Augustine’s Confessions, Part 2—Sin

Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). 2nd Edition. Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (Goto Part 1; Goto Part 3; Goto Part 4)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Augustine writes the Confessions in thirteen books where the first nine book talk about his life, book ten talks about his motivations for writing, and the final three chapters reflect on the book of Genesis. In part two of this review, I focus on Augustine’s view of sin.

Memoir and Augustine’s Focus on God

 Memoir is an autobiography with a theme. Augustine’s theme is his call to faith and he begins his memoir with a profession of faith:

“GREAT ART THOU, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no number. And man desires to praise Thee. He is but a tiny part of all that Though has created. He bears about him his mortality, the evidence of his sinfulness, and the evidence that Thou does resist the proud, yet this tiny part of all that Thou has created desires to praise Thee.” (3)

Augustine is writing in Latin, which is obvious from the translation because of the use of Thou, Thy, and Thee in the English translation, borrowing from the archaic English forms found in Elizabethan English. Sheed comments on the decision to use these forms in translation arguing that they add beauty, express intimacy, and reflect the liturgical character of the Confessions (xi-xii).

Augustine’s theology appears in this introductory paragraph which starts with divine praise, intimacy, power, and immensity, relates death to sin, and references Jesus’ emphasis on humility (e.g. Matt 5:3). The first sentence is also an allusion to the psalms which in a modern translation reads: “For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Ps 96:4 ESV)

Unlike a modern memoir, Augustine does not turn to his own life story until after laying out a significant treatise on his understanding of God. In his seventh section (about six pages later), he finally starts his own story:

“Thus, Lord, I do not remember living this age of my infancy; I must take the word of others about it and can only conjecture how I spent it—even if with a fair amount of certainty—from watching others now in the same stage.” (9)

In this context, we witness a very pious Augustine and get a sense of the liturgical character of this memoir.

Early Sin and Intercessory Prayer

Augustine is frequently associated with the doctrine of original sin, which is obvious when he writes:

“Thus the innocence of children is in the helplessness of their bodies rather than any quality in their minds, I have myself seen a small baby jealous; it was too young to speak, but it was livid with anger as it watched another infant at the breast.” (9)

We used to joke that original sin was two infants given one toy! Still, Augustine does not exempt himself from the influences of sin as he writes about his own infancy.

Augustine pictures later himself as an initially lazy student who received frequent beatings (10), but we are quickly introduced to a pious Monica, his mother, who seeing her son engaging in self-destructive and sinful behavior resorted to unceasing prayer:

“The mother of my flesh was in heavy anxiety, since with a heart chaste in Your faith she was ever in deep travail for my eternal salvation, and would have proceeded without delay to have me consecrated and wash clean by the Sacrament of salvation…” (12)

Still, it is paradoxical to observe one of the great philosophers of the church saying: “I disliked learning and hated to be forced to it.”(13)

Pictures of Sin as Immorality and Stolen Peers

At age sixteen, Augustine found himself beset with sin. A besetting sin is one that you are aware of and pray for relief from, but find yourself addicted to. For Augustine, lust for women posed a besetting sin, as he famously wrote: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” (152)

Augustine writes that his pagan father, Patricius, and his Christian mother, Monica, reacted differently to his interest in women. Patricius looked forward to having grandchildren (irrespective of their manner of conception), while Monica wanted him to remain chaste until such time as he could establish his career (27-28).

In the midst of his discussion of lust, Augustine tells the story of how some of his friends lured him into steeling some peers, writing:

“The peers were beautiful but it was not peers that my empty soul desired. For I had any number of better peers of my own and plucked those only that I might steal.” (31)

The stolen peers became a symbol for his relationship with women and later taking of a mistress, who is never named but gives him a son (56). Fifteen years later he dismisses his mistress so that he might be formally married and finds himself so distressed in her absence while he waits for marriage that he takes another mistress. If this seems odd to modern ears, the editor notes:

“Marriage in the Roman Empire was viewed more as an institution of social promotion, political alliance, and financial stability than an act of love.” (327)

While this may be true, Augustine viewed his immorality as a besetting sin and clearly motivated his later guidance for monks to remain celibate. In some sense, his weakness came to our benefit as the church worked to cleanse itself of pagan attitudes about immorality, which still dog the church today.

 

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Living Out Our Faith

Life_in_Tension_web“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,
for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul
to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:1-4 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Reducing tension with a holy God sometimes increases our tension with an unholy world.

In his book, UnChristian, Davide Kinnaman (2007, 29-30) cites 6 themes in non-Christian skepticism about Christians:

1. Hypocritical. We say one thing and do another.
2. Christians are: “too focused on getting converts.”
3. Homophobic. “Christians are bigoted and show distain for gays and lesbians.”
4. Sheltered. Christians are: ”old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality”.
5. Too political. Christians: “promote and represent politically conservative interests and issues.”
6. Judgmental. People doubt that “we really love people as we say we do.”

Thinly veiled behind each of these criticisms is a concern about Christian holiness. For example, if we are say that we are Christian and act like everyone else, especially when it comes to matters of sexuality, we are seen to be hypocritical, not holy. Or, if we live out our faith, then our live style is taken as judgment on those that do not. People know who we are.

When one discusses holiness issues within the church, one is frequently jabbed with the question—where is the grace in your worldview? In view here is the passage from the Gospel of John:

“For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:16-17 ESV)

Here grace and law are seen as opposing each other. Two points can be made about this passage.

  1. Grace is a divine attribute and often used as a synonym most of the time for divine forgiveness, as in the forgiveness conferred on us by God through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  In its concreteness, the law aids in holiness being helpful in educating in righteousness, in law enforcement, and in outlining holiness in daily living, according to John Calvin (Haas 2006, 100).
  2. Grace and truth (law is a kind of prescriptive truth) go together. Almost no one in this context brings up the second part—truth. The idea of objective truth—God’s truth—is not a popular idea these days, but it is a precondition for any kind of serious scientific inquiry [1].

The Apostle Paul also provides interesting comments on this question. He writes:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means![2] How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2 ESV)

Grace is not an excuse for a libertine lifestyle. We are accountable for our actions and non-actions [3].  Law helps maintain our accountability.

The Law of Moses is often divided into two parts: the holiness code and ceremonial law. Because the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, the ceremonial law could no longer be fulfilled. Consequently, when Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17 ESV)

Jesus’ fulfillment is, in part, a replacement of the ceremonial law that could no longer to fulfilled in the absence of the temple. But the holiness code itself—especially the prohibitions against sexual immorality—was never abolished or abrogated.  For example, the Council of Jerusalem in AD 50 removed the requirement that a person become a Jew before becoming a Christian, but reaffirmed the prohibition of sexual immorality for gentile Christians, the primary complaint today against the holiness code (Acts 15:19-20).

If you think that the holiness code is obsolete, consider the clean up in New York City that occurred in the 1980s. Two criminologists, James O. Wilson and George Kelling, started the clean up with what they called the “broken windows” theory. They argued:

“Crime is inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and a sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street if faces, sending the signal that anything goes. The idea is that crime is contagious.”

So New York City waged a war on broken windows and graffiti in the neighborhoods and subway. Minor infractions of law were not tolerated. And crime throughout the city began to fall precipitously to everyone’s surprise (White, 2004, 158).

The broken windows theory is to cities what the holiness code is to individuals.  King Solomon famously wrote of the “little” sins:  “Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.” (Song 2:15 ESV)  Make your bed; brush your teeth; sweat the details. Little things matter—they form and reflect your attitude.

What we do and how we conduct ourselves matters. As Christians, we need to be a good example to our families and those around us—especially when it hurts. Who is going to honor God and our marriages if we do not?

We need to live into the faith that we have in Christ.

[1] The existence of one set of physical laws in the universe offers interesting insight into the question of God’s existence.

[2] Wallace (1969, 482) writes: ”Obviously Paul’s usage of μὴ γένοιτο [by no means] is not the same as Luke’s. Here it indicates, as it usually does, his repulsion at the thought that someone might infer an erroneous conclusion from the previous argument.” Greek instructors love this phrase (μὴ γένοιτο) because it is an example of the rare optative mood not readily found in English.

[3] The “we” here makes an important point. Christians are to pursue holiness; holiness is not a requirement that we impose on others. Requiring others to pursue holiness leaves us open to the charge of being judgmental cited earlier.

REFERENCES

Haas, Guenther H. 2004. “Calvin’s Ethics.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, 93–105. Edited by Donald K. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kinnaman, David with Gabe Lyons. 2007. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Wallace, Daniel B. 1996. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

White, James Emery. 2004. Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

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Do Not Commit Adultery (Seventh Commandment)

Photo of balance by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do Not Commit Adultery (Seventh Commandment)

“And you shall not commit adultery.” (Exod 20:14) [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At the heart of adultery is almost always a lie. The lie is that our private lives are and should remain private. The truth, however, is that our actions always affect those around us.

