An Introduction to “The Augustinian Revolution in Theology”

For quite a while I have been interested in learning about Augustine of Hippo and his theology. As I realized just how much impact Augustine has had on the Western church for fifteen centuries my desire continued to increase. Many of the doctrines I have taken exception to or had qualms about were established in church dogma because of Augustine. My opinions may right or wrong (just like everyone else) but I have been looking for deeper insight.

Of course it is easy to find glowing accounts of Augustine and his genius (I have no doubt that he was a brilliant intellect) but I have tried many times to find critiques of Augustine’s doctrines and methods with very little to show for it. The man is so revered that even those who disagree with him (I know they must be out there somewhere) seem to keep their opinions to themselves. So it was a very pleasant surprise when a few months ago I stumbled upon “The Augustinian Revolution in Theology” by Thomas Allin and edited by J. J. Lias. A large selection of older books (I think this one was published just before World War I) are now being published again by Forgotten Books based in England. For this I am truly grateful. Pastor Allin provides just the type of insight and critique that I have been looking for.

I will be publishing excerpts from Pastor Allin’s book over the next few weeks or months. Just as a warning you should know that Pastor Allin was a Universalist. While I am not a Universalist I still think that Pastor Allin’s contribution on this topic is an important one and is worth getting some exposure for.

In today’s quote, and future quotes, I will make some minor edits for clarity. For example some of the writings that Pastor Allin quotes are in Latin so I will provide English translations, when helpful, to the best of my ability. I will also renumber footnotes to help avoid confusion. Now let’s hear from Pastor Allin:

The clearest evidence we can desire of the character of Augustine’s teaching is furnished by a source beyond all suspicion – his own works. They contain TWO DISTINCT THEOLOGIES – an earlier and a later. Plainly these are due – the one to the Catholic traditions, which Augustine at first accepted with little question; the other to the mature workings of his own mind. Unfortunately, whenever these later tendencies of Augustine’s teaching are pointed out in our own days, there are to be found writers of a certain class who point us to the earlier and better teachings of his Catholic period, altogether forgetting the fact that in his later days he had given them up completely. One would hardly attempt to defend the later absolutism of Pio Nono by quoting his early liberalism. Nor would one strive to prove Dr. Pusey to be a lover of German theology in his later years by pointing to an early book of his in praise of German thought. Sometimes the earlier teaching of Augustine is adroitly mixed up be his apologists with his later heresies (the term is used in its proper signification of the deliberate choice of opinions which are not explicitly taught by the Catholic Church). The effect of this is to perplex the reader and to obscure the difference between Augustine’s earlier and later teaching. But it must be admitted that in his later writings his Catholic and his individual tendencies are often found in strange and even inconsistent combination.

The explanation of the genesis of these two theologies is easy. Shaken to the very depths of his being by the long agony which preceded his conversion, Augustine longed for rest, and yielded at first an apparently complete assent to the current teachings of that Church which had sheltered his troubled soul. After his long and weary quest after truth and certainty, a few years of repose were a necessity. To this period belong those books “De Libero Arbitrio,” “De Vera Religione,” and “De Diversis Quæstionibus,” etc., which speak well of human nature, defend free will, recognize human merit, lay comparatively little stress on the Fall, and assert the innocence of infants. Thus it is that one may quote Augustine against Augustinianism and find in the earlier writings an armoury of weapons against the later. A few specimens I give from his early works seem almost at his later doctrine of original sin. “You must,” he tells us, in very emphatic words, “either deny the existence of sin or admit that its commission is willful.” (a) Or, again, “Sin is so completely voluntary that in no way can there be sin except it be voluntary.” (b) Punishment would be unjust unless sin were willful. (c) Sin exists no where except in the will. No can sin be imputed to any one except to a willing agent. An inevitable sin is no sin. (d) Neither good nor bad can be fairly imputed to any one who has not acted of his proper will. (e) Infants are without sin. (f) More might be easily quoted to the same effect.

I pass on to another point. It is not God’s grace irriesistably working that saves, it is God’s warning and persuasion addressed to man who is free. (g) It is not Pelagius, it is the early Augustine who assures us that man is able to live rightly when he so pleases. (h) Also that by our free will we can merit God. (i) Once more, to believe is ours (i.e., faith is in our own power). If we obey the call we merit the Holy Spirit, both to believe and to will is ours. (j) There is in sinners something preceding (grace) by which they are made worthy of justification. (k) God’s predestination is not absolute, but contingent on the foreknowledge of character. (l)

As to the Fall, in these earlier writings its effect is regarded as chiefly negative. We lose the sign-manual of God. We remain merely creatures. We forfeit paradise, but of the later theories of Augustine we find hardly a trace. The approximation of such teachings to the tenets of Pelagius is striking; it is true they are not Pelagian, but they are certainly far nearer to it than to Augustine’s later views. How many centuries of conflict and disquiet has it already cost the West to regain the earlier position of Augustine, and how many more conflicts and anxieties still await her before completely regaining it?

The Augustinian Revolution in Theology
By Thomas Allin

Pp. 107-112

For a list of all posts in this series please see: Posts Quoting From Thomas Allin’s “Augustinian Revolution in Theology”

(a) “De Vera Religione,” 14, “Ut nullo modo sit peccatum si non sit voluntarium.”
(b) Ib.
(c) “De Libero Arbitrio,” i. I.
(d) Ib., iii. I, 17, 8.
(e) “De Diversis Quaestionibus Octoginta Tribus,” 24.
(f) “De Libero Arbitrio,” iii. 23, “Parvuli, quorum per ætatem nulla peccata sunt. [The children, who through the age there are no sins.]”
(g) “De Vera Religione,” 31.
(h) “De Libero Arbitrio,” ii. I, “Recte vivere, cum vult, potest [To live right, when he so wills, he can]”
(i) “Epistulae ad Romanos Expositio Inchoata.”
(j) Ib.

Explore posts in the same categories: Augustine of Hippo

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