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Let’s blame it on St. Augustine

By Karen Garst ~

Karen Armstrong is a well-known and respected historical author regarding the Bible and early Christian traditions. I find her work easy to read and quite fascinating. I am going to build this essay on one of the more striking points in her analysis – the doctrine of original sin and St. Augustine’s role in it contained in her book The Bible. One could say that there would be no Christianity without the prophet Jesus, whether he was a real person (most would say probably) or mostly myth (his character shows a lot of similarity to other mythical persons). Assuming Jesus was a real person, early Christianity could still have died out as many other mystery religions did. However, there were key people that made a significant contribution to the continuation of Christianity and the form we see it in today. Obviously, the role of Constantine in decriminalizing Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 (The Edit of Milan) was crucial. However, Constantine didn’t have as much influence on the doctrines that the church espoused and some are not even clear which vein of Christianity he adopted. Doctrine was left up to the bishops and, of course, eventually to the popes. One of the major contributors to church doctrine was Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, who later came to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint.

Augustine was born in 352 CE in Thagaste, Numidia (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) although throughout his life he lived in Rome, Milan and other cities of the Roman Empire. He died in 430 CE at the age of 75. He played a crucial role in interpreting tradition and biblical writings in his works - The City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and Confessions. While I have read snippets of some of these, I never was able to read an entire work of his – my stomach would turn every time he mentioned something about women. It is interesting that he was not celibate his entire life. His mother arranged a marriage for him, but that meant he had to give up his concubine. He describes this loss as follows:

My mistress being torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, my heart, which clave to her, was racked, and wounded, and bleeding.

He converted to Christianity in 386 at the ripe age of 34 and eventually became bishop of Hippo Regius (now Annaba), in Algeria. Many of his sermons, along with books and other writings, have been preserved.

The point that Karen Armstrong makes is that the fall of the Roman Empire convinced Augustine that original sin - by Adam and Eve – had damned the world. This guilt of original sin was transmitted to Adam’s descendants through the sexual act.

It must have been devastating for Augustine to witness the fall of Rome. How could one of the greatest civilizations with immense power and reach fall to infidel vandals? It must have been similar to the take-over of Judah by the Babylonians in 568 BCE. I have written before about the impact the Babylonian myths had on the Jews. They thought – how could we have lost? We believe in Yahweh and he is all powerful. The exiles, mostly priests, scribes, etc. that were taken to Babylon for about four decades, learned that their conqueror had a male god, Marduk. This solidified their belief in a male monotheism. St. Augustine probably had the same kind of angst. He had spent a great deal of his life promoting and explaining Christianity as the one true faith. Yet his powerful kingdom was literally destroyed.

The belief in original sin is not present in the Jewish interpretation of Genesis. Neither is it a part of Greek Orthodoxy. Yet the interpretation of St. Augustine has shaped the view of Western Christianity, and the church’s view toward women, for over 1600 years.

While some scholars have shown that the notion of original sin probably did not originate with St. Augustine, most agree that he had the most impact on propagating it. After St. Augustine, the doctrine became canonized church doctrine as a result of the II Council of Orange, held in Gaul in 519. While Adam is the person from whom we inherited this original sin, sex was determined to be at the base of it.

Augustine is clear: “The concupiscence of the flesh is indeed blameworthy and defective and is nothing but the desire for sin.” Elsewhere, he also writes of “concupiscence, that is, the sin dwelling in our flesh.” Saying that carnal concupiscence is both sin and worthy of guilt, and the cause of further sin and guilt can summarize Augustine’s view.

Unfortunately, while the transgression in the Garden of Eve involved both Adam and Eve, Eve came to symbolize this sin because she was the one who “tempted” Adam. Obviously, he had no will of his own. As I have written elsewhere, the tableau of this temptation is filled with symbols of the goddess and thus is partly an attempt to put down any notion of a feminine divine. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a 19th century suffragist who wrote The Women’s Bible, sums it up nicely.

Take the snake, the fruit-tree and the woman from the tableau, and we have no fall, nor frowning Judge, no Inferno, no everlasting punishment—hence no need of a Savior. Thus the bottom falls out of the whole Christian theology. Here is the reason why in all the Biblical researches and high criticisms, the scholars never touch the position of women.

St. Augustine’s pronouncements on women are numerous. Here are just a few. And he was not alone. Many other early Christian theologians joined him.

What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the
temptress that we must beware of in any woman. I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.

Woman was merely man's helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God.

So, for example, a husband cannot deliberately stimulate the genital organs of his wife in order to give her sexual pleasure, for such an action is defined within the Catechism as a type of sexual act which is “intrinsically and gravely disordered.

If you think that these views toward women are outdated, just read this recent quote from Courtland Sykes, a 37-year-old military veteran in Missouri, hoping to unseat Senator Claire McCaskill.

“I want to come home to a home cooked dinner at six every night. One that [my fiancée] fixes and one that I expect one day to have my daughters learn to fix after they become traditional homemakers and family wives.” Referring to his daughters, he further clarifies, “I don’t want them to grow up into career obsessed banshees who forgo home life and children and the happiness of family to become nail-biting manophobic hell-bent feminist she devils.”


Karen Garst