Thomas Aquinas on Original Sin

Thomas Aquinas was an Italian friar, a Catholic priest, and the Doctor of the Church in the 13th century. He was one of the best theologians in Western Europe in the Medieval Ages. His work titled Summa Theologiae highlighted the accomplishment of theology of the period. A lot of his teachings, especially sacraments and grace, are controversial, but on original sin, it is good. His answer to Question 82, Prima Secundæ Partis (First Part of the Second Part), Summa Theologiae, concerning the original sin, is summarized.

Question 1: Is original sin a habit?

According to Aquinas, original sin is a habit.

He explained that habit is two-fold. The first kind of habit is one’s inclination to act, like our framework of knowledge or worldview (“science”) and virtues are habits. Original sin, as a lack of original righteousness, is not a habit in this sense. The second kind is “the disposition of a complex nature.” Original sins, as the lack of original justice, means the souls have been spiritually corrupted, and being impossible not to sin. This impossibility not to sin is the disposition of the corrupted souls, and from this point of view, original sin is a habit. This answered the Objection 1 he listed.

It is true that with the definition of the first kind, evil habits have to be acquired through a wicked act. It contradicts that the original sin is not something we acquire. However, using the definition of the second kind of habit, we are inborn with evil habits because of the original sins. Aquinas thus disputed the Objection 3.

Then Aquinas discussed about the Objection 2 regarding the original sin and the actual sin. While an actual sin is an act beyond a permissible limit, the original sin is basically a disposition, passed on from Adam and Eve, to perform an actual sin. Even if one is asleep, he is regarded as being sinful, unlike what the Objection 2 claims.

Question 2: Are there several original sins in one man? How does Aquinas defend himself?

According to Aquinas, there is only one, instead of many, original sin in one man.

Aquinas cited from John 1:29, where John the Baptist said, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The “sin” here refers to the original sin, and it is clearly singular, not plural. Objection 1 quoted a verse in Psalm: “Behold I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother conceive me.” But these sins are actual sins like pride, disobedience etc., instead of the original sin. He thus disputed Objection 1.

Aquinas explained it with the cause and essence of it. The cause of the original sin is the first sin committed by Adam and Eve, and the sinful state was then passed on to us. Therefore, there is only one original sin. For the essence of it, the original sin refers to the disposition of a corrupted human nature. This disposition is numerically one. He illustrated with the sickness analogy: the original sin is like the cause of of the sickness, and various symptoms like the various actual sins. In this way, he disputed Objection 2, because the various sins in one man stem from one original sin; and he also replied to Objection 3, because it is this numerically one original sin infects different parts of the soul, which does not make this original sin to be plural.

Question 3: Is original sin the same thing as concupiscence?

According to Aquinas, the original sin is materially concupiscence, but formally the lack of original justice. Given that the original sin is the lack of original justice, man is no longer submitting to the will of God, but pursue the cause of things other than God, or “mutable good” according to him. This desire for other things other than God is concupiscence, or spiritual lust. This makes the original sin materially concupiscence. From the context, Aquinas’ concupiscence is not limited to inappropriate sexual desires.

Objection 1 argued that concupiscence is natural to man so that it cannot be of the original sin which is contrary to the human nature. But Aquinas stated that the act of concupiscence is beyond the permissible boundary, as in the corrupted human nature, and thus it is of the original sin.

Objection 2 argued that the sins are of a wide diversity besides concupiscence, but Aquinas added that these sins stem all from concupiscence, the pursuit of things other than God. The original sin, as the misplaced passion because of the lack of original justice, is therefore concupiscence.

Aquinas argued in a previous question (Question 77) that man is motivated by a strong passion instead of intellect. The corrupted nature of human being made man pursue inappropriate passion, even though his intellect should not have led him to. Original sin is thus concupiscence, although it comprises of ignorance. Hence, he disputed Objection 3.

Question 4: Is original sin equally in all of us?

According to Aquinas, original sin is equally in all of us.

Aquinas explained that as the original sin is simply the lack of original justice, there is no degree of it, as it is just the entire righteousness was removed. In addition, since all of our original sin is equally related to the sin of Adam and Eve, it is evident that no one’s original sin is greater than the other. This disputed Objection 1, which argued acts of concupiscence can be of various degrees, that this concupiscence is not something of continuous degree, but simply the lack of righteousness (a value of a binary variable). It similarly disputed Objection 2, because as in the sickness analogy, while the severity of the sickness is continuous, the cause of sickness is one.

