Pilgrims from Paradise:
When we ended last time, we were talking about Augustine’s doctrine of Predestination, how God chooses, before any of us ever exists, who among us shall be favored with grace and be saved, and who will be damned to eternal punishment. We pointed out that in Augustine’s image, we human beings have absolutely no influence on God’s decision. It is one that He makes before we ever exist. I pointed out that a lot of people find that picture of things to be rather unfair, rather unjust, rather compassionless. But I said then that if we look at the matter, as Augustine does, through Platonically-influenced eyes, it is really no surprise that he sees no injustice whatsoever in it.
After all, in this vision, when God looks at humanity, He does not see a myriad of special persons with whom He desires to unite Himself in an eternally intimate relationship. He is not looking into individual hearts and lives. No, the Platonic God of Augustine sees only one, big sinful lump of humanity, from which He must extract a sufficient mass of right-doers, if He is once again to morally balance the universe. To be sure, God absolutely does not intend to save them all. Every human being is guilty of Adam’s heinous sin, and impeccable divine justice demands that we get just what we deserve. The saving grace that God must give to some in order to restore moral beauty to His universe, is a mighty and unmerited gift. To eternally remind us of that and to balance out the value of this grace that brings happiness to its favored and few recipients, a lot of human beings must suffer.
In fact, Augustine tells us that to be true to His own righteous character, God must assure that the large majority of people spend eternity in hell. Augustine says this: “Hence, the whole mass of the human race is condemned. And the human race is so apportioned, that in some is displayed the efficacy of merciful grace, in the rest, the efficacy of just retribution. For both could not be displayed in all, but many more are left under punishment than are delivered from it, in order that it may be shown what was due to all (The City of God, Chapter 21, Section 12).
In the realms of this God of order, predestination also makes perfect sense. A supreme God, whose ultimate concern is the moral balance and symmetry of His universe, would never risk having it forever undone by the sinful actions of mortal humans. Even though He had to create creatures who could defy Him in order to make His work of art perfect and complete, as we heard Augustine say earlier, He could never actually allow them to eternally mar His cosmos. This God could ill afford to let his creatures freely decide what they would do, and then simply respond to their actions. No. This God of order would have to have some control mechanism, like predetermined salvation and damnation, set in place before He ever brought one human individual into existence.
Let us step back now, and take in this comprehensive picture that we have been developing, of Augustine’s Platonic God. First and foremost, He is a God of perfect order, One who does everything for the sake of preserving within the created universe, the moral beauty and perfect symmetry of His own divine nature. So when this God asks Himself, “What should I do with fallen humankind?” He is not primarily interested in what humanity needs. He is first of all concerned with rectifying the tension within Himself that disobedient humans have created. Human sin is a terrible affront to His personal righteousness and personal sense of justice, and He must respond to that.
This creator does not form human beings so that He may enter into a relationship of oneness with them. No, He brings them into existence simply to fill a necessary niche in His perfect order. Human beings are not created to be the intimate companions of the divine lover. They are, rather, just a necessary color, a critical and essential detail, in the divine artist’s masterpiece.
Augustine’s God does not see human death as a tragic wound which humanity has inflicted upon itself by turning from Him. Nor does He desire above all other things to heal this terrible injury. No, in the hands of Augustine’s Platonic God, death is a tool that He wields for the punishment of humankind. It is a wound that God gladly inflicts upon His human children in order to erase the awful stain that sin has left on His perfect universe. In this Platonic scheme, salvation is not a selfless act of God which makes genuine participation in the life of the Trinity a possibility for anyone who will choose to love God, really love Him. Instead, it is just freedom from punishment. What is more, it is predestined only for a few, and then, not primarily for their sakes. Oh, certainly, they reap its wonderful rewards, but this is all just a byproduct of God restoring that moral balance to the universe, which His nature absolutely demands.
As I said early on, Augustine is the universally recognized fountainhead of Western Christian theology. The Roman Catholic scholastics, the Protestant reformers, and the vast majority of theologians and denomination-founders who follow after them, have all seen themselves as heirs to Augustine. In some places, that connection is more obvious than in others.
Certainly, in traditions like the Reformed, or Calvinists, which teach predestination, Augustinianism is unmistakable. On the other hand, there are contemporary Christians who adamantly declare that they do not believe in the God Augustine describes. In fact, there is today, in the Christian West, an informed and growing resistance to Augustine’s doctrines.
A number of theologians and teachers are, as I have heard it put, trying to get back before Augustine. They recognize that Augustine’s Platonism has taken the West on a tremendous theological detour that spans 18 centuries or so. These folks want to be free of the Greek philosophical influences that cause Western theology to exalt divine order over divine love, divine retribution over divine healing, and divine self-concern over divine self-denial.
But if one listens carefully to what these believers says about God, if one pays attention to their views on salvation, and their basic understanding of the Christian faith, one still detects in many of them, the telltale inroads of Augustine and the philosophical Christian tradition.
I want to reiterate and expand upon some points I have made previously, in order to illustrate three particular ways in which this influence is manifested in ordinary Western Christian belief and practice. Next time, I will begin to outline those three points.