The Real Tragedy of Augustinian Original Sin

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 in the Latin Vulgate obscures (or in fact makes impossible) the meaning of the Greek original but it took the theological genius of Augustine to ensure that this fundamental error would shape Western theology.  What Augustine provides is explanation for the mistranslation “in whom (i.e. Adam) all sinned”: “Nothing remains but to conclude that in the first man all are understood to have sinned, because all were in him when he sinned.” Whatever it means that all were in him when he sinned (Augustine will link it to sexual passion), in some way everyone is born guilty and damned in the eyes of God. Because they are guilty and damned or because they all sinned (mysteriously so even in Augustine’s account), death then spread to everyone. Even for those who have done nothing (infants – presumably upon conception), it is as if they have sinned. The mistranslation reverses cause and effect in Paul’s explanation, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned (in Paul’s language).

This mistranslation and misinterpretation make nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the propagation of sin through death and, as a result, in the history of the Western church, sin’s propagation is mostly left a mystery. It is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around and it is this explanation for the propagation and work of sin (to say nothing of salvation) that he will build on for the next three chapters.

Original sin also directly contradicts what Paul says in verse 14: “death reigned from Adam to Moses even over those who had not sinned in the manner of Adam.” In Paul’s explanation there are those who have not sinned as Adam did (there is no concept for Paul of everyone sinning “in Adam” before they exist) but death reigned even over these.

 Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. In chapter 4 Abraham is depicted as relinquishing the struggle – though he is as good as dead due to his and Sarah’s age and childlessness – nonetheless they believed God could give them life (a son) and this belief is summed up as resurrection faith. It is not clear how resurrection faith would have anything to do with sin were it not for the fact that sin is the orientation to death (death denial) reversed in Abraham and Christ (death acceptance).

We have been so inundated with the notion of an original guilt equated with sin that it has obscured the open and obvious explanation of sin as an orientation to death. Sin reigns in death not simply because people are mortal or already guilty, but because sin arises in conjunction with death in which people deceive themselves into believing life can be had by other means. Life in and through the “I” or ego or life through the law (ch. 7), life in the tower of Babel (the implicit background of ch. 4), all amount to the lie Isaiah characterizes as the – Covenant with Death (Is. 28:15, a key reference for Paul). The irony of sin is that it is a taking up of death – a living death under the auspices of having life – and this deception is the definition of sin.

For Paul, Adamic humanity and those in Christ are two alternative identities (the only two possibilities), and they are ontological poles apart in regard to life and death. Death reigned through the first Adam and life through the second Adam. Sin follows the reign of death and righteousness follows the reign of life in a similar sort of cause and effect relationship. The transgression of Adam resulted in the condemnation to death for all (access to the Tree of Life is cut off) but the one act of righteousness resulted in life for all people and with this life things are made right in a multiplicity of ways (5:18-8:39).

Rather than sin being accessible to explanation, sin is obscured by the theory of inherited guilt and notions of total depravity, which eschew explanation. They completely relinquish the possibility of breaking down the (il-)logic of sin or any notion of how salvation addresses the sin system and its propagation. Calvin’s explanation of Augustine’s doctrine confounds the possibility of explanation, in that he will attribute the propagation of sin to divine ordinance (along with natural inheritance). The result is that sin is not subject to explanation (in light of salvation) but becomes the lens through which salvation is interpreted (Calvin’s system of TULIP).

To state the situation most darkly, a mistranslation gives rise to a nonsensical notion – a mystery – and this nonsensical notion gives rise to an equally mysterious and nonsensical notion of salvation (divine satisfaction and penal substitution) and an entire system which in each of its parts has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. Total depravity of the entire race gives rise to unconditional election – divine fiat that cannot be penetrated with any insight. This cannot include all (limited atonement) and all of this is built on a flattening out and rendering irrelevant of human will and action (irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints).

There are a series of secondary effects related directly to this failure of thought. Augustine’s theory of original sin was so tied up with his disapproval of human sexuality that for centuries it contaminated all sexual passion with the idea of sin. Though he deems marriage “lawful” he concludes “the very embrace which is lawful and honorable cannot be effected without the ardor of lust. . .. the daughter of sin, as it were; and . . . from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin.”[1] Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, is tied to his notion of the original misdeed and its propagation. One wonders if clergy sexual abuse, not just among “celibate” priests, but across the Protestant and Catholic world today is not connected to this degrading of human sexuality. At a minimum the misogyny and anti-sex bias of the Western church has certainly been influenced by this error. The idea of being punished for a crime committed by someone else (for eternity) is unethical but this unacceptable notion gives rise to an equally unfair idea that someone else can be made to bear this punishment for the crime (divine satisfaction and penal substitution).

