What Is Original Sin for St Augustine?

St. Augustine of Hippo forever changed the landscape of Christian Theology. His writings on Original Sin permanently shifted how generations of Christians view their faith.

Dec 23, 2023By Kelsey Peeples, BA Theological Studies, MBA & MDiv Joint Degree
st augustine original sin

 

The doctrine of Original Sin is a central aspect of the Christian faith. As a prominent figure of the Christian faith, Saint Augustine of Hippo expanded upon this concept, providing insight into Original Sin in addition to the biblical text itself. This article explores Saint Augustine’s origins, providing a contextual understanding of his writings on Original Sin that he penned throughout his faith journey. Additionally, this article defines original sin and examines two of Augustine’s key works to gain insight into a seminal component of systematic theology, in the author’s own words.

 

Defining Our Terms: What is Original Sin? 

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Adam and Eve, ceiling painting from the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo, photo by Sebastian Bergmann, ca. 1508-1512, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The biblical doctrine of Original Sin asserts that people inherit a sinful nature (transgressing against God’s laws). This is unavoidable for all human beings. According to Anthony J. Smith, and a large portion of biblical scholarship, we can summarize the overarching idea in two distinct parts:

 

  1. All of humanity is born into the default condition of Original Sin, which shapes the essence of human behavior.
  2. This sin was caused by hereditary transmission (or sexual activity) through Adam after he committed the sinful act of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil.

 

Throughout the entire biblical metanarrative, these two ideas often interact with one another. Therefore, many denominations (or traditions) of Christianity adhere to this idea. Depending upon how different Christian traditions interpret the biblical texts, some may emphasize one of the two traits over the other when evaluating this doctrine. The significance lies in the theological assumption of an inherent separation from the Judeo-Christian God (the father) caused by sin, which then creates logical space for the atoning work of Jesus (the son). Christians believe that they are inherently sinful or “broken”, which prioritizes a savior to remedy that condition.

 

Saint Augustine and His Influences

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St Ambrose Barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, by Anthony Van Dyke, 1619-20, via The National Gallery

 

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St. Augustine of Hippo, also known as Aurelius Augustinius, served as a bishop of the Catholic church. He lived most of his life in modern-day Algeria, and he lived from 354 CE to 430 CE. Augustine is regarded as one of the primary voices of the Church catholic (or “universal” church) in the fourth century, contributing to the foundations of theology (the study of the Judeo-Christian God) as we know it today. He is what many modern scholars would refer to as a Church Father. Born into a privileged class of Roman society in North Africa, he was a highly educated student. Augustine went on to become a teacher of rhetoric and relocated to Milan to pursue his teaching career. It was in Milan where Augustine converted to Christianity and sat under the teachings of St. Ambrose, a Catholic bishop of Milan who incorporated a Neoplatonic approach to his teachings.

 

Augustine became an ordained bishop in the North African port city of Hippo Regius. As a Catholic bishop, he produced highly influential works that provide essential insights into Christian Theology. Some of his notable works include:

 

  • The City of God Against the Pagans (known commonly as The City of God)
  • Confessions in Thirteen Books (or simply Confessions)
  • On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis

 

Because Augustine came to faith in a community deeply influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy, his writing takes on somewhat of a dualistic tone, specifically emphasizing the importance of the mind over the body. This may explain why Augustine primarily associates the introduction of sin in the human family with sexual acts in his written works.

 

Enter Pelagius: Augustine’s Reason for Writing

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Etching of Pelagius, 17th century, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Addressing the doctrine of Original Sin specifically, Augustine initially writes in open opposition to Pelagius, a European monk, and theologian. Pelagius advocated for a theological belief that denied the impact of Adam’s first sin on his descendants. Pelagius stated instead that all of Adam’s offspring did not suffer any repercussions from the event, and all of Adam’s offspring were actually born inherently good. Pelagius would later be deemed a heretic and excommunicated by the Catholic church for his ideas, which is due in part to St. Augustine refuting Pelagius’ claims in writing.

 

Saint Augustine’s Writings on Original Sin

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St. Augustine Arguing With the Donatists, by Charles André Van Loo, 18th century, via Wikimedia Commons

 

One of the first instances of Saint Augustine penning a primary source discussing the nature of Original Sin is titled On the Grace of God, and On Original Sin. He wrote this work in approximately 418, primarily in response to the teachings promoted by Pelagius and his followers (Augustine makes reference to another man named Celestius, who was pushing these ideas as well). Pelagius disseminated the teaching of total free will, asserting that all human beings possess an equal capacity to do good deeds or evil deeds as they choose. Based on his theological conclusions, those who followed Pelagius’ teachings also believed that all individuals are inherently inclined toward good deeds upon birth.

 

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Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo, by the Master of Saint Augustine, ca. 1490, via the MET, New York

 

In On the Grace of Christ, and On Original Sin, Augustine places a strong emphasis on refuting Pelagius’ philosophical arguments on the validity of total free will. Augustine does so by emphasizing the importance of God’s grace toward humanity, and delving into the exact nature of Adam and Eve’s mistake when they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This analysis is based on the Judeo-Christian text known as the book of Genesis and is located in Chapter 3. Toward the conclusion of the work, Augustine asserts his position in such a way that defines Original Sin and has continued to shape theological discussions for subsequent centuries after this work was published. He says:

 

“Now, whoever maintains that human nature at any period required not the second Adam for its physician, because it was not corrupted in the first Adam, is convicted as an enemy to the grace of God; not in a question where doubt or error might be compatible with soundness of belief, but in that very rule of faith which makes us Christians. How happens it, then, that the human nature, which first existed, is praised by these men as being so far less tainted with evil manners?”
On the Grace of Christ and On Original Sin, Book 2, Chapter 34

 

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Christ’s Descent Into Hades,via Orthodoxroad.com

 

The above quote adequately summarizes Augustine’s remarks throughout the entire text. He states that the presence of “corruption” or sin in the first Adam was necessary in order for humanity to attain fulfillment in the second Adam, another theological term used in the New Testament and by early church writers to refer to Jesus. Augustine asserts that Pelagius’ proposed idea that the original Adam lacked a sinful nature is an incorrect conclusion. According to Augustine, if Adam was not inherently sinful against God, there would be no purpose for the salvific work of Jesus, as depicted in the Gospel writings in the biblical text.

 

The City of God Against the Pagans (referred to in its original Latin title as De Civitatei Dei), another published work by Saint Augustine, further explores Adam’s role in introducing Original Sin to the human family. This work is estimated to have been published in the early 400s, shortly after On the Grace of Christ. In City of God, Augustine devotes less effort to refuting Pelagius’ argument and instead spends more time referencing biblical texts to support his belief that Adam was inherently sinful and that this sin was subsequently passed down to future generations after Adam and Eve:

 

“Our first parents [Adam and Eve] fell into an open disobedience because already they were secretly corrupted; for the evil act had never been done had not an evil will preceded it.”
Book XIV, Chapter 13, The City of God Against the Pagans

 

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Adam, Eve, the Serpent, and the Forbidden Fruit: Design for a Stained-Glass Window, by Hans Christiansen, ca. 1898, via Wikimedia Commons

 

This quotation is just a single example of the plethora of ones like it that Augustine expands upon in books 12 through 14 of this work. In summary, Augustine is attempting to account for philosophical differentiations in the “City of God” and the “City of Man” by highlighting the idea that man’s inherent sinful nature (Original Sin) was brought on by Adam.

 

Understanding Augustine’s writings on original sin provides a comprehensive look into the history of Christian belief and sheds light on the foundational tenets of the Christian faith. The doctrine of Original Sin is a topic in what is known as “Systematic Theology” which involves an interconnecting of beliefs and principles to establish a logical framework for discussing the Holy Bible and Christianity in general.

 

The Doctrine of Original Sin is a subsection of what is known as The Doctrine of Man or the Doctrine of Humanity. This particular concept of systematic theology holds great significance for Christians, as it accounts for humanity’s relationship with God, provides a sense of purpose in daily living, and offers a rationale for humanity’s need to be saved through the salvific act of Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of humanity.

 

Why Does it Matter? Original Sin as the Cornerstone of Systematic Theology

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Icon of St. Augustine of Hippo, by Colette Clark, ca. 2020, via iconographersireland.com

 

Conclusively, St. Augustine of Hippo began his career as a famous orator in the bustling cities of the Mediterranean but he ended it as a bishop of a Catholic Church in a humble Berber town, producing written works that defined a whole host of Christian believers that came after him. Of all of his writings, works like City of God and On the Grace of God have played a pivotal role in shaping the perspectives of devout Christians on their own sin and their understanding of the saving grace of the Judeo-Christian God.

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By Kelsey PeeplesBA Theological Studies, MBA & MDiv Joint DegreeKelsey is an academic researcher and copywriter who is passionate about telling the story of Jesus. She loves education, and hopes to teach theology someday. In her spare time, Kelsey prefers to read, practice her piano playing, and test recipes on her husband, Danny. In her day to day, Kelsey works for a faith-based non-profit and works to pursue a dual master's degree in Divinity and Business Administration.