Against Polemics: Augustine on the Superabundance of God’s Life, and Rest In Him

I once read a book by Peter Leithart, his book on Athanasius; an excellent book! He prologued his book on Athanasius, ironically, with a reflection by Augustine; and it is brilliant, I love it. Here it is:


[W]hat is the nature of things? What are things, ultimately and in their most basic structures and essence? You, O Lord, know, for you made them all, sustain them all in existence, direct and guide all things to your good ends. You know every thing, love every thing, are good to every thing. You know them all more nearly than they know themselves. But how shall we know?

Should I even ask, O Lord? Should I even ask? You have spoken, and you have acted, and you have called us to believe. You have taught us that we walk by faith and not by sight, by trust in your good promises of goodness, and not by understanding. It is enough that you know the nature of things. Should I ask?

If I ask, will I receive an answer? You are beyond all my thoughts, greater than all that I can say, incomprehensible in your eternal communion as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You cannot be encompassed with any concept, bounded by anything greater than yourself, since you are greater than all. All my efforts to encompass you are acts of idolatry and not true worship. And you made all things and all things shine with the bright radiance of your glory. Your world seems as incomprehensible as you yourself.

Should I even ask? Can I ask? Dare I ask?

Have not some of your servants turned to such idols? Have they not bound you in forms and substances and concepts of their own imagining and bowed to worship what their own hands have made? Have they not turned your glory, the glory of the incorruptible God, into idols more ethereal than four-footed beasts and crawling creatures, and worshiped and served the creature rather than you, the Creator? Have not your servants all but denied that you were Creator, following vain philosophers who spoke of eternal matter and changeless forms? Have they not said that you are subject to time and development, denying that you are eternally complete and fulfilled? Have they not danced and sung before other gods? They asked, what is the nature of things? And were they not turned from your ways?

Dare I ask?

Yet, I cannot escape the question, for others have spoken before me. Others have asked, what is the nature of things? and have given answers. Are their answers true? Should I, O Lord, ignore their questions and answers and devote myself to prayer and service to the poor? Or shall I seek to answer? Shall I seek to determine if they speak the truth? How can I not? Can I tell whether their answers are true without asking the same questions? If a philosopher says that all things exist by participation in forms, should I, O Lord, believe him? If another says that matter is eternal, shall I, O Lord, accept that? If yet another says that all substances are informed matter, shall I receive that? If another says that we can know nothing of things beyond their phenomenal appearances, what shall I say? If the philosophers are correct about the nature of things, do they also describe your nature, O God? Are you one of the the things whose nature these philosophers describe?

If you would not have me believe these philosophers, I would know why. And if they are false, I would know what truth to speak in place of their falsehoods. [Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, xv-xvi]

Augustine is not being anti-intellectual, but he is seeking to find rest in God’s own Revelation, and confident that God is able to speak and communicate Himself to us through Christ in contrast to the un-restful quest provided by the Philosophers.

I often feel, as I engage with people online, as if there really is not this kind of posture of doxology and rest in our discourse; a looking away from ourselves (including our philosophical and exegetical arguments), and a looking to the One who sustains all of reality by the Word of His power conditioned by the life of love that He is in the intercourse of His life. What Augustine rightfully notes, is that even though Christian grammar uses the forms provided by the Philosophers, it does so in a non-correlationist way, such that these forms or these kinds of metaphysics are evangelized (as Leithart would say) in a way that the original philosophical context is given a new pretext and thus new context that is determined to be what it is by the reality being referred to in God’s life in Jesus Christ. It is not that we don’t engage with ideas, it is just that we do so from a posture of Confession, and most of all Faith. Which presupposes that we can trust the Revelation of God to be more than adequate in moving beyond the normal and mundane reflections of the Philosophers, and actually provide a way into the Holy of holies through the torn veil of Christ’s body for us. There is rest here from the wranglings of men and women who are trapped by trying to gain approval from other men and women; we have rest where the Father has rest, in His dearly beloved Son (Hebrews 3).

I just feel burdened by being in a state of polemic, and not in a state of doxology.

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2 Responses to Against Polemics: Augustine on the Superabundance of God’s Life, and Rest In Him

  1. Cal says:

    As a side note:

    These sorts of quotes, hidden throughout Augustine, are the reason I reject people’s assertions that Augustine was merely a Christian Platonist. He admits that he indebted to their learning, but they are damned by a blindness to love.

    People level all sorts of blame or praise at Augustine for “intellectualizing” (or “Hellenizing” for the polemicist) Christianity for the mainstream in the West. I think they’re misunderstanding his whole project, but I feel like I’m banging my head against a wall when most scholars says otherwise. I think Augustine understood a fine balance in Scripture between the outward/sacramental and the inward/heart that got divided in the Middle Ages. Augustine is so big that whole wars are conducted beneath his wings.

    Perhaps the polemic can be doxological. Like the songs of Moses, we sing about the death of the gods while praising the I AM. Maybe allow our systems/grammars/etc. to burst in flames as they hold the Sun of Righteousness. Letting them elevate the Lion of Judah instead of trying to tame him into something kittenish. Those differences are what set apart someone like Augustine from Jerome.



  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hey Cal,

    Yes, there is a piety to Augustine that I will always like!


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