Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Tolle, lege

Today, November 13, is the birthday of Saint Augustine, 354-430 CE, a man who Pope Benedict has (in the words of US News and World Report) "long claimed St. Augustine as his theological lodestar," and the guy who wrote the Confessions and City of God.  He's rightly regarded as a pivotal figure in Western Christian history; but for good or ill?  To read the hagiographies you'd think it was all children singing in the garden (tolle, lege: "take up and read") deep thoughts and pious introspection.  Perhaps that's why he is designated in Catholic tradition as the patron saint of theologians

However Augustine, as James O'Donnell shows in his warts and all biography, was a relentless self-promoter and social climber.  Among his gifts to humanity was the "Just War Theory."  Hey, thanks for that.  Not content with resting on that dubious accomplishment, he also concocted the doctrine of original sin, "his most original and nearly single-handed creation."  The great man was also big on predestination.  As Paula Fredriksen puts it:
It is hard to love Augustine. He stands as the source of some of the most baleful traditions of thought in Western culture. All humans, he held, are born indelibly marked, indelibly marred, by original sin. Human desire, especially sexual desire, is a premier sign and effect of Adam’s fall. Unbaptized babies go to hell. Salvation is a question not of human effort, but of divine predestination. The church, to propound spiritual truth and to protect it, should avail itself of the coercive power of the state. These are all Augustinian teachings.
If you need to know something about Augustine to understand Ratzinger, the same is true of Luther (who suffered from his jaundiced view of good deeds) and Calvin (who took his understanding of predestination in even more bizarre directions).

It's enough to make you almost wish that, in the theological battle with Pelagius,  Augustine had lost the debate and that Augustinianism, not Pelagianism, had been left behind as a forgotten footnote in Christian history.


  1. Oh, come on! If his just war criteria had been followed we'd have had a tiny fraction of the wars we have. Give the poor guy a break!

    1. But the reality is that Just War Theory provided a vehicle to legitimate state sanctioned violence. Yes, perhaps the "'just war' model was never meant to justify war. It was meant to limit war, to control war, and even to avoid war."

      But that wasn't the way it worked out. "In its first three centuries, Christianity continued [the] critique of war until along came Constantine with a befriending sword, and the Christians buckled... The first step in this grand defection was to accomodate war using principles that grew into the just-war theory."

      Both quotes are from Daniel Maguire's small book "The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy" (Facets series, Fortress Press). I thoroughly recommend Maguire, a Roman Catholic moral theologian who has fallen afoul of the Vatican. Also worth reading on the JWT is John Howard Yoder, "When War Is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking" (Wipf & Stock).

      And of course, for Augustine - the unvarnished version - O'Donnell is simply brilliant.

    2. I'm a fan of Yoder, though I have not read Maguire's book, it just seems to me that it is not fair to blame Augustine for the way his ideas worked out, or to expect 21st century ideas from someone born 1500 years earlier.

  2. No comments yet? I'm guessing many of us don't know enough about church history to be able to say much. As the prior thread shows, people are only too happy to argue about politics, but deeper theological issues - that's a different matter.

  3. As a lad attending a Roman Catholic Parochial School, a baptized Lutheran at the time, and watching people bow down to graven images, claiming they didn't, I did have an opportunity to read a book about "Saint" Augustine which did give some insight into his psyche (it had the appropriate Imprimatur, having been sanctioned by the Cathoics and all).

    His early life left something to be desired in the morality department. It would be easy to assume that his early fornication may have had something to do with his later eschatology, in the sense of the Apostle Paul's guilt about his life previous to "conversion".

    It is my impression that much of his theology had to do with the reactionary response to his former life and he overcompensated. If that is the case (and I have no way to prove the opinion), it would follow that his views would be very strict and many of the very stringent teachings of the Catholic Church from that point would have followed the pattern he set.

    It is an unfortunate condition that humans tend to follow "idea men" who think up things out of their flawed past and sometimes out of seemingly nothing at all. Careless acceptance leads to rather kook ideas lowering the masses to the lowest common denominator of mediocrity as they attend mass.

    He, to me, was the Herbert Armstrong of his time, albeit with more lasting influence and a whole lot less manipulation of the masses for personal gain and the exercise of building ego (not that he was necessarily devoid of it). His nutty ideas have successfully embedded themselves into the fabric of religion and it is even more difficult to separate fact from fiction than ever before as we move further and further from any practical legitimate sources (heck, even with the best effort of the local Journal, there is much doubt as to the accuracy of the report of last week's town meeting).

    As for arguing about politics, I tend to stay with "bald facts" as one pundit calls them, for I do my best to follow my #1 Rule: Never knowingly argue with a crazy person (especially true since crazy people tend to argue about the meaning of the facts, even though there really isn't much latitude). Politics is a superset of religion anyway.

    It should be evident that our President Elect in the United States has Executive Ability.

  4. "In Adam all die" and "death passed to all mankind" (leave out the "hell", it's death that is the enemy of life). All have sinned (in Adam) even if they didn't commit any sins of disobedience like Adam did. So, Augustine is right about original sin (according to the bible). So, God gave us a fatal disease, inherited from Adam, i.e., death. But, according to Christians there is a pill for that - Jesus Christ. Thankfully, a lot of Christians are denying original sin has anything to do with it, so we don't need a pill for that anymore.

    1. But its Augustine that put the hell into Romans 5:12 isn't it? So how can you in the same breathe say "leave out the 'hell'" and "Augustine is right"? You're grasping at straws to save a childhood hero who is in fact a demon. (Not literally of course)

  5. "It's enough to make you almost wish that, in the theological battle with Pelagius, Augustine had lost the debate and that Augustinianism, not Pelagianism, had been left behind as a forgotten footnote in Christian history."

    But Augustine DID lose the battle. He won only in institutional professional "Christianity" -- the professional clergy love him! The immoral who are only nominal "Christians" love him -- but true Christians have always held a higher esteem for Pelagius. You can tell who is a true and who a false Christian by this alone. If they praise Augustine, they are false Christians who hate Christ and hate righteousness.

    Neither one is a "forgotten footnote in Christian history" -- both are alive and well. One (Augustinianism) has all the pomp and power of the world, as you would expect from a Satanic counterfeit Christianity, and the other (Pelagianism) is persecuted, its followers dragged before tribunals on charges of heresy and thrown out of the synagogues as Jesus told us his true disciples would be. The world hates Pelagians for they are not of this world, and it loves Augustinians (those immoral scum) because the world loves its own. Just as Jesus said.