Category Archives: Augustine

Pete Candler on the final books of Augustine’s Confessions

In the spirit of my earlier post here, Pete Candler says it much better:

Memory is, for Augustine, ultimately a questin of desire, of the right intentio or affection towards that which one remembers. The well-trained memory is one in which good use is made of the “things” in one’s memory. “A character,” he says, “is only to be praised for loving passionately when what it loves deserves to be passionately loved.” He describes the threefold character of disposition, learning and practice (usus) which correspond to the threefold division of memory, understanding and will (which further corresponds to the three rhetorical functions: delighting, teaching, moving). As is typical in his treatment in De Trinitate, the third term is a combination of the first two. Thus the practice of a person’s memory, or its “use,” consists in the “use the will now makes of what the memory and understanding hold, whether it refers them to something else or whether it takes delight in them as ends in themselves.” Therefore, to remember well is to will rightly, to have the proper kind of learned disposition towards that which one remembers [pp. 61-2].

And then, with this in mind, Pete says a couple of pages later:

What follows, then, in the remaining three books of the Confessions, is no mere afterthought, as some have argued. Instead, from what we have seen so far, we are in a position now to understand Books IX-XIII as the actual activity of the memory doing its work, as the plumbing of its unfathomable and mysterious depths. Yet the locus of this activity is not only the individual mind, but the collective memory of the church. The content of that recollection is not the boyhood adventures of Augustine; it is rather the story of God’s way with the world. Thus he begins Book XI with a retelling of the account of creation in Genesis, and concludes in Book XIII with a discussion of the eternal Sabbath. That is to say, Augustine now formally situates his own personal narrative within a larger story, that which the church tells — moreover, that story in whose telling and performing the church is itself enacted [pp. 65-6].

Thoughts on Book XIII of the Confessions

In my History of Christian Thought I class, our professor — one Dr. Michael Lodahl — asks us every week to write some reflections on our reading. Here are some of my amateur thoughts on the final book of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Those who know I tend to value synchronic readings over diachronic readings will not be surprised.

A general comment about the final book (XIII) of the Confessions: I have read in some places that some scholars think that this final book is an “afterthought” or, at least, probably “added later,” as the usual historical-critical inclination is wont to say regarding making sense of texts that do not seem to have an obvious reason for existing in a certain place within its larger context. This last book is about the days of creation, so some have expressed a thought that goes along the lines, “Now that Augustine has confessed and turned to God, he added an exegetical chapter on Genesis at the end of his main biographical text.” With these leanings, I will have to disagree. I see no disjunct. On contrary, this last book seems to tie precisely into the way in which Augustine began the text: “our hearts find no peace until they rest in you” (p. 21). The movement of Book XIII is such that Augustine moves amongst the days of creation so that he really does end on the seventh and final day, which is the Sabbath, or day of rest. Augustine’s “confession” comes full circle, not only confessing what he has done in his life, but quite beautifully in the end, confessing exactly what God has done: created us out of an abundance of love and delight such that in God’s rest we will find our own rest; our own autobiographies are ultimately about God and God’s own story.

Leithart on Augustine

The fires are still raging in San Diego. We are safe, but many are not. Meanwhile, life continues and so I am in a Panera Bread right now finishing up what will probably be 11-page take-home essay exam for my Metaphysics and Epistemology class. Tomorrow, I go back to work.

So, as I am continuing to read Augustine (I finished the Confessions last week and have continued in De Trinitate) and read secondary material, I found the following blog post by Peter Leithart helpful:

In Defense of Augustine

Such efforts continue to be important, especially considering that in the last month in the Radical Orthodoxy group on Facebook, somebody posed a question prefaced with the following statement: “From what I have read about radical orthodoxy, Milbank and others want the church to go back to the neo-platonism of St. Augustine.” There are so many assumptions in this question that need to be addressed, but the first of which is what, exactly, is the kind of ‘neo-platonism’ held by Augustine? I know Michael Hanby’s book tackles this (I haven’t read it, but will in the next couple weeks), but Leithart’s post is also a good place to start in beginning to answer this question.

Augustine and Onto-theology


In many theological circles, people who have done some reading in Heidegger have often thrown about the term “onto-theology.” Briefly, this term has to do with philosophers/theologians who think being before God, thus making God a part of being. In other words, we make God an idol because we do not put God first in our “system,” or whatever it may be. From such a concern, Jean-Luc Marion wrote God Without Being, for instance, where he cites Heidegger in the intro on this score– it is the underlying motivation for this early theological work of Marion.

