The Eclipse of Augustinianism

In tracing the roots of the moral and cultural decline of the West, I came across this passage in The Short Oxford History of Europe: The Seventeenth Century:

“The confessional churches of the first part of the seventeenth century, moreover, underpinned the pessimism of the Shakespearian vision with the bleakness of their doctrine of salvation. Theologians in both camps accepted without demur the limited view of human nature which had dominated Christendom since the time of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Man was an irreparably fallen creature ultimately only redeemed in God’s eyes through the saving power of Christ on the cross. Their differences turned around whether or not men played any part in their own salvation through the performance of good works. Neither side believed that performing good works was easy, given the rottenness of the human condition. On the contrary, both agreed that without specific divine grace performing an action pleasing to God was impossible. Only a handful of Jesuit theologians who took their lead from the Spaniard, Luis de Molina (1535-1600), believed that such grace was man’s for the asking. Indeed, according to the wing of the seventeenth century Catholic Church which identified with the opinions of Cornelius Jansen bishop of Ypres (1585-1638), the bestowal of divine grace was arbitrary. Catholic theologians then were often as austere and anti-humanist as their Protestant counterparts. All Christian confessions stressed that life was a vale of tears, the much deserved punishment of God for human disobedience.

Augustine’s negative view of mankind was also used to justify the fact that the majority of Europeans were daily subject to “the proud man’s contumely” and “the insolence of office” as much as the cruel indifference of nature. As frail fallen vessels in an age where the state’s arm was still relatively short, seventeenth century Christians had to be imprisoned within the confines of a gendered, hierarchical and deferential society to ensure that the divine moral order was passably upheld. Make men too comfortable and they would have too great an opportunity to sin. Punish too leniently and they would sin with impunity. Put men in a state of nature or equality and they would tear themselves apart. An Augustinian view of human nature also sustained the penchant of seventeenth century theologians and lawyers for divine-right absolute monarchy.”

This is very important.

From St. Augustine’s time in the 4th and 5th centuries down to the 17th century in Western Europe, a period which lasted over a thousand years, there was a powerful religious consensus in the West about human nature. Human beings were naturally wicked and corrupted by Original Sin.

Luther and Calvin DID NOT challenge this dominant Augustinian worldview in the Reformation. On the contrary, they reaffirmed it. Protestants and Catholics emphasized different aspects of Augustine’s thought. It was Augustine who had vanquished in the Western Christian tradition the doctrine known as Pelagianism which held that moral perfection is possible in this life.

As we saw in the previous post, Augustine had condemned paganism in City of God for failing to teach a doctrine of right living. Traditionally speaking, Western Christianity did not have this problem. For over a thousand years, the Catholic Church provided the structure, authority and content of our cultural and moral lives. It provided answers to any number of questions that are left unanswered today.

While there was always a separation between church and state, the Western Church was coterminus with society. There was no individual choice in the matter. Everyone was a Christian and there were civil courts and church courts that enforced its hegemonic moral authority. Even after the Reformation, Western Europe was divided into official state churches with almost no religious tolerance.

The key turning point came in the seventeenth century:

“As the previous section made clear, the philosophical and theological assumptions underpinning the dominant mindset of the seventeenth century were not a recent creation. Augustinian values had held the Church in thrall since the fifth century, while their integration with Aristotelian philosophy as principally the work of scholar-priests of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. However, in any study of this broader Augustinian moment, the seventeenth century must occupy a privileged position as it was the first time in over a thousand years that this traditional worldview was seriously challenged. Throughout the century a small but growing minority of educated Europeans refused to accept the Augustinian analysis of the human condition, if only in part, and developed an unusual, and to Augustinian contemporaries unhealthy, interest in both the material manifestations of the human spirit (past and present) and the abundant and complex variety of the natural world. Augustinians saw the world as a snare and the enjoyment of its fruits (artificial or natural) as vanity. In contrast, this growing minority had an obsessive and insatiable aesthetic and intellectual interest in their environment: they sought more and more information about its treasures, and, where possible, appropriated, collected and examined its wonders themselves. In their hands, the private cabinet ceased to be a space for personal devotion and became a theatre or museum of nature sometimes intentionally modeled on Noah’s Ark.”

If I had to describe it, I would say that the whole tone and long term effect of modern philosophy from Descartes through Hume to Kant had the effect of undermining and marginalizing this Augustinian consensus in Western Europe’s intellectual elite which slowly, but surely vanquished metaphysics while embracing a radically skeptical epistemology. This is the common thread that runs through Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant who put nearly everything that had previously been taken for granted from reality itself to the self to the soul to the existence of God into doubt.

In particular, the Netherlands and England led the charge, although the revival of materialism and skepticism in Western thought was a European phenomena. Amsterdam and London became the first large modern cities. The Dutch and the English were trading nations which accelerated these trends there which lagged behind in Germany, Scandinavia and Southern Europe. The Jews were emancipated and granted liberty of conscience in the Netherlands and England before it happened elsewhere.

In seventeenth century England, the church courts and state censorship which had previously regulated English culture broke down in the chaos of the English Civil War. After the Restoration, Anglicanism was restored as the established church in England and non-conformists and Catholics were excluded from office by the Test Acts. James II’s attempt to impose French-style Catholicism on England was overthrown by King William III in the Glorious Revolution.

King William III united Britain and the Netherlands under a single modernizing monarch. It was from this point forward that “liberty” moved into the center of English life. Censorship was relaxed and the “free press” dates from this period. Religious tolerance was proclaimed. The church courts were no longer able to regulate and enforce morals. Augustinianism went into retreat and was replaced by Whiggery with its Pelagian doctrines of individual rights, religious freedom and human progress.

Culturally speaking, the view from Mount Olympus of Europe from around 1700 down to the present is the decline and demise of Christianity. This has been coupled with cultural decomposition and nihilism as “liberty” and “equality” and “human rights” have been taken to ever greater extremes. Christianity isn’t just gradually marginalized. It takes on a very different tone.

After 1700, the substance and tone of Christianity changes due to the rise of evangelicalism, the decline of Augustinianism, the impact of the Enlightenment and the influence of Romanticism. Gone are the firebrands of the 16th century like Luther, Calvin and Knox. In Britain, they are gradually replaced by mewling sentimentalists like Wilbur Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect.

I’m writing more about Britain here simply because I am so much more familiar with its history than other European countries, but what happened there was going on all over Europe. Basically, the decline of Augustinianism in Western Europe in the seventeenth century opened up the intellectual vacuum into which liberalism moved and has dominated down to the present day.

About Hunter Wallace 11895 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent

10 Comments

  1. No articles about Donald Trumps signing of the “worse than amnesty” spending bill, the confirmation of the bushboy William Barr and the Rosenstein story? We need your take on all of this.

  2. Christianity was in a slow, almost imperceptible decline long before the Age of Reason, HW. The rise of Mohammedanism, the Cathars, the Great Schism, the failure of the Crusades to secure the Holy Land, the Fall of Constantinople, the Reformation…the history of Christianity is replete with losses and failures.

    • Only if you want it to fail. As your own statements have consistently proven Spawn of Hell. I named you right, the first time I read one of your posts. Having seen your GAB profile (with its idolatrous swastikas and overt paganist memes) I am now sure of it. Anathema sit.

  3. Hunter,
    I am enjoying your historical and religious history commentaries. The Alt-Right needs a deeper understanding of what our ancestors thought just a few centuries ago.
    Your line “Augustinianism went into retreat and was replaced by Whiggery with its Pelagian doctrines of individual rights, religious freedom and human progress.” said a mouthful. I do agree that their is a strong connection in America between modern evangelicalism and muh liberty.
    And from a conservative Calvinist perspective, Arminius and the Jesuits revived the *free will* doctrine of Pelagius, and then John Wesley mainstreamed their worldview to people who had never even heard of Pelagus.
    Thought provoking series at OD!

    • That’s goofy. Wesley believed people could renounce their belief in Jesus Christ. You call that Pelagianism?

      Plus, Wesley was not an infallible Pope. LOL. But, Wesley was one of the founders of what was called the “Methodist-Calvinists”. There were about 40 other founders, including the founder of the Presbyterian church.

      How come it takes forever to get a comment to post? Heck, I’ve been posting since you started.

