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Augustine of Hippo, 354 – 430

Today was Friday the 13th. While the paraskevidekatriaphobic among us may shiver at the date, the rest of us can rejoice that, 1655 years ago, Augustine was born. The Bishop of Hippo was one of the greatest church fathers and theologians in the early history of Christianity. Daniel D. Williams has said that if Alfred North Whitehead is right – that Western philosophy has been a series of footnotes to Plato – then Western theology can be said to be a series of footnotes to Augustine. But the African bishop’s brilliance was not just in theology; his writings (the most significant of which are Confessions and City of God) also exhibited enormous philosophical reach. In comparing Confessions with Plato’s Republic or Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, it is difficult not to be struck by the differences. Augustine does not offer us any less of a comprehensive philosophical vision than those works, but while Plato’s Republic is written as a dialogue and Kant’s Critique is written as a treatise, the Confessions is written stunningly as a prayer.

And it is Augustine’s legacy of piety and theological acuity that has strongly influenced the church. It is difficult to find a highpoint that has been unaffected by him. In the medieval period, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas depended upon him, while in the sixteenth century Luther and Calvin’s reaffirmation of  the importance of God’s grace in salvation was rooted in Augustinian thought.  In fact, B. B. Warfield once confidently claimed: “It is Augustine who gave us the Reformation.” It is difficult to overstate his importance and for anyone who wishes to grapple with the foundational ideas of the Christian tradition and Western philosophy, even after sixteen centuries, Augustine remains one of the most penetrating and significant guides.augustine

What art Thou then, my God?

Most highest, most good,
most potent, most omnipotent;
most merciful and most just;
most hidden and most present;
most beautiful and most strong,
standing firm and elusive,
unchangeable and all-changing;
never new, never old;

ever working, ever at rest;
gathering in and [yet] lacking nothing;
supporting, filling, and sheltering;
creating, nourishing, and maturing;
seeking and [yet] having all things.

And what have I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy?
or what says any man when he speaks of Thee?
And woe to him who keeps silent about Thou,
since many babble on and say nothing.
Augustine, Confessions 1.4.4

More than a fideist: Remembering Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)

Today in New Zealand, we remember the end of the first World War and commemorate the sacrifices of members of the armed forces in that period of awful history. Today, however, is also the day that in 1855, Soren Kierkegaard, one of the most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century, died. This overlap is ironic, for it was only after the first World War ended that Kierkegaard’s influence began to play such a formative and decisive role in the emergence of existentialist philosophy. His impact, however, is not limited to the thought of writers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Even now, in the twenty-first century, the Danish author continues to stimulate writers from fields as diverse as literary criticism and psychology.

Kierkegaard

He may often be more known to some Christians as the poster boy of fideism and subjectivism, but it is all too easy to miss the context in which he wrote and the adversaries he set his sights upon. Confronting a sterile Hegelian rationalism that had dissolved the importance of individual existence and advocated what Kierkegaard saw as pure ‘thought without a thinker’, the Danish philosopher sought to destroy the notion of impersonal, morally neutral knowledge. Against a Denmark church that had fallen asleep to the radical demands of Christ, Kierkegaard attempted to emphasize the idea that in judging a person’s life, what counted was not the objective truth of the person’s beliefs but the way those beliefs have taken hold and transformed the knower (“When all are Christians, Christianity eo ipso [by that very fact] does not exist,” he once wrote).

The shortcomings of Kierkegaard’s philosophy are not hard to find. And debate will no doubt continue about the exact nature of his thoughts, given the vast library of his work and the fact that many of his books were written under a variety of pseudonyms, but Kierkegaard still has important things to say about faith, the despair of the aesthetic life, epistemic risk, and the nature of love.