Anselm on Original Sin
[Anselm-c. 1033-21 April 1109-is one of the most influential theologians/philosophers in the history of the Church.]
Anselm’s definition of key terms
- Original [or Natural] Sin: A state of injustice contracted in one’s origin due to the corruption of human nature.
- Personal Sin: Injustice committed by an individual subsequent to his or her origin.
- Justice: “The rectitude of the will preserved for its own sake.”
Discussion of above definitions
An understanding of “rectitude” is obviously foundational to Anselm’s definition of justice. Alister McGrath, in Iustitia Dei, examines Anselm’s meaning of “rectitude” and concludes that this term refers to “the basic God-given ordering of the universe.” Taking this meaning of “rectitude,” “justice” is understood as “a state in which the will is in accordance with the basic God-given ordering of the universe for the sake of maintaining this order.” Anselm writes “for its own sake,” which I have translated, “for the sake of maintaining this order,” to make the point that choosing the right thing for the sake of something else– for example, due to legal compulsion or due to a desire for the admiration of others– is not in accord with a proper definition of “justice.” When Anselm writes “preserved for its own sake”– the sake of the rectitude– I believe he would agree that ultimately “the rectitude of the will” is to be preserved for the glory of God.
In accordance with the above discussion, Original [or Natural] Sin as defined by Anselm may be understood as “a state contracted in one’s origin due to the corruption of human nature in which the will is in discord with the basic God-given ordering of the universe.” Personal Sin may then be understood as “an act of the will contrary to the basic God-given ordering of the universe committed by an individual subsequent to his or her origin.”
Anselm understands Original Sin as a debt against God. This debt must be paid, and the payment of this debt applied to the account of an individual, if the individual is to be saved.
A question addressed by Anselm: Are the sins of ancestors subsequent to our original parents also passed on to their offspring ‘to the third and fourth generation’?
Anselm argues that the sins of ancestors are not added to the debt of Original Sin and are not passed on to ancestors after the manner of Original Sin. Adam is seen as unique as being able to pass on his justice or injustice (as defined above) to his offspring. Just as subsequent ancestors cannot pass on their righteousness to their offspring, they cannot pass on their sin to their offspring. Due to the Fall, humans originate in a state of injustice. Subsequent acts of sin on the part of ancestors, springing from this state of injustice earn condemnation for those ancestors alone and cannot add to this original deprived state.
My question: Does Adam's sin nature, inherited by each individual from the moment of conception (Psalm 51:5) necessitate that every individual [Christ excepting] is under God's condemnation for Adam's sin from the moment of conception?
Anselm’s answer to this question is surprising. Anselm teaches that Adam’s sin nature inherited by each individual [Christ excepting] necessitates that each individual is under God’s condemnation from his or her origin. Unusually, Anselm does not believe that the origin of an individual person is found at the moment of conception. Anselm writes:
It is against the common human conviction, however, that an infant has a rational soul right from the moment of its conception. For it would follow that every time a human seed that has been conceived perishes before it attains to a human figure– even right after the instant of conception– a human soul is lost with it, because it is not reconciled through Christ. But that is simply absurd. This alternative, therefore, ought to be relinquished entirely.
Apparently, from what he writes subsequent to the above paragraph, Anselm holds to an idea of “quickening”– that the infant becomes an individual human life at some point after conception but prior to birth. If I am reading Anselm correctly, then this idea of “quickening” does not truly address Anselm’s concern because individuals could still die in the womb and thus be eternally lost (again, taking Anselm’s perspective), as they would have had no chance to be baptized (Anselm, like Augustine, believes that baptism washes away Original Sin). As it stands, Anselm’s ideas concerning individual human origin would be more consistent if it was argued that an individual human soul originates after one is born; then, taking Anselm’s understanding of baptism, his concern about infant salvation would be better addressed. One problem with Anselm’s idea of “quickening” is that it provides the basis for an argument for abortion (if the argument is adapted according to my suggestion, in order to make it more consistent, then an even more serious problem is raised in that infanticide would not be considered murder), though I suspect Anselm would argue that abortion was somehow contrary to the natural order established by God.
An even more serious problem with Anselm’s idea of “quickening” (and the basis for why I think abortion is such a serious issue) is that the Bible presents individual human life as beginning at the moment of conception. Anselm acknowledges that this appears to be the case in passages such as Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (KJV). While this verse would make it appear that one was “in sin” from conception, Anselm asserts that the Bible often speaks of things that will surely happen as if they had already come to pass. In this regard, he refers to Genesis 2:17b, “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (KJV), and notes that Adam did not die on the day he ate of the forbidden fruit. I would counter this by noting that Adam did die spiritually at that time, that all his descendants are described as being naturally dead in trespasses and sins (see Eph 2:1), that verses such as Psalm 51:5 lead to the conclusion that this spiritual death takes place at conception, and that there is no reason to assume that Psalm 51:5 teaches otherwise unless one takes the presupposition that individual personhood cannot begin at conception. Anselm takes this presupposition, but in no way proves it from Scripture.
Labels: Reformation Theology