Augustine on human nature A* grade summary notes


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The fall & original sin

  • The Fall: Adam & Eve’s relationship prior to the fall. Augustine points out that In the garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve to ‘go forth and multiply’, implying they had a sexual relationship. 
  • Augustine theorises that they had perfect rational control over themselves however, including their sexual organs. They were not controlled by sexual desire.
  • Augustine says we were ‘seminally present’ in the loins of Adam – he believed we were all in Adam when Adam sinned, and we became cursed or ‘vitiated’ by the sin, which is why we are all born with original sin too
  • After the fall however,- original sin, a corruption in human nature giving us an irresistible temptation to sin.
  • Original sin’s features of cupiditas (selfish-love) vs caritas (love of others) – original sin imbalances these and makes us love ourselves much more than we love others.
  • Concupiscence – when our bodily desires overwhelm our reason.


  • Scientific evidence against the fall – we evolved, Genesis cannot be literally true, genetic diversity shows we couldn’t have all come from two ancestors. 
  • Augustine doesn’t understand reproduction – we weren’t all present in Adam’s loins, that’s unscientific nonsense. 
  • So, the doctrine of original sin is not true, undermining all of Augustine’s conclusions.

Optional Defence of Augustine: 

  • Maybe the fall isn’t accurate – but original sin still does seem accurate if you look around you at how terrible humans can be. 
  • E.g. Augustine’s pear – he told a story how, as a child, he stole a pear, not because he was hungry but just for the fun of sinning – so even children must be born with a desire to sin = original sin.
  • G. K. Chesterton argues original sin can be seen in the street – it is observable. 
  • Many philosophers, such a Hobbes, have observed human behaviour and concluded that human nature contains an orientation towards evil and violence.
  • There is evidence from psychology which justifies Augustine’s view of human nature, such as the stanford prison experiment. It showed that power has a corrupting influence when participants were given roles of authority like being a prison guard.

Optional further evaluation

  • 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 in modern times, 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.
  • So on balance, even though there is a lot of evidence for humans being bad, it looks like we cannot be as hopelessly corrupted as Augustine thought.

Grace & predestination

  • The corruption of original sin means we are incapable of being good enough to deserve heaven through our own efforts. 
  • So, original sin damns us to hell. 
  • God, in his mercy, decides to save some people even though no one actually deserves it. God grants grace to some ‘elect’ people. 
  • God’s grace gives people the mental strength to have persevering faith in Jesus which enables them to be saved by his sacrifice. This predestines them for heaven.
  • Receiving grace also allows people to be and do good actions. 


  • Pelagius argues that 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.

Augustine responds: 

  • God doesn’t punish us because of the actions of adam and eve – God punishes us because we are sinful beings – because we are born with original sin.
  • 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”.

Pelagius criticises Augustine – original sin is unbiblical

  • Augustine’s view of original sin means that we are incapable of being or doing good. 
  • Pelagius points out, however, that the bible is full of God/Jesus commanding people to be and do good. 
  • If we really were so corrupted by original sin, like Augustine thinks, then God would know that and wouldn’t bother commanding us to be and do good – if that were really beyond our ability.
  • The fact that God commands us to be and do good shows that human nature must contain the means of obeying and following that command. It can’t be corrupted by original sin.

Augustine responds: 

  • Humans can do good – IF God has granted them grace! 
  • So the commands in the Bible are for those people, those who have received grace and are thereby able to be and do good. 
  • Everyone else is indeed hopelessly cursed and won’t be able to follow the commands in the bible.
  • 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 (grace), not our own power.
  • So, Augustine’s doctrine of original sin doesn’t contradict the Bible, once we understand his views on grace.