Published on June 24, 2024 by Mike Pasquarello  
Pasquarello Mike

This article first appeared in the 2024 Beeson magazine.

Writing in the Confessions, St. Augustine described an intensive seeking for wisdom prior to his conversion to Christianity. This passionate love of philosophy in pursuit of eternal truth was a commitment to a whole new way of life, an intellectual, moral and spiritual awakening and inner healing facilitated by the spoken or written words of ancient sages. Following his baptism and incorporation into the body of Christ, Augustine wrote of the intellectual vanity fostered by his love for philosophy. He confessed his prideful illusion that human reason is capable of ascending unaided to attain divine wisdom and happiness.[1] 

In his work as a Christian bishop and preacher, Augustine retained the pedagogical insights he learned as a student and teacher of philosophy. Assimilating these to the doctrine of the incarnation, revealed in the church’s “folly of preaching” and cruciform way of life, he proclaimed the true “philosophy” of Christ, God’s wisdom, the spiritual principle of creation and means of its redemption.

“And so, it was in the Wisdom of God that the world was unable to come to know God through wisdom. So why did she come, when she was already here, if not because it was God’s pleasure through the folly of preaching to save those who believe? … That is how the Wisdom of God treats the ills of humanity, presenting herself for our healing, herself the physician, herself the psychic. So, because man had fallen through pride, she applied humility to his cure. We were deceived by the wisdom of the serpent; we are set free by the folly of God. On the one hand, while her true name was Wisdom, she was folly to those who took no notice of God; on the other hand, while this is called folly, it is in fact Wisdom to those who overcome the devil (DDC.I.12-14).”

Augustine’s affirmation links the person and work of Christ to humanity and is situated within the Trinitarian faith confessed by the Church. The whole life and ministry of Jesus is the work of God in which the Son of God, anointed by the Spirit, takes to Himself our fallen world, our sinful, human flesh and lives in it a life of faithful, loving praise on our behalf, doing the will of the Father, walking according to God’s wisdom and following God’s way. In this vocation, Jesus learned for us the wisdom we have lost through the sin of foolishness, overcoming our idolatrous and destructive ways; restoring and bringing to completion our life and destiny as creatures made for peace in the image of God. Fully God, He descended into ignorance and humiliation; fully human, He advanced and in wisdom and character to demonstrate His full participation in our creaturely life for us and for our salvation as communion with the Triune God.[2]

By following this classic creedal pattern, Augustine depicted the Christian way of life as conformity to the Church’s faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as loving surrender to Christ, the mystery of divine wisdom by which the Spirit binds together the communion of saints (DDC, I.12 – 14, 13). He therefore sought to persuade pastors to yield themselves to a particular manner of believing, loving and speaking which constitutes a particular habitus, habits of the mind and heart, a form of theological judgment and spiritual discernment necessary for rightly hearing and speaking the Word of God. This “knowing how” comprises the enactment of truthful practice and guides pastors in the conduct of their homiletical responsibilities. The union of knowledge and love—passionate knowledge—is required to grasp divine wisdom, the “grammar of God” which informs, shapes and directs pastoral speech for the healing of humanity through union with Christ by the Spirit’s love.[3]

Augustine, moreover, was no stranger to the wisdom and healing power of the Spirit in the ministry and fellowship of the church. Through an extended process of repentance, confession and forgiveness, his mind was changed to perceive the restlessness which seeks certitude and control through attachment to created things instead of their Creator. He also saw how this restlessness is satisfied only when reoriented and drawn into loving communion with God in loving friendship with others. Only the gift of faith enables acknowledgment of one’s sinfulness, limits and death within the larger scriptural story of God’s truth, goodness and love. Understanding thus increases in direct proportion to the degree we acknowledge our dependence upon God through our belonging to God’s people. Human lives, therefore, become truthful when yielded up as acts of praise and thanksgiving to the Father in union with Christ through the illumination of the Spirit.[4] As Augustine prayed in beginning the Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Confessions, I.I). Christopher Thompson comments,

“The normative guiding principle guiding the Confessions is the doctrine of the Church concerning God as the Triune Creator of all that exists and Redeemer of all who seek reconciliation … the overriding motif of any narrative of Christian experience is the claim that ‘God has made us for himself’ … This is the drama of the revelatory narratives: that I find in them, not confirmation of myself, but very constitution of myself. I do not place the actions of God within the horizon of my story; rather, I place my story within the action of God.[5]

The pastoral ministry of preaching is a human witness to the gift of salvation lovingly and justly bestowed. Preachers point to the humble presence of Christ who, in the Spirit, fills the Church by communicating Himself for the redemption of creation. Spiritual formation, then, involves one in becoming a certain kind of person through the cultivation of spiritual wisdom and moral virtue, those “graced” capacities which unite knowing, loving and speaking of God. On the one hand, this involves unlearning sinful habits and judgments that turn one’s vision away from God and a life ordered to goodness; on the other hand, this involves acquiring new habits of thinking, loving and speaking formed by participation in the scriptural narrative of God’s providential drama of salvation (DDC, I.14.13-20, 21).

According to Augustine, such spiritual formation occurs within and bears witness to God’s saving work of restoring and renewing creation to its true end: godly fear which is the beginning of wisdom; piety, a willingness to learn; knowledge of Scripture, one’s self and human sinfulness; courage and constancy in adversity gained through prayer; divine counsel and mercy; the purging of restlessness and love towards one’s enemies; purity of sight or vision through death to the world; and lastly, wisdom enjoyed as communion with God (DDC, II. 7.9-14). Moreover, immersing ourselves in the church’s doctrine, discipleship and devotion nourishes a proficiency in Scripture, a capacity for speaking simply and wisely with a “derived” authority that bears witness to the crucified and risen Lord among His people. Purity of heart and the gift of understanding sustain constancy and patience, a habitual way of “knowing how” to speak in a manner that builds up the witness of the church to the presence of Christ.[6] 

I have highlighted Augustine’s discussion of learned piety, loving God fully with both heart and mind to demonstrate the kind of wisdom required to orient the words we speak in service of the true purpose of our life in God: the love of God, as the gift of the Spirit (the source of life) who leads us to faith in Christ crucified and risen as our way to God (the means of life) in whom alone we attain complete happiness and holiness for the praise and glory of God (the final end of life).[7]

[1] William Mallard, Language and Love: Introducing Augustine’s Religious Thought Through the Confessions Story (University Park: Penn State Press, 1994); see also Helen Charry, By The Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) 120-152.

[2] Colin E. Gunton, Theology Through Preaching (Edinburgh and New York: T&T Clark, 2001) 79-84.

[3] Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds, 3-34.

[4] See the excellent discussion of the Confessions in Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy ed., A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2003).

[5] Christopher Thompson, Christian Doctrine, Christian Identity: Augustine and the Narratives of Character (Lanham, New York, Oxford: University Press of America, 1999) 99, cf. 78-91.

[6] Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) 79-85.

[7] Carol Harrison, Augustine: Christian Truth and Fractured Humanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 37-39; Mallard, Language and Love, 219-229.

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