As part of my Augustine project I am reading some of B.B. Warfield’s essays on Augustine, which are fascinating. Warfield is quite sympathetic to Augustine, seeking to defend him from much revisionist scholarship and show his greatness as both a theologian and Christian. In seeking to sketch the main streams of his thought and his contributions to church history, Warfield interprets Augustine from a decidedly Protestant and Reformed standpoint. He sees grace as the true center of of Augustine’s thought – a sense of radical and complete dependence upon God in salvation and all things. He calls Augustine’s religion at times “evangelical religion,” at other times the “religion of faith” as opposed to the “religion of works,” and at other times “pure religion” as opposed to a “quasi-religious moralism.” For Warfield, this is the real and pure Augustine: the “evangelical” Augustine, the prayerful Augustine of the Confessions, the anti-Pelagian Augustine, the Augustine who can pray, “command what you will, and give what you command” – ultimately, Augustine the great precursor to Reformation theology. Thus Warfield is not embarrassed to say, “it was Augustine who gave us the Reformation” (322).
Warfield is not, however, blind to other aspects of Augustine’s thought which seem to stand at odds with this interpretation: his complex sacramentology, complete with doctrines of baptismal regeneration, a sacrificial understanding of Mass, and an ex opere operato understanding of sacramental efficacy; his hierarchical ecclesiology, complete with a doctrine of the papacy, belief in the authority of the church, and an understanding of the visible church as God’s kingdom on earth; and his doctrines of saintly intercession, purgatory, penance, and the perpetual virginity of Mary; in short, a theology which birthed medieval Roman Catholicism. But for Warfield this part of Augustine’s thought as bequeathed to him from his predecessors, taken over unquestioningly by Augustine, not the theology springing up naturally and internally from within him. He sees these two aspects of Augustine’s theology, his doctrine of grace and his doctrine of the church, as competing with each other, “two children … struggling in the womb of his mind” (322) – but it is the former which is the real Augustine. In fact, Warfield claims that Augustine’s theology of grace would have, given enough time, taken over and cleansed his ecclesiology, with the resultant effect that Augustine would have handed down “a thoroughly worked out system of evangelical theology” (322), not the contradictions and unresolved problems that are part of his legacy. That it did not, that for Warfield these two aspects of Augustine’s thought continued to rend the church for another millennium, is evident in his definition of the Reformation as “the triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church” (383).
This is a fascinating way to understand Augustine from a Protestant perspective, and one which raises the larger question which more and more dominates my mind these days as I prepare for doctoral studies on St. Anselm – what is the proper Protestant view of pre-Reformation Christianity? I do not know enough about Augustine, let alone the Patristic and Medieval periods in sum, to be confident regarding how to evaluate Warfield’s approach. But it does prompt me to wonder whether its necessary to highlight the “Protestant” aspects of a given pre-Reformation theologian in order to appreciate their theology and see oneself as in essential unity with them. I am Protestant and where Protestant and Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox theology differ, I side with Protestantism. But I also wonder if we Protestants have at times construed our sense of continuity with pre-Reformation Christianity too narrowly. To what extent should we seek to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a figure like Augustine (or Anselm) within a Protestant framework, and to what extent should we allow an Augustine or an Anselm to broaden our framework to encapsulate all that is orthodox Christianity? Or, putting the same question differently, when should the first 1,500 years of church history be judged and edited on the basis of the last 500, and when should the last 500 be broadened and enlarged by an understanding of the first 1,500? Or still another way of phrasing the question: how broad is Christian identity?
I don’t have the answers. But one of the things that is most exciting to me about spending a few years with Anselm is the opportunity to engage this question.