Evolution and the Sin in Eden
A New Christian Synthesis

Chapter 14: Pre-Augustine Fathers. Tertullian's Traducianism

For Tertullian (155-c.220), a professional lawyer from Carthage in Africa, the concepts of Irenaeus about original sin were vague, therefore unsatisfactory. Irenaeus had conceived that Adam, in some mystic sense, included all his descendants in his act of committing original sin. Tertullian sniffed at mystic meanings. This lawyer had a passion for precise expressions, and pioneered much of our theological terminology. He was less fortunate, however, in the invention of the theory of "Traducianism" by which novelty he sought to explain how Adam's descendants shared in Adam's sin by existing in his loins.

He stated (erroneously) that Adam generated not only the bodies of his posterity but also their souls. We were all in Adam when he sinned, so asserted Tertullian, because his soul is the father of all souls of subsequent offspring. Such is the sense of his "ita omnis anima eo usque in Adam censetur donec in Christo recenseatur" (De Anima, 40; see F.R. Tennant 330). "Thus every soul is considered to be in Adam until it is considered anew to be in Christ."

Tertullian, always blunt in his writings and usually highly charged with anger, gave to the Church a treasure of theological terminology by which the Roman Church could define dogmas sharply and avoid pitfalls of ambiguity which dogged the Eastern Church and sometimes tore her apart. For this he deserves praise. But not for his doctrine of Traducianism.

Patience was not Tertullian's strong point. When he wrote about patience he confessed that he felt like an invalid talking about health, himself always sick with the fever of impatience. "Forever a fighter, he knew no relenting towards his enemies, whether pagans, Jews, heretics, or later on, Catholics. All his writings are polemic" (Quasten II,247). He was forever an advocate, out to win his case, to annihilate his adversaries. Eventually he left the Church and joined the Montanists (see Quasten II, 248).

The theory of Traducianism that parents beget the souls of their children as well as their bodies was never accepted by the Church. In a sense the theory would make the souls we receive at conception "second hand" souls, already used by our parents and their parents in turn, back through the generations until Adam. One thinks of inheriting vices and spiritual deficits along family lines, such as lying, cheating and gambling.

The truth is quite otherwise. God creates each human soul directly and immediately, by His own hand. We are all new creatures, sparkling and newly minted by God, not hand-me-downs from past generations. Parents present the gametes with their genetic patterns. When these fuse at fertilization, God, if He so wills, creates a new person. The spiritual substance of the soul animates the building blocks of matter to build a body for itself. The building blocks of matter are themselves interchangeable. But when the soul grabs them and engulfs them into its life force, they form the bricks, so to speak, of our body. The soul then shapes the body by following the blue prints written into the genes. The parents present the bricks as building material, but God creates the soul from nothing as a new creature who will now live for all eternity.

Looking past Tertullian's mistaken notion that the souls of parents generate the souls of their children, we greet him as the original articulator of the Church's basic and durable doctrine that all mankind inherits original sin through descent from Adam. He taught correctly that every person born into this world enters with a sinful condition of soul, being spiritually defiled. His sharp mind perceived this to be a cardinal part of the faith. Based on this belief, the Church baptizes infants, following a tradition which goes back to the time of the apostles.

Tertullian's theory that parents generate the souls as well as the bodies of their children, was a belief held at the time by Stoic philosophers. Applying this mistaken notion to the doctrine of original sin, Tertullian thought the devil had corrupted Adam's soul. Adam, in turn, generated corrupted souls in his descendants. In the words of Tertullian:

Every soul, then, by reason of its birth, has its nature in Adam until it is born again in Christ; moreover it is unclean all the while that it remains without this regeneration (Baptism); and because unclean, it is actively sinful, and suffuses even the flesh with its own shame (De Anima, 40).

The inference is that the soul of every person born divides off the continuous line of life connected with Adam; this defiled soul in turn contaminates the body which it receives. It was the Devil who corrupted Adam in the first place and all his descendants states Tertullian elsewhere:

Through Satan, the corrupter of the whole world, man was at the beginning beguiled into breaking the commandment of God; on that account he was given over to death, and he [Adam] thenceforth made the whole race, infected with his seed, transmitters also of his condemnation (De Test. Animae, 3).

