Friday, May 13, 2011

Augustine and the West

David Knowles begins his chapter on St. Augustine in The Evolution of Medieval Thought by noting Augustine's almost overwhelming influence not only on Medieval thought but on all Western Christendom. In fact, Knowles' judgment could, and should, be extended to Western thought as a whole in many important respects:

St Augustine, it would be generally agreed, has had a greater influence upon the history of dogma and upon religious thought and sentiment in Western Christendom than any other writer outside the canon of Scripture. (29)

Even in this day, Augustine's influence remains paramount in the West. For example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church it is Augustine and not Thomas Aquinas who is--with the exception of Scripture--the most frequently cited authority. Nor is Augustine's influence confined to religion, for the roots of most of our political and philosophical ideas in the West can be found in the various attempts to resolve the problems that Augustine bequeathed us and the implications of his thought.

Thus, almost immediately after he notes Augustine's great influence, Knowles goes on to point out what may appear at first to be a paradoxical "dark side" to Augustine's influence:

Yet, strangely enough, there is an obverse to this brilliant medallion. If Augustine was a second Bible to the dark and middle ages, he was all but the gospel of the three great heresies, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Jansenism, that absorbed so much of the mental activity of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries... Not only has his teaching on grace, free-will and predestination been pressed into service against orthodox belief, but his teaching on the Eucharist has been interpreted in a non-Catholic sense. (30)