Read: Sin: The Early History of an Idea

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Article Reviews

By Paula Fredriksen (Princeton, 2012)

While it sounds a daunting task to explore the shifting Christian idea of sin as it progressed through the first four centuries of Christian history, Sin: The Early History of an Idea is surprisingly brief, narrowing in on the philosophies and writings of seven Christian writers rather than studying the movement of ideas as a whole. This streamlined approach allows readers to acquaint themselves with these seminal Christian personalities, rather than slog through an intellectual narrative. What emerges is not merely a “history of an idea,” but a dynamic and personal portrait of thought.

Through the study of second-century authors such as Marcion and Valentinus, author Paula Fredriksen begins to uncover the origins of the Christian bond between sin and the flesh. Fredriksen paints these crucial Christian authors in stark contrast to their contemporaries, using their theological differences to accentuate the nuances in each one’s thoughts and writings.

Nowhere is this more evident than her paired treatment of Origen and St. Augustine, two giants of early Christian theology. While Origen held that human souls fell from grace before creation and would eventually use creation like a celestial ladder to ascend back into the good graces of the Almighty, Augustine believed the human soul and body were created together and would be saved or damned together. From here comes one of the staples of our credo: the resurrection of the body.

Fredriksen ties these ancient authors to our modern experience in a way that we might not rush to embrace, warning us against seeing Jesus as merely a “premier culture critic and self-help guru,” or making over Augustine as “some familiar version of a person they might see on Oprah: a sex addict, not a sinner.” While today we may be more understanding than our ancestors, we have sacrificed our sense of personal responsibility in favor of what we now blithely call acceptance.

This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 6, page 43).