I started reading Augustine’s City of God (trans. Marcus Dodds. Random House, 1950), beginning, per Thomas Merton's counsel, at Book Eleven, and with sensibly small hope of finishing or making much headway. As a topic, it's not directly biblical, and so falls beyond this blog’s immediate remit. But there’s no way that Augustine is immaterial to biblical interpretation, particularly now in the era of “theological intepretation.” Ergo, some scattered and theologically dilettantish thoughts:
1. Big point one: They had no editors in Augustine’s day. There is no point for him that is not worth making.
2. Augustine’s theodicy reminds me of John Piper’s – it’s been years, but I think Piper even uses the same kind of metaphors: the antithesis of good and evil, like the contrapositions of rhetoric, make for beauty, holistically considered (XI: 18). This is instinctively repellant to me; it seems to take the evil out of evil, make reality ultimately transcend these categories into which we throw our whole lives. Is this a residual dualism in me or a biblically stocked sensibility?
3. Similarly, Augustine argues himself into a corner when it comes to the good and evil angels. Because angelic blessedness depends on their assurance that they will remain eternally blessed, the angels that would fall later could not have shared in this assurance. Augustine thus ends up with the dubious conclusion that the angels were created two different ways: some with assurance of everlasting blessedness and others without it (albeit with some other form of primordial blessedness, but not the full treatment). They were created “on unequal footing” (XI: 13). Of course Augustine is jealous to protect the goodness of God throughout this book. It is his basic theme! He repeats variations on the phrase “good by God’s creation, wicked by his own will” like a Homeric epithet (XI: 17). But even so, it seems sketchy that all beings created in a specified way (without assurance of everlasting felicity) would end up unanimously wicked.
4. Augustine is absolutely at his best – period, full stop – when he is harping indefatigably on the goodness of the creation. His exultation in the sheer, irreducible goodness of the Creator and the crisply cast goodness of the creation is hair-raising. I can’t get tired of his insistence everywhere that even the most deplorably wicked things – a robustly evil will (XI: 17), even natural disasters, “fire, frost, and wild beasts” (XI:22) – cannot and must not be considered evil in themselves. Goodness is inescapable, pervasive, even as we bend and misuse it to the utmost. God even is the just Ruler of evil wills: not that he caused them (of course), but, foreseeing even such a catastrophe as the devil’s fall, God also foreknew “the good which He Himself would bring out of his evil, therefore says the psalm, ‘the leviathan whom Thou hast made to be a sport therein’” (XI: 17). That the mockery of angels constitutes the good compensatory to Satan seems debatable, but the confidence that God turns the worst to good is impressive.
5. I had forgotten how important the angels were to late antique and medieval theologians. I don’t know to what use Augustine puts his well-developed account of the angel’s origins and fall, whether he like Anselm after him makes it a crucial part of his story of redemption (i.e., the number of saved humans corresponds to and compensates for fallen angels). But there is a certain startling lavishness in Augustine’s vision – somehow it sobers and enchants me to consider that Augustine took the history and hierarchy of magnificent unseen beings with such protracted seriousness. They don’t even know the creature in itself! Their knowledge of us and our world is so elevated that they know – like God! – it as they contemplate it in God’s own Word (XI:29).
6. Augustine thought that the sun was a sentient being; this occurs in the context of his disagreement with Origen over the material world as a restraint (“houses of correction”) for the sins of preexistent, immaterial souls. Augustine proffers the sun as a conclusive reductio ad absurdum: how preposterous to think that if other beings had sinned in like measure to the sun, then we would have two or a hundred instead of one! No, our single sun is due to the Creator’s creative foresight and not the accident that only one sinner happened to deserve just such a penalty (XI: 23). This underscores just how different a world Augustine lived in, and momentarily raised for me the old and scientistic question, How can we trust someone’s ideas about God and humanity whose cosmology is so weird and childish?
7. It’s true, as my undergraduate philosophy professor pointed out, that Descartes ripped Augustine off (XI: 26). But there is a crucial difference: whereas Descartes (at least on the undergraduate philosophy version) by his focus on the reasoning subject as the only indubitable reality created the fateful Enlightenment ideal of the autonomous intellect, Augustine layers his discussion of the indubitable fundament with delight. We are, and know that we are, and – just as immediately – we delight in our being. Love is as integral to Augustine’s most reduced anthropology as thought; this seems massively consequential.
8. I found Augustine’s reading of Genesis 1 strangely moving. For sure there is ingenuity – capitalizing on the omission of the phrase “and it was good” after the creation of the Night was clever – but Augustine’s recasting of Genesis 1 as a drama of angelic creation and fall seemed genuinely to harness some of the chapter’s beautiful, enigmatic sweep. He proposes an explanation for the pre-solar light and darkness that is still darkling and primordial enough to seize the imagination. I would much prefer Augustine’s telling to most of the other (sanitized, boring) treatments of Genesis 1 I’ve been exposed to (XI: 20).
9. I thought Augustine’s description of the relentless, desperate pursuit of life, common to humans and animals and inanimate flora, had a certain psychological acuity (XI: 27). That he would give such a primal reality theological footing as some echo of the Trinity (or “footprint,” XI: 28) was daring, to say the least (i.e., in our existence, our knowledge of our existence, and our love of both our existence and our knowledge of it). On the whole, though, I found his echoes rather arbitrary. That could be the habitual nominalism of my age – but come on! Finding confirmation of divine triunity in the threefold division of philosophy seems like hanging your theological hat on such a random cultural artifact (XI: 25). It’s hard to believe that a man of Augustine’s brightness couldn’t spot cultural relativity even in such an obvious case of localized educational tradition.