Augustine – The Hope of Rationality (Comprehensive Exam)

The following is from the comprehensive exam at the end of master’s program in theology at Villanova University. I had 3 hours to write a short essay on a question that I did not know beforehand, although I had been working on the general topics most of the semester. Because it was improvised, it is unpolished. But I decided to leave it as it was, except for correcting a few typos.

The question:

How might a retrieval of the thought of Augustine ground the dialogue between Christianity and culture, specifically in engagement with the North American socio-cultural world dominated both by positivism and postmodernism, and in the culturally-informed Christian traditions of East and West?

My answer:

Augustine – The Rationality of Hope

The West is decadent, the East reticent, the future immanent; hope springs eternal. Cultural historian Jacques Barzun titled his saga of the modern West (1500-2000) From Dawn to Decadence. By decadence he meant a loss of confidence in strategies either previously employed or presently at hand to chart a course toward a brighter future. The modern project was full of confidence; it had both a goal and a method. The goal, insofar as it was attained, was ambiguously valuable. After circumnavigating the globe, walking on the moon, and connecting the entire globe in a world wide web, the consensus of the Western world has enshrined as its greatest achievement the HDTV. Ichabod! The glory has departed and with it the hope of significance. Insofar as the goal of modernity was not obtained, the dominant attitude has been iconoclastic reveling at its failure. The aptly titled “play” of postmodernity shakes its head at the hubris of those who made the attempt, any attempt, to overcome fragmentation. So the only remaining goal is to discourage goals. Eros has departed and with it the hope of transcendence.

Eastern Christian culture smarts from its history of domination and its present economic and political unimportance. The dominant impulse is withdrawal and ressentiment. Thicker, thicker, weave the tabernacle curtain, lest the divine presence be seen by outsiders! But write on the outermost face, “Here and nowhere else dwells the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of the hierarchs, Symeon, and Palamas.” The hesychast culture offers a stinging critique of Enlightenment modernity, one absolutely true but almost redundant, since every Westerner knows it deep in his bones. On the other hand, the hesychast leap into supra-rationality, in the name of selfless love, is a jump off the speeding train of science and philosophy. The critique of scholasticism in the end turns into a critique of integrating faith and reason, and the mind is finally left behind as a barrier to divinization. Lost is the hope of integrity.

Calling on Augustine to chart a course forward is no simple task. Which thought? He covers so many topics. Better, which Augustine? It sometimes seems impossible to believe that the Augustine of Cassiciacum, so sure in the powers of mind, so confident in the approach of the schools, so optimistic about the possibilities of the moral life should come to regard himself as one of the “little ones,” nursing on Scripture along with his congregants, radically dependent upon the persuasive impulse (suavitas) of the Holy Spirit for any good act. Is there something that unites Augustine in himself and to us? I believe it is his hope.

C. S. Lewis once observed more than argued that if he found in himself desires that no object in this world could satisfy, the best explanation was that he was ultimately intended for another world. This remark is nothing less than an Augustinian insight, a transcendental critique of the restless heart. This desire for happiness in all its permanence and insistence drove Augustine from the early pages of the Cassiciacum dialogues to the densest portions of City of God to demand we recognize the inability of anything merely immanent, merely temporal, to satisfy us. The heart cries out for requiem.

What does it mean to be human? It means to be made oriented toward God (fecisti nos ad te) and destined to possess God (Deum habere). The starting point of an Augustinian retrieval is a firm belief in the existence of a homeland. Yearning for the homeland provides the eros to attempt the journey; glimpses of it furnish the hope that sustains pilgrimage. The epistemological ramifications of this assertion are tremendous. One of Augustine’s earliest works, the dialogue Contra Academicos, is a critique of the skepticism of the New Academy. Augustine’s refutation does not at bottom spring from a list of incorrigible foundations that produce through proper method equally incorrigible conclusions.[1] Thus, for all the similarity between the Augustinian si fallor sum and the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, the intention is wholly dissimilar. Nor is it a retreat from harsh critical thought into the safety of authority or supra-rational experience. Rather, skepticism is dismissed as self-defeating and ultimately as dissatisfying. Epistemology is only a vehicle, and the skeptical rocket will never break escape velocity.

If Augustine is certain of the homeland, he is suspicious of the pilgrims themselves. Human reason, left to itself, is a fragile thing. A person’s thoughts are so influenced by desires, conscious and unconscious, that we easily become an enigma to ourselves. It is unlikely that we can ever pierce below all the veils and layers of our ego to find the real us. Left to ourselves, we are a constant flux of desires. Yet Augustine has latched onto something. He comes to recognize that God is more inward than his most inward self. Interiority pursued sufficiently yields to exteriority; personal identity is maintained in the interplay of relationship, in our tethers to God, each other, our memory, and our future (hope?). To say that we are toward God is not to list an accidental characteristic of man, but a defining characteristic. If this is true of ourselves, how much more so anything that we study? Scientific inquiry, far from an attempt to “save the appearances,” is the concerted effort to penetrate through them to the constitutive relationships that lie beneath.

Modernity, particularly in its positivist form, has no room for relationship as a constitutive element.  Its ontology is atomistic; a thing is a self-contained world. Certainly one might apply force to an object, giving it a relation of sorts, but this is a purely external and contingent affair. Modernity cannot grasp the towardness of being and is thus destined to produce reductive analyses. Wholes disappear into an aggregate of parts. Love reduces to psychological states, to brain waves, to biological patterns, to chemical properties, finally to the freewheeling play of atoms.[2]

Postmodern relativism fares little better. In an extreme distention of Heraclitus, all is flux, ergo flux is flux, or rather, flux fluxes. Postmodernity eliminates the subject, but cannot completely remove its echo, and behind every deconstruction whispers a haunting question, “What fluxes, and to where?” An Augustinian inquiry seeks the modus, species, and ordo of each thing. Particularly in terms of ordo, a thing’s system of constitutive relationships, relativity (as in relation-ality) need not imply radical instability or lack of substantiality. If postmodernism has seized the dynamic, whirling character of existence, ordo insists that a dance, no matter how rambunctious, has a rhythm and character that grounds its intelligibility.

An Augustinian alternative to Western modernity or postmodernity lies in hope. If modernity eliminated the need for hope by restricting knowledge to clear vision, and if postmodernity cannot find the strength to hope, Augustine offers this advice: “Dear reader, whenever you are as certain about something as I am go forward with me; whenever you hesitate, seek with me; whenever you discover that you have gone wrong come back to me; or if I have gone wrong, call me back to you. In this way we will travel along the street of love together as we make our way toward him of whom it is said, ‘Seek his face always’” (De trinitate 1.3.5). The certainty of truth, of rest for the restless heart, is an eschatological vision held gingerly in anticipation. The objectivity or realism implied in the identification of the homeland does not preclude fallible maps, wrong turns, or faulty starts. The insistence upon truth is itself a precondition for fallibility, for one can be corrected by a compass only if one admits the existence of North. The adequacy of any philosophical or interdisciplinary project is its promise for getting us home, a judgment that is constantly being made in via as more results come in. An Augustinian rationality might provide the confidence that theology and other disciplines can be related within an intellectual framework without committing theology to any one philosophical framework that would dominate the conversation.

The Eastern Christian tradition presents something of a different challenge. The Orthodox have observed the Western fade from dawn to decadence and chosen to blame Augustine for it. Was it not Augustine’s eudemonism, his insistence that the end of man is to be happy, that led to the West’s narcissism, materialism, and individualism? Was it not his rationalism—his identification of God as idipsum esse (being itself) rather than beyond being and his illegitimate probing into the intertrinitarian relations—that accounts for the hubris of the Enlightenment? Did not his failure to grasp the essence/energies distinction and thus the way of divinization lead him to a legalistic, deterministic view of human nature?

The accusations of the East are all the more serious for being Christian accusations. The nature of God, the purpose of humanity, and the way of salvation are matters of highest moment. If Augustine deviated from the Christian tradition in these areas, it is a serious failure indeed. Yet, it is difficult to answer the charges, largely because they remain vague. Eastern critics of Augustine for the most part have not integrated themselves into the scholarly community, and as such their criticisms often do not interact with the secondary literature and may make idiosyncratic and selective use of the primary literature. Also, a figure in the Eastern tradition is often used as a standard of judgment; if Augustine is to be condemned for not being Gregory Nazianzen or Gregory Palamas, it may be impossible to exonerate him to the satisfaction of Eastern eyes. Thus, we are left with incommensurable judgments.

Yet, perhaps Augustine can throw a challenge to the East, and on some of the very points for which he is criticized. The pursuit of supra-rational divinization can be seen as opting out of the hard work of integrating science, philosophy, and theology. It is appealing insofar as it is anti-elitist, but it leaves the question open of whether there is any unity to our human experience. Can my Christianity truly inform my thinking, or do I simply take comfort in the Jesus prayer as I go about my daily existence? In Augustinian terms, one might wonder whether the East has a tendency to forgo the intellectual journey toward the homeland and content itself with a long-distance phone call, one that encourages a strong foundationalism regarding theology and a relativism regarding everything else. Also, the critique of eudemonism can be seen as an attempt to gain a supra-volitional status, in which a creature’s end no longer falls within that creature’s consideration. Both the alleged rationalism and eudemonism of Augustine could be interpreted rather as the insistence that the pathway home lies in and through the human faculties of reason and will, not by circumventing them. If Augustine offers to the decadent West the hope of a homeland, perhaps he offers to the reticent East the hope of a journey.


[1] Augustine is a foundationalist insofar as he believes there are axiomatic or self-evident truths. But I do not think he is a foundationalist in the sense that he believes one can erect an entire intellectual system on them.

[2] “Play.” Perhaps postmodernity has grasped the logic of modernity better than the moderns ever did.

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Published in: on March 26, 2013 at 9:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Petrarch and St. Augustine by Alexander Lee

Alexander Lee. Petrarch and St. Augustine: Classical Scholarship, Christian Theology and the Origins of the Renaissance in Italy. Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History 210. Leiden: Brill. 2012. Pp. x + 382.  Hardcover.

