Share This Episode
Renewing Your Mind R.C. Sproul Logo


Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
January 18, 2021 12:01 am


Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

On-Demand Podcasts NEW!

This broadcaster has 1640 podcast archives available on-demand.

Broadcaster's Links

Keep up-to-date with this broadcaster on social media and their website.

January 18, 2021 12:01 am

After Jesus and the Apostles, perhaps no one in the first thousand years of church history had such a formative influence on Christian thinking as Augustine. Today, R.C. Sproul introduces us to this intellectual giant.

Get R.C. Sproul's 'The Consequences of Ideas' 35-Part DVD Series for Your Gift of Any Amount:

Don't forget to make your home for daily in-depth Bible study and Christian resources.


In the fourth century, a debate emerged over the very foundations of knowledge. Some said that we really can't know anything.

We will learn how to combat ideas like that, next on Renewing Your Mind. Today, we're going to begin our study in the history of philosophy in a brief overview of Aurelius Augustine, who is known to us more commonly as St. Augustine, or some people mimicking the name of the city in Florida, call him St. Augustine. It's been said of Augustine that he is the greatest theologian at least of the first millennium of Christian history, if not in the entire history of the church. But he distinguished himself not only for his work in theology, but also in the realm of philosophy. And certainly, it would not be an overstatement to say that no one in the first thousand years of church history had such a formative influence on Christian thinking as this man did. And part of the thing that is so important in understanding Augustine is that he didn't have the advantage, as Aquinas did, and later Lutheran Calvin and Edwards did, of having had an Augustine to go before them. He was, on his own more or less, he was the pioneering intellectual giant of the early Christian centuries. We also see that in Augustine, he, perhaps more than any single figure, gave definition to the soteriology or the doctrines of salvation that define historic Reformed theology and Protestantism, so that Protestants all claim Augustine as their father, while at the same time, his definition of the nature and function of the church, that is his development of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, has had a tremendous impact on the development of Roman Catholic ecclesiology, so that the Roman church also claims Augustine for their own. And much of the debate in the sixteenth century during the Reformation was a debate about where Augustine fit in the whole scheme of things of that time.

Now, Augustine was born in the fourth century, in the middle of the fourth century, in the year 354, and died in the year 430. And during the course of his life, he was engaged in many, many theological and philosophical controversies. As a young man, before he became a Christian, he went through various flirtations and involvement with alternate systems of thought.

For a while, he joined the Manichean movement and then became very much engaged with Neoplatonic philosophy, which he then rejected and spent much of his life offering a critique against Neoplatonism. Though students of Augustine to this day sometimes criticize Augustine for thinking that he never really completely rid himself of some of the rudimentary ideas that were found in the very system with which he was contending. Now, in addition to the philosophical controversies he was engaged in, he was engaged also in many theological controversies, the two most important of which were the so-called Donatist controversy, which was a controversy regarding the legitimacy of baptism that had been performed by heretics or lapsed clergymen and so on. But even more important was his controversy with the British monk Pelagius, and so we have that historic so-called Pelagian controversy in which the doctrines of grace were at the center.

In fact, Augustine's emphasis on the grace of God in redemption was so strong that he has been called historically by the Roman Catholic Church the doctor gratia, that is, the doctor of grace. But our basic concern here is not with his theological contributions, of which there are many and they are vastly important, but where he fits in the history of philosophical investigation. Now, one of the most important things that he was concerned about was the question of epistemology and of the problem of epistemology that had been developed by Neoplatonic thinkers. And Augustine was facing a revival of skepticism in his own day, and that skepticism really was two-pronged.

On the one hand, there was a widespread skepticism against the reliability of the senses or the reliability of sense perception in order to gain any knowledge. And also there were those skeptics who were completely skeptical about our ability to achieve truth at all. And Augustine countered these people by saying that even the skeptic who is completely skeptical has to admit to certain truths. If he says that no truth is possible, then he's already committed himself to the discovery that one truth is discoverable, namely the truth that there is no truth discoverable. You hear the same kind of language in our culture today in popular armchair philosophy where people say there are no absolutes, except of course for the absolute that there are absolutely no absolutes.

Augustine did that sort of thing of turning the skeptics on their ears and pointed out that even in their skepticism they couldn't escape one principle of epistemology, namely the law of contradiction, because they depended upon the law of contradiction for their skepticism. And if one is going to reason at all, they are dependent upon rational principles, and this was one of the points that he tried to make. But his major concern was how we can avoid skepticism and rise to certainty, because the whole issue of philosophical certainty has been one of the things that has preoccupied the theoretical thinkers of Western history.

Can we be sure of anything? And of course one of the first targets of the question of certainty is sense perception, and this will be a problem that will continue in philosophical inquiry up to our present day. And the fundamental problem with sense perception is that we already are aware that our senses are not perfect, that we can have distorted perceptions of external reality. And since it's possible for us to have a distorted view of the world around us, it makes basing truth or basing certainty in any way upon our sense perceptions something of a serious philosophical problem.

Now, Augustine was not ready to put sense perception at the highest level of certitude by any means, but nor was he prepared to simply jettison sense perception as a useless enterprise. He understood something fundamental to our humanity, and that is that our only transition, our only link to the world apart from our own interior minds and our own thinking is our body. Our bodies are the links that we have with the external world. I have no way to get in touch with the external world except by either seeing it, hearing it, tasting it, touching it, smelling it. And so I am dependent upon my senses to have any information coming to me from outside of the interior chambers of my own mind.

Now, if that vehicle of knowledge is completely untrustworthy, then of course I have no way of knowing for sure about anything outside of my own thinking. So Augustine took a close look at that problem of sense perception, and one of his famous illustrations was the illustration that was common to people in the ancient world and one that I think all of us have experienced at one time or another. If you've ever been in a rowboat and you put the oar in the water and you look from the perspective of sitting there in the rowboat, you look at the oar, and of course you can see the handle of the oar until it goes into the water. But if the sky is bright and the water is clear enough, you can then see further down into the water and see the end of the oar, but from your vantage point it looks like once the oar hits the water, it bends. Do you recall that kind of sensation where from the vantage point of being out of the water, you put the oar in the water and from where you're sitting, you look and the blade of the oar is bent away from you? And so looking at that, you would say, well, I have a bent oar in my hands. Is the oar really bent or is this an illusion caused by the water and the light and all of that? Well, if it is an illusion and if such illusions are part of our daily experience of perception, how do we know that all of our perceptions are not illusions?

Well, Gustin made a very simple distinction here, but it's one that's very important, not just at a theoretical level but at a practical level. He said, well, I may be wrong about what the oar is actually doing, but I still can be confident that I am perceiving the oar as being bent. That is, the content of my perception may not be perfectly accurate, but I can still know that I am having the perception and that I am perceiving that the oar is bent. Again, that may seem like an insignificant thing, but so often, for example, we in the clergy have to moderate disputes between people or an argument between a husband and a wife, and you get into these discussions where you hear he says and she says, and there's a difference of opinion as to what transpired between them or what actually happened. And I know when I get into those positions, which are not very enviable positions to be to play the moderator in such disputes, I say, okay, we don't just have one question here. We are arguing about what happened or about what was said, and maybe we don't have any record of what was said in terms of a tape of it, and it's your word against his or so on. But we know this, that something was said, and you differ as to what was said.

So that's one problem that we have to get at. What was said is part of the actual reality, but that's not the only thing you're dealing with. You're also dealing with the perception of the reality. I may say to you, I don't believe that's what you said. I may be lying about that, but I may actually have an error in my memory or whatever, but I actually believe that you said something different from what you say that you said. So that my perception of what happened differs from yours. Now, some people, the relativists, come back and say, well, that's the only truth there is, the truth of perceptions, and so something can be and not be at the same time in the same relationship. If you said that it didn't rain and I believed it did rain, well, it's true that it both rained and it didn't rain at the same time and in the same relationship.

No, it either rained or it didn't rain. But what is both true here in this case is you believed that it rained, I don't believe that it rained. So we both, though we have differing perceptions, the content of the perception is part of the reality. That is, let's say that the reality is reality X, objectively, and we disagree as to what that reality is. We have Y and we have Z, two different perceptions of X. Now, that there are two different perceptions are part of the reality, and that's the second aspect that we have to deal with in debate and in disputes. But then there's a third element that's always important to human relationships, and that's how we feel about the perception. When you're dealing with two people that are angry with each other, I say, I've got three realities. What happened is the first one, the second one was what you perceived to have happened, and the third one is how you feel about what you perceived to have happened. And so it becomes very complicated. Now, Augustine is probing this sort of thing, and he says a man who has just come out of a shower and steps into an air-conditioned room says, oh, it's cold in here, where the other man who has stepped off an iceberg walks into the room and says, it's warm in here.

Well, is it warm or is it cold? We don't perceive color the same. You like tomatoes. I don't like tomatoes. Can we agree that tomatoes taste good? Well, they don't suit my tastes.

They do suit your tastes. And even though we may not be able to agree on the objectivity of the taste or of the color or of the degree of heat or coldness, we can still have awareness of our perception. So Augustine is trying to avoid full skepticism and to reconstruct what we will see later in the history of philosophy, the important assumption of the basic reliability of sense perception, without which, as I said, you have no access to the external world. But Augustine did not rest with sense perception because he recognized that there was a difference in terms of the level of certainty that can be achieved between sensory experience and what we might call today the formal level of knowledge or rational truths or, to make it simple, mathematical truths. We can be certain that three and three are six, and they will always be six, and they have always been six. We're not talking about three apples and three apples.

We're talking about the formal concept of the relationship between the number three, as it is added to another number three, and to the sum of the two, which is six, which is simply a form of symbolic logic when we reduce mathematics to that point. So following Plato and his theory of forms and so on, Augustine agreed that there is a higher kind of certainty that comes from the mind or the soul from rational truth, but he was by no means a simple rationalist in the sense that he thought that the only truth that could be learned would be that truth which was deduced by naked human reason. Rather, the highest level of certainty he was concerned to find, not as an abstract philosophical goal, but Augustine was very much concerned about human happiness, but not in the level that was found among the Stoics and the Epicureans who were just looking for philosophical peace of mind, but really what Augustine was searching for was the supreme happiness of the soul that is found in beatitude, a beatific happiness. And I put quotes around the word happiness when I talk about Augustine because we have such a cheap use of the term happy. We talk about happiness as a warm puppy or happiness as making a birdie on the green.

No, no, no. For Augustine, the ultimate happiness is a knowledge of God, and that more than anything else was what he was searching to discover. Now, in the process as an apologist, he worked out certain arguments for the existence of God, but what he was basically saying was this, that in the first instance, if the mind recognizes that certain truths are objective, necessary, and eternal, such as the truths of mathematics, such as the truths of logic, the formal truths of which I was speaking a moment ago, that there must be, according to Augustine, an immediate recognition that there has to be some foundation for these eternal truths. There has to be some source of it, and he of course believed, as a matter of faith at this point, that the ultimate source for truth and for all eternal truth is an eternal being who eternally thinks his perfect ideas.

Now, you can see the little touch of relationship here to Plato and his theory of ideas, but he says that if any truth is eternal, such as the truth 2 and 2 or 4 or 3 and 3 and 6, that that implies a knowledge of God. That doesn't mean that that gives you a personal relationship with God, but rather we get in touch with the content of God's own thoughts. That is, for Augustine, you can deny God religiously, but you can't deny him philosophically if you allow for eternal truth, because by getting in touch with eternal truth, you're getting in touch with the eternal mind. You may be hostile to that mind. You may be unreconciled to that mind, but you are dealing with that mind as long as you are dealing with formal truth. Now, again, Augustine is also important for calling God the great illuminator, who he used the analogy as just the light of some sort, sunlight or whatever, is necessary for us to be able to perceive things in the external world.

If I'm cast in a pitch darkness, I can't perceive anything with my eyes without the added extra benefit of the light. So, for Augustine, the mind can know nothing except insofar as God himself functions as the great illuminator. Now, once he gets to his concept of God, he turns his guns with a vengeance on Neoplatonism, because part of the problem with the Neoplatonists and other Greek philosophers was that they saw the world as a necessary extension of the being of God, denying the free, voluntary work of creation by God, and leaving them caught up somehow in some or other form of pantheism. And so it was Augustine who really developed the Christian concept of creation ex nihilo, creation ex nihilo, that God creates the universe freely and voluntarily out of nothing. What he means by that is not to violate the cardinal scientific rule, ex nihilo, nihil fit, out of nothing, nothing comes. He doesn't mean to suggest that there was some nothing that God then shaped into something, but he's talking about the unique power of God to bring something into being that previously did not exist. And he alone has the power of being to do that, and the way in which he does it, according to Augustine, is through what he calls the divine imperative, or the divine fiat.

In this case, fiat is not a little car in Italy, but it is the command that God has the power to say, let there be, and by virtue of the sheer creative power of this one who is the eternal source of all being, that he can bring something into being that previously was not. That's Dr. R.C. Sproul helping us appreciate the profound impact of the 4th century theologian, Augustine. As R.C.

pointed out today, Augustine didn't have the advantage of having an Augustine to look back to. He was truly a giant in terms of his thinking. This is a message from Dr. Sproul's series, The Consequences of Ideas. In 35 messages, R.C.

follows the movement of Western philosophy throughout history, and he shows us how those ideas have shaped our culture today. We'd like for you to have the full series. It's a nine DVD set, and for your donation of any amount, we'll be glad to send it your way. You can reach us at 800-435-4343.

You can also make your request online at If you're a Sunday school teacher or a small group leader, this is an excellent resource. Perhaps you're teaching your teenage children at home. Our offer today includes a bonus 10th disc where you'll find a digital study guide for this series, a great help to you and your students. This series is our way of saying thank you when you donate to Ligonier Ministries.

Our number again is 800-435-4343, or if it's easier, you can give your gift and request the series at Jesus tells us in Scripture that we're to have a childlike faith. Does that mean we shouldn't study philosophy? A childlike faith has come to mean to many people today a childish faith. They say, I don't want to have to think about the content of my faith. I'm just going to keep it simple. Now at that point we sin because the New Testament commands us that we are to be babes in evil, but in understanding we are to be adults. We'll continue our study of philosophy tomorrow, and we hope you'll join us for Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-02 23:44:35 / 2024-01-02 23:52:56 / 8

Get The Truth Mobile App and Listen to your Favorite Station Anytime