This contamination infused into the soul by the devil is a kind of second nature, a corrupted nature living together with the natural soul which retains its goodness, so thought Tertullian:

There is, then, besides the evil which supervenes on the soul from the intervention of the evil spirit, an antecedent and in a certain sense, natural, evil which arises from its corrupt origin (ex originis vitio). For, as we have said before, the corruption of our nature is another nature (naturae corruptio alia natura est) having a god and father of its own, namely the author of that corruption. Still there is a portion of good in the soul, of that original, divine and genuine good, which is its proper nature. For that which is derived from God is rather obscured than extinguished (De Anima, 41; for the above quotations see Tennant, 234-5).

The "Traducian" scaffolding for the doctrine is rejected by the Church today (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No.366). Long ago Lactantius had condemned this error as follows:

A body may be produced from a body, since something is contributed from both; but a soul cannot be produced from souls, because nothing can depart from a slight and incomprehensible subject. Therefore the manner of the production of souls belongs entirely to God alone...For nothing but what is mortal can be generated from mortals... From this it is evident that souls are not given by parents, but by one and the same God and Father of all, who alone has the law and method of their birth, since He alone produces them (De opif. 19, 1 ff; see Quasten II,408-9).

St. Ambrose (340-397) repudiated Traducianism; so did St. Jerome (c.342-420) who grumped that this error excluded Tertullian from being a "man of the Church." With such clear opposition from the big powers, Traducianism was excluded from gaining a niche in accepted Church doctrine.

Traducianism nevertheless shaded subsequent theology with a view that original sin is a positive evil substance or quality planted into the soul. The theory assumed wrongly that original sin is a taint on the soul, a positive defect, a palpable evil. As will be explained immediately, we should not think of original sin as a blotch on the soul, but as a deficit of grace which ought to be there but is not. Augustine could not make up his mind to clearly reject Traducianism. For him it was useful to explain his concept of the guilt of original sin. He associated its guilt with concupiscence, especially the sexual drive (J. Tixeront, History of Dogmas, II, 472). He named the pleasure of sexual intercourse as the "disease of lust" (e.g. City of God 14:24).

Even in Thomas the idea lingers that parents, in the act of generation, provide a corrupted mode to the body which then corrupts the soul at the time of animation (Cf. Summa Theologica, III,31,5). Sexual intercourse becomes, in this concept, an action whereby parents beget a corrupted child. This concept reflected badly on conjugal intercourse itself. Thomas thought that the sexual drive must be in some manner infected by the corrupt product which it delivers: "Now the corruption of original sin is transmitted by the act of generation... Therefore the powers which concur in this act are chiefly said to be infected" (ST I-II,83,4).

Tertullian's strong language, which pictures the devil as having exceedingly corrupted the human soul and human nature, appears to have spooked the minds of theologians thoroughly, even after they discarded his Traducianism. We are not finished with that turbid concept in theological texts even today. Once a mistaken idea gets into the literature, as we know so well, it tends to perpetuate itself. Subsequent correction in the fine print does not dislodge an entrenched error easily.

The association of sexual intercourse in marriage with the transmission of a positive evil might have been avoided, had original sin been viewed not as a stain on the soul, a positive corruption, but as the absence of a perfection which ought to be there. We recognize it as a deprivation of grace, an absence of the gift of supernatural life which the person ought to have. Parents who beget children cooperate with God in giving them the greatest blessing they can give: life. They do their children a double favor when they quickly remedy their original deprivation of sanctifying grace by promptly bringing them to the baptismal font. There is no excuse today for perpetuating the false concept of Tertullian that sexual intercourse begets a tainted child and that conjugal union in the marital state is therefore somehow associated with evil.

Origen: Pre-Existence of Souls

Origen (185-253) was blessed with a father who educated his eldest son carefully in the Scriptures. This same father gave him the good example, in the year 202, of laying down his life in martyrdom as a witness to the faith. The young Origen was also blessed with a wise and resourceful mother: when her son burned with zeal to run out and join his father in martyrdom, she hid his clothes so that he could not leave the house (Quasten II, 37).

A year later, in 203, Bishop Demetrius put the young Origen in charge of the famous School of Alexandria. He proved to be an intellectual giant, a prodigy with an encyclopedic mind. He also drew to his school capable students who then greatly influenced the intellectual currents of the Church. Fortunately he had a wealthy patron, Ambrose, who helped him to bring into shape and produce a prodigious amount of writings - perhaps 6000 treatises (Epiphanius; see Quasten II, 43). Church historian Eusebius tells how he did it at the urging of a great benefactor, Ambrose:

It was at this period that Origen started work on his Commentaries on Holy Scripture, at the urgent request of Ambrose, who not only exerted verbal pressure and every kind of persuasion, but supplied him in abundance with everything needful. Shorthand-writers more than seven in number were available when he dictated, relieving each other regularly, and at least as many copyists, as well as girls trained in penmanship, all of them provided most generously with everything needful at Ambrose's expense (Eusebius, His. eccl. 6,23,1-2).

For twenty eight years (203-231) he presided at the School of Alexandria as an intellectual and formative leader in the Church. Unfortunately, influenced by the philosophy of Plato, he theorized that souls are fallen celestial spirits who are re-incarnated. In a former life they offended God. God then punished them by banishing them from the celestial sphere. He cast them down to earth and imprisoned them into human bodies for purification and restoration. Each of us born into this world takes along the baggage of a history of a former sinful life. Each has abused the free will in a previous existence. This, his earlier theory, he developed in his De Principiis, I,5,6,7 (see Tennant 297). The sins these souls committed in their previous life limits the amount of grace they receive in the present life:

Whence some are found from the very commencement of their lives to be of more active intellect, others again of a slower habit of mind, and some are born wholly obtuse, and altogether incapable of instruction (De Princ. II,9,3-4).

Is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names), is introduced into a body and is introduced according to its deserts and former actions? (Contra Cels. 1,32; see Quasten II,91-92).

In later writings, however, Origen theorized that the entrance of the pre-existing soul into a body which is somehow evil constitutes its original sin (In Levit., VIII,3; In Lucam, hom. XIV; P.G., XIII,1834; Contra Cels., VII,50, see J. Tixerant, I, 270). If he implies by this that the bodies were stained by evil because they were descended from Adam who had sinned, he approaches a more satisfactory explanation of original sin, but he did not put the elements together.

Origen modified his views when he moved to Palestinian Caesarea after getting into trouble with Bishop Demetrius in Alexandria. In his new home he came into contact with the practice of infant Baptism. From that time he frequently refers in his writings to a "stain of sin" attached to every human being at birth, needing to be washed away by Baptism. The Jewish ceremony of purification, together with Psalm 51 "in sin my mother conceived me" appears to have influenced his thinking. He gives witness to an Apostolic Tradition about infant Baptism: "For this the Church received a tradition from the Apostles, to baptize even infants" (Com. in Rom 5; see Tennant 300).

Athanasius: "Adam Returned to Natural Condition"

St. Athanasius (c.297-373), the orthodox hammer of heretics, became the Bishop of Alexandria a century after Origen had left it. His life-long battle was against Arianism. A champion of tradition rather than a pathfinder, he nevertheless developed considerably the doctrine of original sin.

He did not qualify original sin as the cause of a corruption of nature itself, and of our natural faculties. Rather, he saw original sin as the reason why we lapsed back into the natural state, down from an initial higher state which had exceeded our natural constitution (De Incar. 4; see Tennant 311). Man was initially created in an extraordinary fashion as an image of the Word in such manner that the knowledge of his own eternity was imprinted on his soul. Man's duty in the initial paradise was to foster and nurture that knowledge by remembering God continually. By so doing he would preserve in himself that image which was the grace and virtue of the Word. He was to lead in paradise a happy and immortal life in familiar consort with His Creator. The soul in this state was pure and free from disturbance by the senses. It could contemplate the Word and in the Word behold the Father Himself. This way of life enraptured man initially and nourished his love (Contra gentes 2,8; Or. de incarn., 3; see Tixerant I,137). This concept of a very knowledgeable Adam will be embellished later by Ambrose and Augustine, who will dress him up as a near-celestial being, a superman.

By his sin, continues Athanasius, Adam fell from this initial state and was reduced to what he has naturally. He lost his one-time gifts of integrity and of bodily immortality (Or. de. incar. 3,4). In his soul he remained intelligent and immortal, but his knowledge of God dimmed. He also yielded by degrees to sensual pleasures. Jesus Christ can reestablish in man the divine likeness and thus restore to him the knowledge of God (Contra gentes, 8).

During the controversy against the Arians St. Athanasius articulated a clear distinction between the act by which God creates us, and the act by which He adopts us as His sons. By creation God gives us our nature, by adoption He establishes us in grace. Our adoption as sons results from the fact that we are the abode of the Word and of the Holy Spirit (C. Arianos, II,58,59; III,10; see Tixerant I,138).

