Let me return to one of my drumbeat issues: sin.  Augustine’s fifth century debate with Pelagius had much to do with defining sin as moral privation (Latin “privatio”): an absence of righteousness in human conduct.  Let me offer a snapshot of what Augustine was saying and then invite comments from readers.

The problem of evil troubled Augustine when he was new to his faith.  Earlier he had joined the Manicheans and adopted their answer that a perpetual dualism of good and evil exists—the “good and bad side of the Force” as later offered in Star War movies—but he abandoned it as inadequate.  To have a true good there could never be an equal and eternal quality of evil—rather evil must be seen as a lesser, parasitic reality. 

But what troubled Augustine was the idea that evil has any sense of genuine “reality” at all in a creation that the ultimate and only-good-God had created as good.  How could evil even exist in a universe shaped and ruled by God?  The answer, Augustine concluded, lay in the Aristotelian concept of privation: of something losing a quality of its proper being.  Augustine saw that this could account for evil existing as a distortion of whatever God made for good.  So that evil is not some sort of defect in God’s work of creation but a twisting of what is good so that the goodness is removed.  God made the cosmos to be vulnerable to the eruption of evil while not creating that evil.

Privatio can be seen in the function of eating: it is good to have food, but eating can be removed from its creation purpose in cases of gluttony, bulimia, or anorexia.  The same is true of human sexuality: it was meant for good in the creation of Adam and Eve and for all subsequent marriages.  But in being removed from that creation context it becomes an “ungood”.

The next question: why, then, did God allow a vulnerability to exist in the creation, especially when he knew beforehand that evil would erupt as a result? The common answer is that he allowed his highest creatures—men and angels—to enjoy a free will as relational beings; and not to live as automatons.

That’s a serious near miss.  As the Augustinian thinker, Jonathan Edwards, pointed out—in his ironically titled Freedom of the Will—there is no such thing as a free will.  What God gave us is a free heart—with all our choices (setting up the so-called “will”) always ruled by our dominant affections.  So, as Luther held, our real battle is always an affection-fighting-another-affection with the strongest affection always winning—whether it is our love of security, of honor, of wealth, or an appetite for sensual pleasures.  Our desires rule us so that we always do what we want to do.

The basis for this is that in making us in his own triune relational image—as one who “is love”—God made us to enjoy love while never coercing us to receive or reciprocate his love.  He won’t force himself upon us; rather we respond to his beauty.  And apart from him we never discover what we were made for nor do we share in his own eternal life that consists in mutual love.

Augustine then pointed to Adam as the original source of sin so that sin now rules all humanity: all are now “in Adam” and dead towards God until a new birth by his Spirit.  This is offered to all but is received only by some. 

With spiritual death came the many polarities of the Bible narratives: God’s goodness is taken over by moral privatio; evil is called good; folly displaces wisdom; darkness is preferred to light; the Truth is dismissed for the Lie; hope is replaced by anxiety; and death is loved rather than life.  Privatio is the realm of the ruler of darkness whose kingdom is the polar opposite to God’s kingdom in every detail.

Pelagius, however, countered Augustine’s use of privatio by noting that the lack-of-something is not able to be transmitted.  In other words an illness can be passed along if a virus is at fault; but if someone simply lacks a strong immune system, that lack isn’t passed along to others.  Hence, each person is like a “new” Adam able to make their own moral choice: to become either righteous or unrighteous before God.

Augustine answered by pointing to the ultimate expression of privatio that accounts for every lesser sinful behavior: the loss of God’s presence.  With that loss the human soul is still energetic in its love but that love no longer has its proper focus: God.  So the natural energy of love now curves back onto ourselves in what Augustine called concupiscence—or self-love.  It expresses itself, to use a modern analogy, as an active malignancy in every human soul until God himself recaptures the heart by wooing us to himself in Christ.

The solution to sin?  Respond to Christ’s love and then offer that love to others.  By this love all men will know that we belong to him. Without it we continue to embrace privatio.

7 Responses to Privatio

  1. Rick February 8, 2011 at 12:15 am #

    Ron, As usual thanks for the stimulating post. Although I was wondering if God has to do more than just ‘woo’ us to Himself in Christ? Doesn’t He have to make us new creatures in Christ Jesus, so that we will desire Him – similar to being raised from the dead or being born again? Not sure that we would ever choose to receive Him apart from Him first changing us from within. As I read the following verse it seems that it is a creative act that is initiated by God and will occur in the hearts of those to whom He speaks it to – the creation didn’t have a choice – it came into existence because God spoke it into existence. Why some and why not others? Not sure that we will ever know the answer – I think a true mystery. 2 Cor. 4:6 (ESV) For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

  2. Ron Frost February 9, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    Thanks for the question, Rick. And sorry to be slow in getting back to you as I pack for my trip to the UK!

