Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene Sacred Doctrine

Augustine and Christian Humanism

Much of what I do on this site is devoted to a kind of ressourcement of what one might call Protestant Christian humanism, though I very rarely use that term here. Such a project involves things I care about deeply and think to be of foundational importance.

At the same time, it is critical to remember that any type of “humanism,” if it is to be Christian, has its proper limits and settings. There may be (and indeed is) much of value in Plato’s Republic, but one ought never to hear a sermon on it. Plato is of great significance for the school; less so for the pulpit.

In this respect, as in many others, Augustine is exemplary. It is well known how deeply (and with what ex post facto anxiety) he had imbibed the classical tradition, and the great and productive use he made of its authors as conversation partners. City of God, for instance, is in certain respects a sustained dialogue with writers such as Vergil, Cicero, Varro, Sallust, Plato, Porphyry, and Apuleius. Their record is of course mixed, but he gives credit where it is due. Look, for instance, at the following passage from 18.41, where Augustine refers to

…[w]hatever truth certain philosophers, amid their false opinions, were able to see, and strove by laborious discussions to persuade men of—such as that God had made this world, and Himself most providently governs it, or of the nobility of the virtues, of the love of country, of fidelity in friendship, of good works and everything pertaining to virtuous manners, although they knew not to what end and what rule all these things were to be referred…

The philosophers did see some truth, even if they did not perceive it clearly and often disagreed among themselves.

Yet in his surviving sermons, which constitute a massive collection in their own right, Cicero–Augustine’s constant companion particularly in City of God–is only mentioned a stunning four times in all, and three of those instances are in the same sermon, as Catherine Conybeare points out in “The City of Augustine: On the Interpretation of Civitas” (see n. 14). Those references, moreover, are not positive, and they have much to teach us.

Already City of God itself, despite its frequent references to antiquity, gives us a hint as to where we will be going. The passage quoted above continues on after the ellipsis as follows:

…all these, by words prophetic, that is, divine, although spoken by men, were commended to the people in that city [i.e., the heavenly city or city of God], and not inculcated by contention in arguments, so that he who should know them might be afraid of contemning, not the wit of men, but the oracle of God.

Whatever was correct in the writings of the philosophers is taught by other means–by divine authority–in the prophets as well.

If that is the case in general, then it stands to reason that the preacher ought, when speaking to the Christian congregation in particular, to rely on what he knows to have proceeded from the mouth of God.

And that is, in fact, what Augustine does as a preacher. In his third sermon on Psalm 103 (104 in the Hebrew numbering), he interprets the imagery of v. 11 (ut bibant omnia animalia regionum et reficiat onager sitim suam, “in order that all animals of the fields may drink and the wild donkey may refresh his own thirst”) as a reference to the properties of Scripture, particularly its accessibility to both the young and the old–a property that differentiates it strongly from pagan philosophy:

Tam fideliter et temperate fluit, ut sic onagrum satiet, ne leporem terreat. Sonat strepitus vocis Tullianae, Cicero legitur, aliquis liber est, dialogus eius est, sive ipsius, sive Platonis, seu cuiuscumque talium: audiunt imperiti, infirmi minoris cordis; quis audet illuc aspirare? Strepitus aquae, et forte turbatae; certe tamen tam rapaciter fluentis, ut animal timidum non audeat accedere et bibere. Cui sonuit: In principio fecit Deus coelum et terram, et non ausus est bibere? Cui sonat Psalmus et dicat: Multum est ad me? Ecce modo quod sonat Psalmus, certe occulta sunt mysteria; tamen ita sonat, ut et pueros audire delectet, et imperiti accedant ad bibendum, et satiati ructent in psallendo. Bibunt ergo minores bestiae et maiores; sed capacius maiores, quia suscipient onagri in sitim suam.

So faithfully and so moderately does it flow that it thus satisfies the wild donkey [and] does not terrify the hare. The din of Tully’s voice sounds forth, Cicero is read, it is some book, it is a dialogue of his–whether his, or Plato’s, or anyone else’s. The uneducated hear, the weak of lesser heart; who dares to aspire to it? The din of water, and, perhaps, [water that has been] disturbed–but surely flowing so rapaciously that a fearful animal would not dare to approach and drink. To whom has sounded forth: “In the beginning God made heaven and earth,” and he did not dare to drink? To whom does a Psalm sound forth, and he would say: “It is [too] much for me”? Behold, that which the Psalm just now sounded forth–surely there are concealed mysteries. Nevertheless it sounds forth in such a way that it both delights children to hear and the uneducated approach to drink and the satisfied belch in singing.1 Therefore the lesser and greater beasts drink; but the greater [drink] more fulsomely, because “the wild donkeys will take up [the water] to [satisfy] their own thirst.2

His exposition of this verse is longer than what I’ve included, but the excerpt above provides the general picture.

