A Substitute for Revelation
St. Augustine's program was to endow the church once for all with a solid doctrine that all rational people could accept. We have cited various authorities, all of whom agreed that it was St. Augustine who put Christianity on a new foundation, the shift being to a new emphasis on philosophy, made necessary by the new and sudden growth of the Christian community to a world church. Christ had said that his sheep hear his voice—and no others.1 But now the church, following the emperor's example rather than the Lord's, would speak with a voice that all the world could hear.
We have said that Origen's case proved that "where there is no revelation there is no certitude." But we have also noted that Augustine's problem is the same as Origen's: to achieve certitude without revelation. We are aware of various degrees of transport in Augustine's writings—but they are not really revelation. Many have pointed out that when Augustine's logical quest bogs down he leaps the gap by a kind of inspiration. He anticipates his answers, says Grabmann, "with a purely spiritual far-sightedness" 2 so that he does not really have to work them out; where his logic fails, according to Professor Coulton, Augustine wins through by sheer force of character. 3 Call it what you want, it is not revelation. The most ecstatic period of Augustine's life were the weeks he spent at Cassiciacum, culminating in what many consider to be his final conversion; yet of that period Combès writes: "He prays, he meditates, he idles, but especially he chats; and these conversations, minutely recorded by stenographers, [show that] the ideas of Cicero, Plato, and Plotinus . . . still occupy even in his spirit the foremost position, leaving only a little corner . . . for Christian ideas."4 We must not forget that various types of ecstasy were carefully cultivated in the schools of rhetoric in which Augustine had been raised, and we meet them all in his writings. Take this description of a "manifestation," for example. He says that as a result of reading certain books of the Platonists it was made manifest to him that things could be both good and corrupted; this leads him to another logical conclusion and this to another and so on: "therefore whatever is deprived of all good ceases to be; therefore things that are, are good; therefore whatever is, is good; . . . therefore evil is not any substance," etc., and so after some eighteen "therefores" or the equivalent, he triumphantly announces: "I perceived therefore, and it was manifested unto me that Thou madest all things good."5 This is what the schoolmen would call a manifestation. "Slowness and sinuosity" are the characteristics of Augustine's reasoning, according to Gilson,6 but swiftness and directness are the hallmarks of revelation.
The formal ecstasies and intellectual insights of the schoolmen are not real revelation, and Augustine knew it. In all fairness to him we must report that he would infinitely have preferred revelation to philosophy. Not only did he feel guilty about what he was doing, but it was only after long years of agonizing struggle and indecision that he at last, painfully and with heartbreaking reluctance, closed the book on revelation or recognized that he could not open it. What a difference there is, he cries in the City of God, between the ambiguities of the academicians and the certainty of the Christian faith! 7 And yet it is the Academy that he brings into the church, and without Plato, he informs us, his own conversion would never have taken place.8 The Confessions is the story of a man who all his life hungered for revelation—"Here are my ears, God speak to them!"—but in the end had to settle for a second best. He tells us of the founder of the state religion of heathen Rome, the great and good Numa, who though he did his best, had for inspiration to resort to hydromancy and the arts of divination. He was compelled (compulsus) to do this, says Augustine, because the poor man "had no prophet of God, nor any holy angel sent to him."9 Divination was a poor substitute for prophecy, yet Numa had no other choice. And was that not Augustine's position? In his quest for certainty, he tells us, he consulted the astrologers and soothsayers with a determination that moved even his superstitious friends to merriment, and he continued to seek out the astrologers even after he was a catechumen, a candidate for baptism, in his thirties.10 All his life he snatched at straws, condoning such practices as the use of sortes (divination by the random opening of the scriptures) and the visiting of oracles as being, if not desirable, at least better than nothing.11
The yearning of Augustine for real revelation and the inadequacy of all substitutes is beautifully brought out in his last conversation with his mother. Here these two saintly people bare their souls, and what they both wish for above all else is a real revelation: what is it like when God really speaks, they ask each other, when he alone speaks, not by any intermediary "but by himself, that we may hear his word not through any tongue of flesh nor angel's voice, nor in the sound of thunder, nor in the dark riddle of the similitude; . . . but we might hear the very One whom we only love in these other things, that we might hear his very self without these, . . . and if this thing could be continued on . . . so that life might be forever like that one moment of understanding for which we now sighed—would not that be 'entering into thy Master's joy?' And when shall that ever be?"12 In this moment of frank self-revelation Augustine admits that what he really wants is not revelation that comes by the preaching of men or even of angels, nor that comes through his laborious intellectual demonstrations, nor is the manifestation of God in nature—the voice of thunder—nor even the mystic flash of insight which both he and his mother experienced in their last conversation together, for even then they still "sighed after" the real thing and wondered what it was like.
