Augustine’s teachings on human nature


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Human nature is the set of dispositions that humans are born with. It is the way the mind of a human is “naturally” i.e with no cultural influence or socialisation. The question is whether such a nature exists and if so, what is it like? This topic is theorized over not just by theologians and philosophers like Augustine but also psychologists, sociologists and biologists.

Augustine claims that there is a human nature which is corrupted by original sin.

Augustine’s theory was born from his contemplating the origin of sin. By observing himself and others, he thought humans had a natural predisposition to sin, which for him raised the question of where that came from, since it would seem to contradict God’s omnibenevolence to suggest that God created it. He concluded that humanity must be to blame for it and looked to the Genesis story as an explanation.

The Fall & original sin

The garden of Eden was a perfect place. Adam and Eve had a harmonious relationship with nature and each other. God commanded them to go forth and multiply, which implies they had a sexual relationship. However, Augustine thought that our rationality must have had perfect control over our bodies before it became corrupted by original sin. Before the fall, sex would have been a purely rational act without being driven by desire.

Adam and Eve disobeyed God and as a punishment were banished from the garden of Eden to this fallen world. This episode is referred to as ‘the fall’. After their sin, God said Eve will now have pain in childbirth and Adam would have to ‘toil’ the land to make food.

Human nature is corrupted by a tendency to do evil. This is due to Adam and Eve disobeying God causing a corruption in their nature which causes an irresistible desire to sin. This corruption has been inherited by every human.

According to Augustine all humans were ‘seminally present in the loins of Adam’. Augustine thought that the biological basis for procreation was “some sort of invisible and intangible power … located in the secrets of nature” yet then goes on to argue that all future generations of people are “in the loins of the father”. Augustine claims “We were all in [Adam] … we all were that one man who fell into sin” We existed in merely a “seminal nature from which we were to be begotten” but when that became “vitiated through sin” it became impossible for anyone to be born without original sin. The result of original sin is that humanity is massa damnata (the mass of the damned).

Cupiditas & Caritas. Augustine thought the human will was based on love, of which there are two types. Cupiditas is love of earthly impermanent things, selfishness and love of self. Ignorance and usually unhappiness results from this. Caritas is the Latin version of the Greek word Agape. It means love of others due to virtue as an expression of God’s will.

Concupiscence is a defining feature of original sin. It is when bodily desire overpowers reason. Augustine thought the most obvious case of this is sexual desire. The sexual organs can be active when the mind does not want them to be and not active when the mind does want them to be.

The scientific evidence is against the fall. Geneticists claim that the evidence we have of genetic diversity means that it’s not possible for all of humanity to have descended from two people. This, plus the other evidence for evolution, suggests that we evolved and were not created.

Geneticists claim that the evidence we have of genetic diversity means that it’s not possible for all of humanity to have descended from two people. This, plus the other evidence for evolution, suggests that we evolved and were not created. The story of Adam and Eve is unscientific.

Furthermore: Augustine’s biological understanding of reproduction is false. Augustine admits that procreation is a mystery to him, but then on what basis does he continue to his claim that all future generations are “in the loins of the father”. He wrongly thought that reproduction worked by there being little people inside men (homunculus theory), so when Adam sinned all future humanity became infected by it.

Augustine could be defended. That his views on human nature being corrupted by original sin can still be derived from the evidence of his observations of himself and his society (such as the story about stealing pears). He could still be right that human nature is corrupted by original sin, even if he’s wrong about the Fall being the exact means by which that came to be.

G. K. Chesterton agreed with this point, arguing that you could see evidence for original sin ‘in the street’, as did R. Niebuhr who said it was the one ‘empirically verifiable’ Christian doctrine.

Pelagius: Augustine’s observations reflect his society, not human nature. Although it might appear that we have strong forces within us that incline us toward evil, Pelagius argues that could simply be because of the way we are raised and it only appears to be our nature because of how thoroughly corrupted we are by our upbringing, which Pelagius refers to as being “educated in evil”.

“The long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over may years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself, so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature”. – Pelagius

We could add contemporary historical and sociological evidence to Pelagius’ point. Humans have progressed since Augustine’s time. Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Steven Pinker attributes to the power of human reason that violence has decreased, even considering the 20th century. The average human life seems more secure than at any prior point in history. If Augustine were correct that original sin caused an irresistible temptation to sin, then human behaviour could not have morally improved, yet it has.

Augustine: Exclusivism, Grace, Predestination & Limited election

Augustine’s exclusivism holds that we are so corrupted by original sin that genuine persevering faith in Jesus is only possible with God’s help: his gift of grace, which predestines some people to have and keep faith in Christ and thus be one of the ‘elect’ who will be saved.

Grace is what saves humans and thereby allows them into heaven. Election refers to God’s choosing to grant grace. St Paul calls grace a “gift” which we cannot ‘take credit’ for earning (Ephesians 2:8). That suggests that getting into heaven is not something that human beings have the power to achieve. Augustine thinks this is because of original sin. We are so corrupted by it that we are unable by ourselves to be good enough to deserve salvation. Only with God’s granting of undeserved grace can we possibly be saved.

In Romans 8, St Paul seems to hold to predestination, which is the view that our fate in the afterlife, i.e. whether we will go to heaven or hell, is already unalterably fixed. Augustine thought this view of election followed logically from the doctrine of original sin and grace. If we cannot get ourselves into heaven then God has either predestined us for heaven, or he hasn’t and our original sin damns us to hell. This view is called double predestination: that heaven is predestined for some and hell for others.

