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  • Original Sin according to John Duns Scotus
  • Ernesto Dezza OFM (bio)

This article is intended to offer a textual and evaluative presentation of the theory of original sin as elaborated by the Franciscan master John Duns Scotus († 1308), the “Subtle Doctor.”

While there are many studies and articles about Scotus’ ethics, few are devoted to what is considered the root of evil human behavior, and hardly any analyze the text of the Subtle Doctor in any sufficient depth.1 Perhaps because this topic belongs more strictly to theology, it is seldom considered in depth by philosophers. On the other hand, since Catholic theology after Vatican II has virtually narrowed its treatment of medieval topics and figures to all but Thomas Aquinas, it is rare to find any theologians interested in other medieval theories of original sin.

Yet, the way Duns Scotus presents the doctrine of original sin, namely, by showing the limitations of the Augustinian tradition, offers interesting contributions to the debate on this topic which is far from resolved in contemporary theology.2 Furthermore, philosophers interested in Scotus’ [End Page 111] thought would do well to analyze his theory on original sin, since the way he considers the human being is always predominantly theological. Studying anthropology or ethics in the Middle Ages without examining its theological scope is limited and one-sided.

Before all considerations are examined, it is important to clarify the terms used in this topic. According to the Bible, our first parents participated in a sin of disobedience to God (see Gen. 3), which is called “the Fall” (casus) or “Adam’s sin” (peccatum Adae) by medieval theologians. When using the expression ‘original sin’ (peccatum originale), medieval theologians signified the consequences of Adam’s sin, that is, Adam’s sin in us.3 Catholic theology after the Council of Trent uses the expression peccatum originale originans to denote the sin of Adam, because it is the cause of the origin of our own sinful condition, and the expression peccatum originale originatum to denote the effect of that sin in us, thus showing a strong correlation between cause and effect. Nevertheless, I will follow the usage of medieval theologians and avoid the last two expressions.

So, in the following paragraphs we will see, in a step-by-step manner, Scotus’ exposition on original sin as read in his first classroom teaching on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the Lectura.4

1. Presentation of the Problem

The topic is presented by Scotus in four questions throughout distinctions 30–32 of the second book of his commentary on the Sentences, which constitute a unique little treatise about original sin.5

In the first question, Scotus asks whether everyone who is naturally descended from Adam contracts original sin. There are five arguments [End Page 112] against this: two from Augustine, one from Julian of Eclanum, one from Aristotle, and the last one derived from reason.6 The core of these arguments is that sin presupposes a personal responsibility and that human nature cannot be considered guilty in itself because of an action performed by Adam. On the other hand, we know from Scripture that “through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

The second question is whether original sin is formally a lack of original justice.7 Four arguments8 arise against this explanation, because it does not seem that original sin and original justice must be considered as simply contrary to each other: e.g. an evil angel did not have original justice, yet he has not contracted original sin.9 Furthermore, while original sin seems related to some corporeal transmission in generation, justice belongs to the will, and the will is completely separable from the body (voluntas non est organica).10 In the argument to the contrary, however, it seems that original sin is nothing but a lack of original justice, because that sin is not an act of concupiscence (which belongs naturally to the sensitive power),11 yet is a mortal sin because it keeps us out of communion with God. It is not a type of ignorance, because babies are just...


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