Nov 23 2009

Exploring the Twain 2

In the first post in this series, I introduced my thesis that Western theology is so tainted by a number of influences that did not affect the Eastern Church that the best way to evaluate Western theology is to start at the beginning, exploring where the West diverted from the East. I also proposed that the true “great schism” was a worldview split, and without understanding this aspect we can’t really appreciate the theological issues.

Father Michael Azkoul (an Orthodox Priest) appears to be a contemporary authority on this issue. He writes in a 1994 article:

Following the Holy Fathers, Orthodoxy uses science and philosophy to defend and explain her Faith. Unlike Roman Catholicism, she does not build on the results of philosophy and science. The Church does not seek to reconcile faith and reason. She makes no effort to prove by logic or science what Christ gave His followers to believe. If physics or biology or chemistry or philosophy lends support to the teachings of the Church, she does not refuse them. However, Orthodoxy is not intimidated by man’s intellectual accomplishments. She does not bow to them and change the Christian Faith to make it consistent with the results of human thought and science.

Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, places a high value on human reason. Its history shows the consequence of that trust. For example, in the Latin Middle Ages, the 13th century, the theologian-philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, joined “Christianity” with the philosophy of Aristotle. From that period til now, the Latins have never wavered in their respect for human wisdom; and it has radically altered the theology, mysteries and institutions of the Christian religion.

This difference of “philosophy of philosophy” explains much of the difference between East and West.  While Eastern scholars will make references to Plato, etc. (as does the Gospel of John with its discussion of the logos), it only borrows concepts as illustrations.  Augustine, who belonged to the Latin side, not the Greek, took a different approach.

Augustine – Saint or Heretic?

Augustine was a Manichaean as well as a neo-Platonist before he was a Christian, and a major focus of his thinking was merging his philosophical ideas with Christianity – ideas which included a continued belief in the eternal forms of Plato as existing alongside God, dualism, and the fallen man.  Augustine, who was largely unknown in the Eastern Church until the 14th Century or so, is the major shaper of Western Christianity, introducing – I’ll even say inventing – concepts like the doctrine of original sin and the total depravity of man.  His views not only heavily influenced the Roman Catholic Church, but also is the foundation for Reformed theology (Calvinism).

While accepted as a saint by the Orthodox, his ideas are largely rejected by them, with some recent Orthodox scholars taking the position that he was a heretic, and see him (rightly, I believe) as a major cause of the East-West schism.  Of course, the Orthodox don’t consider the Church Fathers to be inerrant, and some are more inerrant than others.  Augustine is seen as being in the “more” category.

What this means is, of course, that many of the doctrines and concepts that we take for granted, such as original sin, inherited guilt, total depravity, penal atonement, dualism, a Roman judicial interpretation of justification, and the concept of the “angry God” do not exist in the early church or in the Eastern church.  Furthermore many of these concepts are not Biblical or derived from Apostolic tradition, but began as philosophical beliefs that Augustine felt needed to be reconciled with Christianity.

Aquinas to Ockham to Luther

Thus began a Western tradition of basing theology on philosophy.  Subsequent to Augustine was Thomas Aquinas, who followed Aristotle instead of Plato.  Aquinas’ shift away from Plato caused a bit of strife in the Roman church, but eventually the majority of the church adopted his rationalistic approach. While Thomas still believed in a God limited by the eternal forms, he further altered Christian thought by basing all revelation on our 5 senses.

It wasn’t until William of Ockham (or Occam) – one of my heroes – that we got rid of the eternal forms, and finally back to a Biblical concept of God who actually had free will, who was not limited by some external ideals of “good,” “just,” and so on.   This is what Occam’s Razer was all about, but that’s another topic.  It was this school of thought – away from the limitations of Plato and Aristotle, and Augustine – that provided the backdrop for Martin Luther’s theology.  As I stated in my prior post, Luther also saw the error of basing theology on reason.   Luther also saw the error of Augustine’s concept of the angry God, instead finding that the Bible taught a loving God.  While Luther inherited much from Augustine – as did everyone – his theology was a major correction in a number of areas, and is probably the closest to the Eastern church than any other major Western theologian, even teaching the concept of theosis.  Calvin, however, is another story, and I’ll get to him soon.

So?

