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Sin, Infants and Saint Augustine against the Devil

In the years 411-12, refugees from Italy reached the city of Hippo in North Africa, and the Christian bishop there, Augustine, heard them express their wonder as to what had happened regarding the sack of Rome. These were Christians who believed that their god protected people, and they believed as had Bishop Eusebius that God had linked Rome and Christianity. In a series of sermons, Augustine gave his flock a perspective that differed radically from that espoused by Eusebius (who had died in 339/340). Augustine said that since the fall of Adam the loyalties of the human race had been divided between two great symbolic cities. Appealing to his flock's imagination he described one as the heavenly city of Jerusalem, a city that served God and His loyal angels. The other city was Babylon, represented by Rome, which served the devil and his demons. He said that although Jerusalem and Babylon appeared mixed they would be separated at the Last Judgment. The righteous, he said, would return to the heavenly city of Jerusalem.

In a work titled The City of God, Augustine wrote that God was actively at work in human history, that Rome had been destined to decay, that a lust for material goods and violence were rooted in impulse and had made Rome wicked. Rome, he wrote, was based on self-love, robbery, violence and fraud. The Romans, he claimed, were the most successful brigands in history. He described slavery and private property not as the creations of God but of sin. He explained the sack of Rome as a part of Rome having to perish as had wicked cities described in the Old Testament.

An interpretation of the assault on Rome that rivaled Bishop Augustine's was that of a Christian monk from Britannia named Pelagius. His response to the shocking assault on Rome was to advocate greater discipline and a stricter morality for all Christians so as not to displease God. Augustine led the attack against those who accepted the view of Pelagius. Augustine spoke of freedom of choice as limited — the result of the original sins of Adam and Eve. People, he believed, could not overcome their faults through will and education. Augustine believed that if they could choose righteousness through their own ability to choose rather than through God and his agents they would not need the Church's rituals. He complained that the Pelagian interpretation of freedom suggested that virtue was possible outside of Christianity.

With Augustine there was nothing of Socrates's belief that people did wrong because of not knowing truth. Augustine didn't see people as that rational. There were impulses that caused them to err, that one's inner-self was so complex and mysterious that no one could ever know his own whole personality and no one could be certain that all of oneself would live up to the standards that he or she had adopted. Augustine had been sexually active as a young man, but now in his sixties he saw humanity as gluttonous. He described infants at the breast as filled with lust, jealousy and other vices. Adam and Eve could have had sex without lust, he wrote, but they chose instead to have it with lust. A carpenter moved his hands without lust, he added, and so too could people in sexual intercourse. Virtue, claimed Augustine, demanded complete control over one's body, but absolute control was impossible, he claimed, because of Adam's fall.

The rivalry between Pelagius and Augustine spread through the empire's Christian communities. A few Christians complained that Augustine made it seem as if the devil were the maker of humanity. They found it absurd to claim that infants were already cursed by guilt in the wombs of their mothers. They believed that this contradicted God's love of justice. Some saw a Manichaean (Persian) influence in Augustine's view of evil and the body. Pelagius argued that sin was something of the soul and not the body, and those on the side of Pelagius asked how sin could be passed from the soul of parents to the body of an infant. Augustine answered that sin was passed down from Adam and Eve and from generation to generation through semen, with Jesus having escaped sin by having been born of a virgin.

As advocates of virtue, Pelagians clashed with Augustine over wealth and sharing, the Pelagians asserting that a rich man was surely damned. Augustine replied that the Church had to find room both for its higher civil servants and its taxpayers, including the rich landowners on whose endowments and influence the monks and clergy had come to depend. Augustine preached against rich men ruining themselves by distributing their land among the poor. Instead, he called upon them to leave their land to Catholic monasteries.

Bishops who had spent years upholding the necessity of baptizing infants were inclined to reject the Pelagian argument about the innocence of infants, and many Christians were inclined to believe more in human frailty than humanity's ability to perfect itself. Many believed that people should be humble about their virtues rather than dare to work toward their own righteousness. Augustine was winning the argument. Pelagians tried to defend themselves by street demonstrations, and this led to violence in the streets of Rome. The Pelagians were viewed as disturbers of the Catholic faith and accused of considering themselves above the rest of the Christian community.

In 416, largely in response to Augustine and his followers, an African Church council met and condemned Pelagius, and the following year the Bishop of Rome, Pope Innocent I, concurred with the condemnation, and he excommunicated Pelagius. Pelagius responded with a book titled A Brief Statement of Faith. In April, 418, Emperor Honorius denounced Pelagius as a disturber of the faith, and Pope Zosimus (417-18) declared Pelagius a heretic and had him exiled back to Britannia.

Augustine had triumphed. He called the Pelagians windbags and restated his belief that it was not how people lived that made them right in the eyes of God but whether they had faith in Jesus Christ.

Today, the Encyclopedia Britannica describes Augustine as having shaped the practice of biblical explanation and interpretation, and it describes him as having helped "lay the foundation for much of medieval and modern Christian thought."

CONTINUE READING: Religion and Authoritarians, to the death of Justianian I

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