Showing posts with label Augustine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Augustine. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My Most Recent Publication – Review of Matthew Levering’s “Theology of Augustine”

Just quick note here in case anyone is interested in tracking what my keyboard has been up to elsewhere, and in addition to the two lovely volumes that you can see in the left sidebar. Here’s the info on one of my recent book reviews. Well, not that recent. But I haven’t had a chance to put together a post on it until now.

Anyway, here is the citation:
W. Travis McMaken, review of Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works (Baker Academic, 2013), Theology Today 70.3 (2013), 363–64.
You can access the review here if you have the right permissions.

For those who lack the right permissions, here is the review’s opening paragraph:
Matthew Levering, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton and author of numerous theological books, ambitiously attempts in this compact volume to provide the reader with a novel entry point into the thought of one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity—Augustine of Hippo. The ambition and novelty in this approach rest in Levering’s decision to introduce Augustine by discussing seven of his most important works: ‘‘On Christian Doctrine’’ (chapter 1), ‘‘Answer to Faustus’’ (chapter 2), ‘‘Homilies on the First Epistle to John’’ (chapter 3), ‘‘On the Predestination of the Saints’’ (chapter 4), ‘‘Confessions’’ (chapter 5), ‘‘City of God’’ (chapter 6), and ‘‘On the Trinity’’ (chapter 7). An introduction, conclusion, subject and scriptural indices, and suggestions for further reading round out the volume. Levering thus enables those encountering Augustine for the first time to quickly gain a valuable bird’s-eye view of his intellectual contours, while also discussing a number of important themes in the process.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Augustine and the Sacramental Argument for Infant Baptism - Mondays with McMaken

Part of what I do in my volume on baptism is to identify the two primary arguments presented by the theological tradition in support of infant baptism. The first of these arguments, both chronologically and in terms of my presentation-order, is the sacramental argument. Augustine is the primogenitor of this argument, at least insofar as it achieves a theologically robust formulation. Here’s an excerpt to flesh things out a bit more:

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, Emerging Scholars (Fortress, 2013), 20.
Infant baptism was practiced in extremis in the early Christian centuries, but it was always something of a practice in search of a theology. By pressing it into service in his dispute with the Pelagians, Augustine “provided the theology that led to infant baptism becoming general practice for the first time in the history of the church.” This was not his intent. In fact, he argued that it was already the church’s general practice, and had been since the time of the apostles. Other sources considered above belie this claim. Further, the logic of his argument moved away from the practice of infant baptism and toward the establishment of his doctrine of original sin and guilt. However, once “original sin was established as the basic framework for thinking, then it was natural for it to become the principal reason for infant baptism.” This resulted in infant baptism quickly becoming established as a standard practice—and, indeed, the definitive form of baptism—rather than an in extremis concession. As Karen Spierling notes, “infant baptism was an established practice of the Christian church” within one hundred years of Augustine’s dispute with the Pelagians.

In this way, Augustine provided Christian theology with the first of its two great arguments in support of infant baptism, namely, the sacramental argument . . .
To see precisely how I define the sacramental argument, you’ll have to buy the book. So, go do that.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ben Myers on Augustine and Romans 5

Last week at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Roman’s Conference Ben Myers offered a resourceful presentation on the Adam/Christ typology of Romans 5, Augustine, and the Confessions. While I will only give a cursory overview of Myers’ message, a full text (including an additional section on Augustine and the Psalms) is forthcoming.

The gist of Myers’ presentation is a response to Krister Stendahl’s claim that the introspective turn in theology to self-consciousness (e.g., Luther’s ‘Where can I find a gracious God?’) can be traced as far back as Augustine. Wherever one looks for this turn, notes Myers, Augustine is not the culprit. To make this point Myers looks to the Adam/Christ typology embedded within the Confessions, particularly in two unforgettable moments: the ‘pears’ account and Augustine’s conversion. In the first account Augustine mirrors the Genesis 3 narrative when he and his friends steal the coveted fruit from the garden:
"[I] tasted nothing in them but my own sin."
In the second account, lying prostrate in another garden after reading the words of Paul, Augustine’s struggle and eventual conversion of will mirrors the beginning of the passion account at Gethsemane. The juxtaposition is a vying of separate and yet linked narratives for Augustine’s identity. What is more, the latter account in Book VIII is preceded by miniature conversion retellings in which Augustine connects his story to the church past in figures like Paul, Victorinus, and Antony.

What does Myers want to say? Far from laying the basis for an exclusively introspective take on salvation, Augustine’s story is not his own. It is a story that is rooted in and engages an overarching typology. Augustine incorporates his own story into that of the biblical narrative, into the plight of Adam and thus humanity, into the struggle of Paul and others and thus the church, and ultimately, following the logic of the typology, into Christ who precedes all other narratives. Myers offers an excellent rendering of how Augustine sees his own salvation in light of the larger (and nonetheless personal) redemption of Christ.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Augustine and Human Sexuality

I taught an intensive course on Augustine’s Confessions in January, so I read 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. 

I hinted previously that I would post something about Augustine’s views on human sexuality, so here goes. Perhaps I should also add that I'm plunging headlong into what could be a very sensitive topic...

Brown includes an epilogue in the most recent edition of his volume that takes note of more recent research and evidence (his book was originally written in the 1960s!), and wherein he reflects on aspects of Augustine’s life and work from the vantage of his own later studies. He spent a good chunk of his career after this book working on the rise and development of monasticism, which put him in touch with a much broader sample of Christian views on sexuality. This gave him a greater appreciation for Augustine, and compelled him to argue for a view of Augustine as a moderate on sexuality. Critical here is Augustine’s belief that Adam and Eve enjoyed a rightly ordered sexuality in the Garden of Eden, where most of his interlocutors envisioned them living an angelic (i.e., non-sexual) existence. Consequently…
Sex was tragic for Augustine because it could have been so very different. (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 501).
That is, Augustine had enough sexual experience (and he had a fair bit of it!) to recognize that human sexuality is a good thing, and he had enough sexual experience (and he had a fair bit of it!) to recognize that something has gone horribly wrong. 
For Augustine, the present world was always overshadowed by a great sadness. Married couples should walk, regretfully, through the recognizable ruins of a once perfect sexuality devastated by Adam’s pride (502).
While Augustine believed that married couples only rightly exercise their sexuality for procreative purposes, he was somewhat indulgent when they did not maintain this high ideal. Non-procreative marital sexuality was a much lesser sin in his eyes than adultery, and easily dealt with in the course of normal religious activity (giving some alms, participating in the Lord’s Prayer, etc.). It certainly wasn’t something to be crippled by guilt over. His rhetoric on these matters is much softer than that of, say, Jerome (who, coincidentally, seems to have lacked Augustine's close acquaintance with the subject).

