Stephen Wilson concludes his series with Augustine


This three-part essay has sought to explore the ‘narrative of disenchantment’ within the liberal protestant tradition in late modernity, in its reaction against the patristic project and ‘classical’ Christian formularies. It takes The Myth of God Incarnate (1977) to be emblematic of this, signposted by Leslie Houlden’s remark that ‘we must accept our lot, bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and make the most of it.’

Part One briefly surveyed the metaphysical language of the Councils, seemingly as far removed from the language and thought-forms of Jesus and the Gospels as it is from ourselves. It contemplated liberal theology’s misreading of the early Councils’ formularies, whose idiom and register are necessarily very different from the scriptures’—yet are complementary to them—setting out the ontology implicit in scripture’s language of ‘God in Christ.’ Here, ‘substance’ is a metaphysical category, and the homoousion of Nicaea is an ontological proposition.

Part Two explored the texture of liberal theology’s deferential apologetic-by-accommodation, which has since tended to give way to a postmodern ‘anti-theology,’ shadowing Christian narrative and parasitic upon it; the ‘linguistic idealism’ of Don Cupitt’s The Long Legged Fly (1987) merely replaces one apparent absolutism—that of ‘traditional’ metaphysics—with another.

It is noteworthy that by the time another contributor to The Myth, Frances Young, came to write From Nicaea to Chalcedon (1983) she was already changing her earlier views because of further, deeper engagement with her research material: the metaphysical language of the early church fathers did after all make sense, once properly understood! Her acclaimed The Making of the Creeds (1991) portrays the creeds as precipitates out of the struggle to understand ideas of incarnation and trinity. They were summaries of faith taught to new Christians by their local bishops, traditional to each local church, varying in detail from place to place, but in general following the threefold schema we find in the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds. Credal disputes were motivated by concerns that the gospel of salvation in Christ be safeguarded. And we can say with Dr Young that the principal ‘driver’ in early Christian theology was a sense of the sacramental and spiritual reality of that salvation.

Part Two referred in closing to a philosophical undertow to liberal theology’s disquiet, one with pre-Enlightenment origins. Its discomfort is directly ontological in origin: the nature of divine action in the world, and in particular that of miracles. Maurice Wiles—also a contributor to The Myth—would publish his 1986 Bampton Lectures in God’s Action in the World (1986). Here he discusses a theology of creation that would be consistent with the laws of nature; we should not see God as playing an ‘active’ role within the world, but as having created the world in its entirety in a single divine act.

Wiles denied (pp.28–32) that God would ‘directly intervene’ in the world, and so also denied the possibility of miracles as ‘traditionally’ understood. An omniscient and omnipotent God would not undermine the natural laws that he had created by stepping in to perform miracles, as though he had ‘made mistakes’ at the outset. Wiles also invokes moral grounds for objecting to divine intervention: in a world where there is large-scale suffering, God’s intervening in one place rather another would appear an arbitrary whim on God’s part. Either God must intervene arbitrarily (and therefore be unworthy of worship) or not at all. But stripping out miracles need not reduce Christianity to a form of Deism. Prayer still has purpose: it cannot ‘cause’ God to take action, but it can be a way of enabling some awareness of God’s will (though what sense does ‘God’s will’ actually carry here?). Likewise, the miracles of the Bible need not be rejected, but instead retain a symbolic role in teaching about God and faith in Christianity (but what does the symbolism signify, and how?). Wiles’ predicament has medieval origins, when changes occurred to the patristic, ‘Augustinian’ vision of creation, changes that helped to precipitate the beginnings of modern science—and much else besides—but augured ill for our understanding of divine action.

The north African bishop Augustine (died 430), undeniably the most influential of patristic authors in the western tradition, stressed the unity of divine action: strictly speaking there is only one miracle, the creation itself. Creation is divinely grounded; evil in creation is a distortion of nature, a negation of divine will (Wiles is at least half right!).

For Augustine, ‘all natural things are filled with the miraculous’ (Epistle 102; Patrologia Latinae 372), but in our blindness we may need to be moved to reverence by unusual events which make latent divine power manifest. These are also events within the original creation, planted within the initial creation as seminum semina (Sermon 247; PL 38.1158), or seminales rationes (De Trinitate 3.7) hidden within the nature and appearance of things, which at times cause events which appear to us to be contrary to nature but are actually an unfolding of the hidden potential in a creation which is everywhere potentially ‘miraculous’. Miracles are ‘not contrary to nature, only contrary to what we know of nature’ (see e.g. City of God, book 21, chapter 8). God does not act inconsistently or arbitrarily. In principle any part of creation is potentially miracle-bearing.

There are two important aspects to this. There is an epistemic (or ‘psychological’) element, namely our imperfect knowledge of God’s ever-present creative activity. Tied to this is a view of creation as a sacrament: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth his handywork.’ (Psalm 19.1)

In the ‘Augustinian vision,’ miracles happen when God’s quickening power, everywhere present, is revealed in a special degree; transfiguring and perfecting nature, but not in any way negating or suppressing it. This quasi-sacramental account would later be summed up in Thomas Aquinas’ well-known teaching that grace does not ‘contradict’ nature but ‘perfects’ it. Augustine was not denying the objectivity of miracle, nor questioning the historical basis of any of the biblical miracle stories. He saw them as included within a creation saturated with sacramental meaning. Wiles has retained Augustine’s sense of a unity and consistency in the way God acts in creation, but is in difficulties about ascribing any objectivity to divine action. And, yes, suffering remains a perennial problem for faith.

What then? St Anselm of Aosta (died 1109), prior of Bec in Normandy, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093, is rightly called the ‘Father of Scholasticism’—the great upsurge of speculative thought in later medieval theology. His contribution lay in the intellectual rigour and speculative power of his theological enquiries, and in the fact that they were indeed genuine enquiry rather than simply commentary on ancient authors customary in the Christian west hitherto. Anselm took a position on divine action that sat uneasily alongside the ‘classical’ view of Augustine (and later that of Aquinas) that had previously been developed from scripture by both Greek and Latin fathers.

Anselm made of miracles a special case, in the sense of being caused ‘directly’ by God, rather than being a part of the network of natural causes within creation. They were to be ‘above nature,’ or even ‘contrary to nature’; an event in nature without a natural cause. This is now often conceived to be the standard account by the world at large.

Anselm is in many ways an unlikely author to have made this move. The Benedictine tradition of scholarship, and the monastic tradition in general, mainly wedded to commentary and interpretation of ancient authors, would be suspicious of the new, investigative, scholastic theology being developed by the new Dominican and Franciscan orders in the cathedral schools, and the universities that grew out of them in Oxford, Paris, Bologna, Salamanca and elsewhere. Was Anselm’s move a quest for a clarity of thought which would at the same time emphasize the majesty of God, ‘purifying’ miracles by exempting them from the order of nature and hiving them off in a special causal category of their own?

Anselm’s account arguably brought major benefits. His dualism of natural and divine causality would encourage a new attitude towards nature, now to be investigated freely, without fear of impiety. But by introducing a nature/grace dualism in offering an account of miracle as ‘contrary to nature’ Anselm unwittingly laid trouble ahead for Christian theology in the future.

What might the remedy be? The short answer (no space here for anything else) is to recover the Augustinian vision. Creation is not (for example) an emanation of God’s essence, relating to it as a ray of sunshine to its source, nor is it fashioned (as in Plato’s Timaeus) from a pre-existent, co-eternal prime matter. It is, rather, created out of nothing, and related to the Creator through participation. Creation carries the mark of the divine splendour (as in Psalm 19), but of all creatures humankind participates uniquely through being created in the image of the divine, though deformed by sin.

‘Participation’ is a notion fundamental to Christian theology deserving of more treatment than space allows here, but essentially it contrasts with a ‘disjunctive’ ontology of divine action that positions the Creator over and against creation; rather, the creation relates to him as the ultimate, undergirding condition of its possibility: its ‘First Cause.’ This brings us to St Thomas Aquinas.

The ‘Angelic Doctor’ accepted the Neo-Platonist architectonic of an ascending hierarchy of creation through participation, but his Neo-Platonism is refracted through an Aristotelian prism: creation relates to God as to a First Cause. This ontology of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ causation is less mysterious than it may seem. Paradoxically helpful here is Richard Dawkins’ complete misreading of God as First Cause in The God Delusion (2006). He utterly misconstrues every one of Aquinas’ ‘Five Ways.’ His (wilfully ignorant) misreading of Thomas Aquinas is summed up succinctly in David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, (2006, pp.21ff). Concerning Dawkins on Aquinas’ ‘Second Way’ Hart writes:

‘Not knowing the scholastic distinction between primary and secondary causality… [Dawkins] imagined that Thomas’s talk of a “first cause” referred to the initial temporal causal agency in a continuous temporal series of discrete causes.’ (p.22) No: Thomas’ First Cause is the enabling condition of the possibility of all created, ‘secondary’ causation—‘secondary’ because dependent, timelessly, on God. The early Fathers grasped this perfectly well. For Basil of Caesarea (died 397), the ‘beginning’ mentioned in Genesis 1.1 is not to be understood as a moment in time; rather, creation is the immediate bringing-into-being of the whole of creation throughout time—a timeless, tenseless ‘beginning.’

So, again, for Gregory of Nyssa (died 395) and Augustine, creation is timeless, nevertheless the world unfolds in time through its intrinsic, created powers (Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ ‘secondary causes’). Thus, among Darwin’s contemporaries, for theologian John Henry Newman (died 1890), nothing in the theory of evolution as such contradicted the doctrine of creation.

The Fourth Gospel’s treatment of Jesus’ miracles as ‘signs,’ taken together with Augustine’s vision of a miraculous, ‘sacramental’ creation, might suggest a closer look on another occasion at the ‘semiology’ of divine action (including miracles)—and that crucial concept of ‘participation’—perhaps calling in aid (after the example of those early Fathers and the Angelic Doctor) the tools of contemporary analytical philosophy, in order to articulate the ‘Augustinian vision’ anew for our own times.

Father Stephen Wilson is an assistant priest

at St Stephen’s, Lewisham.