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Boston College

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Department of Theology



a dissertation



submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements

for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

August 2001
UMI Number. 3034797

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The thesis of: Deborah Wallace Ruddy

entitled: A Christological Approach to Virtue:

Augustine and Humility

submitted to the Department of: ___T.....h.....

eo ....l....o"'-'!g"""y_ _ _ _ _ __

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of:

Doctor of Philosophy

in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has been read and

approved by the Committee:


Date: -1--NJIWII~l. . .3.p.O~~-t1...IC4-tM¥-.I~---




Deborah Wallace Ruddy

Advisor: Rev. Michael Himes

Humility has become an unpopular, even forgotten, virtue in contemporary

Western culture. Central throughout most of Christian history, its value today has

changed dramatically. Within Christian circles, the world-affirming and liberating

dimensions of the gospel have led to questions about whether humility frustrates human

flourishing and fosters a passive acceptance of injustice. Several feminist scholars have

argued that humility can exacerbate women' s struggle for self-identity and

empowerment. At this time, St. Augustine's work is worth exploring because he both

places humility at the center of Christian life and provides a Christo logical hermeneutic

for distinguishing between true and false humility. According to Augustine. all Christian

virtues are rooted in this foundational Christian attribute revealed in Jesus Christ.

The first and last chapters respectively introduce contemporary criticism of

humility and then evaluate it in light of Augustine's thought. Chapters two and three

explore Augustine's claim that humility is at the heart of who Christ is and what his

disciples are to become (Matthew 11:29). The way that God saves us is inseparable from

salvation itself: "our very salvation in Christ consists in the humility of Christ." (Serm.

285.4). In other words, humility is more than simply moral; it is soteriological. for it
describes the very logic of our reconciliation with God in Jesus Christ. Through humility,

Christ confronts our pride, mediates between humanity and divinity, and empties himself

in love for our sake. Chapter four examines how Johann Baptist Metz offers resources for

a contemporary renewal of humility through his historically and politically conscious

account of "poverty of spirit," relating it to modem forms of alienation and exploitation.

In a mutually corrective reading of Augustine and Metz. humility emerges as the source

of both a Christian anthropology and a more radical, active love that calls us out of

ourselves into solidarity and communion. The twofold shape of Christ-like humility, as

true self-knowledge and self-emptying (Philippians 2), reveals the expansive and

liberating nature of this virtue too often aligned with a privatized and somber



1. The Problematic Situation 1

2. St. Augustine: Teacher of Christ's Humility 7
3. Method and Structure Ll


Introduction 14

1.1. Various Uses of the Term Humility

a. Humility in the Classical World 15
b. Humility in the Judeo-Christian Tradition 19

1.2. Modem Critiques of Humility

Introduction 24
a. Karl Marx: Humility as a Tool for Oppressors 24
b. Nietzsche: Humility as Egoism 26
c. Feminist Critiques of Humility 33

Conclusion 46


Introduction 48

2.1. Preliminary Notes on Augustine's Christology and Related Topics

a. Augustine's Christo logy 54
b. Humility in the Order of Redemption 58
c. Clarifying the term: "Humble God" 62
d. The Distinctiveness of Divine Humility 66

2.2. Soteriological Dimensions of Christ's Humility

A. Augustine's Antithetical Christo logy as Salvific 69

a. The Sin of Pride 73
b. Christ's Humility: the Antidote to Pride and Despair 80

B. The Humility of Christ the Mediator 90

a. Mediation Through Christ's Humble Humanity 93
b. The Way to Divinization 99

C. Christ's Humility as Kenosis 101

Conclusion 107


Introduction 109

3.1. Imitation of the Humble Christ III

3.2. Augustine's Conversion to the Humble Christ

Introduction 118
a. The Confessions 119
b. The Humble Bishop 141

3.3. Humility as True Self-Knowledge 147

a. Divine and Human Humility 148
b. Humility and Self-Love 151
c. The Personal Dimension of False Humility 156
d. The Eschatological Motivation of Humility 160

3.4. The Humility of Service 164

a. Two Levels of Humility 164
b. Humility and Christian Citizenry 166
c. Humility and Charity 170
d. The Social Dimension of False Humility 174
e. Humility and the Body of Christ 175

Conclusion 178


Introduction 180

4.1. Metz's Theology 184

4.2. Poverty of Spirit in Metz's Theology

A. Poverty of Spirit in Poverty of Spirit 186

B. Poverty of Spirit in Followers of Christ

Introduction 192
a. Poverty and Following Christ 194
b. Chastity and Following Christ 196
c. Obedience and Following Christ 197

C. Poverty of Spirit in A Passion for God

Introduction 203
a. Poverty of Spirit and "Suffering unto God" 205
b. Shattering Mythology and Discovering Personhood 2lO
c. Metz and the Masters of Suspicion 215
d. Memory 217

Conclusion 218


Introduction 223

5.1. Overview of Augustine's Doctrine of Humility

a. Humility as rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ 225
b. Humility as foundational for discipleship 227
c. Humility as truthful self-knowledge in Christ 229
d. Humility as social and keno tic 231

5.2. Revisiting the Feminist Criticism

Introduction 234
a. The Feminist Critique 238

5.3. An Augustinian Response to the Feminist Critiques

A. Preliminary Observations 240

B. Humility and Personal Identity

a. Women's pride 245
b. Women's despair 246
c. The Recovery of Self 248

C. Humility and Social Justice 250

u. Humble Authority and Obedience 250
b. Humility and Solidarity 254

5.4. Humility and the Catholic University

Introduction 257
a. Humility and Institutional Leadership 260
b. Humility and Faculty 264
c. Humility and Students 272
d. Humility and Pluralism 278

Conclusion 284




I am especially grateful to my husband, Christopher, whose faith and love sustained me

during the most arduous moments of writing. Thanks also to my dearest friend, Anna
Bonta Moreland, who walked with me during every stage of doctoral study. Kathleen
Wallace Silver, always an attentive listener, offered real sisterly companionship
throughout this project.

A special thank you to Sister Elizabeth White, R.S.C.1 .. who meticulously proofread and
gave needed counsel and support all along the way. Maryann McLaughlin, my spiritual
director, has been an anchor to me throughout the past seven years.

I am grateful. of course, to my committee. Fr. Michael Himes offered encouragement and

enthusiasm throughout. An invaluable mentor and friend, Fr. Robert Imbelli has helped
me to appreciate the Christ-centeredness of theology. At the very start, Fr. Brian Daley,
S.1., helped to formulate the subject of my research and guided me through the proposal.
His insights on Augustine and humility have been an ongoing source of inspiration.

Also, thanks to Gretchen Shively for her patience and diligence in proofreading the
footnotes. Finally, I am indebted to many friends at Boston College who made graduate
study a time of discovering real community life: Joe Curran, Steve Miles. Cara Anthony
and Andy Singer, Peggy Preston, Rosario and Brian Hughes. Fritz Monsma. Tiffany and
Damien Israel-Shiner, David Williams, Mike Hirota. Tom and Lisa Kelly. Joe Samosky.
Khaled Anatolios. Michelle MacAtee, John Hardt. Michael and Anne-Marie Gorman,
Michael Terranova, Angela Senander, Mariana and Rich Miller, Grant Kaplan. Nathan
Munsch. O.S.B .• Fr. Michael Buckley, S.1., Fr. David Hollenbach. S.1., Fr. Bill Neenan,
S.1., and all those in the Thursday night prayer group.


To Mom and Dad,

my first teachers of faith


1. The Problematic Situation

It is often observed that '"[h]umility is the orphaned virtue of our age."1 In a culture

psychologically attuned to the problem of low self-esteem and preoccupied with self-
promotion, humility has become an unpopular, if not forgotten. virtue. While it has been a

central virtue throughout most of Christian history, its value in the contemporary world has

shifted dramatically. Once regarded as the Christian attribute. found in an authentic sense

of creature hood and a willing dependence on God, humility is now looked upon by many

as a weakness or character tlaw. 1 Humility goes against a deeply imbedded impulse in

contemporary American culture to overcome or simply deny the frailty, imperfection, and
incompletion of our lives. Moreover, in our image-conscious, control-oriented world, it is

often associated with passivity and a fawning deference to those in power. Where success

is defined in terms of productivity and self-sufficiency, humility just does not "fit."

Retlecting on the loss of humility in our time, David Baily Harned remarks:

In its conventional form humility seems the least fashionable of virtues, for
ours is the era of advertising, and self-advertising is among the age's most
powerful and persuasive styles. What is deemed important is perception

Ilonathan Sacks. "Endangered Virtues 3: Humility," The Tablet 254 (April 2000). ~51.

1 The following is a sampling of authors who discuss the marginal condition of humility in modem
society. in teday's Christian community, and in contemporary scholarship: Matthew Baasten. "Humility
and Modem Ethics." Reformed Review Spring 38 (1985), 3: Roberta C. Bondi. "Humility: A Meditation
on An Ancient Virtue For Modem Christians." Quarterly Review (1983); lohn Casey. Pagan Virtue: An
Essay in Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). 199-200.211: Brian E. Daley. "To Be More Like Christ:
The Background and Implications of Three Kinds of Humility .... Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 27
(1995); lames F. Keenan. Virtues for Ordinary Christians (Kansas City. MO: Sheed and Ward, 1996). 70-
71: lay Newman. "Humility and Self-Realization." Journal of Value Inquiry 16 (1982); lonathan Sacks.
"Endangered Virtues 3: Humility." The Tablet 254 (April 2000). ~51: Norvin Richards. Humility
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1992); Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent (St. Vladimir's
Seminary Press, 1974). 18-21: Nancy Snow. "Humility." The Journal of Value Inquiry 29 (1995).203-
216. 1995; lohn M. Templeton. The Humble Approach: Scientists Discover God (New York: The Seabury
Press. 1981).

and not reality. Little seems more socially dysfunctional than everyday

Humility has come to signify something quite distinct from what it had represented in its
theological context, where it principally described God's way of intimate communion with
humanity. In a society increasingly shaped by 'the triumph of the therapeutic:~ humility
evokes images of a self-deprecating person with little sense of his or her own self-worth.
Popularized psychology can shun traditional Christian notions of self-effacement and self-
sacriticing love. These are often considered threatening to an individual's freedom and
self-wonh. Thus, the modern person tends to associate humility with an unhealthy self-
image and a world-renouncing mentality that contributes to a retreat from serious
engagement in the struggle for justice.
Within Christianity. a new emphasis has been given to the imponance of human
dignity and social engagement. For example, in the Roman Catholic church. since the
Second Vatican Council (1962-65). the "world-affirming"5 and liberating dimensions of

Christian spirituality have been emphasized more than other-worldly and ascetical elements
that came to be associated with humility. In 1965. The Pastoral Constitlllion on the Church
in the Modem World (Gaudium et spes) proclaims:

She [the church] serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society
as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed in God's family ... This
she does most of all by her healing and elevating impact on the dignity of
the person. by the way in which she strengthens the seams of human
society and imbues the everyday activity of [human beings I with a deeper
meaning and imponance. Thus, through her individual members and her

3 David Baily Hamed. Patience: How We Wait Upon the World (Cambridge. MA: Cowley Publications
(997). 168.

~ Phillip Rieff. The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (966).

5 Daley. "To Be More Like Christ." 3.

whole community, the Church believes she can contribute greatly toward
making the family of [humankind] and its history more human.6
Moving away from a more austere spirituality, the Council invited Christians to renew hope

in God's transforming work in the world. In a similar vein, the Presbyterian church's

Confession of 1967 urged Christians to apply their gifts to the "advancement of the

common welfare."7 Generally, focusing on the mission aspects of Christian spirituality.

preachers of the Gospel today stress the wonh of each human being and the imponance of

action in shaping a more just society.s Attention is given to the power of our human
capacities and each person's responsibility for shaping his or her identity and social

context. Those on the margins of society and of the church are encouraged to stand up and

be counted, and those in subservient positions are urged to confront the structures of

domination. Contemporary Christian observers wonder whether humility is really an

imponant Christian vinue. James Keenan. a virtue ethicist, concludes that the word itself.

"humility." is "so laden with negative connotations that it seems irredeemable."q

In light of this crucial turn to the dignity of the individual and the imponance of

human rights, it is now necessary for the church to ask if humility frustrates the affirmation

of human dignity and fosters a passive acceptance of injustice. Are these more empowering

and socially conscious Christian values really in tension with a humble disposition'?

6 Gaudium et spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modem World) eds .. David J. O'Brien
and Thomas A. Shannon. Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll. N.Y.: Orbis
Books. 1992). 191-195; National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). Catholic Social Teaching aki
the U.S. Economy (Washington. D.C.: United States Catholic Conference. 1984). sect. 40.

7 The Book of Confessions (Philadelphia. The General Assembly of The United Presbyterian Church in the
United States of America. 1967).9A6.

8 Dieter T. Hessel. Social Ministry (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1982); The Church's Public
Role: Retrospect and Prospect. ed.• Dieter T. Hessel (Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company.

q James F. Keenan. Virtue for Ordinary Christians (Kansas City. MO: Sheed and Ward. 1996).70-71.

Liberation theologians, for example, call into question a spirituality that fosters detachment

and resignation, thereby softening the response to oppression. and legitimating grave

injustices. 1O Do resignation and escapism in the face of injustice go hand-in-hand with the
Christian virtue of humility? Perhaps virtues, like humility, often pursued in relation to an

individualistic conception of spiritual perfection need to be re-understood in relation to the

Gospel call to serve one another.

Making a more general observation, the Onhodox theologian, Alexander

Schmemann. notes the absence of humility in our contemporary culture and the reflection

of this in Christian churches:

If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied
today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills
in us the sense of pride, of self-glorification, and of self-righteousness. It
is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it
even pictures God as the One who all the time 'gives credit' for man's
achievements and good deeds. Humility-be it individual or corporate.
ethnic or national-is viewed as a sign of weakness. as something
unbecoming a real man. Even our churches-are they not imbued with that
same spirit of the Pharisee? Do we not want our every contribution. every
'good deed,' all that we do 'for the Church' to be acknowledged. praised.
publicized? 11

Observing the tendency toward self-promotion within the Christian churches today,

Schmemann sees a pressing need for humility.

In addition to the neglect of humility in the culture, as well as the church's shift of

attention away from humility. the academy is currently calling this virtue into question.

Some feminists, for example. point out that traditional Christian virtues. such as humility,

10 Leonardo Boff. Faith on the Edge: Religion and Margi1Ulli:.ed Existence. trans. Robert R. Barr (San
Francisco: Harper and Row. 1989).59-107; [gnacio Ellacuria. "A Latin American Reading of the Spiritual
Exercises of SI. [gnatius: trans. 1. Matthew Ashley "Lectura Latinoamerican de los Ejercicios Espirituales
de san [gnacio," Revista LatinoamericafUl de Teologia (199111). 15-17; Gustavo Gutierrez. We Drink From
Our Own Wells (Maryknoll. NY: Orbis. 1984); Ion Sabrina. Jesus the Liberator (Maryknoll. NY: Orbis.

II Alexander Schmemann. Great Lent (Crestwood, NY: SI. Vladimir's Seminary Press. 1974). 19.

can impede women's struggle for self-realization and personal responsibility. I! These

virtues intensify the feeling of powerlessness among women. Humility. then. is associated

with submission to a male-dominated culture and church. which expect women to give of
themselves in ways that compromise their own integrity. 13 [n her now classic article. "The
Human Situation: A Feminine View."I-l Valerie Saiving Goldstein (now Valerie Saiving)

argues that traditional Christian exhortations to self-sacrifice serve to correct the male
temptation to pride. but are less applicable to the moral problems that most women face.

For women. she argues. the primary temptation is failing to develop a centered self. ls This

discussion has led feminists to ask whether upholding humility as a central virtue favors a
male-oriented approach to virtue and perpetuates a patriarchal framework for ethics. 16

Many modem and post-modem scholars suspect that humility either cultivates

weakness or serves as a tool for the weak to assert power and undermine true human

greatness. 17 According to Karl Marx. humility is a religious disposition that encourages

weakness and social passivity. Friedrich Nietzsche. however. insists that humility is a
cover for those who are already weak. The "humble" are driven by ressentiment (or

I! Valerie Saiving Goldstein. "The Human Situation: A Feminine View. Journal of Religion 40 (1960).
100-112: Anne E. Patrick. Liberating Conscience: Feminist Etplorations in Catholic Moral Theology
(New York: Continuum. (996): Judith Plaskow. Sex. Sin and Grace. (Lanham. MD: University Press of
America. (980).

