Conversatio Divina

Part 11 of 14

The Beginning and Telos of Sin

Conversation Partner: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture

Michael Glerup

Welcome to a new feature of the Conversations journal. This regularly occurring column, “Ancient Christian Wisdom for a Postmodern Age,” is written to serve as a resource promoting a conversation between the ancient Christian writers and readers of Conversations. The hope is that these texts will be “useful” in illuminating the theme of each particular installment of the journal and will challenge our modern assumptions and perspectives in ways we never imagined.


Christian spirituality involves an interpretive conversation between the classics of the Christian tradition and contemporary human experience. It is a two-way dialogue, in which we not only bring a critical eye to the text in order to decide what we think is useful to our present situation, but we also aspire to remain open to the ancient commentators—allowing tradition to challenge and correct our modern perceptions. Bernard McGinn rightly states, “The past measures us just as we measure it.” Bernard McGinn, “Spirituality Confronts its Future” in Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality. 5.1 Spring 2005, 88–96, 88.

Sin, in the early Christian writers, may be understood in the context of the beginning and the telos (full maturity) of the Christian life. In the beginning, humans were created in the image of God—an image that soon became defaced, damaged but not destroyed by the Fall and by sin. Consequently, the life experienced now is not true life. Our true end or telos is found in our eternal destiny—life (in union) with God. When the early Christian writers reflected on the eternal destiny of the human person, they did so through the scriptural lens of 1 John 3:2 (NIV Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ): “We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we will see him as he is” (emphasis added). As a result, the redemptive journey of the human person into wholeness was described in terms of restoring the image of God and acquiring the likeness of God. Three texts, reflecting differing conceptions of the image of God in humanity, will serve to illustrate early Christian understandings of sin. The first selection from Dorotheus of Gaza represents a fifth-century summary of an earlier ascetical inclination. The second, by Gregory of Nyssa, epitomizes Christian reflection influenced by Alexandrian theologian Origen, and a third selection illustrates the new direction taken by Augustine.

01.  The Ascetical Inclination

The ascetic understanding of life, as found in Sayings of the Fathers The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward SLG with forward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984). (a collection of wise sayings from the earliest stages of Christian monasticism), affirmed that humans realized their status as God’s image-bearers in their obedience. The image in the human person was damaged but not destroyed in the Fall. As a result, every person born into the world has the choice of pursuing either good or evil—becoming more like or more different from God. People establish, through their sinful choices, patterns of behavior that make choosing the good very difficult. Accordingly, the Christian life required a strenuous effort Isidore the Priest illustrates this thinking in the saying: “For now is the time of labour for the Lord, for salvation is found in the day of affliction: for it is written: “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Luke 21:19), The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 98. to serve God in what was considered a hostile environment. J. Patout Burns, S.J. Theological Anthropology. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981) 5.

For the early fathers, cities and towns were then seen as a grouping of people formed by sinful choices, which in turn formed an environment more favorable to disobedience than to virtue. These environments of sin combined with negative patterns of behavior do not deprive a person of his or her choice, but make it difficult to comprehend the good and act accordingly. Because free choice is the source of these negative patterns of behavior, it is only through the free choice of good that these patterns can be diminished. The will must be redirected to the good, first through humility and repentance and then through choices that respect the commands of God.

Dorotheus of Gaza (FL. c. AD 525–540), raised in a very wealthy family, received a classical education before he entered the monastery of Abbot Seridus near Gaza. Dorotheus was so devoted to study and classical education that he brought his library with him to the monastery. Later on, he founded his own community, where he wrote Spiritual Instructions. The following selection, commenting on Genesis 3:8–9 (RSV Scripture quotations marked (RSV) are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)—“[Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’”—illustrates the ascetic disposition and Dorotheus’ conviction that since pride led to violation of the command in paradise, it is only by humility that human beings may restore their lost communion with God:

Again, after Adam had done wrong God gave him a chance to repent and be forgiven, and yet he kept on being stiff-necked and unrepentant. For God came to him and said, “Adam, where are you?” instead of saying, “Are you not ashamed? Why did you sin? Why did you go astray?”—as if urging him sharply to say, “Forgive me!” But there was no sign of humility. There was no change of heart but rather the contrary. He replied, “The wife that you gave me”—mark you, not “my wife”—“deceived me”; “The wife that you gave me,” as if to say, “this disaster you placed on my head.” So it is, my brethren, when a man has not the guts to accuse himself, he has no misgivings about accusing God himself.

