James Dobson and St. Augustine
The danger of tough love.
Sorry this message is late. I could blame it on the Super Bowl, only that would be a lie. Actually, I was driving back from Tucson.
Going east and west, I listened to a remarkable book by Frank Schaeffer, son of famous evangelist Francis Schaeffer. I mean to report on Mr. Schaeffer Junior’s book and deliver here next week. So please tune in.
But first I’ll report on a Great Courses lecture I listened to during a previous road trip. The course was on St. Augustine (CE 354-430). A remarkable fellow. Brilliant and charismatic.
At one point Augustine founded a college. But before he could get it fully established, the church snatched him up with offers he apparently couldn’t refuse. Before long he was a Bishop. About this time a schism occurred. A group called the Donatists became a threat to the established Catholic Church. Then for years, Augustine’s philosophy and theology was guided by the agenda of overcoming the threat.
Here’s a link to one of his most famous sermons, from a series on the Book of John.
“If any of you should wish to act out of love, brothers, do not imagine it to be a self-abasing, passive and timid thing. And do not think that love can be preserved by a sort of gentleness – or rather tame listlessness. This is not how it is preserved. Do not imagine that you love your servant when you refrain from beating him, or that you love your son when you do not discipline him, or that you love your neighbor when you do not rebuke him. This is not love, it is feebleness. Love should be fervent to correct. Take delight in good behavior, but amend what is bad. Love the person, but not the error in the person: God made the person, but the person alone made the error. Love what God made, not what the person made. If you love one thing, you remove another. When you esteem one thing, you change another. But if you are severe, let it be out of love, for the sake of correction. This is why love was represented by the dove which descended upon the Lord. [Matt. 3:16] Why did the Holy Spirit, who pours love into us, take the form of a dove? The dove has no bitterness, yet she fights with beak and wings for her young; hers is a fierceness without bitterness. In the same way, when a father chastises his son he does so for discipline. As I said earlier, the kidnapper inveigles the child with bitter endearments, in order to sell him; a father, for the sake of correction, chastises without bitterness. ”
These days we might call Augustine’s angle tough love. If people misbehave, discipline them, even if it means beating or otherwise punishing them into submission. And this perspective at one point resulted in Augustine’s convincing the Imperial authorities to imprison and otherwise persecute the Donatists.
Here’s another perspective on love, from St. Paul ‘s 1 Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
I have to wonder if Augustine’s position on love arose out of the pure, loving heart Paul describes, or at least in part from a professional agenda.
Who but God knows the answer to that one? I certainly don’t. Still, I can imagine an alternate reality wherein Augustine used his intellectual and persuasive powers in favor of winning souls and amending behavior by other than martial means, and in which the church, so influenced by Augustine, didn’t have the power of his words to justify collusion with government, advocacy of crusades, or inquisitions.
Though I wouldn’t blame the Inquisition entirely on Augustine, I will argue that writers or preachers influenced by practical agendas, political, monetary, or whatever, can be dangerous. Even the best, most sincere humans are not entirely objective or reasonable. In fact, given a powerful enough motive, most and probably all of us can convince ourselves of almost anything, and if we’re skilled with words, we can write or speak persuasively about it.
Preachers are usually beholden to the agendas of their particular church or denomination.
So the world needs independent writers. Ones who are free to, in the words of Augustine, “Love and do what you will,” uninfluenced by any agenda except their own vision of truth.
As Augustine might’ve been if he had passed on the Bishop job and stuck with the college he founded.
I suspect Frank Schaeffer would agree with my opinion about Augustine’s misguided career choice. Next week’s message should explain my suspicion.
Perelandra College is a true non-profit. To support our work, please consider a paid subscription or a one-time donation.