In defence of St Augustine’s true personal God of Jesus Christ

By Rev. Prof. Salvino Caruana

Beyond any discussion on Bill 113, which local Ecclesiastical and lay authorities have so admirably and exhaustively affirmed as being extremely and intrinsically deleterious, my primary interest is with regard to some opinions which Mark Camilleri splashed with such an appalling unhistorical ease in his contribution in your newspaper of Sunday, 30 August 2015

Besides a rather distorted analysis of the Son of God’s Person and mission, in word and deed, I think I need not spill too much ink but simply suggest to Mr Camilleri to read, or re-read, with less haste and prejudice, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and the very opening words of St Augustine’s Confessions.

MORE Dogma and untruths in the name of St Augustine’s despotic God

Besides a surprisingly distorted and rather popular and outdated reading and interpretation of the early history of Christianity, the author’s presentation of the theology and Christology, as well as the person and legacy of the great Doctor and Father of the Church Augustine of Hippo, (354-430) need correction.

I am, therefore, suggesting a more irenic and contemporary reading of Augustine’s life, mission and oeuvre, proposing to strip it of a great amount of prejudices heaped upon it throughout the ages, and thus obtain a more objective and correct reading of his life and times, so as we can then look into the constructive reciprocity and fruitful interaction between context and content.

One has to keep in mind that already during his lifetime, Augustine received a prominent place within the history of Christianity and in the development of the whole of Western thought. After his demise, he was read, re-read and explained, interpreted over and over again, to the extent that now, after 16 centuries, it often results extremely difficult to maintain sufficient distance from him, in order to form a picture of him in all historical and intellectual objectivity.

There are many portraits of him, as well as many prejudices. In order to obtain the desired true meaning of Augustine for us today, one needs, before all, examine and deconstruct some of these prejudices. Only then shall we be able to assess which of these prejudices are founded; for instance, to what extent can one rightly label as negative certain aspects of Augustine’s thought – and, on the other hand, which prejudices seem less correct, and thus Augustine’s thoughts may even contain kernels of truth? 

Augustine lived in a very diverse historical and religious landscape than ours. Christianity was not the only or prevalent religious voice. The fact that believers from his bishopric still participated in pagan festivals before they flocked to his church, was of great concern to him.

This reveals that paganism had certainly not been wiped out and done with even long after 313. This was one of the major aspects of Christian life he reacted against in his magisterial and monumental work The City of God, composed between 413 and 426.

It was also his reaction to the pagan accusation that the Fall of Rome in 411, was the result of the reprisal of the gods against the replacement of pagan rites by Christianity, or else that the weakening of the Roman Empire was the cause of the new Christian morality, which advocated the love of one’s enemy, a universal brotherhood, humility, meekness, patience, and so on. 

Secondly, Christianity at the time of Augustine was anything but a monolithic whole. North Africa, the Roman province in which Augustine lived, is a case in point: Catholic Christianity was at the time he became bishop, merely a minority Church.

Donatism (Donatus d. 355), a Christian schism, boasted as holding sway over the greater majority of North African Christians. It was only thanks to the support of the Roman Catholic Emperors, who condemned Donatism primarily because this religious movement jeopardised the political unity and stability of the Roman Empire, that the North African Catholic bishops – headed by Augustine – managed to prevail.

As a result, Catholicism prevailed even in North Africa, even though Donatism remained present under some hidden forms, until the rise of Islam, which expelled all forms of Christianity from North Africa.

When Augustine was lying on his deathbed in August 430, the Vandals were standing before the gates of Hippo, ready to conquer his city. Again, these Vandals were Christians, of Arian belief, though they did not believe Christ to be completely equal to the Father on the divine level. They considered him to be an outstandingly virtuous man instead.

This Arian position counted many adherents amongst the so-called ‘barbarian’ tribes who at the time were invading the Roman Empire, and who were about to change boundaries and peoples within western Christianity. Against this Arian Christological subordinationism, Augustine argued for the absolute equality of all three divine persons in the 15 books On the Trinity composed between 399 and 420s. 

Thirdly, even within Catholic Christianity itself, theological diversity prevailed. The Pelagian (Pelagius 354-427) controversy is one good example. In this controversy, Augustine arrives at the clear position that all the good in man’s life is the result of God’s grace, due to the fact that man, weakened by Original Sin, was no longer capable of performing morally good actions unaided.

Thus, if everything is indeed grace, what form of role and responsibility is then left for human freedom? Initially, Augustine’s ideas of an all-determining divine grace because of Original Sin did not meet with approval outside of North Africa. In the East the bishops, as well as John II, Patriarch of Jerusalem (d. 417), sided with the ‘Pelagians’, while in the West, Pope Zosimus (d. 418) too was nearly persuaded to do so initially. Only with the support of the Roman Catholic Emperor again (fearing that religious quarrel would disrupt the fragile political unity of the moribund Roman Empire) did Augustine succeed in getting the West to condemn Pelagianism. 

After this condemnation Augustine’s thoughts on grace, particularly on predestination, the doctrine namely that God has already determined beforehand that only a limited number of believers, regardless of their personal merits, would be saved, were not accepted in the Western Catholic Church outside of North Africa, even during his own lifetime.

Prominent theologians such as John Cassian (b. 354- d. after 430) and Vincent of Lérins (d. before 450), as well as some monastic communities from Gaul argued, for instance, that divine grace interacts with human responsibility, so that human freedom does have an essential role to play, and that every human being – and not just a limited predestined number – can be saved.

After Augustine’s death, Catholic theologians such as Faustus of Riez (d. ca. 490), as well as ecclesiastical synods, such as those of Orange (Arausio), in 529, Quierzy (Palatium Carisiacum, near Laon) in 853, and Valence, in Dauphiné, in 855, will reject the extreme consequences of Augustine’s doctrine of predestination. Another example is the medieval creation of the concept of ‘limbo’, the edge of Hell, where unbaptized infants and virtuous pagan philosophers were being kept. This concept is entirely at odds with Augustine’s view on grace, according to which unbaptized infants and virtuous pagan philosophers are placed in hell and not in a separate place apart from heaven and hell.

Post-modern forms of deconstruction of prejudices, even concerning Augustine, warn us that prevalent opinions on theologians and their texts should always be placed in their historical and intellectual context and are to be disconnected from later interpretations and interpolations.

Hence, not all prejudices are correct. After all, it was later Christianity that pictured Augustine as being the hammer of heresies and the champion of orthodoxy, whereas he himself confessed himself to be a committed and fervent searcher for Truth within an extensive spectrum of Christian movements and theological outlooks.

His ideas on peace, justice, religious tolerance, the female sex and sexuality, are certainly not as negative as they are often presented to be. On the contrary, they contain many positive impulses. At the same time, however, one needs to concede the fact that some other of Augustine’s ideas, despite these positive intentions, also contain problematic elements which are no longer tenable. For instance, his views on sexuality as intrinsically sinful, the condemnation of unbaptized babes and virtuous adherents of other religions to hell, reducing the love of God to a limited number of predestined faithful. The least we can conclude, therefore, is that Augustine invites us to debate on issues which even in contemporary debates have not lost their momentum at all. 

Augustine himself was very much aware of the contextual situation. He also realized that his thinking too eventually underwent evolution and changes, and that his ideas too developed throughout, and all along, the discussions with his opponents. He readily admitted that as a young theologian he did not think in the same way as the later older and more experienced bishop.

The two books of his Revisions (composed ca. 426), are sufficient proof. In these he put pen to paper and went over all his previous writings chronologically as he had composed them. In this exercise Augustine proved himself humble enough to correct or revise all those theological flaws he found in them.

He also recommended to his readers that wherever he may have erred, they may also correct his thinking. In a short text On the gift of perseverance composed around 428/9, Augustine confessed: “And yet, I would not want anyone to embrace all my views in order to be my follower, but only those points on which he sees that I am not mistaken. [...] I have not always held the same views, rather, I think that, as I wrote, I made progress by the mercy of God, but not that I have started off with perfection. [...] We can, of course, have good hope for someone if the last day of this life finds him making progress.” (21, 55).

According to the Bishop of Hippo, though in many aspects human life is subject to a great number of constraints, still, however, it is not entirely a case of either subjection or autonomy, in which the one ought to exclude the other. For instance, God’s grace does not annihilate human freedom or responsibility for actions. Man has his own role to play even in this area. Grace, however, has the order of primacy. God’s grace is actually the frame in which human freedom happens and develops and it is precisely God’s grace that makes human freedom possible. In this sense, it can be claimed that human autonomy is built on heteronomy through God. 

Augustine does not exclude human autonomy. He considers, however, that very few people could actually handle and attain such autonomy. Many are ‘addicted’ to their worldly life. This is, according to Augustine, wrong in two ways. Firstly, such people let their life be dictated by the world instead of by God, thus, in simple theological terms Augustine holds that they are turning their faces towards creatures and giving their backs to the Creator. He also holds that an incorrect form of subjection to the wrong impulses, is therefore equal to sin. The world has taken the place of God: this is the meaning of idolatry. He also argues that it is, after all, a wrong form of autonomy, because it does not acknowledge the complete otherness of God, and of one’s fellow human being either, and this is egoism or egocentrism. The ‘I’ takes up the place of God, and this is pride. 

In short, the fact that Catholic Christianity in the West would gain the upper hand and that Augustine’s ideas would exert such a big influence in defining Catholic theology, was for his contemporaries – as well as for himself, after all – not so evident. The presentation of Augustine as father of Christian theology is the result of a development which took place after Augustine’s death. It is wholly anachronistic and distortive to read Augustine from this perception.

Moreover, the religious diversity prevalent at the time, and of which Augustine himself was a product, is very comparable with our present-day religious plurality. What Augustine sought was a wholesome balance between the good forms of subjection and autonomy. Good autonomy is built on heteronomy. This is one of Augustine’s greatest discoveries in his Confessions (composed ca. 399). He who is not with God is outside himself. In other words, there can only be a self in relation to God. Through God I am ‘myself’. This interaction heteronymous/autonomous of human life, as well as the capacity to live by it, is, according to Augustine, also the result of God’s grace. 

Rev. Prof. Salvino Caruana OSA is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Malta