July 23, 2009

Catholic Theology 101: Saint Augustine

Earliest known image of Saint Augustine

Prior to the thirteenth century, the dominant school of thought in Catholic theology was that of St. Augustine. Early in the fifth century, Augustine refuted the heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagius taught that Adam’s original sin did not taint human nature. For that reason, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was neither necessary nor redemptive. A neo-Platonist, Augustine uses the philosophy of Plato, together with the deposit of faith, to oppose Pelagianism and create a new way of looking at everything.

The resulting synthesis, Augustinianism, is objective. It acknowledges truth, including moral truth, as outside of us, not a matter of personal opinion, therefore, universal, not particular to individuals, cultures, or circumstances. According to Augustine, we can know truth through Revelation, right reason, and the Church.

Augustine’s theology is also deductive. Deductive reasoning begins with a general idea and ends with a specific one. Father Richard Hogan describes this approach (later used by scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas):

One started with a "given" which was accepted, e.g., God is a pure spirit, and added what was called the minor term, e.g., a pure spirit does not have a body… (then) drew a conclusion, e.g., God does not have a body.

Finally, Augustinian theology is principled. Principles flow from objective truth and deductive reasoning. The opposite of principled is experimental. Experimental knowledge comes from personal experience.

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