Lenten Reading: Augustine on the Mercy of God and almsgiving

What did you give up for Lent? There is a temptation to treat Lent and lenten fasts as nothing more than a renewal of our new years resolutions. Maybe Lent, in the secret places of our hearts, is just a way to prepare for summer – lose some weight while looking righteous. According to Augustine, Lent is not so much about adding Spiritual disciplines, the traditional three being almsgiving, fasting and prayer, but intensifying these three in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. This means that almsgiving, fasting, and prayer are suppose to be a normal part of the Christian life.

Why do we discipline our minds and bodies as Christians? To overcome sin and temptation, and to put on the character of Christ. This, however is not something we do in our own strength, but through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. In Sermon 207 Augustine grounds the disciplines of Lent in the person and work of Jesus Christ: “Our Lord, the only begotten Son of God showed mercy to us and fasted and prayed for us” (89). He goes on to show how our acts of mercy, fasting and prayer are all done in and through Jesus Christ. In his section on Almsgiving he offers a classic example of how Augustine thinks about Christ’s person and work for us:

Moreover, what mercy could be greater, so far as we poor wretches are concerned, than that which drew the Creator of the heavens down from heaven, clothed the Maker of the earth with earthly vesture, made him, who in eternity remains equal to His Father, equal to us in mortality, and imposed on the Lord of the universe the form of a servant, so that He, our Bread, might hunger; that He our Fulfillment, might thirst; that He our Strength might be weakened; that He our Health, might be injured; that He our Life might die? And all this [He did] to satisfy our hunger, to moisten our dryness, to soothe our infirmity, to wipe out our iniquity, to enkindle our charity. What greater mercy could there be than that the Creator be created, the Ruler be served, the Redeemer be Sold the Exalted be humbled, and the Reviver be Killed? In regards to almsgiving, we are commanded to give bread to he hungry, but he first have himself over to cruel enemies for us so that He might give Himself as food to us when we were hungry.

Augustine, Sermon 207, 89-90

Augustine grounds almsgiving in Jesus’s own infinite and humble gift of his life. Jesus took on the Form of a Servant to serve and die for us and to give us his life. In grounding the Christian discipline of almsgiving in Christ Jesus’s infinite gift of his life for us, and his continual sustaining of us through the Holy Spirit and the Sacraments, Augustine is grounding our good works in our union with Christ. We give because we’ve received and we are united to Christ who gives us more than we can ask or imagine.

Fasting and prayer are grounded in Christ’s own fasting and prayer. As he humbled himself to death on the cross, so we walk in the way of the cross and put to death the deeds of the flesh (90). Almsgiving and fasting prepares us, according to Augustine to pray to God especially for our enemies (91). In all of this, the mercy of God expressed in the magnificent humble beauty of Christ’s is the means and end of our discipline.

Lenten Reading: Aquinas on the good and necessary reasons for the Incarnation

If God is who as he is revealed in Scripture, was it really necessary for the Word of God to become incarnate to save humanity? This question is an honest one, seeing that Christians confess that God is all powerful and perfect, he could, conceivably, have restored human nature without becoming incarnate. However, Aquinas argues that according to Scripture, the mystery of the Incarnation was necessary to save humanity. To defend this Aquinas first qualifies what is meant by necessary, and then shows the benefits of Christ’s Incarnation for humanity in terms of how it helps those who believe in Christ grow in the good and withdraw from evil.

Aquinas distinguishes between two types of necessity: essential necessity and convenient necessity. The first, he argues is like the necessity of food for life. The second, is like the necessity of a horse for a long trip. “When the end is attained better and more conveniently” (III.Q1.A2). He argues that the incarnation was necessary in the second way, and not the first, because God who is all powerful could have done it differently. Yet, in light of humanity’s plight and God’s goodness, Aquinas, pointing to Augustine who says, “There was not a more fitting way of healing our misery” (III.Q1.A2).

To explain how the incarnation of the word is the most fitting way he divides his topic into two sections: How the incarnate Word draws us to the good and withdraws us from evil. Under the first section he shows how the Incarnate Word is the cause of Faith, Hope, Charity, good works and glory in the Christian. It is appropriate that Aquinas frames his understanding of Christ’s person and work in these terms, because he has just covered this path of life in Christ in the previous volume in terms of faith, hope, love, virtue, all of which leads to the end goal of “Full participation of the Divinity.” In presenting these five steps, he quotes Augustine. Let’s consider them one by one.

Christ’s incarnation furthers faith because Christ is the Truth revealed in human flesh. As Augustine says it: “In order that man might journey more trustfully toward the truth, the Truth itself, the Son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded the faith.” Faith is established in the Truth by means of the Truth himself becoming human and revealing himself in the humility of human life. Hope is encouraged and strengthened by the revelation of God’s love for us which is most beautifully expressed in the Son of God becoming human. This same infinite divine love enkindles charity in us, according to Aquinas and Augustine, because what presents God’s love for us more than him becoming one of us and dying for us?

Having grounded Faith, Hope, and Love in the person and work of Christ, Aquinas focuses in on how Christ is our example for the perfect human life. Again, turning to Augustine, he argues that Christ makes visible the invisible God so that man could follow God’s will. For Aquinas, this is not mere imitation, but a life infused with Grace, through the Holy Spirit’s presence. (see further 1-2.Q109-114).

Faith, hope and love grounded in Christ, infused with the good works of Christ given through the Holy Spirit is the life of the Christian which leads the Christian on to end goal for which they were created: “Full participation of the Divinity, which is the true bliss of man and the end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ’s humanity; for Augustine says in a sermon: God was made man, that man might be made God.” In Christ is the whole means and ends of true human life given to all those who believe in him as John 3:16 says. It is worth nothing that Aquinas he uses the same framework of Faith, Hope and Love when he presents the reasons for Christ’s resurrection and ascension (III.Q53.a1, Q57.a2.ad3).

But the human condition is not one of neutrality, it is one of enslavement to evil. This Christ also had to free humanity form the enslavement and destitution of their fallen selves. Aquinas, explains this withdrawal from evil in five moves.

The first two moves relates to how humanity understand itself. First Christ incarnation shows us to not prefer evil and the devil over humanity itself. In other words, if God became human, then there is a certain goodness to humanity over and against the powers of evil. This is amplified by the his second point: “we are thereby taught how great is man’s dignity…” (III.Q1.A2). This has two effects in one’s Christian life, it reminds us of our God-given worth, and it exhorts us to pursue holiness.

In these first two the dignity of humanity is established, despite sin. In the third and four, Humanity is shown in Christ’s incarnation that they could not save themselves from the pride and presumption of sin. Here we see a kind of pendulum swing from one extreme to another: we either think of humanity as nothing, or as everything. Christ in his glorious humility both raises humanity up to its proper dignity, and gives humanity its properly creaturely humility. As Augustine says, quoted by Aquinas: “Because man’s pride, which is the greatest stumbling block to our clinging to God, can be convinced and cured by humility…” (III.Q1.A2).

The establishing of humanity’s proper dignity and relation to God occurs in Christ’s death, Resurrection, and Ascension, when he frees humanity from the “thraldom of sin.” Jesus, as God and man made satisfaction for humanity’s sin and death in his death and resurrection. Aquinas establishes this point by quoting Pope Leo at length:

“Weakness is assumed by strength, lowliness by majesty, mortality by eternity, in order that one and the same mediator of God and men might die in one and rise in the other – for this was our fitting remedy. Unless he was God, he would not have brought a remedy; and unless he was man, he would not have set an example.” (III.Q1.A2).

Aquinas, ends his answer by pointing his readers back to the fact that the Incarnation and ensuing saving work of the Trinity is beyond our apprehension, by positing that there are many more advantages of the incarnation given to humanity which are beyond our understanding. This is an essential reminder for Christians and Theologians, we may apprehend much about Christ and his gospel, but we will always be standing in the face of the infinite personal mystery of the Triune God and his infinite holy love.

This summary of Aquinas’s understanding of the good and necessary fittingness of the Incarnation is just a tiny taste of the deep theological and exegetical reasoning Aquinas offers in his Doctrine of Christ. I just finished reading through the 59 questions on Christ and cannot recommend them enough.

Lenten Reading: Augustine’s Lenten Homilies

St. Augustine of Hippo

Augustine, as a pastor-bishop-theologian, had numerous opportunities to preach and teach. One reoccurring opportunity was the different seasons of the Church Calendar. During Lent I am reading his Lenten Homilies. In Homily 206, Augustine points out that Christians are called to pursue Christ-likeness throughout the year. So why Lent? Augustine argues Lent offers an opportunity for greater humility and service for those who are faithful, and and time of repentance and renewal for those who are nominal (86). This opportunity, is not abstract, but grounded in the person and work of Christ.

What is the theological basis for Lent as a time of repentance and discipline? For Augustine, it is the life of Jesus Christ: “The humility of Christ has taught us to be humble because he yielded to the wicked by his death; the exaltation of Christ lifts us up because by rising again He blazed the way for his devoted followers” (87). During Lent, we celebrate, imitate, and walk in the way of Christ’s humility. During Easter we celebrate, enjoy and walk in his exaltation. This, however, is not just a pattern for Lent and Easter; it is the pattern of the Christian life, dying and rising, mortification and vivification.

So during Lent what do we put to death? How do we walk in the humility of Christ? This is what Augustine exhorts his congreation to: “Let us by our prayers add the wings of piety to our alms-deeds and fasting so that they may fly more readily to God” (87). Augustine goes on to meditate on alms-deeds and fasting. Here, I will just consider his discussion of alms-deeds

Citing Luke 6:37-38 as his text to discuss alms-deeds, Augustine sees in the text two kinds of alms, physical giving and forgiving. He considers the first as he petitions his hearers to give to the poor, not because of the poor, but because of Christ who is with the poor: “For, in the person of the poor, He who experiences no hunger wished himself to be fed. Therefore, let us not spur our God who is needy in His poor, so that we in our need may be filled in him who is rich” (87-88). This poor and rich motif is a common one in Augustine in reference to Christ’s work of redemption, such that Christ who is rich comes and gives us, who are poor, his riches, i.e., salvation. This great exchange of incarnation and redemption is over-laid onto alms-giving. Just as we have received much in salvation, so must we give to those who have little. The motive is gratitude, not duty. Further, Augustine presses his audience to see that whatever we give is nothing compared to what we will receive in heaven. Thus, alms giving is couched in Christ’s death and the eschatological hope of life in God.

The second type of almsgiving is forgiving others. This almsdeed is something anyone, rich or poor, can do. “Even he who has no means of livelihood in this world may do this to insure his living for eternity” (88). For Augustine this alms-deed is implicitly grounded in the infinite gratuity of Christ’s death and resurrection. And he explicitly warns, following the text, that if we do not forgive we will not be forgiven. With a wonderful turn of phrase he says, “Let them [unforgiveness or enmities] be destroyed by the Redeemer, lest they destroy you, the retainer” (88).

Augustine grounds both practices of alms-deeds in the person and work of Christ even as he grounds the whole practice of Lent in the same person and work. Lent, for Augustine, is a time to enter more diligently into the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us through the death and resurrection of Christ.

Lenten reading: George Herbert on Being a Pastor

George Herbert, 1593-1633

George Herbert, the famous English pastor and poet, served in a small country Parish for three years before his early and untimely death. In those years he wrote poetry and The Country Parson. He penned this short text as a Rule of Life for himself, as something to “aim at” (pg 54). I just finished my first read through of it and found much of it helpful, some of it only applicable to his time and place, and some of it translatable into my time and place. I wanted to summarize and quote some of the most personally significant passages as a still new Pastor-Theologian, for my own personal edification, and hopefully the edification of others.

He opens the book with defining a pastor. A pastor, he says, “Is the deputy of Christ for reducing of man to the Obedience of God.” In this definition, Herbert argues is the reason and the goal of pastoral duty and authority, which is none other than Christ and his Gospel. First, he argues, humanity fell from God by disobedience, second Christ is the “glorious instrument of God for the revoking (restoring) of Man.” Third, Christ, in his ascension gave the church Priests to do what Christ did through the Power of the Holy Spirit both in “Doctrine and life” (55). At the heart of Herbert’s definition of the Pastor is the gospel of Christ lived out in the pastor and carried out in the life of the Church. The pastor is to preach the gospel, live a holy life, and exhort his parish to repentance, faith and obedience in Christ. Put simply, the pastor preaches and lives the gospel. So how does one become a pastor of Christ’s Doctrine and life?

In the second chapter, Herbert argues that preparation for ministry requires two things: study and asceticism. Not only do we need to labor to attain knowledge i.e., the right doctrine “but to subdue and mortify the lusts and affections: and not to think, that when they have read the Fathers, or Schoolmen, a minister is made and the thing done. The greatest and hardest preparation is within” (56). Thus, for the pastor to fulfill his duty, he needs both right doctrine and a life pursuing the virtue of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As to these virtues, Herbert, in his chapter on the Parson’s Life, recommends above all patience and mortification: “Patience in regard of afflictions, Mortification in regard of lust and affections and the stupefying and deading of all the clamorous powers of the soul” to the end of fulfill his pastoral vocation (56). Mortification of lust and affection may sound harsh, but in the context of the Christian tradition, Herbert is basically arguing for putting to death the flesh and arising in Christ, as Paul talks about it in Colossians 3. While these two practices are essential for every pastor, Herbert next notes three particular practices for his context.

He argues that in country parish ministry, a pastor must avoid covetousness, luxury, and duplicity. He avoids these vices and practices their opposite as an example to his parishioners, who live poor, hard-working, and honest lives. And in order not to be a stumbling block to them; to be trustworthy in order to fulfill the duty of being a pastor: preaching and living the Gospel.

In sum, Herbert articulates the pastoral duty as living and preaching the gospel which means that the pastor must know doctrine deeply and have that doctrine deeply applied to their own soul, specifically focusing on patience and daily dying to self. Further, the pastor is sensitive to his context, noting what would prevent him from preaching and living as an example to his parish.

Quotes from Lenten Reading: Aquinas on the Incarnation

During Lent I am reading Aquinas’s third part, where he delves into the theology of Christ both in his person and work. I will also be taking a gander through a few sections from Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.1, Augustine’s homilies on Lent, and George Herbert’s The Country Parson, and The Temple. I wanted to offer a few select quotes from each of these readings throughout Lent.

To begin, let’s look at the Aquinas’s understanding of the fittingness of the Incarnation of Son of God. In the first article of his first question on the Incarnation, Aquinas asks whether it was “fitting that God should become incarnate?” He answers that it is most fitting that God would become incarnate, first, as he argues in his sed contra, so that the invisible God would reveal himself through visible things, referencing Romans 1:20, and specifically, through the true, real and visible Incarnation of the Son of God. This revelation of God is grounded in his goodness and oriented towards humanity’s salvation. This is how he says it:

But the very nature of God is goodness as is clear from Dionysius (div. nom. i). Hence, what belongs to the essence of goodness befits God. But it belong to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others… Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly, by ‘His so joining created nature to himself that one Person is made up of these three – the Word, a soul and flesh’ as Augustine says (De Trin. xiii). Hence it is manifest that it was fitting that God should become incarnate.

Aquinas, Summa, 3.Q1A1.

Next, in the first two replies, he clarifies that the Son of God was from eternity and became incarnate, it was the human nature that came into being, not God in the incarnation. And God’s distinct purpose in becoming incarnate was for the sake of humanity’s salvation, because of his infinite goodness, not because of some fittingness of humanity as a kind of receptacle for God. It was fitting that God the Son became incarnate because of God’s goodness, and God’s desire to save humanity and reveal who God is to humanity.

In my next post on Aquinas, I will look at the various ways Aquinas articulate how the incarnation and mission of the son restores humanity.