The history of ideas and their influence is a fascinating area of study. I make no claims of being a scholar or philosopher with any special qualifications to delve into the mysteries of such, but simply an observer of the world in which I live. As such, I believe that as a society we stumble blindly along shaped and formed by forces of which we are totally unaware. The ideas of the past, inherited by the present generation as a worldview mold our society far more than we are capable of recognizing.
Ideas have incalculable effects. Many of the effects of a particular formulation of ideas are not immediately recognized in the day in which they may be in vogue, but they become a part of the fabric of a society and their effect only becomes evident years, decades or even centuries after the actual idea was first formulated.
Yesterday we looked at the philosophy of deism and some of the people and effects of that system of belief in the past two or three centuries. Today we are going further back in time to the day of Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) in northern Africa and some of the ideas he promulgated which have left lasting scars on the landscape of Christianity.
Augustine was a man with a personal problem. He long struggled with sexual temptation and how to control his desires as well as the guilty conscience that came from his actions. He took a common-law wife or concubine and fathered a son by her. After having lived with her for several years, they parted ways.
Augustine discarded his concubine of thirteen years, the mother of his son Adeodatus, for preference of a rich woman, whom he officially engaged but separated from soon after. It was during this time he uttered his famous prayer “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet.” Eventually, in his conquest to gain victory over his mastering fleshly nature, he castrated himself. (itac-israel.org).
Augustine was said to be troubled and dissatisfied with his life and longed for the truth that would set him on the path of a better life – but could not seem to find a basis for achieving that.
At the age of 19 he became enamored with “Manichean propaganda” which had gained popularity in northern Africa. Manichaeism was a Gnostic belief, deriving from a blending of Christianity with primarily Persian philosophy. Its doctrine was essentially dualistic – holding that good and evil were equivalent powers in the world with the material aspect of creation being evil and the spiritual part of man, while entrapped in an evil, material body, was essentially good.
“Manichaeism (Manicheeism) is a dualistic, gnostic, faith based on the teachings of the third century Parthian prophet Mani (the “Apostle of Light”). Manichaeism, which holds that there is a struggle between good and evil, darkness and light, shows influences of other religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Redemption is possible through an ascetic life.” (About.com).
Although Augustine supposedly abandoned Manichaeism, it is doubtful that he did so without being influenced to some degree by it. He also dabbled in Neo-Platonism, a syncretism of the teachings of the classical Greek philosopher, Plato (424/423 BC – 348/347 BC) and Christianity. Plato’s concept of reality was essentially a form of dualism, with pure spirit being the ideal existence. Much of the present day popular concept of heaven derives more from Plato than from the Bible.
“Plato’s “metaphysics” is understood as Socrates’ division of reality into the warring and irreconcilable domains of the material and the spiritual (again, dualism, mr). The theory has been of incalculable influence in the history of Western philosophy and religion.” (Wikipedia.org).
It would seem that these two streams of influence find expression in Augustine’s teachings. This from the web site, Apologetics.com suggests as much.
“Upon evaluation of the life and writings of Augustine and influential thinkers of his time, we can easily see that Augustine’s philosophical theology of original sin, free will, and the nature of man was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism. This can be shown by considering the following 3 items: his background & training in Greek philosophy & Neoplatonic thought, his interaction with and evaluation of Platonism & Neoplatonism to Christianity in his own writing, and the parallel between Neo-Platonic philosophy & his philosophical theology.”
In his voluminous writings, Augustine set forth, although not in systematic form, several points relating to the salvation of man which was picked up more than 1,000 years later by John Calvin (1509-1564), who greatly admired Augustine, and crystalized them into the 5 points of Calvinism. This doctrine, recognized by the acrostic TULIP – with each letter representing each of the 5 points of Calvin’s doctrine, is at the heart of almost all Protestant denominational creeds. These 5 points are:
Total depravity – all are born in sin – aka Original sin.
Unconditional election. Some people elect to eternal life – others to damnation.
Limited atonement. The blood of Jesus only covers the elect.
Irresistible grace. The elect cannot NOT be saved. The lost cannot NOT be lost.
Perseverance of the saints. The elect can’t fall from grace or lose their salvation.
Calvinism did not originate from the Bible, but from the twisted thinking of a man who wrestled with sexual temptation and who sought some way of resolving his dilemma by exploring false religion, absorbing much of it along the way, formulating doctrines that would give him comfort from a guilty conscience and finally emasculating himself. That his writings should be picked up a thousand years later by a man who read and admired him and become the basis of much of what came to be both Roman Catholicism (monasticism and celibate priesthood, etc.) and Protestantism is one of the great ironies of the ages.
We do not live in a vacuum. There are all kinds of ideas and philosophies out there. There are bits and pieces of those ideas worked into the popular thinking in every age. Cultural changes, wars, religious revivals and religious debates and religious divisions, political influences, economic reversals and a multitude of other things all contribute to the influences we are affected by every day. We seldom stop to think why an idea becomes current and/or declines in influence, but they do and society is in a constant state of flux because of it. We would do well if we became more aware of these unseen but potent forces with which our society drifts or is driven.
We would all do well to investigate the origins of the things we believe as well as the beliefs themselves. As the aged apostle John wrote long ago, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1).