Who Am I to Disagree with St. Augustine?

“If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” (St. Augustine)

portrait of St. Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne

Saint Augustine - portrait by Philippe de Champaigne

I remember the shock of my first encounter, as a fairly new Christian, with someone whose actions reflected this premise of Augustine’s.

I’m not talking about the fellow college students who shamelessly thumbed their collective noses at any kind of moral, much less biblical restrictions.  I’m talking about a refined young woman who claimed to be a Christian, read her Bible and prayed daily, and was an active member of her home church.  I took her to be a believer from her actions and words.

The aforementioned shock came when she announced that her boyfriend was coming to visit, she was planning to get a motel room and would be staying there with him.  Given that we were college students, we all assumed that what happened that weekend probably wasn’t going to be prayer and Bible study.

After our initial astonishment, my roommate and I logically and calmly challenged her thinking, saying,   “What?  Are you crazy?  Do you hear what you’re saying? Do you realize what’s going to happen??”

“Yes,” she replied calmly.

“How can you even think about doing this and call yourself a Christian?  How can you ignore what the Bible says?”

“If it’s right with my spirit, it’s not a problem.”  Those were her words.  Right with her spirit.

I told her that she couldn’t just decide what parts of the Bible she wanted to believe and pretend the rest didn’t apply to her.  My passionate argument didn’t move her.  She had made up her mind.  As Augustine described, she no longer believed in the Bible, she believed in herself.

While it might be easy for me to point a ‘holier-than-thou’ finger at her hypocrisy, I must allow my own actions to suffer the same scrutiny.  Am I anchored firmly, or have I allowed myself to drift in the tide of moral relativism and situation ethics?  I dare not compromise God’s teachings to embrace a ‘less offensive’ version of spirituality.  The stewardship of my time, talent and resources must reflect a life surrendered to God.  In reality, my daily life will reveal whether I pick and choose what I want to believe, or embrace the entire Word of God.

“All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.” Proverbs 21:2 (NIV) St. Augustine understood this.  Do I?

3 responses to this post.

  1. This posting strikes a chord in me. That implies that other postings by the author, do not. Saying yes, doesn’t get me in trouble; saying no, often does. Don Roulet, my pastor of 25 years ago, pointed this out during conversations between us focused on a now long-lost book of the same name, “Saying yes, saying no.”

    The blog states a case eloquently: saying yes. Saying no: I believe the discussion in this blog needs to be more nuanced. The case in point is a classic moral question, on which the author has the high ground. That’s saying yes. Saying no on any classic moral issue is the Biblical story of being the one to cast the first stone. Jesus got in trouble there.

    The author and I had a chance to review the Viet Nam war in light of 40 years. I had a draft number of 18. Would I have fought and killed someone? Not if I adhered to the 10 Commandments. But, many Bible believers before me have involuntarily (i.e. been drafted) faced the same question and chose to set aside that commandment. Very dear friends have served in the volunteer military. Seemingly, they voluntarily chose to set aside. This opens the whole moral and just war argument. But, it also informs the pick-and-choose issue.

    I pick-and-choose every day. I choose not follow the segments of the Bible that refer to demi-gods (Genesis), the eye-for-an-eye Old Testament philosophy, or the dietary strictures. I do choose almost daily to call to mind a psalm that I consider my prayer.

    It is not only the Bible where I say yes and say no. Like the Pharisical Laws, modern day’s law, even simple traffic laws, weave a network so tight that I am sure that I violate a couple every time I drive. Of the violations of which I am conscious and intentional, i.e. two miles per hour over the speed limit, I am saying no. The constabulary may also be making that judgment, too. I have not had a ticket in 40 years.

    So how do we nuance the issue? I propose that you yourself must decide what strictures are appropriate, and appropriately placed on you by appropriate authorities; free will. Then, you must have the self-discipline to follow those rules.

    (I’ll give away my ignorance (and lack of time to look up)) St. Augustine was discussing the gospels. Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John concern themselves with strictures against the activities hypothesized in the motel room? I thought that might have been Old Testament. But, I do recall Jesus forgiving an adultress and healing other “undesirables and those possessed of demon spirits” to whom the general populace had said no. And, His saying no these people should not be outcasts caused Him big trouble.

    And, it was not just Jesus, I remember Paul preaching to the Gentiles, to whom the Jews had said no. Paul chose to say yes to people who had said no and picked-and-chose different laws (i.e. not Jewish food laws in the Bible) and polytheistic ways.

    I love reading this blog (yes). I hope my saying no does not get me into too much dutch.


    • Posted by Sally Brehm on July 14, 2010 at 2:10 pm

      Jesus did call adultery sin and something that needed forgiven. He told the woman to go and sin no more. The college student knowingly chose to go commit the act, to disobey God’s Word.


      • @ Dan:
        No offense taken… I knew when I posted this I would hear ‘cast the first stone’ mentioned. While I was pointing out this girl’s hypocrisy, I hope readers got the point that I was also pointing 4 fingers back at myself.
        … and you’re right. If we really read the Bible (or the Gospels as St. Augustine knew them) carefully, we’d be found guilty of ‘picking and choosing’. Are we willing to ‘cut off our hand because it causes us to sin?’ I’m guessing not so much. It’s a real challenge. We’re all guilty of writing our own version of the Bible. I hope we try hardest at getting Jesus’ command to ‘love one another’ right, and the rest will fall into the proper place. I always appreciate your thought-provoking comments.

        @ Sally — Good point. I believe He sees our motives, even if we’re not able to act on it.

        P.S. If you originally read the email version, give a glance back to my edit of the next to the last paragraph. I used statements rather than sentences, and I think it gives a different impact.

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