Tag Archives: saint augustine

Augustine on Learning How to “Agree to Disagree” Well

Over the coming weeks, I hope to tackle two major issues that threaten the unity of God’s people. I will offer one blog post/ book review on the subject of “Can ‘Charismatic’ and ‘Liturgical’ Christians Worship Together?” The second, and more visceral issue, I will dedicate a multi-part blog series on: “Should Women Serve as Elders, Deacons,or Pastors?”

Is it even possible to “agree to disagree” on issues like these? Some think not. Some say that by giving allowance for such diversity of perspectives in a church is an invitation for false teaching to come in and distort the Scriptures.

Sandro Botticelli, Sant’ Agostino nello studio (Saint Augustine in the studio), Fresco, Chiesa di San Salvatore in Ognissanti, Florence.

The African bishop of centuries ago, Saint Augustine, wrote about this dilemma in his classic, On Christian Doctrine (Chapter 36), arguing that the objective of good Scriptural interpretation is to encourage love of God and love of neighbor:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. For there is involved in deception the intention to say what is false; and we find plenty of people who intend to deceive, but nobody who wishes to be deceived….

Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether.

In other words, some people, even teachers in a local church, can make erroneous judgments when reading the Bible, from time to time. But Augustine’s advice is not to immediately throw such people under the bus, treat them as “agents of Satan,” and objectify them as enemies. Instead, Augustine contends that a concerted effort be made to gently, respectfully, patiently, and lovingly seek to correct such error in others, and bring such people along the right path. Sometimes, people do fall off of the high road, but it is possible for them to find their way back, through the fields, to the same place where the road leads. It can be difficult work, but caring brothers and sisters in the Lord will often help those folks along, to find the right road again.

As Proverbs 15:1 puts it, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Christians should be a people ready with a gentle answer, as opposed to a harsh word.

It bears noting that Augustine was no wimpy Christian, when it came to the threat of heresy. Have you ever heard of the Donatists? If not, then there is a good reason for that. It was Augustine’s pen that was largely responsible for wiping out the Donatist heresy that threatened to pull the church completely apart, during the 5th century A.D. But Augustine nevertheless sought to facilitate dialogue in order to seek to persuade  those who had a wrong view of Scripture. His words serve as a useful model for how to work through controversy among Christians today.


Why Saint Augustine Changed His Mind About the Millennium

"The Course of Empire: The Destruction." Thomas Cole, 1836, showing the Sack of Rome in 410 A.D.

The Course of Empire: The Destruction.” Thomas Cole, 1836, showing the Sack of Rome in 410 A.D. Click to enlarge for more detail.

It was the year 410 A.D. The Visigoths had come down from the north, sacking the city of Rome, the capital of the world’s greatest empire. People all over the Mediterranean were in shock, as they heard the story of the ruins and dead corpses laying in the streets. This was the “9/11” event of their day.

The pagans blamed the Christians, and they had their reasons…… Pardon some of the anachronisms, but I can imagine their rant…..

“Within a few decades, these Christians had gained the political power of the emperorship. Rome’s centuries of pagan gods were then officially abandoned by the government. Now these Christians had messed up everything. They had put a bunch of ‘Bible-thumping’ idiots into power, offending our pagan moral sensitivities, and leaving the empire vulnerable to their northern enemies.

The once-great empire was now on the verge of total collapse, no thanks to these ‘Bible thumpers.’  These Christians are to blame for our troubles!”

…..  so thought the pagans, in their mockery.

Most Christians were unable to effectively respond to these charges. After all, Christianity had finally ascended to the top echelons of Roman society, and now it looked like the whole Roman world was falling apart! The Christian community provided the perfect scapegoat for Rome’s collapse.

Yet one man, the venerable bishop of Hippo, in North Africa, Saint Augustine, rose to the challenge. In his monumental work, City of God, Augustine instead laid the blame for Rome’s troubles on the moral dissolution and steady ethical decline that had plagued pagan Roman culture for century after century. To this day, City of God remains one of the greatest classics of Western culture, and a high watermark for Christian apologetics.

