Augustine’s Hamartiology

Operating first from Platonism, then moving towards a kind of Neoplatonism that “he believed to be preliminary and necessary step in the acceptance of Christianity,”[1] Augustine of Hippo viewed sin through a relationship between freedom and will. For Augustine, then, “the power of sin is such that it takes hold of our will, and as long as we are under is sway we cannot move our will to be rid of it.”[2] What this incites is a struggle with the “will,” which is based on Plato’s tripartite doctrine of the soul,[3] until that struggle is the most that can accomplished. Augustine believed that the human soul struggles between willing and not willing to such an extent that not only is there a relative powerlessness in humankind’s will against itself but, more importantly, because of this struggle, “the sinner can will nothing but sin.”[4] For the sinner, there remains freedom to choose other options other than a sinful act but, nevertheless, “all these [options] are sin, and the one alternative that is not open is to cease sinning.”[5] Augustine refers to this as the freedom to sin which is the only freedom a sinner has. Essentially, this perpetual freedom to sin can’t be reconciled as a true freedom until “[the sinner is] redeemed [by] the grace of God [working] in [them], leading [their] will from the miserable state in which it found itself to a new state in which freedom is restored, so that we are now free both to sin and not to sin.”[6] It is here, then, where freedom actually exists as it should in mortality, where humankind has two options to either sin or not to sin. For Augustine, this is possible “only by the power of grace itself [are we able to make the decision to accept grace], for before that moment we are not free not to sin, and therefore we are not free to decide to accept grace.”[7] In other words, Augustine viewed sin as something innate and fundamentally intrinsic within humankind’s character which was brought about by the Fall[8] and, because of this, humankind can do nothing else but inevitably, albeit hopelessly, sin, even under the guises of freedom and will. It is only through the power of grace –specifically, the act of God’s forgiveness and subsequent salvation –can humankind choose to not sin by way of an “initiative in conversion [that] is not human, but divine.”[9]

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[1] Refer to William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 443.

[2] Refer to Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation: Volume 1 (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1984), 214.

[3] In the tripartite doctrine of the soul advanced by Plato, the will stands between reason and the appetites. It is the function of the reason to control the will, and humankind is obliged to build good habits allowing such control. Refer to William L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Inc., 1980), 626.

[4] Refer to Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation: Volume 1 (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1984), 214.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 215

[8] Between the Fall, or the original sin of Adam and Eve, and redemption, or the God’s act of forgiveness and the promise of salvation, the only freedom left to humankind is the freedom to sin. Refer to Ibid, 214.

[9] Ibid., 215.

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