Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13



This is relevant to my paper because I am researching Augustine and Kierkegaard on humility. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, argues that Kierkegaard did not promote any particular values or virtues, except a vacuous “sincerity” of commitment to totally arbitrary values chosen by the individual. In this, it provides an important step in his historical argument that the virtue tradition has collapsed, and with it all notion of good or evil, and that moral language cannot be salvaged except by adopting MacIntyre’s own communitarian version of secular Thomistic virtue ethics. But in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre offers a more detailed description of the Augustinian tradition, including a passing mention of Kierkegaard. Understanding the Augustinian tradition, and possibly Kierkegaard’s place in it, has several important possible consequences. First, if Kierkegaard is indeed part of the Augustinian tradition, that means MacIntyre’s depiction of the history of liberalism’s breakdown is seriously weakened. This in turn undermines his insistence that his philosophy is the only alternative. Furthermore, if Kierkegaard is a modern mediator of the Augustinian virtue tradition, that means that the 20th century successors to Kierkegaard, particularly the dialectical theologians, may offer a valid alternative for the postmodern world as well.

The scholars we have seen have pointed out the importance of humility in Augustine’s personal life. In the Confessions and in his sermons we repeatedly see him call on God for guidance and renewal, pointing to both a sense of personal humility and the importance of humility as a hermeneutical tool. This is reinforced when we see Augustine’s repeated references to the limits of human reason, including his own, and reason’s inadequacy to fully comprehend the vast treasury of God’s wisdom and truth. But the essence of the Augustinian tradition is that humility is not just a useful virtue, but the cardinal virtue; and pride is the original sin. Adam and Eve sinned because the serpent’s promise that “you will be as gods, knowing good and evil” was so flattering to their pride. As Augustine says, they wanted to stand on their own instead of relying on God. They wished, he says, to be “self-pleasers.” The irony, he argues is that as created beings only, they could only be “like gods” by participating in God, using similar language to how Plato describes a merely earthy triangle as having its triangular nature by participating in the Form of Triangle, or a good act or good person as participating in the Form of The Good. By turning away from God in pride and in a desire to be like self-sufficient gods, they became less godlike and fell away from God; had they remained humble and turned towards God they would have been more like God, and as much gods as their created nature was capable of being.

To use terms in keeping with MacIntyre’s description of a moral tradition, the “fulfillment” that the Augustinian tradition aims at is oneness with God. This is so because, in its understanding, God is Being, to be close to God is to exist fully and to turn away from God is to exist less. The act of will in turning one’s heart and one’s attention away from God makes the individual exist less, to have less being; but to exist at all is still to participate in God to some extent. Therefore, the proud person who turns away from God becomes a lower grade of being, less fulfilled, less “god-like,” but does not completely cease to exist. To be completely fulfilled (or “happy” in the sense of that first great moral tradition, Aristotelianism) one must be humble and turn to God, to “participate in” God (in Augustine’s words) or to be “grounded in” God (to use the metaphor of Tillich, a more modern and liberal successor). When thus grounded in or participating in God, one is more good and more fulfilled. This means that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.” It also means that God will make the tree good, and then the fruits will be good; when the humble person turns to God, that person’s will becomes more inclined to do good. Thus humility is the cardinal virtue, just as pride is the mortal sin from which all other sins flow.

Possible links Kierkegaard:

First, as discussed in Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, the near-simultaneous release of the Fragments, the Concept of Anxiety and the upbuilding discourse discussing Adam’s Fall gives a picture of how sin leads to the desire of the individual to control his or her world out of a feeling of anxiety, how these efforts lead only to greater anxiety and to the complete bondage of the will, and how only the appearance of God in our existence in the person of Jesus can give us a way out of that anxiety so we can begin to turn back towards God.

Second, Hamann’s empiricist epistemology is based on his understanding of the revelation of Christ. The world gives itself, reveals itself to the senses, just as God reveals Himself to us through Christ. Truth must give itself, and the individual can only receive this truth if he or she is humble enough to accept it. By contrast, Hamann claims, the Enlightenment is a time when human pride led to attempts such as Descartes’ to found human knowledge on the efforts of human reason, which led only to greater confusion and disagreement; which is why Hamann saw this period as more of an “Endarkenment.” Kierkegaard shares Hamann’s empiricist epistemology about the world, together with his Augustinian/Lutheran metaphysical beliefs about God as Creator who reveals Himself in Christ.

Humility is necessary to understanding not only God, but also this world. First, without humility, we are tempted to fall into rationalism or other attempts to gain knowledge that is not revealed to us through our senses or to seek more certainty than the nature of our existence allows. Hume’s mistake (from Hamann’s perspective) is also a sort of pride, though different from Rationalism’s. Hume’s mitigated skepticism is too proud to risk error, and thus holds back from making any commitments. However, Hamann argues, to refuse to believe the truth is just as bad as believing an error: both are mistakes. Rationalism believes too much and tries to go beyond the world’s self-disclosure; Hume believes too little and refuses to accept the fullness of the world’s self-disclosure. Humility accepts the need for revelation while also recognizing that one’s own imperfect and limited nature means that one will never have a full and perfect revelation and will in fact sometimes make mistakes; but that is the price one pays for being open to the truth.

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29 Responses to “Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13”

  1. Nemo Says:

    Being a fan of Descartes, I don’t understand the argument that his form of rationalism is pride.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      First, even though I’ve read Hamann and I’ve read smarter people than myself who’ve read Hamann, I think I should start with “If I understand him…” Hamann was deliberately confusing; as he said, he wanted readers who could swim, so he wrote in disconnected islands rather than with logical bridges. Also, he did things like write philosophical treatises that had a different message if you read them as acrostics or read the first letter of every line or something like that, which is confusing enough in its original language but absolutely will not translate.

      But I can say that Hamann thought the Enlightenment as a whole was a time of hubris. He agreed with Hume that knowledge comes through the senses. He also believed that not only the brain, but the entire body is involved in perceiving reality: the passions, the appetites, and so on. “Gut check” seems to have been a literal thing for Hamann. And he also believed that our knowledge is limited, as Hume’s arguments show. So human knowledge is partial, sensuous and passionate.

      The entire thrust of Continental Enlightenment philosophy, starting with Descartes, is to seek certainty. Therefore, it is necessary to turn away from the senses and the body completely. The world which this philosophy claims to know is quite different from the world the senses reveal. It is interested in substances, mere extended being or thinking being, not actual objects or actual, entire people. It creates the ghost in the machine, the immaterial substance “mind” riding around in the physical body, with no real clue how they influence each other. And Descartes is quite confident that he, and anyone who reads his Meditations, will be able to actually turn away from the senses and material world and discover this rational truth. There is no room or need for grace or revelation in this epistemology. Of course, by his day Descartes was long gone; the Enlightenment that he had first-hand experience with was more Leibnitz’s than Descartes’. But Descartes was the one who started philosophy on this quest for complete certainty and safety from all error, relying only on human reason. Hamann was convinced by the arguments of British Empricism, and particularly Hume, that all this “certainty” is basically just relations between ideas with no connection to the actual world. Only by accepting that actual human knowledge is going to be imprecise and involve allowing the world to reveal itself to the senses, as well as the mind and the complete being of the individual, can humans have any knowledge of the actual world.

      • Nemo Says:

        I understand the difference between rationalism and empiricism. But why is the former pride and the latter not?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Well, some is. Rationalism sought after a certainty that is beyond human abilities and expectations. It sought a knowledge that was perfect and self-sufficient. That level of knowledge is only available to God.

        Most empiricists also believe their senses give them pretty much full knowledge of the world. Locke’s confidence in his senses is not too much less than Descartes’ confidence in his method.

        Hume exposes the pretensions of empiricism and rationalism alike, showing that all Enlightenment attempts to fully understand the world without any reliance on God are ultimately self-deceived. But Hume is so determined not to rely on God and not to make any mistakes that he refuses to fully believe even what his senses tell him; so he remains a skeptic. Hume represents the bankruptcy of the Enlightenment project, but he has nothing positive to replace it. Refusal to believe the truth is still an error, just as much as believing a falsehood is.

        Hamann’s epistemology starts with Hume’s empiricism and accepts his conclusions, but not his response. Instead, Hamann urges us to humbly and prayerfully and carefully sort out what to believe, what to reject and when to continue to withhold judgement. This is not very different than the epistemology laid out in the “Interlude” section of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments. Our senses tell us about the world, but at some point we need an act of will to accept what they are telling us. As Climacus says, we need to close the books, end the approximation-process and come to a conclusion. Hume refuses to close the books, and seeks instead to live forever in that approximation-process.

        Hamann’s goal is to create a philosophical epistemology that is not hostile to religious belief. He believed that even philosophers like Descartes and Locke, who were faithful personally, started their philosophies from an entirely human=centered starting point, and then try to fit religious belief in later. And if Hume is right that all these philosophies fail, then the religious belief they are trying to smuggle in also fails. Each founds its religion on its philosophy, limits religious faith by the boundaries laid down by philosophy, and ultimately their faith fails because, again as Hume points out, their philosophy is ultimately hostile to faith. If you start by denying the need for God, you will never get it back; instead, you get a self-sufficient skepticism that denies knowledge both of God and the world. The entire Enlightenment was dedicated to the proposition that the light of human reason alone was sufficient to understand everything; that was its pride. And they wound up knowing nothing. The trajectory is exactly the same as that described by Augustine in Book XIV of City of God, though Hamann doesn’t say this as far as I know: seeking to exalt themselves and know all things and “be as gods, knowing good and evil,” they turned away from God, the source of all truth, and instead immediately fell into error.

        Personally, I don’t see in Descartes’ writings the sort of arrogance Hamann imputes to the Enlightenment as a whole. He does have an excessive confidence in his own reason, as if a will and mind corrupted by original sin can somehow work itself out of the “I think, therefore I am” and past the evil genie hypothesis to prove God, and then establish the reliability of the senses, all on its own power. But he does wind up back with a religious faith, and affirms that ultimately his knowledge of the world depends on his faith in the goodness of God; but while Hamann would say we only know this because of God’s self-revelation, Descartes tries to prove God’s existence and goodness by reason alone. I think that Hamann might have said that while Descartes the man may have been humble and faithful, his philosophy ultimately is not; and the later history of rationalism represents the growth of those seeds to bear bad fruit. TTFN

      • Nemo Says:

        Hamann’s seems to lean toward believing in incompatibility between faith and reason. Another type of bad fruit, imo.

        Descartes’ proof of God’s existence is ultimately based on revelation, that is, he is trying to prove that the Christian conception of God corresponds to reality, in so far as our reason and logic can discern. There is no pride in that.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Insofar as he thinks his human reason can prove the existence of God or know anything about God’s nature, Hamann would say that is pride. And Descartes must be able to do this, since he needs to be able to know God is good, and not some evil genius, before he can consent to believe revelation or even his own senses. But I think Hamann’s argument is not so much with Descartes, who really is pretty Augustinian himself; Hamann’s quarrel is with the Enlightenment as a whole, and the philosophical trend that begins with Descartes of trying to based philosophy on epistemology, and then allowing only such metaphysical and theological claims as are consistent with that prior, merely human epistemology.

