Friday, April 18, 2014

"City of God" VIII.24

Chapter 24:
We see in the pagan writers the height of sin, as they simultaneously recognize the folly of past men inventing gods to worship while lamenting the disappearance of idols as the true religion grows. This is beyond even those who think that the idols serve as intermediaries with the demons, who in turn serve as intermediaries with God. In fact even this latter idea is the result of a false interpretation of the providence of God. While it may appear that demons and statues have the power to influence the world,
They cannot, however, do anything of this kind unless where they are permitted by the deep and secret providence of God, and then only so far as they are permitted.  When, however, they are permitted, it is not because they, being midway between men and the gods, have through the friendship of the gods great power over men; for these demons cannot possibly be friends to the good gods who dwell in the holy and heavenly habitation, by whom we mean holy angels and rational creatures, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers, from whom they are as far separated in disposition and character as vice is distant from virtue, wickedness from goodness.
Anything evil does comes from God's providence, not from some kind of inherent right that it has by its own nature of ability. Evil functions only at the command of God, not by its own power. I can think of few more comforting doctrines for the Christian life than that of the Sovereignty of God expressed here by Augustine. What have we to fear in the world, and what suffering can we not endure when we know that it comes from the will and hand of God?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"City of God" VIII.22-23

Chapter 22:
At the end of the day, we must worship no one and nothing other than God--not even spiritual beings who appear to be above us.

Chapter 23:
Nor can we worship idols, even if we think they are a means of approaching spiritual beings:
 And I know not how he has become so bewildered by that “darkening of the heart” as to stumble into the expression of a desire that men should always continue in subjection to those gods which he confesses to be made by men, and to bewail their future removal; as if there could be anything more wretched than mankind tyrannized over by the work of his own hands, since man, by worshipping the works of his own hands, may more easily cease to be man, than the works of his hands can, through his worship of them, become gods.  For it can sooner happen that man, who has received an honorable position, may, through lack of understanding, become comparable to the beasts, than that the works of man may become preferable to the work of God, made in His own image, that is, to man himself.  Wherefore deservedly is man left to fall away from Him who made Him, when he prefers to himself that which he himself has made.
The works of our own hands, as you can find pretty much anywhere you care to look in Scripture, are not to be worshiped. I've mentioned before that we are often quick to spiritualize these sorts of passages (I make an idol out of food/work/whatever), and that Augustine (along with most of the church fathers) offer a good corrective to that tendency. Which isn't to say that we shouldn't talk about idolizing work at all, just that such is not the primary meaning of "idolatry." That meaning involves using statues and images in worship, and is strictly forbidden for Christians. How, Augustine asks, can we ever hope to worship God through items made by human hands? Such is the mark of an unregenerate heart and someone on a slippery slope back towards the errors of paganism.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"City of God" VIII.19-21

Chapter 19:
Neither magic nor worship of demons leads to the one things which alone is the sign of true piety and to be praised: repentance.

Chapter 20:
The demons do not intercede with God for man. [Really for a Christian just saying it like that should be sufficient!]

Chapter 21:
Again, demons do not act as intermediaries between God (or "the gods") and man, not even in terms of conveying knowledge. We must shed ourselves of all of these pagan beliefs. [I'm tempted to draw some kind of reality show analogy, if only to make this stretch of refuting paganism more interesting. But I just don't have the time...]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"City of God" VIII.16-18

Chapter 16:
Despite their surface superiority, human are not to worship "spiritual" beings other than God alone.

Chapter 17:
The demons especially are unworthy of praise, given the moral state of their lives (this includes the pagan gods, which are really just demons in disguise).

Chapter 18:
This tells us the worth of the Platonists, who don't even both to be consistent with Plato's own teachings in their attempts to worship the pagan gods.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"City of God" VIII.14-15

Chapter 14:
Plato likewise held a view of rational beings that included demons--albeit an inconsistent one that raised these demons to the level of gods and treated them with unbecoming respect.

Chapter 15:
We can't even say that demons are better than us just because they are spiritual beings--if that were the case, there are any number of animals that would be better than us simply because their senses are more acute. This is simply a false method of classification.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"City of God" VIII.11-13

Chapter 11:
Some people have assumed that Plato stole his material from the Old Testament--namely that when he was in Egypt he had access to the writings of Jeremiah. While Augustine rejects this particular assumption (the timing doesn't quite match up), he does grant that Plato may have been aware of the contents of the Old Testament Scriptures, especially the book of Genesis.

Chapter 12:
Aristotle (and his followers, the Peripatetics), Plato's followers in the Academy that he founded (taken over by Plato's nephew Speusippus after his death), and the neo-Platonists (such as Porphery and Plotinus) all are renowned philosophers, and all encourage the worship of pagan gods.

