The Impact of Augustine on Western Christianity
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why nicene theology? Is there a problem?
It may surprise you to learn that these problems were introduced a long time ago by Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430 AD). Historians and theologians are now seeing his influence as impressive but problematic.
What did Augustine teach?
Because he didn’t fully understand Greek, Augustine made interpretive decisions into Latin that have been studiously questioned. He said that God predestined some people to heaven and others to hell, especially in his misunderstanding of Romans 9 - 11 (see Augustine's limited Greek, Peter Enns' short article on Augustine, Seraphim Rose's appreciation but criticism of Augustine, Mako's summary of the early Christian teaching on Romans 9 - 11, and Ephesians 1:1 - 14 and the note by David Bentley Hart). Other theologians said that God is never coercive; God's grace empowers genuine human free will even to reject Jesus.
Augustine defined original sin as inherited guilt rather than inherited corruption, and said unbaptized infants went to hell for their sharing in Adam and Eve's guilt, unlike the Eastern Greek tradition which left the question uncertain. This created tensions with Ezekiel 18 (which says God will not count the sins of the fathers against the sons, and vice versa) and later Catholic theology. How did Jesus acquire a fallen human nature to heal it, while not also acquiring the transmitted guilt of Adam and Eve?
It didn't happen right away, but Augustine paved the way for Western Christianity to understand God as the cause of both good and evil, God's character as desiring retribution at least as much as expressing love, hell as a prison, and salvation as legal pardon from guilt. He was also the first theologian to give a justification for state-sponsored religious persecution against heretics. These are some reasons why The Anástasis Center seeks to go back to Athanasius’ understanding of the Nicene Creed (325 AD), before Augustine.
What is Christian Theology from the Time of the Nicene Creed?
Nicene theology uses a medical and restorative framework still used in Eastern Orthodoxy and some Catholic circles, as opposed to a legal and punitive framework familiar to most Protestants. It says that Jesus reveals God's desire to lovingly unite Himself with every single person. He heals and transforms human nature, undoing the corruption of sin in it, first in Jesus, and then in us, as He shares Jesus with us by the Spirit. This understanding was the foundation stone for Christians to say that God is 100% good and loving, and even how we experience God as a Trinity. Here is our short Atonement Theology 101 and another article which explain it well.
Nicene theology comes from a time of intellectual excellence and church unity, even across multiple languages and cultures. Christian teachers and theologians read Scripture and affirmed:
Human nature as originally good and inclined towards God
Sin as a corruption of human nature that influences us to resist God
Jesus redeems fallen human nature in his own body, then shares himself with us by his Spirit
Human free will as constantly upheld by God in grace; God is not coercive
Hell as a state of being in which the purifying love of God becomes torment to those who resist
Each church’s tradition is still dynamically engaged with Nicene theology.
Roman Catholic tradition considers both Athanasius (297 - 373 AD), an architect of the Nicene Creed, and Augustine (354 - 430 AD) to be "doctors of the church," even though they represent different opinions and trajectories. Pictured (photo credit: Patrick Comerford) are seven "fathers of the church" above the south door of Lichfield Chapel, finished in 1340 AD. Athanasius is second from the right. Augustine is on the left.
Catholic theologians, such as Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), John Courtney Murray, Thomas Weinandy, and others of the "New Theology," have questioned Thomistic scholasticism. They advocate a return to Athanasius, the Nicene era, reading Aquinas and Augustine without a scholastic lens, and greater appreciation of the Orthodox East.
For example, Ratzinger corrected Augustine about how much we know about the fate of unbelievers for portraying God as too limiting. He criticized Anselm's satisfaction theory of atonement for portraying God as prioritizing His own honor above His love for human beings. Of course, he disagreed with the Protestant view that God needed to pour out His wrath on Jesus for portraying God as dealing out infinite retribution. And the modern Catholic Catechism no longer teaches the Augustinian theory of inherited guilt, although, in this assessment, it does not resolve the differences between various Catholic schools of thought.
Calvin, in his Institutes, drew on Augustine (for example, on most accounts, double predestination), but high federal Calvinists and evangelical Calvinists differ with each other because of ambiguities in John Calvin’s own writings, and questions about whether Calvin was moving in a certain direction (towards Athanasius rather than Augustine).
For whom did Jesus die? High federal Calvinism is well known for supporting limited atonement (the L in TULIP), which says Jesus died only for the elect. But Calvin affirms universal atonement in his commentaries on the Gospels. Also under discussion is whether the Puritans' pietistic, individualistic Calvinism departed from Calvin himself in some significant ways, such as defining "the elect" in individualistic terms, rather than corporate or categorical.
How does Jesus save us? Although popular evangelical opinion focuses on the death of Christ alone as atoning, Calvin says in Institutes 2.16.5 that the earthly obedient life of Christ, and his very humanity, is part of the atonement, as the patristic - Nicene theologians said.
One question then becomes: ‘Was Calvin a Calvinist?’ This is part of the dynamic, ongoing discussion among those who interpret and follow Calvin.
In the Orthodox community, the late Georges Florovsky (1893 - 1979), former Dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in NY from 1950 - 1955, called upon Orthodox scholars to sympathetically reevaluate the development of both Eastern and Western Churches in light of patristic sources. Since then, his students Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff, who each followed him into the position of Dean, have done so as well, along with Kallistos Ware and John Zizioulas. These efforts have contributed to a renewal of dialogue between East and West, and of interest in Christian theology from the Greek East.
The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church by Father Seraphim Rose (2007, third edition) is a very helpful and readable explanation of how Augustine's theology was received by the Greek East at the time, and is regarded today. Rose pays special attention to Augustine's teaching on double predestination.
The Doors of the Sea by American Orthodox theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart (2005) was his response to the Asian tsunami of December 2004. Hart compares Eastern Orthodox and high federal Calvinist interpretations of this event, and shows the vast and important difference in dealing with God's character in the face of human suffering, natural disasters, and human moral evil.
T.F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy: Theology in Reconciliation edited by Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell (2015) is an excellent resource as various Orthodox scholars interact with, and constructively critique, the Scottish evangelical patristics scholar and theologian Thomas Forsyth Torrance.
Person and Eros by Christos Yannaras (2008) is dense but rewarding; Yannaras insightfully critiques the development of theology and philosophy in the West.