Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, March 10, 2005

On the (Comparatively) Mildness of the Human Fault 

Paul writes below of my (Augustine's) claim that universalists' exclusion of angels from salvation is logically inconsistent:

Well, the Universalist will argue that this makes the point all too nicely. To whom much is given much is expected, so that the Angels have been held to a standard not attainable by man in his fallen state (emphasis added).

There is a bit going on here which requires addressing. The argument relayed (held?) by Paul is a commonly recited one, that the fault committed by the fallen angels is a greater fault committedy by men, the latter as corporately represented by our first parents. Several reasons might be advanced in support of this: (1) the angels, as supreme intellects possessed with a transcendent degree of perspicuity, had already tasted the full Glory against which they rebelled, and hence, could not hope for pardon on the grounds of ignorance; (2) the angels were not tempted, as men were, and hence have no other proximate cause upon which to blame their fall; (3) the angels, being outside of the normal flow of time, are not subject to the normal occasions for repentance, since it is inconceivable that time would bring psychological regret, if angels were even capable of that.

These arguments are very traditional and all that; though they received Milton-esque embellishment in the early modern period they are not without patristic or Medieval foundation. I would not contest them. They provide a more than adequate foundation to justify the impossibility of angelic restoration, which (as I have shown below) is dogmatically impermissible.

But to turn these arguments around as a means of minimizing human fault - now that is a quite modern turn. To argue that, because the angelic rebellion was so much worse than the human, and its instigators so much more worthy of punishment, humans - by comparison - ought to be let off the hook... Well, let's just say the whole picture begins to smack of scales-of-justice legalism, an importation of human standards of judgment onto the divine plane.

In the turning of his will away from his Maker, in bowing the knee before the creation to spite its Creator, in seeking a divinity of his own apart from that graciously offered by the Father, to repudiate a share in divine life in an empty pursuit of egoism and ill-gotten gain, man emptied his own soul of righteousness, and hardened his own heart against his Maker. We are not talking about a legal crime and an externally-imposed penalty (which might afterwards be lightened), but a self-imposed alienation from an interpersonal communion in divine life. Augustine is famous for saying 'God created man without his assent, but He will not save him without it.' Origen, too, was always insistent that sin 'carries its own punishment', that sin IS its own punishment. To see the punishment as applied ambivalently, or equivocally, or even applied externally at all, is to miss the point. Sin is our willful self-imposed separation from God. Its punishment is willful self-imposed separation from God. Once we see sin in this light, the question of whether God will 'modify' it begins to sound a bit silly.

Before getting carried away, let me simply summarize by saying that, if all men are saved, it will certainly not be because of a divine rethinking of what punishment fits what crime, of a Judge who, having incarcerated so many hardened criminals, decides to give a break to a first-time offender. If all of us are saved, in short, it will not be because we are good, or because we are, by comparison with others, not as bad as was previously thought. It will be because God is merciful. And thus His grace, as Augustine always insisted, will ever remain gratis.

# posted by Jamie : 3:04 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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