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Chasing after the Wind

[This is a guest post by Michael Fletcher. Michael is a Th.M.  student at Western Seminary  and is participating in this semester’s seminar on Augustine. He also blogs at the3inone.]

While reading Augustine’s work Of True Religion, I was reminded once again of how vain I can be at times and how my vanity dulls my vision of true beauty. “If you take away vain persons who pursue that which is last as if it were first, matter will not be vanity but will show its own beauty in its own way, a low type of beauty, of course, but not deceptive.”

So often I pursue that which is last as if it were first. How many times have I decided to go mountain biking or grab a coffee or watch a manly movie without first considering God and asking him what his will is? These things are so trivial, yet I pursue the like with such fervor. “It is very easy to execrate the flesh, but very difficult not to be carnally minded.” Or as St. Paul says, “I don’t do that which I want to do, but I do the very thing which I hate.” It is such a difficult thing living as a Christian in the world. There are so many temptations, Lord I pray that you delivery me from these and every other unseemly thing.

“Life which delights in material joys and neglects God tends to nothingness…” Do I really believe this? Of course I do! The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed system order always leads to disorder unless energy is added. When I pursue material joys I am not allowing the energy of the Spirit to enter my life, and when no energy is added, I tend toward disorder and ultimately nothingness. (Yes, I just used physics to defend a theological position…I am a geek.)

Back to the original quote, Augustine was also hinting at something else: beauty. He was saying that created matter is beautiful. He is continually urging us to understand that creation is not evil in and of itself. By our idolatry we create a dualistic belief. We call matter evil, even if not blatantly. We say don’t eat this, don’t drink that, don’t have sex, et al. These things are not bad or evil, if we pursue them as though they are first it has disrupted the beauty and goodness but only because of our vanity. Why do we chase after the wind? We have promoted an idea that the material world is evil and this has caused us to not recognize the beautiful. The beautiful is all around us and all beauty points towards the ultimate beauty, the One Beauty, the 3 in One – glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Now comes the question of True Religion: how do we recognize and enjoy the beauty yet not chase after the wind in vain?

The best Augustine websites

We’re still celebrating Augustine week around here, so here are some links to the best Augustine websites around the internet. These should be your starting point if you’re looking for Augustine’s works online, lists of good books and articles about Augustine, or links to other resources. I couldn’t find any good lists of  lectures, which is why I compiled my own list of free audio resources yesterday.

Here are what I have found to be the best and most helpful Augustine websites on the internet (ranked by how useful they’ve been for me):

1. Augnet: an excellent resource that should be your starting point; particularly good for its biographical information on Augustine and introductions/summaries of many of his works.

2. Patristics Bibliobraphy #7: your one stop shopping center for bibliographic information on works about Augustine in 15 categories.

3. James O’Donnel: one of the best resources out there, but make sure you use this link since many of the others on the web point to an older (and unused) website.

4. Sant’ Agostino: the “works” link on this site offers a great list of works available online in English.

5. Ad Limina Apostolorum: a great (and easy to use) list of Augustine resources, though many of the links are dated.

6. Dave Armstrong: this link will take you to an archived version of the website (all I could find) with a nice list of online articles.

And, of course, you can’t neglect other websites devoted to patristics or church history in general. The following are among the better of those:

If you know of a really good website devoted to Augustine that you think is at least as good as the six I listed above, please let me know so I can check it out.

A prayer for Sunday (Augustine)

[Augustine of Hippo died on this date in A.D. 430 as the Vandals were just about to sack his hometown. Augustine was one of the most influential theological voices of his day, and, through his amazingly large number of books, sermons, and letters, he has continued to influence every branch of the Christian church since. Today’s prayer comes from him.]

Great are You, O God, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and Your wisdom infinite. We who are but a particle of Your creation, praise You. You awaken us to delight in Your praise; for You made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.

What are You then, my God? Most high, most good, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong; stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; ever old, ever new; supporting, filling, and overspread ing; creating, flourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things.

You, O God, are my life, my joy, my health.

[By the way, I haven’t been able to locate the original reference for this prayer, though I’ve seen it attributed to Augustine in a number of place. If anyone knows where this is from, please let me know.]

Augustine and the Problem of Free Will

Picture in your mind something that you think is a really bad idea. (I’m picturing a cat.) Now imagine someone using something that you wrote many years ago to defend this heinously awful idea. How would you feel?

That’s exactly what happened to Augustine. By the latter part of his life, Augustine had developed a clear reputation for defending divine sovereignty, predestination, original sin, and the “bondage” of the will. But when he was younger, Augustine had written some things, particularly in De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will), that sounded to many like he used to believe something very different. Indeed, some of statements sound very libertarian. And, much to Augustine’s chagrin, his critics used these earlier works against him, contending that they were just saying what himself he used to teach.

That had to have been annoying.

And, it raises a key question: Did Augustine have a consistent position on free will throughout his life, or were his opponents correct that his later position was a dramatic departure from what he wrote in his earlier works?

Those are the issues that Billy Cash dealt with in the paper that he presented to the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society last month, “Augustine and the Consistent Trajectory of Compatibilism“. (Billy is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary and a regular contributor to this blog.) And in the paper, Billy contends that Augustine’s early writings are consistent with his later writings, and that we should understand Augustine to be a consistent compatibilist throughout his life.

Billy starts things off by arguing that although Augustine does sound libertarian at times in De Libero Arbitrio, he is still operating from a largely compatibilist framework. Two arguments in particular ground this conclusion:

First, in book three of On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine asserts that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden consigned all men to a life of “ignorance and difficulty,” a life in which they would find themselves unable to choose the good….

Secondly, although the grace of God is not center-stage in this particular treatise, it is not absent.  In his Retractions, Augustine reminds his readers that he does in fact claim in On the Free Choice of the Will, “that anything good in a human person, including any goodness in the will, is a gift of God.”

So, although there are some differences between Augustine’s early and mature writings – differences that can be partially accounted for by the Manichean controversy that Augustine was addressing in his earlier writings – there is enough continuity to conclude that there is a clear and consistent “trajectory” leading from the one to the other, rather than a marked “departure” in the later writings.

In the last part of the paper, Billy turns his attention to an interesting argument presented by Eleonore Stump, which she calls “modified libertarianism.” I won’t go into the details of the argument here, but the essence is that Stump is looking for a way to understand even the later Augustine within the broader framework of a libertarian view of free will. And, although she presents a creative argument, Billy contends that her position is ultimately incoherent (or at least inconsistent).

So, at the end of the day, Billy concludes:

Development in theology does not necessarily imply change, as seen in the early church’s development of doctrines concerning the divinity of Christ.  That Jesus was the divine Son of God was never denied by the Orthodox Church.  There was development, however, in how that divinity was to be understood, and this development led to a distinction between what was to be considered true or heretical.  Likewise, in Augustine’s mature theology he believed that the will of man was free to choose what it desired, but the desire of will to choose the good was enabled by the grace of God, prior to any choice or merit found within the individual.  Although his early theology was not as developed and Augustine did not give grace as prominent a position in influencing the will in On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine himself says that the grace of God was not absent, just not the focal point of his argument.  In light of the affirmations of the will found in his early writing, On Free Choice of the Will, it may be stated with surety that the trajectory of his argument was compatibilist in nature, and was not altered from early to later works, just more thoroughly developed.  Since this is the case, any attempt at construing a libertarian view of the will in Augustine is misleading.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

A prayer for Christmas – Augustine of Hippo

Let the just rejoice,
for their justifier is born.
Let the sick and infirm rejoice,
For their saviour is born.
Let the captives rejoice,
For their Redeemer is born.
Let slaves rejoice,
for their Master is born.
Let free men rejoice,
For their Liberator is born.
Let All Christians rejoice,
For Jesus Christ is born.

~Augustine of Hippo (354-440)