Sunday, 19 April 2015

On Labels: Pre-Augustinian

I am now going to invent a term.


I want to suggest to you that Augustine of Hippo, St Augustine the Bishop of Hippo, has caused more damage to the Christian cause than almost anyone else in history.

Why single out this man?

Here are my reasons:

  1. He is very influential on the teaching of the church – both Catholic and Protestant.  To the Catholics, he is their most important theologian.  And he is hugely important to Protestants too!  Calvin’s system of theology is largely drawn from Augustine’s teaching.  In his ‘Institutes’ he is quoted over 400 times.  Martin Luther (originally an Augustinian monk) studied and quoted Augustine more extensively than any other non-Biblical figure in his lifetime.
  2. Augustine taught that Christian heretics should be physically attacked and persecuted.  Because of the churches privileged position, it was able to use secular political powers to use drowning, burning and a host of tortures on those whom the church regarded as heretics over many centuries.  Augustine was frequently cited as an authority for doing this.  In addition, he advocated the use of force to make people attend church.  And Reformed brethren cannot point the finger here.  Protestant leaders presided over these activities as well as Catholic.  Lord, please forgive us!
  3. Much of Augustine’s teaching was thoroughly what we would regard as Roman Catholic.  Examples would be:
  • Prayers for the dead
  • Exaltation of Mary
  • Baptismal regeneration
  • Infant baptism.  Hence it was taught that a baptised baby goes to heaven and an un-baptised baby who dies goes to hell
  • The superiority of singleness.  All sex, including within marriage, is sinful.
  1. Finally, Augustine followed some of his predecessors in merging Greek philosophy (particularly that of Plato in his case) with Christian theology.  The effect of this, among other things, is to separate the physical from the spiritual.  I will list some of the effects of this in the next section, but in essence, the mindset of the average Western Christian is heavily influenced by Greek philosophy.
I believe that the Reformation served to correct some serious errors in the church.  And yet, it did not go far enough.  Many groups of true believers over the years, who have sought to return to a simpler, more biblical model of Christianity, dating from long before Augustine was on the scene, have been heavily persecuted by the state church, including the Reformed part of it.

By the time Augustine was on the scene, the church had detached itself from much of the simple Christianity that thrived in its early years and had picked up a great deal of 'baggage' in its teaching and practice.

It is significant that following Augustine's time we had the 'dark ages' in which little history is recorded, but it is a time of cultural and economic backwardness.  Most people in Christendom were poorly educated.  Groups of Christians that tried to exist outside of church structures were heavily persecuted.  Yet Jewish communities thrived culturally, economically and educationally.  The biblical principal of maintaining home worship and the tradition of passing on literacy and spiritual knowledge from parents to children was a key here - something that the church had long abandoned.  So the Jews suffered their own dose of persecution from a jealous church.

What would Jesus say?

'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.'
Matthew 23:13

In order to find a form of Christianity that is more Christlike, we must of course study scripture - that goes without saying.  It helps also to be aware of the false teaching and practise that has developed when the church became a rich and powerful institution.

So the church in its thinking, actions and methods needs to be pre-Augustinian.

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