Doctors at Odds
Athanasius and Augustine both held sway over the direction of the Church’s teachings and both theologians contributed greatly to the growth and refinement of some of the most important aspects of theology. Each of these theologians would eventually approach the doctrine of Original Sin, which is still regarded as one of the most important Christian doctrines, on the level of the Incarnation and the Passion. Athanasius and Augustine, although agreeing on many teachings, would find difference in this doctrine of Original Sin. One would suggest the resulting Fallen nature did not utterly destroy the image that God had placed upon humanity, while the other, would point towards a totally debased and depraved version of humanity stemming from the Fall. Augustine would argue for a humanity so broken that God’s image was hardly recognizable if even still present. Although the Fall and Original Sin leads to tensions between these two theologians that are rarely seen in regards to basic doctrines of the Church, they both agree on the necessity of the Fall, as seen in the Exsultet, “O truly necessary sin of Adam,/ destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!/ O happy fault/ that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” (“The Exsultet”).
Original Sin has troubled Christianity throughout the ages. Defining this doctrine is challenging, making understanding its full impacts even more so. The term “Original Sin” has multiple meanings. First as, “the sin that Adam committed”, and second, as “a consequence of this first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam.” The Church has struggled to define this term in a way that can be understood and worked with. In earlier years, the Church’s definition of the term led to disagreements with the Pelagians and accusations of a Manichean approach to theology (Harent). Even though this topic was difficult to lay out in an understandable fashion, both Athanasius and Augustine would try to establish working outlines for the doctrine.
Athanasius was influential in the time of the early Church. He is easily most famous for his works, On the Incarnation and The Life of Anthony and for his defense of the Council of Nicaea in later years. Although each of these is commendable, Athanasius also had spent some time in consideration of the topic of Original Sin. His thoughts on this subject are a little more challenging to understand. Athanasius focuses more on the meaning of the Incarnation in salvation than he does on the importance of the fallenness of humanity. However, Athanasius still pays his dues to developing this doctrine. According to Athanasius, the Fall was not a legal event, it was an event in the relationship between humanity and God that would leave effects throughout eternity (Morgan 477).
The effects of Original Sin go deeper for Athanasius than this relational level. On the Incarnation begins a discourse on the importance of the Incarnation, but also highlights some of Athanasius’s views on Original Sin. Athanasius refers to humankind’s fallen state like a defaced image that a painter had once created. The image that had been placed could not be restored without the painter himself present. “For this cause, then, death having gained upon men, and corruption abiding upon them, the race of man was perishing; the rational man made in God’s image was disappearing, and the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution” (On the Incarnation 6). Athanasius proclaims that humanity is not so completely fallen that it is beyond restoration. Instead, God’s grace, in the form of the painter returning to fix the effaced image, provided through the Incarnation, restores this fallen image back to its original beauty. “In the same way also the most holy Son of the Father, being the Image of the Father, came to our region to renew man once made in His likeness and find him as one lost by the remission of sins;” (On the Incarnation 14). This view of the Fall and man’s state leads to a view of salvation that is intrinsically different than Augustine’s view.
Athanasius’s view of Original Sin and humanity’s fallen state was a softer view. This view valued each individual person as a piece of art created by God in His likeness. Athanasius speaks of the hope of a restoration of the defaced image of God, a restoration back into the glorified position that humanity once held. Athanasius also uses the fallen state of humanity and its downward fixation to describe the necessity of the Incarnation. Athanasius’s approach to Original Sin allows for redemption, but it also values each person as created in the image of God. This personal importance and longing for a relationship are themes easily identified throughout Athanasius’s writings. Original Sin and the Fall of humanity would be essential to this aspect of Christianity.
When Athanasius faces this problem, he seems to see the Fall of humanity as something gradual. Although the initial moment created a turning point, Athanasius saw a gradual descent of man’s moral reasoning stemming from the turning away from God (Morgan 477). Humanity had turned away from God in the Fall. Then, according to Athanasius, they lost sight of their goal of remaining united with God (Morgan 478). With their eyes no longer focused on God and their souls no longer aligned with His views, humanity was doomed to a dark, despairing decline which would leave them debased. “But when, by the counsel of the serpent, he departed from the consideration of God, and began to regard himself, then they not only fell to bodily lust, but knew that they were naked, and knowing were ashamed.” (Against the Heathen 3).
The debasement of humanity is clear in Against the Heathen. Mankind fell and then began to chase idols, as many a preacher would say along with Athanasius, mankind has a God-shaped hole in our hearts. “Hence, weighted with all fleshly desire, and distracted among the impressions of these things, she imagines that the God Whom her understanding has forgotten is to be found in bodily and sensible things, giving to things seen the name of God, and glorifying only those things which she desires and which are pleasant to her eyes.” (Against the Heathen 8). Since humanity was naturally created to live in relationship with God, it would only make sense that once that relationship had been broken man would suffer. Humanity lives for purposes, a man without a purpose in life is like a loose cannon, although he can potentially be a boon to the group he resides with, he can also be a danger. Humanity had lost its purpose. Now, all of humanity roams the earth searching and casting far and wide for a purpose. Looking for something to fill that God-sized hole in their lives.
Against the Heathen
Because of Athanasius’s view of Original Sin, there is a change in his view of the process of salvation and also a different perspective on Christ’s role in the world. Although all can agree that Christ’s role was to save humanity, the redemptive process looks slightly different. Augustine’s views on Original Sin differ from Athanasius’s lending a harsher light to the desperation of humanity. His view does not seem to maintain the value of humanity being created in the image of God in the same fashion that Athanasius’s view does. In Genesis, God creates humankind in his image and he proclaimed that it was very good (Gen. 1:31). Athanasius values this piece of theology in his discourse on the fall of humanity. While others might focus on how depraved humankind had become, Athanasius sought to maintain a hold on humans being created in the image of God. This image and likeness was important to Athanasius.
Since humans were created in the image of God, it gave them a special standing even as far as Athanasius was concerned. Human beings are precious, and worth being saved, not something that God would arbitrarily destroy in seeking a more expedient route.
“For God Maker of all and King of all, that has His Being beyond all substance and human discovery, inasmuch as He is good and exceeding noble, made, through His own Word our Saviour Jesus Christ, the human race after His own image, and constituted man able to see and know realities by means of this assimilation to Himself, giving him also a conception and knowledge even of His own eternity, in order that, preserving his nature intact, he might not ever either depart from his idea of God, nor recoil from the communion of the holy ones; but having the grace of Him that gave it, having also God’s own power from the Word of the Father, he might rejoice and have fellowship with the Deity, living the life of immortality unharmed and truly blessed.” (Against the Heathen 2).
When people are viewed as artwork as Athanasius does, they gain a personal importance. Just as each work of Thomas Kinkade has special meaning and beauty, each human being carries the stamp of God’s likeness upon them. This likeness, however deeply it has been hidden underneath the muck of original sin, is still worth being saved. Thus, Christ’s role. Instead of coming to cover over humanity’s sins and simply hide their likeness underneath his purity, Christ came to cleanse all of humanity. He restored the human image from its depraved and marred state and allowed this beauty to resonate and be exposed. God’s image placed a special value upon each individual and especially since God did not create evil, the original and unmarred template of mankind was to be valued.
Although both On the Incarnation and Against the Heathen give a clearer understanding of Athanasius’s take on Original sin, they present a deeper tension that should be understood. Throughout On the Incarnation, especially in section six, Athanasius portrays man as a victim of the Fall. Sin and death rule over mankind. “For this cause, then, death having gained upon men, and corruption abiding upon them, the race of man was perishing; the rational man made in God’s image was disappearing, and the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution.” (On the Incarnation 6). In this manner, mankind is portrayed as a victim. In Against the Heathen Athanasius portrays man as an agent of evil, by turning away from God and choosing to proceed in a different direction, man is responsible in the Fall and bears guilt. “But men, making light of better things, and holding back from apprehending them, began to seek in preference things nearer to themselves.” (Against the Heathen 3). These two views are held in stark relief. In one view, mankind plays the part of a hapless victim of evil, suffering under its rule. The other, presenting man in a way such that man acted out, pursuing evil and thus deserving the consequences of the Fall. Admittedly, there is a difference in these views, but why is there an importance?
Mankind’s part in the Fall is essential to the story of salvation. Each view that Athanasius presents slightly alters the way in which humanity is saved from sin. One case presents a salvation from righteous judgement in Against the Heathen and in the other On the Incarnation, salvation from mankind’s enslavement to evil. God’s position in each case is different. In the case of God saving mankind from a judgment and damnation that they deserve, there is mercy and a parental love portrayed. The salvation in the second case follows closer to the ideals of one who sets captives free. This does hold an impact on the fate of humankind and God’s actions in their salvation. The way that Original Sin is viewed impacts many other parts of the faith.
What part would Christ’s sacrifice play in each of these situations? In one case as humanity is placed as an agent of evil, Christ stands as an example, the best example available to humanity. When viewing Him, humanity has a chance to regain communion with God. Christ’s role is that of the unflawed painting, presenting what should have been and enabling attempts to correct the flawed painting. When humanity stands before God as a victim of evil, Christ’s role is rather different. In this case, Christ is a champion, He fights against the rule of evil over humanity and through His suffering, He conquers sin and death and allows humanity to come back under the guidance of God. This becomes a restorative action, allowing humanity to return to a relationship with God and allowing God to begin restoring His image in them. Each case presents Christ in a different light; in one as the conquering messiah, freeing mankind from enslavement, and in the other He acts as an example and model in the quest for realignment.
Does this effect the process of salvation for mankind? From the perspective of Against the Heathen, one would almost be led to a different conclusion about the necessity of Christ in the story of mankind’s salvation. Athanasius paints a grim picture of reality in this writing, he suggests that man has fully turned away from God and has strayed down a path of self-absorption and corruption. So far, the story is what lines up with the general story of salvation and Christ’s necessity. However, Athanasius claims that mankind turned away in an active manner, which brings to light two challenging points. The first point has everything to do with another of Athanasius’s points in On the Incarnation. What does it mean if mankind was made in the image of God, if mankind is capable of committing such an act by choice? Mankind was in a pre-fallen state at this point. Man was still as God had proclaimed, very good. What happened? What is Original Sin in this case? Augustine and Athanasius would struggle to define and understand Original Sin. Only time would reveal which one had come the closest to understanding this challenging aspect of theology.
The Fall of mankind and Original Sin seem to be quite nuanced topics for Athanasius. The Original Sin itself is even challenging to nail down. The first sin does not seem to be eating of the forbidden fruit, rather that initial turning away. Against the Heathen focuses on the relationship between mankind and God. In the early days of living in the Garden, man had established a deep connection with God. Adam and Eve spent time in the Garden in fellowship with God (Gen). Yet, the Fall shattered this perfect communion. The relationship with God up until the time of the Fall was without flaw, and yet, mankind chose to walk away from it, according to Athanasius’s writing. Why would mankind give up such a perfect relationship in reaction to the suggestions of the devil? Perhaps, one could venture, that this points to a flaw in our nature, and yet, God called everything “very good”. Would God be led to declare something to be very good when that very flaw would cast all of creation into turmoil for the rest of the world’s existence? It is hard to imagine God looking down upon the Garden as he completed creation and declaring it to be very good and yet passing over fatal flaws. Yes, if man’s nature was broken from the beginning, then it must have been under all considerations, a fatal flaw. So, what would cause mankind to turn away in the style that Athanasius portrays if not for that fatally flawed nature? Humanity was marooned and doomed to a slow death without the presence of a savior.
On the Incarnation spends pages and pages discussing and imploring the readers to understand the necessity of not only a savior, but the necessity of the Incarnation of Christ. The presentation of Original Sin in Against the Heathen seems at a glance, to argue that if mankind had chosen to, they could have returned to a relationship with God. At the same time, Athanasius strongly declares that mankind had become so fallen in his ways that he could not even bear to look upon God and rather travelled further and further down a route of sin and despair that would only terminate in the darkness of death. Perhaps, On the Incarnation and Against the Heathen are not as different as they would seem.