Chapter 13:
Plato thinks that the gods are good, and so it's okay to worship them. But he also believes that the gods delight in the theater--the very theater which he banished from his state in the Republic for being immoral. Need we even say anything else? The burden of proof is on the Platonists to reply here...

Friday, April 11, 2014

"City of God" VIII.8-10

Chapter 8:
The final division of philosophy--moral philosophy--is that question of the highest good (the summum bonum), which is either a matter of the body, or of the soul, or both. What Plato brings to the philosophical table is the understanding that this highest good cannot ultimately come from man, but must come from God. "Therefore he did not doubt that to philosophize is to love God, whose nature is incorporeal.  Whence it certainly follows that the student of wisdom, that is, the philosopher, will then become blessed when he shall have begun to enjoy God. "

Chapter 9:
Whether people who believe something like this are called "Platonists" or by some other title, they are the philosophers who come closest to what Christians believe.

Chapter 10:
Unfortunately, the closest thing to heaven is hell. What the Platonists and other philosophers have bent all their intellect on finding, the simplest, most poorly educated man who is a true believer already has--knowledge of and a relationship with the infinite, eternal, and holy Creator of the universe.
This, therefore, is the cause why we prefer these to all the others, because, whilst other philosophers have worn out their minds and powers in seeking the causes of things, and endeavoring to discover the right mode of learning and of living, these, by knowing God, have found where resides the cause by which the universe has been constituted, and the light by which truth is to be discovered, and the fountain at which felicity is to be drunk.
Augustine is going to engage with the Platonists because they are the most well known and highly regarded of the pagan philosophers, but this is not to be confused with saying that Plato has arrived at a saving true. Just that Plato is the most known and respected.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"City of God" VIII.6-7

Chapter 6:
The Platonists have understood that God must be a spiritual force, inherently living and infinite in nature, and this because all of the physical world is always changing and in flux, and hence cannot be the source of its own energy. It needs something unchanging and infinite beyond itself. This source (I suppose we should say "Source") must be simple, rational, living, and infinitely beautiful in its essential nature.

Chapter 7:
Not only did the Platonists get much of their doctrine of God correct, they are the best at understanding the nature and function of rational thought and logic. This is because they see that these things come from a source beyond the material world--a point which no other body of philosophy has acknowledged.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"City of God" VIII.4-5

Chapter 4:
Of all Socrates' disciples (many of whom were listed in the previous chapter), none surpass Plato. If philosophy has two sides--action and contemplation--and if Socrates was the master of the former and Pythagoras the master of the latter, then Plato is the one who synthesizes the two into a harmonic philosophical whole.
This whole philosophy Plato then divides into three parts: moral (how we live), natural (what we think about), and rational (telling what is true from what is false). Because of the way he writes, it can be hard to figure out exactly what Plato actually thinks about any of these issues: "that is, what he believed to be the end of all actions, the cause of all natures, and the light of all intelligences."
And yet, it will be useful to bring up a few of Plato's ideas, since he is (rightly) understood to be the chief of all the pagan philosophers, so far that there are those who follow Plato who
are said to have manifested the greatest acuteness in understanding him, do perhaps entertain such an idea of God as to admit that in Him are to be found the cause of existence, the ultimate reason for the understanding, and the end in reference to which the whole life is to be regulated.  Of which three things, the first is understood to pertain to the natural, the second to the rational, and the third to the moral part of philosophy.  For if man has been so created as to attain, through that which is most excellent in him, to that which excels all things,—that is, to the one true and absolutely good God, without whom no nature exists, no doctrine instructs, no exercise profits,—let Him be sought in whom all things are secure to us, let Him be discovered in whom all truth becomes certain to us, let Him be loved in whom all becomes right to us.
 In other words, Plato at least seems to be on the right track--we should seek God as the source of nature, knowledge, and the moral life. Whether Plato has arrived there has yet to be seen.