        As to to an incompatibility of faith and reason, Hamann would fully accept that. You can get a pretty good feel if you read Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments and look at the quotes that book takes from Hamann. And both SK and Hamann express agreement with Tertullian’s claim that “I believe, because it is absurd.” But both also use reason and logic for their own arguments. They use reason to show the limits of reason. Hamann would say that if I believe I


        , then I don’t have to have faith. Hamann also quotes Hume’s claim that anyone who has faith in miracles is in fact witness to at least one miracle: the miracle that anyone could believe such a thing, that subverts all logic and human experience. The difference is that Hume meant the claim sarcastically, saying in effect “It would take a miracle to believe something so absurd as the Gospel!” Hamann replies, “Yes, it does take a miracle; faith is a miracle, a grace and a gift.” (Kierkegaard quotes this passage from Hamann in the Fragments, apparently quite unaware that it came originally from Hume or that Hume meant it to argue against faith.) So faith means overcoming Reason, not in the sense of overcoming logic but rather in the sense of overcoming Reason’s prideful sense of self-sufficiency. And again, for Hamann all knowledge of the world is a sort of revelation, so saying that we need humility to know the truth means for Hamann both that we cannot know anything about God without humility, but also that we cannot know anything at all about the world without humility.

      • Nemo Says:

        Kierkegaard’s argument in Fragments is based on the premise that God and Man are absolutely unlike each other, presumably because of the fallen nature of man. It is that man abuses his rational faculty to deny God, not that reason itself, as a divine gift, is contrary to faith.

        The God of revelation is also He who says to His people, “Come, let us reason together”. Obviously, reason is on His side. 🙂

        The starting point of Descartes’ epistemology is indeed human-centered, his proof of God’s existence starts from himself. “I think therefore I am,” and ends in, “I am, therefore God is”. It may sound presumptuous at first, but, if you think about it, this is really the way human beings come to know God at all. Augustine writes that we cannot know ourselves unless we know God, and vice versa. There is no true humility without the knowledge of God and oneself.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        This whole conversation is helping me a lot. Thanks!

        Kierkegaard’s pseudonym in the Fragments is Johannes Climacus, who claims not to be a Christian but merely an existential thinker who understands what Christianity is, and what it would mean if it is true. Many readers of Kierkegaard take this to mean that at least some of Climacus’ comments against Reason should be taken with a grain of salt, since he lacks first-hand understanding of how a Christian would use reason. Clearly, Climacus uses philosophy and logical arguments even as he attempts to show Reason to be “a dunce.” The Reason, big R, that he rejects is human reason that seeks to to know everything, and even to be able to judge faith.

        I think that we have tended, when we read the Fragments, to forget what that “absolute unlikeness” is. We forget because we forget that the Fragments, and The Concept of Anxiety were published nearly simultaneously, so much so that in later writings Kierkegaard gets the order wrong. He wrote them together, but we don’t read them together. If we did, we would think more about the fact that the “absolute unlikeness” that separates the learner from the god in Fragments is that bondage of the will that results from anxiety as described in Concept of Anxiety. The problem with human reason isn’t that it is too limited to know God; the problem is that Reason, big “R”, is too proud to accept God’s self-revelation, and instead wants to set the terms of what God is and what God can logically do. And the more Reason tries to understand God, the further from God it actually moves, since the point is not to try to grasp God but to let God grasp you. Climacus presents the Incarnation as God’s attempt to demonstrate that God loves us, even though Reason says that God is beyond all emotion and our own self-reflection says that God cannot possibly love us because we are guilty (and if you don’t know you’re guilty, then you’re still living in the aesthetic stage and are too self-absorbed even to know you need God).

        So I don’t think Kierkegaard or Hamann really disagrees with your first paragraph; they just tend to use “Reason” as a catch-all for that sort of desire of humanity to understand everything without limit and without reliance on God.

        I haven’t read Kierkegaard’s journals, but I am not aware of him discussing Descartes much. I do believe he mentions Leibniz, and he says Spinoza’s pantheistic philosophy is the only viable alternative to Christianity. So I am not really going to get into this with SK; his argument is with Hegelianism, not with the Enlightenment. But Climacus does reject the project of proving the existence of God, which Descartes attempts to do; so that aspect of Descartes at least I believe Kierkegaard too would reject. Augustine and Kierkegaard both say in different ways “I believe in order that I may understand.” Descartes seeks to understand so that he can prove at least some religious belief. Kierkegaard’s discussion of doubt is also extremely relevant in evaluating his judgment of Descartes. Cartesian doubt is to doubt everything until you find something that cannot be doubted; at that point reason stops doubting and can start to construct a new philosophy on that foundation. Kierkegaard says that if you were to start doubting everything, there would be no logical point at which to stop; only an act of will can stop doubt. One must choose to stop doubting and to believe. Whether you call Descartes’ belief that his reason finds its way out of solipsism “pride” or just a misunderstanding, Kierkegaard clearly states you cannot escape doubt by simply doubting until it runs its course. He mercilessly mocks the Hegelians for their claim to have doubted everything until Reason showed them Absolute Knowledge.