In the 270 letters of Augustine that have survived, we see the man at work trying to answer the great questions of doctrine and administration that should have been answered by the head of the church. Letters pour in to him from all over the Christian world, and he answers them as best he can: He never refers the questioners to any higher authority, even though the cases are sometimes very serious and have nothing at all to do with his diocese; nor does he personally ever appeal to any higher authority, either in administrational or in doctrinal matters, however important they may be. This is not surprising if one knows the situation. "If there had been, in the Church of the 4th century, a central authority recognized and active, it would have offered a means of solution. But it was not so." Thus wrote Monsignor Duchesne, speaking of the administrative solution.13 But it goes just as well for the doctrinal. "There was not there a guiding power," says Duchesne, "an effective expression of Christian unity. The Papacy, such as the West knew it later on, was still to be born. In the place which it did not yet occupy, the State installed itself without hesitation. The Christian religion became the religion of the emperor, not only in the sense of being professed by him, but in the sense of being directed by him."14 Many of Augustine's letters illustrate this point admirably, but we cannot go into them. Let us consider briefly the doctrinal perplexity and the complete lack of leadership and direction in the church that is apparent in the Confessions.
For twenty years at least, Augustine was never able to find out just what the Christian church believed. He tells how he went to school as a boy and made fun of the things his mother believed, how he joined a strange Christian sect, the Manichaeans, which enjoyed enormous popularity at the time, and for once in his life thought he knew certainty; when he left the Manichaeans, he says the bottom of his world fell out, and he spent the ensuing years in black despair; he joined a group calling themselves the sancti, large numbers of whom were living secretly in Rome; and all the time his mother kept after him to return to the church of his birth, but this he could not do because their arguments could not stand up to those of the Manichaeans, from whom in a vague way he still hoped for light; when he finally became a catechumen upon the urging of his mother and St. Ambrose, easily the most important leader in the church of the time, he still did not know what to believe but was "doubting everything, tossed back and forth in it all." In listening to Ambrose, he says, he gradually came to the conviction that "if the Catholic Church did not teach the truth, at least it did not teach the kind of error I formerly attributed to it."15 Ambrose was another man with a thoroughly non-Christian education who had joined the church by compulsion late in life; it was he, says Augustine, who "drew aside the mystic veil, laying open spiritually those things which if taken literally seemed to teach perversity."16 Perversity to whom?—to Augustine and his fellow sceptics in the schools. Ambrose taught them that it was not necessary to believe all that childish literal-minded stuff in order to be a Christian. But why had he not known that from the first? He was born and reared a Christian by a singularly devout parent; now he was over thirty years old and had studied Christianity all his life—he was anything but stupid: why then had he been so thoroughly convinced that the church accepted the scriptures literally, as he and the other intellectuals never could? Simply because the Christians did accept them that way. Augustine says he could never accept the Bible until he realized that it was a double book, "so it might receive all in its open bosom, and through narrow passages waft over to thee some few."17
After this discovery, he tells us, a great hope began to dawn on him, namely, that the church did not teach as he had always thought it did, "that God is bounded by the figure of a human body."18 But why was he so convinced all those years that that was the teaching of the church? What had his earnest Christian parents and teachers been telling him about God all through his youth and adolescence if at the age of thirty he is still absolutely convinced that the Christians believe God has a body? "Since my earliest study of sapientia [that is, the learning of the schools]," he explains, "I had always fled [from the idea that God had a body]."19 It was the schools that taught him to do that; the Platonic God was the foundation of the current pagan instruction, and from it Augustine never freed himself. What he did free himself from was the beliefs of his mother—and I cannot doubt that the things which he thought his mother believed, after he had had constant and careful instruction from her from infancy to manhood, were what she and her church really did believe.
After describing the immense relief that came to him when he finally realized that he might become a Christian without giving up any of his philosophical ideas, Augustine says that he still did not have the vaguest idea how he should think about God!20 Couldn't the church tell him? Didn't Ambrose know? To make a very long story very short, he finally got his answer only when God procured for him, as he puts it, certain books of the Platonists. But he still thought that Christ as a man "had a human soul and mind," while Alypius, his inseparable friend, "thought the Catholics had a different idea about Christ; . . . that no human mind was to be ascribed to him." Many other people believed as Alypius did, he says, and many didn't.21 Where is the leadership of the church? Who could really tell him about God? Like Origen, he searched hard but found no one: in the end he had to work out the solution all for himself—from the ground up, and the church was only too glad to accept his solution.
