Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Category: Augustine (page 1 of 2)

The Cesspit and the Perfume

You don’t have to spend too much time with me before you’ll find out that one of my heroes in the faith is Aurelius Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo. He is a brilliant thinker, a captivating writer, and a theologian who stirs souls as well as minds.

A couple of weeks ago he would have celebrated his 1658th birthday (he lived 354-430AD). In other words, he lived a long time ago. A lot has changed in the world, but his writings continue to remain both relevant and helpful. Recently I’ve been reading his City of God.

Here are some of his thoughts on the good & evil that befalls both righteous and unrighteous people.

Continue reading

How to React to the Fall of Rome – Part 2

In the previous post we saw that the ancient church’s view of a historical phenomenon (namely, the Roman Empire) shifted dramatically within the space of a few generations, on account of their particular experiences with that empire.

I would suggest that we have seen something somewhat similar take place over the past few generations up until our day–though not with an empire, per se.

I think it is particularly interesting to see how many Christians lament over the end of modernism the way Jerome mourned the fall of Rome. So many of us weep over modernism as if it was a Christian creation, designed for the spread of the gospel–God’s chosen means for reaching the world.

In reality, there is little that is further from the truth. In and of itself modernism was never a friend to the gospel. Secular modernist philosophers and scientists have always used modernism as a means of attacking and discrediting the claims of the Christian faith.

For all the ways that modernism has provided a platform for displaying the truthfulness of Christianity (text criticism, archaeological studies of ancient cities, much of creation science, etc.), it was never a ‘Christian’ view.

The trustworthiness of Christianity in a modern mindset boils down to little more than making a ‘case for Christ’ logically. The trouble is that Christianity, by its very nature, will not fit in these categories.

All that we are as Christians is based on the claim that Jesus Christ was entirely God and entirely man, lived a perfect life fulfilling God’s law, suffered and died to take on the curse of the law for us who receive his righteousness, and that God really did physically and literally raise him from the dead.

But here’s the deal: I can’t prove that to you in a scientific way. I can point to evidences, but that’s all. There is something necessarily personal and experiential (existential?) about the Christian faith. What we believe is not relativism, because our believing does not determine whether something is true or false, but our faith is what saves us.

In other words, it’s something personal, internal, ‘unprovable’ that makes all the difference in the world. That’s what our religion is based on. This is the kind of thing that modernists can’t grasp. They want something to touch, to examine, to test, to prove.

So what then? Do we rejoice over the fall of Rome? Do we rush off to align ourselves with the newest invaders who have come to expose Rome’s weaknesses? Do we embrace all that is postmodernism with open arms?

I suggest that we do what Augustine did. We use this opportunity to look around and evaluate from the perspective of eternity. What about modernism was evil and passing? What was good? What reflected God? How was modernism used for the spread of the kingdom?

And then, we ought to begin asking some careful questions about the ‘empire’ that is coming upon us. How can we use its strengths and its weaknesses to further the cause of the kingdom? How does postmodernism provide ways for the gospel to go forth that modernism never would?

In the end we must remember that neither modernism nor postmodernism is ‘God’s perspective.’ These philosophical mindsets are of man, and they will pass. We need to examine the world around us closely so that we can see how to better hope in, trust in, and point to the world that is to come.

How to React to the Fall of Rome – Part 1

Looking over my notes today from my early church history course, I noticed something interesting. It’s nothing new or profound, but it caught my attention anyway. The church’s response to the fall of Rome was weird, in many ways.

I think it’s necessary to lay some background before we move on.

From the founding of Christianity (Pentecost somewhere around 33AD) to 64AD the Christian church enjoyed religious protection, since it was seen by Rome as a Jewish sect. When Rome burnt in 64AD, however, Nero needed someone to blame and so he blamed the Christians.

Nero’s actions set the precedent for persecution of Christians that would last the next few hundred years. Rome was ruled by pagans who hated Christians. From the heart of Rome all the way up to places like Gaul (southern France) Christians were persecuted.

It is important to note that throughout this time period, Christians saw the hand of Satan at work in the Roman Empire, as both he and they sought to destroy Christ’s church.

Skipping ahead a few centuries, we find that in 312AD a Roman Emperor (Constantine) becomes a Christian. This is part of a monumental shift for the way Christianity and Rome came to relate. Though (contrary to popular belief) Constantine did not legislate Christianity, he did legally protect Christians from persecution.

As Christianity gained favour with the upper segments of society (it’s popular to like what the emperor likes), Rome grew in favour with the Christians as well.

Within a few generations, it seems, Christians had forgotten that Rome had for so long killed and persecuted their forefathers in the faith. Now Rome was a friend to them, and they could see it as nothing else.

This is seen nowhere more clearly than in Jerome’s reaction to the fall of Rome. In his writings, he laments the fall of the Roman empire, citing Scriptures originally speaking of Jerusalem, and now using them in reference to Rome! Christians like him wept and lamented that this ‘Christian’ empire could fall.

This is a far cry from the view of Christians who had lived only a few generations before him, who saw Satan at work through the Roman empire.

How could this shift have happened?

It happened because Christians like Jerome were so consumed with what they could see in their own time, that they lost sight of what the scriptures truly do say about kingdoms, empires, and earthly regimes.

Just as a side note, in closing, it must be noted that my personal hero, Augustine, did not fall prey to such a short view. In response to Jerome, Augustine would write letters to him, admonishing him to look past Rome to the City that will never fall. Likewise, against the pagans who said that the fall of Rome meant the fall (and failure!) of Christianity, Augustine wrote the City of God which functions as a theodicy and an apologetic to the philosophers of his day.

What does all this have to do with us and how we view history today, as it unfolds? That’s for another post.

God’s Grace in Augustine’s Theology

The following excerpt is taken from the full article, available here.

In order to understand Augustine’s theology of God’s sovereign saving grace, one must first understand Augustine’s view of the will. According to Augustine (and all the ‘catholic’ church after him) the will was free, but only insofar as it would choose what it desired.13 ‘Without exception,’ he writes, ‘we all long for happiness. … All agree that they want to be happy, just as, if they were asked, they would all agree that they desired joy.’14 Augustine’s point is that although we all desire true happiness (which is found only in God), our wills alone are not strong enough to enable us to achieve it.

It is only in this context, when we understand man’s plight (he desires true happiness, but is not able to will himself to find it since it is found in God alone, in whom he cannot delight while he is in the flesh15), that we are now prepared to truly appreciate Augustine’s understanding of God’s grace: ‘Saving grace, converting grace, in Augustine’s view, is God’s giving us a sovereign joy in God that triumphs over all other joys and therefore sways the will.’16 Grace, then, is God’s active changing of our heart’s desires so that we can truly desire him above all else, freely choose him, and as we love him, find in him our true soul’s joy.17 Our wills are always free to choose to do those things which we delight in, but they are never free to choose what our wills will delight in.18 That is why we need God’s grace.

Since God’s grace is a free gift on which all of our heart’s desires and all of our salvation depends, God’s grace is necessary for more than just our conversion: it is necessary for true, ongoing, joyful obedience. Once converted, Augustine could pray, ‘Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will! … All this makes clear, O holy God, that when your commands are obeyed, it is from you that we receive the power to obey them.’19 As Piper sums up this aspect of Augustine’s theology of God’s grace he says this: ‘Grace governs life by giving a supreme joy in the supremacy of God.’20 As it is grace which converts us and causes us to obey, it is God’s sovereign grace which will keep us secure in him until the final day. Augustine’s theology of God’s grace is the understanding that would persist through the era of the early church and which would rise triumphantly again through Luther and Calvin in the Reformation. It has been passed on through the Puritans to the Evangelicals, and endures to this day as the historic orthodox Christian doctrine of God’s sovereign saving grace.

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13 Aurelius Augustine, Confessions (trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin; London, Eng: Penguin Books, 1961), 228-229. Augustine reasons that not all are able to willingly follow God, and there find the true happiness they seek, since ‘their will to do what they cannot do is not strong enough to enable them to do it’ (229).

14 Augustine, Confessions, 228.

15 Here Augustine cites Gal 5.17 (Confessions, 229).

16 Piper, Sovereign Joy, 59 (emphasis original).

17 The phraseology is intentionally chosen to be reminiscent of Augustine’s own conversion experience: ‘During all those years [of rebellion], where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke? … How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose!You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honour, though not in the eyes of men who see all honour in themselves…. O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation’ (Confessions, 181; emphasis my own).

18 Thus, in another place, he could write, ‘If those things delight us which serve our advancement towards God, that is due not to our own whim or industry or meritorious works, but to the inspiration of God and to the grace which he bestows.’ T. Kermit Scott, Augustine: His Thought in Context (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 203; as cited in Piper, Sovereign Joy, 59.

19 Confessions, 236.

20 Sovereign Joy, 61.

Augustine’s Love for God

My love of you, O Lord, is not some vague feeling: it is positive and certain. Your word struck into my heart and from that moment I loved you. Besides this, all about me, heaven and earth and all that they contain proclaim that I should love you, and their message never ceases to sound in the ears of all mankind, so that there is no excuse for any not to love you. But, more than all this, you will show pity on those whom you pity; you will show mercy where you are merciful;[1] for if it were not for your mercy, heaven and earth would cry your praises to deaf ears.

But what do I love when I love my God? Not material beauty or beauty of a temporal order; not the brilliance of earthly light, so welcome to our eyes; not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace. It is not these that I love when I love my God. And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfilment of desire. This is what I love when I love my God.[2]


[1] Ro 9.14

[2] Aurelius Augustine, Confessions (translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, © Penguin Books, 1961), 211-212.

On the ‘Inadequacy’ of Language

I’ve often come across (and myself even flirted with) several forms of the notion that language is entirely ‘inadequate’ to describe God. In fact, I still in many ways find this to be true. No language can exhaustively declare the reality, the beauty, the holiness of our Triune God.

What is unfortunate, however, is how often people in our day will take their queues from neo-orthodoxy and give up on propositional language at all to describe God. God becomes one meant to be experienced rather than spoken of.

I have found some observations from Vern S. Poythress on this topic to be quite helpful, so I thought I’d post them for your pondreing as well.

On what basis are we to make judgments about adequacy and inadequacy … ? What could we mean by saying that human language is inadequate to talk about God … ? In what way is it “inadequate”? And what do we expect talk about God … to be like? Our expectations and definitions of “adequacy” … are themselves shot through with values, with preferences, desires, standards, and perhaps disappointments at goals that we set but are not reached. Where do these values come from? If God is Lord, we ought to conform our values to his standards. Hence there is something intrinsically rebellious about negatively evaluating biblical language [for its adequacy as "God talk"].[1]

He continues, pointing out the self-defeating nature of these notions of the uselessness of language to speak of God:

How does the objector obtain the necessary knowledge about God, truth, and cultures in order to make a judgment about the adequacy of language for expressing theology and truth, and for achieving cross-cultural communications? How does he do this when he himself is largely limited by the capabilities of his own language and culture?[2]

So, what can we say to all these things? Is language enough to speak of God sufficiently? Absolutely not. But at the end of the day, I think it’s safest to land where Augustine does, after spending a page of small print describing some of the glorious mysteries of God:

You are my God, my Life, my Holy Delight, but is this enough to say of you? Can any man say enough when he speaks of you? Yet woe betide those who are silent about you!

I may never be able to describe God completely, but may that never stop me from spending every last breath he gives me declaring his goodness and his glory!


[1] Vern S. Poythress, “Adequacy of Language and Accomodation,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 353.

[2] Ibid., 354.

A Few Thoughts on Friendship

Friendship is a wonderful thing. Christian friendship is infinitely better. In fact, I think it would be correct to say that only Christians can experience true friendship.

From a biblical standpoint, one’s will and affections are ultimately rooted in his heart. If the heart of an individual is unregenerate, his only love is self-love; he only seeks his pleasure, his heart is proud, and he delights in evil. His will and affections, then, from whence friendship must flow are perverted.

But the heart of a Christian is different. The heart of a Christian is primarily oriented towards the worship and enjoyment of God. From this type of heart, friendship will simply be a partnership in achieving this goal. In other words, a friend is one who loves God by displaying God to me, that in our friendship I might see more of God and thus love God more. In our friendship, I will enjoy God to greater degrees than I had previously known, because I experience the life of God and the mercy and love of God in my friendship with another Christian.

It is at this point in particular (the theocentricity of friendship) where Augustine departed from philosophers who had come before him and had attempted to define true friendship. “While friendship by classical writers is described as a search together for beauty, truth, and wisdom, in Christian friendship, the search ultimately leads friends to the source who is Beauty, Wisdom, Truth, and Love.”[1] God being the ultimate object of all human desire is not a new theme to Augustine in the Confessions, but here it is introduced as the very basis of all Christian friendship: Helping one another pursue our Sovereign Joy.

Perhaps the most profound element of friendship in Augustine’s thought is the idea that in friendship, one will fulfil the twofold commandment. Augustine here adapts Cicero’s definition of friendship, which involved simply doing what is best for the other person, in a reciprocal relationship. “If God is seen as the highest good towards which everything must be directed and if all love must focus on God before all else for it to be truly Christian, friendship among Christians gains a new perspective.”[2] For Augustine then, you are loving God and loving another as yourself by helping him to love God, which is his greatest good, which in turn he will do for you, as this is your greatest wish for yourself as well. Friendship for friendship’s sake—even friendship for the other person’s sake—is no longer in view at all in Augustine’s thought.

This friendship which is centred entirely on God and his goodness benefits all involved by helping them to gain a clearer vision of him. “Sage has observed that the anima una ‘est pour S.Augustin, à partir de 407, l’énigme et le miroir par excellence où il nous est donné dès ici-bas à comprendre, comme nous le pouvons, le mystère de Dieu’.”[3] To Augustine, the most valuable friend in the world is the one who can best reveal God to him and push him to pursue God. In short, “Augustine thinks of friendship as beginning, continuing and ending in God—friendship is participation in the life of God.”[4]

Augustine never reached the goal of friendship he desired in this life, because what he desired was none other than God himself, and the pure unadulterated fellowship with fellow humans which flowed out of that. “His ideal was no earthly society but a heavenly community of mutually loving members of the City of God (described as ‘a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God and a mutual fellowship in God’) and only here would men be able to know one another completely and to form a perfect intimacy, as friends aimed to do.”[5] But that day has now come for Augustine, and will soon come for us. The lesson for us in the meantime is to pursue God and to pursue friendships in which we can push others in their pursuit of God and find ourselves encouraged as well—and to do so with all the strength and vigour that Augustine did.

For more on this, see here.


[1] Edward C. Sellner, “Like a Kindling Fire: Meanings of Friendship in the Life and Writings of Augustine,” Spirituality Today (Fall 1991, v.43.3), pp 24-257. Also available online at http://www.spiritualitytoday.org/spir2day/91433sellner.html.


[2]
Carolinne White, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 197.

[3] As quoted in White, Christian Friendship, 210.

[4] “Ten Augustinian Values: An Introduction.” Available online at http://www.angfrayle.net/values/value9.html.

[5] White, Christian Friendship, 205.

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