        Hamann, I think, would say that Descartes’s confidence is a sort of pride. Like Kierkegaard, Hamann would say that you can only escape doubt by willing to accept the uncertain truth that is given to you. By not recognizing that his knowledge was imperfect and the product of the world’s revelation rather than his own logical deduction, Descartes started the Enlightenment’s arrogant attempt to understand everything and to even judge revelation. In the end, this leads to Spinoza’s pantheism, or Hume’s atheism, or Leibniz’s bizarre world where the senses don’t show anything because we are all monads and monads have no windows, so the entire physical world is simply an illusion. If Descartes is proud, his self-confidence and his extravagance is not as great as Hume’s or Leibniz’s, but he started the ball rolling. Hamann’s argument is not really with Descartes per se, but with the Enlightenment as a whole.

      • Nemo Says:

        Unlike Hamann, I’m not interested in criticizing movement as a whole. I’m very much interested in individuals, why they believe what they believe, and how they come to their conclusions. I find Hammn’s criticism of Descartes rather lacking in substance. Here is a post on Descartes and KierkegaardI wrote two years ago that tries to explain their respective ideas of doubt as I understand them.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Well, to be fair to Hamann, when he critiques the Enlightenment he is critiquing his own present reality, not some past or abstract movement.

      • Nemo Says:

        accept God’s self-revelatio

        I guess this is the gist of Hamann’s argument. But can anyone accept revelation without engaging his own reason?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        No. I’m not sure I see your point, however.

      • Nemo Says:

        I was asking an honest question there, not making a point. 🙂

        If one must engage his own reason in accepting revelation, what is so prideful about Descartes’ approach? I’m still trying to understand Hamann’s definition of pride, or the distinction between pride and humility he was making.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Hamann would probably say that he uses “reason” (small “r”) to understand the knowledge given to him by God, whether directly or through the senses. He accepts that he does not always fully understand and that certainty and inerrancy are for God alone. He feels the Enlightenment as a whole represents humanity’s attempt to understand Truth without recourse to revelation, to attain full understanding of the world and full certainty by human reason alone. Descartes tries to throw out all tradition and all sense information, and just think by himself, deducing truths about the world. Hamann would say you can’t do it that way. The fact that it doesn’t work is demonstrated by the absurdities of later Rationalists, who completely abandon any connection to the world we live in and argue that some reality that cannot be seen or felt or easily understood is actually “the truth.” For Spinoza, it was the argument that everything literally is God, the world is God’s body and all our minds are just nodes of God’s mind. For Leibniz, the more recent and also a fellow German, the world was made up of multiple substances, none of which actually interact with each other. You THINK you see an external world, but in fact all you see are the images God created you to see, which were always in you waiting to emerge. The fact that there really is an external world is only because God created you to see what was there. I explain it to students as similar to a Disney ride. It may look like robot Reagan whispered to robot Clinton in the Hall of Presidents, but in fact each is simply running through a program with no real interaction with the other.

        The reason Spinoza and Leibnitz came up with such extreme metaphysics is because Descartes’ more moderate position left too many loose threads. The worst is the problem of mind-body interaction. Descartes said there were immaterial substances and material substances, and somehow the immaterial mind and the material body interact and influence each other. He never adequately explained how, and his philosophy seems to make it impossible. Spinoza solved the problem by simply saying there is no separation; there is only one substance, God, which is describable either as mind or body, and neither so much influences the other as both move according to necessary laws and the same action appears simultaneously as thought and event. Leibnitz solved the mind-body problem by saying that there are many substances, but they don’t actually interact at all; they only appear to interact because God created the universe to appear as if they were interacting. Both philosophies are a lot more logical than Cartesian theory, and both solve the problems Descartes could not; and both are completely different from the world we live in and flatly declare that “reality” is just an illusion. In the end, Hamann says, modern philosophy ends up with either absurd pronouncements that don’t apply to the world we live in, or with Hume’s skepticism, denying knowledge of the world and trying to navigate by calculating probabilities and the minimum one must assume to function. Modern philosophy prior to Hume, from Hamann’s perspective, is a series of failed attempts to know the world and God using human powers alone, and failing, because philosophy did not accept the limitations of human knowledge and accept its dependence on the Truth to give itself. Or to put it in one sentence, Descartes’ approach is actively deductive; Hamann’s is passive and receptive.

      • Nemo Says:

        I explain it to students as similar to a Disney ride. It may look like robot Reagan whispered to robot Clinton in the Hall of Presidents, but in fact each is simply running through a program with no real interaction with the other.

        LOL, that’s a good one. I’ve never thought about it that way. It happens all the time when people talk past each other.

        Descartes said there were immaterial substances and material substances, and somehow the immaterial mind and the material body interact and influence each other. He never adequately explained how

        Plato couldn’t explain it either. For that matter, neither can Christians, who believe that God, who is incorporeal, created the corporeal universe.

        For me, it is a sign of humility to accept the limit of logic and reason and leave things unexplained, instead of trying to “explain” things beyond reason. On the other hand, it is false humility not to deduce as much as possible from logic and reason. Hermann says, “To refuse to believe the truth is just as bad as believing an error”. To refuse to reason for truth is just as bad as reasoning presumptuously.

        Desecrates believed that the whole universe can be described by mathematics. The material by the immaterial. It seems to me quantum mechanics has vindicated him. As Heisenberg once said, “I think that modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato. In fact the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language.”

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        “Plato couldn’t explain it either. For that matter, neither can Christians, who believe that God, who is incorporeal, created the corporeal universe.”

        One reason why the two have a similar problem is that Christians borrowed much of the Platonic metaphysic. Hebrew theology never had an “immortal soul;” that’s a Platonic notion. The Hebrews believed that the self is alive and material; when one stops being material, one stops being oneself. There is a notion of the dead going to Sheol, but it is very unclear what that is like except that the dead have no awareness or personality. That is why Paul preached the resurrection of the dead, and why it was “foolishness to the Greeks.” If he had said the soul was immortal, everyone would have understood exactly what he meant, since he would have been no different from the Platonists or the Stoics; if he had preached materialism without immortality, he would have been no different from the Epicureans. Instead, Paul said the material dead are reconstituted and raised up by God at the last judgement. It was later Christian theologians, notably Origen, who combined Biblical teaching with Platonic metaphysics to bring the notion of an immortal soul into the Christian theological mainstream.

        As you say, though, all of this does not answer the question of how God, or angels for that matter, interact with the material world.

      • Nemo Says:

        Hebrew theology never had an “immortal soul;”

        In “The Jewish War”, Joseph wrote in some length about the three different religious sects of the Jews, the Pharisees; the Sadducees and the Essenes. The Pharisees, and the Essenes especially, believed in the immortality of the soul, and that, according to Josephus, was why many Jews showed no fear of death during the siege and destruction of Jerusalem.

        What is “foolishness to the Greeks” is “Christ crucified”, “the message of the Cross”(1 Cor. 1:18-25), not resurrection. Plato believes that “God mingles not with man”, let alone die for man on the cross.

        I think the message of the Cross is still a stumbling block to most people today.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Yes, the Essenes believed in an immortal soul, as did the Pharisees; but they weren’t Hebrews, they were Jews, and the religion shows the effects of centuries of reflection and interaction with other cultures. They were products of the Hellenistic age, influenced by its world-view even when rejecting it. In their time, Hebrew was almost a dead language; people spoke Aramaic and, often, Greek. Compare the Psalms to later Jewish religious writing: in the Psalms there is a real horror of death and calls to God to save the life of the psalmist (Ps 6:5, 30:9, 115:17; compare Ecclesiates 9:10, Isaiah 38:18). Jewish thought about the afterlife changed over the centuries.

      • Nemo Says:

        They were products of the Hellenistic age, influenced by its world-view even when rejecting it.

        There were different school of thoughts in ancient Greek, not all believed in the immortality of soul. It seems to me quite possible that similar beliefs existed in “Hebrew theology” independent of Greek influence.

        I find the verses you quoted interesting as well. The psalmist seems to be arguing that it is to God’s benefit that he be kept alive, because “among the dead no one proclaims your name”. The obvious implication is that unbelievers/Gentiles are already dead. It also begs the question: Why would God allow his chosen ones to die?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Calvinists say God “condescends” to our level; that is, God speaks to us in terms we can understand. I’m not quite sure where Calvin got this idea, but perhaps it relates to John 16:12-13, where Jesus tells his disciples that later, the Spirit will tell them what they cannot bear to understand right now (similar, Jesus’ reply to Peter when Peter refuses to let Jesus wash his feet: Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” John 13:7) So perhaps the Hebrews were not ready to fully understand. Even in the Gospel of John itself there is some ambiguity, as when Martha says that “if you had been here my brother would not have died,” and Jesus replies “Whoever believes in me will never die” (John 11:21-26). Certainly by the time of Jesus the common views on the afterlife were more positive than much that is expressed in the earliest writings of the Hebrew Bible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; God didn’t feel obliged to tell them the world wasn’t flat or that the Earth orbits the sun, either. But perhaps I am wandering into that presumption that Augustine warns against, and should not try to answer what God has not first answered.

      • Nemo Says:

        Calvin was very concerned that people who worshipped images would find justification in the anthropomorphic depictions of God in the OT. So he argued that God was condescending to our level of understanding, not that He really had physical features like man.

        If God is not material, and man is made in His Image, it follows that there is something immaterial and immortal in the makeup of man.

        The author of the Book of Hebrews writes that the patriarchs had faith in eternal life, “a heavenly country”. Viewed from a materialistic perspective, Abraham’s sacrificing Isaac is absurd, but it is sound faith.

        All things considered, I can’t agree that the Hebrew Bible is materialistic in outlook.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Since I don’t read Hebrew well enough to check this myself, I am primarily going on what I learned in seminary. The Psalms in particular do tend to reflect a world-view very similar to the other cultures of that time and region, although I agree that it isn’t entirely clear just how similar. Sheol in particular does not appear to be Heaven or Hell as those come to be understood; instead, the rewards of faith are primarily life, health, and safety for one’s posterity. A clearly defined notion of a Last Judgement is a later development. The imageo Dei is a real question, but it does not necessarily refer to immortality; it could refer to human reason, or human creativity or rulership over Nature. Genesis doesn’t really say what it means, and theologians have been debating it ever since.

        At the same time, Sheol is not nothing. It is unclear whether the personality survives, but since it is the place of the dead there is somebody there. The standard Near Eastern view was that the dead retained some personality as long as their descendants remembered them, the standard scholarly line (outside of fundamentalist schools anyway) is that the ancient Hebrews had a somewhat similar notion. Over time, this clearly changes, and by later books (such as Daniel) the idea of a postmortem reward for the righteous is becoming mainstream. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees believed in an afterlife, and a Last Judgement, because they accepted the teaching authority of what we call the entire Hebrew Bible as well as the orally transmitted teachings of the rabbis (which later were written down as the Talmud). The Sadducees did not leave much written record, but from what contemporary accounts describe they only accepted the Torah as authoritative; thus they did not believe in a resurrection of the dead (see Acts 23:6-8). Both of these were legitimate expressions of Judaism at that time. It was only after the 66 AD revolt that the Sadducees, as well as the Essenes and pretty much everyone except the Pharisees was wiped out, that Judaism became more standardized, with one Jewish Bible only in Hebrew and including the Law and the Prophets and the Writings, and without the War Scroll of the Essenes.

        As to whether Abraham’s sacrifice was “absurd” or “sound faith” or both is more than I want to get into now. Kierkegaard, of course, has a lot to say on the matter. Even scholar who read a lot more Hebrew than Kierkegaard ever could are divided on what is going on there.

      • Nemo Says:

        In Isaiah 14, there is a passage vividly describing the reception of the King of Babylon in Sheol. Apparently the folks down there have their memory and personality intact. 🙂

        I’m not suggesting that the Hebrews had a clearly defined notion of Heaven, Hell or the Last judgment. For that matter, the modern notions are not that clear either. I’m only saying that the Hebrews’ understanding of life is not confined to the material, but has a distinct spiritual dimension and meaning, which can be found in the Bible itself, and the historical records.

        An idea that becomes mainstream late is not necessarily a late development.

      • Nemo Says:

        I should add that my impression of the Psalms is almost the exact opposite of yours.

        To my mind, they are expressions of the psalmists’ relationship with God, and reflections on the divine nature and the related problem of evil, etc. As such, the fear of death expressed in the psalms is not so much the fear of physical death as the fear of separation from the presence/favour of God. These feelings have nothing in common with the worldviews of other peoples who did not “know His name”.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        That’s no doubt a common view, but my teachers at Princeton Seminary didn’t agree. The consensus seems to be that the Sadducees were actually more “traditional” or if you like, “fundamentalist” in their this-worldliness; the Pharisees and the Essenes were more theological innovators. Maybe people who refer to the Religious Right as “Pharisees” have it wrong; maybe they are Sadducees. Both groups combine a conservative theology that conveniently ignores calls to social justice found in the Prophets with a worship intended to earn God’s blessing on the nation, to give it prosperity and worldly power.

      • Nemo Says:

        Princeton Seminary… are you a classmate of Bart Ehrman? What interesting characters the Seminar has produced. 🙂

        I tend to think that social justice is dependent on justice in each individual. One cannot be unjust in himself, while promoting justice in society.

        Conversely, a worshipper of God cannot be an oppressor of man, the Bible is very clear on that. “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I know the name but he’s five years older than I am. According to Wikipedia (I assume they could get this much right) he graduated with his PhD in 1985, the same year I got my M.Div. We probably had some of the same professors, even though I was concentrating in Philosophy & Theology and he was in Biblical Studies.

        The rest reminds me of Luther’s thinking. I remember reading him discussing the teaching that “By their fruits you shall know them.” Luther didn’t talk much about social reform or anything like that, and he didn’t really even push for ritual reform (unlike the Calvinists). Instead, he taught that if you change the heart of the worshipper, good deeds will follow. I’ve noticed too that other German thinkers, presumably influenced by that Lutheran heritage, said similar things. I think it was Jung who said that the only true social reform is to reform oneself.

      • Nemo Says:

        If Luther believed good deeds will follow a change of heart, why did he want to exclude from the canon the Book of James, which is basically saying the same thing? I haven’t read him firsthand, so I find this a bit perplexing.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Luther’s prime insight was “salvation by faith alone, apart from works.” James says, “You show me your faith apart from works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18) To Luther, that sounded like “works righteousness.” It didn’t help that while James was thinking of “works” like feeding the poor, but Luther’s day “good works” often (or usually) meant going on pilgrimages, giving alms to the Church to pay for new decorations for the cathedral, buying indulgences, beating oneself with a whip, fasting and so on. While James has a social agenda, “good works” in the medieval Church was often an asocial or hermit-like activity meant to impress God and mortify one’s own flesh, without really benefitting anyone else (except perhaps the clergy, who made money off the deal). So to Luther, all this talk from James about “good works” was probably filtered through the experiences of his day, and sounded to him like the very opposite of the gospel he had learned from studying Paul.

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