Inherited Sin according to Augustine, Pelagius, The Semipelagians, Flacius, the Church of Sweden and myself
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) was resolute that God is sovereign but has given man freedom and responsibility. Human beings are thus not controlled by God in the same sense as animals are governed by their instincts. To Augustine, man was created pure and blameless but contacted a grave illness. Sin is like a hereditary disease into which every human after Adam is born with and under whose grip he lives his life. Sin has weakened man’s free will, making it biased towards evil, like a pair of scales that are unbalanced to one side. It is a negative spiral of guilt, where every sin brings forth another. Man cannot cure or even diagnose this disease by himself. Only through the grace of God and Jesus can humanity be free. (McGrath 2011:351ff)
Pelagius (beginning of 5th century) could not believe in both God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. So he settled for the latter and held that man chooses to sin. God knows the capacity of His creation, and does not demand anything in His law that humanity is not competent to fulfil if it wants to. Thus there is no excuse for man’s guilt, no power of sin to blame. Pelagius makes man totally responsible for his actions, arguing that if God intervened He would disrespect man’s integrity and if man was not created to withstand contamination, it would compromise God’s perfection. Thus man chooses to sin knowingly and each sin is independent of other sins. However, God has given us a good example in Christ, to compensate for the bad example that has been handed down through the generations from Adam. Now it’s up to us. (McGrath 2011:351ff, Henriksen 1994:129)
In order to get the best out of Augustine and Pelagius, a view developed that is often called Semipelagian (from 5th century to modern day). Behind the separate sinful actions man performs there is a weakness of the will that makes it difficult for man to choose to do good. But man can turn to God, and cooperate with Him for salvation. Thus man has to do something to get out of sin, but is not totally responsible for his precarious situation. (Henriksen 1994:130)
Matthias Flacius (end of 16th century) thought that the inheritance of sin has infiltrated mankind to such a degree that the very essence of humanity is sinful or in fact is sin. (Henriksen 1994:130)
The Book of Concord describes inherited sin as a permanent change in the nature of humanity which is a constant propensity towards evil that arises from a lack of godliness and faith. Because of this inheritance we perform sinful acts. Thus it is neither sinful acts in themselves that are the problem, nor is the substance and nature of man in itself sinful, but the corruption of man’s nature makes him prone to act sinfully. (TBOC 96f, 548, 503f)
Trying to boil the above down to some similarities and differences, I find that the question of sin and the inheritance of sin is a question of human ability and responsibility. The similarities in the above views lie in that sin is bad, keeping or hindering us from coming to God, and that we need God, more or less, for salvation from sin. The differences lie in degrees of sinfulness. While Augustine wrote that sin is powerful, so powerful in fact that only God can help us from it, Flacius drew the conclusion that mankind has become bad in its very essence. Even though Flacius thought that he followed Augustine’s footsteps, he went further and denied mankind’s inherent good as created by God, which was important to Augustine. Man’s goodness was important to Pelagius too, but he went the other way and concluded that man, being the creation of a perfect God, must be so capable that he is responsible for his actions and thus his continued downfall. Semipelagians tries to be a bit more forgiving than Pelagius himself and allows for man being weak in a sense similar to Augustine’s point of sin overwhelming man as an illness, but still holds to Pelagius view that man has to make an endeavour to gain salvation. TBOC follows Augustine more or less.
My Own Thoughts
I for one am most attracted to Augustine’s way of speaking of sin and inherited sin. Of all the above anyway. But perhaps I would put it differently. Sin is a power in this world which biases us to act badly. Thus it takes great effort to do good. We may off course try hard to do good if we like, but it is rather futile. This is because sin has infiltrated the world to such a degree that every good action starts a reaction that somewhere along the chain brings about something bad for someone. However, sin is not a substance in itself but is actually just plain aversion from God (though like Luther, I would say that there is a person behind it, the “Tempter”, who tries to make us sin, tempting and trying to force us to turn away from God). This aversion is inherited in many ways, not only by seed (as Augustine says) but by just being here one is attacked by it since it has infiltrated the world, and through social inheritance one is educated to continue the legacy. The solution is to turn to God, but we cannot do that by our own power, our bondage is too strong. God does everything to reach out to us so we still notice Him but somehow we have to reciprocate since He, contrary to sin, doesn‘t try to force anything on us. As soon (and as long) as He knows that we are willing, He does the work of our salvation. We need do nothing more than long for Him.
Sources: Henriksen, Jan-Olav. Guds virkelighet: Kristen dogmatikk (God’s Reality: Christian Dogmatics), Oslo: Luther Forlag 1994. McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology – An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell 2011. Svenska kyrkans bekännelseskrifter (The Book of Concord), Stockholm: Verbum 1997.