Augustine’s Retractations, Perfectionism, And Fakespectations (1)

For a long time I have been thinking about and planning to do something which I, with God’s assistance, I am now undertaking because I do not think it should be postponed: with a kind of judicial severity I am reviewing my works — books, letters, and sermons — and, as it were, with the pen of a censor, I am indicating what dissatisfies me. For, truly, only an ignorant man will have the hardihood to criticize me for criticizing my own errors. But if he maintains that I should not have said those things which, indeed, dissatisfied me later, he speaks the truth and concurs with me. In fact, he and I are critics of the same thing, for I should not have criticized such things if it had been right to say them.

Augustine of Hippo, Prologue to the Retractations (c. 427–28) in St. Augustine, The Retractations, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 60, trans. Mary Inez Bogan (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 3.

The expression “I retract nothing” appears with remarkable frequency among contemporary writers and speakers. In the parlance of gamblers it is called “doubling down.” Then candidate Trump was particularly noted for this rhetorical strategy but he is hardly alone. He is part of a great company. In contrast, I am an Augustinian and Augustinians not only believe in original sin they practice it. So does everyone else but other traditions are less willing or able to admit their sins. For example, once one in the Wesleyan tradition has reached entire perfection or sinless perfection. Some years ago one of Mrs HB’s math students declared to her that he had reached entire sanctification such that he no longer sinned. As soon as she said that I thought, “Well, he just sinned by lying.” R. C. Sproul’s response to a similar claim is apt:

I had a difficult time concealing my astonishment at this spiritual arrogance. I asked him pointedly, “You mean that You, at age nineteen, after one year of Christian faith, have achieved a higher level of obedience to God than the apostle Paul enjoyed when he was writing the Epistle to the Romans?”

To my everlasting shock the young man replied without flinching, “Yes!” Such is the extent to which persons will delude themselves into thinking that they have achieved sinlessness.

Indeed, there is a sharp distinction between the Augustinian reading of Romans 7 and other readings (e.g., that of Pelagius and later of Arminius). Augustinians typically recognize themselves in the Apostle’s stark confession of his ongoing struggle with sin, even in a state of grace. The Pelagians and Arminians begin with the a priori conviction that Paul could not have been describing himself or any Christian. I understand that there are other approaches e.g., Ridderbos’ but the distance between his reading and Pelagius’ and Arminius’ is perhaps not as great as we might assume simply because Ridderbos was in the Dutch Reformed tradition. Ad fontes.

Augustine’s ruthless honesty and self-criticism in his Retractations not only stands in stark contrast to what Sproul calls “the heresy of perfectionism” but it also stands as a rebuke to the spirit of our age (Die Zeitgeist), autonomy, self-assertion, self-aggrandizement, self-empowerment, self-realization, and self-actualization. Remove the titles on these topics from your local Barnes and Noble and the store would seem empty. We are more like Nietzsche than Augustine.

The Internet both reflects and increases the severity of the problem. How often have we read things like “the internet lives forever” or “nothing dies on the internet”? This axiom appears with regularity on social media platforms such as Twitter, which in its very nature invites immediate, unqualified, emotive reaction, which then can be “screen capped” (a virtual photograph taken) and preserved digitally even after the tweet has been deleted. Where once we might have thought something or even said it to a friend, today our “friends” are online and we say it to tens, hundreds, and even to thousands. Not long ago I tweeted a link to an interview I did a year ago with Sen. Sasse. I was astonished to see that within a few days it had received 20,000 “interactions” (what that means I don’t know but even I can tell that 20,000 is a large number). It was a bracing reminder to be careful on Twitter etc.

Here, as always, the distinction between law and gospel is helpful. Our social institutions, whether real, e.g., the civil magistrate, work, and school or virtual, i.e., the internet, are law. The law demands perfection and punishes when we do not hit the mark. Get caught running a red light: ticket. Show up late to work: lost wages or perhaps lost job. Write a poor final exam: lose points toward your grade. The internet is a particularly harsh judge, however. So we respond by creating an idealized online persona. Our life is not quite the way it is made to seem on social media. On one platform I follow various accounts that post videos and photos of Scottish Terriers. Call it brand loyalty. It is great fun to watch Scotties do Scottie things in Scottie ways but no one ever posts photos of picking up after the dog in the backyard. That’s also a part of the reality. The incomplete portrayal of life is a kind of law. It creates a false expectation about what life is. It creates a kind of pressure to portray perfection. Today, Middle and High School students report feeling pressure from social media to meet what I call fakespectations (© and ™2017) created by social media.

Near the end of his writing life Augustine wrote his Retractations to correct the mistakes he had made earlier in his ministry. Could anyone do that today? I am not sure that we could. I fear that we, even Christians, who should know better have lost something important. If the Apostle Paul, with the knowledge that he was writing God’s Word which would be preserved for the church, could write Romans 7 about himself, how is it that we mere Christians can no longer speak this way of ourselves? It is because we have been unknowingly taken captive by the self-justifying spirit  of the age. I am not suggesting that we indulge ourselves in self-indulgent self-revelation. We have seen episodes of that in the recent past and turned out to have been cover for gross immorality. There is a sharp difference between the sort of self-revelation we read in Romans 7 and the sort we have seen from some evangelical and Reformed folk in the last several years.

