Peter Sanlon – Augustine, Bible & Incarnation

SanlonPeter Sanlon is vicar of St. Mark’s Church, Tunbridge Wells, and author of Simply God: Recovering the Classical Trinity (IVP, 2014) and Augustine’s Theology of Preaching (Fortress, 2014).  I am currently enjoying Peter’s book on Augustine’s Theology of Preaching and am really thankful for the snapshot he offers in this post of the riches to be found in spending time with Augustine!

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The first ever book written on preaching, began with a chapter of doctrinal reflection — the topic of Christ’s incarnation loomed large. Augustine’s short book ‘On Christian Teaching’ was written with the awareness that people often found the Bible difficult to understand. Of course there were those who thought reading and understanding easy — but Augustine warned those who thought all they needed was their intelligence and the scripture, that they should be more humble and realistic about their spiritual abilities!

What role did Augustine think the incarnation played in preachers’ understanding of the Bible? Augustine wrote:

In what way did Christ come but this, ‘The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’? John 1:14. Just as when we speak, in order that what we have in our minds may enter through the ear into the mind of the hearer, the word which we have in our hearts becomes an outward sound and is called speech; and yet our thought does not lose itself in the sound, but remains complete in itself, and takes the form of speech without being modified in its own nature by the change: so the Divine Word, though suffering no change of nature, yet became flesh, that He might dwell among us. (1.13)

Augustine viewed the incarnation as God speaking to humanity in the most intimate, powerful manner possible. The inner heart and desires of God were revealed in the earthly life, teaching and death of Jesus. This incarnation was unique, mysterious and spectacular. The Word did not change, yet became flesh. Mystery indeed. The incarnation was a unique means of communication with sinful humanity — perfectly designed by God to overcome our inner blindness to his revelation:

Seeing, then, that man fell through pride, He restored him through humility. We were ensnared by the wisdom of the serpent: we are set free by the foolishness of God. Moreover, just as the former was called wisdom, but was in reality the folly of those who despised God, so the latter is called foolishness, but is true wisdom in those who overcome the devil. We used our immortality so badly as to incur the penalty of death: Christ used His mortality so well as to restore us to life. The disease was brought in through a woman’s corrupted soul: the remedy came through a woman’s virgin body. To the same class of opposite remedies it belongs, that our vices are cured by the example of His virtues. On the other hand, the following are, as it were, bandages made in the same shape as the limbs and wounds to which they are applied:  He was born of a woman to deliver us who fell through a woman: He came as a man to save us who are men, as a mortal to save us who are mortals, by death to save us who were dead. (1.14)

The Incarnation was beautifully orchestrated by God as the only means to deal with the inner problem of sin, which blinds us to anything God says to us. The relevance of all this to preaching, the ultimate topic of Augustine’s book? Only when the incarnate Christ has cleared away the sin that blinds us to God’s words, can we begin to profit from the tools of interpretation explained in subsequent chapters. To put all this in contemporary terminology — hermeneutics apart from the incarnation is the blind leading the blind. Only those who feel their need of the incarnate Christ are able to understand the Bible and preach it to others.

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