You don’t have to venture far to move from St. Augustine’s views on sex to his understanding of human nature.
Both are tied into how he perceives the Fall, and there are problems in his thought that drastically impacted Christianity hundreds of years later.
As helpful as Augustine’s questions and observations are regarding sex, they are likely too severe and tend to imply a negative tone.
Because at the end of the day, let’s face it: sex can be and is supposed to be awesome. Augustine surely knew this or he wouldn’t have been addicted to it for almost two decades.
It’s a fascinating dynamic that many of the absolute best things about being a human entail pain (i.e., child birth). Likewise, even though intercourse can hurt women and male sexual abuse has been far too prevalent, I don’t think that means sex in itself is bad, nor do I think that is what Augustine was trying to state.
Likewise, reading too much into Augustine regarding the nature of the Fall has led many Christians into wild territory.
Put bluntly, it’s easy to read Augustine and then assume the worst about humanity. It seems Christians of the Protestant Reformed tradition have gone down that road a bit further than the rest of us.
I should note at the start that I don’t think it matters very much whether the story of the Fall is literal, historical story or allegorical. A number of Christians will disagree, but I think the point of the beginning portions of Genesis are to explain the truth of reality; the narrative isn’t concerned about whether the events are historical. It’s beside the point.
Jesus Himself explained the deepest truths of His ministry through parables.
Regardless, analyzing the dynamics of the story help to determine how one ought to view human nature within a Judeo-Christian perspective.
Being myself a product of Western Christian thought, I was surprised to learn I had accepted an assumption not stated in scripture: that Adam and Eve were fully mature adults during the Fall.
Believe it or not, scripture doesn’t say anything about Adam and Eve’s maturity until after the Fall occurs, when it is first mentioned that they have intercourse (granted, Eve is recognized as Adam’s “wife” from the beginning).
Augustine’s conclusion that they were adults during the Fall is a minority view within early Christianity (for example, Irenaeus of Lyons, the leading Father from the Second Century, taught otherwise).
As Robert Arakaki states in his Orthodox critique of Reformed Theology (here quoting John Hick), this matters because:
Instead of the fall of Adam being presented, as in the Augustinian tradition, as an utterly malignant and catastrophic event, completely disrupting God’s plan, Irenaeus pictures it as something that occurred in the childhood of the race, an understandable lapse due to weakness and immaturity rather than an adult crime full of malice and pregnant with perpetual guilt. And instead of the Augustinian view of life’s trials as a divine punishment for Adam’s sin, Irenaeus sees our world of mingled good and evil as a divinely appointed environment for man’s development towards perfection that represents the fulfilment of God’s good purpose for him.
The relevant and related Reformed doctrine is humanity’s total depravity. As written in the Scots Confession, this means: “…the image of God was utterly defaced in man, and he and his children became by nature hostile to God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin.”
The Canons of Dort state: “Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, or to dispose themselves to reformation.”
Further elaboration has led to the Reformed doctrine of double predestination, i.e., that – because humans are incapable of desiring to do good or to believe in God – we don’t have free will.
A caveat here. These are delicate topics to discuss given the historical animosity between those who hold Reformed beliefs and those who don’t. But I know plenty of awesome Reformed Christians, many of which are good friends. My Anglican church is comprised largely of former Reformed Christians who still (intentionally or not) default to that perspective on life and faith. And I might add I think there are a lot of things that are correct in the Reformed position (and aren’t unique to it)!
Please understand my critiques within that context. I’m not out to sling mud or upset anyone.
I would lovingly submit that the Reformed position overall is an extreme understanding of particular scriptures and a single theologian. It does not seem to effectively consider the fullness of scripture’s testimony and Christian theological tradition.
Before fleshing that out, I want to acknowledge the dilemma of convincing people about pretty much anything at all. It isn’t the soundness of reasoning or logic that convinces, but rather the ability to connect with people emotionally.
I have struggled for as long as I can remember with low self-esteem in certain areas of my life. While I tend to dangerously over-compensate with extreme confidence in other areas, I nonetheless have been wounded and timid when it comes to certain emotional aspects of my self-understanding.
I therefore humbly observe that many brothers and sisters I know who count themselves Reformed seem to deeply believe variations of the idea: “God, I suck.”
I see a lot of self-hatred eminating from Reformed people; a lot of emotional wounds that are buried beneath the surface; a lot of hurts and self-doubt that make the belief in resting solely on God’s power and choice incredibly comforting. Thus, in a lot of ways these good people are emotionally compelled to accept this belief system, and I can’t fault that. I get it.
