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Response to Augustine’s confessions

2012/05/19

This was for Ancient Hellenistic Greece and Rome. I was supposed to read parts of the New Testament, then Augustine’s confessions and a secondary source about church history, then write about how Christianity had developed in the interim. Note: Confessions is a really long book. This was one of my biggest marathon papers because of that, despite it not being very long.

Christianity changed a great deal in the three hundred or more years between the writing of the New Testament and the writing of Augustine’s Confessions. These changes took place in a number of areas, including emphasis, doctrine, organization and its place in society.

While the New Testament focused largely on the controversy of its day: whether Christians need also be Jews, this seems to have been resolved by Augustine’s time in favor of Paul’s view that adherence to Jewish law was not only unnecessary, but contrary to Christian teachings. In fact, something of an opposite controversy had arisen with the Manicheans. The Catholic Church, including Augustine, held the Jewish scriptures, which are now called the Old Testament, were part of the Christian scriptural canon, but the Manicheans saw this as an attempt to impress Judaism upon Jesus’s work. While Catholics pointed out that the authors of the New Testament apparently accepted the validity of the Old Testament, as they refer to it on a number of occasions, the Manicheans argued these passages were inserted into the text by a later author. Augustine argued against this by challenging the Manicheans to produce the unaltered version. While the New Testament does record difficulties with the interpretation of prophetic works like Isaiah, it does not record any controversy over what Isaiah actually said. While Paul warned that people were falsely attributing teachings to Jesus, the issue of possibly conflicting manuscripts is newer.

The main intra-Christian controversy in Augustine’s day seems to have been over the nature of Jesus’s divinity and incarnation. The Manicheans believed he was a phantom. That is, he did not have a physical body, but only appeared to have one in order to interact with humans and therefore did not actually die on a cross. This is a Gnostic view and also comes up in several New-Testament epistles, so is not in itself new. To this, we can add Apollinarus’s view that Jesus did have a body, but not a human mind. That is, Jesus was a sort of man-suit that God wore, not fully human. Photinus taught that Jesus was a holy man guided by God, but not himself divine while Arius taught that God the Father and Jesus were of different substances, but does not seem to have meant Jesus was the same as ordinary mortal men. Augustine himself held that Jesus was fully human and fully divine and made of the same substance as God the Father. He characterized this as “Catholic truth” and seemed to consider the matter settled with any opposing views as heretical errors. However, Photinus was a bishop and Empress Justina Augusta had attempted to replace Augustine’s mentor Ambrose as bishop with an Arian only a few decades earlier. In practice, this issue clearly still had some currency.

Many of the differences in the church can be traced to its political situation. During the writing of the New Testament, Christianity was essentially illegal. It is full of stories of early Christians running afoul of Jewish authorities in Israel and Roman authorities elsewhere, as well as various local religious figures and business interests. Thus, its writers repeatedly caution the faithful about the society. People are counseled not to concern themselves with social status, because God will tear society down anyway, and to give their wealth to the poor. The church in Augustine’s time certainly had not abandoned these teachings. Augustine, after all, repeatedly compared the poorness of material goods and social recognition with the richness of God’s love and reminded people to use their wealth and skills for God’s glory rather than their own. However, the church had undeniably become part of society. While Jesus said to give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s, the church itself was now to some degree Caesar’s, as can be seen in the story of the attempt to replace Ambrose.  While Ambrose successfully resisted, legalization had a price. While an illegal church meeting in people’s houses was free to believe what they wanted, a church that operated legally and openly in purposed public buildings was subject to far more scrutiny and political pressure.

Legalization also had its benefits, course. Christianity grew from obscurity to universal recognition, even if the public was unclear on many of its doctrines. It was not nearly a majority religion, though. Ponticianus’s delight upon discovering the works of Paul in Augustine’s house shows that, at least in their middle-class social group, most people were not Christians. His accounting of his boyhood education confirms this. Intellectual and educated circles were dominated by Greek-derived philosophy and religion.

In Confessions, one of Augustine’s main goals was to defend Christianity as a reasonable religion. That is, he drew on Greek philosophical tradition to make arguments for Christianity and used classical logical forms to argue doctrinal points within Christianity or to give Christian answers to traditional philosophical questions. This seems to have been caused by a combination of Augustine instinctually thinking that way due to his classical education and an attempt to influence others with similar backgrounds toward Christianity. For instance, to summarize one of his arguments, if God is good, he could not have created evil. If God also created everything, evil must therefore not be a thing in itself, but a lack of good. Thus, Augustine not only gave  a possible answer to a common objection to Christianity raised by pagans and Manicheans, he also created a definition of evil which had doctrinal implications within Christianity he then explored. Similarly, he adapted Plato’s metaphor of the cave to argue that when a non-Christian sees glory in the world, their back is to God and what they see his reflected light. He used this to make a point quite different than Plato’s, but used a form students of philosophy would be familiar with.

Issues of interpretation were closely related to logic. It had become clear by Augustine’s time that the scriptures contained things that either apparently contradicted other scriptures or seemed to be false. Augustine cautioned that readers that some parts of the Bible should be taken spiritually rather than literally. Disagreement about meaning was not in itself problematic, though certain issues, such as the divinity of Christ, were critical. Believers were told not to stake the whole religion on a particular interpretation because it might be later proven wrong.

Paul, on the other hand, had promoted doctrinal unity. While he did make logical arguments, such as when he made the case in Galatians that it is wrong to attempt to keep Mosaic Law, he didn’t display Augustine’s interest in philosophical rigidity, nor did he stress this technique nearly as much. Many prominent elements of Christianity from Paul’s era also seem to have been de-emphasized. For instance, the eminent return of Christ seems to have become less eminent as time passed. Confessions contains little hint of the apocalypticism that characterized early Christianity. While Augustine related the stories of several miraculous healings, the situation is quite different from Acts which gives the impression there were a number of people given the ability to heal anyone who frequently used their gifts. Granted, this may be an result of Confessions being a contemporary first-person account as opposed to being written decades later based on oral traditions rather than any real change in church practice.

Numerous new doctrines had developed in the intervening years as well. While Augustine himself doesn’t address it much, he references the idea that the impious go to hell. This was, at best, underdeveloped during most of the New Testament period. Augustine also offers prayer on behalf of the dead, a practice which was unnecessary until the development of new ideas about the afterlife. Even the concept of God had changed due to the addition of the Trinity: That god is made up of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Early Christians did use these terms, but the Trinity itself was a new extrapolation and obviously dependent on the issue of Jesus’s divinity.

The development of specifically Christian scriptures was perhaps the biggest change since early Christianity. Obviously, during the time of the New Testament, the New Testament hadn’t been written yet, or what had been written didn’t have any sort of official status. By Augustine’s time, there seems to have been a de facto canon which he referenced extensively. However, the various books seem to have generally been distributed in separate volumes and books were prohibitively expensive as a copyist had to copy the whole thing by hand, meaning a full set of scriptures would have cost several months wages if not more. Therefore, most Christians who were not bishops like Augustine did not have regular access to much of the scriptures if any and the few who did have copies had to relate their contents to the others. Essentially, the infrastructure hadn’t kept up with Christianity’s increased reliance on written texts.

Christianity as practiced in Augustine’s time was in many ways similar to the early church. The most obvious example in Confessions is the importance of repentance. However, Christianity as it existed in the first century simply wasn’t capable of being as large or politically influential as it was three hundred years later due to its emphasis on separation from society. As it grew, the church naturally adapted to fit the politics and economics of its new situation.

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From → history, Religion

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