Perhaps the primary tragedy of this misreading is that it renders Christianity irrelevant to real world problems and the reality of the solution Christ provides. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with an already recognized reality in that we all have the problem of death. Death for humans is interconnected with what most everyone would agree is evil: violence, murder, war, and the recognition that death accounts for the human sickness at its root in the inward self (death drive, Thanatos, masochism, etc.). If we believe in evil then it has to be connected to the problem of death. In the human psyche our main problem is not some sort of inherited guilt but that we die and how we orient ourselves to this reality. The fact that Christianity addresses this universal and most basic problem is nearly completely obscured by notions of inherited guilt and imputed righteousness which leave out the painful reality of the human condition and its resolution. Paul’s cry, “Who will deliver me from this body of death” (7:24) goes unanswered where Augustine’s mistaken reading reigns.


[1] Augustine, De bono coniugali

The Treatment of Women as a Test of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

The male/female nature of the image in Genesis, as Paul explains in I Corinthians 11, is necessarily plural and pertains directly to gender in that the two are interdependent in both origin and relational integrity (the woman is from the man and the man from the woman and separated from one another they are nothing, v. 11). That is, image bearing pertains to relationship between the two, with God, with the world, and within the self, and this multidirectional relational capacity is interwoven within all these spheres. We might say the Fall of humankind is a failure of gendered identity but of course this pertains to the deep psychology of the individual, relationship to God, or simply the capacity for relationship. The New Testament brings this out most sharply (it is present already in the Old Testament) in that salvation and final redemption are depicted in terms of restored gendered relations: the Church is depicted as bride and Christ as groom, the Kingdom is celebrated as a marriage feast, and the most abiding mystery, male/female unity, is either the vehicle for or analogy of the unity between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5).

Even Paul’s depiction of individual failure in regard to the law is sexualized (in Ro. 7:1-4) in that a woman’s marital status and relational fidelity (adulterous or not) serve to get at the deep psychology of self-estrangement. One can have sexual relations but the status of this act is universally predetermined by the Fall, and of course Paul is not talking about actual sex and marriage but an individual’s internal orientation. Love (of the Christian sort) cannot be coordinated with the body and sex, in Paul’s illustration, apart from the marital-like fusion with the body of Christ. There is a fruitful coordination of love with the body only in being joined to the body of Christ (vs. 4), such that gender fulfillment is salvation.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender relations but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) is to be realized “in the Lord.” In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

In the case of Romans, Paul is demonstrating that an understanding of God, apart from Christ, will result in a two-fold failure – internal failure within the “I” (“I do what I do not want . . .”) and a failure to know God except as he is wrongly perceived through the law. The sexualized failure of 7:1-3 is more fully depicted from verse 7. It is depicted as an internal antagonism due to a deceived orientation to the law, spelling out the meaning of the adulterous, transgressive, failed relationship described at the opening of the chapter.  Ro. 8 fills out Paul’s sexualized success (of 7:4), in that salvation is depicted as participation in the Trinity in which knowing God takes on the Hebraic sense of knowing (knowing bodily or holistically) in that it is a holistic participation in the Trinity. Through being incorporated into the body of Christ, the Father is apprehended as Abba as one is adopted into His new family and the Spirit enables a new sort of intimate relationship with God. The deep psychology of chapter 8 contrasts with that of chapter 7 in that union with God and others (in the body of Christ) displaces alienation, hope displaces desire, life in the Spirit displaces death, the body of Christ displaces the ego, and God as Father displaces the law (the law of sin and death is replaced with the law of life in the Spirit).  Paul sums all of this up at the end of the chapter as the full realization of love. Love can be coordinated with the body (no more mind body antagonism) through incorporation into the body of Christ, as the rightly gendered relation finally and completely overcomes alienation: nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39, NASB).

In the chapters leading up to I Cor. 11, Paul has been attempting to dispossess the Corinthian elite of a domineering, cruel, authoritarian, treatment of the weak in regard to sex, finances, visiting pagan temples, and eating meat. The Corinthians’ conclusion that the idol is nothing is indirectly countered by Paul’s depiction of male/female interdependence. Woman is nothing apart from man and man is nothing apart from woman and it is this separation and alienation commonly portrayed in idolatry.  As in Ezekiel, the idol as male or phallic and the worshiper as a female adulterer depicts an impossibility of relationship. The horse sized phallus (of 23:20), serving in place of God, is not describing intense eroticism but an impossibility of relationship (leading to heightened desire and child sacrifice) created by a false image. The restored image, as a direct counter to the failed image (as nothing), draws a direct correlate between men and women and God and Christ. Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man. The very notion of self-identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations – relations which are extended to include human participation. The unity of the Godhead is reduplicated or repeated in male/female unity (v. 3) – not just analogously but, as with Romans, through direct participation (as depicted in the language of “headship” and interdependence). As with the Trinity, to say that one is not without the other is to preserve the individual identity of each (male and female distinction is Paul’s point in regard to hair length and head coverings) while positing each as internal to, or interdependent with, the other (through the Lord).

The meaning of God’s image in humankind cannot be abstracted or removed from Trinity, as the created image repeats the reality of the relation of God to himself (in the Trinity), and this repetition is the unifying factor of human relationship. This means our practical and lived out comprehension of God (a unity containing difference) will be first and foremost realized in male/female relationship. In turn, our understanding of these relationships (as expressed in both theology and practice) in marriage and, as in Corinthians, in ministry (praying, preaching, prophesying) will be a test of our understanding of God. Thus, I mean my above title to carry a double meaning: (1.) we can see how orthodox our Trinitarian belief might be in the practices (particularly involving our understanding of personhood) to which this belief gives rise and (2.) we can test orthodoxy itself (which I explain below) in its views of gender and in its treatment of women.

In a sort of crude illustration of part (1.): male/female oppositional difference might be extrapolated from tritheism (the persons of the Trinity are separate), the reduction of the genders to a singular substantial humanity (e.g. androgyny, soul body duality) might be connected to modalism (the persons of the Trinity are simply a manifestation of a singular essence), and as in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men finds support in the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). With traditional Trinitarian doctrine as a guide, notions of maleness and femaleness as separate principles, as manifestations of a singular essence, or as one subordinate to the other (e.g. women subordinated to men), should be ruled out of court.

While it is clear that heretical Trinitarian theology has helped produce oppression of women (e.g. primary focus on God as Father connected to patriarchalism, complementarianism connected to subordinationism), can orthodoxy claim to have done better? So to part (2.): Augustine’s convoluted notion that the male alone contains the proper and full image of God while woman is corporeal (defined by her bodily nature), carnal, and necessarily subordinate to the male, shows up an inherent weakness in his understanding, if not in his formulation, of God’s Trinitarian personhood. Is the weakness, as with the Eastern criticism, that he allows for subordinationism? Clearly there is a failure in what he extrapolates from his Trinitarian formula (which seems to protect against subordinationism). Gregory of Nyssa (representative of the East) posits a double creation: the first is non-sexual and purely spiritual and the second is bodily and includes male and female. His Trinitarian formulations, like his view of men and women, is more egalitarian but so too the union (devoid of sex in the case of humans) is left a mystery. As Sarah Coakley notes, the apophaticism of the East may mask and make room for the hierarchical and subordinationist tendencies manifest in the abysmal treatment of women in the Eastern Church.[1]

Personhood as understood through orthodox traditions surrounding the Trinity and applied (as in I Cor. 11 and Ro. 6-8) to humankind should give rise to difference-in-unity in male/female relationship (something on the order of egalitarianism in marriage and ministry).  Why has this not been the case? Maybe because people are sinful, they simply do not live out their beliefs. Perhaps, it is simply not the case that orthodoxy produces orthopraxy? Yet, doesn’t John suggest that belief and practice are necessarily related (those that practice righteousness do so because they know the righteous One, I Jn. 2:29)? Isn’t this the whole point of Christianity – transformation of the mind and transformation of lives? Or is it simply, as Tolstoy would have it along with revisionist feminists, that the Trinitarian formulas as we have them are wrong?

Mine is a more moderate suggestion: I believe there is progress to be made in theology and orthodox theology provides a foundation upon which we continue to build our understanding of faith and practice. The failure of practice does not necessarily indicate an error in theory. However, in the case of Trinitarian theology as applied to gender (a biblical correlate central to Fall and redemption, as I have argued), it indicates a failed apprehension and understanding and shows the work that has yet to be done.


[1] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Blackwell, 2002) 63-65.

Augustine and Wittgenstein on language, meaning, and understanding (Part III)

In the preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes: “The thoughts that I publish in what follows are the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years. They concern many subjects: the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition and sentence, … states of consciousness, and other things.”i Such a remark makes obvious, I hope, the ways in which Wittgenstein shares many of the same philosophical concerns as Augustine. Whether they share the same conclusions about these concerns, however, is another matter—namely, the present one.

As I tried to make clear in the second blog post, Augustine’s views about the purpose of language evolve throughout The Teacher; despite holding, prima facie, that language has a twofold purpose, by the conclusion of the dialogue he says that language’s purpose is singular—to remind. Wittgenstein, on the other hand—at least the Wittgenstein of the Investigations—, seems to utterly resist the notion that language has a singular purpose. Language, on his view, is infinitely complex; its uses are vast and variegated. People teach and remind, sure, but is that really all that we do with words? What of “Reporting an event – Speculating about the event … Making up a story; and reading one – Acting in a play – Singing rounds – Guessing riddles – Cracking a joke; telling one”?ii Are these all genuine instances of using words mnemonically?

Augustine might answer, “Well, yes; if we look closer at each of these aforementioned linguistic uses, we’ll find that each has a mnemonic function, that is, except for singing.” Recall here Augustine’s contention that singing is not a form of speech because it’s accompanied by melody. “But you notice, do you not, that what pleases you in singing is a certain melodious ordering of sound? Since this can be joined to words, or removed from them, is singing not one thing and speaking something else?”iii

But here, perhaps, Wittgenstein would push against Augustine’s rejoinder. This time, rather than disputing Augustine on the purpose of language, he might draw attention to the way in which “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.”iv That language is part of a form of life means, inter alia, that it cannot be abstracted from its contexts of use without simultaneously losing its intelligibility. Wittgenstein gives the example of coming across a stand-alone sentence, which says: “‘After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before.’” Upon reading this sentence Wittgenstein asks himself a series of questions: “Do I understand this sentence? Do I understand it just as I would if I heard it in the course of a report? If it stood alone, I’d say I don’t know what it’s about.” He concludes: “But all the same, I’d know how this sentence might perhaps be used; I could even invent a context for it. (A multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions.”v This final comment is instructive: it elucidates the larger point that our words require contexts to be intelligible; even if there’s a standalone sentence (or word, or paragraph, or…) we come across—like the quotations that begin books or hang on placards—we’ll inevitably supply (or, “invent” in the words of W.) a context for that sentence, if it’s going to mean anything to us at all. The intonations that accompany our speech, the facial and bodily gestures we perform while speaking, the settings wherein we say this or that, the varying levels of familiarity we share with the person(s) we’re speaking to and with— such contexts enable understanding (and misunderstanding!). It’s not so simple, therefore, to abstract something like “melody” from our speech, as Augustine here so imagines. To suggest that we could somehow come to “pure speech” completely unadulterated by our contexts, that we could know the world independent of our words and the practices in which they live is to indulge chimera.

But doesn’t Augustine seem to grant Wittgenstein’s point about meaning and the centrality of contexts of use when he, for instance, repeatedly tells Adeodatus that prior to knowing the things to which words refer (name), words can neither teach us nor remind us of anything:

[I]t is by knowing the realities that we also come to a knowledge of their words, whereas, by the sounds of words, we do not even learn the words. For we cannot learn words we already know, and, as for those which we do not know, we cannot profess to have learned them until we have seen their meaning. And this comes about, not by hearing the sounds they make, but from a knowledge of the realities they signify.vi

Augustine, The Teacher

Without prior knowledge of the realities to which words name, there is no meaning. Knowledge of the realities themselves establishes the necessary context for linguistic meaning. Additionally, Augustine argues that, for meaning to occur, we often need things like gestures to accompany our speech. Pointing, for example, helps us communicate to others something about the concrete reality of which we might be speaking; sometimes it’s even the doing of a thing itself that helps us understand what that thing is; e.g., you want to knowing what “dancing” is, so I dance. This therefore shows that Augustine rightly understands the necessity of “contexts” for linguistic meaning, and sufficiently answers Wittgenstein’s qualms. Right?

Wrong. There remains a key issue in Augustine’s theory of naming and conception of meaning. According to Augustine, all words are nouns because all words name things.vii This picture of meaning requires that one know the reference to which a given word refers. This means that our knowledge of a thing—or, let’s make this more grandiose: our knowledge of the world is separable from our language.

