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Chapter 13: What Sin Is and What It Is Not

Appendix 1: Misunderstandings of sin to be avoided

St. Augustine undertakes to clarify the notion of sin in terms of turning: It is an inordination by which one turns from the creator toward inferior, created things.16 There is a sense in which this formulation is correct, but it also is likely to lead to misunderstandings.

The formulation is correct in the sense that sin does violate the law of God in the ways indicated in question C. One who sins settles for a possibility marked out by nonrational desire; the sinful choice is not in line with consistent openness to integral fulfillment in Jesus. Moreover, a well-instructed Christian who is tempted to commit a sin is acutely aware that the immoral choice also means accepting a violation, more or less serious, of friendship with God. In choosing between the object of one’s wrong desire and the morally upright alternative to it, one therefore can be said to be choosing between a certain created, quite transitory good and the goodness of God, whose friendship one freely violates.

But Augustine’s formulation is likely to lead to misunderstandings because of the particular theological framework in which he worked—a kind of Neoplatonism.17 As will be explained (in 34‑A), Augustine did not sufficiently appreciate the inherent importance of created goods and of human life in this world. He tended to think of the human soul as if it were naturally oriented to the divine as to its only adequate fulfillment. Thus, for him the human person about to choose stands between the infinite goodness and beauty of God, on the one side, and the very limited beauty and defective goodness of creatures, on the other. Sin consists in turning from God toward the creature—a turning so hard to understand that it can only appear either insane or utterly perverse.18

In our day-to-day experience, sin is by no means so dramatic. A woman whose husband has abandoned her must choose between lonely faithfulness to him and a new chance at happiness, in the form of an appealing man who wishes to marry her. A businessman must choose between losing his investment and using methods of competition which he considers fraudulent. Even Thomas More’s choice was between pleasing the king with the empty gesture of an oath and giving his life to avoid perjury. In none of these cases would one who does not share Augustine’s metaphysics be inclined to formulate the issue as whether to turn from God to a created good.

Augustine refined his formulation by contrasting the two loves: “Two loves, therefore, have made two cities. There is an earthly city made by the love of self even to the point of contempt for God, and a heavenly city made by the love of God even to the point of contempt for self” (FEF 1763). Here, again, the formula has a sound sense. To sin is to violate the mind and will of God, and so to express contempt for him; a morally upright life, by contrast, is the fruit of charity, which is divine love. Still, charity does not require contempt for oneself absolutely, but only contempt for one’s sinfulness which separates one from God and from one’s own fulfillment.19

Sinners are not great lovers of themselves; saints who love God perfectly love themselves far more richly than do sinners, for saints seek the finest good for themselves (see S.t., 1–2, q. 29, a. 4; 2–2, q. 25, a. 7). Moreover, not all sin is selfishness. Certainly one can sin by egoism, by lack of sympathy for others, by partiality which prefers oneself and those with whom one is identified to others equally or more deserving of one’s concern (see S.t., 1–2, q. 77, a. 4, ad 4; 2–2, q. 63, a. 1). But one also can sin in many other ways—for example, by a fanatical act of revenge which destroys not only one’s hated enemy but oneself. No doubt, one who chooses such an act seeks a certain self-fulfillment in it, namely, the satisfaction of revenge itself. But such satisfaction cannot be called “selfish” in any ordinary sense of the word.

16. See M. Huftier, “Péché Mortel et Péché Veniel,” in Théologie du Péché, ed. Ph. Delhaye et al. (Tournai: Desclée, 1960), 315.

17. The heavy influence of Neoplatonic philosophy in Augustine’s conception of sin is shown by M. Huftier, Le Tragique de la Condition Chrétienne chez Saint Augustin (Paris: Desclée, 1964), 34–91. For a brief, clear, and very helpful summary of the difference between Augustine’s more Neoplatonic view and Thomas’ view, see Maurice Huftier, “The Nature of Actual Sin,” Theology Digest, 9 (1961), 121–25. In a purely Neoplatonic view, there is no sin, because the human individual is alienated from God simply in coming to be as an individual, and reunited to God by an intellectual knowing rather than conversion of heart. Even in his early work, On the Free Choice of the Will, Augustine clearly recognizes the role of freedom and so affirms the characteristically Christian conception of moral responsibility. But in that work (1, 16; 2, 20) he defines sin as a turning from the immutable to the changeable, from the intelligible to the sensible good, and in this way preserves as much of the Neoplatonic view as he can. This conception of sin makes it hard to understand how anyone is tempted to choose to sin; it also leads to false accounts of the sinfulness of real sins, for example, in the domain of sex. A good deal of what was defective in the classical theology’s account of the evil of sexual sins can be traced to the Neoplatonic element in Augustine: William M. Alexander, “Sex and Philosophy in Augustine,” Augustinian Studies, 5 (1974), 197–208.

18. See Frederick L. Miller, “The Fundamental Option in the Thought of St. Augustine,” Downside Review, 95 (1977), 271–83, esp. 282, where Miller captures the near irrationality of sin in Augustine’s framework: “For a man who participates in the divine intellect through faith to repudiate the order he finds therein (viz. natural law, divine revealed law) is tantamount to an act of deliberate insanity.” But Miller also makes it clear (283) that Augustine is too consistent and faithful a Christian to doubt that every gravely disordered choice against a divine commandment is a mortal sin. Also see the rich and sympathetic account of Augustine’s view of sin by D. J. MacQueen, “Contemptus Dei: St. Augustine on the Disorder of Pride in Society and its Remedies,” Recherches Augustiniennes, 9 (1973), 227–93, esp. 253–56; “Augustine on Superbia: The Historical Background and Sources of His Doctrine,” Mélanges de Science Religieuse, 34 (1977), 193–211; 35 (1978), 78. The basic trouble with Augustine’s Neoplatonism is that it requires one to cease being human in order to become fully human by the possession of God: Robert J. O’Connell, St. Augustine’s Early Theory of Man, A.D. 386–391 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968), 217–18.

19. Augustine himself was aware of the ambiguities of “self-love”: Oliver O’Donovan, The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 93–111. Yet Augustine’s view is shown by the same study (60–92) to be shaped by a transformed Neoplatonism which posits the self initially as a substance midway between God and created goods, between the One and the many.