Midweek Blog: How Does Faith Work according to Augustine?


Well, this is it. The last post on Augustine for the Historical Christian blog. It’s been a fun series, and I have enjoyed your comments and going through some of my favorite passages from Augustine’s works together. Next week I will be venturing into a new series on American Church History, so be on the lookout for that. But for today, we are looking back into the mind of Augustine. His work On Grace and Free Choice contains a few intriguing statements on faith that I want to look at today with all of you.

Augustine defines faith in his work as the “will to believe” (14.28; p. 163 in the Cambridge Texts in History and Philosophy version). He also notes that faith is a “matter of grace.” Well these phrases sound fine and good, but what does Augustine mean? How does faith work with grace? Well, thankfully, he answers those questions in the same section. He writes, “The spirit of grace brings it about that we have faith, so that through our faith we may achieve by prayer the ability to do what we are bidden to do… since we are not capable of doing what the Law bids unless, through our faith, we achieve by entreaty the capacity to do it” (14.28).

For Augustine, you can’t have faith without first receiving grace. Faith is a process for him: grace comes and allows you to have faith, then faith allows you to do good works through prayer. He of course links this to the Law, which is appropriate considering he is actually drawing on several passages from Paul’s letters immediately prior to this. It also makes sense since Calvin and others who adhere to a predestination doctrine with regard to salvation actually draw on Augustine’s writings. We see somewhat of a precursor to such thinking in the idea that grace actually comes before faith; i.e. you can’t choose to have faith, it has to come through God’s grace.

He continues such a line of thinking in the next section as well. He notes, “If faith is due solely to free choice and is not given by God, why do we pray for those who are unwilling to believe that they might believe? That would be completely pointless were we not to believe, quite rightly, that Almighty God is able to turn to belief even perverse wills hostile to the faith” (14.29).

Now, it should be noted that Augustine is directly opposing the arguments of Pelagius, who had argued that humans have a part in their own salvation and that free will is the starting point. In other words, for Pelagius, humans take the initiative in their own salvation. Augustine believes that God is the initiator and provides the grace needed to possess faith. Aside from arguing between predestination and free will or between Calvinism and Arminianism, I think there is actually something in Augustine’s statements that we should examine here.

Augustine points to praying for those who “are unwilling to believe” as a perfect example of why faith cannot come from just free will. Augustine realizes that in order for the hardest of hearts to soften toward God, God has to be the one to do the softening. For Augustine, such an argument emphasizes God’s power and mercy. Further on, he points to Ezekiel 36 in order to show that God is concerned with God’s own name being profaned among others and therefore takes action to “show the holiness of my great name” (Ez. 36.23, NIV).

So how does faith work? Can we choose to believe in God, to be Christians? Augustine would say, “Yes, of course! But only by God’s grace.” Going back to Augustine’s own definition that faith is the “will to believe” (14.28), how should we look at God’s role in our own lives? Can our will truly believe in God only if God allows it, and/ or causes it? Does such a construct bother us? Instead of being intentionally vague and side-stepping the issue, I will show my Methodist upbringing and argue that faith is the starting point for following God. I don’t tend to take too much issue with Augustine’s paradigm that grace allows faith in the first place. In fact, I rather appreciate such a statement. It keeps the ego in check to say things like “I only believe in God and have faith because God is so merciful,” instead of “Wow, I have such amazing faith! God is lucky to have me!” Now, I would doubt many people would actually go there, but you get the point. God’s mercy is necessary in our lives, and why should it not be necessary for our faith journeys as well? However, I don’t want to flat out dismiss our free will in seeking out God. I have been a Christian for 17 years, and I have been studying Church History now for 7+ years (yikes, I should probably have a PhD by now). There is no way I could have persevered to this point without mercy from God. Faith and mercy are inextricably linked (also, Augustine has another treatise, On the Gift of Perseverance which delves more into that side of things, FYI).

I also think that faith is a journey and one needs to strive for maturation and depth in one’s faith (some might call this sanctification). God’s mercy allows us to continue on the path of faith, but we also need to actively choose to take part in it. We should not get to the point where we think, “Well since God is the instigator, it’s God’s fault that I am not reading the Bible enough.” Free will is important because it places responsibility on our shoulders. I will spare you the Spiderman quote here. I want to conclude by endorsing Augustine’s model with a caveat. Mercy, faith, prayer, and good works should be cherished together in one’s Christian life. However, we need to also cultivate each one and seek each one out.

What do you think? Do you agree with Augustine? Do you think that free will has a role from the outset of one’s faith journey?

Midweek Augustine Blog: Is There Time for God?


Well, I thought about doing a bonus blog last week, but it never happened. I could blame my daughter for taking up all my time and attention, but the reality is I just didn’t feel like it. Oh well. Onward! This week’s blog in our series on Augustine examines my favorite “book” of the Confessions, Book XI. Augustine opens Book XI with a question: “O Lord, since you are outside time in eternity, are you unaware of the things that I tell you? Or do you see in time the things that occur in it?” (XI.1). Augustine poses a tough question that is not easily answered. He proceeds to discuss this issue throughout Book XI, and since trying to elaborate on it would fill up pages and pages of a blog, I will seek instead to hone in on a couple of key passages. I invite and recommend all of you to read Confessions in general, and particularly Book XI.

Section 13 of Book XI contains a couple of poignant statements to which I want to devote space here. Augustine notes, “It is not in time that you precede [time]. If this were so, you would not be before all time. It is in eternity, which is supreme over time because it is a never-ending present, that you are at once before all past time and after all future time. For what is now the future, once it comes, will become the past, whereas you are unchanging, your years can never fail. Your years neither go nor come, but our years pass and others come after them” (XI.13).

Trying to grasp just how God’s place in eternity lies outside of time is a heavy concept. The idea that God exists in a “never-ending present” is helpful but also difficult. For example, God is not affected by time, does not grow old, etc. However, does this mean that God is somehow limited? Think of what we know as “present.” It means that we know what is past, and do not know the future (no matter what doomsday prophets will tell you). Does God’s “never-ending present” also mean that God does not know the future. Augustine would certainly disagree with such a conclusion. In the above quotation he notes that God is “before all past time and after all future time.” Does that mean that God is simply outside of time? It would seem to suggest that. But what about Jesus (God in human flesh), who enters into time? He was born and He died. He also rose from the dead. Did Jesus know everything that was to happen? Was Jesus surprised by events in His lifetime, even if He knew His ultimate fate?

As you can see, such a discourse can open up a whole can of worms. Augustine further elaborates on God’s place in eternity: “Your years are one day, yet your day does not come daily but is always today, because your today does not give place to any tomorrow nor does it take the place of any yesterday. Your today is eternity. And this is how the Son, to whom you said, ‘I have begotten you this day,’ was begotten co-eternal with yourself. You made all time; you are before all time; and the ‘time,’ if such we may call it, when there was no time was not time at all” (XI.13).

This is one of my favorite passages of the entire Confessions. I love how succinctly Augustine phrases such a difficult concept. He clearly uses “time” language to show just how God is eternal. Augustine demonstrates how we as humans strain to comprehend God’s existence. Since we think in terms of time, we ought to use time language in order to show just how God is greater than us. We have to think of God in an eternal present, an eternal today. In addition to that, God is the creator of time and is before and after all time. What causes us trouble is the idea of eternity. It is easy to flippantly say, “Oh God is outside of time, so God is not surprised by the future.” Well, what about when someone presses you on the matter. For example, can God truly hear our prayers (especially those that are time-sensitive, like healing or job opportunities) if God is outside of time?

This gets back to Augustine’s opening question, how can human prayer requests bridge the gap between the temporal and the eternal realms? Well I would argue that Jesus’s entering into the temporal realm facilitates that, as does the gifted Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians. Is such an argument helpful though? What about skeptics? Does this help us answer their tough questions about God’s nature and God’s seeming detachment from our world?

I want to bring this blog to a “timely” close before it gets too long-winded. A Bible study I was once a part of took on some of these topics. It was a great experience digging into passages and commentaries and often getting really confused. At the end of it, however, we did come to some conclusions. A question that was posed went something like this: if God is eternal and outside of time, does God know if I will go to the gym two weeks from today? Now, you might think this a rather mundane detail for God to be concerned with, but I assure you it caused a furious debate. The point was if God knows for sure (or even predestines it, which was the purpose of the question), then how does free will work? The conclusion was that we do have free will, God can just see both outcomes of whether or not we decide to go to the gym two Thursdays from now.

And this is one of the problems with calling God’s place in the universe a “never-ending present.” It makes God seem limited or restricted in some way. If we think of God as outside of time, God sees the past, present, and future all at once. God sees all possibilities of actions (and their consequences) at once. This is so much greater and more profound than an eternal present. Time is too small of a construct to contain God.

Midweek Blog: Augustine, Enemies, and Forgiveness


Apologies to my readers for missing a blog last week. I was wrapping up a dissertation chapter which took all of my focus. That chapter has been handed in, so I have time this week to write a new blog. I might even include a bonus one on Friday as well. Today’s blog picks up our series of posts on Augustine by exploring a different work of his, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity (New City Press, 1999 edition). It’s a helpful work with several different sections on Christianity. The topic for today’s blog is forgiveness of one’s enemies.

