Thursday, January 19, 2012

“A doctrine for fighting men” – Augustine’s doctrine of Predestination

I’m teaching an intensive course on Augustine’s Confessions this month, so I’ve been reading a bunch about Augustine. As part of that, I read through Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, which is still (and deservedly so) a standard text in the field. It has been an experience, described at times by all of the following adjectives: refreshing, frustrating, enlightening, inspiring, baffling, sobering, and the list could go on.

Understandably, I wanted to share some of that with you, gentle readers. So, here is a bit on Augustine’s doctrine of predestination. Brown situations Augustine’s work on that doctrine in his biography, and in current events. Put briefly, North Africa was in serious trouble. A barbarian host was sweeping down the cost in late 429 and 430 CE, raping and pillaging all that stood in its path. One city that stood in its path was Hippo, and Augustine had the misfortune to watch the enemy host slowly progress through his diocese destroying all he had worked for and even besieging his city. He died (mercifully) of a fever before Hippo was overrun. What does this have to do with his doctrine of predestination?

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 406. Emphasis added.
What [folks who followed Augustine’s doctrine] gained was a belief that the world around them was intelligible, even if on a plane that surpassed human reason and strained human feeling; and the certainty that they would remain active and creative. Even if they were merely agents, they were at least the agents of forces which guaranteed achievements greater than their own frail efforts could ever have brought about.

For Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, as he elaborated it, was a doctrine for fighting men. A monk might waste his leisure worrying about his ultimate identity: to Augustine, such an anxiety was misplaced. A doctrine of predestination divorced from action was inconceivable to him. He had never written to deny freedom, merely to make it more effective in the harsh environment of the fallen world. This world demanded, among other things, unremitting intellectual labour to gain truth, stern rebuke to move men. Augustine, as a bishop, had thrown himself into both activities.
Skipping ahead to pp. 409-10.
In the early months of 430, Augustine will appear in church to tell panic-stricken crowds what he had already written…: that they would have to ‘persevere’ although love of life was still strong in them. For Augustine had lost none of his capacity to feel. In these few last sermons we realize that the old man’s horror at the evils of existence…was the obverse of his deep-rooted loves: he still knew what it was to love life wholeheartedly, and thus he could convey how much it had cost the martyrs to overcome this love. Like the martyrs, Augustine’s hearers, also, might have to follow in the footsteps of Christ’s Passion. Predestination, an abstract stumbling-block to the sheltered communities of Hadrumetum and Marseilles, as it would be to so many future Christians, had only one meaning for Augustine: it was a doctrine of survival, a fierce insistence that God alone could provide men with an irreducible inner core.

==================================



5 comments:

Collin said...

Thanks, Dr. McMaken: please continue to keep us updated on the course.

I wonder if you've seen Susannah Ticciati's interesting piece on Augustine's doctrine of predestination in the July 11 issue of Modern Theology? Has some overlap with what you've written; she contrasts "a propositional understanding of the doctrine of predestination...whose truth is irrespective of context, and an indexical understanding according to which its significance lies in the fostering of salvation in the contexts of prayer and preaching" (438).

Joshua Ralston said...

Interesting to compare this with some of Heiko Oberman's later writings on Calvin's Doctrine of Predestination as a pastoral doctrine for exiles and refugees. (especially in his collected volume Reformation of the Refugees)

W. Travis McMaken said...

Collin, thanks for pointing that article out to me. It has been ridiculously difficult staying on top of publications this year.

Josh, that's an interesting connection, and it makes a lot of sense. I haven't seen that volume so I'll have to dig it out.

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile the great universal calling of Jesus was to Love God totally with every fibre of ones being.

And then on that basis to practice self-transcending love in all relationships and under all circumstances.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Why do I get the feeling that I might know who you are, Anon?

In any case, it is clear that the "fighting" in question is a metaphor, not actual physical violence, which - coincidentally - is how scripture deploys military language.