Augustine: On Christian Doctrine

I went back to Augustine this week, starting with his shorter work, On Christian Doctrine (OCD), which is less than 150 pages, divided into four books. (The epic 1000-page City of God will be the next and last Augustine work we will cover in the GBWW, maybe after this one, or after finishing through Aristophanes or Euripedes.) OCD is a pretty light work, covering a range of topics from basic Christian theology (book I), general guidelines on interpreting Scripture or hermeneutics (books II, III – Augustine terms this the interpretation of “signs”), and rhetorical guides for preaching and teaching (book IV). As one can see, these are all united under the common theme of the importance and method of interpreting Scripture and disseminating that interpretation. As stated by the opening of Book I:

There are two things on which all interpretation of Scripture depends: the mode of ascertaining the proper meaning, and the mode of making known the meaning when it is ascertained.

The theological passages of OCD are simple, probably intended for a general lay audience rather than scholars. There is very limited complex philosophical discussion on issues like original sin, atonement, transubstantiation or other thorny topics. Many of the things Augustine discusses seem obvious and common sense for modern serious Christians, but it is important to remember that this work was probably partially responsible for that very fact: Augustine’s thought has been deeply influential in Christian intellectual history that subsequent generations taught his conclusions as fact and common sense. That’s maybe something we can reexamine in some cases.

I will now comment on several points of argument that stood out to me while reading. I think the most of these occur in book I. Books II-III have pretty good points about what to do when encountering difficulties in interpreting Scripture, but they aren’t philosophically very interesting. Book IV is a rather clunky treatise on different modes of rhetoric, rather dated for today (he talks about three different styles of speech and how to use them).

Signs and Things

Throughout the book, much of the discussion around interpretive principles uses the term of “signs”. The definition of this word is directly addressed at the beginning of book I and also book II: a “sign” is a means to communicate a proposition or concept other than its explicit meaning. It is a thing that “causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself.” Arbitrary instances of general categories such as wood or stone or earth do not qualify as signs. These are just “things.” But a specific instance of a thing can function as a sign, such as the wood cast by Moses into the water at Mara to make it sweet. All signs are things, but not all things are signs.

Furthermore, signs are divided into “natural” and “conventional”. Natural signs are present in nature and communicate truths about nature, such as smoke indicating there is a fire. In contrast, conventional signs are exchanged between people to communicate their thoughts and feelings. These are the signs Augustine is concerned about: words.

Books II-IV concern mostly about the discussion of these words. But in book I he engages in a bit of philosophizing about “things,” particularly the proper relation we should have towards them. This will be the main focus of this post.

Enjoyment and Use

Augustine outlines a basic difference between using and enjoying a thing.

For to enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake. To use, on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one’s disposal to obtain what one desires…

From here he drives straight to the (perhaps predictable) conclusion that the world is only to be used – the true object of enjoyment should be God.

We have wandered far from God; and if we wish to return to our Father’s home, this world must be used, not enjoyed, that so the
invisible things of God may be clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, that is, that by means of what is material and temporary we may lay hold upon that which is spiritual and eternal.

Digression: God as the Ultimate Divider

Notice that there is no real argument as to why God is the ultimate enjoyment (could there be?), for OCD is at its core a book by and for believers. God is such a monumental entity: if you believe in His existence, then there is no further question about the consequences: only God is worthy of our time, efforts, and enjoyment. If not, then the whole discussion is irrelevant.

This is the basic tension at the heart of theology and philosophy of religion. As a result, there is a serious division: There are numerous theologians in Christian (and Muslim and Jewish) seminaries who write very complex and sophisticated treatises about God’s nature, actions, plans, and commands, but there are also a substantial number of people who conduct their lives as if the Christian God does not exist, and to whom theological discussion is literally meaningless. Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists made this point almost 10 years ago after the publication of The God Delusion, which was widely criticized for not making an effort to understand sophisticated theology: if all arguments for the existence of God can be defeated, then what use is knowing theology? It would be like “knowing” how many angels can dance on a pinhead.

The abbreviated answer to the above objection is: to properly refute arguments for the existence of God, it is essential to obtain a sophisticated understanding of the nature of the God being proposed. Especially if one is not simply refuting the existence of God, but also criticizing the morals of the actions of God as written in the Old Testament. That The God Delusion, God is Not Great, The End of Faith, and countless other New Atheist books have been criticized for their crude understanding of Christianity and theology vindicates this truth.

Christian Theology from the Ground Up

In the next parts of book I, Augustine develops Christian theology starting from the very basics: who is God? (The answer given is a succinct statement of classical theism: that which nothing more excellent or more exalted exists.) Then he talks about the unchangeable wisdom of God and God’s plan for human redemption, as expressed in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

All of this brings us back to the matter of enjoyment and use of things. Augustine reiterates the necessity of enjoying God, and God only, quoting Matthew 22:37: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The point here is all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. There is to be no part of our being unoccupied with the effort to enjoy the eternal and unchangeable, which are the only things worth enjoying. God is the only thing that fulfills those criteria.

But even if it is obviously worth it to enjoy God, is it not worth it to enjoy other things as well, which are not unchangeable or eternal? Augustine addresses this issue at length. He establishes why the unchangeable is superior to the changeable: the answer is that it’s obvious. Even for those who may not find it obvious, he argues that that is simply the result of their own foolishness. If they submit to the unchangeable wisdom of enjoying the unchangeable (God), only then will they be able to properly “see” God’s greatness and then realize that only God is worth enjoying. Augustine admits that it is entirely possible, in fact common, to enjoy worldly things, for example the love of other human beings (instead of God). But “a curse is pronounced on him who places his hope in man.” Loving something else other than God for enjoyment (i.e., for its own sake) will inevitably interfere with the proper enjoyment of God:

If, however, he loves himself for his own sake, he does not look at himself in relation to God, but turns his mind in upon him self, and so is not occupied with anything that is unchangeable. And thus he does not enjoy himself at his best, because he is better when his mind is fully fixed upon, and his affections wrapped up in, the unchangeable good, than when he turns from that to enjoy even himself.

So enjoying yourself is self-defeating, because you can’t optimally enjoy something which is limited and transient like your own body. On the other hand, if you enjoy God, who is unchangeable and eternal, then true enjoyment will occur. Thus the argument assumes that the concepts of enjoyment and immutability (unchangeability) are intricately linked: enjoyment is unsustainable if it is directed towards a mutable, transient object.

There doesn’t seem to be an explicit reason as to why, but one is easily reminded of the opening of his Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The human body and soul has been built by God for such a mode of enjoyment. You can guess that maybe this came from Augustine’s own background: he tasted various worldly pleasures but was not fully satisfied until his conversion.

This discussion of enjoyment versus use doesn’t entail that the latter is something to be avoided. In fact it doesn’t even to be implied that using is inferior to enjoying; the two are complementary. Augustine goes at length to emphasize that loving God doesn’t mean one can’t love anything else. It is important to love one’s own body – in fact, this is something that everybody does anyway; even ascetics don’t really hate their bodies; they only hate its limitations and corruptions. Moreover, God commands this as well: shortly after the command in Matthew 22:37, it is said in verse 39: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We are thus to love God, our fellow man, and ourselves, leading to an “order of loves”:

No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself. Likewise we ought to love another man better than our own body, because all things are to be loved in reference to God, and another man can have fellowship with us in the enjoyment of God, whereas our body cannot; for the body only lives through the soul, and it is by the soul that we enjoy God.

This understanding of using and enjoying leads to the maybe more awkward conclusion that while God loves us, He cannot enjoy us, because we are not eternal and unchangeable. So He loves us by using us. That being said, Augustine argues that God’s mode of using is different than that of humans. Due to God’s fundamentally perfect nature, His use of us is ultimately for our own benefit:

God, however, in His use of us, has reference to His own goodness. For it is because He is good we exist; and so far as we truly exist we are good…That use, then, which God is said to make of us has no reference to His own advantage, but to ours only; and, so far as He is concerned, has reference only to His goodness.

Afterthoughts

As I’ve alluded to earlier, the rest of OCD is good, but rather perfunctory. You can summarize the advice as follows: “Be careful. Don’t rush to wrong conclusions. Study the Bible in its original language if needed. Don’t take the literal to be figurative, and vice versa. Multiple interpretations are sometimes possible. Once the interpretation is settled on, its dissemination should be supported by good rhetoric, which should aim to be clear, beautiful, yet persuasive.” These are principles which we all strive for; unfortunately, this doesn’t do much to decrease the amount of sharp, sometimes biting disagreements that occur often between Christians.

Some other points which stood out to me:

  • Rhetoric can be used for evil, but that doesn’t mean it should be entirely avoided. Instead, the responsibility becomes even greater that people who possess the truth should have rhetoric at least as good as those who deceive others through falsehood.
  • Pray before preaching. I’m struck by how similar some of these points are to modern Christian spiritual literature.
  • If a difficult passage is encountered, it is better to try to make out its meaning by using other parts of Scripture, not just purely using reason, because that would be dangerous. This is basically sola scriptura, right there over a millennium before the Reformation. I’m reminded of the difficulties that are often encountered when interpreting Genesis, or making sense of the predestination debate. This exhortation implies that in the former case, we must be careful not to insist on a different interpretation even if the scientific evidence seems to say so. This is why John Walton’s interpretation of Genesis is compelling: while it doesn’t conflict with modern science, it reaches its conclusions without using any of it; instead, it relies on purely textual arguments within the Bible itself.

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