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.