Critically assess the significance of Augustine’s teaching on human relationships before the Fall. [40]

This AS question from 2018 is possibly the worst I have seen, and the mark-scheme does little to show that it is a reasonable question to have asked students, let alone AS students, in an examination. Nevertheless, because it is a past question student might encounter it and it is certainly worth considering how it might be answered.

St Augustine taught that human beings existed in a state of CARITAS before the Fall, loving God and loving each other as themselves in an ideal state of AMOR or agape and friendship.  In the City of God Book 14 St Augustine described how God “created man with such a nature that the members of the race should not have died”, such as being IMMORTAL and so in no need of SALVATION.  For St Augustine, human beings had BONA VOLUNTAS before the Fall, much the same as what Kant later describes as a GOOD WILL.  Their choices were directed by REASON and they had, therefore, a UNIFIED WILL and not the DIVIDED WILL that characterizes human nature after the Fall.  It follows that, for St Augustine, the whole blame for the FALL and the evil, suffering and death that it caused, lies within human beings and not with God.  St Augustine’s teaching on human relationships before the Fall is, therefore, a highly significant part of his Theodicy and particularly his Free Will Defence; without his teaching about human relationships before the Fall, St Augustine could not explain how God, being OMNIPOTENT and OMNIBENEVOLENT, allows evil and suffering to exist within His creation.   

Firstly, St Augustine’s teaching on human relationships before the Fall shows that the original choice to disobey God and sin was free in the sense that there were ALTERNATE POSSIBILITIES.  St Augustine is clear that with a unified, good will (BONA VOLUNTAS), human beings would have no reason to disobey… it made no sense to do so.  Although St Augustine saw LUST as the explanation for human beings choosing to do what it made no sense to do, he is also clear that “they are in error who suppose that all the evils of the soul proceed from the body”.  If the body was the source of LUST and what caused us to sin, God as the creator of the body would still be responsible for our sin and its consequences, nullifying St Augustine’s Theodicy.  For St Augustine, it was “the sinful soul that made the flesh corruptible”, so the choice to disobey God was internal to Adam as the agent and not determined by any external factor, even his own body.  The fist sin was man having the PRIDE to live according to his own desire and not God’s, so disobeying God and following his CARNAL WILL.  It follows that St Augustine’s teaching on human relationships before the Fall is highly significant, making his THEODICY and particularly his FREE WILL DEFENCE work.   

Secondly, St Augustine’s teaching on human relationships before the Fall shows that everybody is a SINNER in need of SALVATION through God’s GRACE.  For St Augustine, all human beings were “seminally present” in Adam (God “was pleased to derive all men from one individual”), meaning that all human beings were originally created having BONA VOLUNTAS and existing in CARITAS, not just Adam and Eve, and all human beings sinned against God and earned the punishment for sin which is death (Romans 5), not just Adam and Eve.  This shows that all human beings are capable of CARITAS and that AGAPE as a moral imperative has force, being towards something that our PRE-LAPSARIAN STATE shows that we can do.  In this way, we fully deserve God’s punishment in this life and the next for existing in a state of CUPIDITAS.  Indeed, if God did not punish us (harshly) for our CUPIDITY, God could not be just because then there could be no incentive to change and do what we know we should.  Further, St Augustine’s teaching on human relationships before the Fall supports his teaching about the Fall and Original Sin, which in turn supports his teaching that we depend on God’s GRACE for SALVATION and can in no way deserve or earn it for ourselves.  St Augustine utterly rejected PELAGIANISM, pointing out that it limits God’s OMNIPOTENCE (suggesting that we decide who is saved, not God), OMNISCIENCE (suggesting that the future is open and unknown to God) and OMNIBENEVOLENCE (suggesting that God only saves those who deserves it, when in fact His goodness extends to saving all those who don’t deserve it).  St Augustine agrees with St Paul, who wrote

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Romans 8:38-39

If we are saved, then we are pre-destined for salvation by God’s Grace, and nothing on earth can change that. For these reasons as well, St Augustine’s teaching on human relationships before the Fall is highly significant in his wider THEODICY and THEOLOGY for that matter.   

Nevertheless and despite is significance, St Augustine’s teaching on human relationships before the Fall is problematic.  

Notwithstanding the damning consequences of accepting the story of the Fall as conveying deep truth about human nature (Centuries of SEXISM, MISOGYNY and repressed SEXUALITIES flow from the story of the fall, including our pre-lapsarian state – being seen as ARCHETYPAL in the way that St Augustine’s teaching encourages) St Augustine’s teaching about human relationships before the fall depends on seeing the Bible as containing deep truth, when BIBLICAL CRITICISM casts doubt on this.  Textbooks are wrong to claim that St Augustine was a naïve literalist in the modern sense, seeing the Fall as historical, when he was fully aware of the different genres that the Bible contained and was amongst the first to develop rules for the interpretation of scripture, and yet St Augustine did rely on the Bible conveying truth, albeit in a more complex way.

Further, St Augustine’s teaching on human relationships before the Fall and how they relate to human nature today depends on an antiquated notion of how human beings reproduce.  Although Aristotle’s theory from “On the Generation of Animals” that the male is the efficient cause of his children (the woman only providing the material causes) was commonly accepted in St Augustine’s day, making his claim that all humanity was “seminally present” in Adam seem plausible, the discovery of the human ovum in the 17th Century undermined St Augustine’s claim.  It may be that the potential for all life was contained within Adam and Eve, but while Adam was fully culpable for his sin in the Fall, arguably Eve was not. Eve’s relationship with God was secondary and God’s command not to eat from the tree given to Adam before she was created. Eve’s sin would in breaking God’s commandment would be towards Adam, who she had been created to help… but then she thought she was helping Adam as the fruit was “as good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom…” If all humanity was not, as St Augustine suggested, “seminally present” in Adam it does not follow that all human beings sinned in his sin or are justly punished in dying for it.

Also, as John Hick pointed out in “Evil and the God of Love” (1966) p173, St Augustine’s attempt to use human nature to explain the fall and justify God in allowing evil and suffering “considered as a contribution to the solution of the problem of evil… only explains obscurum per obscurius.”  Even if we ignore the problems with taking the story of the fall literally in either a historical or scientific sense, St Augustine blaming human nature for the fall – whether in the body or the soul – does little to excuse God from responsibility for the evil and suffering that frail nature causes, because God created that frail nature and God is supposed to be both OMNIPOTENT and OMNISCIENT… in other words he could have done better and should have known how it would turn out.  

It seems that St Augustine’s teaching on human relationships before the Fall is BOTH highly significant AND deeply problematic.   

The extent to which this is true can be seen in Immanuel Kant’s “Religion within the boundaries of reason alone” (1794).  Kant, as a Lutheran, was deeply influenced by St Augustine, but wanted his philosophical system to work without relying on faith.  Like St Augustine, Kant believed that human beings are born FREE, that we choose to do what is wrong against reason and that this has a permanent effect on our moral character, limiting our freedom.  While Kant called what limits the human ability to have a good will RADICAL EVIL rather than ORIGINAL SIN, the concepts are sufficiently similar for Goethe to claim that Kant had “criminally stained his philosophers’ cloak with the shameful stain of original sin.”  For Kant, as for St Augustine, the possibility for human beings to have a good will (BONA VOLUNTAS) is significant, because it ensures that we can do what we rationally know we should do.  Without evidence that it is possible to have a good will, Kant would be arguing that we should do what nobody can do, which is irrational.  Without evidence that it is possible to have a good will, there would be no CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE or reason to believe that we really are free or that the universe is really ordered as it appears to be.  For Kant, living in an age where Biblical Criticism made taking Genesis literally impossible, Jesus was the evidence that it is possible to have a good will and live in a state of what St Augustine called CARITAS, so in this way through Jesus we are “saved” from despair through the knowledge that in Jesus what we know we should do is possible.  Jesus is the evidence that human nature “before sin” is and can be good and so the evidence that we should be good, despite the otherwise seeming impossibility of having a good will by Kant’s definition.  Despite this, like St Augustine, Kant’s teaching on the good will is deeply problematic because human beings are born and grow up through a state whereby that are not capable of having a good will – childhood.  As children we are bound to do what is right, not out of a sense of duty, but out of fear, deference to authority or habit… all of which would make the “right” action pollute the will as much as an obviously wrong action, and pollute it permanently, holding us back from ever achieving a good will as an adult.  While Jesus shows that it is possible for a human being to have a good will, there is no sense that Jesus was like us subject to ignorance and tutelage as a child or that as an adult his will was encumbered with the effects of childhood choices.  Because of this, Kant’s teaching about a good will is no more convincing than St Augustine’s.  Like St Augustine, Kant asserts our freedom but provides no real evidence that we have ALTERNATE POSSIBILITIES to choose from.  Like St Augustine, Kant asserts that we are morally responsible for not having a good will (BONA VOLUNTAS) and for living in a state of RADICAL EVIL (CUPIDITAS) without evidence that we could ever have done otherwise.  Just as Kant’s teaching about a good will shows that Kant has no basis for postulating GOD (the universe is not fair, so there is no need to believe in God to explain its fairness), St Augustine’s teaching about human relationships before the fall shows that St Augustine has no basis for believing that God is both OMNIPOTENT and OMNIBENEVOLENT in the face of evil and suffering in the world that He created.   

In conclusion, St Augustine’s teaching about human relationships before the Fall is highly significant.  Without this element of St Augustine’s teaching, St Augustine’s THEODICY and particularly his FREE WILL DEFENCE could not work and St Augustine’s wider THEOLOGY of Grace could not work either.  St Augustine’s teaching about human relationships before the fall are crucial in defending the possibility of God being both OMNIBENEVOLENT and OMNIPOTENT, human FREEDOM real and the universe FAIR, so much so that even Immanuel Kant relied on a similar, albeit unsatisfactory and contentious, theory to explain the human condition.  And yet, St Augustine’s teaching about human relationships before the Fall relies on some degree of Biblical LITERALISM and on scientific NAIVITY. It does not provide the needed evidence that human beings are capable of being good or responsible for all the evil and suffering in the world, because as St Augustine put it, all the evils that affect mankind are “either sin or punishment for sin”.  In the end, the very significance of St Augustine’s teaching about human relationships before the fall undermines his wider attempt at THEODICY and THEOLOGY.   

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