The Light of God

Text: John 1:1-18

Christmas is a story of enlightenment. This concept presupposes a situation of darkness, a need for new light. The secular world is familiar with this idea, but its take on the story tends to be all about education. Much like Prometheus bringing down fire from the gods, they say that human race is slowly being elevated through the accumulation of knowledge. The darkness was ignorance, and the light is progress. There are some parallels with this and the Christian gospel, but on the basic level Christianity is something very different. It tells a story of an original light— righteousness and communion with God— which was lost through man’s sin, the misuse of his will. This original light is brought back, not by man or some intermediary between God and man, but by God himself, through the person of His divine Son, Jesus. We find out that Jesus’ light is not a new light at all, but rather the old light, the original light of God which made all things. And it is because Jesus is the light of creation that he can also be the light of recreation, which is what He has come to do. Salvation means that Jesus came to make us new.

Jesus is God Come into the World

John’s prologue is clear that Jesus is God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” Continue reading


Secular? Private? It All Depends on what You Mean

Peter Leithart mentions me in this post, and I can say that I agree with the bulk of it all.  I do still think, however, that there are some terminological problems.

It is true that “secular” is time and not a space, in a way, because the term itself refers to the “temporal kingdom.”  Thus even the visible church exists in the secular.  But for many of these conversations we seem to let the metaphors get away from us.  Secular isn’t physical space, but it does have a sort of “space” of jurisdiction.  Continue reading

Augustine in Ottoman Greece and Tsarist Russia

P & D also show that Augustine continued to be held as an authority in the Eastern churches throughout the Ottoman empire and in Russia.  They point out that St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite “included Augustine’s name among the saints to be commemorated on June 15, when he completed his monumental revision of the Synaxarion (a calendar of saint’s feast days) between 1805 and 1807.”

The authors also explain that in Russian under Peter I (1672-1725) and Catherine II (1729-1796) there were strong movements to Westernize the Russian church.  Latin replaced Greek and old Slavonic as the intellectual language, and western books were brought in.  In response to this Westernization at the orders of the Tsars, the Slavophile movement arose which did condemn Augustine as the father of Western theology, but this was not a dominant intellectual movement.  P & D note, “For the most part, however, the Russian intellectual response to Augustine was a generous critical engagement.”  A footnote says, “In fact, the Orthodox Theological Encyclopedia (St. Petersburg, 1900), 108, asserted that ‘the teaching of Augustine cane be accepted as the image of true Orthodox Christian teaching'” (20-21).

Papanikolaou and Demacopoulos also note that Bulgakov, in the late 19th and early 20th century, warmly embraced Augustine as a true and better development from the Cappadocians.

Augustine in Late Byzantium

I’ve already blogged on Photius’ appreciation of Augustine, as well as Michael Palaiologos’ desire to Westernize the Byzantine Church.  In the same article Papanikolaou and Demacopoulos also show that Augustine was read on Mt. Athos and held as an authority by Mark of Ephesus.  P & D write:

Mark of Ephesus, the fifteenth-century leader of the anti-unionist cause, accepted the authority of Augustine at the Council of Florence (1438-39) and even quoted from his Epistulae Soliloquiorum, and De Trinitate during debates on purgatory.  Mark repeatedly referred to Augustine as ho makarios Augoustinos (Blessed Augustine) and conlcudes one lengthy collection of proof-texts (which include several references to Augustine) by noting that all of these statements were offered by teachers of the Church.

~ pg. 16

Augustine and Photius

Papanikolaou and Demacopoulos continue with their survey of Augustine’s role in the East.  They move to the high point of controversy, with Photius and the filioque:

There may be no better example of the Byzantine Church’s high regard for Augustine than Photius’ defense of him in the midst of the filioque controversy.  Photius entered the trinitarian maelstrom in the late 860s when he included an attack on the filioque as part of a larger campaign to protect the Byzantine Church (and his own position as patriarch) from the encroachments of Pope Nicholas I…

Because he did not have the actual Latin texts at his disposal, Photius relied upon alternative methods when he addressed the fact that the Franks claimed to ground their position in the teachings of Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine.  For example, he proposed that the original texts of these saints might have been corrupted or that more pressing reasons, now unknown, required these fathers temporarily to resort to an exaggeration of the Orthodox teaching in order to prevent some other, more dangerous, alternative.  Another of his strategies, however, might be the most compelling for modern readers.  Photius argued that if Augustine taught something only slightly divergent from the rule of faith, without any malicious intent and without the foreknowledge of a subsequent error, he cannot be held accountable for the later provocateurs of heresy who would use his teachings illegitimately to promote their own error.  He also insisted that the conscientious Christian is the one who hides the human flaws of their “fathers” (like the sons of Noah who covered their father’s nakedness) rather than expose them for their own purposes.

~ Orthodox Readings of Augustine pg. 14

I suppose I should refrain from calling anyone a son of Ham at this point.  It is remarkable that even Photius, perhaps the most contentiously anti-Western Byzantine leader, still regarded Augustine as a father of the Church.

I think Photius’ arguments are wrong, and I think it is pretty bad form to make some of those excuses, but nevertheless, it is worth remembering that he is not on the neo-Palamites’ side when it comes to the historical narrative.  It seems that no one prior to the middle of the 20th century is.

Augustine in Byzantium

I’ve been excitedly reading through Orthodox Readings of Augustine.  I attended the conference a year and a half ago, but I have to confess, I did not know much of what I was listening to.  I’ve had time to catch up between then and now, and I can see that these papers are brilliant and important.  The first article in the book is by the editors, Aristotle Papinikolaou and George Demacopoulos, and it surveys the history of Augustine in the East.  Not to give away the whole thing, but they maintain that Augustine did not become a “bad guy” until the 1950s.

They cover Augustine’s place in the East by historical epochs.  The first of these is Byzantium, and it is clear that Augustine is considered a theological authority (though not the primary one) and a doctor of the Church:

There is little doubt that pockets within the Byzantine vaguely remained aware of the theological contributions of Augsutine.  The acta of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (meeting in Constantinople in 553) acknowledges Augustine in three ways: it lists him among the “holy fathers and doctors of the Church”; it includes excerpts from his writings among the florilegia; and it documents that some of his letters were read publicly during hte deliberations of the fifth session.  What is perhaps ironic with respect to the present East/West dichotomy concerning Augustine is that this appropriation of the bishop of Hippo in 553 was used to convince Pope Vigilius to accept the condemnation of the Three Chapters.  In other words, the Greek and African delegates at the council used the authority of Augustine to convince Pope Vigilius to accept the consensus of the assembly!  Subsequent eastern councils similarly acknowledge the authority of Augustine and, in at least one case, cited a florilegium taken from the In Evangelium Johannis tractatus (Tractates on the Gospel of John).

pg. 13

More to come.

Orthodox Readings of Augustine Book Out

I attended the conference for no clear reason in particular.  Perhaps I wanted to become Orthodox.  Maybe it was just the fun of social Trinitarianism.  It might have only been the opportunity to wander the Big Apple with Joel Garver.

Whatever the reason for going, being a spectator at the event itself was instrumental in my becoming overwhelming Augustinian in theology proper.  It gave me the ingredients for future Trinitarian study, and it has perhaps contributed to some of the most fundamental aspects of my current theology.  I’m more Reformed and Augustinian now than ever before.

So it is definitely cool to see that the book is finally out. Now I can actually see David Hart’s lecture, since he didn’t get to actually give the real one.  I suspect it is nearly the same as the one he gave at Calvin College a little later.

Now, to be sure, the book will have defenders of anti-Augustinianism, including the Palamites.  I was told, however, that Bradshaw was the only “Truly Orthodox” presenter there.  So we’ll just have to see.  The general consensus, though, seemed to militate strongly against Palamism’s narrative of Augustine and the West.