However, as Merold Westphal mentions in the introduction to his Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith, far too many people are eager to wield this phrase as another bullet in their holster of theological “take-down” phrases. While I do think this phrase has its adequate uses (e.g. see Conor Cunningham’s re-casting of this as the ‘meontotheological‘), some have cast this accusation not only on medievals such as St. Thomas Aquinas, but even Augustine, who both refered to God as ‘being’. (note: Marion initially made this claim against Aquinas, but later recanted.) However, I do not think it is the case that Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are “onto-theologians” by any means.

Sean McGrath, who has an essay in the soon-forthcoming Belief and Metaphysics on “Heidegger’s Approach to Aquinas,” has an excellent earlier article called “Young Heidegger’s Problematic Reading of Augustine” where he contests these claims. It begins, echoing Westphal:

1. It is a lamentable situation that Heidegger’s critique of Scholastic ontology is now better known in continental circles than Scholastic ontology itself. The Heideggerian critique of “onto-theology” has hardened into a dogma, an unreflectively repeated formula that has lost its moorings in its original sources. We all know that the Scholastics forgot being because they reduced ontology to God. By defining being in terms of that which never comes to be nor changes, that which excludes temporality, the Scholastics made it impossible to think the being that we are. Philosophical theology precludes phenomenological ontology.

2. So the formula goes. . . .

What I did want to draw attention to, though, is the following paragraph:

11. Notwithstanding the brilliance of his interpretation of Augustine, Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology never touches the heart of the medieval notion of God. It works best when dealing with proofs for the existence of God, God as efficient cause, first and highest being etc. Yet this was not the core of Scholastic theology, certainly not the core of Augustine’s theology. The essence of Augustine’s theology is the notion of simplicitas Dei. God admits no composition. Yet every thinkable being is a composite of act-potency, essence-existence, matter-form. This does not relegate God to a dimension of religious experience of no concern to metaphysics. God is the primum analogatum, affirmed to exist, but never conceptualized or grasped as a content. We can know that God is, we cannot know what God is. God is infinite meaning, the fullness of esse. Limitless esse offers theory no content. The doctrine of divine simplicity acts as a speculative speed bump in Scholasticism, a crucial reminder that at a decisive point every proof fails to articulate the being of God, and therefore, the meaning of being itself. Ipsum esse cannot be characterized as a being. In the unknowing that surrounds it like a blinding light, ipusm esse is incalculable, uncontrollable, and indefinable. In a mystical-Scholastic philosophical theology like Eckhart’s, the simplicity of God and the relational-sense of Augustine’s search for the vita beata come together: an absolutely simple being cannot be thematized and defined, but it can disclose itself relationally in the how of mystical discipleship, detachment (Abgeschiedenheit). “God” does not name a content, but a life tendency, a possibility for being-in-the-world in a different way. Augustine’s “axiologization” is his effort to work out the details of how the God-relation is to be enacted: we only “have” God in turning away from transitory pleasure and embracing the pain of a life without God. The move is entirely practical because the God relation has no theoretical sense.

McGrath also shows in the beginning of his article that Heidegger attempts to secularize some of Augustine’s conceptions, or at the very least, talk about terms such as ‘care’ “in general” such that they have no reference to God:

…In the 1921 lecture course, Augustinus und der Neuplatonismus, Heidegger discovers an essential disclosure of the being that we are in Augustine’s Confessions: the how of being a historical self is care, trouble, and self-problematization.1 In the Confessions the disclosure of the self is concomitant with the self’s discovery of its ontological directedness to God, the eternal and non-historical ground of being. Nothing in the text of Augustine suggests that this disclosure could happen in a non-theistic context.

Additionally, in the helpful appendix to his Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I., Hubert Dreyfus shows that Heidegger does the same move with some of Kierkegaard’s concept’s, namely that of angst. Dreyfus shows that Heidegger’s articulation of these terms falls flat exactly where he leaves out that the way in which these terms were always already (and not just “for the most part”!) tied in with Kierkegaard’s theological conception of sin and God. [For now, I forget Dreyfus’ specifics on this, unfortunately, but may make another post on this later.]

De Trinitate: Augustine and the Form of Christ


I have begun reading Saint Augustine’s De Trinitate (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1991) in a small reading group with my pastor/professor, John Wright. We met for the first time last Thursday, but only this week have I had the chance to read the first of fifteen books which comprise this work, whose stated goal is “to account for the one and only and true God being a trinity, and for the rightness of saying, believing, understanding that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are of one and the same substance or essence” (I.1.4). I wanted to note three things, the second of which I hope to give the most emphasis.