I also get that, on the flip side, there are a lot of non-Reformed Christians who are pricks; Christians who make non-Reformed beliefs look like the height of arrogance and pride. They can become easily obsessed with works righteousness. In numerous cases they suffer from emotional wounds of a different sort.
I’ve found that there are few things in life that are completely black and white (don’t get me wrong, some things certainly are). Typically, the truth lies within the middle of the extremes.
So what does scripture state regarding human nature? The beginning of Genesis shows that all God made is “very good.” Humanity is created in God’s image. Nothing states or suggests that these ontologically change because of the Fall.
To very briefly touch on being an “image” of God: there can be no doubt that scripture is in awe of God’s nature. He is love; He is beauty; He is the source of all that is good. There literally aren’t enough praises to be said or sung about God from scripture’s perspective – if man would not praise Him, the rocks would cry out. Regardless of how one understands what an “image” is, there is no doubt it is directly and intimately connected to its source.
Thus humanity is very good in its essence and is an echo of the most wonderful Person there is. There is nothing but really good things stated and no implication that the Fall changed these core realities.
Of course scripture says a good bit about the nature of sin and its impact on humanity, too. Paul says we are slaves to sin. We struggle doing the good we want to do and keep doing the things we don’t want to do. The nature of sin is death. None are righteous, and all have fallen short of the glory of God.
There is no shortage of these types of truths in scripture. Yet, that does not negate the other truths. They must be taken together.
The Orthodox describe this dual nature of humanity in a number of ways, two of which are:
We believe man in falling by the [original] transgression…to have fallen from his perfection and impassibility, yet not to have lost the nature and power which he had received from the supremely good God.
I am an image of Your indescribable glory, though I bear the scars of my sins.
The non-Reformed Christian would agree with the Reformed that God is in completel control of reality, but God is also wooing humans and drawing our wills to choose Him, succinctly summarized in Paul’s address to the Areopagus in Acts:
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (emphasis added)
The right way to understand Paul’s later comments concerning election and predestination is within the context of the election of Israel. As Arakaki states:
Contrary to the expectations of many of the Jews of the time, Jesus’ messianic calling involved his bringing the Gentiles into the kingdom of God. This was a revolutionary doctrine—that the Gentiles could become saved through faith in the Messiah apart from becoming Jewish. This precipitated a theological crisis over the doctrine of election that underlay Paul’s reasoning in Romans and Galatians. In Romans 9-11, Paul had to explain and uphold God’s calling of Israel in the face of the fact that Israel had rejected the promised Messiah. To read the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination of individuals into Romans 9 constitutes a colossal misreading of what Paul was attempting to do. Furthermore, it overlooks the great reversal of election that took place in the former Pharisee Paul’s thinking: the non-elect—the Gentiles—receive the grace of God and the elect—the nation of Israel—are rejected. (Romans 10:19-21)
That a human response to God’s call is needed does not do the damage that some Reformed Christians think it does (misperceptions of this truth, however, can and do).
It does not deny the need for God’s grace (prevenient grace – grace from God that helps in enabling a human response to Him – is requisite, as is grace in continually choosing Him).
It does not give anyone a reason to boast (as a good friend told me, if someone offered everyone in the world a million bucks and you chose to accept it while others didn’t, what grounds would that give you to brag?).
And it does not mean “my salvation” is contingent on me (it is always contingent on God’s grace alone and the continuance of said grace).
The teaching of the Church until the Reformation resoundingly affirms human free will.
In the Second Century, both Irenaeus and Justin Martyr wrote, respectively:
Now all such expressions demonstrate that man is in his own power with respect to faith.
For the coming into being at first was not in our own power; and in order that we may follow those things which please Him, choosing them by means of the rational faculties He has Himself endowed us with, He both persuades us and leads us to faith.
The influential Fourth Century Father Gregory of Nyssa concured:
For He who holds sovereignty over the universe permitted something to be subject to our own control, over which each of us alone is master. Now this is the will: a thing that cannot be enslaved, being the power of self-determination.
Taken as a whole, this suggests that the proper way of understanding human nature within a Christian paradigm is: we are born with an inclination towards sin, yet our hearts in and of themselves remain good until sin is chosen, at which point the heart begins to shift.
We sell ourselves and God’s loving view of us short if we think we are junk corrupted by sin. This, at least, distorts our understanding of God’s heart and what He intends for humanity and creation as a whole.
Our default should be positive – we are good. Creation is good. Sex is good. Yet there is indeed an altering of that which is good that can be subtle and insidious. Humility is always proper for we nonetheless know and understand only in part.