13 Roberta C. Bondi. To Love As God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church (Philadelphia:
Fortress. (987).46-56: Karen Jo Torjesen. When Women Were Priests: Women's LecuJership in the Early
Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper San
Francisco. 1993).

l-l Goldstein. 100-112.

15 Ibid .• 109.

16 Anne Patrick. "Narrative and The Social Dynamics of Virtue." Changing Values and Vinues. eds.
Dietmar Mieth and Jacques Pohier (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. (987).77-78.

17 Jean Jacques Rousseau. The Social Contract. trans. Willmoore Kendall (Chicago. Illinois: Henry
Regnery Company. (954). 204-223: Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals. trans. Walter
Kaufman (New York: Random House. Vintage books edition 1989). 110. 142-148.

repressed vengefulness)IS and a covert search for power.19 More recently. in a paper

addressed to an assembly of Flemish and Dutch-speaking abbots and abbesses at

Westmalle. Belgium in 1976. Antoine Vergote. professor of Psychology at the University

of Leuven. remarks:
The word "humility" rubs us the wrong way and irritates us a bit today.
Not because in fact one is not humble. but because of the pejorative
connotation attached to the word. . . I think that today the term connotes a
preoccupation with the self which is too narcissistic. It suggests concerns
about one' s virtue. preoccupation with a personal ideal of perfection. A
second connotation of humility is that a person is seeking in religion some
consolation for weakness. Nietzsche is the byword for this critical tendency
in our culture. . . The charge against our culture. which, as everyone
knows. is formed by Christianity. is that we pursue a kind of unconscious
cult of weakness along with a compensating search for consolation in
religious emotion. a kind of comforting experience. It seems to me that this
is the idea which the word "humility" suggests to many. especially when
one stresses the search for voluntary humiliation. One gives the impression
of cultivating weakness so as to experience an artificial paradise sought in
religious intimacy. It is a kind of religious illusion which has its roots in the
cult of personal weakness.:!o

In view of the fact that the status of humility has dramatically shifted from that of a

central Christian virtue to what is widely regarded as a "problem virtue." this dissertation

proposes to examine a theology that places humility at the center of a fully human and

Christian existence. While many of the church Fathers speak of humility as the Christian

virtue.:!1 no one is more insistent about its primacy in the Christian life than St. Augustine.

(354-430) whose views bear directly on these twentieth century concerns.

IS Craig Beam. "Hume and Nietzsche: Naturalists. Ethicists. Anti-Christians: Hume 5wdies 22. no. 2
(Nov. 1996). 312.

19 Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals. 38. 44-48: Max Scheler. Ressentiment (Milwaukee:
Marquette University Press. 1994).63-89.91-117.

20 Antoine Vergote. "Une approche psychologique de I'humilite dans la Regie de saint Benoit" in
Collectanea Cisterciensia 42:2 (1980) 112-135. (editor of ABR Dec. 1988) trans.: "A Psychological
Approach to Humility in the Rule of St. Benedict," The American Benedictine Review 39:4 (1988). 426-

21 Clement of Alexandria. Origen. Gregory of Nyssa. St. Basil. Hilary of Poitiers. St. Ambrose. St. John
Chrysostom cited in P. Adnes. "Humilite" Dictionnaire de spiritualiti [=DS] 7 (1969). 1153.

2. St. Augustine: Teacher of Christ's Humility

Augustine's teaching on humility deeply influenced the understanding of Christian

discipleship in the Western church. 22 Writing in Latin-speaking North Africa in the late

fourth century and early fifth, Augustine consistently presents humility as a central notion

for understanding Christ and the Christian way of life.23 [n reference to the various moral

systems of his day, Augustine writes: "Everywhere are to be found excellent precepts
concerning morals and discipline, but this humility is not to be found. This way of

humility comes from another source; it comes from Christ. .. What else did he teach but this

humility?''1'; All other Christian virtues are built upon and sustained by this foundational

Christian attribute that grows out of God's self-disclosure in Jesus Christ.

The theological basis for Augustine's doctrine of humility is christo logical for he

derives his understanding of humility from the Gospel narratives of the life. death. and

resurrection of Jesus Christ. 25 Augustine upholds Christ as the archetype of Christian

humility so that a truly compelling, transforming, and comprehensive account of this virtue

must derive from an understanding of Christ who grounds and animates true humility.

22 Daley. "To Be More like Christ." 13.

23 Over the last thirty years. there has been no systematic study of Augustine's teaching on humility.
However. two noteworthy 20th century works prior to Vatican U on the topic include a thesis by I.
Musinsky. The Humility of Christ In The Thought of St. Augustine. Gregorian University. Rome. 1947
(unpublished) and Pierre Adnes. La Doctrine de l'humilite che: S. Augustin (Toulouse. France. (953). Cited
in OJ. MacQueen. in "Contemptus Dei: St. Augustine on the Disorder of Pride in Society. and its
Remedies;" Recherches Augustiniennes 9 (1973). 237-259.

2'; Enarrationes in psalmos 31.2.18 (Basil Studer. The Grace of Christ and the Grace of God in Augustine of
Hippo: Christocentrism or Theocentrism? trans. Matthew I. O'Connell (Collegeville. MN: Liturgical
Press. (997), 52. Vbicumque etiam inueniunrur optima praecepta morum et disciplinae. humilitas ramen
ista non inuenitur. Via humilitatis huius aliunde manat; a Christo uenit... Quid aliud docuit nisi hanc
humilitatem? (CCL 38:239).

25 £narrationes in psalmos 31.2.18: "Via humiliteltis huius aliunde manat; a Christo venit. Haec via ab
ilIo est. qui cum esset elltus. humilis venit. .. " (CCL 38: 239).

Augustine's wonder at the "humble God" Chumilis deus)26 of Jesus Christ reverberates

throughout his works. In Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, divine love is revealed "in the

form of a servant" (Phil 2:7). The self-emptying (kenosis) of the Word-the divine

descent into human history-is the paradigmatic form and source of humility in Christian
discipleship.17 Christian humility is thus more than a virtue that God urges upon us: it is

the very way God's Word comes to us and invites us to pattern our lives. 28 The way of
humility, then, is primarily God's way. Only by extension is it our way, insofar as we

imitate the divine through Christian discipleship.

In a famous letter to Dioscorus. a young Greek scholar and physician, Augustine

insists that humility stands as the most fundamental disposition necessary for all who seek
to follow in Christ's footsteps:

To Him [Christ] ... I wish you to submit with complete devotion. and to
construct no other way for yourself of grasping and holding the truth than
the way constructed by Him who, as God, saw how faltering were our
steps. This way is first humility, second humility, third humility, and
however often you should ask me I would say the same. not because there
are no other precepts to be explained, but if humility does not precede and
accompany and follow every good work we do, and if it is not set before us
to look upon, and beside us to lean upon. and behind us to fence us in,
pride will wrest from our hand any good deed we do while we are in the
very act of taking pleasure in it. 19

16 On the Catechising of the Uninstructed 4.8 trans. S.D.F. Salmond in Nicene and Past-Nicene Fathers of
the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1917).287. (PL 40:316).

17 Serm. 92.2 (WSA llIJ3:467) trans .. Edmund Hill. Sermons. in The Works of Saint ..\ugustine: A
Translation for the 21st Century. ed. John E. Rotelle (Brooklyn. NY: New City Press. 1990). Hereafter
cited as "WSA" followed by Pan. then Volume. then page.

28 Augustine often discusses humility in connection with the exhortation of Matthew's Gospel: "Learn
from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart." (11:29) New Revised Slandani Version (NRSV). All
biblical citations will be from the NRSV unless otherwise indicated. Confessions 7.9.14: Tractates on the
Gospel of St. John 25.18: City of God 14:13.

29 Letter 118. The Fathers of the Church 18 trans. Wilfred Parsons (New York: The Fathers of the Church.

Here. with rhetorical playfulness. Augustine insists upon humility as the beginning,

middle, and end of Christian discipleship. He maintains that humility is more than a virtue
or an antidote to pride; it is a fundamentally Christian orientation that prepares the way for

all Christian virtues. T.J. van Bavel explains. "For Augustine. humility is not simply one

among many virtues; it is the first movement of love. because it alone renders one open to
and aware of what is not oneself. and pulls one out from withdrawal into one's self."30

Allowing God to be the Lord of one's life renders one open to the other in total generosity.

Van Bavel notices that Augustine conceives of humility as a form of Christian love

characterized by other-directedness. It helps one to see the folly of being turned inward and

it calls for a giving of one's life in total trust to God.

Augustine insists that Christ's followers must pattern their existence on the giving

and receiving dynamic of his self-emptying love and his receptivity to the Father. The

unique way that God's Word comes to humanity sets the pattern for each person's return to

God. Jesus Christ's "receiving and giving away" is not just the means by which divine

love is revealed to humanity, it is also the way that humanity itself is transformed and

ultimately enfolded in divine love.

At its most basic level. humility entails an honesty about one's proper place in the

divine ordering of creation. Is it about being at peace with one's God-given nature. It does

not insist upon self-degradation but seeks true self-knowledge. "You are not being told.

"Be something less than you are." But "Understand what you are. Understand that you're

weak. understand that you are merely human. understand that you are a sinner:' 31 Rather

30 T.1. van Bavel. "De la Raison a la Foi." La Conversion d'Augustin. Augustiniana 86:1-2:13. 1986
(trans. Christopher I. Ruddy)."Pour Augustin. l'humilite n'est pas une vertu parmi tant d'aurres; elle est Ie
premier mouvement de l'amour, car elle seule rend I'homme ouvert et sensible ci ce qui n'est pas lui. et
l'arrache ainsi au repliement sur lui-mime."

31 Serm. 137.4 (WSA IIII4:374).

than being a mask for pride, humility is the antidote to pride and its many forms of self-
aggrandizement. Humility holds in check the perverse desire to "play God. "32 It begins
with the grace to surrender joyfully to God's primacy and to accept one's own creaturely
dependence upon God's grace. Before God's grandeur. the humble know their own
smallness: they know that without God they are nothing; their existence. goodness. and
freedom are a sheer gift of God. Consequently. the only thing that is truly our own is our
sin. 33 Humility. then. entails a confession of sin (disordered loving). and of the need for
God's grace to heal that rupture of God's created order.
Integral to humility is the transformation of egocentric love into theocentric love.
which turns grasping. exploitative. and possessive impulses into an authentic love of self
and a true solidarity with others. for the sake of God. 3'; Consequently. humility has a
radically social dimension whereby its deepest expression is in service to others and in
radical self-giving modeled on the kenosis or outpouring of the divine Word. Because
humility and Christ are so intimately related in Augustine's work. he regarded humility as
foreign to the classical pagan world. Although Christians today may afftrm (in contrast to

Augustine) that various forms of humility exist among non-Christians. the question of

whether there are non-Christian analogues to Christian humility was not one that Augustine
wrestled with in any detail. Moreover. such a question is beyond the scope of this
dissertation. for my aim here is to draw upon Augustine for an understanding of humility in
its full theological context and to consider its implications for the Christian community

32 Ibid.

33 Serm. 142.4 (WSA IIII4:41S).

~ Serm. 250.S (WSA IIIn:181).

35 Due to Augustine's claim that humility is a distinctively Christian virtue. this study naturally leads to
questions about the tensions between the classical and Christian understanding of the good life. It is my

3. Method and Structure

In this dissertation, I will proceed dialectically presenting Augustine's doctrine of

humility in light of current criticism of humility.J6 The first and last chapters frame this
study by introducing and then re-examining contemporary concerns about humility. The
middle three chapters will primarily examine Augustine's treatment of humility. Beginning
with a consideration of humility's critics, chapter one part one will look briefly at the
classical view of humility and its transformation within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Then
rurning to the modem period. two principal sources of criticism. Karl Marx 0818-1883)
and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), will be considered. I will then rum to more
contemporary criticism in the writings of feminist scholars and theologians, such as Valerie
Saiving. Judith Plaskow. Anne Carr. Karen Jo Torjesen, and Roberta Bondi. all of whom
offer incisive, yet varied. challenges to traditional virtues from within contemporary ethical
concerns about empowerment and liberation.
With these critiques in mind, I will rum to Augustine. in order to consider the
resources he provides for thinking about this virtue today. Chapter two will focus

primarily on Augustine's account of Christ's humility. specifically as presented in his

theology of the Incarnation and Passion of Christ. Following Augustine's practice of
developing an understanding of Christian humility from Christ's humility. I will move
from a consideration of the humility of Christ, the subject of chapter two. to the humility of
the Christian in chapter three. Chapter four will rum to the theology of Johann Baptist Metz

hope that this study will pave the way for subsequent work that will explore humility in light of the
differences between ancient and Christian accounts of the vinues.

36 Although Augustine occasionally refers to humility as a vinue. I have tried to minimize my use of the
tenn "vinue" in reference to humility. This is because for Augustine humility is more fundamental ;md
comprehensive a tenn. It describes a graced state of being that properly grounds all virtue.

who offers a contemporary understanding of discipleship shaped by poverty of spirit. In

this elaboration of humility, I hope to illumine further Augustine's own teaching on the

imitation of the humble Christ and point the way toward a contemporary understanding of

humility. Finally, chapter five will return to the concerns and criticisms presented in chapter

one. In response to the current tendency to look askance at humility, I will analyze

Augustine's insights in order to assess the limits and possibilities of his thought for
Christian discipleship today. This chapter will evaluate to what extent Augustine can

enliven our imagination and provide a Christo logical foundation for a renewed appreciation
of humility. The hope is that this frequently neglected virtue can be re-conceived and re-

appropriated today through a critical renewal of Augustine's thought.

It is my contention that Augustine's doctrine of humility can be a resource for a

more comprehensive and compelling account of humility-one that exposes and corrects its

false forms and provides a standard for distinguishing between true and false humility.

Augustine's account of humility implies that a proper understanding of Christ is pivotal for

making such distinctions. Thus, I will consider the extent to which Augustine can provide

a Christocentric basis upon which to differentiate between manipulative or coerced self-

abnegation, on the one hand, and a true giving of self to others modeled on the kenosis or

outpouring of divine love, on the other. While Augustine's Christo logy has itself been a
relatively unstudied topic in theological scholarship over the last century,37 it is the

37 Although Augustine's Christology has been largely neglected in twentieth century scholarship, there are
a growing number of recent studies which include: a survey of the literature by loanne McWilliam. ''The
Study of Augustine's Christo logy in the Twentieth Century," in Augustine: From Rhetor to Theologian
(Waterloo. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992), 183-205: Brian E. Daley, "A Humble
Mediator: The Distinctive Elements in Saint Augustine's Christology," Word and Spirit 9 (1987): idem.
"The Giant's Twin Substances: Ambrose and the Christology of Augustine's Contra Sermonem
Arianorum." in Augustine: Presbyter Factus Sum. eds. loseph T. Lienhard. Earl C. Muller. Roland 1.
Teske (New York: Peter Lang. 1993),477-495; Tl. Van Savel, Recherches sur la christologie de saint
Augustin (Paradosis 10; Fribourg: Editions Universitaires, 1954); Basil Studer. "The Revelation of the
Love of the Humble God According to Augustine," in Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early
Church, ed. Andrew Louth (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1993), 167-185: loanne McWilliam Dewart.
"The Christo logy of the Pelagian Controversy," Studia Parrisrica XVIII3, ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone
(Leuven: Peeters, 1993), 1221-1244; Gerald Bonner, "Christ. God and Man in the Thought of S1.

marginal status of humility in the Christian community today that is the principal impetus
for this dissertation.

Aware of the lacuna in theological scholarship in drawing the connections between

Christ and Christian virtue,38 this dissertation sets out to thoroughly examine one

virtue-namely, humility-under the instruction of St. Augustine. One might say that, for

Augustine, Christ's humility is the way and the truth. Methodologically, Augustine

demonstrates a way to derive an understanding of virtues from an understanding of Christ.

