Disciples of Christ and the Problem of Sin – Part 2
In part one of this discussion we looked at several texts that speak of the problem of sin within the human community. While the opening lines of Genesis declare that all of God’s creation is good, when we get to Genesis 3 the dynamics seem to change. The question is why? One way to look at the question is to compare the differing perspectives of two theologians who lived at the turn of the fifth century CE, and who engaged in debate on the question of sin and free will. As Disciples, we might ask, which of these perspectives seem to be the most compelling? Do we lean in one direction or the other, and what does that mean for us when it comes to how we live in the world?
Pelagius or Augustine?
Pelagius (ca. 350-ca. 424) was a British ascetic and monk who came to Rome around 390. He was a strong advocate for moral reform and the value of asceticism. In espousing these two themes, he argued that humans have the freedom and the ability to choose the good. Not only that, but if humans are expected to change for the better, then they must have the ability to fulfill their moral obligations. That is, doing what is right is a matter of the will. Starting from the premise that the goodness of humanity is rooted in the premise that humanity has been created in the image of God, he believed that God gave humanity the ability to choose between good and evil. For Pelagius, sin consists of freely choosing to do evil. Since sin is a matter of the will, a person should be able to progress toward a sinless life; that is, if one chose to do so. Putting things in more modern terms, the universality of sin is explained environmentally, rather than genetically. We tend to sin, because we live in a sinful context. [S.v. "Pelagius, Pelagianism," by Joanne McWilliam, in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990). Pelagius, "Letter to Demetrius," in Theological Anthropology, J. Patout Burns, ed. and trans., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), pp. 41, 48-49].
Pelagius’ most significant opponent was Augustine. His response to Pelagius was rooted in his reading of Paul, but also his own struggle to live a holy life. Based on life experience, he came to believe that that holiness was a gift of God, and not a matter of human will. While Pelagius insisted on the perfectibility of humanity, Augustine could only think about his own inability to overcome temptation. Although he longed to love and serve God, this always seemed out of reach. So, he writes:
Instead, the mists of passion steamed up out of the puddly concupiscence of the flesh, and the hot imagination of puberty, and they so obscured and overcast my heart that I was unable to distinguish pure affection from unholy desire. Both boiled confusedly within me, and dragged my unstable youth down over the cliffs of unchaste desires and plunged me into a gulf of infamy. Thy anger had come upon me, and I knew it not. I had been deafened by the clanking of the chains of my mortality, the punishment for my soul's pride, and I wandered farther from thee, and thou didst permit me to do so. I was tossed to and fro, and wasted, and poured out, and I boiled over in my fornications--and yet thou didst hold thy peace, O my tardy Joy! [Augustine, The Confessions, quoted in Hugh T. Kerr, ed., Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd ed., (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 54.]
You might call Augustine something of a realist. He tried but failed to live a holy life. To give further definition to his struggles, he describes an incident from late adolescence. He stole fruit from a tree, not because he was hungry, but for the fun of it. He acted out of a "contempt for well-doing and a strong impulse to iniquity."
There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night—having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was—a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart--which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now lit my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error--not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but the shame itself. [Augustine in Kerr, Readings, pp. 56-57.]
With a background such as this, having struggled long and hard against sin and temptation, yet failing to overcome sin, it’s not surprising that he found Pelagius' positive view of humanity unthinkable.
Pelagius and Augustine agreed on one thing—in the beginning, before the Fall, humans were endowed with free will. Adam could choose both good and evil. Augustine, however, did not believe that this freedom was a natural endowment; it was a gift of God, a gift compromised by the Fall.
For it was by the evil use of his free will that man destroyed both it and himself. For, as a man who kills himself must, of course, be alive when he kills himself, but after he has killed himself ceases to live, and cannot restore himself to life; so when man by his own free-will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost.
Once Adam exercised his free will and chose to sin, that choice affected his descendants’ ability to choose. [Augustine, The Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, Henry Paolucci, ed., (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1961), pp. 36-37].
This first act of sin removed the assistance of divine grace that enabled free will. Now humanity was unable to control the will and was driven toward the fulfillment of desire. Instead of desiring the good, humanity was compelled to sin. While Pelagius offered a rather positive picture of humanity, Augustine insisted on total human depravity. This inability not to sin was then passed on to the posterity of those who were “driven into exile.” Therefore, from then on, the whole human race experienced corruption and suffered a sentence of death.