I have read Augustine’s catechism (which this work is often called) and enjoyed several aspects of it, but possibly nothing in it hits me harder than Augustine’s section on “Forgiveness from the Heart” (Ench. 74). Apologies for the non-inclusiveness of the language. In it, Augustine writes, “A person who pleads with one against whom he has sinned, if he is moved by his own sin to make his plea, should no longer be thought of as an enemy whom it is as difficult to forgive as it was when he was behaving as an enemy.”

The reason this is hard for me is the idea that we should easily forgive those who were formerly our enemies and no longer look at them as our enemies. The idea that we are supposed to forgive those, who through contrition ask for it, sits just fine with me. The idea that we should look no longer at them as our enemies is a bit more difficult. For example, the powerful testimonies of forgiveness that have been offered in Charleston, South Carolina towards Dylann Roof after his hate-crime killing spree. I don’t know how those families forgave him, let alone advocated that he not be executed. That is truly the power of Christ’s forgiveness in them. I don’t know if I could have extended the same grace, let alone no longer looking to that shooter as an enemy (provided he asked for forgiveness, which to my knowledge he has not done).

Let’s take another example. What if someone is directly responsible for you not getting a promotion, eventually get you fired, which causes you to lose your home? What if, years later, you and that person end up at the same church, and even in the same Bible study? What about if he or she were to come up to you and plead for forgiveness for his or her past actions and tell you he or she is truly sorry? Can you forgive that person? Sure. Can you no longer look at him or her as your enemy? Maybe.

Augustine continues, “But anybody who refuses to forgive from his heart one who asks forgiveness and repents of his sin should not think that the Lord forgives his sins, since the Truth cannot lie. What hearer or reader of the gospel does not know who said, ‘I am the truth?’ (Jn. 14:6).”

This is the rub of Augustine’s message here. Refusing to forgive has personal consequences for the offended person. The Lord’s forgiveness seems to be predicated on our ability to forgive others. Should we agree with such theology? Does Augustine’s own theology allow for this? These are larger questions which might sidetrack the purpose of this blog. I think that the point Augustine is making (based on Matthew 6.14-15 mind you) is that if we are to live as Christians in this world, we must forgive others. How can we think that our enemies have offended us more than we ourselves have offended God?

I want to close today’s blog with a story that looks at this issue from the opposite side of things. Back when I was in high school, a friend of mine was upset with me for a while. I wasn’t sure at first why he had been so mad at me, until I asked a mutual friend of ours about it. That friend told me that my buddy had heard that I was telling a story of his that I wasn’t supposed to share with anyone else. Side note: it was a compelling story and I had ignored the request for confidentiality in order to captivate an audience at school. Long story short, I finally convinced my buddy to talk to me. I told him I was sorry for blabbing his story and sorry for betraying his confidence. He said, “Okay, I forgive you.” It was so simple and he acted like it was nothing. He and I hadn’t talked for about a week, but he so easily forgave me. It was powerful. We were able to get back to being good friends almost as if nothing had happened at all.

That is the strongest picture I can paint (from my own experience). Someone who had felt so wronged and so hurt just needed to hear “I’m sorry” in order to forgive. Friendship was restored because of my friend’s forgiveness. We therefore should treat our enemies (who are contrite, mind you, Augustine doesn’t really address those enemies who don’t want our forgiveness) in a similar way. We are to forgive as the Lord forgave us.

Have any of you been forgiven in such a way? Have any of you forgiven your enemies like this? I would love to hear your stories. If any of you have an issue currently like this (whichever side you find yourself on), I would urge you to seek forgiveness in one way or another.

Midweek Blog: Augustine and How to Read the Bible


I want to continue our series on St. Augustine today by discussing a passage from his work, On Christian Teaching (De doctrina Christiana). It’s a small book (especially compared with the City of God), and is one that covers many topics about Christian living. I wanted to open this blog by sharing something a professor of mine told me in class once: one thing that many Protestants overlook and/or need to keep in mind when reading Augustine is that he was a pastoral theologian, not a systematic theologian. The difference being that Augustine is serving a particular church context and develops theological constructs which speak particularly to those situations (this would account for supposed inconsistencies between some of his earlier and later works). It is also helpful to keep that in mind whenever reading anything by Augustine; i.e. that he is addressing a church context. With that said, let’s launch into today’s post.

The following quotation comes from Book III of On Christian Teaching (I am using the Oxford World Classics version). Augustine writes:

“It often happens that someone who is, or thinks he/she is, at a higher stage of the spiritual life regards as figurative instructions which are given to those at a lower stage. So, for example, a man who has embraced a life of celibacy and castrated himself for the sake of the kingdom of heaven might maintain that any instructions given in the sacred books about loving or governing one’s wife should be taken not literally but figuratively.” (On Christian Teaching III.58; OWC p.81).

