Augustine’s Pessimism

There it was again. In an academic book—this one on Christian Anthropology—a scholarly writer noted, in passing, Augustine’s “pessimistic view of human nature.” And that was it. In recent years I’ve seen the same dismissive charge against Augustine by a number of otherwise sound scholars who dismiss original sin with a single sentence.

Let me explain. Disagreements exist both among scholars and non-scholars about the starting point of human spirituality. Many people believe all humans start life with a clean moral slate. So that sins are departures from a starting point of essential goodness. But others believe, as did Augustine, that every human is born into Adam’s fallen nature—that is, into “original sin.” So that all of us start life as captives to sin. This, then, is Augustine’s “pessimism.”

The same issue is seen in Jesus’ disagreement with Nicodemus. It also divided Augustine from the Pelagians. It separated Martin Luther from Erasmus. And it certainly divides Christians from non-Christians. So it’s important. And it must be examined by anyone who wants to write about how the human soul operates—no matter whether they believe it or not. It’s a claim that needs to be examined with care and honesty.

I’ve written about this before by following the narrative portrayals offered in the Bible. The starting point in the narrative of Adam’s sin does, indeed, recall essential human goodness. The creation epic of the first two chapters in Genesis presents all things as “good” … until the “crafty” serpent came on the scene in chapter three. His fall is presented elsewhere—in Ezekiel 28:14-17. In Eden he convinced the first couple to join him in his ambition to “be like God.” This desire could be achieved by eating a forbidden fruit as an act of independence from God.

The main point in debate that continues until today is this. Who was telling the truth: God or the Serpent? God told Adam “in the day” he ate the forbidden fruit he would “surely die” (2:17). The Serpent then told Eve—and, indirectly, Adam—“You will not surely die” (3:4). This set up what we might call a perception trap. Satan didn’t seem “dead” even though he was.

So the question of who lied and who was telling the truth turned on the question of what death is. At one level the snake seemed to be right: Adam and Eve were still walking and talking after they ate the forbidden fruit. They eventually died but that death resulted from God’s curse on the earth after the fall. This second death included Adam who was fashioned from the earth.

A critical piece in the story came earlier, in 2:7, when God “breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life.” It was God’s breath that awakened Adam’s physical body so he was more than a material object formed from the earth. And present in that breath was God’s Spirit of life—his bond with God. So that when Adam denied God and followed Satan God’s Spirit left him. He was dead even as he continued to have the ongoing respiration of physical life.

This was the lesson Jesus offered Nicodemus in John 3:6—“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The Pharisee believed he was alive when Jesus told him he was dead—physically alive but spiritually separated from God’s life within.

What, then, does spiritual death produce? First, a person is not attracted by God’s love or loveliness. The family bond is broken so there isn’t an appetite to follow Christ; or to abide in his words; or to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Instead the basic call to “love the Lord your God” with every feature of life is replaced by personal interests—by self-love.

This doesn’t preclude religion. Nicodemus, after all, was very religious. And so are many of the scholars who write about Augustine’s “pessimism.” But what is missing is a belief in our need to be “born again.” So they dismiss a repeated Bible teaching that Augustine accepted at face value. And, with that, they remain on the wrong side of the Eden debate, “you shall die” versus “you shall not die.”

Anyone is welcome to read of Augustine’s movement from one side of the debate to the other side by reading his Confessions. This is his autobiographical prayer and conversion story. And, at the risk of sounding judgmental—it’s meant as a call to God’s mercy—I worry that the “one sentence” spiritual anthropologist is not born again. It would seem so if he doesn’t understand Augustine’s sound appraisal of a world dead in its trespasses and sins.

So, thank you, Lord, for giving us Augustine and his bold embrace of your word!

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3 Comments

  1. Lee

    Thanks for this, Ron. I’m feeling the pull to read Augustine’s Confessions. I’m wondering if it will be a tough read. Your writings inspired me to read some Sibbes and I was more than pleasantly surprised at how accessible it was. What would I expect if I take on Augustine in terms of being comprehensible to a not-so-well-read modern American?

  2. Huw

    Thank you, Ron! As it happens, I’ve been re-reading some favourite Augustine recently, including the ‘Confessions’. And yes, what you say here rings true with what I’ve been reading.

    As an aside, it seems ironic that a theologian so often critiqued for his pessimism about human nature seems so much more captivated by Christ that many a more recent theologian. My feeling is that that’s probably no coincidence.

  3. R N Frost

    Thanks for the responses, Lee & Huw. I’ve been ‘on the road’ so I’m just now seeing them.

    Let me reassure you, Lee, that Augustine’s Confessions is an accessible read. There’s always a gap between the way we communicate today and the way the ancients spoke and wrote, but after a few pages you’ll get the rhythm. The book is presented as an extended prayer so that gives it a more personal feel. Try it and let me know what you think.

    And Huw, thanks for the encouragement and the insight!

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