Theology & Culture (5): Case Studies (Augustine, Kuyper, Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, Neuhaus)

Upon arriving at Southeastern Seminary in 1996, I had little or no motivation to study church history and historical theology. I wanted to learn “the bottom line” on the major biblical and theological issues, and then get on with the business of sharing the gospel and defending the faith. My assumption was that I could learn the “bottom line” quickly, and ought do so through my personal Bible study and some books written by late 20th century evangelicals.

This assumption, however, was unhelpful. In relying exclusively on my personal Bible study and a handful of contemporary evangelical books, I was missing out on the instructive and inspiring stories of men and women of old, and the enduringly influential books that many of them wrote. I was naïve to think that I could not benefit from the theological and ministerial lessons to be learned from the universal church, lessons which can be learned by reading books written by Christians who lived in centuries past or by Christians who live “apart” from me geographically and culturally.

Since that time, I have grown to love and appreciate historical theology and global theology, and try to teach my courses in conversation with those theologians. In my recent Theology & Culture seminar, we discussed historical figures such as Balthasar Hubmaier, Augustine of Hippo, Abraham Kuyper, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Richard John Neuhaus.

Augustine of Hippo

From Augustine’s City of God, we learned that the church needs to cultivate theologians who are able to speak with power and prescience to their socio-cultural contexts. On August 24, 410, the Alarics/Goths sacked Rome. The Roman intellectuals and common people scrambled to interpret this event, to make sense of it. Many of them concluded that the Roman gods were taking revenge because the Roman people had embraced Jesus Christ. Their argument was political, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their founding myth (Romulus and Remus, the Aeneid, etc.) in favor of the biblical narrative. It was also religious, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their gods in favor of Christ. Finally, it was philosophical, arguing that the Romans had departed from Platonism in favor of the Incarnation. On this backdrop, Augustine received a letter from Marcellinus, a Christian who walked in power circles in Rome, asking for help in answering the Roman narrative.

Augustine responded to Marcellinus with a 1,000 page letter. In his letter, the City of God, Augustine argued that the Roman intellectuals’ interpretation was wrong. He did so by arguing that Rome’s story was only one small story in the midst of a much larger narrative which is grounded in Christian Scripture. He argued that there are really two cities, the city of God and the city of man. Each city has a basic love-either God or idols. Each city is symbolized in the Bible by an earthly city-Jerusalem and Babylon. Each city has a telos-eternal life or eternal death. In making his argument, Augustine not only provided a powerful biblical theology, he also demonstrated that he knew the Romans’ literature, philosophy, politics, and history. He referenced their great authors with ease, quoted them favorably when possible, and showed how they fell short of Christian truth. He unmasked their political pretensions, showing that although Rome claimed to love justice, they really loved domination. He unmasked their religious pretensions, showing that their intellectuals didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. He unmasked their philosophical shortcomings, showing that Christianity outstrips Platonism.

His critique of Rome was theological, meaningful, dialogical, timely, fair, reasoned, evangelistic, and eminently learned. Our evangelical churches can learn from this; we ought to encourage our people, our pastors, and our professors to nurture in one another the desire to exegete culture as well as Scripture, to cultivate the head as well as the heart, to always be ready to give reason for the hope within and to do so in a cogent and persuasive manner as Augustine did.

Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper’s biography and his Lectures on Calvinism showed us a Christian who, like Augustine, not only critiqued culture but made culture. He was a pastor, a journalist, a newspaper founder, a professor, a university founder, a parliament member, and a Prime Minister. From these manifold and unique vantage points, Kuyper sought to work out the implications of the gospel.

Kuyper was known for several teachings that framed his views on theology and culture. The first is antithesis: he believed that there is a great battle between the kingdoms of God and the kingdom of men, and that the intellectual elite in modern society tend to encourage a swan-step conformity to a-theistic and secular ideals. The Christian community needs to resist this conformity. The second is sphere sovereignty: he believed that various spheres of human culture (arts, sciences, politics, religion, etc.) each function because of a God-given purpose, are independent of one another as spheres, but are never independent of God as Lord. Christians, therefore, ought to resist false sacred/secular dichotomies in favor of allowing the Christian worldview undergird our culture work in these spheres.

