Thursday, September 01, 2011

St Augustine, the Torah, and the critics of Christ

Our age likes to congratulate itself on our supposed superiority to other times. We like to imagine that we alone have raised questions -- such bold and daring questions that no one in ages past dared to ask. We might be more open-minded if we read some older books.

Christians have a long history of mixed reactions to the Old Testament in general, and to the Torah in particular. Here we see St Augustine, before his conversion, puzzling over questions leveled by critics of Christianity. The question is roughly about whether it was healthy to regard the Old Testament patriarchs as role models:
Are they to be esteemed righteous who had many wives at once, and did kill men, and sacrifice living creatures? (Confessions III:VII)

His objections were, perhaps, never answered in any historical or literal sense. As Augustine listened to one of the renowned Christian scholars of his day, St Ambrose, he found himself listening particularly to answers for questions like these. He gradually came to accept the practice of dealing with such passages figuratively ("in a figure"):
For first, these things also had now begun to appear to me capable of defence; and the Catholic faith, for which I had thought nothing could be said against the Manichees' objections, I now thought might be maintained without shamelessness; especially after I had heard one or two places of the Old Testament resolved, and ofttimes "in a figure," which when I understood literally, I was slain spiritually. Very many places then of those books having been explained, I now blamed my despair, in believing that no answer could be given to such as hated and scoffed at the Law and the Prophets. (Confessions V:XIV)

When Augustine says of the Old Testament that when he understood it literally he was slain spiritually, it comes down to this: the plain sense of the Old Testament was a deal-breaker for him.

And so Augustine found, as many Christians have found, that the most adamant critics of Christianity spend much of their time arguing about the Torah or the earliest history of Israel. For my own part, I suspect this is because they cannot justly say much against Christ, and so try to turn people away from him by other means.

I hope it does not leave the wrong impression to leave it here; the next post is closely related. I'm trying to keep the posts to reasonable lengths.

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