Augustine, Manichean? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 23 March 2011 09:51

Jason David BeDuhn, Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma, 1: Conversion and Apostasy, 373-388 C. E. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 2008).

Everyone who knows Augustine knows that he was for a time an “Auditor” among the Manicheanism, a dualistic gnostic sect founded by the mysterious third-century Persian prophet, Mani. Already in his own lifetime, Augustine had to deal with the charge that it was a phase he never outgrew. Pelagian bishop Julian of Eclanum found Manichean traces in Augustine’s doctrine of creation, his reservations about free will, his views on sexuality, and his doctrine of original sin.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, Julian’s charge has been revived by many scholars. Augustine’s pessimism about human nature, his ideas about sin and concupiscence, his theology of predestination, even his “two cities” framework for human history have all come under suspicion. Reading this scholarship, one is haunted by the depressing suspicion that the church has spent a good deal of her history oscillating between Manicheanism and Pelagianism.

Jason BeDuhn’s Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma looks destined to become the standard work on the subject.  It is far and away the most complete account of Augustine and Manicheanism ever published. This volume, nearly 400 pages, is only the first of three volumes. Volume 1 covers the first fifteen years of Augustine’s involvement with the Manichees, from his first visits to Manichean meetings in 372-373 at the age of 19 through his disillusioning encounter with Faustus the Manichean in 383, through his garden conversion and subsequent “apostasy” from Manicheanism to his reception into the church at his baptism by Ambrose.  Augustine’s great anti-Manichean works are still in the future when this volume closes.

Did Augustine leave Manicheanism? BeDuhn concludes that Augustine’s conversion to Nicene Christianity “did not involve a change to a radically different view of life.” His self-perception as “an exiled soul yearning to transcend a kind of bondage in the material world” remained, and he retained many of the interests and orientations that he had picked up from Manicheanism and other experiences. Yet, “by converting he transferred his allegiance from an ideological system that failed sufficiently to ground that view of life for him to one that could, because it better met both discursive standards of judgment and certain unarticulated preferences.”

By Paula Fredriksen’s account, Augustine eventually tore himself free of Manichean ideas. Her intentions in studying Augustine are quite different from BeDuhn’s. In the Acknowledgments of her highly readable book, Fredriksen, who has written previously on the gospels as well as on Augustine, explains that she started skimming through Augustine’s anti-Manichean treatise Against Faustus looking for choice pieces of anti-Jewish invective. She couldn’t stop reading. What she found instead was Augustine’s argument that the Jews wear the mark of Cain, a mark of God’s protection, who will avenge Himself on any who attack His people. The bulk of Fredriksen’s work examines the development of Augustine’s theological account of contemporary Judaism.

Here I am more interested in what Fredriksen has to say about Augustine and Manicheanism. Augustine, Fredriksen found, radically revised the common Christian views on the Old Testament and Judaism, embodied in the adversus Iudaeos tradition that stretched back to Justin’s treatises against Trypho the Jew. It started with a public debate with the Manichean Fortunatus. Though he left Fortunatus tongue-tied, Augustine was shaken by the sense that Fortunatus had been able to make the apostle Paul sound uncomfortably close to Manicheanism. Augustine found that some of the traditional Christian arguments actually played into Manichean hands.

Though he defended the Old Testament against Marcion, for instance, Tertullian shared much of Marcion’s distaste for the fleshly and vulgar narratives and rites of the Old Testament. Not everyone went as far as Origen, who claimed that God never intended Israel actually to perform animal sacrifices, but that was the drift of much Christian apologetic. Attacks on Jewish “literalism” and Christian “spiritual” exegesis didn’t help. To Christian claims that the new covenant is a “spiritual” covenant, the Manicheans responded, with some plausibility, Then why do you still have the “fleshly” Old Testament in your Bibles?

After his debate with Fortunatus, Augustine embarked on intensive study of Paul and of Genesis. From his study of Paul, Augustine learned that the apostle never condemned the Law as such, nor condemned the Jews for keeping it. On the contrary, Paul’s complaint was that the Jews failed to keep the Law. It dawned on him that, contrary to the earlier tradition, law and gospel were not opposed or contradictory, but simply two stages of God’s work in history to redeem the human race.

These insights are at the heart of treatise against Faustus. He argued that the Law given to the Jews was good, and that God intended them to keep it. By obeying the law according to the literal sense, in fact, Israel became a prophetic people, their entire religious and social life a shadow of the coming Messiah. Augustine thus brilliantly and seamlessly weaves approval of the literal sense of the Law into a typological hermeneutic.  By this combination of literal and typological, Augustine purged the remnants of Manicheanism from his theology.

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