Theological Woopsies Part 1: Augustine
Follow Me As I Follow Plato: Augustine of Hippo
Our Christian history is filled with brave characters, who had unique encounters with God and did amazing things, things that we rightly admire and celebrate. But many of these same heroes also acted out dumb ideas because their own cultural presuppositions were left unchallenged. So, in the quest of remembering and to aid us as we create the future, let me share some examples of how an unchecked worldview can trip us up.
Augustine of Hippo(1) lived from 354AD - 430AD. He was from a wealthy family and had a mother who earnestly desired for him to be a good Christian boy. But Augustine wasn’t interested in his mother’s Jesus, he was too busy having a good time and loving the ladies. Christianity finally got his attention when a family friend told him of how young people were devoting themselves to Christ, even forgoing marriage for a life of celibacy, he was pierced to the heart because he realised he had a problem: he was addicted to sex(2). Augustine was thrown into despair, as the depravity of his own sin created a mountain of conviction. After a challenging encounter reading St Paul’s letter to the church in Rome(3), he dedicated himself to Jesus and promptly told his mother that her prayers had been answered.
Augustine went on to became one of the greatest thinkers in Western theology, shaping much of the church’s thoughts on scripture. But he was deeply influenced by what is called Neoplatonism, a revival of the old philosophies of a Greek guy named Plato. Augustine blended those ideas with his understanding of scripture.
Plato taught that ultimate reality lay beyond the physical world of existence and that real truth, that which is pure and noble, is only found in the spiritual realms of the gods, not in the nitty-grittiness of the material world. The material world was believed to be just a shadow of the truth that existed somewhere in the heavens. Plato’s cultural philosophical system believed that the true world can only be reached with the mind via intellectual thought. The mechanism of reason was exalted as the only way to access pure reality.
So what then, does one do with the body? Well, the body was just a necessary nuisance, nothing but a whole lot of trouble. The flesh was seen as a vehicle of evil desire, a conduit that was a poor reflection of true reality. The body was trapped in the material world. Now, take Plato’s philosophical thoughts, mix it with a guilt-ridden Augustine, add the passion of St. Paul’s letters - and what do you get? The perfect conditions to create a new doctrine of sin.
Original Sin, Augustine’s brainchild, says that the entire human race has inherited a predisposed state of sinfulness because of the fall of Adam and Eve. Scripture is plain that all have sinned through Adam(4). But the doctrine of Original Sin goes further and degrades everything about our human physicality declaring it inherently massa damnata(5): a totally depraved, and debauched work of hell-fodder. Augustine’s struggle with his own sexual issues lead him to believe that, “the fallen nature of Adam was transmitted biologically through sexual procreation”(6). In other words, he believed that sin was like a sexually transmitted disease passed down from Adam and through the act of sex our flesh and genitalia were marred as a fundamental source of evil.
The volume of Augustine’s thinking still resounds in churches today. Many Christians have inherited a worldview that sees flesh as a bad thing. A fundamental belief and assumption of the Western Church is that the body and its desires are bad and an obstacle in the way of knowing God. There are a couple of points here that completely work against us. The first is that we have obtained a detached view of spirituality. We have become like mini-Platos, trying to exit the prison of real-world bodies to find God in the heavens - as if God is absent from our world. The second outcome of this worldview is that it has trained us to believe that the world we experience with our five senses is an inferior reality.
Let me show you how Augustine’s ideas have been reinforced within our modern Christian worldviews. If you’re like me, then at some stage you have been a reader of the New International Version of the Bible. Here’s an example of how the NIV translators chose to interpret some of Romans:
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God(7).
The italic emphasis in the above passage has been added to highlight how the Greek word sarx has been interpreted. Sarx is the Greek word for flesh. What the translators have done here is they have taken the English word flesh, and tried to negotiate what Paul is trying to say in the context. They have translated sarx as sinful nature, sinful man or sinful mind. However, in other parts of the New Testament sarx has been simply translated flesh. For example, John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh [sarx] and made his dwelling among us.” The Word became sarx.
The Word - as in Jesus - became flesh, not sinful nature.
Why the difference in translation with flesh being used some places and sinful nature in others? The translators have rightfully appealed to the context to determine what English word best fits, but they have also read the context with assumptions on their noses. Of course Jesus did not become sinful nature, because he’s the sinless one, so the translators kept that as flesh. But in Romans, they’ve looked through the lens of their theologically evoked worldview and determined that sarx should read with the concept of sinful nature - that propensity within to do evil - which taken to the extreme has become nothing but a fresh evolution of Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin.
The idea of Original Sin leads us to believe that there is a fundamental depravity with anything to do with the flesh and the material world. This is misleading and not true. It leads us to assume that the temporal body is a burden to bare, a nuisance and things like food and work, sex and romance or ecology fail to become mediums of deep sacrament. The normal things of everyday life do not get lit as a living sacrifice. The body, garnishing a soul of senses, is muted and wasted on religious austerity.
Thankfully the NIV Committee on Bible Translation have recently critiqued their worldview and come to understand that the original translators had a philosophical bent towards a certain view based on Orignial Sin. In 2011 the NIV updated their use of the word sarx:
Most occurrences of sinful nature have become flesh. Especially in Paul, sarx can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin. In an effort to capture this latter sense of the word, the original NIV often rendered sarx as sinful nature. But this expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx. The updated NIV uses flesh as the translation in many places where it is important for readers to decide for themselves from the context whether one or both of these uses of sarx is present(8).
This is an example of a worldview being transformed.
We don’t just read words, we read through worldviews. Our worldviews interpret for us what we think the words are saying, shaping how we live and act. Which should make us always ask the question: “is our worldview reading scripture clearly? Or is the intent and meaning of scripture veiled with cultural and philosophical baggage?” We will always see scripture through the veil of our own culture; it is impossible not to. But questioning our worldview is first an act of humility and self-awareness, and second an act of interpretive empowerment, allowing us to consider the lens through which we read.
1 He wasn’t the saint of the hippopotamus! He was from Hippo, an old city in Algeria, North Africa.
2 Rusten, S. with E. Michael. (2005). The complete book of when & where in the Bible and throughout history (p.121). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
3 “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Romans 13: 13-14.
4 Romans 5:12
5 Augustine’s term for “mass of perdition” or “condemned crowd”.
6 Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. I. (2000). In New dictionary of theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, p642.
7 Romans 8:3-8 (NIV).
8 http://www.niv-cbt.org/niv-2011-overview/translators-notes/ Accessed 11.6.14.