A review of Lee’s Petrarch and St. Augustine could also be a definitio status quaestionis, both for Petrarch’s use of Augustine and for Petrarch’s relationship to later Italian humanists. This volume reviews the current scholarly consensus on these questions and directly challenges them on almost every point. The opening chapter is a critique of common methods used to interpret Petrarch. The following chapters vary between more textually oriented and more topically oriented investigations: Stoicism in Secretum, otium in De otio religioso, solitudo in De vita solitaria, amicitia in various works, and the relationship between eloquence and philosophy throughout Petrarch’s career. In each case, Lee concludes that classical influences have been overstated while Augustine’s has been underappreciated. Furthermore, Lee reads Petrarch’s moral thought as self-consistent and straightforwardly based on St. Augustine’s early moral theology. Petrarch uses classical authors selectively and creatively to create an Augustinian-classical synthesis in which Augustine’s theology is dominant. Finally, Lee argues that Petrarch’s grounding in Augustine’s early works sets him apart from later Italian humanists, making his “forerunner” status more symbolic than direct.

Lee sees his project as both continuous with and transcending earlier scholarship. Scholars from Burkhardt to the early twentieth century tended to view Petrarch as the founding father of a humanist school interested in recovering classical antiquity. From the 1920s onward, the Christian and specifically Augustinian components of his thought began to receive attention, but he was still being described as eclectic and inconsistent. This supposition of inconsistency received support when Kristeller’s characterization of humanism as a movement concerned primarily with rhetoric became dominant. Kristeller also continued to view Petrarch as a founding father of humanism. Charles Trinkaus took more interest in humanists as religious thinkers and also acknowledged Augustine as an inspiration, but continued to view Augustine more as an exemplar of subjectivity and bridge to the classical world rather than as the source of a coherent moral philosophy. Recent years have brought many works on the relationship of Petrarch to St. Augustine, but have not significantly altered the framework of the discussion. Until this one.

Lee believes that two erroneous assumptions have misled most scholars up to this point. The first is what he calls “a question of attribution.” Scholars have tended to assume that when Petrarch quotes from a classical author, he endorses that author’s thought, and perhaps also the philosophical system represented by that author. In short, citation implies agreement. The second, and related, error is assuming that Petrarch perceived himself to be navigating monolithic bodies of thought.  In particular, scholars have treaded “Augustinianism” as a hegemonic concept. Lee stresses the diversity of Augustine’s thought and argues that, depending on which books one reads, or how one reads some works in the light of others, very different Augustinianisms could result. Thus, it is wrong to evaluate Petrarch’s Augustinianism against any single modern reconstruction of Augustinianism.

As an antidote to these errors, Lee reminds readers that quotation does not signal affirmation. Petrarch read classical texts from his Christian perspective and had no problem quoting from texts, even when he disagreed sharply with some of the ideas contained therein. Petrarch practiced a creative style of authorial recombination, in which elements of earlier authors were remolded into an entirely new synthesis. He could borrow extensively from Cicero or Seneca without being in the least Stoic. Denying that quotations affirm the views of their authors, the modern interpreter is free to read Petrarch’s works as synthetic wholes rather than as collections of fragments.

These differences in method lead to strongly revisionist conclusions. Lee reads the Secretum as a straightforward piece of moral instruction. Contrary to most interpreters, Lee believes that intellect rather than will is primary for Petrarch. He points to how Augustinus tells Franciscus that no one who truly understood his misery would stay in it. Augustinus’ remedy, meditation on death, is drawn from Augustine’s De vera religione and Soliloquies. The purpose is to give self-knowledge, which will wean the soul away from the sensory and direct it toward the intellectual, so that reason can properly move the will. Lee reads the key assertion, “It is better to will the good than to know the truth,” not as affirming voluntarism but as censuring Aristotle’s failure to recognize that the proper end of knowledge is true happiness. Knowledge is primary, but only as directed properly to love of God and not to curiosity. Likewise, the seeming disagreement between Augustinus and Franciscus over grace and ability is resolved according to the interplay of grace, reason, and human action found in Augustine’s early treatises. If Lee’s reading of Petrarch stands, it could considerably distance Petrarch from later humanists such as Salutati, a clear voluntarist. It would also distance him from Salutati’s predestinarianism, drawn (Lee claims) from Augustine’s later works.

The next two chapters, on otium and solitudo, overlap considerably, since the concepts are similar. Lee stresses that where Petrarch departs noticeably from classical concepts, he does so in ways reminiscent of Augustine and of the later Christian tradition. Unlike classical authors, but like Augustine, Petrarch casts otium and solitudo in terms that refer primarily to the resolution of interior tension rather than to physical location. A city dweller may be virtuous, though with difficulty; likewise, a trouble man carries his cares with him to the wilderness. The purpose of otium and solitudo is to find the knowledge of God essential to salvation, a knowledge that includes corporeal mortality and the vanity of worldly things. The exposition reinforces Lee’s earlier argument for the priority of the intellect over the will. Lee finds significant verbal and conceptual parallels between Petrarch’s treatment of otium and Augustine’s in Enarrationes in Psalmos 45. Again, this distinctively Augustinian approach calls into question Petrarch’s relationship with later humanists, whose similarly titled treatises were concerned more with the classical debate over the active vs. the contemplative life.

