Saturday, February 25, 2012

Posts About Dead People: An Essay on Augustine


I had to write a paper for class arguing for the event in the history of the Church that I believe to be most significant in the formation of the contemporary church. I chose Augustine's conversion and teachings. After some thinking about the subject, it seemed to me the obvious choice. I have pasted in my paper below (sans notes and bibliography--because nobody really cares about plagiarism anyway) in the off chance that someone might actually want to read such a thing and because it's my blog and I can do what I want. The people who might find this interesting are Tim and...no that's probably it.

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The Most Influential Event in the History of the Church:
The Conversion and Teachings of Augustine of Hippo

         Aside from Christ, Augustine of Hippo might well be the most influential person in the history of the Church. While the New Testament canon, especially the Pauline epistles, are officially recognized as the authoritative foundation of church theology, the thinking of Augustine is perhaps more readily appealed to for understanding several areas of doctrine and is more tacitly present in the thinking of the Church today. The Roman Catholic Church readily accepts the concept that tradition formed by the fathers throughout history is authoritative. Remarkably, in much of the Protestant world Augustine's influence is likewise accepted as if having special authority, although such a claim would not be readily agreed upon by most Protestants. The influence of Augustine somehow spans the doctrinal divide of the Protestant Reformation. Every significant movement in the Western church either assumes Augustinian thinking or directly appeals to it. What the modern church would look like if it were absent of Augustine's influence is not immediately apparent, but we can be confident that across the entire breadth of the Western church—and to some extent the Eastern church—orthodoxy as it is variously held would be dramatically different had this 4th century rhetorician and philosopher not converted to Christianity. There is a broad and expressive testimony among church historians about the impact of Augustine's ideas. This paper will look at the historical event of Augustine's conversion and present a small yet broad sample of the strong opinions from various scholars and church leaders about the value of his contribution in forming the modern church's perception of itself. 
            The world during Augustine's life was undergoing massive change. For the Church this transition was a passage from its origin as an obscure but growing Jewish sect to an established and institutional force in the world. Constantine legalized and legitimized Christianity in the empire a generation prior to Augustine. Before Augustine's death the world would see the destruction of Rome by the Goths. Between Constantine's reign and Rome's fall there was a continual yet varying tension between the Church, the pagan Romans, and the Roman government. Christianity was growing in a way that was previously unknown to the Church. The faith of our fathers was tested by the relative comfort and acceptance of the era. There were many theological issues raised during this period. Withinthe Church, due to an increase in the opportunity for contemplation, controversy and schism arose (e.g. Arius, Pelagius, and the Donatists). There were also challenging outside religious movements (e.g. Manichaeism). Rome was on a course leading to destruction, and the identity of the Church was becoming fatefully entwined with the Empire.
            Such was the world that welcomed Augustine. As Justo Gonzales records in The Story of Christianity, Augustine was born in Northern Africa in A.D. 354. He was an intellectually gifted child and his parents wanted to provide him with a quality education. Augustine's academic career brought him to Carthage as a young man where he pursued rhetoric, philosophy, and women. Unable to accept the Christian faith of his mother, Augustine adhered to Manichaeism—a young, Gnostic and dualistic religion of Persian origin. Finding shortcomings in Manichean beliefs, Augustine eventually followed the philosophical teachings of Neo-Platonism, which was also a Gnostic-like teaching with many similarities to ideas that we might today associate with the Eastern pantheistic religions. Later in life, while working in Milan as a professor of Rhetoric, Augustine's mother convinced him to attend the preaching of Aurelius Ambrosius, the local Bishop. It was through these sermons and through watching influential acquaintances abdicate their pagan religion for Christianity that Augustine was led to eventually confront the God that he had been avoiding.
            What might be the most significant event in the history of the post-apostolic church happened in a garden in Milan in A.D. 386. Urged forward by his lifelong search for the truth, Augustine wrestled with God and walked out of his garden as a convert to the Christian faith. His actions evidenced that he was truly a new man. Giving up his profession as a professor of rhetoric, Augustine settled into a monastic lifestyle back in North Africa. Through a series of events and against his intentions, Augustine came to serve as the Bishop of Hippo, another city in North Africa. It was during this time that Augustine penned his most influential works and set a course for the Church that would form the thinking of Christians to this day.

