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



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