The Richness of Augustine: His Contextual and Pastoral Theology

Article by   October 2005

Books about Augustine and his theology seem to multiply without end, and the first task of anyone writing about him must be to define why a new work is required. Mark Ellingsen rises to this challenge, explaining that his main motive is to demonstrate to what extent the different traditions which make up modern Christianity are dependent on (or at least related to) themes present in Augustine's works. In particular, he wants to show that polemicists of later times usually quoted him correctly on matters which were of special concern to them, though they may not have appreciated that Augustine's own perspectives were wider and more all-encompassing than theirs were. Dr Ellingsen's hope is that by appreciating this, modern ecumenists may be able to transcend the limitations of their own confessional commitments and embrace the wider picture, leading in due course to a reunion of Christendom.

Dr Ellingsen's agenda is clearly related to his academic post at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, where finding common ground would seem to be fundamental to the whole theological enterprise. He approaches Augustine determined to find what he is looking for, and we should not be surprised to discover that his results are largely positive. It is certainly true that the Augustinian corpus is vast, that Augustine was not a systematic theologian in the modern sense, and at that at different times he espoused views which can reasonably be interpreted as supportive of a wide range of modern doctrines. Even so, there are limits; for example, Augustine did not insist on believers' baptism (although he received it himself) and so cannot be said to embrace the practice of modern Baptist denominations or provide a means of integrating them into a wider Christian whole. Likewise, he was not enthusiastic about speaking in unknown tongues, nor did he have anything to say about purgatory (a place which was not invented until several centuries later). On Mariology he was ambiguous, largely because of the way in which he equated sexual desire with sin. To his mind, Mary cannot have experienced any form of lust, since if she had, Jesus would not have bene conceived and born without sin. Apparently Augustine thought that Mary could have been a sinner, even if he was not comfortable with the notion, so Dr Ellingsen concludes that we ought to leave the matter hanging - not a solution likely to commend itself to Roman Catholic theologians who are dogmatically committed to her immaculate conception.

It is as well to recognize the limitations of Dr Ellingsen's thesis at the beginning, because even if it is true that almost all modern theology derives something from his thought, it is also true that Augustine did not answer (or address) every question, and that a simple appeal to him will not resolve every theological difficulty. Dr Ellingsen is on strongest ground, and at his best, when dealing with the classical reformation questions of justification by grace versus salvation by works, and the thorny issues surrounding predestination. Here a good case can be made for saying that Protestants and Catholics have read Augustine in different ways, which they have then made mutually exclusive, and a return to Augustine's own writings may help us achieve a more even-handed (and open-minded) balance. Augustine did not attempt to systematize his thought in the way that sixteenth-century polemicists did; rather, he responded to different pastoral and theological needs in ways which tried to apply Christian teaching most effectively to them. Because of this, we sometimes find him stressing the sovereignty of grace and rejecting any notion that a believer can somehow contribute to his own salvation, because this was how he understood the teaching of Pelagius which he knew was wrong. At other times however, Augustine emphasized the need for Christians to practice 'good works' as an essential part of growing in the Christian life ('growing in grace'), so that it is possible to read him as saying that faith without works is dead. Dr Ellingsen is quite right to say that there is no conflict between these two positions; it all depends on the context and meaning attached to the words in question. Perhaps it is true that some Protestant polemicists have distorted Augustine's balance by overreacting against any suggestion of 'good works', but it is hard to believe that any responsible pastor would suggest that there is no point in trying to lead a Christian life!

The issue is whether our works can contribute in some way to our salvation. It would seem that Augustine would have come down on the Protestant side here, had anyone presented him with the question in that way. And that, of course, is the nub of the whole problem. Time and again, Dr Ellingsen touches on issues which simply did not arise in Augustine's day and therefore it is impossible to say for sure what he would have thought of them. For example, it is unclear how many sacraments he recognized as such, but as there was no developed sacramental theology which would give such a definition its meaning it is hard to see that it matters much one way or the other. Even the vexed question of baptismal regeneration is difficult to resolve on the basis of Augustine's statements alone. He clearly believed that baptism was efficacious and regarded all baptized persons as Christians, regardless of their age or the quality of their faith, but it is not clear whether (or how) this ties in with his doctrine of predestination. Presumably God has chosen his elect regardless of whether or not they are baptized, so that to say that all baptized people are necessarily elect would diminish the essence of the mystery. Where does that leave us?

The truth of the matter is that theology has moved on since Augustine's day and has found itself having to deal with questions which did not occur to him. It is often the case that theologians who lived and wrote before the outbreak of a particular dispute said things which a later age has found ambiguous, and which polemicists on both sides of the debate have been able to exploit. This was true, for example, of Erasmus, who lived long enough to see some of his ideas being taken up and exploited against the Roman Church in ways of which he ultimately disapproved. It is also true of Calvin, in that the disputants at the Synod of Dort all believed that they were his true followers, even if one side was able to make a more convincing case than the other. More recently, debates about such things as inerrancy or spiritual gifts have run into difficulties when the different antagonists have tried to defend their positions from church history by quoting writers who were thinking along quite different lines. As Dr Ellingsen points out, Augustine can be regarded as a Biblical fundamentalist in one sense, but no modern fundamentalist would follow him down the allegorical road which he was quite prepared to take when interpreting (for example) the creation narrative in Genesis. But who would classify him as a liberal?

Theologians today cannot go back and rewrite Christian history; we cannot simply pick up the works of a great genius of the past and expect to find that he has the answers to the problems which disturb us today. On the other hand, Dr Ellingsen is right to point out that traditional divisions may not be as fixed and inevitable as they appear, and that someday a synthesis of what to us are opposing views may be found. For example, most people in the sixteenth century believed that sin was transmitted through sexual intercourse, and so issues like the sinless conception of Mary became important theological questions. Today, virtually nobody holds such a view, and as a result, Catholic Mariology can perhaps be reworked, though there is little sign of this so far. Similarly, the doctrine of transubstantiation is now known to rest on an Aristotelian view of the universe which does not accord with scientific facts, and so that too can go back into the melting pot - or could, if Rome were not so wedded to its own infallibility. The snag, from Dr Ellingsen's point of view, is that although it may well be possible to achieve the kind of doctrinal consensus he is looking for, it is unlikely to be based on Augustine, since in most cases he held to philosophical and scientific views (sometimes, but not always, those of the medieval church) which have now been superseded. Occasionally, as Dr Ellingsen points out, Augustine's theology has been confirmed by modern scientific discoveries, which is all tot he good, but even so we must not lose sight of the fact that if this is the case, our acceptance of Augustine will be based on our commitment to the truth of modern scientific discovery, not the other way round. In other words, concordance with Augustine will be (happily) accidental, not fundamental to out perspective.

Dr Ellingsen's book attempts a great deal, and it is hardly surprising if it does not resolve most of the problems which it raises. At the same time, we must be grateful to him for having had the courage to raise them, and his book will provide an excellent discussion-starter in any theological forum. For this he is to be congratulated, and we can only hope that his book will be put to good use in that way. One caveat needs to be registered . Dr Ellingsen is fond of calling Augustine 'the African Father' and makes much of his continent of origin - far too much, as even he seems willing to concede in his introduction. Augustine was neither 'African' nor 'European' in the modern sense; he was late Roman, or 'Mediterranean' if you prefer. To suggest anything else only confuses matters and underlines the point that we cannot go back to the past and make it fit our own notions of what the people who lived then should have been like.

Mark Ellingsen - Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2005
Review by Gerald Bray


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