I am reading through Augustine’s City of God for the next few months. I came across this helpful statement in book V. Augustine is discussing the development and might of the Roman Empire. Specifically, he is delving into the question of how the Romans became so powerful. In his discussion, he brings up to common reasons for why events and such turn out the way that they do: fate and chance. Concerning fate, he writes, “If anyone attributes them to fate because he uses the term ‘fate’ to mean the will or power of God, let him keep to this judgment but correct his language.” (City of God, 187)
There are several important points on which to focus our attention.
- He acknowledges that, at times, our language may be accurate theologically, but not linguistically.
Here Augustine recognizes that there are times in which language is accurate theologically but not linguistically. He goes on to clarify, “For when men hear this word as it is used in ordinary speech, they understand it to mean nothing other than the force exerted by the position of the stars when anyone is born or conceived.” (City of God, 187) So, for example, it is theologically accurate to say that Jesus is like us. However, it may be difficult to say the same thing linguistically. For example, when most people here that phrase, they may assume that means Jesus is only human, not divine.
- He reminds us that our language must be accurate in our own context.
Augustine notes, “Some distinguish this from the will of God [that is, fate], while others affirm that it indeed depends upon His will.” (City of God, 187) Augustine shows that language means different things to different people. Even when using biblical language, it is important for us to consider our context. We can see an example of this in Acts 17:22-31. Paul worked within the understanding of the people of Athens to communicate Gospel truth. He was also careful in what he did not say.
Language is important. How we communicate as Christians, especially in matters related to our sovereign God, are of inestimable importance. So, think theologically, express it accurately, and may God be glorified.
(Image Credit: By Fra Angelico and workshop – Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1022879)