Chapter 5:
Plato's claim that the wise man is the "one who imitates, knows, loves this God, and who is rendered blessed through fellowship with Him in His own blessedness," so "why discuss with the other philosophers?"
The civil/mythical philosophies discussed interminably in book VII and the pre-Socratic speculations on the nature of the physical world and even the more recent Epicureans and Stoics all ought to give way to the Platonists, who alone rise above crass materialism (however well dressed up in philosophical rhetoric) to the understanding that what matters most is spiritual life. Now we can have a meaningful philosophical discussion.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"City of God" VIII.1-3

Chapter 1:
Finally, we turn to something worthy of a response--namely, the "natural theology" of the philosophers. To that end, Augustine draws some broad limits within which he will work:
Now, if wisdom is God, who made all things, as is attested by the divine authority and truth, then the philosopher is a lover of God.  But since the thing itself, which is called by this name, exists not in all who glory in the name,—for it does not follow, of course, that all who are called philosophers are lovers of true wisdom,—we must needs select from the number of those with whose opinions we have been able to acquaint ourselves by reading, some with whom we may not unworthily engage in the treatment of this question.  For I have not in this work undertaken to refute all the vain opinions of the philosophers, but only such as pertain to theology, which Greek word we understand to mean an account or explanation of the divine nature.  Nor, again, have I undertaken to refute all the vain theological opinions of all the philosophers, but only of such of them as, agreeing in the belief that there is a divine nature, and that this divine nature is concerned about human affairs, do nevertheless deny that the worship of the one unchangeable God is sufficient for the obtaining of a blessed life after death, as well as at the present time; and hold that, in order to obtain that life, many gods, created, indeed, and appointed to their several spheres by that one God, are to be worshipped. 
In other words, Augustine is not going to respond to all arguments of all philosophers, only to the best of the best who believe in divinity, believe that divinity cares about mankind, and who yet still deny the one true God.
Really, this means Plato.

Chapter 2:
In this chapter, Augustine gives us a quick overview of pre-Socratic philosophy as a lead-in to Plato, focusing especially on Thales and his descendants who focused on the nature of reality (the category the ancients would have called 'Physics.')

Chapter 3:
Socrates was reputedly the first to have turned philosophy from contemplation of the universe to human moral reform, and this so that by living a pure life human beings could understand and relate to the one true God, by whose will, intellect, and power alone the universe moves--though it may also have been that Socrates was just tired or the ancient version of asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Whatever his reason, Augustine suggests
 For he saw that the causes of things were sought for by them,—which causes he believed to be ultimately reducible to nothing else than the will of the one true and supreme God,—and on this account he thought they could only be comprehended by a purified mind; and therefore that all diligence ought to be given to the purification of the life by good morals, in order that the mind, delivered from the depressing weight of lusts, might raise itself upward by its native vigor to eternal things, and might, with purified understanding, contemplate that nature which is incorporeal and unchangeable light, where live the causes of all created natures.
Socrates proposed the idea of a "highest good" to which mankind can related. After his execution, he was followed by a number of students who all disagreed about where this highest good could be found. Some said in pleasure, some in virtue, "indeed, it were tedious to recount the various opinions of various disciples."

Monday, April 7, 2014

"City of God" VII.33-35

Chapter 33:
Our faith in Christ reveals the true nature of the deceit of these pagan gods, "From whose most cruel and most impious dominion a man is liberated when he believes on Him who has afforded an example of humility, following which men may rise as great as was that pride by which they fell."

Chapter 34:
Even the pagan leaders understand to some extent the moral evil contained in pagan rites--as evidenced by King Numa's burial of the books he wrote on pagan rites, and the Senate's later order to have them burned after they were discovered.

Chapter 35:
These gods are mere demons who have been given a limited and temporary power (including that of telling the future). We all ought to turn instead to the true religion, Christianity.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

"City of God" VII.28-32

Chapter 28:
Any attempt to harmonize heaven, earth, and the gods utterly falls apart, unless we assume that the gods were kings of old and/or demons. Otherwise, we end up in silly inconsistencies.

Chapter 29:
All the creative acts which pagan theologians look for in their gods may be assigned to the true God, who alone made heaven and earth, along with all living creatures, their senses, and their reason.

Chapter 30:
All of the things, both good and evil, which Varro and pagan thinkers try to find in the false gods come only from the one true God, who alone is the source of life, art, disease, matter, spirit, everything, in short, that exists. God is the Creator of and sovereign over all things:
But these things the one true God makes and does, but as the same God,—that is, as He who is wholly everywhere, included in no space, bound by no chains, mutable in no part of His being, filling heaven and earth with omnipresent power, not with a needy nature.  Therefore He governs all things in such a manner as to allow them to perform and exercise their own proper movements.  For although they can be nothing without Him, they are not what He is.  He does also many things through angels; but only from Himself does He beatify angels.  So also, though He send angels to men for certain purposes, He does not for all that beatify men by the good inherent in the angels, but by Himself, as He does the angels themselves.
Chapter 31:
Both good and bad alike are blessed by God with the good things of creation, but for His people there is a special additional blessing: the gift of eternal life through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. After so much time spent on bashing the pagan gods, this chapter is worth quoting completely:
For, besides such benefits as, according to this administration of nature of which we have made some mention, He lavishes on good and bad alike, we have from Him a great manifestation of great love, which belongs only to the good.  For although we can never sufficiently give thanks to Him, that we are, that we live, that we behold heaven and earth, that we have mind and reason by which to seek after Him who made all these things, nevertheless, what hearts, what number of tongues, shall affirm that they are sufficient to render thanks to Him for this, that He hath not wholly departed from us, laden and overwhelmed with sins, averse to the contemplation of His light, and blinded by the love of darkness, that is, of iniquity, but hath sent to us His own Word, who is His only Son, that by His birth and suffering for us in the flesh, which He assumed, we might know how much God valued man, and that by that unique sacrifice we might be purified from all our sins, and that, love being shed abroad in our hearts by His Spirit, we might, having surmounted all difficulties, come into eternal rest, and the ineffable sweetness of the contemplation of Himself?

