Augustine as an Ecumenical Rendezvous

I have long been intrigued of Augustine’s role as ecumenical rendezvous.

Augustine was widely and prominently cited by both Peter the Lombard in his Four Books of Sentences (A.D. 1155) and by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (A.D. 1265). Whereas both Luther and Calvin shunned the doctrinal dialectics of the Medieval Scholastics, Calvin especially found some common ground with Augustine of certain particular points.

Luther’s Sola Scriptura did not necessitate doctrinal succession. If the Bible teaches a truth, being properly interpreted, it stands regardless of any known or unknown historical succession of thought. However for Calvin, the historical precedent of Augustine appears to have provided apologetic weight to his Institutes, originally penned only very shortly after his full conversion to the Evangelical cause:

  • 1533 (Oct), Placards incident in France (involving posters against the Mass)
  • 1534 (Jan), Placards revenge wherein the King of France received Mass six times while six Lutherans were being burned over six fires in Paris squares
  • 1534, Calvin presided over Mass three times at the Angouleme chapter
  • 1535, Calvin briefly settled in Basel
  • 1536, Calvin wrote the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion dedicated to Francis I, King of France.

Two relevancies emanate from this context. First, in his Institutes, Calvin appears to be directly responding to the prosecution and burning of Lutherans over the anti-Mass poster incident in Paris:

“The zeal of those whose cause I undertook,
“Has swelled a short defence into a book.”
(Institutes, “Epistle to the Reader”)

Second, Calvin’s training in Latin thoroughly introduced him to Lombard and Augustine, as well as to the panoply of authors available to him at that time both in Latin and French. It is scarcely reasonable to assume that he could cite texts outside of his knowledge or experience. Calvin cited from and wrestled from within the context of his own educational system.

Luther, having slowly migrated in his views towards justification by faith, was focused on the sale of indulgences when he wrote his Ninety-Five Theses, and not on the burning of heretics—even though they received his name as “Lutheran.” His wrestling was not with the hollow eyes and twitches of a skeleton blowing in the wind over a fire, but with the greed in the eyes and the sound of coins dropping into the kettles of sellers of indulgences.

Luther also wrote a magisterial appeal, “To the Christian Nobility,” in 1522, five years after nailing the theses to the Wittenberg Door. It was not until 1523 that Luther wrote the first Protestant Martyrology, “Neues Lid,” on the martyrdom of Augustinians Voez and Esch for Lutheran heresy. That burning took place in Brussels, many miles from Luther’s eyes.

However, both Calvin and Luther were cold to the sophistries of the Medieval Scholastics. Although Lombard and Aquinas cited Augustine far more than anyone else, their doctrinal positions differed markedly from those of Luther and Calvin.

Which begs the question, what is it about Augustine that makes him such a desirable ecumenical rendezvous for scholars and students generation after generation? Or to ask the question in another way…

What is the doctrinal gain or pragmatic benefit of marketing Augustine as an important figure in church history?

Several points emerge from this final question:

  1. Augustine was a master of rhetoric
  2. Augustine has a voluminous body of literature
  3. Augustine made the points that numerous scholars appreciate and cite.

So from the point of view of volume, depth, and dialectic, Augustine provides a feast of material for the cogitating human mind.

From a contextual approach, however, several considerations emerge. Augustine focused not on the Christological and Trinitarian controversies, so often associated with Early Church Historical doctrinal development, but rather on issues of soteriology and communion.

In order to understand the purpose and role of Augustine’s content, it is important to understand his context in the story of Christianity.

One must consider events preceding and concurrent to his lifetime to properly gauge where he stood in relation to these events:

  • 311, Donatus Magnus accused of rebaptizing lapsed clergy
  • 312, Emperor Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky (hence, his conversion)
  • 313, Donatus Magnus became Bishop of Carthage (today’s Tunis, Tunisia)
  • 325, The Council of Nicaea established a minimalist doctrinal basis for Roman state-church doctrine
  • 330, Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium
  • 347, Donatus Magnus was exiled from Carthage
  • 354, Birth of Augustine in North Africa (today’s Algeria)
  • 355, Donatus Magnus died in exile
  • 386, Augustine’s conversion to Christianity
  • 387, Augustine was baptized by Ambrose
  • 391, Augustine was ordained a priest in Hippo (today’s Annaba, Algeria)
  • 395, Augustine was made coadjutor bishop of Hippo
  • 430, Augustine’s death in Hippo.

Several doctrinal issues were being formulated during the lifetime of Augustine. These matters appear to be only slightly discussed in English histories of Christianity:

  1. The development of the State-Church model versus congregational rule
  2. The development of Sacramental salvation versus an Evangelical salvation
  3. Rome’s self-determination to be the universal autocephalous church versus Byzantium or Carthage being autocephalous.

It must be noted that these three points alone have strong ramifications on how history is conceived, written, and taught (historiography), as well as on the historical-doctrinal foundations given to students who are likely unaware of the historical contexts which codified the Imperial Church’s position.

Anecdotally, any form of congregational rule is virtually absent from mainstream church histories of the Early Church. In English church histories congregational rule rarely appears until the First Great Awakening (Presbyterian), 1610 (English dissenters and Calvinist Baptists), or perhaps 1524 (Anabaptists). In some French Protestant church histories, congregational rule may date back to the Waldenses (1184) or to the earlier Cathars (formalized in 1167), disappearing into the smoke of the fires of Medieval documentation.

As to Sacramental salvation, the majority of Christian churches see the point of salvation wed to the Baptismal font (see: http://www.evangelismunlimited.com/documents/eight-views-of-baptism.pdf). It is no surprise that churches that practice infant baptism follow the Sacramental views of Augustine on this point; their church histories naturally follow in the same vein.

Rome as an autocephalous church brings up an interesting question. When Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, did the fourth chief monarchy in the prophecies of Daniel 2 and 7 likewise move from Rome to Byzantium? The Reformation historian Johannes Sleidan took up this topic in his Four Chief Monarchies as the Key of History [Histoire des Quatre Empires Souverains] (Geneva, 1558).

These three topics are not minor doctrinal concepts for contemporary Evangelicals. And from this trio emerges another three points issues related to Augustine: his Contra Donatisten, Contra Manichean, and Confessions.

First, Augustine spent considerable intellectual energy fighting the Donatists, who were a rival North African Christian sect based out of Carthage (only 300 kilometers from Hippo). Augustine’s writings on this topic were gathered under the heading Contra Donatisten in Philip Schaff’s Post-Nicene Fathers. It appears that Augustine argued for the autocephalous headship of Rome in these texts. He was definitely not arguing for the cause of the Bishop of Carthage, even less for congregational rule, wherein each assembly of Christians stands as its own autocephalous (independent) church.

Second, Augustine also spent time defending a Sacramental form of salvation. It appears that his rhetorical position was best defended by use of what he described as a Manichean dualism. Augustine adroitly countermanded the Evangelical position of no intermediary “between the soul and God”:

“Evangelicalism does not cease to be fundamentally antinaturalistic, however, in becoming antisacerdotal: its primary protest continues to be against naturalism, and in opposing sacerdotalism also it only is the more consistently supernaturalistic, refusing to admit any intermediaries between the soul and God, as the sole source of salvation. That only is true evangelicalism, therefore, in which sounds clearly the double confession that all the power exerted in saving the soul is from God, and that God in his saving operations acts directly upon the soul.”
(B. B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation [1918])

However, Augustine taught that the Sacraments were physical “signs and symbols” of the spiritual benefit that they represented. Hence, codifying Rome’s autocephalous ambitions with a monopoly on the “signs and symbols” that only its church leaders could rightly confer.

The dualism Augustine argued against was the separation between the spiritual and the physical, or as Warfield wrote, the supernatural and the natural. Augustine taught that the supernatural came through the natural substance of the Sacrament (wholistically). He conjectured that it was a dualism to consider that the supernatural and natural did not cooperate Sacramentally in this way.

Third, in Augustine’s Confessions, his conversion point is related to a child playing behind a fence, singing “Pick up and read” (Book 8, Chap 12). His conversion was due to predestination (according to his writing), and not based on his hearing of and believing in justification by faith alone (Rom 3:21-26). Nor was there any mention of the Great Commission in the Confessions, nor indeed of the need to evangelize. And these amazing omissions have characterized Roman Catholic practice since that time.

In conclusion, Augustine remains a magnetic personality and a prolific author. Many of his writings avoided the fires of censorship over sixteen centuries. Yet while many beneficial and positive lessons can be learned from Augustine, there may be need for some consternation for the reasons enumerated above. Augustine must-needs-be read in his full context.

Hence, Augustine as an ecumenical rendezvous begs the question of his context. If Christ alone, Scriptures alone, and justification by grace alone, through faith alone, and without works are important to the reader, then he may need to rendezvous elsewhere.

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