If there are any doctrines of the Christian faith that seem rather odious to other people, it is the doctrine of sin and its related doctrine of total depravity. For many people, the idea of sin makes them feel judge; the concept of total depravity seems to devalue them as wicked, evil people. The standard response of evangelicalism and fundamentalism in our present day is to emphasize God’s love, while still retaining the doctrine of sin without substantially changing what it is we are talking about when we mention sin. As a result, we have often propounded what I refer to as bipolar1 view of God, in which God is at the same time deeply angry and judging every little sin we commit and yet loving us and showing us mercy through the death of Jesus.
Offhand, there is a reason this bipolar representation of God continues to be presented: because it *seems* to be consistent with various parts of the Scriptures which affirm both God’s love and faithfulness to forgive and God’s justice and wrath to punish sin. However, undergirding this bipolar representation is a synchronic representation of God, in which all the various testimonies about God in the Scriptures are taken to be timeless, context-less descriptions of God’s enduring, unchanging character. As a result, the only way to harmonize a synchronic, timeless representation of God with both portrayals of God’s love and judgment is to portray God as both full of anger and full of love. However, because the synchronic way of thinking is not something people just naturally pick up on and realize there are alternative ways to think, such as diachronic thinking, the end result is that the Bible is often assumed to have this bipolar representation of God, leading to feelings of fear and judgment regarding sin.
Now, if we were to think for a moment why people have a hard time coming to faith in the God that the Old Testament and New Testament testifies to, perhaps it is this bipolar representation of God. Would you want to be friends with someone who is simultaneously full of anger and yet also makes full expressions of love? Such a person would seem highly unpredictable to us. Given that the vast majority of people are highly motivated by fear, most people who believe this to be true of God or consider this specific representation of God would be highly motivated to try to appease God, feel unable to trust God, reimagine who God is by de-emphasizing the Scriptures, of rejecting the existence of God. Put simply, this bipolar representation of God does not evoke faith, hope, and love in most people.
However, what if, in addition to the way God is represented synchronically, this problem is created by a problematic account of what sin is? What if the habit of representing God in terms of a fixed, synchronic pattern lead to a deficient account of sin? This is exactly what I would suggest happened with Augustine, who in many ways is the father of Western theology, whether Catholic or Protestant. Here is Augustine’s definition of sin:
Sin, then, is any transgression in deed, or word, or desire, of the eternal law. And the eternal law is the divine order or will of God, which requires the preservation of natural order, and forbids the breach of it.2
First, notice that Augustine defines sin in relationship to law. This echoes Paul’s repeated usage of the Greek word νόμος in Romans, where Paul talks extenstively about sin. Often taken to refer to law, it was the word the translators of the Septuagint used to translate the Hebrew תוֹרַ֥ת, use to refer to instruction, particularly to the instruction contained in the Pentateuch. However, the lack of familiarity with this peculiar usage of νόμος by Greek speaking Jews leads to Paul’s letter to the Romans to be interpreted as describing righteousness in terms of law. Therefore, the principle way Augustine construes sin is as an action that violates some expressed law.
This construal goes hand-in-hand with what follows, where God’s will is about “the preservation of the natural order” and “forbids the breach of it.” Here, we get a full glimpse of Augustine’s doctrine of sin in action: there is a way the world is suppose to function, which the law is an expression of. When one violates this law, one is guilty of sin. At its core, God’s law is an expression about the nature of creation and God’s intentions for it.
Augustine goes on to apply this understanding of God’s law and nature when it comes to human nature:
But what is this natural order in man? Man, we know, consists of soul and body; but so does a beast. Again, it is plain that in the order of nature the soul is superior to the body. Moreover, in the soul of man there is reason, which is not in a beast. Therefore, as the soul is superior to the body, so in the soul itself the reason is superior by the law of nature to the other parts which are found also in beasts; and in reason itself, which is partly contemplation and partly action, contemplation is unquestionably the superior part.3
Augustine transitions to anthropological reflections, defining humanity based upon reason, because it is that which distinguishes them from animals. Deeply implicit in Augustine’s reflection is the hierarchy of nature, in which humans are of higher honor and capacity thant animals. Hierarchies of nature require something that explains the difference in order to self-legitimate the hierarchy and Augustine, as if a good Greek philosopher, appeals to the soul and reason as raising up animal above beast. As a result, we can say that Augustine theological anthropology is deeply intertwined with natural theology.4 His definition of God’s law as an expression of about the order of the world almost demands it natural theology.