Substantively, Augustine illumines the distinctively Christian dimensions of humility by

showing that it is fundamentally rooted in the mystery of the redemptive Incarnation of

Jesus Christ. It is my hope that a more Christologically shaped presentation of humility

will encourage a reconsideration of this forgonen virtue within the contemporary church

and the wider culture.

Augustine." Angelicum 61 (1984). 268-294: Albert Verwilghen. "Christologie et spiritualite selon Saint
Augustin: L'hymne ault philippiens," Theoiogie historique 72 (Paris: Beauchesne. 1985).

38 The growing privatization of religion in Western culture. the increasing specialization of ethics. and the
all-too-comrnon compartmentalization of faith from daily life. all contribute to a disconnection between
ethics and faith or Christian virtue and ChrisL Yet. Christian virtues are directly and intimately connected
to the mysteries of God. This dissertation implies that if an understanding of humility remains only
looselv connected to Christ. then something substantive is lost. Nonetheless. the debate over the
distin~tiveness of Christian ethics remains outside the aim of this dissertation.

The word "humility" has many different meanings and connotations. The more
negative ancient and modern views of humility stand in sharp contrast to the more positive
Jewish and Christian understandings of humility. Thus classical and conventional notions
of humility can lead us astray when we are seeking to understand Augustine's use of the
term. For even among both the Greek and Latin Fathers, Augustine is unique in
emphasizing humility as an original, specifically Christian attribute, foreign to the pagan
worId. 39 It was inconceivable to Augustine that humility could be valued apan from a
belief in the Incarnation. Only the grace of believing in this divine descent could generate
an appreciation of humility as central to human perfection..!o
[n this chapter on humility's critics, I will consider, in pan one. its use within

ancient Greek literature and pre-Christian Roman literature, as well as its re-defining in the
Judea-Christian context. I will then. in pan two, examine its contemporary resonances

which harken back to its largely pejorative use among the ancients. Pan one is not a
chronological re-tracing of the various uses of the term humility: rather. its aim is to give

some background for understanding how the more negative ancient and modern views of

39 Edward Schillebeeck.'t. "Secular Criticism of Christian Obedience and the Christian Reaction to that
Criticism." Concilillm 139 (1980). 13: OJ. MacQueen, "Contemptus Dei." 180.

Enarrationes in Psalmos 31.18: Haec aqua con/essionis peccatornm. haec aqua humilationis cordis. haec
aqua vitae sall/taris, abicientis se. nihil de se praesumentis. nihil suae potentiae superbe tribl/entis. Haec
aqua in nl/llis alienigenarnm libris est. non in Epicureis. non in Stoic is. non in Manichaeis. non in
Platonicis. Ubicl/mqlle etiam inveniuntur optima praecepta mornm et disciplinae. humilitas tamen ista non
invenitllr. Via humilitatis huius aliunde manat: a Christo venit. Haec via ab ilia est. qui cum esset altus.
humilis venit. (PL 36:270). Cf. Conf. 7.18.24 (PL:32:745-746). Cited in MacQueen. "Contemptus Dei.-

humility overlap and stand in contrast to the more positive Judeo-Christian uses of the


1.l. Various Uses of the Term Humility

a. Humility in the Classical World

In Greek. the term tapeinotes (tU1tElVOt) and its cognates refer to the various

meanings associated with ancient notions of humility. By drawing upon the work of

various poets and philosophers. Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon~l shows the

array of meanings given to this multivalent term. These include tapeinos as physically low
or low-lying (Herodotus). socially or politically of a low standing (Aeschylus). a low spirit

(Thucydides). or morally base and vile (Plato). A lowly or humble person is one who

looks up to others from a position of weakness and need.

Generally. Greek culture considered humility a vice and regarded it with disdain.-12

It was associated with lowliness. ignorance. or weakness and it was rarely considered a

desirable character trait.-13 In Pagan Vinue (1990). John Casey reports that humility is

rarely used in Greek literature but. when mentioned. it often falls within the more anemic or

"monkish" character traits akin to the Greek notion of "pusillanimity" or smallness of

soul.+l Contrary to the classical Greek ideal of excellence (areee). humility is often

connected with a mistaken assessment of one's capabilities. This faulty self-assessment

~l Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 197:2).

~2 Alasdair Macintyre. After Vinue: A Study in Moral Theory 2d ed. (Notre Dame. Indiana: University of
Nome Dame Press. 1984). 177.

~3 Daniel H. Frank. "Humility as a Virtue: A Maimonidean Critique of Aristotle's Ethics." in Moses

Maimonides and His Time. ed. Eric L. Ormsby (Washington. D,C.: Catholic University of America Press.

+l John Casey. Pagan Vinue. 211. The term "monkish" comes from David Hume's description of humility,
Cf. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. 9.1.

could result in the tragedy of a great-souled man not knowing his true self-worth and
submitting to what is common and base.
Certainly, there is more overlap in the Greek and Christian notions of self-
knowledge than it may appear from the use of the term ·'humility." For ancient
Mediterranean culture it was important to have a true sense of one's own abilities in order
to achieve a certain level of self-sufficiency. Boastfulness and arrogance were looked down
upon as hindering the quest for excellence. Christian humility is similarly opposed to
vanity and it is identified with the aspiration to know the truth about one's abilities.
However, Christian humility, as we will see, extends into a much wider vision and entails
a new understanding of God. self, and neighbor. In any case, the term "humility" among
Greek ethical writers was more or less contemptible.
In his dialogue the Statesman;~s Plato mentions humility in an exchange between
Socrates the younger and the EIeatic Stranger. In seeking to define the responsibilities of

the statesman. the EIeatic Stranger describes the humble as "groveling," ignorant. and
suitable for slavery; he contrasts them with the courageous and educated who possess a
"nobility of character."J(j Here the EIeatic Stranger expresses the commonplace view that

the humble are not fit for citizenry but are closely linked with slaves who hold the lowest

position in the Greek city-state.

Along similar lines. Aristotle shows a certain scorn for the humble person, who
"does not think he is worthy of great or of moderate things; and even if he is worthy of

.lSPlato. Statesman. trans. J. B. Skemp in The Collected Dialogues of Plato. eels. Edith Hamilton and
Huntington Cairns (Princeton. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1985). The term Plato uses here is
rapeinoteros which means "humble" or "subservient."

J(j Plato. Statesman. 309a. Cited in Joseph Tadie. "Humility in St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa theologiae"
unpublished paper presented at the Boston College Philosophy Forum. February 1999.

little, he thinks he is worthy of still less than that."47 In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle

presents a schema for understanding moral virtue and vice, wherein. among other things,

he discusses his doctrine of the mean (II. 6) and moral responsibility (Ill. 1-5). Starting in

III. 6-V. Aristotle analyzes particular virtues. such as. courage. temperance. liberality.

good temper. friendliness. and pride. Consistent with his teaching that virtue resides in the

mean. Aristotle explains that the virtue of magnanimity (megaiopsychia) is the mean

between the excess of vanity or arrogance and the defect of humility (mikropsychia.

literally "small-souledness" or pusillanimity). The great-souled or "magnanimous man"~

is the paradigmatic embodiment of pride.49 He knows himself. he has a sense of ··class."

and he correctly deems himself worthy of great things. demonstrating a proportionate

amount of pride in his actions, character. and relationships. The vain (c/zaunos) man

considers himself "worthy of great things"50 but in truth he is not. The humbles I

(mikropsychos) man considers himself worthy of less than his true worth. He lacks proper

self-respect. The humble or "pusillanimous person is worthy of goods. but deprives

47 Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. 1123b 10-15. trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis. IN: Hacken
Publishing Company. 1985). 98: D. S. Hutchinson. Ethics. in Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. ed.
10nathan Barnes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1995).227.

~ Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics II23b 5-II25a 30.

49 In a relatively recent book. Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches write: "Ancient pagan pride.
Olympian pride. may be better understood as different from the sin Christians call pride (as Aquinas
describes it). for it is developed in ignorance of God. not so much in aversion. [n another way. however. it
is as serious an error. since it constructs an almost impenetrable defense against conversion by hardening a
self or community against voices from the outside and so against any retelling of the story of the self or
community in relation to the God Christians call the one true God."Christians Among the Vinues:
Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modem Ethics (Notre Dame. IN: University of Notre Dame
Press. 1997). 199.

so [bid.. 1l23b 5-10.

5 I [bid.. II23b 10-20: Schi IIe beech. "Secular Criticism of Christian Obedience and the Christian Reaction
to that Criticism." II.

himself of the goods he is worthy of ... "52 Aristotle concludes that the defect of humility

is worse than the excess of vanity, for humility is more opposed to the virtue of
magnanimity than is vanity. 53

In his study of the semantic history of the word humilicas. Erich Auerbach reports
that the Latin word, Izumilis, derives from humus, the soil or earth, and "literally means

low, low lying, of small stature."5~ The classical usage of humilitas usually included a

wide range of tigurative meanings. It became associated with things that are insignificant,
"trifling," "paltry." of poor quality. or worthless. 55 Socially, the humble were poor.

lacking in education. power. and prestige. Humiliores referred to those in the lower
classes who performed lowly and dirty tasks (izumiles et sordidas cllras).56 Ethically. a

humble person was cowardly and slavish. And yet. Auerbach and other scholars note that

Illlmilitas did not always have pejorative connotations. Summarizing his research of the
term in the Greco-Roman tradition. Klaus Wengst writes:

52 Aristotle. Nicomachectn Ethics. I I 25a20-25.

53 [bid.. ll25a 30-35. In his Summa Theologiae. Aquinas integrates the Augustinian emphasis upon
humility and the Aristotelian emphasis upon magnanimity. For Aquinas. humility and magnanimity are
both "means" between exaggerated self-esteem (vanity) and low self-esteem (despair). Magnanimity and
humility are virtues that work together. Humility curbs hope which can reach beyond reason toward
arrogance. Magnanimity keeps hope from sinking below reason into despair. For Aquinas. humility and
magnanimity are not opposing traits but are complementary virtues. One aims to curb the appetite while
the other impels a person to live up to one's full human capacities. Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. ITa ITae.
Q. 160. vol. 44. "Well-Tempered Passions." trans. Thomas Gilby (Cambridge. Blackfriars. 1972). 155-170.
For Augustine there was not question of a synthesis between Christian humility and pagan magnanimity.
Humility corrects pride but also despair as we will see in chapters two and three.

~ Erich Auerbach. Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity
cmci in the Middle Ages. trans.
by R. Manheim (Princeton. N.J.: Princeton University Press. 1965). 39 [Auerbach's account of humility
draws primarily from material in the Thesaurus linguae latinael.

55 Ibid.• 39.

56 Klaus Wengst. Humility: Solidarity of the Humiliated. trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia. Fortress
Press. 1988). 6: Gillian Clark. Augustine: The Confessions (Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

'Humility' is used positively in only a very few passages of ancient
literature. Its context here is a man's attitude towards the gods ... Only in
this context of the punishing of the evildoer who is to be given a sense of
wrongness are humility and fear given a positive significance. 57
Auerbach adds: "Seneca used it (humilitas) several times to indicate the insignificance of

earthly life in comparison with immortality after death."58 Auerbach then concludes that

"From the first its range of meaning included modesty. wise moderation. obedience. pious
submissiveness: but in non-Christian classical literature the pejorative use is strongly
predominant. "59

b. Humility in the Judeo-Christian Tradition

Generally speaking. in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Izumilitas acquired a

distinctively religious meaning whose principal referent is the divine-human relationship.

The use of 'humility' in the Hebrew scriptures and in traditional Judaism is quite distinct

from its Greek and Roman usage for it is based on the idea of knowing oneself as a

creature radically dependent on the Creator. [t was through faith in a personal.

transcendent. and creator God that humility came to be seen in a new light. 60 [n this

religious context. humility shifts from a derided character trait to a disposition essential to

the good person. Moreover. in the paradoxes of God. the lowly are lifted up and those who

are considered inferior are given a place of honor.

In his article. "Jewish Ethics and the Virtue of Humility." Ronald Green argues that

humility is a central virtue within traditional Judaism. In the Talmud. for example. Green

57 Ibid.• 14-15.

58 Auerbach • .to.
59 Ibid.• 39-tO.

60 P. Adnes. "Humilite." Dictionnaire de Spiritualite 7 (1969). 1142.

reports that "humility is frequently spoken of as the chief virtue of all."61 Tracing the

different facets of humility in Jewish thought. Green writes:

To be humble (Zenua) or meek (Anav) in the eyes of Jewish piety is to
recognize one's subordinate position before God and His Law. The humble
man is necessarily God-fearing. However.... humility is believed
important in other relations than that between man and God. It is an attitude
held necessary to orient the self in all moral relations. and in some rabbinic
discussions it is compared to salt in being required to lend savor to all moral
deeds and dispositions.62
Green notes that "humility and meekness" are given special anention because their

opposites. "pride and arrogance," are believed to pose the most serious threat to the moral

Beyond its moral significance, Green argues that humility is a central feature of
God's holiness. "God's humility" is shown in his special concern for "human welfare,"

particularly among the poor and disadvantaged. Green argues that God's "solicitousness"

toward the vulnerable is the principal sign of divine humility. Finally. Green observes that

God's mercy, even to evildoers, gives further evidence of divine humility.

It is because he is humble that God dwells with the poor and downtrodden,
the victims of other men's pride and arrogance. But it is also because he is
humble that God forbears in his punishment of the wicked and opens the
way for their repentance.63

In other words. humility can be seen as the foundation of God's justice and mercy.

The Hebrew scriptures speak positively of those in a low social position who are

often deemed humble or lowly (anawim). The humble rely on God to take action against

evildoers. They await God's vindication when the pompous will be brought low and the

"linIe ones" will be lifted up. By not countering the unjust and powerful on their own

61 Ronald Green. "Jewish Ethics and the Virtue of Humility." Journal of Religious Eillics 111 (1973), 54.
(references to the Talmudic tractates include: 'Abodah Zarah: 20b; A. Cohen. 1965. Kallah Rabbathi: 52a).

62 Ibid.. 54; Meyer Wa;'(man. ·'Judaism." Religion and £lllics (New York: Thomas Yoseloff. 1958).264.

63 Ibid .. 56-57.

terms (i.e. with force), the humble show their righteousness and trust in Yahweh.~ In

sum, Green argues that in the Jewish context, humility is less identified with obedient

subservience than with a steady trust in God's promises.

In the New Testament, God is not only the one who vindicates the lowly, God's

very self is lowly in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the exemplar and source of

humility as he chooses freely to be poor, despised, and humiliated. In Jesus. God's

humility is fully dramatized from his lowly birth ("divinity in a manger")65 to his death on a

cross. In a central synoptic passage, Jesus uses the term humility to describe himself ("for I

am meek and humble of heart" Matt. 1l:25) and those he calls to himself ("For all who

exalt themselves will be humbled. and those who humble themselves will be exalted." Luke

1'4:11. 18:14: Matt. 18:1-5: 23:(2). Jesus' free acceptance of his own rejection and

condemnation to death is a new revelation of how we are to serve others and surrender to

God. Loving "unto death" becomes the paramount form of discipleship.

Within Christianity. Auerbach reports that "humiLis became the most important

adjective characterizing the [ncamation; in all Christian literature written in Latin it came to

express the atmosphere and level of Christ's life and suffering. "66 In other words. the re-

evaluation of its pejorative connotations in pre-Christian Greek culture culminates when the

term refers directly to Christ himself. the archetypal embodiment of humility. The full force

of the Christian paradox expresses itself in the contrast between Christ's lowly humanity

and his sublime divinity. In contrast to the Greek moral value of magnanimity, Christian

humility de-centers the self and re-inforces a theocentric perspective where self-

understanding develops in light of God and culminates in a "strength in weakness"

~ Klaus Wengst. 39'

6S Barbara Fiand. "An Appreciation of ScheIer's Essay on Humility ... Aletheia 2 (1981).203.

