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Outward SignsThe Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine's Thought$

Phillip Cary

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195336498

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195336498.001.0001

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(p.vii) Preface

(p.vii) Preface

Outward Signs
Oxford University Press

The concept of sacrament is not simply a kind of religious sensibility, what we might call a sacramental attitude toward the world. It belongs to a doctrine that is concerned not with the world in general but with particular places to find the grace of a particular God, which is Christ in the flesh. The formulation of the doctrine of the sacraments in the Middle Ages was a great achievement, I think, because in the Augustinian tradition within which it arose what matters most is inward and universal, whereas sacramental doctrine taught people to cling to things that are external and particular: not eternal realities or inner experience but flesh and blood, water and word. Precisely in its externality, sacramental doctrine is a great triumph of Christ over the philosophy of soul, inner presence, and spiritual experience, as well as other generalities such as “sacramental thinking,” which tend to tyrannize over religious thought even in Christianity. (Most misleading of all is what has recently been called “incarnational thinking,” another generalized attitude that contrasts sharply with the Christian doctrine of Incarnation, according to which the flesh of God is nothing but one particular Jew.) My ultimate interest here is to understand this triumph of the piety of the external and particular over the spirituality of the inward and universal, but this requires careful investigation of the unlikely conceptual context in which it occurred.

(p.viii) Powerless Externals

I was led into this investigation by Luther, that great enemy of the religion of inner spiritual experience. According to Luther, God gives himself to us through his external word, but not according to Augustine. My surprise at this contrast led me to write this book. For in this regard Luther is more Catholic than Augustine—certainly more of a medieval Catholic—while Augustine, if not exactly more Protestant than Luther, is closer to Calvin than Luther is on the issue of sacraments. At stake is nothing less than the nature of the Gospel, which for Luther has a sacramental kind of efficacy. “The words of Christ are sacraments by which he works our salvation,” says Luther, because “the Gospel words and stories are a kind of sacrament, that is, a sacred sign, by which God effects what they signify in those who believe.”1 Luther's theology of the saving Word of God originates within the framework of medieval theology of sacramental efficacy.2 His teaching that the Gospel of Christ is a divine promise effectually giving the salvation it promises grows out of the medieval conception of sacramental signs effectually conferring the inward grace they signify.

What initially surprised me was that Augustine had no such conception, even though he formulated the theory of signs within which Luther and the medieval theologians developed their theologies of word and sacrament. But perhaps I should not have been so surprised. When Calvin in his sacramental theology argued against Luther that external signs can have no intrinsic spiritual power, he insisted Augustine was on his side—and I now think Calvin was right about this. Yet the resulting fault line in Western Christianity is still unexpected and takes some getting used to: Calvin and Augustine on one side, Luther and Aquinas and medieval Catholicism on the other. In one sense, of course, all of Western theology is Augustinian, including in the matter of word and sacrament, both of which are conceived as outward signs of inner things. But the Augustinian framework assumes the superiority of the inner as well as the superficiality of the external, so it is striking when medieval theologians defend a piety that clings to external things and Luther follows them, while Calvin and the subsequent tradition of Protestant inwardness spurn this kind of externalism. The fault line opens up in the twelfth century when medieval theologians first define sacraments as external signs that not only signify an inner grace but confer it. Calvin, unlike Luther, rejects this confidence in the efficacy of external things and looks back past medieval sacramental theology to its deeper roots in Augustine.

Not that Augustine thinks exactly like Calvin. Of course how Augustine does think, exactly, is the topic of this book. While Calvin is concerned to “place (p.ix) no power in creatures,”3 Augustine is convinced that bodily things have no power over souls. In other words, Calvin's denial of external sacramental efficacy stems from a distinctive view of creature and Creator (as if assigning spiritual power to creatures robbed God of his honor) while Augustine's stems from a Platonist view of body and soul, emphasizing the causal superiority of the latter. In Platonism, the soul gives form and life to the body, not the other way round. The inferiority of the body is tantamount to the powerlessness of external things over the inner self—so long as the inner self is morally pure, not defiled by carnal attachments and driven by earthly desires. Consequently external signs may have an appropriate spiritual use for those who are not yet pure, but clinging to them as if they had the power to save us merely reinforces our sinful tendency to love bodily rather than spiritual things.

Thesis and Argumentation

My contention is that Augustine the Christian Platonist invented the way we now think about outer and inner—not only the concept of a private inner world of the self, which was the topic of my first book, Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self, but also the concept of external signs expressing what lies hidden within the inner self, which is the topic of the present book. I call this new Augustinian conception of signs “expressionist semiotics,” thinking of it as the distant origin of what George Lindbeck labels the “experiential‐expressivist” model of Christian doctrine. The novelty of expressionist semiotics lies in the way it takes up the ancient philosophical theory of signs, which was originally a theory of scientific inference developed by empirically minded philosophers quite opposed to Platonism, and incorporates it into a Platonist metaphysics of body and soul, thereby inventing the new category of bodily signs that are communicative expressions of the soul. What I aim to understand is how concepts like inner self and outward expression first arose in Western thought, as well as why they did not originally allow for the sacramental notion of outward signs conferring inner gifts.

The overall thesis I argue for in this book is that Augustine's Christian Platonism has no room for such a notion, which I shall label “efficacious external means of grace.” To arrive at this thesis, part I begins by examining Augustine's invention of expressionist semiotics, its philosophical roots (chapters 1 and 2) and epistemological consequences. The most important consequences are that words become a species of sign (chapter 3) and that signs cannot give us knowledge of what they signify (chapter 4). From this follows the theological implication that the Scriptures do not reveal God but consist of (p.x) signs pointing out the way our souls must take to see God for themselves (chapter 5). This implication for the theology of the word is parallel to the implication for the theology of the sacrament: neither word nor sacrament can function as efficacious means of grace, because no sign can effectually give what it signifies.

Part II examines how this conception of the powerlessness of external signs applies specifically to Augustine's theology of the sacraments, and in particular how Augustine's concept of sacrament compares with that of his medieval successors (chapter 6), how his concept of baptism affirms traditional commitments to baptismal regeneration without assigning power to the outward ceremony of baptism (chapter 7), and how all the Christian sacraments are founded on Christ's coming in the flesh without assigning life‐giving power to the sacraments or to Christ's flesh itself, which after all is an external thing (chapter 8).

Some Advice for Readers

The overall concern of this book is theological but its procedure often involves philosophical as well as theological exegesis. Readers interested primarily in theology, I would warn, might best begin reading later than chapter 1. I have dismaying visions of multitudes of readers getting bogged down in Hellenistic theories about the nature of signs and giving up somewhere in the middle of chapter 2, where the arcana of ancient philosophical semiotics meets the arcana of the early Augustine. Anyone who is as fascinated by this arcana as I am should dive in—I have done my best to make it accessible to the nonspecialist—but if your interest is strictly in Augustine the theologian, it would be better to begin with chapter 4, which contains quite enough semiotics for theological purposes. (If you also have an interest in Augustine's philosophy of language, you could begin with chapter 3). Or you could begin with the last chapter, indeed the very last section, entitled “Spiritual Eating,” which will give you a good overview of the theological import of this book and its bearing on the fundamental issue of Christ in the flesh. From there, or indeed anywhere else in the book, it should be possible to follow whichever thread you like through the dense forest of this book's argumentation by using the many cross‐references I have included in the footnotes, together with the summaries at the head of each chapter, which should help you locate the patches of this forest that most interest or provoke you.

The summaries summarize each chapter in order, section by section. You will find that most sections (marked by subtitles, to which the cross‐references refer) (p.xi) are nearly self‐contained, allowing you to read one at a gulp and then use a cross‐reference to jump to another in a different chapter. I suppose many of us find it natural, as well as pleasant and instructive, to read scholarly works in this jumpy and nonlinear fashion instead of resigning ourselves to being taken on a forced march in a single direction by the author. I have simply done more than most authors to facilitate that kind of reading, in the hope that the book will lure more readers and gain more understanding that way. This is particularly necessary in that this book is not a series of reports on research but a single sustained exegetical argument woven of a great many threads, which have a way of disappearing for a while like strands in a braid and then coming back into view many pages later.

A few clarifications about terminology will perhaps be helpful even at this early point. I make no distinction between the terms “inner,” “inward,” “internal” and “interior,” nor between “outer,” “outward,” “external,” and “exterior,” using them interchangeably as my sense of euphony suggests. Also, I do not usually make any distinction between “bodily” and “corporeal.” Although the former often refers specifically to the human body, in a Platonist context it always does so by placing it at the same ontological level as other corporeal things, which for Augustine means it is a different kind of being from the soul. “Psychology,” when used of Augustine's (or Plato's or Plotinus's) thought, means a philosophical account of the soul's kind of being, which is hardly what we now mean by the discipline of psychology. It is useful to start thinking about kinds of being as early as possible in reading this book, because the contrast between inner and outer, which defines expressionist semiotics, is an ontological contrast between levels of being. The level of being called “outward” can also be called “bodily” and “sensible,” which is to say, every outward thing is corporeal and sensible, every sensible thing is corporeal and outward, and every bodily thing is external and sensible. This is not merely an equivalence of terms but a substantive ontological thesis characteristic of Platonism, which results in the three terms being, in modern logical parlance, co‐extensive: they “cover” exactly the same things, even though they call attention to three different features of them.

What no clarification can accomplish, I have discovered, is to eliminate the possibility of provocation. Judging by my previous efforts, this book is apt to provoke those who like the inward turn in religion, as well as those who dislike it and would rather not think of Augustine as a hero of inwardness. I am in the latter camp myself, but cannot shake the conviction that the real Augustine is not quite what any of us want him to be. It is a dismaying conviction, very much like discovering your father is not all you hoped he was, and in that sense this is a book for grown‐ups. It is probably not—what I wish it could (p.xii) be—edifying reading for those just learning theology. This is not to say any of us are in a position to stop learning from this father in the faith or even to stop admiring him—the man's mind and heart are deeper than mine, and I am a better Christian for having spent so much time with him—but our learning must often be by way of critical thinking. Augustine himself expected no less, bless his heart.4

Against Inwardness

But perhaps it will help if I explain what's not to like. Although I do not actually believe in the distinction between inner and outer (for I do not think we have a private inner world within us but rather live within the one world God has created) nonetheless if forced to accept such a distinction I am all for a piety that could fairly be called “externalistic,” in which we cling to the external word, sacraments, and the flesh of Christ as the source of salvation, grace, and truth. If you like an inward spirituality or want to find God within, I hope I can make you think twice. This means I must ask you to question some fundamental intuitions you may have—intuitions that I contend did not exist before Augustine. I must ask you to consider that words may not so much express our experience as shape it and give it being, making it a distinctively articulate and human rather than animal experience. Although we often have intuitions prior to words (like mathematicians who first get an insight and later figure out how to explain it in words) we are the intuitive creatures we are because our minds are shaped by words (all the mathematicians on earth are speakers of some human language, their mathematical thinking formed by the habit of speech, without which they could never have learned mathematics at all). I would ask you to consider the possibility that our deepest intuitions could not have gotten into our hearts unless human words were there first. External things, I think, do exercise a wholesome power over our souls, not to control and coerce but to form and to teach, to bring our lives to the point where we may speak the truth and thereby engage in the work of thought. And if our souls are shaped by words, then words can give adequate expression to what is in them. Indeed, words are just the thing we need to be human, creatures made in the image of a God who speaks the truth.