The third is the cultural mandate: Kuyper believed that God created humans as cultural beings who ought to do their culture work to God’s glory. The fourth is the significance of culture: as T. M. Moore describes Kuyper’s view, “Redeemed culture-culture used under the lordship of Christ-is most conducive to promoting the well-being of people and the glory of God, while sinful culture undermines human dignity and leads to social and moral degradation.”* It is incumbent upon the Christian community to put forth a sustained effort in cultural matters.

From Kuyper, we learn the church’s need for a comprehensive and sustained approach to its cultural context, which includes not only cultural exegesis but constructive cultural work. We learn that we should not rely exclusively or even primarily on political coercion, but rather work in a comprehensive manner to be salt and light in every sphere of culture.

Hubmaier, Lewis, Schaeffer, and Neuhaus

Because the blog format is limited, I will be concise to the extreme in mentioning that: (1) from Hubmaier, we learn the necessity of preaching the full gospel with its prophetic edge “against” our cultural context (though truly this is to be “for” our cultural context), even if we suffer greatly for doing so; (2) from Lewis, we learn the power of speaking and writing the gospel in an aesthetically attractive manner, and of doing so through many years of hard intellectual work; (3) from Schaeffer, we learn to do deep cultural exegesis, to proclaim the gospel in the context of love and community, and to do so with confidence that the Christian worldview is the only one that can make sense of the world empirically and existentially; and (4) from Neuhaus we learn ways in which the church can retain her Christian convictions while standing in the public square seeking to glorify God and promote the common good.

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*T. M. Moore, Culture Matters (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 106.

Augustine for the 21st Century (6): Selected Passages by Augustine, Reading Recommendations, and Concluding Thoughts

Now, this installment is well worth your time reading. Unlike the previous installments of this blog series in which I bloviated about Augustine, this installment provides the real payoff: some bona fide passages from Augustine’s sermons and commentaries. Although I have read several of his books (City of God, The Confessions, and On Christian Doctrine), I have not read his sermons, commentaries and letters. Therefore in this post I rely upon Jules Brady’s collection in Augustine for Everyone. In this 60 page booklet, Brady collects 101 brief passages, organizes them under seventeen headings, and translates them into readable English. In the pages that follow, I will provide a few of those quotes, utilizing Brady’s translation, and organize them under my own system of headings. In the above installments you’ve gotten a taste of Augustine academic and polemical work. In this installment, however, you will see him at his pastoral best, distilling biblical teaching into concise and memorable sentences.

God

How can the beauty of the universe inspire us to praise God’s beauty?

“The pleasure we experience in seeing a beautiful cathedral reminds us to admire the church’s architect. How much more should viewing the universe’s infinite variety stir us to praise the Beauty of its Creator. Consider, for a moment, the whole of creation. The splendor of the starry skies, the various flowers in a flower garden, the stately majesty of a cluster of trees, the melodious songs of birds, the variations of creatures in the animal kingdom, the sense and intellectual faculties of a human person, are like so many voices that praise the Beauty of their Author. Word fail us in our effort to describe adequately what the beauty of the universe tells us of the Divine Artist’s Beauty. Does triumphant music come closer to expressing God’s Beauty?” (On Psalm 26)

Why is God more beautiful than the Sun?

“There are two reasons for this: First, when the sun rises, it lights up the earth; it illumines colors; it shines through windows; but it cannot penetrate walls. However, God is present in all places, even in a wall. Secondly, when the sun rises in the East, it is absent from the West. When the sun sets in the West, it is away from the East. At night the sun is not seen. However, when God is in the East, he is also in the West. When He is in the West, He is likewise in the East. He is also present at night. He is whole everywhere. If the sun is beautiful, how much more beautiful is God, the sun’s Maker.” (Sermon 70, 2)

Why does the love of God surpass all other loves?

“Some endure toil, dangers, and troubles for the love of money. But at the same time, they may lose sleep for fear of thieves. Others ask an inferior to secure the love of a powerful friend. god says to us: ‘Love Me and I am with you.’ there love is without toil, without dangers, without troubles, without fear of thieves, and without the assistance of a go-between. This love surpasses all other loves.” (Epistle of John to the Parthians 10, 4)

How can we love God instead of loving the world?