66 Auerbach. 40.

discovered in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the principal standard for discerning true

The religious meaning of humility persisted into its early modern English usage but.
over time. its theocentric focus began to fade. Through the deism of the 17th century.
humility retained its basic association with those who acknowledge their lowliness before
God's grandeur. In 1639. the Oxford English Dictionary quotes W. Whateley who
observes that a truly humble person has "a meane esteeme of himself out of a true
apprehension of God's greatness."67 By the 18th century. however. its theocentric
orientation and reference had dropped from its official definition. The Oxford English
Dictionary cites David Hume's definition of humility. given in 1757. This definition omits
the reference to God and states that humility is "a dissatisfaction with ourselves on account
of some defect or infirmity."611 In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals
(1751). one of the most influential works of modern moral philosophy. David Hume
describes humility as a "monkish virtue." He had nothing but derision for the Christian
practices of "celibacy. fasting, penance. mortification. self-denial. humility. silence.
solitude:' He explains:

For what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because
they serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man's fortune in the
world. nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify
him for the entertainment of company. nor increase his power of self-

This secularized and pejorative understanding of humility was reinforced in the Oxford
English Dictionary's companion definition of the word "humble" as "having a low estimate

67 Oxford English Dictionary. s.v. "humility." (1639). W. Whaleley. Prototypes I xi. 482.

68 OED. 482.

69 David Hume. ..\n Enquiry Conceming the Principles of Morals. ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford. 1902).

of one's importance, worthiness, or merits; marked by the absence of self-assertion or self-
exaltation; lowly: the opposite of proud."70 Here humility is not integrally related to God's

self-disclosure, which is the precondition for understanding humility in the Judeo-Christian

Without its integral relation to God, the term humility refers principally to
measuring oneself against the greatness of other human beings, rather than against the
supreme greatness of God.71 In this context, social opinion dominates and humility
becomes linked with a self-depreciating modesty and a low estimation of one's own
abilities before the accomplishments and talents of others. Preoccupied with such
comparisons, a "humble" person cultivates self-disparagement7:! and an unduly negative
self-perception. Several contemporary philosophers (lilY Newman. Nancy Snow. Norvin
Richards) have attempted to re-define humility in more psychologically healthy terms.
Generally, the humility they propose aims at accurate self-evaluation and reasonable self-
regard for the purpose of more effective self-determination. This may correct the self-
disparagement in conventional notions of humility but it still remains within the context of

self-centeredness, which is fundamentally at odds with the theocentric view that is the basis
for Judeo-Christian understandings of humility. In the Judeo-Christian understanding of
humility, truthful self-knowledge emerges out of an understanding of the divine-human


70 David Baily Harned. Patience: How We Wait Upon the World. 168.

71 Augustine considered it prideful. not humble. to compare oneself with others. He urges his congregation
to avoid this habit of measuring one's worth against other human beings. "Don't compare yourselves with
one another... and compete with each other in arrogance." Serm. 68.10. l WSA III/3 :230).

7:!Jay Newman. "Humility and Self-Realization." Journal of Value Inquiry16 ([982); Norvin Richards.
Humility (Philadelphia: Temple University Press. (992); Nancy Snow. "Humility," The Journal of Value
Inquiry 29 (1995). 203-216.

1.2. Modem Critiques of Humility

In this section I will begin with a summary of the critiques of humility put forward
by Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. These accounts are limited in scope and I do not
intend to set up Marx and Nietzsche as opponents for Augustine to refute. Rather I draw
upon their profound challenge to Christianity in order to provide the background that
informs many modem readers who are suspicious of humility as a vinue. Marx sees
humility as a tool used by the powerful to pacify the oppressed. Nietzsche. on the other
hand. sees humility as a tool used by the weak to assen their "will to power." Representing
two poles of concern about how humility can serve ignoble or evil ends. these two major

figures set the background for the concerns raised by contemporary feminists who argue
that humility contributes to patriarchy. With this brief look at these two intluential thinkers
as well as contemporary feminist arguments. [ hope to prepare the ground for a study of
Augustine's treatment of humility.

a. Karl Marx: Humility as a Tool for Oppressors

As a shrewd critic of advanced industrial societies. Karl Marx believed that

productive activity is the distinctively human activity. As a "toolmaking animal" the human
person actively shapes his environment and changes what is given in his or her natural and

social setting. Rather than submitting to the givenness of reality. the humble person
changes his or her environment and thereby changes him or her self. In productive
activity. a worker produces and uses tools to make his or her mark on what is given.
Molding the environment to oneself is the way to develop an identity and reach human
fulfillment. Consequently, Marx expresses grave concern about the new ways of working
created by the Industrial Revolution. Under capitalism. commodity production becomes the
dominant mode of economic activity. Amassing wealth and making a profit are ends in

themselves. In his Communist Manifesto. he writes: "Owing to the extensive use of
machinery and to division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual
character." 73 Instead of being toolmakers, workers become tools-extensions of a machine
that cultivates a passive relationship to the environment. The worker no longer gives
meaning and value to raw material but submits to the given task of a machine. Rather than
being a maker of things, the worker becomes the thing that is made. Without distinctively
human modes of work, workers are crippled in their basic human capacity to make things.
Mindless, compartmentalized work cuts people off from the end product of their labor,
stunts human development. and degrades human beings. Moreover. without control over
their labor, modem workers lose their active and productive self-understanding. They
become defined by the machine or system that controls their labor and thus. their identity.
In tracing the causes of this alienation and passivity. Marx turned to religion. which
he saw primarily as an expression of the bourgeoisie and their desire to retain power and
control over the proletariat. Religion, he believed, fosters a false consciousness that
focuses on illusions about the next world instead of the hard facts of this world. Under the

influence of religion, workers surrender to those in power, rather than asserting themselves
and taking responsibility for their life and its conditions. Christianity, in particular, detracts

from earthly concerns for justice because it promises that the next life will reward the
oppressed and punish the oppressors.

Marx thought of Christian humility as a tool used by those in power to reinforce the

reigning ideologies and systems of the day, particularly capitalism. It is a stumbling block
to the aims of the proletariat and quells the fervor for revolution and change. Regarding
humility, he wrote:

73Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. English translation. ed. Frederick
Engels (New York: lnternational Publishers. reprinting, 1997). 15-16.

The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt.
humiliation, subservience, humility, in short all the properties of the
canaille, and the proletariat, which does not want to be treated as the
canaille, needs its courage, its own feelings, its pride and its independence
far more than its bread. The social principles of Christianity are lily livered,
and the proletariat is revolutionary.7~

Here humility is perceived as a social principle used to soften people's drive for liberation.
Rather than humility. Marx believed workers need pride to reclaim responsibility for their

lives and shed their false consciousness. In his article, "Sin as Pride and Sin as Sloth,"

John C. Raines decribes the false consciousness that. according to Marx. religion fosters:
Man flees from the exposure of his active, productive self-understanding
and existence into the passivity of religious awe and taboo. He does not
stand his ground and assert himself over against the given realities but drifts
into an opiate. dream-like self-surrendering to the world. He becomes
humble at the very place where with more pride he might rediscover and
recapture himself and thus once again take over responsibility for his life.1 5

In sum. for Marx. humility. used by those in power. reinforces a degrading way of life for

the oppressed. Pride. on the other hand. fosters revolution and true human liberation.

b. Nietzsche: Humility as Egoism

Though humility is mentioned in several of Nietzsche's works. I will focus

primarily on Nietzsche's most systematic and influential work in ethics. On the Genealogy

of Morals (1887). In these essays. Nietzsche describes humility as an outgrowth of Judeo-

Christian ressentiment.16 In the first essay, he offers a sustained reflection on the contrast

between "slave morality" and "master morality."77 He also discusses humility as one of the

7~ Karl Marx. The Communism of the Rheinischer Beobachter: Marx-Engels Werke 4 (Sept. (847). 191-

75 lohn C. Raines. "Sin as Pride and Sin as Sloth." Christianity and Crisis 29 ( (969). 6.

76 "Ressentiment" is a tenn introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche to describe the redefining of certain values as
a result of feeling oppressed. humilitated. and impotent.

77 Friedrich Nietzsche.
On the Genealogy of Morals. trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.1. Hollingdale. (New
York: Random House. (967). 34-56. References in parentheses in these notes are to pages in Kaufmann's

principal virtues of slave morality. which he finds dominant among the modern

bourgeoisie. To begin. I will layout Nietzsche's criticism of slave morality as deceitful.

unnatural. and fundamentally destructive of human greatness. I will then examine how

Nietzsche finds these repulsive qualities of slave morality in those deemed "humble."

In showing the culturally constructed nature of morality. Nietzsche's Genealogy

discusses the shift from the ancient contrast between "good and bad" to the

1ewish/Christian contrast between "good and evil." The "master morality" of the classical

world identifies "the good" with the Homeric hero who is strong. noble. and masterful. It

promotes heroic virtues like courage, ambition, and pride. Without advocating a return to

this master morality. Nietzsche seems to find inspiration in its straightforward and bold


While master morality is active. "herd" or slave morality is re-active. It is the

response of the weak. miserable. and base sections of society who feel envy and malice

toward the fortunate and powerful. The weak resent the strong and secretly crave their

power. Out of this resentment. virtues like humility are born. Nietzsche explains:

When the oppressed, downtrodden. outraged exhort one another with the
vengeful cunning of impotence: 'let us be different from evil. namely good!
And he is good who does not outrage. who harms nobody. who does not
attack, who does not requite, who leaves revenge to God, who keeps
himself hidden as we do, who avoids evil and desires little from life, like
us, the patient. humble, and just'-this, listened to calmly and without
previous bias. really amounts to no more than: 'we weak ones are, after all,
weak; it would be good if we did nothing for which we are not strong
enough'; but this dry maner of fact. this prudence of the lowest order which
even insects possess (posing as dead, when in great danger. so as not to do
'too much'). has. thanks to the counterfeit and self-deception of impotence.
clad itself in the ostentatious garb of the virtue of quiet. calm resignation.
just as if the weakness of the weak-that is to say. their essence. their
effects, their sole ineluctable. irremovable reality-were a voluntary
achievement, willed. chosen. a deed. a meritorious act. 78

78 Nietzsche. Genealogy 1.13 (46).

Beginning within Judaism and culminating in Christianity. herd morality manufactures

values for revenge. The weak invert noble or "heroic" values by deeming "good" the

person who is timid, incapable. and impotent. Those who are masterful, superior, and
dominating, they call "bad." According to herd morality. pride is a sin and humility,

identified with servility and self-denial, is a virtue. In this way, slave morality turns

weakness into strength.

While Nietzsche demonstrates a certain admiration for the clever deception involved

in the transposition of values, his genealogy remains intent upon exposing Christianity as a

lie, which he demonstrates by unmasking the timid ways of the humble. He finds their

"virtue" to be a cowardly cover for the will to power. Thus, Nietzsche guides his readers

toward the realization that Christianity gains power by sanctifying the weak and

demonizing the strong. The weak de-value the strong by turning their "good" into evil.

What is interesting. creative. and ambitious is considered threatening and derided as

arrogant. According to Nietzsche, this transposition involves a desperate twisting of

human greatness into "sin" or "evil." Feigning selt1essness. the weak delight in the belief

that God will punish the proud while rewarding their humility.79

According to Nietzsche, slave morality is life-denying and unnatural. Through its

transposition of meek resignation and mortification into "good," it saps the energy that

produces creative, superior human beings. Nietzsche is concerned principally with these

exceptional individuals. Thus, he laments that those with superior creativity are "pushed

down" under the influence of the herd who cultivate a weakened and homogeneous

humanity. He observes that through the glorification of weakness, the human race has

become increasingly enervated, mediocre, and decadent, anticipating that Christianity will

79 Nietzsche. Genealogy 1.15 (48-49).

give way eventually to "the last men,"so those diminished human beings who lack the

incentive to do or feel anything. They are even more depraved than the herd of Christianity

because they do not even exert a will to power. Having lost the will to will anything, these
"last men" reveal the primal distortion of Christianity and its gradual destruction of human


Humility, a moral value rooted in ressentiment, is a virtue that is deceitful and tries
to restrain and deny the basic human desire for domination. Contrasting the "noble man"

with the "man of ressentiment," Nietzsche writes:

While the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself, the man of
ressentiment is neither upright nor naive nor honest and straightforward
with himself. His soul squints: his spirit loves hiding places. secret paths
and back doors. everything covert entices him as his world. his security, his
refreshment: he understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to
wait, how to be provisionally self-deprecating and humble. s1

The humility described here is manipulative and cowardly. Resenting their inferiority, the

weak uphold virtues like humility to encourage self-denial. self-hatred. and guilt among

themselves and their enemies. By inflicting punishment on themselves. the humble

internalize their inclination toward violence. The humble "keep silent." they wait. they
desire little.

In the Genealogy, Nietzsche's parable of the "workshop" provides a powerful

illustration of how the "herd." depicted as "cellar rodents."s:! manipulates power and

reverses the norms of the master morality so that weakness becomes something meritorious

and admirable. In this parable, humility evolves out of the disempowerment and anxiety of

80 Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books. 1978). 18.

81 Nietzsche. Gl!nealogy l.lO (38). italics mine. Note: Nietzsche's "noble man" is an egoist who sees
himself as the standard and creator of all value and meaning. See John Casey. Pagan Virtue: ..\n Essay in
Ethics. 81.

S2 Ibid.• 1.14 (47-48).

the moral agent who seeks to dignify incompetence. failure. and small-mindedness.
Nietzsche explains that "impotence" is turned into "goodness of heart" and "anxious
lowliness" into "humility; subjection to those one hates into 'obedience' ... inability for

revenge is called unwillingness to revenge, perhaps even forgiveness."s3 Here humility is

the virtuous label used by fearful. anxious human beings seeking to transform their
weakness into strength.
In the Third Essay of the Genealogy, Nietzsche seeks to explain the transvaluation

of virtues like humility. He derides the "ascetic ideal" that is dominant in slave morality.

Suspecting the norion that poverty, humility, and chastity are "virtues." Nietzsche points

out that one may see traces of each in "the lives of all the great, fruitful. inventive spirits."~

He writes:
The three great slogans of the ascetic ideal are familiar: poverty, humility,
chastity. Now take a close look at the lives of all the great, fruitful.
inventive spirits: you will always encounter all three to a certain degree.
Not, it goes without saying, as though these constituted their "virtues"-
what has this kind of man to do with virtues!-but as the most appropriate
and natural conditions of their best existence, their fairest fruitfulness. It is
quite possible that their dominating spirituality had first to put a check on an
unrestrained and irritable pride or a wanton sensuality. or that it perhaps had
a hard job to maintain its will to the "desert" against a love of lUXUry and
retinement or an excessive liberality of heart and hand. But it did it.
precisely because it was the dominating instinct whose demands prevailed
against those of all the other instincts-it continues to do it; if it did not do it.
it would not dominate. There is thus nothing of "virtue" in thiS.85

Here Nietzsche remarks that poverty, humility, and chastity are dispositions adopted for

their usefulness in achieving power. They evolve to serve the natural human instinct to

dominate, but they are ultimately destructive. Thus, to call these qualities, employed for
power, "virtues," is mistaken. In humility, Nietzsche sees power cleverly exerted by the

83 Ibid.

~ Ibid.• 3.8 (108).

8S Ibid.. 3.8 (109).

negation of the will. The self-contradiction of the ascetic ideal lies in the fact that its attempt
to protect life by denial. ultimately. becomes an assault upon life itself. 86 Nietzsche scorns
the inclination to be safe and argues for greater risk-taking and boldness.
To uncover the self-contradiction and hypocrisy of humility. Nietzsche describes
the presumption of the humble in the New Testament:
[n the New one [the New Testament]. . . I find nothing but petty
sectarianism. mere rococco of the soul. mere involutions. nooks. queer
things. the mawkishness that belongs to the epoch (and to the Roman
province) and is not so much lewish as Hellenistic. Humility and self-
importance cheek-by-jowl; a garrulousness of feeling that almost stupefies;
impassioned vehemence. not passion; embarrassing gesticulation; it is plain
that there is no trace of good breeding. How can one make such a fuss
about one's little lapses as these pious little men do! Who gives a damn?
Certainly not God. Finally. they even want "the crown of eternal life."
these little provincial people; but for what? to what purpose? Presumption
can go no further. 87
Here Nietzsche shows the ironic way that the "selfless" and the humble mask an egoism of
the highest order. The humble presume that their "little lapses" have grand importance

before God. Furthermore. as a reward for their non-heroic lives these "little men" want
nothing less than eternal life. Here Nietzsche delights in stripping humility of its supposed
self-sacrifice and surrender to reveal its unsurpassed self-aggrandizement.

