Thursday, April 19, 2007

Augustine and His Opponents

All references from: Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000). Great Book!

The Great Persecution of Diocletian in 303-305 AD caused many manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures to be burnt. There were some Catholic Bishops who, under threat of death, gave the Scriptures over. It was believed by 80 Numidian Bishops that a certain Bishop, Caecilian of Carthage was ordained by such a traitor. Augustine scholar, Peter Brown writes, “It was a simple matter for 80 Numidian bishops, in 311, to declare his ordination invalid, and to elect another bishop in his place. This ‘pure’ bishop of Carthage was soon succeeded by another, Donatus: and, it was he, who, as a rival bishop of Carthage, gave his name to what we call ‘the Donatist Church’ – the pars Donati, ‘the party of Donatus.” The ecclesial and theological claims of the Donatist’s were that if the Church’s Bishops and members were not pure, then there could be no Church. They believed that if ordination was administered by an unholy Bishop, then the ordination would not be efficacious. They also held that if the sacraments were administered by an unworthy Bishop, then they would not bestow grace or the Holy Spirit. Like the Pelagians, they saw Christianity as a new Law. Indeed, Pelagius claimed that all Christians should be monks. The Donatist controversy foreshadowed the Pelagian controversy because both groups saw Christianity as a new Law, and saw the visible Church as a group of isolated “pure” people. Augustine combated Donatism with his view of the visible/invisible Church, and his doctrine of election. These theological issues foreshadowed and prepared him for his conflict with the Pelagians.

The Donatists believed that since they were the true Church only their prayers were heard by God. They were worried that if they tolerated unholy people in their Church, God may not hear their prayers. Like the Pelagians, they believed in earning God’s favor by their works. There was only a visible Church, and its mark was holy people refraining from sin. Without their ministers living pure lives, the sacraments would not bestow grace or the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, Augustine’s focus was on the undeserved operation of God’s love and the objective promises of Christ. Augustine taught that the objective efficacy of the sacraments was dependent upon the holiness of Christ. Brown writes, “The rites of the Church were undeniably ‘holy,’ because of the objective holiness of the Church which ‘participated’ in Christ.” The Church would not lose its identity because of subjective qualities. Rather, the promises of God were objective and were not dependent upon the separation of the Christian from society. Brown writes, “The Catholicism of Augustine…reflects the attitude of a group confident of its power to absorb the world without losing its identity. This identity existed independently of the quality of the human agents of the Church: it rested on ‘objective’ promises of God…and on ‘objective’ efficacy of its sacraments.”

For Augustine, there was indeed a visible Church, but there were sinners in the midst of true Christians. This led to Augustine’s doctrine of election. Brown writes, “The dividing line between ‘true’ and ‘false’ members was, of course, invisible: this core would later harden into Augustine’s ‘defined number of the elect.” This way of combating the Donatists foreshadowed and prepared Augustine for the Pelagians. Election was by grace alone and not by works, and true Christians would always be called to exist in the midst of non-believers. The Church was an imperfect shadow of a heavenly reality. Brown records, “The ‘true Church’ of Augustine is not only the ‘body of Christ’, the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’…it is the ‘reality’ of which the concrete Church on earth is only an imperfect shadow.”

Augustine believed that since all humans came through Adam, all human beings are called to exist with one another and not be separate. Since all human beings are tainted by sin, they should not isolate themselves from others as if they do not share a sinful nature with them. Both Donatus and Pelagius were so prideful concerning their human nature they failed to see this truth. Brown writes, “Augustine believed that the Church might become co-extensive with human society as a whole….God has made all men from one man, Adam in order to show, that ‘nothing is more rent by discord than this human race, in its flawed state; though nothing was so plainly intended by its Creator for living together.’” Augustine’s doctrine of original sin caused him to see the Church as a humble agent living in the midst of sinners. Indeed, the doctrine of original sin would be the main issue in the conflict with Pelagius.

The Donatists and Pelagians both believed in salvation by works. Augustine combated both heresies with the doctrine of Paul: salvation by grace alone. The Donatists did not make the distinction between the invisible and visible Church. Augustine’s doctrine of the Church combined with his doctrine of election prepared him for his conflict with the Pelagians. The worthiness of the Church was not dependent upon a “pure” episcopacy or the holiness of its members but it was dependent on the grace of Jesus Christ alone.

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