I want to begin this post in the series with a disclaimer. I have had a deep love for the history of ancient and classical Greece, its gods, its plays, and its literature for most of my life. By the time I finished fourth grade, I remember having read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Illiad, the Odyssey, and Antigone. I was hooked. (That was also a somewhat more … interesting … year than some of the others growing up, so I may have buried myself in books a bit more than usual that year. And the reading wasn’t all on one topic. I know I read King Lear for the first time that year — and performed a scene from it in a talent show. Oh, and I have a memory of reading a ton of the Hardy Boys books that year as well.)
With that said I have to confess that that love never translated into a love for Greek Philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Over the course of my life I’ve read some of their work and have some general understanding of their frameworks. But in all honesty, I can’t think of any time I wouldn’t have preferred spending time with Lao-tzu or the Bhagavad Gita over any of them. I can usually tell the Stoics from the Epicureans from the Neoplatonists, but I hardly know much beyond the basics about any of them.
I say all that in order to say that when I speak about them, which I have to do in order to do justice to any series on the topic of Original Sin, I’m doing so from a state of qualified ignorance. I will undoubtedly make mistakes at some points. Hopefully they will be fairly minor. I believe I grasp the important points as they relate to my topic fairly well. But if you know more on this subject than I do and you notice a mistake, please let me know. It was probably made from ignorance not malice.
In this post I’ll begin to explore the history behind the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. And such a discussion has to begin with St. Augustine, and thus it also has to begin the Stoic and Neoplatonist perspective that shaped his perception of reality and from which he drew pretty heavily in his works. And one of the central ideas from which he constructed his view of original sin was the Stoic philosophy (also adopted by the Neoplatonists, I believe) of seminal reasons. That’s basically the idea that indeterminate matter has in itself the principles of all future manifestation and development. St. Augustine used that concept in a number of places, especially when it came to creation. But for the purposes of our series, this idea held that all future generations were present in the seed of Adam and, when he sinned, all future generations sinned with him.
That idea by itself is not exactly the same thing as inherited guilt, but in its effect it’s largely indistinguishable. When you combine it with the fact that St. Augustine appears to have held to some form of traducianism, which asserted that the soul as well as the body is derived in its generation from the parents and you can see how the idea that we all share the guilt for Adam’s act developed.
As far as I can tell, these philosophies — not anything specifically Christian — provided the structure and form to the idea of original sin as inherited guilt. I’m certainly not one to say that truths cannot be found in other religions and philosophies. I absolutely believe that they can be — and as Christian, when they are, I attribute their revelation to Christ. However, a lot of people seem to strongly believe that these ideas are rooted in the Holy Scriptures or were developed entirely from the tradition of the Apostles. And they weren’t.
I will look at the other driving forces to St. Augustine’s approach and the way he connected these ideas to the Holy Scriptures. But I wanted to tackle the philosophy behind the idea first. Hopefully I’ve done so in an understandable fashion.