  4. A very interesting lens through which to analyze history – proponents of freewill vs. proponents of predestination.

    Within the Catholic church, freewill had already gained some ground during the Renaissance.

    The Reformation, stridently in favor of predestination, can be seen as a reaction against the Papacy’s flirtation with the Renaissance. See the Luther vs. Erasmus debate on this topic – Luther considered support for predestination even more fundamental than sola scriptura, while Erasmus, stating what he considered to be the Catholic position, sough vague definitions that would satisfy both the supporters of freewill and the supporters of predestination.

    But the Catholic proponents of predestination, aka Jansenists, were still very influential in their own right. Pope Innocent XI, who organized the Holy League to save Vienna in 1683, was a Jansenist. Blaise Pascal was a Jansenist, and a furious critic of the Jesuits. The Parlements of France were Jansenist strongholds in the reign of Louis XV, constantly quarreling with king, who supported the Jesuits. The destruction of the Parlements during the French Revolution, and the revival of the Jesuits as the shock troops of Catholic reaction after the fall of Napoleon, marked the end of predestinarianism as a serious force within the Catholic Church.

    The Puritans revolted against the Arminian (freewill) church policies of King Charles and Archbishop Laud. Both the English Civil War to establish the rights of Parliament, and the settling of New England, were motivated by support of predestination.

    An important change began after the restoration when Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper became the leader, and John Locke the ideologist, of the Parliamentary party, now know as “Whigs” rather than “Puritans” or “Roundheads”.

    Both Ashley Cooper and Locke were deists. From being the party of ultra-predestinarians, the Parliamentary party was now led by secret or open ultra-freewillers.

    (Incidentally, Ashley Cooper was the most important proprietor of South Carolina, and John Locke was the author of its first constitution. The Deep South and the larger Golden Circle have most definitely *not* always been at the forefront of “reaction”, nor has New England always been at the forefront of “progress”. Jamaica had twice as many Jews as all the mainland colonies combined, while in some Dutch Golden Circle colonies such as Surinam, Curacao and Saint Eustasius, more than half of the White population was Jewish)

    From the perspective of freewill vs. predestination, the Glorious Revolution, the rise of Methodism, the American Revolution, and the campaign against the slave trade were all ambiguous events. Which benefited more from the Glorious Revolution, William of Orange’s Calvinism or Locke’s deism? (Interestingly, Orange was the location of the Church Council that definitively condemned Pelagianism. Fitting that the Princes of Orange would one day become the champions of Calvinism.) Which was more significant, Whitfield’s Calvinism or Wesley’s Arminianism? Was the American Revolution a victory for reactionary American Calvinists against the innovations of George III’s Arminian High Church Toryism, or was it a triumph for deists and newfangled Boston Unitarians? Were restrictions on the importations of slaves a commonsense move motivated by fears of slave insurrection and a desire to open more economic niches for White workers, or was it the template for all subsequent liberal “movements”?

  5. A naive person says, wouldn’t it be better if people could earn God’s favor in Heaven by doing good deeds down here on Earth? There are two reasons why the answer is no. First, it is not obvious to mortal men what exactly constitutes a “good deed”. Freeing a slave? What if he then goes broke and starves to death? Helping single mothers? What if that encourages other girls to become single mothers?

    The other problem is competitive holiness-signaling. I become a pacifist so as not to kill my fellow man, you become a vegetarian so as not to kill our fellow animals, I become a vegan so as not to exploit them either, you become a no-dig vegan so as not to accidentally kill worms, I become a breathairian so as not to harm plants…

    The Catholic solution to supererogation is to send the holiest people off to a monastery or convent, where they can be close to God and very far from sex, money, and power.

  6. A noble attempt to try and figure things out, HW. But you need to go back further than either the Reformation or the success of Finney, the overt Arminian Methodists, the Anabaptists, or even Luther.

    Augustine has within him the seeds of the failure of either a strict Pauline predestinarianism, or a post-lapsarian Pelagianism. The Orthodox have a lot of analysis of Augustine’s genius, as well as his failings.

    And the Great Schism is where we need to mend fences, starting with the inversion of the ordo salutis and the Trinity, via the filioque.

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