Saturday, April 27, 2013

Augustine and Justification

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OK, I am warning you now, this paper isn't exactly the most refined or organized. I still have much to learn about Augustine and don't exactly have his views ironed out in my head. The paper reflects this a bit :).

Justification in Augustine of Hippo

                Augustine of Hippo is considered the most influential theologian apart from Paul. In the twelfth century, Anslem of Canterbury gave a great glimpse of the effects of the genius of Augustine when he equated orthodoxy with the writings of Augustine.[1] With Augustine’s emphasis on God’s grace and love being the supreme motivator for all things, it’s not hard to see why so many fell in love with him. I too, especially when reading Augustine’s writings on God’s grace, could not help but feel the love of God being “shed in my heart through the Holy Spirit.”[2] Though much has been made of Augustine’s views on the grace of God, his doctrine of justification is not as well-known and has proved to be more elusive. Before we look at Augustine’s teachings on justification however, let us first examine his contemporary, Jerome, so that we can understand Augustine’s context and better appreciate the significance of his teachings.

                History best remembers Jerome (340-420) as the brilliant doctor of the church who produced the Vulgate which would become the authorized version of the Bible until the Reformation, an astounding one thousand years later. Whereas Augustine was remembered as the premier theologian of the church, Jerome was remembered as the premier exegete.[3] Unlike Augustine, Jerome knew Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic which not only gave him the skills to be able to translate the Vulgate but more importantly for our purposes, put him in touch with the Greek exegetical tradition of the Church, something Augustine also lacked. Jerome drew from this rich tradition, and especially from Origen, for most of his exegetical insight.[4] Therefore while Jerome’s name may be attached to his views, we can safely assume that many of the fathers before him are amply represented as well. 

Origen’s influence is evident in Jerome’s views relating to justification. Like Origen,[5] he identifies the remission of sins being for only past sins.[6] Jerome also identifies being “in Christ” as being in all the virtues. This is seen when he comments on Galatians 2:20a:

The one who once lived in the law, who persecuted the Church, does not live; but “Christ lives in him,” wisdom, strength, speech, peace, joy, and the other virtues. The one who does not have these cannot say, “But Christ lives in me.”[7]
Like Origen, Jerome also states that certain vices, if carried out by Christians, can exclude them from the kingdom of God.[8] When discussing the need to love our brothers and help those who are weak, Jerome asserts that we will all be judged by the Lord based on whether we support our brothers, and we will be judged to be either sinners or saints.[9]

However, also like Origen, Jerome emphatically champions forgiveness apart from works, “Through both [grace and peace], apart from the merit of works, our former sins have been forgiven us and peace after pardon has been granted.”[10] In many other places, Jerome underscores the fact that without Christ, we could not be saved. In commentating on Galatians 3:10 he writes:

                For none of those others [just men], however much they became the very curse, liberated anyone from the curse, save only the Lord Jesus Christ, who by His own precious blood redeemed us from the curse of the law….[11]
                From this brief sketch, it seems like the doctrine of justification hadn’t changed since it was espoused in Alexandria by Origen at the end of the second century. With Jerome’s renown as the foremost Biblical scholar of the Church, his affirmation of this doctrine would have meant that many in the west would also have accepted this view of justification. 

The stage is now set. The church seems to be firmly entrenched in the idea that justification is a process and that while faith is the basis for salvation, works figure prominently as well. Will Augustine finally shed the light on the doctrine Luther would recover in the Reformation, or will he simply assent to the common teaching of the church?

Before we dive into topic at hand, this man who has shaped the church in such a colossal way needs an elaborate introduction. Augustine was born on November 13, 354 in Tagaste (modern day Tunisia). Before his conversion, Augustine taught rhetoric in Carthage, Rome and finally Milan (among other cities) where he came in contact with the famous bishop Ambrose. Augustine first dabbled in Manichaeism but eventually, through the reading of Plotinus, the preaching of Ambrose, the whisper of “take up and read” and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Augustine became a Christian.

In 391, Augustine was made a presbyter in Hippo and spent the rest of his life in that office. It is this period of his life that is most important to our study. As we approach his theology, we to understand that midway through his time as a Christian, Augustine had a major change of heart in his view of man’s free will and the power of God’s grace. Because of this, I have tried to only survey his later works, those he wrote after coming to this new understanding, for these are the works that influenced the world after him. It is also crucial to note that just like with Origen, the consensus on Augustine’s teachings are far from unanimous, since both Protestants and Catholics lay claim to him as their predecessor.

Because there is so much that could be said about this topic, I will limit myself to three points. First, I will explain that Augustine viewed justification like a process, and not just a one-time event. Second, I will explore the role of works within this process. Next, I will briefly touch on Augustine’s interesting view on perseverance. Finally, I will conclude by briefly comparing and contrasting Augustine with the other Fathers I have surveyed. 

In The Spirit and the Letter, Augustine asks the rhetorical question, “For what else does the phrase ‘being justified’ signify than being made righteous—by Him, of course, who justifies the ungodly man, that he may become a godly one instead?”[12] Immediately we can gather that at least in this treatise Augustine views justification as “being made righteous” and not “declared to be righteous” as others would later argue. But the question quickly rises, why is “being made righteous” the only obvious definition?

According to Alister McGrath, the answer lies in Augustine’s understanding of the Latin verb iustificare.[13] In the Latin, iustificare can mean “to make righteous” and this appears to be the way Augustine understood it his entire life.[14] Augustine elaborates on this concept in Man’s Perfection in Righteousness. Though it is a lengthy quote, it is well worth the space:

Then again, as for what he says, “For I have kept His ways, and have not turned aside from His commandments, nor will I depart from them;” he has kept God’s ways who does not so turn aside as to forsake them, but makes progress by running his course therein; although, weak as he is, he sometimes stumbles or falls, onward, however, he still goes, sinning less and less until he reaches the perfect state in which he will sin no more. For in no other way could he make progress, except by keeping His ways. The man, indeed, who declines from these and becomes an apostate at last, is certainly not he who, although he has sin, yet never ceases to persevere in fighting against it until he arrives at the home where there shall remain no more conflict with death. Well now, it is in our present struggle therewith that we are clothed with the righteousness in which we here live by faith,—clothed with it as it were with a breastplate.[15]
This is such a beautiful picture and much could be made of its content, but what is important to observe is that last sentence, “We are clothed with the righteousness in which we live by faith.” One can almost picture the Reformers reading this and quietly marking out “the” (which is referring to the believer’s own actions) and inserting “Christ’s.” 

Augustine is even clearer in Man’s Perfection in Righteousness section 18:

Our righteousness in this pilgrimage is this—that we press forward to that perfect and full righteousness in which there shall be perfect and full love in the sight of His glory; and that now we hold to the rectitude and perfection of our course, by “keeping under our body and bringing it into subjection,” by doing our alms cheerfully and heartily, while bestowing kindnesses and forgiving the trespasses which have been committed against us, and by “continuing instant in prayer;” —and doing all this with sound doctrine, whereon are built a right faith, a firm hope, and a pure charity. This is now our righteousness, in which we pass through our course hungering and thirsting after the perfect and full righteousness, in order that we may hereafter be satisfied therewith.

But what about when a believer does sin? How can he be considered innocent if he is expected to possess his own righteousness? Augustine isn’t under any allusions that true believers don’t sin. In fact, he argues vehemently against those who say perfection can be reached in the present life.[16] This has been a question of mine since I began studying the church fathers on the issue. So far, the only answer I have received is a brief glimpse from Origen who vaguely alluded to the washing of tears of repentance. Augustine supplies much more detail:

The same thing is affirmed in another passage, which he has quoted immediately afterwards, as spoken by the same Job: “Behold, I am very near my judgment, and I know that I shall be found righteous.” Now this is the judgment of which it is said in another scripture: “And He shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday.” But he does not say, I am already there; but, “I am very near.” If, indeed, the judgment of his which he meant was not that which he would himself exercise, but that whereby he was to be judged at the last day, then in such judgment all will be found righteous who with sincerity pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  For it is through this forgiveness that they will be found righteous; on this account that whatever sins they have here incurred, they have blotted out by their deeds of charity. Whence the Lord says: “Give alms; and, behold, all things are clean unto you.”  For in the end, it shall be said to the righteous, when about to enter into the promised kingdom: “I hungered, and ye gave me meat,” and so forth. However, it is one thing to be without sin, which in this life can only be predicated of the Only-begotten, and another thing to be without accusation, which might be said of many just persons even in the present life; for there is a certain measure of a good life, according to which even in this human intercourse there could no just accusation be possibly laid against him. For who can justly accuse the man who wishes evil to no one, and who faithfully does good to all he can, and never cherishes a wish to avenge himself on any man who does him wrong, so that he can truly say, “As we forgive our debtors?” And yet by the very fact that he truly says, “Forgive, as we also forgive,” he plainly admits that he is not without sin.[17]
Along with reemphasizing the importance of a believer’s works on judgment day, Augustine mentions the necessity of asking for forgiveness and doing works of charity that they might blot out any sins the believer has incurred here on Earth. Though this is foreign to our Protestant ears, it does work well with verses like James 5:20 which present the possibility of a believer covering over sins.

