You Can Love Him or Hate Him, but You Can’t Ignore Him: Augustine on Grace–An Excerpt from Grace Alone
“Grace is the heart of the Christian gospel. It is a doctrine that touches the very depths of human existence.” (19)
In today’s excerpt from Grace Alone–Salvation as a Gift of God, Carl Trueman, professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, reveals the importance of Augustine’s thinking as a foundation for the church’s understanding of this magnificent gift.
The history of theology is essentially a story. How one tells that story, which characters and places and actions receive prominence, will vary from historian to historian. But when we look at the “history of grace,” an undisputed key figure in that history is Augustine, fifth-century bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa. Augustine’s life and writings profoundly shaped all later debates about grace. Whether it is John Calvin refining and developing Augustine’s thought, or Karl Barth attempting a wholesale reconstruction of predestination in response, Augustine is the man who dominates any discussion about grace, even to our own day.
It is thus impossible to understand the debates about grace in the Protestant Reformation without first understanding the thought of Augustine. And whether one loves him or hates him, one cannot ignore him. He wrote profoundly on a vast number of topics, from the Trinity to eschatology, and his writings set the terms of debate for theological discussions that happened well over a millennium after his death. A number of his books (Confessions and The City of God) are still available in cheap paperback editions from mainstream, nonreligious publishers, an indication that they have earned a place in the general literary canon.
Augustine was a particularly important figure among the Reformers because of his teaching on God’s grace. Access to his writings in the Middle Ages had generally been through books of sentences, extended collections of quotations around theological themes. But with the advent of the printing press and a rising interest in patristic literature, fueled by Renaissance humanism, many scholars were now able to read Augustine’s complete texts. As they did so, they found him to be a helpful guide in wrestling with the Bible, especially the letters of Paul. For many, their understanding of Paul and his teaching on grace was profoundly shaped by the insights of the bishop of Hippo. As nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield later commented: “The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.”
Of course, things are a little more complicated than Warfield implies. Augustine was a major source for Lutheran, Reformed, and, indeed, Roman Catholic scholars, but other influences and other factors played their role as well. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to overstate Augustine’s influence. One cannot understand the Reformation without addressing the theology of grace expounded by Augustine. As Warfield implies, it would be possible to frame the entire history of Reformation thought as a debate about the reception and interpretation of Augustine’s writings and legacy. Indeed, so important was the work of the bishop of Hippo to the conflict of the sixteenth century that whichever side could make the best claim to being his heir would in so doing have come close to victory in any doctrinal debate.
Yet there is more to Augustine than a straightforward theological or exegetical exposition of grace. Like many great theologians, Augustine’s theology was forged in the context of his own autobiography. His contribution to our understanding of grace starts as a narration of his experience of God’s grace in his own life. His encounter with grace was deeply personal, and he presented it as such to the wider public in his intriguing and complex book Confessions.
The Confessions presents a first-person narration of his early life and shares how Augustine moved from being a vessel of wrath to a vessel of grace. This book later triggered the so-called Pelagian controversy, though, as with so many named controversies in church history, Pelagius was far from the most brilliant or most important advocate of the “Pelagian” position. As we seek to understand Augustine and his teaching on grace, we will first look to the Confessions, then to the reasons for the controversy it stirred, and then (in the next chapter) to the ways in which that controversy led Augustine to turn his personal narrative of grace into a sharper, more clearly defined, universal narrative of the ways of God in salvation.
Grace in the Early Church
One of the odd things about the ancient church is that the existential struggle that seems to lie at the heart of Paul’s understanding of grace, particularly as it is articulated in his letter to the Romans, is essentially absent from Christian writings prior to Augustine. Of course, there are some reasons that may account for this. First, we need to remember that we have only a small portion of the Christian literature that must have existed during this period. Many works and writings have been lost or destroyed over the centuries. Further, most Christians would have been illiterate or would not have written down their thoughts, so we do not know how ordinary believers thought about or experienced the Christian life.
Yet if we examine what we do have, we find that discussions of grace prior to Augustine did not elaborate much on the idea of grace as God’s unmerited favor. For example, in the works of Clement, one of the earliest postapostolic writers, grace functions as part of the standard greetings and farewells in Christian letters. We also find several early church fathers quoting Paul’s statements on grace, though they typically cite them without offering any further explanation of their meaning. Polycarp, second-century bishop of Smyrna, quotes Ephesians 2:8–9, but he does not give any further elaboration. In short, there is little explicit explication or elaboration of the biblical teaching on grace in these writings.
Based on the writings that we do have today, it appears that in the third and fourth centuries the attention of the church was primarily focused on the details of Christology and specifically on the relationship between the Father and the Son. These questions and writings were part of the process by which Trinitarian theology came to be formed. In this context, it was the christological dimension of God’s grace, the idea that Christ embodied the unmerited favor of God toward a sinful world, which was the focus of attention. Along with this, references to the power of God’s grace within the church, preserving and sanctifying her, were also common. Nevertheless, the emphasis in teaching on grace during this time was on Christ as the manifestation and focal point of God’s gracious action. The means by which God’s gracious purposes were executed in the church, appropriated by individuals, and experienced by believers were not widely discussed. In some cases, where they were mentioned, they were assumed rather than explained.
The Background to Grace: Confessing Sin
The Confessions is a quintessential late fourth-century book. In the fourth century Christianity was becoming the dominant cultural and political force within the Roman Empire. For a religion that had started on the margins of society and had grown through suffering and persecution, this newfound position and respectability raised a whole host of new questions for the church, among them “What does genuine Christianity look like in a world where being a Christian has become really rather easy?” Or another way of saying it, more in line with our culture today, would be to ask: “What does the grace of God in the life of a Christian look like at a time when Christianity is winning the cultural war?” This was one of the questions Augustine was trying to work out in his autobiography as he wrote with parchment and stylus. When Augustine composed his Confessions in the 390s, he was reflecting on events that had happened several years earlier, and he was writing with a purpose.