Strange sometimes how books seem to find us. I discovered On Christian Doctrine by St. Augustine last year about the same time I began to rewrite this site. At first, I thought what a great idea it would be to share the following Augustinian excerpts as my initial post. In hindsight, I’m glad I hesitated. If I had attempted to explore this topic even a few short months ago it would have served as nothing more than a soapbox justification of my own peculiar bias. Mind-blowing what a few months of refining and testing can achieve…
On Christian Doctrine by St. Augustine addresses a variety of topics, however I was particularly drawn to his thoughts on profane source. It’s been said that Christians are the only group that arranges their firing squad in a circle. Heretic, cultist, I’ve been called that and worse, oddly enough by fellow Christians and for what, seeing truth where it lay. I began to wonder – how does a Christian “justify” insights gained from profane sources?
Spiritual insight seemingly gained from sources other than sacred scripture has been shunned as a slippery path into idolatry, heresy, the demonic, etc. Can it be possible that one can learn truth from profane sources or even other religious traditions in the service of Christ? Going on to discover those same truths have been hidden in the Holy Bible all along? The following thoughts of St. Augustine helped me put down the questioning, it was Love that did the rest…
CHAP. 18.–No Help Is To Be Despised, Even Though It Come From A Profane Source.
“… let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master; and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition, and let him grieve over and avoid men who, “when they knew God, glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.”
CHAP. 40.–Whatever Has Been Rightly Said By The Heathen, We Must Appropriate To Our Uses.
“Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of;(1) in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,–that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,–we must take and turn to a Christian use.
And what else have many good and faithful men among our brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver and garments Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him? And Victorinus, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men! How much Greeks out of number have borrowed! And prior to all these, that most faithful servant of God, Moses, had done the same thing; for of him it is written that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.(2) And to none of all these would heathen superstition (especially in those times when, kicking against the yoke of Christ, it was persecuting the Christians) have ever furnished branches of knowledge it held useful, if it had suspected they were about to turn them to the use of worshipping the One God, and thereby overturning the vain worship of idols. But they gave their gold and their silver and their garments to the people of God as they were going out of Egypt, not knowing how the things they gave would be turned to the service of Christ. For what was done at the time of the exodus was no doubt a type prefiguring what happens now. And this I say without prejudice to any other interpretation that may be as good, or better.”
CHAP. 42.–Sacred Scripture Compared With Profane Authors.
“…so poor is all the useful knowledge which is gathered from the books of the heathen when compared with the knowledge of Holy Scripture, For whatever man may have learnt from other sources, if it is hurtful, it is there condemned; if it is useful, it is therein contained. And while every man may find there all that he has learnt of useful elsewhere, he will find there in much greater abundance things that are to be found nowhere else, but can be learnt only in the wonderful sublimity and wonderful simplicity of the Scriptures.”
CHAP. 5.–It Is A Wretched Slavery Which Takes The Figurative Expressions Of Scripture In A Literal Sense.
“… And nothing is more fittingly called the death of the soul than when that in it which raises it above the brutes, the intelligence namely, is put in subjection to the flesh by a blind adherence to the letter. For he who follows the letter takes figurative words as if they were proper, and does not carry out what is indicated by a proper word into its secondary signification; but, if he hears of the Sabbath, for example, thinks of nothing but the one day out of seven which recurs in constant succession; and when he hears of a sacrifice, does not carry his thoughts beyond the customary offerings of victims from the flock, and of the fruits of the earth. Now it is surely a miserable slavery of the soul to take signs for things, and to be unable to lift the eye of the mind above what is corporeal and created, that it may drink in eternal light.”
Why Fight Fire with Fire
We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, not to go about crowning either with thorny doctrines. I find it reassuring that at some point in the history of Christianity others saw the importance of reconciling the stigmas of perception with the ultimate source of truth. I have taken to heart the words of St. Augustine “let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.”
Yes, ultimately Love wins out. I no longer grasp the need to fight fire with fire, i.e. “justify.” It is easy enough to sway a black and white mind into the gray, but the spirits journey beyond the misty gray veil is a calling not a combat… I find truth is its own justification and reassurance in knowing that once a person is surrendered in Christ, the Scriptures will open as treasure chest, nature a book, and the profane will shed its cloak.
The Spirit Sword – C.M. Gregory
Pierce a belief and it will bleed questions.
A legion of screaming warriors
fear, fear, they cry – violently attacking.
Divided in rank, they turn on themselves
see now the stronghold has fallen.
What weapon so mighty
the Spirit Sword?