“the Catholic faith is not what I thought”

In Book V of his Confessions, St Augustine describes a period when his trust in the Manichaean religion was ebbing, and his skepticism was growing. He was not yet willing, however, to return to the catholic faith his mother had entrusted him to, the faith he had left at university. He writes,

When my mind attempted to return to the Catholic faith, it was rebuffed because the Catholic faith is not what I thought.

Confessions V.x (20)

Eventually, he would go to Milan and encounter Ambrose. Through Ambrose’s preaching, he slowly learned better what the Catholic faith really was, and then leave Manichaeism, and then, after some time amongst the Platonists, eventually fully convert to catholic, orthodox Christianity and get baptised.

How many people — even those entrusted to the church by their parents, raised in our Sunday schools and youth groups — leave in high school and university, and sometimes might feel a tug to return to the faith of their youth? But they don’t return to the faith. And sometimes, when you look at deconversion and deconstruction stories of their faith, you realise that the Christian faith they rejected is not actually true, sound orthodoxy, but a misconception and false projection.

This is why good Christian education is a component of discipleship to Jesus — simply so that we can understand our Lord and His world better, and thus more easily submit ourselves to His Lordship, His teaching, and His worship.

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

Coming soon: My course on St Augustine!

As you know, I have been teaching a course for Davenant Hall (the teaching wing of Davenant Institute) called The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy — and I love it! This teaching is all online, and we have a hefty cohort of auditors. You can also enroll as a for-credit student with Davenant, however; just in case any of you were looking for an intellectually rigorous but structurally flexible path to theological education.

Well, this course is ending soon; a week from today will be my final lecture.

But this is not the end! On April 12, I start teaching another course: Augustine: The Major Works. This ten-week course will cover the major — that is, big and influential — works of St Augustine: Confessions, On Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana), On the Trinity, and City of God as well as two shorter works on predestination because of how prominent the predestinarian debate is in Augustine’s legacy.

But what you’ll find in the rest of these works is the fact that Augustine is interested in far more than predestination, and he has some important things to say — some original to himself, some expressed by him very well, some simply ancient orthodoxy. Reading St Augustine is basically a theological education in itself, exposing you to Trinitarian theology, Christology, the question of salvation, ethics at large, specific ethical questions, the Eucharist, the creation of the world, the redemption of the world, exegetical method, semiotics, mysticism, prayer, memory, the will, the idea of eternity, angelology and demonology, just war theory, theology of history, and so forth.

Besides, St Augustine is the biggest, most influential theologian of the ancient Latin church. He is the father of both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, with a diverse legacy visible in Martin Luther and the Book of Common Prayer on the one hand and St Teresa of Avila and Robert Bellarmine on the other.

Making the Bible ‘possible’: Pre-modern exegesis

When I was doing my PhD, a bunch of my friends (mostly Biblical Studies PhDs) read a book called The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Smith’s major thrust — from what I recall — was that evangelicals read the Bible as though it is perfectly clear and has one meaning when, in fact, it is possessed of polyvalence, as any glance at the many volumes available at your local Christian bookstore would make clear. I don’t remember if he had a solution internal to evangelicalism or not.

On a related note, Smith himself had converted to Roman Catholicism because, in part, of this issue. In the Roman Church, the Magisterium can help you navigate the polyvalence of Scripture.

I don’t think one needs to convert to the Church of Rome in order to address this problem. Moreover, I suspect that many people who go to Rome seeking authority and absolutes are converting for the wrong reasons, given the fact that the Magisterium leaves many awkward questions unanswered, and a great many Roman Catholics are in open rebellion against the Magisterium on many issues, and priests occasionally utter heresy in the confessional. This is not to characterise all converts to Rome, of course. Some, I suspect, though.

That is to say — you need more than a desire for absolutes if you want to swim the Tiber, because you’ll find fewer than you expect.

Anyway, I am reading Henri de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis, and here we meet the polyvalence of Scripture head-on. What marks the late antique and medieval approach to polyvalence is the authors’ extreme comfort with it. Time and again, from St Augustine of Hippo onwards, so long as an interpretation does not undermine the Catholic faith, and so long as it builds up charity to God and/or neighbour, any interpretation is a go.

Some of them may be more factually correct, of course. St Jerome, as I recall, is a big fan of at least producing factual and logically valid options, even if multiple ones exist. Some are also to be preferred because they strengthen the Catholic faith more than others.

Moreover, not only are pre-modern exegetes totally comfortable with polyvalence, they expect it and revel in it. Scripture has been given to us as a way for God to reveal Himself to us. God is infinite. Therefore, we should not be surprised that His self-revelation is itself potentially infinite in its interpretation. Furthermore, different people and different times have different needs and different questions. The inexhaustibility of Scripture means that it can and will produce meanings that will help its various readers.

I recall first meeting ideas like this in Augustine’s Confessions, where he talks about Genesis and how any logically valid interpretation that builds up charity is allowable. It was something of a breath of fresh air after the years I spent in the interminable (at times ridiculous) creation-evolution debate. Here was the greatest theologian of Latin Christianity saying that, in Genesis 1, there is no one right answer. And he himself was espousing allegory, of all things! St Augustine, the great propagator of predestination!

So if you’re starting to find the Bible impossible, one pathway to recovery is finding those exegetes who came before western Christendom fractured at the Reformation. Take their inisights alongside those of modern scholars and seek the infinite God in His infinite variety.

Good Books Point to Others

The second great thing about Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see original post) was the fact that it made me want to read more of the Fathers.  I think this is what most good books about Patristics should do.  Just as a book about the Bible should point us back to the Bible, a book about Homer to Homer, or a book about Tolkien to The Lord of the Rings, so books about the Church Fathers should make us ache, thirst, long, cry out for more.  This book does that.

Chiefly, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers makes me want to read in full a number of the cited texts.  Chief amongst these texts are St. Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos, St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations (on Sts. Athanasius and Gregory blowing my mind, read this), St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (I was destined to read this, anyway, given my interest in the Council of Chalcedon), St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.  Not enough of us read enough of the Fathers, so anything that explains their teaching and whets the appetite for more is worth reading, in my opinion.

If you find yourself wishing to go forth, here are some thoughts:

Online Resources

-The Fathers of the Church at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including the Ante-Nicene Fathers and both sets of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  A very valuable resource.

Monachos.net — Orthodoxy through Patristic and monastic study.  This website has many interesting resources from the Eastern perspective.

The Fathers of the Church at New Advent.  Another collection of writings.

-There is a Patristics Bog Carnival roaming around out there, usually at hyperekperissou; this past month it was at The Church of Jesus Christ.

Primary Sources

-It’s probably a good idea, if you’ve read this book, to wrestle through some of the works that feature prominently herein and which you found yourself drawn to.  Thus, for me, I think I should especially read St. Gregory’s Theological Orations, St. Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, and St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.  This book is short and readable.  It presents some very compelling arguments for the incarnate Word (Jesus) being God, as well as giving the reasons why God chose to become a man.

-St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit.  This is a wonderful book about the work and person of the Holy Spirit.  St. Basil demonstrates that the Spirit is, indeed, God, using both Scripture and tradition, and then he discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life.

-Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian.  This short work sets forth the doctrine of two-natures Christology, which is the accepted orthodoxy of all Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

-The Apostolic Fathers.  These works are individually short.  I have read First Clement, St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, and the First Epistle of Barnabas.  They give us insight into the mind of the first generation of Christian thinkers after the Apostles, something to be valued greatly.

-Other Patristic writings worth starting off with that are not “theological” in the modern, Western sense, but in the sense that holiness can only be embodied and practised:

-St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony.

-St. Augustine, The Confessions.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Secondary Sources

-Drobner, Hubertus.  The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Hendrickson, 2007.  This book is a “patrology.”  As an entire book, it is not an introduction to reading the Fathers.  However, it does provide concise introductions to most fathers and periods of early theological thought.

-Oden, Thomas C.  The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002.  In this book, Oden presents his vision of postmodern Christianity that is rooted in the premodern world of the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought, something he calls “paleo-orthodoxy.”  He believes that a rootedness in the Fathers will root us within the tradition and the Scriptures and reinvigorate the life of the Church.

-Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999.  This is the first volume of Webber’s “Ancient-Future” series.* Webber makes a similar basic argument as Oden about revitalising the Church for the future through the wisdom of the ancients, but his audience is evangelical whereas Oden’s is mainline.  He begins the task of constructing a Christian worldview and life structured through the wisdom of the Fathers in response to the questions and new perspectives of the postmodern era.

*The others are Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Worship, and Ancient-Future Time.  Lots of people recommend Ancient-Future Worship; I’ve never read it, myself.