Introduction

Ask King David. He thought that he could have a quiet affair with Bathsheba. When she got pregnant, he tried to hush it up first by calling her husband, Uriah the Hittite, back from service in the army to the palace. The idea was that if Uriah slept with his wife, David’s sin would be covered up. Uriah spoiled this plan by remaining loyal to David and refusing to return home. Unable to cover up his sin, David sent word to Uriah’s commander to place him on the front line in battle and then abandon him to the Amorites. Uriah died in battle (2 Sam 11). Pretty soon everyone heard about David’s sin and attempted cover up. Psalm 30 records David’s distress over his sin. Psalm 51 records David’s confession to God. God forgave David but David’s sin led to the death of his child (2 Sam 12:13–14).

Definition

Adultery, divorce, and other forms of immorality are the consequence of yielding to forbidden desires and temptations that threaten to destroy healthy relationships [2] and tear apart our families. They also stand in contrast to God’s intent for human marriage, which is life-long marriage between one man and one woman.

Marriage is not just a romantic idea. If we view our relationships as simply serving our own needs, our children lose out. According to the U.S. Census (2011, 68), the share of children born to unwed mothers rose from 27 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2007. This one statistic implies that the prospects for children in America have plummeted in our generation. Think more poverty, more drug use, more suicide. Marriage is not just a romantic idea.

Biblical Context

Jesus deplored divorce, permitting it only in the case of sexual immorality, and relating it to adultery [3]. The covenant of marriage (Mal 2:14) involves for us two parts: both a covenantal sign (physical intimacy) and a covenantal oath (the marriage promise) [4]. Sexual immorality breaks the first part, but not necessarily the second.

Adultery and Murder

Jesus’ teaching about adultery parallels his teaching about murder. Lust leads to immorality so Jesus cautions us to avoid lust and thereby prevent adultery. He then interrupts this discussion of adultery to launch into a bit of hyperbole: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out . . . And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29–30)  After this aside, he returns to his discussion of adultery. The implication is that the body part in view is not an eye or a hand but something a bit more personal! Jesus clearly deplores divorce and immorality.

Footnotes

[1] Also: Deut 5:18; Matt 5:27; Matt 19:18; Rom 13:9.

[2] My first ministry experience as a young adult arose when my pastor and mentor encouraged me to start a summer youth program. The program was a success and I continued this ministry until I was married some years later. My mentor, however, was discovered by a church member to be having a homosexual affair. The affair cost him his pastorate and his marriage; it cost me an important mentor; and it cost the church a talented pastor.

[3] Matt 5:32; Matt 19:9.

[4] For Adam, we see Adam’s rib being taken out to create Eve (a kind of cutting ceremony) and an oath—“she is bone of my bones.“ (Hugenberger 1994, 342–43; Gen 2:21–23)

REFERENCES

Hugenberger, Gordon P. 1994. Marriage as a Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2011. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2011. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

 

Also see:

Christian Spirituality

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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1 Corinthians 6: Growing into Our Identity in Christ

The Crucifixion
The Crucifixion

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

…do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV).

Where is your identity?

A friend of mine was involved in special operations as a professional soldier and spent time in places like Vietnam.  Here was a man who had engaged in fierce combat operations.  When I first met him and heard him talk, I thought that he was delusional—he talked about things that I would never have done; never could do.  What was normal for him, most of us would look on in horror in the movie theater.  But he was a soldier doing what soldiers are expected to do.  Out his identity as a soldier, he was able to bear those burdens years after year.  For him, the hard part was transitioning back into the life of a civilian and leaving the burdens of military life behind.  Now, as a civilian he has a new identity.

Our identities define both who we are and how we are expected to behave.

The Corinthian church had an identity problem.  In Corinth before Paul arrived, the rich exploited the poor, in part, through legal proceedings (vv 1-8).  In Corinth before Paul arrived, hard partying routinely included drunkenness, orgies, and prostitution—male and female (vv 9-10).  And the Corinthians even had proverbs to support their wild behavior.  Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food (v 13) is a proverb thought to be used analogously to condone sexual promiscuity.  When Paul established a church in Corinth, these attributes of the Corinthian identity did not change like one would turn on a light switch.  The Corinthians needed help in growing into their new identities in Christ.

