Don’t Blame the Devil: St Augustine and Original Sin

St Augustine of Hippo was a prolific contributor to the formation of modern Christianity, particularly through the concept of Original Sin. The philosophy of human nature this idea implies continues to inform contemporary morality.

  • "For Augustine, God had not made the slightest error in his creation of human beings, but evil desires, ‘after establishing themselves in the stock of our ancestors, have become naturally ingrained.’"
    Photo by Fotolia/Claudio Columbo
  • Are we born sinners? In “Born Bad,” James Boyce retraces the footsteps of original sin, an idea that continues to shape not just Christianity, but modern concepts of morality in Western culture.
    Cover courtesy Counterpoint Press

St Augustine’s famous struggles with celibacy and sin led to a shift in Christian tradition—the belief that sin originates within the individual rather than from the influence of the devil. In Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World, author James Boyce explores how the concept of a human nature permanently corrupted by Adam and Eve has had a pervasive effect on the Western moral experience.

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We do not say that God is the author of evil, and yet we can correctly say that human beings are born evil as a result of the bond of original sin with God alone as their creator. —St Augustine

St Augustine (354–430) is the father of Western Christianity. He completed for religion in the West what St Paul had begun for the faith as a whole: the creation of a cohesive and binding set of teachings from diverse and disputed traditions. He was also a faithful lover and doting father, who famously struggled with sex. Much of Augustine’s extraordinary theological output of some ninety books and eight thousand sermons (distributed by relays of stenographers and teams of copyists across the Roman Empire) was highly original, but his struggle to achieve celibacy, as he documented in his autobiography, Confessions, was standard fare in the saintly struggle. What was distinctive in Augustine’s account was that he blamed himself, rather than the seductive temptations of the Devil, for his plight. Appropriately enough for the author of the creation story of a culture which would become focused on individual experience, lust led him to search within to understand sin’s inexorable grip, and from this intensely personal journey emerged an explanation for everyone’s desire to sin.

Augustine’s extended effort to achieve chastity has been satirised for centuries. It is usually assumed that before he became a repressed celibate, Augustine led a life of debauchery. In fact, his family life, both as a child and after he became a father himself, was unremarkable. Augustine recorded his life journey not because he thought it unusual – the standard autobiographical motivation – but because he believed it represented the universal human condition. Although Augustine’s father, who died while his son was still in his early teens, had not been a practising Christian, the young man was brought up a Catholic by his mother, Monica. In his late teens, he formed a faithful long-term relationship with a young Catholic woman from a neighbouring town, and their son, Adeodatus (meaning ‘gift of God’), was born in 372. Augustine records that he ‘lived with only one woman and kept faith with her bed’ during the fifteen years they were together.  He ended the relationship only when his family arranged his engagement to a girl of higher social standing.

The two-year wait until his new fiancee reached the legal marriageable age (which was twelve) was a critical period in Augustine’s self-discovery. An old translation of Confessions well captures his inner torment:

4/3/2020 8:49:08 AM

I have read the comments. some of us blame the clergy and the church for the concept of sin. namely original sin. some believe in it some not. What is a sin ? Don't think in the terms of religion but think as an atheist who doesn't believe in God. Basically sin means the nature , the very act that disturbs our ontology or our deeper self not only ourselves but also people around us, it breaks the social order and brings misery upon all humanity . If we look at the situation anthropologically, we would say that human's in ability to do right things all the time and the social influence on him has made him who he is today. Psychological understanding of it that the nature of sin is in our genes or in our hereditary. the man is not free as he claims. The history witnesses this but then the religion came to be that gave us Hope. When the church speaks about original sin, it doesn't say that you were born a sinner but you have the tendency to do sin that's what called original sin. you have the possibility to do sin. I agree we all are sinners and Jesus is man and God who gives us freedom by His life and words. if you want to taste real freedom trust Him and follow Him. rest will be revealed to you by the Spirit of the Lord.

8/10/2018 9:07:52 AM

St Augustine is correct. There is a grip on mankind deep in the soul which cannot be overcome by human will alone. Men delude themselves to their own damnation proclaiming they are holy or a good person but this is the lip service Jesus talked about. Augustine understood that we are completely hopeless to attain eternal life with God in Heaven without God’s grace. And to receive that Grace we must petition God constantly in prayer asking for the gift of salvation. This is what Augustine was referring to when he said men will believe they live a holy life achieved by their own human strength when in fact they will be damned. Damned because they presumed to be a god themselves able to achieve eternal salvation without their Creator who is the source of this great gift.

5/26/2015 8:32:52 AM

That so much rests on the mistranslation of a Greek preposition is testament to the irrationality of christianity (and religion generally).

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