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Agents of Reconciliation (Or the Grace in Our Depravity)

By July 3, 2015 3 Comments


As a theologian I tend to focus on more contemporary thinkers. Not that I’ve ignored the others—I enjoyed my Patristic and Medieval theology courses the most. I’m particularly fond of Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart for some reason, but I usually explore their ideas in conversation with Barth, Moltmann, Gutierrez, and lately Bonhoeffer. What I find interesting is the response people give to my contemporary conversation partners. I’ve been accused of being “Barthian” (yes, that’s right, accused…) and of course any hint of liberation theology is strike one, two, and possibly three. What’s strange to me, however, is that many of the same people who are critical of the more contemporary theologians are fine with the early church fathers and mothers. This is strange because these early theologians, if read carefully, hold a variety of views on such things as creation, hermeneutics, and the nature of the bible. While invoking Walter Brueggemann or Serene Jones brings controversy, appealing to John Calvin brings an “amen”. Which got me thinking…maybe taking up these early and medieval theologians as conversation partners is a way out of the polarized political and cultural discussions. Can Irenaeus, Cyprian, or Julian open up new ways of thinking about controversial issues?

I just finished Gary Wills little book on Augustine (Saint Augustine) that focuses on important themes from his life and writings. One issue that Wills takes up is what he considers to be the overblown idea that Augustine was obsessed with sex. Even though references to sex and sexual desire are found throughout his writing, it’s always in the context of a discussion of original sin. Wills argues that Augustine “did not harp on sexual sin in preaching to his congregation. Greed, violence, and deception were greater concerns in the sermons…Sins of calculation, cold acts like lying, where what he most castigated—Satanic sins. For sins of the flesh, his own experience did not make him intolerant but compassionate.” (p. 135) In his discussion of the Donatist controversy Wills focuses on Augustine’s restraint and his desire for reconciliation. The focus, for Augustine, is that all things, including correction and discipline, be done in love for the sake of reconciliation. In a sermon based on First John Augustine says, “You see my point, that human acts should be judged by their basis in love. Many things have a surface appearance of good, but are not based on love—like blossoms on a thorn plan. Other things look hard, look forbidding, but they instill a discipline informed by love. Once again, to put it simply: Act as you desire, so long as you act with love.”

This has me wondering how Augustine relates to the significant issues facing the church in North America. What does it mean for Christians on both sides of the debate to respond to the supreme court decision on homosexual marriage in love? How does Christian love inform our response to the systemic racism that continues to evoke hatred and violence? Clearly, to follow the way of love means living as agents of reconciliation by seeking justice for those who are oppressed and marginalized. But it also means becoming agents of reconciliation in a church that is fractured by disagreement, prejudice, and its own form of hatred. Augustine’s approach often prompted accusations of being lax; he was accused of tolerating not only sinners but sin.  He responded to the sexual sins of priests and monks with discipline grounded in grace and mercy, warning others to be careful in their judgement, even as he came down hard on people who committed acts of greed and corruption. At the heart of Augustine’s work as bishop and priest was the difficult task of reconciliation. Which prompts me to wonder: Is it possible for Christians become agents of reconciliation in the midst of the entrenched differences and disagreements? Or, are we reduced to silly social media campaigns and posts that reduce people and important issues—like marriage—to sound bites and twitter feeds? Reading Augustine we discover someone who, as he aged, understood the complexity of human life and the hard path of love. For Augustine love means reconciliation—being reconciled to God and neighbor. It means living with the complexity of a “mixed church” where the wheat and tares commingle. It means living every day in the conscious awareness of our own propensity to sin even as we claim the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. Here, the doctrine of total depravity and original sin is less a fatalistic excuse to do bad things and much more a catalyst for love. When we are able to recognize our own failure, our own struggle, our own insecurity in the experiences of our neighbor, we are free to rest in the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • Dan Knauss says:

    Augustine was a good Barthian too. 🙂 In his view the enemy of reconciliation is instrumentalization, and this is a point that seems to cut both ways when applied to sexual ethics and relationships. Is that something you’ve considered?

    Here’s what I mean… In De Doctrina Christiana, which is kind of a primer on hermeneutics, Augustine says all things have either a proper use for some purpose or else they are to be enjoyed in themselves alone. The highest goods, like loving relationships, fall into the latter category. To reduce them to mere instrumentality — to “use” a friend for career advancement or to “use” someone for sex — would be a corrupt, perverse, disordered, and unnatural reduction of a relationship meant to be mutually enjoyed. You can probably guess where I’m going with this…

    Augustine’s immediate point is to explain how scripture is an instrument and not an end in itself; it is an aid to achieving a loving relationship with God and others, and it is those relationships which are to be enjoyed for their own sake. He says all bad interpretations of scripture get bogged down in trying to use the text to say something that is at odds with its ultimate message of God’s love for people. His failsafe against bad interpretation and corrupted texts is to always align his reading with this message of love. (You might apply this principle on an institutional level as a guard against a corrupt or defective witness too.)

    Now that’s all very nice and progressive sounding, but in his Confessions Augustine specifically describes homosexuality (and violence) in similar terms. If he was alive today he would probably make use of Jewish and modern Protestant biblical scholarship and admit his equation of the “sins of Sodom” with sex between men was mistaken, but his main argument about male homosexuality (and other sins) is of a piece with his views on love and relationships as formed by his distinction between using and enjoying. He seems to indicate that sex that is incapable of procreation instrumentalizes the act and the couple, cutting them off from each other, from true friendship, and from nature. Because of these disordered relations, connection with God is also lost or severely impaired.

    In that theological reasoning you have the groundwork of the traditional Christian position on human sexuality and marriage with its potential for reduction to an exclusive focus on procreation. The way that can be and has been harmful to women and families is pretty clear nowadays to most Christians, I think. The way it is explicitly harmful to gay people is still less than a point of cultural consensus. The psychiatric profession only decided to abandon all diagnosis of homosexuality — treatment of it as pathological — in 1986. Augustine might not seem like a source for progress on this issue, but maybe he is if people are able to see from his theological or merely ethical standpoint that gay couples — and gay parents — are not necessarily locked in or prone to instrumental relationships any more than anyone else is. (Children are really good at preventing this.) And perhaps that instrumentalizing tendency is what everyone needs to address more openly in their lives.

    Augustine’s other views on biblical interpretation also provide some clues as to how he might revise his views if he was here today. He warned against zealous, subjective interpretations because they tend to expose idols the interpreter is in love with rather than God’s truth. In his commentary on Genesis he says Christians who think they know something about natural philosophy (science) from the Bible are out of line and harmful when they start speaking to the world as authorities on subject where they have no competence. He also insisted that reliable scientific evidence can never be in conflict with scripture; if it appears to be then we must determine if it is wrong or our understanding of scripture is wrong. This describes an approach to orthodoxy that puts a high value on science and requires a great humility and openness to change.

  • Jason Lief says:

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I did think about Augustine’s views of sexuality and homosexuality as I wrote this piece, and that’s why I didn’t appeal to what he actually says on the issue. As a person of his time Augustine was influenced by social and cultural perspectives on sexuality. His opposition to homosexuality was more than likely just as much influenced by certain Greek views of gender and social hierarchy as they were biblical injunctions. (I’m referring to the understand of the relationship between the “giver” and the “receiver” and the social and cultural implications of these relationships.) What struck me was Wills description of Augustine’s pastoral work as he aged…which forces us to think about the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxis in pastoral care. I’m also interested in how his engagement of the various controversies might provide insight into how Christians who disagree with each on other on particular issues might begin to travel the path of reconciliation. While I’m not ready to hold up Augustine’s understanding of sex as the norm for the Christian community, I am interested in how his emphasis on love, and toward the end of his career his movement away from a staunchly neo-platonic worldview, influenced his practice. Are we doomed to keep fragmenting into versions of Christianity that keep us together with people who look, think, and act just like us?; or, is reconciliation possible where we are able to live in community with even those with whom we disagree? I don’t have the answer… I’m just wondering.

  • Dan Knauss says:

    It sounds like you’re saying Augustine’s actual views on marriage and sexuality should be ignored when using him to talk about those subjects today because they can be sectioned off as the product of uniquely “Greek” or “Neoplatonic” influences, which I guess you see as markers for complete error. I think you would be on better ground to argue specific assumptions and conclusions Augustine made are uncharitable, unethical, unscientific, and illegitimate in a modern context regardless of their source.

    The giver/receiver, masculine/feminine, dominant/subordinate view of gender and sexuality was pervasive in the ancient world beyond the Greeks and probably before Plato. It’s not evident to me how this has anything to do with the equation of contraception with abortion and sex that doesn’t end up having some procreative potential. As I mentioned, that type of reasoning remains present in Luther and Calvin with recent popes reiterating it (much to the dismay of Garry Wills I am sure) so you can’t just lay it aside as one of those embarrassing or humorous oddities, like Augustine’s speculation that farting before the fall was musical.

    What I suggested previously is that the material you like in Augustine connects to his ethics, his hermeneutics, and ultimately to a view of love and human relationships that concerns the right ordering of desire in a fallen world. His views on sex, marriage, and everything else — including his pastoral practice — are all of a piece in his theology. If you want to say there are corrupting influences in there, I think you have to actually make the case for why they render his specific views on sex and marriage irrelevant but his pastoral practice (or anything else you value) is unaffected.

    Maybe Wills addresses this, but the idea that “Augustine was obsessed with sex” seems like a very modern reduction; sex is never just sex in Augustine. He seems most interested in how any expression of desire is symptomatic of order or disorder, movement toward or away from God. It makes perfect sense that “cold sins” like calculated deceit would stand out to Augustine for their privation of good as opposed to garden variety “hot sins” of passion where desire is more or less misdirected.

    Augustine resisted the Manichean idea that sex and procreation are evil as well as to the Pelagian idea that concupiscence (the orientation and strength of our desires) is normal and healthy by nature. In his view there is really only one orientation people have — an orientation of intrinsically disordered desire. Because of that I would not be surprised if his pastoral approach worked by diagnosis and triage of the most serious cases of disordered desire, such as people who make sex or other people merely instrumental to their own pleasure or profit.

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