Now, while this might appear slightly comical at first glance, it is a real problem in Augustine’s church context. In the fourth and fifth centuries, monasticism was growing rapidly and people often would go to extreme lengths to prove that they were masters over the urges and lusts of the flesh. Castration being one such mode of asceticism. Origen, living in the third century, did so as well.

Augustine’s point is less about castration/ asceticism than it is about reading scripture. I have actually seen and heard Christians today employ these interpretation strategies when reading the Bible. Often they will read a passage that they feel does not apply to them, but instead of being content with that, they will fabricate an interpretation which uses a very fluid reading of that text in order to speak to some context in their own life. Is it okay to come across passages in the Bible that we feel don’t apply to us and to leave it at that? Why or why not?

Augustine furthers his point: “Likewise we must take care not to regard something in the Old Testament that is by the standards of its own time not wickedness or wrongdoing, even when understood literally and not figuratively, as capable of being transferred to the present time and applied to our own lives.” (On Christian Teaching, III.60; OCW p. 81)

Context suggests that Augustine refers here to reading about heroes in the Old Testament such as David and their many wives. Augustine warns that it is possible that David was more chaste in having several wives than a man who only has one wife but pursues lustful passions with her. The opposite can be true today: people look at passages in the Old Testament and say, “I want nothing to do with your Bible because of the polygamy, violence, presence of slavery, etc.”

What should we say in response to such statements? Can we read passages like those in the Old Testament literally? Do we have to read them figuratively?

I think that this is one of the dangers of biblical interpretation. I have seen people question their entire faith over studying one particular passage in depth. However, I think there is a sort of beauty in the Bible when you look back through and see passages that make us uncomfortable; or worse, downright upset and angry. I think that the people in the Bible are supposed to bother us on some levels.

I think it’s okay that Abraham bothers people when he sends Hagar away. I think it’s good that people seriously dislike the Book of Joshua for its “genocidal” type narratives. I think it’s also great that people really struggle with the Book of Philemon because it never actually condemns slavery and even sends a slave back to his master. The history of the Bible is supposed to do that. It is filled with people that sometimes acted less than honorably. It is filled with troubling passages like those from Joshua. We need a Bible that is hard to read, that pushes our faith further. An easy Bible would not foster deep, meaningful faith.

Trying to make the Bible work for us today isn’t always the best plan. Augustine’s words suggest that we need to be careful to avoid making the Bible do things it wasn’t meant to do. Many people try to make the Bible apply to situations that it just does not address. We have seen this today in several forums, particularly social media and politics. Sometimes passages should just be read on their own with their own context in mind.

Side note: Augustine’s own conversion happened because he “took up and read” the first passage he flipped open to. He felt that it was speaking directly to him. Just some further food for thought.

I want to close with a quote from Augustine on this matter: “We must understand that some instructions are given to all people alike, but others to particular classes of people, so that the medicine may confront not only the general pathology of the disease but also the particular weakness of each part of the body. What cannot be raised to a higher level must be healed at its own level.” (III.59)

Midweek Blog: Peace and Justice in Augustine’s City of God


Greetings, everyone!

I hope your weeks are going well. This week, we are continuing our blog series on Augustine. After my wife’s statement last week that I keep casting Augustine as a villain, I wanted to switch gears a little bit. The first two blogs in this series were set up to show that Augustine, like all of us, is indeed human. This week, however, I wanted to focus on a passage from Augustine’s City of God. It is a massive work, over 1,000 pages in the Penguin Classics version, from which I will be quoting in this post. Despite its length, I would recommend to all Christians that instead of reading the Confessions for the third or thirtieth time, give City of God a read. You won’t be disappointed (however I will warn you, you will wish Augustine had an editor). Anyways, on to today’s post.

Peace is a theme that runs throughout the City of God, and in particular throughout Book 19 (the work is split up into 22 “Books” with each book having several “chapters” throughout). Augustine notes that individual Christians have to engage in war with themselves in this life, in order to subdue their temptations and other sinful urges (City of God, 19.27). Such an idea is intriguing, and, I would argue, seems to line up pretty well with Paul in Romans 7.14-25 (the “do/ don’t want to do” section). Today’s post, however, will be focused on a passage on justice.

Augustine writes, “In this life, therefore, justice in each individual exists when God rules and [the person] obeys, when the mind rules the body and reason governs the vices even when they rebel, either by subduing them or by resisting them, while from God himself favor is sought for good deeds and pardon for offenses, and thanks are duly offered to him for benefits received. But in that ultimate peace, to which this justice should be related, and for the attainment of which this justice is to be maintained, our nature will be healed by immortality and incorruption and will have no perverted elements, and nothing at all, in ourselves or any other, will be in conflict with any one of us” (City of God, 19.27).

Such a passage contains a great deal of things to unpack. Firstly, justice is tied directly to God’s rule in the person’s life. God’s role in the lives of believers is necessary in order for their minds to rule their bodies and for “reason to govern the vices.” Reason and a sound mind are thus very important in order to defeat the various “vices” in one’s life. Secondly, Augustine demonstrates that justice in one’s life does not equal perfection. He includes his statement that God’s favor is “sought for good deeds and pardon for offenses.” The inclusion of offenses shows that even with such justice in one’s life, he or she will still have missteps.

One final thing that I want to discuss from the above passage is the most complex. Augustine relates the justice in the believer’s life to “that ultimate peace” which is achieved through “maintaining the justice.” Such a statement would seem to suggest that Augustine argues for a personal role for anyone seeking “ultimate peace;” i.e. immortality and incorruption. Augustine fights against Pelagius for arguing that believers play a personal role in their own salvation. Isn’t that what Augustine is stating in our passage? I would say no. I think what he is getting at with regard to “maintaining” justice is proper living and proper self-restraint. One’s good deeds are directly linked to God’s favor, and any “benefits received” from such justice in one’s life should come with thanksgiving to God. Augustine, however, still attributes the primary role to God.

Further, he notes that “our nature will be healed by immortality and incorruption” and that conflicts will cease. Obviously, the “ultimate peace” we have been discussing is found in such cessation of conflict. Peace with others, but more importantly, peace within the individual person characterizes the ultimate peace. I think Augustine’s meaning is that the incorruption and immortality are gifts from God, even possibly the “benefits received” from God to which Augustine refers.

So if God’s rule allows us to subdue our vices, allows for our mistakes, and leads to the “ultimate peace,” what is our role in all of this? Are we to be simple innocent bystanders? Do we just hand God the keys and go along for the ride? Although Augustine does say that justice is to be “maintained,” who does the maintaining, us or God? I find these questions to be tricky because of what they imply. I don’t think Augustine would suggest that we are entirely passive in such an endeavor. He does seem to imply that our role is very small in such a matter. however.

I close by wondering how peace and justice can work together in our lives. Further, do we take issue with the notion that we are to give over so much control of our lives to God? Should we?

Midweek Blog: Augustine Was Mean to the Donatists


So last week, I started a new blog series on Augustine. We covered the Augustine’s relationship with his concubine. This week, I wanted to look at his response to the Donatist schism in the Church. Just some background information for you. The Donatists were a North African group that were branded heretics. The group started in the early 300’s CE after a period of intense persecution. During that persecution, some Christians had handed over copies of scripture to authorities in order to save their own lives. These people were called traditores for betraying their Christian faith. After the persecution ended, many of them repented and resumed their posts in churches. Some even ordained other bishops. There was a growing dissent that such ordinations should not count, and those who were so ordained should renounce their positions. A particular group of dissenters were named after Donatus, a bishop of Carthage. They claimed that the Catholic Church was so filled with the stain of traditores that it was corrupted. They considered themselves the true, pure church since they did not have a link to traditores. There was eventually an “Edict of Unity” issued in 405 which levied penalties against groups like the Donatists and tried to stop the schism.

Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (2000), 229-239 discusses how Augustine came around to viewing “coercion” or “disciplina” as the proper way of getting the Donatists to come back to the faith. Many people have made Augustine out to be a forerunner of the Spanish Inquisition, but Brown is quick to dismiss that notion in his book (p. 236). However, Augustine’s treatment of the Donatists still is something which we must examine. He advocated using violence and other coercive means, excepting death from his wheel of punishments. What do we do with such violence “in the name of bringing people to Christ?”

Augustine writes in a letter to Donatus: “You are angry because you are being drawn to salvation, although you have drawn so many of our fellow Christians to destruction. For what did we order beyond this, that you should be arrested, brought before the authorities, and guarded, in order to prevent you from perishing… You think, however, that even what we have done to you should not have been done, because, in your opinion, no one should be compelled to that which is good… How much more then, is it fitting that you should be drawn forcibly away from a pernicious error?” (Augustine, “Epistle 173: To Donatus,” in NPNF, Vol. 1: The Confessions and Letters of Augustin, ed. Schaff).

Here we should unpack a few items. First, the idea that one deserves to be arrested forcibly for preaching that the Church is corrupt seems rather harsh. Well, we must remember that the early fifth century was a very different time than the era in which we live. The Church’s authority was still relatively new, coming out of the fourth century, which was filled with orthodox and heterodox positions jockeying for power and for imperial sponsorship. That said, the Donatists actually do have a group within their ranks called the Circumcellions, who sought martyrdom as a virtue and would attack soldiers with blunt clubs to provoke a response, i.e. the soldiers “martyring” the Circumcellions. Therefore, an arrest could possibly be warranted, though to what degree Donatus was responsible for their actions, we may never know.

The second idea to unpack is the idea of coercion, or “compelling someone to that which is good.” Here is where some see a strong link to the Inquisition in Augustine’s thought. Compelling often entailed violence toward those being compelled. Here is where one ought to pause. While it’s no shock to most that Christians have a violent past (Crusades, anyone?), most Christians in evangelical circles today will frequently refer to Augustine as an amazing Church Father and Theological figure. I don’t mean to discount that at all, because I too often view him that way. However, there are many other aspects from his time as bishop that people often do not realize or even know. His treatment of the Donatists, I would argue, is rather unfortunate. I would have preferred him to remain opposed to violence in convincing others to come back.

Perhaps it’s a twenty-first century mindset, perhaps it’s a specifically American mindset, but I feel that if a group will not join your ranks and “refuses to see the truth,” you need to just let them be. I know, I know, some of you will say, but people were leaving his church and joining their ranks, he had to do something. While that might be true, there is an awful lot of bureaucratic details around the Edict of Unity; i.e. Donatists started to be unable to leave their land to their heirs, etc. Is this really a fair way to treat an opposing group?

I want to close by asking what Christians today can take away from the battle between Augustine and the Donatists. Should Christians continuously fight (nonviolently, mind you) other groups in order to “convince them of the truth?” Or should they just let them be? I think there have been many moments over the last few years where evangelical Christians have faced such opposition. Many churches have fought the legalization of gay marriage. Many have fought against the Islamic faith. Currently churches are battling planned parenthood. I don’t want to get into these debates here; suffice it to say that there are many groups whom churches oppose and even condemn. While I don’t think it’s wrong to disagree with people (often some of the best discussions stem from such disagreements), I do think we need to be careful to avoid being too passionate about a cause that it blinds us to those around us.

The Donatists were also actual people, and people who claimed to worship Christ. Did Augustine lose sight of that?

Midweek Blog: Augustine Was a Crappy Long-term Boyfriend


Well, last week we completed our series on the Apostolic Fathers. This week I wanted to start a new series of blog posts on St. Augustine of Hippo. Many people have written on his life, read his Confessions, and in general have some idea of who he was. He is probably the most important theologian in Church History after the New Testament period, especially in Western Church History. A brief biography of Augustine before launching into our post: he lived from 354 to 430 CE and had a dramatic conversion experience, which he recounted in his autobiographical text, Confessions. In it, he relates how his mother, Monica, was instrumental in praying for his salvation during the years of his youth. He wrote a treatise, City of God, in response to the sack of Rome in 410 and the subsequent blaming of Christians for “upsetting the gods.” He is famous for his responses as bishop of Hippo Regius (a city in North Africa) to a group called the Donatists and a monk named Pelagius. Overall he is a fascinating historical figure, and the student of his is never want for reading, as Augustine was very prolific. That said, I want to discuss his long-term concubine and his rather unfortunate response to her.

Augustine first introduces his readers to his long-term “mistress” in Confessions 4.2. He writes, “In those days I lived with a woman, not my lawful wedded wife but a mistress whom I had chosen for no special reason but that my restless passions had alighted on her. But she was the only one and I was faithful to her.” Now, Confessions is filled with discussions about how he could not resist sexual temptation throughout his youth and even into his early adult life. It is also important to note that chronologically, this relationship with his concubine actually took place before his conversion. This relationship was rather long-term and produced a son, named Adeodatus, whom Augustine (I’m sure playfully) refers to as “my natural son born of my sin” (Confessions 9.6).

So what’s the problem with Augustine? And where does the snappy title of this blog come in? Well, unfortunately for Augustine’s concubine, whose name we are never told, it just wasn’t meant to be. Augustine himself relates that “I was being urged to marry, and had already made my proposal and been accepted. My mother had done all she could to help, for it was her hope that, once I was married, I should be washed clean of my sins by the saving waters of baptism” (Confessions 6.13). However, the marriage was not to his concubine, but to a girl who was two years too young to be married. Thankfully, Augustine assures us, “I liked her well enough and was content to wait” (6.13). In the meantime, the concubine “went back to Africa [from Milan], vowing never to give herself to any other man, and left me with the son whom she had borne me” (6.15).

