What’s Wrong with Augustine?

(This is a cross-post from my other blog.)

A fundamental element in my personal sense of calling is putting the gospel message in reach of everyone. There are plenty of good servants of God who helped me along the way; most of them were academics in one sense or another. My job has been to bring that high brow stuff down, largely by seeing the foundation clearly, but emphasizing the implications. I am okay with high-brow stuff, but it’s not my mission to operate on that level very much, especially in what I write.

So when someone asks me about Augustine of Hippo, it requires warning you that if you want a high browed discussion from me, you are asking the wrong guy. Still, my summary is likely to answer the basic questions.

The man himself was a Berber, but born long after the overpowering Roman influence had changed his native land in North Africa. Thus, his family spoke Latin at home and prided themselves on upholding the best of Roman civilization. He passed through a very strong academic background, which included a hefty admiration for Hellenism, as well. Eventually he became a Christian and embraced a very romanized brand of Christian religion. His high intellect and solid classical education produced a body of work that remains influential in Western Christianity today.

On the one hand, his writings could be considered the foundation of Western Christianity in a certain sense. Not in the sense that he is the whole thing, but he represents a major turning point in pulling things back together after they had begun to fragment and scatter intellectually. He was a big-picture thinker. There’s nothing wrong with reading modern translations of his stuff if you have the time and inclination; you can find free copies on the Net.

Here’s the fundamental issue: He represents the turning point away from heart-led faith. He brought faith down into the realm of the intellect in a way that changed the shape of Western Christian religion forever. In his own thinking, he was trying to make faith reasonable, to show that faith and reason were not enemies. But he was already deeply infected by the notion of the heart as something far less than the way the Bible depicts it. In his writing, the heart is crippled compared to the biblical image. He still sees the heart as ruling, but with serious limiations.

He had no notion of the heart with its own “mind” superior to the intellect. He moved that function into the brain, and sets up the idea that the mind is not completely fallen. His work prepares the way for the Roman Church to declare that the intellect can be more-or-less morally perfected, that it can be fully redeemed while in this life. That perception is the foundation for how the Roman Church has turned out.

I’m not claiming credit for originating this criticism. Granted, I have yet to find anyone else who says it like this, but I’m sure others have grasped this before me. I learned heart-led as a conscious notion from non-Christian sources. It’s inherent in the traditions of the Ancient Near East, and very obviously consistent with the ancient Hebrew traditions, though seldom directly explained in studies on that. Even standard commentaries you find in Christian homes will tell you the Bible sees the heart as the seat of the will, in the sense of commitment and faith. But it is also consistent with some of the pagan philosophical stuff you can find in more recent writings. There are some very bright non-Christians who picked up on this as they struggled to find something deeper than Western Christian theology. But even among pagans, the heart-led way tends to be a minority view.

Still, we can be sure that the whole concept of the heart as a sensory organ and a distinctly separate “mind” that can process what it senses, and as a superior source of understanding of philosophical issues is nothing new. It is the best explanation so far for what I have lived with most of my life, and answered all my questions about faith. It soothed all my soul’s wounds from the abuse at the hands of a world that prefers Augustine’s approach. I won’t tell you this is God’s answer to all humanity; it’s the answer that works for me.

Standing on Augustine is an excellent start down the path of criticism for the Enlightenment and everything that follows it. But all that does is drag things back as far as Augustine. We still need to be aware of Augustine’s major failure. Not that he consciously rejected the truth of the heart-led way, but that it was lost and buried by the time he came along. We can find glimmers of that higher path of the heart throughout Church History, but it was almost always the view that was rejected and squelched by the mainstream. We can thank Augustine for that.

About Ed Hurst

Avid cyclist, Disabled Veteran, Bible History teacher, and wannabe writer; retired.
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