – “concupiscence” being a fixation or strong desire, either for good or ill, while “carnal” speaks to the fleshly nature of this desire. But whereas you and I would agree that all humans are afflicted with a strong desire to act in a manner out of order with our knowledge of what is right, we would not say such a desire is sinful. Augustine would.

Through carnal concupiscence, he wrote, both the body and the soul sin. “It is wrong,” he argued, “for the flesh to have desires opposed to the spirit.” Only after baptism can carnal concupiscence be reduced to a forgiven evil in the life of a Christian.

And this is where Augustine’s culture has become fundamentally incompatible with our own: He is fully bound to a culture that viewed sex as a necessary evil – and sometimes not even that generously. Although Augustine was more progressive on the subject than others, the bishop who converted him, Ambrose, spoke so strongly against sexual intercourse that Augustine and others came away believing that sexually active, married men could not become Christians. The ascetic tendency in the church, which upheld virginity above all other virtues, was so strong that sexual desire could not be seen as anything other than a product of humanity’s fall and the perfect example of the sin with which we had been afflicted post-Adam.

And Augustine was more self-reflective than others on this topic. He chronicled his sexual sins at length in works such as Confessions, and welcomed the chance to reject all sexual desire through the celibacy required by the priesthood. Yet he remained deeply ashamed of what we would now call his natural desire for sex and the nocturnal emissions that came from it.

There’s one more cultural assumption we cannot neglect: the Greco-Roman physiological belief that the soul was transmitted through sexual intercourse, specifically in the semen. The famed Roman physician Galen first articulated this in the second century, and the influential Christian theologian Tertullian expressed this belief in the third century.

Tertullian’s “approach explains solidarity in Adam literally,” Couenhoven writes. “We really were in Adam, the material of our bodies and souls virtually contained in his.” Augustine isn’t sure he believes this literally, but he certainly believed it at least figuratively.

“Augustine attempted to discuss the propagation of original sin without relying on a specific theory about the soul’s origin,” Couenhoven writes. Regardless, Augustine believed the soul was “weighed down by the corrupted body produced by lustful sex.”

In other words, Augustine was ambivalent on whether the soul could be reproduced sexually, but he was convinced that the soul was “weighed down” by the body that was produced sexually, and anything produced in the heat of such passion was necessarily sinful.

Couenhoven wraps it up this way:

Sexual lust thereby becomes not merely a symbol of carnal concupiscence, but its cause.

Original sin has been controversial since its inception. Much of the doctrine is fleshed out in letters Augustine wrote rebutting his critics, primarily Pelagius. In fact, those opposed to the doctrine in Augustine’s day were simply called Pelagians.

But over time, those voices have become more marginalized. Until now.

Original sin used the cultural assumptions of Augustine’s day to explain why humanity seems universally predisposed to selfishness, weakness and cruelty. And don’t get me wrong, that propensity cries out for an explanation. But the cultural assumptions have shifted to such a tremendous degree, it seems we may be due for a new way of explaining the strange and universal case of Jekyll and Hyde.

6 thoughts on “Sex and the Single Doctrine of Original Sin”

  1. As you said there’s every reason to believe the garden of eden story is mythology, as is noah’s ark, and a huge list of other stories from “the good book” as our understanding of reality grows our acceptence that our old myths are just that can’t help but grow as well, or so I hope at least. Thanks for the post.

    1. Hi GH,

      Thanks for commenting!

      While I agree the church will have to come to grips with the growing consensus of the mythological aspects of the Old Testament – from creation and Noah’s Ark to the exodus and the conquest narratives – I hasten to note that the point of myth is to tell a true story in a metaphorical way. The more the church can grasp the truth behind these stories while letting go of the tendency to grip their literal sense, the stronger and healthier we all will be.

  2. It’s not that all Christians are Augustinians though… The Eastern church and now Eastern Orthodox never had something like the Augustine/Pelagius dichotomy, and their views on original sin (or anchestral sin) are also quite different from what you describe, as far as I know. I suppose Oriental Ortthodox and Nestorians are also outside of this dichotomy…

    1. Hey Bram,

      You’re correct. The western church definitely went down that road much further – Origen to Cyprian to Ambrose to Jerome and Augustine – than did the east, but Ambrose was influenced by the ascetic ideals of the Cappadocian fathers, so while Eastern Orthodoxy never quite went as far as Augustine did, it did its part to lay the seeds of the doctrine.

  3. I couldn’t resist commenting on this very thoughtful article, even though a few months have passed.

    I would say the following: Augustine is certainly to be credited for being the first to formulate the doctrine on Original Sin as we (in the West, as Bram correctly points out) know it today. It is interesting, however, that a lot of efforts were made by theologians in the West to temper Augustine in some of his more extreme positions. (As you point out, for example, he thought that unbaptized infants would be damned.)

