Wednesday, December 21, 2016

St. Augustine's Doctrine of Eternal Punishment: His Biblical and Theological Argument [Book Review]

by Hiram R. Diaz III

It may rightly be said that Augustine is to heretics what Plato is to postmodernists. Augstine’s systematicity and precision of thought are anathema to heretics, whose existence largely depends upon a rejection of systematicity and precision as they pertain to the doctrine(s) under consideration. As the postmodernists reject the systematic interrelatedness of philosophical doctrines, so the heretics reject the systematic interrelatedness in  Scripture. Over the past century, many theologians have sought to deconstruct the systematic teachings of the Scriptures, typically attributing the doctrines they don’t like to Augustine, whom they claim was a Platonist.
Theological deconstructionists, ironically those who most openly claim they are restoring a true teaching to the church, have an easy target in Augustine. He published an immense body of writing on a wide assortment of subjects, which makes reading through the entire Augustinian canon a herculean task for the non-academic. Not only this, but for those who manage to do so, they will soon note that Augustine is not always consistent. His writing spans the entirety of his life as a Christian, with his earlier writings being influenced in some ways by the Platonists, and his later writings conforming to the teaching of Scripture. Ignoring the immensity of the Augustinian canon, as well as the inconsistency one encounters therein, heretics paint Augustine as a Platonist whose commitment to Plato’s philosophy (by which we must assume his accusers mean Plato’s metaphysics) tainted his otherwise helpful sermons and books. This is done in order to dismiss two unpopular biblical teachings for which he offered very strong arguments, viz. the immortality of the soul and eternal punishment (or everlasting conscious torment, ECT hereafter).
Dongsun Cho’s St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Eternal Punishment: His Biblical and Theological Argument, thankfully, scrutinizes the claims of those who dismissively identify the doctrines of the immortality of the soul and ECT as the fruit of Platonic philosophy, particularly as Christianized through Augustine’s writings, and finds those claims to be false. Cho argues that Augustine’s doctrine of ECT and doctrine of the immortality of the soul are derived from a systematic approach to interpreting the Scriptures. Cho not only demonstrates that Augustine was not a Platonist, and that, therefore, his doctrines were not derived from the Platonism of his day, but he also shows that Augustine’s hermeneutic is not simply literal or simply figurative, as some non-traditionalists assert. Rather, Augustine carefully balances literal and figurative readings of the Scriptures, according to hermeneutic principles he expressly sets down in texts like De Doctrina Christiana and Enchiridion.
Cho helpfully presents Augustine in an historically accurate light, confuting “non-traditionalists” like Edward Fudge and Clark Pinnock who wrongly believe that Christian belief in the immortality of the soul and ECT began with Augustine.
Cho’s investigation of other church fathers prior to Augustine, moreover, further reveals that these doctrines were not theological novum originating with the bishop, but positions which can be found in authors as early as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, both of whom are often incorrectly identified as annihilationists by modern proponents of the doctrine. While Augustine develops the doctrines of the immortality of the soul and ECT, he by no means has injected it into the Christian faith from Platonism.
St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Eternal Punishment is a helpful text, clearly setting forth the historical context in which Augustine developed the doctrines of hell and the immortality of the soul. Additionally, Augustine’s valuable contributions to the doctrine of ECT are clearly set forth by Cho, providing pastors with theological and pragmatic insight into the usefulness of the doctrine of ECT. Contemporary debates about the doctrine of hell, with lateral emphases on the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the wicked, are not divorced from the history of the church. What has been dealt with before by the brightest theological minds, given to the church by the Holy Spirit, is now rising to prominence again. Cho’s text shows how God has preserved the writings of past teachers who thought deeply, Scripturally, and thoroughly about these issues. In their writing, we do not have an infallible source of knowledge, but the voices of godly pastors who had only the best interests of Christ’s sheep in their minds.
The book is brief, but dense with content. In addition to his research into Augustine’s doctrines of the immortality of the soul and ECT, Cho includes select writings from Justin Marytr, Irenaeus, Clement, and Gregory of Nyssa. The reader can examine the original texts and compare the claims of the annihilationists with Cho’s reading in light of them. Cho writes in a sophisticated and yet accessible style that academics and non-technical theologians, apologists, and church members can appreciate.
-h.

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