Phillip Cary | The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the Gospel That Gives Us Christ
2:08PM Feb 5, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today it is our distinct honor to be speaking with Dr. Philip Cary. Dr. Philip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University. He's the Editor in Chief of the theological journal Pro Ecclesia. And he's also the author of the text that we'll be discussing today "The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine and the Gospel that gives us Christ" available from Baker academic in 2019. Dr. Cary, thank you so much for joining us today.
My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.
Dr. Cary, I must say that this is a philosophically and intellectually rich book. You can tell as you work through pieces of it that you've been living with this book for a very long time. And would you be willing to simply share the journey? What was the genesis of this book?
It began about 25 years ago when I thought I was writing a PhD dissertation on Luther. And I was going to write a first chapter on Augustine as the background to Luther and Agustin turned out to be different from what I had been led to expect. He wasn't quite what I wanted him to be. But he was absolutely fascinating. And by the time I got done with writing about Augustine, I had a dissertation that was much too long all on Augustine, and only half of the Augustine material actually got into the dissertation. So that became then three books on a Gustin and numerous articles. And finally, about three, four years ago, I got back to writing about Luther.
What is it that attracted you to Augustine in the first place?
Um, well, I knew that he was enormously important and philosophically important and theologically fundamental. And he is in the background for Luther for Calvin for medieval theology. And he's, he's a great writer. He's a smarter man than I am, and he's a better Christian than I am. And I disagree with him about some important stuff. So there's a lot to think about.
Well, if you'll give me the liberty of doing so I even want to go back one step further than. So what, what made you passionate about classic orthodox theology?
Oh, um, because it Well, I hope for the redemption of the world, the comfort of the afflicted the triumph of good over evil, right. I mean, that's where else you got to find that except in the faith of Christ.
Dr. Cary, as you mentioned there several of your earlier books are dedicated to St. Augustine. Yeah, how is the Protestant tradition shaped by Augustine's thought,
right, well, probably the the key way to think about this is in terms of a Gustin doctrine of grace. He ended up disagreeing fiercely with a man named Pelagius. He, which Agustin convinced people Pelagius was a heretic because he thought that, you know, you saved yourself just by moral improvement and good works and becoming a better Christian and all that. And you didn't really need God's help for that. And Augustine said, yes, you do need the inner help of the grace of the Holy Spirit, mediating the grace of Christ to you. So without grace of salvation by works is simply impossible. And that's a disaster that Augustine convinced the whole Western church not to go that way, also convinced them about Original Sin about the depths of sin, and how deep is the sin that grace has to correct. And so, when Luther and Calvin and other reformers were arguing with Roman Catholics in the 16th century, all of them took that doctrine of grace for granted. None of them thought that you could be saved simply by your own good works. So that's the matrix in which the argument of reformation theology took shape.
And Pelagius, this monk from the British Isles in the early fifth century, is he regarded as a heretic by all forms of Christians, that is the Roman Catholics, the Protestants, the Eastern Orthodox.
Yeah, as a matter of fact, yes, even the Eastern Orthodox who weren't really part of the controversy. They condemned religious, the western church from the time of the, from the fifth century Pope's condemned him as a heretic. Even if you disagree with Augustinian theology, as say, john Wesley often does. Wesley is no Pelagian right. So rejecting Pelagianism, rejecting a sheer salvation by works is is just common coin to the whole Christian tradition. And it's deeply embedded in the way the West does theology from the fifth century onwards.
Dr. Cary, so the picture that's emerging is that all Christians traditions reject Pelagius and we have Augustine to thank for his guidance in, in bringing the Christian tradition to that conclusion. But many parts of the Christian tradition disagree with Augustine young Protestants and Roman Catholics have a slightly different reading of a Gustin the Eastern Orthodox are not so sure what they think of a customer, some of them really are sure what they think of a guest and it's not positive. So, um, so if all Christian traditions disagree with Augustine's main opponents, then where the real elements of disagreement within the interpretation of the Augustinian tradition
Well, there's several ladies late in his career, a Gustin developed a very robust and deep doctrine of predestination. And, you know, so when people attacked john Calvin about his doctrine of predestination, he would say, look, it's already there, and in Augustine, and he's right. Calvin's doctrine of predestination is originally an Augustinian doctrine, but it's shared with Thomas Aquinas and with Martin Luther. But you know, someone like Wesley has no place for it. If you think for instance, that grace gives you an offer, that it's really ultimately up to you to choose whether to accept the offer of grace or not, then you're with Wesley, you're, you're an Armenian, essentially. But that's not Augustine, for Augustine, all of us, if left to our own choice would be choosing damnation. And so it's up to God to choose to save some unworthy resisting sinners, but not others. And that's the Augustine's, the Augustinian doctrine of election, which is at the root of the Augustinian doctrine of predestination, and which some people absolutely hate, but Lutheran, Calvin and Aquinas in the Middle Ages, they all agree with it.
Thank you, Dr. Cary. Um, Dr. Cary, in your reading of Augustine. How Platonic is Augustine's theology? Would you please give us a few examples to help understand the Platonic influence in Augustine's theology?
Yes, as a matter of fact, I I treat Agustin as a Christian platanus. That doesn't mean that he follows Plato and everything, of course. But he, he's learned a lot of things from the platanus tradition. So for instance, the notion that grace does not take away free will makes perfect sense in a platanus context, right? Because in Plato's philosophy, all good things come from the supreme good, and there's no possibility of being drawn to the good without the help of the good. And the good is another name really for God. Plato's God is the supreme good capital G. It's not a person, certainly not incarnate, certainly not Trinitarian. But the very notion of grace makes perfect sense in a platonic context. So that's one thing that's a positive contribution. Then there is the notion of beatific vision, the notion that our goal as Christians, as human beings, is to see God with the eyes of the mind, not with imagination, not with the eyes of the flesh, but with understanding. It's a little bit like, if you imagine the insight you have, when you have a mathematical insight, you have this aha moment, right? Well imagine the aha moment is seeing the truth that contains all that is unchangeably true. That's a phrase from Augustine. And that's this intellectual vision, which is enough to make you eternally happy. I think that's Augustine's notion of what what heaven really is. And a version of that becomes the Catholic doctrine via division. But if you want to know where it comes from, read Plato's Allegory of the Cave in his treatise on the Republic, it's a it's a deeply platonic idea. And I don't think it's actually a biblical idea. In the biblical version of it, yes, this is seeing of God, but it's seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It's more like what happens on the Mount of Transfiguration than like a mathematical insight. So I think there's a there's a deep tension there. And on this point, I think Protestant reformers with their emphasis on faith in the Word, get it right. There's a kind of opacity in our vision of God, because we see God in the face of a crucified Jew, and we know God through His Word. So that's another thing. This the other side of this is Augustine's emphasis on this intellectual vision was tied to an inward turn a turn to look at the soul which is the inner self which is you know, not like the body and Augustine thought that bodily things didn't really have the power to give you what you needed for for spiritual growth and spiritual ascent. So um, one of the subtitles in one of my books is talks about the powerlessness of external things Augustine really didn't have a rich notion of sacraments that's one of the things that surprised me. sacraments are supposed to be these external signs that give what they signify when you receive them in faith. Augustine doesn't really have a place for that. Because external things are a distraction. You need to turn inward, turn toward that inward light, which is not a light of the eye is not not a physical light. So you have to turn away from external things to find God, ultimately, accidental things have their uses but but external things can't ultimately help you. And certainly no external thing is going to save you. Whereas you asked Luther is there an external thing that saves you and he'll say absolutely the gospel of Jesus Christ is an external word you hang on to that external thing for for dear life, because your soul depends on it. Your soul depends on an external thing. Augustine can't say that because he's a platanus. That was what led to the three books on Augustine. Luthor says that in spades, when God gives you an external thing to cling to cling to it for your salvation, because that's how you get saved. The flesh of Christ, the word of the gospel, and also the sacraments.
absolutely fascinating. Dr. Cary. So, as you frame this project, then and you demonstrate that Augustine is at the foundation of Protestant theology, and yet there are points of Augustine's theology that you as a faithful Protestant need to shed or need to lay aside to help identify what are those points that ultimately a faithful Protestant will disagree with Augustine over?
Um, fascinatingly, I mean, I've mentioned one already is, I think, Protestants need to believe in a theology of the word where the word of the gospel that saves us is an external word. It's not, it's not listening to the voice of God in your heart. Because that's not the voice that can save you. The Gospel comes from the apostles, it's in Scripture. It's an external word that bears witness to a bunch of external events, including, you know, an event on a cross and another event on an empty tomb. But this external word can give you the salvation that we longed for, and give us the God who is our beloved, that that requires an extra an outward turn, that I think Augustine doesn't quite get. So Protestants should. Protestants, I think, have this great gift to give to the Christian tradition as a whole, which is the piety of the word, where instead of trying to see things for yourself, which is what intellectual vision is all about, you put your faith in a promise, and a testimony that's outside of you, that comes to you from outside comes into your ears, like music, and without the music, you're not going to get saved. That piety of the external word is I think that the great gift of Protestantism, which Augustine really didn't know how to articulate in ways that Protestants can, I think.
Dr. Curie, the second half of your book, The meaning of Protestant theology, Luther, Augustine in the Gospel that gives us Christ. The second half of this book is dedicated to Martin Luther. And Luther is a really, really different personality than Augustine really different cultural space, really different upbringing and education. Where do you see the points of major continuity between Augustine and Martin Luther in Protestant theology?
Right, Luther is coming along more than a millennium after Augustine. So he's growing up in essentially an Augustinian spiritual culture. There's a kind of journey that Augustine believes in, where we're journeying toward God, by a pathway of love, and we should be increasing in love. But everyone was getting really, really anxious about whether they loved God enough, right? Especially if you are, you know, going to confession and you're being probed for the sins that you are aware of. And it was official Catholic teaching at the time, you can't know that you're in a state of grace. So Grace is necessary to save you. But you can't know that you're in a state of grace. Because after all, you can't know your own heart well enough to know that. So people were getting terrified of dying in a state of mortal sin rather than a state of grace. What could they hang on to what could they cling to, to reassure them that God was not their enemy, but God was not going to destroy them and torture them for eternity when they die? That was a kind of 16th century anxiety that that is an anxiety of an Augustinian culture that didn't exist in Augustine's day because the Augustinian culture didn't arise until after Augustine. So, here comes a particular problem that Luther has accepted. ticular non Augustinian solution to the problem is, where do you fl- Where do you flee to find the grace of God? A Gustin has this wonderful log law grace contest contrast, right? law and grace law terrifies us, the law of God coming to sinners is not going to give us righteousness. It's going to show us our sin. Right? That's a common theme, and Luther and Calvin, the reformers, but it goes all the way back to Augustine in a treatise called on the letter and the spirit of the law is the letter, all it can do is kill you, unless you have the righteousness of God. And Augustine talks about the righteousness of God, where does that come from? comes from grace, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. And how do you get that? Well, Augustine simply says pray for it. Right? So there's this whole piety of praying for grace, which makes sense in a monastic contest context where you're praying all the time. But fast forward to the 16th century, and you're praying for grace, but you're really not sure that you have it, you're really not sure that God's going to give it because after all, you don't deserve it. Right. You can't possibly deserve grace. And you may be aware that you're not a very holy person. You're not like a monk. You're just an ordinary schlub of a Christian. And boy, your life is not what it should be. And why would God give you the grace of God to save you? So how do you flee to God for the grace of God? Luther, his answer is that prayer is not going to be good enough, because prayer, if your heart's not good enough, what you need is the word of God. Wouldn't it be wonderful if God Himself promised you that he would give you Grace? And all you had to do was, believe the promise. And that's exactly what the gospel does. The Gospel promises you the grace of God in Christ on name, and what you do, as you claim to that promise, because God Himself made that promise, and he doesn't lie. That's a whole way of thinking about the gift of grace than that a Gustin didn't have, he didn't have external things to cling to. Whereas Luther thinks you cling to this promise of of Christ in the Gospel, and then you receive the grace of God. So it doesn't depend on your prayers. It depends on the faithfulness of God. All that has to happen for you to be saved, is for God not to lie to you. And if God keeps his word, then you can be confident that you are saved. And that's at the heart of Luther, his notion of the gospel, and john Calvin picks it up and entirely agrees.
Thank you very much, Dr. Cary, for that reflection. I sometimes tell my students in church history classes at Moody Bible Institute, that the Reformation is basically an extended argument between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants over the correct interpretation of Augustine. And what's your view? What's the role of Augustine in the Reformation?
Yeah, um, it's, it's true that when people like Luther and Calvin are arguing with Catholic theologians, they're also arguing about interpretation of Augustine. First and foremost, they're arguing about the interpretation of the Bible. But they almost they want Augustine to be on their side almost as much as they want the Bible to be on their side. Right. Augustine is not the Bible, but but he's sort of the second most important authority, right? Indeed, he is the most important theological authority outside the Bible for all of these folks. He's not infallible, he can be wrong. But boy, they really want them on their side. And it really is a matter of what do you make of original sin? What do you make of this journey towards the love of God? And what do you make of justification by faith? Everybody agrees about justification by faith. It's in a Gustin, it's in Paul, everyone agrees about that. But justification by faith alone, right, simply believing that God's word, believing this promise was enough to save you. That's going to be on Augustine. And then there's issues about predestination, but turns out predestination was not a big issue in the 16th century, you know, Thomas Aquinas believed in it. The real question is, can you trust that you have a gracious God, rather than a God who is planning to damn you because you don't deserve the grace? Right? I mean, the thing about grace is it's undeserved. So if you're looking at yourself, you cannot see a ground in yourself a basis in yourself, for trusting that God is going to give you grace. And that's a question that didn't Arise for Augustine because he figured, you know, you pray for grace, you'll get grace. But when you have those 16th century anxieties, when you're listening to sermons on sort of that that's that terrify your soul with with the picture of hell, which is, which is a picture that was in just about everybody's mind, then you need something to hang on to. And that I think is where that's actually where Luther and Calvin, I think, depart from Augustine, that that emphasis on the external word So in that particular way, here's the irony. That particular a Lutheran especially, is a little bit more medieval than then than he is Augustinian because in the medieval Catholic tradition, you have this notion of sacraments, where external signs can give you what they signify when you receive them in faith. And the gospel has the same structure. It's an external thing that gives you what it signifies when you receive it in faith. And in that regard, Luther is closer to Aquinas than he is to Augustine, which is, I think, ironic, but also has great ecumenical possibilities.
And Dr. Cary, I was moving right to that question. So, in your view, where are the real impasses to ecumenical progress today? And what might we be able to do to reinvigorate ecumenical discussion today?
Yeah, that's the answers that question is, is bracing and disheartening, I think, what's the real impasse, the real impasse is our unbelief, I think, our sin and our unbelief. If we seriously believe that Jesus was, Lord, that there's one Lord one faith, and one baptism, then ecumenical unity would be an urgent issue for all of us. But because we don't believe in Jesus as Lord as deeply as we ought to. We are content with our institutional boundaries, right? We've got we got institutions, you know, ecclesial institutions that we're comfortable with. And that's, that's the sin of every Christian I know of, we all are happy with our denominations, or our Roman Catholic Church, or our Lutheran Synod, or whatever it might be. And we don't feel the need to recognize, oh, these, these brother, Christians of ours, these brothers and sisters in Christ, they belong in the same body of Christ that I belong in. And our division is a sin and an offense to our Lord. And, and it impairs our witness to the world. And it's urgent that we change this. And we have no excuse for maintaining this division. And if we all felt like that we would probably manage to, to overcome these divisions. But I think that won't change until the Holy Spirit comes with a new kind of gift to the church that I don't know how to anticipate. But until then, I think we have to be, we should all be penitence about our about our divisions, we should be in permanent repentance, for our unbelief and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit to enliven our faith and bring us back together where we belong.
Dr. Cary if I can close this interview with a question that we've been asking all of the interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we even recognize such a unity? And what is it that we can do as individual Christians to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed in john 17?
I think the way we could recognize unity is through shared worship. When we all worship the one Lord Jesus Christ, sitting at the right hand of God, the Father almighty, then we have the right kind of unity. But that unity in worship requires unity and faith. We have to, I think, all believe the same creed, right, the same Trinitarian faith in which, you know, some denominations are better at believing than others. And we all need to practice in some way, the same sacraments, we have to have enough agreement about baptism and the Lord's Supper that we can share these sacraments with, with everyone else in the body of Christ. And if we can do that, in practice, in the actual act of worship, then then I think that's, that's the Unity we're looking for. That's that's the unity of the body, unity and faith and practice. What could individual Christians do? I think what individual Christians can do is practice the discernment of recognizing in other Christians and other Christians, right, they really are brothers and sisters in Christ. The Catholics have a really nice label for this. We are separated brethren. Right, we are Brethren, brothers and sisters, but we're separated. The separation is not right. But we are brothers and sisters. And if we can discern that, that brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ, then we will be moving in the right direction. But that means we need to learn about each other. We need to know each other we need to understand each other's church traditions and, and not be not be self righteous about how much better our churches than everybody else's. We need to sort of, Hmm, I think maybe this would be one way for an individual to really move in the right direction. You look at another church tradition, you say, Isn't that beautiful? And that's something missing in matrix tradition. We need those folks. We need those other Christians who are very different from us, because they worship in such a different way. But they have something that we're missing, but maybe we have something that they need as well. Wouldn't it be good if we were in the same church giving these gifts to each other that our traditions have, and the other tradition doesn't?
It's been our absolute delight today to be speaking with Dr. Philip Cary Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University editor in chief of pro ecclesia. And the author of the text that we've been discussing today, the meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the gospel that gives us Christ" available from Baker academic in 2019. Dr. Curie, thank you very much for your reflections today.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.