Religion of the heart – part II

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Augustine: a pioneer of heart religion

This is continued from Religion of the heart – part I:

Heart religion is also rooted deeply in almost every stream of historical Christianity

Now by starting from today in this brief talk, and then moving quickly back to the 17th and 18th centuries, I don’t want to overlook another important fact: critics of heart religion are, let’s say, “historically outnumbered” in the church. In other words, heart religion is rooted deeply in historical Christianity. Let’s consider for a moment the early church:

Wilken: history of Christian thought cannot be told without the history of Christian love.

We often teach the early history of our faith as if nothing but the intellectual development of doctrine mattered. It’s nothing but a litany of heresies, apologists, and church councils. And while these things are important, they are in some respects only the surface of the story. People don’t get upset about heresies and arguments unless these are about something that matters to their lives. And so I was delighted a few years ago to read the wonderful book by the University of Virginia’s Robert Louis Wilken called The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. This is the history of Christian thought done right—done with a full awareness of the heart of the matter, if you’ll excuse the expression. So, here’s Wilken, introducing his book by talking about what the early Christians were doing when they had all of those theological debates I mentioned:

“Theory,” says Wilken, “was not an end in itself, and concepts and abstractions were always put at the service of a deeper immersion in . . . the thing itself, the mystery of Christ and of the practice of the Christian life. The goal was not only understanding but love.” So, says Wilken, in his book he has tried “to show the indispensability of love to Christian theology.” And indeed he caps the book with a final chapter that is all about this “heart dimension” of Christian thought and life.

Augustine and heart religion

Here is Wilken again:

“Nothing is more characteristic of the Christian intellectual tradition than its fondness for the language of the heart. In the famous passage at the beginning of Augustine’s Confessions, it is the heart that is restless until it rests in God, and much later in the same book he says it is love that carried him to God: ‘By God’s gift we are set on fire and carried upwards; we grow red hot and ascend. We climb “the ascents in our heart”’ (Ps. 83:6). In a memorable passage in the City of God Augustine says that the ‘flame on the altar of the heart’ is the ‘burning fire of love.’ We ‘direct our course toward [God] with love.’”

I think it’s not stretching it to say of the Pietists, as Harvard’s Perry Miller once said of the Puritans, that their religion was a revival of Augustinian piety. That is, the Pietists are a particularly intense case of the truth that all of Western Christianity is deeply affected by Augustine’s thought. Thus I think it is impossible to understand Pietism’s religion of the heart without knowing at least a few basic things about Augustine.

First, Augustine’s theology was a theology of love. His whole Confession may be called a “love song to God.” It is in prayer form, and it narrates brilliantly the shift in young Augustine’s affections from the sins of the flesh to God himself. For him, original sin was a problem of “disordered love.” And he once famously described the Trinity in terms of love: The Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved and the Holy Spirit is the Love that passes between them.

Second, Augustine also used love as the interpretive key to Scripture. He insisted, for example, that when you run into a passage and are tempted to interpret it in a way inconsistent with the known character of God as love, then you must reject that interpretation.

Third, the vision of a persistent God whose irresistible grace pursues us until we finally cannot elude his loving arms is essentially the vision of Augustine. In his own life’s experience, he had found out that when he was at his worst, God would not let him go. This Augustinian understanding of God as the “hound of heaven” has acted ever since as the necessary, biblical counterweight to the Pelagian heresy: that is, the heretical belief that in the matter of our salvation, we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

Fourth and finally, it was Augustine who pioneered that staple of modern apologetics, the “argument from desire.” In its simplest form, this is the idea that we have a “hole in our hearts” that, if we are honest about it, we will realize only God can fill. Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards and British apologist C.S. Lewis are two who employed this theme. Their apologetics are elaborations of that famous line from Augustine’s Confessions that Wilken mentioned: “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in thee.”

Origen and the Song of Songs

This, then, is the original “religion of the heart”—right here in the towering genius of the early church, Augustine of Hippo. But Augustine was by no means alone in the early church. In fact, centuries earlier, the first systematic commentator on Scripture, Origen of Alexandria (185-254), had interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory of the believer’s relationship with God—erotic emotions and all. In Origen’s reading, the song’s male lover is God or Christ and its female lover is Israel, the church, or the believer.

The Fathers through the medieval period followed Origen’s lead, with mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux, who was by the way Luther and Calvin’s favorite medieval thinker, emphasizing the personal, subjective side of the interpretation.

John Calvin himself—knowing that the comparison of man-woman married love to the love of Christ has the highest biblical authority, also supported the allegorical interpretation. What biblical authority? Think for example of Paul’s allegorical treatment of the church in Eph. 5:31-32, or of the book of Hosea, or of many passages in the major prophets that speak of Israel as God’s beloved.

Part 3 of 4 is here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s