Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Augustine of Hippo, I (PTT)

Introduction, Epistle 11, Question 69 of Diverse Questions

Augustine. Even to pronounce the name is to evoke the echoes of his significance for Western thought. Considered by many the greatest theologian since Paul, foundational for the Western theological tradition, it is almost impossible not to have an opinion about him (despite not having read him, as Barnes quips).

The details of his life (354-430) are easily read elsewhere. Moreover, the vast scope of his theological output is well beyond our attention here. Rather, as a slightly later contemporary to the controversies of the 4th century, Augustine provides an important, if not the important, Western theological witness to the victory of pro-Nicene thought.

Ayres treats of Augustine (364-383) as part of his attempt to show the consistency of his analysis of pro-Nicene strategies and grammar. Ayres notes that early Augustine certainly shows engagement with Platonist thought (Confessions 7), but that the influence of such texts and philosophies is more difficult to demonstrate than assume. Confessions 7.10 speaks of Augustine's conception of God as an extended material substance being challenged and reformulated as immaterial Being itself, and simple in Himself. Pointing to Confessions 7.9, Ayres further argues that Augustine came to those Platonist texts with a pre-existing pro-Nicene understanding. The dominant background of Neoplatonism in Augustine is open to significant challenge (see also post on Gunton/Barnes to follow).

Ayres looks to Letter 11, dated ca 389, for evidence of Augustine's early thinking. Here Augustine is responding to a question from Nebridius about why we say only the Son became incarnate. Augustine responds with a statement of the doctrine of inseparable operations (2), a pro-Nicene principle, and one that could be said to generate the very problem. While Augustine's answer leaves much wanting, as he treats of the interrelatedness of existence, particularity, and endurance of things that exist, and the need for epistemological condescension in our knowledge of the Father and Spirit through the Son, his clear commitment to some elements of pro-Nicene thought is evident. Ayres points further to De fide et symbolo (On the Faith and the Creed), 393 where Augustine shows himself aware of the key Latin anti-Homoian tradition, showing the equality of Father and Son, referring to 1 Cor 1:24, as well as an awareness of Pr 8:22 and other key texts in the debate.

The issue of the incarnation as particular to the Son is again dealt with in Sermon 52, ca 410, on Mt 3:13ff, where Augustine begins again with the inseparability of operations, but then writes, “ The Son indeed and not the Father was born of the Virgin Mary; but this very birth of the Son, not of the Father, was the work both of the Father and the Son. The Father indeed suffered not, but the Son, yet the suffering of the Son was the work of the Father and the Son.” (52.8). Augustine has found a manner of attributing commonality of works with distinction within those works.

Further evidence of Augustine's pro-Nicene strategies are seen in Question 69, from De diversis quaestionibus octoginta tribus (Responses to Miscellaneous Questions), in which he is tackling 1 Cor 15:28. In response to 'Arian' univocalisation, Augustine writes, “those things that were written about the distinction between the Father and the Son were written partly with reference to the properties of the persons [eg, begetter and begotten] and partly with reference to the assumption of humanity” (69.2). Augustine interprets the text with reference to the assumption of humanity (1 Cor 15:20, understands 'until' to not mean 'end' (as Lk 1:33 would contradict), and in relation as Christ is head of his body, the church (69.10).

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