"Augustine," says Thomasius, "is the true founder of the speculative theology of the Trinity,"22 which was to remain the most active branch of philosophy and theology for fifteen centuries. Convinced that the highest blessedness depended on a true and complete grasp of this mystery, Augustine exerted prodigies of energy and genius in trying to achieve it. For fifteen years he labored away at his thesis on the trinity, "without," says Thomasius, "ever reaching a satisfactory conclusion."23 Beginning with axiom No. 1 of the schools, the absolute oneness and immateriality of God, he tries to work a threeness out of it by a series of elaborate analogies with the human mind, only to reach the final conclusion that if such a procedure furnishes an inadequate answer, it is at least an answer: Impar imago, sed tamen imago!24 The Father and the Son "cannot be really different persons, yet neither can they be entirely the same"; and "since the Father has a Son, he cannot very well be the Father." Again, Augustine wants the Holy Ghost to be a person, but his philosophical training will not allow it. Here certainly is a place where revelation would be helpful; its intellectual substitutes break down at every point. We say there are three persons, Augustine sums it up, not because there are three, but because we must say something. (Non ut illud diceretur, sed ne taceretur).25 "Thus," Thomasius concludes, "this attempt, carried out with such labor and perspicacity by the great teacher of the Church, is only a proof that the Trinity is not to be proven in such a way."26 This is the same conclusion we reached regarding Origen, and a confession of Augustine to a friend in a letter reads exactly like Origen's frequent admission in the First Principles: The friend had asked why, since the trinity are in all things inseparable, Christ alone took on a human body? "This is such a supremely difficult question," the saint replies, "and such a very important matter that it cannot here be settled by a sententia, nor can we be sure of solving it by any investigation. I make so bold, therefore, in writing to you, to indicate what I have in mind rather than giving an explanation, that you might judge the thing according to your own best understanding."27
"Augustine," says Grabmann, "confronted face to face the hardest questions of Christian doctrine; those which have presented the greatest challenge to the human mind; and for years and for decades he worked away trying to solve them." That authority then lists the most important of these as unsolved, and says, "In these questions and others he has largely failed to work through to full clarity of understanding, and if dark and difficult passages on those themes are found in many places in his writings, he at least showed the way for all later theology."28 Wilhelm Christ, in the best-known "standard" history of Greek literature, writes that in the fourth century, Hellenism forced Christianity to go to its schools; "Christianity was squeezed into a system congenial to pagan-Greek-rationalist thought, and in that safe protective suit of armor was able to face up to the world, but in the process it had to sacrifice its noblest moral and spiritual forces." 29 How aptly this recalls Father Combès' declaration that Augustine wanted to give the church a doctrine so strong that she would never again have anything to fear from her enemies. The armor was provided—and at what a price!
As to the administrative problems with which Augustine wrestled, we can do no better than quote from a recent study by the learned Jesuit, Father Bligh: "St. Augustine provides the perplexing spectacle of an extremely wise and holy man who began by condemning the use of force against heretics, but changed his mind after observing the good effects of coercive measures taken without his approval. . . . Reverence for Augustine," he concludes, "forbids me to say that his justification of persecution was wrong; but its fruits were evil in the centuries which followed, and we may suspect that, if he had had as much experience to reflect on as we have, Augustine would have reverted to his first opinion."30
Here two able Catholic scholars have described St. Augustine, the one as toiling away for whole decades trying to work out the basic problems of doctrine and failing to come out with a clear solution, and the other as doing his best in the light of his limited experience to work out a basic policy of church government—with unfortunate results. The Latter-day Saints have always maintained that guidance both in doctrinal and administrational matters can come to the church only by revelation. We couldn't ask for a better case to prove it than that of St. Augustine, precisely because he is such a good and great man. The better man he is, the better he illustrates the point, which is that no man, no matter how good, wise, hard-working, devoted, and well-educated he may be, can give us certainty without revelation. In Father Bligh's opinion, time has not vindicated Augustine's opinions. It has shown that we can trust only the prophets.
1. John 10:2—24.
2. Martin Grabmann, Mittelalterliches Geistesleben (Munich: Max Hüber, 1936), 2:51.
3. Coulton, Studies in Medieval Thought (London: Nelson, 1940), 34—37.
4. Gustave Combès, Saint Augustin et la culture classique (Paris: Plon, 1927), 102.
5. Augustine, Confessions VII, 12, in PL 32:743.
6. Etienne Gilson, Introduction à l'étude de Saint Augustin (Paris: J. Vrin, 1929), 294—95.
7. Augustine, The City of God XIX, 18, in PL 41:646.
8. Augustine, Confessions VII, 9, 20, 21, in PL 32:740, 746—48.
9. Augustine, The City of God VII, 35, in PL 41:223.
10. Ibid., IV, 3; VII, 6, in PL 41:114, 199—200.
11. Arthur McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought, 2 vols. (New York: Scribner's, 1933), 2:76.
12. Augustine, Confessions IX, 10, in PL 32:774—75. (Italics added.)
13. Louis Duchesne, The Early History of the Church (London: J. Murray, 1931), 2:521.
14. Ibid., 2:522.
15. Augustine, Confessions VI, 4, in PL 32:721. (Italics added.)
16. Ibid., VI, 5, in PL 32:722.
17. Ibid., VI, 11, in PL 32:729.
18. Ibid., VII, 1, in PL 32:733.
20. Ibid., VII, 9, in PL 32:741.
21. Ibid., VII, 18, in PL 32:746.
22. D. Thomasius, Die Dogmengeschichte der alten Kirche (Erlangen: Deichert, 1886), 1:281.
23. Ibid., p. 281, n. 2, and p. 282.
24. Ibid., 283.
25. Ibid., 283—88; the last passage is from De Trinitate V, 8; VII, 4, cited in ibid., p. 287, n. 3.
26. Ibid., 287.
27. Origen, Epistle 11, in PL 33:75—76.
28. Grabmann, 2:44.
29. Wilhelm Christ, Geschichte der Grieschen Literatur (Munich: Beck, 1924), 2:955.
30. John Bligh, "The 'Edict of Milan': Curse or Blessing?" Church Quarterly Review 153 (1952): 309.