Now, I have been focusing on the actions of the believers, but this is only one aspect of Augustine’s teaching. It is the love of God and the provision of His grace that Augustine is primarily concerned with. He repeats it over and over, man cannot do it alone. A vision I will never forget is found in On Grace and Free Will

Thus, it is necessary for a man that he should be not only justified when unrighteous by the grace of God,—that is, be changed from unholiness to righteousness,—when he is requited with good for his evil; but that, even after he has become justified by faith,[18] grace should accompany him on his way, and he should lean upon it, lest he fall. On this account it is written concerning the Church herself in the book of Canticles: “Who is this that cometh up in white raiment, leaning upon her kinsman?” Made white is she who by herself alone could not be white. And by whom has she been made white except by Him who says by the prophet, “Though your sins be as purple, I will make them white as snow”?  At the time, then, that she was made white, she deserved nothing good; but now that she is made white, she walketh well;—but it is only by her continuing ever to lean upon Him by whom she was made white. Wherefore, Jesus Himself, on whom she leans that was made white, said to His disciples, “Without me ye can do nothing.”[19]
This idea of the role of grace in the believer’s life is found one almost every page of Augustine’s works that I had the pleasure of reading. However, it is also in this area where Augustine breaks from tradition and begins emphasizing God’s part in the justification process to the point that man truly does not have free will in the sense that his contemporaries viewed it. In the famous letter To Simplician – On Various Questions where Augustine is said to have originally made that fateful plunge with Romans 9, he actually wrote in his retractions that “in answering this question I have tried hard to maintain the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God prevailed.” This is not the place for a detailed analysis of Augustine’s view on free will, but it does suffice to mention the outcome of such ideas.

In the treatise On the Gift of Preservation, Augustine argues that just as faith and good works depend solely on the grace of God, likewise does the “gift of preservation” depend solely on God. While this is not surprising to our modern church which is well acquainted with the “P” in TULIP, what is so vastly different from the teachings of the Synod of Dort is the possibility that God can grant the gift of faith and good works, yet neglect to give the believer the gift of preservation. I will let the doctor speak for himself:

I assert, therefore, that the perseverance by which we persevere in Christ even to the end is the gift of God; and I call that the end by which is finished that life wherein alone there is peril of falling. Therefore it is uncertain whether any one has received this gift so long as he is still alive. For if he fall before he dies, he is, of course, said not to have persevered; and most truly is it said. How, then, should he be said to have received or to have had perseverance who has not persevered? For if anyone have continence, and fall away from that virtue and become incontinent,—or, in like manner, if he have righteousness, if patience, if even faith, and fall away, he is rightly said to have had these virtues and to have them no longer; for he was continent, or he was righteous, or he was patient, or he was believing, as long as he was so; but when he ceased to be so, he no longer is what he was.[20]
Augustine leaves no doubt that he believes those who fall away were truly given the gift of faith and of good works. What is even more interesting and seemingly contradictory is that he does argue that a believer can obtain the gift of preservation by praying for it. This is obviously an issue that needs more research but I felt it necessary to mention if only for how bizarre it is.

So, how can one synthesize everything that has been mentioned? Though I didn’t focus on it extensively, Augustine does seem to break from the majority of his contemporaries in how much he emphasized the role of God over the role of man’s will in salvation. However, the actual structure of how justification operates, apart from who’s will is behind it, seems to be largely unchanged from those who went before Augustine. The believer still literally becomes righteous. Justification is a process, and not just a one-time event. The believer’s works will have a major part to play in the judgment of the last day. However, when it comes to the remission of sins being only for past sins, Augustine does seem to take a different route and even argue against those who hold such a view.[21] One thing is for sure, though he may have been a forerunner of the Reformers in the area of free will, his doctrine of justification in no way resembles the later Protestants. 
  


[1] Qtd. in Alistair McGrath, The History of the Doctrine of Justification. 24.
[2] This was one of Augustine’s favorite phrases. It is found in Romans 5:5.
[3] Much of the information on Jerome is taken from Thomas Scheck’s introduction in his translation of Jerome’s Commentaries on Galatians, Titus, and Philemon.
[4] Jerome admits this in his preface in his Commentary on Galatians (page 49) and will at times quote word for word from Origen’s commentary when exegeting a text.
[5] However, this view seems to have been circulating prior to Origen since it is assumed throughout the Shepherd of Hermas
[6] St. Jerome 58
[7] Ibid 108
[8] See pp. 233-241. Jerome speaks using “we” implying that if even he should do such things, he would be excluded from the kingdom of heaven
[9] ibid 258
[10] Ibid 58
[11] Ibid 133
[12] Augustine. The Spirit and the Letter. Chapter 45.
[13] McGrath, Alister. Iustitia Dei. 2nd Edition. Page 31.
[14] McGrath follows up with the statement that this definition would not work in the Hebrew.
[15] Augustine. Man’s Perfection in Righteousness. Section 27.
[16] See The Spirit and the Letter chapter 66 for just one of the many examples.
[17] Man’s Perfection section 24.
[18] Augustine will at times speak of justification as happening in a moment, leading McGrath to explain Augustine’s doctrine of justification as “all-embracing” concept that includes both the event of justification and the process of it (McGrath 31). He also argues that Augustine never distinguishes between the two aspects.
[19] On Grace and Free Will Chapter 13.
[20] On the Gift of Preservation Chapter 1.
[21] This can be found in On Grace and Free Will chapter 26. However, this needs much more research as well.

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