Augustine’s Mature Doctrine of Original Sin in 21st Century Perspective: An Evaluation

Augustine’s teaching has molded Christian thought for sixteen centuries despite unyielding opposition, both ancient and modern. This paper proposes to evaluate one central tenet of the African bishop’s mature teaching on theological anthropology, original sin, to see if it possesses the “heft” to retain (or perhaps regain) its persuasiveness and relevance for twenty-first century evangelicals.
To limit the scope of the study, I intend to focus on Augustine’s last work dedicated to the subject, his Unfinished Work in Answer to Julian (UW,). In so doing, the study brackets the controversy over continuity versus discontinuity. Likewise, I bypass (as much as possible) related issues such as free will, the origin of the soul, concupiscence and substance dualism, issues that are rightly addressed in any comprehensive Augustinian anthropology.
My method is to describe Augustine’s concept of original sin (I largely follow Couenhoven, Stricken by Sin, 2013) and then evaluate. It is without controversy that his understanding was rooted in a robust view of human unity. Early on he framed his view within categories drawn from the Plotinian Platonism of Late Antiquity, arguably akin to Plotinus’ notion of world-soul (Roombs, Saint Augustine and the Fall of the Soul, 2006; O’Connell, “The De Genesi contra Manichaeos,” 1993). By the UW, however, he is certain human unity is physical and agnostic whether this unity extends to the immaterial soul. After expounding human unity, I take up the corollaries of the Edenic primal sin, human solidarity in that sin, constitutional disorder, penalty, and a mechanism for transmission.
I use the four points of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (Outler, “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” 1985)—scripture, tradition, reason and experience—as a practical rubric to measure the viability of Augustine’s doctrine. My thesis and conclusion of this evaluation is yes: Augustine’s doctrine of original sin lies well within the parameters of biblical warrant and Christian tradition, possesses the intellectual resources to defend itself (with certain caveats) and provides explanatory power for a broad range of Christian experience.

3 thoughts on “Augustine’s Mature Doctrine of Original Sin in 21st Century Perspective: An Evaluation”

  1. limited
    Basing Augustine’s view on one unfinished work seems tenuous. A treatment of Augustine’s view of original sin that draws from more of his writings would be more helpful.

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