Augustine’s Retractations, Perfectionism, And Fakespectations

For a long time I have been thinking about and planning to do something which I, with God’s assistance, I am now undertaking because I do not think it should be postponed: with a kind of judicial severity I am reviewing my works — books, letters, and sermons — and, as it were, with the pen of a censor, I am indicating what dissatisfies me. For, truly, only an ignorant man will have the hardihood to criticize me for criticizing my own errors. But if he maintains that I should not have said those things which, indeed, dissatisfied me later, he speaks the truth and concurs with me. In fact, he and I are critics of the same thing, for I should not have criticized such things if it had been right to say them.

Augustine of Hippo, Prologue to the Retractations (c. 427–28) in St. Augustine, The Retractations, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 60, trans. Mary Inez Bogan (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America), 3.

The expression “I retract nothing” appears with remarkable frequency among contemporary writers and speakers. In the parlance of gamblers it is called “doubling down.” Then candidate Trump was particularly noted for this rhetorical strategy but he is hardly alone. He is part of a great company. In contrast, I am an Augustinian and Augustinians not only believe in original sin they practice it. So does everyone else but other traditions are less willing or able to admit their sins. For example, once one in the Wesleyan tradition has reached entire perfection or sinless perfection. Some years ago one of my wife’s math students declared to her that he had reached entire sanctification such that he no longer sinned. As soon as she said that I thought, “Well, he just sinned by lying.” R. C. Sproul’s response to a similar claim is apt:

I had a difficult time concealing my astonishment at this spiritual arrogance. I asked him pointedly, “You mean that You, at age nineteen, after one year of Christian faith, have achieved a higher level of obedience to God than the apostle Paul enjoyed when he was writing the Epistle to the Romans?”

To my everlasting shock the young man replied without flinching, “Yes!” Such is the extent to which persons will delude themselves into thinking that they have achieved sinlessness.

Indeed, there is a sharp distinction between the Augustinian reading of Romans 7 and other readings (e.g., that of Pelagius and later of Arminius). Augustinians typically recognize themselves in the Apostle’s stark confession of his ongoing struggle with sin, even in a state of grace. The Pelagians and Arminians begin with the a priori conviction that Paul could not have been describing himself or any Christian. I understand that there are other approaches e.g., Ridderbos’ but the distance between his reading and Pelagius’ and Arminius’ is perhaps not as great as we might assume simply because Ridderbos was in the Dutch Reformed tradition. Ad fontes.

Augustine’s ruthless honesty and self-criticism in his Retractiones not only stands in stark contrast to what Sproul calls “the heresy of perfectionism” but it also stands as a rebuke to the spirit of our age (Die Zeitgeist), autonomy, self-assertion, self-aggrandizement, self-empowerment, self-realization, and self-actualization. Remove the titles on these topics from your local Barnes and Noble and the store would seem empty. We are more like Nietzsche than Augustine.

The Internet both reflects and increases the severity of the problem. How often have we read things like “the internet lives forever” or “nothing dies on the internet”? This axiom appears with regularity on social media platforms such as Twitter, which in its very nature invites immediate, unqualified, emotive reaction, which then can be “screen capped” (a virtual photograph taken) and preserved digitally even after the tweet has been deleted. Where once we might have thought something or even said it to a friend, today our “friends” are online and we say it to tens, hundreds, and even to thousands. Not long ago I tweeted a link to an interview I did a year ago with Sen. Sasse. I was astonished to see that within a few days it had received 20,000 “interactions” (what that means I don’t know but even I can tell that 20,000 is a large number). It was a bracing reminder to be careful on Twitter etc.

Here, as always, the distinction between law and gospel is helpful. Our social institutions, whether real, e.g., the civil magistrate, work, and school or virtual, i.e., the internet, are law. The law demands perfection and punishes when we do not hit the mark. Get caught running a red light: ticket. Show up late to work: lost wages or perhaps lost job. Write a poor final exam: lose points toward your grade. The internet is a particularly harsh judge, however. So we respond by creating an idealized online persona. Our life is not quite the way it is made to seem on social media. On one platform I follow various accounts that post videos and photos of Scottish Terriers. Call it brand loyalty. It is great fun to watch Scotties do Scottie things in Scottie ways but no one ever posts photos of picking up after the dog in the backyard. That’s also a part of the reality. The incomplete portrayal of life is a kind of law. It creates a false expectation about what life is. It creates a kind of pressure to portray perfection. Today, Middle and High School students report feeling pressure from social media to meet what I call fakespectations (© and ™2017) created by social media.

Near the end of his writing life Augustine wrote his Retractations to correct the mistakes he had made earlier in his ministry. Could anyone do that today? I am not sure that we could. I fear that we, even Christians, who should know better have lost something important. If the Apostle Paul, with the knowledge that he was writing God’s Word which would be preserved for the church, could write Romans 7 about himself, how is it that we mere Christians can no longer speak this way of ourselves? It is because we have been unknowingly taken captive by the self-justifying spirit  of the age. I am not suggesting that we indulge ourselves in self-indulgent self-revelation. We have seen episodes of that in the recent past and turned out to have been cover for gross immorality. There is a sharp difference between the sort of self-revelation we read in Romans 7 and the sort we have seen from some evangelical and Reformed folk in the last several years.

Because we live so much of our lives under the fakespectations created by social media, we can forget about grace and the one institution divinely instituted to be the minister of grace: the visible church.

Secular institutions and even extra-ecclesiastical Christian institutions have always been, in their essence, law. The civil magistrate may exercise mercy—Calvin’s first published work was a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (On Clemency), Seneca’s defense of the virtue of mercy to Nero. When a police officer pulls you over for speeding, he may write you a ticket or he may give you a warning. If he chooses the latter, that is a mercy. By law you were guilty. You deserved the fine whatever else comes your way (e.g., higher insurance rates). We are in a covenant of works with the civil magistrate (represented by the police officer): do this and live. School is a covenant of works. When it comes exams and term papers, a just teacher is, for the most part, only recognizing what the student has done. Speaking for myself, I take no pleasure in giving bad marks. Well written exams and term papers are pleasing. Most teachers want to see students learning and progressing but if an essay is poorly written or inaccurate, then that reality must be recognized. Like the magistrate, teachers and administrators may exercise mercy, i.e., they may lessen the severity of penalties but their office is not to exercise grace, i.e., to give to sinners what is not theirs by right.

These are not new realities but this axiom, that much of life is lived in a covenant of works, is portrayed for us as never before on the internet and especially on social (or, too often, anti-social) media. In Belgic Confession art. 37, we confess that, for unbelievers, the final judgment will look like this:

Then “the books” (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken, which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of men will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all.

Many Christians live in fear of their lives being played out like a horrible video, at the last judgment. They have been taught to think that they have begun the Christian life and salvation by grace but that it must be completed by works.1 So it is on social media. Recall the poor woman who, before leaving for a trip to Africa, where she was to work with a relief agency and who, trying to be hip and ironic, tweeted that she hoped that she did not contract AIDS while in Africa. The Twitter-rage became so intense that while she was still in the air, she lost her job. With the ubiquity of cameras now, it would not be that difficult to put together an actual video of one’s life moment by moment.

There is an institution, however, whose principle is not works and judgment but grace and forgiveness: Christ’s church. By divine institution there is the preaching of the great Good News that Christ became incarnate for, obeyed for, suffered for, died for, and was raised for the free justification of all his people. She is the only institution authorized to proclaim this message. There alone do we find the sacrament of baptism, in which the gracious washing of new life and the forgiveness of sins is pictured for us and the promise of the same visibly represented to believers. There alone is administered the gracious communion in the body and blood of Christ, where believing sinners are freely invited freely to come, to eat, and to drink, to be nourished mysteriously by Christ’s true body and true blood.

In the church, believers ought to find refuge from the ever-present judgment of the social media. Of all the institutions in this world whether expressions of family or state, the church alone is that society in which Christians are free to be what they are: sinners redeemed by Christ, who are being gradually and graciously conformed to Christ’s image. The church alone is to be the place of unconditional acceptance of sinners by sinners.

Of course, this is not to say that in the church there is no correction. Certainly there is! Church discipline is one the marks of the church. Our Lord instituted church discipline but for believers discipline is an act of grace not condemnation. Believers recognized their sins, confess them, turn from them and seek to die to them. The ministry of discipline is a proclamation of the law to non-believers and with all such administrations of the law we do it in the hope and prayer that the Spirit will use it to soften hearts, to convict the hearer of the greatness of his sin and misery, and to make people receptive to the Good News.

Here is something to consider. Instead of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” how about “What is said at church, stays at church”? I do not mean to say that what the minister says is not public or that one should not broadcast sermons or services but I do mean to suggest that the church should ordinarily be a refuge from the sort of judgments that the world makes. I do mean that what is said in confidence between believers should stay there. There is even a case to be made that when it comes to the administration of church discipline that non-members be excused and the remaining members be admonished to treat the administration with due reverence.

The church should be a haven of grace (free acceptance for Christ’s sake alone) and forgiveness. Condemnation belongs to God. Even in the final act of church discipline (excommunication) the church does not send people to hell. Rather, we recognize that a person who once professed faith has, over time, shown himself to be an unbeliever. We are to treat that person as an unbeliever, i.e., we love him and pray that God the Spirit will soften his heart and open his eyes in new life and in true faith. We tell him that he is in grave danger but we do not do so as anything other than those who have been plucked from the fire by the grace of God.

Augustine wrote Retractations because he was, well, an Augustinian. He knew what he was, a sinner, whose intellect, will, and affections were corrupted by sin. He could publish his Retractions because he did not have to pretend to be what he was not. You and I may never need to write Retractations, if only because there would be little use or interest, but the church is meant to be a place where we are freely accepted, where burdens and even sins are shared. It is no mistake that after all that he had written to the Galatian congregation about grace he began the last chapter with these words:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load (Gal 6:1–5; ESV).

Paul too was an Augustinian. Sinners are to be restored, not ostracized and with gentleness, not arrogant self-righteousness. Embracing the spirit of the Retractions means being honest about our own sins and habits. It means graciously standing with, praying with, and even crying with fellow sinners as they share their struggles with sin. It means recognizing that, of ourselves, we are nothing. The congregation of sinners is no place for false self-esteem, self-realization, and accomplishments. Oprah can peddle that stuff elsewhere. I take verses 4–5 to refer to honest self-assessment, to recognizing (as Calvin says in his commentary on these verses) that whatever sanctification has occurred is a gift of the Spirit. Believers are not to compare themselves to one another but each of us is to reckon himself to be what he really is: a wretch freely and marvelously saved by grace alone, through the Spirit-wrought gift of faith, in Christ the only righteous One.

NOTES

1. Read the entire article. The judgement is law and condemnation for the unbeliever but comfort and gospel for the believer:

Finally we believe, according to God’s Word, that when the time appointed by the Lord is come (which is unknown to all creatures) and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty, to declare himself the judge of the living and the dead. He will burn this old world, in fire and flame, in order to cleanse it.

Then all human creatures will appear in person before the great judge—men, women, and children, who have lived from the beginning until the end of the world.

They will be summoned there by the voice of the archangel and by the sound of the divine trumpet. For all those who died before that time will be raised from the earth, their spirits being joined and united with their own bodies in which they lived. And as for those who are still alive, they will not die like the others but will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye” from “corruptible to incorruptible.”

Then “the books” (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken, which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of men will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all.

Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked and evil people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished. They will then receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered; their innocence will be openly recognized by all; and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.

The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal—but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

In contrast, the faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honor. The Son of God will “confess their names” before God his Father and the holy and elect angels; all tears will be “wiped from their eyes”; and their cause—at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil officers—will be acknowledged as the “cause of the Son of God.”

And as a gracious reward the Lord will make them possess a glory such as the heart of man could never imagine.

So we look forward to that great day with longing in order to enjoy fully the promises of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

See also Heidelberg Catechism 52:

52. What comfort is it to you, that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, look for the very same one, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven, who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation,2 but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.

The believer looks forward to Christ’s return and to the judgment, not because he is sinless or because he he is finishing by works (e.g., cooperation with grace) what began with the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:3). Rather, the believer is looking forward to the judgment because there he will be vindicated and receive the consummation of what has been given and promised in this life.

URCNA Synod Escondido 2001 On Creation

Synod affirms that Scripture teaches, as summarized by the Creeds and the Three Forms of Unity:

  • The authority and perspicuity of Scripture (Belgic Confession V; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VII).
  • Necessity and sufficiency of Scripture (Belgic Confession VII; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VII).
  • God the Father almighty created the heavens and the earth and all things visible and invisible (Apostle’s and Nicene Creed).
  • The Father created the heavens and the earth out of nothing (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day IX).
  • God gave every creature its shape and being (Belgic Confession XII).
  • The creation and fall of man. “God made man of the dust of the earth; man gave ear to the devil.” (Belgic Confession XIV).
  • The historicity of Adam (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VII.20; Canons of Dort III, IV.1).
  • Man was created good, in a garden, and tempted by the devil, committed reckless disobedience (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day III and IV).
  • God’s words to the serpent in Paradise are noted as the first revelation of the Gospel (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VI).
  • Adam plunged himself and his offspring by his first transgression into perdition (Belgic Confession XVI).
  • Adam’s fall into sin and our connection to it (Canons of Dort I.1).
  • God came seeking man when he, trembling, fled from Him (Belgic Confession XVII).
  • God created all things good in six days defined as evenings and mornings (Genesis 1 & 2 and Exodus 20:11). This means that we reject any evolutionary teaching, including theistic evolution, concerning the origin of the earth and of all creatures (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day IX).
  • Synod affirms our commitment as churches to discipline those who teach anything that stands in conflict with the Bible, as summarized in the Creeds and the Three Forms of Unity.