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Signs, Things, and the Mediation of the Ineffable:

Sacramental Ecclesiology in Book I of Saint Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana

Every year The Living Church‘s student essay contest draws several excellent submissions. The first-place essay will be published in the October issue of The Living Church magazine, but several other essays were of such quality that we have decided to publish them here on Covenant.

Saint Augustine begins De Doctrina Christiana with a famous rhetorical distinction that might seem more at home in a textbook of semiology than a practical handbook on teaching the Christian faith: that between signs and things.  Because Augustine most directly uses his sign/thing distinction to make certain techniques of reading Holy Scripture possible — especially the allegorical and typological approach in the Christian reading of the Old Testament — it might seem strange or even irrelevant for thinking through an implicit ecclesiology in Augustine’s text. However, this technical semiotic distinction and its mediation of the inexpressible triune God allows Augustine to gesture toward what is distinct about the character of Christian communal life in the Church.

This will be an ecclesiology not by way of organizational charts of hierarchies and jurisdictions, but a sketch of the ethical and metaphysical dimension of Christians bound to each other within the body of Christ. This is a body animated by the same ineffable God who has humbled himself to be found in the things and signs of Holy Scripture, through which the faithful are commissioned to consecrate each other and all of creation to its ultimate source and final end in this transcendent God. For Augustine, the reading and teaching of Scripture is inseparable from this sacramental reality of communion for which humans were created and the Church instituted.

Augustine begins his investigations by asserting that Christians study Holy Scripture to both learn what it says and then to teach others what it says. As he states that he will “first discuss the way of discover[ing Scripture’s meaning], and after the way of putting our discoveries across,”[1] a reader would be forgiven for thinking that this opening book will be concerned with an individual’s study of Scripture, and only the latter books will deal with any social element in the transmission of this individual study. However, from the beginning of Augustine’s account, it is clear that he will not follow such a simple progression from individual study to social transmission. Indeed, the first book is seems more communally focused, with the latter books more explicitly focused on the techniques of the individual preacher and teacher.

Augustine then makes a further distinction between two types of things — those that are to be used, and those that are to be enjoyed. While the use of things is always for the sake of something else, enjoyment, in Augustine’s technical use, is to rest in a thing for its own sake and not for any further end. For Augustine, God is the only thing that should be — and even can be — truly enjoyed, with all other things ordered towards one’s enjoyment of God in their use. Having established this framework, Augustine moves immediately to describe God as ineffably triune, even giving his readers an abbreviated prefiguring of the Athanasian Creed in all of its seemingly-paradoxical (non)predication.[2] It is clear from the strangeness of this doxology that the “thingness” of God is not like the thingness of any other thing. Yet, despite his glorious acclamation of praise and wonder, Augustine remains trapped in the odd contradiction of God’s expressible inexpressibility, the very thing that makes God unique within this cosmology of things and signs:

Have I said anything, solemnly uttered anything that is worthy of God? On the contrary, all I feel I have done is to wish to say something; but if I have said anything, it is not what I wished to say. How do I know this? I know it because God is inexpressible; and if what has been said by me were inexpressible, it would not have been said. … This battle of words should be avoided by keeping silent, rather than resolved by the use of speech.[3]

Though Augustine notes that silence is a more fitting tribute, God “has accepted the homage of human voices, and has wished us to rejoice in praising him with our words”; he will not allow for a cheap appeal to mystery to get out of this conundrum![4] Augustine has left himself and his readers with a problem that will remain an animating concern through the rest of this text: how can a creature enjoy its inexpressible creator?

Augustine locates the agency to solving this problem in God himself, who as Holy Wisdom already present in the universe has incarnated as a fleshy human being in a world of material things: “Wisdom herself had seen fit to adapt herself even to such infirmity as ours, and had given us an example of how to live, in no other mode than the human one, because we too are human.”[5] This incarnation is not simply an example to emulate. Through the faithful’s participation in the death and resurrection of Wisdom Incarnate, Jesus, Christians are gathered together into the corporate fellowship of the Church. As individual believers are knit together into Christ’s body, it becomes clear that the vexing question of how one can enjoy the ineffable thingness of God cannot be answered by an isolated individual, but by members of a communal body, bound “tightly together with the knot of unity and love.”[6] Indeed, we might say that for Augustine, it is only through such a graced and corporate life in the Church that an individual can be trained and purified to arrive at the lofty heights of rightly enjoying this transcendent God.

It is here in Augustine’s discussion of Jesus’s summary of the Law that the semantic distinctions which began this book begin to bear ecclesial fruit. Augustine is concerned with rightly ordering Jesus’s twofold summary to love God and neighbor, and if one keeps the distinction between use and enjoyment in mind, it is no surprise that Augustine argues that love for one’s neighbor is a “useful” love. Useful here should not be thought of in a derogatory sense, as a commodifying use-value, but in that it is most properly ordered towards love for God, as it is only in God that one can find true enjoyment for its own sake. In this context, use might be better thought of as a kind of priestly consecration, a communal presentation of “our selves, our souls and bodies,” our relationships with and love for our creaturely neighbors, as “a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” unto God, as the Anglican anaphora puts it.[7] Augustine’s mediating distinctions here are therefore shown to reveal the sacramental dimension of Christian communal life in obeying the Lord’s command for two-fold love for God and neighbor: the visible things of Christian fellowship and charity-become-consecrated-signs of transcendent Divinity.

Augustine further demonstrates the priestly particularity of the gathered Christian community in his invocation of the “theaters of godlessness.”[8]  While he seems motivated to make such a comparison to galvanize his Christian readers by comparing their assembly unfavorably to a pagan theater, it is also clear that this supposed compliment to the actor and his fans is not-so-subtly backhanded. While the fans united around in fervent love for their favorite actor can certainly shame a Church that has abdicated its responsibility to build each other up in charity, such a model of community cannot hope to recreate the distinctly priestly character of Christian communal life, for God is not a thing among other things, let alone an actor among actors. His nature being inexpressible is what enables this whole system of consecrated neighborly love ordered toward its rightful end in enjoyment of God. No community organized around a created thing can hope to mimic the sacramental quality of communal life centered on the enjoyment of this God. Though Augustine was brought to vexed silence when first contemplating God’s inexpressible nature, here God’s transcendence is demonstrated not to be a confusing puzzle to solve, but a life-giving and praiseworthy mystery.

Augustine ends Book I of De Doctrina Christiana where he began his inquiries, with the reading of Holy Scripture. His opening investigations quickly turned to many elements of churchly communal life and practice, which have been the focus of this essay, but it should not be overlooked that Scripture is the fertile ground from which these reflections began and the home where they find their conclusions tested. Augustine finds that Scripture itself will also not easily be lent to a project of perfectly separating individual study and social effect, for the sum of its teachings is found in Jesus consolidation of the Law: to love God and neighbor. It might be surprising that Augustine does not begin his essay with Jesus’ profoundly plain summary, but it might be that his meandering discussion of things and signs, use and enjoyment, and the body of Christ and the theaters of godlessness is meant to perform for his readers the conclusion that this summary cannot be reached without close attention to and practice of the sacramental living and reading that constitutes communal Christian life. This summary of Holy Scripture is certainly no gnostic teaching only given to the spiritual elite, but it perhaps is a teaching that can only be lived and practiced within the body of Christ, through incorporation into Christ’s death and resurrection, and through this loving consecration of self and neighbor to the ultimate enjoyment of this ineffable triune God. 

Maxine King is a lay Anglican (Episcopal Church) student of theology.

[1] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.1. This and all following quotations are taken from Saint Augustine, Teaching Christianity, trans. Edmund Hill O.P. (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 1996).

[2] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.5. See The Book of Common Prayer 1979, 864-865 for the Quicumque Vult and its endless repetition of negations that qualify each clause of predication.

[3] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.6.

[4] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.6.

[5] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.11.

[6] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.15.

[7] Book of Common Prayer, 336.

[8] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.30.



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