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75 - Augustine and the Rise of Orthodoxy

Augustine of Hippo was born in three-hundred-and-fifty-four CE, in the early part of the Patristic Period of the Church, twenty-nine years after the first counsel of Nicaea. He converted to Christianity when he was thirty-three years old, six years after the first Counsel of Constantinople, the second of the seven counsels during this period. It’s fitting that he was born during this time in Church history, considering his great contributions to Christian Theology.

The Patristic Period was the rise of Church Orthodoxy, and Augustine played a major role. Before his conversion, Augustine was a brilliant teacher of rhetoric, an important skill across many professions in the ancient world. Rhetoric entailed the ability to master an understanding of any topic in order to present a compelling argument. A modern equivalent might be debate teams, but it was more than being a persuasive speaker. It was the ability to disseminate information and discern truth. Part of Augustine’s training in rhetoric would have been the logical foundations of Greek philosophy.

Augustine was an interesting figure that straddled the two kinds of Churches forming during the Patristic Period, and the two kinds of Church Fathers who represented them. There were the Holy Fathers, the influential Bishops vested in the power of nation-states in order to bring about Christian society in the form of Christendom. And there were the Desert Fathers, the odd and austere holy men who were developing cloistered communities centered on achieving mystical union with God. Augustine seemed to land squarely in the middle of these two kinds of Fathers and these two kinds of Churches.

His own conversion to Christianity was prompted upon hearing that his friends were reading about Saint Anthony, who went out into the Egyptian desert in the third century to seek God, almost exactly a hundred years before Augustine’s conversion. The life of Saint Anthony, who is considered the Father of Monasticism, had an influence on Augustine. One of his first actions as a Christian was to move back to his family estate in Africa and start a monastic order out of his family home. There is still an order of monks today that follow Augustine’s rule, called the Augustinians. But what Saint Augustine became most famous for were his sermons. Not long after moving to Africa, he was ordained as a priest in Hippo Reglus, where he eventually became the head Bishop of Hippo, hence the reason he is known as Augustine of Hippo. In his lifetime, it’s believed that he preached between six to ten thousand sermons, of which there are still around five-hundred authenticated copies in existence. But his greatest long-term contribution to Christianity was the development of his theology, which focused his education in rhetoric and Greek philosophy towards the interpretation of Christian scriptures (En.14).

Because of his training in the art of rhetoric, Augustine was well fitted to form a logical defense of Christian ideas and truths. Though there had been Christian thinkers before him, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Augustine set Christian truth on a new course, which moved Christian Orthodox more into the center of what defined the Church, especially the Church developing in Christendom.

Twenty-nine years before Augustine’s birth, the first counsel of the Patristic Period set forth the first universal document of accepted Christian truth, when three hundred Bishops gathered at the behest of Emperor Constantine in Nicaea. And six years before Augustine’s conversion, the second counsel of the Patristic Period made the Nicaean Creed a strictly enforced orthodoxy, under the behest of Emperor Theodosius, who wanted to vault Nicene Christianity over more Arian elements in the Church. It was into this contentious theological climate that Augustine was born, and born again. It’s not surprising to see that he put his great learning and intellect to the task of shoring up Christian truth through his preaching, thinking, and writing.

In Augustine’s time, Christian Orthodoxy was flourishing, and Augustine gave it a more solid ground on which to stand. That ground was the Faith/Reason synthesis. It was a blending of revealed Christian truth with Greek logic and philosophy. In Greek philosophy Augustine found a methodology for preserving and passing on Christian truth that could stand the test of time. That was a good thing, and led to what we now call Systematic Theology. Systematic Theology attempts to set forth the tenets of Christian truth. This is also called Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a Greek word that means “right thinking.” The word “ortho” means “right, true,” or “straight,” and the Greek word “doxa” means “opinion” (En.15). Greek Philosophy focused truth on logic and thinking in the mind. Christian revelation focused truth on hearing from God through the Spirit. The Faith/Reason synthesis was a blending of Divine revelation and human reason.

In some ways, this wasn’t that different from what the Apostle Paul and others had done through their New Testament letters. Those letters, which we now call Christian scripture, were simply a reinterpretation of Jewish scriptures through the lens of Jesus. As the Hebrews writer put it, “in the past God spoke to our ancestors through the Prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2a NIV). God revealed truth in the past through Prophets, but finally and most clearly through Jesus. That is why both Prophets and Jesus needed the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.

As Peter wrote in his second letter, “for prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but Prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21 NIV). We know that Jesus himself, before beginning his ministry, was baptized by John at the Jordan, and upon coming out of the water received the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22, John 1:32). That’s why Jesus was insistent about His Apostles waiting to fulfil his mission until receiving the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8).

God’s method of passing on truth is primarily through the Holy Spirit. In our pursuit of truth, the Spirit is our guide, and scripture is a record of what the Spirit has revealed in the past. There are the truths of God, and the Person of Truth who guides us as we search and seek God’s understanding of things. God doesn’t just have truth. God is Truth. Truth is a Person. We come to know truth through relationship with the Person of God.

What made someone a Christian in the first four hundred years of the Apostolic Era was receiving the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, meant to guide us into all truth (John 16:13). If you had the Holy Spirit, you were a Christian. During the Patristic Period, with the rise of Christendom, the centrality of the Holy Spirit wasn’t neccesarily diminishing, but gaining a co-equal and additional element. That addition was Orthodoxy and Systematic Theology.

The central feature of Jesus message was reunion with God through life in the Spirit. Accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior was the first step to reorienting ourselves towards a growing life with God. Jesus’ sacrifice cleared the way for receiving of the Holy Spirit, who could then bring us back into relationship with God.