Augustine’s defense of the faith, however, came with a twist. Put in today’s terms, Augustine appeared to have “gone liberal.” But Augustine would not have seen it that way at all. After some reflection, Augustine came to believe that many Christians had misinterpreted the meaning of the “millennium,” the 1000-year reign of Christ, described in Revelation 20:1-6. Augustine, once a confirmed believer in a literal millennium, had basically flip-flopped, and changed his mind. But why?1
Continue reading


Botticelli and the Search for the Divine

Sandro Botticelli, Sant’ Agostino nello studio (Saint Augustine in the studio), Fresco, Chiesa di San Salvatore in Ognissanti, Florence.

It is worth your time, if you are in the Williamsburg, Virginia area, to consider viewing the Sandro Botticelli exhibit at the Muscarelle Museum and the College of William and Mary, on tour in the United States, but only at the Muscarelle until April 5.

As an Italian renaissance painter, who counted Michangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci as contemporaries, my favorite painting is that of Saint Augustine, in his study. Augustine is in the process of writing to St. Jerome, who had recently died, though Augustine was not aware of this, when he began his letter. As the story goes, the scene anticipates Augustine’s reaction to a vision of hearing St. Jerome’s voice, rebuking him for trying to understand the mysteries of Heaven, with Augustine’s earthbound reason.

Many of Botticelli’s works were lost when an exuberant 15th century Dominican priest, Girolamo Savonarola, sought to rid Florence, Italy of objects that might tempt one to sin, on the Mardi Gras festival. Thankfully, not all of Botticelli’s works were destroyed during the Bonfire of the Vanities, so be sure to catch a glimpse of them at this, the first traveling exhibit of Botticelli’s work, to the United States.

Enjoy.


Saint Augustine on the Literal Interpretation of Genesis

Saint Augustine.  Champion of the biblical doctrine of Grace..... but troublesome to many regarding the damnation of unbaptized infants.

Saint Augustine. Bishop of Hippo. (354-430)

In recent years, some have argued that anything other than a “literal” reading of the first few chapters of Genesis would be a compromise against the authority of the Bible. Any other approach is a capitulation to the spirit of the modern age that would undermine the faith of the believer, smuggling in a materialist, evolutionary worldview that is inconsistent with and hostile to Holy Scripture.

The modern concern is genuine, and it should not be taken lightly. The idea of injecting philosophies that are at odds with Christian faith should indeed be rejected by those who care for the absolutely supremacy of God’s Word. Nevertheless, such an argument with respect to materialist evolution would have been completely incomprehensible to the early church scholar and Bible teacher, Saint Augustine.

For the great African Christian intellectual of the early 5th century, Augustine had other concerns. An atheistic, “Darwinian evolution” could not be anachronistically inserted into his thought or vocabulary. In his classic work, De Genesi ad litteram, known in various ways in English as “On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis,” Augustine wrestled with the most appropriate way to interpret God’s Word faithfully. For Augustine, to interpret something “literally” means to interpret “in the sense intended by the author.”

Studying the history of the church is a neglected task in today’s evangelical Christianity, which is obsessed with the supposed virtues of “newness,” continually reinforced by rapid changes in technology (would you have read this blog on your phone ten years ago??). But church history can tell us a lot about ourselves today. Do we have the courage and discipline to learn from our forebears?

In the early church, Christians held different views on the interpretation of Genesis, just as we find today. On one side, there were those like Basil the Great, who saw the days of Genesis as being 24-hour creation days, thus rejecting the allegorizing approach advocated by Origen of Alexandria. Augustine was well aware of these debates, and he sought a different way to work through the issues. Augustine’s theory that God created everything instantaneously, based on his understanding of Psalm 33:6-9, is surely out of step with most Christian views of earth’s origins today, but nevertheless he still offers some advice that might help believers who wrestle with these challenging biblical texts.

Does Augustine help you? Read on, and let me know what you think.

Continue reading


%d bloggers like this: