Saturday, August 28, 2010

Feast of St. Augustine

Like my wife, Augustine has a terribly timed birthday (his, into heaven, of course).

Saint Augustine, the greatest Doctor of the Church, died on this day in 430 in Hippo Regius - a port city in North Africa, which today would be in Algeria. As he lay dying, reciting the seven penitential psalms, the city was being besieged by German Vandals. The whole of Roman North Africa would eventually succumb to these Arian Christians, but pass back into the hands of the Empire about a century later under the impetus of Justinian the Great. Luckily, it seems that the entirety of Augustine's library was saved from the destruction wrought by a people who today have their own crime named after them. The loss of Augustine's library would have been incalculable, as without it our theology would today no doubt be indistinguishable from Eastern Orthodoxy.

What were Augustine's greatest contributions?

1. The psychological analogy of the Blessed Trinity.

2. The modern concept of personhood.

3. The canonization of the filioque doctrine ( the and from the Son in the Western Creed)

4. The sacramental ex opere operantis / ex opere operato distinction.

5. The autobiographical genre (Augustinian protreptic)

6. The preservation of Paul's doctrine of grace from Hellenistic corruption (aka Pelagianism)

7. The Just War Theory

8. Freedom from spiritual elitism in the Church (i.e. Donatism)

9. A true understanding of the concept of spiritual substance in the Church.

10. Canonization of the baptism of infants.

11. Adequate formulation of the doctrine of Original Sin.

12. The doctrine of the Three Goods of Marriage

13. An unhealthy fear of pears.

The last one, of course, is a joke, the rest are all true.

I would love it if you could add some to this list I haven't thought of.

I think that few even serious Catholics realize how much of our doctrine is owed to Augustine. Protestants do, of course, but they, obviously, fail to concede to the full implications of his view of the sacraments in the economy of salvation. Catholics fail to appreciate Augustine because they are aware of Protestants' love of his doctrine of grace. These Catholics think that there is a difference between Augustine and Thomas on this one. There is not a substantial difference; Thomas was in every way his disciple. (You should read the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church of 1999 - also ascribed to by the World Methodist Council.) Some attempt has been made to make people aware of the extent of Thomas' debt to Augustine. A recent book called Aquinas the Augustinian goes some length to remind us of this. Historians of doctrine grasp the debt of both the Catholic Church and Aquinas to Augustine - sometimes just hiliariously, like in the singular prose of the great Protestant scholar, Adolf Harnack, who basically thought that the Orthodox Church is a superstitious gnostic sect as a result of the absence of a strong influence from Augustine. But speaking of the Orthodox (by the way, an unfair assessment from Harnack), I recently bought - but have not yet read - Orthodox Readings of Augustine. You should check it out...

Well, Happy Feast Day, all true lovers of the truth. Let's make it an octave!


  1. Hey, I thought you would appreciate this post as well as the Mark Shea link at the bottom.

  2. I'm amazed to hear that the ex operere operantis / operato distinction has existed for so long! I really thought this was from the Council of Trent or beyond. Now that I know this is St. Augustine, I think this is one of his most helpful teachings for today, especially in the light of scandals amidst the priesthood.

  3. True dat, Jenna. If we didn't have this distinction I think the Church would be a very hostile place.