Because we live so much of our lives under the fakespectations created by social media, we can forget about grace and the one institution divinely instituted to be the minister of grace: the visible church.

More about this next time.

RESOURCES

  1. Brothers We Are Not Perfectionists
  2. Warfield On Two Sources Of Pefectionism

9 comments

  1. This is an excellent post to consider, and Augustine and Paul are great examples.

    What helped bring this to light immensely for me was math. As a student, I at times did problems which I had no problem in determining the steps to solve them (e.g. linear interpolation, etc.). Yet once my work was returned or I had time to review, I noticed I made simple mistakes that resulted in wrong answers. It made me feel ashamed and stupid to have made such mistakes, and I realized that if I could make mistakes in something as clear and precise as mathematics, then I could surely make mistakes in my reasoning in all other areas. And I consider these other areas as more susceptible to error due to the nuance and ambiguity in language, or our conscious attempts at equivocation. When this ambiguity or equivocation is coupled with our changing emotions/passions that wrestle with our sin stained minds that attempt to be reasonable, it can lead to extremely bad consequences.

    Personally, I have found that my mood alters how I reason, and it can push me to place more weight on certain things that I otherwise would not; this is a bit frightening. So I find that reconsidering things I have said or done, in particular when in different moods, to be a necessity in my life in order to be in accordance with, or at least approximate, truth.

    As to the various interpretations that don’t fall neatly in either the Augustinian or Pelagian camps, who provides a good explanation of the alternatives? I’ve heard that Douglass Moo has an alternative interpretation as well.

    • Alberto,

      I don’t quite know what you mean about interpretations that don’t fall neatly into Augustinian or Pelagian camps. Pelagius was a heretic as declared by the Council of Ephesus in 431. He was denounced by the Second Council of Orange (529) and by the entire medieval and Reformation church. So, he doesn’t get equal time. There is no moral equivalence between the Augustinian view and Pelagius.

      That said, are there particular passages where think that Pelagius had a point?

    • I think I was misunderstood. I’m not trying to give Pelagians or Arminians equal time, much less agree with Pelagians or Arminians. I’ve heard that some RECENT theologians interpret Paul in chapter 7 in a way that, I guess, is innovative or different; they don’t affirm the kind of explanation of chapter 7 as Paul speaking of his and other Christians experience in this life. When I ask for a good explanation, I mean someone’s presentation, article, etc. that provides an explanation with clarity so as to be understood. I just want to know what they say.

      Since I’m no theologian and hear things from some that are at times, I get curious. You mentioned Ridderbos, so now I’m curious as to how Ridderbos interprets it. I’ve previously heard of Douglass Moo from Kim Riddlebarger’s website, http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/favorite-commentaries/, so I’m curious of Moo’s interpretation. I’m assuming Moo is not Pelagian or Arminian.

    • Ridderbos, as I recall, argued that Rom 7 was about the history of redemption, that Paul was adopting a persona, that Paul was not speaking as a Christian. One problem with this view, is that it is formally similar to that of both Pelagius and Arminius. Second, it rests on a similar assumption: Paul could not have been describing a believer.

      Synod rejected this view.

      That’s a problem.

      Moo’s view suffers from some of the same problems.

    • I’m a curious person (in more ways than one), and I guess I should be careful, since curiosity killed the cat. But as long as it was a cat and not a dog, I’m fine with that. : )

      To reiterate, I liked your blog post. I have learned valuable Reformed history and other information from you that has shaped my thoughts, so if I haven’t said it before, thank you.

  2. After the Fall, all our faculties that posterity of Adam have been altered, except One who lived a sinless life during His earthly ministry. I love this (It is because we have been unknowingly taken captive by the self-justifying spirit of the age)

  3. Worse than stubborn refusal to admit when we’re wrong and correct our errors is when we pretend we have grown in wisdom and want to correct ourselves… while actually retracting nothing. These statements immediately came to mind as I read the article:

    “I have decided, after mulling over it for some years now, to discontinue identifying myself with what has come to be called the federal vision….”
    “….I would still want affirm everything I signed off on in the Federal Vision statement…”
    “…In short, I believe the statement was fine as far as it went, but does not say everything that needs to be said…”

    • Geoff,

      Great point!

      For those readers who are unaware, Geoff refers to a recent article by Doug Wilson in which he announced that he no longer wishes to be regarded as a federal visionist.

      It’s a fake retraction.

    • I’ve had two comments to the effect that the correct title is . Noted. Corrected. Thank you.

      It means literally “to take to hand again” or “to revise.” I think this is congruent with my major point.

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