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Emma L Mavin

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Original Sin and the Doctrine of Grace
by Emma L Mavin   

Last edited: Sunday, October 06, 2002
Posted: Sunday, October 06, 2002

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"If I inevitably sin, I am not free; and if I am not free, I am not responsibility." Discuss the relationship between human freedom and responsibility in the context of the doctrine of grace and original sin.

The problem of combining free will and original sin is one which has plagued theologians for many years. There have been those who have denied free will, but it is somewhat intolerable for the human mind to admit no free will at all, and hence most scholars have sought to find a way to reconcile the two.

The main authority on original sin has been St Augustine of Hippo. In his thought, sin originated in Adam (and, presumably, Eve) in the garden of Eden through their disobedience. This sin caused both the punishment of death, and also permanently changed the nature of the human race. Adam sinned through use of his free will to do something which was forbidden, and the main thrust of Augustine's argument is that the punishment for sin was not arbitrarily passed on by a vindictive God, but was rather the fault of all men. Augustine's reasoning for this was that all mankind were present in Adam, and so all used their free will to sin with him, "all posterity were in Adam as in a root, and every individual is therefore guilty of the first sin" . Some other thinkers have also explained the quilt of mankind in the Fall in using the example of a country. The acts of a nation's leader are also said to be those of a nation, children born during a war are automatically at war with that country, even though they have played no part in deciding this. In more modern times, the science of genetics seems to have a part to play in the transmission of original sin, in that it is possible that a tendency to sin could be inherited, and indeed this idea is at present the subject of much debate regarding whether the child of a criminal may tend to do the same things as their parent, in the same way as a tendency toward cancer is.

Augustine thought that, after the Fall, mankind has a tendency toward sin. While this could be taken as a denial of free will after the Fall, that every man must sin, this is not quite so, Augustine wrote that good acts could still be committed, as people everywhere do things they would otherwise not do which are against their natural inclinations, and so it is with good acts. However, Augustine did believe that men were more likely to sin after the Fall, that its permanent effect upon mankind was to make them turn from good acts, and prefer to do evil.
"There is a certain necessary tendency to sin...due to the flaws which have vitiated our nature. A most interesting qualification of this idea, however, is that this necessity may be removed by the assistance of grace, and full liberty again bestowed."

There is a problem with this idea, however, in that if every man since Adam requires grace in order to lead a righteous life, can he then be described as free? Augustine very much emphasised man's dependence on God, but thought that both the necessity of grace, and free will were true , that man needs grace in order to make good choices, but that this grace is not bestowed without effort on man's part. Augustine thought that, after the Fall, man only possessed a limited freedom. Free will induces man toward sin, as it was corrupted by Adam, and without God's help leads only to sin. However, it seems odd that if man is free to sin, he is unable to not sin - this does not seem like true free will if only one choice is permitted. Augustine thought that in the future man would not be able to sin, his free will would only be able to be used for good. He justified this by saying that God has free will, yet he does not will evil.
Augustine was writing against the views of the Pelagians who thought originally that the punishment for the original sin was death, not corruption of the free will, and that by use if his free will man could avoid sin. Later, when they did say that the sin of Adam caused sinfulness in his descendants, they thought that this sin began when the adult heard of the sin of Adam and decided to emulate it. This idea, however, seems not to be viable, as this would mean that non Abrahamic religions could not sin, as they did not know of the sin of Adam, and it seems strange that, knowing the consequences of such an action, someone would, upon reaching maturity, decide to sin like Adam.

Henri Blocher has come up with a new idea of the role of original sin. "I submit that the role of Adam and of his sin in Romans 5 is to make possible the imputation, the judicial treatment, of human sins" . Adam's role was to necessitate punishment for crimes, and Jesus' was to have mercy on those crimes. These laws were necessary in order to have freedom, as true freedom cannot exist outwith of settled laws - if the law of gravity were not certain, but subject to change then a man could never have the freedom to, for example, fell a tree as he would be uncertain whether or not it could just float off into the sky! "The vindication of the moral order by God's freemen can happen only in a universe whose laws are comparatively stable."

