The roots of heart religion – early church: Origen & Augustine

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

Saint Augustine of Hippo, playing hot potato with his heart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following introductory material from C S Lewis herehere, and here, the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis opens its tour of medieval heart religion with a peek into Origen, Augustine, and other early Church Fathers:

Origen, early fathers

Although affective piety was “a mood and form of expression which advanced over all of Europe between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries,” (ATK: 130-131), the writers of that period, from Anselm to Bernard to Julian to Dante, were merely passing on a tendency from the early church, described by Robert Wilken: “Nothing is more characteristic of the Christian intellectual tradition than its fondness for the language of the heart.” Even in the most detailed theologizing of the early and medieval fathers, “The goal was not only understanding but love.”[1]

The very first systematic commentator on Scripture, Origen of Alexandria (185-254), 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. Augustine, Gregory the Great, and a long line of medieval interpreters would pick up Origen’s approach to the Song of Songs, using similar sexual language of our desire for God. As Gregory mused, “‘what force of love exists in the bedchamber of the Bridegroom.’”

These writers knew that the comparison of our love with Christ to man-woman married love has the highest biblical authority. Think for example of Paul’s allegorical treatment of the church, comparing it to marriage in Eph. 5:31-32, or of the book of Hosea, in which Hosea becomes a living object lesson of God as cuckolded husband, who nonetheless takes his adulterous wife back again and again—or indeed of the many passages in the major prophets that speak of Israel as God’s beloved.


Once we have a sense of this background, we can begin to grasp Augustine’s famous image of the human heart, which is restless until it rests in God. Later in the Confessions we have more of the same: “‘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).” (Wilken, find cit.) Wilken reminds us, too, of another a memorable passage in the City of God, in which Augustine says that “the ‘flame on the altar of the heart’ is the ‘burning fire of love.’” (WIlken, find cit.)

It is not a stretch to say that Augustine’s theology was most essentially a theology of love. He saw God as a persistent lover, who pursues us until we finally cannot elude his loving arms. This emerged from his own life’s experience as a sex addict and fame-seeker who found out that when he was at his worst, God embraced him with his grace and would not let him go. It is no wonder that when he came to write his Confession, he did so as a kind of “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.” He even (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.

In short, it was Augustine who pioneered the “argument from desire” that we see Lewis (and other modern apologists) making—the idea that we have a “hole in our hearts” that, if we are honest about it, we will realize only God can fill, and that we will, as desiring creatures, run around trying to fill it with other things until we come home to him.

[1] Wilken – find citation, and add: “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.” 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.

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