Friday, February 8, 2008

Our unrecognized familiarity with St. Augustine

While most Christians have not picked up the works of Augustine, except maybe The Confessions, they conceive of God and life around them in ways first expressed by him. Many Christians, even arminians who would disagree with some of his central ideas, have been influenced by his thinking.

Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of the ancient city of Hippo in North Africa (modern-day Annaba, an Algerian city of somewhat more than 100,000 people), lived A.D. 354-430. He was one of the first church fathers to write in Latin, his native tongue (remember that North Africa had been under Roman rule for centuries before Augustine was born).

Augustine's vision of God and the responsibilities of the church were buried by the Catholic church for a time, being revived by the Augustinian monastic order in 1244. Augustine's thought also influenced the attempted reform of the Catholic Church and eventually the Reformation, a schism resulting in two branches of the Church, Roman Catholics and Protestants. As many know, Martin Luther, the erstwhile "father" of the Reformation, was a German Augustinian Monk. Augustine also influenced other Reformation thinkers like John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and the Puritans. Thus has his thinking trickled down, modified here-and-there, to our own age.

Here are a couple of wonderful snippets from book one of his treatise, On Christian Teaching.
[I]n this mortal life we are like travellers away from our Lord (2 Cor. 5:6): if we wish to return to the homeland where we can be happy we must use this world (1 Cor. 7:31), not to enjoy it, [but] to discern 'the invisible attributes of God, which are understood through what has been made' (Rom. 1:20), or in other words, to derive eternal and spiritual value from corporeal and temporal things [essentially seeing them as symbols pointing to the attributes and grace of God].(Book One, V 9)

[A]lthough nothing can be spoken of [concerning God] in a way worthy of God, he has sanctioned the homage of the human voice, and chosen that we should derive pleasure from our words in praise of him. (Book One, V 14)

While even in these short snippets we may see some differences, I found these sentiments to be remarkably similar to the thinking of a particular modern pastor that many of us have come to respect; John Piper. Piper's "claim to fame" is "Christian Hedonism," a singular focus on enjoying God which includes the right use of and thankfulness for the God-given world around us. The thesis in his book, Desiring God, is "the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever." He believes that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." He has even written a treatise on drinking orange juice to the glory of God.

Piper has obviously been greatly influenced by Augustine and his successors, the Reformers. We have also been influenced by them. The question is, however, have we been influenced similarly? Do we look at the world around us and see God's fingerprints? Have we seen in the trees, the skyscrapers, the rings on our fingers, and the cars that we drive, symbols that point to truths about God and his attributes? If not, I would encourage you read Augustine and look around yourself with new eyes.

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