The object of contemplation is the image of God, by which we are renewed through faith to sight. Rational action ought therefore to be subject to the control of contemplation, which is exercised through faith while we are absent from the Lord, as it will be hereafter through sight, when we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.5
It is here where Augustine’s natural theology then intersects with Scripture in referring to the image of God. However, what happens here is that Augustine has Platonized the image of God as an object of contemplation. Plato’s theory of forms put forward that the physical world is only a shadow of the deeper, true reality, which one comes to know in the mind through contemplation. So, for Augustine, the image of God essentially God as a form that exists outside of the physical world and is known through contemplating this form, which then allows one to understand the natural order around us. The image of God is essentially taken by Augustine to be a heavenly form not seen and known in the world, but as that which the world is a reflection of.
The end result of Augustine’s view of God is that God’s own nature/form/essence/etc. is understood through contemplation, which then allows one to comprehend God’s law that regulates the natural order by and see how the world around them is an expression of this natural order, or a violation of it. God is at the top of the hierarchy of nature, whose word everything under Him is supposed to obey, starting with the angels right below him and then human below them.
What I want to present is that it is Augustine’s combination of (1) a Platonic understanding of God in Platonic terms, (2) a theological anthropology rooted in the hierarchy of nature, and (3) a (mis)understanding of Paul’s discussion of righteousness being understood as a law lead to Augustine’s doctrine of sin.
Because God is not seen, theology has to address the epistemic question of how one relates and understand the unseen God to the observable world and human experience, either in part or in whole. By placing God at the top of the hierarchy of nature, this gives Augustine a solid basis to work from. Nature is, essentially, the expression of God’s will, however difficult or impossible it may be to rightly understand it apart from God’s. This seemingly aligns with creation narrative in Genesis 1.
Now, to understand God at the top of nature, one must come to understand God through contemplation. By adopting a Platonized view of God in terms of the forms, Augustine adopted a synchronic approach to understanding God, conceptualizing God in terms of some unchanging and static traits, properties, purposes, etc. Greek reflections of forms, essences, nature, etc. is inherently synchronic in approach. Now, in this specific case, Augustine’s static, synchronic representation of God, or more particularly God’s will, is framed in terms of the divine order expressed in God’s law. This representation feel quite persuasive, as it is very cohesive with the hierarchy of nature, as hierarchies are understood to be regulated by law.
Now, for Augustine, obedience to the law is instrumental in helping to keep one’s passions and desires in check. As such, Augustine sees humans as being divided within themselves between their own desires and obedience to God’s law. Human reason is considered crucial to overcome the power of human desire to take one away from obedience to God to be in control of how they live and act. To sin, in Augustine’s eyes, is to essentially lose oneself to one’s passions and lusts. As a consequence, the reason why people live in sin and do not have faith and obey God can essentially be boiled down to the problem of human reason being clouded and darkened by human desire. It is thus necessary for God to redeem human reasoning to contemplate God rightly in faith.
My critique of Augustine’s theology must first be tempered with a point of agreement. I think human emotions, passions, and desire are certainly a major contributor to human evil and injustice. I would even go so far as to say the way humans grow to desire certain things can have a way of blinding people from even believing in God and following Jesus. Where I find Augustine to be at his best is when he is doing anthropology and psychology, but not when he is doing Scriptural exegesis and theology.
Simply put, Augustine’s portrayal of sin is guilty of treating sin in terms of ancient, Hellenistic philosophy combined with a Roman emphasis on law. By emphasizing contemplation and reason, Augustine speaks like a Greek philosopher. By appealing to the natural order is expressed in law, Augustine has adopted a Roman emphasis of law and the way Rome ideologically propagandized nature to legitimate their legal order. In other words, Augustine’s theological reflections are more endemic to his cultural setting and his intellectual endeavors.
