The question of our post today is the focus of an essay in a new release from Baker Academic: Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin. The essay is by Peter Sanlon titled “Original Sin in Patristic Theology” (pp. 85-107)
Sanlon begins by observing that many believe it “is virtually an axiom of historical theology that the doctrine of original sin . . . cannot be traced back beyond Augustine.” The great theologian is said to have “concocted a doctrine that is found neither in the gospels nor in the Pauline epistles nor in the Greek patristic tradition.” Sanlon disagrees. He demonstrates that it was vitally important to Augustine to show that his views were not original with him but reflected the historic position of the church. Augustine offered “citations from Scripture, church fathers, and councils” in his defense and he “coined an epithet for the Pelagians who denied original sin. They were the novi hereticic, ‘new heretics.’” (91) An important doctrine tied to this was infant baptism. Augustine agreed with the Pelagians that babies had committed no actual sin. “Unable to commit any actual sins, the sin babies needed rescuing from had to be original sin.” (93) The antiquity of infant baptism was evidence, Augustine claimed, that the church had long accepted original sin. Furthermore, without original sin the Pelagians “bequeathed a vision of life that revolved around human effort, potential, resolve, moral ability, and decision.” (99) Where was the need for grace in this system? Augustine believed that “[n]ew desires needed to be implanted, proud longings had to be deadened. . . . Certainly original sin is dark, but the flame of God’s grace burns all the more brightly for it.” (100-1) It was not Augustine who was inventing new doctrines. It was the Pelagians. Sanlon also discusses the importance of a literal Adam for original sin. To read more see his essay on “Augustine’s Literal Adam.”
Peter Sanlon (PhD, University of Cambridge) is vicar of St. Mark’s Church, Royal Turbridge Wells. Prior to ordination he was a speechwriter for a member of the House of London. He is distance tutor in systematic theology for St. John’s College, Nottingham. His research on Augustine’s preaching will be published by Fortress Press.