Hamartiology Essay Contest


Stephen Williams raises a number of concerns with the book, Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin. The authors, he concludes, fail to grasp the nettle of difficulties facing the Augustinian hamartiology. While some of his objections hit the mark, others are less convincing. Original guilt, in particular, is a resilient doctrine. Rooted in Scripture and of a piece with Christ’s atonement and imputed righteousness, this doctrine resists its detractors. Thus, rumors of the demise of original sin as a viable doctrine have been greatly exaggerated.

In the red dragon of Wales, we see a symbol of the strength and mettle of the Welsh soul. It is the emblem of their national flag (Y Ddraig Goch). Legend of old has it that King Arthur himself, that great warrior of Britain, used the red dragon as his trusted battle standard. Be that as it may, the spirit of the dragon lives on in Stephen Williams who has delivered a penetrating review of the book that I co-edited with Michael Reeves. In my rejoinder, I have limited my remarks to the three key concerns that Williams registers. I hope the exchange—precisely the kind of dialogue our book was aimed at generating—will bring clarity to some areas of contention swirling around the doctrines of the fall and original sin.

So let us begin with biblical authority and the theological significance of the Old Testament ANE background. Williams is troubled by methodological moves in chapters by Hamilton (ch. 9) and by Weeks (ch. 14). The issue seems to be this. Both Hamilton and Weeks claim that our only epistemic access to the thought and assumptions of the biblical authors is the canonical witness itself. Williams judges this a flawed stance that confuses the issue of biblical authority with hermeneutics. As he sees it, we cannot avoid interpreting the biblical authors in their own cultural (ANE) context. To quote Williams: “the proper response is a rigorous appropriation and hermeneutical use of ANE and extra-biblical materials, not what looks like an attempt to seal off the biblical world hermeneutically, an impossibility in any case if we are going to read the original languages” (pp. 205–6).1 Perhaps he means that Hamilton and Weeks should have couched their points more cautiously, less polemically; a fair criticism, if somewhat subjective.

But it’s more than that. Williams disagrees with their methodological assumptions. There may be a misunderstanding here. It seems to me that Hamilton and Weeks want to clarify the epistemological significance of the biblical canon as canon. If we conceive of Scripture dogmatically, as God’s Word written, then it follows that the inspired, divine discourse just is the canonical data. Williams, of course, is correct that extra-biblical data—e.g., linguistic, social, and cultural insights—are essential to interpret the canonical text. And yet, this point needs to be handled with care. Extra-biblical insights, the world behind the text, help us determine the meaning of the biblical words; but if we seek to hear what God is saying in Scripture, what counts is the meaning of the biblical text in the context of the rest of Scripture, the world of the text (the Reformers’ analogy of faith; Scripture interprets Scripture). Here’s the rub—what do we do when our best historical conjectures are in tension with, or even contradict, the biblical witness? I take Hamilton and Weeks to be saying that the intra-textual, canonical reading is decisive, every time there is a conflict.2 Given that these men are professional biblical scholars, it seems unlikely that they are denying the need to interpret the OT in cultural context. They are merely insisting, controversially perhaps, that what we hear God saying in the text, interpreted in its immediate context, and in the canonical context—that should always trump contrary historical conjectures. That is a legitimate hermeneutical extension of the Scripture principle.

Williams is already cringing and I’m barely out of the gates. He worries that, on those terms, “the Bible [becomes] an exception to rules of general hermeneutics” (p. 205). But why let your heart be troubled, O Williams? The rules of general hermeneutics imply at least two handicaps that cannot be true for the Bible, precisely because of its property of divine inspiration. First, those rules typically operate within methodologically naturalist limits. Common books are not generally read as if they have been composed, supernaturally, infallibly, by a Divine Author. That’s just as well; even Pulitzer authors are only human. But, of course, that would be a disastrous reading strategy with the Bible (the minimalism of the Copenhagen School in OT studies is an extreme example, but it makes the point). Second, even our best extra-biblical conjectures are always hampered by the noetic effects of sin and the intrinsic limitations of the extant evidence. None of these facts obviate the need for the hard work of interpreting the biblical text, and perhaps that is Williams’s sole point. Even so, once the church is convinced of what God’s Word says, taken as a canonical whole, she is obligated to use it as a rule that can decide conflicts with other readings (including any extra-textual ANE conjectures that can be pitted against it). In sum, ANE conjectures in biblical exegesis work best ministerially, not magisterially.3

Williams’s second major concern is twofold, relating to how I handled original sin in the chapter co-authored with Michael Reeves. He thinks we overreached theologically and complains that we gave no justification for the concept of original guilt. I’ll take each in turn. In our chapter—“Threads in a Seamless Garment”—we argued that our connection with Adam secures the very possibility of salvation, for then we know that Christ assumed our Adamic nature and not some other nature. Our sin problem runs deep; “though sin is certainly something people do, it is more fundamentally a disorder that inescapably conditions all our doing—and thereby reminds us that our hope properly rests in God’s doing rather than our own.”4 That is well said, and we would add that our Adamic link is the metaphysical backdrop. But Williams disagrees. He thinks we lack a viable rationale for that brand of “theological necessity” (p. 209). He prefers a much more agnostic stance: “I know for sure that Christ has assumed my human nature and died for my sin; I know the unfathomable depth of my sin and dire corruption of my nature through the gospel or, if you like, through the New Testament witness. I know it unshakeably while I may puzzle over how to understand it theologically, how to interpret Romans 5, or how to regard the relative claims of monogenism and polygenism” (pp. 209–10).

I admire this theological agnosticism. Williams shows dogmatic restraint. A good theologian should not be ashamed to concede mystery on any number of theological realities—that kind of reticence can be the mark of wisdom (cf. Prov 18:13, 20:25). And yet, it all depends, doesn’t it? In this case, his view amounts to a deep conviction that we are sinners coupled with agnosticism on why that is the case—a minimalist hamartiology. Such a move is common in the wider debate. For instance, George Murphy writes this: “The crucial distinction here is between the idea of an ‘original sin’ which took place at the beginning of human history and that of a ‘sin of origin’ which affects all human beings from their beginnings and from which they cannot free themselves. The need for a savior is dependent upon the latter belief but not upon the former.”5 Such a move is common because it affords less tension with the scientific story. Is that why Williams has adopted this posture? I wonder about that, but I can’t say (I’m agnostic!). I can say this: our chapter on original sin sketches out the dogmatic reality undergirding our experience of grace and our existential knowledge of sin. If the exegetical case is sound, then our argument for theological necessity more or less follows. So while I typically laud Williams’s dogmatic minimalism, it may have let him down here.

Consider the distinction between the ordo essendi (the order of being) and the ordo cognoscendi (the order of knowing). As recipients of God’s saving grace in Christ, we know that we are sinners. This is the ordo cognoscendi, and I take Williams to be emphasizing this point. No disagreement from me. But Reeves and I were seeking to address the ordo essendi, viz., our solidarity with Adam as the more basic, fundamental reality, which alone makes sense of, gives meaning to, the experience we have of being sinners. I’m thus skeptical that Williams’s agnosticism is a stable position in our present intellectual context. Mainstream scientific narratives give us a very different account of these matters; in less capable hands, Williams’s agnosticism simply translates, in practice, to assimilating the scientific hamartiology.

Am I missing the camel, straining at gnats? Williams writes, “I confess that I am reminded of the argument that if you deny the historicity of Adam, then belief in the historicity of Jesus Christ is unsafe. As though belief in the historicity of Jesus depended on belief in the historicity of Adam!” (p. 209). He’s right: “belief in the historicity of Jesus” does not depend on “belief in the historicity of Adam.” One can affirm that Jesus was historical and deny the same for Adam. Williams, I suggested, has emphasized the ordo cognoscendi. But that ignores a crucial metaphysical sense in which—given what the Bible says about Adam6—the historicity of Jesus does depend on the historicity of Adam. These two individuals are part of the same human family, bound together by the same ontological and genealogical networks. To take away Adam’s historicity, and everything it entails, threatens the integrity of the biblical story.

