Advanced Historical Theology - The Theology of Augustine - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 11 – Advanced Historical Theology – The Theology of Augustine, Western Theology After Augustine and Eastern Theology Between the Fourth and the Sixth Ecumenical Councils


The Theology of Augustine

Augustine marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. He is the last of the ancient Christian theologians, and the forerunner of medieval theology and Reformation thought. He did not develop his thought in a systematic vacuum, but wrote specifically around events that occurred in his lifetime and for specific purposes.

Augustine was born to a Christian mother and a pagan father in 354 A.D. in Tagaste in North Africa. His Confessions are a main source of information for his early youth. His search for truth moved him to consider Manichaeism. The founder of that heretical movement was named Mani, who was born in Babylon in 216 A.D. He was born and raised in a Gnostic and ascetic community, and believed he received a revelation which turned him into the “prophet of light.” This teaching follows the ancient Gnostic pattern of attempting to offer an answer to the mysteries of the human condition through revelation that comes directly from the source through Mani. Mani said that men like Buddha, Zoroaster and Jesus were sent here to awaken men to a state of illumination, Mani himself being the last prophet. The system is basically involved with the dualism of Light verses Darkness, and the eternal struggle for one domination over the other.

Augustine was never a member of this sect, but was an avid hearer. He listened to these teaching for nine years and it seemed, to him, that Manichaenism made rational sense of the universe – that rationalism appealing to him greatly. Augustine tried to meet with some of the great teachers of this movement, and finally had one with Faustus of Milevis. But the meeting was such a theological disappointment to him that he rejected the system outright and sought Neo-Platonism. He read Plotinus, Porphyry and other Neo-Platonists and was brought out of his skepticism and dealt with theological issues surrounding the incorporeal nature of God and the existence of evil.

Augustine was later converted to Christianity through the prayers of his mother Monica and the preaching of Ambrose. He joined a monastic community in Tagaste and became a priest under Valarius bishop of Hippo. Later, Augustine would become bishop of Hippo.

Augustine’s theology is set in the midst of practical controversies against heretics that emerged in his lifetime. One of the first major controversies was the Donatist controversy, the origins of which were found during the persecution of Diocletian which took place 303-305 A.D. Those who escaped persecution by giving in to Roman demands of recantation were called traditores. These traitors then, after persecution had ended, wanted to come back to the church. The Donatists said this was impossible. Schism grew to great proportions as a result. Donatist ecclesiology insisted on the observable holiness of the church. Every member of the church must be holy and this holiness was measured in their love and works. It was against this position that Augustine developed his distinction between the visible and invisible church. The church is not holy because of its works, but because of Christ’s work in the church. The very schism that the Donatists were attempting to avoid, they were creating.

The last greatest controversy that Augustine took to heart was against the heretic Pelagius. Pelagius was a native of the British Isles and had his first encounter with Augustine’s theology in Rome where he heard the prayer that changed history: “Give what Thou commandest, and command what Though wilt.” Augustine had said this in his Confessions, and Pelagius had no room for this in his humanistic theology. If God gave men commands, said Pelagius, then he also gave them the ability to work those commands. Pelagianism was condemned in 431 A.D. at the Council of Ephesus.

Pelagius had taught that grace is not necessary for salvation, though it may be of help. Man, of his own free will, can do good, and can be good. Men only become sinners as they sin, and are born a blank slate. Coelestius, Pelagius’ main disciple, summarized Pelagianism in nine points. 1) That Adam was created mortal, for he would have died no matter whether he had sinned or not. 2) That Adam’s sin injured him only, and not all of humankind. 3) That the Law, as well as the Gospel, leads to the Kingdom. 4) That there were some before the time of Christ who lived without sin. 5) That recently born infants are in the same state as was Adam before the fall. 6) That the whole of humankind does not die in the death of fall of Adam, nor does it resurrect in the resurrection of Christ. 7) That, if we will, we can live without sin. 8) that unbaptized infants attain unto eternal life. 9) That the rich who are baptized will have no merit, nor will they inherit the Kingdom of God, if they do not renounce their possessions. It was against these doctrines that Augustine wrote some of his most notable works. He also wrote against Julian of Eclanum, a second generation Pelagian, and further developed his views of original sin, grace and predestination. His most famous works are The Enchiridion, the Treatise on the Holy Trinity, The City of God, the Confessions and the Retractions.

Augustine’s theology is summarized as follows: his theory of knowledge revolved around two ideas: whether knowledge was possible and if it is possible, how was it acquired? He rested in the innate qualities of the mind that were given to men by God. God is the eternal, transcendent, infinite and perfect being. He is the supreme light by which all knowledge takes place. The Triune God is the creator of all that exists. God made the universe out of nothing. This presupposes the relationship that exists between God and time. God created time because only God is eternal. Evil exists in the world because God ordained it, and it is a corruption of the relationship men have with God. It is not a “thing” but a relationship, or rather a corruption of nature. Evil springs from free will which is bound to the nature it occupies. In fallen men the will is evil and only does evil. When men are regenerated, they have the capacity to choose good or evil. The will was corrupted as a result of original sin which envelops all humanity in a mass of damnation, unless otherwise rescued by Christ. That which saves men is called grace, and this grace is extended because of God’s predestination. Grace is irresistible since predestination is the act of the divine will. After one is saved by grace, merit then occupies a principle place where men must strive to be holy. This holiness, though, is a work of God. This divine grace comes to men in and through Jesus Christ, but in the context of the communion of the church. The visible church comprises local meeting houses of the membership of those that have professed faith in Christ and their children; all those people who are part of the church and are alive today. The invisible church are all the elect from all time. His ideas surrounding the sacrament of baptism are vague and confused at times, though against the Donatists he made the point that baptism is not affected by the one administering it. If it is done in the name of the Trinity, and the formula is correct (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) then it should be considered a valid baptism by ordained men.