For Nietzsche. virtues like humility corrupt noble. courageous. and risk-taking
instincts. They protect the cowardly. who become small to avoid being overcome. In the
midst of guarding against suffering and aggression. the humble accept mistreatment and
refuse to put themselves forward in opposition to their enemies. They harbor ill-will

toward the powerful and indirectly promote their own egoism by sanctifying unegotistical
ways. Thus. Nietzsche proposes a less deceptive understanding of Luke 18:14 which ends

86 Ibid.. 3.13 (120).

87 Ibid.• 3.22 (144).

the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. In place of "... he who humbles himself will
be exalted" Nietzsche introduces: "He that humbleth himself wishes to be exalted."88

In sum. virtues like humility express what most disturb Nietzsche about
Christianity. They are a peculiarly insidious and perverse kind of contradiction that hinders

the rise of superior human beings and exalts the commonplace person who lacks self-

initiative and individual creativity. For Nietzsche. a virtue like humility is unnatural and
destructive of human potential. Edward Schillebeeckx summarizes Nietzsche's view as

Nietzsche condemned humility as the product of Judaism and Christianity
and a complex of deep resentment. The good news that Jesus proclaimed to
slaves became bad news for the powerful. Nietzsche regarded Christian
humility as a servile and vindictive distortion of a plebian consciousness that
denies itself in the expectation of eschatological revenge.~L)

Humility subdues the human spirit and makes human beings submissive and herd-like. It

is one form of "giving up" or surrendering what is distinctively one's own to the herd.

Representing two opposing ends of criticism. Marx and Nietzsche raise the

question about whether humility is more properly a tool for the powerful. as Marx would

have it. or. the powerless. as Nietzsche would have it. Are their criticisms essentially

cynical reductions of religion and moral ideals to political and economic self-promotion? It

is my observation that their criticisms of humility are most helpful in identifying certain

forms of false humility and "pulling the cover" off of these perversions of virtue that distort

the Christian message. If this is so. then. can perceptions be helpful in distinguishing

between true and false humility? Loosely following in the Marxist and Nietzschean

traditions of suspecting moralities and advocating for greater human creativity and

88 Nietzsche. Human All Too Human. 1.87. Collected Works 6 (London 1909),88.

89 Edward Schillebeeckx. "Secular Criticism of Christian Obedience and the Christian Reaction to that
Criticism." 19.

responsibility, feminists today have considered critically the traditional pridelhumility
dichotomy embedded in the Western Christian tradition. The following authors re-consider
the relevance of pride and humility to women's experience of sin and grace.

c. Feminist Critiques of Humility

Many feminist theologians contend that Christian theology has been overly
int1uenced by a distinctly male experience. By neglecting some aspects of the female
experience, Christian moral teachings have sometimes been detrimental to women' s
development as faithful and responsible human beings. Applying the liberating themes of
the biblical and Christian tradition. many women scholars have sorted through various
aspects of the Christian tradition, offering a revisionist reading of old texts and traditions in
order to promote the full humanity of women. Their work on the meaning of sin and grace
presents a serious challenge to traditional understandings of God and Christian
discipleship. For example, some feminist theologians are critical of the emphasis on self-

sacrifice in traditional Christian doctrines of sin and grace insofar as these doctrines have
been too narrowly representative of the male experience.90
[n 1960. Valerie Saiving wrote a revolutionary article. "The Human Situation: A
Feminine View."91 which laid the groundwork for a series of studies on male-centeredness

in Christian theology. She calls for a critical re-evaluation of theologies that rely on
traditional understandings of sin and grace. Saiving begins her critical examination by
affirming that sin and grace are mutually interdependent concepts. [f Christian theology
understands sin principally in terms of pride manifest in self-centeredness and int1ated self-
love, then grace finds expression in selt1essness. These doctrines, she argues. are partial

90 Daphne Hampson. Theology and Feminism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1990). ISS.

91 Valerie Saiving Goldstein. "The Human Situation: A Feminine View." Journal of Religion 40 (1960).

to the male experience and do not account adequately for the distinctive experience of
women who find self-abnegation a more serious temptation than self-aggrandizement, that
is, women tend to compromise their own integrity through excessive self-surrender.
Saiving accounts for the different ways that the two sexes are tempted to sin92 by
considering their psychological differences and how these grow out of the physiological
differences between the sexes. For example, she observes that through motherhood and
other nurturing roles, women. more than men, readily know self-sacrifice and self-
transcending love. But. in giving themselves to others, they tend to lose themselves and
are more inclined to sin by neglecting their own development as persons. Due to nature
and cultural conditioning, women adopt other-centered, chameleon-like tendencies and
merge their own individual identity into the identity of others. Saiving writes:

For the temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations
of man as man. and the specifically feminine forms of sin--"feminine" not
because they are cor.fined to women or because women are incapable of
sinning in other ways but because they are outgrowths of the basic feminine
character structure-have a quality which can never be encompassed by such
terms as "pride" and "will-to-power." They are better suggested by such
items as triviality, distractability. and diffuseness: lack of an organizing
center or focus: dependence on others for one's own self-definition:
tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence: inability to respect the
boundaries of privacy: sentimentality, gossipy sociability, and mistrust of
reason-in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self.93
Women. then. should be encouraged toward virtues that foster greater autonomy and self-

definition. Saiving's challenge to the prominence of pride as the sin. implicitly challenges
the prominence of humility as the vinue of a redeemed humanity. Given that women's

92 A point raised by many feminists whose work follows upon the initial insights of Saiving. e.g. Judith
Plaskow. Sex. Sin and Grace: Women's £rperience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul
Tillich. (Lanham. MD: University Press of America. (980); Anne Patrick. "Narrative and The Social
Dynamics of Virtue:' in Changing Values and Vinues, eds. Dietmar Mieth and Jacques Pohier. (Edinburgh:
T.&T. Clark. 1987), 77.

93 Valerie Saiving Goldstein. "The Human Situation: A Feminine View." 109.

excessive selflessness tends to have damaging and destructive effects upon their

development as persons, Saiving urges theologians to consider virtues that stress self-

development and individual responsibility. As subsequent women scholars take up her

argument, the problematic nature of humility comes more sharply into focus. 94
Twenty years later, in her dissertation Sex. Sin and Grace: Women's £rperience
and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul TiLlich, Judith Plaskow carries forward

Saiving's work by taking issue with Niebuhr and Tillich insofar as they inadequately
"address 'women's sin' of self-abnegation" and fail to "fully explain how grace relates to
the reconstitution of the self-denying self."95 Niebuhr's theology, for example. upholds

the traditional view of pride as the primary form of sin and sacrificial love as "the primary

fruit of grace."96 Agreeing with Saiving, Plaskow argues that these definitions of sin and

grace have been more applicable to men, particularly men with status and power in societies

that define masculinity in terms of domination. Niebuhr and Tillich. she contends. fail to

recognize that self-abnegation can be just as dangerous to the human spirit as self-

Commenting on the need to move beyond understanding sin principally as pride,

Plaskow writes:

94 In her article, "Agape in Feminist Ethics," Barbara Hilkert Andolsen points out that Saiving's criticism
of Christian virtues is not unique to twentieth-century American feminists. She cites several nineteenth-
century American feminists who criticize the centrality of self-sacrifice in the Christian tradition. Among
the critics. she cites Anna Howard Shaw, a Methodist minister and suffragist orator. who wrote: ''The
greatest defect in the religious teaching to and accepted by women is the dogma that self-abnegation. self-
effacement and excessive humility were ideal feminine virtues" (Shaw. n.d.:B22. F492). Lois K. Daly. ed..
Feminist Theological Ethics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox. (994). 146-159. Also. other virtues
criticized by Christian feminists include the virtue of generosity as discussed in "'The Virtuous Woman:
New Wine and Old Wineskins." Elizabeth A. Dreyer. The Way 35 (1995). 342-349.

95 Judith Plaskow. Sex. Sin and Grace. 149.

96 Ibid.• 51.

97 Ibid.• 154.

· . .[nhe inadequacy of understanding sin solely as pride has become
almost a commonplace. Women's sin,' it is implied again and again, is not
self-centeredness but what have historically been considered the Christian
virtues. Self-sacrifice, obedience, etc., while perhaps necessary
counterweights to the behavioral excesses of a stereotypically male culture,
have been preached to and taken to heart by women, for whom they are
already a way of life. Practiced in excess, they undennine the self's
relationship to itself and ultimately to God.98
While Saiving focuses on the biological and psychological differences between men and
women, Plaskow aims to show that typically female patterns of behavior derive primarily
from societal expectations of women. According to Plaskow, these expectations encourage
women to neglect the freedom and responsibility entrusted to them as creatures made in
God's image. Women's "sin" has more to do with self-forgetfulness than self-absorption.
By failing to actively choose to give of self, women fail to live up to the obligations of
freedom, a phenomenon Plaskow terms "the refusal of self-transcendence."'l'} "Refusal of

self-transcendence ought to be . . . no less a sin than pride, a sin against oneself, against
other persons, and against God."IOO Failing to take responsibility for their own life-
choices, women allow important decisions to be made by others. lUI
For women, the focus on the sin of pride tends to be stifling, and, at worst,

destructive insofar as it exacerbates women's moral struggles and hinders their self-
identity. Today, Elizabeth Johnson echoes this view:

[f pride be the primary block on the path to God, then indeed decentering
the rapacious self is the work of grace. But the situation is quite different
when this language is applied to persons already relegated to the margins of
significance and excluded from the exercise of self-definition. For such
persons, language of conversion as loss of self, turning from amor sui,
functions in an ideological way to rob them of power, maintaining them in a

98 Ibid., 2.

'l'} Ibid.• 68.

100 Ibid.• 109.

101 Ibid .• 63.

subordinate position to the benefit of those who rule. . . Analysis of
women's experience is replete with the realization that within partriarchal
systems women's primordial temptation is not to pride and self-assertion
but rather to the lack of it. to diffuseness of personal center,
overdependence on others for self-identity, drifting, and fear of recognizing
one's own competence. 100

Though Plaskow is more intent on diagnosing a problem than proposing a detailed

solution, she maintains that a woman needs a definite self in order to give authentically to
God and others. Whether this self can be found through self-giving or if it is necessarily

prior to self-giving remains unclear. Nonetheless. given this need for a defined self.
Plaskow contends that virtues such as patience. chastity. and humility-the marks of

traditional Christian piety--<:an be detrimental to women.103 She warns that "virtues" can
function as vices:l~ "When the ideal of sacrificial love is addressed to women's sin. it

serves only to reinforce it. "lOS Thus the emphasis on sacrifice needs to be counter-balanced

with an emphasis on "self-consolidation and creation" which enables women to enter into

"genuine relationships with themselves and others."I06

[n her conclusion. Plaskow calls upon Christian theologians to consider more

seriously what she calls the "sin of self-abnegation" and in light of this to appreciate the
experience of grace as one of "self-realization."I07 Humility and other virtues that call for

self-sacrifice must be understood as problematic insofar as they apply more to the self-

centered self. typical of men. and less to the de-centered self. typical of women. This does

102 Elizabeth A. Johnson. She Who [s: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New
York: Crossroad. 1992). 64.

103 P1askow. 112.

I~ Ibid .. 88.

lOS Ibid .• 92-93.

106 Ibid._ 166.

107 Ibid.. 3.

not necessarily mean that a virtue like humility needs to be entirely replaced. But, at the

very least. it must be reconfigured for an egalitarian framework. It should be de-

emphasized and, at a minimum. complemented with other virtues like courage and honesty.
which challenge women to develop responsible. centered selves.
In her book, Transfonning Grace: Christian Tradition and Women's £r:perience.
(l988) Anne Carr. a Roman Catholic theologian. builds upon Plaskow's observation that
"virtues." like humility. can be detrimental to women. Considering how societal
expectations for women encourage a neglect of human freedom and its responsibilities. she
reports that passive qualities are often defined as feminine: particularly humility. sensitivity.
and receptivity .108 Carr then challenges women. under these circumstances. to reconsider
their own complicity in these stereotypical classifications that undervalue women's freedom
and demean their identity. She calls women to question their own abdication of
responsibility for self-development:
Women's temptation or 'sin' ... relates to lack of self-assertion in relation
to cultural and familial expectations. failure to assume responsibility and
make choices for themselves. failure to discover their own personhood and
uniqueness rather than finding their whole meaning in the too-easy sacrifice
of self for others. I09
In other words, women can have too much humility and, in so doing, compromise their

true "selves." Carr believes that in reformulating how the experience of sin and grace is

expressed, theology ought to correct its one-sidedness and account more adequately for the
female experience. This reformulation would involve a shift from a patriarchal framework
for virtue to a more egalitarian one. Virtues, like humility. she argues. need to be

108 Anne E. Carr. Transfonning Grace: Christian Tradition and Women's £rperience (San Francisco: Harper
and Row. (988).50.

109 Ibid.• 8-9.

reinterpreted in light of the need for women to exercise their God-given freedom and to take
responsibility for their own lives.

Explicitly drawing from the work of Saiving, Anne Patrick's article, "Narrative and

The Social Dynamics of Virtue," (1987) intensifies the concerns about "feminine virtues."

She warns that "schooling in traditional 'feminine virtues of docility and submissiveness to
male authority increases the likelihood that a woman will suffer violence."1 \0 Here Patrick

argues that virtues like humility are not only inapplicable or detrimental to women. they
actually violate women and reinforce an unjust double standard by being preached more

pointedly to women. llI The feminist writer Mary 10 Weaver illustrates the way humility

has been preached more pointedly to women. She describes the nuns' chapel of a large

Catholic seminary. which was used by the sisters who did the cleaning and cooking for the
seminarians and priests. She writes:

The nuns' chapel was a celebration of and exhortation to male models of

femininity. It was hidden and modest. The small windows offered no
vision of the outside world: they opened only a little bit and only into an air
corridor. More important. the windows offered colorful praise to one or
another of the so-called feminine virtues: they honored 'humility' and
'meekness' and quietly reminded [the] sisters of their obligations to
'generosity' and ·service.' l\2

Women today need new models for virtue: these new virtues must attend to the dangers of

"feminine" virtues. which can make women more susceptible to male domination and

aggression. Patrick concludes: "What women in patriarchal society need are not

I \0 Anne Patrick. "Narrative and The Social Dynamics of Virtue." 75.

111 Mary Daly. who identifies herself as a post-Christian feminist. is even stronger than Patrick in
concluding that humility is a virtue of the victim: "The qualities that Christianity idealizes. especially for
women. are also those of the victim: sacrificial love. passive acceptance of suffering. humility. meekness.
etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus 'who died for our sins' his functioning as a model
reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women." Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon. 1973). i7.

112 Mary Jo Weaver. Springs of Water in a Dry lAnd: spiritual Survival for Catholic Women Today
(Boston: Beacon. 1993). 116-117.

exhortations to humility and self-sacrifice. or stories of saints who preferred death to rape.
Women need new models for virtue and new stories that communicate them. "113

In a more recent work. Liberating Conscience: Feminist £'Cplorations in Catholic

Moral Theology, Patrick sets out to show the complexity of moral reasoning and the
importance of conscience to the moral subject. In what seems to be an individualistic view
of conscience, she argues that virtues like obedience and humility do not encourage a
liberation of conscience but contribute to an understanding of conscience as passive. Such
virtues keep the conscience under the control of the church and moral theologians. thus
hindering the freedom and responsibility that are fundamental to moral agency.
Daphne Hampson, who identifies herself as "post-Christian," discusses the
underlying problems that women have with humility by critiquing the traditional
understanding of God and what she refers to as the "gospel of powerlessness. "114
Challenging the emphasis on God's kenosis in Jesus Christ. divine self-emptying. and

diverstment of power, Hampson explains that this notion of powerlessness often goes
hand in hand with service to others. In Augustine's teaching of humility. for instance. the

link between kenosis and charity is strong. Christ's humility extends into a self-
sacrificing love of neighbor. I IS Hampson challenges this suffering servant model of

Christian love that is rooted in a kind of humility whereby, in her view, the self loses its
own integrity and sense of responsibility. It is broken in order to draw near to God and

others. "This paradigm," Hampson argues, "which men may have found useful. is
inappropriate for women ... [fIor a gospel of self-sacrifice, service and self-abnegation has
been used to justify the position of women ... resistance to injustice then comes to look un-

113 Ibid.. 77-78.

114 Daphne Hampson. "On Power and Gender" Modem Theology 4:3 (1988),239.

115 Sum. 206.3 (WSA III/6:108).

Christ like."1l6 Hampson contends that Christianity needs to shift its focus to the virtue of

courage and the understanding of power as empowerment. especially when it speaks to

those who are powerless. She concludes her argument saying:

We may say that whereas powerfulness means self-aggrandisement. and
abnegation of power means self-loss. power as empowerment means
coming 'to' oneself." (246) She adds. "God is not seen as serving us. nor
as sacrificing God's self for us, nor asking us to lose ourselves. That is to
say God must be seen as one with us, as enabling us to be ourselves. as
empowering us. God must be seen to give us strength and insight not as
one gives who gives a donation. but in working through us. l17
These scholarly feminist arguments have generated popular work aimed at raising

awareness among wider audiences about the problems associated with traditional virtues

like humiiity. In her provocative book. Wizen Women Were Priests (1995). Karen Jo

Torjesen, director of Women's Studies in Religion at Claremont University. offers an

historical account of how certain virtues like humility came to be used within the Christian

community. Torjesen considers "virtue" within a historical study that seeks to understand

why and how women were marginalized as Christianity grew into a more public and state

religion in the third and fourth centuries. I IS She argues that virtues like humility have

reinforced the restricted role allotted to women in the ancient world. Unlike Saiving,

Plaskow, and Carr. who grant that humility can be encouraged profitably as a corrective for

more male forms of sin. Torjesen perceives humility. almost exclusively. as a tool of

oppression aimed at keeping women out of public roles in church and society.

Although solid evidence is not given to confirm this, Torjesen argues that during

the time of the "Jesus movement" and in the early church. Christian worship took place in

the private sphere and women were "house church" leaders. prophets. evangelists. and

116 Ibid.

117 Ibid.• 248-9.

118 Karen Jo Torjesen. When Women Were Priests. 7.

perhaps. even bishops.119 However. by the third century. under the influence of Greco-

Roman society. the church gradually transformed its house churches into institutionalized.

political churches and male leaders discredited women's leadership roles. Torjesen

As Christianity entered the public sphere. male leaders began to demand the
same subjugation of women in the churches as prevailed in Greco-Roman
society at large.. . How could they remain virtuous women. the critics
demanded. while being active in public life?120

The ancient world maintained a sharp distinction between the private sphere of the

household, proper to women, and. the public sphere of the state, proper to men. Greco-

Roman social dogma with its nature/culture and private/public dualisms began to pervade
Christian teaching and circumscribe women's activities. Even Greek intellectuals and

moralists. who taught the universality of the virtues. applied them to male and female

differently.l2I This carried over into Christian teaching. Torjesen argues. so that within

Christianity there was a correlation between male/female roles and male/female virtues.

Torjesen writes:
Parallel to the notion of the separate spheres was the Greco-Roman system
of gendered virtues. Men were encouraged to cultivate the virtues of
courage. justice, and self-mastery. These were public virtues. essential for
participation in the life of the community. Women were encouraged to
cultivate the virtues of chastity, silence and obedience. I:!2

Male virtues aimed at civic and personal excellence, were the principal means to honor. In

contrast. women's honor derived from virtues cultivated in the private sphere. Women

were honored for their shame manifested in timidity, meekness, modesty. sexual

119 Ibid.• 37.

120 Ibid.• 38.

121 Ibid.. 121.

122 Ibid .• 115·

exclusivity, distance from public life, and subordination in social relations. l23 Torjesen

The cultural value of shame prescribed the feminine personality as discreet,
shy, restrained, and timid, those qualities deemed necessary to 'protect'
female sexuality . . . Shame, the defining quality of womanhood, was
indicated by passivity. subordination, and seclusion in the household.12~

Needless to say. some of these distinctively female virtues conflicted with a woman's
economic and managerial functions within a household. t:!5

Torjesen questions the validity of Christian virtues that reinforce the restrictive

Greek attitudes toward women. Humility is among the virtues in question. She argues that
in seeking credibility and legitimacy in this world, Christians adopted the ancient world's

public-versus-private conventions and betrayed the radically egalitarian message and

practice of Jesus. 126 Showing the way that a virtue like humility was used. she cites

Tertullian's treatise De Culllt Feminarum 1.4 where humility and chastity are recommended

specifically to Christian women. 127 In this treatise, Tertullian condemns the wearing of

jewelry as contrary to women's humility. Here humility is associated with modesty, which

is compromised by makeup. jewelry, and colorful clothing, which were believed to give a

woman "a public identity." 128 Christian humility, then. when applied to women. reinforces

123 Ibid.. 117.

12~ Ibid.• 137.

125 Ibid .• 118.

126 Ibid .. 7.
127 Ibid .. 169.
128 Ibid.

the values of antiquity which exclude women from public life and confine their role to the
private sphere. 129
Offering a perspective somewhat unique in relation to the previous array of
scholars. Roberta Bondi. a Methodist theologian at Emory University. takes up the task of
seeking to recover humility from its long-standing misapplications. particularly in reference
to women. She treats this topic in her article "Humility: A Meditation on an Ancient Virtue
for Modern Christians" (1983) and in her more popular book. To Love as God Loves
(l987). According to Bondi. the true humility found in the life and work of the early
monastics must be recovered so as to replace the more repressive forms of false humility.
Similar to the aims of this dissertation. Bondi seeks to re-present Christian humility and
reclaim it for men and women in the modern context. She acknowledges the challenge of
recovering humility and seeks to understand the negative associations it has acquired over
the years. Describing how humility has often been misused within Christianity. she writes:
Across the many centuries of the Christian era up to the modern world when
women have been exhorted to be humble. humility included as one of its
components being obedient to their husbands. fathers. brothers. and/or
priests. Humility has been a shorthand word for recognizing and accepting
an inferior position in the world. Sometimes it has included accepting that
other people had a right to buy or sell them ... The real difticulty is not so
much that women have been taught to serve but that service seems to
demand loss of self. The very phrase. 'selfless love' raises the specter of a
woman without any needs. desires. or even personality of her own. 130

As the only critic who makes a clear distinction between true and false humility. Bondi
expresses concern about women serving others at the expense of their true selves. They
compromise their own talents and freedom in submitting to others. Bondi points to the

129 Though Torjesen does not mention it. industrialization has furthered the dichotomy between the private
and public spheres of life and made the gap between the so-called male/female vinues even wider.

130 Bondi. To Love as God Lo~·es. 43-44.

manipulative use of humility by men and women. Self-sacrifice can be a ploy to induce
guilt and put another person in one's debt. She writes:

Unfortunately. so many of us have been so victimized by this pattern of

relating to people at home. in church. and at work that both the words 'self-
sacrifice' and 'humility' fill us with horror. One result is that to talk with
any meaning of the humility or self-sacrifice of Christ has become nearly
impossible to a good many people. But the 'you take the only good chair'
way of dealing with others is manipulation. not humility. It is a gross
perversion of Christianity. and it needs to be recognized for what it is. Real
humility brings freedom and love to its recipients. not guilt and
resentment. 131

Christian humility. Bondi argues. has nothing to do with low self-esteem and somber self-
accusation. The early monastics. for example, found in humility the grounds for building
relationships free from both the demands of image-making as well as the cultural
framework for dominance and subservience. Out of this monastic context. humility does
not suggest that a woman sacrifice the core of who she is to be wholly committed to others.
"Being a doormat." she argues. "is not being humble. nor is giving up the self in order to
serve the needs. desires. and whims of another person who is not God." 132 Rather. a
woman's devotion to others must flow out of her core identity. which is found in her
relationship to God-a relationship that makes possible a love that is fundamentally joyful
and life-giving.
By considering how humility functioned for monastic Christian men and women.

Bondi uncovers how humility can free one from worldly attachments and the despair
generated by finding these attachments ultimately unsatisfying in reference to one's deepest

desires. Humility can also free us from becoming mired in our own guilt and despairing
before our inadequacies and sinfulness. Far from signifying passivity and inaction. Bondi
stresses the life-enhancing and active dimensions of humility whereby humility has an

131 Ibid.. 45.

13:! Ibid.• 54.

expansive and liberating quality, which frees a person from the fears of the ego and

awakens a person to the fullest expression of human dignity. It teaches us that we need

God's grace to be honest with ourselves, to repent of our wrongdoing, and to move into
love built upon God's passionate and extravagant love for each of us. \33


In approaching the question of virtue, all of these women scholars voice concern
about how humility can be used to reinforce the marginalized status of women in society.

All identify ways in which humility can hinder a woman's moral development. They

maintain that humility can be a mistaken virtue or at worst a tool that serves male interests
and keeps women in subservient. degrading roles.

Reminiscent of Marxist concerns about the pacifying intluence of religion. they

challenge virtues that can be used to oppress women. They reveal how humility can be a

rather conservative virtue that accepts the status quo. Anne Patrick's observations articulate

these concerns most directly for she notes how humility can justify oppression and be

employed to keep women from confronting male aggression. Karen 10 Torjesen similarly
suspects the way that virtues, like humility, have been used to keep women in their place

by undermining their public roles.

Nietzsche. on the other hand, sees humility, not as a tool for those who dominate in

society, but as a device for the weak. Humility is upheld by bland. uninspiring, and

pathetic human beings who are too cowardly or inept to take hold of their own lives.

Moreover. humility is an unnatural "virtue" that justifies the herdlike mentality of the weak

who subtly exercise their "will to power:' Humility emerges from those who wish to

sanctify their own passivity and incompetence while undercutting true human greatness.

133 Ibid.. ~5-46.

Scornful toward appeals to egalitarianism, Nietzsche has nothing but disdain for a humility

that de-legitimizes those who are superior, masterful. and accomplished in the task of self-
creation. Anne Carr shares some of Nietzsche's concerns about virtues encouraging a

mindless conformity. She challenges women to resist societal currents that stifle human
freedom and frustrate the human task of self-definition.

With these charges against humility in mind-humility as the self-service of the

powerful and humility as the self-service of the powerless-we tum to Augustine's

Christologically rooted conception of humility. These criticisms give us impetus to explore

a thorough treatment of humility to see how Augustine can be a resource for responding to

these concerns and providing the foundation for a more authentic Christian discipleship.



At the Offertory of the Mass. while the gifts of bread and wine are being prepared.

the celebrant prays. "By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the
divinity of Christ. who humbled himself to share in our humanity."l Here the liturgy
directs the community of faith to the heart of Augustine's theology: the humbling of Christ.

Various theological reasons can be given for the importance of humility in the Christian

life. It may be based on the doctrine of creation. where humility before the Creator is a
logical consequence of being a creature2 or it can be drawn from a doctrine of sin. whereby

the failure to live according to God's will forms the basis of our need for God's mercy.

While incorporating these theological roots of humility into his thought. Augustine turns
directly to Jesus Christ as the first and principal reason for recommending humility.3

Augustine proclaims repeatedly that Jesus Christ. Incarnate Word is the expression

of God's humility. In the Confessions he speaks of the ''fimdamentum Izumilitatis quod est

Jesus Chrisms. "4 Authentic Christian love starts with and builds upon this "foundation of
humility which is Christ Jesus. "5 According to Augustine. Christ's humility is the

standard and the source of human flourishing. for Christ-like humility is the basis for all

I The Leonine Sacramenrary: collect for Christmas (New York: Catholic Book Publishing. [985).

2 B. Haring, La [oi du Christ. 2e ed.• t. 1. (Paris-Tournai. 1956). 284. Cited in P. Adnes. "Humilite:
Dictionnaire de Spiritualite 7 (1969). [184.

3 Serm. 69.2 (WSA IIII3:235); Of Holy Virginity 33 trans. c.L. Cornish. Nicene and Post-Nicene Far/rers
of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917) 3:429; Serm. 354.9 (WSA ITIIlO:162).

" Confessions 7.20.26 trans. Henry Chadwick. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. [99[). [30. All
subsequent references to the Confessions will be from H. Chadwick's translation. unless otherwise noted.

5 Ibid.

other Christ-like attributes. Preaching on Matthew 11 :25-27 near the end of his life,
Augustine says:

You won't become humble unless you look at the one who became humble
for your sake. Learn from Christ what you won't learn from man; in him is
to be found the standard of humility (norma humilitatis). Those who
measure up to him are tirst formed in humility, in order to be eventually
honored with high nobility.6

In short, Augustine insists that knowing Jesus Christ entails knowing his humility, for

Jesus Christ, first and foremost. is the archetype and master of humility (magister


Augustine develops the theme of Christ's humility and its various dimensions by

relating it to almost every aspect of his theology. As one whose writings were sparked in

large part by polemics. pastoral concerns, and inquiries from church leaders as well as
ordinary believers and unbelievers, Augustine does not give his readers a carefully

delineated account of humility. While it pervades his work. there is no one place where he

treats the topic with scholastic precision. By extrapolating from his texts. however, one can

discover that the theme of humility is inextricably tied to his christological and

soteriological doctrines.

Augustine is not unique in highlighting humility as the key characteristic of the

person and work of Jesus Christ; many other early Christian writers did the same.s

Auerbach reports that within the development of Christianity .. humilis became the most

important adjective characterizing the Incarnation; in all Christian literature wrinen in Latin

6Serm. 68.11 (WSA IIJi3:230): humilis non eris. nisi eum qui propter te humilis jactus est adrenderis.
Disce a Christo. qllod non discis ab homine: in ilia est norma hllmilitatis; ad hllnc qui accedit. prillS in ipsa
humilitate jormaCllr. lit in e:caltatione decoreCllr. (PLS 2:510).

7 Tractates on the Gospel of John (Rettig. 254). (CCl 36:257).

g Clement of Alexandria. Drigen. Gregory of Nyssa. St. Basil cited in P. Adnes. Dictionnaire d!
Spiritllalite 7 (1969).

it carne to express the atmosphere and level of Christ's life and suffering. "9 For
Augustine, the humility of Christ is not simply a moral example to be imitated; it is a central

way that our reconciliation with God occurs. Augustine would not have made a sharp

distinction between reparation, reconciliation with God, and discipleship, thus, the

fundamental claim of this study is that Christ's humility is both salvific and exemplary. \0
Augustine's distinctive contribution to the topic is his direct linking of humility to

Soteriology. Preaching on the feast of the martyrs Casrus and Aemilius, he stresses the
humility of Christ as the essence of God's salvific work:

On every side the humility of the good master is being assiduously

impressed upon us, seeing that our very salvation in Christ consists in the
humility of Christ. There would have been no salvation for us. after all. if
Christ had not been prepared to humble himself for our sakes. Let us
remember that we shouldn't have too much confidence in ourselves. Let us
entrust God with whatever good qualities we have: what we have rather less
of. let us implore from him.iI

As the reference point for our own humility. Christ curbs over-contidence by teaching that

of all our good qualities are owed to God. Instead of boasting. we tum to God in

gratitude. Conversely. for what we lack. God is the ever-faithful source of hope. The

humble know that true hope is found outside the self. in God. Moreover. this passage

demonstrates that Christ's humility is a "saving humility."12 It is the paramount cure suited

to the paramount illness: pride. Thus, Augustine writes: " . . . [8 Jecause pride has

9 Auerbach. Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin .4ntiquity and in the Middle .4ges. (New York:
Pantheon Books. (965). 40.

\0 E. Portalie. A Guide to the Thought of St. ..'.ugustine. trans. R.l. Bastian (Chicago: Regnery. (960).

11 Serm. 285.4 (WSA IIIf8:97-98): Ubique nobis humilitas magistri bani diligentissime commendatur.
Quandoquidem et salus nostra in Christo. humilitas Christi est. Nulla enim nostra salus esset. nisi Christus
humilis pro nobis fieri dignarus esset. Meminerimus de nobis ipsis non esse prO!fidendum. Deo
commendemus quod habemus: ab ilia imploremus quod minus habemus. (PL 38: (295).

12 City of God 10.28 trans. Henry Bettenson. (New York: Penguin Books. (984),412.

wounded us, humility makes us whole."13 Just as the source of spiritual blindness and
bondage is human pride, so the source of spiritual sight and freedom is divine humility.

In this chapter. I will examine Christ's humility in light of its salvific role. I will
consider how three fundamental aspects of Christ's humility correlate with the

soteriological dimensions of Augustine' s Christo logy . Part one serves as a prolegomena to

the rest of the chapter. It begins by briefly outlining the shape of Augustine's Christo logy.

as it relates to his understanding of humility as salvific. This will include sections on his
use of the title "the humble God." and the distinctiveness of divine humility.

Part two will consider three dimensions of Augustine's soteriological understanding

of Christ's humility. It will begin with looking at the contrast between humility and pride.

This antithetical dimension of Christ's humility illustrates the rhetorical nature of

Augustine's Christo logy and correlates with what Basil Studer calls Augustine's

"antithetical Christology."14 which emphasizes the contrasts held together in the one person
of Christ. "the human God" (homo dells).15 This first section concentrates on the

paramount sin of pride in order to understand the way Christ's humility heals through

contrast. In the second section. I will consider how. through mediation. Christ's humility

bridges the chasm. created by pride. between God and humanity. While the salvific role of

humility in the first section is by contrast and confrontation. the salvific role of humility in

mediation. in the second section. is through likeness to our humanity. In the third section. I

will look at the extreme depth of the self-humiliation of God. In understanding Christ's

humility as kenosis-self-emptying~f the divine. we see the full extent and cost of

13 Enarrationes in Psa/mos 35.17 (PL 36:353). cited in R. Arbesmann. "Christ the Medicus Humilis in Sl.
Augustine." Augustinlls Magister II. (Paris. 1955). 627.

14 B. Studer. The Grace of Christ and the Grace of God in Augustine of Hippo: Christocentrism or
Theocentrism? trans. M.J. O'Connell (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1997), 38.

15 In Johannis evangelium tractalus 4.14 (CCL 36:38).

humility. Christ's self-emptying begins with the Incarnation and extends unto death on a

cross (Phil. 2:8-9). In these three sections, I hope to show how pivotal Christ's humility is

to the way Christ's salvation works. It is central to directly combating the universal disease
of pride; it is key to Christ making himself a passageway for us to God; and, finally, it is at

the heart of Christ's expiation for our sin through the shedding of blood.
This chapter will draw from various sections in the Augustinian corpus where

humility is found. Humilitas and its cognates appear over 1.708 times (CAG) (2,804 in
CETEDOC '94) and more than 948 (CAG) of these references explicitly mention humility

in connection with Christ. 16 As Augustine retlects on the descent of God into human

history, he repeatedly uses the word, humilis. Augustine also refers to Christ as "humilis
deus, "17 "auctor humilitatis,"18 "magister hllmilitatis,"19 "doctor Izumilitatis sennone et

opere,"20 "medicus Illlmilis,"21 "via izumilitatis, "22 and, as noted earlier. "fundamentum

hllmilitatis"23 and "nonna hllmilitaris."2-l Among his other uses of the term one finds

references to humble people both in the scriptures and in his own life. In his Confessions.

16 Corpus ,4ugustinianum Gissense a Cornelio Mayer editum. (CAG) Textbase on CD-ROM. {Basel:
Schwabe and Co .. (995). [ISBN 3-7965-0989-4); Reviewed by J.J. O'Donnell. Augustinian Studies. 1997.
Cetedoc Ubrary of Christian Latin Texts (CLCLn. Textbase on CD-ROM. (Turnhout: Brepols.
Universitas Catholica Lovaniensis. Lovanii. Novi. (994).

17 De Catechi:.andis Rudibus 4.8 (PL 40: 3(6).

t8 Serm. 77.11 (PL 38.488).

19 In Johannis evangelillm tractatus 25.16 (PL 35.(604). Serm. 62.1 (WSA [IV3: (56).

20 Serm. Morin Guelferbytanus 32.5 (MA 1:567). 340/A.5 (WSA IIU9:298). Also Serm. 62.1 (WSA
IIU3: (56) "magister humilitatis verbo et exemp[o" (PL 38:4(5).

21 Serm. Mai 22.1 (Morin 314f).

22 In Joannis tractatus evangelium 5.3 (CCL 36:42).

:!.3 Serm. 69.2 (PL 38:441) (WSA III/3:235).

2~ Serm. Mai 126.11 (PLS 2:510). (Morin. 365) MA 1:356-367); Also. Serm. 68.11.

Augustine praises the humility of his mother Monica,25 of his friend and disciple
Alypius,26 and of the renowned African rhetorician Marius Victorinus.v [n his reflections

on scripture, Augustine often gives special attention to the humility of various men and
women: Mary, Jesus' mother,28 St. John the Baptist,29 the woman healed of a

hemorrhage,30 Mary, the sister of Martha,31 the Centurion,32 the Canaanite woman,33
Zacchaeus,J.l the publican,35 St. Peter,36 John the Evangelist,37 and St. Paul.38 Augustine

also writes about the "humble style of biblical language."39 and the humble rhetoric of

preaching and teaching •.w which contrasts with the grand and eloquent style popular in the

15 Confessions. 5.9.17 (Chadwick. 83).

~6 Ibid.• 9.6.14 (Chadwick. 163).

:'7 Ibid .• 8.2.3 (Chadwick. 135) (CCl '!.7.114).

~8 Semi. 5l.l8 (WSA III/3:29) (Pl 38:332-354).

:'9 Senn. 288.2 (WSA nIl8: 110-111) (Pl 38:1302-1308); Senn. 66.1 (WSA IIIl3:21O).

30 Senn. 279.6 (WSA IIIJ8:63) (Pl 38:12775-1280).

31 Sum. 104.3 (Pl 38:617).

32 Of Holy Virginity 32 (Cornish. 428); Senn. 62.1-4 (WSA IIIJ3:156-7); Serm. Morin 6.2; (PlS 2:673)
(O'Connell and Pellegrino. 61).

33 Senn. 77.10-12 (Pl 38:488-9); Senn. 203.2 (WSA IIIJ6:96).

34 Senn. 174.3. (WSA IIIJ5:259) (Pl 38.942).

35 Senn. Mai 130.2-3 (PlS 2:422).

36 Senn. 266.6 (WSA III17:270).

37 Homilies on the First Epistle General of St. John 1.8 trans. John Burnaby (Philadelphia:Westminster
Press. 1955). 265.

38 Senn. 279.5 (WSA IIIJ8:62). (Pl 38: 1275-1280).

39 Confessions 6.5.8 (Chadwick. 96); Also. 12.27.37; 12.30.41.

-10 De Catechi:.andis Rudibus 9.13 (S.D.F. Salmond. 291).

ancient world:u [n the style called senno humilis (the humble word). simple and

unadorned words were passionately proclaimed to stir people's hearts.-l2 By concentrating

in this chapter on those passages where Augustine speaks directly of Christ's humility. [

hope to present the distinctively Christo logical grounding that Augustine gives to this

essentially Christian disposition.

2. l. Preliminary Notes on Augustine's Christo logy and Related Topics

a. Augustine's Christo logy

[nterspersed throughout the Augustinian corpus one finds Augustine refuting

Christological heresies such as Arianism43 and Apollinarianism.-14 However. he was not

directly involved in settling these debates and formulating the church's Chnstological
doctrines. Although his letter to Volusianus (l37)45 lays out a defense of the [ncamation.

Augustine did not devote any of his major works to the subject of Christo logy . Yet in aIL of

his major works. including the Confessions. The Triniry. Ciry of God. the Tractates on the

Gospel of John and £rpositions of the Psalms. Christ remains central to the subject at
hand. [n seeking to understand why Augustine did not directly participate in the

041 Erich Auerbach. Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. 31.

042 Ibid.. 33-43.

043 Sam. 117.6-17. (WSA IIII4:212-221); Also. Serm. 140 (WSA IIII4:403-406). Augustine had few
occasions to directly oppose Arianism since Theodosius and the Council of Constantinople (381) tW
confinned the Nicaean faith in the Roman Empire. [n fact. he only began debating against Arianism around
417. Henri Marrou. St. Augustine and His Influence Through the Ages. trans P. Hepburne-Scou (New
York: Harper Torchbooks. 1957).48.

44 Confessions 7.19.25 (Chadwick. 128-9) (CCL 27:108-109); Serm. 214.6. Learning about the
Appolinarians in Milan. Augustine drew from scripture to refute their interpretation of Christ. See De
diversis quaestionibus 83 q.80 (CCL 44A: 232-238); Serm. 214.6 (PL 38:1069); SemlO 237.4 (PL
38: (124); Epistu[a 140.4; De dono perseveranriae 24.67 (BA 24:760-762); De haeresibus 55 (CCL 46:325)
as cited in William Hannless. "Christ the Pediatrican: [nfant Baptism and Christo logical lmagery in the
Pelagian Controversy... Augustinian Studies 28-2 (1997). p.ll fn.lO.

045 Episrula 137 (CSEL 44:96-(25).

Christological debates. Brian Daley observes that Augustine's theological work took place

between two heated moments in the development of the church's doctrine.46 In 381. the
Council of Constantinople rejected Apollinarius' notion that Christ lacked an integral

human nature. At this time. Augustine was still a Manichee teaching rhetoric in Thagaste.

By the time Augustine died in the summer of 430. the Nestorian controversy was coming

to a head as the church grappled with the relationship between the two natures and the one
person of Christ.-l7 About ten months after his death. the Third Ecumenical Council met to

settle this debate between Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria over the unity of Christ's
person. In short. although Augustine indirectly contributed to the church's christo logical

formulations, his Christo logy cannot be treated adequately by anachronistically tining his

thought into the terms and categories of the two great christo logical Councils, Ephesus
(431) and Chalcedon (451).-18

With this background in mind. let us consider some principal tenets of Augustine's

Christo logy . While Augustine did not reflect on the union of divinity and humanity in

Christ with any technical precision. he frequently likened this union to that of body and

soul in a single person.-l9 In light of the Apollinarian notion that the Logos is fully God

and could not coexist with a created mind, for the human mind is diseased. Augustine set

out to show the organic unity of God and man in Christ. In his letter to Volusianus (137).

Augustine writes:

Therefore, the person of man is a mingling of soul and body. but the Person
of Christ is a mingling of God and man, for, when the Word of God is

46 Brian Daley. A Humble Mediator: The Distinctive Elements in Saint Augustine's Christology," Word

and Spirit 9 (1987), 100.

J.7 Basil Studer,Trinity and incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church. trans. Matthias Westerhoff
(Collegeville. Minnesota: Liturgical Press. (993). 168.

J.8 Mary T. Clark. Augustine (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. (994).65.

J.9 Leiter 137 (Parsons. 26) (CSEL 44: 96-(25).

joined to a soul which has a body, it takes on both the soul and the body at
once. The one process happens daily in order to beget men; the other
happened once to set men free. 50

Without the sophistication of classical, post-Chalcedonian terminology, Augustine

anticipates the Chalcedonian proclamation of Christ as one person with two natures. 51 He

explains the union of divinity and humanity in Christ in a homily on the Gospel of John:

For indeed. in the Trinity the Son alone took the form of a servant. a form
that was tined to that one so as to produce unity of person. that is. that the
one Jesus Christ be the Son of God and the Son of Man. lest. not the
Trinity, but quatemity. be preached by us-and far be this from us! And
because of this one Person. consisting of two substances. divine and
human, he speaks sometimes in accord with what is God. as in these
words, 'I and the father, we are one thing,' (Jn 10.30) sometimes in accord
with what is man, as is this, 'For the Father is greater than [' (In 14:28).52

In Christ, God and creation are made one: the human and the divine are together. without

division or competition. in a single personality. Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully

human}3 Playing on contrasts. Augustine explains that the Word "through whom all things

were made," (In. 1:3) became a creature. The eternal Word. through whom the earth and

the sky came into being. walked the earth.54 The eternal was made mortal.

50 Ibid. "ergo persona llOminis mixtura est animae et corporis, persona autem Christi mi:Clllra est dei et
hominis: cllm enim uerbum dei pemli:ctum est animae habenti corpus, simul et an imam suscepit et corpus.
illud cotidie fit ad procreandos homines. hoc semel factum est ad liberandos homines. .. (CSEL 44: 10).

51 Though the tenn persona is not common in Augustine's work. Van Bavel's Chrisrologie notes that
Augustine did not employ the tenn persona effectively. He borrowed the tenn from the theater and did not
have a grasp of persona as a metaphysical concept.
B. Daley cautions that Augustine and most of the church fathers understood person (persona) less
as "the subjective center of conscious individual existence," and more as "the role played by an individual
which displays his or her character. defines his or her meaning in the drama of history." "A Humble
Mediator: The Distinctive Elements in Saint Augustine's Christology," 106.

52 Tractates on the Gospel of John 99.1. trans. John W. Rettig. (Washington, DC:CUA, 1994), 219.
Solus quippe in Trinitate Filiusfommm serui accepit. quae fonna illi ad unitatem personae coaptata est, id
t!st, ut Filius Dei et filius hominis unus sit lesus Christus. ne non Trinitas, sed quatemitas praedicetur a
nobis, quod absit a nobis. Propter quam personam unam ex dllilbus substantiis diuina hlllnalUlque
constantem, aliquando secundum id quod DellS est loquitur, ut t!st illud quod ait: Ego et Pater unum sumus;
aliquando secundum id quod homo est, sicuti est illud: Quoniam Pater maior me est. (CCL 26: 582).

53 Serm. 293.7 (WSA IIII8:154).

54 Senn. 92.2 (WSA IIII3:467).

With the Council of Nicaea established, Augustine did not need to preoccupy
himself with arguing Christ's substantial preexistence and divinity. Yet, he is careful to re-
iterate this teaching as the foundation of the more existential aspects of 1esus Christ.
Augustine insists that Christ's humanity is not a mere appearance but is integral to his
incarnate existence. Thus, he preaches: "[ mean our flesh and his flesh are not of different
natures, nor our soul and his soul of different natures. He took on precisely that nature
which he judged to be in need of saving. He had nothing less than we do as regards
nature, but he also had nothing by way of fault. "55 In other words, the Incarnation is not

an empty show - God commits fully to humanity. In refuting the Arians, Augustine
explains that Christ's full humanity does not make him inferior to the transcendent God
because. "[t]he form of a servant was added, not the form of God subtracted."56 Without
compromising anything of his divinity, God's only Son fully becomes a human being
without sin. Furthermore, the union in Christ is not merely a synthesis of two natures for
the pre-existent person of the Word unifies the two natures. 57 Drawing upon one of his
favorite passages from St. Paul (Phil 2:6), Augustine preaches: "'He emptied himself.

taking the form of a servant.' Not consequently losing the form of God. So he who was
God became man. by receiving what he was not. not by losing what he was; so God
became man:'58 Likewise. William Mallard restates Augustine's view: " . . . the Son of

God becomes Son of Man by the assumption of what is lower. not by a change of what is

55 Serm. 174.2 (WSA IIII5:258).

56 Serm. 183.5 (WSA IIII5:339).

57 Tractates on the Gospel of John 99.1 (Rettig. 119-(20).

58 Ibid.• 23.6 (Rettig. 2(8).

59 William Mallard. "The Incarnation in Augustine's Conversion." Recherches A.ugllstiniennes 15 (1980).


In The Trinity. Augustine describes Christ's divinity and humanity through his

relation to the Father. Jesus Christ is "equal to the Father by the form of God which he is,
and less than the Father by the form of a servant which he took. "60 Christ is both Patri

aequalis with respect to his divinity and minor Parre with respect to his humanity.61

Augustine maintains that Christ's Incarnation effects no change in God, but it brings a
radical change to humanity.62 For in becoming flesh, in making our needs, his needs, the

eternal Word re-joins humanity to God. Through the unity of Christ's Person, the way of

salvation is opened to a fallen humanity. Christ makes possible a sharing in divinity by

defining the mode of human panicipation in God and being the exemplum of our destiny to
live with God in union with the Son forever. 63 In conforming his will to his Father's will.