We must retain free will in order for there to be any progress in the world. If free will had been completely destroyed by original sin, then mankind would remain forever in a state akin to Hobbes' "state of nature", permanently warring, and there could be no progress at all, there has also been, according to the Bible, spiritual progress in Abraham, Moses and in the Gospels. It is not necessary to follow Augustine's theology too slavishly and possibly come up with the idea that free will was taken from mankind, as Catholic dogma also says that, in the Fall, man lost only "the complete mastery of his passions, exemption from death, sanctifying grace [and] the vision of God in the next life" and constitutes a turning from God, rather than a destruction of free will.

There have been many definitions of grace, some of which do seem to detract from free will, and some which strive to include it. The theology of St Thomas Aquinas says that, as God is the First Cause and Prime Mover of all, nothing can move that has not first been moved by God. Although God could move people only to do good acts, he preserves free will by moving humans to do free acts, whether they be good or evil. He thought that there is always a choice of whether to do good or evil, but that mankind is more likely to choose evil, due to the Fall. By the use of efficacious grace (gratia efficax) man chooses good over evil. This again, however, raises the question of whether man is really free, as he always chooses evil if left to himself, and always chooses the good if given grace. The Augustinians thought there were two types of grace, the gratia efficax and gratia sufficiens (sufficient grace). Gratia sufficiens allows the ability to do good acts, but gratia efficax actually guarantees that they will be done. In Paradise man could be swayed by gratia sufficiens, but after the Fall, because of man's weak will, he must be given gratia efficax as well. This does allow for free will, as the subject does not necessarily have to follow the good, he is free to reject gratia sufficiens and turn to evil. The followers of Molinism also said that the will is capable of making a decision with regard to grace, but that gratia sufficiens and gratia efficax are one and the same, if the will rejects the good, then what has been given was merely gratia sufficiens and if he accepts, then it was gratia efficax. A good act is therefore the product of both grace and free will. Congruism is another system used in grace, here the gratia congrua is a grace suited to the person and results in good acts (similar to gratia efficax) and gratia incongrua is merely sufficient grace and may be rejected by the will. Whether a grace succeeds depends on the will of the recipient, and this retains freedom of the will. The final explanation of grace is that of syncretism. This sought to combine the types of grace already mentioned. There are two types of efficacious grace, gratia ab intrinsico efficax, which is predetermining in that the outcome is certain, the person will do good acts, and is used for severe trials and the resistance of temptation. The second type of grace is gratia ab extrinsico efficax and is non-predetermining in that the will can reject it, and is used for prayer and other small things. However, overall there has been no description of grace that has no problems, and the authors of all have been forced to the conclusion that "we are confronted by a great mystery".

Overall, all men sinned with Adam in the Garden of Eden as they all existed in potentia within him. The use of free will for evil then caused all men from then to turn toward evil as a natural inclination, although I would conjecture that men can, with great difficulty, do good without the aid of grace. This seems to be the only way to understand how people from other religions can do good - without the benefit of grace (unless you take the view that God gives grace to those who do not believe in the Christian view of him). However, original sin does not constitute an excuse for sinfulness, as by the aid of grace and by use of free will we may do good acts instead of sinful. As the Catholic Encyclopaedia points out, there would be no point in having commandments if the free will would always turn to the bad. It is scarcely having free will to always choose evil so I would disagree with Augustine, there may be a permanent tendency to see evil (or at least, bad acts) as being the easier course, but not that we always choose the bad without aid from God. With the idea of grace perhaps making it easier to see the good and follow it, although some systems portray this as a rejection of free will, as people must follow the good, whether they wish to or not, this does not have to be the case. It is possible to follow the systems outlined previously and say that God provides grace, and it may be rejected by the will, but that if the will accepts it, it becomes a slightly different sort of grace in that it enables the person to do good. If we see original sin as a lack of gratia sufficiens then we can say that, with grace, free will is fully restored, but that, at that stage, the will can reject the grace and choose the bad, and therefore be denied gratia efficax. In general, it is not true that we inevitably sin, but rather than sin is more attractive and easier for us than is the good, this does not, however, mean that we always choose sin, but simply that it is harder to choose good. Free will can be retained along with the idea of original sin, and with grace, in that we have the choice of whether to reject grace and do evil, or not.

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