For almost 40 years prior to his death in 1999, Robert J. O’Connell, S.J. argued that Augustine derived his interpretation of the Fall from the Neoplatonic Enneads of Plotinus. Here the Fall was the mistaken choice of souls somehow part of the World Soul to prefer individual existence over unity with the World Soul. This led to a further fall into physical embodiment, which gave form and beauty to the physical world. The human self was one of these souls caught in a body, needing to return “upward” to contemplate the Good.
O’Connell argued that Augustine took up this schema as his own, adapting it to Christianity, by describing Adam as the single pre-existent human soul whose primordial fall was to choose bodily existence. We humans all participate in Adam’s single soul, and therefore share in this fallen existence. The human self is a soul caught in a body and tempted by three major vices Plotinus lists: concupiscence, conceit (pride), and curiosity (a desire to be entertained by worldly distractions rather than focus entirely on the Good/God.
A number of Augustine scholars objected strenuously to O’Connell’s interpretation. As anti-Manichaean, Augustine saw the whole of creation as originally good, including physical existence. Therefore, the critics argue that he could not entertain a “fallen soul” theory of humankind, and must also interpret the self to be the whole person and not a soul trapped in a body. O’Connell insists nonetheless, that Augustine needed at least an implicit “fallen soul” theory even in his later thought. In response to both positions, Rombs rightly declares that what Augustine actually thought can be resolved only by attention to the actual historical texts, not by our logic concerning what Augustine should have thought.
With a focus on two dozen texts most relevant to this dispute, Rombs argues that O’Connell is correct in two major ways. First that the young Augustine’s early encounter with the Enneads did in fact lead to a “fallen soul” theory of how all share in Adam’s sin, and to interpret that sin precisely as Adam’s decision to “fall” into a body. Second, Augustine held fast to Plotinus’s list of hallmark vices. Rombs also argues, however, that both O’Connell and his critics make the mistake of not attending carefully enough to significant changes in Augustine’s thought over time.
In his later fights with the Pelagians, Augustine had a strong motive to maintain his early Neoplatonist “fallen soul” theory about human ontological origin from Adam’s soul. The Pelagians promoted a “creationism” theory of the soul instead — that God directly creates each soul individually. Therefore baptism need not be rushed because infants are not born guilty of Adam’s sin. A third alternative available to Augustine was traducianism, the theory that parents generate both body and soul of their children. This implied to Augustine, however, that the soul was material, an idea Augustine was always uncomfortable with even though he never definitively rejected it.
In spite of the continuing appeal of the “fallen soul” theory, Rombs offers textual evidence that by around 415 AD Augustine had clearly left this theory behind. Christian doctrine and especially certain scriptural passages won out. Augustine established human solidarity with Adam on the basis of descent from a single common ancestor, who had never been solely a soul but had been created by God on earth as a bodily self. The first sin was not a fall from pre-existence as a soul, but the sin of the first parents who were already embodied beings in a physical world made good from the first day by its Creator.
Rombs points to certain continuing Plotinian themes, including the three major vices and the need to find fulfillment only in unity with the Good. Augustine echoes Plotinus’ notion that human selves are “middle” beings, tempted to fall downward but needing to look upward, as it were. Rombs claims, however, that Augustine eventually transformed these themes. Where Plotinus spoke of a cyclical fall from and return to unity with the World Soul, for example, Augustine instead portrays humans as wanderers who have lost their way and need to find their unity with one another in God.
Rombs argument is persuasive. The text is a bit too repetitive, showing signs perhaps of its origin in a Ph.D. dissertation, though the repetition also helps the reader keep track of major points of analysis. Dissertation style has the further virtue of not allowing an author to indulge in critic-bashing. Rombs’ argument stands forth on its own merits. This book could provide graduate students with a very good example of how to read a theologian’s texts in historical sequence and context, alert to changes over time even in a single theologian. A good theological library needs to have this work.