Michel Barnes’ Critique of Augustine’s Modern Critics

In a highly influential 1995 article in Theological Studies, Michel Barnes levels a damning critique on much of what the 20th century has had to say about Augustine. Whether or not we can credit this wholly to Barnes, it seems to be the case that with the publication of Ayres’ Nicaea and its Legacy, the recent Fordham conference, and the Spring edition of the Harvard Theological Review, the coffin has been shut on de Regnon’s hyperactive children. The interesting part of all this, however, is that though rejecting folk like Rahner and Barth’s criticisms, the new appreciation of Augustine comes to similar conclusions on what trinitarian doctrine ought to be. Ayres and Hart are two names whose writings provide help for that question.

Barnes’ begins his critique by explaining his suspicions. He notes that the Latin=1/Greek=3 paradigm creates a historical problem for our understanding of tradition. He states, “Whether it accurately describes the doctrines it purports to describe, what is certain is that only theologians of the last one hundred years have ever thought it was true.” The problem becomes even worse when Barnes explains what such a discontinuity thesis entails:

The more one tends to speak of a real division between Greek and Latin trinitarian theologies in the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries, the more one must acknowledge and explain a fundamental shift away form the mid-fourth-century synthetic theology of Alexandria and Rome. The more one postulates a turn-of-the-century opposition between Greek and Latin theologies, the more one implicitly claims the loss of the prior consensus, and a dominant consensus at that, found in the theologies of Rome and Alexandria, a consensus that was above all “Nicene.”

The discontinuity metanarrative seems even more implausible when we consider the extreme importance of Rome in the monophysite and monothelite controversies. Who, after all, did Maximus the Confessor rely on for backup but the church at Rome? To whom does Chalcedon owe the most direct dependency but Leo? The Cappadocians would be an odd parenthesis in history.

Barnes explains how such a view, as unsustainable as it now seems, was able to capture the imaginations of the previous century’s brightest lights in terms of methodological assumptions. “These contemporary appropriations share the same two presuppositions: the first is that characterizations based on polar contrasts are borne out in the details that are revealed clearly and distinctly through the contrasts…” He explains this point more in stating, “In short, there is a penchant among systematic theologians for categories of polar oppositions, grounded in the belief that ideas ‘out there’ in the past really existed in polarities, and that polar oppositions accurately describe the contents and relationships of these ideas.”

Another major influence on the modern methodology has been the over-confidence in paradigm analysis. Barnes writes, “The confidence to speak in architectonic narrative forms reflects a general sense that details matter less than perspective, that historical facts are only epiphenomena of an architectonic paradigm or hermeneutic, so that a sufficient knowledge of ‘facts’ can be acquired solely through the practice of a hermeneutical or an ideological critique in itself, since any ‘fact’ can itself be reduced to an expression or the symptom of a hermeneutical ideology.”

Thus we find that the 20th century marshals an army of systematic theologians and philosophers engaging Augustine in battle, and leveling charges of historical infidelity. Augustine is the one who is supposed to have been isolated and ignorant of the 4th century thought.

That the anti-Augustine current has conveniently used its conclusions to answer the questions of modern trinitarian thought is not lost on Barnes either. While not objecting to interaction between the two fields, he does note that the particular handling of the data has lead to poor historiography. He laments, “The dialogue between systematic theology and historical theology is transformed into a conversation between a ventriloquist and her or his prop.”

This is a problem that is not limited to the specific question of Augustine. Anselm, Luther, and Calvin are treated similarly, and Reformed circles are certainly familiar with such a methodology in our contemporary debates.

Knowing what is the case prior to interacting with the particulars of Augustine’s writings, particularly evidenced by the simple lack of certain available translations, has led to a position of less self-awareness and worse scholarship. Barnes states that it is not uncommon to interact with a “Reading of Augustine” that has itself never actually read Augustine. Rather than addressing an “Augustine problem,” the modern critics simply create a new and more serious problem.

Barnes’ article is over ten years old now too. Perhaps in another decade or so we can expect polemicists and professors to catch up.

This entry was posted in church history by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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