Blog Template Theology of the Body: Augustine: Father of Solefideism?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Augustine: Father of Solefideism?

If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature.

It is commonly held by many Protestants that the Protestant Reformers drew their doctrine of justification by imputed righteousness appropriated “by faith alone” from Augustine. However, alongside the Protestant commentors who have authoritatively refuted this claim, it is interesting to consider that Augustine situates his (sole) reference to the notion of justification in the Confessions within a description of God’s creation of the world. In Confessions Book XIII, justification is the “formation of a living soul” from prior chaos and disorder, in and for whom God creates every faculty that is “necessary to bring the faithful to perfection.

From this brief passage we might conclude that Augustine clearly regards human justification as a matter of the creation of inherent righteousness in the soul rather than the legal imputation of external merit. We find a doctrine of justification in Augustine's brief and beautiful excursus on creation which holds that humanity is made righteous in his justification by the grace received from God. Furthermore Augustine describes this grace as truly, intrinsically, and personally become part of the person’s being, yielding “good works which could be fruitful for them hereafter.” In short, Augustine understood justification as the transformation and renewal of the soul, which is not merely a forensic declaration or acquittal. God’s act of justification actually transforms and re-creates the sinner, making (rather than declaring) those to be saints who were not saints before.

Scholars such as Paulus Bergauer have discussed the fact that Luther ultimately despaired of substantiating his proposals with Augustinian theology, particularly because (as with our passage treated here) he could not find therein explicit forensic language surrounding the theme of justification.
In this regard, it is particularly interesting to contrast a Reformer’s treatment of creation against Augustine’s reflections on the same point. Both Philip Melancthon and Augustine reflect on God’s justifying action towards the first man, Adam. Here, it is interesting to note how Augustine’s consideration of the creation narrative differs from Luther’s ardent defender Melancthon, who also considers creation in order to illumine his doctrine of justification.

In his Loci Communes (Wittenburg, 1521), Melancthon proceeds to exegete Genesis 3 in terms of “the sin, repentance, and justification of Adam.” Characteristically, Melancthon stresses Adam’s nakedness as the result of his sin, which must be covered; this approach is congruous with the Protestant sense of justification as the imputation of alien righteousness to the sinner, so that he may be “covered” and able to enter communion with God. As Article IV of Melancthon’s Augsburg Confession phrases it:

Men can be justified freely on account of Christ through faith, when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are remitted on account of Christ who made satisfaction for sins on our behalf by his death. God imputes this faith for righteousness in his own sight.

At the start of Melancthon’s brief creation excursus, Adam lacks the breath of life in the sense that (as the analogue of all of his sinful progeny) he is burdened by a conscience that is afflicted and terrified because he has not yet believed the promise of the Gospel. However, “if the afflicted conscience believes the promise of grace in Christ, it is resuscitated and quickened by faith.” (Loci Communes 84) Melancthon thus identifies the beginning of conversion with post-Fall culpability, wherein “Adam and Eve had sinned and were looking for coverings for their nakedness,” though “under these circumstances coverings did not excuse their sins.” The first couple desperately seeks not an essential salvation, but rather the relief of conscience; “convicted and guilty, the conscience lies prostrate when it is directly confronted with sin through the voice of God.” Thus it is the poignant anxiety of a guilty conscience, rather than an ontological separation from their Creator, that drives the sinful Adam and Eve from the presence of God, and consequently “Adam eats his heart out in grief until he hears the promise of mercy, the word spoken about his wife that her seed would bruise the serpent’s head.” It is the relief of conscience through the promise of mercy and the “coverings” that God provides that ultimately brings restoration: “even that the Lord clothed them strengthened their consciences, and is unmistakably a sign of the incarnation of Christ. For it is that flesh which in the last analysis covers our nakedness and destroys the confusion of trembling consciences.”