            The significance of Augustine's work in the modern church, especially in the Western world, cannot be understated. Much of his success, if not seen as a direct result of the divine sovereignty of God, likely rested on his gifting as a philosopher and rhetorician. Gonzalez states it this way: “Throughout the Middle Ages, no theologian was quoted more often than he was, and he thus became one of the great doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. But he was also the favorite theologian of the great Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century. Thus, Augustine, variously interpreted, has become the most influential theologian in the entire Western church, both Protestant and Catholic.” And John Piper, a leading figure in the resurgence of Reformed Theology in America, says in his three part biography: “From this platform in North Africa, and through his remarkable faithfulness in formulating and defending the Christian faith for his generation, Augustine shaped the history of the Christian church. His influence in the Western world is simply staggering.”
            Some of Augustine's contributions to the Church were unique articulations of innovative doctrines. Where Augustine was not outlining new teaching he was reinforcing and strengthening older ones. Ideas such as classical theism, original sin, infant baptism, ammillennialsm/postmillenialism, and just war theory have benefited from Augustine's influence. Although it is unlikely that anyone would ever admit Augustine's authority to be on par with that of the original Apostles and authors of the New Testament, Augustinian ideas permeate the thinking of modern Christians both overtly and latently to such a degree that we are regularly impacted by his teachings in even the most subtle ways. To some extent, Christians undoubtedly read scripture through an Augustinian filter—so that even the interpretation of Paul's epistles is predicated upon Augustinian traditions and assumptions. This is not so surprising for the Roman Church when considering the significance that tradition has in her formation of doctrine. However, it is a more perplexing point for the Protestant Church—which historically prides itself upon the motto sola scriptura. Nevertheless, Augustine has had a profound and lasting impact on the whole Western church.
            Augustine uniquely impacted the Church of the Middle Ages and the Church of the Reformation in different ways. The dramatic histories of those periods carry through to us today both the heritage of their occasions and also a more direct Augustinian influence. Peter Brown, in his biography of Augustine, points out that, “It is no coincidence that these two themes (his doctrine of grace and his notion of the Church) were the two major preoccupations of Augustine's life in which he seemed to have turned his face most directly towards the future. They pointed toward the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, to the crisis of grace and freedom in the Reformation and to the laicized sequels of that crisis in modern times.” Augustine's impact in the Roman Church is perhaps most obvious in its ecclesiological distinctions. His City of God is certainly visible in the catholic, supranational, and pilgrim characteristics of the Church. Out of the ashes of Rome and through his struggle to defend Christianity against its detractors, Augustine contributed to an understanding of the function and identity of church that likely led directly to the strong, formal institution that arose in the vacuum of Rome's absence. This must have had a direct impact on the ability of the Church to survive throughout the following Medieval Age.
Augustine's defense of the Church's right to coerce heretics as well as his views on just war foreshadow the Inquisition of the 12th century and other controversial episodes in church history.   Brown states that, “In fact, Augustine had already moved half of the way towards accepting coercion asa means of solving the Donatist schism; and the new circumstances created by the Edict merely crystallized an attitude which had been evolving for a long time....Augustine, in replying to his persistent critics, wrote the only full justification, in the history of the Early Church, of the right of the state to suppress non-Catholics.” And Gonzales, writing on the effect of Just War Theory, said, “The second condition is that a just war must be waged by properly instituted authority....this principle would be applied by the powerful in order to claim that they had the right to make war on the powerless, but that the opposite was not true.” The impact of such ideas can also be seen throughout the Reformation in the words and actions of Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther toward the dissidents of their movement. Of course this sort of activity does not have a formal place within the Roman or Protestant Church today, but the memory of these historical events have a lasting impact on the legacy of the Church.
            The Reformation also carried with it a rich Augustinian tradition. As already stated, the reformer's articulation of the doctrines of Grace is a direct connection to Augustine's ideas. Hilmar M. Pabel notes Augustine's impact on Luther: “Scholarship has signaled Augustine's influence on Protestant reformers, especially Martin Luther....In 1517, after formulating the doctrine of justification by faith alone through a reading of St. Paul supported by a study of Augustine, Luther equated his own theology with Augustine's.” The famous (or infamous) soteriological system named for John Calvin was first articulated by Augustine more than a millennium earlier. In Anthony Lane’s biography of John Calvin, the source of Calvin’s theological inspiration is highlighted: “Calvin held Augustine in the highest regard. He was very reluctant to depart from Augustine in doctrinal matters, or at least to admit it. He made sweeping claims to the support of Augustine....Calvin's teaching was to a considerable extent, if not to the extent that he actually claimed, a revival of Augustinianism, and it is natural therefore that he should have felt inclined to give considerable authority to Augustine.” Calvinist doctrine was a predominant aspect of the Great Awakening and the early spread of Christianity throughout America. Even of those sects of the Protestant Church that do not espouse Calvinism today, few are truly absent of at least some of its distinctive doctrinal points. So we see that Augustine's influence on the whole of the Western church is extensive.
            A much longer treatment of the manifold ways that Augustine has influence the Church, both Roman and Protestant alike, is more appropriate for such a dense subject. Most of the ways we experience Augustine's thinking are likely too subtle or too embedded in our presumptions and dogma to be easily discernible. There are many critical points throughout the history of the Church which are worth considering as the most influential: e.g. the transition from the Apostles to the apostolic fathers, the rise of Constantine, the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the spread of Christianity in the New World. However, none of those, with the exception of the age of the Apostolic Fathers and Constantine, would have likely been what they were without the influence of Augustine. His impact is active in the Church down to this very day. The modern church, across the board, is in many ways an Augustinian church. The Church, and the whole of western society, would not be the same without him.