Scot McKnight writes:
Behind the Reformation is Augustine; behind much of modern evangelicalism, especially in the Reformed circles today, is the Reformation. Therefore, at the bottom of the evangelical movement in the Reformed circles is Augustine and his anthropology.
And behind Augustine’s anthropology (understanding of humanity), which is outlined in Scot’s post, is a simple misunderstanding of one word in the Bible, a preposition consisting of just two letters. Scot is writing about the New Perspective on Paul, an interesting issue. But my point here is not about that, but about how a misleading Bible translation has led Christian theology seriously astray for 1600 years.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a great thinker and church leader. As a young man he had left his Christian background and become a Manichaean, a follower of an anti-Christian dualistic religion; eventually he came back to the Christian faith. But he was not a great linguist. He could speak and understand well only his native Latin, not Greek. And so for his understanding of the Bible he had to rely on translations into Latin.
Doug Chaplin has recently explained how in Romans 5:12
Augustine took Paul’s phrase “ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον” following the Vulgate “in quo omnes peccaverunt” to be “in whom [Adam] all sinned”.
(The Greek can be transliterated ef’ ho pantes hemarton.) Well, Augustine didn’t actually use the Vulgate, which was being translated during his lifetime, but the sometimes not very accurate Old Latin translations. But his Latin version seems to have been similar to the Vulgate here. Doug continues:
the Augustinian interpretation of Paul’s “ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον” as meaning “in whom all sinned” makes it the most disastrous preposition in history. All modern translations agree that its proper meaning is “because.”
More precisely, “the most disastrous preposition” is ἐφ᾽ ef’, a contracted form of epi meaning “on”. The Greek phrase ἐφ᾽ ᾧ ef’ ho literally means “on which”, or possibly “on whom”, but is commonly used to mean “because”, or perhaps “in that”. The problem is that the Latin rendering of ἐφ᾽ ᾧ, in quo, is ambiguous between “in which” and “in whom” (I’m not sure if it can also mean simply “because” or “in that”), and Augustine understood it as meaning “in whom”, i.e. “in Adam”.
So, according to Augustine all sinned “in Adam”, which he understood as meaning that because Adam sinned every other human being, each of his descendants, is counted as a sinner. This is his doctrine of “original sin”, that every human is born a sinner and deserves death because of it. He may have taken up this idea because it agreed with his former Manichaean theology. This teaching is fundamental to most Protestant as well as Roman Catholic teaching today. For example, it underlies the Protestant (not just Calvinist) teaching of total depravity, that the unsaved person can do nothing good, a teaching for which there is little biblical basis apart from Augustine’s misunderstanding which was followed by Calvin.
Augustine was indeed right to oppose the teaching (or alleged teaching) of the British or Irish teacher Pelagius, that humans are intrinsically good and can make themselves acceptable to God by good works. But Augustine’s view of the matter takes things too far in the opposite direction, further than can be justified by the biblical text.
For the far more likely meaning of the Greek text of Romans 5:12 is that all are counted as sinners because each person individually has sinned. On this view there is perhaps some kind of tendency to sin passed down from Adam to others, but there is no actual guilt. This is consistent with the Old Testament teaching of Ezekiel in which
The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.
Ezekiel 18:20 (TNIV)
Of course this verse also undermines the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. This post is not about that, but there is certainly a close link between the Augustinian doctrine of original sin and the various ideas of the atonement. A corrected anthropology without Augustine’s kind of original sin is likely to require a corrected understanding of the atonement.
But my real point here is the need to be very careful before basing any kind of doctrine on a translation of the Bible. It is almost impossible for a translation to be precise and unambiguous in its rendering of little words like prepositions. Augustine’s Latin translation was not really inaccurate, it was just excessively literal and introduced an ambiguity which wasn’t in the original, like many translations into English and other languages today. Sadly, too many exegetes and preachers today base their teaching on similar misunderstandings of inadequate translations, and don’t bother to learn the original languages. Not many of their mistakes will still be remembered 1600 years later, but there are serious consequences for leading just one person astray by wrong teaching.