Friday, August 10, 2007

Church History 1 Post 3

Explain how Augustine's theology of sin, grace, and the church in history offered a Christian response to the crises of the fifth century, and how did they also provide a foundation for the beliefs of the medieval Roman Catholic Church?

Augustinian Theology

Augustine of Hippo was a prolific theologian during tumultuous times. As the bishop of Hippo in North Africa, Augustine was confronted with many philosophical, theological, and even historical arguments against the Christian faith. His steadfast and determined will to combat these issues has left us with a plethora of writings that not only had influence in his own day, but later shaped the entire landscape of the western church. During his lifetime, Augustine witnessed the collapse of the great city of Rome and ultimately the collapse of the western empire itself. “Forged in the experience of historical crisis, his theology offered the hope of divine grace and redemption in history.”[i] This short essay will address Augustine’s position on sin, grace, and the church by exploring his differing views with the Manicheaens, the Donatists, and the Pelagians. Also, some of the main areas in which Augustine influenced the western church will be highlighted.

While studying in Carthage, Augustine joined a philosophical religion known as Manichaeism. This particular school taught that the material world was inherently evil and all things were pre-determined. Man, essentially, had no freedom. After his conversion he was faced with the issue of retorting the very beliefs to which he had once ascribed. To do this, Augustine appealed to the Christian doctrines of sin and the fall. “Creation was inherently good, and evil entered into it only through the agency of the human will that had sinned. The effects of that act extended to the entire human race, he argued, but this did not mean that the creation was evil.”[ii] For Augustine, sin and evil were not substances as the Manicheans taught. They are “a decision, a direction, a negation of good.” [iii] Augustine insisted that there is only one God who is inherently good, but through the choices by the free wills of man and angelic beings, evil entered the world. The original fall has had a debilitating effect on the human will and all of creation. As stated above, evil is an absence or falling away from good. It is like the ripples of water after a rock is thrown into a pond. The further away the ripples move, the more distorted they become. Thus, for Augustine, salvation was not an escape from the evils of this world, but a reorienting of life and will back towards its original objective or goal, which is contemplation on the goodness of God.

Augustine was not only faced with contention outside of the church, he was also faced with it inside of the church. During Augustine’s Bishop itinerate in Hippo, he was faced with constant threat from a separatist party of the Catholic church known as the Donatists. This particular party took a hard stance on the purity of the church and concluded that there was no purity in the Catholic Church and theirs was the only pure church. They came to this decision because in years prior certain bishops had been restored into the church after renouncing the Christian faith to save themselves from execution during the times of persecution. The Donatists believed that these bishops should not have been allowed to reenter the church because they had committed the ultimate sin of renouncing the Spirit. Thus the line of ordinates was tainted and impure. “Augustine responded that they validity of any rite of the church does not depend on the moral virtue of the person administering it.”[iv] Ultimately, Augustine concluded, along with Cyprian, “that for baptized Christians who left the true church (which he understood as to be the Catholic church), there was no salvation.”[v] Grace is only effective through the sacraments of the church and this had no weight on the purity of the ministers. Though the minister is impure, the sacrament still holds true. Because of this thinking, Augustine held the view that the unity of the church was far greater than the purity of the church. He writes,

“With so many sinners mingled with the saints, all caught in the single fishing net the Gospel mentions, this life on earth is like a sea in which good and bad fishes caught in a net swim about indistinguishably until the net is beached, and the bad ones are separated from the good. Only then does God so reign in the good, as in His temple, that He may be all in all. So it falls out that in this world, in evil days like these, the Church walks onward like a wayfarer stricken by the world’s hostility, but comforted by the mercy of God.”[vi]

Augustine was also confronted with a differing position by a British monk named Pelagius. Pelagianism “assigned to human beings a degree of responsibility for participating in their salvation.” Others involved in the debate agreed with this position as applied to spiritual growth after baptism. Essentially this is Augustine’s position. He writes,

“It must, therefore, be admitted that we have a will free to do both evil and good; but, in doing evil, one is free of justice and the slave of sin; on the other hand, in the matter of good no one is free unless he be freed by Him who said: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”[vii] Not, however, as if one no longer needed the help of his liberator, once he has been freed from the domination of sin; rather, hearing from Him: “Without me you can do nothing,”[viii] one must oneself say: “Be thou my helper, forsake me not.”[ix] I am happy to have found this faith in our brother Florus; it is indubitably the true, prophetic, apostolic, and Catholic faith. This is the right understanding of the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, by which alone men are freed from evil, and without which they do no good whatsoever, either in thought, or in will and love, or in action; not only do men know by its showing what they are to do, but by its power they do with love what they know is to be done.”[x]

Grace, through the order of the sacraments found in the church as stated above, is the agent that frees man to follow after and love God. This grace is given as a gift of God. Thus, the initial act of salvation is given by God and He then helps us to continually walk in Him.

Augustine’s theology was highly interpretive of the social aspects of his day. He began work on The City of God to as an apologetic to the fall of Rome in 410. As he continued writing the work turned into “a full-fledged theology of history”[xi] chronicling the effects of sin and the fall while using two allegorical cities - one heavenly and one earthly. Augustine viewed the Donatists as shattering the unity of the church, and the Visigoths, the tribe that sacked Rome, as shattering the entire order of social life. It is during this time that Augustine contributed long lasting writings pertaining sociology, soteriology, and ecclesiology that effected the positions of the western church. Subsequently, the church has contended that the doctrine of creation is sufficient to explain the problem of evil and the issue of will in soteriology. Also, the Catholic Church has firmly held in its ecclesiology that the sacraments or rites of the church hold firm regardless of the spiritual status of the minister. It has also held onto the notion that grace and salvation is administered through the sacraments which can only be found in unity with the church.

[i] Dale T. Irvin, Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2001) pg. 234
[ii] HWCM, 232
[iii] Justo L. Ganzales, The Story of Christianity (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY 1984) pg. 213
[iv] Gonzalez, 213
[v] HWCM, 232
[vi] Hugh T. Kerr, Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd Edition (Abingdon Press/Nashville Tennessee, 1990) page 66.
[vii] John 8:36
[viii] John 15:5
[ix] Psalm 26:9
[x] Kerr, 66
[xi] HWCM, 233

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