Augustine’s Worldy Goods

My working thesis in this post is roughly this: while Augustine was indebted to Platonism (or neoplatonism, to be a bit more precise), to regard him as a ‘dualist’ in any simple sense of the word is wrong. Augustine certainly makes use of neoplatonic thinking and definitely makes a distinction between the sensible and the intelligible – but he also is quite willing to attack the (as he calls them) the platonists. But what clinches it for me is his ethical thinking, in which he affirms worldly, mutable things as good and worthy of of being objects of our love and emotion.
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A Promise From Time Eternal

A good deal of Barth’s (in)famous thought on election can be seen as an answer to a question that presented itself to both Augustine and Athansius – the question of just how God can promise eternal life from before time eternal. This question is, interestingly enough, not asked in Scripture but simply given as a reality in Scripture in Titus 1:2 – ‘the hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before time eternal.’ The question, then, as it presented itself to Athanasius, Augustine, and Barth, is how can God make a promise to men who did not exist before time eternal?

Barth begins to answer this question by an exegesis of the opening of the book of John. This puzzled me for a while, because Barth moves from fairly standard thinking on John 1:1-2 – affirming that the Word is Jesus, was with God, etc etc – to arguing that if Jesus is the Word, then He is election, the decree of God and the beginning of God’s movement towards man. This is quite a leap, and Barth fleshes it out by moving from John to Colossians, where he notes that the Godhead was pleased to dwell in Jesus, and is the firstborn of all creation:

‘Thus in Col. 1:17 we read that the Son of God – the Son in concreto and not in abstracto, Jesus Christ, who is the head of His body, the Church – this Son is “before all things” and “in Him all things consist”. It was, in fact, “the good pleasure of the fullness of the Godhead” (and here the concept of election is quite clear), to take form, or to take up residence in him…It is, then, only by way of explanation of His being as the God who is conceived of in this primal, original and basic movement towards man that Heb. 1:2 (like Jn. 1:3, 10) says concerning Him that He whom God “appointed heir of all things” is the one “by whom also he made the worlds” and Heb. 1:3 that he upholds all things by the word of his power” and Col. 1:16 that “by him were all things created, that are in heaven, that are in earth, visible and invisible…’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics’, II.2 p. 98-99, emphasis mine)

So Barth here identifies the ‘good pleasure’ as God’s election and movement towards man – but later on he goes further and identifies as not just the object of the ‘good pleasure’ but as the ‘good pleasure’ itself – the very will of God in action is identified with Jesus.

‘If that is true, then in the name and person of Jesus Christ we are called upon to recognise the Word of God, the decree of God and the election of God at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of our own being and thinking, at the basis of our faith in the ways and works of God.’ (p. 99)

Barth has, then, by way of John through Colossians and Hebrews, identified Jesus as the Word of God and the ‘good pleasure’ of God in taking up his residence in him, and thus as the election of God.  Thus, Jesus = Word = election, all of which cashes out to God’s original movement towards man. How, though, does this answer the original question posed? The question we can reiterate in Athansius’ words:

‘…how could He have predestined us to sonship before man was created, unless the Son had been laid as a foundation before time was, and had undertaken to provide a way of salvation for us…and how could we receive anything before times eternal, we, creatures of time, who did not then exist, unless the grace appointed for us had already been deposited in Christ.’ (p. 109)

Augustine’s answer, according to Barth:

‘But Augustine – and in this we must at once follow him – also looked upward to the place where the incarnation, the reality of the divine-human person of Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world and all other reality, is identical to with the eternal purpose of the good-pleasure of God, and where the eternal purpose of the eternal good-pleasure of God which precedes all created reality is identical with the reality of the divine-human person of Jesus Christ. He looked upwards to the place where the eternal God not only foresees and foreordains this person, but where He Himself, as the presupposition of its revelation in time, is actually this person…it is in this Word that before times eternal life could be and actually was promised to man, even before man himself existed at all.’ (p. 108)

‘He (Athanasius) saw that the election of the man Jesus and our election, with all the grace and gifts of grace which this includes, have their “foundation” as he himself says, in the eternity of the Word or Son, an eternity which differs not at all from that of the Father…with Athanasius the decree, or predestination, or election, was, in fact, the decision reached at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of the relationship between God and the reality which is distinct from Him. The Subject of this decision is the triune God – the Son of God no less than the Father and the Holy Spirit, And the specific object of it is the Son of God in His determination as the Son of Man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who is as such the eternal basis of the whole divine election.’ (p. 110)

The question is then answered by identifying Jesus as the Word, and the Word as God’s movement towards man and God’s ‘good-pleasure’ in dwelling fully in Jesus. If Jesus is truly the eternal Word of God, then the promise from time eternal is grounded in this reality of the eternal Word in His determination as the Son of Man.

