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Greeks and Christians, Reason and Authority

Apparently there have been grumblings of late in some quarters regarding TCI’s too appreciative assessment of certain aspects of the Greco-Roman heritage. There will be more on this particular topic on this site in due course. For the time being, I want to post a citation that gets at this issue from Book 3 of Augustine’s Contra Academicos (“Against the Academics”), written not long after his conversion.1
Though issues of the proper relationship between faith and reason must be adjudicated by more than appeals to authority (mustn’t they?–but see below!), most Western Christians want to claim Augustine in at least certain respects,2 and so we should give his opinions a hearing.

But here in brief is my course of procedure. Whatever be the position of human wisdom, I know that I as yet have not attained it. Though I am in my thirty-third year, I do not think that I should give up hope of reaching it some day. I have renounced everything else that men regard as good, and have proposed to dedicate myself to the search for wisdom. The arguments of the Academics seriously held me back from this quest; but now I feel that in this disputation I have protected myself sufficiently against them. No one doubts that we are helped in learning by a twofold force, that of authority and that of reason. I, therefore, am resolved in nothing whatever to depart from the authority of Christ–for I do not find a stronger. But as to that which is sought out by subtle reasoning–for I am so disposed as to be impatient in my desire to apprehend truth not only by faith but also by understanding–I feel sure at the moment that I shall find it with the Platonists, nor will it be at variance with the sacred mysteries. (Contra Academicos 3.20.43, tr. John J. O’Meara)

In the notes to his translation, O’Meara comments:

Augustine believed that there could be no conflict between the true conclusions of reason (which always depended upon God for illumination) and the authority of Christ: both were guaranteed by the same author, God. They were independent, but co-ordinated approaches to the same end. There was no question of subordinating the one to the other. And while the way of faith and authority was infallible and indispensible, that of reason perfected that of authority. It is in the light of these principles that we should judge his attitude towards Christianity and Neo-Platonism. The one was always right; the other, often. He himself could see that the conclusions of ‘reason’ and Neo-Platonism were not always the same. (p. 198)

Thus we should be wary of claims that imply that there is no, or very little, truth outside of Scripture, and no, or very little, value to be gained from liberal education, and should regard with some caution seemingly pious attempts to “speak Bible”  to the exclusion of other types of speech. As Henry Chadwick pointed out a little over a decade ago in Augustine: A Very Short Introduction, there were similar trends afoot in late antique North Africa, and he found them befuddling:

Augustine records with some astonishment that there were contemporary Christians in Africa who read no book other than the Bible, and who conversed in the often strange translationese of the old Latin Bible; an anticipation of Quaker English. He was sure that wider studies were necessary. A biblical scholar needed to know some history, geography, natural science, mathematics, logic, and rhetoric (how to write and speak clearly and appropriately). There could be places where a little knowledge of technology might well help the interpreter. Certainly some knowledge of Greek was most valuable for checking translations and variant readings. (p. 37)


  1. It is true that he expressed regret over the extent of praise here accorded to Plato and the Platonists much later in life in his Retractationes, though, of course, his later reservations don’t necessarily make his earlier opinion incorrect; and in any case it is fairly widely acknowledged that the classical inheritance exerted a strong influence on Augustine throughout his life, even where he was critical of it and modified it in salutary ways.
  2. This tends to be true even for those Protestants who do not show a great interest in or assign great weight to patristic and medieval Christianity.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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