Augustine, First a Mystic, then a Catholic, then an Allegorist, Part I Mystic

With this Church we deny that we have any disagreement. Nay, rather, as we revere her as our mother, so we desire to remain in her bosom…I pray, before your eyes, that ancient form of the Church, such as their writings prove it to have been in the age of Chrysostom and Basil, among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine, among the Latins; after so doing, contemplate the ruins of that Church, as now surviving among yourselves.[1]


In the Lausanne Disputation John Calvin would achieve his fame as a debater and a defender of the Protestant Reformation.  His claim reiterated in his letter of 1539, to Cardinal Sadoleto, bishop of Carpentras, makes the outrageous assumption that the Church Fathers were closer to the Protestant cause than to the Catholic.  The startling boldness of this claim combined with the lack of Catholic scholarship and preparation, would be single him out as the predominate Protestant apologist of the Reformation.

Do the Church Fathers really support the Protestant cause?  There is not enough time to examine all the fathers but as the best representation of the fathers, Augustine will be examined.  Augustine is the most important if not most influential Christian theologian of the Western tradition.  He not only is well honored in the Catholic tradition as a doctor of the Church but the pivotal reformers, John Calvin,  who often quoted Augustine,  and Martin Luther, a former Augustinian monk, grounded their theology on the works of Augustine. It was important for the Reformers to present Catholicism as corrupt and endow Protestantism with some sort of historical foundation.  First of all, these fathers, Chrysostom and Basil, among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustin,were some of the most Neoplatonic Christian theologians of their age.

Augustine was never a closet fundamentalist.  Although he can be quoted out of context to have a high regard for Scripture, as shall be proved, he was never constrained by Scripture in defense of his mystic revelations and support of the Catholic Church.

What is more important than Augustine’s assertion that the Scriptures are true, is the way Augustine will use the Scriptures to support his doctrines.  His actions are fundamentally more important than his off-hand remarks usually quoted out of context.  It is not necessary to quote Augustine’s adversaries of even to extrapolate from his works.  Augustine is very straight forward in his use of Neoplatonism to develop his theology.  He quotes from the Platonists, he has many allusions to their works and the parallelisms are not hidden or disguised.  His autobiography “The Confessions” are  famous for their honesty and portrayal of the inner thoughts and conflicts of their author.

What is remarkable of the first eight chapters of Confessions is the purpose of his life.  His life’s purpose was the pursuit of God.  This in itself is a noble purpose but his method is faulty.  His life was devoted to the preparation of the ascent.  This preparation was dependent on the mystic dualism of the first centuries.  The Gnostics, the Manichees, the Platonists and most of all the other mystery religions believed in a dualism of body and soul or spirit.  The body was impure and infected with evil, the spirit was closest to god.   In order to see god a process of purification was necessary to bring the body into control and become more like god.

Of course the most impure action the body could undertake was sex.  It was impossible for Augustine to rise to the level of the elect in Manicheaism or to have a successful ascent to god in Platonism until he overcame his sexual nature.  What was demanded was not a temporary celibacy but a lifetime dedication; the putting away of one’s wife or concubines and the full commitment to the life of celibacy.

Of course it was not all Augustine’s fault.  He has attempted this purification before in Manicheaism and Neoplatonism.  Catholicism would triumph over his former religions as he would state in his famous conversion narrative of Confession Book VIII.

Augustine’s famous conversion is the success of completing the ascent.   Prior to his conversion,  he had purified himself of all other attachments to the material world, but he could not purify himself from sexual vanity.  The title of his book and the purpose of his autobiography are neatly summarized in this statement:

I will now tell the story, and confess to your name, of the way in which you delivered me from the chain of sexual desire, by which I was tightly bound….

Augustine. Confessions, tr. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 141.

From Augustine’s sexually charged youth to his taking on new concubine and becoming engage to young girl of perhaps ten, he never formed a lasting bond with women with the exception of his mother.  Other women were objects of erotic sexual passion and not persons of self-worth.  His abandonment of his fiancée and his concubines suggests a contempt for women which he disguises as a commitment to God.

He will write extensively about his sexual experiences without even mentioning the name of the women in his life.  Women represented the inherent sinfulness of man and would become the symbol of his struggle against sin.  Augustine was obsessed with himself, his struggle, his sin and his purification.

But I was an unhappy young man, wretched as at the beginning of my adolescence, when I prayed you for chastity and said, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” I was afraid you might hear my prayer quickly, and that you might too rapidly heal me of the disease of lust… Confessions VIII.vii.17, p. 145

… the beauty of thy house which I loved.  But I was still firmly tied by a woman…

Confessions VIII.ii.2, p. 134

His obsession with sex was so severe, it affected him mentally and physically.  When people today are observed with anxious, unwanted and repeated thoughts, that lead to personal physical abuse, it is called Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).   This disorder is characterized by false anxiety from unreal threats. Augustine will admit that God does not require his followers to be chaste.  This is not a real threat to Augustine’s relationship with God.  This drive was a personal statement about a “perfection” which Augustine will require of himself.

The tumult of my heart took me out into the garden…But my madness with myself was part of the process of recovering…I made many physical gestures…If I tore my hair, if I struck my forehead…Such was my sickness and torture..They tugged at the garment of my flesh…what disgraceful things they were suggesting!…there appeared dignified and chaste, Lady of Continence…enticing me to act in an honorable manner…”Stop your ears to your impure members on earth and mortify them.”…Rivers streamed from my eyes…

Confessions VIII.vii.17-28, p. 146-52

Augustine’s conversion was not a rational act.  From his own description, his own conversion was a change in his behavior and not a crisis of faith.  This conversion was possible by a personal struggle of the will against the evil nature of the flesh.  This was not a lone struggle, but a struggle with the personal assistance of God.  Nevertheless, this is a struggle not demanded by God but by Augustine’s concept of the perfection of man.

Christian conversion, in any sense of the word “conversion,”  is a crisis of faith. The convert believes in God and in Jesus Christ, and becomes a member of the body of Christ.  After becoming a Christian Paul will recommend putting aside the desire of the flesh.  Paul does not include marital sexual relations as a “desire of the flesh.”  To Augustine, conversion means putting aside the desire of the flesh, which is sex.

In the New Testament, Paul encouraged Christians not to marry, but it was not a command from the Lord, it was a personal recommendation.  Augustine will elevate chastity as to an antidote from all fleshly sins and as representative of the sinful flesh.

1 Corinthians 7

But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.

But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion….28 But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you.


Augustine’s conversion was the fulfillment of a life time in a pursuit of purification.  The Catholic Church had triumphed in freeing Augustine from his addiction to any type of sex even marital sex.  For Augustine, his conversion was his triumph over his own sexual nature.


For the effect of your converting me to yourself was that I did not now seek a wife…

Confessions VIII.xii.30, p. 153-54

If Augustine had to choose between Scripture and his mystical vision, which would he chose?  In the same book “The Confessions” Augustine will defend his choice: his mystical vision.

In chapter XII Augustine describes two sets of opponents.  The first, those who deny Scriptures, are not spared “Scripture’s enemies, I vehemently hate.”  These are hated by Augustine and should be destroyed with a two edged sword or with a metaphorical two-edged sword.  (Confessions XII, xiii. 17, p. 254)  The second set of opponents find no fault with Genesis, but reject the allegorizing and Platonic themes of Augustine’s interpretation.

“other who find no fault with the book of Genesis and indeed admire it. Yet they say: ‘the Spirit of God who wrote this by Moses did not intend this meaning by these words; he did not mean what you are saying but another meaning which is our interpretation.” (Confessions XII.xiv.17 p. 254)

You will surely not assert to be false what the truth proclaims with a loud voice to my inner ear…nothing mutable is eternal.  But our God is eternal.

(Confessions XII.xiv.18 p. 254)

While practicing the Platonic ascent, Augustine in Book VII, before his conversion of Book VIII, sees the true God in his mind. “Eternal truth, true love and beloved eternity: you are my God.”

(Confessions VII.x.16 p 123)  This “God” is eternal and immutable.  This is the same “god” Augustine senses in his inner ear.

Augustine will explain what he saw in this vision.  “ I found the unchangeable and authentic eternity of truth to transcend my mutable mind.  And so step by step I ascended from body to soul…and in the flash of a trembling glance…I saw your invisible nature” (Confessions VII.xvi.22 p 127)

This inner ear vision of Augustine is not from rational thought but through the contemplative vision of the ascent.  This same god is found in the Platonic ascent.

What is the interpretation of Genesis 1, that Augustine defends?  Augustine is not defending the literal interpretation of Genesis but he claims there is another spiritual interpretation that is also true.   When Augustine says the spiritual or intellectual heaven, he is referring to the heaven of heavens, the first created product of God. (caelum caeli)  This is not the creation referred to in Genesis 1, but the invisible Platonic world of the intellect.  If Genesis chapter one teaches anything, it teaches God created the world in temporal time.  On the first day, God created, on the second day he created etc.

My provisional interpretation of that is that ‘heaven’ means the ‘heaven of heaven’, the intellectual nonphysical heaven where the intelligence’s knowing …this knowing is …concurrent without any temporal succession…Earth I take to mean the invisible and unorganized earth which experiences no temporal succession…

(Confessions XII.xiii.16 p 253)

This heaven of heaven in the intellect of God is patterned after the Platonic hierarchy of being, which starts with the One and proceeds first to the Intellect then to the rest of creation.  This hierarchy is Platonic and not in Scriptures.  Furthermore Augustine connects the vision of the eternal and immutable ‘god’ in his Platonic vision to this intellectual heaven.


“No doubt the ‘heaven of heaven’ which you made in the beginning is a kind of creation of heaven, which you made in the beginning is a kind of creation  in the realm of the intellect.  Without being coeternal with you, O Trinity, it nevertheless participates in your eternity,.  From the sweet happiness of contemplating you, it finds the power to check its mutability.”  (Confessions XII.ix.9, p250)

The Platonic references are evident:

1)      it exists outside space and time

2)      it exists at the intelligible level

3)      it exists by participation

4)      it contemplates

Many times in Chapter XII, Augustine emphasizes that he has heard God by a voice in his inner ear.  This source of authority is not a one-time fluke but a consistent theme.

Already you have said to me Lord, with a loud voice in my inner ear, that you are eternal…for you are changed by no form or movement, for does you will undergo any variation at different times…Again you said to me, Lord, with a loud voice in my inner ear…Again you said to me, in a loud voice in my inner ear..the heaven  of heaven is coeternal with you,..

(Confessions XII, xi, 11-12, p251)

This interpretation is outside the context of the Scripture.  Augustine acknowledges by his defense against the literalists, saying he has heard God in his “inner ear.”  There are some Bible believing Christian’s who object to this Platonic interpretation.

“other who find no fault with the book of Genesis and indeed admire it. Yet they say: ‘the Spirit of God who wrote this by Moses did not intend this meaning by these words; he did not mean what you are saying but another meaning which is our interpretation.” (Confessions XII.xiv.17 p. 254)

What other group in history, places the Scripture in authority over the teachings of the Church?  If John Calvin, had any early first century theologians sympathetic to his concept of sola scriptura, it is these persons who are contradicting Augustine’s interpretation.  How does Augustine reply to these contradictores? Does he present other Scriptures in support, does he appeal the translations of the original manuscripts, does he offer any rational arguments?

Augustine is rather thin-skinned.  He is unable to respond with Scripture in a well-reasoned argument.  Instead he berates his opponents, calls them names, appeals to this authority as bishop and threatens them with physical punishment.

Those things which “bark” of course are dogs. (may bark as much as they like and by their shouting discredit themselves)  His critics are dogs who should shut up and be quiet.  He appeals to God to throw them into the dust and blow dirt into their eyes. (I beg you, my god, not to stay away from me… so… I will leave my critics gasping in the dust, and blowing the soil up into their eyes…) Apparently, Augustine is beyond reproach even when acting like a child, a bully and a crying baby.[2]

Augustine can verbally dismiss and condemn the heretics like the Manichees who deny Scripture and everyone labels as a cult. His most hated opponents, ones to whom Augustine does not have good answers, are the literalists.  Lacking a good answer he will use verbal abuse.  They are like dogs, they bark and do not reason.  They should be thrown to the ground and have dirt kicked into their eyes.  But failing all verbal venom to dissuade them from their views.  Augustine, Catholic Bishop of Hippo, the bully with all the authority of the church behind him will ask God to judge between the literalists and Augustine.  Whom will God chose?  What is interesting is Augustine’s heated and painful reaction to the literalists.  Are they enough of a threat to warrant such response?

What is the terrible shame of these contradictores?  These people believe in a literal interpretation of Scripture.  If there are doubts to their beliefs, Augustine will explain their heresies.

By the phrase “heaven and earth” they say, Moses meant to signify in general and concise terms the entire visible world, so that thereafter under the successive days he could arrange one by one each category which it pleased the Holy Spirit to list in this way.  The character of the people addressed as rough and carnal, and so he decided to present to them only the visible works of God.

They agree however, that if one understands formless matter to be referred to as “the earth invisible and unorganized and a dark abyss there is no incongruity.  For it was from tis that in the following verses all the visible things, known to everyone, are shown to be created and order during those days.

Confessions XII.xvii.24 p.258

What is interesting, is that apparently, Augustine and these Biblical contractories do not believe God created the world out of nothing but out of some preexisting chaotic matter. These contradictores have taken a literal approach to the interpretation of Scripture.  God created the world in six days.  In another verbal attack on the personal character of his opponents Augustine will say these people are rough and carnal.

Why is there such an emotional attack to these Biblical literalists? This is an attack on the mystical experience of Ostia.  His mystical experience was confirmation of his conversion, his mother’s conversion and his concepts of God. (immutable and eternal)

This gives us a clue to enlarger significance of the heaven of haven in his theology.  The purpose of the ascent was to find god in the inner mind of Augustine.  Augustine admits this ascent was a Platonic ascent but he believes he saw the real God in this ascent.  Augustine argues against those who deny  “ your truth utters in my inner mind”.  This inner mind or inner ear is a reference to the ascent as these fragments from Confessions VII and XII show: “to return unto myself” and “I entered with my soul’s eye” “a loud voice in my inner ear.”


“by the Platonic books I was admonished to return unto myself…I entered with my soul’s eye, such as it was saw above the eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind… I said Surely truth cannot be nothing, when it is not diffused through space, either finite or infinite? And you cried from far away Now, I am who I am.  I heard in the way one hears within the heart, and all doubt left me.” (Confessions VII.x.16 p 123)

Would doubt return to Augustine if the ascent was denied? The contradictores, the group of barking opponents, their offense is defending the Old Testament against allegory and mystic revelation.  This rejection threatened a central tenet of Augustine’s theology- the immutability of God.

The contemplative encounters (theoria) with God is foundational to Augustine’s unshaken faith in God and more importantly his commitment to Christ.  The vision of an apophatic God at Ostia is denied by those literalists who will not agree with his radical reinterpretation of Scripture.   With issues so close to the heart, Augustine starts fighting dirty.  The choice of theologians today is between the mystical revelation of Augustine’s Confessions and the teaching of Scripture.

[1] John C. Olin, ed.  A Reformation Debate: JOHN CALVIN AND JACOPO SADOLETO (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books), 1966, p.62.

[2] Those with whom I wish to argue in your presence, my God, are those who grant the correctness of all these things which your truth utters in my inner mind.  Those who deny them may bark as much as they like and by their shouting discredit themselves. I will try to persuade them to be quiet and to allow your word to find a way to them, If they refuse and repel me, I beg you, my god, not to stay away from me in silence.  Speak truth in my heart; you alone speak so… I will leave my critics gasping in the dust, and blowing the soil up into their eyes… you are the one supreme, and true Good, ‘…  But with those who do not criticize as falls all those points which are true, who honor your holy scripture written by that holy man Moses and agree with us that we should follow its supreme authority, but who on some point contradict us, my position is this:  You, our God, shall be arbiter between my confessions and their contradictions.

Confessions XII, xvi, 23 p. 257


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One Response to Augustine, First a Mystic, then a Catholic, then an Allegorist, Part I Mystic

  1. Pingback: The Strange Case of Dr. Bruce Ware and His Minions | Will the Real God Step Forward

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