The result of this is the emergence of the moral control of the elite, even though this is not what Augustine actually proscribed. As contemplation was not something readily available for all people to engage in, but it is something that required the luxury of leisure time to really engage in, it essentially meant that ethical reflections on God’s righteousness could only be accomplished by those who had the time to engage in such reflection. Furthermore, as righteousness was considered to have an imperatival force with severe punishment or consequences undergirding it as it is with legal systems, it meant that only the elite could reliably and regularly address moral matters and people’s adherence to it.
Granted, this wasn’t Augustine, but Augustine was a step away from it. For Augustine, it was God who was the judge and the one to be obeyed, and not necessarily people. Yet, because adherence to the law is conditioned to one’s capacity to reason, it meant that the only people who could reliable teach and talk about the law were people who had the privilege to being able to engage in the contemplative life. The net effect is to make the elite arbiters of God’s law, rewarding and punishing those who they deem to adhere to their rules, even those rules they deem to be legitimated by God and the Scriptures.
So, the result is that sin is often times heard as a way in which other people control and punish others through application and appeal to specific rules and laws. Sin is understood as the transgression of God’s law, but it is people who propagate and institute this law. In such a context, it is no wonder the bipolar representation of God does not instill faith, hope, and love in others. Insofar as God’s love and anger is a projection and legitimation of human love and anger, this view of sin is downright frightening and gives the feelings of being controlled by others through the fear of God.
I would strongly argue that this is not at all how the Old Testament and New Testament understands sin. Rather, sin is an act of resistance to God by humanity, in which God’s good purposes for humanity and the world are thwarted by human action. Sin is not so much disobedience to God, though it can take that form as in Romans 7, but it is the way in which human actions work against the emergence of God’s glory in creation (cf. Rom. 3.23). At the heart of Jesus’ call to repent is to reorient oneself so that one does not work against the Kingdom of God/heaven that is presently at hand.
This is why Paul talks about God reconciling the world to himself in 2 Corinthians 5.16-21. Often understood as God’s forgiveness of sins, as if the separation between God and humanity is their sinful disobedience of His law that makes God angry and that needs to be rectified for a relationship to start, Paul’s teaching about God’s reconciliation actually reflects the way in which human people are brought into harmony with God’s purposes, rather than resisting them. The problem isn’t so much that humanity as a whole break God’s laws; the problem is that humanity, either in defiance or in ignorance, has been working against God’s redemptive purposes to bring about new creation.
This representation of God is diachronic in nature in contrast with the the commonly synchronic representation of God in theology. Knowing God is about knowing God’s redemptive purposes for humanity and the world as part of salvation history from creation, the patriarchs, the exodus, the monarchy, exile and restoration, and, ultimately, Jesus Christ. We are called to be witnesses to God’s redemption in creation rather than to be witnesses to some fixed natural order.
Understanding righteousness is the way that God intends for us to live in relationship with him and with each other, rather than fitting ourselves into the present order of the world, which Paul sees as passing away (1 Cor 7.31). Righteousness is not about fitting oneself to some preestablish rule, as much as it is about seeking the good that God wants for all life. Laws, rules, and regulations are often important guides to knowing what is good and how to accomplish it, while not being unquestionable in the face of human pain, suffering, and clear and abiding sense of what is evil. Laws, particularly that of the Torah, are instrumental in the pedagogical instruction of people in what is good by helping people to particularly identify what can bring about harm, but a hyperfocus on the adherence to the expressed form of the law (as Paul says, the letter) at the cost of the lives the laws that humans used to regulate each other ultimately brings about death, not life.
The cause of human sin and the human inability to obey isn’t ultimately attributable to some flaw of human reason and contemplation, as much as it is the result of the stance between God and in humanity in the fall of creation in Genesis 2-4. Human sin lead to a divine distancing so as to not to enable the terrifying destructive potential of human sin and wickedness. While God sought to be present in a new way among the people of Israel in the tabernacle and later the Temple, the people of Israel were not diligent to obey God’s instruction and thus God rescinded His presence and left Israel to go into exile. But in Jesus Christ and in the pouring of the Holy Spirit, God’s Divine Presence has drawn nearer than ever before.
Human desire becomes a problem by the way our ignorance of God leads us to construct our sense of life and the world without God’s will and purposes in mind. Since the reliability of our knowledge about a specific person is determined by how much time we spend listening and interacting with them, the distance of God is casually responsible for human ignorance. However, God has rectified this by drawing near in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and yet people do not believe and know God. Why? As human desire become habituated and entrenched through the course of day-to-day life through the litany of personal, familial, communal, social, and cultural mechanism for behavior modification and the expression of values, desire becomes trained to a specific way of life. However, since we as humans are incapable of seeing the whole and how our actions and words impacts every one and every place and can not arrive at some reliable mental calculus that will reliably provide what is good for everyone, we are often left with serious blind spots regarding justice that leads us to resist God’s redemptive purposes for humanity. Hence, Paul says the thinking of the flesh is unable to obey God’s instruction or to please God. Human entrenchment in our ways of life combined with our blind spots makes us resist the God who seeks and calls us, both in our ignorance and even as the veil of ignorance begins to be taken off. It is in the dramatic demonstration of God’s love and power, both in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the various redemptive works of power by the Spirit, that God counters human ignorance and resistance.
However, when we think we have a reliable knowledge of God’s will simply through some expression of law that is simply left for us to understand and apply, even if we believe we have to rely on God to give us the ability to understanding, we become averse to the dynamic and often surprising way that God works in our lives because such ambiguity calls into question our sense of certainty. Synchronic thinking abhors intellectual vacuums that allow for dramatically uprising. Furthermore, it is due to our adherence to law as the essential way to think about what is right, good, and holy that we often set up hierarchies of honor and shame that God’s actions constantly disrupt and throw into question. And, in the end, we are often times unwittingly influenced to substitute knowledge of this ‘law’ in place of knowing God Himself in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit, as if God is made by and for the law and not law made by and for God’s good purposes for humanity.
In short, Augustine’s picture of God, sin, and human inability cast a picture that on the surface looks similar to Scriptural witnesses to God, but at a deeper level began to diverge from them. The end result of the Augustinian influence has been not simply to appreciate many of the anthropological reflections about human desire, but to allow Augustine’s own understanding of sin, rooted in Hellenistic philosophy and Roman law, to be the controlling view of sin in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and to contribute to elitism in the Church. Most particularly, in the Protestant Reformation’s renewed reliance on Augustine in a way that Catholicism had minimized, they didn’t read the Bible more clearly so much as they were actually children of the Renaissance, which sought appropriate to bring back the Greek and Latin heritage. What was seen in Augustine was essentially the pinnacle of the blend of Christianity with Greek and Latin forms.
Greek and Latin ideas are essentially evil or bad, as if it must be entirely abandoned without question and reflect. However, it does behoove us as Protestants to repeatedly ask the questions: Do we follow Christ or Rome? Is our teacher to be found in Jerusalem or Athens? In such a place, we are beckoned to go back to the Scriptures, much as early Reformers did, to discover and see what is good and what needs mending. Perhaps, however, rather than making Biblical scholars and theologians some near all-knowing figures who can pronounce to others what they need to know and be the penultimate, or even ultimate, arbiters of these questions, as if they are a Greek philosophical sage in religious garb, perhaps we can embrace the roles of Biblical scholar and theologians in the church being much more akin physicians of the mind and heart, who have the tools and know-how to help heal people reading of the Scriptures and understanding of God from those things that so easily block our faith and submission to God. The scholar of the Church, far from being experts on God, becomes more experts on how humans problematically use what God has given us so that they can therapeutically aid people to become free to discern and know God through the ways God makes Himself known. In other words, the scholars of the Church are not experts on some divine law, some divinely instituted natural order, or some other divine body of knowledge we as believers are expected to master, but rather they become master anthropologists as it relates to their particular field of interest and study.
- “Bipolar” here is not used to refer to bipolar disorder as a mental illness, but rather the simultaneous representation of God in terms of love and judgment.
- Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, 22.27.
- To provide a clear definition of what I mean by “natural theology,” I use it to refer to any sort of theological reflection that takes specific observations and analyses of the natural world as foundational, axiomatic, unchanging concepts for doing theology.