Reviews of

The Transmission of Sin

In Augustine, Early Christianity, Encratite heresy, Hereditary sin, Infant baptism, Isabella Image, Origen, Original Sin, Oxford University Press, Patristics, Pier Franco BEATRICE on December 10, 2013 at 9:00 am


2013.12.22 | Pier Franco Beatrice. The Transmission of Sin: Augustine and the pre-Augustinian sources. Translation by Adam Kamesar. AAR Religions in Translation.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. xii + 299 pages. ISBN: 9780199751419

Review by Isabella Image, Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Many thanks to OUP for providing a review copy.

This recent translation provides English readers with Beatrice’s work on Augustine’s theory of original sin, and in particular the issues of hereditary sin and the implication that babies are condemned if not baptised. His key argument is that hereditary sin — and the associated need for infant baptism — are doctrines arising from heterodox Encratite groups, who are condemned in the East but survive in North Africa and thus come to influence orthodox Christian thought.

This is an excellent work and based on thorough research and scholarship.  However, while it has much to recommend it, there are a number of points which prevent Beatrice’s theory from being entirely complete.  I will proceed by describing the three main sections of the book and add my own qualifications as these arise.

In the first part of the work (comprising four chapters), Beatrice surveys elements of the Pelagian controversy at the beginning of the fifth century.  In particular his focus is on the issue of hereditary sin, vehemently opposed by the Pelagians, and the need for infant baptism to protect babies from eternal condemnation.

Beatrice shows that Augustine was a later entry into the debate, with the first defence of hereditary sin first being taken up by Paulinus of Milan.  This shows that, contrary to the opinion of some scholars (literature review pp. 4-8), Augustine was not inventing his own solution to the problem.  This provides the springboard for the key question of the book, namely to ask whence exactly Augustine derived his theology of hereditary sin and infant culpability.

The second part of the work looks at the immediate sources for Augustine.  Firstly (chapters 5-6) biblical sources for the doctrine are examined, focusing on Job 14.4 (Vulgate: who can make clean that which is conceived from unclean seed?) and Psalm 50.7 (Vulgate: Look, I was conceived in inquities, and my mother conceived me in sin).  Paul’s theology is also examined, and particularly the infamous issue of interpreting Rom. 5.12 (Just as sin entered the world through one man, and through sin death, so death came to all men inasmuch as (or ‘in whom’: in quo) all have sinned…).  Beatrice concludes that Augustine’s notion of hereditary sin is not found in Scripture, and in particular is not true to the thinking of the Apostle Paul. Augustine is thus forcing his doctrine into Scripture (“Augustine – the time has come to state it openly – was in error in trying to attribute to Paul his own views,” p. 123, my emphasis; “the illegitimacy of Augustine’s reading…” p. 126).

This is a little unfair; the doctrine of hereditary sin may not be true to modern understandings of Paul, but Augustine’s exegesis is based on a common catena of texts that has been used by a suite of Fathers before him (from all of Scripture, not just Paul).  Augustine’s primary aim is to base everything on Scripture and the received church tradition for interpreting it.

Indeed, this is exactly what Beatrice shows in the second part of the book.  Beatrice goes on to examine the influence of Augustine’s key forbears, Ambrosiaster, Ambrose and Cyprian.   He demonstrates that each of these does indeed have some notion of hereditary sin and the need for infants to be cleansed.  At the same time, however, he shows that every one of these Latin fathers is ambivalent about the consequences, especially regarding the damnation of infants, and steps back from a full-blown doctrine of hereditary culpability imputed to babies.  This is different from the Greek fathers, who share a concept of nature vitiated by the Fall but no hereditary culpability.

In fact, other scholars do see ambiguity regarding hereditary culpability in the Eastern fathers (e.g. Gregory of Nyssa) and Beatrice himself points to contary evidence in Origen, Didymus the Blind, Isidore of Pelusium, and Hesychius of Jerusalem.  As a generalisation, however, his observation is shared by other scholars.

In the final and most important part of the book (chapters 10-14) Beatrice traces the doctrine of hereditary guilt to its origins in the Encratite heresy, particularly in North Africa.

Encratites rejected sexual relations and procreation and preach abstinence, fasting and asceticism (Beatrice links these with the Messalians, pp. 199-206).  Beatrice’s key thesis is that the doctrine of original sin arose within this group, with the following stages: (1) the Encratite heresy arose, mainly in the Greek East, rejecting human physicality; (2) they consequently implied that the physical body was tainted by sin even from birth, hence the need for infant baptism; (3) in North Africa particularly, this ‘impregnated’ Christian orthodoxy (p. 237) and thereby spread into the whole Western church.

Beatrice predicates his theory almost entirely on one text from Clement of Alexandria who berates heretics with Encratite leanings for suggesting that babies have sinned (Stromateis 3.100.4-7); on the whole, Beatrice’s other evidence comes from later centuries.  But in fact, all other early evidence for infant baptism suggests an orthodox environment (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, the Apostolic Tradition).  Even those who mention Christian ambivalence as to doctrinal implications did not in themselves condemn the practice (Tertullian, Origen).   It seems more probable, then, that the evolution was as follows: (1) Christian groups (both orthodox and heretic) gradually developed the practice of infant baptism; (2) for some, this practice came to imply infant sinfulness.

In other words, Beatrice is suggesting theology led to church practice but the inverse could equally be possible.

Although the Encratite heresy originated in the East, Beatrice suggests that it was in North Africa that it ‘impregnated’ orthodox Christianity (incidentally earlier scholars such as N.P. Williams also suggest that original sin is an ‘African’ doctrine).  Beatrice points to evidence in Tertullian and Cyprian, and also to the fact that Augustine’s supporters were mainly in North Africa whereas Romans (and Easterners) were more circumspect.  For example, he states that in Rome the popes Innocent and (particularly) Zosimus attempt to compromise between the two warring parties and it is only under imperial pressure that Zosimus is persuaded to give support to Augustine’s cause.

It is certainly fair to locate Augustine’s main support base in Africa.  Nevertheless, to defend his theory Beatrice should have explained why Augustine found such support elsewhere, not only in Rome, but from other provinces such as Gaul, and even from the Emperor himself.

Beatrice is not wrong to point to the Encratite heresy; but this should be seen as just one of a number of influences on the (Western) Christian doctrine of original sin. For example, Beatrice sees that Origen’s theology of sin is much like Augustine’s, but is maybe a little quick in denying a link from Origen to Augustine; he prefers to see both as drawing on a common heretical source (pp. 180-1).

The text is extremely easy to read in Kamesar’s first-rate translation of the 1978 Italian original.  Overall, this book is well researched and provides a good overview of various aspects of the doctrine of original sin before Augustine, including scriptural critique, analysis of early church fathers, and clear assessment of modern scholarship.

Review by Isabella Image
Harris Manchester College
University of Oxford
isabella.image [ at ]


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