Who’s Afraid of Saint Augustine?

In the course of my examinations of the early Church Fathers, I can’t help but notice the controversy over one of the most influential Church thinkers. Then again, influence tends to get all the arrows of criticism directed at you. So perhaps it’s an underhanded compliment to Saint Augustine?

Still, it’s interesting to me to see the directions from which the criticism come. Some Orthodox Christians criticize Saint Augustine as a heretic, although others accept him as a Church Father but qualify that some of his ideas were problematic from an Orthodox point-of-view. Those who reject him paint him as solely western although his North African heritage and experiences make such a view overly simplistic. Saint Augustine has also been accused of being ignorant of Greek altogether. If you have happened to read his Confessions, it’s clear this is simply untrue. Saint Augustine preferred Latin to Greek. Perhaps he was simply only functional in Greek, but to claim he was completely ignorant is to be intellectually dishonest.

At the same time, some Orthodox thinkers have been completely willing to reexamine Saint Augustine. Georges Florovsky finds much to value in Saint Augustine’s discussion of the sacraments regarding heretical and schismatic groups:

Contemporary Orthodox theology must express and explain the traditional canonical practice of the Church in relation to heretics and schismatics on the basis of those general premises which have been established by Augustine.

(Here is the link to the article, it is quite a read but well worth it.)

At the same time that Saint Augustine is the target of mixed criticism from the Orthodox, he is also taking potshots from theologians who represent (in many ways) the opposite of Orthodoxy. That is, “progressive” theologians. To be honest, I’m not sure how to define the strain of thinking these theologians represent. At any rate, the theologian I have specifically in mind is one Matthew Fox.

Matthew Fox is a former Dominican priest who is now Anglican/Episcopalian. He has written a book titled Original Blessing as a direct challenge (or so he perceives) to Saint Augustine’s idea of original sin. The book really doesn’t lay off Saint Augustine at all. If one were to read Fox’s book and no other, one would understandably see in Saint Augustine a heresiarch. Matthew Fox certainly seems to lay all the sins of the West on Saint Augustine’s shoulders.

Regardless of some of the valid points Matthew Fox makes in Original Blessing, I can’t help but feel that he is being deeply unfair to Saint Augustine. Original Blessing oversimplifies Saint Augustine to being simply the chief advocator of original sin (or, perhaps to be more accurate, what Matthew Fox thinks Saint Augustine is saying about original sin.) Noticeably minimal or absent are references to the monumental works of Saint Augustine: Confessions and City of God. No, for Matthew Fox, Saint Augustine is so wrapped up in the idea of original sin that he mistranslates the Bible and chooses his theology over biblical truth. (Of course we’ll overlook the fact that Matthew Fox is following the exact same Protestant trajectory that wipes away 1.500 years of Church teaching and claims to get back to what the Bible really meant.) For Matthew Fox, Saint Augustine is a heretic. The original meaning of heretic is one who makes a choice. Saint Augustine apparently chooses his idea of original sin over what Matthew Fox thinks is correct Christian teaching.

Take a look at this list of Saint Augustine’s works. To corral Saint Augustine into one theological position and then to write an entire book as a direct refutation of that position comes closer to heresy than anything Saint Augustine might have done. After all, is not Matthew Fox choosing one part of a greater whole and emphasizing that one part to distort the whole?

I know there probably are some aspects of Saint Augustine’s thought that needed to be open to correction. For example, he believed that baptism should be at the end of one’s life to wash away as much sin as possible. But that is the brilliance of a 2.000 year Tradition. Over a lengthy time all things are sifted. The dross is burned off and the gold shines ever brighter. To reject the whole for the problems of a part is simply bad methodology. It shows we are stuck in a combative (and perhaps uncharitable) mindset of either/or.

Saint Augustine does not need to be tossed out of the canon of Church teachings for his flaws. Nor is he alone in being sifted by the teachings of the Church. For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas criticized the works and positions of Saint Anselm. The Catholic Church is arguably more Thomist than Anselmian. Yet both thinkers are considered “Doctors of the Church.” I think Saint Augustine would even want and expect his ideas to be refined by orthodox teachings. He certainly showed an openness to correction throughout his entire life.

So I ask without fear: Saint Augustine, pray for us.

~ by crossingthebosporus on July 10, 2012.

9 Responses to “Who’s Afraid of Saint Augustine?”

  1. Good points – and well made. Given the vastness of his corpus of work, it is presumptuous to think any of us can pigeon-hole him. What I have noticed is that those Orthodox who have it in for Augustine appear not to have read most of his works. As some one who has only managed the Confessions, City of God and On the Trinity, I’m one to talk 🙂

    • I think in that post I made about the myth of schism the Orthodox writer said that it would be great if Orthodox theologians actually read Augustine and Aquinas. So I would venture to guess that he’s noting a general trend among Orthodox.

      I really must give City of God another try. Perhaps I had a poor translation.

      • C of G is hard work, and I had help! I think though that it is a general trend – the Orthodox on the whole don’t read him, which makes it easy to misrepresent what he says.

  2. Would you guys (blog author and JessicaHof) both be willing to e-mail me at haasjoel[at]gmail[dot]com ?

    I e-mailed a friend of mine your question regarding who speaks for the Orthodox, (with special reference to reunion with the ‘Oriental Orthodox’) and I wouldn’t mind sharing his answer with you.

    • Is it possible to make it a google doc or something so that I could link to it for everyone who may be following this discussion? I think this might be a great way for us to also continue with open discussion on the issue since I know there are a couple others who are following the conversation.

  3. haha, wow.

    Make that haasjoel[at]yahoo[dot]ca

  4. I have posted the aforementioned comments, with a follow-up exchange between us, here:


  5. If you read French, you might want to look for the following book on St. Augustine’s relationship with the Greek fathers: Irénée Chevalier, Saint Augustin et la Pensée Grecque: les relations trinitaires (Fribourg-en-Suisse 1940). Also, it is worth remembering that letters by St. Augustine were discovered during the past century which showed that he had corresponded with St. Cyril of Alexandria.

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