The Gospel Coalition needs the Real St. Augustine


The Baptism of St. Augustine

The Gospel Coalition just posted a book review for the book Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God.  The title of the blog post review is “Why You Need Augustine”.   The author of the review believes that Reformed Christians need to appreciate 4th century Christian Bishop and theologian, Augustine of Hippo and we certainly agree.  But the Gospel Coalition and other Reformed Christians usually just get part of Augustine, a piece of him, and not the real St. Augustine.  Their knowledge of Augustine, if they have one at all,  is almost always limited to what he said about Grace or Predestination.  We submit that they need to know the full-throated Catholic St. Augustine; The real St. Augustine.  The Gospel Coalition needs the real St. Augustine who believed and preached not only the overwhelming power of God’s Grace and his eternal plan of Predestination but also the Catholic Doctrines of regenerative baptism, perseverance, Eucharist as sacrifice, purgatory, and the intercession of the Saints.  The Gospel Coalition needs to know the real St. Augustine because they need to know the real Gospel.

The book, Augustine  on the Christian life by Gerald Bray is one in a series of biographies published by Crosssway Books.  It’s “On the Christian Life” series investigates the lives of Protestant Christian Leaders through the lens of the “Christian Walk”.  The Gospel coalition thinks so highly of this book, and Augustine himself, that the article urges their readers to read Bray’s book before the other biographies in the series so that they can better understand the biographies of the reformers who appear earlier in the series.  They say,

 “The likes of John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and others have Augustine to thank for their own theological positions.”

What theological positions do the Puritans and the Confessional Calvinists get from Augustine?  Certainly Augustine, who is rightly referred to as “The Doctor of Grace” is the genesis of Calvinism’s emphasis on the power and efficacy of Grace.  Against Pelagius and the Pelagians, Augustine labored tirelessly to defend the absolute necessity of God’s Grace preceding any supernaturally good work.  Calvinists have a strong view of God’s sovereignty in election, predestination, perseverance, and authority in all things, which are all certainly found throughout Augustine’s writings.

And yet, The Gospel Coalition does not have the entire Augustine.  In fact, they generally only have part of part of Augustine.  The famous Protestant BB Warfield quip that “The reformation was a victory of Augustine’s soteriology over his ecclesiology” is really only partially correct.  The soteriology of Augustine should not be narrowly limited to his doctrines of Grace, Election, and Perseverance.  Augustine taught, among other things, that regeneration happens in the water of baptism, that works are necessary for salvation, that a Christian can atone for his sins through almsgiving, and that the Eucharist is a sacrifice presented on a physical altar by a priest in propitiation for the sins of the world.  These concepts are all integral to how Augustine recognized the economy of salvation.   The Gospel Coalition needs these truths because they’re all part of the Gospel that Augustine taught and the Gospel that can save them.

What is especially interesting to think about, is that even though Augustine held these beliefs which are anathematized by Reformed Christians, he has not been treated like an idolater as the “Popish Church of Rome” has.  For example, famous Scottish Calvinist, John Knox, considered to be the Father of Scottish Presbyterianism, lambasted Roman Catholics because the Catholic Sacrifice of the Mass is idolatrous.

Hear, you Papists! Two witnesses speak against you. How can you deny the opinion of your Mass to be false and vain? You say that it is a sacrifice for sin, but Jesus Christ and Paul say only the death of Christ was sufficient for sin, and after it rests none other sacrifice. Speak! or else you are likely to be condemned. -John Knox

One would think that Augustine would get this same treatment by Knox and the other reformers.  After all, Father Augustine taught that the Eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice! But St. Augustine was given a free pass at the time of the Reformation, and he is certainly given one now.

Why this disconnect?  At the time of the reformation, we would have to attribute a certain level of intentional obfuscation by Reformed leaders.  After all, the leaders of the revolt were all well-versed in the Early Church Fathers.  As for today, we think many of the Reformed don’t actually read St. Augustine in the primary source.  What they get instead is Augustine in sound-bite.  An incisive acquaintance of ours has a father-in-law who read Bray’s book.  He picked it up and flipped through it.  He was shocked at how little Augustine was actually present in the pages of the book.  “10 pages of Augustine in a book 150 pages long”, he said.  Look inside the book for yourself to see how few and far between Augustine actually is.  Notice how Bray barely mentions such important soteriological ideas such as regeneration.  Such little exposure and over-filtering makes it hard to pick up on the nuggets of Catholicism peppered all throughout St. Augustine’s writings.  But they’re certainly there, and in large amounts.

Take for example the closing passage of Augustine’s Confessions (which Bray leans on heavily for his biography).  At the very end of the book, Augustine prays that the readers might prayerful intercede for his deceased mother Monica when they approach the altar and present themselves for the Eucharistic sacrifice:

So, when the body [of Monica] was carried forth, we went and returned without tears. For neither in those prayers which we poured forth unto You when the sacrifice of our redemption was offered up unto You for her – the dead body being now placed by the side of the grave, as the custom there is, prior to its being laid therein—neither in their prayers did I shed tears … … May she [Monica] therefore rest in peace with her husband, whom she obeyed, with patience bringing forth fruit unto You, that she might gain him also for You. And inspire, O my Lord my God, inspire Your servants my brethren, Your sons my masters, who with voice and heart and writings I serve, that so many of them as shall read these Confessions may at Your altar remember Monica, Your handmaid (Confessions, 

Such a belief should have been enough to send Reformers like Knox and his ilk into apoplectic shock.  The propitiatory sacrifice of the mass is certainly the reason why many reformed, even today, refuse to step into a Catholic Church.  But surprisingly, The Reformers have almost always given Augustine the royal, dare we say, Saintly, treatment.