Likewise, I agree with Luther in thinking there can be no Christ in our hearts unless he first gives himself to us in the external word of the Gospel. Christ is in us only to the extent that we cling to this word outside us. That, I think, is how it always is with persons. We get to know the people we love and bear them in our hearts not by looking within but by turning our attention (p.xiii) outward and away from ourselves, hearing the word of these others, listening to what they have to say for themselves, and considering that it may be the truth. To know other persons as persons is impossible without honoring their authority to speak for themselves.5

Thus I add a belief in authority to my belief in externals. My inquiries into Augustine's thought will, I can only expect, seem rather scandalous at first to readers who think of belief in external authority as something we need to outgrow. I do not think this way, because the authority I am concerned with is the authority of other persons to speak for themselves, just as the exteriority of the word I am concerned with is ultimately the exteriority of other persons, those outside ourselves who can surprise and bless us with a truth that is not our own, a truth to which we have no access apart from their authority. Therefore to honor others as other, in their difference from ourselves, is precisely to embrace external authority. For this reason also faith, as Augustine rightly teaches, is a matter of authority rather than reason. But in contrast to Augustine, I don't believe we should aspire to a beatitude where faith in authority gives way to intellectual vision or (to make the usual translation into modern, Romantic terms) to direct inward experience. Persons are present for us not in our experience but in their flesh, and therefore knowing other persons, including God, is always dependent on external authority. The fact that this makes us dependent on what is outside us—a truth that comes to us only as a gift of the other—is the very goodness of it.

Inner Grace and Particular Election

Augustine can think differently, because his concept of inwardness allows for the possibility of finding the other within the self—looking inward and then upward, as I put it in my first book, Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self. This Platonist structure of Augustinian inwardness is particularly important for Augustine's doctrine of grace, which relies on a concept of divine help bestowed inwardly on the soul. Thus one of the most important ways in which this book swims against the usual current of Augustine scholarship is its assumption that Augustine's doctrine of grace is an outgrowth rather than a break from his Platonism. It is from the beginning and throughout his career a Christian Platonist doctrine of grace. This is an assumption I argue for at length in my second book, Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul, to which many of the cross‐references in this book refer. There I show how key developments in Augustine's psychology of grace rely on his Platonist epistemology of inner teaching, and I argue that it was never the case at any (p.xiv) point in his career as a Christian writer that Augustine thought he could arrive at wisdom and happiness without divine help bestowed inwardly upon his soul. That is just not how Platonists think.

The development of Augustine's doctrine of grace is thus not a story about how he becomes less Platonist and more Christian. For one thing, it is a story that has little to do with Christ incarnate, whom we must encounter in the flesh, not as an inner presence. To see where Christ in the flesh fits in, we must look at the authority of external things like words and sacraments, things that have the same kind of presence as flesh. At stake, ultimately, is our apprehension of a particular human being, Jesus Christ. This takes us in the opposite direction from Augustinian inwardness, which is not about embracing particulars. Hence a deepening appreciation of the authority of Christ as external teacher is an interruption in the trajectory of Augustine's early intellectual project, the source of what I regard as the most important change of direction in Augustine's thought, “the great shift in Augustine's teaching” as I call it here at the end of chapter 4.

The particularity of external things, especially those of the biblical story, give rise to the most fruitful challenges and the greatest difficulties in Augustine's thought. On the one hand, for example, his figural reading of Old Testament narratives is one of the most resourceful and astute to be found in any of the church fathers. But on the other hand, he cannot ultimately make sense of the particularity of divine election, the choices that God makes in history to call one person rather than another, one nation rather than another, as his favorite and beloved. In the Bible this is good news, because Israel is chosen for the blessing of all nations, and Christ is chosen for the salvation of the world. But when combined with Augustine's doctrine of the inner gift of grace, divine election becomes something to shudder at, an inscrutable depth in which some are predestined for salvation and others not.

In Inner Grace, I venture to argue that this is the fault not of Augustine but of the church, which had already aimed long before to replace or supersede Israel, constituting itself as the new Jacob, as it were, by stealing its brother's birthright as the chosen people so that Christians might be comforted and Israel excluded by the words of divine election, “Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated.” Ever since, the Jews have represented for Christian thought the kind of opaque particulars that must be seen through, transcended, and left behind—with only partial success, of course, leaving a residue of inscrutable depths in dark places such as Augustine's doctrine of election and predestination. This Christian effort to overcome Jewish particularity is a conceptual cousin of the attempt found so frequently in modern thought to overcome (p.xv) historical particularities and external authorities, including the authority of the divine other in holy Scripture. It is a terrible mistake.