Then God came to Eve and said to her, “Why did you not keep the command I gave you?” as if saying, “If you would only say, ‘Forgive me,’ to humble your soul and be forgiven.” And again, not a word! No “forgive me,” she only answered, “The serpent deceived me!”—as if to say, if the serpent did wrong, what concern is that to me? What are you doing, you wretches? Kneel in repentance, acknowledge your fault, take pity on your nakedness. But neither the one nor the other stooped to self-accusation, no trace of humility was found in either of them. And now look and consider how this was only an anticipation of our own state! See how many and great the evils it has brought on us—this self-justification, this holding fast to our own will, this obstinacy in being our own guide. Andrew Louth, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001) 87.

Even in their alienated state, Adam and Eve were capable of responding in humility to God’s call. Rather than take responsibility for their wrongdoing and repent, they choose to blame-shift and make excuses. The self-justification and obstinacy of Adam, both rooted in the interior disposition of pride, were the same sins that plagued Dorotheus’ monastic audience and hindered their desired communion with God.

02.  Alexandrian Influenced Christianity

The second tendency in early Christianity was a result of the Alexandrian theologian Origen’s influence on Christian thought. Origen located the image of God in the nous (the intellectual part of the soul). As a result, the image was identified with the human capacity for knowledge of God (rationality). At the level of the spirit, there exists a correspondence between the human and the divine. This correspondence expresses itself in the soul’s desire for union with God. The passions, or sin as we understand it today, keep the soul from reaching its desired goal of the vision of such a union with God. Passions such as vindictiveness, jealousy, avarice, ambition, and possessiveness make a mess of the interior life. Passions such as these are an expression of a human-centered of view of reality (self-centered), which must be transformed to a Christ-centered perspective. This transformation is a step-by-step process in which the passions are replaced with the life of Christ. The ancient writers depict this transformation as the acquiring of the divine likeness.

The following selection from Gregory of Nyssa’s Sermon on the Sixth Beatitude illustrates this second important tendency. Gregory, the considerably younger brother of Basil of Caesarea, was the last of the great Cappadocians. He was born in about AD 335 in Cappadocia, a rather desolate region to the northeast of Modern Turkey. Anthony Meredith, Gregory of Nyssa (New York: Routledge, 1999) 1. In 372, he was appointed bishop of a small Cappadocian town called Nyssa in what is now south central Turkey.

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Now I do not think that this means that God has offered a vision of himself, face to face, to those who have purified the eyes of their souls. But perhaps [more straightforwardly] he explains this . . . when he says, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” [Luke 17:21] This verse leads us to the conclusion that they who have cleansed their hearts of all creaturely passions behold the image of the divine nature in their own inner beauty. . . . For God stamped the image of the good properties of his own essence in your makeup, as when a sculptor carves in wax the image of sculpture he intends to cast.

Nevertheless, by sullying the divine imprint evil has made useless to you the good now hidden by the shameful deeds that overlay it. Therefore, cleanse yourself of the filth caked over your heart by paying close attention to your conduct, and your divine beauty shall shine forth. . . . Purity is freedom from passion, and divinity is alienation from evil. If, therefore, these things are in you, God is assuredly in you. Burns, 33–35.

The surface of the soul is a mirror that assumes the appearance of whatever it faces. If it faces God, it assumes the appearance of purity, holiness, simplicity, etc. If it faces the originator of evil, it takes on the characteristics of evil—darkness, death, corruption, etc. By the soul’s turning away from sinful actions and directing its attention toward Christ, the beauty of the image is recovered.

The purified soul attains the desire of its heart—knowledge of God—by beholding the Image (Christ) in the beauty of its soul. As the soul attains purity, not only is it transformed, but it also attains knowledge. Not only is God known through his activities in the heart, but he is also known to be present to the soul.

03.  The Western Tradition

A third and very important stream of thought in ancient Christianity was contributed by Augustine. In AD 384, Augustine was converted to Christianity through the aid of Ambrose of Milan. A few years later, Augustine returned to Africa, where he served as a presbyter and later became the Bishop of Hippo.

