Calvin on “He descended into Hell” (Guest Post by Tim Keller)

KellerToday I have the honor of hosting an original, guest post by Dr. Timothy Keller, chairman and co-founder of Redeemer City to City, VP of The Gospel Coalition, and former pastor and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. 

Is it right for preachers to speak of Jesus experiencing the loss of the Father’s love on the cross?  After all, orthodox Trinitarian theology teaches that at the ultimate level, ontologically, the Father did not ever hate the Son. The Trinity remains completely unbroken. Indeed, when the Son was dying for us he was offering the Father a ‘pleasing sacrifice’ and a ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

But then what was the “forsakenness” that Jesus experienced on the cross? If in the ultimate sense he did not lose the Father’s love, what did he lose?  Is it wrong to say that when Jesus was on the cross he experienced estrangement from God? Is it wrong to say that he lost any sense and even assurance of God’s love?

Preachers will do well to read Calvin closely when he expounds the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” (Institutes II. 16. 8-12)

Calvin argues this Jesus ‘descent into hell’ was not merely descending into physical death and the grave. He believes it represents biblical teaching that Jesus suffered not just bodily pain but all the torments that a soul in hell, cut off from God’s presence, would experience. He “bore all the punishments [evildoers] ought to have sustained” with only one exception, that those torments could not keep hold of him forever. He “suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked.” (II.16.10). Calvin does not mince words here. “Not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man. (II.16.10) And he says: “Surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard. It is as if God himself had plotted your ruin.”  (II.16.11)

That is what Jesus experienced on the cross. As far as Christ’s experience was concerned, he lost everything he had with the Father, just as a damned soul would. He lost God’s presence, favor, communication, and therefore any feeling sense of God’s love.

Calvin knows that the strength of his language will make some people nervous. He rightly assures readers that there is no rupture in the Trinity. Though Christ experienced God’s wrath, “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him…. How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God?” (II.16.11) This of course sounds confusing to many listeners. Jesus received the wrath of God and yet God was not angry with him? But that fits the Biblical data. Calvin sifts this data and shows us that ontologically, there was no alienation. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that Father never loved and admired his Son more than when he was dying to save us.

But existentially, Calvin wants us to know and preach that Jesus was as bereft of God’s love and presence as a damned soul. Of course the Father continued in his love for his Son, but on the cross Jesus lost all sense and experience and any practical possession of it. He felt like a soul in hell. On that Calvin is emphatic. He goes on to argue against those who rightly stress this continual love of the Father to the Son but who go on to over-emphasize it to the point of trivializing or minimizing what Jesus suffered. Here Calvin speaks directly to those who don’t want us to ever say that Jesus existentially “lost the Father’s love.”

Calvin engages those who say, for example, that Jesus did not actually feel forsaken or estranged. “They hold it incongruous that he would fear for the salvation of his soul.” (II.16.12)  But Calvin insists that Jesus did indeed lose his assurance of God’s love and did fear for his soul. He insists that Jesus “wrestled hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell” and so “he was victorious and triumphed over them.” (II.16.11)

Calvin addresses others who say that although Christ feared death, he did not fear God’s curse and wrath, from which he knew himself to be safe.”  (II.16.12) These are people who say that Jesus never feared or felt the loss of God’s favor and presence. He feared, perhaps, the pain of physical death, but he never felt damned and cut off from the Father’s love. They believe that Jesus on the cross thought, as it were, “Though I’m physically suffering I know the Father loves me, and this will be over soon.” Calvin says this makes Jesus more “unmanly and cowardly than most men of the common sort”. Why, he asks, was Jesus in such torment in Gethsemane? If Jesus was only afraid of physical pain and death, then plenty of human beings, who “bear it calmly” have faced death better than Jesus. (II.16.12) Instead, Calvin argues, he was trembling before the spiritual torments, “the terrible abyss”, of the loss of God’s presence and love, the experience of being “estranged and forsaken.”  If Jesus did not face and experience the dreadfulness of damnation, and the feeling that he was not “safe”, but lost and cursed, then he didn’t really take the penalty we deserved.

In summary, Calvin goes so far as to say that Jesus, in order to truly be our substitute and pay our penalty, had to have feared for his soul and his eternal safety. That is how severe a loss of the Father’s favor and love he experienced.

I think Calvin’s warnings are important.  If we say that Jesus never felt the loss of God’s love on the cross, then it diminishes his astonishing faithfulness. When he quotes Psalm 22, calling the Father “My God”, he not only calls God by his covenant name, but he is invoking a Messianic psalm with a triumphant ending.  If he did this when he felt nothing of God’s love and presence—as Calvin argues—it was then an act of obedience unique in the history of the universe. He clung in hope to God’s covenant love even when feeling utter divine abandonment, even when in hell.  Jonathan Edwards’ great sermon Christ’s Agony explains why. To the first Adam God said—obey me and I will be with you. But he didn’t. To the second Adam he said—obey me and I will forsake you and cut you off. Yet Jesus still obeyed.  Unlike Captain Ahab, who said, “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee”, Jesus said, as it were, “from Hell’s heart I will obey you still.” Calvin adds,  “For even though he suffered beyond measure, he did not cease to call him his God, by whom he cried out that he had been forsaken.” (Institutes, II.16.12).

Let’s heed Calvin’s warning not to think or hint that, ontologically, the Father ceased to love Jesus or, existentially, that Jesus did not lose all sense and assurance of that love. We must neither veer into the appearance that the Father was abusing Jesus nor into minimizing the depths of the suffering of Jesus on the cross for us.

Calvin summarizes his argument against those who, he believes, diminish the sufferings of Christ.

“From this it appears that these quibblers with whom I am contending…. have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.” (II.16.12)

Keller, Jones, Turretin, and the Love of God on the Cross

Tim Keller posted one of his gospel aphorisms on Facebook a couple of days ago that got some people riled. He said:

Now, on the face of it, this could be a very problematic statement. My friend Mark Jones has gone into why. Essentially, on one straightforward read, this is playing right into a tritheistic split in the godhead that many critics of penal substitution assume is going on. But contrary to that, orthodox theology has always held the Father has never stopped loving the Son, especially in his moment of greatest obedience to him on the cross.

My suspicion is that is not what Keller has in mind, but is speaking loosely about the experience of the Son as the Godman. I’ve written elsewhere that the Reformed speak of the Godman’s suffering on the cross per the logic of Chalcedon:

When we speak of the Son suffering the consequences of sin or judgment or wrath or God’s abandonment, we speak truly but we speak according to his human nature. We have to be able to say the divine Son suffered these things because Jesus is the divine Son. We confess according to Scripture that “God purchased the church with his blood” (Acts 20:28). But we also have to say the Son suffered according to, or by virtue of, his human nature. This is why Reformed Orthodox stalwarts like Francis Turretin insisted Christ is our mediator according to both natures with “each nature contributing what is its own—the human indeed the substance of the work (or passion); the divine, its infinite value and price” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 14, Q. II, V). Or as Wilhelmus à Brakel put it, “It was an infinite person who suffered according to his human nature, and thus his suffering was of infinite efficacy and value, ‘having obtained eternal redemption for us’ (Heb. 9:12)” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1: God, Man, and Christ, 482).

In which case, I think it is a reasonable guess to suppose that Keller is speaking of Jesus’ experience of the loss of God’s infinite love in his experience on the cross.

Indeed, returning to Turretin, we see him articulating something like this at length in his careful scholastic way.