The Developing Pro-Nicene Method

Part of M. Barnes and Ayres’ criticism of the “neo-Platonic” Augustine is that Augustine shares more in common with the, by his time, somewhat established catholic tradition than he does any identifiable “neo-Platonic” tradition of the 4th century. This is seen in that his principle for divine unity is not simply an appeal to “substance,” nor even the psychological analogy, but rather the inseparable operations of the Persons. This is very similar to Gregory’s one “Power.”

The divine “work” is an aspect of the one nature. This is true for both East and West, of which there is really no dichotomy at this point in history. If there were, as Timothy Barnes’ (not Michel) helpful book on Athanasius and Constantine’s sons shows, then the two parties would actually be Western/pro-Nicenes vs. Eastern/anti-Nicenes., which is not what folks seem to be looking for today.

Again, D. H. Williams’ book on Ambrose is a good way to get a grasp on the emerging Western pro-Nicene tradition.

Augustine and Neo-Platonism

I first heard that Augustine was a Neo-Platonist in my undergraduate philosophy program.  Since then, the concept has simply been a given.  Of course he was.

The major problem with this statement is that it lacks much distinctive value.  It is true that Augustine was familiar with the works of the Platonists, but that hardly makes him a devoted member of a distinctive “Neo-Platonic” school.  Most of the Fathers were Neo-Platonic in some sense, and indeed, most of the medievals and quite a bit of moderns are Neo-Platonic.  But to stop at this “description” is to do very little indeed.

For all we know, John’s prologue has Neo-Platonic elements.  Does that therefore mean we relegate his gospel to a sub-Christian standing?  To paraphrase David Bentley Hart, this gets embarrassing.

Michel Barnes, with an appropriate amount of cynicism, has sought to show just how ahistorical most of these claims against Augustine actually are.  In fact, he says that we only possess one or perhaps two credible histories of Augustine that seek to locate him in his intellectual and historical context. Continue reading

Augustine’s Sources

It was perhaps a year ago when a friend of mine remarked that he had, strangely, never considered Augustine as a thinker working within an established tradition. For whatever reasons, but most certainly due to Augustine’s immense status in our tradition- indeed he is perhaps the only patristic source that the average Reformed Christian is aware of, we fail to keep in mind that Augustine’s thought, especially regarding the Trinity, was not formed in a vacuum. On the contrary, he had numerous traditional sources to draw from.

Ambrose is the obvious example. He was Augustine’s pastor and perhaps the most instrumental figure in Augustine’s conversion. With Ambrose, comes Origen, as Ambrose was greatly influenced by Origen. It is also fairly certain that, as a North African Christian, Augustine would have known of Tertullian and his body of work.

Beyond these well-known names, a few more can be listed. Lewis Ayres, in a 2000 article for the Journal of Early Christian Studies, lists several other figures: “In which group I include such figures as Hilary, Ambrose, Gregory of Elvira, Phoebadius of Agen, Eusebius of Vercelli, and Rufinus” (‘”Remember that you are Catholic” (serm. 52, 2): Augustine on the Unity of the Triune God’, JECS, 8 (2000), 47.).

Augustine quotes Hilary directly in his De Trinitate, and a good introduction to Hilary’s role in the development of Latin theology can actually be found in D. H. Williams Ambrose of Milan. The book is about Ambrose, but it spends a sufficient amount of time describing Hilary’s role. Williams also examines Gregory of Elvira and Eusebius of Vercelli.

Most readers are likely unfamiliar with those last two names, which simply proves that we are unfamiliar with the development of the Latin tradition. As is our wont, we jump from super-star to super-star in Church history, and thus fail to grasp the complexity and the inter-relatedness of the various thinkers and traditions.

Augustine is thoroughly contextualized thinker, and his immediate context is most certainly the Pro-Nicene Church.  He is certainly Western, but he is combating the same challengers as the East and answering them in much the same way.  Hilary, in particular, represents a figure who was in both East and West, as does Jerome, who I have not yet mentioned, but was a Latin-speaker operating out of Jerusalem.

Sometimes you have to just see the forest rather than each tree, but the danger is that by not looking at the trees in sufficient detail, you are actually seeing the wrong forest altogether. Thus with the study of the history of Christianity, given all of the competing meta-narratives, we need to spend more time on the specifics.