Editor’s note: And we’re back! I had a wonderful holiday, which included the best steak I’ve ever had and reading 600 pages or so of Karl Barth and two volumes of Augustine. How could life possibly get better?! Thanks for your continued support of this here newsletter. It should be a fun fall.
When I think about ancient heresies, I tend to reach for really broad and rough characterizations: the Arians thought Jesus wasn’t equal to the Father, the Marcionites disliked the Old Testament, and the Manichees thought evil was a substance and bodies were bad. Those descriptions don’t even rise to the level of a thumbnail sketch: they’re more like taglines capturing the unique emphasis of each outlook. And that’s something of a problem, as it makes it harder to see how heresies can run in packs together, like wolves.
Consider in this light Augustine’s response to the Manichees—the gnostic sect he had once been a member of before converting to Christianity, mind you, not this wondrous and majestic sea-creature
! In both his unfinished criticism of Adimantus and his demolishing of Faustus Augustine spends pages explaining how the Old Testament and the New Testament are compatible. The dispute with the Manichees was not simply philosophical: it was not wholly a matter of explaining how evil is a privation, not a substance, or why bodies are not evil. The dispute was also exegetical, and especially about the status of the Old Testament. There is a Marcionic thrust, in other words, to Manichaeism: look dubiously upon the Old Testament and you’ll find yourself looking badly upon bodies as well. As Barth remarked about Marcion, “Where the humanity of Christ is denied and by implication the covenant, Israel and the Old Testament, the Creator and creation, are all necessarily placed on the left hand and cast into outer darkness.”
For Augustine’s part, there is no deep division between the Old and New Testaments—provided that we understand that the Old speaks prophetically and symbolically about what the New contains. The Old speaks in an earthly register, we might say, while the New speaks in a spiritual. But they both refer to one reality, the world as God has created it and redeemed it in Jesus Christ.
This different emphasis is sharpest, Augustine thinks, when we consider the nature of punishment and the place of fear within the moral life. “For this is the briefest and clearest difference between the two Testaments,” Augustine writes: “fear and love; the former pertains to the Old, the latter to the New, but the two come from and are united by the most merciful dispensation of the one God.” For Augustine, the Old Testament’s putative emphasis on punishments is tied to the fact that ‘carnal people’ are “nourished under discipline…to be able to turn away from everlasting and indescribable punishments”. We are more liable to be fearful of immediate punishment than that which will happen in the future, in other words—hence the need for a pedagogy that includes fear.
This dynamic clearly changes within the New Testament, though Augustine points to Paul’s handing over an individual to Satan in 1 Corinthians 5 to argue that punishments still exist within the New Testament. Yet for Augustine, the ascension of Christ—and specifically the sending of the Spirit—means that hatred and vengeance come apart, and that punishment and the fear that it invokes can now be folded into the realm of love. In Luke 9:52-56, the disciples want to cast down fire on those who did not receive them, which Augustine proposes indicates their failure to love their enemy appropriately. But when the Comforter is given in response to their sorrow at Christ’s departure, then they begin to see how punishment can be enacted without hatred—as a father punishes their son.
Tying this transformation to their sorrow, and the gift of the Spirit, is a fascinating move—as it introduces a kind of sympathy between the apostles and those they would seek to enact punishment upon. They know the deepest grief and loss, after all, having seen their Savior and Lord ascend and leave them behind. And they have been given a particular kind of comfort, namely, the purgative fire of the Holy Spirit. Only through this unique sorrow will they learn to inflict sorrows justly, with the gentleness and kindness of love.
Or so my hypothesis goes. At the very least, Augustine’s reconciliation of fear and love is instructive for our own time, when fear is so widely derided as having no place within the Christian life. We would, I think, do well to consider how it might be rehabilitated.