The punishment of desertion, suffered by Christ (of which he complained, Mt. 27:46) was not a bodily, but a spiritual and internal suffering. It arose not from any torment (however dreadful) which he could feel in his body…but from a most oppressive sense of God’s wrath resting upon him on account of our sins. Now this desertion is not to be conceived of as absolute, total and eternal (such as is felt by only demons and the reprobate), but temporal and relative; not in respect of the union of nature (for what the Son of God once assumed, he never parted with)l or of the union of grace and holiness because he was always blameless (akakos) and pure (amiantos), endowed with untainted holiness; or of communion and protection because God was always at his right hand (Ps. 110:5), nor was he ever left alone (Jn. 16:32). But as to a participation of joy and felicity, God suspending for a little while the favorable presence of grace and the influx of consolation and happiness that he might be able to suffer all the punishment due to us (as to the withdrawal of vision, not as a dissolution of union; as to the want of the sense of divine love, intercepted by the sense of the divine wrath and vengeance resting upon him, not as to a real privation or extinction of it.) And, as the Scholastics say, as to the “affection of advantage” that he might be destitute of the ineffable consolation and joy which arises from a sense of God’s paternal love and the beatific vision of his countenance (Ps. 16); but not as to the “affection of righteousness” because he felt nothing inordinate in himself which would tend to desperation, impatience or blasphemy against God. (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 14, Q. II, VI)

The long and the short of it in that very long, very carefully qualified paragraph is that while the Son doesn’t lose God’s infinite love simpliciter, he loses “a sense of God’s paternal love and the beatific vision of his countenance” for a while, not absolutely, but relatively, and so forth. In loose language, we could say that the Son loses his experience of the love of God. At least that’s what Reformed Orthodox stalwart Turretin seems to say.

Now, it’s true that elsewhere Keller has expanded statements like this to point out that the background of the Son’s loss of the experience of God’s paternal affection is his eternal relationship with the Father. That expansion may or may not be worth correcting. Though, it does seem initially plausible that Christ’s knowledge of himself as the Son who experienced glory with the Father in eternity past (John 17:5) could have contributed to the shock and pain of his experience of the “punishment of desertion.” While we speak according to the natures, and we don’t confuse them, we don’t separate them either. But I won’t take a hard line here.

Now, I don’t claim that my read of Keller through Turretin is obviously the right read. I do think it is at least as plausible this is the fleshed out thought behind his aphorism, if not more so, as the one that Jones is worried about. I suppose from there, the discussion we might have is how careful we ought to be with the communication of idioms in our preaching. I have little worry that Keller is preaching heresy, though.

Soli Deo Gloria

(One additional note: this is just one post on Facebook out of years of Keller’s sermons on the cross where one might find counterbalancing statements. I will say that I have heard enough of them to know that on those occasions he references Christ’s quotation of Psalm 22, Keller has pointed out that Christ still calls God “my God”, and is likely invoking the rest of the song as an act of trust in the Lord’s faithfulness to him. The implication is that the fundamental unity of the Trinity remains unruptured even through the experience of wrath. That sort of thing ought to be factored in as well.)

Top 5 Reformedish Books of 2016

This has been a busy year of reading for me. Most years are. But the difference with grad school (at least during courses) is that you don’t have quite the flex you had before in terms reading for pleasure, or randomly choosing what you wanted to take up at any given moment. You also have much less time for popular level works. With all that said, I managed to get in some very fun books this year, and so I figured I’d keep up my cliche tradition of giving you a list of my top 5 Reformedish books of the year.

As always, these come in no particular order. My criteria are pretty basic: was it theologically-stimulating and well-written? Did I enjoy it even when I was disagreeing with it? Etc.

Without further ado, then, here they are.

mountain of the LordWho Shall Ascend to the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus by L. Michael Morales.

Leviticus is a much-ignored book largely because it seems arcane and disconnected from the rest of the dynamic story of Scripture. Morales corrects both of those problems for readers, by setting Leviticus within the broader storyline of the Torah and the Scriptures as a whole, tying it to the basic movement of exile and entrance into the Presence of the LORD. The New Studies in Biblical Theology series is one of my favorites in general, but this volume in particular distinguished itself. I highly recommend it.