Now, we need to pause here to underline a key concept in examining Augustine’s relationships. In the fourth century, actions such as this were rather normal. It was normal for a man to marry-up in life. That is what Augustine was doing when he dismissed his concubine and proposed to the young girl’s family. She was wealthy and he was able to climb the social ladder through the proposal (the marriage never took place). Peter Brown in his work, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, describes how we should be careful looking back on this situation with 21st century eyes.

However, I would note that Augustine himself notes that he was unhappy to lose his concubine. He writes that his concubine was “torn from his side as an obstacle to my marriage, and this was a blow which crushed my heart to bleeding, because I loved her dearly” (6.15). Augustine actually relates that he couldn’t wait for the two year engagement and instead took a new concubine “because I was more a slave of lust than a true lover of marriage” (6.15).

So what do we do with this Augustine character? Can we say his actions are morally deplorable? Should we say, “Oh well, that’s the fourth century for you” and ignore it? I think it’s somewhere in between. Obviously by today’s standards, Augustine does not exactly act honorably toward his first concubine, expecting her to go away and never be with another man while he becomes engaged to someone else (someone who was two years too young for marriage-another blemish to 21st century eyes). However, in the fourth century, marrying up was common and we have to wrestle with this concept. Clearly Augustine loved his concubine, but her social status was not good enough, so a remedy had to be sought if he was going to continue his very promising career prospects.

These events also took place before his conversion and only further underscore how enslaved he was to his passions and to sex. He notes that he couldn’t even wait the two years for his engagement and had to go find another concubine. Clearly Augustine succeeds in showing modern readers how sinful he was prior to his conversion. Either way, I think we can safely say that the moral standards for concubineage were pretty unfair to women. The man is allowed (and even expected) to marry-up in status while the woman is expected to be celibate and leave their son with the father (so the son can enjoy the social status as well).

What do you all think? Was Augustine a crappy long-term boyfriend? Maybe only at the end.

Women in Church History, Part 2: Saint Monica, the Prayer Warrior


In my last post, https://dansalyers.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/women-teachers-in-church-history-part-1-perpetua-and-felicity/, I looked at an account of two powerfully faithful women from North Africa. This post examines another such woman: Saint Monica. One of the most striking accounts of her faith is presented to us in Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Throughout the work, Augustine recounts how Monica, his mother, continuously prayed for him to be delivered from falsehood to the truth of Christianity (Confessions, 6.1). Augustine portrays her as a true prayer warrior: “She poured out her tears and her prayers all the more fervently, begging you to speed your help and give me light in my darkness. She hurried all the more eagerly to church, where she listened with rapt attention” (6.1).

Monica’s prayer for Augustine continued to not be answered as he simply moved away from Manichaeism, not all the way toward Christianity. One thing that jumps out to me is that although Augustine had left the Manichees and was attending Ambrose’s church in Milan, Monica did not yet consider her prayer answered. We see quite the opposite in fact, in the quote above that she prayed “all the more fervently.” It’s clear that Monica sees God moving in her son’s life and finds hope and renewed dedication to her prayer life.

Now, if you haven’t read Confesssions, Monica is a major figure in Augustine’s faith. He remembers her prayer life throughout his own journey to faith, even though it took several years for him to eventually become a Christian. Augustine recounts how Monica reacted to news of his conversion. “For she saw how you had granted her far more than she used to ask in her tearful prayers… you turned her sadness into rejoicing, into joy far fuller than her dearest wish.” (8.12).

Monica’s repeated prayers for Augustine are rewarded after years and years of his defiance and forays into a life of sin. She models for Christians today how to be faithful in prayer, trust God for full and good rewards, and how to be persistent in the life of the person for whom she prays. She follows Augustine to Milan, after all. In praying for someone, it’s easy to simply jot down that prayer request from them and pray it each day so that it becomes routinized, without following up with the person and his or her needs. I think Monica models how to be involved in the life of the person/ persons for whom you are praying.

While I think Monica’s example is important for Christians today, I have also heard her example used in a negative way. I have unfortunately been in churches that greatly restrict women’s roles in the community and essentially give them the example of Monica as a consolation prize. The dialogue goes something like, “You can’t have an active leadership role in our church, but you should remember how Monica was content to pray for her son, and look how he turned out! You have a great responsibility to pray for your kids!” Although I agree that both a FATHER and a mother should pray for their children daily, I think often women are seen as the only ones who are responsible for praying for their children. I do have to say, however, that I have directly benefited from the prayers of some very faithful women in my life: my mother and my grandmothers.

I think Monica’s example of a prayer warrior can speak to both men and women today. Be diligent and faithful in your prayer life. Pray regularly, passionately, and with hope. Suffer in your prayers as she did. Be a part of the lives of those you pray for as much as possible. Above all, trust in God -especially when you don’t see your prayers answered. After all, Monica didn’t see an answer to her prayer for over ten years.

A Very Augustinian Christmas

Since my quarter has wrapped up (and with it all my assignments), I wanted to blog about Augustine. He is a figure whom I will be studying extensively over the coming months in preparation for my comprehensive exams. As a result, I wanted to find a passage in the Augustinian corpus which discusses the incarnation/ Christmas narrative. My gift to you comes from Augustine’s Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity (the version I have is a translation by Bruce Harbert of New City Press from 1999 titled The Augustine Catechism). The following quotes come from Chapter 38 of the Enchiridion (pp. 71-72 in my version). I have listed 3 separate quotes from this chapter which discuss how the Holy Spirit is not Christ’s father.

“But are we to say that the Holy Spirit is the father of Christ the man in such a way that, while God the Father begot the Word, the Holy Spirit begot the man, and that the one Christ is from the these two substances, both Son of God the Father according to his nature as Word and Son of the Holy Spirit according to his humanity, since the Holy Spirit begot him of the virgin mother like a father? Who will dare to say this?”

“Our question concerns how it is that we say that he was born of the Holy Spirit when he is in no way the son of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the fact that God made this world does not justify our calling it God’s Son, or saying that it was born of God, but we can rightly speak of it as made or created or established or instituted by him, or other similar and suitable expressions.”

“While we acknowledge that he was born of the Holy Spirit and of the virgin Mary, it is hard to explain how he is not the son of the Holy Spirit and is the son of the virgin Mary; without doubt the Holy Spirit’s relationship to him is not that of a father, while the virgin’s relationship to him is that of a mother.” (emphasis present)

Augustine shows us here that the relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit becomes complicated in view of the incarnation. As Christ is born into this world to a virgin through the Holy Spirit, Augustine sees the potential problem of someone ascribing a Father/ Son relationship to the Holy Spirit. Christ is begotten of the “almighty Father, from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds.” (Ench. 38; p.71)

For Augustine, the Holy Spirit takes a part in creating or establishing the Son on earth as a man, but this does not make the Holy Spirit the Father of the Son. In the same way, the earth is not “born of God” just because it is made by God (see first quote above). So what does this mean for us this Christmas season?

Many people like the Christmas story and often a pastor will recount the narratives found in Matthew or Luke during Advent. As we seek to understand the incarnation and what it means for our lives, Augustine illustrates the complexity of the relationships within the Trinity. As one who studies many different theological controversies of the early church (Augustine appears to grab hold of several theological issues at once in the quotes above), I find solace in the fact that God came to earth to save humanity. Such reasoning sounds more appropriate to Easter, but I love thinking about the implications of the Word putting on flesh to save humanity. The salvific implications of Good Friday/ Easter cannot have taken place without the incarnation. Christ came to earth to save humanity.

Merry Christmas

First Blog Post; Reading Christopher Beeley

Over the last week and a half, I have read Christopher A. Beeley’s new book The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition.

Beeley is an author I first encountered when I arrived at Fuller, as I began a research topic on Gregory of Nazianzus. My professor mentioned Beeley’s book Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light. This book introduced me to many aspects of Nazianzus’s work with which I was not yet familiar. Beeley takes a very harsh tone to past scholars, decrying them for a lack of thoroughness, which he promises to deliver in his work on Gregory.

In his Unity of Christ, Beeley again brings a touch of his usual confrontational rhetoric, but tones it down a bit. This book seeks to view many Church Fathers and their Christologies in light of Origen’s influence. Beeley begins the book with an examination of Origen’s thought regarding the unity of Christ, and traces an Origenist thread through various figures such as Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, and post-Chalcedonian thinkers such as Maximus Confessor.

In so doing, Beeley’s work succeeds in demonstrating an Origenist influence throughout these various Christian thinkers. He also succeeds in depicting Eusebius as a theologian in addition to his well-known position as an historian. However, Beeley’s work seeks to diminish Athanasius’s role in Nicene Christology. It is at this point in the work that his thesis becomes muddled due to his agenda of downplaying Athanasius. His remaining chapters are strong, especially the conclusion which provides an excellent summation of his arguments.

Overall, this book has successes and failures, the latter of which appear to be relatively minor. I feel that students of the Christological controversies in the Patristic period should engage with Beeley’s work. This book is slated for a book panel discussion at the AAR/ SBL national conference next weekend, and I am looking forward to hearing scholars engage its effectiveness as well as Beeley’s response to their critiques.