After Empire: Augustinian Liberalism

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Herman Bavinck, in surveying the vast history of Christian theology to introduce his Reformed Dogmatics, wrote about St. Augustine of Hippo,

Every reformation returns to him and to Paul. For every dogma he found a formula that was taken over and repeated by everyone else. His influence extends to all churches, schools of theology, and sects. Rome appeals to him for its doctrine of the church, the sacrament, the authority, while the Reformation felt kinship with him in the doctrine of predestination and grace. Scholasticism, in constructing its conceptual framework, took advantage of his sharp observation, the acuteness of his intellect, the power of his speculation—Thomas, in fact, was called the best interpreter of St. Augustine. Mysticism, in turn, found inspiration in his neoplatonism and religious enthusiasm. Both Catholic and Protestant piety buoy themselves up on his writings; asceticism and pietism find nourishment and support in his work. Augustine, therefore, does not belong to one church but to all churches together. He is the universal teacher (Doctor universalis). Even philosophy neglects him to its own detriment. And because of his elegant and fascinating style, his refined, precise, highly individual and nevertheless universally human way of expressing himself, he, more than any other church father, can still be appreciated today. He is the most Christian as well as the most modern of all the fathers; of all of them he is closest to us. He replaced the aesthetic worldview with an ethical one, the classical with the Christian. In dogmatics we owe our best, our deepest, our richest thoughts to him. Augustine has been and is the dogmatician of the Christian church.

This profound influence over every branch of the Christian church is paralleled by the intimidating disciplinary scope of Augustine’s contributions; the African bishop not only produced a plethora of theological and exegetical treatises, but applied his magisterial mind and classical training to the development of Christian philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and politics. Neither have these contributions been ignored in the subsequent millennia and a half of Christian thought, as nearly every post-Reformation political theology—from the Lutheran and Reformed Two Kingdoms to North American Transformationalism and the contemporary “Neo-Augustinians”—has been self-consciously developed in light of Augustine’s writings, particularly his magnum opus, City of God.

This Augustinian political influence continues even to the current moment with authors across the theological and political spectrum making appeals in his name. James K.A. Smith, for example, has framed his political-theological project (particularly his forthcoming volume, Awaiting the King) as explicitly Augustinian. Rod Dreher, on the other hand, cites City of God in his portrayal of the modern West’s cultural decline as parallel to the Roman Empire’s collapse in the Fifth century.

While I have argued that Dreher’s cultural outlook is largely misguided, his presentation of Augustine as a figure standing at the end of empire might ultimately be illuminative for fruitful application of the saint’s insights to our political moment. It is undeniable that a radical political shift has taken place in these United States as well as abroad. Between Donald Trump’s ascendency, the rise of ethno-nationalist factions on both sides of the Atlantic, and the trajectory towards increased European fracturing, global media is rife with allusions to the collapse of the Postwar International Order. More locally, American fears are daily fuelled with pronouncements of administrative ineptitude and the slashing of government services. Perhaps we are, in fact, witnessing an empire’s end and perhaps Augustine’s thought can furnish us with a model of Christian contribution to a more free and flourishing society in its wake.

In an era of political expediency, one is tempted to pragmatically...

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