Sunday, June 17, 2012

Paula Fredriksen's "Sin: The Early History of an Idea"

Paula Fredriksen is Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita, Boston University, and Distinguished Visiting Professor in the department of comparative religion at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She has written extensively on the social and intellectual history of ancient Christianity and on relations between pagans, Jews and Christians in Mediterranean antiquity. Sin: The Early History of an Idea came into her life via an invitation from Princeton University to give three public lectures on the topic. Here’s what she has to say about page 99 of Sin:
Sin has a lot of moving parts. It features seven ancient figures, some of whom have instant name recognition (Jesus, Paul, Augustine) and some of whom do not (Valentinus, Marcion, Justin, Origen). Jesus and Paul were both Jews whose ideas about sin related in positive and creative ways to the sacrificial cult of Jerusalem’s temple. Marcion, Valentinus and Justin, all gentiles, shaped subsequent centuries of Christian doctrine by arguing about how to read Jewish scriptures (which by 300 CE will become the ‘Old Testament’ for some churches), how to identify the god of the Jewish Bible (is he the father of Christ, or someone else?), how to understand evil, and, thus, how to understand sin. Origen and Augustine, finally, were two towering geniuses of the early church. Dealing with the same scriptural and doctrinal points of principle, they each framed huge, complex, and contrasting theologies. Not only do their ideas of sin contrast dramatically: so too do their ideas about the universe, about humanity, and about God.

Page 99 introduces these last two men, and sets up these contrasts. According to Origen, all would be saved; according to Augustine, most were damned. According to Origen, since God is just, he gave humanity free will so that a person could choose whether or not to sin. According to Augustine, since God is just, he condemned all humanity to a broken will as part of the price of Original Sin. According to Origen, even Satan will at last be redeemed; according to Augustine, even babies, if unbaptized, go to hell.

Augustine is one of history’s winners. His views prevailed. In their secular refraction, they continue to affect even American public policy: According to Augustine, since sex is a sinful act, its only morally admissible function is procreation. Any other use of sex other than for procreation – as the expression of affection, say – is to be condemned. The current struggles over whether U.S. government funds can or should be used to provide Americans with access to contraception is an early 21st-century spin-off of Augustine’s early fifth-century arguments on the nature of sin.
Learn more about Sin: The Early History of an Idea at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue