St. Augustine Lives on in the Great Theological Conflicts of Today
by John Stamps
When it comes to St. Augustine, the great fifth-century bishop of Hippo, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox all have a similar reaction: none of us quite know what to do with him. Or at least that was my impression, based on the conference I attended at Fordham University last June.
The event was star-studded, at least on an intellectual level. Fordham managed to pull together an amazing collection of theological heavy-hitters: Jean-Luc Marion and Fr. David Tracy from the University of Chicago; Fr. Andrew Louth from Durham (UK), along with his wife, Dr. Carolyn Harrison, herself an Augustine scholar of no mean reputation; Fr. Brian Daley of Notre Dame; David Bentley Hart, lately of Providence College; Fr. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Seminary; David Bradshaw of the University of Kentucky; and more.
The conference attracted an equally fascinating cross-section of the Christian world. In addition to all the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests and monastics, I saw a distinguished-looking Coptic priest and a motley crew of divinity students from across the theological spectrum. From where I was sitting, I could see students with name tags from Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth, Reformed Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, St. Vladimir’s, Harvard Divinity School, and of course Fordham.
My next-door neighbor in our Spartan dorm was a Roman Catholic abbot from Orange County. With the conference held in the Bronx, we were able to hang around Little Italy and talk theology into the night with a Black American Baptist pastor from Berkeley, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on St. Augustine’s controversy with the Donatists. I even encountered an old seminary friend, a faithful Presbyterian pastor for many years.
The Fordham organizers did an excellent job of pulling together speakers and presentations on St. Augustine that avoided the worst excesses of Augustinian advocates and detractors alike. The lectures were brilliant, the one exception being the reader who claimed his paper was eaten, not by his dog, but by his PC. Even the sharpest of disagreements were polite, but the flash points surprised me: David Bradshaw ended up the target of most potshots and not St Augustine himself. There was little evidence of what the medievals called odium theologicum, that is, the intense hatred generated when partisans argue over minute points of theology little understood by anyone except the cognoscenti.
Fr. Andrew Louth’s keynote lecture set the tone for the conference. Fr. Andrew freely acknowledged all the usual Orthodox sore spots with St. Augustine: his arguments for the filioque clause; his contentious teachings about original sin, grace, and dual predestination; his endorsement of government-sanctioned violence against fellow Christians; and so on. But he wisely decided instead to put Augustine’s famous theological works (for example, “On the Trinity”) or his more polemical works (for example, his writings against the Pelagians and the Donatists) on the backburner, and focus instead on Augustine the bishop, who preached the Bible to his flock in Hippo, week in and week out, for over 30 years. Indeed, the consensus of the conference seemed to be that we’d all be better off reading Augustine’s sermons on St. John’s Gospel or the Psalms than focusing on his more divisive writings.
If I had to choose my favorite speaker in the conference, it was Fr David Tracy from the University of Chicago. On a personal note, his book Blessed Rage for Order fried my mind when I was a young impressionable seminary student at Princeton back in the late 70s. The revisionist theologian of Blessed Rage and the wise grandfatherly character who spoke with such affection for Metropolitan Zizioulas hardly seemed to me like the same person. When I saw David Tracy’s name on the program, I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t insightful reflections on the “Christological fragments” scattered throughout the Augustinian corpus. I was charmed.
Almost by way of footnote, Tracy observed that the famous 17th century Bishop Cornelius Jansenius (1585-1638), spiritual father of the Jansenist movement and the spiritual grandfather of Blaise Pascal, had read through the entire massive Augustinian corpus 20 times. But the problem with Jansenius was his misplaced zeal. In an attempt to return the Western Church back to Augustine’s true doctrine of grace, he had read Augustine’s writings against the Pelagians 31 times. For AGAIN readers who don’t recognize Bishop Jansenius, his massive work Augustinus was condemned not once but at least three times by various popes (Urban VIII in 1642, Innocent X in 1653, and finally Alexander X in 1665). Perhaps Jansenius was condemned for good reason. The 17th century Latin church wasn’t ready for a St Augustine who sounded more like John Calvin than St Thomas Aquinas.
When Tradition Fractures
Something bad has happened to Christianity in the West, and it’s hard to know who is at fault, and where and when exactly to place the blame. For many, St. Augustine seems like a good place to start. The existentialist philosopher Karl Jasper credits him with being “the first modern man.” The Confessions of St. Augustine continue to appeal deeply to contemporary readers because he sounds just like us. He is the poster child of deep psychological introspection, without peer in the ancient world and perhaps even today: “I had become a great question to myself” (IV.4.9). In psychological terms, Augustine reveals that he is a deeply conflicted individual, as in his half-hearted prayer to God: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet” (VIII.7.17). His internal torment as he wrestles with overcoming his sinful passions portrays someone just like us. He also sounds modern as he tries on various lifestyle options. As a People magazine addict, I like nothing better than a good sinner-to-saint conversion story. When trying to understand modern sources of the self, we Westerners can’t understand ourselves if we don’t come to grips with St. Augustine. As Charles Taylor put it, “On the way from Plato to Descartes stands Augustine.”
The Fordham conference brought to the surface the problem of this Augustinian inheritance. Many speakers took potshots at David Bradshaw because his book, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom, argues that Augustine is in part responsible for so many Western dead-ends in theology and spirituality. For example, Augustine’s elevation of the Platonic intellect spawned a nasty streak of rationalism. Bradshaw’s tour de force clearly describes how Augustine’s emphasis on God’s absolute simplicity makes him difficult to assimilate within Eastern Orthodoxy. Augustine’s stress on God’s intelligibility – God is for the mind to understand, as body is for the eye to see – doesn’t easily mesh with the profound sense of God’s mystery encountered in the Divine Liturgy.
The Christian West itself couldn’t take the Doctor of Grace’s ferocious theology of grace without serious dilution. For roughly 1000 years, the Christian West survived the unstable synthesis of St. Augustine’s doctrine of predestination with his doctrine of the Church. John Calvin once chortled, “Augustine is completely on our side” about predestination. But ironically, it was Augustine’s doctrine of the Church, “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church,” that kept the rest of his theology from unraveling.
Eventually Martin Luther, John Calvin, and a host of others who wanted to stress Sola Scriptura and recover Augustine’s stress on dual predestination kept chipping away at the weak spots until the synthesis fractured into thousands of denominational shards. The only thing that held the Western Church together were the forces of the tradition that quietly corrected Augustine’s excesses. Ever since that historical structure fractured, we in the West, like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, have been trying to piece together the fragments of the shattered tradition into some kind of coherent whole.
Intellectual historians like Jaroslav Pelikan easily summarize where the various fault lines lay in Western thought by referring to Augustine: “What was embarrassing about Augustine on the real presence in the Eucharist was his vagueness; what was embarrassing about him on Predestination was his clarity.” The only thing needed was someone with a big enough sledgehammer to start pounding. That someone, with a hammer in one hand and a list of grievances in the other, was a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther.
A perfect storm of social, political, economic, and religious forces converged in Luther to shatter the tradition that had previously united Western Christendom. He unleashed a massive revolt against authority that we are still struggling with today. Ironically, it was St. Augustine who was the inspiration behind the Reformation, as B.B. Warfield, the famous nineteenth-century Princeton theologian, argued: “The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.”
What was apparently a seamless garment of grace and Church for St. Augustine was shredded in the Reformation. Augustine perceived no contradiction between the absolute necessity of God’s grace and the mediation of that grace through the sacramental life of the Church. But Luther and other reformers wanted Augustine’s theology of God’s sovereign election undiluted, in full strength.
The only consistent Augustinian I know of is Augustine himself, and he was inconsistent. The theological garment Augustine wove together in his own person, his most fervent disciples rent asunder from top to bottom. Comparing Augustine’s vision of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in The City of God with its numerous Protestant progeny, the triumph of “grace” over “Church” was no victory at all.
Among Augustine’s many retractions, he repudiated his earlier view that miracles had stopped with the early Church. Previously, Augustine thought miracles were necessary only long enough to jumpstart the Church and provide her with divine credentials for her astounding truth claims. But after witnessing several miracles himself, Augustine came to relish the evidence of God’s miraculous power at work through the relics of the saints (The City of God, XXII.8 C10).
Sadly, these very relics are what finally created the decisive breach in Western Christianity, precisely along the Augustinian fault lines of grace and the sacraments. The triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over his doctrine of the Church only meant that the Church’s sacraments, her apostolic succession, her visible unity, and her miracles and relics, so dear to Augustine’s heart, were swept away as so much useless detritus by the Reformers. Such a “triumph” of his influence is at best a Pyrrhic victory which Augustine himself would have not recognized. The great American historian Phillip Schaff once speculated that if Augustine had lived in the 16th century with Luther and Calvin, “he might, perhaps, have gone half way with the Reformers.” But because Augustine loved the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church so much, Schaff couldn’t imagine that he’d jump ship and create his own weird Augustinian version of the Donatist schism (which he despised). Instead, Augustine “would have become the leader of an evangelical school … within the Roman Church.”
Maybe so. Unless he could have met St Cyril of Alexandria first.
St. Augustine and the Christian East
St. Augustine bequeathed an amazing patrimony to the Christian West. He wrote more theology – and retracted a good chunk of it! – than any normal person could digest in a single lifetime. Augustine’s significance cannot be overestimated. We simply cannot understand the Christian West without St. Augustine’s looming influence, whether for good or ill. His contemporary, St. Jerome, himself no stranger to the company of great men, even considered Augustine “the second founder of the Christian faith.”