Athanasius was a brilliant theologian, as feisty and polemic as he could be in his writings, he held certain tenets consistently throughout his different treaties. It would seem illogical to expect Athanasius to waver so heavily on these topics between such closely related documents. Athanasius’s portrayal of Original Sin in both represents a brokenness of mankind, but the brokenness is not one that is beyond repair. In both instances, Christ comes to repair the brokenness of mankind. Following the reasoning from points detailed in Against the Heathen, it would logically follow that you would end up with the almost passive aspect of mankind’s enslavement to sin. As Athanasius claimed in Against the Heathen, mankind no longer had the choice to return to God, so fallen had their ways become. Christ came to free mankind from that bondage that had gradually ensnared them.
Augustine was another Church Doctor who held critical importance for the Church and its growth. His views of Original Sin and the Fall play a countermelody beside Athanasius’ view. As is the case with a song, the countermelody balances the melody, it provides an alternative idea and themes that compete, but also compliment the melody. When Athanasius and Augustine’s views on Original Sin are placed side by side, they work like a melody and countermelody. They agree and harmonize well, but they also differ in ways that encourage critical thought.
The way that Athanasius and Augustine approach the first sin differs slightly. Athanasius considered the first sin to be a turning away. Augustine instead would consider the first sin to be a sin of pride, a sin resulting in a corruption of humanity’s nature. This would follow from the events that transpired in the Garden. Adam, instead of choosing to remain under God, would choose a different path. The path Adam chose was one that did not follow God’s will for him, and therefore, the first sin was committed, which brought with it the fallenness of mankind. This prideful rejection of God held nothing good for mankind. The Fall would mark the beginning of the decline of mankind as their nature was eroded and the grace they had been created with faded away. Yet, the image of God remained although it was inaccessible to mankind.
Under Augustine’s interpretation of Original Sin, mankind shared the guilt with Adam. He interpreted Romans 5:12 in a manner that presented all of mankind sinning through Adam. When speaking of infant baptism he states; “But the apostle did not declare them innocent; he says, Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin death, and thus it was passed on to all human beings in whom all have sinned (Rom 5:12).” (Nature and Grace 229). This interpretation is one of the themes that Augustine differs from Athanasius on. Augustine’s interpretation of the inheritance of Original Sin would cause a ripple effect in his theology. Many things would be more important for him than other theologians. Infant baptism was extremely important to him as he saw each human as inheriting the culpability for Original Sin from the very beginning of their lives. This view of Original Sin and its inheritance would also affect how Augustine would teach about sexual ethics.
Augustine’s view of Original Sin and man’s fallen state are by far more severe than Athanasius’s view of man’s fallen state. Augustine focuses heavily on the physical effects of the Fall in his theology. “There followed a perfectly just punishment so that they received in themselves the fitting recompense for their sin, since to some extent they lost the obedience of their own bodies that had been placed under them” (Nature and Grace 229).This does not come as a surprise given Augustine’s background with the Manicheans and his views on sexual relations. Augustine interpreted the Fall as a sin of pride ( ). Mankind wished to become his own master. This development would lead to many changes for all of humanity. Through the reasoning of Augustine, it was at this point that mankind was irrevocably changed. Man lost many of the boons that God had created him with when God created man in His own image. Primarily, man lost his immortality, but also became lost to inordinate pleasures such as the lusts of the body. Death came as a punishment for sin.
The effects upon man’s soul would also be devastating for Augustine. Nassif Bradley painted the picture of free will in Augustine’s picture of post-Original Sin mankind in this way, “Although our free will remains intact, the sole use to which we put in our unregenerate state is to do wrong. We have the freedom to sin (posse peccare) but do not have the freedom not to sin (posse non peccare).” (Nassif). Man was fallen, nothing man could do by his own power would help to repair the situation. Mankind had died in their sins, their nature had become corrupted. One of Augustine’s themes, that of a healer coming for the sick, would be important here. It was as if mankind collectively was like a patient so sick that they could not even search for a cure, rather the physician needed to come and heal the wounds. Yet a soul stuck in the state of sin is aptly described by Augustine in a peculiar manner that highlights an abandonment by God. “We are not telling him that the death of the body leads to sin, since it is merely punishment. After all, no one sins by dying the death of the body. But death of the soul leads to sin, since its life, that is, its God, abandons it, and it necessarily produces dead works until the grace of Christ brings it back to life” (Nature and Grace 237).
