St. Augustine and St. John Paul II on The Fall and Original Sin

snake, serpent, apple, deception

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Thus begins the Apostle’s Creed. The world today remains far from the original perfection of the Garden of Eden. An explanation of this stark contrast is provided in the early chapters of Genesis, which both St. Augustine’s City of God Book 14 and Pope St. John Paul II’s Summary on Original Sin address.

However, both writers approach the topic from unique angles, clarifying and emphasizing different elements of the story. This article will discuss the similarities and differences in their approaches to discussing the Fall, as well as some of the advantages and disadvantages these approaches present. 

Context For the Fall

To begin, both Augustine and John Paul II open their works by providing context for the Fall—that man was created by the all-knowledgeable God first and foremost in goodness. As John Paul II says, “…the sin committed at the beginning of human history is presented against the background of creation…God’s magnificent gift of existence” (I.2). This context confirms with the reader the goodness of God’s creation, though He, as Augustine ascertains, “foresaw all things, and was therefore not ignorant that man also would fall” (11.1). Further, both works emphasize that the Fall was, as John Paul II states, “…the “first” sin man’s free choice made with misuse of [intellect and will]” (I.2). And as Augustine says, “…the acts resulting were evil, not having God, but the will itself for their end” (11.1)

Hope of Redemption

Both authors conclude the opening of their works by pointing to the hope of Redemption that is offered as a result of the Fall. “Revelation tells us [that man failed] but it sets this sad news within the context of the truth of Redemption so that we can look with confidence to our merciful Creator and Lord” (John Paul II I.7). And in the words of St. Augustine, “…[the will] being lost by its own fault, can only be restored by Him who was able at first to give it…For He is our Liberator, inasmuch as He is our Savior” (11.1). In this way, Augustine and John Paul II clarify that though God created the world in original goodness, the Fall occurred through man’s free will, not by any mistake on God’s part, and as such, human beings’ only hope for salvation is through the Creator. 

Different Approaches to the Text

Although both writers share commonalities in the structures of their works, they differ in how literally they approach the text. Augustine analyzes the story of the Fall in a more literal sense, while John Paul II, while not denying the factuality of the event, takes into account “the character of the ancient text” and delves into the underlying nature of what the story tells us about the Creator and His creatures (John Paul II II.1).

For example, Augustine presupposes the literal existence of a tree and two human beings, as he says, “that he by the drawings of kindred yielded to the woman…the one human being to the only other human being”(11.2). And again, “…the man could not bear to be severed from his only companion” (11.2) Whereas John Paul II approaches the topic from a less literal sense. As he says, “The tree signifies the insurmountable limit for man and for any creature however perfect. The creature, in fact, is always merely a creature and not God.” (II.5) This implies that whether or not an actual tree existed, the more important part is the meaning of the tree as a test of human freedom. He states, “The fact underlying the descriptive forms that really matter is of a moral nature and is imprinted in the very roots of the human spirit” (II.2). Consequently, Augustine and John Paul II differ in how they relay the meaning of the text. 

The Root of Sin

One aspect of both works that are similar, yet different in how strongly it is emphasized, is that both authors claim the root of all sin, including original sin, comes from the heart. Augustine devotes an entire chapter (chapter 13) to an explanation of this, emphasizing that “Our first parents fell into open disobedience because already they were secretly corrupted; for the evil act had never been done had not an evil will precede it” (13.1). He states that pride was truly the beginning of Adam and Eve’s sin and that their evil actions were a result of their self-exaltation.

John Paul II seems to agree when he says, “Sacred Scripture impels us to seek the root of sin in the interior of man and in his conscience, in his heart” (III.7). Although he does not explicitly mention pride, he insinuates its role in the Fall. John Paul II also, unlike Augustine, connects the effects of original sin with the present world, claiming that this original sin is in a sense the “original “model” of every sin of which man is capable” (II.9). He says, “…this sinful situation…is noticeable in personal and social life but it becomes…more recognizable…if we direct our glance to the interior of man…” (III.5). Thus, both writers present the condition of the heart and will as a root of original sin, yet vary in how they discuss the effects of this condition.

How They Approach the Fall 

The ways in which Augustine and John Paul II approach the topic of the Fall have unique advantages and disadvantages based on the target audience. Augustine’s literal rendering of the text provides a solid framework for the reader to interpret the story of the Fall and gleans many lessons on pride and humility, while John Paul II’s emphasis on the overarching meaning of the story would be well-suited for modern-day skeptics, especially those overly concerned with the scientific accuracy of the creation account. Yet Augustine’s interpretation may leave the skeptic questioning the historical plausibility of the event, while John Paul II’s writing may leave readers still wondering how accurate the literal story is and what actually happened if it is not to be read so literally.

Conclusion 

In conclusion, in thinking about teaching others about the Fall today, I would lean more towards Pope St. John Paul II’s approach of looking at the essential meaning of the text. I believe this approach would be more suitable for modern-day readers, particularly skeptics, while still maintaining the truth of the story. However, I also appreciated St. Augustine’s strong emphasis on evil will preceding evil action, so I would make sure to include that information in my presentation of the material. In regards to why the Fall is not mentioned in either the Apostle’s or the Nicene Creeds, it is possible that the Fall was not a point of controversy while these creeds were being written and revised. However, I believe the more prominent reason for its absence in these works is that these Creeds are primarily about what we believe about God, not about what we believe about ourselves and our state of sinfulness. God’s saving power is greater than original sin and its effects. Thus, to say that Christ came down from heaven “for us men and for our salvation” and that “for our sake he was crucified,” is enough to show our part in Christ’s work, namely that Jesus entirely redeems us from the Fall (Nicene Creed). 

 

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