Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Some quotes from, or relating to Augustine's debates with Pelagius:

First off, consider this quote from Peter Brown (not the disco king, singer of "Do you wanna get funky with me?" and song-writer behind Madonna's smash hit, "Material Girl"). He writes of Julian of Eclanum, who took up the Pelagian torch, arguing against Augustine, at the end of Augustine's life, on matters of predestination. Do note that Augustine's reaction to Aristotle is similar to that of Luther (re: Aristotle). Here it is:

“Julian had been a singularly challenging opponent…In his use of Aristotle, he anticipates a Christian humanism such as would only be realized 700 years later. The ‘Council of the Aristotelians’, which Augustine jeeringly dismisses as the last court of appeal of the Pelagians, would meet – in the university of Paris, in the thirteenth century: and it would include s. Thomas Aquinas, whose humans synthesis Julian had anticipated on many points.” (Brown, p. 389)

Next, I offer an excerpt from Augustine's "Spirit and the Letter", which sounds very much like a critique of the New Perspective on Paul (and, yes, me thinks the connection between the New Perpective and Pelagius is worth noting!):

"We cannot suppose that the apostle means here, by the law by which no man is justified, the law of ancient rites, in which many commandments were figuratively conveyed (as in that of circumcision itself); for he goes on immediately to define the law of which he was speaking, in the words: 'for through the law is the knowledge of sin.'" (#14, p. 204)

Lastly, here is a quote from Augustine regarding the Law (as "the letter that killeth", a.k.a., the 2nd Use of the Law). Augustine spends a huge portion of Spirit and the Letter explaining this backhanded action of the Law. Whether or not one believes in a Third Use, I am struck again and again by how few churches ever teach (i.e., from the pulpit) this function of the Law. It is as though most Christians and churches, having assumed the will to be "free", have entirely lost this idea. I ask: how many evangelical parishes ever acknowledge this "usus theologicus" / 2nd use of the Law where the Christian life is concerned. Calvin, for example, didn't think it was "primary" but still thought it was true for Christians. Maybe, the word "challenge", in contemporary church lingo, represents at least some understanding of the idea that the Law is often (understatement as far as my theology is concerned) hard to swallow. I wonder how many preachers who believe in the Third Use of the Law (i.e., that it can instruct) ever use the Law to convict? I, personally, am struck by its absence from the horizon of most church teaching and preaching. Yet the contemporary world of psycho-therapy (be it great or awful) seems to far more aware of this idea and its implications, where counseling scenarios are concerned. I was surpised to see how much Augustine has to say about this 2nd Use aspect of the Law, as found in his reading of the Bible. Seriously, it is this point, that "the letter killeth", that both gives the title to the famous work from which it is quoted (the spirit and the letter), and comprises the majority of this famous text's content. What I found is that Augustine actually sounds much more like Luther on the Law than he does on the matter of the will. But perhaps Paul was just blowing smoke when he wrote about it in his letter to the Roman church. Augustine didn't think so, and this quote nicely summarizes the position I'm referring to vis-a-vis the 2nd Use of the Law:

“The law, that is, contributes nothing to God’s saving act: through it he does but show man his weakness, that by faith he may take refuge in the divine mercy and be healed." (#15, p. 205)

p.s., the photo is of Peter Brown. Guess which one.


mattie said...

JZ -

Yes, John, but keep reading Brown. The next paragraph:

"Augustine, thrown on the defensive by so vehement an attack, could only save himself by refusing to recognize the value of Julian's ideas. A great opportunity was missed. Compared to the sensitive dialogue which Augustine was quite prepared to enter into with pagan Platonists in the City of God, before much the same cultivated audience Julian now addressed, his treatment of the challenge of Julian, a fellow-Christian bishop, was an unintelligent slogging-match. There is an element of tragedy in this encounter. Seldom in the history of ideas has a man as great as Augustine or as very human, ended his life so much at the mercy of his own blind-spots (389)."

Now, don't get me wrong. Julian was a Pelagian, and his anthropology was, shall we say, overly optimistic. But, just as it was not his adoption of Platonism that made Augustine orthodox, it was not his affinity for Aristotle that made Julian a heretic.

As Brown points out, there was an "opportunity" that Augustine failed to take advantage of, a chance to dialoge with his fellow brother in Christ (as well as the secular Aristotelian philsophies of the day). Instead, Augustine opted to demonize and polemicize, a route that too often I (and others) resort to, rather than seeking the truth with love.

I've not read "Spirit and the Letter" so I'll refrain from commenting on those excerpts.

Don't get me wrong; I love Augustine. But I fear that too much emphasis on him as the savior or originator of Christian doctrine (or Luther or Thomas or whoever) results in us wrongly declaring ourselves Augustinian Thomistic or Lutheran instead of CHRISTian.

In Christ,

John Zahl said...

Dear Mattie,

I really appreciate your extremely intelligent fair comment with regard to the Brown quote. And I agree especially with your last statement:

"Don't get me wrong; I love Augustine. But I fear that too much emphasis on him as the savior or originator of Christian doctrine (or Luther or Thomas or whoever) results in us wrongly declaring ourselves Augustinian Thomistic or Lutheran instead of CHRISTian."

I would sign onto that statement 100%.

...but the reason I posted the quote and the reason why I take (only slight) issue may make more sense if I explain it a bit.

You see, I think Brown is basically incorrect in his assertion. Not because I think it is not good to be fair and open-minded, but because I think that Aristotle was not a Christian, and the implications of his thought stand in opposition to my understanding of Christianity, or that which makes Christianity unique. To my way of thinking, his approach to ethics is entirely irreconcilable with the Gospel, because it is based upon presuppositions about both the human condition and the nature of epistemological truth that Christianity rejects from the outset. Luther and Augustine both reacted strongly to the implications of Aristotle's thought where ideas of Grace are concerned, and, for that reason, rejected him totally as un-/anti-Christian. I too hold that position.

I feel very differently about Plato because the ideas of Plato that were incorporated into theological thought via Augustine line up quite naturally with the Gospel, though they are not necessary for understanding it. Plato's ethical ideas were not incorporated into Christian thought, for they too were rejected by Paul when he wrote that the "Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks". He is directly referring to a Platonic/Socratic idea that I think we cannot ride with as Christians. But the duality of Plato's epistemological structuring (a main point that Aristotle rejected) integrates itself naturally into, say, the prologue of John's Gospel.

I am a huge fan of Augustine because of his views on the Law and because of his appreciation of Grace in the Christian life, not because of his thinking regarding Plato, but his consideration of Plato does not run into conflict with his thinking regarding grace. On the other hand, I am not a huge fan of Thomas Aquinas because I do think that his incorporation of Aristotle into Christian thought proves disruptive to any full-blooded view of grace. In some sense, I think Cranmer's structuring of the Prayer Book, in its wonderful orientation of the Reformation insights re: grace and human nature (arguably a sort of magnified implication of Augustine's later thinking), is rather similar to a kind of thought that one could maybe associate positively with Aristotle. But that's grasping for straws unnecessarily.

Please remember: Aristotle's "N. Ethics" was my baby in college. I majored in philosophy, and focussed mainly on virtue ethics. But, when I read Luther's critique of Aristotle (in wake of my own experience of getting sober), I was only able to reject Aristotle's line of thought as being ultimately romantic and unpersuasive.

The fact that Luther rejected him totally (see Bondage of the Will, and the philosophical Disputations at the end of the Heidelberg Disputations, which are fascinating. You should see what Luther has to say about Anaxagoras! who ever heard of him, right?), and that Aquinas stated all of his thinking to be "as straw" at the end of his life, both of these have logically always (since I became a believing Christian) made sense to me. To find that Augustine had the same gut reaction, which was new to me, and despite Brown's later comments, which you were so smart and right to bring into the discussion, struck me as somehow affirming. So I posted the excerpt alone, on those grounds.

Thanks for thinking about this with me. I completely agree that we must think of ourselves primarily as Christians, rather than "Episcopalian", "Lutheran", "Augustinian", etc. But I cannot recognize "Aristotelian" in that list, as, to my understanding, it isn't really "Christian" thought, and is in fact detrimental _to_ (most profound) Christian thought. That's where I'm coming from on this.

Thanks much, John

mattie said...

John -

Some excellent points, and ones I've also been thinking about, though not with the depth of experience or knowledge that you have. So, thank you for your insight. I've not read much of Aristotle or Plato, part of the reason I didn't say more in my post :)

The issue for me in this sort of a discussion comes back to an understanding of a corpus of "non-negotiables" for Christianity. By that, I mean, at what point do we draw the line at what does or does not make a Christian?

