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.
One of my favourite moments in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the appearance in the entry for 1066 that the French are God’s judgement on the English for their sins. Obviously, the reference is to William the Bastard and the Norman conquest, but I still chuckle at the idea of all the French being God’s judgement on all the English for their sins.
Many Christians today are unlikely to see such events of secular politics in terms of spiritual failures. Those who are sophisticated enough will hopefully reject such thinking because we think along the lines of St Augustine’s City of God, where he delineates the reality that good things and bad things happen to pagans and Christians alike.
Nevertheless, my thoughts have meandered down that way tonight, provoked by starting into the chapter about Eusebius in Frances M. Young’s From Nicaea to Chalcedon (2nd ed.). As soon as Young hit Eusebius’s own living through the Diocletianic Persecution of 303-313, I recalled his account of the martyrs of Palestine and what he attributed this persecution to.
Eusebius believed that the final, and worst, persecution by the Roman government of the Christians was the result of the Christians becoming prosperous, worldly, soft — so God delivered them up to the Romans. As with so much in Eusebius, this is partly a matter of pointing to his own day, in effect: Just because things are nice with Constantine doesn’t mean we can let our guard down. Remember Diocletian. Do not become worldly or sinful.
What’s interesting is that the causal link between God using the persecution as discipline/punishment/judgement of the Church was that the problems God pinpointed were specifically those of the church.
Whether or not we can follow Eusebius in this is not the point. In my smarter moments, I follow Augustine. But sometimes I wonder. Either way, Eusebius’ focus is different from those Christians today who see God’s judgement upon the world in secular affairs.
These Christians say that COVID-19 or natural disasters or the 2008 recession or anything going wrong is the result of God’s judgement on the West for turning its back on Him, that it is the result of gay marriage or abortion or transgenderism or Hollywood or not supporting Israel or somethingbeing done largely by those outside the Church.
Consider a different scenario, instead. Rather than blaming the world out there for its problems, consider the world in the church. Let’s consider the hemorrhaging faith of Canadians. Let’s consider the not-completely-unreal possibility of soft totalitarianism. Let’s consider what a friend of mine calls “pseudo-nationalist racist populism.” These things are all sources of danger for people who choose to stand publicly for the historic Christian faith, dangers coming from both the right and the left.
And my thesis is simply this: If they are not the judgement of God on us for our own faithlessness, our own worldliness, our own sin — they are the perfectly natural historical consequence.
It may not be persecution. It may not be guided by providence as discipline.
But it may still be our own damn fault. (Literally.)
Every once in a while, the concepts of providence and/or predestination come up. Maybe it’s because I’m reading Leo, Epp. 1, 2, 18. Maybe I’m reading Augustine. Maybe I’m hanging with Presbyterians. Maybe John Cassian flits through the mind. Or maybe a friend sends an e-mail:
Augustine and predestination. Discuss.
How could I resist?
One of the important distinctions I learned in theological discussion is that between predestination and providence in the way people talk. Predestination is usually geared specifically to the question of salvation, while providence focusses itself on God’s will working itself on the cosmos and history in a big way. And maybe in small ways, too.
Important for providence, to my mind, is Eusebius. Providence, more specifically, is the idea that all of human history is, at some level, organised by God to bring about his ends — some, such as some modern Calvinists, will say that this goes as far as God determining which shirt I’m wearing today; others allow for greater human freedom, arguing rather that the grand sweep of the narrative is tweaked by God when He so desires, but our ability to choose our clothing of our own free will remains untouched.
This is the sort of idea that undergirds Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica. For example, Eusebius and others see the Roman Empire as having been established by God for the propagation of the Gospel, the pax Romana being perceived as an essential ingredient therein. Augustine’s views along these lines are set out in the City of God are somewhat similar; unlike some, such as Orosius (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans; I’ve not read him, so this could be a misrepresentation) or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1066: The French were sent as God’s judgement on the English), however, Augustine does not think that God’s ordering of history means good people prosper while bad people fail — rather, the rain falls on the just and the unjust (passage in Isaiah somewhere), and God works towards his own sovereign will, even if things perceived on this mortal plain as ‘evil’ befall the demonstrably good.
The pax Romana is interesting because the idea of it’s foundation by God lives on. Orosius sees the age of Augustus as a highly significant moment in the history of grace, and not just because Christ was born therein (I heard someone give a paper on this aspect of Orosius). Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, presents basically the same idea. He argues that Christ was born in the fullness of time, kairos, because the pax Romana ensured the propagation of the Gospel through Roman roads and trade networks in a unified and relatively safe Mediterranean world. He also argues that the cultural unity effected by the Hellenistic world is also part of the kairos of Christ’s birth — the shared linguistic culture and thoughtworld meant that the Gospel could more easily be communicated not only in the Mediterranean world but to Hellenised lands to the East. Green also argues that, with these two cultural forces at play, the hearts of Mediterannean peoplel were ready for the Gospel, visible in the philosophy and religion in the period.
What’s dangerous, of course, is when we turn from seeing how God has made conditions right for Gospel and justice and start equating our culture with providence and blur the lines between what we like and what is Gospel. On these grounds has injustice been perpetrated in the name of providence.
Closing on providence, then: I could imagine Eusebius being a contender for first place in this arena vis a vis Augustine, considering that the others in the playing field are either students of Augustine such as Prosper of Aquitaine (On the Call of All Nations), continuators of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, or folks like Orosius (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans).
St Augustine of Hippo very frequently comes under attack for his views on the body and sex. In the class on said Church Father that I’m auditing, the lecturer said on Monday that in the 70s, when everyone got liberated, they needed someone to blame for having formerly been un-liberated, so they chose Augustine for being a. a long time ago and b. very influential on the western tradition.
Not to argue that everything the Blessed Augustine said was true, I still have to ask:
Is that really fair?
I believe that the answer is, ‘Nope.’
Whenever we look at an ancient author, we cannot simply look at specific views of his outwith their context in the writer’s work as a whole, nor within the wider cultural milieu wherein they were formed. To do otherwise is symptomatic of my bugbear, the Hermeneutic of Suspicion. Which I detest.
Augustine believes that the human body is a lesser good than the mind. He believes that humanity’s rational, intellective/intelligible faculty is how we are made in the image of God. The body is not as good as the mind, and is often described as the source of the fleshly appetites and passions. This, as far as it goes, sounds fairly Platonic, doesn’t it?
He also believes that this fleshly, earthly life is mortality and misery. This is also, if you ask me, simply being a Roman. Imagine a world before anaesthetics and modern medicine. A world where a toothache can cause you endless, agonising pain. A world where your wife/sister/daughter is likely to die in childbirth. A world where you could very quickly and easily die from drinking dirty water. A world where you could lose your entire fortune in a shipwreck. A world where barbarians could raid either in a big way (see North Africa, Vandals in) or a small raid (see North Africa, Berbers in).
I am fairly certain that much of life in the ancient and mediaeval worlds was toil, pain, misery. Is Augustine a neurotic semi-Manichaean when he says that human life is misery — or is he just a fifth-century realist?
According to Augustine, lust is a result of the passions, and desiring sex is lust. This is a result of the Fall — in the prelapsarian state, Adam could have an erection whenever he pleased and thus fulfil God’s edict ‘be fruitful and multiply’ without falling into sin. Alas, since sex tends to involve lust today, it is hard to have sex without sinning; thus the preferred state of celibacy.
Augustine takes a lot of flack for this in particular. It has been said that he is just a recovering Manichee who had a past as a sexual deviant and was making up for it by being a neurotic Puritan.
Once, again, I think not. Bits of this train of thought can be seen in his North African predecessor who was anything but Manichaean and who was probably married, Tertullian. Other bits, about control of the appetites, are found in the Desert Fathers and your standard Roman ethics. For example, the story is told of Cato the Younger that he shamefully admitted to having taken refuge in his wife’s arms during a lightning storm. This sort of lack of control of one’s body, etc, was regarded as not up to snuff by ancient Romans.
As well, the appetites include not just sex but also food. Augustine believes, as seen in The Confessions, that eating is only to be done to relieve hunger. If you eat out of pleasure, that is gluttony. This is a common ancient, Roman belief, and one which he held in common with the Desert Fathers (again) and his contemporary, (St) John Cassian — a fellow who, himself, did not agree with Augustinian views of Predestination (as I discuss here).
Furthermore, Augustine cannot, at least in City of God, be accused of being a Manichaean, because he does not believe the dualist principles at the heart of the Manichaean religion, that all matter — not just bodies — is evil, and we need to be liberated from it. In fact, although I believe his overemphasis and exaltation of the mind and reason finds its origins in (Neo)Platonism, Augustine also goes against the Platonic grain.
Augustine believes that we were created to have bodies. And he believes that at the Resurrection of the Dead and in Paradise we will have bodies for eternity. This is not Manichaeism or Platonism, but Christianity.
So, critique Augustine. But please don’t say that he is either a Manichee or neurotic. This simply reveals your inadequate knowledge of the man’s historical context.
Today at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, after long toil with the formerly-discussed Pseudo-Isidorian manuscript, I got my hands on another. I opened the large, hefty book, turned to the first folio of vellum parchment and smiled. My smile was not due solely to the highly-readable, fifteenth-century book hand nor the illumination in the upper left corner of the page.
There before me was his name in bold, red uncial:
This name — not ‘Isidorus Hispalensis’ — is the strongest evidence that you have not Isidore of Seville or any Spanish collection of canonical material but, rather, Pseudo-Isidore, the Frankish Carolingian forger/ group of forgers (about whom there is a highly readable blog by a Pseudo-Isidorian scholar).
I was happy to hold this huge book in my hands today. And happy to find Leo, Epistula JK †451. This letter is a forgery about the rights of … chorepiscopi! And sent, of all places, to all the bishops of Germania and Gaul. Hm …
Anyway, good times with forgeries today, in other words.
What are the lessons my tired mind can give you, drawn from the deep well of faked wisdom that is Pseudo-Isidore? Here are two:
1. This ms contains 56 letters attributed to Leo. Only one of them, the letter universis Germaniarum et Galliarum regionum episcopis is definitively a forgery. There is debate about at least one other letter in there. The lesson? Pseudo-Isidore, although we know compiled by a forger, is like the church. The tares and the wheat exist side by side. Therefore, when we get our hands on this influential canonical collection, we should not reject it out of hand. For the holy can be found even in the work edited by a known sinner (forger, that is).
2. Church history is messy. So is the church today. This letter about chorepiscopi was forged to help protect the rights of bishops who were being used as pawns in secular politics. True, some of them were also moving the pieces of the Carolingian chess board. This is the danger of mixing your politics and your religion. As argued by Augustine in City of God (I think; if I’m wrong, it’s ’cause I should go to bed), we should wish to have Christian rulers who seek justice, but the clergy shouldn’t seek to be the rulers themselves. If Hincmar and friends had kept these sorts of things in mind, or if Lothar and brothers hadn’t tried manipulating the church into doing what they wanted, perhaps Pseudo-Isidore would never have existed.
But I’m glad for Pseudo-Isidore. It is one of the moments when things come together. All sorts of authentic material relating to canon law is brought together in Pseudo-Isidore and then expanded and copied and recopied for centuries. This is a good thing.
Nobody believes in the Devil nowadays. That is one of the Devil’s favourite jokes. -Robertson Davies, “Scottish Folklore and Opera,” in Happy Alchemy*
The special essay for my MA was “John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus on Demonology”. The writing of this bit of comparative demonology brought me into contact with not only Cassian and Evagrius but also with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the anonymous Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, Palladius’ Lausiac History, St. Augustine’s City of God, the Shepherd of Hermas, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, Origen’s De Principatibus and a variety of other Patristic writings. In these writings, although there were points of variance**, I saw the fundamental interconnectedness of Patristic writers.
They all believed in demons, for one thing.
In the Patristic world, demons are out there. They are fundamentally hostile and inhabit the air. Their main action in the life of the Christian is to tempt/test us. They want to distract Christians from prayer and lead them into sin. One of the fundamentals of Christian demonology is the fact that demons cannot force people to sin. Some people don’t realise this, and thus they brush off demonology as having nothing to do with them; clearly their sins are their own.
Yes, your sins are your own. This does not negate the reality of demons seeking to entice you to omit the good and commit the wicked. Indeed, if demons are real (which a worldview based on Scripture and tradition proclaims loud & clear), we should be on the guard against them; our sins are own responsibility, so we should be on our guard to avoid being enticed to lead life separate from God’s ways.
Therefore, we should be equipped to fight them. We should know our weapons. We should know our enemies. We should also know what else we’re up against — for not all evil originates with demons. According to John Cassian’s telling of the eight deadly vices in his Institutes, the will to sin is our own and the vices originate in our own sinful state; the traditional word for this, taken from St. Paul, is the flesh. The other origin of evil is the world. The world is full of enough wickedness stemming from other people’s evil and the wickedness of organisations and systems that the demons need not always tempt us.
However, knowledge of the battle is not readily available for the (post)modern Christian. We are trapped between Frank Peretti and secular humanism. What we need is a demonology for (post)moderns, something with both eyes open that takes Scripture seriously, does not deny science, but also peers into the wisdom of the Great Tradition, drawing out the teachings on Spiritual Warfare from the ancients, mediaevals, Reformers, and more, looking at liturgies, exorcisms, and training in the spiritual life.
I think a comparative analysis of John Cassian and Walter Wink (for example) would be interesting not only from a scholarly point of view but from the point of view of the average Christian seeking to live in a world surrounded by principalities and powers. We need work that is not only scholarly but actually useful. My approach to this question would be inherently Patristic, but there are other ways to deal with this issue with a Christian, biblical, honest approach.
And so I am glad to see that the Internet Monk has posed the following question to his Liturgical Gangstas:
How does the theme and practice of spiritual warfare relate to ministry in your tradition? Where are the boundaries of your own “comfort zones” in the practice of spiritual warfare?
In the post on his blog, we get thoughts on this very important question from the Eastern Orthodox, United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian perspectives. Unsurprisingly, I liked the Eastern Orthodox and United Methodist best. You should read the post.
The position that many of us have on the question of demonology is summed up well in that post by Matthew Johnson, United Methodist pastor:
I think attributing every kind of mistake or misfortune to Satan and his minions is ridiculous. However, I would be biblically remiss not to recognize that there are powers, there are principalities, there is a reality beyond my senses that is gruesome and violent in which there are beings who would love nothing more than to see the church and the members of the body of Christ fail.
Hopefully to come shall be more on demons, John Cassian, and you.
*Many thanks to Emily Martin for providing the quotation to me many moons past.
**Most notably the Origenist teachings about the Fall and Christology as embraced by Evagrius in opposition to Cassian & Augustine.