Love and Knowledge
At the close of worship recently I shared with the congregation a passage I came across probably a year ago. I had written it down on a post-it note and kept it on my bedside table. The passage is from St. Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine said: If we want to draw near to God, the sure path is not knowledge, but love.
It is sort of ironic, I suppose, that these words were penned by the greatest mind of the early church. He was smart enough to realize that love is more important than smarts. At least he realized that at some point, though he didn’t always remember it, as we shall see in a moment.
St. Augustine of Hippo is something of a puzzle. His shadow looms over fifteen hundred years of Christian thinking. No one in the early church, not the great Origen, nor Irenaeus of Lyon, neither the three Cappadocian Fathers, nor the great Athanasius can compete with Augustine’s influence. He towers over Roman Catholic and Protestant theology alike. It is no accident that the fuse of Reformation was lit by an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. And John Calvin, in his magnum opus, “The Institutes of Christian Religion,” quoted Augustine more frequently than any other writer. His “Confessions” was the first spiritual autobiography. His sermons live on to this day. Even Christian groups like the Primitive Baptists were decisively shapes by Augustine, though most Primitive Baptists are likely ignorant of him.
He was quite simply a giant.
Even his errors were gigantic.
As Augustine grew older his intellect, once supple and flexible, seems to have begun to calcify. This man who once said, “If you have understood God it is not God” began to have perhaps too much faith in his own great intellect. He seemed compelled to follow his inexorable logic into places that divine love could not go.
I’m speaking, of course, of Augustine’s late work on double predestination. Augustine chased the implications of his logic about God’s sovereign election to its heartless conclusion, splitting God’s personality in two and undercutting any viable notion of personal freedom and responsibility.
How a mind as grand as his and a heart as large could come up with the idea that God created some people for the express purpose of damning them to eternal hellfire, while creating a few people to be chosen for salvation, remains a mystery. But by doing this he becomes an object lesson in his own teaching, that God is love and therefore if we wish to draw near to God, our surest path is love, not knowledge.
It would take centuries for another towering theological intellect, this time the Reformed theologian Karl Barth, to cut the Gordian knot Augustine had tied. Barth did it with a single swing of his blade: God elected Jesus Christ for us.
Centuries of Christians struggled mightily with Augustine’s doctrine of double predestination. It drove some sensitive souls mad. There are stories of people resorting to homicide and suicide in their profound lack of assurance of salvation. Augustine left a sublime legacy, but a scarred legacy however great.
Karl Barth did not back away from the sovereignty of God, nor God’s electing of humanity. But Barth reminds us that this idea must be understood through the lens of Jesus of Nazareth who reveals God to us in all God’s gracious splendor.
When we start from that point, everything takes on new significance. In the incarnation, Barth says, Jesus Christ united in himself God and our humanity. That which God has joined together, no one, including the most brilliant theologian in ancient history, can break asunder.
Jesus Christ is God’s sovereign choice, and we are in Christ. Love remains the sure path to God.