Progressives Parading with Augustine: A Response to Bart Gingerich

In Theology on September 3, 2012 at 2:15 am


The other day, my friend Joel Miller tweeted me about a blog post by on why progressives don’t like Augustine. I still haven’t figured out if Joel asked because I like Augustine and he sees me as “progressive” (I guess) or if he is in it for the entertainment value. Few things “get my nanny” like shallow analyses of politics or Augustine, and this article does both at once.

St. Augustine of Hippo

I have struggled to make heads or tails of Gingerich’s article. The context for the blog suggests “progressives” means “political liberals,” but he also talks about “emergent Christians and others from the Evangelical Left.” The author appears to have conflated political with theological liberalism. The result is a critique without nuance. Not having a clear picture of his foil, I have to proceed by addressing a few of his main points.

Gingerich says: Progressives do not like Augustine because Augustine opposes pacifism.

Augustine provided one of the first comprehensive cases for Just War Theory in the Christian tradition. To the committed pacifists of the Evangelical Left, such a development endures as a blight upon the church’s customary ethical understanding.

My response: Augustine’s just war “theory” makes war hard to justify. Augustine believed that the purpose of war was to limit the violence of others unleashed by the Fall, but this also required limiting the violence of war itself. Thus Augustine said that war was only for defense, and it could never be a cause for patriotism or nationalistic pride. We should not bedeck ourselves with yellow ribbons but sit in sackcloth and ashes whenever we are forced to go to war. “Let every one, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this [war] is misery” (XIX.7).

“Triumph of Death,” via Wikimedia Commons

While this is not pacifism, it’s not saber-rattling either. In some ways Augustine comes closer to what John Howard Yoder called “policing” (using limited violence to restrain the violence of others). Stanley Hauerwas also writes approvingly of Augustine. I do not know if Gingerich would consider Hauerwas a progressive, but he is certainly a pacifist. Thus he falls under the author’s critique. Of course, Hauerwas disagrees with Augustine’s views on war, but Gingerich seems to think this should lead Hauerwas to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Gingerich says: Progressives do not like Augustine because his politics resist utopianism.

Furthermore, the Augustinian two cities construction—where Christians share a dual citizenship in the fallen City of Man and the eternal City of God—throws a wrench into liberal hopes for social perfection.

I say: What?

No, seriously. I do not know what this means! Has Gingerich heard of Reinhold Niebuhr (incidentally, Barack Obama’s favorite theologian). Niebuhr arguably articulated the liberal reading of Augustine’s two-cities doctrine. Niebuhr said our politics will always be fallen, so we must not seek social perfection but content ourselves to seek consensus and compromise in order to achieve the best society we can hope for. Liberalism has never been utopian.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I can only assume that Gingerich has equated liberalism with some modern derivation of Marxism, which does strive for “social perfection.” In that case, Gingerich has a point. Niebuhr used Augustine to advocate for political realism. Marx would have a problem with that.

On the other hand, John Milbank puts forward a critical reading of Augustine’s theology of history in order to achieve a modern Christian socialism. Socialism is not the same thing as Marxism, but I think the point would be moot as far as Gingerich’s critique is concerned. Milbank does modify Augustine’s two-cities doctrine somewhat, but that is beside the point. If Gingerich would consider Milbank progressive (I honestly do not know), here is yet another example of someone who does not conform to his thesis.

Gingerich says that progressives reject Augustine because Augustine was a literalist.

More crucially, revisionists of all stripes gripe about Augustine’s doctrine of interpretation. In many ways, he is the arch anti-Marcion. The bishop of Hippo firmly believed that the Bible, as God’s Word written, is entirely true and without contradiction. The limits and frailties of the fallen human mind might have a hard time understanding two portions of Scripture at first, but exegetes must not simply choose one over the other.

I say: Augustine was not a literalist, and progressives aren’t Marcionites. I would love the author to have cited some “revisionist” griping. Without it, I cannot be entirely sure of my interpretation. Gingerich may not be saying that Augustine is a literalist, but that is what I take the words “entirely true” to mean. (I welcome his correction.)

Origen, via Wikimedia Commons

It is true that Augustine disagreed with Alexandrian exegesis, which dealt with difficult texts by denying they happened (e.g. Origen claimed that Lot did not actually sleep with his two daughters). Augustine tended to believe the things the Bible talked about took place, but to suggest that he would be on the side of today’s modern Evangelical exegetes is anachronistic to the extreme. (Again, I am not really sure if this is what the author means.)

Augustine did not have the same concept of history as we do, so he could dismiss some details as being purely figurative or inserted for the edification of the reader. This is because the truest sense of Scripture was still the spiritual sense; its purpose was to strengthen believers in the love of the Holy Spirit. As he says in On Christian Doctrine, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

Furthermore, because Augustine believed that Scripture contained the truth, he believed that it would not contradict what was true. For instance, I have not encountered any serious Augustine scholar who thinks Augustine would be a creationist today. After all, one reason he left the Manichees is that their entire system of salvation was based on a completely bogus astronomy.

As far as the suggestion that progressives are Marcionite, I am once again left scratching my head. Does the author mean that progressives would like to get rid of parts of the Bible they do not agree with (maybe the book of James)? Or does he mean that progressives buy into Marcion’s quasi-gnostic mythology? It is a confusing, and frankly silly, comparison.

Final Thoughts

Michael Trolove, via Wikimedia Commons

What makes me sad about Gingerich’s post is that he is clearly a fellow fan of the good bishop of Hippo, but his attempt to shove Augustine inside a conservative box does no justice to the depth of his thought. Personally, I do not think Augustine is the property of any political/theological camp. Gingerich might know that if he were a bit more conversant with the scholarly tradition about Augustine or if he were clearer about the identities of these nameless progressive despisers. Instead, he (ironically) presumes that his progressive foils are constantly committing genetic fallacies: that when they come across something in Augustine’s thought they disagree with, they reject him entirely.

The purpose of a foil is to demonstrate the virtues of its “opposite” (so to speak). Instead, Gingerich presents us with straw men. He does not take his opponents seriously (something Augustine would never have done), and thus, tragically, his paean to my favorite saint does him little honor.



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