Barton Gingerich, emergent, free will, heresy, history, Institute on Religion and Democracy, IRD Blog, Manichaean, original sin, Pelagian, philosophy, predestination, St. Augustine, teaching, theology
“Beauty grows in you to the extent that love grows, because charity itself is the soul’s beauty.” ~ St. Augustine of Hippo
I’m glad I checked my Churchman’s Ordo Kalendar this morning. It’s the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo! One of the greatest gifts of my classical liberal arts education was the guided reading of his City of God. He stands as the most influential theologian for Western Christianity aside from the apostles. Unfortunately, many forget that this preeminent Doctor of the Church heralded from North Africa, shining as a witness for a vibrant Christian community that eventually found itself subjugated by Muslim invaders.
Even more distressing is progressive Christianity’s rejection of St. Augustine and his teachings. I have noticed that emergent Christians and others from the Evangelical Left especially distance themselves from his influence and slight his instruction. I shouldn’t be surprised: the ancient theologian embodies nearly everything they despise. He elucidated foundational Christian doctrine on a vast spread of topics—all with winsomeness, clarity, depth, and powerful argument. As such, emergents have to dislodge him if they are to have their own way.
Look at but a few examples. First, Augustine provided one of the first comprehensive cases for Just War Theory in the Christian tradition. To the committed pacifists of the Evangelical Left, such a development endures as a blight upon the church’s customary ethical understanding. Furthermore, the Augustinian two cities construction—where Christians share a dual citizenship in the fallen City of Man and the eternal City of God—throws a wrench into liberal hopes for social perfection.
Evangelical leftists despise that the good bishop renewed the ancient faith’s doctrine of original sin. Emergents similarly find Augustine’s views on marriage, chastity, and sexually an aberration and cause for much sexual dysfunction in the medieval era. Post-Reformation scholars have debated this significant problem, but it helps to remember that, before his conversion, Augustine struggled with lust and sexual sin. He saw the primal passions of sexuality as dangerous and worthy of a moral hedge (this is the actual target for revisionists). Some may find it fitting that, after his conversion, he founded a monastic order as well as raised his own illegitimate son.
Soon, the progressive complaints attest to an authority problem. Augustine’s firm rejection of heresy—replete with threats of excommunication and eventual damnation to boot—scares the more “enlightened” mores of theological liberalism. Arians, Pelagians, Manichaeans, and Donatists all suffered the righteous wrath and devastating logic of his mighty pen. It must be remembered that these controversies had political and social dimensions that we rarely think about in the 21st century.
More crucially, revisionists of all stripes gripe about Augustine’s doctrine of interpretation. In many ways, he is the arch anti-Marcion. The bishop of Hippo firmly believed that the Bible, as God’s Word written, is entirely true and without contradiction. The limits and frailties of the fallen human mind might have a hard time understanding two portions of Scripture at first, but exegetes must not simply choose one over the other. Instead, paradox oftentimes haunts the faith. Also, supposed clashes of texts may result from an indolent reading of Scripture. Augustine offered a helpful interpretational tool pastors and seminarians still use today: clearer passages of the Bible interpret cloudier ones. All too often, sinful man refuses the hard work of harmonizing the Bible, especially if he finds its truths to be inconvenient. Thus, for revisionists, St. Augustine marks a point in church history where “everything goes wrong.” Of course, these detractors assume that these doctrines weren’t already in place throughout the church’s life.
I can’t help noticing that Augustine’s CV stacks up better than the entire emergent leadership’s bibliography combined. His Confessions may be the best devotional authored by man. He is perhaps the first great philosopher of time and eternity. He struggled with man’s free will and predestination like none other. His tracts and epistles preserve the ancient catechetical practices of our spiritual forbears. Augustine elucidated important aspects of the sacraments and provided the popular allegorical understanding of the Genesis creation story. He composed a great theme for the Christian pilgrim song.
I hope that thinking Christians on the sidelines of this debate realize that time with Hippo’s bishop is well spent—better than the latest regurgitation of postmodern literary theory’s effect on Christian belief. Augustinian theology cannot but establish and strengthen one’s spiritual development. Don’t simply take my word for it. TOLLE LEGE.