Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

February 11, 2015

A.Fruitful.Dialogue

Hans Holbein the Younger, “Adam and Eve” (1517)[1]

One evening in my THEO 6020 Global Christian Heritage 1 class, we were talking about sin.  Or to be more precise, we were talking about St. Augustine’s doctrine of sin.

It is, ahem, a touchy subject.  Augustine is often said to over-identify sin with sexual desire, and Western Christianity is often said to have followed him all too closely on this point, with disastrous consequences to its understanding, both of sin and of sexuality.  There is some truth in that charge, but it is often grossly exaggerated, and I was trying to correct the exaggeration.

Yes, according to his spiritual autobiography, Confessions, Augustine had a powerful sex drive.  And yes, after his conversion to Christianity, he remembered the sexual escapades of his young adulthood with a degree of guilt and shame that we might regard as excessive – particularly since those “escapades” were not nearly as wild as some of his more prurient readers have inferred.  That said, Augustine’s narrative power and psychological insight have made his Confessions one of the most influential books in Western Christian history, and many readers over the years have nodded in rueful agreement with the saint’s anguished prayer: “Lord, grant me chastity and continence – but not yet!”[2]

But after all that, Augustine was not equating sin with sex.  Rather, he was pointing to the fact that prior to his victorious surrender to God’s grace, he found himself unable to tame his natural appetites by sheer will power.  He may have underestimated the goodness of our bodily appetites, thereby subjecting himself to unnecessary and perhaps psychologically unhealthy regret for indulging them.  But his real point is not that our bodily appetites are bad: it is that our unregenerate will is weak – too weak to command our bodily appetites, but also, and more importantly, too weak to tame our innate egotism. And to illustrate that point he tells the famous story of the theft of the pears:

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night – having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was – a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree.  We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves.  Doing this pleased us all the morebecause it was forbidden.[3]

Augustine locates his sin, not in some bodily appetite (in this case, presumably hunger), or in the pleasure he took in satisfying it (or would have taken, if those pears had been any good).  Rather, he locates his sin in the gratification he felt from doing just what he wanted at that moment, from not feeling – or at least not heeding – any obligation to conform his wants to God’s standards of good character or right conduct.  “I was being gratuitously wanton,” he continues, “having no inducement to evil but the evil itself.”  At bottom, sin is not bodily appetite – tamed or untamed.  Rather, sin is self-will – the repudiation of divine sovereignty.  Sometimes, self-will is manifest in a lack of impulse control, i.e., in one’s failure to tame one’s bodily appetites.  That is precisely the point of Augustine’s account of his sex life.  But sometimes self-will is manifest in the self-righteousness that comes from supposing, and from wanting other people to suppose, that one has achieved perfect impulse control and now lives in strict conformity to God’s law.  And that, in turn, is precisely the point of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings, which began to appear about a decade after the publication of Confessions.[4]

Well, all this was the topic of my lecture that evening.  It’s a topic near and dear to me, being one who struggles both with the insurgency of my appetites and with the stubbornness of my will.  And, as I recall the event, I was hamming it up a bit for my class – standing with one foot on a chair, melodramatically holding an imaginary pear aloft for all to “see,” and elaborating at length on Augustine’s haunting idea that we “love [our] error – not that for which [we err], but the error itself.”

Then one of my students – let’s call her Monica – who was seated in the back row, stood up and was holding an actual pear! She had been visiting her mother earlier that day, and her mother’s pear tree was laden with fruit.  This student didn’t steal her mom’s pears, but had permission to harvest some.  And, in contrast to Augustine’s neighbor’s fruit, these looked delicious.  It just so happened that Monica had a couple of pears in her backpack for supper, and by generously offering one to me, she added the perfect prop to my classroom pantomime.  It was a serendipitous teaching moment!  I gave a little shout of joy, took her gift with glee, chomped hungrily into it, and went right on with my lecture, more animatedly than ever.

Then I looked down – and saw the worm.  Or rather, I saw the brown-edged hollow that the worm had left at the pear’s core.  Whether the worm had previously vacated the premises or had just become part of my object lesson is not clear – and I am content not to know.  But the look on my face was, so my students tell me, very memorable.  Then again, the look on theirfaces was memorable, too – especially Monica’s face.  I called a short break.

When I returned from the men’s room, my students were, for once, all in their seats.  What would I say next?  Stimulating students’ curiosity is the secret of good teaching, and I had certainly done that, though not in a way I can take any credit.  And what I said next – after issuing a few playful maledictions upon the hapless (but truly beloved) student who had given me the wormy pear – went something like this:

“We have just experienced a very mild and very amusing illustration of Augustine’s doctrine of sin.  It is mild because there was no malicious intention in Monica’s heart, and there is no resentment in mine.  And it is amusing because my professorial pomp just got unceremoniously circumstanced.  But didn’t we all, as Augustine puts it, “love the error”?  Didn’t we enjoy the classroom mishap, not for the sake of the lesson, but for the sake of the mishap itself?  When I ate the pear, all of us, like Adam and Eve, ate the forbidden fruit, not because it was “good for food and a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6, cf. 2:9), but precisely because it was forbidden?”


[1] Web Gallery of Art, http://www.wga.hu/index1.html, accessed August 28, 2014.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, VII.vii.17, translated by Albert C. Outler (1955). James J. O’Donnell, “Augustine: Texts and Translations,”http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/augustine/conf.pdf, accessed August 28, 2014.

[3] Confessions, II.iv.9, ibid; emphasis added.

[4] Likewise, this was at the heart of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees (Matt. 23), and of Paul’s criticism of the so-called “Judaizers” (Gal. 2-4).

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