Brown’s Biography of Augustine (5): Augustine on Pelagianism, the church, and grace and predestination

One final post on Brown’s biography. Brown suggests that Augustine’s verdict against Pelagius was connected to his verdict against his own past – that the vehemence of his own struggles with sin and experience of grace contributed to the vehemence of his opposition to Pelagianism. As he puts it, “the certainty with which he picked out the weaknesses of the idealistic message of Pelagius, is perhaps a symptom of the silent ferocity with which Augustine had continued to criticize his own past” (371). To the extent that this is true, I think it helps direct attention toward the larger context of Augustine’s criticism of Pelagianism. Its easy for us in the modern West, with all our propensities toward doctrinal indifferentism, to look back on Augustine’s polemical writings and view them as cranky or unnecessarily harsh. But when seen in context with Augustine’s theology and experience of grace, Augustine’s anti-Pelagianism appears less offensive and more defensive – less as an attack and more as protection. Augustine was seeking to guard something which was deeply precious to him, something he saw undermined by Pelagius.

Brown’s recurrent theme is to interpret Augustine’s triumph over Pelagius in terms of the transition from the ancient to the medieval world, from the sunny patristic era to the morose “dark ages,” from Classical and Stoic conceptions of hard work and discipline to the medieval focus on original sin, guilt, and salvation (e.g., 369-370). In the appendix, Brown raises strictures against this interpretation on historical grounds (497ff.), and I would raise others based upon theological grounds. Yet it remains true, in my opinion, that Augustine’s influence on subsequent Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, is profound. People frequently cite Alfred North Whitehead’s quip that the history of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, and I have always found this to be a fascinating and yet exaggerated generalization – all kinds of discussions take place in Western philosophy which are not even anticipated in Plato, much less footnotes to him (e.g., empiricism vs. rationalism, vast changes in political philosophy, postmodern movements such as existentialism, etc.). But I think we would be exaggerating only a little if we were to say that the history of medieval theology is a series of footnotes to Augustine. He dominates so much in terms of the topics of discussion, the stances taken, and the general climate of thought. I wonder if it would be true to say that the theologian who has had the greatest influence on the church outside of the Bible is St. Augustine.

On Augustine’s view of the church, this book helped me understand Augustine’s high ecclesiology and views on the sacraments as related to other aspects of his theology, as well as the cultural pressures he faced in his day, especially Donatism (cf. 387). Previously I’d always considered Augustine’s doctrine of baptismal regeneration, for example, as simply an aberrant part of his theology, but forgivable as a reflection of his times. Brown helped me see this doctrine in relation to Augustine’s role as a hardened campaigner against views which he felt threatened the vitality of the church, such as Julian of Eclanum’s differing rationale for infant baptism or the Donatist de-emphasis on the objectivity of baptism. Its helpful to remember that in Augustine’s day, the victory of the church over Donatism and other rival heresies was not guaranteed. At times in North Africa his position looked precarious. In stressing the necessity of the church for salvation and the objectivity of her sacraments, Augustine was fighting pressures against a high ecclesiology, and in such a context, his views are more understandable.

Augustine held to strong doctrines of grace (cf. 510) and predestination (cf. 410). Augustine believed that men may choose what they love, but cannot choose to love (375). For Augustine, a strong doctrine of predestination was not a controversial doctrine among Christians, but “merely another ‘impregnable bastion’ of the Catholic faith” (405). Augustine did not perceive him to be an innovator in his affirmation of predestination. Nowadays its common for Augustine’s views on predestination to be dismissed as departures late in life from his earlier, more dynamic and more humane views, but Brown shows how the evidence does not support this conclusion (cf. 490). Augustine’s later writings on predestination are interwoven with his earlier writings on grace and salvation. Its interesting that Brown ends the appendix by pointing to the significance of grace in Augustine’s theology, thus joining an interpreter as different as Warfield in seeing grace as at the center of Augustine’s thought.

One thing I’d like to explore more: Augustine’s relation to the Greek-writing theologians in the East, such as the Cappadocians. In what ways did Augustine’s lack of knowledge of Greek affect his theology, and his influence on others? Brown suggests that Augustine’s preoccupation with his own theological projects prevented him from being the conduit of Eastern theology into the West that he could have been: “Greek culture did not just drain away of its own accord from Augustine’s Africa. The one man who might have brought it alive there, replaced it by constantly giving and creating” (270). At the same time, Augustine certainly saw himself in fundamental continuity with the East – he said of the Cappadocians on the Trinity, “the contain everything worth trying to discover” (270). But I’d like to explore more how Augustine may have unwittingly contributed to slow separation of the Eastern and Western halves of Christianity in the second half of the first millennium of the church.

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