- The Transmission of Sin: Augustine and the Pre-Augustinian Sources by Pier Franco Beatrice
This book is a translation of Tradux Peccati: Alle fonti della dottrina agostiniana del peccato originale (Milan, 1978). The author collaborated significantly in the translation, making minor revisions and a few bibliographical additions to the English edition. Since the reception of the Italian edition was quite mixed, it would have been helpful to have a new state of the question from the author, who says that he remains convinced of the main theses but does not provide an explanation for that conviction.
The book is divided into three sections, seeking to discover the source of St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. Pier Franco Beatrice agrees that Augustine was defending a widely-held doctrine, but he locates the Augustinian expression of that doctrine in relation to the popular piety of North Africa, which retained elements of Encratism. Thus the first section of the book describes Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, and the second section discusses the biblical and patristic texts on which, it is said, that doctrine is based. In the third section, the author explores the thesis that the real basis for Augustine’s doctrine can be traced back to Judeo-Christian Encratism—as if it could be seen as a definable movement in the West.
The question of the transmission of original sin is certainly circumscribed by the polemical atmosphere within which it developed. That means that some effort is needed to see beyond the terms of the debate between Julian of Eclanum and Augustine on marriage and concupiscence. In fact, the sharp distinctions that are drawn in this book may be the clearest signs of how it was necessary to simplify the issues. Augustine, for example, was never able to decide on a theory for the origin of the soul, a fact that has to be part of any understanding of the transmission of original sin. Hence, the fact that this book does not deal with what Augustine says that he does not know makes its thesis less helpful than it might first appear.
There is also a methodological issue that needs to be noted. The author defines Augustine’s understanding of the doctrine of original sin at the beginning and then asks whether St. Paul’s writings did, in fact, affirm that doctrine. That way of proceeding seems to make the answer a foregone conclusion. [End Page 105]
Also, an extended discussion of Romans 5:12—the text that was used to typify his thinking by other authorities after his death—seems to pay more attention to how Augustine’s doctrine was received than it does with the fullness of his thought on this matter. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, in fact, was based more on chapters 7 and 9 of the letter to the Romans and on 1 Corinthians 15 than on Romans 5:12. A 1963 study by Stanislas Lyonnet—cited in the bibliography—makes that very point; it should have been more fully represented in the discussion of Paul’s thought. In that context, it may not be all that surprising that the scriptures are not given the primary role in the formation of Augustine’s idea of transmission of original sin (chapter 6).
When first published, this book stimulated the conversation about the transmission of original sin in a good way. But it would have been very helpful to see how the conversation about the transmission of original sin and infant baptism has developed in the thirty-five intervening years—a task to which this book has unfortunately not contributed.