The thing about relationship is, it takes time. It takes time to get to know someone. It takes even more time to get to know someone you can’t see, and haven’t yet learned how to interact with. Getting to know God through life in the Spirit is a mystery. It’s mystical. That’s why Contemplation calls it Mystical Union. It’s not like you can sit down, face to face with God and have a meaningful conversation over coffee.

God is everywhere, but we don’t start out with eyes to see, ears to hear, or the proper heart and mind to know God. For new Christians, it’s much easier to start out learning things about God, on our way to knowing God. That’s the point of scripture and theology. Those aspects of truth give us a starting point on our journey to knowing God.

Every new Christian starts out in the Cataphatic stage. It takes time to grow into the Apophatic stage. It can take a long time. Some mystics teach that it can’t begin to happen until the second half of life. So, how can we tell that someone has the Spirit, and is growing into life with Spirit, when it takes so long for that to happen? Because it takes so long, the fruits of life in the Spirit won’t likely manifest in individuals for a long time. Growing into life with the Spirit is a long, slow process.

The problem this process created during the Patristic Period was that there began to be more of an emphasis on needing to determine who was fit to be in Church. At first, it was just about who was fit to be a Bishop. A Bishop wasn’t just one of many mature Elders and Deacons charged with overseeing the growth of individuals into life with the Spirit. Because of Ignatius and Constantine, there was now One Bishop in charge of each church. And because of the Nicene Creed and Theodosius, that Bishop had to align with certain Church doctrines. Determining who was allowed to be that One Bishop couldn’t be easily detected by the mature life of the Spirit in them. The Spirit manifests in a variety of ways, and so does spiritual maturity. There needed to be a much more universal and accessible means of deciding who was fit to be that One Bishop. That more accessible, universal means was Orthodoxy.

During the Patristic Period, because of the rise of political influence in Christendom, Orthodoxy became the easiest way for Church Leaders to determine if individual Bishops were fit to lead a church. Bishops began to be approved by what they believed, more than a mature manifestation of the Spirit. It’s not that a growing life in the Spirit during this time was circumvented, it’s that there was this alternative method of determining who was in Christ by the truths they held, alongside the Person of Truth they were coming to know. If we’re all coming to know the same Person of Truth, wouldn’t that produce an alignment of truths as well? In some ways yes, in other ways no.

The truth of God is about relationship with the Person of God. It’s not just mental truths in the mind. Knowing about God isn’t the same as knowing God. The Cataphatic isn’t the same as the Apophatic. We can all be on a journey of coming to know God, and still look different in our individual thinking and beliefs. Part of that has to do with just how infinite and diverse the Spirit of Truth is. Part of that has to do with the way the Spirit distributes spiritual gifts within the body.

In his first letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul talked about the way the Holy Spirit distributes the gifts. He wrote, “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). Paul is clear in this passage that there is One Spirit with a diversity of gifts distributed differently to different people. Further down in that same passage Paul talked about Church as One Body with many parts. He says, “God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equa l concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:24b-25).

Just as a body is one thing, with thousands of parts that must each do their individual work for the whole body to live and thrive, so too the Church. There is One Spirit, who sets up the Church with a multiplicity of individuals with a diversity of gifts, so that the Body of Christ can function and thrive. What that looks like, practically, is that we can all see some things differently, and still be one Church. As Paul wrote in his letter, “Welcome the person who is weak in faith – but not in order to argue about differences of opinion” (Romans 14:1 CEB). So, what’s the difference between differences of opinion and core Christian truths, and how do we hold those in the tension of unity with a Spirit of diversity?

Remember what Orthodoxy means? It means “right truth” or “right opinion.” The way the Spirit distributes spiritual gifts can cause individual parts to value different aspects of God and His truth. There are also specific spiritual gifts that are more focused on knowing truth, just as there are specific spiritual gifts more focused on developing character and spiritual practices. God-truth is not just mental concepts in the mind. God-truth is wholistic, and all God-truth is meant to lead us to God as Truth. What may start as believing certain ideas with the mind in the Cataphatic should lead to living a certain kind of life in relationship with God in the Apophatic. There are different ideas and truths that can relate to a different focus within different spiritual gifts. But the Spirit has distributed every gift intentionally within the Body so that there would be a great diversity of people all adding their part to the whole.

Unity in the Spirit isn’t achieved through a uniformity of thinking, but a unifying relationship with One Father, One Lord, and One Spirit. Core Christians truths, in this environment, can help define the general parameters of being a Christian, like the border of a country. When they get too specific and small, they shut out too many people.

In such a Church, with such a diversity of gifts and focuses, who’s to say whose view of truth is right? How do we establish and hold a core set of beliefs that can help define what it means to be a Christian, while understanding that we’re all on a journey of growing into the Spirit of Truth, who intentionally creates diversity in the Body of Christ? Is it possible that the Spirit intentionally gives parts of truth to different parts of the Body so that we would need each other to better see the whole? Is it possible that one’s spiritual gift effects what aspect of truth they value? Is it possible that certain people are more gifted to lead, and others more gifted to work in the background, behind the scenes? And what if those more gifted to lead started making their gifts and view of truth more important than those more gifted to work in the background?

During the Patristic Period, because of the pressure to solidify Christian truth for the sake of creating an easy litmus test to determine who was fit to lead a church, certain spiritual gifts with their view of truth began to dominate more than others. And, with the influence of Augustine’s Faith/Reason synthesis, a more scholarly approach towards Christian truth made this division in the Body even more prominent. The end result was a growing concern about what individuals believed, and the need to consolidate Christian truth into a system of accepted and unacceptable ideas and doctrines.

That growing system was Orthodoxy. That growing system was Systematic Theology. That growing system was bolstered by the Faith/Reason synthesis. That system was well-fitted to leave room for Satan’s Plan.

That Plan was; One Leader, One Church, One Truth.

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