Faith and Reason, Part 2: Augustine

St. Augustine, fresco by Sandro Botticelli, 1480; in the church of Ognissanti, Florence. “Augustine, Saint: Botticelli”. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 21 Aug. 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/media/19528/St-Augustine-fresco-by-Sandro-Botticelli-1480-in-the-church>

Frequent ESN contributor and Graduate & Faculty Ministries Staff Mark Hansard returns with Part 2 of a summer series on faith and reason. As you may remember, Part 1 took a brief look at a Scriptural basis for using reason and logic.

We’re always happy to share Mark’s thoughtful writings. Interested in reading more by Mark? You can explore his thoughts on learning about godly scholarships through Hebrews, his popular posts on The Fruit of the Spirit in Academia, or all of his literary and theological reflections for ESN.


St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), was one of the great minds of the medieval church, and both Catholic and Protestant theological traditions trace their origins to him. His philosophical and theological ideas had an enormous influence on the Middle Ages—an influence that continues today.

Augustine’s thought on faith and reason is quite abstract. There are varied ways to describe his thought, which was in flux over time, making it difficult to pin down. But we will do a rough outline here. In order to understand him, we need to comprehend what he says about faith, the will, authority, grace, cleansing, and knowledge, and how all these go together.[1]

Augustine was instrumental in promoting the “faith seeking understanding” conception of knowledge. He famously declared, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.”[2] He believed that Faith and the Will precede knowledge of God. And he believed, like the Platonists of his time, that much could be known about the world and about God through inner reflection on divine things. He agreed with them that eternal objects such as properties, numbers, and God could be known through inner, rational reflection.[3] But he broke with Platonists in concluding that since sin has tainted our understanding and the Fall has seriously damaged our rational faculties, our faculties must be repaired to have accurate knowledge of God and the world. Thus, Faith has to precede knowledge of God (and full knowledge of the world; see below), because the soul needs to be cleansed and the effects of the Fall partially reversed in order for God to be truly be known.

Faith, to Augustine, is a humble posture of seeking and confession, in which the individual confesses their sin and brokenness before God, and by his Grace, is cleansed. The individual surrenders to the God who is already present in the soul. This initial work begins the process of cleansing the soul so that it can see clearly. As the individual continues to seek God, the soul is continually cleansed as a gracious process, which slowly flakes away the filth of the Fall. Augustine believed that much could be known through Platonic meditation: eternal things and God’s presence could be apprehended, but God could be known only for a moment. The sin in our souls weighs us down, pulling us back into the mire and creating distance from God. Faith in God’s grace is the only means by which we can continually experience God’s presence.

In an eloquent description of the process, Augustine declares:

Reason is the soul’s gaze. But since it does not follow that everyone who gazes sees, a right and perfect gaze, from which vision follows, is called virtue. For virtue is right or perfect reason. But even if the eyes are healthy, the gaze itself cannot turn toward the light unless three things are present: faith, by which it believes that what it gazes on will, when seen, make it happy; hope, by which it expects that it will see, if it has looked well; love, by which it desires to see and enjoy. And then the vision of God follows from this gaze…which results in a blessed life.[4]

What about Augustine’s view of the Will? The will precedes (complete) knowledge in that it determines what is known, by choosing what is loved. We can only have complete knowledge of what our affections pursue.[5] Augustine believed, like a good Platonist, that our affections must be set on things above (cf. Colossians 3:1). Another way to say this is that things can be known (out in the world, or eternal things) incompletely without proper acknowledgment that God is there; God is still within the soul and, subconsciously as it were, helps the mind to understand the world. But complete knowledge can only come through recognizing God’s presence, acknowledging and surrendering to his goodness. Once the affections are settled on God himself, full knowledge of him and the world is possible.

Thus, Augustine believed that people who do not know God have knowledge through what we call natural reason. Such reason is our empirical knowledge: what we know through the senses, scientific endeavor, etc. But such individuals do not have full understanding because the Fall impedes their reason; they have what understanding they do have through God’s unacknowledged presence in their souls, which helps them apprehend truth. They must surrender to God’s presence by faith to apprehend clearly. This, as we will see, is quite different from later thinkers who believed that (some) fully accurate knowledge of God could be had through natural reason alone, without God’s immediate activity.

Finally, how does authority fit into Augustine’s system? Augustine believed that only faith in Christ, the Mediator between God and humankind, can heal the soul and cleanse rational sight. Thus, it is not any type of meditation, or any type of faith that is efficacious; the faith must be in Christ who alone can heal, and in the Church. Scriptural precepts are the authority to which the soul must acquiesce, and by grace, be cleansed of the Fall over time. The authority of the church must be acknowledged, not simply because “it is just the institutional arbiter of Scripture; it constitutes the collective life of souls who jointly know God.”[6] Thus, to be near God we must be in community. Faith in authority is not a blind faith, but, for Augustine, “although faith cannot do without authority, it is impotent unless preceded by a re-direction of the will through the operation of Grace.”[7] Augustine believed reason could be utilized to determine under which authority the soul should acquiesce, thus he does not promote a “blind faith.”

In this brief survey, we can see Augustine’s emphasis on the Fall and the primacy of God’s gracious activity in every situation, for truth to be apprehended. We see that belief precedes understanding, and the authority of Scripture and the church is the environment under which the soul is cleansed by Grace. Augustine’s views here, though premodern, remind us of the importance of faith for acquiring knowledge and the importance of the community of other enlightened souls for our nearness to God.


For Further Reading

Augustine: The Confessions, 2nd ed. Translated by F.J. Sheed with an introduction by Peter Brown (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002).

Faith and Reason ed. by Paul Helm (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), pp. 65-73.


Notes

[1] I am indebted to the following two articles for the ideas in this paper (although whatever mistakes exist are entirely my own): Robert E. Cushman, “Faith and Reason in the Thought of St. Augustine.” Church History, Vol 19. No. 4 (Dec 1950), pp. 271-294, and John Peter Kenney, “Faith and Reason” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 2nd ed. Edited by David Vincent Meconi and Eleonore Stump (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press: 2014), pp. 275-291.

[2] A quotation of the Old Latin translation of Isaiah 7:9.

[3] Here I am referring to Metaphysics, a branch of philosophy that began with Plato and continues today. In Metaphysics, non-physical objects such as properties, numbers, the laws of logic, God himself, etc., exist eternally. Platonists believed that through inner reflection, such objects could be made known immediately to the soul’s awareness. For more detail on this, see Kenney, 278-79.

[4] Soliloquia I.6.13, cited in Kenney, 280.

[5] Does grace precede the will in Augustine’s system? It appears so, although he does not give a detailed analysis. Eleonore Stump writes: “Augustine reminds readers…that anything good in the human person, including any goodness of the will, is a gift from God (lib. arb. 2.19.50). On his view in the De libero arbitrio, then, human beings are unable to form a good volition unless God produces it in them or cooperates in producing it.” See Stump, “Augustine on Free Will” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 167.

[6] Kenney, 289.

[7] Ibid., 281.

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Mark Hansard

Mark is on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Manhattan, Kansas, where he ministers to Faculty at Kansas State University and surrounding campuses. He has been in campus ministry 25 years, 14 of those years in faculty ministry. He has a Master's degree in philosophy and theology from Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, CA, and is passionate about Jesus Christ and the life of the mind. Mark, his wife and three daughters make their home in Manhattan.

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