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A Reminder from Augustine: Sin and the Law

In Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on November 29, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

We do well to remember the consequences visited upon Augustine when, as a teenager, he succumbed to sin and shook a person’s pear tree in order to steal the fallen pears—not because he was hungry or in need, but because he delighted in the sin.  “To shake and rob,” he said, “some of us wanton young fellows went, late one night (having, according to our disgraceful habit, prolonged our games in the streets until then), and carried away great loads, not to eat ourselves, but to fling to the very swine, having only eaten some of them; and to do this pleased us all the more because it was not permitted.”[1]

The mature Augustine, looking back on this event, acknowledged that theft violates and is punished by law—not just human law, he adds, pursuant to the teachings of Jesus, but the law written on men’s hearts.  He relates that he suffered (and suffers) from shame and regret as a result of this sin, and his shame or regret is punishment that humans cannot implement ourselves; it is punishment that we must rely on God to summon forth in our hearts and minds.  “It is foul,” Augustine says of his sin, adding, “I hate to reflect on it.  I hate to look on it.”[2]  One wonders whether human punishment based on human law can ever have the same long-lasting effect as divine punishment for violating the law written on human hearts.

Augustine does suggest that there is a law of man and a law of God and that he violated both; the consequences for violating man’s law would have been different from the consequences of violating God’s law, especially insofar as his punishment may not be of this world, although the Christian believer in the triune God must acknowledge that God’s sovereignty and sovereign law precede and have jurisdiction over all men’s actions, for God does not let anything come to pass that he does not know about or have control over.


[1] St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, edited by J. G. Pilkington (New York: Horace Liveright, 1927), p. 33.

[2] St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, edited by J. G. Pilkington (New York: Horace Liveright, 1927), p. 40.

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