Thursday, August 28, 2008

Augustine's Handbook

“. . . the ideas of [Augustine] furnished the themes for the piety and theology of more than a thousand years. No one possessed the ‘whole’ Augustine, but all lived upon the fragments of his spirit . . .” Reinhold Seeberg
Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo from 396 to 430 AD, towers above his predecessors, contemporaries, and pupils. Few match his keen spiritual insight; few achieve his profound self-understanding; few approach the breadth of his theological vision. Phillip Schaff, the great 19th century church historian, remarked that Augustine “is a philosophical and theological genius of the first order, towering like a pyramid above his age, and looking down commandingly upon succeeding centuries. He had a mind uncommonly fertile and deep, bold and soaring; and with it, what is better, a heart full of Christian love and humility.”

A man of such merit deserves to be well known, and his writings to be well studied, within the Christian community. Unfortunatly, few have cracked any of his numerous works; and, worse still, some of those who have attempted to explore his writings have chosen the wrong place to begin. I remember as an undergraduate picking up a copy of Augustine’s On the Trinity, one of his most difficult treatises, and feeling at once confused, overwhelmed, and ignorant. I didn’t get far and gave up reading Augustine for several years--convinced that he was too abstruse and complex for my simple mind to comprehend. It is to encourage others to avoid such a mistake, and to prod others even to try to make such mistakes, that we have reviewed Augustine’s Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love.

Enchiridion is a Greek word meaning “handbook.” Augustine’s Enchiridion, then, is somewhat of an ancient Mere Christianity, an exposition of that which Augustine deemed most essential in the Christian faith. He himself claims that the book is neither so burdensome so as to load down one’s shelves nor so brief as to leave important questions unanswered. It is a tribute to Augustine’s genius that in the relatively short compass of 140 pages he is able to express his most mature theological convictions.

The immediate purpose for which Augustine wrote was the instruction of an educated Roman layman named Laurentius. Laurentius posed a number of questions to Augustine, desiring that Augustine might compose a short handbook for future reference. To make the book readily accessible, Augustine organized it around the three virtues of faith, hope, and love. Augustine reasoned that since these three virtues constitute the essence of the fear of the Lord, or true worship, one can discover the essence of the Christian faith by discussing each in turn. What are we to believe? What are we to hope for? What are we to love? These are the three questions Augustine sets out to answer.

The lion’s share of the Enchiridion, 105 of its 122 chapters, is devoted to the question, “What are we to believe?” To answer, Augustine works his way through the Apostle’s Creed beginning with our knowledge of God the Creator and ending with the nature of heaven and hell. Clearly and affirmatively, yet without mentioning any of them by name, Augustine refutes the heresies of Arianism, Apollonarianism, Manichaeism, and Pelagianism by demonstrating the necessity of the Trinity, the goodness of the creation, the sinfulness of humanity, and the priority of divine grace in redemption.

Augustine repeatedly urges the necessity of the Trinity upon his readers. “It is enough,” Augustine says when explaining the opening confession of the Apostle’s Creed, “for the Christian to believe that the only cause of all created things, whether heavenly or earthly, whether visible or invisible, is the goodness of the Creator, the one true God; and that nothing exists but Himself that does not derive its existence from Him; and that He is the Trinity--to wit, the Father, and the Son begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the same Father, but one and the same Spirit of Father and Son.”

In addition to defending the Trinity, Augustine safeguards his readers from a distorted view of the created world. Because God is the Creator, the created world is in itself good. Evil, for Augustine, has no separate being but, like a parasite, is dependent upon goodness for its existence. Augustine explains:

“Accordingly, there is nothing of what we call evil, if there be nothing good. But a good which is wholly without evil is a perfect good. A good, on the other hand, which contains evil is a faulty or imperfect good; and there can be no evil where there is no good. . . . Therefore every being, even if it be a defective one, in so far as it is a being is good, and in so far as it is defective is evil.”
While Augustine’s defenses of the Trinity and the goodness of creation are exhilarating, nothing equals his vigorous attack upon the notion of free will and his robust vindication of the priority of divine grace in redemption. Augustine demonstrates that while Adam possessed free-will when first created, he lost it for himself and all his descendants by rebelling against God. “For,” he explains, “ it was by the evil use of his free-will that man destroyed both it and himself. For, as a man who kills himself must, of course, be alive when he kills himself, but after he has killed himself ceases to live, and cannot restore himself to life; so, when man by his own free-will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost.”

Because of this bondage, Augustine argues that we are unable to rescue ourselves from our fate of death and damnation. And it is this dismal picture which highlights, both in Scripture and in Augustine’s theology, the wonder of divine grace. Our entire salvation, he maintains, is an outgrowth of God’s mercy. God chooses us, gives us life, enables our wills, prompts us to holiness. Augustine’s summary is well worth quoting:

“After the fall a more abundant exercise of God’s mercy was required, because the will itself had to be freed from the bondage in which it was held by sin and death. And the will owes its freedom in no degree to itself, but solely to the grace of God which comes by faith in Jesus Christ; so that the very will, through which we accept all the other gifts of God which lead us on to His eternal gift, is itself prepared of the Lord, as the Scripture says.”
Expanding on the same theme later, Augustine demonstrates the way in which this renewal of will inevitably leads to a godly life.

“This is our first alms,” he declares, “which we give to ourselves when, through the mercy of a pitying God, we find that we are ourselves wretched, and confess the justice of His judgment by which we are made wretched, . . . and praise the greatness of His love, of which [Paul] says, ‘God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us:’ and thus, judging truly of our own misery, and loving God with the love which He has Himself bestowed, we lead a holy and virtuous life.”
The Trinity, the goodness of creation, the destructiveness of the Fall, and the beauty of divine grace are only a smattering of the topics Augustine addresses under the head, “What are we to believe?” In the remainder of the book, Augustine briefly addresses the two questions, “What are we to hope for?” and “What are we to love?” The answers? Hope in God not in man who is ever fickle and changeable. Love the Lord and love your neighbor as yourself, for this is the law and the prophets.

The Enchiridion, then, lives up to its name: it is truly a handbook of essential Christianity summarizing as it does the profoundly biblical theology of Augustine, that man who “furnished the themes for the piety and theology of more than a thousand years.” So curl up in your favorite chair, grab a glass of Chablis, crack The Enchiridion, and enter into one of the great classics of Christian literature.