Why the Orthodox Need Augustine and Augustanism (Part I)

One of the areas of favorite themes of Orthodox anti-Catholics polemics is Western Christianity’s dependence upon the thought of St Augustine and West’s subsequent deviation from sound theological anthropology. Having first read Augustine in college some 30 years ago (where has the time gone?), I have always had trouble recognizing the Augustine I encountered in his Confessions, On Free Choice of Will, the City of God, On the Trinity, the First Catechetical Instruction and myriad sermons with the “other” Augustine who figures so prominently in Orthodox polemics.

What brought all this to mind was a post this morning on Pontificator of Eastern University philosophy professor Phillip Cary’s essay on “Augustine and Justification.” Cary is a well regarded Augustine scholar who has done much to help me come to appreciate ever more fully Augustine genius. In response to the charge that Augustine is the “father” of Western legalism, Cary (rightly I think) observes that:

To ask about Augustine’s view of justification is already something of an anachronism. To begin with, Augustine does not make a distinction between justification and sanctification. Of course he speaks a great deal about righteousness (i.e. justitia) and holiness (i.e. sanctitas) but these terms are not related to each other the way the later Protestant tradition relates justification and sanctification. That distinction comes much later. Indeed, it’s only beginning to emerge in Calvin himself (e.g. Inst. 3:14.9). What later Calvinists call sanctification, Calvin himself will often call regeneration or repentance (ibid. 3:3 passim), which can get rather confusing.

Unlike later authors, Augustine does not “distinguish between an event of justification and a process of sanctification.” Rather in Augustine’s mind, what would later be called “justification, so far as he discusses it at all, is not a particular event but the activity of God throughout our lives.” While not exempt from criticism on other points, he articulates a catholic (i.e., “wholistic”) anthropology that envisions the Christian life as “a journey, pilgrimage or road to God . . . , in which we grow closer to God by growing in charity.” Righteousness (justitia) for him “consists in obeying the twofold law of love” of God and neighbor as ourselves.

Cary does an admirable and economic job of tracing out Augustine’s view of conversion, justification and sanctification; he also distinguishes them from later medieval and Reformation era speculation on these themes. For Orthodox readers of Augustine, what is especially interesting is Cary’s argument that, for example, Calvin’s emphasis on conversion flows out of his “rejection of the Catholic side of Augustine” work. For Augustine, “justification is not an event but a process.” It is only later, during the “middle ages [that] the term ‘justification’ came to be used to describe the outcome of penance—especially sacramental penance (cf. e.g. Aquinas, Summa Theologica III 85.6 ad 3 and I-II 113.1).” Again, while not exempt from Orthodox criticism, it is important to bear in that during the medieval era justification was understood in sacramental terms.

Yes, it is certainly the case today, that justification is understood primarily psychological terms, but it is only because it has become detached from its sacramental mooring. Augustine, Aquinas, and even Luther, or so I hope to show in my next post, had a much more holistic view of justification then what we find in much of contemporary theology. And I think that Orthodox thought would profit by taking seriously the insights of Augustine’s sacramental spiritual psychology.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


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