crucifixion rutledgeThe Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

I have already reviewed this work and I have to say it might be the most beautiful piece of theological writing I have read in a while. In my review, I said: “Aimed at reinvigorating the dying tradition of “Good Friday” preaching of the Church, Rutledge sets herself the task of examining the cross of Christ in its various biblical, theological, historical, and social dimensions. In other words, while she engages at a fairly academic level at points, she’s not so much concerned with the academy, but with the pulpit—which is why the book is rich with illustrations and reflective sections interacting not only with historical and biblical theology, but with literature, poetry, and newspaper headlines. Essentially, it’s a work aimed at pastor-theologians.” In the review, I note that it’s not without its theological problems, but worth the read all the same.

making-sense-of-godMaking Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Tim Keller

I have a recent write-up of this one too. Also, we had Keller on the Mere Fidelity podcast this week as well. Basically, you need to know that it’s classic Keller. It’s a bit of pre-evangelism aimed at provoking the apathetic to curiousity about Christ, less than defending Christ against the animosity of the skeptic. In the post-Christian culture we’re entering, believers who care about evangelism or explaining the relevance of their faith to their neighbors need to start thinking about how to do this better. Keller offers guide for the path.

triune-godThe Triune God by Fred Sanders

I also wrote a review for this one. Here’s a bit of what I said: “Yes, it’s a work of trinitarian doctrine, but it’s also a master class in how to constructtrinitarian doctrine. Sanders doesn’t just set about telling you how to think about the Trinity, but also how to think about thinking about the Trinity. In that sense, Sanders is concerned with trinitarian doctrine as a species of Theological Interpretation of Scripture; he wants to show us how to read the Bible to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity without misconstruing either the Bible, or even worse, the Trinity. And all of this for the sake of rightly praising our glorious God.”

Delivered from the elements coverDelivered From the Elements of the Universe: Atonement, Justification, and Mission by Peter Leithart

I also reviewed this one last week. Like Rutledge’s, this one had some moments of significant disagreement, but it was just such good book despite it. I described his work of atonement theology like this: “Indefatigable polymath that he is, Leithart is “cheerful, even giddy” about his limitations as he sets about constructing the argument of his self-described “Big Red Book About Everything”, drawing broadly upon a variety of discourses to get the job done. Within its pages, one can find forays into comparative anthropology, religious theories of sacrifice, OT studies, Pauline studies, Gospel studies, theories of secularization, Medieval and Reformation metaphysics, and so much more. The through-line connecting the disparate fragments is Leithart’s typological reading of the whole of Scripture and even human history. Indeed, you can characterize the work as a “systematic typology.””

Finally, I should note that Kevin Vanhoozer’s book that came out this year just won the CT Book of the Year for Theology and Ethics. I would have put it my list but he’s my advisor, so y’all might not believe me. I also did a write-up for that one.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Making Sense of God Interview with Tim Keller

tim-keller-12-10We are delighted to have a preacher some of you might have heard before on the show: Tim Keller. He joins us to discuss his (excellent) new book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical. We had a blast chatting with him. He answered all of our questions, some of which tried to get into the nuts and bolts of apologetics, the difficulty of Christian belief, and how we should go about sharing the good news of the gospel with our skeptical neighbors.

We hope you enjoy and are challenged by the conversation.

If you enjoyed the show, leave us a review at iTunes. If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better. Or we’ll ignore you, and you’ll feel better for having vented your feelings. We are here to help, either way. And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

If you’re interested in supporting the show (you know, with money), you can check out our Patreon here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Making Sense of God by Tim Keller (Reviewish Write-Up)

making-sense-of-godWhen I was in college ministry, I had a small budget for books and resources to use with my students.So for almost the entirety of those four and half years, I had a small stack of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God sitting on a shelf in my office, as well as one or two tucked in the backseat of my car to hand out to students. Ever since reading it right after college, I have found it to be the single-most helpful one-book, contemporary apologetic introductions to Christianity out there. I’ve led small-groups through it, handed it to doubters, skeptics, fervent Christians, and everyone in-between.

So when I found out that he wrote a prequel called Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, I thought to myself, “What? Why would you do that?”

How Different Is It?

