Reasons to Believe

Contemporary Criticism of Augustine’s Thought, Part 10

While Augustine’s presentation and defense of classical Christian theism is strongly critiqued by some modern scholars (especially those who are skeptical and theologically liberal), his thinking continues to be embraced by many within Western Christendom. Two areas, in which Augustine is criticized even by sympathetic contemporary scholars, relate to his philosophical thinking and political power.

A Lack of Systematic Philosophical Analysis

Some contemporary philosophers argue that because Augustine is more a rhetorician than a philosopher, his philosophical writings sometimes lack “precise, systematic argumentation.”1 This apparent lack of systematization is illustrated through Augustine’s conflicting positions in different works, or an inability to know precisely what his views were on certain topics. The enduring tradition of Augustinianism is often understood as representing broad philosophical themes rather than exact positions. In fairness to Augustine, however, he never intended to isolate his philosophical views from their extensive theological context, or from the important context of his life experiences. Thus, Augustine is uniquely a Christian philosopher and/or a philosophical theologian.

Suppression of the Donatist Church

Some have also criticized Augustine for his handling of the Donatist controversy. Augustine used the political and legal power of the Roman Empire to suppress the Donatist church. Because of their schismatic views, the Donatists were fined and their church properties were confiscated. From Augustine’s point of view, this was his attempt to compel the Donatists to come back to the Catholic Church after swallowing some bitter medicine. It is important to note that he never called for the Donatists to be tortured or executed as heretics.

Assessing the Influence of Augustine

In closing, The Oxford History of Western Philosophy summarizes Augustine’s tremendous impact on Western intellectual history as follows:

It is arguable that Augustine is the most influential philosopher who ever lived. His authority has been felt much more broadly, and for a much longer time, than Aristotle’s, whose role in the Middle Ages was comparatively minor until rather late. As for Plato, for a long time much of his influence was felt mainly through the writings of Augustine. For more than a millennium after his death, Augustine was an authority who simply had to be accommodated. He shaped medieval thought as no one   else did. Moreover, his influence did not end in the Middle Ages. Throughout the Reformation, appeals to Augustine’s authority were common place on all sides. His theory of illumination lives on in Malebrache and in Descartes’s “light of nature.” His approach to the problem of evil and to human free will is still widely held today. His force was and is still felt not just in philosophy but also in theology, popular religion, and political thought…2

Endnotes:

1. Anthony Kenny, ed., The Oxford History of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University, 1994), 59.

2. Kenny, 57­–58.

Subjects: People of Faith