We are all part of a church today that seems horribly reluctant to condemn anyone, no matter how ridiculous their theology seems (okay, Rome does a bit more anathametizing than your church, but nevertheless, much less in this era than in any other in the last two millenia ;)). Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I'm not sure. Part of me says that as long as one can recite the creed, they are a Christian and their epistemology or anthropology is much less important than saying that Jesus was the Son of God who died for our sins. Certainly, those things affect how we interpret what things like grace, law, and salvation mean and how the mystery of redemption is enacted, but that is why it is a mystery and speculation is to be welcomed. But then, like you (I think), part of me says that if someone misunderstands humanity, or the nature of the created world, or love or grace or any other consituitive part of the gospel, then we are under obligation to correct, rebuke, and eventually condemn them. But, then I say, what arrogance! What arrogance to pretend that I, a 25 year old girl in Nebraska who has just begun to study theology, could possibly understand the profundity of the gospel. And even a 75 year old cardinal in Rome is fallible and has encountered only a fraction of the insight and revelation given to God's people. So who is anyone to condemn, especially when Jesus says it is up to our Father in heaven to do that?

So, in other words, how "thick" or "thin" should our identity as a Christian be? Julian certainly seemed to consider himself to be a Christian, even after his fellow bishops closed rank against him. Luther certainly considered himself a Christian after he was excommunicated. How big should our proverbial tent be? And how do we decide who gets to be in and who gets to be out? I don't know. I don't know. It comes back to ecclesiology and anthropology, ironically, those things that I don't want to matter as much as Christology, but they do.

I know I didn't really answer your post, mostly because I get where you're coming from and don't really have enough info to refute you :) Nevertheless, this has profound implications for the current situation in both your church and mine. We're both parts of churches that are involved all too often in "unintelligent slogging-match[es]" as Brown might say. Do we follow Augustine's actions? My gut says no. Failing to engage the ideas of our opponents serves no one, even if we think they are anathema. I see my church doing that right now with (former) Cardinal Milingo. Okay, so he married someone he'd never met (from the Moonies, none the less) and now he's going around ordaining married bishops (if you haven't heard about it, go here: So, instead of allowing the church to actually discuss the importance of a celibate priesthood, we say it's off limits and kick him out. Great. Way to allow the truth to triumph and love to reign. And we all know your church has its own issues ;)

So, that's the relevance, I think, of this sort of situation. And I have no answers, but I want to keep thinking about it...

God Bless,


John Zahl said...

Dear Mattie,

your post strikes me as rational and insightful and very thought-provoking. I agree that these are key questions. I too am reluctant to condemn to readily. Ultimately, that is God's job, and, for this reason, it always feels wrong-ish. The lines between discernment and judgement are blurry here. Funny that Augustine attacked the Donatists because they were too condemning, which reflects very similar leanings to the ones you expressed (and the ones that, as you will see, I agree with totally). Yet he also condemned Pelagius straight-up.

You wrote:

How "thick" or "thin" should our identity as a Christian be? Julian certainly seemed to consider himself to be a Christian, even after his fellow bishops closed rank against him. Luther certainly considered himself a Christian after he was excommunicated. How big should our proverbial tent be? And how do we decide who gets to be in and who gets to be out? I don't know. I don't know. It comes back to ecclesiology and anthropology, ironically, those things that I don't want to matter as much as Christology, but they do."

This is the exact issue dealt with in the Donatist controversy, and Augustine cited the parable of the wheat the tares in Matthew as being instrumental in his thinking about this matter, "let both grow together because you might throw some of the good wheat out with the weeds". It's a doozy.

But I think, when you say that, "it comes back to ecclesiology and anthropology", that I sort of agree and disagree. I don't think it comes back to ecclesiology, for I really think it is theology that shapes the church and not the other way around. Ecclesiology is determined by the way you answer the questions you posed.

Because of this, I do think issues like anthropology are crucial. Theology is the determining factor, and anthropology (i.e., diagnosis of the human condition) is part of theology. This just means that the ideas (the theology) are crucial to church, in the same kind of way that motivation is determinative of behavior ("Oh behave!" Austin Powers). It's what's inside that matters, no? This is what makes Christianity so probing and worthy of immense respect.

I think that many people appeal to ecclesiology on these difficult matters, because ecclesiology often has answers to all the arguments. But, as in the cases you mention of Luther and Julian, we must note that the Church's views regarding their Christian status is not necessarily accurate where their salvation is concerned. All who call upon the name Jesus... That's where I go with it. That's why I am a basically a Protestant conservative with a fairly low Anglican ecclesiology.

thanks again for sharing with me (us)! JAZ

John Zahl said...

Just one final point relating to what I just posted:

Augustine's critiques of the Donatists and the Pelagians split along exactly the two lines of thought I discussed:

Donatist controvery: ecclesiology

Pelagian controvery: theology

In both, he seeks to place theology ahead of ecclesiology.