The question between Flacius and Strigel in 1557 was this: How deep is sinfulness in human beings? Flacius thought it was so profound that it determined the very substance of human being. Strigel did not go that far, believing that sin while inevitably present, was nonetheless merely accidental to human being. Much has been written about this controversy over the years. The Formula of Concord attempted to follow the spirit of Flacius, if not the letter of his claim, declaring:
That original sin (in human nature) is not only this entire absence of all good in spiritual, divine things, but that, instead of the lost image of God in man, it is at the same time also a deep, wicked, horrible, fathomless, inscrutable, and unspeakable corruption of the entire nature and all its powers, especially of the highest, principal powers of the soul in the understanding, heart, and will, so that now, since the Fall, man inherits an inborn wicked disposition and inward impurity of heart, evil lust and propensity. (SD, I)
The question as to the profundity of human sin, and the attempt to claim that it is of the very substance of human being, involves us quickly in modal claims -- claims about necessity, possibility and contingency. Aristotle famously held a "two tiered" notion of substance. Accordingly, there are certain properties the substance has which are necessary and sufficient for it to be the substance it is, and others that the possess that they might not have.
Unfortunately, the phrase "necessary and sufficient for it to be the substance it is" is ambiguous, trading between the following:
- Necessarily, it is the case that for any x, x is identical to individual i if and only if i instantiates a particular property group A.
- Necessarily, it is the case that for any x, x is a member of kind k if and only if x instantiates a particular property group B.
The first claims that there is an individual essence A which is instantiated just in case a particular individual i obtains; the second declares that a general essence B is instantiated when some individual or other of kind k obtains. While Aristotle clearly held that an individual substance has a general essence, most believe he did not countenance individual essences. Thus, while it is necessary and sufficient for the individual Socrates to possess the essence man, it is more dubious that the individual Socrates possesses an essence of Socrativity. While more could be said about this, I will not say it here.
In addition to the essential properties that make a substance the kind of substance it is, there are also properties of the substance that are not necessary for it to be the substance it is. While properties of the first type are essential to the subject, properties of the second type, are contingent and do not constitute the substantiality of the substance. While the substance Socrates must have the property of being a human being or not be Socrates, Socrates can either be pale or not pale and yet still be Socrates. Using the language of Aristotle's de Categoria, 'man' is "said of" Socrates, paleness is "present in" Socrates. 'Man' is thus essentially predicated of Socrates while 'pale' is only accidentally predicated.
But this is not the end of the matter. According to Aristotle, since 'man' is "said of" Socrates, 'mammal' and 'animal' must be "said of" him as well. These secondary sayings about Socrates form transitive relationships: If the general essence of Socrates is to be human, then in being human Socrates must also be a mammal, be an animal, be a living being, etc. That is to say, Socrates could not be at all if Socrates were not a living (as opposed to non-living) being. Flacius was arguing, in effect, that sin is essentially predicated of man (human beings), that is, that any substance having the general essence of being human must also instantiate the property of being sinful. Strigel, on the contrary, claimed that sin is only accidentally predicated of any individual that is a man. That is to say, the property of being sinful is "present in" primary substances having the essence of being human, but is not "said of" those substances. 'Sin' is accidentally predicated of a particular human being, not essentially predicated.
While Flacius was trying to emphasize the inevitability of sin in our actual world, his claim that sin is essentially predicated of man (human beings) actually denies the existence of a possible world in which humans do not sin. Since there is no possible world in which a human being does not sin, the notion of 'man' (human being) contains within itself the notion of sin. Thus, just as the notion of square excludes the notion of circle, so too does the notion of 'man' exclude the notion of not sinning. Just as it is inconceivable that a square could be a circle, so it is inconceivable that a man could not sin. None of this can be countenanced, of course, by the Christian holding that God's creation is good.
But the contrary position that sin is accidental, seemingly suggests a superficiality to sin, as if human beings might not sin because they are not determined metaphysically to do so. The problem in the debate, as I see it, is simply that neither Strigel nor Flavius yet had the notion of a physical law which, on any non-Humean interpretation, determines the distribution of physical properties universally within nature without this distribution holding in all possible worlds. Human nature is fixed and, as Luther declares, human beings inevitably sin. Yet this determinate human nature need not obtain in all possible worlds. There are worlds in which human beings do not sin. This, in fact, is necessary for claiming that God's creation is good, and necessary as well for being able to imagine an original paradise from which man and women fell. One might say, that Flacius' views presuppose the impossibility of the Fall, because they make impossible the existence of a state from which human beings have lapsed.
The Christian story is that human nature which was made good -- contingently, not metaphysically so -- contingently became a determinately corrupt nature contingently fixing the spectrum of human behaviors and responses. Just as the acceleration of earthly objects downward is 9.8 m/sec2 universally under standard conditions, so too is human nature universally sinful and cannot (physically or through human agency) free itself. However, just as there are possible worlds with different laws of motion, so are there worlds in which human nature is not corrupt. The depravity of man is metaphysically contingent, but physically (or agentially) necessary. Total depravity does not extend to all possible worlds.
These simple distinctions show that Strigel was correct, no matter how much Flacius may have fumed otherwise. Somebody might argue, of course, that the modal distinction I am drawing here is still somehow practically unimportant, that Flacius was right in spirit because he was rightly pointing out that for all x, if x is human, then x is sinful. He was arguing that human beings are inescapably and inevitably sinful, and this physical necessity of each x to sin is the important matter. So what if Flacius somehow used the language of essentiality. Was this not all that he had at the time, and would not other language suggest that human beings might proudly somehow escape sin?
I aver, however, that modal difference makes all the difference. We now have a clear notion of physical law; we understand determinate causal chains underlying universal regularities in the actual world. We now know that for something to be contingently so does not mean that it is somehow capriciously so, obtaining sometimes and not other times. Simply put, we understand that necessities are of different kinds: There are logical necessities, conceptual necessities, metaphysical necessities, physical necessities, etc. Just because something is physically necessary does not mean that it is metaphysically necessary. While we may cringe at calling human sin a "physical necessity," it is indeed so: Each and every human being h has a set of dispositional properties such that were conditions x, y or z to obtain, h would act in u or v fashion, where u and v are instantiations of what theology has always identified as sin. Since it is a fact of our world that conditions x, y, or z obtain, it is not possible for a human being to exist having the set of dispositional properties he/she has and not sin. The fact that this dispositional properties do not hold in all possible worlds should not obviate the obvious: This dispositional set does indeed obtain in the actual world. Thus, each and every human being necessarily sins given the metaphysically contingent fact of the universal human proclivity to sin. That we all necessarily sin given this metaphysical contingency should be enough confidently to proclaim, "We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone." What more is needed? If the creation of the universe is a contingent fact given the freedom of God, surely the existence of a fallen universe is contingent as well.