Chapter 32:
This promise of salvation was proclaimed to the whole world from the beginning of the human race and through the Jews, first in their own nation and then as they were spread across the earth. From the Jewish people the world received the Scriptures which taught a way of life that promised the coming salvation through Jesus Christ, "which we who believe in Jesus Christ unto eternal life believe to have been fulfilled, or behold in process of fulfillment, or confidently believe shall yet be fulfilled."

Friday, April 4, 2014

"City of God" VII.25-27

Chapter 25-26:
Whether Atys, the Magna Mater cult, we see that the gods are guilty of the worst atrocities and by no means should be considered 'gods' at all.

Chapter 27:
The lesson in all of this is that we are to worship the true God alone, and not to involve in our worship of him any created thing.
Wherefore if with temple, priest, and sacrifice, which are due to the true God, any element of the world be worshipped, or any created spirit, even though not impure and evil, that worship is still evil, not because the things are evil by which the worship is performed, but because those things ought only to be used in the worship of Him to whom alone such worship and service are due.  But if any one insist that he worships the one true God,—that is, the Creator of every soul and of every body,—with stupid and monstrous idols, with human victims, with putting a wreath on the male organ, with the wages of unchastity, with the cutting of limbs, with emasculation, with the consecration of effeminates, with impure and obscene plays, such a one does not sin because he worships One who ought not to be worshipped, but because he worships Him who ought to be worshipped in a way in which He ought not to be worshipped.  But he who worships with such things,—that is, foul and obscene things,—and that not the true God, namely, the maker of soul and body, but a creature, even though not a wicked creature, whether it be soul or body, or soul and body together, twice sins against God, because he both worships for God what is not God, and also worships with such things as neither God nor what is not God ought to be worshipped with. 
Christians must not worship idols, or other spirits, or other people, or even any good things, because doing so involves a double evil--the evil of treating something as God that is not God and the evil of ignoring the true God.
The way we worship is important when we're thinking about who we worship. Unlike the pagans, we should not mutilate ourselves in our attempts to worship God, or indeed involve any created thing in that worship. This principle is of course solidly Biblical, and repeated throughout both Testaments.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"City of God" VII.23-24

Chapter 23-24:
Varro attempts to articulate a "Natural Theology," wherein the world is a living organism (and a divine one at that), which involves a life force that pervades all of existence, a higher level of existence that we call "sensation," and the highest level of all that we call "reason." In drawing out this explanation, Augustine suggests that Varro is trying to escape from "Civil" theology into a purer and rational religion, but Augustine is having none of it. Despite his best efforts, even Varro's natural theology is shaped by the false views of the gods and of existence that come from civil theology. And although Varro seems to be both aware of and uncomfortable with this fact, he nevertheless proceeds from a false foundation, and so the whole house of his theology is rotten from the start.

And yes, I am running out of ways to summarize the same thing over and over again. I am impressed that Augustine is not.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"City of God" VII.19-22

Chapter 19-22:
In the worship of Saturn (Kronos in Greek) we see that the pagans have confused worship of the creation with worship of the Creator: "Let us rather attend to and hold by this, that these interpretations are not carried up to the true God,—a living, incorporeal, unchangeable nature, from whom a blessed life enduring for ever may be obtained,—but that they end in things which are corporeal, temporal, mutable, and mortal."

In the worship of Ceres, Liber, and the sea "gods" (Neptune, Salacia, and Venilia), we see that the pagans have embraced silliness, irrationality, and sin. Very often, the pagan theologians are inconsistent even with their own beliefs: " I ask thee, O Varro, and you who have read such works of learned men, and think ye have learned something great,—I ask you to interpret this, I do not say in a manner consistent with the eternal and unchangeable nature which alone is God, but only in a manner consistent with the doctrine concerning the soul of the world and its parts, which ye think to be the true gods."