The Historical Support for Mortal and Venial Sin

The following is Essay 04 of a new essay series that I am working on titled “The Mortal Sin of Protestantism: How Eve Proves the Doctrine of Venial Sin”.

In addition to the philosophical reasons for why Christians should be open to the idea of mortal and venial sin—which were described in the last essay of this essay series—it is also possible to marshal historical support for this particular doctrine. After all, not only did certain ancient but critical Christian thinkers accept this aforementioned doctrine, but they clearly articulated the distinction between mortal and venial sins in their writings as well. And given the fact that such past Christians were just as capable as Christians are today of reading and interpreting the scriptures, then their interpretation of these matters should be seriously considered.

So, let us first reflect on the writings of Saint Jerome, the man responsible for translating much of the Bible into Latin. In Section 30 of Book 2 of Against Jovinianus, Saint Jerome writes the following concerning the distinction between sins:

[Quote] Some offenses are light, some heavy. It is one thing to owe ten thousand talents, another to owe a farthing. We shall have to give account of the idle word no less than of adultery; but it is not the same thing to be put to the blush, and to be put upon the rack, to grow red in the face and to ensure lasting torment. Do you think I am merely expressing my own views? Hear what the Apostle John says: He who knows that his brother sins a sin not unto death, let him ask, and he shall give him life, even to him that sins not unto death. But he that has sinned unto death, who shall pray for him? [1 John 5:16]. You observe that if we entreat for smaller offenses, we obtain pardon: if for greater ones, it is difficult to obtain our request: and that there is a great difference between sins. [Unquote, (Accessed 17 May 2017)]

Notice how Saint Jerome claims that some offenses are light and some heavy, an idea which is very much in-line with the concept of mortal and venial sin. Note as well how Saint Jerome makes it clear that there is indeed a difference between, say, owing a great deal of money and owing merely a penny; and this is relevant to note because a similar point was used in the past essay to argue for the commonsensical and intuitional moral nature of the idea of mortal and venial sin. Furthermore, notice that Saint Jerome admits that people will have to account for both an idle word and for adultery, but then he immediately implies that the former will lead to the punishment of growing red in the face—a minor mature—whereas the latter will ensure lasting torment. Now, in light of this statement, it is reasonable to hold that the distinction that Saint Jerome makes here further implies that some sins—such as speaking an idle word—are not enough to ensure lasting torment, whereas others, such as adultery, are. But this is precisely what the doctrine of mortal and venial sin entails. Thus, it is reasonable to claim that in this quotation, Saint Jerome is appealing to something like the doctrine of mortal and venial sin; this interpretation is further supported by the fact that Saint Jerome specifically appeals to 1 John 5:16 to show that this idea does not come solely from him. And 1 John 5:16 is particularly relevant, because it is a scriptural verse which is often pointed to in support of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin (and note that that particular scriptural verse will be dealt with in detail in a separate essay). So not only does Saint Jerome appear to imply that something akin to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin is true, but he also appeals to the very scriptural verse that is used to justify that doctrine, thereby rendering this interpretation eminently reasonable.

However, even with all of the above said, this passage from Saint Jerome is not completely clear concerning his stance on the nature of the differences between sins. Thus, this quotation is not an unambiguous endorsement of the specific doctrine of mortal and venial sin as defined by the Catholic Church today, although it certainly is very suggestive of it. Nevertheless, a more precise articulation of this doctrine by an ancient Christian would be desirable. And so, in light of this desire, it is now beneficial to turn to one of the most famous Christians who has ever lived: namely, Saint Augustine of Hippo.

In many of his writings, Saint Augustine not only references the distinction between mortal and venial sins, but he specifically notes that venial sins do not lead to damnation, whereas mortal ones do. Thus, Saint Augustine provides a clear articulation of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. And so, it is to Saint Augustine’s writings that we now turn.

