Western Latin Anthropology
We now examine the Latin West and the foundation of an alternative anthropology, which became increasingly pessimistic about the human condition. This pessimism would grow to have a profound impact upon the Middle Ages and lead to the large-scale abandonment of traditional Christianity during the Renaissance.
The foundation of this pessimistic anthropology is based on the early 5th century thought of St. Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo Regius, in the Roman Province of Numidia on the North African coast (modern north-east Algeria).
Augustine outweighs, by far, the collective influence of all the other Latin Fathers (e.g., St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, Gregory the Great) and dominates the theological thinking and tradition of Western Latin Christianity from the 5th century all the way up to the present. By Western Latin Christianity I include the Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of the 35,000+ denominations contained within Protestantism. As we shall see, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin will make much use of Augustine’s thought.
Augustine’s own life experiences, detailed in his book Confessions, and his disputes with British-born heretic Pelagius (c. 354- c.418) and his disciples did much to influence his thinking on the human will and grace.
Pelagius believed that humans are self-willed and autonomous in relationship to God. He even had a slogan for this belief: A deo emancipatus homo est. Man is emancipated from God.
How different this is from the Greek patristic understanding of human free will in synergy with God and totally dependent on God, finding fulfillment only in divine life.
But Augustine engaged Pelagius very differently. He took the opposite view of the human will from Pelagius, developing a doctrine of heteronomy; being ruled by another than oneself. Augustine believed that humans possess a free will, but that it has been vitiated, that is weakened and undermined and functionally powerless. Based on that conclusion, Augustine came up with his own slogan: non posse non peccare. [Man is] not able not to sin.
Not a very optimistic or positive view of humanity.
Therefore, to Augustine, salvation comes to depend on divine intervention in the form of a grace from God that precedes any action from a human being toward good; it came to be known as prevenient grace. It is prevenient grace that causes the human will to do good. Augustine saw this grace as created, and not God himself. How different this is from the Greek patristic doctrine of grace as the uncreated energies that really are God and penetrate and deify the believer and bring them ever more fully within the life of God himself.
To Augustine, if the human will is good, then it is through God and his prevenient grace activating the will. Of course, according to Augustine’s doctrine of heteronomy, there is the other (hetero) that could activate the human will as well. That would be the will of the devil. But in either case, it’s not the human will, but the will of another that leads the human in the direction he takes in life.
As a corollary, Augustine also developed the doctrine of “predestination”, which declares that, given that the human will as vitiated and powerless, God predestines those whom he has chosen as elect to save.
Again, not a very optimistic or positive assessment of the human will.
Augustine’s doctrine of predestination goes further than anything discussed to this point in undermining a belief that humans possess a free will and that they can work out their salvation in cooperation, or synergy, with God.
More than 1,100 years later, Protestant Reformer John Calvin would double-down and fully develop Augustine’s doctrine of predestination. If you believe that Augustine’s influence was limited to the Roman Catholic church and did not effect Protestant theology, I invite you to consider Calvin’s T.U.L.I.P., a summary of his principle doctrines; Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Calvin drew directly from Augustine and is perhaps the most consistent theologian under his influence during the 16th century Protestant Reformation in the West. The Protestant Reformation bought Augustinian theology, pretty much in whole or at least in part.
Augustine, while rightly defending Orthodoxy against the anthropological heresy of Pelagius, had unfortunately taken positions that put him at odds with the consensus of the early unified church, East and West, concerning the condition of humanity, its inherent value and dignity, its place in this age, and the possibility of experiencing the divine, paradise itself, even in this world.
The last of Augustine’s unique doctrines we will discuss is arguably his most controversial; original sin. This doctrine goes well beyond the conception of the Fall and primordial sin of Adam and Eve that had been developed by Eastern Greek Fathers and even by Western Latin Fathers before the 5th century. For Augustine, the Fall resulted in humankind’s actual participation in the guilt of Adam’s original sin. This is a fundamental difference between the Eastern Greek patristic understanding of the Fall and the subsequent Western Latin Augustinian understanding.