I’ll conclude with Brown’s expert judgment:
On the issue of sexuality, we should be very careful not to ‘demonize’ Augustine. To speak of him as the ‘evil genius of Europe’, and to lay at his door alone the ills associated with the handling of sex in Christian circles up to our own time, is to take an easy way out – as if by abandoning Augustine we have freed ourselves, by magic, from a malaise whose tangled roots lie deep in our own history. We have made our own bed over long centuries. Augustine did not make it for us. Denunciations of Augustine usually misrepresent him and, in any case, they get us no further in the serious, slow task of remaking that bed. It is, indeed, an act of egregious cultural narcissism to believe that all our present discontents can be glimpsed in the distant mirror of one man’s thought…Aware of the slow and complex evolution of moral ideas over the centuries, and of the variety which these forms took on being set to work in regions and societies which Augustine could not have dreamed, historians should have no part in so facile a Schuldfrage - so facile an exercise in blame-pinning (ibid).


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Augustine vs. Ambrose

I taught an intensive course on Augustine’s Confessions in January, so I read 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.

Here is an interesting tidbit wherein Brown compares Augustine and Ambrose. I offer it because Augustine often gets described as an austere, unapproachable figure, off by himself reading and writing with precious little human contact. Indeed, this lack of contact is supposed to be the source of his less than desirable views on human sexuality (more on that in another post). The truth is quite the opposite, as we glimpse in the below.

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 411-12.
To an African clergyman…Augustine was not the writer whose thought had aroused admiration and concern around the Mediterranean: he was, above all, a bishop who had practiced what he preached. The Christian bishop was now an important figure throughout the Roman world: visits to his residence had become a normal part of the social life of most towns. Augustine sensed this change: he was particularly concerned with the ‘image’ that a bishop should present to the outside world. His own hero was Ambrose. At a time when he himself felt in need of reassurance after the misbehavior of one of his protégés, he urged a Milanese deacon, Paulinus, to write a life of Ambrose. Ambrose had been dead for twenty-five years; and seen at that distance by a man such as Paulinus, he appeared very different from the Ambrose that we meet in Augustine’s Confessions. The Ambrose of Paulinus is a man of action, who had cut a furrow through his contemporaries: no less than six people suffer crushing divine punishments for standing in his way or for criticizing him, among them quite ordinary African clergymen. Paulinus plainly felt that, at the Last Judgement, men would still be divided between those who admired Ambrose, and those who heartily disliked him. When Augustine’s friend, Possidius, came to write his Life of Augustine, the picture was very different. Possidius will dwell, rather, on the life that Augustine had created for himself and others in his bishop’s house: on how he had written verses on the table to prohibit malicious gossip; on how anyone who swore would forfeit his glass of wine; on how they ate with silver spoons, but off simple crockery, ‘not because they were too poor, but on purpose’.

The focus of Augustine’s ideal had been the common life of absolute poverty lived by himself and his clergy in the bishop’s house. The citizens of Hippo could well be proud of this.


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.


Monday, June 06, 2011

Ellen Charry’s “God and the Art of Happiness” – Part 1 recap

I was planning to write my own brief recap of the volume’s first part – the historical survey of Christian thought about happiness – but then I saw that Dr Charry wrote one herself. So, I’m just going to quote her. Following this lengthy quotation, I’ll highlight a few particularly good lines from the first ~150 pages of this work.

Also, I should mention here that you can download the audio of Dr. Charry's recent inaugural lecture at PTS, as well as watch a short video clip - just click here! Dr Charry recaps much of her material on happiness in that lecture.

Ellen Charry, God and the Art of Happiness, 152-3:
Augustine’s doctrine of happiness is primarily theological, eschatological, and conceptual, with room for atheological, temporal, and material happiness – unstable as it may be. Boethius’s teaching is theological, temporal, and noetic, not eschatological or material. Aquinas followed Augustine’s theological, eschatological, noetic precedent, but he made a small place for theological, temporal, and material happiness.

Fitting Butler into this schema is not easy, because his treatment of happiness is inadvertent as he pursues another project. His understanding of self-love does not recognize happiness as a side effect of obedience to conscience. That remains outside his theological purview, though it is easily incorporated into his doctrine of self-love without damage to his separation of happiness form self-love. Still, we may conclude that his teaching on happiness is material and temporal, and mildly theological to the extent that he recognizes the joy in loving God. He does not ground temporal happiness in obedience to God.

The theological conversation on happiness has staggered across the centuries, with the theologians addressing salient issues of their days. As I have noted…this foray into the subject seeks to address two theological concerns: the heavy emphasis on future eschatology at the expense of temporal, realizing eschatology in the classical tradition, and the academic triumph of theology in the modern university that has obscured the practical task of theology. The first concern, causing an underemphasis on temporal happiness, resulted in the hyper-Augustinian Jansenism of Pascal, which, while it was condemned by the church, has left tracks that make Christians skittish about temporal material happiness, fearing it is untoward from a Christian perspective. The second concern, for the consequence of the scientizing of theology within the theoretical structures of modern academic convention, has made it difficult for theology to fulfill its proper calling of helping people in their life with God.

The proposal that follows [in Part 2] addresses the first concern by suggesting a theological, temporal, realizing eschatology. It addresses the second concern by offering a theological, temporal, and experiential doctrine of happiness in the proposal of asherism.
Now, here are some tidbits:

Speaking of Augustine w/ref to his philosophical forebears:
He drank deeply from the Platonist well but finally could not be satisfied there because the incarnate Christ brought God down from heaven to earth (24).
Some more on Augustine:
The implicit teaching on happiness in The Trinity is soteriological. Salvation is the healing of the soul through the slow and painful recovery of the shattered and lost image of God that we are intrinsically by the grace of creation (49).

