The Magazine

Mortal Error

Pondering the idea, and reality, of sin.

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By DAWN EDEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In that light, citing Paul’s Greek biblical tradition as evidence of a radical discontinuity between him and his Savior is an odd tack for an author who seeks to uncover the “historical Jesus.” The Christ of the Gospels cannot be de-Hellenized without being de-Judaized as well.

Fredriksen’s analysis of Paul’s theology of sin, with its repeated contrasts between fleshly desires and spiritual ones, leads into her consideration of Marcion, Valentinus, and Justin. Of those three, only Justin is a Church Father; Marcion, a schismatic, and Valentinus, the most influential of the Gnostic teachers, were condemned. But where the Church saw heresy, Fredriksen sees “energetic diversity.” With a tone reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code, she informs us that, in light of recent historical scholarship, all the best minds reject “the self-claim of the heresiologists for their own communities”:

For example, scholars now question the analytical utility of such terms as Gnostic (especially as regards Valentinus) or heretical. .  .  . [In] the second century, there was no “orthodoxy” in Rome or anywhere else, just a wide variety of different communities, all of which represented differing trajectories developing over the course of time and none of which exercised a generally recognized authority.

Where is the basis for such a sweeping claim? Fredriksen cites the first chapter of David Brakke’s 2011 work on The Gnostics, which takes the postmodernist line that there has never truly been “orthodoxy” among Christians, only an ever-evolving flow of changing narratives and self-definitions.

Finally, Frederiksen returns to territory familiar to readers of her previous Augustine and the Jews, this time focusing on Augustine’s understanding of sin and its consequences, and contrasting the Bishop of Hippo’s theology against that of the earlier ecclesiastical writer Origen. Here, her mission is to show that whereas Origen, who “represents the road not taken by the Church,” held that all creation, including the devil, would be redeemed, Augustine held that only human beings would be redeemed, and “only some small portion of humanity at that.”

Considering the extensive amount of research she has done on Augustine, it is surprising to see Fredriksen make an error that any student who has read the Confessions would catch: She claims Augustine “had been a married man.” (Father of a son, yes; married, no—a major part of the bishop’s history is that, prior to his conversion, he refused to marry his longtime concubine.) One even gets the feeling that the author is sick of writing about Augustine. Her treatment of him carries an undercurrent of resentment that ultimately bubbles over into open mockery when, writing of his death, she describes him as “going to the inscrutable and angry god he had created.”

The author’s talent lies in expressing complex theological concepts in everyday language, and she applies it capably in explaining the intricacies of Augustine’s theology of grace. Unfortunately, her broad strokes sometimes gloss over important nuances, particularly when she compares Origen’s and Augustine’s views on God’s justice and mercy. She claims that while Origen believes God to be always simultaneously just and merciful, “Augustine’s god expresses these attributes serially and selectively: he is either just or merciful.” Such a reading ignores Augustine’s writings on divine simplicity, which assert that God’s attributes cannot be divided into Manichean-style opposites; he is his essence. Theologians can (and do) argue over whether Augustine contradicts himself; even so, given her insistence that early Christianity was defined by diversity, Fredriksen should welcome the fact that Augustine in himself contained multitudes.

Dawn Eden is the author, most recently, of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.