First, consider Chapter 48 of Saint Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter, where he writes the following:

[Quote] For as, on the one hand, there are certain venial sins which do not hinder the righteous man from the attainment of eternal life, and which are unavoidable in this life, so, on the other hand, there are some good works which are of no avail to an ungodly man towards the attainment of everlasting life, although it would be very difficult to find the life of any very bad man whatever entirely without them. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, (Accessed 17 May 2017)]

In this passage, the reference to venial sins which do not lead to spiritual death is unmistakable. Furthermore, this passage simultaneously implies that if there are certain venial sins which do not hinder the righteous man from the attainment of eternal life, then there must be certain sins which do hinder the righteous man from the attainment of eternal life. And a name for such sins could be “mortal sins”. So this is an initial quotation from Saint Augustine which supports the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, but there are a number of others as well.

In his work Against Lying, in Section 19, Saint Augustine writes:

[Quote] He is worse who steals through coveting, than he who steals through pity: but if all theft be sin, from all theft we must abstain. For who can say that people may sin, even though one sin be damnable, another venial? [Unquote, bold emphasis added, (Accessed 17 May 2017)]

Again, here Saint Augustine states that some sins are damnable, whereas others are venial, which, by implication, means that they are not damnable. Nevertheless, Saint Augustine reinforces the fact that just because a sin is venial does not mean it can be readily committed, which is, once again, in line with the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. Furthermore, notice the commonsensical nature of Saint Augustine’s position: the man who steals because of covetousness is indeed worse than the man who steals for pity, and human moral intuition supports this claim, as does the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.

Next, in Chapter 9 of On Man’s Perfection in Righteousness, Saint Augustine writes:

[Quote] He, however, is not unreasonably said to walk blamelessly, not who has already reached the end of his journey, but who is pressing on towards the end in a blameless manner, free from damnable sins, and at the same time not neglecting to cleanse by almsgiving such sins as are venial. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, (Accessed 17 May 2017)]

Again, by mentioning damnable sins and venial ones, Saint Augustine clearly implies that some sins are damnable and some are not, which is precisely what the doctrine of mortal and venial sin entails. Furthermore, Saint Augustine implies that a man must be free from damnable sins to be blameless, whereas he can commit venial sins and nevertheless remain blameless so long as he atones for those venial sins in this life through such things as almsgiving.

Finally, in Section 15 of his A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed, Saint Augustine provides us with the following:

[Quote] I do not tell you that you will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What has the Prayer? “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which you must needs be separated from Christ’s body: which be far from you! For those whom you have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice. [Unquote, (Access 17 May 2017)]

Thus again, in the above quotation, Saint Augustine makes a distinction between sins. He notes that some heinous sins, if committed, can separate a baptized person from Christ’s body. And such sins require penance to be removed. By contrast, a light sin—which will unavoidably occur in this life—can be removed by daily prayer. So, both the fact that some sins can remove a baptized person from Christ’s body, and others not, as well as the fact that different sins require different ways of being cleansed, is all quite consistent with the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. So again, in this quotation, Saint Augustine’s support for that doctrine is present.

Thus, from all these quotes, it is evident that on a plain reading, Saint Augustine—one of the greatest Christian thinkers to have ever lived—understands, endorses, and writes about the fact that some sins are damnable, while other sins are not. Consequently, it is clear that Saint Augustine is a proponent of something akin to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.

Now, the point in providing these quotes from these two significant Christian figures is not to “prove” that the doctrine of mortal and venial sin is true because these authorities support that doctrine. After all, as with any argument, objections could be raised to this one; furthermore, arguments from authority—even if those authorities are legitimate and competent—are still relatively weak arguments. Rather, the point of this essay is to simply show that competent, intelligent, and devout Christian thinkers like Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine—individuals who were just as interested and capable of interpreting scripture and arriving at Christian truth as we are—came to accept that something akin to the doctrine of mortal and venial sin was true. Consequently, the opinion provided by such Christian heavyweights should not be lightly dismissed. And so, the historical evidence from these significant individuals should, at the very least, cause a Christian to pause before he categorically rejects the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.

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