For Augustine, happiness is the spiritual benefit of knowing, loving, and enjoying God, and loving self and others in pursuit of that goal. It is being at rest in God, as he so famously said: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (57).

[Augustine’s] soteriology is one of ascent, but ascent through knowing Christ enabled by divine grace (59).
Speaking in the context of treating Boethius:
The wicked are feral, and the more wickedness they pursue, the less human they become (83).
Speaking in the context of treating Aquinas:
Self-realization is living as an agent of the divine will (98).
Speaking of changes that occurred with Protestantism:
Although Protestants did not talk much about happiness, it implicitly became relief from anxiety before God…The search for peace of mind is a fresh form of Augustine’s resting in God, though [Protestants] do not use the language of felicity (111-2).
Speaking of Thomas Hobbes:
Life is either a naked or disguised power struggle in which no one and nothing is secure. The Christian fear of divine wrath, which finds refuge in humility, becomes fear of one another, which finds security in power (118).

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Augustine and the Donatists (2): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction, Cyprian and the Novatians (1), Cyprian and the Novatians (2), Augustine and the Donatists (1).

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church. Quotes from Augustine are from his 185th epistle, which can be found in St. Augustin the Writings Against the Manicheans and Against the Donatists: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Part 4.

Augustine and the Donatists (cont.)

Like the Donatists, Augustine claimed to be the true heir of Cyprian. This is both accurate and inaccurate. It is inaccurate insofar as Augustine was not as rigorous as Cyprian, both in terms of enforcing general morality and in terms of sacramental recognition. For instance, while Cyprian was willing to grant weakness in the congregation but not the clergy, Augustine was prepared to recognize weakness in the clergy as well.

On Augustine’s view, such weakness did not undermine the sacraments precisely because the sacrament’s power comes from Christ, with whom the church is united through the bond of love established by the Holy Spirit. It is Christ and the church as a whole, in that order of importance, who are the true ministers of the sacraments, not the individual celebrants. The union of love established by the Holy Spirit between the church and Christ is the mechanism from which the sacraments receive their saving power. What matters is not the purity of the clergy, but their establishment in this loving union.

The concrete way of enacting this unity is, for Augustine, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He writes that “The supper of the Lord is the unity of the body of Christ, not only in the sacrament of the altar, but also in the bond of peace” (§24). The Donatists, by setting up rival bishops and communities, excluded themselves from this sacrament of the altar wherein the unity of Christ’s body is enacted – union between the church and Christ, and union within the church. They are therefore outside the Holy Spirit’s bond of love, since “he is not a partaker of the divine love who is the enemy of unity” (§50).

Being thus cut off from the bond of love, the Donatists are not able to administer effective sacraments: being within the bond of love, clergy tainted by weakness are able to administer effective sacraments. This emphasis on the church’s bond of love with Christ as the basis of the sacraments’ saving ministry is where Augustine is indeed Cyprian’s heir, although creatively so. But, Augustine goes on to disagree with Cyprian on another point. Cyprian would not recognize that the schismatics had baptism, re-baptizing them – or baptizing them in truth for the first time, as he claimed – on their return to the church. Instead, Augustine made a distinction between a valid sacrament and an effective one, arguing that the Donatists had the former but not the later.

In other words, the Donatists did the ceremony correctly, thus removing the need for re-baptism, but this ceremony was unable to communicate saving grace because the Donatists were outside the church’s bond of love. Consequently, schismatics returning to the church did not need to receive baptism again; rather, the bond of love into which they entered through union with the church activates or makes retrospectively effective their valid schismatic baptism. Here is Augustine again, speaking in the voice of a schismatic pondering reconciliation with the church: “What, then, he says, do we receive with you, when we come to your side? I answer, You do not indeed receive baptism, which was able to exist in you outside the framework of the body of Christ, although it could not profit you; but you receive the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, without which no one can see God” (§43).

In the course of his discussion of these matters, Augustine establishes that a sacrament’s validity consists of the proper word joined to the proper material sign. So, for baptism to be valid, one needs the triune name and some water. Effectiveness, on the other hand, required communion with the church. Some treat this as an unfortunate descent into a minimalist sacramentalism insofar as liturgics are concerned. But Augustine’s treatment of baptism is far from minimalist, theologically speaking. While he establishes a rather low bar for what counts as the valid performance of a sacrament, he establishes a rather full-bodied account of what makes a sacrament an effective and saving event. He tackles in a rather compelling way the complex interaction of christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and – of course – sacramentology, uniting them within a coherent big-picture.

The End. Remember to cf. the series introduction for the polemical horizon of this study. But if you enjoyed it simply as a foray into the history of doctrine, I won't complain. ;-)


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Augustine and the Donatists (1): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction, Cyprian and the Novatians (1), Cyprian and the Novatians (2).

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church. Quotes from Augustine are from his 185th epistle, which can be found in St. Augustin the Writings Against the Manicheans and Against the Donatists: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Part 4.

Augustine and the Donatists

Augustine’s debate with the Donatists was in many ways simply the continuation of Cyprian’s battle concerning rebaptism and the Novatians. Once more, North Africa was faced with a schismatic crisis. This one, however, would – despite imperial attempts to suppress the schismatics – persist until the Muslim conquest of North Africa.

Once again, there was a period of persecution. The particulars of this case are less interesting. However, whereas Decius’ persecution created a new category of faithful Christian, the confessor, this persecution created a new category of lapsed Christian, the “traditor” – one who had surrendered the church’s sacred books to the authorities. Again there were disputes about how rigorous the church should be with reference to accepting the lapsed back into communion. The trouble really began, however, when Carthage needed a new bishop. Caecelian was elected, but the rigorists didn’t think him stringent enough, and they elected a rival bishop, Majorinus. Majorinus died shortly thereafter, and the rigorists elevated Donatus to replace him. The consequence of all this was, of course, schism.

Theologically, the Donatists claimed to be Cyprian’s heirs. One of the three bishops involved in consecrating Caecelian as bishop of Carthage, they argued, was a traditor. Because this bishop was lapsed, the Donatists rejected the validity of Caecelian’s consecration. On Cyprian’s principles, the purity of the clergy had been compromised, and thus the power of the sacraments administered by the compromised clergy was also compromised. What was needed, said the Donatists, was a pure bishop of Carthage. Also like Cyprian, the Donatists re-baptized anyone baptized by those whose ordination they questioned, maintaining that their first baptism was no baptism at all.

