Philosophy Word of the Day – Augustine’s Political and Social Philosophy

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

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“St. Augustine (C.E. 354-430), originally named Aurelius Augustinus, was the Catholic bishop of Hippo in northern Africa.  He was a skilled Roman-trained rhetorician, a prolific writer (who produced more than 110 works over a 30-year period), and by wide acclamation, the first Christian philosopher.  Writing from a unique background and vantage point as a keen observer of society before the fall of the Roman Empire, Augustine’s views on political and social philosophy constitute an important intellectual bridge between late antiquity and the emerging medieval world.  Because of the scope and quantity of his work, many scholars consider him to have been the most influential Western philosopher.

“Although Augustine certainly would not have thought of himself as a political or social philosopher per se, the record of his thoughts on such themes as the nature of human society, justice, the nature and role of the state, the relationship between church and state, just and unjust war, and peace all have played their part in the shaping of Western civilization. There is much in his work that anticipates major themes in the writings of moderns like Machiavelli, Luther, Calvin and, in particular, Hobbes.” (continue article)

—J. Mark Mattox at The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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The Missing Links — March 7, 2011

Alvin Plantinga after telling a joke at the be...

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  • Alexander Pruss, professor of philosophy at Baylor, writes on “Eight Tempting Big-Picture Errors in Ethics,” such as “Sometimes you should do the wrong thing” and “Some areas of life are exempt from morality.” Other papers by Pruss are available here.
  • Insightful non-Christian critique of the new atheists at ABC Australia. “The militant atheist bandwagon – driven by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett – continues to paint their theist opposition as irrational simpletons who favor superstition and myth over reason and science.”
  • The top philosophy journals according to a poll of 36,000 contributors.  The top 10 are:
  • 1. Journal of Philosophy
    2. Philosophical Review
    3. Philosophy & Phenomenological Research
    4. Nous
    5. Mind
    6. Ethics
    7. Philosophical Studies
    8. Synthese
    9. Philosophy & Public Affairs
    10. Analysis


Book Review — The Great Theologians by Gerald R. McDermott

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  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2010)
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  • Author Faculty Page
  • Q and A with the author
  • The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by Gerald R. McDermott is an excellent resource for those who are interested in understanding how theological thinking has been influenced and molded by Christian tradition. In recent years, I have come to see how a theology student can benefit from studying historical theology. Of course, I don’t believe that historical thinking can play a magisterial role in place of Scripture. Yet, we can learn a great deal from those who went before us (including mistakes that they made), and better understand where we are today. Alister McGrath notes, “Part of our theological method must include an examination of the past to understand how we came to be where we are.” In other words, theology is not simply about giving priority to the Bible; it is also about valuing and interacting with the ideas scholars derive from their engagement with tradition. As Graham Cole summarizes, “Theological thinking is also historical thinking …. To ignore the past would be an immense folly.” Suffice it to say that McDermott’s book succeeds in answering these concerns.

    What distinguishes McDermott’s book from others and what I thought to be very beneficial is the format that he applies to each chapter. Each chapter starts with a biographical sketch of the theologian, telling a story about that theologian’s life, and then introduces main themes of that theologian’s thought. Then, McDermott zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that theologian and provides an analysis of it. I really appreciated this format. It helps me to see the bigger picture of how each theologian came to form his particular theological thinking, how he reacted to the theological trends of his day and how such events informed and influenced his view of Scripture, etc. As a result, it demonstrates the interesting journey of the theologian’s mind to his particular thinking.

    Another strength that comes from the format is that since the author keeps it uniform throughout the book, it was easier to compare one theologian to another. This is nicely done especially between Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the subjects of beauty, human experience (feeling) and reason in doing theology. To give another example, Friedrich Schleiermacher argues for the feeling of absolute dependence as the essence of religion (reacting to the Enlightenment), while Karl Barth turned attention to God’s self revelation in the Bible. Yet, Barth did not seem to exclude the significant aspect of human experience or feeling in doing theology, since his view of Scripture is that the Bible becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for its readers. Interestingly, Edwards saw both feeling (affections) and thinking (cognition) as important aspects of religion. In my opinion, Edwards has the most balanced view on this important subject.

    An additional strength of this book is that McDermott did not neglect to include the viewpoints of contemporary systematic/historical theologians such as Alister McGrath and Timothy George. For example, McDermott cites McGrath in the section on Luther’s theology of the cross. This is an excellent example of how past theology can continue to influence contemporary theologians and how the interaction of past and present can further unfold God’s message of the cross.

    I enjoyed this book very much. One thing that I wondered before reading it was how he chose these eleven theologians. What were the reasons behind his selection? McDermott says that it was purely his personal preference. Whatever the reasons, I found it a good selection and I believe McDermott succeeded in accomplishing his purpose for the book: “I wanted to be able to provide a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians—so that any thinking Christian could get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each. . . . An introduction that could inform and provide a gateway to deeper study if so desired”(11).

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese.  Naomi is pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

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    Edwards on Knowing Doctrine to Be Divine

    Here’s an interesting quote from Jonathan Edwards in his sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light” where he describes how believers possess certainty of the truth of biblical doctrine.

    A true sense of the divine excellency of the things of God’s Word doth more directly and immediately convince of the truth of them; and that because the excellency of these things is so superlative. There is a beauty in them that is so divine and godlike, that is greatly and evidently distinguishing of them from things merely human, or that men are the inventors and authors of; a glory that is so high and great, that when clearly seen, commands assent to their divinity, and reality. When there is an actual and lively discovery of this beauty and excellency, it won’t allow of any such thought as that it is an human work, or the fruit of men’s invention. This evidence, that they, that are spiritually enlightened, have of the truth of the things of religion, is a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence. They believe the doctrines of God’s Word to be divine, because they see divinity in them, i.e. they see a divine, and transcendent, and most evidently distinguishing  glory in them; such a glory as, if clearly seen, don’t leave room to doubt of their being of God, and not of men.

    Alvin Plantinga cites descriptions like these from Edwards (e.g., Warranted Christian Belief, 100-101) in support of his extended A/C (Aquinas/Calvin) model of warranted Christian belief, in which the believer acquires knowledge (both true and warranted belief) of “the great things of the gospel”– a phrase borrowed from Edwards — by the internal testimony or instigation of the Holy Spirit.

    The believers described above by Edwards could be understood to be those on Plantinga’s model who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to believe in the divine origin and truth of core biblical teachings.  They possess “a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence” and “see divinity” in the “things of God’s Word.

    Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology makes a lot of sense to me, and he and Edwards seem to be in agreement on at least this point.

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