Presence in the Flesh

From a modern perspective, what is strange about the biblical doctrine of election is its focus on particular flesh—Jewish flesh—a mere external thing, if you want to put it that way. There is something similarly strange about someone as Augustinian as Luther, at the beginning of modernity, clinging so tightly to external things like word and sacrament—very particular external words like the Gospel, and very particular sacraments like the bread of the Eucharist. Luther's theology is often treated as paradoxical, I think, because he uses expressionist semiotics to articulate this kind of outward turn, this clinging to external things, which goes very much against the grain of Augustine's motives for inventing expressionist semiotics in the first place. Most strikingly, Luther's emphasis on faith alone requires us to believe in the inner presence of Christ rather than experience it, which defeats the very purpose of Augustinian inwardness.

To agree with Luther about this is to be armed against the turn to experience in modern liberal Protestantism (as Karl Barth gratefully recognized)6 and perhaps also against the kind of “metaphysics of presence” that is the target of many postmodern critics. For those interested in the latter, I should say that I do not believe in inner, intuitive, or phenomenal presence, just as I do not believe in Platonist souls or Augustinian inner selves. Except when I suspend disbelief and enter imaginatively into what seems to me the hallucinatory world of modern thinkers such as Schleiermacher or Husserl, I just cannot see why anyone would be very interested in what is present in our conscious experience. Consciousness itself, if there is such a thing, is of interest only insofar as it is directed to what is outside itself. That is to say, if words like “consciousness” (p.xvi) and “experience” are any use at all, then their primary value lies in describing how we regularly go beyond the bounds of our previous experience or consciousness and come to be aware of new things. What's interesting is how we learn what is not yet present in our conscious experience. Thus any consciousness worth our trouble is oriented to what is not present to consciousness, and has no real interest in what some phenomenologists call “fullness of presence.” To talk as if what “presence” really means is presence to, for, or within our conscious experience is therefore to jettison the only useful meaning of words like “presence,” “consciousness,” and “experience.” Such talk in fact tends to turn our consciousness into a kind of prison, an inner world from which we can never really escape.

One of the advantages of not believing in the inner self is that one is free to regard such prisons as hallucinations, misguided philosophical inventions that never managed to achieve coherence, much less truth. One is free to believe that we do not live in an inner world of conscious experience but in the world God created—and that we should desire to learn what is really present in the flesh, not what is “fully present” to consciousness. The loveliest things in the world exist outside our conscious experience, and that is where any sane consciousness seeks them. If there are epistemological puzzles about how this works, part of the problem is surely our fondness for incoherent concepts of inner presence and conscious experience, which we would probably do better without. It has always seemed to me that there must be something wrong with our thinking if we find concepts like the inner world of consciousness easier to believe in than words and flesh, kingdoms and music, stars and trees and the like.

Sheer lack of interest in topics like “consciousness” and “experience” means also that I have never concerned myself with efforts to deconstruct something called “the metaphysics of presence.” Still, it will be useful for those interested in these things to know that I think Derrida in particular gets the history of the metaphysics of presence wrong by focusing on speech as the purported locus of presence.7 Here Augustine affords us much superior instruction in the meaning of metaphysics. It is true that his semiotics treats speech rather than writing as the primary form of the human word, but much more importantly it classifies both spoken and written words as merely external signs of a more fundamental inner presence. What is present to the mind, for Augustine as for Platonism in general and for all of expressionist semiotics, is metaphysically prior to the spoken word and everything corporeal, because it is a function of inner vision not outward speech. Seeing, not hearing, is the primary metaphor for presence in Platonism because the aim is to “see for ourselves” what is present to the mind rather than simply to believe what we hear about it secondhand.8

Hence also Luther's notion of an inner presence of Christ that is ours by the hearing of faith alone can only appear, in an Augustinian framework, as radical paradox. A Luther who was more biblical and less Augustinian would not look so paradoxical. Real presence is presence in the flesh, which most of the time is something we believe rather than see. Only in Platonism and its modern or postmodern descendants does this dependence on mere belief look like scepticism or paradox rather than ordinary human knowledge. For the fact is that we don't usually see or experience things for ourselves, but believe what (p.xvii) we hear—where “hearing” is a synecdoche for all secondhand knowledge, reading as well as listening, which is dependent on what other people have to tell us. For the point is that our knowledge is normally not a matter of seeing for ourselves but rather one of the many kinds of debts we owe to persons outside us, stemming from an epistemic dependence on the testimony of others that befits creatures such as ourselves, whose lives are both fleshly and social.

Thanks to Others

Of course we do often see things for ourselves, but that too is something we could never have done without the external teaching of others. This is as true in Augustine scholarship as in mathematics: all of us who read and converse about Augustine or anything else are indebted to others for thoughts that are our very own. It is a debt therefore that frees us to be ourselves, and thus is a fit image of our owing our whole being to a gracious Creator. We thereby contract that most beautiful debt of thanksgiving, “still paying, still to owe,” spoken of in Milton.9

Here I can only begin to tell what I owe to teachers and colleagues and other scholars. In the prefaces of earlier books I have thanked the people in whose company my thoughts were formed at Yale and Villanova, and here I would bring things up to date by mentioning with gratitude my colleagues at Eastern University, particularly Ray Van Leeuwen, Randy Colton, Steve Boyer, Dwight Peterson, Margaret Kim Peterson, Kent Sparks, Eric Flett, Carl Mosser, Jonathan Yonan, Chris Hall, and other members of the Christian Studies department, along with the many students who have had the hardihood to think carefully with me about Augustine—they too are scholars, even if only beginners, and because they are beginners they are learning more than the rest of us, which is something from which the rest of us have much to learn.

In my reading on the theme of Augustine's semiotics and its Platonist roots I owe most to the scholarship of Cornelius Mayer, whose great work on the concept of signs in Augustine's early writings also showed me the connection between semiotics and Christology, a point reinforced in a brief but profound article by Gérard Philips. After my own thinking had crystallized on these issues, I found support in the book of Ulrich Duchrow, who goes so far as to argue that, compared to a piety of “Biblical hearing,” Augustine's semiotics displays Sprachfeindschaft, a critique of language that amounts to a kind of hostility.10 It remains true, however, that my greatest scholarly debt in the realm of Augustine studies is to the work of Robert O'Connell, still the one whose writing did the most to free me to see with my own eyes. (p.xviii)


(1.)  From Luther's sermon on Chrismas Day, 1519, in WA 9:440.

(2.)  At least so I argue in Cary, “Why Luther Is Not Quite Protestant.” The crucial scholarly work on this point has been done by Oswald Bayer in Promissio.

(3.)  Calvin, Inst. 4:14.12.

(4.)  Here I quote again a passage from Augustine with which I concluded the preface to Augustine's Invention: “To be sure, in all my writings I desire not only a pious reader but a free corrector. … But as I want my readers not to be bound down to me, so I want my correctors not to be bound down to themselves. Let not the reader love me more than the Catholic faith, and let not the correctors love themselves more than the Catholic Truth” (De Trin. 3:2).

(5.)  For an argument to this effect, see Cary, “Believing the Word.”

(6.)  Consider Barth's massive use of Luther's writings against liberal Protestant theology throughout the first volume of his Church Dogmatics, the rationale for which is perhaps most succinctly stated in II/i,18, where Barth observes that for Luther it was “no less than a principal rule of all knowledge of God … [that] we must seek Him where He Himself has sought us—in those veils and under those signs of His Godhead. Elsewhere He is not to be found.”

(7.)  The locus classicus for Derrida's project of a “deconstruction of presence” is Of Grammatology, pp. 70–71. His focus on speech as presence leads him to downplay the importance of vision as the locus of presence in “Plato's Pharmacy,” Dissemination, pp. 82–83 and 166–165, which I think results in a very partial and skewed reading of Platonism.

(8.)  See chapter 5, “Secondhand Knowledge.”

(9.)  Milton, Paradise Lost, 4:53. The words are Satan's, describing what he finds hateful about the interminable debt of thanksgiving. But Satan is a fool, and the words are lovely.

(10.)  Duchrow, Sprachverständnis, p. 241.