Webster and Augustine on Scripture and Revelation

‘The acts of authorship which lie behind Scripture are functions of God’s communication of Himself. So the author is patient – that is, one who has been granted divine revelation and one who has been given grace to contemplate that revelation, to be instructed by divine wisdom, and to be commissioned to testify to and therefore extend divine revelation. Again, Augustine:

‘That God made the world we can believe from no one more safely than from God Himself. But where have we heard Him? No where more distinctly than Holy Scriptures, where His prophets said, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’. Was the prophet present when God made the heavens and the earth? No, but the wisdom of God by whom all things were made was there, and wisdom insinuates itself into holy souls and makes them into friends of God and His prophets, and noiselessly informs them of all His works.’ (Augustine, ‘City of God’,  quoted by John Webster)

More Notes on Augustine’s Ethics

– Nicholas Wolterstorff charts a transition in Augstine’s though – a movement from roughly Platonic/neo-Platonic ideas of ascent and hatred towards this-worldly goods and relationships to an moral vision much more informed by Biblical ideas.

Reading Wolterstorff’s treatment of Augustine in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, I’m struck by how much Augustine modifies and breaks the ancient eudaimonism – while God alone will fail to disappoint love, our mutable neighbours are, in fact, love and disturbance-worthy, while locating the much sought after tranquility in the life of the world to come. To quote Wolterstorff, in this life, love trumps tranquility.

An example:

Augustine never loses the idea of tranquility or happiness being that which we should strive for – he holds that along with the various pagan schools quite firmly. What he does, however, is to modify and in some cases break away from the eudaimonism of those schools. His idea of tranquility becomes grounded not in an ascent to the heavens but in the eschatology of the life to come – we are not to seek tranquility among the evils and miseries of the world but to acknowledge these evils, and, in his most dramatic break with the eudaimonistic traditions, be compassionate towards others, feel sorrow, joy, and anger for people and events. To do otherwise is to deny our created nature.

– Augustine’s emphasis on compassion is probably the most non-eudaimonistic aspect of his ethical and moral thought – compassion being a profoundly kenotic kind of thing, opposed to eudaimonism and certainly opposed to (explicitly so) the Stoic conception of ethics:

‘Unlike such emotions as fear and grief, it (compassion) does not have a eudaimonistic basis. Because it does not presuppose any investment in the well-being of the other, it cannot have as its basis the perceived or threatened impairment of one’s investment. On being moved to compassion, the (Good) Samaritan proceeded to care for the man in the ditch; he invested himself in his recovery. The compassion evoked the care, the investment, not the other way around.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 218)

Quick Notes on Augustine’s Critique of Pagan Ethics

– Reading on Augustine’s ethics in the ‘Cambridge Companion to Augustine’ has been very enjoyable – it certainly has put to rest any idea that Augustine was a dualist of any stripe. Augustine firmly believes that this-worldly goods are, in fact, good – and that sometimes, the delight we get from them exceed any kind of practical or instrumental value. Some things, for Augustine, are just delightful because they’re delightful.

– His engagement with Epicurean/Stoic ethics is interesting. He essentially takes the view of the Stoics to be absurd – he simply cannot see how anyone can truly be happy while, say, being tortured on the rack. If anyone says or thinks they are, Augustine simply declares that they are simply wrong or in thrall to an ideology. When it comes to Epicurean ethics, it’s a bit more detailed – he argues that on the Epicurean conception of happiness (as he understands it) that immortality is required to be ultimately happy, on the grounds that, since we have to be alive to be happy, more life = more happiness. But, as Martha Nussbaum notes, true pleasure for the Epicureans is not additive – i.e. having it for longer or having more of it does not make it better.

‘Epicurus insists on this: when once ataraxia (tranquility) and aponia (absence of pain, trouble, etc) are attained, the agent is at the top of his life, and nothing – not even prolongnation or repition of the same – can add to the sum of her pleasures.’ (Martha Nussbaum, ‘The Therapy of Desire’, p. 212)

– So it seems that he somewhat misunderstands the Epicurean conception of happiness

The Protestant Theory of Religion

Let’s define the Protestant Theory of Religion (PTOR) in a broadly Augustinian way: the idea that man by nature worships (perhaps we could call this the Worship Faculty), and if he doesn’t worship God, he worships something else, with worship being (broadly, of course) defined as a fixation upon that which we love ultimately. Examples abound in the Protestant world: one can worship money, fame, power, sex, whatever. Thus, it’s not our activity as such that is wrong but the object of it, or what our desires (on the broadly Augustinian conception, man is primarily an animal of ‘desire’) and faculties are aligned to. There is always something man is worshiping, always that to which man is fixated upon. We can then lay out the PTOR as such:

‘Man is by nature a creature of desire, who worships.’