But you’d never know Augustine’s significance from Eastern Orthodox reactions. An unsuspecting Orthodox reader would never guess the sheer magnitude of Augustine’s impact on Western Christianity from the terse reference to him in the Prologue of Ochrid. The problem in the East may be an embarrassment of riches. The fourth to eleventh centuries produced one amazing theological luminary after another: Athanasius; Basil the Great, his little brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus; John Chrysostom; Cyril of Alexandria; Maximus the Confessor; John of Damascus; Symeon the New Theologian, and more. But based on sheer historical impact, no theologian was comparable to Augustine in the Eastern Church, except perhaps the heretic Origen.
The Christian West had no such plenitude. After Augustine died, the Latin West suffered a major theological vacuum that wasn’t filled until St. Anselm of Canterbury came along in the eleventh century. To steal Lord Whitehead’s comment about Plato, Western theology was (and still is) a series of footnotes going back to Augustine. The liberal 19th century German church historian Adolph von Harnack claimed Augustine is the intellectual ancestor of all of us: “Just because his rich spirit embraced all these discrepancies and characteristically represented them as experience, has Augustine become the father of the Church of the Occident. He is the father of the Roman Church and the father of the Reformation, of Biblicists and of mystics; yes, even the Renaissance and modern empirical philosophy (psychology) are indebted to him.” Even his harshest critics concede grudgingly that St. Augustine is historically the single most important theologian in the Christian West. The Western problem with St. Augustine was essentially imbalance: the singular and almost isolated emphasis on Augustine proved harmful for the West, as well as the exclusive stress on particular doctrines of his.
By contrast, the Christian East continued to correct herself against her own worst tendencies, for example, the universalist strain in Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa. We might even construe the millennium of Eastern Orthodox history ranging roughly from Athanasius to Gregory Palamas as the ruthless purging of those elements in philosophy that were harmful to her theology. St Gregory Nazianzus suggested ways that the semi-Arians and the Eunomians could spend their time more usefully than attacking Orthodoxy. He suggests, for example, they should profitably criticize Platonism! “Attack the Ideas of Plato, and the Transmigrations and Courses of our souls, and the Reminiscences, and the unlovely Loves of the soul for lovely bodies.” Against all heretics ancient and modern, the Orthodox Church has argued that the dividing line between the Uncreated and what the Triune God has created ex nihilo is the most fundamental distinction in the universe, not the Platonic difference between what is intelligible and what is sensible. St Gregory certainly didn’t share Augustine’s enthusiasm for Platonic forms! Recall also that the Eastern Orthodox Church condemns Plato’s Ideas (“Anathema, anathema, anathema!”) during the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
We should remember that “Blessed Augustine,” as we Orthodox typically call him, is a saint of good standing in the Eastern Orthodox Church. His feast day on the Orthodox calendar is June 15. On the other hand, the East for over 800 years was afflicted with nearly invincible ignorance of his teachings. Despite the minority opinion of vigorous but lonely voices of Orthodox supporters like the enthusiastic Fr. Seraphim Rose, Augustine’s theology has had negligible impact on the Christian East. Here perhaps St. John of Damascus’ Fountain Head of Knowledge (650 C750) is our most accurate bellwether. John of Damascus never mentions Augustine, nor is Pelagius included in his voluminous list of 103 heresies.
This blindness to Augustine did not signify rejection, but merely ignorance. Constantine had moved the capital of the Roman Empire to his new imperial city of Constantinople, and Rome quickly became a cultural backwater. In many ways, the East simply forgot about the West. As a result, we shouldn’t be shocked that the translation from Latin into Greek of Augustine’s treatise on the Trinity, which had been so crucial for Western thinking about the nature of God, had to wait until the thirteenth century.
Fr John Meyendorff somewhere observed that St Gregory Palamas was the most “Augustinian” of Orthodox theologians. That statement which puzzled me – and infuriated Fr John Romanides – suddenly made sense when Reinhard Flogaus at the conference demonstrated how St Gregory liberally quotes the Maximos Planoudes translation of St Augustine’s De Trinitate in his own work, The 150 Chapters (see chapters 27 C38, 125, 132), and even in a couple of his sermons! The problem is, ancient standards of scholarship being what they were, St Gregory didn’t reveal his sources here. He used the Planoudes translation word-for-word (from Books 4, 13, and 15 of De Trinitate) but never attributes his source. No wonder Palamas sounds Augustinian!
Nevertheless, this lack of overlap between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Christian West, St. Augustine in particular, makes it hard to find points of agreement. “What if?” scenarios come to mind. What if Augustine hadn’t died in 430 and could have made his way to the Council of Ephesus? What if, despite barbarian invasions, St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, and St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, could have met face to face?
One of the very few Christians in the ancient world who could bridge East and West was St John Cassian. An almost exact contemporary (360-430) of Augustine, he couldn’t bring himself to criticize St Augustine by name. Through the mouthpiece of Abbots Germanus and Chaeremon (Conference XIII), John Cassian disagrees strongly with Augustine’s view of free will but he conducts his critique with gentle restraint, surely an aberration in the history of theology, West or East.
The Orthodox East and the Latin West find themselves like two ships passing unaware in the night, so close yet so far. By contrast, Roman Catholics and Protestants of nearly all stripes participate in a centuries-old argument in which they share deep points of contact (or conflict as the case may be) that make little sense to Eastern Orthodox Christians. The problem is further exacerbated for Orthodoxy by the fact that being “Protestant” doesn’t make sense apart from specific reactions to the Roman Catholic Church.
St. Augustine and the Introspective Conscience of the West
We Orthodox ignore St. Augustine to our own spiritual peril. We need to understand him, if only to understand why we think the way we do, so that we don’t trip over our own mental furniture. For better or worse, few saints speak to us like Augustine. There really is a good reason why Augustine’s Confessions continues to be read as part of the Western “canon,” even in the most politically correct of universities, like Stanford or Berkeley. To read his Confessions is like looking in a mirror: we see ourselves in him and we see him in ourselves.
For example, the famous French actor, Gerard Depardieu, recently read selections from St. Augustine’s Confessions at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Anyone who knows about Depardieu’s superstar lifestyle might be puzzled. But Depardieu stated the reason in an interview: “I was heavy with spirituality without knowing it. I was touched by the light of St. Augustine. St. Augustine’s quest touched me personally because it reflected my own fragility.” My heart warmed hearing how a charming reprobate like Gerard Depardieu is attracted to St. Augustine. Depardieu’s testimony makes a lot of sense, though, if we think of St. Augustine as the patron saint of the introspective conscience of the West.
But moralists, Christian or otherwise, have never liked Augustine. His radical view of God’s grace undercuts the vital nerve of striving in the ethical life. What’s the point of human effort if the moral life depends exclusively on God and not on us? When the British monk Pelagius heard Augustine’s Confessions read in the company of the Roman governor of Campania, Paulinus of Nola (one of Augustine’s friends), he stormed out in rage. If you believe you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps into ethical perfectionism, Augustine’s prayer leads to passivity: “Grant what You command, and command what You will” (X.29.40).
Polemics with the theological opponents of his day (first the Manichees, then the Donatists, and finally the Pelagians) certainly tended to sharpen the final shape of Augustine’s thought into black-and-white thinking that didn’t allow for much nuance. Here David Bradshaw’s magnificent book on God’s divine energies might help our Western friends avoid the apparent impasse in Augustine’s one-sided view of grace. It may be paradoxical, but St. Paul shows us how human actions can also be God’s actions, without one negating the other: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12 C13). We act, but God is acting in us.
The real problem we Eastern Orthodox have with St. Augustine is perhaps not so much his theology as our sheer lack of spiritual acquaintance with him. Since Eastern Orthodox theologians don’t write summas anyway, we Orthodox aren’t really interested in an intellectual synthesis of East and West. Worship and prayer drive the engine of Eastern Orthodox theology. Both Fr. Seraphim Rose and St. John Maximovitch of San Francisco understood this, which is why they encouraged regular celebration of so-called “Western saints” and their feast days by Orthodox Christians. In 1955 St. John Maximovitch commissioned a complete liturgy, including Vespers and Orthros, to Blessed Augustine.
Eastern Christianity subscribes heartily to Prosper of Aquitaine’s axiom, Lex orandi lex credendi: If you want to know what we believe, look at the way we worship. Until we Orthodox sing Augustine’s troparion and kontakion on his feast day in his honor, and until we ask St. Augustine himself to intercede with Christ God for us sinners, we will be hopelessly unacquainted with him, at least in any way that truly matters.
To learn more about St. Augustine, here’s a suggested reading list:
David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Not an easy read, but certainly worth the intellectual effort.
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Reprinted with Epilogue (London: Faber/Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). Biography without the theology.
Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Theology without the biography.
Alister E McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).
St. Augustine, The Augustine Catechism: Enchiridion on Faith Hope and Love (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1999). There’s no substitute for understanding St. Augustine by reading his own work. Enchiridion literally means “in the hand.” Augustine intended this little book as a summary of the central convictions of the Christian faith, based on his exposition of the Creed. Surprisingly, here Augustine teaches not once but twice that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (9, 38), without the double procession of the filioque clause! You can also read for yourself his vexing exegesis (26) of Romans 5:12 (“in him all have sinned”), with its logical consequences for his view of original sin.
John Stamps is currently Senior Technical Writer at BMC Software in Sunnyvale, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.
Expanded from an article originally published in AGAIN Vol. 29 #3, Fall 2007.