In times past, such ignorance of the full spectrum of beliefs of St. Augustine might be forgivable.  After all, at the time of the Reformation, few men could read Latin, and even fewer had access to a full library of the writings of St. Augustine.  But now, with the advent of the internet, and widespread literacy, any Reformed believer, especially those who are a part of the Gospel Coalition, can read Augustine in his own words and find for themselves, the real Augustine.  The Catholic Augustine.  Maybe in doing so, they might be drawn by the writings of Augustine into the True Gospel Coalition; The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.



1 thought on “The Gospel Coalition needs the Real St. Augustine

  1. vonleonhardt2

    There’s a lot going on here… and it would require a whole thesis to say one way or the other.
    So I’ll try to be concise, but it may cost some clarity/civility to do so.

    I apologize in advance then if my brevity comes off as aggression. But I’m not trying to be “right” or “wrong” here, just more say what I see that I think is important to a discussion of Augustine and missing.

    First, Augustine disliked “slavery to signs” stating as much `Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life, or soundness of doctrine, you may set it down as figurative” (On Christian Doctrine III.10.14; Fathers of the Church). And the whole of “On Christian Doctrine” is about that issue.

    And he even speaks in reference to this regarding the incarnation:
    “And hence we may learn how essential it is that nothing should detain us on the way, when not even our Lord Himself, so far as He has condescended to be our way, is willing to detain us, but wishes us rather to press on; and, instead of weakly clinging to temporal things, even though these have been put on and worn by Him [human flesh] for our salvation, to pass over them quickly, and to struggle to attain unto Himself, who has freed our nature from the bondage of temporal things, and has set it down at the right hand of His Father.” – On Christian Doctrin I. ch 34.

    In this vein on things like communion it is hard to see him taking a stance against Zwingli’s charge that “the flesh profits nothing” especially when he himself says things like, “our teeth don’t chew grace” (Homily on John 27).

    For Augustine Christ is “the way”… just like for all patristic theologians the council “creed” answers aren’t jsut “answers” but just as much Apophatic theology… (Lightfoot, et. ALL) they describe but don’t contain the full mystery.

    But this whole thing about weather Augustine is Roman Catholic or not is circular and anachronistic. First, Reformed theologians don’t claim not to be (little c) catholic; they never said that Augustine was right on everything either.
    Academically, your quotes are also is open ended, and it’s highly unlikely Augustine’s talk on sacrifice is Trentian… but there’s aspects of Augustine that shift over his career and most protestants hold that he’s “good despite the spreading trouble.”

    But the real Calvinist on Augustine is Calvin… and he quotes the heck out of him. There’s a lot in the institutes… a lot… Knox and Edwards don’t spend nearly the same amount of time on it.

    But most importantly, I would say Augustine is incomplete in his own application on “slavery to signs.” I would knock taking baptism as literally washing sins… Eucharist as literally eating Jesus as confusing the physical reality for the spiritual reality symbolized. Augustine does in various places; I have to go to Latin to get the quotes (and I honestly find debates with Catholics bare little fruit to make it worth the time)…

    But my reaction as a protestant that most your readers would have is:
    “I could just go to scripture and nuke most these arguments, I mean it’s darn shady they banned reading it… or using it as the only evidence… I mean come on, if that’s not an admission of weakness”

    So on that note… I’d like to ask what are you trying to achieve with this article?

    There a manifold ways to shoot down Catholic theology. Transubstatiation > what “fully human” person could hold themselves in a piece of bread (first communion)? Sacramentology > does the church mediate the spirit or respond to it? Prayer, spirituality, etc. all are open to a LOT MORE attacks then they were. Is Mary omnipotent to hear all the prayers? Whats the end of prayer? How does Hebrew’s ideal of trinitarian pray figure in Saints? What of souls vrs resurrection? Works? We can topple that with JAMES even.

    Honestly, at some level I feel Catholics are just lucky evangelicals are theologically lazy, playing nice, and in the case of Baptist already half-catholic… and reformed theologians are too busy patching holes.

    I think the whole reformation era fight comes down to a “we were here first” argument… against an “cite original sources” argument…I’m amazed with all the pastoral abuse scandal that it fly’s at all and given the wide education of the laity to cite sources in college… and or historical knowledge too.

    It shows that most of the worlds Catholics are not retained by their doctrinal arguments. And if that’s the case, they aren’t going to be swayed by ours either (why I don’t typically bother). Honestly, that should worry you much much more than if Augustine is “catholic” or not. And why call down someone who is going to trounce your positions if you don’t need to?

    Really, I’m not much for this debate but i know enough on this subject to say a Patristics professor would rattle holes in your presentation. The protestant only needs enough Augustine to show a base line continuity with the Patristics, and they surely have that on Soteriology. 1 Clement is crystal clear too.

    I may not be your huckelberry for another 6 years of Phd studies… and it’s been four years since I read ALL of Augustine (and was, funny enough, lead by such a study of the early church to run back out the Catholic church) to know this wouldn’t end well for ya’ll if someone smarter than either of us shows up.

    The real game back at the beginning of the church was “mystery” in a Platonic sense and both sides are stretching to use that argument to address these… and the Scholastics are just too Aristotelian to help either.

    We also have comparative religions for the Old testament now… a whole second arsenal not in play in 1520.

    But if you wanna ever bounce around more general theology, I’d be your reformed Huckleberry. I think we both aren’t accommodation-ist and may make good “fr-enemies.”

    Again, tried to shorten something really complex, sometimes it comes off a lot meaner than I intend. I confess I have a bad writing style too, so I may have left you scratching your head…


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