Monday, July 12, 2010

Augustine and Gandhi

Should the opinion of early church fathers carry more weight for Christians than those on non-Christian thinkers? As a protestant it seemed to me that they should. That there should be some principled distinction between the respect I would give to some like Gandhi and the respect I would give to someone like Augustine just because I am a Christian and I want to be shaped by Christian thinkers moreso than secular ones. But I could not see how that was so. I came into contact with many examples of early church fathers contradicting my protestant faith. I just shrugged them off. It wasn't any different than I would shrug off something by Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. Sure I agreed with and valued many things the ECF's said but the same was true of secular writers. I would assess their arguments and decide whether to accept or reject their ideas based on whether it fit into my overall thinking. 

The reality was that mostly I just didn't read the ECF's. I encountered non-Christian religious thought more and more in the secular world. I encountered modern evangelical thinkers quite often. But I didn't have much exposure to ECF's. When I did it was typically just a few words cherry picked to fit into a pastor's sermon. But even then modern pastors were much more likely to quote Stephen Covey than Thomas Aquinas. So I had to admit that secular thinkers had a big advantage just because of the number of times and the number of ways I woiuld be exposed to them.

So it made sense to me that I should be less likely to dismiss a respect early church father than some guy who has written a book the culture seems to love. But I could not see how. What was the principle that would drive this. I could see the Catholic principle. There were popes, bishops, doctors, and saints. Different opinions had different weight. If defined something called Catholic tradition. But protestants had that too. It was less formal but it was there. But protestant tradition was always ignorable. It was just too easy to decide this was one of those cases where as strong consensus of Christian thinkers were in error.

The obvious principled difference for Catholics was infallibility. The belief that tradition could rise to a level where it could be trusted as revealed by God. It seemed like one should be able to respect tradition without going that far. But I could not find any examples of it. People love their own opinions. If you leave the door open just a crack to the chance they could be right and the traditional Christians position could be wrong then people will go through that crack frequently. We need a firm No. Protestantism cannot say a firm No.


  1. It's funny how Protestants reject the Early Church Fathers in favor of the Modern Church Fathers. Many modern Evangelicals have a trust in the practical infallibility--though they would never call it that--in their leaders. Rare do you see condemnation of the teachings of guys like John Piper, R.C. Sproul, or Al Mohler. Even further, the same holds true for John Calvin. Many Protestants unabashedly follow certain Modern Church Fathers with the same devotion that authentic Catholic follow the Early Church Fathers.

    To these I would propose this question: why should I follow Piper instead of Augustine? Why Sproul instead of Ignatius? What criteria do you have for who you follow other than that he teaches doctrine that you see as correct; that he interprets Scripture in a way that you agree it should be interpreted?

    I think the monumental trump card that the ECFs hold over the MCFs, regardless of doctrinal disputes, is their historical closeness to Jesus and the Apostles. All other things debated, it would seem obvious to trust the source closest to the original. This holds true for anthropology and textual criticism. Why not for Church teachers?

  2. Thank you for your post. As a cradle Catholic who engages in apologetics with non-Catholics I found your observation very interesting and informative.

  3. Brian,

    Thank you for reading. I am happy when what I right blesses somebody.


    You are right, of course. I think the first step is having protestants become aware there are church fathers. I was pretty knowledgeable as a Reformed Christian. How many ECF's could I have named? I would have had trouble getting to 5. Augustine is the only one I am sure I was aware of. Of him I mostly knew Luther claimed him as a teacher of Sola Fide. My ignorance was pathetic. I am afraid that is more the rule than the exception with both protestants and Catholics.

    You cannot be influenced by what you don't know. The trend in preaching is to avoid anything more than 20 years old. That is what itching ears want to hear (cf 2 Tim 4:3)

  4. Yeah. Something else that has concerned me is if you look at the books being sold in the Protestant world, the articles being written, and sermons being preached, there is a subtle resurgence in devotion for "Church Fathers". There are some Evangelical and Reformed seminaries that are offering not just courses, but degrees in patristics.

    If this were holisitc it would great--I would be more elated than concerned. What concerns me is that they often focus on one or two Fathers--guys like Augustine and Origen--pulling soothing phrases from their works. In a sense, they study the ECF's "cafeteria style". This is damaging because it promotes a confident attitude among Protestants: "Yeah, I've read the Church Fathers, and I still believe Protestantism is true."

    Picking and choosing certain Fathers to study--or worse, selecting passage from certain Fathers--is inspiring false confidence among some Protestants.

  5. I guess people have to start somewhere. If people read a bit of Augustine then maybe they read more. They might ask why he thought schism was such a bad thing, why he believed in purgatory, why he talked about Mary and the Eucharist the way he did. As a protestant I would never have gone down a road that was likely to lead me top the Catholic church. But I would go down a road that was going to lead me to God.

    I can see much good coming from any study pf patristics. Remember most are trying to be fair. There will always be some so deep in their tradition they will only see what they have been told is there. But there will be others who ask a lot of questions.

