City of God, Book 14: Sin and God’s Purposes (or Sex without Lust)

Book Fourteen was interesting, awkward, and incredible.

Augustine reminds the reader that God created mankind from one man for a reason (he could have created millions of humans on Day Six, but he didn’t). In part, this was so “the human race should not merely be united in a society by natural likeness, but should also be bound together by a kind of tie of kinship to form a harmonious unity, linked together by the bond of peace.” Instead, our first parent’s sin was “so heinous” that man’s nature was changed and the inevitability of death and bondage became “the legacy handed down to their posterity.” The grip of sin and death was so strong, that mankind would have plunged headlong into the second death had God rescued some by his undeserved grace.

From here, the Doctor begins an investigation regarding the use of the term “flesh” in Scripture, striving to dispel the notion that bodies are bad and to clarify why “living according to the flesh” is bad. Augustine concludes though we are weighed down by the corruption of our flesh, our corporeal nature is not the root of our sin, but our soul’s are to blame for corrupting our flesh (the complete opposite of what many had claimed in Augustine’s day). The corruption of our bodies was not the cause of sin, but the punishment for it, and the Devil, the worst of all sinners, has no flesh, so flesh can’t be the culprit. It is not possessing flesh that makes us like the devil, but by living according to “the rule of self.”

Living by the “rule of self,” or the standard of man, is equivalent to living by “the standard of falsehood,” for “falsehood consists in not living in the way for which he was created.” We have the will to be be happy, and every sin promises to make us happy. Yet, sin lies; it is falsehood. “We commit sin to promote our welfare, and it results instead in our misfortune.”

The brokenness of our wills effects our emotions too. Where the will is rightly directed, the emotions will be blameless and praiseworthy, but where the will is wrongly directed, the emotions will be wrong too. Even emotions we assume are always good (like love) or always wrong (like hatred) are only right or wrong dependent on the will. A person whose will is aligned with God will love the good, hate the evil; in fact, we have a duty to “perfect hatred.” The righteous should, according to Augustine, “not hate the person because of the fault, nor should he love the fault because of the person. He should hate the fault, but love the man.”

In the next section, Augustine wrestles with the different meanings of the word love, especially focused on John 21. However, here, Augustine’s limited knowledge of Greek shows, for his exposition is of the Latin words caritas, diligis, and amor, not the biblical Greek. He also examines the Stoic teaching that wise men maintain will not desire, gladness not joy, and caution not fear (with no reference to grief). Augustine finds this picture of the wise man flawed and out of step with the biblical pattern of wisdom. “The citizens of the Holy City of God,” writes Augustine, “as they live by God’s standards in the pilgrimage of this present life, find fear and desire, pain and gladness in conformity with the holy Scriptures and sound doctrine; and because their love is right, all these feelings are right in them.” However, these emotions belong to this life, and are not always properly subject to our wills – we sometimes weep when we do not want to, etc. Apathy, or impassibility, is a good state that we should hope for in which there is “no fear to terrify, no pain to torment.” It does not belong to this life, however, but to the bliss of everlasting life to come.

Augustine turns to contemplate the life, the emotional life, of our first parents. It is here where I would depart from Augustine on a few points. He wonders if we could really consider their existence to have been blissful if they were still subject to pain or fear. He rejects the idea that they desired to eat of the forbidden tree but didn’t for fear of punishment, as the desire to disobey would have been sin in and of itself. In that, he is correct, but God does warn them of the consequences, seeming to add fear as a motive for obedience. And, were Adam to stub his toe, should we assume he wouldn’t have felt pain? I am not as confident in my answer as Augustine seems to be.

Augustine contends, rightly, that Adam and Eve would have reproduced in much the same way we do today, even had sin not entered into the picture. Otherwise, sin would have been necessary to fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply”. This discussion is picked up again later, but the author diverts to discuss the first moment of sin. The first sin wasn’t eating the forbidden fruit, but in willing evil. “This evil came first, in secret, and the result was the other evil, which was committed in the open.” He writes, “The will itself was, as it were, the evil tree which bore evil fruit.” The man, given free will, inclined his will to evil. Now, the freedom of the will “has been lost, through its own fault, and can be restored only by him who had the power to give it at the beginning.”

The first sin of Adam was worse by far than the first sin of Eve. Eve was deceived/seduced, words used to describe “those who do not think that what they do is sin.” But Adam knew better and rebelled, choosing fidelity to his earthly companion over fidelity to his Creator. Worse still, according to Augustine, was the search for an excuse rather than immediate repentance. In his excuse making, Adam impugns God’s goodness and the goodness of his creation – “the woman YOU gave me.” In choosing to assert his independence, he became a slave – a slave to sin and death. This was God’s just punishment.

Augustine then returns to the discussion of reproduction in a prelapsarian Garden and the possibility of intercourse without lust. He believes that, as reproduction is the [only] reason for intercourse, man would have reproduced by and act of will without lusts. Now, here is where I disagree with Augustine. Certainly, I agree that Adam wouldn’t have lusted, as lust is a sin. But, Augustine seems to connect lust with pleasure, especially physical pleasure. Reproduction would have been simply an act of the will, much like deciding to pick apples. When Adam and Eve sinned, they realized they were naked and were ashamed. They were ashamed because of the “insubordination of their flesh.” Augustine belabors the point that of all of our physical members, our sexual organs do not obey our will. This is why fornication, and even the legal act of sex between a husband and wife, is done in private, away from the gaze of others.

Augustine rejects the belief of some who contend procreation would not have happened in the Garden had Adam and Even not fallen. Of this position he writes, “[those who believe procreation would not have happened] are asserting, in effect, that man’s sin was necessary to complete the number of the saints…we must believe instead that even if no one had sinned there would have come into being a number of saints sufficient to complete the muster of that Blessed City.” Being fruitful and multiplying would have happened without sin, without lust, as man and woman’s sexual organs responded to the command of their wills.

Augustine moves on to discuss the impossibility of true happiness in this life. I found this section very helpful. While it may appear that unbelievers are happy in this life, all still live under the cloud of death, their continuation in life being wholly out of their control. This makes true happiness impossible. He concludes, “Life will only be truly happy when it is eternal” and not lived under the shadow of impending death.

The end of this book was a fantastic reminder that “the perversity of sinners does not disturb God’s providential design.” Augustine asserts, “the actions of sinners, whether angels or men, cannot obstruct the ‘great works of God, carefully designed to fulfill all his decisions'” (Psalm 111:2). He continues, “For the fact is that man had been so designed that if he had trusted in God’s help as a good human being he would have overcome the evil angels, whereas if in pride and self pleasing he deserted God, his creator and helper, he would be overcome. Thus he would win a good reward with a rightly directed will that was divinely helped, but an evil retribution with a perverted will that deserted God.” Contra Open Theists, Augustine teaches “God was perfectly certain that man would be defeated, but he foresaw with equal certainty that this same Devil was to be overcome by the man’s seed, helped by God’s own grace, to the greater glory of the saints.” This divine foreknowledge of man’s sin does not equate to God compelling man to sin.

While I find Augustine’s views of sex a bit out of step with reality (God’s design as revealed in his word, including the Song of Solomon, etc), this Book is an incredible exploration of sin, the will, and God’s purposes.