There are so many possible things to say about today’s reading, I’m not sure where to begin. A few items of note:
- I was wrong to say yesterday that Augustine is performing mop-up duty regarding his argument about demons. He’s not mopping up some side skirmishes, he’s been laying the groundwork for a worship service at the site of the battle. He assumes that he’s done the work necessary to end the Platonists’ arguments in favor of worshipping demons; now he wants to show how the desires that their arguments are trying to express are really fulfilled in Christ. In today’s reading, he takes a few of the Platonists’ lines of argument and shows how Christ is better and more fulfilling than the Platonists’ answers to their own questions. If they would only seek Christ! Christ, ultimately, is the fulfillment of every deep desire of our hearts and of every deep line of argument that the philosophers produce. Christ answers every real and substantial question and need that humanity and all of creation can express.
- On a methodological note: Augustine makes this very interesting mini-detour into the methods of how to make arguments at the end of chapter 23. He says: “For the philosophers use words in whatever way they like, and they do not bother to to avoid offending the ears of religious men even in the most difficult matters. But we are obliged by religious duty to speak according to a fixed rule, lest verbal license beget impious opinions concerning the matters which our words signify.” He goes on to use this principle of argument at the beginning of chapter 24 – the philosophers talk about there being two or three principia in God, while the Christians are not “at liberty” to say anything that contradicts the Trinitarian definition laid out by the Councils of the Church – three hypostases and One God. The philosophers, in their freedom, can say whatever they want without caring if they offend; Augustine has to be careful to follow the rule of faith, as laid down by the Tradition of the Church. For Augustine, freedom of expression leads to heresy. This goes back to our earlier discussion of Freedom – does freedom have a content and lead us to Truth, or is it just a way of rebelling against what has been established? Are our conversations about freedom ways of talking about how we might submit to Truth, or are they ways of expressing our refusals to submit? More specifically related to Augustine’s philosophical arguments – do we “follow our evidence, wherever it goes”, or are we ready to submit to ways of speaking and arguing in the service of Truth? Augustine’s method – attempting to speak and argue according to the rule of faith – may strike us Modern/Postmodern readers as inauthentic, restrained, or unreasonable but I want to suggest that our ways of arguing are driven not by reason but by our unrestrained desires. We argue for whatever it is that we want to do, and we can “follow the evidence” all the way to supporting whatever conclusions we want. As Postmodernism rightly teaches us, “power is knowledge”: whoever is in charge can make their “truth” the dominant “truth”. Or, as Stephen Colbert has taught us, we argue by “truthiness”, not by Truth. Augustine is restrained by Truth (a very worthy restraint on arguments).
- As I suggested in #1, the Christ quotes are awesome today. The Trinitarian God and the Word-made-flesh fulfill all the lines of argument that the philosophers suggest. Augustine wraps up the arguments in a profound and inspiring way: on cleansing our souls (chapter 22); on the principia of God (chapter 23); on how the principia lead to cleansing (chapter 24); on how even those who lived before Christ were cleansed in Him (chapter 25); on how Porphyry the philosopher was so close to Truth without reaching but Christ is the sum of all his arguments (chapter 26). It’s a fine way of arguing: Augustine seeks the truth within the philosophers’ arguments and wants to explore how that truth participates in the Truth of the Gospel. Anyway, a couple of the best quotes:
- “Therefore, the enemy is conquered in the name of Him Who took human form and lived without sin, so that He Himself, as both priest and sacrifice – that is, as the Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ, through Whom we are cleansed of sin and reconciled to God – might bring about the remission of sins. For men are separated from God only by sins, from which we are cleansed in this life not by our own virtue, but by divine compassion: not our own power, but by HIs favor; for whatever virtue we call our own, no matter how small, is bestowed upon us by His goodness. We might, indeed, attribute too much merit to ourselves while in the flesh, were it not for the fact that we live subject to His pardon until we lay flesh aside.”
- “Thus, the good and true Mediator showed that it is sin which is evil, and not the substance or nature of flesh. He showed that a body of flesh and a human soul could be assumed and retained without sin, and laid aside at death, and changed into something better by resurrection. He showed also that death itself, though it is the penalty of sin – a penalty which He paid for us with our sin – is not something that we are to avoid by sinful means. Rather, if need be, we should suffer death int he name of righteousness. For He as bale to redeem us from sin by His own death, because He died, but He died for no sin of His own.”
Good enough. May our Triune God bless you this year, from the glorious love of the Father, through the submitted and sacrificial Mediation of the Son, by the powerful presence of His Spirit.