Robert J Russell on Augustine

As I said in my last post Russell seems to follow a common view of Augustine’s “theodicy” that derives largely from John Hick, rather than from Augustine himself. As I said there, actual citations from Augustine are not present in Russell’s book, but rather “examples” in the form of the entire Confessions and City of God. In neither of these works is Augustine pursuing a theodicy at all.

It would be wrong to claim that I have traced every reference to the matter in hand in these books (though I have read both). I’ve mentioned a reference in Confessions VII [XII]19 before, which is part of a testimony rather than a theodicy. In this Augustine becomes aware that everything in natural creation is good when seen in the context of the whole. Note the wording (quoted in link), for this is a different aspect from another thought in Augustine; that even sin and evil, by God’s sovereign ability to turn them to his purpose, can be said to be “good”. No, here “natural evil” is attributed to what Russell would call epistemological ignorance – we call things evil because they appear harmful to us, but we lack the insight of God, who calls his creation “good.”

The theme of City of God is a concept of the division of the world into two cities – that of man, sin and death, and that of God, culminating in the eschatological New Jerusalem. Because it is distinguishing the evil order from the good, it is clearly relevant to our subject – but it is not a theodicy. The parts I found to be relevant on reviewing it are books XI-XIV. Chapter 22 of Book XI carries on the same theme I have mentioned in Confessions, of our mistaken view of creation as containing actual evil:

This cause, however, of a good creation, namely, the goodness of God … has not been recognised by some heretics, because there are, forsooth, many things, such as fire, frost, wild beasts and so forth, which do not suit but injure the thin-blooded and frail mortality of our flesh, which is at present under just punishment. They do not consider how admirable these things are in their own places, how excellent in theor own natures, how beautifully adjusted to the rest of creation, and how much grace they contribute to the universe by their own contributions as to a commonwealth…

He goes on to speak of their use even to us, for example in the use of poisons as drugs, and to urge us to believe they have a use even if our intellect cannot see it. Maybe Augustine knew about Junk DNA! You’ll note that this cuts straight across the whole “natural evil” question – he does not attribute it to sin of man or demons, nor in itself to punishment. Instead he clearly sees that, for all the mortality of this creation, it is good in itself. That seems immediately a different understanding from Hick’s, or Russell’s. Indeed, Russell has coined a word for this kind of position, though he doesn’t apply it specifically to Augustine: “Theodicy-Lite.”

But perhaps Augustine is only talking about Creation as originally formed here, before the fall? He does, after all, assume a Young Earth, and Russell’s theodicy is developing, apparently, from Augustine’s idea of nature corrupted by man’s sin. Chapter 23 has an answer:

In this creation, had no one sinned, the world would have been filled and beautified with natures good without exception; and though there is sin, all things are not therefore full of sin, for the great majority of the heavenly inhabitants preserve their nature’s integrity.

That rather undermines the use of “Augustinian” for any theodicy of natural evil – for Augustine denies that either before or after the fall was nature evil in God’s eyes. But what about all those examples of nature “red in tooth and claw” and all those “egregious evolutionary errors”? Book XII, chapter 4:

But it is ridiculous to condemn the faults of beasts and trees, and other such mortal and mutable things as are void of intelligence, sensation or life, even though these faults should destroy their corruptible nature; for these creatures received, at their Creator’s will, an existence fitting them, by passing away and giving place to others, to secure that lowest form of beauty of seasons, which in its own place is a requisite part of this world.

That thought again echoes those science and faith writers whom Russell considers inadequate in their attribution of death to the necessity of a world like ours. Augustine even in passing considers a theodicy of sorts as he points out (a) that the natures of those eaten are transformed into the natures of those mastering them (or maybe in evolutionary terms, to those higher creatures succeeeding them); and (b) that our own concern at their destruction only serves to demonstrate the goodness of their natures.

Book XIII chapter 1 talks about the onset of death through sin, a point which Russell assumes he extends to all death. But he doesn’t:

…the natural order requires that we now discuss the fall of the first man (and we may say of the first men) and of the origin and propagation of human death (my italics).

Augustine goes on to elucidate this distinction by pointing to the conditional immortality of the human soul, as opposed to the ontological immortality of angels. He has already, as I mentioned, pointed out the perishable nature of the lower creatures. Book IV chapter 15 looks at this from another angle, that of the punishment God administered for the Fall. This is summed up in two things: the sentence of human death, and the giving over of mankind to disobedience (after Romans 1). Significantly there is not a mention of any ill effect on the natural creation, nor even of demonic interference with nature. The effect of the fall is restricted to mankind’s nature. Indeed, in chapter 27 of the same book he says:

The sins of men and angels do nothing to impede “the great works of the Lord which accomplish his will.”

It seems crystal clear to me, then, that Augustine’s position on natural evil is that there is no case to answer. He may, of course, be wrong, but it would be considerate not to lend his name to solutions to a problem he doesn’t accept.

For my own part, I see the accomplishment of Christ in equally cosmic terms to Russell’s. But I see it not as the correction of an “unnecessary but inevitable evil”, but as the transformation of a mortal order of creation that is good, but not as good as it might be. I understand creation as incomplete in some sense, and that man was intended to work under God to facilitate its perfection (“Rule and subdue it” – Genesis 1). Sin stymied that – but in Christ, the perfect man, not only is sinful man redeemed from sin, but creation is transformed into the imperishable. Christ does the work that Adam and his seed should have done. The end result is pretty much what Russell envisages. But I prefer Augustine’s account of how we get there.

One could say that Russell has done a fair job of rehabilitating Augustinian theodicy after its eclipsing in favour of Hick’s Irenaean theodicy. But since neither of those guys were doing theodicy anyway, I find myself wondering why their names need to be attached to the modern speculative theodicy project at all. Maybe it’s an attempt to “tame” the past to the present, rather than letting it teach us. Penman recently sent me a C S Lewis quote, from his preface to a work of Athanasius, that seems apposite:

¬†We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it… None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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