The problem with Augustine’s picture of meaning here on display in The Teacher is, therefore, in many ways the same that emerges in Confessions: Augustine posits a gap between a word and a thing; or, to paraphrase literary critic Toril Moi, he divides up the word from the world. On this view, then, philosophy is tasked with bridging the gap between our words and the world; the philosopher must find the connection, the essence, between a word and its object. The solution for bridging the gap, according to Augustine in both The Teacher and Confessions, ultimately comes through naming; by naming, our words get connected to the world, and therefore become meaningful. But this whole “picture of language,” in the words of Moi, “is not so much wrong, as too simple and too circumscribed.”viii Or, as Wittgenstein writes: “Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system.”ix

In contrast to this picture of a word/world gap, Wittgenstein talks about human knowledge of the world as intimately bound up in and with our words. He compares language speaking to gameplay, as if it were “part of an activity, or of a form of life”x (think here of his famous “language games” designation). His reasoning for this is clear: “words and action, talking and doing, are intertwined.”xi Words are meaningful in our use of them in this or that activity. And naming is but one activity amongst a host of others, and it’s an incredibly complex activity at that!

All well and good, but this just scratches the surface of the larger issue that a speculative Wittgensteinian view presents for Augustine’s picture of linguistic meaning. The bigger problem with Augustine picture of meaning is that it tempts us to go looking within ourselves to establish meaning. This is the insidious idea of “the private language,” the idea that somehow, some way, we can think, mean, yea, understand the world and ourselves prior to language acquisition. In the words of Philip Porter: “Augustine’s move is to identify his pre-verbal self as a human capable of thinking and meaning something to himself alone, just not yet able to express this meaning to others.”xii This view is not just philosophically bankrupt; it’s theologically and spiritually dangerous, for it ultimately establishes me, the individual subject, as the ultimate authority of truth. Not only that, but it reifies and deifies the hidden and the private. If I can know, think, mean, and understand something to myself, by myself, prior to any form of language acquisition and involvement with the world, then I’m not actually human; I am a god.

Shudder.

i Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, et al (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 3.

ii Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

iii Augustine, The Teacher, 8.

iv Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

v Ibid., §525.

vi Augustine, The Teacher, 49.

vii See, e.g., Ibid., 52.

viii Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 28.

ix Wittgenstein, PI, §3.

x Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

xi Moi, Revolution, 45.

xii Philip Porter, “Inheriting Wittgenstein’s Augustine,” New Blackfriars (2018), 18.

Augustine and Wittgenstein on language, meaning, and understanding (Part II)

What picture of language, meaning, and understanding do we have on display in Augustine’s The Teacher? Perhaps a summary of The Teacher is best for answering that question.

The Teacher takes the form of a dialogue between Augustine and his sixteen-year old son, Adeodatus. The work is one of Augustine’s earliest, a fact he makes plain in Book IX of Confessions, wherein he reminiscences fondly about his late son.

i The purpose for the dialogue is not immediately discernible. It begins by focusing on the problem between human speaker and his relation to signs and language, but it soon “quite logically leads to a consideration of the origin of man’s intellectual knowledge,” as translator of the dialogue Robert P. Russell observes.ii Knowing that later generations will read his works, like The Teacher, and undoubtedly struggle to understand them, Augustine writes at the end of his life Retractions. Retractions, despite its name, is not simply a collection of retractions and improvements on previous statements; it’s also an interpretive guide to the works of Augustine from the man himself. It’s in Retractions that he discloses to us the purpose of The Teacher, saying: “During this same period I composed a book called The Teacher where, after some discussion and inquiry, we find that it is God alone who teaches men knowledge, all of which is also in accord with what is written in the Gospel: ‘One is your teacher, Christ.’”iii The goal of the work therefore is twofold: to discover where human knowledge comes from (Christ), and to evoke trust in the source of that knowledge.

The dialogue begins with Augustine asking Adeodatus a series of probing questions about the purpose of spoken language. After a quick back-and-forth (which becomes characteristic of the work as a whole), Adeodatus concludes, under his father’s guidance, that the purpose of spoken language is twofold: to teach and to remind. Yet, Adeodatus still has some reservations about this understanding of language, particularly as it relates to the examples of song and prayer. Singing, for example, has nothing to do with teaching or reminding; people seem, more often than not, to sing because they simply find pleasure and solace in it. Augustine grants this point, but suggests that songs have no relation to teaching or reminding because, properly speaking, they do not constitute verbal speech. His distinction is ingenious: songs necessarily require melody for their operation; melody is independent of verbal speech (e.g., humming, playing an instrument, etc.); therefore, singing does not qualify as verbal speech. Adeodatus concedes to his father, but argues for an exception: prayer. Adedoatus would willingly concede to Augustine’s account of the purpose of language “were it not for the difficulty that, in praying, we are actually speaking, and yet it is not right to believe that God is taught anything by us, or that we recall something in His mind.”iv In reply, Augustine says that prayer, properly understood, does not require language. Instead, he argues, true and authentic prayer is always inarticulate. True prayer occurs within the interior part of the human; it arises within the heart or “inner chamber,” where the Lord wishes to dwell (cf., Mt 6:6). This is not to deny, of course, that prayer can be spoken; but, when it is spoken, it is “in order that men may hear and, by this verbal reminder, fix their thoughts upon God by a unity of heart and mind.”v Prayer, therefore, is not a species of spoken language. If it were, then it would necessarily teach or remind, just as all spoken language does.

After establishing spoken language’s twofold purpose, Augustine then asks Adeodatus if he agrees that words function as signs for things (or, “realities” as he elsewhere calls them). His son responds affirmatively. Yet, after challenging him to define the realities to which the words nihil and si respectively refer, neither Augustine nor Adeodatus is able to provide an account. They briefly wonder about how such words can be so readily understood and yet not refer to anything at all, but Augustine quickly drops the issue, telling his son that nihil and si must in the end refer to inner states of the mind, which are unobservable. Subsequently, he asks Adeodatus to name the reality to which the preposition ex refers. After trying to define ex by means of another preposition (de) Augustine stops Adeodatus, saying: “I am not asking you to substitute one familiar word for another equally familiar… I am looking for the one thing itself, whatever it is, which is signified by these two signs.”vi Observing that they may have reached a dead end, Adeodatus and Augustine conclude that there must be certain realities that can only be defined ostensively; e.g., pointing at an object. Gestures and bodily movements, therefore, function as signs in the same way that words do.

But words and gestures can also signify other signs, according to Augustine; they do not always name things. He says, “there are signs that manifest signs, and signs that manifest things that are not signs.” Moreover, there are even things that “can be manifested without signs.”vii In this latter case, human beings perform certain activities that simply manifest the thing/reality itself, without having further need to provide signs. For example, if someone were to ask another what dancing is, she could simply respond by dancing, and thereby demonstrate the thing itself. From this discussion, Augustine deduces that there must be a “three-fold division of signs”viii: signs that refer to other signs, signs that names things, and things which require no sign at all.ix Augustine and Adeodatus soon set out to investigate each of these sign groups; and through a series of difficult questions, they learn that this first group of signs can be further subdivided into two. The first subgroup comprises signs that “cannot be signified by those signs which they signify,”x an example being the word “conjunction.” “Conjunction” names things such as “and,” “or,” “for,” etc. Yet in naming these words, “conjunction” is not reciprocally named. The second group, on the other hand, comprises signs that can be reciprocally signified. Augustine gives the example of “word” and “noun.” Through a long, and rather tedious, argument, Augustine contends that all words (i.e., all parts of speech) are, on closer examination, nouns. Since each word names a thing, each word is, by definition, a noun. The only difference between “words” and “nouns” is cosmetic—“words come from ‘striking’, and nouns from ‘knowing’, so that the former has earned its name because of the ear, the latter, because of the mind.”xi

Augustine continues his reflection on signs, moving the discussion toward the latter two subgroups (viz., signs that name things, and things manifested without signs). Concerning the countless examples of this third subgroup (i.e., things signified without signs), Augustine says: “For, apart from the numerous plays performed in every theater by actors who play their part by enacting the events themselves, without using signs, does not God, as well as nature, exhibit and manifest to the view of all, and just as they are, the sun and the light which covers and clothes all the things around us…?”xii From the second subgroup, Augustine argues that we learn the relative unimportance of words. Since words are mere signs for realities, “the realities signified are to be valued more highly than their signs.”xiii And thus Augustine says: “[T]he most I can say for words is that they merely intimate that we should look for realities; they do not present them to us for our knowledge.”xiv This admission leads Augustine to conclude that his earlier account of the purpose of language was wrong: words serve only mnemonic functions, not didactic ones. On his view, words can evoke in the mind of the hearer a recollection of the reality they name, but they can never improve upon the knowledge of the hearer. This is because words are only meaningful insofar as one already knows the things to which they refer. Without such prior knowledge, words are utterly meaningless. Augustine says: “So by means of words we learn only words, or better, the sound and noise of words. For if something cannot be a word unless it is a sign, I still cannot recognize it as a word until I know what it signifies, even though I have heard the word… It is perfectly logical and true to conclude that whenever words are spoken, we either know what they mean or we do not.”xv Words, therefore, are mere mnemonic devices.

Admitting that words carry no didactic function, but serve only mnemonic purposes, naturally leads Augustine to conclude that understanding is fundamentally something that occurs within the individual’s mind. He says: “But as for all those things which we ‘understand,’ it is not the outward sound of the speaker’s words that we consult, but the truth which presides over the mind itself from within, though we may have been led to consult it because of the words.”xvi But this raises the question, “Does this inner consultation not ultimately suggest that the individual is his or her own teacher?” Augustine anticipates this question, and responds to it by arguing that the true inner person the individual consults is not himself or herself, but rather the Lord. He says: “Now He who is consulted and who is said to ‘dwell in the inner man,’ He it is who teaches us, namely, Christ, that is to say, ‘the unchangeable Power of God and everlasting wisdom.’ This is the Wisdom which every rational soul does indeed consult.”xvii No one, therefore, can claim to teach others by means of his or her words—“For he is being taught, not by my words, but by the realities themselves made manifest to him by the enlightening action of God from within.”xviii By divine illumination, the Lord grants understanding to the individual.

The Teacher concludes with Adeodatus summarizing all that he has learned throughout the discussion. First, under the guidance of his father, he has learned that words serve only mnemonic functions; their role is to stimulate the hearer to recall and reflect internally upon the realities to which words name.xix Second, and most importantly, he has learned that understanding is ultimately and finally a divine miracle. He says: “But as to the truth of what is said, I have also learned that He alone teaches who made use of external words to remind us that He dwells within us.”xx The real purpose of language, therefore, is ultimately theological: to trust in the Lord, the one who alone grants understanding to humankind.

i “There is a book of mine, entitled The Teacher. It is a dialogue between Adeodatus and me, and you know that all things there put into the mouth of my interlocutor are his, though he was then only in his sixteenth year. Many other gifts even more wonderful I found in him. His talent was a source of awe to me” (Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book 9.6.14, trans. Albert C. Outler [New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007], 135).

ii Robert P. Russell, “Introduction,” in Saint Augustine, The Teacher (De Magistro) (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1968), 4.

iii Saint Augustine, Retractions, 1.12; cited in Russell, “Introduction,” 3.

iv Augustine, The Teacher, 8.

v Augustine, The Teacher, 9.

vi Ibid., 11-12.

vii Augustine, The Teacher, 31.

viii Ibid., 16.

ix Augustine does not explain why he has included this third group into the category of signs.

x Augustine, The Teacher, 31.

xi Ibid., 22.

xii Augustine, The Teacher, 46.

xiii Ibid., 38.

xiv Ibid., 48.

xv Ibid.

xvi Augustine, The Teacher, 51.

xvii Ibid.

xviii Ibid., 54.

xix Ibid., 60.

xx Ibid., 60-61.

Wittgenstein and Augustine on language, meaning, and understanding: A speculative proposal (Part I)

When writing anything important—whether an email, a text, a lesson plan, an essay, a blogpost—there’s perhaps nothing more difficult than knowing where to begin. It should hardly surprise us therefore to learn that even a great mind like Ludwig Wittgenstein struggled immensely to begin his famous Philosophical Investigations—affectionately known by his devotees as “the Investigations.” According to theologian Fergus Kerr, knowing how to begin the Investigations “preoccupied Wittgenstein for many years.”i Now Kerr’s claim may be exaggerated, but it’s nonetheless telling: when writing the Investigations, the beginning mattered for Wittgenstein, and rightfully so, for what he would say at the start of the work would inevitably determine all that would follow.

It’s no accident then that Wittgenstein chose to begin the Investigations by quoting a figure who needs no introduction in the West. That figure is Saint Augustine of Hippo. As for his quote, well, it needs no real introduction either: for despite being casually written with the putative intention of expressing a reflective, but nonetheless passing observation of a juvenile’s emerging first-person awareness and incipient communicative skills, the remark has since been taken by many as a full-fledged account of language, meaning, and understanding. Augustine writes:

When grown-ups named some object and at the same time turned towards it, I perceived this, and I grasped that the thing was signified by the sound they uttered, since they meant to point it out. This, however, I gathered from their gestures, the natural languages of all peoples, the language that by means of facial expression and the play of eyes, of the movements of the limbs and tones of voice, indicates the affections of the soul when it desires, or clings to, or rejects, or recoils from, something. In this way, little by little, I learnt to understand what things the words, which I heard uttered in their respective places in various sentences, signified. And once I got my tongue around these signs, I used them to express my wishes.ii

Augustine, Confessions

That so many have, in my estimation, misread this account as Augustine’s exhaustive philosophical account of language, meaning, and understanding is something of an injustice; a literary one to be sure, and thus perhaps a minor one, but an injustice all the same. But so it goes with writing and all forms of communication: all communication is liable to abuse and misunderstanding. Whenever we write, whenever we speak, whenever we gesture, we take a risk. It’s why writing anything at all is difficult. It’s also why it matters that we try to get it right. It’s precisely why the beginning of the Investigations mattered so deeply to Wittgenstein. He wanted to get it right.