This gets a little tedious but stay with me.
Augustine was led to this interpretation of the Fall by the translation of the Bible that was now being used in the West in his time. In the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (the Latin Vulgate bible), and in a very important passage from the epistle of Paul to the Romans 5:12, the original Greek was mistranslated by Jerome. Scholar David Bentley Hart, author of the recent The New Testament, a Translation, remarks that this “notoriously defective rendering in the Latin Vulgate (in quo omnes peccaverunt) constitutes one of the most consequential mistranslations in Christian history.” Below is the original Greek of Romans 5:12 (underline mine):
Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ δι’ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος, καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν ἐφ’ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον
The key here is that in the original Greek, above, the word “ἐφ’ ᾧ” (transliterated as “ef ho”), underlined near the end of the passage, is usually translated as “because” in English, as you can clearly see, underlined in the New King James Version (NKJ) translation, below:
Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because all sinned…
So, “Death and sin entered the world and spread to all human beings because all sinned.”
But in the Latin Vulgate, Jerome mistranslated “ef ho” and entirely changed the meaning of Romans 5:12. Jerome’s Latin translation of “ef ho” was “in quo”, which means “in whom”, and relates, in this passage, to Adam himself. This would mean that entire human race itself participated in Adam’s sin, in a willful act of transgression.
Augustine’s poor skills in Greek would not allow him to read the original Greek New Testament, so he was forced to rely solely on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.
So, with this flawed translation of Romans 5:12 in hand, Augustine was able to assert that in Adam, in the person of Adam and in his very act of willful rebellion against God in the Fall, in the original sin, all human beings have sinned; all human beings have willfully participated, as descendants of Adam, in Adam’s personal sin.
Adam’s sin, for Augustine, was grounded in his concept of concupiscence, or evil desire. As a result, all of Adam’s descendants (all of humanity) participated in that act of will and are personally guilty for the transgression. His inclination toward this interpretation of the Fall came from his doctrine of grace and free will, that he had worked out early in his life in response to his personal experiences with lustful desires (cf. Confessions) and from his response to the earlier Pelagian controversy (both earlier in this summary).
It goes without saying that this reflects a negative, pessimistic view of humanity.
Augustine’s doctrine of original sin had important corollaries that were worked out in the Western Latin church over time. Some of these corollaries were worked out by Augustine himself. For example:
1. One corollary states that: if all human beings have sinned in Adam through original sin and been conceived in sin and have therefore come into the world personally guilty of original sin, then all human beings are deserving of punishment by God. The human condition is understood as one deserving of punishment, universal punishment.
2. Another corollary that grew out of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin was that unbaptized infants who died before they could be baptized were destined for hell because they were born with the guilt of Adam and, not having that guilt washed away by baptism, were destined to be punished in hell for it.
3. Yet another corollary to the doctrine of original sin is that baptism increasingly becomes understood as a sacrament exclusively of washing away, of remission of sins. Baptism lost its earlier traditional aspect of also imparting deification, the gift of the Holy Spirit deifying the believer.
4. Finally, a corollary to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin is that humanity became characterized by the condition of depravity: a moral bankruptcy. Augustine used the term massa damnata, a damned mass, for the entire human race awaiting punishment were it not for the life-creating sacraments of the Church.
Augustine’s anthropological pessimism saw the human condition in the world as one of misery, almost unmitigated misery. Salvation was seen as a release from punishment in the afterlife.
As Augustine reflected on these miseries, which result from the reality of original sin, he also discussed the role of punishment and the value of punishment, arguing that punishment can, and often does, play a valuable role in bringing the saints who have been predestined for paradise to that experience which awaits them after their death.
So, paradise, from which humanity was expelled, has no place in this world. It is something predestined saints will experience after death in this world. This life is penal, a place of punishment. But that punishment is good, purificatory, for the numbered elect saints being prepared for paradise.
For everybody else, it’s just punishment.
A very negative and pessimistic anthropology, indeed.