St Augustine – Philosophy & Theology

As I implied in an earlier post, St Augustine was obsessed with sin. The idea of sin came to Christianity from Judaism, and had helped explain the various defeats and suffering of the Jews, despite their place as God’s chosen people. To begin with, sin had been considered in communal terms – it was the Jewish nation that sinned, and was punished collectively. By Augustine’s time it had become individual. The Church, representing Christianity was a spiritual entity and could not sin; individual Christians could and did sin. Augustine believed that we are all sinners, which explains why God makes us all suffer, at least at some point in our lives.

God & Time

Augustine was heavily influenced by the need to agree with Scripture. There are things that can be discovered by reason, but knowledge of God can only be found through Christ. The Scriptures are not to be questioned. This led to disagreements with the Greek philosophers, such as on the nature of God. Genesis says that God created the universe out of nothing, but the Greeks thought of God as an architect, who designed and built the universe from existing matter, which is eternal and uncreated (this obviously doesn’t explain how the matter came to exist). Augustine did not tackle the problem of how something can be created out of nothing – the word of the scriptures was enough for him. He does have an answer for why the universe appears to have been created at a certain point in time – why not sooner? The answer is that time was created when the universe was created, so there was no ‘sooner’. God was able to exist before time because he exists outside of time. He does not experience a series of events in chronological order as we do. God has knowledge of everything simultaneously, such that everything is in the present. Augustine goes on to say that ‘time’ does not exist except in the mind. Only the present really exists, but the past exists in our minds as memories and the future as expectations. Therefore it makes sense to say that time does not exist until there existed beings. Russell does not fully accept this theory, but believes it makes a great advance from Greek philosophy, and anticipated some of the later ideas of Kant and Descartes.

The Sack of Rome

In 410 AD Rome was sacked by the Goths, and the pagans blamed this on Rome’s abandonment of the old gods. Augustine’s ‘The City of God’ is his response to the pagans. He starts with the straightforward observation that worse crises had affected Rome and humankind in general when they worshipped the pagan gods. This sack was milder than most according to Augustine, because the Goths (who were Christian) spared the churches and anyone sheltering within. Augustine believed that the pagan gods exist, but that they are evil devils, who had kept Rome on the path of wickedness. All things including devils are created by and allowed to exist by God – devils have a role in allowing us to reject temptation. Augustine holds Plato to be the greatest philosopher. The Platonists were right in many things, including the belief that perception is not the source of truth. The Platonists were wrong to worship many gods, and wrong to deny the incarnation of the body.

Sin & Free Will

Augustine believed in predestination: God has decided whether we go to hell or to heaven before we are born, and this decision is arbitrary (or at least seems arbitrary to humankind). Those that go to hell do so due to the original sin of Adam, rather than their own sin. This however does not sit comfortably with the belief that sinful Christians will go to hell, as will those who are not baptised. Augustine was influential in combating the Pelagian heresy (Pelagius was actually a Welshman, real name Morgan). Pelagius did not believe in the importance of original sin and preached that people go to heaven as a reward for their own moral efforts. Augustine taught that only before eating the apple did Adam have free will. After that Adam and his descendants were corrupted and no longer had complete control over their will, and so lost the power to abstain from sin. Only the grace of God, rather than our own will allows some of us to be virtuous.

An example of the loss of control can be seen in the act of procreation, which explains why Augustine and the other Fathers considered procreation sinful and virginity a mark of holiness. Since original sin and the loss of control over our will, the act of procreation has generally been accompanied by the sin of lust and a certain loss of self-control. Before original sin Adam and Eve could have engaged in procreation in the same dispassionate way that a carpenter carves wood or a plumber repairs a boiler. Yes there may be a certain satisfaction in a job well done, but no feelings beyond that. The Fathers were aware that procreation is necessary for the continuation of humankind, but it was a constant reminder of our corruption and the fact that we are doomed to forever live in sin.

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