Was Augustine Really the Worst for Christian Theology?

One of the real shockers of recent American Christianity was the conversion of Hank Hannegraff, the “Bible Answer Man,” to Greek Orthodoxy.  That was upsetting to many who had followed his Bible answers for many years, but it was especially upsetting to the Reformed types, who basically acted like he had left Christianity.  (That sounds like what Sunni Muslims sound like when describing Shi’a Islam, but I digress…)  I thought that violent of a reaction strange.  Didn’t the Greeks work out the divinity of Christ against the Arians while the West basically watched?  Didn’t they define the two natures of Christ at Chalcedon?  Aren’t the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds of Eastern origin?

Some light on that kind of panic comes from Alexander Viet Griswold Allen’s book The Continuity of Christian Thought: A Study of Modern Theology in Light of its History.  (I’ll bet that Frank Griswold, Sufi Rumi’s disciple and former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, is a relative, but I haven’t checked it out.)  Allen is today mostly forgotten, but the Anglican world would do well to remember him, both for his good points and his bad ones.

Allen’s basic premise is that Augustine and his theology, with is focus on original sin and depravity, predestination, the eternal state of the blessed and damned, and the role the church in all of this was the finishing touch in making Latin Christianity what it was, which was much different from Greek Christianity.  Today, of course, Reformed types back pedal Augustine’s role in the formation of their idea. But such is somewhere between ignorant and duplicitous, and most of then know it: as this blog points out:

I actually believe that the contrary is true; what Augustine actually taught is being ignored and with the resurgence of Calvinism (an offshoot of Augustinianism) needs to be studied carefully. If you don’t think that’s true I invite you to look for books critical of Augustine. The only ones I have found were originally published no later than 1914.

Allen himself outlines the difference between Greek and Latin Christianity as follows:

The Greek theology was based upon that tradition or interpretation of the life and teaching of Christ which at a very early date had found its highest expression in the Fourth Gospel; while the Latin theology followed another tradition preserved by what are called the synoptical writers in the first three gospels.  The fundamental principle in Greek theology, underlying every position which it assumed, was the doctrine of the divine immanence–the presence of God in nature, in humanity, in the process of human history; in Latin thought may be everywhere discerned the working of another principle, sometimes known as Deism, according to which God is conceived as apart from the world, localized at a vast distance in the infinitude of space.  By Greek thinkers the incarnation was regarded as the completion and the crown of a spiritual process in the history of man, dating from the creation; and by Latin writers as the remedy for a catastrophe, by which humanity had been severed from its affiliation with God.

The last point is crucial, because in converting to Orthodoxy Hannegraff had (whether he realised it or not) inverted his whole idea of man’s relationship with God from the Augustinian/Reformed concept.  Little wonder the latter thought he had left the faith.

Allen’s solution to this problem was to shift back to a more Greek (sometimes called Athanasian) idea, and the road he chose was through Schliermacher.  Unfortunately for Allen and those who thought like him, this sunny concept of life and Christianity received a cruel blow in the trenches of World War I.  Also, its open endedness is a setup for passing outside of Christianity of any kind, something that liberal Episcopalians were blind to and which facilitated another catastrophe, namely the crisis of the 1960’s and beyond and the exodus from the church that followed.

Allen himself admits that Augustinian/Reformed types put a lot of starch in their shirts:

Once more in the history of Christianity, in our own age, an ecclesiastical reaction has been and still is in progress, which is based on the same principle that inspired Augustine and Loyola.  To the mind of a writer like De Maistre, seeking to impose again on the modern world the authority of an infallible pope as the highest expression of the will of God, the theology of Aquinas, even though illustrated with the brilliancy of Bossuet’s genius, seemed like shuffling, vacillating weakness.  Carlyle, who at heart remained as he had been born, a sturdy Calvinist, presents in literature the spectacle of one who finds no institution that responds to his ideal: everywhere appears weakness, disorder and confusion, accompanied with shallow talk about liberty; he bewails the absence of the “strong man” upon whose portrait in history he gazed with fascinated vision, whose coming he invoked as the one crying need of the time.

We see such attitudes coming back into fashion in #straightouttairondale Catholicism and the resurgence of the Reformed types.  But is this dichotomy which Allen describes all we have to choose from?  The answer is no.

Allen suggests an old antithesis, namely that God is either imminent or transcendent.  That was put in front of me growing up Episcopalian.  But it’s a false dichotomy, especially for someone who was converted in this way.  The simple truth–one I discovered in Aquinas–is that the omnipresent God is not created and we are.  That, in turn set up the compelling reason that God himself should enter his creation as a man and win our salvation, because his uncreated goodness is enough and our created goodness isn’t.  We don’t need total depravity for us to need God, we just need to lack the resources to get to God, which we do.

Allen rightly observes that, with the Augustinian/Reformed idea of absolute predestination, Jesus Christ is in many ways unnecessary, as long as God wills it.  (If that sounds Islāmic, it should.)  Some people who inherited the separation of the Reformation have tried to fix that problem, most prominently John Wesley, starting as he did with Anglicanism’s loophole, to say nothing of this.

To answer the original question, “Was Augustine the worst for Christian theology,” the answer is no.  He has his faults but he has his strong points as well.  In the same vein, as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses on the door, we need to recognise that the Reformation is in itself not a completed work.  It was not the end of making the Church right but only the beginning.

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