Original Sin 26 – So how did this idea come to dominate in the West?

The question of how the idea of original sin as inherited guilt (along with other distinct differences) rose to dominance in the Western Christian world is actually a pretty interesting historical question. In order to begin to understand it, one has to step back into the ancient world within which Christianity formed and took root. For good reason, we tend to associate Christianity with the rise of Western civilization. The two are often so deeply intertwined in our minds, that we tend to unconsciously assume that Christianity is a Western religion.

But it’s not. And the world of those first centuries was a very different one. In that world, what we call the West was the frontier of the Roman Empire. Within the context of Christianity, only one Apostolic See was established — the one in Rome. In the East, by way of contrast, there were four Apostolic sees or patriarchates: Jerusalem (the oldest), Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. (According to tradition it’s said that the Apostle Andrew founded the church that eventually became the See of Constantinople, but the actual elevation of Constantinople to the level of the other Sees probably stems from the same reason that Rome itself was originally included. They were both capitol cities of the Empire. And as the status of Rome declined, that of Constantinople rose. If the realities of political and geographic realities had not played a part in the status and importance of some of the Apostolic Sees, then one would expect to see Ephesus, for example, among them.)

By the time of St. Augustine, the division of language between the Latin West and the Greek East had become more pronounced than it had ever been before. The days of a sole emperor were largely gone and the Empire itself was more strongly divided into a Western Empire under Rome and an Eastern Empire under Constantinople than it had generally been before. The East had Persia as its biggest rival; the threat that Islam became did not yet exist. While Christianity and trade still tied East and West together, those bonds were growing weaker.

In that context, we have to add the fact that St. Augustine stood head and shoulders intellectually above anyone in the Latin West while the East retained many equal voices. Moreover St. Augustine did not write in Greek nor did he like to read Greek. Thus he did not interact with the Eastern Fathers theologically and it doesn’t seem that any of those in the East ever read St. Augustine’s theological works. It doesn’t appear that they were even translated into Greek until many centuries later. St. John Cassian (who I believe is the only Western saint with writings included, for example, in the Philokalia) did try to mediate some of the places where St. Augustine went too far, but his efforts were less appreciated in the West.

As a result, St. Augustine became the dominant interpretive voice in the West in a way that no single person ever became in the East. His interpretations eventually became the normative base for all Western theology. Protestantism rejected some of the late medieval practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church, but they remained rooted in an Augustinian perspective of reality. If anything, they went further along the path of that perspective than St. Augustine himself ever did. Thus we get ideas like ‘total depravity’ that certainly go beyond anything St. Augustine taught.

At any rate, those seem to be the primary factors in the tapestry of divergence to my eyes. Anyone think I’m missing or overlooking anything?

This entry was posted in Original Sin and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
%d bloggers like this: