Month: March 2017

An Augustinian Introduction

 

This post is a follow-up to some comments I made last week regarding the usage of Augustine in some sermons I recently sat under. Last week, I wrote this here:

“But, during a few talks, I fear there were some historical issues that were glossed over, conflated, and eventually, misapplied. The most significant of which was Augustine’s involvement in the Donatist controversy, his subsequent effect on the development of early medieval Catholicism, and ultimately him being blamed for the horrors of 15th-century Roman Catholicism.”

And, concluding that post, I wrote this:

“As a result, I fear many people sitting under those talks may now have a skewed understanding and view of Augustine. In the next few weeks, I plan to write on why everyone ought to read Augustine, and especially his Confessions. That way, at the very least, you can hear a positive account of Augustine’s influence, and be encouraged to read possibly the most important treatise in Christian history.”

If you already appreciate Augustine, feel free to close this tab and be on your merry way perusing cat videos and memes on Facebook, though I’d like you to stick around. If you vehemently dislike Augustine, still give it a read. We can always learn something new. And, if you have not had much contact with Augustine, let me give you an introduction.

Augustine’s Confessions is one of the most significant theological works in Christian history. It is written, structurally, as an autobiography, and in form, as a prayer to God of confession and closure. Some have argued that it is documenting his own personal story of salvation for his Christian mother, Monica, whom he was very fond of and, unlike his father, played a substantial role in his life. Moreover, Confessions is a delightful literary work as well. It is widely read and even published in the Penguin Classics series. Not only does it have incredible theological appeal, as we will see later in this essay, but it is able to fan the imaginations of those who disagree with him as they are drawn into his story and can sympathize with his quest for truth, love, satisfaction, beauty, and ultimately, rest.

Firstly, we will consider Confessions as a theological work, and zero in on its impact on virtually all of Western religion. Augustine was an extremely learned, brilliant orator, philosopher, and theologian. He won many prizes in oratory, and taught it at prominent places of education at the time. Moreover, Augustine was able to understand Aristotle’s 10 categories of substance at a very young age, with no help! He further comments that this was not the case for most of his contemporaries. Augustine recognized his incredible giftedness, and later, recognized that there was no good in them because those gifts were not offered to God. Cicero’s Hortensius was a pivotal read in Augustine’s life and while reading it, his “heart began to throb with the bewildering passion of eternal truth” (Book III).

He was a man of his times, born in AD 354, died in AD 430, and often in the middle of theological controversies (come now, which ancient writer was not?). The two main controversies were the Donatist controversy, and the Pelagian controversy. Without going into much detail of what both were about, it is safe to say that Augustine’s understanding of both controversies was at the forefront of the Reformation nearly 1200 years later. B.B. Warfield would later comment that the Reformation was a glorious victory of Augustine’s theology of grace over his theology of the church. Indeed, being pulled into the various controversies did cause him to be a bit imbalanced on some doctrines, but we ought not look back at Augustine with contempt, but rather, that he was a fallible human in search of properly articulating God’s truth.

As a result, Augustine wrote on nearly everything pertaining to the Christian faith, and the sheer volume of his works is vast. He is considered to be the greatest theologian, and because he wrote on nearly everything, every theologian writing after him has to grapple with his understandings to some extent. Much of his theology of the church laid the groundwork of appropriations found in medieval Catholicism. The Reformers pointed back to Augustine positively, with Calvin remarking something along the lines of “Augustine is wholly ours.” Karl Barth would come along and have to wrestle with Augustine regarding his doctrine of election. Barth eventually parted ways with Augustine, and would come to understand election in a novel way. These are but a few examples, but they are sufficient to show the impact he has had, and that whichever philosophical or doctrinally Christian topic is discussed, Augustine surely has something substantial to add.

What is perhaps most important about Confessions is Augustine’s development of a Christian anthropology with regards to sin and its psychological effects. For Augustine, man is entirely restless in his pursuit of love and rest and meaning—until he finds it in God. Augustine was “in love with love”, as it were, and saw love as the ultimate fulfillment. While man is seeking that fulfillment elsewhere, much like Augustine himself did (in philosophy, sex, theft, etc.), he will never find it—since it can only be found in God. He has a radical view of the sinfulness of man, and it is particularly developed in the internal struggle that every Christian faces.

It is at this point where he distances himself from the ascetic, Antony, whom he was reading during the time of his conversion and who had a tremendous impact on him. Antony’s spiritual struggles were external bouts with demons. He would come back from those wrestling matches beaten, bruised, and bloodied. But for Augustine, the enemy and demons were internal, and one had to fight against them not physically, but spiritually. One had to love God, and have that love shape his hatred for sin—only then could they have any victory over it.

Augustine’s anthropology is important and has far-reaching implications and influence. John Owen and Blaise Pascal would latch onto this understanding of the psychology of sin and develop it further. Both Owen and Pascal are remarkable reads regarding the nature of indwelling sin, the desire for entertainment as a distraction from our realities, and the deceitful nature of the human heart. Reading any of the 3, one leaves better in tune with the workings of his own mind, will, and affections.

Moreover, after reading Augustine’s Confessions, one cannot help but be in better tune with his own place in the world, his standing before God (regardless of whether the reader agrees with him), and a better understanding of himself. Augustine is a master storyteller and writer. As one reads the Confessions, it is remarkable how many literary devices he uses to make his point. His use of imagery with the tree and the garden in his supposed “fall” and later conversion, is used to bring the reader in tune with the Biblical categories of creation, fall, and redemption. It is in the garden where Adam fell, and it was by taking the fruit from the pear tree where Augustine sees his most vile act of sin—the desire to be like God himself. Augustine allows the reader inside his mind, and lets him see the psychology of the sinful acts he commits—thereby allowing the reader to sympathize, relate, and finally, be convinced of the truth.

In conclusion, Augustine is an immense theologian, with a towering intellect that casts a long shadow over the Western church. Upon reading of the Confessions, the reader cannot help but be moved and influenced by Augustine’s storytelling and analysis of his own self. He calls us to consider the transcendence of God with his understanding of the Trinity; he calls us to consider our nature with his understanding of the psychology of sin; he calls us to reconsider our place in the world with his understanding of predestination, and finally, he calls to consider God as the ultimate being in the universe, and the only resting place our desperate hearts can find.

Rounding Out the Last Month

Introduction:

This was originally one long post (1700 words) designed to summarize interesting events over the last few months, and setting things in motion for the next few. I decided to split it up into 2. Some of it is updates for those that I don’t get to see or talk to much. Some of it is commentary on pop culture.

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He might be missing one…

And, some of it is raw reflection on life in the belly of the beast (this section will be in another post titled “Disillusionment Lane”).

As always, feel free to drop a note and get in touch whichever way you please. Feel free to tell me where you think I’m wrong, where you agree, where you think I’m clueless, or better yet–which bike you’re buying for the beautiful weather ahead of us! If you need help or encouragement in the matter, to quote Leonard Cohen, “I’m your man.”

Let’s get rolling, and go Pats!

 

Logan

Last weekend, I went to see Logan with a few friends from church. The reviews were amazing, but those of you who know me at any length know what I think of Rotten Tomatoes. Either way, Wolverine losing his healing powers, disillusioned with the world, and undergoing an identity crisis? Yes, please. My hopes were high. Too high, in fact. The movie delivers on the action, and maybe over-delivers. But, in letting the viewer inside the mind of Logan, in allowing him feel his pain, they botched it. There wasn’t enough time to sympathize, empathize, get angry, reflect–nothing. We were just treated to another head being chopped off. If that’s the effect the writers were going for, so be it, but it could have been better. Really, should have been better.

Take, for example, The Judge with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. That movie perfectly illustrated the lingering issues of a broken father-son relationship resurrected after a long absence. You felt as if you were the one arguing with your own parent, or, from the opposite perspective,  your own child. You cringed during their fights, and rejoiced in their reconciliation. You were rooting for the both of them. In Logan, however, you didn’t even have time to formulate what kind of ending you wanted. A movie without a telos is, well, just that.  Perhaps the most dramatic scene in the whole movie, X’s dream and the appearance of Logan’s younger clone, was just left by the wayside. A scene of that magnitude–and we’re left watching a brawl?

Instead of Logan’s reflection on life, the death of X, his purpose going forward, his crumbling identity–we get carnage. And then some more. What could have been powerful, moving, and meaningful was merely mediocre.

Before I begin ranting, let’s switch gears.

 

Pastor’s Conference in Washington

I attended a Russian Pastor’s conference in Washington at the end of February. It was celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and its effect on today’s spirituality. Much of it was very edifying, encouraging, educational, helpful, and convicting. The participants were kind, the attendees were gracious, the service of the volunteers was overwhelming, and the atmosphere—extremely pleasant. If you speak Russian, I would highly recommend you attend.

But, during a few talks, I fear there were some historical issues that were glossed over, conflated, and eventually, misapplied.  The most significant of which was Augustine’s involvement in the Donatist controversy, his subsequent effect on the development of early medieval Catholicism, and ultimately him being blamed for the horrors of 15th-century Roman Catholicism. All the while not mentioning actual medieval theologians, and better yet, not even mentioning Aquinas. It is simply bad historical theology to trace developments from Augustine to Luther without mentioning Boethius, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, or Aquinas. Really bad, actually.

Moreover, historical figures must be treated through the lens and worldview in which they live. You cannot import your own categories, customs, and developments onto historical figures without committing the worst type of anachronism. Blaming Augustine for transubstantiation is anachronism. Blaming him for the severe misbehavior of Popes in the 14th and 15th centuries is anachronism. Saying that he started Roman Catholicism is–you guessed it–anachronism.

As a result, I fear many people sitting under those talks may now have a skewed understanding and view of Augustine. In the next few weeks, I plan to write on why everyone ought to read Augustine, and especially his Confessions. That way, at the very least, you can hear a positive account of Augustine’s influence, and be encouraged to read possibly the most important treatise in Christian history.

 

P.S. Two wide topics I know, and I’m sure you can smell the clutch burning. But, I promise, I’ve been double-clutching the whole time.

 

Disillusionment Lane

Seasons of Life

Ecclesiastes is a sobering book. There really is a time for everything. One season of life lends itself to dancing and laughing, and the season directly following can be one of weeping and mourning. What changed between December and March? Looking back, we really can’t tell. Though hindsight is 20/20, circumstances still cloud our judgment and dirty our glasses. There were times when I was as motivated as Tony Robbins, and now, I feel as though my only motivation to get through the day is: “tonight, I will be in my own bed.” Stark contrast, I know. What was once an enchanted world, now looks more bleak. What was once something to be explored and leveraged, is left to rust. The Killers put this perfectly: “Back then this thing was running on momentum, love trust. That paradise is buried in the dust.”

What I’m going to write below isn’t primarily about me. Though, it is something I have experienced, thought much about, talked through with friends, prayed over, and sought counsel over. Writing this is merely an outlet for organized thoughts that may help those in the same boat. What I’m trying to do is process how to deal with disillusionment while in seminary, or any other type of higher theological education. It is as if the call to ministry has to be realized over and over again.

Perception and Phenomena

How do you take fairly sharp, competitive minds, move them away from their families, churches and close-knit communities, put them under an oppressive workload in an environment where their main source of affirmation is grades and feedback from professors–and then keep that boiling pot from festering a hyper-competitive, intellectual atmosphere that is decimating to the psyche? Moreover, how could that atmosphere then lend itself to training in godliness?

Note: this is not a criticism of WTS, nor any other seminary. Read: this is NOT a criticism of my school, your school, or any other school. It is merely a description of the phenomena. It is asking the questions I ask myself. It is, perhaps, a voice that gives encouragement to other voices. After all, we are in this together, whether you like it or not.

This ultimately leads to the question: Does seminary accomplish what it sets out to do? Some have argued, to some extent, that it does not. I do not know the answer to that question. It would be incredibly arrogant and pretentious to think I did. Nor will I offer any institutional advice or suggestions at this time. After all, how much does a 29-year-old, 1st year student at WTS really know? Perhaps, 1st-years, our reputation precedes us at this point. We ought to change that.

There’s a line in BBC’s rendition of War and Peace where Count Bezukhov makes a really profound statement. He says: “When our lives are knocked off course, we often imagine everything in them is lost.” Life is full of turns and seasons that do, in fact, cause us to question our identity, belonging, purpose, and whether any of this really matters. From our human human point of view, life sometimes seems like a path of endless confusion, despair, error, and discouragement. Some would call that life under the Sun.

These emotions are real. They are heavy. They are important. They ought not be overlooked, nor cast aside. They should be embraced.

If seminary has taught me anything thus far, it’s this. My faith will be tested. My resolve will be tested. My commitment and devotion to Christ will be tested. And, my commitment to the ministry as well.

Hope in the Strangest of Places

I mentioned earlier, though tongue in cheek, that we are in this together. My friends in seminary, my friends at church, my friends in PA, my friends in RI, the 4-5 year olds in my community group–we need each other. I know I missed some people in that rundown, you get a piece of the pie as well.

I’m the only single guy in my community group, surrounded by great families with young kids. It is now my job (whether real or perceived), at every community group, to round up the young boys and have a Royal-Rumble-esque cage match with them to tire them out before we begin our study. It’s the lot of them against me. Hardly a fair fight for the seminarian.

It is the precious interactions with the young kids at community group (who don’t have a care in the world whether Thomistic rationalism has a place in Reformed theology), the discussions with their mothers (who couldn’t care less whether the Mosaic Covenant is perhaps a republication of the covenant of works), the interactions with young people at our Monday night Bible study (where Van Til’s critique of Hegel’s idealism doesn’t keep them up at night)–they have helped put things in perspective.

Conclusion

We need sources of affirmation and community that go beyond what takes place in the seminary halls. A few concrete ones would be community group, church life, friends outside the intellectual and Christ in the bread and wine. In those contexts, I’m a beggar in need of grace. And if there’s anything Luther got right, it’s just that: “We are beggars, this is true.”

Please do not read this as if the sky is falling. Words written down often have a much more sobering effect than when spoken. If you were sitting in front of me, you would see that I am rather jovial. But that is because seasons do indeed come and go.