Augustine: the purpose of theology is love

(Note: this is an excerpt from “Performing Theology“)

Augustine was among the first theologians to think about theological method and purpose, if not as systematically as we are accustomed to. In Teaching Christianity, he sounds all the notes that will continue to ring throughout evangelical theology until today: the Church, using Scripture, in a process of spiritual formation, on the way to wisdom.

The Church is not explicitly expounded upon at length in the book, but it is in the background of the entire enterprise: “I am clearly dealing with Christians,” he says in the prologue,[1] and on the place of the community, he explains, “If God… only thundered out his revelation from the sky and by means of angels… then charity itself, which binds people together with the knot of unity, would have no scope for pouring minds and hearts together, and blending them with one another, if human beings were never to learn anything from each other.”[2] Theological reflection is carried out by Christians, in community. With that said, albeit briefly, he is on to his main task.

For Augustine, the material object of the task is “dealing with the Scriptures”[3] Everything else is rooted here–our aims will be scriptural aims. So the question becomes, How do we understand the scriptures?  “There are two things which all treatment of the scriptures is aiming at: a way to discover what needs to be understood, and a way to put across to others what has been understood”.[4] Discovering, for Augustine, is the process whereby signs are used “in order to signify something else.”[5] This practical process of discovery takes up the rest of the book, though the specific analysis of Scripture as defining object is brief.

Augustine spends much time on the “main chorus”, the ultimate purpose for theology. There is a twofold division, between things that are meant to be used and things that are meant to be enjoyed. Enjoyment “consists in clinging to something lovingly for its own sake,”[6] and under this rubric, God alone is meant to be enjoyed for his own sake, and everything else is to be used for that purpose. For Augustine, “enjoyment”, “love”, “contemplation”, and “wisdom” are nearly synonymous terms describing the ultimate goal of all of life, including theology. “The fulfillment and the end of the law and of all the divine scriptures is love . . . we love the means by which we are being carried along, on account of the goal to which we are being carried.”[7] Theological understanding can be tested by whether it has attained this end: “If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them.”[8] In fact, this goal of love is so determining, that even if someone mistakenly interprets Scripture, but in a way that builds up love, “they are mistaken in the same sort of way as people who go astray off the road, but still proceed by rough paths to the same place as the road was taking them to.”[9] Certainly, they must be “put right”, but love is of greatest importance, for, without love, “you have not understood.”[10]

There is a process of spiritual formation for attaining this enjoyment, and theology finds a place in this formation. “Our minds have to be purified, to enable them to perceive that light, and to cling to it once perceived.”[11] Knowledge is one part of this purification, but it is only one part. In Book II of De Doctrina, Augustine lays out a seven step process for this purification: 1. Fear of God, 2. Piety, 3. Knowledge, 4. Courage, 5. Counsel, 6. Purging, and 7. Wisdom, “the last and seventh stage, which is to be enjoyed in peace and tranquility.”[12] Knowledge is simply the third stage in this process on the way to wisdom.[13] It is “the stage that every serious student of the scriptures has to occupy himself. And he is not going to find anything else in them but that God is to be loved on God’s account, and one’s neighbor on God’s account.”[14] Proper knowledge “leads one to bewail oneself, not to vaunt oneself; and in this frame of mind one begs with assiduous prayer for the consolation of divine help.”[15] Knowledge of the scriptures has as one of its purposes the producing of a certain “frame of mind”: one that is moving toward greater purification and ultimately, wisdom. “To interpret Scripture, then, is a work of virtue above all, and its goal is the transformation of the interpreter in the love of God and neighbor.”[16]

This distinction between knowledge (scientia) and wisdom (sapientia) is one of Augustine’s signature motifs which he picks up in The Trinity. Knowledge is subsidiary, but necessary. “Nothing can be loved unless it is known.”[17] Knowledge makes “good use of temporal things” whereas wisdom is “contemplation of eternal things,” namely, “the contemplation of God which is to be the supreme reward of the saints.”[18] For Augustine it is wisdom, contemplation, that makes us “happy and blessed.”[19] Nevertheless, in Christ, the Word made flesh, he finds a unity for both wisdom and knowledge. “Our knowledge therefore is Christ, and our wisdom is the same Christ. It is he who plants faith in us about temporal things, he who presents us with the truth about eternal things. Through him we go straight toward him, through knowledge toward wisdom, without ever turning aside from one and the same Christ.[20] As fallen creatures not yet in glory, our finite minds need knowledge of temporal things to help us on our way to this higher end. This knowledge is but one part of the process by which wisdom is attained, but it is a necessary part.

Augustine has little to say about the watching world. He is primarily concerned with those in the Church, although he briefly mentions the need to defend true doctrine from false teachers. “Faith will start tottering if the authority of scripture is undermined; then with faith tottering, charity itself also begins to sicken.”[21] This is not greatly elaborated, but it is present, if a faint note in the chord.

For Augustine, the main theme of love for God is prominent and he plays the particular motif of knowledge and wisdom.

