Ty Paul Monroe. Putting on Christ: Augustine’s Early Theology of Salvation and the Sacraments. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022.
You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable. The human, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being bearing his mortality with him, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud.
To possess my God, the humble Jesus, I was not yet humble enough.
Saint Augustine is arguably the most important and consequential theologian of (western) Christianity. Loved and scorned, his admirers have read his works while his detractors generally know a second-hand Augustine created through the contours of theological dispute over the course of a millennium and the narrow Reformation focus on his writings concerning Grace. Beyond being the theologian who articulated the idea that all love is divine (dilectio Deus est), he is also the chief theologian of humility in the Christian tradition. If the Church permits a titular addendum to the great doctor, we should add that he is the Doctor of Humility alongside being the Doctor of Grace.
Humility, humilitas and humilitatis, is the second greatest theological virtue for the bishop of Hippo after love, caritas/delectio/amore. In a brilliant new book, Putting on Christ, Ty Paul Monroe introduces Augustine the theologian of humility to the gentle reader through a careful and insightful reading of the Confessions as the gateway to understanding Augustine’s theology of salvation especially in his earliest writings. In doing so, Monroe enters a contentious debate over the supposed phases of Augustine’s theological thinking.
Augustine is sometimes divided into life phases when assessing his work. His Manichee phase prior to conversion; his Neoplatonic phase in the first decade of his Christian life; his Catholic phase after writing Confessions; his sacramental phase during the Donatist controversy; and lastly his anti-Pelagian phase which ultimately won him the posthumous epithet the Doctor of Grace. The early phases of Augustine’s life matter to Monroe in this book, for there is a strand of Augustinian scholarship that asserts that Augustine was more Neoplatonist than Christian especially when writing the Cassiciacum dialogues and other early works which our author examines with perceptive scrutiny. This amounts to the discontinuity thesis in Augustine’s theology: later Augustine breaks sharply with his earlier self and we have, in effect, two different Augustine’s when reading his writings.
Augustine’s theology of humility generally comes into focus when dealing with his early Christian phase during which he wrote the Cassiciacum dialogues, the most famous of his early treatises, because of the general lack of including that word in his writings. “A survey of the occurrences of humilitas in Augustine’s writings during this period suggests that, despite using the term over 1,250 times across his corpus, Augustine only uses it eleven times in the texts that appear to have been composed prior to 393.” This, however, shouldn’t be surprising Monroe reminds us. Augustine’s life spanned many decades and his theological considerations matured over time. As they matured, things did change not so much in discontinuity but changed in a richer, fuller, more elaborate understanding of salvific humility. Confessions, Monroe asserts, is the key in discovering the maturing Augustine and the recognition and emphasize of humility in the Christian life.
Even though the Confessions is a bridge from which Augustine began to emphasize humility more strongly in his writings, tying humility to the sacraments in a way previously unseen in Augustine’s writings, Monroe’s reexamination of early Augustine in light of the strong importance of humility in Confessions and post-Confessions treatises reveal not a Neoplatonic Augustine (as sometimes argued) but an Augustine who still very much considered humility to be the key to salvation in Christ but whose emphasis on humility was much more subtle and less explicit than in later writings. Here, Monroe’s work serves as an important corrective to the largely oversold idea that early Augustine’s emphasis on intellectual salvation was a product of his supposed Neoplatonic ghost. In looking at the early dialogues and treatises, Monroe convincingly concludes, “There should be no doubt that Christ is the supreme authority for the young Augustine.” In other words, Augustine was not a Neoplatonist first and a Christian second or later in life.
Looking back into Confessions, one of Augustine’s critiques of the philosophers (Cicero and the Neoplatonists most especially) was that their works lacked the name (nomen) of Christ. Whatever truth these philosophers had, and they certainly had some truth and were looking in the right direction concerning what mattered in life (truth and moral living), the philosophers would ultimately fall short of their ultimate desire because they lacked Christ as the heart of their vision for the good life. Why? Pride.
“Augustine’s Confessions quite literally begins and ends under the terms pride and humility.” Sometimes we forget this when reading the great saint for his quasi-autobiographical work deals with so many themes. Monroe, though, reorients our reading of Confessions through this dichotomy of pride and humility. Pride is the worst of sins, as Augustine says in his other writings, because it leads to a puffed-up sense of self and a rejection of the humanity of Christ which reveals the humility of God in becoming incarnate to dwell among dirty and fallen humans to cleanse them and perfect them in love through the revelatory life of Jesus Christ. Without Christ, as Augustine makes clear, and Monroe reiterates again and again in interpreting Augustine, we will inevitably sink back into the pit of darkness and wallow in our own confused state of lower loves and impermanent beauties because we feel that we are in control (a manifestation of the libido dominandi toward inward to the self) rather than have to submit to God as the Author and Source of Beauty and creation itself and relinquish that sense of self-control in the process. This applies to the philosopher because the philosopher will deceive himself into thinking he has gained the secret to life and salvation on his own rather than acknowledge any other source beside himself. This, ultimately, is the sin of pride among the academics which Augustine will go on to deconstruct so superbly in his ironic undressing of Porphyry in the City of God.
Having highlighted the centrality of humility leading to Augustine’s baptism in Confessions—the narrative thread that Monroe considers most dominant in Augustine’s construction of the work—our author then proceeds to examine the early writings of the bishop of Hippo to see whether the claims of various scholars that Augustine doesn’t consider humility that important prior to the mid-390s. Monroe finds this view of a semi-prideful intellectualist (Neoplatonic) Augustine wanting upon closer examination. While Monroe acknowledges the term humilitas and humilitatis is scarce in early Augustine, the problem of pride is not. Neither is Augustine’s conceptualization of Christ’s incarnation as a vehicle revealing intellectual truth requiring the soul’s recognition of Christ (a subtle form of humility in recognition) to be illuminated in order to life the good life. Taken in tandem, Monroe convincingly makes the case that the sin of pride being overcome by the recognition of Christ as wisdom incarnate capable of transforming the soul to the good life is an indirect and implied theology of humility even if such terminology is scant in Augustine’s earliest writings.
The preoccupation with an enlightened intellect isn’t a Neoplatonic hangover but part and parcel of Augustine’s understanding of the economy of salvation, “The path to true wisdom is paved by training in both the mind and the body,” writes Monroe. “Christ must not only reveal the intelligibilia; he must also help humans clean the slime of immorality out of their weakened eyes.” This, of course, requires humility in realizing one’s own intellectual limits and putting on Christ through seeing his incarnate life and the embracing the sacraments of the church. If not, pride and arrogance hold sway which enslaves the soul to lesser goods and, ultimately, to a hissing and frying cauldron of confusion and deceptions. As Monroe summarizes, “pride or arrogance is unique because it can play a specific role in perpetuating the morass of the soul’s misapprehension and viciousness.”
Putting on Christ achieves two remarkable things for Augustinian scholarship. First, it offers a new interpretation of Augustine’s most famous writing and draws out for the reader the role that humility plays (and its contrast with pride) from start to finish. Confessions, then, is a reflection on the saving grace of humility principally found in the sacraments (baptism in particular). Second, Monroe’s reading of Augustine’s early writings in light of the humility-pride, humilitas-superbia, dynamic reveals the subtle way that the soteriology of humility is present in De Ordine, Contra Academicos, De Musica, and other seminal early texts written by the supposedly Neoplatonic Augustine and how that dynamic shifts over the course of time toward an embrace of sacramental humility as the key to salvation. Monroe’s excellent hermeneutic shows why the discontinuity thesis is overstated but he also reveals how a growing concern for sacramental humility becomes Augustine’s preoccupation in thinking about humility and the humble life of Christ. “Even at the outset of his writing career,” Monroe states, “Augustine really never evinces a soteriology in which Christ’s name and his work are not invoked.” Christ is all over the supposedly Neoplatonic and Plotinian Augustine. But hearing the name of Christ, Augustine will conclude, is not enough! Plenty of people hear the name of Christ and still reject him. Something dramatic does occur in Augustine’s later life that leads to a refinement of how Christ’s humility and moral life leads to an efficacious change in human life.
What occurs as time moves on is the explicit emphasis on humility in the sacraments rather than through intellectual assent. And in this shift, Augustine adopts a richer view of sacramental salvation as the final nexus of his soteriology of humility which was visible but otherwise simplistic from his early writings. Whereas in Augustine’s early writings Monroe has revealed the implied nature of Augustine’s theology of humility (which was more abstract and intellectualist than sacramental), as Augustine matured the bishop of Hippo moved beyond the name and lived life of Christ (the incarnation) to a full embrace of the sacramental economy as the richest manifestation of salvation through humility. Thus, humility becomes a more explicit part of Augustine’s theological vocabulary and becomes tied to the sacraments which was refined through his disputes with the Manicheans and Donatists. It is simply not good enough to hear the name of Christ and look to Christ’s life (the Manicheans and Donatists can do this). One must embrace the sacraments too. For it is in the sacraments the true humility of Christ’s humble moral life of love is efficaciously transferred to the Christian. (This sacramental theology of Augustine later became the cornerstone of the Catholic Church and defended during the Reformation which undercut the sacramental economy of Augustinian Catholicism in favor of Augustinian Grace.)
While humility as a term is used more and more as Augustine’s life progresses, Monroe astutely argues that this is not necessarily a rejection of the early Augustine as such but the fruition of Augustine’s longstanding and ongoing considerations on the matter. What the prideful embody is “a preference for self-deification over submission to God.” As I wrote in an essay on the City of God when dealing with the tragic irony of Porphyry in Augustine’s critique of the last great Neoplatonic philosopher, “Porphyry’s pride—which is the same sin as that of Lucifer and Adam and all men—prevents him from accepting the truth of Christ. To accept Christ means Porphyry would no longer be the center of the universe and the measure of all things. Porphyry, like most philosophers, would rather live in falsity rather than submit to truth.” This pride invariably extends to a rejection of the sacraments and a want for a distant Christ: to only hear and see him in the stories of the Gospels rather than an immersive participation in Christ’s saving humanity found in the sacraments.
In Putting on Christ, Monroe is leading the way in showing the critique of pride and promotion of humility was always part of Augustine’s theological vision, simplistic as it was in his early works, to an ever-growing complexity later in his life which embraced the sacraments as the final and most important key to graceful humility in one’s life. Monroe successfully rebuts the discontinuity thesis which overplays a young Neoplatonic convert and an older mature Christian who has shed that early Neoplatonic heritage over the course of many decades. At the same time, Monroe makes a careful and persuasive argument that the humility-pride dialectic present in Augustine’s entire Christian career reaches a new intensity and richer complexity starting with Confessions and what came after: the unitive relationship between humility and the sacraments. That is what Confessions reveals and why there is a stark contrast between pre-Confessions Augustine and post-Confessions Augustine. The sacraments have now entered Augustine’s understanding of humility.
Sorting out Augustine’s theology of sacramental salvation is not an issue of Neoplatonism and Christianity; it is not necessarily an issue of a grown emphasis on humility; rather, it is an issue of the role humility and the sacraments play in salvation and what this unitive relationship between humility and the sacraments reveal about the healing humanity and humility of Jesus Christ. “In baptism,” Monroe writes, “Augustine is given real participation in the objective mediating power of Christ’s humanity and healing humility.” That healing humility, Augustine therefore concludes, is found in the sacraments and not just an intellectual assent to God or being inspired by the New Testament’s moral life of Jesus. To “put on” Christ through the sacraments is to accept that Christ first put on us in his incarnation and that the sacraments are an efficacious interplay of this putting on of each other. The embrace of the sacraments is the true manifestation of the humble life that leads to salvation, “Augustine’s mature way of characterizing this renewal [of the mind] suggests that it proceeds beyond the mere apprehension of the fact that Christ is the divine Word incarnate and humbly providing a pattern for living. Rather, through the sacraments, the human person is also redeemed by being formed in consistent, communal, and corporeal ways of knowing.”
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