After the first sin of Adam, continued Athanasius, those who were born into this already established sinful condition made sinners of themselves in turn. Mankind thus brought evil upon itself through sinning beyond measure. Death began with that first sin, and "corruption thenceforward prevailed against them, gaining even more than its natural power over the whole race" until his misdeeds "passed beyond all measure" (De Incar. 5; see Tennant, 312).

Cyril of Jerusalem: "The Will Remains Free"

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386), always more of a catechist than a theological innovator, alludes to the results of Adam's sin almost parenthetically without developing the concept. This probably indicates that he holds and teaches what was then commonly accepted among his colleagues in the Eastern Church. Adam's Fall had the universal consequence that all men must die. From this death Christ will rescue us through His Resurrection: "If the first man formed out of the earth brought in universal death, shall not He who formed him out of the earth bring in everlasting life, being Himself life?" (Cat. 13,2; see Tennant, 315). Like Irenaeus, Cyril envisions Christ already associating with Adam before the Fall.

The death which Adam's sin brought upon us deprives us of the spiritual life which is from God: "We have been seduced and are lost; is there any chance of salvation? We have fallen... We have been blinded... We have been crippled... In a word, we are dead" (Cat. 12,6; see Tennant, 315). Nevertheless he insists that our free will is free indeed and unimpaired, and the devil cannot take this from us (Cat. 4,21).

The Two Gregories of Cappadocia

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), whose father was St. Gregory the Elder, whose mother was St. Nonna, was born before his father became the Bishop of Nazianzus. His parents observed celibacy after the father's ordination, in accordance with the tradition. The younger Gregory reared in this family had more talent as an orator than administrator. He is characterized by Tixerant as "a man of a somewhat weak and inconstant character and a thinker of little originality, but the most eloquent of all theologians, who knows how to explain luminously, for the benefit of the weakest intelligences, the loftiest mysteries of faith" (II,7). The Greek language flowed from his pen and tongue with a classic beauty, power, elegance, and eloquence, which none of the Fathers have rivaled. He became known as the "Christian Demosthenes."

This Gregory stated trenchantly that "Adam closed heaven, as he had closed (the garden of) paradise, to all his descendants" (In Psalm 118,4,2). The sin of Adam is also "our sin" and is therefore in us (Orat. 19,3; see Tennant, 318). But we are not at all totally depraved, and our wills remain free. Christ, though an offspring of Adam, was not begotten by a human father, and therefore by-passed the route by which offspring inherit original sin from their parents.

Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-c.395), "was neither an out-standing administrator and monastic legislator like Basil, nor an attractive preacher and poet like Gregory of Nazianzus. But as a speculative theologian and mystic he is certainly the most gifted of the three great Cappadocians" (Quasten, Patrology III, 254). Brushing aside the claim of Origen that human souls pre-existed in another world before they were imprisoned into human bodies on this earth, he had Adam and Eve begin their existence on this earth. But he then made the paradise of Adam and Eve into an exotic world, essentially different from the one we know. Origen had claimed that members of our present human race had previously tasted a heaven-like life in another and higher world. Gregory doesn't avert to a former life, but holds that paradise itself was a place and condition where our first parents once lived almost like the angels.

The sin of our first parents brought death into the world, made man to be mortal, and subjected him to the downward pull of concupiscence, said Gregory of Nyssa, a forerunner now to Augustine. Our whole nature was weakened, he added for good measure, and our understanding was darkened when sin entered this angelic paradise (De orat. domin. 4; see Tennant, 323). Had our first parents not sinned, they would have lived much as the angels, not marrying nor being married, nor generating offspring. They would have multiplied after the manner of the angels (De Hom. Opif. cc.16,17; Tennant 320). (This supposition was never adopted by the Church.)

To partake of Adam's nature by descent is to participate also in his post-sin condition, and in his Fall. This inborn sin is removed by Baptism (Orat. Cat. c. 35; Tennant, 322). Gregory thereby asserts that death which is now natural to us, and concupiscence, and a hereditary moral taint on the soul, are consequences of original sin. We inherit all this from Adam. The stage is now set for further elaboration of these concepts by the great mind of St. Augustine.

Next Page: Chapter 15: The genius of Saint Augustine
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