I’m revisiting Peter Sanlon’s helpful study, Augustine’s Theology of Preaching. One sentence caught me: “Augustine describes this life as a journey traveled by the affections” (p. 84). This link of outward journey and inner affections is what Pete offers as Augustine’s “interiority”—the realm of the soul’s longings and desires—that shapes “temporality.”
This statement reverses what most people take to be an ultimate truth: that we choose our own life journeys. So that our affections emerge on the journey as a product. Augustine turns this by treating the mind and will as followers rather than leaders of any soul. The heart, alone, guides our choosing—or, collectively, all our journeys.
Yet Augustine didn’t begin here. He started as we all do: presuming a free will. And then he moved to his affective stance, holding that our desires rule us. He believed God made us as responders. That conviction came with a corollary: love, then, shapes everything in every life.
The subject of Pete’s book—preaching—may seem odd in light of this soulish stuff. What’s the connection between preaching and how the soul operates? The answer is that Augustine’s preaching shaped his transition. His keen intellect formed his identity in his early years. But his conversion—described in his Confessions—started a change. Not instantly, but over time. And by way of his preaching.
In AD 391 Augustine requested relief from administrative roles to invest time in closer Bible study—with the fruit of his studies offered in his preaching. He felt he needed more depth in order to minister effectively. Bishop Valerius, his supervisor, agreed to the request. Changes in Augustine’s thought soon emerged from this pause. Sanlon notes one major shift during this period: Augustine began to take up the Bible’s language of “heart”—in place of intellect—to explain how the soul is motivated.
So the Bible changed his heart on how to view his mind. Augustine’s conversion was a key as he recognized God’s initiative in doing the converting. But expanding this insight to all of life took time and devoted Bible study—with the study done for the sake of his preaching.
This is not a switch between two equally valid options—in merely preferring one instead of the other—but a critical correction. Only one is true; so that if we claim to live in a mind-and-will directed life we are actually building a mythology that defends human autonomy. And all arrows point back to Adam in Eden as the first mythologist, defending his sin by pointing to both God and Eve as sources of his fault. And this distortion of sin is still inherent in all humanity.
Let’s turn now from reviewing Sanlon and ask how the interior life—this journey of the affections—works in a fallen world. The biblical imagery of Augustine’s affective journey presumes at least three elements: a pathway, partnership, and a destination.
The pathway consists in our unique time-space reality—what Augustine called temporality. Each of us has a daily setting—perhaps located in Australia, America, or Austria. Wherever we live we all need resources to make our way: food, drink, rest, shelter, and some basic equipment. Yet nothing in the Bible tells us that our location or resources define real life. Some of us may be well resourced and some of us are as poor as paupers; yet, whatever our circumstances, we have a specific journey to live out.
Caring partnership is far more important: our companionship shapes who we are—our interiority. Because a relational God created us to be relational: made in the Father-Son-and-Spirit’s “let us make man in our image” reality. God who “is love” made us to respond to his love and to share it with others. So we were birthed out of companionship for companionship.
But sin is antithetical to caring partnerships. Self-love displaces a proper love-for-others.
This has huge implications for any given traveler. If autonomy—being free from others—has primacy over love then the pathway becomes an end in itself. An affection for things, or for a higher status in the realm of time-and-space, stands in place of an affection for God and people. Cain can kill Able for self-centered reasons. People can be resources to use and discard.
And, finally, the destination is also crucial. In the mythology of self-defined existence we begin to treasure features of our time-and-space pathway. Our affections take the creation to be a replacement for the Creator.
But if our destination is a reunion with God—what Adam abandoned in Eden—we discover that every pathway, no matter how mean or difficult, allows us to live toward the end we were made for. God wants our companionship, a fellowship he offers to all whose affections are drawn to him through his Son and by his Spirit.
So, as transformed believers, we have a life with real direction. No matter how hard our given pathway may be for now, remember the interior presence of God, by his Spirit, who assures of both God’s love and our assured destination in Glory.
But, like Augustine, we need time in the Bible and some means to digest what we find there. For Augustine it was Bible study and preaching. For most of us it will be Bible reading and conversations with others who share our deepest affections.
Enjoy the journey!