Consider this analogy. Suppose my dad is my hero, my very reason for existence. Let us also say that I’m ethnocentric; for me, to be is to be Nigerian. But I’ve always lived in the UK, never set foot on African soil. The only way that I know I’m Nigerian is because my dad told me and he has an old Nigerian passport (plus, I look Nigerian). He has also told me many times that he had a grandfather who lived in a tiny village in Nigeria, a chief, a prince of princes; my dad would be nothing without my grandfather and what he did for his family. Now someone starts claiming that my grandfather never existed, that he was not even Nigerian and certainly no prince. Sure, on one level, my love for my dad and my relationship with him does not depend on whether my grandfather ever existed, or whether he was Nigerian. On another level, however, it certainly makes all the difference. If it was all lies, my whole conception of reality, my identity, would begin to unravel. And so it is: For most of church history, we thought we were children of Adam, only to find out that we are orphaned moderns fashioning new ontological identities in a post–Darwinian world.

The problem is not that Williams denies a historical Adam—he doesn’t—it’s his dogmatic minimalism that I am questioning. He is agnostic on whether the biblical account of sin speaks meaningfully, or clearly, to implicit questions raised by the scientific story (e.g., monogenism vs. polygenism); I worry that such agnosticism, in this case, can indirectly, unwittingly, feed into “neo-Gnostic” tendencies widespread in modern doctrines of Scripture. In their reticence, they judge Scripture reliable on matters of “spiritual” or “religious” significance, but helpless, even destitute, on the rest of material reality. Natural science confidently deciphers the historical and physical aspects of creation, so that the Bible is rendered less and less articulate about the actual world we live in. I find that modern theologians like what the Bible says religiously but get skittish about its witness to the material world.

There is still the problem of original guilt, and that brings us to Williams’s second complaint, framed as an unresolved riddle running through our book. Why does God hold us guilty for the sin of Adam when none of us were there? How could this be just? Williams is right that none of the contributors develop an answer to this question (he takes particular aim at the Reeves/Madueme chapter). I confess: Guilty as charged. He gives the impression that the Augustinian doctrine cannot justify why the idea of original guilt is just—or, at least, our book fails to make the case. And he is in good company; others have argued that Augustine’s formulation cannot explain the justice of original guilt. Oliver Crisp, to pick one example, has made the same argument in a recent essay on original sin.7

There seems to be an implicit argument that carries Williams’s essay along. It goes like this. The Augustinian tradition, in its premodern and Reformation incarnations, has never been able to answer the objection against original guilt. There is no plausible reason for God to consider all of Adam’s descendants guilty of that one trespass. This dilemma was not “invented” by the Enlightenment or by Darwin or by modern scientists. Hardly. It’s the dirty secret of the premodern tradition. The received doctrine of original sin is thus vulnerable at just this point; part of the reason modern theologians are attracted to evolutionary hamartiologies, and part of the reason modern biblical scholars are seeking fresh exegetical approaches to Romans 5, Genesis 3, etc., can be traced back to this weakness within the tradition, a weakness begging for a more compelling account. It’s unclear whether Williams sees this development as salutary. But it is clear that he wants a proper accounting of original guilt. To that we now turn, with fear and trembling.8

Given the limitations of this forum, I can only offer a few quick remarks. I take our federal (or covenantal) union with Adam to be a brute theological fact, revealed in holy writ.9 As with the Trinity and the Incarnation, I doubt we shall ever fully grasp the way of it, certainly not before the Eschaton. God has appointed Adam and Christ as the federal heads of humanity. Adam’s fate was to be the fate of his descendants. God has revealed it, we can only confess it—the mystery that explains everything else. “[W]ithout this most incomprehensible of all mysteries,” Pascal understood, “we are incomprehensible to ourselves. Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition. So, humanity is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is conceivable to humanity.”10

If that be true, then the alleged problem of original guilt cannot be separated from the blessing of Christ’s atonement. If original guilt is unjust, then by the force of biblical logic we must say that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is also unjust (Rom 5:12–21). We can either accept—or reject—both.11 If Adam cannot be the federal head for our guilt, then Christ cannot be the federal head for our righteousness. Or so it seems to me. Adam and Christ stand or fall together as federal heads. Interestingly, Williams’s concerns with imputed guilt carry over to inherited corruption. If it is unjust for us to be counted guilty because of our union with Adam, then it is surely unjust for us to be born morally corrupt because of our union with Adam—for we had no say in having a moral disposition traceable to what Adam did eons before we were conceived.

In light of Williams’s agnostic stance, it’s possible that he rejects inherited corruption as unscriptural. In fact, he floats a different scenario: “the proposition that we all would have done what Adam did. This would involve both setting out the logic of putting our post-lapsarian individual selves in the place of another human being and observing the distinction between saying that, contingently, any one of us would have done the same and saying that sin was inevitable for humanity” (p. 216n23). Alas, I doubt that proposal will get us very far. The idea, roughly, is that God omnisciently knows what every human being would do, counterfactually, had they been in Adam’s place. Based on that “middle knowledge,” God knows that each of us would have acted as Adam did; as a result, God can then justly impute Adam’s disobedience to all of humanity. The problem with this idea is that, on Williams’s view, humanity was created originally sinless. There was the possibility of sin without the disposition to sin. On that premise, how could he possibly say that no single human being (barring Jesus) could have been in Adam’s place and acted otherwise? Williams can only arrive at the conclusion—that all would have sinned as Adam did—by stipulating that each of us, from the beginning, was in a postlapsarian state, disposed to sin. But that’s no solution at all. It leaves us in a position analogous to God justly creating humanity in a sinful state based on his middle knowledge that each of us would have sinned.12 In my view, the cure is worse than the disease.

Furthermore, Williams’s starting assumptions merit scrutiny. He is operating with a notion of divine justice that is clear, from which he then intuitively recognizes the injustice of the divine imputation of guilt. Is he putting the epistemic cart before the horse? Our intuitions about fairness and justice have a history, and in this instance his specific intuitions are of rather recent provenance.13 To be sure, everyone has an intuitive sense of justice independent of Scripture, but there are good reasons—bound up with a Christian doctrine of sin—to doubt their reliability. Williams presumably agrees that God’s revelation about justice in Scripture should control what we think constitutes divine justice. The traditional doctrine of original guilt, I would argue, is grounded in Scripture. The nature of divine justice is not so transparent that we can confidently set aside traditional doctrines; to the contrary, doctrines that are counterintuitive to moderns such as original corruption, substitutionary atonement, hell, and yes, original guilt—such doctrines should define and mold how we conceive divine justice. Now perhaps Williams will contest that Scripture supports original guilt, but my core epistemological point still stands.

Williams’s third (and final) concern is with the bad advertising. The book’s subtitle promises dialogue with science but fails to deliver. The contributors fail to wrestle adequately enough with the difficulties of their position given the scientific challenges arrayed against them. That was the weakest part of the book, I agree. In that regard, Williams’s frustration is valid: “What is puzzling [in the Reeves and Madueme chapter] is the total silence not only in this essay but in the whole volume of a key passage in this discussion: Genesis 4:14–17” (p. 210). Indeed, the editors should have included a detailed analysis of that passage somewhere in the book. As Williams indicates, the text raises implicit questions relevant to the broader conversation. Most famously—or infamously—Isaac La Peyrère was the first person of note to suggest there were men and women living before Adam and Eve. Part of La Peyrère’s argument turned on ambiguities that he perceived in Gen 4:14–17.14 I’m not persuaded by this line of argument, partly because of explicit statements in the text (e.g., Gen 2:18), but that’s beside the point. Our book missed an opportunity to address these questions directly.15

The main chapter addressing scientific questions is by William Stone (a pseudonym). Again, Williams is right that this chapter (and the entire book) lacks any discussion of genetics, arguably the greatest challenge to a historical Adam and Eve.16 While the inference is tempting, the omission is no sign the editors were asleep at the wheel (I’d have blamed Reeves anyway). There were prudential reasons; we could not find anyone with the scientific and philosophical expertise to tackle that question well. We also feared that a detailed discussion would immediately become out of date. And even if that danger faces any discussion in science and theology, we felt it acutely in this case. Whether that was the right decision or not, the omission admittedly left the book vulnerable.

Back to Stone’s chapter. Williams is not guilty of this, but other reviewers were confused about the genre of that essay. It may help readers to know that Stone believes the earth—and, by implication, Adam!—is less than 10,000 years old. But in his line of work, that position is anathema. His essay was a deliberate methodological exercise in minimalist apologetics, i.e., “for the sake of argument let us assume all or most of the mainstream perspectives on paleoanthropology; do they cancel out the possibility for a historical Adam and Eve?” The conclusion that Adam roamed the earth 1.8 million years ago is not Stone’s own view. He was trying to demonstrate that paleoanthropology does not necessarily undermine Adam’s historicity. The merit of this essay’s strategy is worth debating, surely, but a proper assessment needs to get straight what Stone was actually trying to do.

We come now to Williams’s critique of my own chapter. His main complaint is that I have given a “statement of faith” and not, as I signaled, a methodological proposal for a dialogue. That’s a fair point. Of necessity, my account was compressed and prevented me from laying out the argument in detail.17 That said, one of my aims was to resist a particular monopolistic conception of “dialogue” between science and theology. In practice, the call to dialogue typically means we take the scientific view at face value, more or less, and prevent dogmatic concerns from delimiting the rules of the encounter. I’m not sure what Williams thinks about this view of dialogue (though I was heartened to see that he appears to reject methodological naturalism, a sacred cow in the academic context, cf. p. 212). Given that view of dialogue, theology is reshaped according to the whims and fancies of the scientific project. Hence my reservations. In my essay, I explored a different way of conceiving dialogue, one that takes science seriously but critically.18 Williams’s helpful comments on philosophy of science suggest he is amenable to probing such possibilities. While I am less sure about Locke’s value in this context, Williams’s broader suggestions are valid (I’m happy to report that the philosophical contribution plays a central role in my forthcoming work).

On the matter of B. B. Warfield, Williams challenges my claim that, while Warfield was a theistic evolutionist, he rejected human evolution. In the 1888 lecture that I cited, Warfield does reject human evolution; but Williams is right to point out my failure to reference Warfield’s review of Orr—one that I am very familiar with—in which he allows for the possibility of human evolution.19 I stand corrected. One should not forget, however, that in that same Orr review Warfield insisted that God would have placed a human soul in Adam, supernaturally; in Warfield’s mind the soul distinguishes Adam from the animal kingdom (needless to say, that is not what scientists today mean by human evolution). Warfield’s arguments in favor of human evolution did not imply human evolution tout court. It should be clear from what I have said here, and in the book, that I agree with Williams’s critique of Fred Zaspel’s interpretation.20 Based on the textual evidence, Warfield was a nuanced, conservative theistic evolutionist; he accepted the possibility of human evolution but insisted that Adam received his soul by God’s direct, supernatural intervention.21

As I bring this rejoinder to a close, I take pride in getting Williams to first base. He agrees with us on the necessity of a historical fall; in the current theological climate, that’s no small thing. I’ll take what I can get. Above all, I am grateful that he has given me this opportunity to clarify my own thinking on these central hamartiological questions; it has been a pleasure engaging his incisive review. I have no doubt he remains unsatisfied, but I trust our dialogue (!) will continue, despite the riddle that lies between us. Which reminds me of another riddle, actually an old joke, whose punch line I can’t recall—a Nigerian, a Welshman, and a Scientist walk into a bar. . . .

[1] Page references to the review essay by Stephen Williams are given in the text.

[2] Noel Weeks is also signaling his rejection of the historical determinism widely assumed in modern OT scholarship. Such determinism, he argues, insists that “the biblical authors must conform to the approaches found in other texts of the time because they are all trapped in the same historical and cultural period. . . . The premise says that they must be significantly similar because they both belong to the ancient world” (“The Ambiguity of Biblical ‘Background,’” WTJ 72 [2010]: 226). Weeks denies the premise, on empirical grounds, and has elaborated the case in previous writings.

[3] For a sure-footed elaboration of related themes, see Alvin Plantinga, “Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship,” in his Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 374–421.

[4] Ian McFarland, “The Fall and Sin,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, Iain Torrance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 157.

[5] George Murphy, “Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 58 (2006): 111.

[6] E.g., see C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 23–92.

[7] Oliver D. Crisp, “On Original Sin,” IJST 17 (2015): 252–66, but he has leveled this objection on several occasions in previous publications. The same critique was made earlier by Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), esp. 137–47.

[8] I’m indebted to my colleagues John Wingard and Bill Davis for sharpening my thinking in this area.

[9] It is of some comfort to know that Herman Bavinck is on my side. See his Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 3:105–6.

[10] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 43.

[11] Some bite the bullet here, rejecting both original guilt and the Anselmian/penal account of atonement. E.g., see Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement.

[12] I am following Julius Müller, The Christian Doctrine of Sin, trans. William Urwick, 5th ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 2:338. Müller’s two volumes—excepting his pre-temporal, Origen-like constructive proposal—are a work of hamartiology than which none greater can be conceived. Schleiermacher defends a scenario similar to the one Williams has offered. See Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1928), 303–4.

[13] E.g., see Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 1–11, 326–48.

[14] His two-volume work was originally published in Latin. For the English translation of the second volume, see Isaac La Peyrère, Men before Adam, or, a Discourse upon the Twelfth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Verses of the Fifth Chapter of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Romans: By Which Are Prov’d That the First Men Were Created before Adam (London: n. p., 1656). Cf. Richard H. Popkin, Isaac La Peyrère (1596–1676): His Life, Work and Influence (New York: Brill, 1987); and more recently, David N. Livingstone’s The Preadamite Theory and the Marriage of Science and Religion (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1992) and Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 26–51.

[15] For recent interpreters who have mined this text for clues to modern scientific questions, see Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC 1 (London: Tyndale Press, 1967), 26–31; Richard Middleton, “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution: Beyond Concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria”—a lecture delivered on 27 March, 2015, at the “Re-Imaging the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall” conference, arising from a research group sponsored by the Colossian Forum. Cf. R. J. Berry, God’s Book of Works: The Nature and Theology of Nature (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 228–29; Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Oxford: Monarch, 2008), 198.

[16] For further details, see Francisco Ayala et al., “Molecular Genetics of Speciation and Human Origins,” Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences 91 (1994): 6787–94; David Wilcox, “Finding Adam: The Genetics of Human Origins,” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 234–53; Dennis Venema, “Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 (2010): 166–78.

[17] I’m working on a monograph that fleshes out these themes in detail: The Evolution of Sin? Sin, Theistic Evolution, and the Biological Question—A Theological Account (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, forthcoming).

[18] To take a scientific perspective “seriously,” in my judgment, is not necessarily to endorse its methods or conclusions. I’m calling for epistemic caution—keep your theological wits about you—not rejection of science. Good science is a gift from God, a measure of his common grace. Antiscientific rhetoric among laity and church leaders is typically uninformed and misguided. As others have argued, many evangelicals need a much greater appreciation and understanding of what good science is, and what good scientists do.

[19] B. B. Warfield, review of James Orr, God’s Image in Man, Princeton Theological Review 4 (1906): 555–58.

[20] Fred Zaspel, “B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution,” Them 35.2 (2010): 198–211.

[21] The definitive work is now Bradley J. Gundlach, Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845–1929 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). On Warfield, Old Princeton, and the human evolution question, see ibid., 232–42.

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Samuel J. Dubbelman[1]

Boston University School of Theology

S.T.M – Masters of Sacred Theology

On this principle if anyone asks me which view was held by Moses your great servant, I would not be using the language of my confessions if I fail to confess to you that I do not know (si tibi non confiteor: Nescio”) (XII.xxx.41).[2]

A story is often told that Augustine, when asked what God was doing before the creation of the world, responded that God was creating hell for people who ask dumb questions. Actually, he spoke against such a response.

This is my reply to anyone who asks: “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth.” My reply is not that which someone is said to have given as a joke to evade the force of the question. He said: ‘He was preparing hells for people who inquire into profundities.’ It is one thing to laugh, another to see the point at issue, and this reply I reject. I would have preferred him to answer ‘I am ignorant of what I do not know’ (“Nescio, quod nescio”) rather than reply so as to ridicule someone who has asked a deep question and to win approval for an answer which is a mistake (XI.xii.14).[3]

Augustine would rather a person admit her ignorance than use careless temporal language to describe an activity of God before God created time. Similar confessions of ignorance dominate Augustine’s discussion of time in book eleven of the Confessions. He asks “What is time?” and basically answers that he does now know. “Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time?” (XI.xiv.17). He knows (scio) what time is until someone asks him what it is; then its meaning eludes his grasp (nescio).[4] He tries to suggest that time is a distension, but a distention of what he admits, “I do not know” (nescio) (XI.xxvi.33). His discussion of time concludes confessing to the Lord that the cause of such ignorance must be the weight of his own sin. “Lord my God, how deep is your profound mystery, and how far away from it have I been thrust by the consequence of my sins (consequential delictorum)” (XI.xxxi.41). Augustine believes he has fallen from the luminous reality of God’s truth and consequently cannot adequately see nor understand the true depth of things. Augustine’s confessions of sin, then, push his confessions of ignorance.[5]

The primary thesis of this article is that hamartiology drives Augustine’s confessions of ignorance just as much as, or more so, than ontology; that is to say, Augustine believed that the weight of his sin hindered him from fully knowing and understanding the truth of ultimate reality and, therefore, his repeated admissions of what he does not know can be seen as a practice of the confession of sin. It is standard to attribute the formulation of the doctrine of “original sin” to Augustine, but this doctrine is seldom considered in treatments of his “negative theology.” The second, or correlate thesis, is that because hamartiology can be understood as the primary theological rationale behind Augustine’s admissions of what he does not know, the phrase “learned ignorance” (docta ignorantia) better describes what Augustine is doing and why he is doing it, than does the usual imported Dionysian designation “negative theology.” First, the phrase “learned ignorance” is used by Augustine himself in Letter 130 and, in its original context, represents a spiritual practice of prayer. What Augustine is actually doing in these passages is an exercise of confessional prayer. Describing such a practice as “learned ignorance” depicts well the intentional and habitual nature of a spiritual practice, whereas “negative theology” has the unfortunate connotations of philosophical speculation devoid of daily embodied practices.[6] Second, the description “learned” better captures Augustine’s positive stance towards the knowledge of ultimate reality than does “negative.” Because Augustine believed that he would one day fully know and love God, his frequent admissions of what he does not know do not represent a movement away from understanding towards a union with God in a darkness of unknowing, but rather are, more often than not, confessions of ignorance in the midst of a search for understanding. Third, “ignorance” does a better job representing the subjective and hamartiological impetus behind Augustine’s admissions of his lack of knowledge than does “theology,” which tends to place the emphasis on the transcendent nature of God, not the inability of the subject.  

Secondary Literature

Negative theology is typically associated with the Eastern Christian tradition stemming especially from the work of Dionysius the Areopagite, which famously made the distinction between “affirmative” (cataphatic) and “negative” (apophatic) theologies.[7] Several scholars have recently suggested that a variation of negative theology can also be found in the Latin West in the writings of Augustine.[8] Although this is the case, work on Augustine’s negative theology, here represented by the scholarship of Vladimir Lossky and T.J. Bavel, has overlooked the rationale of the doctrine of sin that undergirds Augustine’s admissions of ignorance. John Peter Kenney’s recent work on contemplation in late antiquity, on the other hand, gives priority to the confession of sin within Christianity and helps shed light on the theology lurking behind Augustine’s practice of learned ignorance.

Vladimir Lossky suggested in the 1970s that a modest apophasis is present enough in the works of Augustine to warrant speaking of at least “the elements of negative theology in his religious thought.”[9] I suggest that his importation of the concept of “negative theology” to describe Augustine’s statements of ignorance caused him to treat the primary rationale behind Augustine’s learned ignorance as the inherent transcendence and unknowability of God and, therefore, to completely overlook explicit instances of a hamartiological rationale. First, Lossky made no comment on the immediate connection in Letter 130 between learned ignorance and human infirmities, even though he quotes the sentence in full. “Therefore there is in us a certain learned ignorance, if I may say so; but it is learned in the Spirit of God, who helps our infirmity.”[10] Secondly, in his treatment of the “ascension narratives” of the Confessions Lossky asserted that Augustine’s descriptions of a “sudden” contact with divine reality are central for understanding Augustine’s mysticism, but he did not mention Augustine’s clear attribution that it was the weight of his sexual habit that caused him to come crashing back down to multiplicity (Conf. VII.xvii.23).[11] On top of this, Lossky pointed to a similar “ascension” text in De Trinitate VIII.2.3, but omitted Augustine’s complaint that greed hinders the contemplative from fully grasping God. “And what weight (pandere) is it, I ask, that drags you back but the birdlime of greed (cupiditatis) for the dirty junk you have picked up on your wayward wanderings?” (De. Trin. XIII.2.3).[12]  It seems that because Lossky was attempting to find elements of an Eastern apophaticism in Augustine, the immutable and unknowable nature of God became the key criterion to an Augustinian “negative theology.”[13]

T. J. van Bavel also does not mention hamartiology in his exposition of Augustine’s “aphaireticism.”[14] Following the work of Pierre Hadot, Bavel distinguishes between Platonic “aphaireticism” and Neo-Platonic “apophaticism.” Plato’s aphaireticism consisted in abstracting particulars in order to attain knowledge of the simplest Being; on the other hand, Plotinus’s apophaticism, according to Bavel, consisted of negating all predicates of the divine because the One is beyond all Being and Intelligence. Therefore, for Plotinus, according to Bavel’s rendering of Hadot, the One can never be an object of knowledge. Bavel suggests that Augustine’s thought is more in line with Plato’s aphaireticism than Plotinus’s apophaticism.[15] Although Bavel attributes a more positive position to Augustine regarding the knowledge of divine reality, he still does not even consider the place the doctrine of sin played in Augustine’s negative statements. The closest Bavel comes to considering a hamartiological rationale is in his explanation that “the reason why God remains incomprehensible is that all created things are mortal and changeable.”[16] But Bavel does not move from here to discuss the doctrine of sin. Here, like Lossky, Bavel also cuts out the end of the quote in De Trinitate VIII.ii.3 with the explicitly hamartiological rationale (“the birdlime of greed”) for why the contemplative cannot understand the untrammeled nature of truth itself.[17]

            John Peter Kenney, on the other hand, has recently offered a rereading of the mysticism of the Confessions, suggesting that the ascension narratives (VII.x.16, VII.xvii.23, and IX.x.23-25) were more “confessions” than examples of “contemplation.”[18] Kenney suggests that the key to interpreting these passages is the overall theology undergirding them and that the theology in the accounts in book VII as a Platonist and IX as a Christian are roughly univocal: they simultaneously teach human transcendence and the inability of the soul in and of itself to sustain contact with ultimate reality. Kenney states that the fleeting nature of the contemplative accounts are due to Augustine’s belief that the soul is fallen and powerless to effect its own salvation. For Kenney, therefore, the narratives were not intended to serve as guides to attaining contemplative union with the divine, but rather, in these narratives, “Augustine sketches a consistent Christian portrait of his soul’s discovered limitations and his need for a divine mediator.”[19] In Kenney’s hands Augustinian “Contemplation, far from being and end in itself, serves to open the Christian soul to confession.”[20] Here, the line of demarcation between Platonism and Christianity is not found in the inherent unknowability of God (Lossky), but rather in the priority of the practice of confession.[21]

            Neo-Platonism as represented by Plotinus is indispensable to interpreting Augustine’s confessions of ignorance. But, in the rush to compare Augustine to Plotinus many scholars seem to have completely overlooked Augustine’s explicit attribution of his ignorance to the doctrine of the Fall. Augustine repeatedly admitted his inability to remember or understand in the Confessions not primarily because of a metaphysical conviction regarding the unknowable nature of God, but rather because of his belief that the dredges of sin still lingered in his soul preventing him from fully grasping the depths of ultimate reality.

Learned Ignorance as Spiritual Practice

Augustinian “learned ignorance” must first be understood as a practice before it is analyzed as an idea.[22] Most notably the phrase “learned ignorance” surfaced in Letter 130 to Proba, a wealthy Roman widow who was concerned about what to pray because she was perturbed by Paul’s statement that “we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). Augustine instructed Proba that she ought to pray for “the happy life”, but she does not know what to pray exactly because she cannot fully imagine true happiness yet.[23] This is because the happy life is not just being happy, but rather consists in finding happiness in the right thing, eternal communion with God. Paul teaches that the Christian does not know what to pray for because she cannot adequately think of eternal happiness.  She does not know what she cannot think of as it is.[24] That is to say, she cannot fully imagine the future blessed life with God. Therefore, Augustine describes a practice of casting aside whatever comes to mind because it cannot capture what the heart truly desires. “Whatever comes to mind as we think, we cast aside, reject, disapprove, and know that this is not what we seek although we do not know what sort of thing that is.”[25] Since we cannot fully think of our future bliss, Augustine stated that “There is in us, therefore, a certain learned ignorance, so to speak, but an ignorance from the Spirit of God, who helps our weakness.”[26] Augustine turned to the language of Romans 8:26 to describe this as praying with inexpressible sighs of groanings. The Spirit “makes the saints intercede with inexpressible groans, therefore, when he inspires them with the desire for so great a still unknown reality, which we await with patience.” Augustine asked “How, after all, do we express, how do we desire, what we do not know?”[27] Because this is the case Augustine explained that overly loquacious prayers should be avoided. Instead, he advocated the practice of “the brothers in Egypt” who prayed “very brief ones that are tossed off as if in a rush.”[28] Such prayers are “very often carried out more with sighs than words, more with weeping than with speaking.”[29]

Likewise, Augustine’s admissions of ignorance in the Confessions may be understood as a spiritual practice reminiscent of the kind of learned ignorance that he advocated to Proba in Letter 130. Due to infirmities people cannot know final happiness and, therefore, do not know how to pray as they ought. The language of the Confessions is, likewise, first and foremost a prayer.[30] The very first confession of ignorance during his infancy narrative is spoken as a prayer to the Lord: “What, Lord, do I wish to say except I do not know (nescio) whence I came to be in this mortal life” (I.vi.7).[31] The period of Augustine’s infancy, shrouded in the darkness of forgetfulness, is also a period marred by the darkness of original sin.

The Positive Quest for Knowledge

The designation “learned”, as in “learned ignorance”, seems to better express Augustine’s positive stance towards knowledge than does the label “negative.” Augustine’s positive stance towards knowledge may be substantiated through four examples. First, the initial conversion Augustine experienced in the Confessions is the conversion to philosophia, “the love of wisdom.” Second, many of the statements of ignorance in the Confessions are statements of historical ignorance that are later corrected by the knowledge of Platonism and finally Christianity. Third, the predicament that humans are not able to fully comprehend an infinite God does not cause Augustine to infer that the true knowledge of God is to be found in unknowing, but, rather, it leads him to pray and ask God for understanding. Fourth, when Augustine does most explicitly engage in the practice of “negative theology”, he describes such understanding as a good start, but not the end of knowledge.

First, Augustine’s initial “conversion” in the Confessions is a conversion to philosophia, “the love of wisdom”, through reading Cicero’s Hortensius. It is here that Augustine begins narrating his return and ascent back to God, “I began to rise up to return to you” (III.iv.7). What delighted him was Cicero’s exhortation to not “study one particular sect but to love and seek and pursue and hold fast and strongly embrace wisdom itself, wherever found” (III.iv.8).[32] The influence of Cicero continued into Augustine’s career as a Bishop.  For instance, Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (“On Christian Teaching”) may be interpreted as a manual of rhetoric for Bishops to use in preaching. One of the implications of Augustine’s emphasis on the need for rhetoric in Christian preaching is that people will not believe the truth simply because it is true (the Platonic fallacy); instead, Augustine argues that the truth must be defended and compellingly presented with rhetoric. It is also quite plausible that Augustine’s doctrine of sin influenced his position on this issue. The Christian Bishop must use the tools of rhetoric to move his readers towards the truth because they cannot count on the soul by its own powers to respond to the truth. Along similar lines, Augustine’s “negative theology” in the Confessions may be another trope in his arsenal of rhetoric intended to delight and move the reader.[33] First, the rhetorical nature of negation may be seen as a device of worship; that is, the negations are intended to enhance God’s superlatives. Saying that no words can adequately describe God is one way to praise God. Secondly, saying what he does not know may also be intended to prepare the reader to more readily accept Augustine’s statements of what he does know. This would be somewhat similar to a modern Politician connecting with the reader and covering his basis by asserting “I don’t know about this or this” but “I will tell you one thing, I do know this.”

Second, the majority of statements of ignorance during his philosophical quests in Books III to Book VII are statements of historical ignorance that are later amended with correct knowledge first of Platonism and then of Christianity. For instance, two of the most common confessions of ignorance in these chapters are wrong views of evil and spiritual substance. First, he was ignorant that evil was not a thing in itself, but only a negation of the good: “I did not know that evil has no existence except as a privation of good” (III.vii.12); “I did not know (non noueram) nor had I learnt that evil is not a substance” (IV.xv.24). Second, Augustine continually laments that he was ignorant of the possibility of spiritual substance: “Although I had not the least notion or even an obscure suspicion how there could be spiritual substance” (VI.iii.4).[34] Although Augustine continues to still admit his deep ignorance as a Christian in Books X to XIII, he seems more willing to declare what he knows to be true of God. “This I know (Hoc noui), my God, and give thanks. I know (Noui) and confess to you…We know this, Lord, we know” (Nouimus, domine, nouimus) (XI.vii.9).

Third, the fact that the human mind cannot adequately conceive of or describe God did not cause Augustine to stop seeking after a positive knowledge of the truth. At the very beginning of the Confessions Augustine asked “Who then are you my God?” and his answer demonstrates the tension between the need to speak of God and the inability of finite human words to describe the infinite God. After several attempts at answering his question, he is brought up short: “But in these words what have I said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity, they have nothing to say” (I.iv.4). Elsewhere, a very similar predicament in De Trinitate caused Augustine to pray for revelation: “Now since we ought to think about the Lord our God always, and can never think about him as he deserves; since at all times we should be praising him and blessing him, and yet no words of ours are capable of expressing him, I begin by asking him to help me understand” (De Trin. 5.1).[35] Here the elusive nature of God and God’s truth caused Augustine to pray for understanding and, as evidenced in Confessions Books XI to XIII, incited him to search the scriptures for answers.

Fourth, there are only two passages in De Trinitate where Augustine explicitly engages in “negative” theology.[36] In both Book V.1.2 and Book VIII.2.3 Augustine strung together a list of negative predications of God in order to demonstrate that knowing what God is not is a good place to begin in understanding the nature of God. Augustine first used negative theology in book five while attempting to make sense of the biblical revelation of the Trinity (books one to four) through using the categories of human philosophy (books five to seven). In treating Aristotle’s categories of accidents he asserted,

Thus we should understand God, if we can and as far as we can, to be good without quality, creative without need or necessity, presiding without position, holding all things together without possession, wholly everywhere without place, everlasting without time, without change in himself making changeable, and undergoing nothing. Whoever thinks of God like that may not yet be able to discover altogether what he is (quid sit), but is at least piously on his guard against thinking about him anything that he is not (quid non sit) (De Trinitate V.1.2).[37]

In the second explicit instance of negative theology Augustine turned his attention “in a more inward manner” spending the next seven books looking at the human mind as the image of God. Here Augustine admitted again that knowing what God is not is a good place to start: “For it is no small part of knowledge, when we emerge from these depths to breathe in that sublime atmosphere, if before we can know what God is (scire possimus quid sit deus), we are at least to know what he is not (scire quid non sit)” (De Trin. VIII.2.3).[38] He then proceeded to list nine things God is not: God “is certainly not (non est) the earth, nor (nec) the heavens, nor (nec) like earth and heavens, nor any such thing as we see in the heavens, nor . . .”[39] In both of these passages Augustine asserted that knowing what God is not may be a helpful starting place to thinking of God as God; what he does not do is describe such “negative” knowledge as the summit of understanding as does Dionysius.

Subjective and Hamartiological Rationale

Augustine explains in Letter 130 that Proba does not know what to pray for because she does not know what she cannot think of as it is. One of the primary reasons she cannot do this is on account of the infirmity of sin. Such a subjective and hamartiological rationale for ignorance may be evidenced in at least four places. First, it can be seen in the opening paragraph of the Confessions. Second, it is further demonstrated by the overall purpose and structure of the narrative as a confession of praise for God’s redemption of sin. Third, it is further substantiated by the fact that Augustine explicitly said that it is the weight of lust that held him down from fully contemplating God. Lastly, it is shown in a radical confession of anthropological ignorance in which Augustine reversed the usual polarities of negative theology stating that, because of his sinfulness, there are actually things he could know about God with more accuracy than he could know about himself.

            First, Augustine opens the Confessions claiming that humanity desires to praise God while bringing with them the knowledge of their sin. Augustine’s use of the conjunction “nevertheless” (tamen, sed) represents this reality: man carries “with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you resist the proud. Nevertheless (ettamen), to praise you is the desire of man” (I.i.1). The necessity to praise God while remaining a sinner shows up in other statements where Augustine confessed that all words fall short of the reality of God, but humanity must nevertheless speak of God (I.iv.4). After summarizing this tension Augustine made the same declaration of “nevertheless” right before his first confession of ignorance. After confessing his sin (I.v.6), he inserted another conjunction, “Nevertheless (sed tamen) allow me to speak before your mercy, though I am but dust and ashes” (I.vi.7). The first thing Augustine said to God is a statement of ignorance: “What, Lord, do I wish to say except that I do not know (nescio) whence I came to be in this mortal life or, as I may call it, this living death? I do not know (nescio) where I came from . . . I do not remember (non enim ego memini)” (I.vi.7).

Second, such a hamartiological impetus also fits with the overall purpose and narrative structure of the treatise as a confession of praise to God for forgiving his past and present sin. For instance, the entire second book is a meditation on his sinfulness in the sixteenth year of his life. He opened the book saying “I intend to remind myself of my past foulness and carnal corruptions” (II.i.1). He reiterated his purpose stating, “Why do I record this episode? It is that I and any of my readers may reflect on the great depth from which we have to cry to you?” (II.iii.5). Again, he announced his purpose: “But I shall nevertheless confess to you my shame, since it is for your praise (Ps. 105:47)” (IV.i.1). With this in mind, it is possible to understand the narrative structure of the Confessions as a confession of praise for God’s redemption of his past (Book 1-9) and present (Book 10) sin. Augustine alluded to this structure at the beginning of Book 10, “Stir up the heart when people read and hear the confessions of my past wickedness [Books 1 to 9], which you have forgiven and covered up to grant me happiness in yourself, transforming my soul by faith and your sacrament” (X.iii.4). The story does not end with the confession of his past sins, but he turned to confess, “not who I was, but what I have now come to be and what I continue to be” (X.iv.6). Here Augustine repeatedly confessed that even in the present he is still weighed down by sin, although seemingly “venial” in nature.[40]

Third, Augustine described himself as weighed down by lust both before and after his baptism. Early in his narrative he described his lust as “a thick mist shutting me off from the brightness of your face, my God” (II.iii.8). In Book VII, as a Platonist, Augustine had come to be convinced that God’s substance was transcendent, “but from the disappointment I suffered I perceived that the darkness of my soul (tenebras animae) would not allow me to contemplate these sublimities” (VII.xx.26). It is this weight that caused him to come crashing down from his Platonic ecstasy: “I was astonished to find that already I loved you, not a phantom surrogate for you. But I was not stable in the enjoyment of my God. I was caught up to you by your beauty and quickly torn away from you by my weight (pondere). With a groan (cum gemitu) I crashed into inferior things. This weight was my sexual habit (et pondus hoc constuetudo carnalis)” (VII.xvii.23). Interestingly, Augustine did not tell his “conversion story” in chapter XIII as an acceptance of the truth of Christianity; rather, having already become convinced of the truth of Christianity, he told the story of his conversion from lust towards a life of celibacy. “I will now tell the story, and confess to your name, of the way in which you delivered me from the chain of sexual desire (concubitus), by which I was tightly bound, and from the slavery of worldly affairs” (VIII.vi.13). It was “chaste Lady Continence” who beckoned Augustine in the garden through countless examples (VIII.xi.27). The verse that Augustine happened upon when he picked up the scriptures also spoke directly to his sexual licentiousness (Rom. 13:13-14). Augustine concluded the account of his conversation stating that “The effect of your converting me to yourself was that I did not now seek a wife and had no ambition for success in this world” (VIII.xii.30). Although this is how Augustine described his conversion, the chains of lust still seem to be weighing Augustine down as a Christian in Book X. While confessing his present state, Augustine picked back up the theme of God’s command of continence.[41] The first command Augustine used to illustrate his lack of continence is God’s command not to lust. Here, Augustine confessed that although God had given him the strength to live a celibate life, images of past sexual acts still remained in the halls his memory. “But in my memory of which I have spoken at length, there still live images of acts which were fixed there by my sexual habit” (X.xxx.41). Although Augustine desired to completely shake these memories, they still came back to haunt him in his dreams. Augustine believed that the weight of his sexual habit still held him down from fully contemplating God and experiencing the happy life.[42]

The weight of sin hindering contemplation is also succinctly depicted immediately following the second explicit instance of negative theology in De Trinitate (VIII.1.2). After a list of nine negations Augustine invited the reader to contemplate God in God’s-self, if they could.

Come, see if you can, O soul weighed down with the body that decays (Wis 9:15) and burdened with many and variable earthy thoughts, come see it if you can – God is truth . . . Do not ask what truth is; immediately a fog of bodily images and a cloud of fancies will get in your way and disturb the bright fair weather that burst on you the first instant when I said “truth.” Come, hold it in that first moment in which so to speak you caught a flash from the corner of your eye when the word “truth” was spoken, stay there if you can. But you cannot; you slide back into these familiar earthy things. And what weight (pondere) is it, I ask, that drags you back but the birdlime of greed (cupiditatis) for the dirty junk you have picked up on our wayward wanderings?[43]

In Lossky’s treatment of Augustine’s negative theology he left out the rationale of the last sentence; but with the last sentence included, Augustine explicitly attributed the inability of the subject to contemplate the eternal reality of God because of the weight of their sin.

Fourth, when Augustine began his confession of who he currently is in Book X, very much like his first confession at the beginning of the infancy narrative, he started with what he did not know about himself. Here Augustine reversed the normal polarities of apophasis and said that due to sin he was more of an enigma to himself than God. Even though 1 Cor. 2:11 says that the spirit of man knows what is in him, “yet there is something of the human person which is unknown even to the ‘spirit of man which is in him.’” Augustine knew something of God that he did not even know about himself, namely, he knew that God could not be subjected to violence (pace Manichees), “whereas I do not know (nesceo) which temptations I can resist and which I cannot.” Therefore, Augustine said his confession of himself in the present would include both what he knew of himself and what he does not know of himself: “let me confess what I know of myself (Confitear ergo quid do me scio). Let me confess too what I do not know of myself (confitear et quid de me nesciam)” (X.v.7).[44]


One of the prominent confessions of Augustine in his most famous treatise is what he does not know. I have argued that the primary theological impetus undergirding such a practice is hamartiological in nature. Augustine believed that his sin hindered him from fully contemplating divine reality. Along these lines, I have also suggested that Augustine’s own phrase “learned ignorance” better describes what Augustine is actually doing when he confesses what he does not know than does the foreign Dionysian designation “negative theology.” This is the case for several reasons. First, learned ignorance better captures the actual practice of what is going on in the Confessions. Augustine’s admissions of what he does not know are a spiritual practice of confession grounded in the habitual exercise of prayer. Secondly, I suggested that the designation “learned” better captures Augustine’s optimistic stance towards the knowledge of God and the truth, whereas “negative” seems to put the emphasis on the inability to know ultimate reality. Because Augustine believed that God would one day be genuinely known and loved in a beatific vision, which constituted the happy life, his admissions of ignorance did not represent a movement towards union with God in noetic darkness, but may be seen as a cry for understanding. Third, I have suggested that “ignorance” points to the subjective and hamartiological rationale behind Augustine’s confessions of what he does not know, whereas “theology” tends to place the emphasis on the transcendent nature of God. Here Augustine was radical in his assertion that due to the weight of sin humanity cannot ascend to God. Because this is the case, Augustine surmised that “my entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy” (X.xxix.40).



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_____. Sancti Aurelii Augustini De Trinitate, Libri XV, Libri I-XV. W.J. Mountain and Fr Glorie. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, L. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii, 1968.

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_____. “Letter 130.” Letters 100-155. Trans. Roland Teske. Vol. II/2 of The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003.

_____. “Sermon on Psalm 41.” The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. Bernard McGinn. NY: The Modern Library, 2006.

______. The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill, O.P. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1991.

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_____. “Mysticism and Contemplation in Augustine’s Confessions.The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism. Ed. Julia A. Lamm. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

_____. The Mysticism of Augustine: rereading the Confessions. NY: Routledge, 2005.

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[1] This paper originated in a class I took with Dr. Christopher B. Brown on The Church in Late Antiquity at Boston University School of Theology in Fall 2015. I would like to thank Dr. Brown for allowing me to write on topics that interest me. I would also like to thank my wife McCall Dubbelman, my father Peter Dubbelman, and my friend Luke W. Mills for reading various stages of the paper.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 270; henceforth I cite this translation within the text in parenthesis.” The critical edition of the Latin text I am using for this paper is Confessionum libri XIII: quos post Martinum Skutella Iterum, ed. Lucas Verheijen (Turnholti: Brepols, 1981), 240; henceforth I cite the original Latin from this edition.

[3] Emphasis mine.

[4] “Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare uelim, nescio” (XI.xiv.17). “I confess to you, Lord, that I still do not know what time is (ignorare me adhuc), and I further confess to you, Lord, that as I say this I know myself to be conditioned by time” (XI.xxv.32). “So my God, I measure, and do not know (nescio) what I am measuring” (XI.xxvi.33). Augustine’s response of ignorance to the question “What is time” follows the pattern of two prior questions: “Who then are you, my God?” (I.ix.4) and “What then am I, my God?” (X.xvii.26). Augustine’s comment that he understands time until he is asked to think about it is similar to what Robert Jenson has called truth in the “dumb sense”, that is, “the sense with which we all use the word when behaving normally, and which just therefore I cannot and do not need to analyze further”. Robert Jenson, “What if it were true?”, Neue Zeitschrift fur systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie, 43, n.1 (2001), 3. C. Kavin Rowe has also made use of Jenson’s notion of the dumb sense of truth referring to truth “in the smart sense, that is, with extensive reference to recent philosophical analysis and their relevance to theological exposition…and truth in the dumb sense”, that is, the way we ask “is that true?” in ordinary life. World Upside Down (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 160-1, [fn. 45].

[5] Augustine confessed his own ignorance at least seventy times in the Confessions: Book I: I.vi.7; I.vi.8; I.vi.10; I.vii.11; I.vii.12. Book III: III.vii.12; III.vii.14; III.x.18; III.xii.21. Book IV: IV.ii.3; IV.xiii.20; IV.xiii.20; IV.xv.24; IV.xv.25; IV.xv.26). Book VI: VI.iii.4; VI.iv.5; VI.iv.6; VI.v.7-8. Book VII: VII.i.1; VII.i.1; VII.i.2; VII.vii.11; Book VIII: VIII.vi.14; VIII.vi.15. Book IX: IX.iv.9; IX.vii.16; IX.xi.28; Book X: X.v.7; X.viii.15; X.x.17; X.xv.23; X.xx.29; X.xxviii.39; X.xxxvii.61-2. Book XI: XI.ii.2; XI.iv.6; XI.viii.10; XI.xii.14; XI.xiv.17; XI.xxii.28; XI.xxv.32; XI.xxvi.33; XI.xxvi.33; XI.xxix.39. Book XII: XII.v.5; XII.vi.6; XII.xxx.41. Book XIII: XIII.xi.12; XIII.xiv.15; XIII.xxxviii.53. Several of these references include multiple confessions of ignorance.

[6] That is not to say that “negative theology” was ever purely speculative. On the contrary, even the more “complete apophaticism” (Paul Rorem) of Dionysius was a spiritual practice of striving towards union with the God beyond Being. For more on the designation “complete apophaticism” see Paul Rorem, “Negative Theologies and the Cross,” Lutheran Quarterly XXVII, no. 3. (Autumn 2009), 314-331. The essay may also be found in The Dionysian Mystical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 121-141. The work of the French philosopher Pierre Hadot suggests that the ancient philosophical schools primarily understood themselves as a way of life which involved cultivating certain spiritual practices. Hadot reminds us that for Plato even mathematics were used to train the soul to raise from the sensible to the intelligible. Pierre Hadot, “Forms of Life and Forms of Discourse in Ancient Philosophy”, Critical Inquiry, 16.3 (1990), 483-505. For a summary of Hadot’s thought see Arnold Davidson, “Spiritual Exercise and Ancient Philosophy: An Introduction to Pierre Hadot”, Critical Inquiry, 16.3 (1990), 475-482. For an argument on the inherent connection of apophaticism and ascetic disciplines aimed at following God see Jeffrey Vogel, “Growing into the Darkness of God: The Inseparability Between Apophatic Theology and Ascetic Practice”, Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, vol. 15, n.2 (Fall 2015), 214-230. What I am suggesting is that the designation “negative theology” has the ring of purely speculative/academic connotations in the ears of most people today.

[7]The Mystical Theology, ch. 3 in Pseudo-Dionysius the Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987), 138. Dionysius the Areopagite was one of the two named converts from Paul’s sermon “to an unknown” God in Athens (Acts 17:22-34). Eusebius of Caesarea listed him as the first Bishop of Athens (Ecclesiastical Histories III.4). The four treatises (The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy) and ten letters attributed to Dionysius are now believed to be written some five hundred years later. The best introduction to Dionysian Mystical theology is now Paul Rorem,

The Dionysian Mystical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015). For an introductory text from an Orthodox perspective see Andrew Louth, Denys the Areopagite (New York: Continuum, 1989). For an overview of recent scholarship on Dionysius see the various essays in Re-Thinking Dionysius the Areopagite, ed. Sarah Coakley and Charles Stang (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

[8] Vladimir Lossky stated that “negative theology is not foreign to St. Augustine;” “Elements of ‘negative theology’ in the thought of St Augustine,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 21 (1977), 75. Andrew Louth explained that the Latin West “had its own tradition of the incomprehensibility of God, powerfully articulated by Augustine (d. 430), innocent of the Dionysian terminology;” “Apophatic and Cataphatic Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism, ed. Amy Hollywood and Patricia Z. Beckman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 143. Knut Alfsvag argues that “there is no doubt that the basic familiarity with an apophatic approach to the ineffability of God within the Latin context is the result of the work of Augustine.” Knut Alfsvag, What No Mind Has Conceived: on the significance of christological apophaticism (Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2010), 93.

[9] Vladimir Lossky, “Elements of ‘Negative Theology’ in the Thought of St. Augustine”, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, v.21, n.2 (1977), 68.

[10]Ibid., 71; emphasis mine.

[11] Lossky comments regarding De Trinitate XIII.2.3 that the sudden “flash of uncreated reality that lightly touches the consciousness for a moment and then disappears is reminiscent of the ‘suddenly’ (ἐξαίφνης) of Plato.” Ibid, 74. For biblical instances of this adverb see Mark 13:36; Luke 2:13; 9:39; Acts 9:3; 22:6.

[12] Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill, O.P (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1991), 244. Henceforth I cite this translation in parenthesis. The Latin is taken from Augustine, Sancti Aurelii Augustini De Trinitate, Libri XV, Libri I-XV (Turnholti: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii, 1968), 1: 271. Henceforth I use this text for the Latin of De Trinitate.

[13] Lossky, “Elements of Negative Theology”, 74. Andrew Louth takes Augustine’s hamartiology a little bit more seriously than does Lossky. In his treatment of Augustine’s mysticism in his important work on the origins of the Christian mystical tradition, Louth mentions the inability of humans to ascend to God due to sin and he quotes De Trin VIII.2.3 until the last sentence. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (NY: Oxford University Press, 1981), 148.

[14] T.J. van Bavel, O.S.A., “God in between Affirmation and Negation According to Augustine”, in Augustine: presbyter factus sum, ed. Joseph T. Lienhard, Earl C. Muller, Roland J. Teske (New York: P. Lang, 1993), 73-97.

[15]Ibid., 85.

[16]Ibid., 79.

[17]Ibid., 76.

[18] For a succinct summery of his argument see John Peter Kenney, “Mysticism and Contemplation in Augustine’s Confessions”, in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, ed. Julia A. Lamm (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 190-201; for a more comprehensive treatment see The Mysticism of Augustine: rereading the Confessions (NY: Routledge, 2005) and Contemplation and Classical Christianity: A Study in Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[19] John Peter Kenney, “Mysticism and Contemplation in Augustine’s Confessions”, 192.

[20]Ibid., 191.

[21]Ibid., 199.

[22] Philip Sheldrake, among others, has emphasized the centrality of practice in the study of spirituality. Sheldrake affirms that historically spiritualties originate from practices more so than ideas: “concrete spiritualties grow out of the actual practice of the Christian life rather than out of intellectual concepts conceived in isolation from experience and from reflection on experience.” Philip Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 25. For an overview of the landscape of modern spirituality studies see Claire Wolfteich, “Animating Questions: Spirituality and Practical Theology”, International Journal of Practical Theology, vol. 13, issue 1 (2009), 121-143.

[23] Aristotle likewise identifies the end goal of human life as happiness. Happiness is the final end because it is chosen for its own sake and never for another reason. Aristotle defines happiness in light of the function of humanity, which is “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics, trans. J.A.K. Thomson (NY: Penguin, 1953), 76.

[24] Augustine, “Letter 130”, in Letters 100-155, trans. Roland Teske, vol. II/2 of The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003), 197.



[27]Ibid. 198. Notice that the language of “sigh” or “groan” is also used in all the ascension narratives in the Confessions and in a very similar ascension passage in Sermon on Psalm 41. “For a brief while having come within reach of that sound, so that by an effort we may catch something from that house of God, yet though the burden, so to speak, of our infirmity, we sink back to our usual level and relapse to our ordinary state. And just as there we found cause for rejoicing, so here there will not be lacking an occasion for sorrow…[man] is still groaning here, still bearing about the frailty of the flesh”.  Also, notice the connection between the inability to maintain contact with transcendent reality due to the burden of human infirmity and “sighing.” Sermon on Psalm 41, in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. Bernard McGinn (NY: The Modern Library, 2006), 25.

[28]Ibid., 193.


[30] Robin Lane Fox takes both the style of a first person prayer and the “mystical aim” (his words) of the Confessions quite seriously. Roben Lane Fox, Augustine: Conversions to Confessions (NY: Basic Books, 2015), 2, 13.

[31] “Quid enim est quod uolo dicere, domine, nisi quia nescio, unde uenerim huc, in istam dico uitam mortalem an mortem uitalem? Nescio” (I.vi.7).

[32] Such a commitment to pursuing truth wherever it may be found, is similar to what Ted Peters calls “ecumenic” theology, which “places theological reflection into dialogue and even creative mutual interaction with domains of human experience or knowing outside of the Christian Church. The whole of reality becomes the theologian’s ecumene, so to speak.” Ted Peters, Sin Boldly (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 342. For further explanation of this term see Ted Peter’s preface to the first edition of God: The World’s Future, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), viii-xi. Although Augustine’s early “ecumenic” approach to knowledge seems to wane as he grows older. In an article comparing Augustine’s and Nicholas of Cusa’s use of Platonism Edward Cranz has suggested that Augustine increasingly becomes more pessimistic about the ability to know ultimate reality through taking a look around the neighborhood.  Edward F Cranz,, “Saint Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa in the Tradition of Western Christian Thought,” Speculum 28, no. 2 (1953): 297-316.

[33] I owe the interpretation of On Christian Teaching as handbook of Christian rhetoric for Bishops and the implications against the “Platonic fallacy” to Dr. Christopher B. Brown, who presented this interpretation in a class at Boston University School of Theology on The Church in Late Antiquity in Fall 2015. 

[34] Again, “I retained so much vanity as to be unable to think any substance possible other than that which the eyes normally perceive” (VII.i.1); “I did not know (ignorabam) what to think about your substantial nature” (VI.v.7-8).

[35]The Trinity, 189; my emphasis.

[36] Here negative theology is understood as the practice of directly negating ones affirmations, or stating what God is not, in order to stress the absolutely unique nature of God or God’s work. My definition of explicit negative theology derives from Charles Stang, who defines “negative theology” as “a name given to a tradition within Christianity that confesses God to be so utterly transcendent, so beyond our concepts and names for God, that we must in fact ‘negate’ them in order to free God from such cramped categories.” Charles M. Stang, “Negative Theology from Gregory of Nyssa to Dionysius the Areopagite,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, ed. Julia A. Lamm (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 161.

[37]The Trinity., 190. De Trinitate, 207.

[38]The Trinity, 243; De Trinitate, 270.


[40] Twice in Book IX Augustine admits the possibility of sin in his life. First, Augustine opens Book IX defending his decision not to withdraw immediately from his profession as a rhetorician. “One of your servants, my brothers, might say that I had sinned in this matter . . . I would not contest that. But, most merciful God, did you not grant pardon and remission for this fault with my other horrendous and mortal sins, in the holy water of baptism?” (IX.ii.4) Second, in the context of defending himself for weeping over the death of his mother, again Augustine speaks to the reader to interpret his actions as they may. “If he finds fault that I wept for my mother for a fraction of an hour…let him not mock me but rather, if a person of much charity, let him weep himself before you for my sins” (IX.xii.33).

[41] It is here that Augustin begins his famous refrain “Grant what you command, and command what you will” that supposedly infuriated Pelagius the British Monk (X.xx.ix.40).

[42] Even in the last Book Augustine is still speaking of ignorance while lamenting the weight of cupidity: “To whom can I expound, and with what words can I express the weight of cupidity pulling us downwards into the precipitous abyss and the lifting up of love given by your Spirit…To whom can I communicate this? How can I speak about it?” (XIII.vii.8)

[43]On The Trinity, 244; De Trinitate 271.

[44] Augustine’s introduction to the last three books follows this same pattern. After stating that he is turning his attention to the interpretation of scripture he says “For a long time now I have been burning to meditate in your law and confess to you what I know of it and what lies beyond my powers – the first elements granted by your illumination and the remaining areas of darkness in my understanding” (XI.i.1).

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