Dec 27, 2012

On (mis)paraphrasing Augustine

Yesterday, on Twitter, I posted a sentence supposedly from St. Augustine: “Most sins are committed by people weeping and groaning.” I was drawn to this quote, I guess, because I brought to it my own theology of sin and grace, namely, that “sins” are personal choices made in the vortex of “fallenness.” Sins are often the way we express grief and lostness, not just high-handed rebellion and arrogance. Contra Pelagius, Augustine’s opponent, who pictured humans as standing, after each act of their wills, in exactly the same place of moral neutrality, Augustine asserted that we’re in bondage, not free at every moment to choose the good. We’re mortally wounded by Adam’s sin, and therefore we ought to view each of our own sins and the sins of others not only as blameworthy acts but also, and importantly, as what we’ll all inevitably keep on doing without the intervention of divine grace — as expressions of the Pauline cry, “Wretched man that I am! who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Well, when I posted that sentence on Twitter, my friend John Wilson objected to it as not true to his own experience of his own life or the lives of others. Presumably John had in mind the many, many instances in which we aren’t sinning from grief or misery. In response, I explained why I posted it: “contra Pelagius, sin isn’t usually fully aware, high-handed rebellion. I take this to be Augustine’s version of that apocryphal quote floating around: ‘Be kind, for everyone fights a great battle.’” To which John responded: “There’s a huge distance between this truth and the assertion that ‘most sins are committed by people weeping and groaning.’”

I found the Augustine quote in Rowan Williams’ little book Where God Happens. Immediately after reading it, I tweeted it. But when John objected, I went back and checked the reference. Here’s how Williams contextualizes the sentence:

No one knows for sure how hard temptation might bear on another. It is like Augustine exclaiming in exasperated compassion, when faced with Pelagian teachers who insisted that all sin was a fully conscious rejection of God, “Most sins are committed by people weeping and groaning.” A temptation that might seem trivial to you could be crushing to another; an obsession that haunts you day and night may be incomprehensible to someone else. This is why it is dangerous to demand that everyone be the same kind of ascetic; everyone comes from a different past, with different memories and abilities.

And then Williams footnotes Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writing On Nature and Grace, 29.33. So, I went and checked the context. Here is the section in question, from the Schaff translation (found in ch. 33): “For many sins are committed through pride; but yet not all things which are wrongly done are done proudly,—at any rate, not by the ignorant, not by the infirm, and not, generally speaking, by the weeping and sorrowful.” That gives quite a different sense to the passage than Williams’ rendering (or loose paraphrase). I haven’t gone back and checked the Latin — I don’t have access to it at the moment — but if Schaff is right, the passage could be paraphrased along these lines: “Those who sin while weeping and groaning aren’t thereby sinning from pride.” Which is — and here I agree with John — quite a different thought from Williams’ rendering, “Most sins are committed by people weeping and groaning.”
My name is Wesley Hill. I am an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

This is my commonplace book and sometime-journal.

I blog at

My book is here: Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.

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