Augustine's Idea of God

James J. O'Donnell

Best to begin by hearing Augustine call on his God.

quid es ergo, deus meus?

summe, optime,
potentissime, omnipotentissime,
misericordissime et iustissime,
secretissime et praesentissime,
pulcherrime et fortissime,
stabilis et incomprehensibilis,
immutabilis mutans omnia,
numquam novus numquam vetus,

semper agens semper quietus,
conligens et non egens,
portans et implens et protegens,
creans et nutriens et perficiens,
quaerens cum nihil desit tibi.

et quid diximus, deus meus, vita mea, dulcedo mea sancta,

aut quid dicit aliquis cum de te dicit?
et vae tacentibus de te, quoniam loquaces muti sunt.[[1]]

The wordplay, the assonance, the alliteration, all disappear in translation.

What art Thou then, my God?

Most highest, most good,
most potent, most omnipotent;
most merciful and most just;
most hidden and most present;
most beautiful and most strong,
standing firm and elusive,
unchangeable and all-changing;
never new, never old;

ever working, ever at rest;
gathering in and [yet] lacking nothing;
supporting, filling, and sheltering;
creating, nourishing, and maturing;
seeking and [yet] having all things.

And what have I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy?
or what says any man when he speaks of Thee?
And woe to him who keeps silent about you,
since many babble on and say nothing.[[2]]
The limitations of human language are displayed by the paradoxes in which the divine nature compels Augustine to speak.[[3]] Not yet for Augustine the mannered style of an Eriugena, for whom God is good, but God is also not good (not good in the human way, at any rate), and God is finally "super-good" (i.e., good in a way that lies beyond the human category of goodness), but some of the same impulse is there. Human words used by humans fail in the presence of the divine, and whatever can be said is only approximation, and most human discourse fails to say anything of God at all, despite endless loquacious efforts.

Now for a rhetorician as polished as Augustine to admit failure in a matter of rhetoric is a striking thing (more than a rhetorical device here), and not without significance, as most experienced readers of Augustine will always have felt. For all the clarity and definition that Augustine can give to his writing elsewhere, it cannot be without significance that at the center of his concerns lies this finally unsayable Other, who eludes all his attempts to define and delimit. My theme in this essay is that Augustine's elusive God needs to be taken seriously, for all His elusiveness, in order to do justice to the things that Augustine says about other things, particularly those things that seem to us moderns in one way or another perplexing or rebarbative. I am fond of saying that whenever Augustine is saying something that moderns find troubling, the best first resort for an interpreter is to look closely to see what text it is of scripture -- not infrequently of Paul -- that is on the table before him and virtually forcing him - - by Augustine's lights -- to say what he says. That technique is often powerfully effective, and needs to be employed with circumspection when looking at Augustine's views on grace and free will, for example, or on sexuality.[[4]]

But I find it equally important, time after time in reading Augustine, to remind myself that nothing Augustine writes is intelligible apart from his own experience of God, not only in the pages of scripture, but also in his own life. If we take the trouble to think our way into Augustine's most fundamental religious awe, we will often see a consistency and a clarity in his thought that would otherwise elude us.

What I propose to outline here is not systematic. A whole book could and should be written on this theme. These remarks are rather heuristic and occasional, the fruit of spending my adult life reading and rereading Augustine, trying to do justice to him. Isidore of Seville said that the man who claims to have read all of Augustine is a liar and now, having indeed turned over all those pages and passed my eyes over all those words, I know and feel the truth of that more than ever.

It is useful to begin by looking at the narrative Augustine gives in the Confessions of his discovery of his God.[[5]] The sequence emerges if we look carefully at the way he reports the attraction the Manichees had for him and the way he resisted it. The questions the Manichees pressed hardest and with best effect on the adolescent Augustine were these:[[6]] where does evil come from (in other words, is God good)? does God have a body? how do we understand the seeming inconsistency between Old and New Testament versions of divine justice (in other words, is God just at all)? The short answers to these questions were simple: God is good, God is spirit, God is just.

But to find those answers took Augustine a decade's weary searching that only bore fruit after he came to Milan. Ambrose's sermons, with their emphasis on the Pauline distinction of letter and spirit as a means of interpreting the chasm between the Old and New Testament,[[7]] rescued God's justice. The first encounter with the books of the Platonists,[[8]] revealed to him a God who was not like the all-penetrating sea soaking into the sponge of material creation, but instead a spirit. The final stage in that revelation came on second look at the Platonists, when the doctrine of evil as a privation of good made itself understood to him, and he could see that all that was created was good, and thus that the creator himself was good.[[9]]

The justice of God thus revealed was for Augustine an adequate answer to the Jews; the spiritual nature of God, refutation for the "pagans"; and the goodness of God and God's creation the decisive argument against the Manichees. I think we need to do Augustine the favor of allowing that the questions that long plagued him did indeed speak to the heart of his religious experience of the divine, and that when he had removed those obstacles and in removing them found a way to a God who was not a phantasma but a real and true God.[[10]] It was this discovery of the divine nature that made both possible and necessary the further struggle for encounter with the incarnate Word of God that comes to a completion in the famous garden scene in the eighth book of the Confessions.[[11]]

The qualities that persist in Augustine's God, the ones that recur page after page in his work, are reflections of those categories of goodness, justice, and spirituality that enticed him away from the Manichees. I mind particularly that the spiritual nature of God is associated for Augustine with divine immutability. I do not see that we have an adequate study of the theme in Augustine, though many writers have commented on its centrality to his thought.[[12]] The creative power of God is the correlate of the goodness of God, and God as creator is another role pervasive in Augustine's writing. Similarly, the divine justice leads to an easy acceptance of what is scarcely an exclusively Christian principle, that God cares for and guides the affairs of the created, material world.[[13]]

One last aspect of Augustine's God seems to me to require highlighting here, and it is a paradoxical one: I mean God's silence. Though God is everywhere, though God watches over and cares for humankind, though God hears human prayers, the response is to every mortal ear silence. For a God whose mediator to humankind is the incarnate Word, this is remarkable, until we realize that for Augustine the continuing incarnation of the Word is twofold: in one place, that Word is encountered in the eucharistic liturgy about which Augustine is (for his time, characteristically) reticent, and in the other, that Word is everywhere in the pages of scripture. A modern must make a special effort that a late antique Christian would not have had to make to realize that the pages of scripture were for Augustine the source of the living, spoken Word of God, mediated into sound by the voice of the bishop, or the deacon, or by whatever reader of the scriptural text, a text rarely encountered in silence.[[14]] Once we bear that in mind, Augustine's God is anything but silent, and it is we who must make an effort to see just how eloquent and omnipresently eloquent Augustine's God can be.

At this point I mean to give only the broadest outline of the implications that I think the study of Augustine's idea of God can hold for Augustinian studies. Each of the few paragraphs that follow could easily be a monograph in itself. My aim in bringing them together and in keeping the scope so limited is precisely to emphasize the connections. Augustine against the pagans, the Donatists, the Manichees, the Pelagians -- Augustine the endlessly polemical -- is a figure we find sometimes unsympathetic precisely for what seems so negative about his engagements with his fellow Christians. And if we insist on breaking him up into the subject of disparate scholarly monographs according to his polemical targets, that partial and limited view of him will I think always make him seem less than he was. My sense, after long frequentation with his works, is that there we miss something valuable when we do that, and that if we can, here at least briefly, bring together the various sides of Augustine in view of the points I have already made, we can get an idea of a way forward, a way to restore to Augustine a unity of purpose and a dignity of intention that he seems sometimes to have lost in recent generations.

Imagine yourself a fourth-century "pagan",[[15]] imprudently cast in Augustine's way some afternoon, and challenging him to defend his novel religious ideas.[[16]] You will suggest to him, as Symmachus had proclaimed in his speech on the altar of Victory in 384, "uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum."[[17]] Augustine himself might have been open to such argument in his youth, and said something similar himself that he later regretted.[[18]] As a "pagan", you think yourself a tolerant man, broad-minded in your acceptance of many cults, though in practice you are probably quite snobbish about preferring your own, and curiously disdainful about the excesses of others -- perhaps even downright hostile to some. Augustine speaks against you of the unity and spirituality of his God, his ubiquity, and his timelessness -- and thus of a God who is not the exclusive property of anyone, who forms no closed community, no sect, no cult, but who is in fact accessible to one and all. That is what Augustine was trying to say when young and using language similar to Symmachus', but Augustine's monotheism was far more downright and pastorally practical. "Pagan" monotheism always had something abstract about it: it was a notion about religion, but not a part of the religious experience itself.[[19]] Augustine's Christianity took philosophical monotheism one step further in the enactment of Christian community.

But Christian community often fractured itself in various ways. The Manichees had their own doctrines, the Donatists their own sense of their special purity and separateness, the Pelagians their own sense of their moral superiority. If "paganism" has few completely wholehearted supporters among Augustine's modern readers, the Christian communities against which he railed, and sometimes did more than rail, have often found and still find sympathetic supporters in modern times. The Donatists, particularly, appeal to a political engagement, the Pelagians to a moral one.[[20]] If there are two things moderns are slow to forgive Augustine for, it is his use of political power to coerce the Donatists,[[21]] on the one hand, and his exposition of his views of human sexuality in his combat with the Pelagians and in particular with Julian of Eclanum. Both issues have been heavily ventilated in the last thirty years, though both seem to me susceptible of further investigation. Here I will suggest one theme.

The Donatists made no show of toleration or inclusiveness. They were the party of the saved in Africa, and if the rest of the world was largely unsaved, that was no business of theirs. And they were not without their own coercion. Relatively few individuals, certainly far fewer individuals than in any modern western society, were fully free in their choice of communities. The Donatists were an army of the saved, and an army that had swollen its ranks largely by a kind of benign conscription. If you lived in a Donatist town, or if you were a client of a Donatist patron on the land, you had little choice. Augustine's years-long attempts to negotiate cheerfully with the Donatists sought to loosen that grip, but to little avail. When he finally came to invoke imperial authority, with all the reservations and hesitations that marked that process, and with all the punctilio that marked relations down to the conference of 411, he did so in the name of a style of Christianity that was far more inclusive, whose God was just but not arbitrary, whose God was good, and whose God lay beyond the capacity of a single community to capture him for themselves.

So similarly, the Pelagians used moral superiority, the icy self- control of the ancient aristocrat, as a defining mechanism to separate themselves from their fellow Christians of lesser virtue. Augustine on the other hand, found his God everywhere. More important, he knew the difference between God and man: the qualities he imputed to God were so lofty, so far removed from human capacity, that it was foolish to claim that any human community possessed them fully. If there is a lingering "pagan" stripe to the Donatism and Pelagianism Augustine attacked, it comes from their ability to believe that sufficient excellence, adequate resemblance to the divine, was within human reach. Not so for Augustine, whose God is so lofty, so good, so utterly unlike ordinary mortals, that it is only by dint of great generosity that -- for all human excellences -- it is even possible to talk of salvation. Accordingly, the gap between the most virtuous and the least virtuous member of the community was first of all easily bridged,[[22]] in both directions, for good and for ill. For him the qualities he venerated were clearly those of his God, not of ordinary people. Religion made a marvelous difference -- though, to be sure, Augustine is not quite the patron of the cult of the saints that those who came after him in the west would be -- but that difference had its limits. Reformation according to the image and likeness of God never bridged the chasm,[[23]] and never gave any group of human beings "bragging rights" over against any other. Even those who stood outside the sacramental community of the church merited respect as prospective members or as recipients of yet-hidden grace of God.

It is ironic and appropriate that the image of the Manichees, who drove Augustine to reflect on his ideas of God and seek out the Christian orthodoxy that finally separated him from them decisively, never quite left Augustine alone. The very last words Augustine ever wrote in his opus imperfectum contra Iulianum attack not Pelagianism but Manicheism -- arguing that it is Julian, not Augustine, who shows signs of the gnostic taint. We are inclined to take this either too seriously (as a sign of a bad conscience) or not seriously enough. My own view is that Augustine fully shook off his Manicheism in every matter of doctrine, but never shook off the questions they had asked. The God he clung to so insistently was precisely the God who would ward off the Manichean God, and so in that way there are dim shadows of Manichee doctrine lying across Augustine's words down through his whole career. In discovering against the Manichees the absolute overweening goodness of God and the contingent, reflected goodness of created things, Augustine succeeded in distancing himself from them, and in embracing all creation. But the chasm between God and creation that the Manichees had exploited remains in that structure of thought: and if there is for many readers a lingering sense that Augustine has somehow or other not gotten it quite right about creation, not fully valued the things of this world as they ought to be valued,[[24]] then here finally we can perhaps see that his idea of God needs in the end still to be distinguished from his experience of God. What he thought and said approximated his experience, to be sure, but its imperfection ought, with due charity, to be treated as we consider the tiny deliberate imperfections that Navajo sand-painters included in their designs - - as reminders of the fallibility and imperfection of human affairs.

For it often seems that Augustine has brought down on himself a surprising reproach -- that of being imperfect. For a man who freely confessed from the bishop's residence that he knew not to which temptations he would next submit[[25]] who scarcely deny the imperfection of his teaching or his life. But his role in the thought of later centuries and the affection (relatively uncharacteristic of Augustine as we have seen) for the cult of the saints grew so strong that he was unable to resist a kind of idealization in the minds of those who came after that first seemed to work to his advantage, but later, as the need for idealization ran afoul of a maturer sense of the risks implicit in such a strategy, rebounded to his seeming discredit.[[26]]

Perhaps one way past the competing images of Augustine that we receive is precisely to be found in confronting him as he approaches his God, however much that God resembles or disresembles one we recognize ourselves. If we make that effort of the imagination, we can leave him in two characteristic poses: of silent listening to the Word in scripture, and in active, vocal response to that Word in the liturgical prayer of the church. Those two Augustines, it seems to me, can and should take precedence, to all the other Augustines we know. If we can make that reformation in our sense of who he was and how he lived, then we do a better job of reading what he wrote and of going away form that to write our own lives in or out of his tradition.

For to evoke Augustine in a celebration of a century and a half of Augustinian-led education on a verdant hilltop not far from Philadelphia is to remember that the academic approach to Augustine and his texts has its limits. To know that approach in its excellences and to know its limits are both parts of the wisdom that Villanova University exists to foster. The excesses of the academic ideologies of our time are not, happily, failures of enthusiasm but errors of proportion, of not knowing where the academic inquiry becomes part of the life of a larger community. Augustine stood for, and Villanova stands for, as do at least in theory all our institutions of higher learning, a better sense of balance. To study Augustine is to use the disciplines of philology and history to uncover pieces of a long-past life, and in so doing to make possible a better life here and now.


[[1.]] Conf. 1.4.4; on this text, and on others from the Confessions cited below, I have much more to say in my edition of and commentary on that text (Oxford 1992). If the notes that follow refer to my own writings more abundantly that might be seemly, it is because the opportunity to deliver this lecture just after publication of a work of many years' preparation encouraged me to think back over the peregrinatio animae through many encounters with Augustine, from the paperback translation of the Confessions that I purchased in high school expecting I know not what lurid revelations through now twenty-five years of assiduous reading, and to attempt to uncover in that experience themes that had been implicit in my reading but hidden to my conscious thought. This paper is one essay in that vein, and meant both to address the concerns of the warmly receptive audience that formed part of Villanova University's sesquicentennial celebrations and to suggest ways for others and above all for myself to go on thinking about Augustine in the years to come. I am happy to express my thanks to Fr. John Rotelle, OSA, for the generosity of his invitation, and for many other kindnesses over the years, and similarly to my other friends and colleagues at Villanova, whose support and encouragement has been so valuable.

[[2.]] These last words have been particular controversial, and it would not be fair to fail to mention the alternative interpretation to which they are subjected, as in Pusey's translation: "Yet woe to him that speaketh not, since mute are even the most eloquent." See my commentary for defense of the interpretation I prefer.

[[3.]] On paradox as a deliberate rhetorical choice designed to approximate the ineffability of God in Augustine, see my Augustine (Boston 1985), 22-24.

[[4.]] We may well have other reasons for quarreling with the ideas Augustine expresses, and his reading of scripture, especially of Paul, is not always one that we would give ourselves, but if we make the effort to see scripture through Augustine's eyes, his readings are rarely unintelligible, and making the effort often makes it easier to see what Augustine is really saying. For example, when Augustine, in his Quaestions on the Heptateuch 6.10, allows as to how there can be such a thing as a "just war", it is useful to notice that he speaks in the context of Joshua's battle at Jericho. Augustine there is not making some abstract argument, but rather coping with the undeniable fact that in this particular case, God clearly approved war by one people against another; and read in that way, his interpretation is limiting rather than authorizing, concessive rather than encouraging.

[[5.]] O. du Roy, L'intelligence de la foi en la trinite selon saint Augustin: genese de sa theologie trinitaire jusqu'en 391 (Paris, 1966), 96-106, has argued that Augustine's narrative in the Confessions does an injustice to his own theology, in that it assumes that "God" (the trinity) can be known before the Incarnation. I have discussed this in my commentary, vol. 2, pp. 415-16, and still incline to think Augustine can be defended on this point, but for purposes of this paper I will leave the issue to one side and will concede that the relative places of "God" and "Christ" in Augustine's writings are not always clear and stable with respect to each other, and there is something faintly subordinationist about Augustine's practice, though his doctrine is fully orthodox. Bear in mind, for example, that Augustine's church in Africa insisted that prayer at the altar always be directed to the Father, and that it is only centuries later that prayers directed to Christ become commonplace (see T. Klauser, A Short History of the Western Liturgy [2nd ed., Oxford, 1979], 30- 2).

[[6.]] Conf. 3.7.12.

[[7.]] Conf. 6.4.6.

[[8.]] I think here of the stage depicted at Conf. 7.9.13-15.

[[9.]] Conf. 7.12.18ff. I thus distinguish between two "tentatives d'extase" in Book 7, separated by this second stage of Platonic analysis; see my commentary ad loc.

[[10.]] Already at Conf. 1.1.1 he adumbrates this theme by showing his caution that ignorant invocation of the divine can get a "wrong number", so to speak, thinking to invoke God but calling in fact on another: he is surely thinking of the errors of his Manichee days here.

[[11.]] See my commentary on Conf. 8.12.30 for the argument that it is the garden scene in which the incarnate Christ is decisively introduced into Augustine's life.

[[12.]] See my commentary on Conf. 7.1.1.

[[13.]] "Augustine the Epicurean" is an article that can't be written, but there are times when it almost seems it could be. The forms of argument of the Epicureans were, by his own admission, appealing at one stage (see Conf. 6.16.26), and the form of Augustine's critique of classical paganism in City of God often resembles the Lucretian attack centuries earlier (I have argued, in "Augustine's Classical Readings," Recherches Augustiniennes 15[1980], 144-75, that there is more Lucretius in Augustine's memory than had previously been credited).

[[14.]] And when encountered in silence, as by Ambrose at Conf. 6.3.3 (see again my commentary) or by Augustine in the garden scene at Conf. 8.12.30, so encountered precisely so that the one who reads the word can attend to it with a metaphorical kind of hearing more directly than would be possible if he were to read it aloud -- the one who reads a text in the ancient world is at a disadvantage against the one who listens to it being read.

[[15.]] See my "The Demise of Paganism", Traditio 35(1979), 45-88; and "Paganus," Classical Folia 31(1977), 163-69, for the ways in which "pagan" is a word of limited usefulness to the scholar today, precisely for the way in which it embodied a specifically Christian view of late antique society and in its polemical overtones made itself a word that few non-Christians would tolerate being applied to themselves.

[[16.]] One of the best examples of such a dialogue of the deaf is the exchange of letters with Maximus of Madauros preserved in Augustine's correspondence, epp. 16-17.

[[17.]] Symm. relatio 3.10.

[[18.]] See sol. 1.13.23, "sed non ad eam [sapientiam] una via pervenitur", regretted at retr. 1.4.3, though vera rel. 28.51 echoes the same phrase of Symmachus. Of course both passages were written before Augustine's accession to the Christian clergy.

[[19.]] A salutary and sympathetic guide to the lines of non-Christian thought that converge here is J.P. Kenney, Mystical Monotheism: A Study in Ancient Platonic Theology (Hanover and London, 1991).

[[20.]] W.H.C. Frend has been the most articulate and impassioned partisan of the Donatists in our time, from his The Donastist Church (Oxford 1951) onwards, for all that he is a marvelously original and judicious scholar the while, and on the other hand Elaine Pagels, in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York, 1988), has emerged as a spokesman for the Pelagian party much less impeded by learning or discretion.

[[21.]] Even his most sympathetic interpreter on this point, Robert Markus in Saeculum (Cambridge 1969), cannot win him a complete acquittal.

[[22.]] Think of the old man Augustine knew, long years in the faith and then suddenly taking up with a young woman not his wife (c. Iul. 3.11.22): it is in such pastoral experience that Augustine found his skepticism when faced with the confident virtue of a Julian of Eclanum.

[[23.]] Gerhard Ladner, The Idea of Reform (Cambridge MA 1959), is the classic study, to be supplemented by R.A. Markus, "'Imago' and 'Similitudo' in Augustine," Revue des etudes augustiniennes 10(1964), 125-43.

[[24.]] I think this is a common modern reading of his work, and precisely because it is common it deserves respect -- it may not be an accurate statement of his express doctrine, but it could scarcely manifest itself were there not traits in Augustine's writings that gave occasion for it.

[[25.]] Conf. 10.4.7.

[[26.]] I have approached these issues in my 1991 Augustine Lecture at Villanova, published as "The Authority of Augustine", Augustinian Studies 22(1991) 7-35, and also in the commentary in a video presentation of Augustine's life and thought produced in 1992 by Della Robbia Productions of Santa Fe NM, "Augustine: Late Have I Loved Thee."