Augustine the Mystic

“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.”  

Augustine (Confessions VII.x.16 p 123)

Often one hears of conversion experiences and wonders at the credulity of the religious experience.  Someone hears a song or is moved by a poor sermon or a campfire or some other experience.  Augustine’s conversion experience is based on his concept of God which he received from a Platonic ascent. It is no surprise that the “god” he sees at the end of the Platonic ascent looks a lot like the god of Plato. He conceives of God as similar to the Platonic god; immutable and eternal.  Not eternal as in everlasting but eternal as in the “eternal now.”  An eternality as in a state without time seeing all things at once.

Discursive thought is not appreciated.  The understanding is one of the heart devoid of reason.  The Word of God is based on discursive thought.  One must read and understand with the mind to understand the revelation of God.  God choses to express himself with words written in logical and reasonable sentences.  Augustine is not converted by reason but by a leap of faith into the irrational world of mysticism.

In the Platonic world all things come from god in a series of emanations from the highest form to the lowest form.  In order to see god a person must go up this ladder of ascent in a series of purifications.  At the top of the ladder is god.  In order to practice the ascent or even believe the ascent is possible is to accept the metaphysical structure of reality proposed by the Neoplatonists.

At the top of the ladder is the immutable god of the Platonists.  By becoming as close to immutable as possible a Neoplatonist will purge himself of emotions and other bodily concerns and desires.  Augustine practices the ascent at Ostia and catches a glimpse at the immutable god.

This is why the concept of immutability is so important to Augustine.  To question immutability is to question Augustine himself.  Is he a Christian, was his conversion legitimate and does he know God or does he waiver in his faith?

This vision of the ascent and the immutable god at the end of the ascent becomes foundational to Augustine’s assurance of salvation.  All doubt leaves Augustine because he has seen God.  He is emotionally and spiritually vested in this vision.  He connects this vision with the immutable god he sees in the vision.  What if some impertinent person would point out that the immutable god Augustine sees is not in Scripture?  Would he search the Scriptures and point out the many verses supporting his conclusion?  Or would he allegorize all contrary evidence and insist on his revelation as superior to the Word of God?

But see, there are others who find no fault with the book of Genesis and indeed admire it.  Yet they say: ‘The Spirit of God wrote this by Moses his servant did not intend this meaning by these words; he did not mean what you are saying, but another meaning which is our interpretation.’…

You will surely not assert to be false what the truth proclaims with a loud voice in my inner ear concerning the true eternity of the Creator, namely, that his nature will never vary at different times, and his will is not external to his nature.

Augustine (Confessions XII.xv.17 p 254)

What is the objection of these biblical literalists?  Are they quibbling about some contentious and difficult translation from the Scriptures?  Is there some context overlooked or a nuance in the meaning of words not appreciated in the translated versions.

No Augustine objects to the literalists because they reject his introduction of the 2nd person of the Platonic “trinity” into Genesis.  The first emanation from the god of Plotinus is the nous or intellect.  In the Platonic metaphysics the Intellect emanates from the One but turns and looks back on the One.  In the same way the spiritual or intellectual creation looks back on the face of God in Confessions.

They say ‘although this may be true yet Moses did not have these two things in mind when by the revelation of the Spirit he said “In the beginning god made heaven and earth.”  By the word “heaven” he did not mean the spiritual or intellectual creation which continually looks on God’s face nor by the word “earth” did he intend formless matter.  What then? They say: What that man had in mind was what we say he meant, and this is what he expressed in those words.” (Confessions XII, xvi,23, p. 258)

Nothing in Genesis even remotely allows such an “interpretation.”  Augustine produces his commentary from Neoplatonism.  Neoplatonism did not believe in creation from nothing.  Matter always existed but in chaos.  The Intellect and the Soul would combine with formless matter to produce the created things of the universe.

The conversion of Augustine was the conversion of a mystic.  The attributes of the Christian God, especially immutability and eternality, were ascribed to God by a process that ignored Scripture.  By bullying and name calling Augustine would prevail over his opponents.  His “exegesis” is separate from Scripture and often contrary to Scriptural evidence.


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