“If my hand is holding a heavy book, it cannot hold another heavy object at the same time. I must first put down the book in order to receive a heavy gift package. My love is the hand of my soul. It cannot love God and the world at the same time. It must first cease loving the world in order to love God.” (Sermon 75, 7)

How can we love Christ?

“If you are caught in the river of time and are drifting down the rapids, you have a choice. Either you may drown in the water, or you can catch hold of a tree by the stream and save your life. Similarly, you have a choice in the world. Either you may love the world that passes away with time, or you may hold on to Christ and live eternally with God.” (Epistle of John to the Parthians 2, 10)

Evil

How can the same affliction prompt the wicked to curse God and inspire the good to praise Him?

“The same fire causes straw to smoke and gold to gleam. The same press threshes the grain and crushes the stalk. So, the same trouble worsens the wicked and improves the good. Consequently, the difference between the wicked and the good is not what they suffer but the way they suffer. Therefore, the same evil incites the wicked to deny God and stirs the good to pray to Him.” (City of God 1,8)

Why does God allow tribulations to happen to us?

“Because we cannot endure perpetually the hardships of life, we seek rest in some earthly thing. It may be our house, our family, our children, a little farm, an orchard, or a book we have published. God allows us to suffer tribulations even in these innocent delights in order that we may love only life eternal. Otherwise, as travelers going to their country, we might choose the inn-this world-instead of our true home: eternal life.” (On Psalm 41, 4)

Why does God send trials to His saints?

“While the unskillful pronounce a work of art-a painting, a sculpture, a building-perfect, the artist continues to polish them. The unskillful wonder why these art pieces receive additional polish. The judgment of the inexperienced is one thing, the rule of art another. Likewise, someone noticing the sufferings of a saint questions why God continues to afflict such a holy person. God so acts not to punish the saint for sins but to purify the saint’s perfections, and thus to remove the imperfections.” (On Psalm 99, 10)

How is a Christian similar to a squared stone?

“If you turn over a squared stone, the stone remains erect. When trials, as it were, turn a Christian over, the Christian does not fall down but stands erect.” (On Psalm 87, 3)

Preaching and Teaching

What is the secret of successful teaching?

“When we show out of town friends a city’s beautiful sights that we have often noticed without any pleasure, we experience delight by the delight our friends have for these scenes. So it is that a teacher, teaching a familiar topic to students who are thrilled by learning something new, experiences renewed pleasure in teaching the subject. The greater the bond of friendship between teacher and student, the greater will be the love the teacher has for teaching and the greater will be the love the students have for learning.” (On Catechizing the Uninstructed 12, 17)

Friends and Enemies

How may we love an enemy?

“Suppose a carpenter walking through a forest sees a tree trunk, unhewn, cut down, lying on the ground. The artisan loves the piece of timber at first sight not because of the wood’s present state, but because properly crafted the trunk will become part of a building. So, when meeting an enemy insulting you, there is a way of loving the enemy at first meeting, not by noticing the insulting remarks but by remembering that humble prayer may change the malicious person into your friend. You love the enemy not as a hostile person but as a future friend.” (Epistle of John to the Parthians 8, 10)

What kinds of persons should I cultivate as friends?

“Suppose you meet a person whose beautiful color and symmetrical shape attract your eyes. Yet, when you learn the person is a thief, you will have nothing to do with such an individual. On the other hand, you may encounter an elderly person, leaning on a cane, hardly able to walk, covered with wrinkles. Moreover, if you find out the person is just, you will want such a one as your friend.” (On the Gospel of John 3, 21)

Prayer

What should I ask from God?

“If the Emperor told you, “Ask what you will,” perhaps you would request a tribuneship, a chief office of the state or external wealth. Almighty God says, “Ask what you will,” and you might ask for the whole earth, the sea, the air, the heavens, the sun, the moon and the stars. They are all beautiful; but they are made by God. Ask for God Himself and you will have God, Beauty in Itself. And in Him you will possess everything He has made. God loves you and wishes to give you Himself more than anything else.” (On Psalm 34; Sermon 1, 12)

This World and the Hereafter

How does temporal happiness compare with eternal happiness?

