The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 in the Latin Vulgate obscures (or in fact makes impossible) the meaning of the Greek original but it took the theological genius of Augustine to ensure that this fundamental error would shape Western theology.  What Augustine provides is explanation for the mistranslation “in whom (i.e. Adam) all sinned”: “Nothing remains but to conclude that in the first man all are understood to have sinned, because all were in him when he sinned.” Whatever it means that all were in him when he sinned (Augustine will link it to sexual passion), in some way everyone is born guilty and damned in the eyes of God. Because they are guilty and damned or because they all sinned (mysteriously so even in Augustine’s account), death then spread to everyone. Even for those who have done nothing (infants – presumably upon conception), it is as if they have sinned. The mistranslation reverses cause and effect in Paul’s explanation, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned (in Paul’s language).

This mistranslation and misinterpretation make nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the propagation of sin through death and, as a result, in the history of the Western church, sin’s propagation is mostly left a mystery. It is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around and it is this explanation for the propagation and work of sin (to say nothing of salvation) that he will build on for the next three chapters.

Original sin also directly contradicts what Paul says in verse 14: “death reigned from Adam to Moses even over those who had not sinned in the manner of Adam.” In Paul’s explanation there are those who have not sinned as Adam did (there is no concept for Paul of everyone sinning “in Adam” before they exist) but death reigned even over these.

 Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. In chapter 4 Abraham is depicted as relinquishing the struggle – though he is as good as dead due to his and Sarah’s age and childlessness – nonetheless they believed God could give them life (a son) and this belief is summed up as resurrection faith. It is not clear how resurrection faith would have anything to do with sin were it not for the fact that sin is the orientation to death (death denial) reversed in Abraham and Christ (death acceptance).

We have been so inundated with the notion of an original guilt equated with sin that it has obscured the open and obvious explanation of sin as an orientation to death. Sin reigns in death not simply because people are mortal or already guilty, but because sin arises in conjunction with death in which people deceive themselves into believing life can be had by other means. Life in and through the “I” or ego or life through the law (ch. 7), life in the tower of Babel (the implicit background of ch. 4), all amount to the lie Isaiah characterizes as the – Covenant with Death (Is. 28:15, a key reference for Paul). The irony of sin is that it is a taking up of death – a living death under the auspices of having life – and this deception is the definition of sin.

For Paul, Adamic humanity and those in Christ are two alternative identities (the only two possibilities), and they are ontological poles apart in regard to life and death. Death reigned through the first Adam and life through the second Adam. Sin follows the reign of death and righteousness follows the reign of life in a similar sort of cause and effect relationship. The transgression of Adam resulted in the condemnation to death for all (access to the Tree of Life is cut off) but the one act of righteousness resulted in life for all people and with this life things are made right in a multiplicity of ways (5:18-8:39).

Rather than sin being accessible to explanation, sin is obscured by the theory of inherited guilt and notions of total depravity, which eschew explanation. They completely relinquish the possibility of breaking down the (il-)logic of sin or any notion of how salvation addresses the sin system and its propagation. Calvin’s explanation of Augustine’s doctrine confounds the possibility of explanation, in that he will attribute the propagation of sin to divine ordinance (along with natural inheritance). The result is that sin is not subject to explanation (in light of salvation) but becomes the lens through which salvation is interpreted (Calvin’s system of TULIP).

To state the situation most darkly, a mistranslation gives rise to a nonsensical notion – a mystery – and this nonsensical notion gives rise to an equally mysterious and nonsensical notion of salvation (divine satisfaction and penal substitution) and an entire system which in each of its parts has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. Total depravity of the entire race gives rise to unconditional election – divine fiat that cannot be penetrated with any insight. This cannot include all (limited atonement) and all of this is built on a flattening out and rendering irrelevant of human will and action (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints).

There are a series of secondary effects related directly to this failure of thought. Augustine’s theory of original sin was so tied up with his disapproval of human sexuality that for centuries it contaminated all sexual passion with the idea of sin. Though he deems marriage “lawful” he concludes “the very embrace which is lawful and honorable cannot be effected without the ardor of lust. . .. the daughter of sin, as it were; and . . . from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin.”[1] Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, is tied to his notion of the original misdeed and its propagation. One wonders if clergy sexual abuse, not just among “celibate” priests, but across the Protestant and Catholic world today is not connected to this degrading of human sexuality. At a minimum the misogyny and anti-sex bias of the Western church has certainly been influenced by this error. The idea of being punished for a crime committed by someone else (for eternity) is unethical but this unacceptable notion gives rise to an equally unfair idea that someone else can be made to bear this punishment for the crime (divine satisfaction and penal substitution).

Perhaps the primary tragedy of this misreading is that it renders Christianity irrelevant to real world problems and the reality of the solution Christ provides. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with an already recognized reality in that we all have the problem of death. Death for humans is interconnected with what most everyone would agree is evil: violence, murder, war, and the recognition that death accounts for the human sickness at its root in the inward self (death drive, Thanatos, masochism, etc.). If we believe in evil then it has to be connected to the problem of death. In the human psyche our main problem is not some sort of inherited guilt but that we die and how we orient ourselves to this reality. The fact that Christianity addresses this universal and most basic problem is nearly completely obscured by notions of inherited guilt and imputed righteousness which leave out the painful reality of the human condition and its resolution. Paul’s cry, “Who will deliver me from this body of death” (7:24) goes unanswered where Augustine’s mistaken reading reigns.


[1] Augustine, De bono coniugali

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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