As it happens, Keller thinks that for some, the conversation needs to start farther back in the process than he does in The Reason For God. In that book, an interest (even if a somewhat hostile one) in Christianity is assumed. And on that basis, Keller proceeds to deal with some of the biggest objections and then making a positive case for Christianity. The way I used to put it was that the first half was for showing you didn’t have to be an evil idiot to believe, while the second half argues it may actually be smart and moral to believe.

In this book, Keller’s on the (gentle, welcoming, professorial) offensive trying to drum up the interest by raising some objections to, or just complicating any comfortable, self-understandings that secular people may be trying to live with. Instead of focusing on the rational case (though that’s present), he’s expanding his focus on the emotional and cultural argument for Christianity. And, of course, presenting the gospel all throughout.

One way of thinking about the book is to look at The Reason for God’s chapters on “Christianity as a Cultural Straightjacket”, the moral argument, and the problem of sin and spin those out at greater length. He tackles issues of science and rationality, argument for belief in God, Jesus in particular, and so forth, but for my money, the meat is at the center where he’s making the case that on the big questions of meaning, hope, identity, etc., secularism can’t deliver a coherent, satisfying vision of life. In that regard, it’s less like Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith and more like Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic (sans the profanity).

It’s a bit more than that, though. In some ways, it reminds me most of two of his other works, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and Counterfeit Gods. In Counterfeit Gods, Keller specifically goes on the offensive against the main idols promising us satisfaction and fulfillment. In Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering he spends a solid third of the work showing the way secularism has a very high bar to meet when it comes to making sense out of suffering as well. It’s not just that Christianity isn’t overwhelmed by the problem of evil, but that it offers help for a universal problem that secularism never could.

Should I Grab it?

You might be wondering, then, if I’ve read The Reason for God and some of these other works, should I grab this book? Short answer: yes!

For pastors and preachers looking for preaching and apologetic points, this is a no-brainer. There will be a number of familiar moves and material, if you’ve been reading and listening to Keller for a while. That said, there is plenty of new material, or new examples, authors cited, applications, and problems that he’s working through in a way he hasn’t elsewhere.

For instance, on the issues of faith and science, Keller cites and engages with a surprising amount of work out of the critical theory of T.W. Adorno, Horkhiemer, Habermas, and the Frankfurt school. Or again, the fruit of Keller’s time spent with Charles Taylor’s works, not just A Secular Age, shows up throughout.

And, of course, there are the endnote-essays. If you haven’t realized by now that you always need to read the end-notes, repent, and go back and start scanning them. There’s a treasure-trove of references, analysis, taxonomies, and more.

As Andrew Wilson pointed out in his review, Keller’s form of response and maturity in handling the material has the feel of conversationally-honed insight, rather than a repackaged apologetic textbooks, which is extremely helpful.

Which One Should I Give My Friend?

For everyone else, you may be wondering, “Which book should I hand to my unbelieving friend first, if I had to pick between The Reason for God and Making Sense of God?”

Honestly, it depends on your friend. If they’re struggling more with issues like hell, the problem of evil, other religions, or more straightforward evidential objections, The Reason for God is still the way to go. If they’re chewing more on Christianity’s moral stances, cultural issues, and so forth, or they’re of a more existential, searching, inquisitive mindset (whether high existentialist like Camus and Sartre, or pop-“existential” like Elisabeth Gilbert and the Oprah book club), then Making Sense of God is probably the way to go.

So, if I was back in college ministry with my book budget, I’d probably start to stock up both and make the judgment call on which book to hand the student based on our conversation.

One last comment on general “feel.” While I’ve been a fan of basically all of his stuff, after writing books for something like 10 years now, I have to say Keller’s voice continues to pick up that book feel. I noticed it first in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering and again in Prayer. This one has it too. Just a thought for those interested in that sort of thing.

Well, to wrap up, Tim Keller’s got a new book and (big surprise!) it’s good. I recommend it to people at all stages in their walk with Christ, whether seasoned believers looking to grow in evangelism, or those who haven’t even taken a first step.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: What is Christ-Centered Hermeneutics?

