To Love without Burning: Augustine's Tantalizing God

When I first read St. Augustine's Confessions back in the day, I was into process theology. Of course, I recognized in this classic fourth century work by the north African bishop a work of great genius, spiritual profundity and psychological acuity.

Yet I judged Augustine's doctrine of God to be fundamentally mistaken. After all, wasn't his project a prime example of the fruitless quest to integrate biblical doctrine with Hellenistic philosophy -- in his case, Plotinian metaphysics? Wasn't God, in Augustine's view, essentially static, timeless and impassible?

For the first time in a number of years (too many!), I'm rereading the Confessions cover-to-cover, this time in the splendid translation by Henry Chadwick (Oxford, 1991). I'm revisiting the question whether God in Augustine's conception, if I may draw upon Barth's terminology here, is a prisoner of God's own divine aseity. Many of you are familiar with how the work begins -- and if you're not, I urge to leave this post immediately and start reading the book for yourself. In the opening pages of Book I, Augustine begins doxologically, with a meditation on what it means to praise God and how this relates to knowing God. He then proceeds to what, on the face of it, might seem to be an unpromising line of inquiry: metaphysical speculation on how an infinite divine presence can be said to fill all created things with the wealth of God's fullness without being exhausted or partitioned.

So who is this God and how might God be named?
Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and 'leading' the proud 'to be old without their knowledge' (Job 9:5, Old Latin version)" (I.4).
So far it sounds like a prototype of the classical theism that would dominate medieval Scholastic thought. But note the polarities -- I'm not sure of a better way to put it -- that Augustine uses to describe God as the list of attributes continues:
always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity. searching even though nothing to you is lacking: you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you "repent" (Gen. 6:6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil (ibid.).
Now this God, in my reading at least, seems not at all inert but supremely active, transcendent yet more immanent than any creaturely reality. To be sure, this deity is not enmeshed in creaturely finitude and suffering, as theopaschites ancient and modern have sought to conceive God; yet neither is God aloof or disinterested in the lives of God's creatures. This God is a far cry from the proverbial Unmoved Mover. In a word, it seems to me that the way Augustine describes God -- in this brief passage at least -- is not univocal but rather a bit more...dialectical.



Bob MacDonald said…
Blessed are those who are captured by dialectic. O writer and reader, may the words of this august theologian point on. As they say today, don't be captured by the menu, but do order from it through the hidden and discrete servant at your side.
I didn't quite understand what you meant in that last sentence, but I like the way it sounded nonetheless.
Bob MacDonald said…
It's just a little play on 'Don't eat the menu'.
Bob MacDonald said…
Oh and of course the servant with 'discretion' is the servant king himself. You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat - so I did sit and eat. (Herbert)
Matthew Frost said…
I'm not a Latin scholar, by any means—my preference for the NT makes the Eastern Fathers easier to get into—but I find that having Maria Boulding's slightly more recent translation alongside Chadwick's makes for a good balance. Boulding seems to have done very good work turning the Latin into clear accurate contemporary English, but also pulls out the devotional aspect more consistently throughout. Chadwick, with his more academic emphasis, never managed to make sense of what kind of work this is, in ways that are absolutely clear from Boulding's text. If I could merge them and take the best of both, I would!
Thanks for the tip. I don't read Latin (someday, perhaps). I've mostly used Pine-Coffin (Penguin). So far, Chadwick seems a little more readable.
Matthew Frost said…
With either of these translations, you could put your Pine-Coffin in a box and bury it. ;)
Nah, sentimental value. Also, it's highly portable.

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