Friday, December 9, 2011

Original Sin: Is There Anything New Under the Sun?

Saint Ambrose of Milan,
mentor of Saint Augustine
Yesterday I wrote on the subject of prevenient grace as the prayer over the gifts in the new translation made a reference to it, but it might be worth our while to take a look at the history of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  It is curious because the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception  is only held in the Western Church and not shared in the East (including those Churches which are in Communion with Rome)  which celebrates the conception of the Virgin but, because it has a very different understanding of original sin,  avoids the issue of Mary’s being conceived without (original) sin.  The Eastern Churches pass over the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in silence—not denying it but also not teaching it.  They hold that Mary was sinless but do not attribute this to her not having been conceived subject to original sin.  As I just pointed out, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is dependent on one’s understanding of original sin. 
       Saint Augustine is usually “blamed” for introducing the concept of original sin into Catholic (and Protestant) theology, and this explains why the doctrine is held in the Western Church where Augustine is a major figure and not in the Churches of the East where his influence is minimal.  In fact, however, while Augustine devoted considerable paper and ink to the subject of original sin, he inherited the doctrine, at least in seminal form, from earlier Church Fathers such as Iranaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, and Ambrose who saw in the disobedience of Adam the origins of human rebellion against God.  One of the reasons this doctrine of original sin never “ took off” in the East is that in the early Patristic era (the second through the fifth centuries) the Eastern Churches had more of a challenge from the Gnostic heresies that tended to grossly overstress the role and power of evil and that forced Eastern theologians to stay focused on the essential goodness of God’s Creation.  To admit that human nature is somehow essentially flawed, even by the inherited effects of Adam’s sin, would have played into the hands of the sin-obsessed Gnostics.  Of course Augustine had himself belonged to a Gnostic sect and while he rejected Manicheanism even before his conversion to Christianity, he was far more given to reflect on the dark side of human nature than most, indeed any, of the earlier Church Fathers.  Augustine took the tradition of an inherited sinfulness that had come down from Tertullian through Ambrose and runs with it, developing a very negative anthropology in which the human person is enthralled by Adam’s disobedience and only by grace regains the freedom of the will.  Augustine came into conflict with a Roman priest by the name of Pelagius who argued that the human will is essentially free and able to choose between sin and grace.  This positivist view of human nature and the consequent superfluity of grace was more than Augustine could bear.  He knew from experience—his experience—the evil that lurks within the human heart.  (Sort of like “The Shadow” of old-time radio fame.)    The Church would come down on Augustine’s side—they had to as he was (and still is) the most prolific theologian in the history of the Church and lays the foundation for all subsequent Western Theology—thought in practice we Catholics have a tendency to slide into Pelagianism which is what triggers our attraction to “salvation by works.”  Anyway, as I have said, Augustine taught that the human person has inherited a nature that, while created good, is inherently flawed by the disobedience of our first parents and that this flaw, rooted in human concupiscence, is passed down from father to child through the act of sexual intercourse by which the child is begotten.  This is not to say that Augustine understands concupiscence exclusively in sexual terms.  Augustine gets a bad rap for being anti-sex while in fact he is just about anti-everything, one of those persons who believe that if something is at all enjoyable it must be sinful.  By the way, I am a big fan of Augustine and think that he is the greatest mind in the history of Christian thought so I am not slamming him but the fact of the matter is that he has an incredibly negative understanding—not necessarily wrong, just incredibly negative—of human nature. And then, if human nature is so corrupted by sin, the problem becomes how could the Blessed Mother be tainted by this human nature?  How indeed?   That is the conundrum the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was formulated to resolve. 

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