English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque & Enlightenment
Glossary of Terms
Felix Culpa | Fortunate Fall
Easter Sunday in the Christian calendar is the day on which the Resurrection of Jesus from the Crucifixion (on Good Friday). The day in between is Holy Saturday, and is also the occasion for a mass specially designed for the occasion. In the Latin version, which was in use in the Catholic Church almost universally until the early 1960s, one of the lines in this mass is: O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorum. We might translate this "O blessed sin [literally, happy fault] which which received as its reward so great and so good a redeemer."
The idea that the fall of man was both (a) necessary in order that God's plan for history be fulfilled and (b) justified in respect of the merits of that plan as a whole stems both from (1) the postulate of God's omniscience (He must have known even before he created Adam and Eve that they would fall, yet decided to create them nonetheless) and (2) that of His omnibenevolence (He would not have created a world that, viewed in its totality -- the whole of universal history -- was anything less than the best of all possible worlds [i.e., that completed history which contains the most possible good]).
We have then the following paradox: sin consists in the deviation of the creature's will (man's or angel's) from the will of God; yet, to the degree that our will is congruent with God's will, we are constrained to will that original sin should have occurred, since God Himself willed that of which it was the necessary precondition. At the same time, of course, we are not to will that we continue in sin (in willing at cross-purposes with God's will).
The specifically Christian version of this paradox lies in the conception it puts forward of what this purpose of history-as-a-whole is, namely, the voluntary salvation of sinful man by a free act of self-sacrifice on the part of God Himself, in the Person of His Son, in payment of the punishment due in satisfaction of divine justice for man's sin -- a payment rendered in the submission of the Incarnated Son to death by crucifixion.
This view thus denies that God's plan in creating the world in the first place was for a happy life in Paradise for Adam and Eve and their descendents, which the first parents destroyed the prospect of by their rash act, thus causing God to default to Plan B, as it were, and to intervene to remedy, eventually, the miscarriage of His original plan. It rejects this view, of course, because it is inconsistent with the premises that God is omniscient and omnipotent. It affirms rather that the ultimate goal God had in mind in creating the universe was for the chosen among the first parents and their sinful progeny to be saved -- and raised to eternal bliss -- by this particular supreme act of divine grace, and for others of them to be damned for eternity, as a result of God's freely willed abandonment or rejection of them.
This specific picture of what the particular greater good is that necessarily required the fall for its realization sets Christianity off from the other Biblically-based perfectionist monotheisms (Judaism and Islam), which reject the idea of the Incarnation, and with it the ideas of Christ's crucifixion as Atonement and of his Resurrection.
- In the Christian conception of divine providence the Atonement through the Crucifixion of the Incarnate deity is the axial episode of universal history.
- And this centrality, in history, of the Crucifixion, requires a particular conception of Original Sin: unless people are universally by birth so depraved as not to be able to achieve salvation by their own efforts, there would be no special necessity for God to have made salvation possible by his own voluntary self-sacrifice.
Within Christianity, the nuances of this perspective can vary. Within even the Protestant camp, we can notice a wide range of versions.
At one pole we find Calvin, who saw the ultimate end of the creation to be the glorification of the majesty (greatness) of God. For him, the even the salvation of the saints, by his free election, was merely a means to this end -- as was God's active intervention to lead those whom he freely chooses to reject into even worse and more damnable paths than they would have followed if merely left to their own bad inclinations, on the basis of the depravity which is everyone's lot in virtue of Original Sin.
- For Calvin's view of the ultimate telos of the Creation, see his reply to Bishop Sadoleto of Geneva.
- For his views on God's ways with those whom he rejects (reprobation), see the excerpt from his Institutes of the Christian Religion touching sin, grace, and reprobation.
And there is the considerably gentler-sounding version of Milton, who in Paradise Lost (Book XII) has archangel Michael console the fallen Adam by conveying the prophecy of how Christ will eventually come as a redeemer, and then a second time as the judge who will "reward / His faithful, and receive them into bliss, Whether in heav'n or earth, for then the earth / Shall all be Paradise, far happier place / Than this of Eden, and far happier days" (461-465). Adam responds thus (466-478):
- "O goodness infinite, goodness imense!
- That all this good of evil shall produce,
- And evil turn to good; more wonderful
- Than that which by creation first brought forth
- Light out of darkness! Full of doubt I stand;
- Whether I should repent me now of sin
- By me done and occasioned, or rejoice
- Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
- To God more glory, more good will to men
- From God, and over wrath grace shall abound."
For a decidedly un-Augustinian (and un-Miltonic) twist on the idea of the "fortunate fall," see Dan Glover's "The Poisoned Apple and the Fortunate Fall", one of a series of essays on the theme of "the mysteries of giving and the gifted" in the December98/January99 issue of Civilization: The Magazine of the Library of Congress. Glover's interpretation of the fall story has a "gnostic" air about it.
For more on the gnostic trends within early Christianity, see Elaine Pagels' illuminating books The Gnostic Gospels (1979) and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988), both of which are available in inexpensive paperback editions (Vintage/Random House). One of our extra-credit assignments has to do with the final chapter of the latter. A good example of a post-Enlightenment gnostic sensibility is the English Romantic poet William Blake. See, for example, his little poem "The Garden of Love", which turns the orthodox Christian account of the fall on its head, by asserting that the real fall of man occurred when priestly castes assumed power over mankind by persuading people that they are naturally depraved (for example, in their susceptibility to sexual desire), rather than naturally good, and then undertaking to police these desires -- and thus, for their own good, the people who have them..
Go to the Home Page of the course.
Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome. Please send them to email@example.com .
Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker.
Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.
This page last updated 13 February 1999.