But there is more in play than than Scripture’s understandability. Not only is Scripture accessible to all Christians; it is necessary to all Christians, and especially to those who would teach the faith. Indeed, when a man stands up to teach the congregation, Scripture must be his only text–and congregants should expect it to be his only text. We should be careful to specify what we mean here, of course: from Augustine’s exposition, it is clear that the issue is not whether non-canonical books or writers are mentioned, but whether Scripture is taken as the only source of foundational authority for the preacher. The latter is what Augustine affirms in his comments on v. 12 (super ea volucres caeli morabuntur de medio nemorum dabunt vocem, “above them the birds of the heaven will tarry; from the midst of the woods–Augustine’s text has “rocks”–they will give their voice”):

Sed noli putare quia ista volatilia coeli auctoritatem suam sequuntur; vide quid dicat Psalmus: De medio petrarum dabunt vocem suam. Modo si dicam vobis: Credite, hoc enim dixit Cicero, hoc dixit Plato, hoc dixit Pythagoras; quis vestrum non irridebit me? Ero enim avis, quae non de petra emitto vocem meam. Quid mihi unusquisque vestrum debet dicere? quid debet dicere ille qui sic instructus est? Si quis vobis evangelizaverit praeterquam quod accepistis, anathema sit. Quid mihi dicis de Platone, et de Cicerone, et de Virgilio? Habes ante te petras montium, de medio petrarum mihi da vocem tuam. De medio petrarum dabunt vocem suam. Audiantur qui a petra audiunt: audiantur, quia et in illis multis petris petra auditur: Petra enim erat Christus. Audiantur ergo libenter, de medio petrarum dantes vocem suam: Nihil suavius tali voce alitum. Illae sonant, et petrae resonant: sonant illae, disputant spiritales; resonant petrae, testimonia respondent Scripturae. Ecce inde volatilia de medio petrarum dant vocem suam; habitant enim in montibus.

But do not think that the birds of the heaven follow their own authority. See what the Psalm says: “From the midst of the rocks they will give their voice.” Now, if I shall say to you: “Believe, for Cicero said this, Plato said this, Pythagoras said this”; who of you will not laugh at me? For I will be a bird that does not send forth my voice from the rock. What ought each one of you to say to me? What ought the one who has been thus instructed to say? “‘If anyone preaches a gospel to you other than the one you received, let him be anathema.’ Why do you speak to me of Plato, and of Cicero, and of Vergil? You have before yourself the rocks of the mountains, give your voice to me from the midst of the rocks. ‘From the midst of the rocks they will give their voice.'” Let them be heard who hear from the rock; let them be heard, because the rock is heard also in those many rocks: “For the rock was Christ.” Let them be heard willingly, then, who give their voice from the midst of the rocks. Nothing is more charming that such a voice of birds. They sound forth, and the rocks resound; they sound forth, the spiritual discuss; the rocks resound, the testimonies of Scripture answer. Behold, thence from the midst of the rocks the birds give their voice; for they dwell in the mountains.

The rock is in the first instance Christ, and in the second instance Scripture. In comparison to them, why should the congregation care what Cicero or Plato had to say? They shouldn’t; they should laugh at their preacher if he makes Cicero or Plato a motive of credibility. They are not the authorities by which the Christian teacher can demand credence for his words.

There are at least two important points we might make from Augustine’s exposition: (1) whatever “Christian humanism” is, an Augustinian Christian humanism will not place the philosophers on par with the Word. It will not even come close to doing so. As useful as they might be in certain contexts–and they are–there is a fundamental difference between their words and the words of Scripture; that is to say, between the words of man and the Word of the Lord. (2) What the preacher preaches must rely solely on the canonical authority of the Scriptural Word. Anyone who seeks credence while speaking from himself–in other words, who does not merely echo the rock that is Christ and his prophetic and apostolic ambassadors–should be rejected out of hand, with jeering, as a purveyor of a different gospel. The Christian congregation must demand that its teachers “look to the rock from which [they] were hewn” (ESV).

  1. Yes, that is actually what it says.
  2. All translations are my own. You can see an older translation here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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