Pelagius: predestination makes punishment unjust. Pelagius argued that if we have original sin and are thus completely unable to avoid doing evil, it would surely be unjust for God to punish us for our sinful behaviour. It’s not ethical for all humanity to be blamed for the actions of Adam and Eve. This suggests an indefensible view of moral responsibility – that people can be responsible for actions committed by others which is of special absurdity in this case since the action occurred before they were even born. Pelagius concludes that only our having free will and thus being without coercion from original sin makes sense of the prevalent biblical theme of God’s judgement and punishment.

Punishment is just for sinful beings: Augustine is not actually arguing that God himself blamed all humanity for Adam’s sin, he’s merely pointing out that it was a factual consequence of Adam’s sin that all future humanity, in Adam’s loins, became infected with original sin. It’s not God’s fault, it’s Adams’. So, Augustine argues that predestination is not unjust of God, since we are corrupted by original sin and so if we go to hell it is deserved.

This might seem unfair, but Augustine puts it down to the “secret yet just judgement of God”, indicating that it is inscrutable – impossible for us to understand – but we should have faith it is just. Augustine points to Psalm 25:10: ‘All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth,’ and concludes: neither can his grace be unjust, nor his justice cruel”.

It’s not our fault that we have original sin, so it still seems unfair and thus incompatible with omnibenevolence to suggest that we deserve punishment for it. Especially when considering cases like a child with cancer, it’s difficult to maintain that a child deserves cancer because it has original sin. Augustine would have to say that it is God’s justice for a child to get cancer and that God is still omnibenevolent despite allowing it. That seems to contradict the idea that God is omnibenevolent.

Augustine could be defended on the grounds that it would only seem a contradiction to those who have a 21st century hippie interpretation of love.

Alternatively, Augustine insists that God’s reasons and justice are beyond our understanding. We should not try to use our limited human minds to judge God.

Pelagius: God commands moral action so we must be capable of moral goodness

Pelagius points out that the bible is full of cases of God commanding humans to do morally good actions and avoid morally bad actions. It’s difficult to see why God would make these demands if original sin meant that humans did not have the ability to obey those commands. Furthermore, it’s hard to see what the point of even trying to be good is, if we are so corrupted that we are unable, which Pelagius thought led to a fatalistic and lazy attitude towards morality. Pelagius said that to claim, as Augustine does, that we cannot follow God’s commands due to our fallen nature amounts to accusing God of ignorance as if God were “unmindful of human frailty” such that he “imposed commands upon man which man is not able to bear”. The fact that God commands moral action therefore presupposes that we have the free will to do them, which means that original sin does not inhibit us.

Pelagius concludes: “That we are able to do good is of God, but that we actually do it is of ourselves”. God gave us free will and thereby gave us the ability to do good, but our actual doing of a good action is thus the result of our free choice. Pelagius concludes that humans are “to be praised for their willing and doing a good work”.

Augustine: biblical evidence against Pelagian free will. Augustine responds that humans can desire and accomplish good actions, however not by themselves as a result of a free will, but only by the help of God’s grace. Augustine points to Paul: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). Paul seems clear that human ability to will and do good acts are the result of God’s power working in us, not our own power.

Pelagius praises humans for their good actions and praises God for the help of divine grace to the granting of free will. Augustine responds that good acts come from love, which Paul claims is greater than knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:1). Knowledge is associated with free will. So, love is greater than free will, but then the consequence of Pelagius’ view is that the praise due to humans for their good actions is greater than the praise due to God for giving us free will, which lacks theological credibility. Augustine points out that Paul states: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the holy spirit” (Romans 5:5). So, it seems that love is a gift from God, so our good actions made out of love are really thanks to God. In that case, Pelagius is giving praise to humans which is due to God.

Augustine’s argument is that If we receive love by divine grace, that suggests our good loving actions resulted from that gift of the ability to love, not from human free will. Without love we cannot do good, and with love the good we do was due to God. Either way, there is no room for Pelagius’ view of free will.

Pelagius responded to such arguments in a letter to the Pope, where he explained that it was his view that all humans had free will but that when choosing good works, human will was “always assisted by divine help”.

Augustine responded that Pelagius’ explanation was “inadequate” to solve the criticisms made against him, because he did not explain exactly what God’s help consists of. Pelagius could have meant that divine help was merely the guidance of the Bible. Augustine’s point is that the biblical evidence clearly shows that ‘divine help’ explicitly involves God directly intervening in our will, providing us with the love required for us to do good works without which we would be unable to do.

Arguably what Pelagius meant by divine help was the gift from God of free will. Without that help, we could not choose to do good, but with it we have the power to choose good and thus merit salvation.

Possible exam questions for Augustine & human nature

Are Augustine’s teachings on a historical Fall and Original Sin wrong?
Assess Augustine’s teaching on human nature

Are Augustine’s teachings on the historical Fall correct?
‘Augustine’s views on Original Sin are false’ – How far do you agree?
Is Augustine correct that humans can never be morally good?
Is Augustine’s view of human nature pessimistic or optimistic?
Is Original Sin the explanation of human sin and social corruption?
‘There is nothing we can do to deserve God’s grace’ – Discuss.
“Humans cannot be good because of sin.” – Discuss.

‘There is no distinctive human nature’ – Discuss.
Assess Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis
How convincing is Augustine’s view of God’s grace?
Critically assess Augustine’s views on the effects of original sin on societies.
How convincing are Augustine’s views on the Summum bonum?

Quick links

Year 12 Christianity topics:
Augustine. Death & afterlife.
Knowledge of God’s existence. Person of Jesus.
Christian moral principles. Christian moral action.

Year 13 Christianity topics:
Pluralism & theology. Pluralism & society.

Gender & society. Gender & theology.
Secularism. Liberation theology. 

OCR Ethics
OCR Philosophy
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions