December 13, 2012 by Jason Hood
One of the things I love most about church history is the discovery that the “new” is actually remarkably old. Almost everything of value I’ve learned about apologetics, epistemology and the like from Kreeft, Pascal, Van Til, Jamie Smith, Keller and other wise teachers can be found in predecessors like Augustine. Even when mediated (and the following excerpts are from Robert Louis Wilken’s excellent The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 172-4), Augustine has more to offer a modern Christian than a sailor has to offer an Amish lad.
Augustine notes the indespensibility of “authority,” that is, the need to rely on someone other than self and sense perception. Autonomy is simply not an option in any sphere of life. Self-reliance is as impossible in religion as it is in farming or child-rearing or trusting your mother that your father really was your father (Augustine’s example, not mine, and certainly a very personal one for him).
The acquiring of religious knowledge is akin to learning a skill. It involves practices, attitudes, and dispositions and has to do with ordering one’s loves. This kind of knowledge, the knowledge one lives by, is gained gradually over time. Just as one does not learn to play the piano in a day, so one does not learn to love God in an exuberant moment of delight.
Augustine’s lexicography of love is quite foreign to the emotion-driven definitions of love, but it is quite in line with the Bible’s approach.
With these ideas on the need to rely on authority, Augustine particularly attacked the Manichean tendency to take a posture of criticism and skepticism. We don’t read Virgil rightly, Augutines says, unless we give ourselves to him, unless “we love him” and become his apprentice, so to speak.
Without sympathy and enthusiasm, without giving of ourselves, without a debt of love, there can be no knowledge of things that matter….
By making authority a necessary part of knowing, Augustine shifts the question away from What should I believe? . . . to the question Whom should I believe? that is, Which persons should I trust?
And this leads Augustine not just to trust in God and his Word, but to the importance of “persons whose lives are formed by the teachings,” and of “placing one’s confidence in men and women whose examples invite us to love what they love.”
The knowledge of God sinks into the mind and heart slowly and hence requires apprenticeship. That is why, says Augustine, we must become “servants of wise men.”
In other words, others are highly unlikely ever to learn to love something or someone unless they first see love.