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Where the Orthodox Meet Original Sin

St. Augustine and original sin are not the boogeymen many modern Eastern (and Western!) scholars make them out to be

Ever since the appearance of the method of Descartes in philosophy, there has been a strong tendency in the intellectual life of the West to reduce every aspect of the philosophical and theological tradition to a first intellectual insight from which all the rest flows in a quasi-geometric order. This approach leads to ideologies that dichotomize or reject the previous tradition, rather than synthesizing and including the variety of insights found in the tradition. Consequently, they are continually re-creating philosophy and theology by the discovery of new insights that radically redefine all thought by some new point of departure.

Latin Catholics are used to an anti-Augustinian, anti-Scholastic bent in even some otherwise orthodox (with a small o) Catholic thinkers. Among us there are always those who are looking for the original tradition before it was overlain, they think, both by Augustine’s neoplatonism and the Aristotelian methods of natural philosophy and metaphysics.

These thinkers romanticized the Eastern Church and expected to find in her a witness to pure, patristic Christianity, uncorrupted by scholastic formulations and obsessions, which they traced back to Thomas Aquinas, and then back to Anselm, and then back to Augustine, always seeking the “original sin” of “Western” or “Latin” theology.

When these Catholic, but anti-Augustinian and anti-Scholastic thinkers came in in contact with Orthodox theologians — for example, in Paris, but also elsewhere — in the first quarter of the last century, with the great influx of refugees from Bolshevik Russia, they more or less expected to find among them such a pure, non-scholastic theology. Some of the Orthodox took the bait and accepted this account of the history of theology, and so began to assert that the scholastic theology of the Latin Middle Ages was incompatible with the Eastern mentality. The three As, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, became the boogeymen of Latin “rationalism” and its assault on traditional, patristic theology and spirituality: Augustine for original sin; Anselm for the atonement; and Aquinas for everything else, especially the sacraments.

The sevenfold number of the sacraments, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the notion of created grace as the fulfillment of an aptitude of nature preparing for direct union with God, the need for purification after death, and the doctrine of original sin, all of which were standard elements of both Greek and Russian Orthodox seminary and catechetical instruction, were seen as Western impositions and errors. Strangely enough, though, this new approach corresponded exactly with the program of the Latin Catholics who had “rediscovered” Eastern theology. In fact, what they rediscovered was the projection of their own ideas, willingly seconded by Eastern theologians who had become acceptable participants in the Western European and American academic world.

This approach became the standard narrative in mainstream Orthodox seminary instruction in the middle of the last century, and became more and more the standard view in Eastern Catholic, especially Byzantine rite, seminaries after the Second Vatican Council. Its proponents seem to be unaware that this is not at all the historical Eastern tradition.

Fortunately, the scholarship of the present time, since the end of the last century, has been turning from this anti-Scholastic, anti-Augustinian version of events, and returning to a serene view based on the sources of the patristic and medieval Church of East and West. As with all movements in thought, it will take a while before this approach is widespread, so at the moment the former narrative is still largely, albeit not exclusively, in force in Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic parishes and popular publications.

A key example of this trajectory is the rediscovery by the Orthodox, who had largely forgotten him, of the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas on prayer and the mystical life. Palamas became exhibit A of the survival of a non-scholastic, Eastern tradition at odds with Aquinas et al. One still hears this view taught and assumed to be true.

Current scholars, however, reveal the true state of affairs. In fact, Palamas was well aware of and used Aristotelian logic and Augustinian psychology in expounding, of all things, the doctrine of the Trinity, and his followers were the ones who introduced to the Eastern Romans—that is, the Byzantines—the writings of Aquinas in Greek translation. This is so far from the standard, supposedly “Eastern” thought of American clerical and lay converts to Orthodoxy and enthusiasts for Byzantine Catholicism that they have a hard time taking it in.