And thus the question arises: Why did Wittgenstein begin his work with Augustine? According to the American philosopher Norman Malcom: “[Wittgenstein] revered the writings of St Augustine. He told me he decided to begin his Investigations with a quotation from the latter’s Confessions, not because he could not find the comment stated as well by other philosophers, but because the conception must be important if so great a mind held it.”iii Malcom’s comment is instructive: Wittgenstein admired Augustine, and, contrary to popular reception of the Investigations, he had no desire to dismiss, or even “attack” (to put it in somewhat colloquial terms) the saint’s so-called positions; for all Wittgenstein’s whipping boys (a certain scene with a poker and Karl Popper comes to mind)—well, Augustine was just not one of them. Rather for Wittgenstein, the problem with “Augustine’s picture of how he learned language as a child,” writes literary critic Toril Moi, “is not so much wrong as premature: only someone who already knows what it means to point, and what it is to name something, will be able to follow such instructions.”iv Moi’s point about Wittgenstein’s use of Augustine in the Investigations seems textually indisputable (see PI §4; cf., §32). Augustine’s account is missing something important, and Wittgenstein wants to improve upon it. And since it is Augustine in question, the need to get it right is consequentially momentous.

But does Wittgenstein get it right? Does he, in other words, dramatically improve upon Augustine in the way so many imagine? Does he lead us out of the tenebrous Augustinian cave?

Well… kind of, but not totally. It seems to me that Wittgenstein’s improvement on Augustine is in a certain way insufficient. I say that not because the Wittgensteinian improvement is inherently deficient (it’s not—I’ll argue to the death that it’s not), but rather because it has unwittingly reduced the contributions of one of the most prolific authors in Western history—the Doctor Gratia, the author of the modern autobiography, the greatest theologian of the West (debate me all ye Thomists!)­­­­—to a mere passage. And so it goes that the readers of the Investigations can now say: “Augustine’s picture of language” or the “Augustinian picture of language,” as if that somehow encapsulates all that Augustine had to say about language. Ah, what a shame. I mentioned literary injustices earlier, and now look where we are: we’re back.

Few have written more than Augustine, and few have had a more omnivorous mind than he. Which means, for one, that even when he’s wrong, he’s interestingly so (a point Wittgenstein knew well enough); but two—and this is what’s important—it means that he probably wrote more on language, meaning, and understanding than a mere passage or two. And he did, of course—as theologian Fergus Kerr writes: “It is not clear whether Wittgenstein knew how much more complicated Augustine’s theory of language was: whether, for example, he had read the De Magistro.”v You see, it’s Wittgenstein’s unfamiliarity with the complexity of De Magistro (Eng. The Teacher), his unfamiliarity with the complexity of Augustine’s thoughts on language, meaning understanding, that leads me to say that his improvement on Augustine is insufficient.

But in Wittgenstein’s defense: who really can read the entire oeuvre of a man like Augustine? Life is short, and there’s far more important work to be done. Wittgenstein’s beginning is therefore forgivable. Which means perhaps we can all say, “Wittgenstein, as much effort and time as you put into thinking about how to begin your magisterial Philosophical Investigations, though it may be inadequate, it’s commendable, and we thank thee.”

Eh, that’s boring. It’s also intellectually lazy. Instead, let’s do something far more interesting. Let’s speculate for a moment about what Wittgenstein would have thought about Augustine’s more extensive treatment of language, meaning, and understanding in The Teacher had he chosen to read it. Now that would be interesting. It would also help us say something more definitive about Wittgenstein’s choice to begin with Augustine in the Investigations.

So, let’s begin there.

i Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 2nd ed (London: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1997), 38.

ii Augustine. Confessions, Book I.8; taken from the English translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations, 4th edition, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe et al. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 5.

iii Norman Malcom. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 59; taken from Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 39.

iv Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 33.

v Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 56 n 1.

Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease

Where the truth of Christ is understood to counter a lie and the death of Christ an overcoming of the orientation to death fostered by this lie there are an infinite variety of ways in which this overcoming is to be described.  Key throughout is the recognition that this understanding has its explanation in the lived reality of human experience. As opposed to theories of atonement focused on the mind of God (i.e. divine satisfaction, penal substitution) which do not, for the most part, engage the lived reality of human experience, an immanent explanation of how the world is impacted by Christ is readily available.  Let me suggest a direction for the theological enterprise as it engages the ongoing task of apprehending the meaning of the death of Christ. Continue reading “Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease”