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.

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10 Responses to Augustine was a trouble-maker

  1. Jon S says:

    From the following website:

    Now along a man named Saint Augustine in 500 AD. He’s a Christian. He loves Plato, he also loves the Bible, and he tries to fuse the two together. What he ends up doing is christianizing Plato. If you understand this, you’ll understand a lot of the way we think. Because if Plato’s been the most influential philosopher in history, Augustine’s been the most influential theologian in history. And here’s what Augustine said. Everything that happens in this world is for the glory of God. That divine blueprint that Plato talks about is just the Mind of God. And everything that happens, however great, however small, however good, or however evil, is but the working out of a divine plan. And though it seems like we make decisions here below, we’re just working out God’s will. There’s a script that we’re all following. There’s a prescripted plan.

    And so, Saint Augustine said, there’s really no evil, because God is all good and everything that happens is just the working out of God’s will, therefore there’s no evil. Oh, there are things that look evil, but that’s just because of our limited perspective. If we could just see the whole of history, we’d see how everything, however terrible, fits into God’s perfect will.

    That belief has had serious repercussions within the Church, throughout history and especially today. Very few people buy into that philosophy full-fledged, though there are still some. But that philosophy causes us to do a number of things. One thing is that it is what lies behind every time a person wants to blame God for evil in this world, you’re seeing an echo of Saint Augustine, which is itself an echo of Plato. A young lady gets married, and all of her life she’s been praying that God would find the right man. As a matter of fact, she believes that God has preordained the man she’s going to marry. Even when she was twelve years old, God already had a man picked out and her job was just to find that man. That God would give her a sign that this is the right guy.

  2. Steve Martin says:

    One of my favorite books is Luther’s bondage of the will.

    Luther may not get everything in there just right. But he does understand that the will is bound…to sin.

    We like sinning, we do not want to stop, otherwise we would.

    Most Christians do not take sin seriously enough. Sins vs sin…sin ought to win everytime. That ought be our focus.

  3. Steve Martin says:

    “But, Paul did not say that we share Adam’s guilt for Adam’s sin. I suspect we all have enough guilt of our own!”

    True enough, Alden!


  4. me says:

    Steve, I have no problem with sin coming into the world through Adam (I am not Pelagian by any means…). But, Paul did not say that we share Adam’s guilt for Adam’s sin. I suspect we all have enough guilt of our own!

  5. me says:

    No danger of me burning your tapes. I think I have one tape left, which I should finish this week. (I’m finally back on the treadmill, so I have time to listen to them.)

  6. Fred says:

    I want my Augustine tapes back before you burn them.

  7. Steve Martin says:

    I think, also, that the view of original sin helps put sin into proper perspective as our condition.

    So many Christians ephasize sins (plural) and that takes them into the realm of what we do.

    Focusing on sin (our condition) puts the emphasis on the fact that we are in bondage to sin. That we actually LIKE SINNING (otherwise we would refrain from it).

    So, Romans 5:12 is helpful in that respect, too.

  8. Steve Martin says:

    St. Paul also (Romans 5:12) says that sin came into the world through Adam.

    He says Adam was “a type of the one to come.”

    So that grace would come to the whole world through one.


    I think that there is no better picture of original sin than of infants. They are selfish and are not concerned AT ALL with the other.

    I think this view helps when understanding the role of baptism (particularly infant baptism ) in the church as well, and the imporatnt of it.

    I haven’t thought too much about Jesus inheriting sin because of Mary.

    Maybe it does make sense. But making sense (to us)does not always follow God’s reality.

    Good points to ponder, Alden.

  9. me says:

    What does it mean to be “conceived in sin?” I think it is dangerous to build any theology on a comment found in poetry (Psalm 51). If we are to take that literally, then we also must believe that God broke David’s bones. Being too literal results in doctrines like Mary’s sinlessness (starting an infinite regression problem). Interesting that David contrasts this with God teaching him wisdom while he was in the womb. Again, is this to be taken literally, or is this poetic imagery with a dash of hyperbole?

    The 2 contrasting viewpoints are:

    1) Augustine/Calvin: We are guilty because Adam sinned, even if we have not sinned ourselves. If this is true, the RCC position is correct, logically, that Mary had to be sinless, too, or Jesus would have inherited Adam’s guilt.

    2) The early church fathers/Eastern church: We inherited a defective, damaged (sinful) nature, similar to inheriting a genetic defect. We have “all sinned” as a result, so we have our own guilt, and Adam keeps his. This appears consistent with Luther’s statement that sin is like “a spiritual poison or leprosy” and his Orthodox-like thoughts on deification.

  10. Steve Martin says:

    Interesting post, Alden.

    If we are conceived in sin (as the Bible says)are we not guilty from the git-go?

    If not, then at what point do we become guilty?

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