— — — — — — —

[1] Augustine, Teaching Christianity (De Doctrina Christiana) (ed. J. Rotelle; trans. E. Hill; New York: New City Press, 1996), 102

[2] Augustine, Teaching, 103

[3] Augustine, Teaching, 101

[4] Augustine, Teaching, 106

[5] Augustine, Teaching, 107

[6] Augustine, Teaching, 107

[7] Augustine, Teaching, 123, italics original

[8] Augustine, Teaching, 124

[9] Augustine, Teaching, 124; cf. Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love (tr. J. Shaw; Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1996), 135: “The man who loves aright no doubt believes and hopes aright; whereas the man who has not love believes in vain, even though his beliefs are true;” p. 135

[10] Augustine, Teaching, 124

[11] Augustine, Teaching, 110

[12] Augustine, Teaching, 132–133

[13] cf. Augustine, Enchiridion, 4–5 “Here surely is your answer as to what is the starting-point, and what the goal: we begin in faith, and are made perfect by sight.”

[14] Augustine, Teaching, 132

[15] Augustine, Teaching, 132

[16] Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 10, cf. Augustine, Enchiridion, 4–5 , “When the mind has been imbued with the first elements of that faith which worketh by love, it endeavors by purity of life o attain unto sight.”

[17] Augustine, The Trinity (ed. J. Rotelle; trans. E. Hill; New York: New City Press, 1991), 288

[18] Augustine, Trinity, 337

[19] Augustine, Trinity, 343, 80

[20] Augustine, Trinity, 367

[21] Augustine, Teaching, 124



Performing Theology

Various metaphors have been used to shed light on the nature of theology. Drama and symphony are two recent analogies. Along those lines, but in an arena more familiar to me, I want to argue that theology is like jazz piano. Each aspect of the theological task corresponds to the musical task of a jazz musician: there is the player, the bass note and its corresponding key; the “head”, or, first and final chorus; the inner chord voicings; and the audience. Likewise theology has a subject, the Church; a defining material object, God and his revelation; an ultimate goal, love; a process along the way, spiritual formation; and a watching world. Like most jazz, theology has a basic structure, but it also improvises along the way as it interacts with various contextual factors. Different players will emphasize different aspects, and some of the “inner voicings” will be nuanced and particular. The unique theological styles of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Karl Barth exemplify this variety within basic structural unity. Later theologians will borrow certain motifs, and downplay others. Certain notes will ring out loud and clear in one, and you will have to strain your ear to catch it in another. Nevertheless all the basic elements are there, and our own task will be to play this song in its fullness to our present day audience.

(read more: Kleven – Performing Theology)

The Glory of His Gift

An account of “given-ness” must start with a Giver, and follow a structure of Giver–giving–given. In order for it to be truly gift and not debt, this Giver must be free and complete in himself, not needing anything. Because he is perfect-life in himself, and active love and delight as Father-Son-Spirit, he is under no necessity to create in order to receive praise, love, or companionship. That he has indeed willed to create is a mystery of grace, a radical giving.

This act of giving, includes the giving of existence. God did not merely give form to an already existing substance: the gift is entire, ex nihilo. Because the Giver is personal, not merely causal, the gift of existence includes a grand purpose (for), not bare existence (that). This giving of existence and purpose is entirely an act of love, with the telos of fellowship. Man, an entirely contingent creature (Psalm 104:29), has his being, in all of its aspects, existence and purpose, as a gift from this Giver. He is not needed by God for anything (Acts 17:24–5), but has been granted the unfathomable gift of existence and experience of what is supremely delightful and good, fellowship with the Giver. In order to accomplish this fellowship, the Giver gives himself in revelation, making himself known to man, walking with him in the Garden, speaking words to him, revealing himself and further relating to him through this revelation.

Man’s rebellion is a twisting of this gift—ingratitude with his status as creature, impatience at the timing of the culmination of the gift, unbelief that the gift is good, perhaps even doubt in his own given, contingent being, denial of what—who, rather—has been revealed.

When the Giver gave the gift of existence for fellowship, he had already built deep within the gift an even deeper overcoming of this rejection of given-ness, a more comprehensive giving. He immediately enacted this Gift-Covenant when he banished them from the garden. His gift of revelation did not cease, but was continually poured out in gracious acts in history, words in the mouths of prophets and holy men, and ultimately in the coming of the Son, “gift upon gift” (John 1:16). This is the perseverance of the Giver, unfailingly carrying out his act of giving. He has not, he will not be dissuaded or hindered from his determination to carry out this giving to its final telos, a perfect and perpetual state of gift, in his presence.

Giver-giving-given: the Giver’s simplicity makes possible the characterization of his entire work under this heading. It could be considered under other heads (“love”, “holiness”) but “gift” is particularly fitting, as it is particularly the glory of his charis that Paul says is the aim. (Eph 1:6)

Jesus’s Wilderness Temptation (Matt 4:1–11)

The temptation in the wilderness is obviously an important event in the life of Christ, in which he resists the devil; but what does this event really mean? At first glance, this can seem like a strange episode with little direct application to us. Why were these particular temptations tried on Jesus? What is their significance? Further, what does this mean for us? Should we memorize more scripture and not give in to temptation? Or is there more to this story than that?

KLEVEN matthew 4.1-11 exegetical paper