And so, it happens that all descended from him, and from the woman who had led him into sin--being the offspring of carnal lust on which the same punishment of disobedience was visited--were tainted with original sin, and were by it drawn through divers errors and sufferings into that last and endless punishment which they suffer in common with the fallen angels, their corrupters and masters, and the partakers of their doom. [Augustine, Enchiridion, p. 32].
Reading Romans 5:12, in light of his own life experience, he believed that Paul taught that that sin entered the world through one man’s disobedience, and then spread from there to all, therefore all sin.
While Augustine painted a dark picture for humanity, he also affirmed the reality of God's grace, which was revealed to humanity in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice on the Cross. Jesus is the Second Adam, whose mediatorial work restores humanity's broken fellowship with God. While God's grace does not remove sin from human experience, by God's grace the rupture between God and humanity can be healed. While Pelagius believed that human merit might pave the way for salvation, Augustine believed that only God's grace could bring salvation to a depraved humanity. Though humanity can do nothing good without the assistance of grace, the regenerative work of the Spirit will enable a person to do what is good.
Because humans are unable to save themselves, God must act, and in Augustine’s mind – and that of many of his theological descendants – God chose to rescue some from the penalty of their sin, though not all. Therefore, God has predestined some to experience God’s grace and receive salvation. Those who are so chosen will not fall away – those who are not chosen, even if they convert, they will eventually fall away. Augustine defended God's righteousness in choosing some and not choosing others by pointing out that everyone stands under judgment. Therefore, God has chosen to have mercy on some of those under condemnation. God needn’t do this, but out of mercy, God has chosen so to act.
Disciples and the Pelagius/Augustine Spectrum
If we pursue this question of sin and free will as Disciples, it might be worth exploring how Alexander Campbell dealt with this question. He lived long after Augustine and Pelagius, but the debate continued to rage well into his day. As he approached this question, Campbell took into consideration the writings of John Locke on human nature. For Locke, humans are born with a blank slate, upon which experience and the senses write. To Campbell, God created humanity as a "free and a responsible agent, capable of maintaining his estate and paying his rent; and consequently, was susceptible of virtue and of vice, of happiness and misery." Campbell went on to write that God placed a law on humanity to test its character—that is, humanity is to refrain from eating one particular fruit. [Alexander Campbell, Christian System, (New Salem, NH: Ayer, 1988), pp. 26-27.]
Campbell agreed with Augustine and with John Calvin that the Fall changed human destiny by allowing the animal within to triumph over the human. As the glory of God left Adam, he "felt his guilt, and trembled; he saw his nakedness and blushed." Campbell might not have gone as far as Augustine in affirming the principle of total depravity, but he did believe that Adam’s descendants are stained by sin and cannot attain to "primitive purity and excellence."
We all inherit a frail constitution physically, intellectually, but especially morally frail and imbecile. We have all inherited our father's constitution and fortune; for Adam, we are told, after he fell "begat a son in his own image”; and that son was just as bad as any other son ever born into the World; for he murdered his own dear brother because he was a better man than himself. [Campbell, Christian System, p. 27].
Campbell, however, broke with Augustine and Calvin, rejecting their definition of original sin. To Campbell, the universality of sin can be explained by the children of Adam choosing, of their own free will, to disobey God. He recognized that humans seem universally to sin, but he didn’t believe it was necessary. At this point he almost embraces Pelagius:
Still, man with all his hereditary imbecility, is not under an invincible necessity to sin. Greatly prone to evil, easily seduced into transgression, he may or may not yield to passion and seduction. Hence the differences we so often discover in the corruption and depravity of man. All inherit a fallen, consequently a sinful nature, though all are not equally depraved. [Campbell, Christian System, 28-29].
All are fallen, but we don’t have to sin—we have a choice. Only those who with their own volition sin against "a dispensation of mercy" provided for them are condemned. The emphasis is on freedom of the will and the freedom of the individual to choose to follow or deny God.
The perceived danger in Pelagianism is that it downplays the seriousness of sin and that it gives a false hope to people. It can be overly optimistic and naive. Augustinianism, on the other hand, may be more realistic, but it can be seen as overly deterministic. In many ways Campbell tried to find a happy medium between the two. But, living as he did in the early years of the American republic with a vision of God’s realm being laid out in the American context, he might have been too optimistic. So, we might heed theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr who remind us that human nature has serious issues to deal with. Ronald Osborn picks this up clearly when he writes that “despite our sentimental self-esteem, human nature is seriously flawed by its innate tendency to self-love. We pursue our own interests at the expense of others.” [Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, p. 49]. As we move on to the question of salvation, it may be worth contemplating who had the better argument as to the extent of sin in our world – Augustine or Pelagius?