First, Augustine goes to some length in I.1 to describe the voyage ahead in terms of the path it charts between three extremes. Briefly, they are 1) those who “allow thmselves to be deceived through an unseasonable and misguided love of reason” (I.1.1), 2) those who anthropomorphize God, and 3) those who (to anachronistically borrow a term of Thomas Nagel), think they have an objective “view from nowhere” to the point that they somehow think that their point of view is akin to God’s own “unchanging substance,” so that “what they do not know they wish to give the impression of knowing, and what they wish to know they cannot.” This last type kind of sounds like “know-it-alls who really know nothing,” or something of the sort.

Second, after a chapter of devoting himself to showing that Scripture proves “the unity and equality of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” in I.3 Augustine attempts to wrestle with the words of Jesus when he says, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28Open Link in New Window). This verse had always somewhat confused me because I had always been told that because God is three equal persons in one, so how can any one of the Triune persons be “greater” than any one or both of the others?

To answer this, Augustine begins by noting that the truth is that “the Son is less even than himself. How could it be otherwise with him who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:7Open Link in New Window)?” The distinction made, then, is between the Son in the form of God and the Son in the form of a servant. The Son in the form of God is the second person of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit; the Son in the form of a servant is Jesus the Christ incarnated on earth who suffered, died, and rose again. But it is important to emphasize that Augustine calls these two forms not distinct Christs at all, but the “same only begotten Son of the Father” taking on two different forms (III.3.14, my emphasis). Augustine thus says, “who can fail to see that in the form of God he too is greater than himself and in the form of a servant he is less than himself? And so it is not without reason that scripture says both; that the Son is equal to the Father and that the Father is greater than the Son. The one is to be understood in virtue of the form of God, the other in virtue of the form of a servant, without any confusion (ibid).

In I.4, this logic (Augustine calls it a “rule”) is then applied to multiple assertions in Scripture about Jesus Christ:

In the form of God, all things were made by him (John 1:3Open Link in New Window); in the form of a servant, he himself was made of woman, made under the law (Gal 4:4Open Link in New Window). In the form of God, he and the Father are one (John 10:30Open Link in New Window); in the form of a servant, he did not come to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him (John 6:38Open Link in New Window). In the form of God, as the Father has life in himself, so he gave the Son also to have live in himself (John 5:26Open Link in New Window); in the form of a servant, his soul is sorrowful to the point of death, and Father, he said, if it can be, let this cup pass by (Matt 26:38Open Link in New Window). In the form of God, he is true God and life eternal (1 John 5:20Open Link in New Window); in the form of a servant, he became obedient to the point of death, the death even of the cross (Phil 2:8Open Link in New Window). In the form of God, everything that the Father has is his (John 16:15Open Link in New Window), and all yours is mine, he says, and mine yours (John 17:10Open Link in New Window); in the form of a servant, his doctrine is not his own, but his who sent him (John 7:16Open Link in New Window).

I mention this way of interpretation for the simple fact that this is news to me. It also sounds pretty cool. I have never read much Augustine at all outside of a lot of secondary treatments, so for all I know, this is a very widely-held way of interpreting these passages; I just never paid much attention.

The last item I wanted to know in the first book of De Trinitate is that Augustine has no illusions about there being only one “correct” reading of these words in Scripture. Part of this move comes from Augustine’s humility, and part of it comes from his view of Scripture. He admits to the likelihood that his own words are going to be inadequate (although this should not be confused with any alleged inadequacy of the faith itself). To this, Augustine says, “This is why it is useful to have several books by several authors, even on the same subjects, differing in style though not in faith, so that the matter may reach as many as possible, some in this way others in that” (I.1.5).

Augustine’s view of Scripture seems to be that there are, as Cynthia Nielsen has noted (citing Michael Hanby), a “plenitude of true meanings for a single text.” Therefore we see that Augustine does not miss a step when he says at the end of book I of De Trinitate, “There are doubtless other ways of of understanding our Lord’s words.” He comes full circle on his three extreme cases listed above when he implores that “we may cheerfully use not merely one interpretation but as many as can be found. For the more ways we open up of avoiding the traps of heretics, the more effectively can they be convinced of their errors” (I.4.31). Even in this conclusion one can see there there is no mere academic aloofness in critiquing one’s opponents, but an end toward correction.