Objection 3 cited Augustine’s quote: “lust transmits the original sin to the child.” And this lust, believably sexual in nature, is of various degrees, implying that the original sin is not equal in all of us. However, Aquinas disputed this objection that the original sin is transmitted to children even without lust.

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Knowing the Law and the Lawgiver: John Lennox speaking on “Science and God”

It is such an excitement that Dr. John Lennox came in town to speak about “Science and God” at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD, organized by C. S. Lewis Institute. Dr. Lennox is a professor at University of Oxford, United Kingdom. He is a pure mathematician and a philosopher. He is also a Christian apologist, responding to attacks on Christianity posed by other atheists, including Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, and Stephen Hawking. Dr. Lennox is a clear thinker.

Scientists are not necessarily atheists and naturalists, although a majority of them are. Dr. Lennox rightly pointed out that what divides scientists regarding the issue is not science, but worldview. As a body of knowledge and a philosophical method, science can be nicely fit into both the frameworks of naturalism and theism. While some prominent scientists made statements to support naturalism, their statements are not necessarily scientific.

Being a scientist, hence, science and God are not mutually exclusive. In Dr. Lennox’s line of thought, scientists are given two choices: naturalism and theism. But he pointed out that when modern science started in Western Europe, people’s worldview were definitely theistic. Sir Isaac Newton was a theist. But after a few hundred years, scientists have turned to atheism and naturalism. Stephen Hawking, who also studies gravity like Newton, is an atheist. Not to mention the philosophical development in Western Europe, some people unfortunately turn from theism to atheism because of the church. However, given the two choices, Dr. Lennox still chooses theism because, as he cited C. S. Lewis:

“Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.” — C. S. Lewis, Miracles

A passion about science is a passion about the law of nature, given by a supernatural lawgiver. A curiosity about the nature should lead to that about the One who imparted laws into it.

He also insightfully pointed out that scientists turned to atheism because of the false ideas of God, or a wrong/incomplete doctrine of God, such as a materialistic god (but God is a spirit), or an ancient god that has a jurisdiction (such as those gods in Greek mythologies). A lot of scientists forsake God because they do not appreciate the doctrine of God, that He is both transcendent and immanent, and He is triune.

On the other hand, people misunderstand the nature of science. Science is just finding a general description over something, but not to explain something. In fact, science explains nothing. Dr. Lennox cited Bertrand Russell who asserted the connection of the meaningfulness of things to its verifiability. He teased Russell’s idea of scientism as “scientific fundamentalism.”

Dr. Lennox spent some time talking about the reductionism in science. A lot of materialists and naturalists believe that they can reach the truth of the world through successive reductionism. He ridiculed reductionism as a means to a fundamental description, with an example of image recognition of our brain. He illustrated that recognizing a character with two strokes cannot be satisfactorily reduced to the meaning of the character with any existing theories. (But of course, nowadays, computer scientists can train models with neural network or deep learning algorithms that perform the recognition.) I submitted a question that Dr. Lennox didn’t reply at all: reductionism is not the only dominant approach in physics nowadays. Statistical description of various levels of science are meaningful if they are scientifically tested as well. Philip Anderson discussed a lot about it in his famous article in Science titled “More Is Different.” [Anderson, 1972] However, these statistical scientists are still atheists. How does he want to tackle with these ideas? I am not sure if John Polkinghorne said something about it as well.

He lastly mentioned about the creation of the Universe. Christians believe that God’s creation is ex nihilo, i.e., out of nothing. [Bavinck, 2003] Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas proved the existence of God with the cosmological argument. The naturalists tried to escape the cosmological argument by redefining the word “nothing.” They said that “nothing” is the “absence of something.” The law of gravity said that the Universe is created out of a quantum fluctuations, which implies there is something physical outside the Universe, which implies that there is something eternal other than God. We know all this is speculation if one has to look for an alternative description other than theism, instead of doing science. They want to do physics instead of metaphysics. This framework of knowledge is fascinating in some sense, but, as Dr. Lennox said, it does not take away pain and suffering (as a lot of atheists aim at while suppressing religions); instead, it takes away hope.

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