Monday, July 27

Views on Evil: Augustinian Theodicy

The problem of evil has a long and intricate history. The phrase itself, “problem of evil,” implies that evil actually exists and has a specific definition, and that whatever this “evil” is defined as, it is evidently “problem” that needs to be solved. In the late 4th and early 5th centuries, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Christian philosopher and Theologian, wrote extensively on this “problem of evil,” and shaped much of Christian philosophical and theological views on evil – continuing even today. St. Augustine seems to address the “problem of evil” in a way that combined theology with philosophy, which also increased Hellenistic influence on Christian thought due to his background in Neo-Platonism. St. Augustine utilized this Neo-Platonism to bring this concept of “evil” into a metaphysical framework.

St. Augustine is known to have gone through several phases of his philosophical and theological development. At one point in his life, he felt that the Catholic concepts that his mother Monica tried to instill in him were not quite sufficient. If Christianity taught that God created everything and was inherently good, then where did evil arise from? He did not see a sufficient reason to accept this Christian doctrine, so he fell into Manichaeism. This system provided a more Gnostic interpretation of reality; the notion that there exists a good god and an evil god, that dark and light are entirely separate. In short, it put forth a very dualistic mentality. This also had a profound impact on Augustine’s ontology – his idea of being.

After a series of events, however, Augustine left Manichaeism – he found his answer in the aforementioned Neo-Platonism. It was this that led to an Augustinian Theodicy. We can begin to find his views propounded in the Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, although certainly his ideas can also be found in other works such as The City of God or his Confessions. The Enchiridion was written toward the end of his life, around AD 420, as a handbook given by request to a friend. In this handbook, Augustine sees evil as a perversion of good – or privation of good. If evil is a perversion of good, this means that even those things which are evil also have good in them. Following this, Augustine discusses angelic nature, as for him, Lucifer (Satan) began his existence as a good angel. However, in his pride, Lucifer ended up perverting what was good in him and became what was evil.

According to St. Augustine’s literal interpretation of the Genesis 3 narrative, the fall of Lucifer from grace led to his possession of (or disguise of) a serpent in the Garden of Eden (according to Revelation 12:9, 21:2, Satan is identified as the serpent). As Lucifer had been the guardian of Eden (interpretation of Ezekiel 28:12-17), he knew the garden well. He used this to tempt Adam and Eve to fall to sin, thereby corrupting all of the Creator's perfect creation. This, Augustine argues, is the beginning of Original Sin. As a result, when Adam and Eve’s first children Cain and Abel were born, they already had Original Sin. This doctrine of Original Sin informs all of Augustine’s Theodicy. His reasoning behind Original Sin, in modern terminology, is that each of us were in the body of Adam when he committed this first sin, and therefore were fallen with him. Sin is therefore passed down genetically, so to speak – a concept also seemingly implicitly found in Hebrews 7.

Another vastly important concept within Augustinian Theodicy is the concept of the Will.
Augustine believed that an Evil Will existed so that sin itself, as a result of Origin Sin, comes about as a result of a lack of a healthy and good will, but possibly due to a temptation to do wrong. His concept of the Will, however, ran deeper than this. He wrote that God willed the universe into existence – hence the Greek concept of the Logos used by Philo of Alexandria as well as the Johannine texts. Unlike the Greeks, however, Augustine felt that this Reason was not primary, but Will, or in other words, Reason follows the Will, the Will does not follow Reason. He also taught that the Will is free, hence, free will. St. Augustine’s Neo-Platonic thinking becomes clearer at this point. Plotinus, a Neo-Platonist oft-read by Augustine, taught that evil was a privation of good, as noted, so that natural disasters, for example, are a result of the material world, which is corrupted by sin.

Bearing all of this in mind, how did these various Neo-Platonic ideas influence and inform Augustine’s literal reading of the Genesis narrative? According to the first two chapters, the divine being created everything perfect, or “very good.” God placed man in a garden, and proceeded to also make woman – Adam and Eve. He instructed them not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the third chapter of Genesis, a conniving serpent (not identified, but as noted earlier, later interpreted to be Satan) encourages Eve – who subsequently encourages Adam – to eat of the forbidden fruit. At this moment, according to Augustine, mankind corrupts all of God’s perfect creation, and Sin enters the world. This Original Sin of Adam and Eve also sees them being cursed by God and cast out of Eden, primarily to keep them from eating from the Tree of Life, so that they do not live in an eternal state of sin and corruption.

Within his theological and philosophical views, St. Augustine’s Theodicy can be dissected into two major parts: that of Original Sin and that of the Will. Later philosophers and theologians both worked off of these concepts and criticized these concepts. The Genesis narrative certainly had a major role in the formation of Augustinian Theodicy, though other texts such as the book of Job also played a part. Controversy even within the time of Augustine caused him to refine and clarify his views, such as an individual named Pelagius, who felt that the concept of Original Sin was too harsh, and too unrealistic. Although the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon condemned the views of Pelagius as heresy, he placed more of an emphasis on Free Will, and felt that we were not bound by Adam’s sin, but if bound by sin at all, we would be bound by our own. Further, as we each have our own free will, we have the ability to make different choices, and choose not to sin. Despite the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius, many today may be described as Semi-Pelagians. The concept of Original Sin does not sit well with many theologians and philosophers, particularly as many do not see the Genesis account as literal, though others do. For this reason, Augustine’s Theodicy will continue to have an impact on philosophy and theology, though disagreement will always continue.

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