The Donatists appealed to the emperor over Caecelian’s consecration, thus involving the secular authorities. They were unable to prove their charges, however, and the emperor declared against them. Thus, they invited upon themselves the secular measures used against them. A fanatic fringe group made things worse by attacking secular authorities and knifing bishops in an attempt to earn what they thought of as “martyrdom.” However, their opponents claimed that even if their charges against this particular bishop had stuck, this would not render Caecelian’s consecration invalid. It is here that Augustine made his contribution.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Cyprian and the Novatians (2): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction, Cyprian and the Novatians (1).

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church.

Cyprian and the Novatians (cont.)

If you remember from the previous installment, the problem that arose from Decius’ persecution was that it created the “confessors,” whose moral authority began to conflict with that of the church’s duly appointed hierarchy. This was especially a problem in North Africa. Cyprian became bishop of Carthage shortly before the persecution began. When it did, he decided to take the church’s administration into hiding to keep it intact and provide remote guidance – sort of like the emergency plans that attempt to keep the president and other key figures safe and, consequently, the government still functioning.

Of course, this looked like running away to some. Cyprian proved his courage by submitting to martyrdom in a later persecution, but this is still in the future for our purposes. In Decius’ aftermath, many claimed that the confessors in Carthage wielded greater authority than Cyprian, especially on the question of what to do with the lapsed. Cyprian was a moderate. He was more rigorous than many, but he was not as rigorous as some of the confessors and their followers.
This controversy progressed to the point where Cyprian called a synod to settle the matter against the confessors. Despite the synod’s ruling, however, the schism continued. Perhaps the schism was most evident in Rome. The rigorists there appointed their own bishop, Novatian, in competition with Cornelius, the established bishop. Eventually, however, the two parties reunited.

To concretize things theologically, the issue was whether those who had been baptized by the Novatian schismatics had to be re-baptized upon admittance to the church. Nota Bene: For Cyprian, the church is like Noah’s ark – it is a vehicle of salvation, a conduit for God’s sacramentally administered grace. This is why he can say that there is no salvation outside of the church. The corollary of this statement is that there are no sacraments outside of the church. In order to maintain the validity of those sacraments, Cyprian thought that the clergy had to be held to a higher standard than the laity.

Cyprian was willing to accept that the majority of Christians will have failings, such as those encountered in Decius’ persecution. The key point, however, was to maintain the integrity of the clergy, who could then supply the faithful, and those who had lapsed, with access to salvation through the sacraments. The problem with the schismatics is that they had separated themselves from the church’s sacramental system (sacramental-industrial complex?) by breaking fellowship with the church’s duly appointed leadership. As he puts it in one letter, “Only those leaders who are set in authority within the church…have the lawful power to baptize and to grant forgiveness of sins.”

Consequently, Cyprian would not admit that schismatic baptism is baptism, and thus did not see the practice of baptizing schismatics upon admittance to the church as re-baptism: this was the first true baptism that they had received. Cyprian’s position was based on North African precedent, but the non-Novatian bishop in Rome – now Stephen rather than Cornelius – disagreed. He supported receiving such schismatics into the church through the laying on of hands, since they had already been baptized. Cyprian persisted, however, calling a number of councils to support his position. Thus, North Africa maintained its own distinctive ecclesiological and baptismal tradition against Rome.

Finally, and briefly, baptism was central to Cyprian’s vision of the Christian life. Through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, Cyprian believes that baptism provides forgiveness from sins, regeneration, and new birth. Given this, Cyprian understands the Christian life as the process whereby one’s baptism is fulfilled in one’s life. It is the process whereby you become what baptism already made you. As Cyprian puts it, “We pray that we who were sanctified in baptism may be able to persevere in that which we have begun to be.” Given the trials faced in Decius’ persecution, Cyprian could even reflect on the fact that it is one thing to begin faith in baptism, but an altogether more difficult thing to preserve and perfect that faith.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cyprian and the Novatians (1): Baptism and the Church in North Africa

Cf. the series introduction.

Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church.

Cyprian and the Novatians

In the late 3rd century CE, Christians were starting to get a bit soft. Christianity was not yet what you would call legal, and it certainly wasn’t yet the official religion of the Roman Empire, but it was generally tolerated. Local persecutions would break out from time to time as mobs got angry about something or another, but there was little systematic, imperial pressure applied. At least, that is, until Decius took the purple in 249.

Decius inherited a bad situation: there was an economic downturn underway, and barbarians threatened the empire’s borders. It wasn’t that Decius was particularly cruel. He just happened to be a traditionalist who concluded that the ills facing the empire were brought on by a lack of consideration for Rome’s ancient traditions, both cultural and religious. One can’t help but make comparisons to some of the less reflective and more vindictive of Christianity’s self-appointed PR representatives in the wake of 9/11.

However, rather than pushing the gospel of return to traditional familial models, as have these contemporary figures, Decius decreed that all Roman subjects had to worship the traditional Roman gods. Those who complied were given a certificate documenting their loyalty, some of which have survived the sands of time, and the incompliant were reduced to outlaw status. Christians were just one group, even if maybe the largest, that had to determine how to respond.

As I said, the church had gotten soft. They were not ready to deal with this systematic imperial program. Making things even trickier for the church was that Decius did not want to kill Christians and make martyrs. He wanted to make apostates. So, when Christians refused to make the required sacrifices, they were arrested and much effort was made through threats, promises, torture, etc., to convince them to make the sacrifices. However, they were only very rarely killed. This created a new category of Christian: the “confessors.” Like martyrs, they had withstood a difficult test of faith; unlike martyrs, they did not die as a result.

Many Christians failed this test to varying degrees. Some of them immediately capitulated to the imperial demands and became apostates, some of them capitulated under duress, some of them acquired forged certificates of compliance with Decius’ decree, some of them capitulated but repented of their capitulation before the persecution had ended and so faced consequences. The persecution only lasted a few years, and when it was over the church was left with a problem: what were they to do with those members who had apostatized when they wanted to return to the church? Given the various ways in which members of the church avoided persecution, there could be no one-size-fits-all answer.

Then the confessors got involved. They began weighing in on who should and should not be allowed back into the church, or on what penance should be required of them. Moreover, in some cases they did so in opposition to decisions made by the church’s duly appointed hierarchy. That was a problem. In the next installment, we’ll see how Cyprian addresses it.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Introduction: Baptism and the Church in North Africa

In my continual quest to establish myself as the dry, boring professor-type of the theo-blogosphere, I thought it might be interesting to do some history of doctrine. This series is adapted from a lecture I gave in a class at Princeton Theological Seminary this past January. More currently speaking, I was inspired to post this material by David Congdon’s recent discussion of church unity, entitled: “Christological Unity and Pneumatological Plurality: A Theological Reflection on the Church.” David argues in this post that the sort of visible (organizational / political unity) unity that ecumenical work tends to promote may not be the most desirable sort, if it is desirable at all.

In the comments to his post, David encountered the following critical comment:
I have to utterly disagree. Only when the Church was already shattered in a thousand pieces could one think or say this, that is, in the last two hundred years. That Christological-pneumatic unity is never phenomenologically visible can only appear self-evident to someone living on the far side of schism.
David’s response to this criticism is, in my opinion, sound. Perhaps because he and I discussed it before he wrote his response. In any case, you’ll have to surf over and read the whole thing for yourself. But, this series aims at elucidating and grounding two of the claims that David makes in that response. Here they are:
I think the perception of a schism is a Catholic fiction from the start. The notion that there was ever some kind of pure visible unity is a fairy tale; it never existed.
However, the more important issue is what you think the church "is." If you think the church is an institution that mediates the grace of God to the world, then your position would be understandable.
An excursus in the history of doctrine will bring some thickness to David’s claims. Don’t ever let the Roman Catholics tell you that Protestants destroyed the unity of the church. Long before Martin Luther, well before Rome and Constantinople anathematized each other in the 11th century, and even before the schisms surrounding the Council of Chalcedon, there were the Donatists and the Novatians. And the story of these North African controversies is one of local theological commitments and communities being marginalized through the development of a sacramental-ecclesial soteriology.

This is not to say that the Novatians and the Donatists were ultimately correct. And my discussion is more general, as opposed to a purely polemical undertaking. Hence the dry, boring professor-type bit. But it will show two things relevant to the aforementioned polemical context:
  1. History reveals a relationship between strong support of the church’s visible (organizational / political) unity on the one hand and a sacramental-ecclesial soteriology on the other.
  2. There were indeed serious schisms within the church besides those involving points of what would later be considered dogma – the doctrines of christology and the Trinity. Whatever else is involved, the language of orthodoxy and heterodoxy does not apply to the Novatian and Donatist schisms.
So, stay tuned!


Friday, December 17, 2010

Episcopal Letter-writing in the Early Fifth Century

This is an exchange recounted in Augustine’s letter, and I find it rather interesting. Maybe you will too.

Augustine, “Letter 98” in Letters 1-99 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2001): 431-2.
[I]n bringing what you wrote to an end, you go on to say, “I ask you, then, please reply briefly to these questions, not so that you state what the practice of the Church demands, but so that you give reasons.”
To begin, it is hilarious – I think – that this other bishop would be so pointed in asking Augustine for reasons rather than an appeal to tradition. You could almost read this as an insult to Augustine. In any case, it shows that this other bishop knew Augustine’s texts and his habitual manners of responding to arguments and questions on the topic of baptism. Moving on to Augustine’s rejoinder…
Having read and reread this letter of yours and having considered it to the extent that the limitations on my time permitted, I was reminded of my friend, Nebridius. Since he was most diligent and keen at investigating obscure questions, especially ones pertaining to the doctrine of religion, he deeply disliked a brief reply to a profound question. And he tolerated very poorly anyone who made such a demand, and he stopped such a man with anger on his countenance and in his voice, if the person in question could be treated in such a way, since he considered beneath his dignity someone who asked such questions, because he did not know that on such an important topic so much could have been said and ought to have been said.
So, Augustine comes back with the smack-down. How dare this bishop ask for a ‘brief’ answer on such an important topic? This is similar to the all-too-frequent teacher’s frustration of having to field questions from students that would have been easily answered by the assigned reading, had the student done that reading. Obviously, the asker has no idea what they are doing, and they are therefore imposing on the answerer’s good will. But, Augustine isn’t done yet…
But with you I am not angry in the same way as Nebridius used to be in such a case. You are, after all, a bishop busy with many concerns, as I am. For this reason you neither easily find time to read something lengthy, nor do I find such time to write something of the sort. For he [Nebridius] was at that time a youth who refused to listen to brief answers to such questions and asked many questions in conversation with us; as a man of leisure he asked questions of a man of leisure. But you, well aware of who is making demands upon whom, bid me to reply briefly on so important an issue. Look, I am doing the best I can; may the Lord help me that I may be able to do what you ask.
This response, taken as a whole, is kind of like Augustine saying: "This reminds of the time I knew a guy who got mad at people for doing what you seem to be doing, and rightly so - but, you're not actually doing the exact same thing, are you?" This expertly relativizes the demands laid upon Augustine, while also reasserting Augustine's authority, all the while maintaining a courteous tone...on the surface.

In any case, Augustine back-pedals a bit after laying down the hurt, balancing out his thinly-veiled consternation with his fellow bishop’s stipulation. He gives the bishop the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he asked for a brief answer in order to save time for both of them, since they are both very busy. But, even this counter-weight contains a barb. Look at the second to last sentence: “But you, well aware of who is making demands upon whom…” Now, I ask you – does Augustine think the other bishop is really aware of this, or does Augustine think that the other bishop needs reminding of precisely who is imposing upon whom, namely, he upon Augustine? I can’t help but see here a thought similar to “Look, you asked me these questions, and if I stop to take the time to answer you, I’ll answer as I very well please.”

Now, I’m being very hard on Augustine here. A far more charitable reading could be ventured. But, this all strikes me as rather amusing – the subtle parry and thrust that accompanied (accompanies?) ecclesiastical interaction. It also reminds us that theology and theological debate are very human undertakings pursued by very human people. All those who assume this weighty task always require advancement in sanctification - even the greats, like Augustine.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology - Take 3

In an encyclopedia entry entitled “The Trinity in Modern Theology,”[1] Colin Gunton lays what he considers to be the problems of Western trinitarian theology at Augustine’s feet.  As per Gunton’s estimation, Augustine “weakened the impact” (940) of the Cappadocians, who ingeniously developed a new way of thinking of God’s being – being-as-communion (939).  The first charge which Gunton levels against Augustine is that he reintroduces a neo-Platonic dualism that undermines this Cappadocian breakthrough (940), but the criticisms that most interests us is that Augustine blunted the social ramifications of conceiving of being-as-communion (based on the Cappadocian understanding of God’s being as being-as-communion) by “seeking…analogies for the being of God in the individual human mind – what is sometimes known as the ‘psychological analogy.’”  In Gunton’s mind, this makes the doctrine of the trinity “chiefly devotional” as opposed to ecclesial and social (941). 

            Gunton does not seem to understand what Augustine is up to in De Trinitate.  Gunton appears to assume that Augustine’s use of the “psychological analogy” contributes to the material content of the Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity.  While we do not have the space to do so here, we would argue that the psychological analogy does not contribute to the material content of Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, but it does materially affect Augustine’s anthropology.  It is at precisely this point that Gunton does not understand De Trinitate.  Ellen Charry has argued that “De Trinitate is as much a treatise in moral as dogmatic theology.”[3]  De Trinitate isa protracted anthropological discussion grounded upon the doctrine of the Trinity.  In the closing pages of the work, Augustine summarizes the import of the preceding exploration by noting that God “has shown you those three things in yourself, in which you can recognize yourself as the image of that supreme trinity” (15.50).  The soul’s recognition of itself as in the image of the Trinitarian God is Augustine’s goal, and this is a goal aimed at moral reshaping of the human person.  And yet, this moral reshaping is not “chiefly devotional” as Gunton would lead us to believe, for it involves growing in the virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice (14.12) – virtues which only find expression in our interaction with our fellow humanity and the rest of the created order.  Furthermore, Augustine is clear that in this process our love is transformed from “twisted” to “straight,” and while the straightening of our loves must begin with the straightening of our love for God, it does not exclude the straightening of our love for neighbors (14.18). 

            In summary, we would content contra Gunton that Augustine’s work in De Trinitate has immense social and ecclesial import and that the “psychological analogy” should not be understood as a way of our understanding God as much as a way of our understanding ourselves as being in the image of God.  Furthermore, the Augustine’s ordering of placing proper love for God as the basis of proper love for neighbor is correct, in that it is only as our love for God becomes renewed that our love of our neighbor can become renewed.

[1] Colin E. Gunton, “The Trinity in Modern Theology,” pp. 937-57 in Companion Encyclopedia of Theology (Edited by Peter Byrne and Leslie Houlden; New York, New York: Routledge, 1995).

[2] While our being unable to conceive of it does not make it necessarily false, Augustine did touch on one very important aspect of this quandary in the course of De Trinitate.  As Augustine says, “if being is predicated by way of relationship, then being is not being…every being that is called something by way of relationship is also something besides the relationship” (DT 7.2).  In this way Augustine makes the point that being must precede relationship since for there to be a relationship there must be two ‘things’ to be related.  In this way, while we affirm that being (especially God’s being) is defined by communion, it is not constituted by communion.  This becomes tricky when dealing with God because there is the play the notion of God as actus purus, which would seem to want to break down this distinction.  With reference to God this seems fine, but it is not self-evident that this then should be predicated of the created order.

[3] Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (Oxford: OUP, 1997) 129.  Gunton had read Charry by 1998 as evidenced in his essay “The Forgotten Trinity” published in Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Essays Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2003), where on page 8 he favorably interacts with Charry’s discussion of Basil of Caesarea.  


Friday, October 17, 2008

Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology - Take 2

In a paper[1] delivered to the Southeastern regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Brad Green undertook to defend Augustine from his modern day detractors.  He focuses specifically on the work of Colin Gunton, first describing the trends of Gunton’s own interpretation of Augustine and then turning to Augustine’s own De Trinitate in an attempt to mitigate against Gunton’s arguments (1). 

            Green points out that Gunton interprets Western thought against the background of the philosophical problem of the One and the Many, moving from there to consider the continuity between creation and redemption as well as the question of a Christian ontology (2).  Gunton’s understanding is that in the West the One has triumphed over the Many and he attributes this victory primarily to Augustine’s work on the Trinity (3).  Further, Gunton thinks that this ancient emphasis on the One lead moderns to privilege the Many (individualism being one example of this – 4).  With reference to the relationship between creation and redemption, Gunton thinks that it is vital to affirm continuity and argues that Augustine fails in this affirmation.  Drawing on Irenaeus, Gunton maintains that redemption is the telos of creation (5).  Augustine is not able to make such an affirmation as far as Gunton is concerned because he sees Augustine’s emphasis on the One as making salvation history irrelevant for the doctrine of God.  Thus, Augustine, under Gunton’s account, has trouble dealing with particulars and must look to the human mind rather than redemptive history for analogies to the Trinity (6).  With reference to a Christian ontology, Gunton thinks that this is the result of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Cappadocians.  Gunton argues that, for the Cappadocians, communion and relationship constitute the divine ousia (7).  The result of this move for Gunton is that the One is defined in terms of the Many, that is, there really are three divine persons who are joined so closely in relationship that the one ousia of God is actually constituted by this relationship (8-9).  As far as Gunton is concerned, Augustine is working with an Aristotelian ontology with its distinction between ‘substance’ and ‘accident’ (9) that prevents him from truly being able “to conceive of the persons as the substance of God.”  The effect of this in Gunton’s estimation is to establish and unknown substance of God behind the known relationships such that God’s being remains unknown (10). 

            Having thus described Gunton’s criticisms and concerns with reference to Augustine, Green turns to Augustine’s work in De Trinitate to test Gunton’s claims.  Green commends Gunton in his attempt to rethink contemporary theological problems in light of their historical roots (11) but lists six points of disagreement with Gunton’s understanding of Augustine based on Green’s own reading of De Trinitate.  First, Green seeks to mitigate against Gunton’s concerns about the hidden-ness of God in Augustine’s scheme by pointing out that Augustine’s goal is to attain a vision of God, even if this vision will only be fully attained in the next life, and it is for this reason that Augustine offers the anthropological analogies for the Trinity so reticently.  Further, redemptive history is revelatory for Augustine because he writes as one who already believes in the Trinity (12-13).  Second, Green argues contra Gunton that Augustine does understand redemption to be the telos of creation as attested by the revelatory role that the created order plays.  We “come to know invisible realities through the visible world” (13-14).  Third, Augustine’s distinction between the divine missions and the divine processions is important.  Green points out that “Augustine holds that what God does in time reveals who God is in eternity.”  Gunton’s criticisms of Augustine as to the unknowability of God and the superfluous place of the three persons are called in to question (15).  Fourth, Green points out the polemical nature of De Trinitate (making reference to Michel Rene Barnes).  One of the most important polemical features in De Trinitate by Green’s account is the centrality of Christ’s death, which he notes as playing a key role in books 4 and 13.  Because Augustine reframes the vision of God as only being possible through Christ, Green detects an “anti-neoplatonic polemic” (16).  This emphasis serves to show that for Augustine we really only come to know God through Christ (17).  Fifth, Green argues that the Trinitarian relationship is attributed to the divine substance in Augustine’s understanding.  While Green recognizes that this is not made explicit in De Trinitate, he views it as consistent because without relationship the divine Trinity would cease to exist in Augustine’s account (17-18).  Sixth and finally, Green pushes us to consider the relational aspect of the imago Dei in Augustine’s thought, noting that for Augustine the image “is not a static faculty such as reason” but is to be centered on a relationship with God (18). 

            On the basis of these six points, Green feels as though a more careful reading of Augustine’s De Trinitate serves to protect Augustine from the brunt of Gunton’s criticisms.  In closing, we would like to raise questions for two of Green’s points.  With reference to the sixth, while Green seems to be correct, he also misses a step.  Augustine’s understanding of the imago Dei is certainly directed toward relationship with God, but it is also the means to that relationship.  This is the role of the vestigia trinitatis, namely, establishing the necessary conditions for relationship between God and humanity - the human person’s knowledge of God.  Second, Green’s fifth point concerning relationship as a substance term for Augustine’s understanding of the Trinity lacks nuance.  Augustine argues that while nothing can be said of God “modification-wise” there is another alternative to speaking of God “substance-wise,” namely “relationship-wise” (V.6).  Indeed, Augustine argues that being cannot equal relationships because being precedes relationship.  The basic insight here is that there must logically be two “things” before they can be in relationship.  Finally, Augustine does not finally relegate the divine attributes such as “great” and “wise” to relationship speech, but refers them to the Trinity as a whole (VII.2).  So, the ousia is not constituted by relationship but by these attributes.  However, these attributes only find expression in relationship whether intra- or extra-Trinitarian.  Thus, while the ousia is not constituted by the divine relationships, we might say that it is defined by those relationships. 

[1] Brad Green, “Augustine and the Trinity in Contemporary Theology” from the Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN): Conference Papers; 2001, 20p.   Citations given above.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology

In an article entitled “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,”[1] Michel Rene Barnes explores what he considers the bankruptcy of contemporary systematic treatments of Augustine with specific reference to the doctrine of the Trinity.   Barnes’ specific interest is revealing the “methodological presuppositions” at work in these treatments of Augustine (237).  He notes the standard division of “patristic Trinitarian doctrine” into the Greek and Latin camps (ibid), noting that this division derives from the work of Theodore de Regnon in the late 19th century and that this division must be demonstrated (238).  After sketching some ways in which de Regnon’s paradigm is employed in contemporary treatments of Augustine, Barnes points out that these treatments depend on broad generalizations of Augustine’s thought (239).  Barnes detects a certain confidence in employing these broad generalizations and attributes this confidence to two points.

First, the confidence reflects a positive sense of all the new things that we have learned as moderns through the mechanism of “paradigm shifts”; not the least of what we have learned is the existence of such paradigms themselves.  Second, the confidence to speak in architectonic narrative forms reflects a general sense that details matter less than perspective, that historical facts are only epiphenomena of an architectonic paradigm or hermeneutic, so that a sufficient knowledge of “facts” can be acquired solely through the practice of a hermeneutical or an ideological critique in itself, since any “fact” can itself be reduced to an expression or the symptom of a hermeneutic or ideology (241).

That is, contemporary treatments are confident in their generalizations because we tend to think ourselves more aware than our forebears and because specific statements and positions are read in light of the larger paradigm rather than the larger paradigm being built with attention to specific statements and positions.

            Barnes attributes the fact that contemporary systematic theologians seem to prefer architectonic narrative forms to their preference for “an idealistic style of writing” (243), by which he means (1) interest in polar opposition (2) describing cultural forms by means of the logic of ideas.  For Barnes, all of these things suggest the influence of German idealism (ibid).  In the realm of historical studies, Barnes identifies Oliver du Roy’s work on Augustine as particularly influential and particularly flawed along these lines.  This is primarily because du Roy discussed Augustine’s Trinitarian theology in conversation with the philosophy of Augustine’s time as opposed to its relationship to preceding doctrinal understanding (244). 

            At this point, Barnes has built up to what is his fundamental critique.  He writes, “The rhetorical voice of such reconstructive narratives is one of comprehensiveness, but the ‘historical method’ supporting the narratives is in fact reductive.  Stories of increasing scope are told on the basis of diminishing experience and evidence” (248-9).  For Barnes, it is bad enough that scholars would make sweeping generalizing claims based upon careful attention to the sources, but it is altogether unacceptable when these kinds of claims are developed out of a basic failure to read the relevant primary sources.  For instance, Barnes notes that polemical context is frequently avoided (cf. 245) and that Augustine’s last Trinitarian works are not read simply because they exist only in Latin and systematic theologians generally do not work in Latin (cf. 248).  Specifically with reference to De Trinitate, Barnes notes that contemporary treatments tend to be insufficient for three reasons: (1) little attention is given to the polemical context (2) little attention is paid to the fact that Augustine builds his arguments on exegetical series (3) few are aware of the previous use of many important Scriptural passages for earlier Trinitarian theology (cf. 247). 

            Barnes’ explication of contemporary systematic treatment of Augustine is a challenge to systematic theologians.  But, it also begs the question of to what degree systematic theology can properly be separated from historical theology.  As per Barnes’ argument, the former seems to begin where the latter leaves off.

[1] Michel Rene Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology” pp. 237-50 in Theological Studies 56 (1995).  Page citations given in the main text.

Monday, March 03, 2008

2008 Trinity Blogging Summit

Nick Norelli has recently gone live with the 2008 Trinity Blogging Summit, which he organized and edited. The table of contents will guide you to numerous intriguing and thought-provoking offerings, including my own reflections on Augustine Among the Social Trinitarians.

Nick has done a great job with this summit, and I highly encourage you to surf over and check it out. I would particularly enjoy seeing comments on my contribution with which to engage. So, don't be shy.

Finally, I am extremely gratified by the immense proliferation of theo-blog collaborative endeavors such as this since the First Annual Karl Barth Blog Conference was held here at DET last June. The 2008 Barth Blog Conference is coming, but first we have to Balthasar Blog Conference coming soon from David D. over at Fire & Rose

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Ethics, a la Calvin, Augustine and Shane

For the background to this post, please see the comments thread in my most recent edition of Reading Scripture with John Calvin and Shane’s post, The mendacious moral pessimism of John Calvin.

In his post, Shane suggested that I try out the phrase, “You know what I love about you babe? Jesus” on my dear wife. Of course, he anticipates “that her reaction will not be gratitude for his piety.” Of course, I don’t need to merely “anticipate” her reaction; I know what it will be (of course, not in the sense of JTB; see Shane’s two posts and my own) My wife would say: “Um…ok….,” all the while thinking, “What the h*ll is wrong with this guy? Why did I marry him?”

But, all joking aside, my saving grace is that my (and I would argue, Calvin’s) position does not necessitate that I make such a move. But, before I get into that, I just want to be clear about who bears the burden of proof in this discussion. I would argue at length and in great detail that my position is in keeping not only with Calvin but also with Augustine. I’m not saying that these two authorities cannot be overthrown, but it is going to take a bit more work on Shane’s part than merely setting out a few propositions, a haphazard collection of definitions, and then cranking up the logical machinery.

Shane makes two key rejections: first, he rejects the notion that “No one can undertake a moral action for the right reason apart from regenerating grace;” second, he rejects “the idea that the only proper motivation for any moral action is love of God.” These two rejections are inextricably linked, and I would contend that it is Shane’s rejection of the second that is driving his rejection of the first. I suspect that this is so on the basis of the rather central place (central to the affective weight of the argument, not the logic) of his statement, “To love something just means to love it for its own sake.” This is precisely the affirmation that lends force to his flights of fancy concerning conversations between my wife and I, a practice – I might add – that some would consider to be in appropriate in so public a forum.

In any case, this sentiment of loving something for its own sake is correct so far as it goes. But, I’m afraid that Shane is missing a rather big piece of the puzzle, namely, that the intrinsic value of all created reality, and especially of human persons, is grounded in God and God’s act of creation. Shane would like you to believe that loving a woman for who she is in herself, and loving a woman on the basis of her nature as a creature of God, are mutually exclusive. I would argue that you do not love a woman for who she is in herself without also loving her on the basis of her nature as a creature of God, for her nature as a creature of God is what grounds her intrinsic worth (and beauty, and what have you).

I will conclude with a brief lesson from Augustine’s De Trinitate, which I will related back to this conversation. First, DT, 12.14:
“What happens is that the soul, loving its own power, slides away from the whole which is common to all into the part which is its own private property. By following God’s directions and being perfectly governed by his laws it could enjoy the whole universe of creation; but by the apostasy of pride…it strives to grab something more than the whole and to govern it by its own laws.”
Augustine is thinking here in terms of turning to try and possess one’s own body for gratification (which is the part) rather than to seek after God and thereby gain the whole creation (which is the whole). But, for our purposes, it is sufficient to note here that if we wish to live properly ordered lives, we must consider things in relation to God, and not as a discreet object which we can in any way possess (or understand, or love?) apart from its relation to God. We now turn to DT, 14.18:
“The human mind, then, is so constructed that it never does not remember itself, never does not understand itself, never does not love itself. But if you hate someone you are dead set on doing him harm, and so it is not unreasonable to talk about the mind of man hating itself when it does itself harm. It does not know it is wishing itself ill while it imagines that what it wants is not to its disadvantage, but in fact it is wishing itself ill when it wants something that is to its disadvantage…So the man who knows how to love himself loves God; and the man who does not love God, even though he loves himself, which is innate in him by nature, can still be said quite reasonably to hate himself when he does that which is against his own interest, and stalks himself as if he were his own enemy.”
Lost in that tangle of words is the notion that, even though it is of the nature of the human person to love his- or her-self, one does in fact not do so when one acts for one’s own harm, which includes the condition of not loving God. If one does not love God, one does not love oneself. But, why should this logic be confined to the self? In relation to our discussion, if one does not love God, one cannot love a woman. More from Augustine in the same chapter:
“But when the mind loves God, and consequently as has been said remembers and understands him, it can rightly be commanded to love its neighbor as itself. For now it loves itself with a straight, not a twisted love, now that it loves God; for sharing in him results not merely in its being that image, but in its being made new and fresh and happy after being old and worn and miserable.”
It is hard for me to comment on this passage because it seems self-evident. One does not love oneself rightly without first loving God; therefore one does not love another rightly without first loving God. (“Love your neighbor as yourself” is the passage behind all this, if you haven’t already guessed.) Consequently, we aren’t only talking about love here. We are also talking about knowledge and understanding, to wit, we cannot know or understand another thing except we know and understand God. Augustine ties all this up into a nice little bundle. Consequently, Calvin does much of the same when he writes in the opening sentence of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559): “Nearly all the wisdom we posses, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” which are “joined by many bonds.”


Proper relation to God is necessary for proper relation to anything else. This goes for love and knowledge and understanding as well. Thus, what is called “love” between a Muslim or Hindu man and his wife is not “love” in the proper sense. Even Christians, although they have been set on the road toward right love / knowledge / understanding / relation, remain always imperfect in this life and thus are deficient in these things as well. However, because of Christ’s work of mediation, the actions of Christians are counted as righteous before God.