In short, it never occurred to the late Byzantines, even the most anti-papal of them, that scholastic logic and Aristotelian natural philosophy, and all the more, Augustine, were incompatible with the mystical or apophatic theology of the East. Palamas, Mark of Ephesus, and others were fully in accord with the basic foundations of Scholastic thought, as were St. John Damascene and St. Maximus the Confessor before them. These late Byzantine opponents of union with Rome, nonetheless, saw in Thomas Aquinas a perfect balance between the manifest and rational method and the mystical, but more complete insight of supernatural mysteries, just as modern Thomists do.

So what about original sin? If you examine a popular article such as the one found on the Orthodox wiki website, you will find that the treatment is more than a little confused, but it admits that the view of original sin found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is compatible with Orthodox teaching. They seem to think the doctrine presented there is a new interpretation, when in fact it is the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas and of practically all the Catholic doctors who interpreted Augustine.

The fact is that Augustine’s account of original sin in all of its various developments, details, and permutations was rarely accepted carte blanche even in the West. His teaching, rather, established the standard outline of the doctrine along the broad lines of the theology of grace and nature, and of sanctification and perseverance. He expounded the teaching not so much as a speculative account of the nature of the state of original sin, but rather as a fuller account of why human beings after the Fall of Adam absolutely require divine grace for any genuinely good intention and action, from its preliminary stages all the way to its completion.

This development was in the context of the controversy not so much over grace and original sin, but over the related question of what later would be called actual or helping grace. This controversy found its beginnings in a purely monastic setting, in a struggle deeply felt by both sides, between Pelagius and his sympathizers and Augustine and his disciples. The latter held that grace was needed even for the least movement toward the good, the former holding that unaided human agency had to act on its own in order for divine grace to supplement and complete the good action. In the Augustinian view, which is the only orthodox (small or large o) one, the whole of human moral life, from its beginning until its consummation, is the work of God, human cooperation being graced and meritorious only when underlain by the sanctifying movement of actual and habitual grace. In the Pelagian view, the ascetic struggle was a necessary condition for greater gifts than nature, which God freely gives to those who strive.

It is obvious that in some sense, the Pelagian view sounds plausible if we view the moral, spiritual life as a gradual progress and the fruit of effort, but if we view it as entirely, even in its aspects of gradual progress, struggle and effort, as a free gift of God, then we see that human cooperation makes sense only within the overarching power of the divine grace that makes it possible. Seen in this light, the Eastern and Western views of the relation of grace to nature are practically the same, or at least certainly not incompatible or contradictory. The simple truth is that human effort without divine grace cannot attain the end of human striving or even begin it. God is truly “the Giver of every good gift.”

For divine assistance and indwelling to be so utterly necessary, it is clear that human nature is helpless of itself. This is radically true even of Adam and Eve before the Fall, but it is even more so after, when human nature was not only deprived of grace, but wounded by the trauma of the original, parental, and ancestral sin. This sin not only lost the gifts of grace, but threw Man back on his own unaided natural powers, subject to death, eternal and temporal, as well as ignorance and passion. The healing grace of Christ Jesus as the New Adam given in the power of his divine and human action in the Incarnation and in the sacraments that extend his action in his Church overcomes both the state of original sin and its consequences.

Augustine read carefully and even made verbal use of the teachings of St. Gregory Nazianzus regarding original sin, and Gregory is “the theologian” of the East par excellence. It never occurred to Augustine or to anyone else that his teaching was out of line with the teaching of the Eastern doctors. Indeed, Pelagius was condemned in the East, and Augustine listed among the approved teachers of the Church in ecumenical councils. There is no “original” Latin error in Augustine. He is a universal doctor just as are Chrysostom, Basil, and Gregory.

So let us invoke them all as our “Fathers among the saints,” saying, “O Holy Fathers, pray to God for us, orate pro nobis!”


This article is the second part in a two-part series. You can read the first part, “East or West, No Denying the Immaculate Conception,” here.

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