(note: this fits in with Tillich’s ‘ultimate concern’ as well)

On this theory, it is a universal condition of humanity that they are worshipping creatures, and thus religious creatures – if their religion is not that of God, it is of something else, fame, fortune, etc – but every man has a religion. This, as Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it, is part of the ‘standard Protestant apologetic’. (Art in Action, p. 85). Is it, however, an accurate description of the human condition? Can we paint every man as someone who worships something?

A first difficulty has to do with confirmation of this theory: upon close inspection, it’s a theory which can be confirmed by anything. Search deep enough, and you’ll find something you worship, even if you’re a modern Western secularist. We’re all worshippers. We all fixate upon some ultimate concern.

A second difficulty is anthropological. Wolterstorff points out that, contrary to the PTOR, many people may not have one ultimate concern but many concerns:

‘Is it not rather the case that many live their lives with a multiplicity of conerns, shifting about from time to time, with no one concern ever being ultimate? Such people care a bit for their families, a bit for their material possessions, a bit for country, a bit for personal esteem, and so forth…if some situation would arise forcing them to choose, then one or more of those conflicting concerns would, for the time being at any rate, be subordinated. But for many, no such agonizing, clarifying conflict ever arises. Their life remains a fractured multiplicty concerns.’ (Art in Action, p. 86)

In a nutshell, some people just aren’t ultimately concerned. Some people just may never have an existential crisis. Sure, you could still say that such people are ultimately concerned and just don’t know it, but this seems like a case of trying to convince someone who isn’t sick that not only are they sick, they need your medicine. That’s the peril of existential apologetics – many people simply don’t have dark nights of the soul.

A third difficulty is biblical: is it in fact the biblical teaching that all men are religious in this way? Is this a universal statement made by the biblical writers? Again, Wolterstorff disagrees:

‘The Bible speaks about the true worshippers of the true God, and describes their unity-in-variety. But it never attempts to locate some ineradicable religious tendency which, though it can be turned in different directions, can never be resisted. It never tries to pinpoint some tendency such that what ultimately differentiates the true worshipper of the true God from all other men is that the former turns that universally shared tendency in a different direction than all the others – namely, in the right direction. It never contends that all those who are not true worshippers of the true God nevertheless have a Religion. It simply regards them as falling away in a vast multiplicity of different ways.’ (Art in Action, p. 87)

Wolterstorff then gives a brief exegesis of Romans 1, which for brevity’s sake I will not reproduce here. He concludes, however, that Paul is not teaching that all men have a religious tendency which cannot be resisted but only directed.

This raises some a few questions: If Wolterstorff is right, and I think he (of course) broadly is, what are the implications? Perhaps one implication is that instead thinking of man as primarily a creature of worship (note: man still certainly is a worshiping creature, only not primarily so) perhaps man should be thought of as creature of action. This, of course, is not a novel insight – the Christian idea of vocation has been around for a good long time.

Another question that’s best perhaps phrased in the form of an answer: God is not found at the limit of human life but at the center. This is a huge theme in Bonhoeffer, especially his Ethics and Letters and Papers From Prison. Instead of attempting to identify an existential crisis or God-shaped hole, which may or may not be there or may or may not be viewed as significant, the Christian should simply act in the world. It is in the real world, in the concrete actions of the Christian in the real world, in the center of our existence, not in the deep dark existential moments, where God is. When God is found in the gaps, even deep existential gaps, He disappears when they close.

Pelikan on Maximus and Augustine

‘It is instructive at this point to contrast the Augustinian system with that of Maximus. For example, Maximus said that “we were freed by holy baptism from ancestral sin,” which sounds very much like the Augustinian doctrine of a sinfulness passed on from Adam to his descendants for all generations. Human nature lost “the grace of impassibility and became sin.” In other passages, too, Maximus spoke of sin and the fall in an apparently Augustinian fashion. But Maximus’s doctrine, while referring of course to the sin of Adam, did not have in it the idea of the transmission of sin through physical conception and birth. Rather, Maximus saw Adam not as the individual from whom all subsequent human beings sprang by lineal descent, but as the entire human race embodied in once concrete but universal person. In spite of the superficial parallels between the two, therefore, Augustine’s doctrine of man and Maximus’s doctrine were really quite different. Photius recognized that the church fathers had a twofold anthropology, one praising and the other reviling human nature. In the Eastern tradition this did not lead to the Western view of sin through the fall of Adam, but to a view of death through the fall of Adam, a death that each man merited through his own sin. Thus the hardening of Pharaoh, which Augustine had interpreted as at one and the same time a result of the secret predestination of God and an act of Pharaoh’s own free will, was to Photius a proof that “God, who never does violence to the power of free will, permitted [Pharaoh] to be carried away by his own will when he refused to change his behavior on the basis of better counsel.’ (Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 600-1700,’ p. 182)