The chapter on friendship, a comparatively unexplored field, is quite diffuse and acknowledges significant continuities between Petrarch’s and classical authors’ concepts. However, Lee highlights the importance of placing amicitia within the Christian moral context of amor, a context heavily influenced by Augustine’s view of love as orientation.

The chapter on the relationship between eloquence and philosophy is highly controversial. Lee notes that many scholars, such as Trinkaus and Siegel, read Petrarch as asserting the superiority of eloquence over philosophy. In contrast, Lee divides Petrarch’s thinking on the topic into three phases, in which his ideas remain essentially consistent but reach more systematic expression. In Petrarch’s mature phase, he viewed philosophy as the source of moral wisdom and described it as a tree with many branches. Eloquence was one of those branches, a τέχνη that employed various figural devices to communicate and instill the love of good found in moral philosophy. It is dialectic rather than philosophy itself that Petrarch censures. Petrarch’s use of eloquence as means rather than end echoes Augustine’s treatment of rhetoric in De doctrina christiana, as well as medieval commentary on it. Also, Petrarch’s relative lack of interest in the res publica distances him from certain classical authors. If Petrarch’s humanism is more Augustinian than classical, Kristeller’s characterization of Petrarch as the forerunner of Italian humanists needs reworking. This opens space between Petrarch and Salutati, who views eloquence less as an expression of moral philosophy and more as an aid to philosophical learning.

Petrarch and St. Augustine is a formidable piece of scholarship, quite long and audacious in scope. Yet, I am left with a few areas of nagging concern. First, though I agree with Lee’s methodological starting point regarding questions of attribution, I am not convinced that the scholars whom he criticizes are always so guilty of it. Especially more recent scholars operating with a more literary approach are keenly aware of Petrarch’s philosophy of authorial creativity. Carol Quillen discusses the issue at some length, yet still concludes that Augustine’s influence on Petrarch is deeply ambiguous. One might turn the issue back on Lee. If Petrarch values not strict repetition but creative recombination, how is it that Lee reads him as unequivocally restating Augustine?

A related concern is whether Lee is flattening Petrarch. One of the joys of reading the Ascent of Mt. Ventoux or Secretum is the ambiguity. In the Ascent, Petrarch’s awareness begins to dawn in the valley, and when the moment of enlightenment comes at the peak, the result is a subversion of expectations. The desire to ascend is rebuked rather than confirmed, and Petrarch’s “conversion” is disappointing compared to its literary archetype’s. Yet Lee describes this as “a Christian conversion drama.” Likewise, the reader of Secretum is captivated by the witty back-and-forth between Augustinus and Franciscus, and the conclusion certainly appears to be open-ended. Whereas more literary scholars have taken this as evidence of real struggle or uncertainty in Petrarch, Lee reads the text as a one-sided moral lesson. It is unfortunately too common that a great intellect’s work is simplified and flattened by later interpreters, but Lee would have us believe that a simple treatise has been universally complexified by scholars. I am not sure that Lee accounts for Petrarch’s playful polyvalence. Has the pendulum swung too far back from form to content?

Another concern regards Lee’s appeal to Augustine. He criticizes those who have a monolithic view of Augustinianism, suggesting instead that scholars respect the diversity of Augustine’s thought and the multiplicity of possible readings. Yet, Lee himself seems to be dependent on a particular kind of periodization, in which Augustine’s early moral and rational works form a consistent whole over against later, “fideistic” works. Lee does not explain what he means by calling Augustine’s later works fideistic, but it appears to entail a combination of voluntarism and predestinarianism. I acknowledge development in Augustine’s theology, but am skeptical that such a division of Augustine’s works is possible. However, because Lee stresses specific verbal and conceptual parallels between Petrarch and Augustine, his main points may hold even if some of his representations of Augustine are faulty.

Lee’s contribution is not easy to evaluate. The new interpretations are so numerous and so drastically revisionary that it will take time for the scholarly community to assess them. However, this work has become the new first word on Petrarch and Augustine, due primarily to its impressive synthetic reach.[1] In casting Petrarch as an intellectualist rather than a voluntarist, and in putting distance between Petrarch and subsequent humanists, Lee’s work has the potential to alter significantly the received story of Italian humanism. In suggesting that differences between Petrarch and later humanists could be caused by their different ways of appropriating Augustine, he opens the door to much more nuanced accounts of St. Augustine’s reception in the Renaissance. No longer can Augustine be viewed merely as a symbol of the humanists’ Christian attachment or as an exemplar of interiority. He merits attention as a true intellectual source alongside classical influences.


[1] Meredith Gill, Augustine in the Italian Renaissance, offers readings of Mt. Ventoux and Secretum, but devotes only about 30 pages to Petrarch. Carol Quillen, Rereading the Renaissance: Petrarch, Augustine, and the Language of Humanism, provides a counterpoint to Lee’s work, but confines itself mainly to literary matters. Evelyn Luciani, Les confessions de saint Augustin dans les lettres de Pétrarque, provides extensive philological research within a narrow range, but little synthesis.

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on November 1, 2012 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Blended Parables: St. Augustine’s Footprints by the Starfish?

One day, though I can’t remember when it was or how I got there, I was strolling along the seashore. In the distance, I spied a small boy slowly making his way down the shoreline. As I came closer, I realized that he was picking up starfish, which were littering this beach to an absurd degree. One at a time, he would throw the starfish back into the ocean. When I reached him, I addressed him abruptly: “It makes no difference. There are too many of them. And they’re washing up faster than you can throw them back in. You’re just wasting your time.”

At this, the boy froze, starfish in hand. He dropped it back on the beach, and sauntered over to me, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Of course the starfish don’t matter,” he quipped derisively, “This is about you. And could you have walked any slower? I’ve been doing this all morning just waiting for you to notice so I could spin my clever moral allegory.” As I reeled from this sudden reversal, he pressed on.

“Isn’t throwing starfish exactly what you’re doing, you would-be Augustine scholar? You want to study one of the world’s most complex thinkers. Yet you have so little hope of even finishing his works, 5 million words written in a Latin that Erasmus described as ‘ talkative, wrapping up much information in tortuous sentences, which requires a reader who is experienced, shrewd, careful, endowed with a good memory and willing to do tedious, hard work.’ And it is not clear that you are such a reader.

“Even if you were somehow to finish his works, you have no hope of keeping up with the secondary literature. It’s being written not only in English, French, and German, but also in Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Polish. Good luck learning all those. Even then, you have no hope of reading more than a fraction of the studies already listed in the Augustinus Lexikon‘s bibliography, and the Revue d’Etudes augustiniennes et patristiques lists hundreds more each year. As for your interest in later Augustinianism, do you not realize that the forthcoming Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine is 2250 pages and contains only overview articles? You’d be better off saving starfish.”

At that point he handed me a starfish to make his point. Standing still staring stupidly at the starfish, I stammered, “But… I like studying Augustine.” He rewarded me with a patronizing nod. “I know, I know. The difficulty of reading Augustine and the sheer quantity of work keep you from recognizing the utter futility of it all. But speaking of the old bishop, I have an appointment with him in a few minutes, and I’m delivering some bad news. So get lost.”

Had I not been in such a state of disequilibrium, I might have challenged the chronological possibility of the boy’s statement. But I submissively shuffled off away from the ocean. Then the boy called out to me one last revelation: “Oh, and the mystery of the one set of footprints? It’s because Jesus walks on water.” At least that made sense.

Published in: on October 4, 2012 at 10:27 am  Comments (2)  

The Justice Game: A Patristic Critique of the Reformed Tradition

Predestination was the topic of a fierce debate between the Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The historian Roland Bainton expressed the debate as Erasmus’ plaintive cry, “Let God be good!” and Luther’s resolute reply, “Let God be God!” Both theologians were much more nuanced in their arguments, but Bainton captured a valid insight. Advocates of predestination, when pressed, tend to emphasize God’s rights over his creatures.

The Reformed tradition, which issued out of the theological insights of Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and others, has integrated this stress on God’s sovereignty into all aspects of its theological system. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, immediately after defining God, discusses God’s eternal decree, by which he “freely, and unchangeably ordain[ed] whatsoever comes to pass.” The Confession then treats creation, and then defines providence: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least.” In each case, the Confession mentions God’s power as coordinate with his wisdom and goodness, but the first impression of God gleaned from the Confession is his awesome power and absolutely strict control over creation.

Likewise, God’s rights over creation are expressed in the Reformed theology of worship. Calvin’s Institutes reserves its harshest criticism for idolatry, the hubris that humans exhibit when they seek to worship God on their own terms. From that premise, the Puritans developed the regulative principle of worship, which states that whatever God has not commanded is forbidden in public worship. Human invention in worship is wholly negative. A similar logic governs the Confession’s treatment of good works: “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.” Ironically enough for an anti-Catholic document, doing good seems to be mostly a matter of learning the rules well and following them to the letter. Neither virtue nor discernment receives a mention.

Predestination, of course, is the issue that demonstrates most brusquely the Reformed appeal to God’s untrammeled rights over creation. Calvin himself, it is true, approached the subject with a pastoral humility, and never reveled in the “horrible decree” of reprobation. And, it must also be admitted that the appeal to God’s rights has at least some scriptural foundation. In Romans 9, Paul answers the objection of the vessels of dishonor not by explaining God’s logic, but by denying their right to object. Yet, one wonders whether the appeal to Romans 9 doesn’t come a bit too quickly and glibly from the mouths of Reformed theologians, who perhaps have responded to concerns about God’s justice and goodness merely by reaffirming his sovereignty.

The Church Fathers may offer a helpful insight. Their discussions of Christ’s atonement wrestled with God’s power and justice. When the Fathers explain the meaning of Christ’s death, they employ a panorama of metaphors that cannot easily be condensed into a single logically consistent theory, but two major themes stand out. First, the Christus Victor leitmotif represents Jesus’ death as a cosmic triumph, liberating humanity from the dominion of dark spiritual forces. Second, the ransom idea envisions Jesus as in some way buying back humanity from the Devil, who as a consequence of the Fall came to have certain powers and rights over people, including the power of death. The ransom idea was always a bit murky, as it is not clear whether the ransom is paid to God or to the Devil, or whether Jesus in some way tricked the Devil into this arrangement. Often the Christus Victor and the ransom concepts are found mixed together in the same Father.

The looming question regarding these two presentations is why the death of Christ is necessary. If the purpose of Christ’s death is to free humanity, couldn’t that be achieved much more easily by raw divine power? Surely God could at any point snuff out the existence of the Devil and his minions. The Fathers unanimously affirm God’s capacity to overpower the Devil, but they assert that Christ’s death is a more fitting way for God to conquer him. The Devil gained his power over humanity illegitimately, by deceiving Eve. By contrast, Christ played entirely fair. He was born under the law and kept it perfectly. In the wilderness, he overcame the Devil’s temptations. As Jesus was flawlessly filling the role of God’s Messiah, the Devil decided to win at any cost. He possessed Judas, prompting him to deliver Jesus into the hands of a crucifying mob. But the Devil miscalculated. In taking the life of a sinless person, he overstepped his bounds and was thus deprived of his earlier prize, humanity. Surely some of the details are a bit strange, and one would not be blamed for choosing to explain the atonement through other metaphors and theories. Yet, a striking insight remains.

The cross, according to the Fathers, is a demonstration arranged by God to show how he is different from the Devil. God’s superiority is not merely overwhelming power, but more significantly, unimpeachable righteousness. Whereas the Devil uses his superior power over humans to deceive and kill them, God restrains his power to win humanity back in a way that respects the rules of fair play, even  when playing against the Cheater himself. In so doing, God sets an example for humanity, that justice is more desirable than power. Augustine explains it in a beautiful passage:

The devil would have to be overcome not by God’s power, but by his justice. What, after all, could be more powerful than the all-powerful, or what creature’s power could compare with the creator’s? The essential flaw of the devil’s perversion made him a lover of power and a deserter and assailant of justice, which means that human beings imitate him all the more thoroughly the more they neglect or even detest justice and studiously devote themselves to power, rejoicing at the  possession of it or inflamed with the desire of it. So it pleased God to deliver man from the devil’s authority by beating him at the justice game, not the power game, so that humans too might imitate Christ by seeking to beat the devil at the justice game, not the power game (On the Trinity 13.17).

Reformed theology has not been wholly insensitive to concerns about God’s goodness and justice, but a prevalent style of rhetoric and the general cast of the theological system can serve to negate this crucial patristic insight, that God is most fully recognized for who he is, not when he is praised for his excellent power and minute control, but when he restricts his infinity and his sovereignty to make room for finite, rational creatures. May God teach us to play and win at the justice game.

Augustine’s Three Points Against the Pelagians

Augustine’s last theological battle, which was not concluded at the time of his death, was against the Pelagians, a group of theologians who assigned a larger role in salvation to human initiative. Having already written many works against them,  Augustine wrote De dono perseverantiae (The Gift of Perseverance) in 428/429 to some of his friends to confirm them in their theology and answer some questions. In particular, he stressed three doctrines against the Pelagians:

For there are three points, as you know, which the Catholic Church especially defends against them. One of them is that the grace of God is not given according to our merits, because all the merits of the righteous are also the gifts of God and conferred by the grace of God. The second is that no one can live in this corruptible body without some sins, no matter how great one’s righteousness is. The third is that a human being is born subject to the sin of the first man and bound by the chain of condemnation unless the guilt which is contracted by birth is removed by rebirth. (3.6, trans. Roland Teske)

Augustine’s legacy is mixed. Each of these points  has been extended, muted, retained, or denied by various Christians over the course of the centuries. Late medieval nominalists such as Gregory Biel wondered whether God could give grace in response to merit, surely not in a strict 1:1 ratio, but on a curve. Wesleyans and other perfectionists take umbrage at the second assertion: if one can avoid any individual sin, then why not every sin? Many medievals and certain Arminians affirm the third statement, but in an attenuated form. Most forms of distinctly modern theology openly deny it, as it contradicts the spirit of progress and individuality. 

Love or hate Augustine, the history of Christianity and even civilization in the West grapples with the same issues he raised. To be ignorant of Augustine is to leave a chasm in one’s education.