Augustine also considers justification on the model of creation in an equally brief passage, but in a very different vein. For Augustine, it is the creation itself, not the covering of nakedness, which is tantamount to justification. We can ground our reading of Confessions XIII in a more explicit statement of Augustine’s from De Spiritu et Littera, where Augustine insists that “to be justified” is to be made:

For what else does the phrase 'being justified' signify than being made righteous, -- by Him, of course, who justifies the ungodly man, that he may become a godly one instead? For if we were to express a certain fact by saying, 'The men will be liberated,' the phrase would of course be understood as asserting that the liberation would accrue to those who were men already; but if we were to say, The men will be created, we should certainly not be understood as asserting that the creation would happen to those who were already in existence, but that they became men by the creation itself.

When Augustine turns to a theological reflection on justification in light of creation, he makes no note of Adam’s “covering;” rather, Augustine resounds with the Catholic understanding of an infused and fruitful righteousness when he describes Adam/the justified in terms of the creation of “a living soul.” Augustine identifies the sinful Adam not as a terrified creature, but as a totally contingent being who has effectively lost being itself by turning from the Source of his being; by his sin he is become like the primordial chaos, utterly without form. On Augustine’s reading, the sinful Adam is not “terrified;” he is void. Adam’s sin had not rendered him legally culpable and hence fearful of consequence, but essentially, he was made unreal. On the model of the creation of the cosmos entire, Adam’s sin and consequent removal from God is an ontological problem: Adam is matter, who had form only from the Creator who formed him, and when he ceases to be formed by the Creator, he returns to formless non-being. By sinning, Adam simply ceases to exist altogether, in the same sense in which the primordial chaos did not exist before the Spirit of God moved upon it:

But then you began to carry out your predestined plan in time so as to reveal hidden secrets and to bring order to our disordered chaos. For our sins were over us, and we had abandoned you to sink into a dark depth. Your good spirit was born over it to help us in due season. You justified the ungodly.” (Confessions xxxiv)

Augustine’s description of the benefits of creation for the created and justified are described on the model of the ensuing days of creation; rather than stopping at the mere consolation of a relieved conscience and a covered body which finds joy in a promise (as on Melancthon’s model), Augustine’s newly formed Adam immediately enters fully into the “beauty” and “form” that (as Augustine stresses) simultaneously accompanies his being “made.” Among these enjoyments, Augustine describes the following. First, like dry land with fruit-bearing plants, “the zeal of the faithful (appears) and so brings forth for you works of mercy, distributing to the poor their earthly possessions to acquire celestial reward.” Next, like “lights kindled in the firmament, your saints having the word of life (shine) with a sublime authority made manifest by spiritual gifts,” namely, “the sacraments… and the the words of your book.” The crown of creation, described near the conclusion of Augustine’s brief excursus, is the “formation of the living soul of the faithful with their affections disciplined by a strong continence;” their minds are “renewed,” and provision has been made for all that is “necessary to bring the faithful to perfection in this life,” and they accomplish “good works which could be fruitful for them hereafter.”

It is clear that Augustine thinks of justification as the “creation” of the soul and the placement of benefits within it. In light of Augustine’s theology, nothing short of ontological creation would be adequate to remedy Augustine’s notion of original sin as an ontological, essential, and inherited reality that debilitates even seemingly innocent infants in a corruption that is only cleansed by the sacrament of Baptism. Augustine clearly does not believe that sin is a matter of individual culpability, such that we must be rescued from its pertinent consequences; rather, Augustine thinks of sin as an ontological condition that has rendered humanity formless and void, in need of re-creation.

In like manner, we attach one meaning to the statement, 'God sanctifies His saints,' and another to the words, 'Sanctified be Thy name; ' for in the former case we suppose the words to mean that He makes those to be saints who were not saints before, and in the latter, that the prayer would have that which is always holy in itself be also regarded as holy by men, -- in a word, be feared with a hallowed awe." (Augustine, De Spiritu et Littera)