Saturday, August 25, 2012

Augustinian dualism, Protestantism, and heretical Christology

From the book Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian

 Matter As "Unspiritual"

The influence of Augustine 

Evangelical-Fundamentalism is generally wary of the earthly being associated with the spiritual. As I have briefly mentioned, this attitude was inherited from the Reformers who, in their own way, adopted it from Rome's understanding of Augustine.(1) Let me refresh our memories. Augustine's theological system saw the world as being divided into two distinct parts: the world of the spirit, and the world of matter. The material world was understood as something that is always divorced, distinct, and separate from anything resident in God's realm, i.e., the invisible domain of the spirit.

In this spirit-matter division, Augustine has a great a great deal of similarity to Platonic philosophy.(2) Platonism saw the spiritual world as being the only real (or ideal) world; the material world was but an image or shadow of that reality. Augustine sympathized with this distinction. In fact, it was this division between matter and spirit that lay behind his understanding of a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace." To Augustine, the reality of a sacrament was spiritual-something which was cloaked behind the material and "visible sign." Not only did this formula become a popular Roman Catholic definition, but it found its way into all the major Reformation catechisms as well.(3)

What then is sacramental grace, and how is it received? The Roman Catholicism of the Middle Ages answered that question by saying that grace was the "saving power" energizing the sacraments. The Reformers held a similar view, but most of them qualified this understanding by affirming that it was one's faith in what the elements represented, not the elements themselves, that communicated God's grace. In both contexts grace was not understood as "favor," its literal Biblical meaning. Grace was redefined by Augustinian-schooled scholastics as an "energy" able to bring the Christian alongside of God. The "Reformed" Augustine is little different from the "Catholic" Augustine. In both systems, grace is understood as a non-personal substance, not a direct, intimate communion of God with the believer. The reason for this deduction was clear: matter is matter and God is God, and never the two shall meet.(4)

The Chasm Between Matter and Spirit: The Evil of Flesh and Blood

In general, the various streams of Protestant Christianity have often flowed in sympathy with Augustine, Platonism, and pietism Humanism. Luther, himself a former Augustinian monk, clearly reflected an Augustinian dualism in his theological  treatises and Biblical exegesis.(5) Calvin was also heavily influenced by these schools of thought, having had the opportunity to study them seriously for years.(6) The Catholic-Reformer, Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), was another scholar who emphasized the Platonist spirit-earth dichotomy,(7) and his thinking made a significant impact on Anabaptist sacramental thinking.(8) Lastly, Zwingly, a man whose influence within Fundamentalism is still very much present, also demonstrated his allegiance to these philosophies and demonstrated it in his distrust of "outward things" in religion.(9)

As might be expected, these perspectives encouraged a very low view of human nature. While the spirit of an individual was pure, the tactile and sensible dimension of his personhood was ignoble and base. It was not just a person's "fleshliness" (i.e., carnal appetites) that was evil, but the body's very skin and bones as well! Zwingli clearly thought this way:

The actual origin of sin Zwingli ascribes to the contrariety of soul and body, the tension between spiritual aspiration and the down-drag of carnal appetite. Thus by the 'flesh' he means the 'fleshliness' of the actual physical body, so narrowing the sense in which St. Paul uses the word. Indeed it was characteristic of Zwingli always to distinquish sharply between man's true being. That the argument is more rationalist than biblical Zwingli himsels is frank enough to admit...(10)

Zwingli extended his dualistic thinking to the point of contradicting the Church's traditional teaching on the Incarnation. For example, he taught that Christ's humanity and divinity did not inter-dwell each other.(11) Instead of understanding Christ's human nature as participating in His divine nature, he saw the two natures as merely existing "side-by-side."

What consequence did this have on his view of the sacraments? Simply this: if divinity is distinct and does not co-inhabit the humanity given to Christ, how can any spiritual reality occupy "lesser" material symbols such as bread, wine, or water? The basic Platonist teaching is again emphasized: the material world is intrinsically incompatible with that which is spiritual.(13)

Zwingli's aversion to the marriage of matter and spirit was complemented and carried further by the South German Anabaptist, Menno Simons(1496-1561). Not only is this former Roman Catholic priest the "spiritual father" of most Mennonites today, but much of his thinking is still well received by many twentieth century Fundamentalists as well.(14) Simons was similar to Zwingli in his strong repugnance to the idea that divinity could co-reside within Christ's humanity. But unlike the Swiss Reformer, he did not divide Christ into two separate entities. Instead, he taught that Christ had only one nature-a divine one.

According to Simons, Christ's flesh was totally divine; not one speck of it was human.(15) This perspective seemed to address the problem left unanswered from the Augustinian interpretation of original sin he had once been taught. If, as this doctrine explained, it was impossible for man to escape from Adam's sin and guilt, how could a sinful woman (Mary) give birth to a sinless Man(Jesus)?(16) To answer this question, Simons cited John 6:63: "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing..."

In other words, Mary gave nothing of her humanity to Christ in the Incarnation; she was merely "a tube" through which Christ passed unaffected.(17)

'Jesus Christ is alone the Word of God, who himself became flesh through his divine power, and received nothing from the Virgin Mary; else she would not have have remained a virgin. He is alone the seed of the Spirit. Even as the water in the jars at the wedding of Cana became wine through divine power, and took unto itself no wine from the jars nor from any other wine. As the Bread from heaven, [Christ] fell from heaven and became himself a seed [corn], but received nothing from the earth.'(18)

Although Calvin clearly did not teach such an erroneous view of Christ, neither did he, in common with both Zwingli and Simons, hold a high place for the human body. He reserved honor only for "the spiritual side of man," and "considered the spirit-soul the exclusive bearer of the image of God and the essence of human personality to the disparagement of the body and its drives."(19) Once again, this this entire way of thinking was "plainly a direct result of Platonism as absorbed into medieval Augustinianism."(20)

In this view, sin has defaced God's image in humanity beyond all recognition, having been passed on from one generation to another through biological reproduction. Therefore, man as a product of human sex, must be depraved (i.e., the concept of total depravity) since nothing pure could naturally live in his "fallen-matter" flesh. This Platonic theme was continually emphasized in Reformation theology, and, though to a much lesser degree, in Anabaptist teaching as well.(21)

This leads us back to where we began. God, as the Supreme Good, stands at an eternal arm's length from anything "matter-like," either in creation or in humanity. The conclusion: anything material-in man or sacrament-has little real value.(22) Today, many Christians in the West would certainly not agree with the distorted perspectives of Christ's humanity some of the Reformers maintained, nor would they explain grace in such academic terms. However, the Augustinian and Platonic prejudice against creation, and the scholastic definition of grace, especially in respect to the sacraments, still has its proponents. 


from pages 199- 202 from the book "Common Ground: An introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian" by Jordan Bajis






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