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Augustine's letter
To Jerome on
souls of babies

by Jacques More

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), in North West Africa, the region now named Tunisia, was a Christian bishop who wrote on things differently from previous Christian authors in regards to free will, that is, in his later years. He went through a period of struggle in understanding how the soul of a baby came about. This is perhaps best seen in a letter from his huge correspondence with Jerome (347-420). From my last count they wrote to each other over a period of 25 years. In a world without internet, TV, radio, telephone, printing, and only the handwritten, good connections and much learning happened through letter writing. Jerome was working in the newly named region of Syria-Palestinia (so named under the earlier rule of Roman emperor Hadrian in 135AD). I am gleaning Augustine's letter to Jerome, enquiring on the source of a soul in a baby, from Professor of Ecclesiastical History George Park Fisher DD LLD in his book History of Christian Doctrine (1896 - Pages 187-190). As per my earlier page on the early church and original sin and man's part in salvation, I place no copyright on this page. All words within square brackets " [ ] " are my added words.

In respect to the question of the origin of souls, the letter of Augustine to Jerome is a most interesting document, and one the importance of which has seldom been duly recognised.1

He [Augustine] had previously expressed himself as doubtful on the question [of the origin of souls], though obviously leaning towards the traducian side.2 But the fear of materialistic notions, enhanced as it was by the opposition of the Church to the refined materialism of Tertullian, deterred Augustine then, as always, from espousing the traducian theory. This fear, it may be here observed, together with the feeling that this theory gives too much agency to second causes in the production of the soul, operated in subsequent times to dissuade theologians from giving sanction to the same hypothesis. The letter to Jerome is a candid and memorable expression of the difficulties in which Augustine found himself involved on the subject to which it relates. To Jerome he resorts to light. He begins by saying that he has prayed and still prays God to grant that his application may be successful [his request to know and understand]. The question of the origin of souls is one of deep concern to him. Of the soul's immortality he has no doubt, though it be not immortal as if it were a part of God, and in the same mode in which He is immortal. Of the immateriality [no physical substance] of the soul, he is equally certain; and his arguments to show the absurdity of supposing the soul to occupy space are convincingly stated. He is certain, moreover, that the soul is fallen into sin by no necessity, whether imposed by its own nature or by God. Yet the soul is sinful and without baptism will perish. How can this be? He entreats Jerome to solve the problem.

"Where did the soul contract the guilt by which it is brought into condemnation?"

In his book De Libero Arbitrio, he had made mention of four opinions in regard to the origin of souls, first, that souls are propagated, the soul of Adam alone having been created; secondly, that for every individual a new soul is created; thirdly, that the soul preëxists in each case, and is sent by God into the body at birth; fourthly, that the sould preëxists, but comes into the body of its own will. A fifth supposition that the soul is a part of Deity, he had not had occasion to consider. But he had gained no satisfactory answer to the problem. Beset by inquirers, he had been unable to solve their queries. Neither by prayer, reading, reflection, or reasoning, had he been able to find his way out of his perplexity.3

"Teach me, therefore, I beg you, what I should teach, what I should hold; and tell me, if it be true that souls are made now and separately with each separate birth, where in little children they sin, that they should need in the sacrament of Christ the remission of sin" [i.e. in his belief this occurs by baptism]; "or if they do not sin, with what justice they are so bound by another's sin, when they are inserted in the mortal, propagated members, that damnation follows them, unless it is prevented by the Church (through baptism); since it is not in their power to cause the grace of baptism to be brought to them. So many thousands of souls, then, which depart from their bodies without having received Christian baptism,- with what justice are they condemned, in case they are newly created, with no preceding sin, but, on the contrary, by the will of the Creator, each of these souls was given to each new-born child, for animating whom He created and gave it, - by the will of the Creator, who knew that each of them, through no fault of his own would go out of the body without Christian baptism? Since, then, we can neither say of God that He compels souls to become sinful, or punishes the innocent, and since likewise it is not right to assert that those who depart from the body without the sacrament, even little children, escape from damnation; [Fisher's italics/emphasis] I beseech you to say how this opinion is defended which assumes that souls come into being, not all from that one soul of the first man, but for every man a separate soul, like that one for Adam?"

Other objections to creationism [of the soul] Augustine feels competent easily to meet; but when it comes to the penalties inflicted on little children, he begs Jerome to believe that he is in a strait and knows not what to think or to say.4

He confesses that what he had written in his book on Free-Will of the imaginary benefits of suffering, even to infants, will not suffice to explain even the sufferings of the unbaptized in this life. "I require, therefore, the ground of this condemnation of little children, [again the italics are Fisher's emphasis], because, in case souls are separately created, I do not see that any of them sin at that age, nor do I believe that any one is condemned by God, whom He sees to have no sin."
He repeats again this pressing enquiry.
"Something perfectly strong and invincible is required, which will not force us to believe that God condemns any soul wihout any fault." He frequently desires from Jerome the means of escaping from this great perplexity; he would prefer to embrace the Creationist theory [of the soul]; but on this theory, he sees no possible mode in which native, inherent depravity and the destruction of the unbaptized can be held, consistently with the justice of God.

Such was the theology of Augustine. If there is no real participation in Adam's transgression on our part, he can see no justice in making us partakers of its penalty, or in attributing to us a sinful nature from birth.

"Persona corrumpit naturam; natura currumpit personam." So the doctrine was summarily stated [finally in Augustine:]. In Adam human nature, by his act, was vitiated [spoiled or impaired]. That corrupted nature is transmitted, through physical generation, to his descendants. They acted in him - in another - and are, therefore, truly counted sinners, being sinfully corrupt from the beginning of individual life. Concupiscence, the principle of sin, includes the baser proclivities of human nature, but it is the sexual passion which Augustine most frequently has in mind in connection with the term ["concupiscence"]. The sexual instinct, he holds, was in Paradise, void of lust and unattended by shame.

These are the Notes in Fisher's History of Christian Doctrine pages 187-190
Only the number of the notes differ as Fisher's are per page and I quote several pages.

1Epistol. Classis, III. clxvi
2De Gen. ad loc. L. x. [The Traducian view of the origin of the soul is that it is naturally generated as is the body from the parents; i.e. it is not created separately by God as Adam's soul was: that is the Creationism view of souls]
3Epist. III. LXV. c. iv. 9. "Et ea neque orando, neque legendo, neque cogitando et ratiocinando invenire potuimus"
4"Magnis, mihi crede, coarctor angustiis, nec quid respondeam prorsus invenio."

As per Fisher's summary of the earlier Church writer's, Augustine's theology, in the end, can be well seen as having departed from the previous orthodoxy.

There is no copyright on this page.

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