Augustine’s Poisoned Chalice

This is only the start of the article, but it should be enough to get you going:

Augustine was born into a late-fourth-century world that was ostensibly Christian. At least, that’s what Emperor Constantine had called it at the beginning of the century, and apart from a short reversion to paganism under Julian the Apostate (360–363), the empire had carried on as Constantine had decreed.

In the process of implementing this decree, however, Christianity had co-opted pagan time for its festivals and calendar, without scriptural mandate and in obvious contradiction to scriptural command and example; a number of pagan temples and sites had been rebuilt as Christian basilicas and churches; and orthodoxy, as defined by church councils, had replaced apostolic teaching and practice. Yet the level of acceptance of this modified Christianity was not as great as church historians would have us believe. At the personal level, paganism and what was termed Christianity coexisted, and only a set of confused boundaries separated the two.

Meanwhile, as the century closed, John Chrysostom, bishop of Antioch, railed against Christians who still kept Jewish holy days, a practice that had been outlawed by two prior church councils of that century in an effort to distance the church from Christianity’s Hebraic roots.

At the same time, the line between faith and philosophy in Augustine’s world was also becoming confused. Augustine’s own parents were a case in point, the two of them being at opposite ends of the spectrum. His mother, Monica, was a devoted Roman Catholic; his father, Patricius, was a pagan who wanted his son to have a classical education in philosophy.

While Patricius pushed his son in that direction, Monica made an obvious attempt to instill a knowledge of the Scriptures and church teaching into her son. But at this point in the young man’s life, philosophy won the day. The famous challenge of third-century theologian Tertullian, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” (suggesting that faith and philosophy have nothing in common), would receive a robust reply at the hand of Augustine.

During the course of Augustine’s lifetime, the blurred boundaries between Christianity and paganism, and between faith and philosophy, were redrawn. Paradoxically, this created a world in which paganism seemed simply to disappear.

Augustine’s Poisoned Chalice.

You Might Also Like

5 Replies to “Augustine’s Poisoned Chalice”

  1. Hi there, I just discovered your blog. I had seen the link on James Pates page, but it wasn’t until James McGrath mentioned you on his blog that I actually stopped by. I’m glad that I did. So many blogs, so little time.

    Although Augustine did make significant contributions to Christianity, I have for some time now been wondering if the damage that he did by introducing much of his own philosophical views into the writings that were so cherished by later theologians such as Aquinas, Calvin and others don’t outweigh the contributions.

    I was aware of his early Manichaeistic roots and also knew that he was schooled in neo-Platonism, but I really hadn’t considered what the influence of Chrysostom’s purge of Hebraic Christianity that was going on during Augustine’s time may have had on his theological development.

    I have spent the last several months immersed in N.T. Wrights ‘Christian Origin’s and The Question of God’ series, and although I don’t always agree with Wright (I do agree with him more than I don’t), I have found his polemic for the necessity of keeping the second-temple Hebrew worldview and praxis in mind when interpreting the New Testament quite compelling.

    It is obvious that Augustine did not do that, instead he apparently had a dualistic Hellenized mindset when he developed his theology. As the article implies, that mindset obviously poisoned his theology and we’re still dealing with the task of rooting that poison out some sixteen hundred years later.

    Good article. Thanks for sharing. I think that it’s high time that we take Augustine off of the pedestal that so many, especially those of the Reformed tradition, want to put him on.

    Randy Olds

    1. Randy, I am glad you stopped by.

      I would agree with you completely that Augustine must be understood for who he was and what he actually did, not by some idolized notion of him. I like some of this writings, only because he says it better, but for me, he is always the Manichaeistic Christian.

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.