  6. The large majority of Reformed Protestant-to-Catholicism conversion stories I've heard begin with an exploration of the ECF's.

    My local used bookstore has a massive theology section which I frequent, but unfortunately we are right down the road from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando). The owner of the bookstore is strongly Reformed, as are most of the used books traded in. But in the midst of these title, there are a couple of shelves on "Church Fathers". I'll sometime chat with my fellow book-browsers, and a couple of times I've come across someone who is excited to see books on St. Augustine: "Oh, I love St. Augustine!" In my head I think, "Really? Then why aren't you Catholic?"

    For instance, read this:

    Haykin rightly points out that the Reformed Modern Church Fathers looked to the ECF's. They rejected beliefs of the ECFs that didn't suit them, but they did assend to other beliefs. Comparing Luther/Calvin to modern Protestants, we see that Luther/Calvin would fall close to the ECFs in terms of Eucharist, Mary, and many other issues.

    What frustrates me is when Protestants assume their faith is quasi-apostolic because "Luther and Calvin were devoted to and quote the ECFs" (i.e. Protestant faith was a return to the early, true faith). Luther/Calvin did follow some ECFs--even if they didn't fully follow the ECF's--but on most of the things that Luther/Calvin agreed with the ECFs on, modern Protestants reject! Luther/Calvin agreed with only parts of ECF teaching, but most modern Protestants even reject those parts!

  7. "What concerns me is that they often focus on one or two Fathers--guys like Augustine and Origen--pulling soothing phrases from their works."

    Aaggh. One reformed guy I know practically hyperduliates over Augustine. That would be forgiveable if he didn't blatantly cherry pick a few proof-texts, and ignore practically everything else he ever wrote. Whenever I point to him to this writing or that writing of Augustine's which clearly upholds free will or contradicts eternal security, it is summarily dismissed as the writing of a younger, milk drinking, pseudo synergistic Augustine rather than the wiser, meat eating Augustine in his later years (never mind that many of these proof texts I offer are after 420 AD.)

    Brian, "If only Augustine hadn't died before finishing his Retractations, we'd see what a Proto-Calvinist he was...." and, "the RCC clearly rejected his doctrines on Grace" (never mind about those Councils of Orange.) :-(

  8. I find pointing to other writing of Augustine that are not directly about justification helps. For example, he believed in purgatory. Calvinists tell you that faith alone implies no purgatory. So it follows then that he didn't believe in faith alone. At least not in the same way as the reformers did.

    Same goes for the Eucharist and for schism and for baptism. He sees salvific implications there that protestants would reject.

  9. Agreed. Definitely. I've gone round and round with my Reformed friends. We enjoy it, and I do think we learn from each other. Those are all difficult subjects for them to discuss.

    Another difficult one for them to answer is why they think a man's sin transformed our nature completely (total depravity,) yet the grace of Christ does not. Why, after the Fall were we not a heap of snow covered in dung, rather than a complete heap of dung. Because, according to them, Christ only forensically covers us by his saving grace. We still remain a heap of dung underneath, yet on the outside we are covered in snow. Its like sin is more powerful than Christ. That's a tough one for them.

  10. The snow covered dung heap is something I never heard as a protestant. So I never represent the faith that way because I didn't experience it that way.

    Christ will make us full holy in heaven. So it is a question of why not yet. Really that is a deep question for Calvinists. If everything is determined in terms of heaven and hell why are we here struggling and suffering through this life? Why doesn't God just take us immediately where he has predestined us to go?

  11. Interesting. My Reformed friends certainly represent justification as a snow covered dung heap according what Luther supposedly wrote. But at any rate you are right indeed that the answer will most often be something similar to "Christ will makes us full holy in heaven." But that answer will lead down another uncomfortable road. To follow up I ask if anything even partially impure may enter heaven (Revelation 21:27) and the response will usually be something along the lines of "well God makes us holy after we die" So I say, "you mean, after you die, but before you enter heaven?" and they say, "yeah" and then I say....."purgatory."

  12. Forensic justification is something I was familiar with. The snow covered dung heap is just a stronger image that I never heard used in reformed circles. Certainly sanctification was a work in progress that might not be immediately visible. Total depravity was taught but it was not dwelt on a lot. This was the 70's. The self esteem culture was in full swing. When I first heard the phrase "snow covered dung heap" it was from Catholics. I could see the logic behind it but it didn't ring true.

    As far as purgatory goes, you need a little bit more than the idea that God makes us holy. The idea that one would prefer to be made holy in this life even if it involves much earthly suffering. You need to buy in the idea that God has established this whole economy of temporal rewards and punishments for sins to encourage us to be holy. Something that is separate from our eternal salvation. It is the biblical notion of sowing and reaping that protestants will accept.

    Anyway once you accept temporal consequences concept then purgatory makes sense. The key is to understand it is only indirectly related to heaven and hell.

  13. In case you have not seen it Bryan Cross has done a wonderful job of tracing Augustine's writings as they relate to the protestant/Catholic justification controversy.