THESIS #52 of 95 - Augustine’s assertion that Adam's disobedience resulted in God degrading human nature to the extent that man could do “absolutely no good thing, whether in thought or will, affection or in action” is unbiblical, an observable falsehood, an affront to God's gracious magnanimity and the dignity of the human person
THESIS #53 of 95 - On the contrary, acts of compassion, kindness and courage delight God's heart and will be rewarded by Christ
The doctrinal aspects of this subject were covered in the previous post on Pelagius. These two related theses focus on that British theologian’s arch-enemy Augustine. In the following extract from my book, I suggest that it was the widely esteemed Bishop of Hippo rather than scorned Pelagius who deviated further from earlier (2nd century) Church Fathers’ teaching on human nature, the economy of grace, free will and natural law.
“For much of the Church’s history the understanding has been that God’s benign providence is restricted to faithful Jews and those subsequently elected to Christian salvation; the prospects for the rest of humanity being worse than oblivion. That is in stark contrast to what I understand the Holy Spirit to have shown me, set out in the Little Book of Providence, namely that God’s elect people are, under Christ, the agents of restoring and reconciling the world back to God, not the sole beneficiaries. Humanly speaking it was the Roman African Aurelius Augustinus (AD354-430) and his especially forthright and uncompromising manner in defending the catholic faith against potential heresies together with the extraordinary regard with which he has been held in the Western Church that has resulted in doctrinal errors being incorporated in their understanding of God’s intentions for wider creation and the nature of the human condition.
Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, was understood to have taught [note#1] that human nature had not been profoundly wounded by Adam’s sin, so humans were able to fulfil the law without divine aid. Augustine, still more perversely came to affirm that fallen man could not so much as do, think or desire any good at all apart from the grace of the gospel. The heretic Manes had propounded a dualistic view of the cosmos impacting upon human anthropology, leading Augustine to insist that Paul could not possibly have been saying that human nature comprised opposing moral influences from flesh and spirit. The millenarians (chiliasts) of his day were carnally minded so the whole system should be repudiated, and man’s future destiny be understood as fulfilled within the spiritual sphere.
Though sainted by the Roman Church, Augustine’s insistence that God intended to damn the bulk of humanity was undermined fifty years ago by the Vatican Council’s pronouncements on God’s broader providence regarding His dealings with those outside the Church. Yet the foundational biblical theology underpinning the earlier narrower conceptions has largely remained intact. One has only to contrast Augustine’s grim eschatological montage as depicted in his “City of God” with the relative inclusivity of Vatican II’s “Lumen Gentium” to see how the Spirit has enlightened the Catholic Church through the centuries. But to attain coherence one cannot avoid revisiting many of the theological assumptions that led to Augustine’s treatise, culminating as it does in a cosmic horror story of breath-taking proportions, albeit one which many Evangelical Christians have come to take for granted.THE WITNESS OF THE EARLIEST FATHERS
Augustine placed fidelity to Scripture as he interpreted it above regard for the more philanthropic and open-minded reflections of earlier Fathers who had perceived more than a vestige of God’s image being retained in fallen man’s nature and perceived a role for natural law within a multifaceted economy of grace. “Let us reflect how free from wrath God is toward all His creation… He does good to all but most abundantly to us who have fled for refuge to His compassions through Jesus Christ”. So wrote Clement[citation#1], fellow worker with Paul; whilst his namesake Clement of Alexandria (2nd century) enquired “What is loveable that is not loved by God; and man has been proved to be loveable, consequently man is loved by God”#2. Justin Martyr (2nd century) spoke of God’s benevolence towards those who walk uprightly and in accordance with right reason#3; a God who accepts those who imitate His own qualities of temperance, fairness and philanthropy and who exercise their free will in choosing what is pleasing to Him#4. Irenaeus, also 2nd century, recognized that God in His providence is present with all “who attend to moral discipline”#5 paying heed to the natural precepts of the law by which man can be justified#6.[Quote from The Little Book of Providence chapter one]
#1 Because Pelagius came to be denounced as a heretic, little of his work remains. We are largely reliant on Augustine’s account of his teaching and manner of life, the latter of which even Augustine acknowledged to be saintly. As Wikipedia affirms, more scholars are coming to the view that this British theologian had been more faithful to the teaching of the earliest fathers than had previously been asserted.
#1 Letter to Corinthians of Clement (c. AD30-AD100) chaps. 19 & 20 [Clement, fellow worker with Paul]
#2 “The Instructor” Book 1 chap. 3 [Clement of Alexandria – 2nd century]
#5 Irenaeus against heresies Book III chap. 25 (para 1) #6 Ibid. Book IV chap. 13 para 1 [2nd century]