Augustine: The Greatest Theologian?
I have decided to take my time with this book as there is so much that Mr. Brown gets wrong in my opinion. Much of this series will interact only briefly with the content of the book and use certain comments as springboards for interaction and reflection. One thing I just can’t get past is Mr. Brown’s unqualified claim that Augustine was the greatest theologian of the early church. This seems false to me on several levels.
First, we must wonder why this claim is made. It is rather well known that Calvinism is a developed form of Augustinian theology. Calvin was a huge fan of Augustine and essentially systemized his theology. He called Augustine “…the best and most faithful witness in all antiquity.” Some Calvinists even prefer to call themselves Augustinians. Luther was an Augustinian monk and also drew heavily from Augustine in developing his theology. So there is a real sense in which Augustine might be called the father of the Reformation based solely on the influence his writings had on some of the key figures of the Reformation (though not all reformers followed Augustine). It makes sense then that a Calvinist like Mr. Brown would think of Augustine as the greatest theologian of the early church. But there are several problems with such a claim.
Augustine may well be said to have been the most influential theologian on later developments of Christian thought, but being influential does not necessarily equate to greatness. Augustine also had a great influence on the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, he has been called the father of Roman ecclesiasticism. Many of the doctrines that the reformers found unacceptable in Rome had either their origin in Augustine or were embraced by Augustine as sound doctrine:
– No salvation outside of the Catholic Church
– The merit of penance for earning forgiveness
– Perpetual virginity of Mary (Augustine called those who oppose this teaching heretical)
– Mary was innocent of actual sin
– Marion worship
– Saints as intercessors
And unfortunately some of the reformers followed Augustine in Catholic doctrines such as the divine right to persecute heretics and make converts by force (Augustine used Luke 14:23 as justification for these doctrines, and was followed in actual practice by reformers like John Calvin), and the belief that all unbaptized children who died in infancy would be consigned to eternal fire (based largely on Augustine’s belief that salvation was impossible outside of the Catholic church). Based on these historical facts we conclude with Anderson (quoted by Samuel Fisk),
Sir Robert Anderson, in The Bible and the Church, declares that nearly all the errors prevalent in Romanism can be traced back to Augustine. He says, “The Roman church was molded by Augustine into the form it has ever since maintained. Of all the errors that later centuries developed in her teaching there is scarcely one that cannot be found in embryo in his writings.” (Calvinistic Paths Retraced, pg. 95)
Augustine: Theologian of the early church?
Mr. Brown calls Augustine “the greatest theologian of the early church” (pg. 15 emphasis mine). This can be misleading as Augustine converted to Catholicism in AD 387. Prior to this time he was for nine years a member of the Gnostic Manichaean sect. As a young convert Augustine embraced those doctrines which had universally been held by the early church. Among these doctrines was the belief that man was endowed with a measure of free will in the strict libertarian sense. Augustine strongly defended the freedom of the will in many of his writings. This was nothing novel as all of the church fathers before him also held that man was endowed with libertarian free will (though they would not have called it “libertarian” free will) by God and that without this freedom of the will moral accountability was impossible.
Pelagius followed all of the church fathers before him in affirming the freedom of the will but sadly took the doctrine too far in insisting that man could live a sinless life apart from the grace and power of God and turn to God of his own will without God’s initial intervention. Augustine opposed Pelagius and his followers and likewise went too far in the other direction in order to win the debate. Augustine slowly began to promote a deterministic theology which essentially denied free will altogether. The later Augustine continued to develop these doctrines and in so doing came to advocate the idea of irresistible grace and unconditional election. These doctrines were novel and unheard of among the Ante-Nicene fathers . Yet such teachings were evident in the Gnostic heretics that the Ante-Nicene fathers wrote against.
It didn’t escape Pelagius’ notice that Augustine seemed to be falling back into the philosophies of the Gnostic sect he once embraced in order to deny free will. He accused Augustine of smuggling in Manichaean beliefs of fatalism and unconditional predestination into his theology. It has been argued that Augustine basically molded the two gods of Manichaean philosophy (one good god and one evil god) into one God who determined and caused all that is both good and evil. While the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian teaching that one can turn to God apart from God’s prevenient grace was condemned in later church councils, so were the deterministic features of Augustine’s later theological developments.
It becomes clear then that Augustine did not represent the teachings of the earliest church fathers in his theological developments which would later be embraced and systematized by John Calvin. The earliest church fathers, some of whom were taught by the apostles themselves, rejected determinism, irresistible grace, unconditional election, and inevitable perseverance as features of Gnostic heresies rather than the apostolic teachings of the church. Only after Calvin (following Augustine) did such teachings begin to be readily embraced by professing Christians as orthodoxy.
Calvin held Augustine in the highest esteem and often relied upon his writings whenever he encountered difficulties in interpreting Scripture. Augustine, however, was not a strong exegete of Scripture and was ignorant of the original languages of the Old and New Testament (Greek and Hebrew). Some of his strange doctrinal developments may be directly related to faulty translations of the latin Vulgate that Augustine relied on and studied. It is significant that the earliest church fathers, many of whom spoke Greek as their native language, never found the doctrines of determinism, unconditional election, limited atonement, or inevitable perseverance in the teachings of the apostles and word of God as a whole. Rather, they used those same Scriptures to rigorously oppose the “heretics” who promoted many of the same teachings that Augustine and Calvin later came to hold as orthodoxy. Based on these facts it seems safe to say that Mr. Brown has overstated things just a bit when he writes,
Augustine was the greatest theologian of the early church. He spent much of his life defending the orthodox or true faith against heresies. Fighting these battles helped him codify the doctrines that were taught by Jesus and Paul in Scriptures (pg. 15).
The irony is obvious. While Brown tells us that Augustine preserved the Christian faith against heresies, history seems to tell quite a different story. It might have been more accurate if Brown had said something like this,
Augustine was one of the most influential theologians of the fourth and fifth century. He spent most of his life developing Catholic doctrines that the later reformers found abhorrent and have been rejected by Protestant believers throughout the centuries. In his battles with the Pelagians he introduced strange doctrines to the church which were held by the earliest Christian writers and disciples of the apostles to be heretical. Augustine’s theology of determinism, irresistible grace, and unconditional election misrepresented and perverted the teachings of Jesus and Paul in Scriptures.
So it seems that Mr. Brown is either largely ignorant of much of church history or he has deliberately painted Augustine in a positive light for the sake of promoting his Calvinism as the purest form of historical Christianity. In our next post we will examine Mr. Brown’s many misrepresentations of Arminian theology.
[For an excellent treatment of the philosophical reasoning that lead Augustine to embrace novel doctrines and the negative influence these doctrines had on later theological developments see God’s Strategy in Human History by Forster and Marston.]