SaintAugustine_copy__93589.1514599543St. Augustine (AD 354-430) was the Bishop of Hippo. He was brought up with a Christian mother and a pagan father. When he was young, he delved deeply into philosophy and became a Manichean, a banned sect at the time. He was converted in his later years through the prayers of his mother, St. Monica, and the preaching of St. Ambrose while he lived in Milan.

St. Ambrose baptized him on Pascha of AD 387. He returned to Africa, where he founded a monastery, eventually becoming the Bishop of Hippo (in modern Algeria). He wrote many volumes, and impacted the Western Church forever. In spite of popular conceptions, he remained deeply influenced by Platonism.

Augustine taught neither Calvinism nor a legalistic idea of original sin. His teaching on original sin was basically a Platonic way of explaining our relation to Adam. Adam is, according to this approach, the ideal human. He carries not just an individual humanity but the whole human nature in its ideal form. Each of us, coming from him, are concrete particularizations (forms) of that abstract humanity which Adam had. Since Adam sinned and fell, humanity in the abstract ideal fell and became sinful. Each of us, being born from Adam, then partake of this fallen nature inasmuch as we are the particularizations of a fallen abstract humanity inherited from Adam.

St. Augustine, on the eve of his death, with Arian Vandals banging on the gates of Carthage, surrounded by a library of his books, perused his works. He wrote a book we now call Retractions, in which he explains various statements of what he had previously written, and catalogues many of his works.

Retractions would be better called Explanations. (References in this article are from St. Augustine, Retractions, trans. Sister M. Inez Bogan, Vol. 60 of The Fathers of the Church [Chicago:St. Xavier, 1968]). In this book, Augustine hardly retracts anything. Rather, he mainly explains what he meant or did not mean by different statements. He also sometimes mentions ways he could have been more clear. Some of his explanations are of great interest, especially to Orthodox Christians.

St. Augustine also quotes himself speaking about Mt 16:18. In one place he wrote that the rock on which the Church is built is Peter. In another place he wrote the rock is the confession, “You are the Son of God.” In his Retractions, he is neutral on the interpretation, saying either may be the proper way to see it and readers must decide for themselves which to believe (20.1).

St. Augustine in his Retractions expressly denies and contradicts (p.188) the Protestant view of salvation (that is, legal justification and intrinsic sanctification leading to both acceptance before God via imputed righteousness and perfection via imparted righteousness). He identifies justification as being made righteous, teaches baptismal regeneration, and teaches that good works are necessary to enter the Kingdom (as opposed to the Protestant belief that we enter the Kingdom by Christ’s merit and do good works out of gratitude). His idea of justification is both legal and transformative in character, with God being able to declare a man righteous because he actually has been made righteous. He objects at length to the idea that faith alone is sufficient for eternal life. He does use more legal language here and in other writings than Eastern Christians tend to use, and speaks of merit as do Tertullian, Bede, and other early Western Christians. But he does not appear to have a primarily law-based soteriology, and his statements are consistent with the Oriental approach even if spoken in a way more common to Latin authors.

St. Augustine in Retractions states he defended the singing of Psalms while taking Communion against a man who opposed it. Apparently, singing Psalms during Communion had only recently been adopted at Carthage and this man thought it was an illegitimate break with tradition (pp.140-41).

Multiple times, St. Augustine references places in which he said things that could be understood as downplaying the physicality of our resurrection bodies. He repeatedly says this is not his intent, and that he meant nothing more than what St. Paul meant when he said flesh and blood will not inherit the Kingdom. Our resurrection bodies will be without corruption or decay but they will still be tangible, physical bodies (eg., pp.74-75).

Of special interest to anyone interacting with Augustine’s theology is his belief about predestination, election, and free will. Augustine certainly hardened his stance and spoke much more of God’s sovereignty in salvation and of election during and after the Pelagian controversy. Pelagius, Julian, Celestius and their followers were heretics who taught that man is able to be perfect and attain eternal life without the aid of grace. They were condemned by the Church and took refuge with the Nestorians. Later, Celestius was condemned at Carthage (p.188) and Ephesus (AD 431). The Council of Diospolis in Palestine (AD 415) that acquitted Pelagius only did so because he denied his beliefs; his beliefs were condemned at the council while his person was acquitted (pp. 223-25).

St. Augustine was one of the central figures opposing Pelagius, along with St. John Cassian (who also opposed Nestorianism and considered them the same doctrine from two angles). In his Retractions, Augustine explains his belief about election, predestination, and free will. He taught that without God’s grace we cannot do good or will to come to God. God preveniently enables us and gives us faith and repentance, moving our wills. But we must choose to believe. We must will to repent, to do good, to walk with God. Grace causes us (in the Aristotelian sense of a formal cause) to do good, but sin and righteousness are sin and righteousness because we willed to do good or evil. He taught election conditioned on foreseen faith and denied God forced anyone to sin or to repent. He taught, in short, that God’s grace comes before bringing the gifts of faith, repentance, and merit. Whether we sin or repent is under our power of will, but we do nothing apart from God, His grace being absolutely necessary for our salvation. We are elect and given the gift of perseverance contingent on foreknowledge of our repenting and enduring to the end (eg., pp. 99-100, 108-15).

St. Augustine was a Platonist and Western thinker from Latin Africa. He expressed views on the Trinity (double procession, the Father not the fountain of deity), as well as on merit and other things, which are not consonant with either Oriental Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox belief. However, when one takes into account his use of Platonism to explain sin and Sacraments, as well as his Retractions, one finds a man not as estranged from Orthodox thought as the common caricature. He may not have gotten everything right, but he did not speak in ways too different from other early Western authors and he died in full communion with the Church a year before the Council of Ephesus.

Given his explanations of what he meant on election and free will, he was opposing the idea that grace is unnecessary to salvation and affirming that salvation, faith, and repentance are gifts, and that good works are God working in us. He was not at all teaching the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election, irresistible grace, reprobation, or limited atonement.

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Daniel Michalski is a Coptic Orthodox Christian and MA in Theology student at St. Athanasius and St. Cyril Coptic Orthodox Theological School in Anaheim CA. He holds a BA in Theological Studies from The North American Reformed Seminary and serves as a chanter at St. Basil’s Coptic Church in San Diego.

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2 thoughts on “A COPTIC OVERVIEW OF ST. AUGUSTINE’S “RETRACTIONS” by Daniel Michalski


  2. Pingback: In Response to “A Coptic Overview of Saint Augustine’s Retractions” by Daniel Michalski, Part 1 – Augustine the Platonist – Chris Whisonant

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