Mere FidelitySo, we’ve all see that phrase “Christ-centered” pop up on the blogosphere before. “Christ-centered preaching”, “Christ-centered theology”, “Christ-centered dog washing”–but what does that even mean? Especially when it comes to interpretation, what does it mean to have a truly Christ-centered hermeneutics? Does that just mean doing typology all day long? And is there a right way or a wrong way to do typology? Do we stick to only the types authorized explicitly by the apostles, or can we expand? And if we expand, how do we stop before we fall into typological excess? And what about Tim Keller?

Alastair, Andrew, and I go into all this in this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity. It was a fun one. I hope you enjoy and pass it along.

By the way, if you’d like to review and rate us over at iTunes (if and only if you like us), please feel free to do that here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine Against the Gods and the City of God For a New Age?

course of empireAs I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve finally taken up Augustine’s City of God in my reading and after the first seven books (of twenty-two) have been finding it immensely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. I’d been exposed to small sections in my undergraduate courses, but now I’m finally taking in the full sweep of the argument and it’s quite a different experience. For those of you who don’t know, most of the first ten books (roughly 4oo pages), is caught up with Augustine’s polemic against the pagans. They had charged Christianity and Christ with the sack of Rome by the Goths, so Augustine launches a sweeping counterattack against the official theology of Rome as well as its most “enlightened” interpretations via Varro and some of the philosophers such as the Neo-Platonists.

Though not quite through the polemics, I thought it might be worth highlighting a few observations worth reflecting on briefly.

Augustine Against the Gods

First, on the material critique of the gods, it’s fairly amusing to read Augustine pick apart the official state religion and the popular iterations presented in Homer and the poets on its own terms. Augustine takes the time to comb through the writings of the poets and point out the various internal inconsistencies and between common Roman morality and the lecherous, shameful gods that are celebrated as ‘select’ among the pantheon. And then he goes on to document in detail the licentiousness that’s passed off as the proper worship of the gods: prostitution, castration, drunkenness, and countless other abominations. The gods weren’t simply non-existent for Augustine–whether figments of the human imagination or demons masquerading as gods–they were positively dehumanizing.

Looking at the practice and reality of idolatry, one Augustine’s main lines of attack is that it’s all rather untidy. Why the multiplication of so many gods to various functions? Why one god for the planting of seeds and another for their growth? If Jupiter is both father and mother of all, why the profusion of feminine and masculine deities? At one point he quite humorously points that there were about six different gods supposed to be invoked at weddings in order to ensure the consummation of the marriage, making things a bit too crowded for the Bride and Groom to get any of the work done themselves. The spirit of Elisha against the Baals on Mt. Carmel stalks Augustine’s work.

Beyond this, it’s not just that polytheism is metaphysically untidy. Augustine points out that the idolatrous spirit, once it begins down the road of multiplying deities, has no natural way of stopping. The logic of polytheism takes over and gods and goddesses begin to pop in the places that you’d least expect them. Indeed, that’s one of the problems with it. As soon as you lose the one God who creates, redeems, directs, and orders all things, you begin to need more and more gods to keep the system going. It’s not as if idolaters simply switch out the True God for another main deity. This creates the perpetual duty to please and propitiate all of them, or the anxiety that comes in making sure you pick the right one for your needs. There is no rest in polytheism.

Augustine’s polemical vision is broader still, though. He takes aim not only at popular piety, but even the more sophisticated and academic attempts to save or reinterpret the worship of the gods by Varro or even Cicero. Poet or philosopher, it didn’t matter. Augustine aimed both high and law. Actually, one of the more interesting features of his polemic is to show the way that even the more sophisticated constructions of Varro and others eventually fall prey to the same faulty metaphysical assumptions, or else fall prey to others that, while possibly less crass, are no more plausible. Idolatry is idolatry is idolatry. Of course, in order to demonstrate that, Augustine had to be familiar with both popular piety and it’s more academic variations.

