By Jim Pemberton
Augustine’s Two Streams of Faith
Scholarly analyses of Augustine tend to differ widely. These can be distilled down to two significant streams of thought.
The first is a famous quote of his, “Crede, ut intelligas.”1 It is an admonition to “believe, so that you may understand.” This may sound similar to the famous philosophical proposition, “I think, therefore I am,” made by philosopher René Descartes. This is in line with Augustine’s thinking that more directly serves to demonstrate him as a predecessor to Descartes when he wrote, “Si… fallor, sum” (“If I am mistaken, I am”)2. But I mention the first statement for a reason that will become clear soon. The point is that in this analysis of his thought Augustine pointed forward to Descartes. This was the direction of his philosophical thought.
The second analysis observes Augustine’s theological thought. On the one hand, Augustine taught that men have free will. While some, including the Roman Catholic Church venerate this teaching as consistent with their own idea of fully libertarian free will3, we must look at all of what Augustine taught. Rather, he tempered this teaching with the fullness of God’s sovereignty over and against man’s will.4 So his theological direction pointed forward, it seems, through the Roman Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation.
It seems as though Augustine is contradictory. Is he primarily a rational philosopher or primarily a faith-filled theologian? Is he primarily a rational free-will theologian or primarily a faith-filled, sovereign grace theologian? These questions highlight a modern day chasm between worldviews.
The Secular Worldview
The popular secular thought in Western culture holds a particular idea of the difference between faith and reason. Science is at the pinnacle of reason. There is a tangible world around us that we can experience. We can observe it objectively, construct a reasonably accurate understanding of it, and test those understandings to see if they are true. There may be things that cannot be known. To assert an understanding of truth from those things, we must have faith. So in this worldview, faith is subjective; in a word, blind.
In the secular worldview it can be observed that there are many systems of faith. This is based on the observation that in this system faith is subjective to the individual or group of individuals, and can be dismissed as unreliable information. It’s interesting to note that many secularists seem to miss the fact that they also claim that all these different religions basically believe the same thing.
Different Systems of Faith
It is agreed, by the way, that there are many different systems of faith. It is also agreed that many of these are subjectively constructed. They are inventions of the mind of people. But it is a mistake to generally dismiss all systems of faith as being subjectively constructed based on a particular observation that some indeed are subjectively constructed. That’s logically fallacious.
The Christian Worldview
It must be understood up front that not all Christians fully understand their own worldview. Even among those who do, none of us know all things. But there are some core things that are important to know about the Christian worldview in general.
First, the reason we disagree is because we know that we are fallen creatures. We aren’t perfect. Secularists aren’t perfect. In fact, we do bad things: evil things, really. Even when we don’t do bad things, we have evil inclinations and evil intentions. Evil pollutes our thoughts and prevents us from understanding things perfectly. To deny this is to fail to recognize our own limitations. To fail to recognize our own limitations is to call into question the reliability of our observations and conclusions about the world. In this vein, we have our first understanding of faith: faith requires understanding how our understanding is limited by our own evil inclinations.
Second, understanding our fallen nature requires no empirical testing. It requires an awareness of an objective ethic: a system of right and wrong that comes from somewhere outside of ourselves. It also requires an awareness that we have not fulfilled this ethic. There is no scientific way to test this. It is self-evident. It requires only a willingness to admit it in and of ourselves. This is the second understanding of faith: that we acknowledge the objective ethic.
Third involves an obvious realization that the objective ethic is not rooted in anything material. This is obviously NOT obvious to non-Christians. But there is a self-evident rationale that I will discuss in more detail in a later article.
The point of this exercise is to illustrate that the Christian faith is not subjective, it is objective, and as Augustine pointed out, it is rational and reasonable. It is not a blind faith, but an informed faith. In the next article I will discuss the overlap of faith and reason.
1Tract. Ev. Jo., 29.6
2book XI, 26
3Portalié, Eugène. “Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company (1907).
4Gonzalez, Justo L. (1970–1975). A History of Christian Thought: Volume 2 (From Augustine to the eve of the Reformation). Abingdon Press.