September 3, 2017
Augustine of Hippo, Part Deux. Who was he and why is he important?
There is just too much to Augustine to think that last week's entry really explains how influential he is in Western Christianity, influences which we are still dealing with today, especially in our relationship to the Roman Catholic Church and the initial Protestant responses to Catholicism in the 16th Century (see Martin Luther and Reformation Sunday whose 500th anniversary is this October).
I mentioned last week that Augustine was really important because of his writing. He would have been important without his books, but the fact is that we have over 5 million words of his in libraries. His books were in Latin and he knew little to no Greek. The bulk of the theological writings of the early Church came out of the Greek speaking Eastern Church, especially theology on Christology, Trinity, and Pneumatology. But once the Eastern Church is largely cut-off from the Roman West by the rapid expansion of Islam beginning in the late 6th Century, Greek speaking goes out of the scholarly discourse in the west. Gone from contributions of the west are Origen, Gregory the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and more theological giants of the Greek speaking world. The importance of this loss should be emphasized by the fact that the Bishop of Roma was not at the Council of Nicaea, the single most important council of the Christian world.
Therefore, what is remembered and speculated on in the West is largely Augustinian. That means we have his highly church-state linked advocacy of culture and society. It is his reflections on the Trinity (On the Trinity) that remain in common currency from the late 7th Century through the Renaissance, it is his fight against Donatists (anti-state Church types (Confessions)), with a spiritual rigor anticipating late Protestant receptionist doctrines around the sacraments) that inform Catholic understanding of the ontological power of sacraments, and it is his commentary on predestination (The Predestination of the Blessed and The Gift of Perseverance) that even influences John Calvin and his double-predestination conclusions.
Other areas of Influence include his framing of original sin as something that is passed on in birth, a sexual ethic where sex is only moral when being exercised for procreative purposes only, and his view of the created world as deeply suspect, but offset by his hopeful anticipation of the establishment of the Kingdom of God. We still wrestle with his conception of God as remote, distant, and mysterious, as well as powerfully and increasingly present in all times and places, eloquently captured by his Latin: "Totus ubique," The whole of him everywhere.
Augustine was a giant, both in his honor and dishonor. When he was right, he was really right. When he wasn't, well we are working on that too.
The Rev. David Lucey