Thoughts on Augustine by Alexander V.G. Allen

I’ve decided to take a short break in my series of posts quoting Pastor Thomas Allin on Augustine to quote Alexander V.G. Allen on the same topic. Professor Allen’s book “The Continuity of Christian Thought: A study of Modern Theology In Light of Its History” was published in 1887 so some might think it has nothing to say to those of us living in the 21st century. I actually believe that the contrary is true; what Augustine actually taught is being ignored and with the resurgence of Calvinism (an offshoot of Augustinianism) needs to be studied carefully. If you don’t think that’s true I invite you to look for books critical of Augustine. The only ones I have found were originally published no later than 1914.

Professor Allen has some thoughts on Augustine that I never heard before and I want to share them with you. Anyone who has read my articles on Augustine will know I do not consider him to be a great theologian, I do believe he was a great philosopher but that is a different thing altogether. Professor Allen believes that Augustine had motives beyond love of the Word of God for the theological positions he took. This makes sense to me since it is consistent with human nature but you need to make up your own minds.

At that I will let Professor Allen share his thoughts with you:

To this church it was that Augustine had been converted, although the full significance of his conversion was not at once apparent, and for years his thought was in confusion in consequence of the lingering influence of a higher theology. But from the time when he became Bishop of Hippo, the ecclesiastical leaven began to work most powerfully, and truth, as such, was no longer the object of his life. Before the Pelagian controversy began, he was seeking for some dogmatic basis by which to justify the claims of the church as a mediator between God and man, without whose intervention salvation was impossible. In so doing he was laying the cornerstone of Latin theology. When the Pelagian controversy was over, the Latin church was for the first time in possession of a theology of its own, differing at every point from the earlier Greek theology, starting from different premises and actuated throughout by another motive.[i]

The foundation of that theology was the Augustinian dogma of original sin. That doctrine was alone adequate to explain the existence and mediatorship of the church, or to justify its claim to teach and to rule with supreme authority. The dogma of original sin was unknown to Greek theology as well as an innovation also in Latin thought, though it had vaguely broached by Tertullian and Cyprian, and intimations looking toward it are to be found in the writings of Ambrose. According to this dogma, humanity is absolutely separated from God in consequence of Adam’s sin. In the guilt of that sin the whole human race is implicated, and has therefore fallen under the wrath and condemnation of God, — a condemnation which dooms the race, as a whole and as individuals, to everlasting woe. So deeply is Augustine interested in establishing this position, that the redemption of the world by Christ inevitably assumes a subordinate place, and is practically denied. Adam and not Christ becomes the normal man, the type and representative, the federal head of the race. There is a solidarity of mankind in sin and guilt, but not in redemption, — a solidarity in Adam, not in Christ. There stands, as it were, at the opening of the drama of human history a quasi-supernatural being, whose rebellion involves the whole human family in destruction. Endowed with a supernatural gift, — the image of God in his constitution which united him closely with his maker, — he lost it for himself and his descendants by one sinful act, and thus cut off humanity from any relationship with God. In this catastrophe, the reason, the conscience, the will of man suffered alike; the traces of the divine image in human nature were destroyed.

How then is the sundered relationship to be restored? What is redemption, and how is it to be applied? The place of Christ in Augustine’s scheme is not a prominent one, for humanity has not been redeemed. Augustine continues to speak of Christ, it is true, in the conventional way, but he no longer finds in His work any bond which unites God with humanity. The incarnation has become a mystery, — God chose to accomplish human salvation in this way, but as far as we can see He might have adopted some other method. It almost seems as though, if Christ were left out altogether, the scheme of Augustine would still maintain its consistency as a whole and retain its value as a working system. The reasons which led Augustine to deny the universality of redemption were the same as had influenced Gnostics and Manicheans, — he was oppressed by the sense of sin in himself, the knowledge of it in others, the appalling extent and depth of human wickedness; these things to the mind of a practical Roman made it meaningless to think or act as if humanity were redeemed to God. But when the Christian principle of redemption had been abandoned, there was only one other alternative, and that was to follow still further in Gnostic and Manichean footsteps, — to adopt the principle of an individual election by which some souls were saved out of the great mass doomed to destruction. The bond of union between this world and God is the divine will, — a will not grounded in righteousness or love, into whose mysterious ways it is vain for man to inquire, the justice of which it is presumptuous for him to discuss. That will whose arbitrary determinations constitute right, chooses some to salvation and leaves the rest to follow out the way to endless misery. In one respect the Augustinian idea of predestination diverged from the Gnostic and approximated the later Mohammedan conception, — it is a predestination which acts here and there in an arbitrary way without reference to human efforts or attainments. The clearest manifestation of the divine will in the world, which is open to the gaze of all, is the Catholic church, the one divinely appointed channel through which God has decreed that the elect are to be saved. Predestination is to a process within the church. For although Augustine believed that outside of the church none could be saved, he by no means held that all within the church would escape damnation. Although all are to be compelled to enter the church, this is only in order that the elect among them who are known only to God may obtain the grace to be found alone in the church, by which they make their election sure.

The Continuity of Christian Thought: A study of Modern Theology In Light of Its History
by Alexander V.G. Allen
pp. 156-159

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


[i] It is in his famous treatise De Civitate Dei, and in his anti-Pelagian writings passim, that Augustine’s matured theological convictions are to be found in their complete form.

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4 Comments on “Thoughts on Augustine by Alexander V.G. Allen”

  1. Nemo Says:

    Just out of curiosity, what are the marks of a a great theologian that are different form those of a great philosopher?

    • Glenn Says:

      Hi Nemo,

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Your question is really interesting and I hope I can provide an interesting answer. I’m sure that my response below will not be acceptable to most philosophers or theologians so take it for what it’s worth.

      One of the things every philosopher does is to study and categorize whatever topic they are interested in and then speculate about it. I really don’t have a problem with studying and categorizing divine revelation (this would be systematic theology) but I do have a problem with much of the speculation that has occurred in general and Augustine’s speculation in particular. Augustine wanted a nice, tight logical system that answered certain questions that the scriptures didn’t provide satisfactory answers to (at least as far as he was concerned). So based on premises Augustine believed were reasonable he would begin to extrapolate and infer what he believed God was doing and what God’s motives were.

      Augustine would speculate in ways that I don’t think are honoring to the Lord. For example: If God is omniscient and omnipotent then he must have decreed everything that is ever going to happen (Augustine developed the idea of the divine decrees) and caused these events to come about. Then it follows that if God decreed everything that is to ever happen to us creatures then He must have wanted all the evil and suffering in the world for some purpose of His. Augustine basically came to the conclusion that with God “the end justifies the means” which I believe the Biblical testimony is completely opposed to. For a philosopher the system is all important.

      Just so you know Professor Allen who I quoted in this post would completely disagree with me on this. Early in his book he mentioned the early Christians and their refusal to speculate which he believed caused their theology to be “lower” or weaker than it should have been. To be fair I have speculated in some of my posts here over the years but I truly hope I never presented my speculations as the absolute truth. Trust in false speculation leads believers to do things God doesn’t want us to do.

      I hope this helps.

      Glenn

      • Nemo Says:

        Thank you for taking the time to respond, Glenn. Many people have argued that certain doctrines of Augustine are wrong, but this is the first time I see someone argue that he is a great philosopher but not a great theologian. As an Augustinian of sorts, I’m curious how you came to your conclusion, naturally. So thanks again for the detailed response.

        I take it that you don’t think Calvin is a great theologian either. But to his own mind, his system does the most to honor and glorify God. I suppose what does or does not honor God is also an interesting theological question.


  2. […] Allen’s basic premise is that Augustine and his theology, with is focus on original sin and depravity, predestination, the eternal state of the blessed and damned, and the role the church in all of this was the finishing touch in making Latin Christianity what it was, which was much different from Greek Christianity.  Today, of course, Reformed types back pedal Augustine’s role in the formation of their idea. But such is somewhere between ignorant and duplicitous, and most of then know it: as this blog points out: […]


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