In modern polemics, if it’s engaged in at all, theologians and pastors tend to stick to one level of discourse. Some love to get into the thick of more street-level apologetics, whether it be Mormons, skeptical Dawkinsians, or your run of the mill “spiritual-not-religious” critic.  Others enjoy the high-level “apologetic” conducted in academies–the kind of apologetic that doesn’t like being called an apologetic–with conversations centered around “modernity”, deconstruction, critical theory, and abstruse ruminations about the hope of a Christian theo-ontology. Usually, the two modes of discourse don’t mix. For Augustine that wasn’t an option. Chapters skewering the lewdities of the Bacchanalia or the foolishness of multiplying principles of being, give way to an examination of the metaphysical shortcomings of the Neo-Platonists.

One of the other features of note is that Augustine’s critique is conducted at the historical level as well. Indeed, after an initial defense of Christian providence against the pagans, Augustine’s critique of the gods begins there. If Christ and the worship of Christ is allegedly responsible for historical evils, for the loss of the blessings of the gods, Augustine will go to history to answer them. If the gods were such great protectors, why had the Romans suffered such great military losses in the ages when there was unquestioned Roman devotion? What of the horrendous civil wars that cause tumult and death? Or how about the various “natural” tragedies and plagues that this pantheon was responsible to deflect? Had not every god they ever worshiped failed them? Indeed, if Virgil’s press and spin-doctoring of history was to be believed and Rome was supported by the old gods of Troy, why did they have any hope in them? Why should the gods that failed Troy be expected to be the salvation of Rome?

Finally, in terms of material content, Augustine’s critique always contains an appreciation of the true desires contained in Roman values and attempts to show their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Though his judgment is almost unrelentingly negative in terms of the actual worship or philosophical positions of those whom he engages, he has a knack for recognizing those noble elements in Varro, Seneca, or some of the heroes of Rome such as Regulus. Some of them are clearly groping towards the truth, but they are unfortunately weighed down by tradition or a lack of courage to recognize the truth. In some cases, he looks at the gods they worship and points out that what they really  ought to worship is a different one like Felicity, who offers all that the Romans seek. Of course, that’s merely a set-up to point out that true felicity comes from the one God in Jesus Christ who is the source of all good in this world and the next.

A Modern City of God?

As I have read and reviewed Augustine’s work, I’ve been wondering what it would take to write a contemporary City of God for the current age. As the West enters (and in Europe has been in) a post-Christian era that increasingly resembles an earlier, more pluralistic and pagan age, what would a full-dress assault on the “gods” look like? Does it already exist? There are a number of good apologetics works out there, but I’m not sure I know of something engaging in as far-reaching, or exhaustive examination of the philosophies, popular spiritualities, and secularized idols (ideologies) that compares to the City of God. Possibly the David Bentley Hart duo of Atheist Delusions when paired with his more recent The Experience of God could be thought of as a contender in that way.

One of the challenges to reproducing Augustine’s work in the contemporary period is that there is no recognizable “religious” system on par with the Roman cult in contemporary Western culture. Thinking about the systems of worship we tend to call religions in the West, the pluralism involved seems to be of a somewhat different sort than the variegated worship of the pantheon in ancient Rome. To take on the “gods” of positive religions like Hinduism, Islam, and so forth, would be a massive undertaking, and in the West, is probably largely beside the point. No, the only comparable reality would likely be the sort of secularized idolatry of the deification of the goods of modern culture. In other words, the sort of “hyper-goods” Charles Taylor talks about like freedom as autonomy, unfettered choice, or more obvious candidates such as money, sex, power, celebrity. In that sense, something like Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods might just do the trick, only on a bit of a grander scale (and I say that loving that book).

I suppose, then, that the elements are probably all there in works that are out on the market, simply chopped up into smaller works and spread out, devoted to tackling more specific, niche issues. Perhaps City of God simply isn’t meant to be rewritten and the age calls for another kind of work altogether. A more impatient age can’t take the time to work through a thousand page onslaught on idols of the age.

I wonder, though. Maybe there’s space yet, for another Augustine to meet the current challenges.

And I suppose that’s where I’ll end this ramble. If you have any thoughts, opinions, ruminations, or recommendations, feel free to weigh in through the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria