A Handbook on Christian Faith, Hope and Love
By Luke Stamps –
How would you like for a church leader to write a book on the Christian life just for you? What if I were to tell you that this church leader has some international prominence as a pastor, author, and theologian? What if I were to tell you that he will go down in church history as the single most influential figure since the New Testament era? And in this book, he will describe in summary form what Christians ought to believe, what they ought to hope for, and what they ought to love. Sounds pretty appealing, right?
Well, this was the privilege of a certain fourth century layman and deacon named Laurentius, who requested a short book from the pen of St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, on the Christian faith. And, by extension, this is the privilege of everyone who picks up Augustine’s Enchiridion, or “handbook,” on Christian faith, hope, and love. The Enchiridion was the February selection in my 2012 Canon of Theologians reading plan (for more on this, see here and here).
The Enchiridion is divided into three main sections, which correspond to the three Christian virtues: faith, hope, and love, or, as Augustine puts it, “what ought to be believed, what to be hoped, [and] what to be loved” (iv). In order to explain these three virtues, Augustine discusses the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and God’s law, respectively. This three-fold way of instructing people in the faith became commonplace in later catechisms and confessions of faith. For example, Luther’s Small Catechism follows this model, albeit in a different order (the Ten Commandments come first for Luther). The Westminister catechisms also follow the same basic pattern, with yet another ordering: doctrine, duty, and prayer.
The section on the Apostles’ Creed is much longer than the other two, probably because it most closely met the needs of Laurentius’s specific request (he wanted a handbook on Christian doctrine, the Christian defenses against heretical views, and the Christian view of faith and reason). Here, Augustine walks through the creed article by article, but his annotated version tackles many other issues as well—everything from the psychology of lying to the nature of angelic beings. In his exposition of the Christian faith, Augustine reserves his most stirring prose for the mystery of the incarnation and redeeming work of the Son of God:
For neither should we be set free through that one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, unless also He were God. But when Adam was created, that is when man was created upright, there was no need of a Mediator. But when their sins had separated the human race far from God, it behooved that through a Mediator, Who alone was born without sin, lived, and was put to death, we should be reconciled unto God even unto the resurrection of the flesh unto eternal life: that human pride might be convinced and healed through the humiliation of God (cviii).
The sections on hope and love are much shorter but no less instructive. Augustine believes that doctrine gives birth to “the good hope of the faithful, accompanied by a holy love” (cxiv). Rather than setting their hopes in man, believers are to “seek from none other than the Lord God whatever it is that we hope to do well.” This hope and trust in God are expressed in the Lord’s Prayer, of which Augustine gives a short exposition. With regard to love, Augustine does not see a sharp division between law and love. Instead, “all the divine precepts are…referred back to love” (cxxi). Even more fundamental is the necessity of God’s love for our obedience to the law: “For faith obtaineth what he law obligeth. For without the gift of God, that is, without the Holy Ghost, through Whom love is shed abroad in our hearts, the law may bid, but it cannot aid, and may moreover make a man a transgressor, in that he cannot excuse himself on the plea of ignorance. For carnal lust reigneth, where the love of God is not” (cxvii).
Augustine’s Enchiridion is short enough to be read in just a few sittings. But it is rich enough to command our thoughts and imaginations for the rest of our lives. Don’t let Laurentius be the only one who takes advantage of this privilege: tolle lege!
Luke Stamps is a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is a weekly contributor to the Credo blog. Luke is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry. Luke is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.
Read other blog posts by Luke Stamps here.