    I would say that the consensus on Original Sin–before the Reformation–and then, at least in the Catholic Church, starting with the Council of Trent is as follows:

    1. The First Parents committed a personal sin which we could call “original” in the sense that it was the first sin committed by a human being. It was a historical, personal sin (without necessarily insisting on Monogenism, much less a perfectly literal interpretation of Genesis 3), and strictly speaking, the guilt accrues only to the person(s) who committed it. The Scholastics called this sin “peccatum originale originans.”

    2. The First Parents were created with certain gifts: most importantly, sanctifying grace, which is the habitual and inherent help from God that enables us to be friends with Him. (Sancifying grace, which corresponds to the Eastern Christian concept of theosis–divinization–is the absolute condicio sine qua non for salvation.)

    3. The peccatum originale originans needs to be distinguished from its effects: these are principally the loss of sanctifying grace and the tendency to commit more sins (in Scholastic parlance, this last is what is meant by “concupiscence”). Note that, per se, concupiscence is not identified with sexual desire: only disordered sexual desire is a symptom of concupiscence (desire to commit adultery, for instance); moreover, any type of disordered desire, sexual or not, is a symptom of concupiscence (for example, pride, excessive anger, and so on). This is a notable improvement, I think, on St. Augustine’s doctrine.

    4. The peccatum originale originans was a sin in the proper sense, and as such the “guilt” accrues only to the person(s) who committed it.

    5. Strictly speaking, then, it was only the effects of the peccatum originale originans that were transmitted to the offspring of the First Parents: neither the sin–properly speaking–nor the guilt.

    6. When we speak of Original Sin without qualification, in general we mean the condition of (unbaptized) man today: what the Scholastics called peccatum originale originatum. It consists primarily in the fact that we come into existence without sanctifying grace (or without being divinized, if you prefer Eastern terminology).

    7. The effect of Original Sin–that is, of not having sanctifying grace–is concupiscence, the tendency to commit (personal) sin. Thus, when we speak of Original Sin, it is only a sin in an analogous sense: properly speaking, a “sin” consists in a personal, human act (i.e., an act done with the consent of the will) that is contrary to the dictates of right reason. Original Sin is only a sin inasmuch as it needs to be “forgiven” by the infusion of sanctifying grace (which normally occurs at Baptism). Again, I think Augustine was not precise enough in distinguishing the “guilt” of the unbaptized (but otherwise innocent) and the guilt of those who have committed personal sin.

    8. Concupiscence is not a sin in any sense of the word, merely a tendency to commit sin. (Note that one of the “collateral effects” of the loss of sanctifying grace is the weakness of the intellect and the will, which makes it very difficult–frankly impossible–to avoid committing sins altogether.)

    9. Thus, strictly speaking, what was transmitted was not the peccatum originale originans (the personal sin committed by the First Parents) but merely its effects (the privation of sanctifying grace–what we call Original Sin in modern parlance–as well as concupiscence and the “collateral” effects).

    10. Note that it is _not_ the sexual act that transmits these effects. The Council of Trent was very careful not to attribute the transmission to sexuality as such. Again, this is a tempering of Augustine’s position. (Why is solidarity with our First Parents such that we have to suffer the consequences of their bad actions? A very good question that I don’t have a good answer to. But sexuality has nothing to do with it, per se.)

    11. Baptism infuses sanctifying grace (provided the person does not place an obstacle to it). There may be extraordinary means to obtain sanctifying grace (the so-called baptism of desire, for example), but Baptism remains the only ordinary means. It removes the Original Sin (the privation of sanctifying grace) as such, but not its effects (concupiscence, weakness of the intellect and the will, and so on).

    12. It is important to point out that Original Sin (whether “originans” or “originatum”) does not harm human nature as such (taken in the abstract). It harms individual human beings, but they remain fully human, and thus, essentially good.

    I am sure you will have other thoughts on this matter, but I think this synthesis reconciles the following (in my opinion) irrefutable data of revelation:

    (a) The essential goodness of creation.
    (b) Man’s seemingly unaccountable tendency to act contrary to right reason.
    (c) The absolute necessity of grace for salvation.
    (d) The freedom of man to accept or refuse that grace (i.e., free will).

    It also avoids some of Augustine’s rather extreme positions, as well as that of some of the Reformers.

    (My understanding is that Luther did not distinguish very well between Original Sin (the privation of sanctifying grace) and concupiscence; moreover, he seems to have thought that human nature itself was damaged by Original Sin/concupiscence. Thus concupiscence itself, for Luther, is sinful; and hence the remedy (grace) is irresistible. The freedom of the will, therefore, seems to be undermined–and that makes it difficult to speak about “sin” and “guilt” in any meaningful sense.)

    Sorry for the length of the post, but I thought it might foster a good discussion.

  4. Like so much of Christian doctrine, Original Sin is merely a way of corrupting children of christian parents and infusing them with chronic guilt. Like the notion of Hell, it would be laughable if not that it is heinous.

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