Progressives Would Rain on St. Augustine’s Parade

on August 28, 2012

“Beauty grows in you to the extent that love grows, because charity itself is the soul’s beauty.” ~ St. Augustine of Hippo

Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli, 1480

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.

  1. Comment by cynthia curran on August 28, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    This is true, the Eastern Churches disagree with him on sin but they accepted his moral teaching which was standard in the early medieval church west and east.

  2. Comment by John Petty on August 29, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Nice paean to Augustine, but liberals aren’t as down on him as you suggest. For one thing, you are incorrect to give the impression that Augustine would fit into a modern-day inerrantist category. He most certainly would not.

    Actually, other than his clear confusion (and hypocrisy) on sexuality, and the resultant “sin-as-STD” theory, liberals don’t have as much problem with Augustine as you might think.

  3. Comment by Captain DG on August 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    If Augustine is a hypocrite on sexuality then no man can reform himself.

  4. Comment by Mark on August 29, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    I don’t think Augustine went back to bohemian sexual behavior after his conversion. Therefore, “hypocrisy” is not an accurate descriptor of his character.

  5. Comment by Fr. John W. Morris on August 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    It is important to remember that Augustine of Hippo had virtually no influence on the theological development of the Christian East. He only represents one Father of the Church. His teachings were not universally accepted by the ancient Church. Augustine’s teachings such as his view of original sin that we are all born totally depraved and guilty of the sin of Adam, and the doctrine of predestination and the denial of free will were caused partially by his inability to read the original Greek text of the New Testament which forced him to rely on a translation into Latin that all scholars agree was filled with errors, and by his over reaction to Pelagianiasm. These views were never accepted by the East. St. John Cassian’s 13 Conference is a much better expression of the consensus of the Fathers on the question of free will than Augustine’s writings. St. John Chrysostom, among others, has a more healthy and less negative view of humans sexuality than Augustine. When considering the teachings of the Fathers and the ancient Church it is important to look at all the Fathers not just one Father like Augustine, whose teachings are really significantly different from those found in the rest of the Patristric corpus.

    Fr. John W. Morris

  6. Comment by David J. Dunn on August 30, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Except when it comes to St. Maximus the Confessor, whose concept of the gnomic will shows heavy influence by Augustine (so does his willingness not to protest too much about the filioque).

    And when it comes to St. Gregory Palamas. Reinhard Flogaus has shown the Triads make use of several passages of De Trinitate, almost verbatim. Contrary to the opinion of Fr. Meyendorff and other neo-Palamists, the battle between Barlaam and Palamas was not simply a matter of the Eastern mystical tradition versus the rationalism of the West (which if you believe individuals like Michael Azkoul, is entirely Augustine’s fault). In fact, the Hesychast controversy depended largely on two different ways of reading Augustine.

    One can only say that Augustine’s “teachings are really significantly different from those found in the rest of the Patristic corpus” if one defines that corpus rather narrowly. In fact, that is what the history shows. This reading of Augustine shows all the signs of the de Regnon paradigm: a late 19th century French Catholic historian who argued for categorical differences between the East and West in the very way you describe. This paradigm was picked up by the younger generation of Russian emigrants to Paris, and through them (especially Lossky and Florovsky) made its way to the West, contributing to the perception that (as I heard one cradle complain), Eastern Orthodoxy is some kind of “exotic bird.” In short, this simple and dichotomous dismissal of St. Augustine as some kind of outlier is nothing more than what Peter Galadza has called, “polemical symbolic interactionism at its worst.”

  7. Comment by John Petty on August 29, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Cpt.DG is absolutely correct that “no man can reform himself,” and Fr. Morris is right all around.

  8. Comment by The Embryo Parson on August 30, 2012 at 12:22 am

    Interesting to see the Progs and the Orthodox more or less on the same side here.

  9. Comment by David J. Dunn on August 30, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Let’s not paint all Orthodox with the same brush, please. I guess the author might consider me progressive. I am also Orthodox, and I like Augustine.

  10. Comment by cynthia curran on August 31, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    Well, on sexual morality there is no different between Augustine or John Chrysostom, if John has a more positive view of sex it doesn’t mean that he didn’t condemn certain acts in strong language. Chrysostom dislike the theater of his day in the 5th century and he call actress that perform in such plays as water whores. Actress also took money for sex in those days besides act in dirty plays.

  11. Pingback by Progressives Parading with Augustine: A Response to Bart Gingerich | David J Dunn on September 2, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    […] other day, my friend Joel Miller tweeted me about a blog post by Bart Gingerich on why progressives don’t like Augustine. I still haven’t figured out […]

  12. Pingback by Theology on Parade, or “A Theo-Political Lollapalooza Rightly Understood as It Pertains to St. Augustine of Hippo, Most Reverend Bishop and Holy Doctor of the Church Universal” « Juicy Ecumenism on September 4, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    […] J. Dunn has kindly responded with a censure to my post on St. Augustine. It seems we are both fans of the bishop of Hippo, yet disagree on what that means […]

  13. Pingback by Bill Nye Evolution Denial Guy « Juicy Ecumenism on September 6, 2012 at 10:11 am

    […] allegorical readings of that book of the Bible which in no way contradict the findings of empirical science). Quite the contrary—any material prosperity afforded to us by empirical science is worthless […]

  14. Comment by Ben Welliver on September 9, 2012 at 10:07 am

    I just finished reviewing a couple of books by “Emergents,” and I see that they dislike Augustine for the simple reason that he used reason in elucidating the faith. Phyllis Tickle and others praise “paradox,” which translates as “2 + 2 = 4 – but not necessarily.” If the clear thinking found in the writings of Augustine were applied to Emergents (or any form of liberalism), their stances would be shown as absurd. Also, Augustine accepted the entire Bible as inspired and would never have countenanced the “cafeteria” approach that liberals use when deciding which parts of the Bible suit them.

  15. Comment by John Petty on September 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Augustine knew nothing of today’s “inerrantism,” and he was quite free in his own Biblical interpretation.

    As for the “liberal cafeteria approach,” I find that conservatives are at least as “pick-and-choosy” as liberals are–not that that’s a bad thing; picking and choosing is also known as “thinking for yourself.”

  16. Comment by Ben Welliver on September 10, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    Inerrantism isn’t the issue. Augustine did not believe the “days” of Genesis 1 were literal 24-hour days, nor did Calvin, nor do I. However, they (we) took the moral teaching of the New Testament to be normative for all time. Just because Augustine understood Genesis 1 “poetically” does not mean he was “free in his own biblical interpretation,” because he did not discard biblical morality. Augustine led a pretty wild sensuous youth, but once he converted to Christianity, he became celibate – unlike today’s liberals, who have eagerly cast aside the Bible’s ethics. (Exhibit A: those paragons of Christian decency, the distinguished Episcopal bishops of diverse genders.) In fact, Augustine owed his conversion to a passage from Romans that condemned the kind of life he had been leading. One of the wide chasms separating Christians from liberals is that liberals cannot conceive of a God who calls people to a high standard of morality.

    This inerrantism business is a red herring – as if, once a person admits the Bible is “wrong” about the creation story, then “You shall not commit adultery” must be wrong also. Liberals use inerrancy as a stick to beat Christians with, and it’s all a ruse. Most Christians I know accept some form of evolution (meaning that, technically, we aren’t inerrantists), but we don’t cast aside the Bible’s morality just because Genesis 1-3 are in what Calvin called a “poetic” style. Maybe some wimpy Christians get cowed by that “stupid inerrantist” accusation, but I don’t.

  17. Comment by Bart Gingerich on September 11, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Hear hear!

  18. Comment by John Petty on September 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    So I’m confused. You, apparently, can read Genesis 1 metaphorically without losing your ethics, but liberals aren’t able to manage this? Liberals are just chomping at the bit to go out and commit adultery?

    That has not been true in my experience. I’ve found that liberals and conservatives both have a pretty sorry record of keeping the commandments.

  19. Comment by Ben Welliver on September 11, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Bart, did you mean “Hear, hear!” as in “I like this,”
    “Here, here,” as in “You boys better play nice”?

  20. Comment by Ben Welliver on September 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    I guess the only difference is, the conservative might say “This feels so good – but I shouldn’t be doing this.” The liberal says, “This feels so good.”

    The idea of any divine “commandment” is foreign to to liberals. So is the concept of guilt. The brilliant and profound Woody Allen summed up liberalism as “the heart wants what it wants” (presumably he applied that to other organs also).

    I guess it comes down to perspective – the inability of the narcissist to comprehend anything greater than itself. The liberal enjoys life more, not having the encumbrance of a conscience, so I can see how liberalism would attract more people than conservatism. Having morals is quite a load to bear. Maybe that’s why liberals despise us – they think anyone who would deny himself anything he wants must be insane.

  21. Comment by John Petty on September 13, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    I don’t think you know many liberals. I know quite a few. I don’t recognize anything you have said as being representative of the liberals I know.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.