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Elements Of Christianity

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Elements of Christianity

Augustine's elevation to the bishopric of Hippo in 395 gave him full powers to preach and teach in the church. Not long after, he characterized the bishop's life as one divided between looking after his flock, snatching a little rest where he could, and meditating on the scripture.[[1]] The last task was the most difficult and private: to preach and teach meant to proclaim the biblical message.

Conscious of his duty, Augustine soon began a work in four books on scriptural interpretation, which comes to us as his Christian Doctrine..[[2]] The first two books and part of the third were written c. 395/396, while the remainder was added c. 426/427, perhaps largely from notes and drafts retained from the earlier period.

Faith and Revelation

Just as an analysis of the use of language begins by using words of some kind, so an exploration of Christian theology begins with assumptions central to that theology. Augustine was conscious of these paradoxes, so Christian Doctrine begins with a dense and subtle book in which he makes his assumptions explicit. Since the purpose of this book is introductory, readers often pass through it briskly to get to the real business at hand, the manual of exegesis in Books 2 and 3, without penetrating the sophistication of thought and expression in this little summa of Christian teaching.

The starting point is deceptively simple and obvious. All teaching consists of two parts: things and signs (1.2.2). Theology makes certain claims, using the signs of language, about the things that make up reality. It begins with the metaphysical claim, to be explored in detail in the later books of Christian Doctrine, that language and reality can be securely related to each other in some way.

Every sign, of no matter what sort, is itself a thing. Semaphore gestures with the hands are just so much flesh in motion; language is just so much blast of wind; a printed text is just a curiously ornate arrangement of ink on paper. Before any sign can have meaning, it must be given that meaning by some reasoning being. Hence there is no watertight division between things and signs. Mark Twain's description in Life on the Mississippi of the complex language the riverboat pilot could read where laymen could only see ripples on the stream is a relevant parable of the conventional nature of language. For the purposes of this preliminary book, Augustine will concern himself with things insofar as they are things and leave the discussion of the interpretation of signs until later.

In this world, things exist as we encounter them. Augustine thus defines only two classes: the things that we enjoy and the things that we use (1.3.3). This, like the distinction between signs and things, is a purely utilitarian distinction and makes (for the moment) no metaphysical claims. Some things enter our consciousness as instruments by which other things may be obtained or affected --they are there to be used. Other things seem to have more final value, and are objects for which instruments are employed..[[3]] At first it is unclear whether Augustine intends any absolute distinction between classes of things or merely a distinction in our relations with things. For the most part, the latter seems to obtain. Things to be enjoyed themselves seem to fall into a hierarchy with a single highest good--enjoyed but never used--at the pinnacle.

But this ethical analysis will preoccupy us a little further on, after we have seen the theological use Augustine makes of his distinction. Suffice it to say for the moment that the distinction itself (like the distinction between things and signs) is purely neutral and does not point towards any particular value system. Augustine's purpose in these short opening chapters is to provide himself with a neutral vocabulary with which to describe basic Christian doctrine. Indeed, the whole of the first book is a tour-deforce for the way Augustine can use two simple a priori categories as the framework for a full and comprehensive theoretical description of Christian theology.

Even after we appreciate this, we are slightly unready for the abrupt statement that soon follows: "The things to be enjoyed are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the very Trinity, one particular thing, the highest of things, the same to all who enjoy it." (1.5.5) Here the philosopher, who has appreciated Augustine's analysis and perhaps likened it to that of Kant, suddenly and urgently suspends his consent. So flat and arbitrary a statement as this prejudices all debate about the way values will be assigned using the thing/sign and use/enjoyment distinctions. Augustine knew this perfectly well; the aim of this treatise, after all, was to discuss Christian doctrine. At some point, Augustine had to begin to speak of specifically Christian things. He was not one to do so in any tentative or questioning manner.

Two things need to be said about this assumption (some would say arrogation) of authority. First, when he wrote these words, Augustine spoke as a bishop of the Christian church, that is to say, as one of the direct successors of the apostles, with the same authority to preach and teach in the church as they had. He spoke, not out of any personal authority derived from superior wisdom and training, but out of the authority that came to him by virtue of his office. He could say what the church said with no diffidence at all.

Second, in due course he makes clear, as he describes the ways of God's intervention in the world, how it is that this ecclesiastical authority makes sense within the structure of Christian doctrine. But it must be admitted and emphasized that this work exists only within that structure. Augustine was never concerned with demonstrating the truth of the Christian religion entirely on the basis of principles accessible to the unaided human reason. As Christian Doctrine makes clear, divine revelation, that is to say, intervention in human affairs by a power anterior to all human reasoning, is the necessary condition of Christian theology. Perhaps when that revelation has done its work well, it might be possible to reconstruct the doctrines of Christianity as they would appear if the unaided human reason were in fact capable of devising them, but even in that case, only faith would make it possible to assent to that exercise of the rational faculty.

At any rate, Augustine is clear in stating where he begins: with the trinity. He lived at the end of a century that had worked out the church's basic trinitarian doctrines, at the ecumenical councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381. Christians



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