The just reward for this sinfulness is punishment to which all must pay. Humanity had committed a grave sin through Adam and each individual was culpable for that sin. Augustine’s theology viewed God as just, there was no possible fate for humanity outside of damnation if not for their salvation through Christ. Someone would have to pay the price for the wrongdoing that humanity had committed. Without Christ’s sacrifice all of humanity was facing a dismal future that revolved around their corrupted nature. Humanity’s corruptness was a crippling defect, they could not be saved without the intercession of Christ. The corporate culpability for the sin of Adam would lead Augustine into major battles against other theological forces of the times.
Just as with Athanasius, Augustine faced the onslaught of heretical teachings and took it upon himself to defend the faith from these attacks. These heretical teachings included those of Pelagius who would attack the very doctrine of Original Sin. The refusal of the Pelagian heresy to acknowledge the doctrine of Original Sin in the way that Augustine had portrayed it would create a rift in soteriological teachings between the Church and Pelagius. Augustine acknowledged man’s fallen state, he also admitted that all man deserved was punishment. God would be complete in His justice to damn all of mankind to the depths of hell. Instead of this view, Pelagius would hold that each human was only culpable for the sins they personally committed. This eliminated essential portions of Augustine’s theological arguments. Augustine’s soteriology focused on God’s grace, a grace that would lead to saving mankind from
Augustine understood the importance of grace in his teachings of salvation when he aligned his doctrine of the Fall of mankind and the effects of Original Sin upon the nature of man. In Nature and Grace Augustine spends pages defending theology from the onslaught of Pelagius. One section describes the fallen state of mankind in this way, “No one says that human beings were made so that they could pass from righteousness to sin, but could not return from sin to righteousness. But in order to pass to sin, the free choice by which they harmed themselves is sufficient. To return to righteousness, however, they need a physician because they are not well; they need someone to bring them to life, because they are dead.” (Nature and Grace 237). Man’s state was not that which Pelagius had portrayed. Yes, everyone could jointly acknowledge that sin was a part of life, but here it would seem that in order to evoke such a strong defense of God’s salvation through Christ, Pelagius was teaching that sin did not carry such an inescapable fate for the soul. Augustine was zeroed in on the necessity of a doctor, he saw man so lost in the sickness of sin that just as a dying man could not save himself, man’s state of sin required a savior. Yet, for Augustine sin was an absence instead of something substantive.
Pelagius hearkens back to the Creation account multiple times as he is describing the Fall and how Original Sin functions. The importance of the Creation account surrounds the goodness of God. If sin was a substance, then God must have created it because God created everything from nothing. Yet, all that God created was very good, so God could not have created something so corrupt as sin. Thus, Pelagius arrives at the conclusion that sin is not a substance. Also, Pelagius considers the words of the psalmist and arrive that sin is a word describing “an act of wrongdoing” (Nature and Grace 234). Augustine agreed with Pelagius until this point, he also could understand sin as a lack of a substance. However, Pelagius would understand this to mean that sin could not harm the human nature, after all, it is not a substance. Augustine immediately found fault in this argument and strove to illustrate that sin harmed human nature even though it is not a substance.
Just like in the case of Athanasius, Augustine saw the necessity of a savior. He saw man as in need of a physician to heal the illness that sin had created. Man had found his way into damnation without the help of God but in order to return to his old glory, man had to rely upon God for help. God in his infinite grace, took pity upon mankind and offered mankind an opportunity for salvation through His Son, providing the only opportunity that humanity would receive to escape their guilt in Original Sin. Humanity had fallen away from God and inherited a corrupted nature. Original Sin brought corruptness into the nature of humanity, a corruptness that would not be shaken off by any human attempts at righteousness. Essentially, every human being was culpable for the sin that Adam had committed. The lasting effects of this sin would radiate through time, affecting each human. Without the mercy of God and His grace, humanity was stuck, with a nature so corrupt that they could not seek God’s presence. Humanity’s corrupt nature did not solely affect their salvation, there were other parts other human nature that would suffer (Buonaiuti). Humanity suffered a loss of immortality when they fell, losing the pureness that they had once enjoyed.
Augustine and Athanasius had many commonalities in their independent theologies. These commonalities are often easy to recognize, after all these two men operated as movers and shakers of the early Church, playing significant roles in the shaping of the doctrines and in the direction that the Church would take. Although the two would in time come to represent two different traditions, they agreed upon the founding principles of Christianity. These agreed upon tenants of Christianity would then be shaped differently for each Father leading to theological ideas that are similar, but not congruent. Original Sin highlights one of the places where these two men would find differences in their theological understandings. It would highlight a difference in the perception of mankind’s position and lend new perspectives to an already challenging subject.
Athanasius’s theology speaks of relationship. Around every corner we can read and witness Athanasius depicting the Fall of mankind as a break from God. This focus on the relationship between mankind and God would begin to effect how Athanasius would view salvation. Salvation was possible when God restored mankind to their image and they were enabled once again to seek the higher things. Man’s fallen state had here-to-fore disabled mankind. Man could not seek out God, rather he was stuck on a downward spiral searching and serving more and more base pursuits in an effort to achieve the satisfaction that God could bring. Yet, God had not completely abandoned man to this fate. He still sought to save and redeem mankind back into the relationship that had existed before the Fall. Athanasius highlights a relational aspect of the impacts of sin and salvation in the story of Man. Augustine would highlight a different aspect in these very same doctrines.
Augustine’s theology is much more law-based. His theology does not lend itself as readily to the story of relationships. While Athanasius seemed to base his theology around a story of the reconciliation of man and God, Augustine’s theology focused more heavily on the rift that had been created between the two. Augustine provides us with a clear picture of just how far man had strayed from God’s path. Under the teachings of Augustine, man has desperately little hope. Humanity required God to work through them to bring them to salvation, they would not be able to find it on their own. Augustine highlights the corrupt nature of mankind, the glorification of God through the salvation story, and also provides an almost legalistic account of Original Sin and its effects upon humanity.
Augustine saw Original Sin as an inescapable reality for humanity, altering both the metaphysical and physical natures of mankind. Not only had the soul been damaged, but man also faced a physical corruption allowing death to pervade their nature and corrupt their very being. Athanasius also considered the metaphysical and physical nature of the corruption of sin upon man. Perhaps, due to Athanasius’s focus for his description of the doctrine of Original Sin being pointed towards the necessity of the Incarnation, his perspective seemed to focus more on the story of salvation and the soteriological implications of Original Sin rather than exploring the fallen state of mankind like Augustine does. Athanasius and Augustine approach Original Sin for different reasons, each one was dealing with a separate heresy and would in turn face certain difficulties as they defined the theology. The Fallen state of mankind was essential for Augustine’s theology. Without this basis of a fallen and irredeemable mankind, much of Augustine’s theology would be obsolete. Would not it be simpler then, to just forego these nuanced arguments of Original Sin and instead accept a broader, and easier definition?
Augustine and Athanasius both strive to understand this challenging topic. They struggle to define it and relate its effects in a tangible way. The importance of the doctrine goes beyond what would seem to be frivolous arguments of how the first sin was committed. The importance of Original Sin lies in the changes that it creates in human nature. Defining the doctrine is not obsolete, it is essential. Without a solid basis of where humanity began, the Incarnation and many other parts of theology cannot be completely understood. Soteriology, to an extent, hinges itself upon the doctrine of Original Sin. Thus, why both Augustine and Athanasius pour so much labor into this topic.
Understanding how these men approach the topic of Original Sin also helps the reader to understand the foundations of the Church in the East and the Church in the West. Each of these men helped to pave the paths that their respective traditions would follow. The Eastern Church would follow the views of Athanasius and the Western would follow Augustine. A firm understanding of these formative men and their doctrinal approaches leads to an enlightened understanding of the theology of each Church, and also a better understanding of why the Churches interact in the way they do. Under the light of the separate understandings of Original Sin, the teachings of each Church regarding salvation make more sense. With the Eastern Church, the mystic influences of light and divinization make more sense when they are read in light of Athanasius’s approach of Original Sin. Augustine’s teachings about Original Sin can help the bystander reach an understanding of the Western Church’s teachings on many of their sacraments including infant baptism. Even these points declare a higher goal.