“The supreme good of the City of God is eternal and perfect peace, not in our mortal transit from birth to death, but in our immortal freedom from all adversity. This is the happiest life-who can deny it?-and in comparison with it our life on earth, however blessed with external prosperity or goods of soul and body, is utterly miserable. Nonetheless, whoever accepts it and makes use of it as a means to that other life that he longs for and hopes for, may not unreasonably be called happy even now-happy in hope rather than in reality.” (City of God 19:20)

Concluding Thoughts

This post concludes the series. Because of the limitations of a blog format, I have left out many lessons we could have learned from Augustine’s life and writings. In lieu of being able to explore the many lessons learned from some of the books written by and about Augustine, allow me to make a few reading recommendations:

1. Augustine of Hippo (by Peter Brown). This is a classic biography of Augustine.

2. City of God (Augustine). Augustine wrote two great books, City of God and The Confessions. In writing City of God, Augustine invented a genre, philosophy (or theology) of history, and gave us a classic theological text for the ages.

3. The Confessions (Augustine) In writing The Confessions, Augustine invented yet another genre, spiritual/philosophical autobiography, and gave us yet another classic theological text for the ages.

4. Secondary in importance to his classics, yet of great significance still, Augustine’s many other texts commend themselves to us. I recommend: On Christian Doctrine and Enchiridion.

-BA

Augustine for the 21st Century (1): Why Should We Read Old Books?

I have never been trampled by a herd of evangelicals on their way to the Augustine section of the local bookstore. Perhaps one reason for this is chronological snobbery, our tendency to believe that the new books are better than the old ones. Another reason might be that the local bookstores don’t even have an Augustine section (True, Barnes & Noble and Borders carry books by Augustine, but Christian bookstores rarely do. The Christian stores are up to their necks in sales of Precious Moments figurines, tester tubes of anointing oil, boxes of Test-a-mints, and tee-shirts with inscriptions like “I’m Cross-Eyed.”)

Either way, the point remains. We rarely read old books. We tend to limit ourselves by era, tribe, and category-we read books written in our day, but people just like us, and that can be placed in one or two limited genres. But this sort of epistolary reductionism is to our detriment-the older books are precisely the ones that will help us to escape the limitations of our current era, learn from those who are not a part of our local tribe, and transcend the categories to which we have become accustomed.

We benefit from reading great authors from eras past more than from reading a great number of books. In Christian theology and related fields, this means that we want to pick a handful of theologians who have influenced the church and make sure that we have read at least a little bit of what they wrote. If you are a seminarian, you want to read Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth, the towering figures in church history. (Frank Peretti is not a towering figure in church history.) In fact, you may want to choose one or two of these authors and read everything they’ve written, and read some of their books multiple times.

The City of God is one of those books. Its author, Augustine, over the course of his lifetime penned more than five million words which would become the backdrop for the next millennium of Western theological and philosophical thought. At the apex of his writings stands The City of God.

The present blogpost is the first installation of a series of posts reflecting upon Augustine, his book, and its relevance for Christians living in a 21st century context. The particular occasion for writing the series is a seminar I am teaching this semester, entitled “History of Ideas III.” Each student at The College at Southeastern is required to take four seminars in the History of Ideas. In these seminars we read books written by the titans of theology, philosophy, history, and literature (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Machiavelli, Pascal, Descartes, Locke, Milton, Nietzsche, etc.). We read the books and then reflect, from a confessionally Christian point of view, on the ideas contained in those books. The seminar is not only a course in intellectual history but hopefully also an act of worship as we submit these books to theological and philosophical analysis in the light of God’s revelation.

In forthcoming posts, we will discuss (1) Augustine’s thesis in City of God; (2) what we can learn from Augustine’s apologetic strategy; (3) how we share certain of Augustine’s presuppositions and can put them to use in the 21st century; (4) what we can learn from Augustine’s person; and (5) a few selected passages by Augustine, as well as a handful of reading recommendations and concluding thoughts.