Andrew Fulford Archive Authors Nota Bene

On Neo-Augustinianism

Dr. Robert Benne writes on the fashionable Neo-Augustinianism, and while recognizing some of its good points, notes the following drawbacks:

Ah, but wait. As attractive as this neo-Augustinian vision is, it is finally more a temptation than a real option. The main reason is theological. If God is indeed the creator and sustainer of the larger world of economics, politics, and culture, then we as Christians are called to witness there. Our salvation is not in that witness, but our obedience is. And though we know that much of contemporary culture is debased, we also know that it is not beyond redemption. Indeed, reminding ourselves of the illusions of perfectionism, we might even grant that, relatively speaking, it is not all that bad. In any case, modernity’s own norms of procedural justice and individual rights offer openings for Christian witness.

From this theological perspective, it is better to side with those who are willing to struggle for a decent, common culture-even though success is by no means assured. The right-to-life groups, the Christian Coalition, Bread for the World, the American Family Association, and many others make a worthwhile difference in the struggle for America’s soul. And these religious groups have secular allies. The “principled pluralism” suggested by Os Guinness that aims at an overlapping moral consensus is not without prospects of success in the lively world of American politics. There is still much that is good-given and sustained by the Creator-in our common life outside the church.

We need also to remind ourselves how suffocating and stultifying it can be to inhabit an exclusively ecclesial reality. The ecclesial realities that have historically been constructed have often been as oppressive as their secular counterparts. When the neo-Augustinians write glowingly about ecclesial life, one wonders what church they are talking about. Even the strongest churches I have known could be characterized more aptly as bands of forgiven sinners than as shining knights in the Kingdom of God. Indeed, when one thinks of real, existing ecclesial publics, one thinks most immediately of the mega-churches that do in fact create a parallel culture for their members. Yet whatever the mega-churches’ contributions to Christian life and mission in the late twentieth century, they do not seem to measure up to what the neo-Augustinians have in mind. One wonders what church could measure up.

There is much to be cherished in the neo-Augustinian vision. We do need to become more of a people shaped by a richer and more comprehensive ecclesiology. We do need to center on the Grand Narrative of the Great Tradition. We do need to march to the beat of a drum other than the world’s. But at the same time we need to witness in and struggle for that world. That is our calling. That is the Church’s calling.

Longtime readers of TCI will recognize this tune, as opposing this kind of “Neo-Augustinianism” has been a theme since near its beginning. Even the about page of this website notes:

In all fields of doctrine, and in speculative and practical philosophy, we seek to recover lost wisdom; and already we have helped many find the orthodox and rational center they’d been eagerly seeking. It is in fact the case, as we have argued already and will continue to argue, that the “catholicity” which many young evangelicals  sense to be missing is not to be identified with unreformed church practices or doctrines, but rather is simply a more cosmopolitan and rational approach to learning and to life within the ancient Reformed pathway. Recovering the ethos of the humanism and scholasticism of the Biblical Reformation does not take us back in time; rather, it equips us most fully for the present.

The method and the resourcement have delivered on their promise. Working from the political philosophy of the Reformers, we have begun to turn the conversation from “high church” to “high commonwealth,” caring for the city and providing for non-apocalyptic solutions to civic concerns. Perhaps our most significant achievement here has been the clarification of terms darkened by careless usage. For instance, we showed that “church and state,” on evangelical principles, actually mean ministerium and magistracy, and that, on the orthodox account, the one visible church in any given region underlies both estates equally. This lexical precision has clarified the picture and opened up new possibilities for evangelical politics.

More extended discussions have engaged with this issue, for example, Peter Escalante’s essay on Protestantism and liberalism, his essay in relation to the Hart-Feser debate on natural law, and the essay he co-wrote with Steven Wedgeworth in reply to Paul Helm on the matter of sexual ethics.

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