Unlike Alexandrian forms of Christianity, Augustine did not hold that the soul’s desire for God was an inalienable endowment from the Creator, but the gift from the Creator. This gift of the Spirit or the grace of Charity “changed the orientation of the sinful will from the self and sensual satisfactions to God, who is loved for his own sake.” Burns, 13./note] As a result, Augustine contrasted desire directed toward God (affectionate love) and misdirected desire (lust). Augustine writes in On Christian Instruction, “I define love (caritatem) as a movement of the mind directed to the enjoyment of God for his own sake, and self and neighbor for the sake of God. Lust (cupiditatem), however, is a movement of the mind directed to the enjoyment of self and neighbor and whosesoever body, not for the sake of God.”

In the Adamic rebellion, the gift of charity was lost, and as a result, human beings were no longer capable of choosing the good. It is only through the gift of the Spirit, made available through the life and work of Christ, that human beings were remade in the image of Christ and freed up to choose the good. The following selection illustrates the pivotal role the gift of charity plays in Augustine’s conception of sin and salvation:

“Whoever divides Jesus Christ and denies that he has come in the flesh is not of God.” [1 John 4:3] We have explained to you, if you remember, that all those who violate charity deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. There would have been no reason for Jesus to come except for charity. Indeed this charity which is recommended to us is that which He Himself recommends in the Gospel: “Greater love than this no one have than to give one’s life for one’s friends.” [John 15:13] How could the Son of God give His life for us except by taking on flesh so that He could die? Then whoever violates charity, whatever he says in words, denies by his very life that Christ has come in the flesh: and this is the Antichrist, wherever he is, wherever he goes. . . . As for them, they are of the world. Who? The Antichrists. John has already told you who they are. . . .

As for them, they are of the world: that is why they speak the language of the world and the world listens to them. Who are those who speak the language of the world? Notice those who speak against charity.

You have heard the Lord say: “If you pardon men their sins, your heavenly Father will also pardon you: but if you do not pardon, neither will your heavenly Father pardon you your sins.” [Matthew 6:14–15] This is a statement of truth: or, if it does not state the truth, contradict it. If you are a Christian and believe Christ, it is He who said: “I am the Truth.” [John 14:6] This statement is true, that is certain. Now hear the men speaking the language of the world. What! You are not going to avenge yourself, and that one will boast of what he has done to you! By all means let him feel that he is dealing with a man. Such things are said every day. Those who say these things speak the language of the world and the world listens to them. Only those who love the world say such things; only those who love the world listen to such things. And he who loves the world and neglects charity, you have heard that he denies that Jesus has come in the flesh. Has the Lord who came into the flesh acted in such a way? When He was slapped on the cheek, did He will to avenge himself? When He hung on the Cross, did He not say: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”? [Luke 23:34] But if He who has power does not threaten, why should you threaten, why should you get angry, you who are under the power of another? He died because he willed it, and He did not threaten; you do not know when you will die, and you Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. threaten? Augustine, Homily 7:2–3 on The First Epistle of St John.

Christ came in order to restore the gift of the Spirit. The work of the Spirit was to produce in the soul a love for God (Romans 5:5) and subsequently a love for the neighbor for the sake of God. The world of sin and disobedience is most characterized by the absence of love. Therefore, if the human soul is to be conformed to God, or to grow in likeness and union, it must receive the gift of the Spirit and love as Christ loved us. A life of union and likeness to God is a life oriented to God in love. Or as Paul says, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6, NRSV).

As mentioned earlier, sin in the early Christian writers may only be understood in the context of the beginning and the telos of the Christian life. In the beginning, humans were created in the image of God—an image defaced, damaged but not destroyed by the Fall and by sin. As a result, the life experienced now is not true life. Our true end or telos is found in our eternal destiny—life with God (union). As a result, the redemptive journey of the human person into wholeness was described as the growth into the likeness of God. This growth was made possible by the gift of love through the return of the Spirit. The gift of love leads to repentance and redirection of desire to its proper end—the love of God in Christ. As the soul’s love for God gradually develops, it becomes more and more like Christ and in the end receives the desire of its heart—to see and live in eternal communion with God.


MICHAEL GLERUP (PhD, Drew University) serves as the Research and Acquisitions editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight volume patristic commentary on Scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity Press, is an ecumenical project, promoting a vital link of communication between the varied Christian traditions of today and their common ancient ancestors in the faith.