Embracing a quest for the understanding of Athanasius and Augustine on Original Sin encourages ecumenical debate of doctrines that have formulated Church teachings throughout the years. Debates that cross lines of traditions and divisions help the united Christian community to pursue a deeper and truer understanding of Christianity rather than a belief that blindly follows the teachings of one theologian. Placing these two theologians side-by-side shows the complexity of Original Sin, illustrating the further intricacies of Christianity. The intricacies of Christianity, the facets of its teachings, all point to a beautifully complex world view given to the world by God. This subject also shows the challenges that theology places upon those who would pursue it. Great men like Augustine and Athanasius whom are both revered by the Church, differ in their teachings.
Beyond its applications on a broader perspective, this debate is also one that I find to be of personal interest. My experiences in the Christian community have placed me in discussions with Christians of varying traditions. The most interesting of these discussions include those with my Catholic peers and professors as well as some of my pastors. Most of these people come from traditions and backgrounds that up until a few years ago, I had not even had exposure to. Reading and absorbing the teachings of founding theologians like Athanasius and Augustine gave me a better understanding of where these people were coming from. Discussions are only interesting when the discussants are able to engage one another in an educated manner. Thus, after reading these views on Original Sin, I can enter into discussions with these groups and truly engage with them.
Although I found Augustine and Athanasius to be fascinating in the context of understanding the theological basis of the positions of my acquaintances, I also found reading these Doctors to be a pursuit that encourage a critical analysis of my own views of Original Sin and salvation. Being raised in an extremely conservative, Baptist home, I have learned the views of a Calvinistic approach to salvation and Original Sin, always holding these to be the correct positions. My recent research led me to consider that there exist different views of theology that deserve more than simply being written off. Athanasius’s view of Original Sin was, in a way, enchanting. His focus on the relationship between humanity and God was refreshing, it lent a new light to the Christian life-style. This was a less legalistic approach that depended more upon humanity’s relationship with God. Although Augustine emphasized a more legalistic approach, his theology is familiar, it is comfortable and rings of home.
Perhaps, focusing too heavily on one or the other of these theologies is not as beneficial as it may seem. I have noticed varying emphases between traditions of the Church each carry their own merit. If the Church was solely composed of the Baptists, no one would be drawn to the Church because of the overwhelming legalism. The Methodists and other, more charismatic movements help to temper this legalism, but at the same time, the legalism of the Baptists in turn tempers each of the other denominations. Even with all these things taken into account, I still find comfort in the teachings of Augustine. They are more easily understood for me, with their teachings more closely aligning with what Calvin would later propose.
Calvin, naturally will agree more with Augustine than Athanasius. From the perspective of my Baptist upbringing, I struggle with the way that Athanasius portrays humanity’s Fall. He focuses too heavily upon free will, something that is often minimized in Calvinistic teachings. I understand and relate to Augustine. He, in turn, focuses on God’s will and his theology seems to focus more heavily on glorifying God than Athanasius. Even though both of these theologians present ideas that I agree with and disagree with, I find it an enlightening experience to read their works in order to be able to explain to others in terms they will understand, what my beliefs are and how they compare to theirs.
Against the Heathen. Translated by Archibald Robertson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
Augustine, et al. The Works of Saint Augustine: a Translation for the 21st Century. Vol. 23, New City Press, 2012.
Buonaiuti, Ernesto. “The Genesis of St. Augustine’s Idea of Original Sin.” Harvard Theological Review, vol. 10, no. 2, Apr. 1917, pp. 159-175. EBSCOhost.
Harent, Stéphane. “Original Sin.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 5 Dec. 2017
Morgan, Jonathan. “The Soul’s Forgetfulness of God in Athanasius’ Doctrine of the Fall.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4, 2016, pp. 473-488. EBSCOhost.
Nassif, Bradley. “Toward a ‘Catholic’ Understanding of St Augustine’s View of Original Sin.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, vol. 39, no. 4, 1984, pp. 287-299. EBSCOhost.
O’Brien, Glen. “John Wesley and Athanasius on Salvation in the Context of the Debate over Wesley’s Debt to Eastern Orthodoxy.” Phronema, vol. 28, no. 2, 2013, pp. 35-53. EBSCOhost.
On the Incarnation. Translated by Archibald Robertson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
“The Exsultet.” The Exsultet: The Proclamation of Easter, The Roman Missal, www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/easter/easter-proclamation-exsultet.cfm.