We now have a Western church tradition that has been tossed to and fro by every wind of philosophy.  Meanwhile, back East, nothing has changed.  They’ve had 7 major church councils to deal with some issues, but essentially nothing’s changed.  No new theories about the nature of God, no new theories about justification, and no need for a reformation.

My original question was, how can we find a pure expression of Christianity that is unaltered by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine or the Enlightenment?  Especially after Descartes, in the west, we’re pretty much toast.  Our worldview – our entire context for understanding the Bible and early church teaching – has been hijacked not once, but several times.  In this context, it seems that to even try to discuss evangelical theology is pretty much a bust.  Even if the church is semper reformanda (always reforming), it’s reforming into what? To the 1800’s?  The Reformation?  Augustine?  It seems to me that the only way to evaluate theology is to compare it to that of the Eastern Church; even if you don’t accept that as “true,” you have to admit it is the only theology free from all of the Western baggage.

Again, I’m still a rationalist.  But, God does call for us to think, just not to let our ability to understand control our belief.

NOTE:  A friend on Facebook questioned my comment, “I’m still a rationalist.”  It was a poor choice of words, or at least not adequately explained.  What I meant was that I’ve been steeped in Western rationalism, and still naturally think like a rationalist.  However, I am not a rationalist in the sense that I don’t limit my ability to believe on my – or someone else’s – ability to understand or explain something.


Jul 6 2009

Augustine was a trouble-maker

Augustine ultimately attempted to weld together philosophical motions of the divine essence to the tenets of the Christian faith and, in so doing, allowed the content of Christian faith to be determined by the logic of philosphical rationalism.  The rationalization of theology by Augustine would be a fateful move that would determine western thinking about God, through Descartes and, ultimately, ending in the atheistic nihilism of Nietzeche. – from Orthodox Readings of Augustine By George Demacopoulos, Aristotle Papanikolaou

It’s true that Augustine was the Church’s great champion of grace, defeating the Pelagian heresy (of course, never mind that evangelicalism has to a large part reverted to Pelagianism).  However, I’m not sure that what he gave the west was much better. If anything, Augustine’s heresy is more insidious.  It certainly sounds Pauline, talking about grace and all.  However, in his attempt to shut down Pelagius, Augustine develops the concept of inherited guilt; that is, we are not just born with a defective, fallen nature because of Adam, we are held guilty because Adam sinned.

Now, Augustine has put himself in a position where he is forced to toss the baby out with the bath: his concept of inherited guilt means that infants are born guilty. If a baby dies without being baptized, they are condemned to hell, because that’s the rule. Baptism is the only “cure” for original sin, you see.  It would seem that Augustine’s view of grace runs into a bit of a problem here: If we must act to initiate baptism in order to be saved, then we are relying on some human effort (even though it is God who does the baptizing).

Augustine’s complex view of grace also includes the concepts of double predestination and perseverance, concepts which Calvin popularized some years later.  Double predestination is the logical conclusion that if God predestines some to be saved, then logically he must predestine some to be damned.  The doctrine of perseverance says basically that we cannot know the future; we may become apostate and fall away from grace (which essentially must mean that we were not predestined to be saved in the first place).

The effect of Augustine’s teaching on Total Depravity (the inherited sin/guilt thing) resulted in a theology where a chasm exists between man and God.  The Eastern church, on the other hand, held that while man inherited a fallen nature, our guilt is purely our own. Furthermore, man’s destiny is to become Christ-like, or “partakers of the divine nature.”  This concept, known as theosis or deification, was closer to where Luther ended up after he moved away from Augustine’s position.  Deification doesn’t mean that we are becoming God, but it does mean that we are being united with God, and being conformed to His image.

As with Descartes, Augustine’s thinking has predominated the west – especially the reformed traditions – to the extent that we don’t even realize that while we read Paul, for example, we think Augustine.  While Augustine said many good things, much of what he said was quite wrong, and we do the Bible a disservice to not work to set Augustine aside as we read it.  As NT Wright points out in his recent book on Justification, evangelicals claim to believe in sola scriptura (Bible only) and to reject tradition; however, they will default to Augustinian thinking rather than taking a fresh look at what the Bible actually says.

Augustine may have been a wonderful philosopher and theologian, but it seems to me that he also caused a great many issues that have plagued the church ever since.