Western Theology After Augustine

Augustinian theology was not immediately accepted in the church. As controversies arose Augustine’s theology was commonly seen in disputing these ecclesiastical heretics. Grace and predestination have always been a difficult hurdle to overcome since most people do not like the idea that God is in control of everything, including the will of men and their eternal destinies.

For Augustine, grace is completely unmerited and cannot be earned. John Cassian, who wrote against Pelagianism, also attempted to steer far and wide away from Augustine’s “extreme” views. Vincent of Lerin’s attacks on Augustinianism were far more vicious. He thought Augustine was an innovator of these ideas, and that they must be rejected as an innovation that has no place in the faith of the Catholic Church. Faustus of Riez was the most ardent of the anti-Augustinians. He defended human freedom and free will in his work On the Grace of God and Free Will. Against these attacks, Augustine and his disciples wrote vigorously for the truth of the Gospel. These others forms were simply Semi-Pelagian ideas. By 529 A.D. at the Synod of Orange, Semi-Pelagianism was eradicated and condemned, and Augustinianism was upheld as the biblical and exegetical true position.

Other controversies emerged such as the dispute over the nature of the soul. Augustine said that the soul was incorporeal. In saying this he was abandoning what Tertullian had said. Also, Boethius brought up the question of universals, which had a great impact on medieval philosophy. His best known treatise is The Consolation of Philosophy which used terms like “person”, “substance”, “being” and other ideas surrounding Trinitarian doctrine. He also highlighted what course logic would take in medieval thinking. Cassiodore was a contemporary of Boethius and wrote to uphold Augustine’s ideas surrounding the soul. Gregory the Great served as a filter to medieval theologians – he was widely read by them and worked in Augustine’s theology in all his writings. In this way, he acted as a filter for Augustinian thought to those who read him. However, he abandoned sovereign grace for a more semi-Pelagian theology. Benedict of Nursia wrote on the monastic life and became very influential to medieval thinking in this area, and the same may be said of Martin of Braga. Isidore of Seville was not theologically original but his work Etymologies was encyclopedic and most medieval thinkers quoted him in their own writings. This was a manual of universal knowledge that extended and touched on everything from grammar to theology.

Eastern Theology Between the Fourth and the Sixth Ecumenical Councils.

Christological controversies continued throughout the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. Unfortunately, the Definition of Faith of Chalcedon did not put an end to these controversies in the East. Most were upset with the idea of the formula “in two natures.” Severus’ work was the most popular of the day and affirmed the true and total humanity of Christ as well as his true and total divinity, but insists that these are united in a single nature (which means there are really three natures to speak of). Some of the emperors attempted to bring the church back to the councils and their definitions, but the East and West had too many differences in the manner in which they conceived the idea of “hypostases” and the “nature” of Christ. As a result of this tension the Schism of Acacius took place from 484-519 A.D. This schism lasted until the principle players at this time died off. Emperor Justin, after this time, reinstated unity between the East and the West. After Justin died, his son, Justinian took the throne and desired to heal the wound of the previous split in total. He held a council in Constantinople known as the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and there the teaching of the monphysites were condemned along with Theodore of Mopsuestia. At the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681 A.D. the issue around “nature” and “substance” was finally put to rest reaffirming the theology that taught the two natures were united in one person.

A number of different writings and individuals attempted to gain ground during this time. Among them were Dionysius (who wrote Pseudo-Dionysius – a blatantly Neo-platonic writing), Leontius of Byzantium (who was an outstanding theologian under Justinian’s reign, and wrote about the “hypostases and essence” in an orthodox light against the Nestorians). He taught that the main difference between the “essence” or “nature” on the one hand, and “hypostasis” on the other is that the essence is that which makes a thing belong to a genus, whereas hypostasis is what gives it its individuality. These two natures come together and do not lose their properties, but are simply joined. Maximus the Confessor was a proponent who argued against monothelism (that there was one principle energy or one person in Christ). Instead, he believed there were two principle energies or two persons. There must be the human natural will and the divine natural will in the two natures respectively. Here, the stage is set for the development of the Nestorian heresy.

The Nestorian heresy had been condemned at Ephesus in 433 A.D. There was no room left for compromise on the issue. However, political ramifications kept the theology alive for a time. The first theologian for the Nestorians (besides Nestorius himself) was Narses. His main Christological formula was “two natures (kyane), two hypostases (knume), and one appearance or presence (parsufa).” Basically he modified the teaching of Theodore of Mopsuestia. This gave birth to the term “monophysism” which was simply a rejection of the Chalcedonian Creed.

Bible Verse:

“I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless,” (Gen. 17:1).

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