    The matter of how Christ works in regeneration is linked to how sin caused death in Adam, isn’t it? If the death is a loss of communion with the God who is Life itself, then the work of regeneration is a restoration of that broken relation. It’s with that in view that I’ve written the present post: that evil came about through our self-love; of our hearts turning away from God’s love. Thus disaffection and rebellion replaced affection and response. How, then, does God “draw” us back to himself? By his love. A love so captivating that it, alone, can overcome the gravity of human self-love. That’s his work of wooing. He pours that love out in our hearts and captures us; but he doesn’t force himself on us.

    I see all this in John’s gospel. God’s love is offered to all in John 3:16, but humanity loves darkness rather than light. Yet in anyone who responds and bears fruit, “his deeds have been carried out in God” (3:21). This work of God is in his “drawing” us to himself (6:44). What does that look like in practice? Consider the woman at the well who responded to Christ’s loving initiative, against all societal odds. Yet she fit the model of election in this sense: the one who is forgiven much loves much; or the one who realizes he is blind is the one who responds to the offer of sight. Others who don’t recognize their death-in-disaffection are finally given over to their self-love. E.g. the Bible teachers and theologians in John 5 who didn’t have any love for God despite his offer of love to them as expressed in Christ’s coming.

  3. Rick February 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Ron – thanks for the response and hope you have a wonderful and fruitful time in the UK.
    I agree with much of what you describe above. I think I understand regeneration as God, not necessarily ‘forcing Himself on us’, but rather actually changing us (i.e. born of the Spirit, making us alive, raising us from the dead, giving us a heart of flesh, making us a new creature), and because we are changed from within and given a new nature, we are able and will respond to His love for us. Our response is subsequent to His initiative in changing us. I don’t see it as Him ‘wooing’ us and then we either respond or don’t respond; and if we respond, then we are changed (not sure that you are saying this). The reason some ‘don’t recognize their death-in-disaffection’ is because for some reason God has chosen not to change them from within – that in my opinion is the question of mystery. But even the mysteries of God will serve His ultimate end of Him being glorified and the good of those who love Him.

  4. Matthew Weston February 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Rick: I see God’s “wooing” us as a more relational way of talking about the Word coming to us that God uses to regenerate us. In other words, it’s not one or the other but both; God pouring his love into our cold, unregenerate hearts so that our hearts are gripped by his love (or made new, you could say). Something like that. I’m not speaking for Ron here though.

  5. Ron Frost February 12, 2011 at 6:09 pm #

    Thanks, Matthew: well said. I’ve just arrived in the UK this morning and I see you’ve made the key point already.

    With sin viewed as a dismissed relationship, our restoration is also relational: based in the Christ’s love drawing us by his Spirit. So it’s not a “what” (i.e. an ontological repair of the heart that enables relationship) but the “who” of Christ coming to us and awakening a response of love in us despite our disaffection. This is a new heart.

  6. Rick February 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    Does Christ come to all and ‘awaken a response’ in some but not others (if we are using the term ‘awaken’ that is how I would view it)? I wholeheartedly agree that regeneration cannot be divorced from the Person and work of Christ (the Who), but I do think we are both discussing the ‘what’ (you are framing it in terms such as ‘awakening’ which I see in Scripture and I am using terms such as born of the Spirit, making us alive, raising us from the dead, giving us a heart of flesh, making us a new creature – which I also see in Scripture). Both are referring to the What. Unless I’m not understanding correctly.

  7. Ron February 24, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    I suppose we can speak of the “who” and “what” as in the subject and object distinctions in a sentence, but isn’t the real point you’re pressing the matter raised already when you wrote: “for some reason God has chosen not to change them from within”. The point, as I take it, is that the life and death issue is like an “on and off” switch that only God can switch.

    Thus my response is that I take the “Life” that comes and transforms the heart from death to life is the Person of Christ, presented to us by the Spirit. And his wooing presence can be ignored and finally dismissed (hence the ultimate expression of sin). In classical theology this would be considered a human capacity of “resistibility” but we’re framing it in the heart/affections here and not in the classic-theology notion of the self-moved will.

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