What about us?  Is our primary identity in Christ?  Or is it in our profession, our ethnicity, our gender, our nationality, our social class or some other activity?  If our primarily identity is something other than Christ, we practice idolatry and suffer an idolater’s fate—an existential crisis when our idols fail us.  The unemployed workaholic is not only out of a paycheck; the workaholic has lost their primary source of identity—an idol has been crushed.  This causes an existential crisis.  If we act out of an identity that has been crushed, then our lives appear meaningless without direction or value.  Is it any wonder that drug use, suicide, and mass shootings are so common today?  The problem is not psychiatric; it is spiritual—God will not take second place in our lives; God is a jealous god (Exodus 20:3-8).

Much like the commandments in Exodus 20, Paul’s vice list in verses 9-10 is used to establish Christian identity through contrast.  If you are a Christian, then by definition you avoid doing these things.  Paul readily admits that some of the Corinthians used to do these things (v 11).  All sins are forgivable (other than denying salvation); lifestyles of sin call into question one’s true identity.  Paul’s guidance is interesting:  All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything (v 12).  Do we let sin dominate us?  If we do, we have a problem with a sinful lifestyle.

In closing chapter 6, Paul makes three arguments against sexual immorality:

  1. Since we are united with Christ, sexual immorality unites Christ with a prostitute—unthinkable! (v 15);
  2. Sexual immorality is sin against one’s own body—in other words, stupid (v 18); and
  3. Our bodies are the temple of God purchased at a price—we are not our own (vv 19-20).

But, our identities are in Jesus Christ.  As Paul puts it:  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (v 11).

Where is your identity?

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1 Corinthians 5: Be Holy

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land (Exodus 12:19 ESV).

Is there any leaven in your life?

Say what?  In the middle of a discussion of sexual immorality, Paul gives us a lesson on leaven.  Jesus also talked about leaven saying:  Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod (Mark 8:15 ESV) [1].

In order to understand Paul’s point, it is helpful to distinguish leaven from yeast.  If you are confused, you are not alone—so are translators.  For example, the English Standard version translates ζύμη (v 6) as leaven while the New International Version translates it as yeast following freedom of translation in BDAG (3389 ζύμη).  Yeast is a single-cell fungi used to ferment in baking, wine making, and brewing not commonly available in ancient times.  Leaven is fermented dough.

In ancient times, leaven was kept for baking from week to week and would accumulate dirt and other impurities.  For this reason, once a year the Hebrews would toss out their leaven and start with a fresh batch (Exodus 12:19).  Paul’s lesson on leaven therefore had to do with allowing sin into your life through a gradual process of accumulation.

New York City made an interesting application of this lesson in the 1980s following the “broken glass theory”.  The basic idea was that crime is contagious.  If windows are broken and not cleaned up, people would conclude that no one cares and more windows would be broken.  Anarchy would spread.  So New York decides to launch a campaign to clean up the city block by block from 1984 to 1990.  Murder rates in New York declined by two-thirds[1].  What does the Bible say:  Be holy, for I am holy (Leviticus 11:45 ESV).  Get out that leaven!  Sweat the little stuff!  Children—make your bed!

In the Corinthian church the lesson on leaven focused on sexual immorality.  Paul uses two closely related words to discuss immorality here.  In verse 1, he uses πορνεία and later in verses 9-11 he uses πόρνος.  The first word, πορνεία, is a general term for sexually immoral acts and Paul’s specific application is a case of incest—a man sleeping with his father’s wife (not his mother; prohibited in Leviticus 18:8).  The second word, πόρνος, more narrowly focuses on a male prostitute, but is often translated as fornicator.  A female prostitute would be πόρνης which Paul talks about in chapter 6, verse 15.

The context of his use of πόρνος is in a list of vices for which we are to disassociate ourselves from within the church.  Paul writes:  But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such a one (v 11) [2].  This context is interesting because Paul is talking about people within the church—only in the church!  Paul leaves judgment of non-Christians behaving this way to God! (vv 12-13).

Is there any leaven in your life?

 

[1]James Emery White.  2004.  Serious Times:  Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day.  Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press, page 158.

[2]This vice list corresponds with passages in Deuteronomy calling for the death penalty (Richard Hays. 2011.  Interpretation:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, page 87).

[1]Interestingly, verses 5-8 dealing with leaven are the only verses from chapter 5 found in the common lectionary.  Apparently, sexual immorality is not discussed in the lectionary.

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