To Augustine Project

Published in: on March 30, 2012 at 11:21 am  Comments (2)  
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Love and St. Augustine’s Weight Problem

“My weight is my love.” (Pondus meum amor meus.) ~ Confessions 13.9.10
 “You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (Fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te.) ~ Confessions 1.1

Love is, quite literally, the burning heart of Augustinian theology. Love determines all of our human existence and is the greatest of the gifts of the Spirit. Augustine speaks of love as a kind of “weight,” a metaphor that is easily lost on a contemporary reader. In order to understand it, one needs a bit of knowledge about the pre-Newtonian concept of “gravity” (our very word comes from the Latin gravitas, “weight”).

Ancients knew that some things, such as rocks, tend to fall down, and that other things, such as smoke, tend to rise. They explained this in terms of the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. All objects are made up of some combination of these four elements, a solution not entirely unlike our modern atomic theory, except that we have many more elements. However, they also believed that each element had a proper realm. The air realm was the highest, the earth realm the lowest, and the other two intermediary. Thus, in this theory, every object has a proper place, depending on its elemental makeup, and will strive to come to that place. When it succeeds, it is at rest and will remain there until disturbed by some other force. That’s why rocks fall when dropped and smoke rises unless trapped. “Weight,” then, is the place something naturally occupies in the cosmos.

Augustine applies this concept not to the human body, but to the soul. What makes the difference between higher (better) and lower (worse) souls? What is the elemental composition of a soul? Here enters Augustine’s dictum, “My weight is my love.” The human being is uniquely capable of loving different things. Some love honor, some money, some pleasure. But, and this is Augustine’s point, the soul does not remain unaffected by its love. It is transformed into what it loves. A soul that loves transitory, insubstantial things becomes merely a shadow. A soul that loves heavenly things becomes heavenly itself.

Now enters the second quote from Confessions. Augustine realizes that there is a difference between the soul’s weight, based on its current love, and its true weight, engraved by the design of the Creator. That is, a soul may be being pulled down by base loves, and yet, even as it descends, it does not reach the repose that objects attain when they reach their place. Our created purpose, to love God alone for his own sake and other things for God’s sake, still retains a pull on us, even as we reject it. Thus, the way to find repose, to reach one’s place, is to love God. As one loves God, one’s soul becomes godlike (in a human way). The path of righteousness is the path to God is the path to rest.

How does one come to love God? By being first loved by God. Jesus, the Word who was with God and was God, came from his place to our place. He showed us the way of righteousness, the way of humility. On the cross, he bore our hate to heal our love. For all those who come  in faith, the waters of baptism are the font of the Spirit, who sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:1). By living the Jesus-like life in faith, hope, and love, the soul ascends to God, where it attains its true weight and finds repose.

Published in: on February 17, 2012 at 11:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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Augustine – Promise and Predestination

In his work The Predestination of the Saints, Augustine argues that God brings about the very faith and good works that lead to man’s salvation. In the course of the argument, he brings up the promise God made to Abraham. The very nature of a promise, Augustine asserts, is that it must be accomplished by the one who made it. What God promises, he must himself fulfill. Since God promised “the faith of the nations” to Abraham, faith must come ultimately from God, not man:

God therefore promised to Abraham in his offspring the faith of the nations when he said, I have made you the father of many nations (Gn 17:4-5). Because of this the Apostle says, Therefore, on the basis of faith in order that the promise according to grace may be firm for every descendant (Rom 4:16). God made this promise not on the basis of the power of our will but on the basis of his predestination. For he promised what he himself was going to do, not what human beings were going to do. For, though human beings do good actions which pertain to worshiping God, he himself brings it about that they do what he commands; they do not bring it about that he does what he promised. Otherwise, it would lie not in God’s power but in the power of human beings that God’s promises are kept, and human beings themselbes would give to Abraham what God promised.

But Abraham did not believe in that way; rather, giving glory to God, he believed that he is also able to do what he promised (Rom 4:20-21). He does not say, To foretell; he does not say, To foreknow. For he can also foretell and foreknow what others do. Rather, he says, He is also able to do—and, for this reason, to do, not what others do, but what he himself does. (praed. sanct. 10.19, trans. Roland Teske)

Published in: on February 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Three Free E-books on Augustine

Rummaging through the internet, I’ve discovered a few gems in various archives.

The first and oldest e-book is The Life and Labors of Augustine by Philip Schaff. Schaff was one of the great church historians of the 19th century. His editions of the church fathers and works on Christian creeds are still used today. Here, in less than 100 pages, he has crafted a powerful portrait of Augustine, with all the polish one adores in a 19th-century man of letters.

The second e-book is Augustine & The Pelagian Controversy by B. B. Warfield. Warfield was the last great old-school Presbyterian at Princeton. Writing at the inception of the 20th-century, he somehow defied the fragmentation of the theological encyclopedia. History, systematics, exegesis, and polemics all hang together in his corpus, and exquisitely so. This book, though, is remarkably free from polemics. The staunch Calvinist writing on Augustine’s theology of grace makes not one explicit reference to Roman Catholicism or Arminianism.

Finally, there is one modern book that should be of special interest to scholars: Augustine’s Philosophy of Mind by Gerard O’Daly. O’Daly is a classicist who has written extensively on cognition, self, and argumentative method in late antique authors. The present work is the only significant modern monograph that seeks to present holistically Augustine’s conception of the nature and activities of “mind” or “soul” (not merely the human soul). This topic is immensely important to understand Augustine as a philosopher. Thus, O’Daly’s work is not one scholars can afford to ignore.

Published in: on September 21, 2011 at 8:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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Augustine on Christian Worship

In Book 10 of City of God, Augustine explains what Christianity teaches concerning God that separates it from the more monotheistic Greek philosophies. It serves furthermore as a summary of his theology of worship.

To Him we owe the service which is called in Greek λατρεία, whether we render it outwardly or inwardly; for we are all His temple, each of us severally and all of us together, because He condescends to inhabit each individually and the whole harmonious body, being no greater in all than in each, since He is neither expanded nor divided.  Our heart when it rises to Him is His altar; the priest who intercedes for us is His Only-begotten; we sacrifice to Him bleeding victims when we contend for His truth even unto blood; to Him we offer the sweetest incense when we come before Him burning with holy and pious love; to Him we devote and surrender ourselves and His gifts in us; to Him, by solemn feasts and on appointed days, we consecrate the memory of His benefits, lest through the lapse of time ungrateful oblivion should steal upon us; to Him we offer on the altar of our heart the sacrifice of humility and praise, kindled by the fire of burning love.  It is that we may see Him, so far as He can be seen; it is that we may cleave to Him, that we are cleansed from all stain of sins and evil passions, and are consecrated in His name.  For He is the fountain of our happiness, He the end of all our desires.  Being attached to Him, or rather let me say, re-attached,—for we had detached ourselves and lost hold of Him,—being, I say, re-attached[1] to Him, we tend towards Him by love, that we may rest in Him, and find our blessedness by attaining that end. For our good, about which philosophers have so keenly contended, is nothing else than to be united to God.  It is, if I may say so, by spiritually embracing Him that the intellectual soul is filled and impregnated with true virtues.  We are enjoined to love this good with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength.  To this good we ought to be led by those who love us, and to lead those we love.  Thus are fulfilled those two commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets:  “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy soul;” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

[1] Augustine here remarks, in a clause that cannot be given in English, that the word religio is derived from religere, literally “to bind back.”

Published in: on July 14, 2011 at 10:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Christ’s Resurrection and Paul’s Apostolic Authority

“Paul, an apostle.” The Epistle to the Galatians unveils, more than any other writing, the Apostle Paul’s understanding of his own calling and commission. Augustine mines Paul’s salutation for theological sustenance. In particular, he meditates on the ramifications of the apostle being not from human beings (non ab hominibus) nor through a human being (non per hominem). He exploits the difference between the Latin “ab,” indicating ultimate source, and “per,” indicating instrumentality. He is right to make this distinction, as the Latin reflects the Greek απο and δια.

Anyone sent from human beings is untruthful. Someone sent through a human being may be truthful, because God who is truthful may send through a human being. Therefore someone sent neither from human beings nor through a human being but through God is truthful because of him who makes truthful even those sent through a human being. Thus the earlier apostles, who were sent not from human beings but by God through a human being—that is, through Jesus Christ while he was still mortal—were truthful. And the last apostle, who was sent by Jesus Christ now wholly God after his resurrection, is also truthful. The earlier apostles are those sent by Christ while he was still in part a human being, that is, mortal; the last is the apostle Paul, sent by Christ now wholly God, that is, immortal in every respect. The authority of Paul’s witness should therefore be regarded as equal to theirs, since the glorification of the Lord compensated for any lack of honour attributable to the lateness of his commission. For this reason when he said, and God the Father, he added, who raised him from the dead, so as to state, if only briefly, that he was sent by the Glorified One.

Referring to Jesus as “still in part a human being” and “now wholly God” is alarming. However, Augustine doesn’t seem to intend anything by this except a distinction between Christ’s mortal human nature and his post-resurrection immortal nature.  “Mortal” and “divine”  are routinely contrasted in the Fathers. More interesting is the issue of Paul’s late calling. If Augustine is correct, Paul was executing an aikido throw, employing his opponent’s own momentum to disarm them.

Some Galatians might assume that the first apostles would rank higher than any subsequent apostles, just as some contemporary theologians rank the early Fathers higher than subsequent doctors of the Church. Perhaps later apostles would even derive their authority from earlier ones. However, Paul leverages his late apostolic status to his advantage by pointing out its source. Whereas the other apostles were commissioned during Christ’s period of humiliation, in which he took the form of a servant, Paul alone was appointed directly by the risen Christ, in the form of God.

Though neither Paul nor Augustine explicitly reference the Great Commission, it is there that the risen Christ declares that “all authority” (εξουσια) is given to him. We might read between both Augustine’s and Paul’s statements that, if push came to shove, a delegate of the risen Christ might be even more authoritative than the appointees of the mortal Jesus. In any case, Paul’s installation directly by Christ rules out any possibility of inferior status.

Published in: on June 21, 2011 at 2:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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