Christ prefigures our way to God through the way of humility. which saves us from self-

isolation and disintegration.

b. Humility in the Order of Redemption

When Augustine explores why God became humble. he points again and again to

our need for redemption. He maintains that Christ "emptied himself' in order to remedy

the severe rupture between God and human beings. This descent of God to humanity

reconfigures what is profoundly disordered in the human person. William Harmless points

out that Augustine's Christo logy (who Christ is) cannot be studied apan from his

Soteriology (what Christ does) for the distinction between the Person of Christ and the

Work of Christ was not established until the Middle Ages. In Augustine' s work. then.

60 The Trinity 2.2 tHill. 98).

61 Ibid .• 1.14 (Hill. 74); Letter 137 (Parsons. 27).

62 Letter 137 (Parsons. 26).

63 The Trinity 4.4; 4.13.

these distinctions break down. for instance. in the imagery that is central to his
understanding of the mystery of Christ. "Images of Christ the Physician (or Christ the

Lawyer or Christ the Hunter) are at once christo logical and soteriological. Such images

spell out both who Christ is and what he does."~ The humility of the Incarnation and

Passion is at the heart of Christ's saving work. In a sermon on 1 Timothy L:L5, Augustine
preaches, "If man had not been lost, the Son of man would not have come. But man was

lost, so God did come as man, and man was found."65 Only God, he argues. could repair

the divine-human rupture. [n a later homily he explains: "From his exalted loftiness he
made the world. by his lowly humility he conquered the world. Unless Christ had agreed
to be humble, there would be no signing of the faithfuL today with the sign of Christ."66 [n

other words, God's creation of the world reveals God's power. splendor. and majesty but

a fallen humanity fails to see this. Thus, God chose to shake the human imagination and

restore humanity through the opposite: poverty. humility. and vulnerability. [n his

commentary on the Gospel of John, he writes: "By that which made him equal to the

Father, He called us into existence~ and by that in which He is like unto us. He redeemed

us from ruin."67 It is in the context of God coming to save humanity, and ultimately, to

divinize humanity, that Christ's humility appears in Augustine's writing.

Echoing the famous words of St. Athanasius: "He, indeed. assumed humanity that

we might become God, "68 Augustine writes: "The Son of God was made a partaker of

~ W. Harmless. "Christ the Pediatrician: Infant Baptism and Christological Imagery in the Pelagian
Controversy," Augustinian Studies 28-2 (1997), 16.

6S Serm. 174.2. Si homo non perisset, Filius hominis non venisset. Ergo perierat homo. venit DellS
homo. et inventus est homo. [PL 38:940)(translation mine).

66 Serm. 196A.l (WSA II116:64).

67On the Gospel of St. John 51.3 (1. Gibb and 1. Innes. 284); Per quod Patri est aeqllaiis. nos lit essemus
creauit; per quod nobis est similis. ne periremus redemit. (CCL 36:440).

68Athanasius. On the Incarnation 54. trans. a religious of C.S.M.V. (Crestwood. NY: St. Vladimir's
Onhodox Theological Seminary. 1946),93.

mortality so that mortal man might partake of divinity."69 Humility then is anchored in the

salvific work of Christ whereby we come to share in divinity. In discussing the contrast
between strength and weakness in Christ. Augustine sees the weakness of Christ (his

humble humanity) pertaining specifically to his salvific mission. In his early homilies on
John's Gospel. Augustine frequently mentions Christ's weakness as the means to our re-

creation. He writes: "The strength of Christ created you; the weakness of Christ re-created

you. The strength of Christ caused what-was-not to be; the weakness of Christ caused
what-was to perish not. He produced us in his strength: he sought us in his weakness."iO

In other words. Christ's humility is proper to the order of redemption. In The Trinity. he

writes. " ... the only thing to cleanse the wicked and the proud is the blood of the just man

and the humility of God."71 Here Augustine places Christ's coming in humility finnly

within the context of healing and forgiveness. Yet the Incarnation. at the end of time. will
shift from an emphasis on healing to one of judgment. Christ will return as judge of those

who have refused the healing offered in Christ's humilityJ2 The identification of Christ

with humility carries through until the end of time but the humble Christ will be in

judgment over those who have refused his healing.

Certainly. God loved humanity prior to the Incarnation but in the humbling of the

Word. divine love is most powerfully and exhaustively expressed. God. who is wholly

other and utterly transcendent encounters us in the concrete reality of human life.

Conscious of the vast gulf between God and humanity, Augustine stands in awe before this

immense generosity. The magnitude of the Christ event is astounding and beyond full

69 £narrations on the Psalms 52.6. Filius enim Dei particeps monalitatis effecltts est. ut monalis homo
fiat paniceps divinitatis. (CCL 39:642).

70 Tractates on the Gospel of John 15.6 (Rettig. 81).

71 The Trinity 4.4 (Hill. 155).

72 Homilies on the Gospel of John 36.4 (Rettig. 84-45).

comprehension. Augustine conveys this astonishing reality of the Incarnate God through

his profound sense of indebtedness. With the Incarnation, an unbreakable bond between

God and humanity is established. Although, in a certain sense, Augustine regards all that

exists as an expression of grace, he upholds the Incarnation as "the supreme instance of

grace!"73 To save a stubborn humanity, God came in the flesh-adapting to the constricted

vision of men and women who fixed their anention on temporal realities. Revisiting an old
and important theme, Augustine maintains that a sinful humanity could not endure the sheer

radiance of Christ's divinity, so Christ veiled that radiance in human form, accommodating
himself to a people steeped in pride and desensitized to the divine.'~ The irreversibility of

our pride manifested itself not only in our inability to bear divine radiance, but also in our
inability to grasp humility. In his commentary on psalm 33 (34). Augustine observes that

the humility of "prophets and patriarchs" was not enough to rum the estranged human race

back [0 God:

[SJince we had abandoned God through pride. it was impossible for us to

return to him except through humility, and there was no one we could take as
a model in this effort. Pride had corrupted the whole human race. And even
if there were some men [0 be found who were humble in spirit. such as the
prophets and patriarchs, mankind could not bring itself to imitate mere men.
however humble. In order then that men might not disdain to imitate a
humble man, God himself became humble~ even human pride could not
refuse to follow in the steps of GodP5

73 City of God 10.29 (Beltenson. 4(4): De gratia Christi et de libero arbitrio 15: De praedestinatione
sanctorum 15.30-31 (PL44.981-982); Enchirdion 36: De Trinitate 13.24:Serm. 174.2.

7~ E. Auerbach. literary Langrlage and Its Public (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1965). 51.
Auerbach notes that this theme is found in ancient interpretations of the cloud in Isa. 19.\ as well as in
Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem 2.27.

75 Enarrations on the Psalms 33A (trans. O'Connell and Pellegrino. 52): quia per superbiam recesseramus a
Deo. redire ad eum nisi per humilitatem non poteramus. et quem nobis praeponeremus ad imitandum. non
habebamus. Omnis enim nwnalitas hominum superbia tumuerat. Et si e;csisteret aliquis humilis vir in
spiritu. sicut erant prophetae. patriarchae. dedignabatur genus humanum imitari humiles homines. Ne ergo
dedignaretur homo imitari hominem hllmilem. Deus jactus est humilis. llt vel sic superbia generis humani
non dedignaretur sequ; vestigia Dei. (CCL 38:276).

Drawing from Paul's imagination (I Cor. 2:2) Augustine explains metaphorically that the

Word needed to become milk for us because we were not yet capable of solid food.76 By

descending into history as a human being God shows his ever-merciful love adapting itself
to our need in the most concrete and intimate form: the forma servi.

Never tiring of expressing astonishment at the radical love of a God who stoops to
the level of our humanity. Augustine regularly preaches about the unfathomable nature of

the Incarnation and the Passion. Cognizant of the infinite distance between the eternal Word

and humanity, Augustine never fails to marvel at the union of God and humanity in Christ.

[n reference to John 1: 1-4, he preaches:

Great praise indeed of the eternal Word: high praise indeed of the Word of
God abiding forever. And what does the evangelist say later on? And the
Word became flesh and dwelt amongst LIS Un 1:14). [f this was alI that
God the Word did. to become flesh. it would be unbelievable humility: and
blessed are those who believe this unbelievable thing: our faith. after all.
consists of unbelievable things. The Word of God became grass (All flesh
is grass . . .Is 40:6-8), God was crucified. it's all incredible: because your
disease had become so grave. that it needed unbelievable remedies to cure
Here Augustine contemplates the Incarnation as a sheer gift in and of itself. [t is the

"unbelievable" (incredibile) reality of a "humble God." He goes on to say that an even

more stark and incredible expression of the "humble God" is the crucifixion. [t is here that

Christ reveals his full commitment to being humble until the end of time.

c. Clarifying the term: "Humble God"

76 Serm. 117.16 (WSA llI4:220).

77Serm. 341A.l (WSA IIIIlO:30): Magna laus tamquam aetemi Verbi; e.'Ccelsa laus tamquam Verbi dei
manentis in aetemum. Et quid postea evangelista? Et Verbum caro factum est. et habitavit in nobis. Hoc
solum si faceret Verbum deus. ut caro fieret. incrediblilis esset humilitas; et bean qui credunt hoc
incredibile: e.", incredibilibus enim constat fides nostra. Verbum dei factum est faenum. mortuus resu"e.tit.
deus Cnlciji.'Cus est incredibilia sunt: quia magnus morbus tuus factus erato ut de incredibilibus sanaretur.
(PLS 2:467).

In the Judeo-Christian context. where omniscience and omnipotence are central
characteristics of God, Augustine's oft-repeated phrase "the humble God" has an

intentionally unsettling and paradoxical ring. It is incongruous with what is expected of

God and it leads one to ask what the term "humility" means when it is predicated of God.

Moreover, Augustine's claim that the divine is unchanging seems to contradict his teaching
that God "became humble" (humilis Jacnts).78 How can the immutable God be one with a

mutable human being? Where does one locate the attribute of humility? In his doctrine of

humility, Augustine does not speak of humility within the life of the Trinity.79 Rather. his
references to the "humble God" are exclusively references to the Incarnate Word. so

Through an act of divine humility, Jesus Christ became human so as to save a fallen

humanity. Because God is the one who acts in the Incarnation. the humility of the

Incarnation is God's humility. When Augustine refers to God as humble. he is speaking of

what modem theology would call the "economy of salvation." that is. what we know of

God in relation to us. God ad extra. However, the humility, revealed in the Incarnation. is

not an utterly new dimension of God's revelation to us.

Augustine sees that the humbling of the Father's only Son comes after a long series

of attempts by God to teach humankind humility. Thus. the humility of the Word made

flesh is both the culmination of previous revelations of humility and yet unlike anything
previously revealed. Preaching in 411, he describes the Incarnation as building upon

previous lessons in humility:

78 Serm. 68.11 (WSA nll3:230) (PLS 2:510).

79 For a discussion of humility as characteristic of God's eternal being see Henri DeLubac. A Brief
Catechesis on Nature and Grace, trans .. Richard Arnandez (San Francisco. Ignatius Press. 1984).61.

80 P. Adnes. La Doctrine de L'Humilite che: Saint ..\ugustin. This dissettation from the Gregorian
University was published in Toulouse. 1953. What is now available is an abstract of Adnes' dissettation. It
outlines all six chapters of his dissettation and presents the whole of chapter five •• L'Humilite Vertu
Speci/icquemenr Chretienne." 19.

[Christ is] A teacher of humility both by word and deed. By word. in fact.
from the beginning of creation he never kept quiet about it, teaching the
human race humility by angels, by prophets. He also deigned to teach it by
his own example. Our creator came humbly, to be created among us: the
one who made us. who was himself made for our sakes.S1

In The Trinity, Books I-IV Augustine looks at Old Testament theophanies and explains
how the Hebrew scriptures recount God's communication in various created forms: the

burning bush appeared to Moses (Ex. 3:2), the pillar of cloud and ftre led the Hebrews in

the desert (Ex. 13:21), and lighming and thunder shook the mountain when the Law was
given (Ex. 19: 16).82 In the New Testament. the Holy Spirit was made manifest in the form

of a dove (Mt. 3:16), of a gust of wind, and of tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). Augustine

teaches that the Word made flesh is both the culmination of these appearances and unlike

anything previously revealed. The previous manifestations of the Trinity were temporary.83

but in the Incamate Word, God and humanity are one "in an everlasting union."84 While

Augustine demonstrates that God's self-communication throughout history expresses

divine humility, he insists that Christ's humility epitomizes divine humility. In other

words. divine humility is most dramatically and deftnitively revealed in the person of Jesus

Christ. Although Augustine never attributed humility directly to the Godhead. he is clear

that God is the one who acts in the Incarnation. Therefore, humility is an attribute proper

to God. But. this divine humility is only evident to us in the human Christ.

By referring to Christ as "the humble God," Augustine is not simply applying the

communicatio idiomallim whereby human qualities can be attributed to Christ's divinity and

81 Serm. 340A.5 (WSA IIII9:299): Doctor humilitatis sermone et opere: sennone enim semper ab initio
crealUTae numquam tacuit. per angelos. per prophetos, docere hominem humilitatem; docere dignatus est
etiam exemplo suo. Venit humiUs creator noster, creatus inter nos: qui fecit nos, qui factus est propter nos
(PLS 2:641)

82 The Trinicy 2.12 (Hill. 106).

83 Ibid .• 2.11 (Hill. 104), also 2.12 (Hill. 106).

8-' Ibid .• 2.11 (Hill. 104).

divine qualities can be attributed to Christ's humanity based on the oneness of Christ's
person. In his article, "Jesus, source de l'humilite chretienne"(1986), Alben Verwilghen

clarifies that when Augustine attributes humility to Christ it is an attribute proper to the
Word. the divine person. 85 Humility is not simply a human attribute temporarily assumed

for Christ's eanhly mission. Rather. it is principally a divine attribute. [n suppon of this

observation Eugene Ponalie writes:

He [Augustine] attributes this humility to the Word, the divine person, and
not to the humanity. God surely cannot humble Himself in His divine
nature, but one cannot miss the great lesson of God consenting to be united
to a created nature. God alone could have mastered this vinue.86

Here Ponalie rules out. perhaps too strongly. humility in the inner trinitarian life of God
and he locates humility exclusively in the Word, the unifying center of Jesus Christ.
Verwilghen explains that in Augustine's work. divine humility. while proper to the

Word. is evident only in the human nature of Christ. theJonna sen'i:

Finally, Augustine seems to attribute humility, when he speaks of the
humility of Christ which Christians are called to imitate. to the Word. to the
divine person, hence to God and not to human nature assumed by God. [n
Augustine's mouth, the expression. "humility of God" should be taken.
consequently, in all its rigorousness. This does not impede him from
underlining, quite opponunely, the following: obviously only in His human
form, His Jonna servi, could God humiliate himself and remain obedient
unto the cross since in His divine form He is by nature immutable.
However, when speaking of God in general, the Bishop of Hippo never
says that God is humble or that humility is God. He always describes the
apparent humility of God in relation to the descent of the Word and His
earthly life.87

8S Albert Verwilghen. "Le Christ Jesus. source de I'humilite chretienne." Saint :\ugustin et /a Bib/e, cd.
Anne-Marie La Bonnardiere (Paris: France: Beauchesne. 1986).437.

86 E. Portalie. A Guide to the Thought of St. Augustine. 171.

87 En definitive. c'est au Verbe. a la personne divine. donc aDieu lui-meme et non pas a la nature humaine
assumee par Dieu que saint Augustin semble attribuer I'humilite quand il parle de I'humilite du Christ
appelee a etre imitee par les chretiens. Dans sa bouche. l'expression "humilite de Dieu" doit etre prise par
consequent en toute sa rigueur. Cela ne l'em¢che pas. du reste. de souligner. tees opportunement que ce
n'est evidemment que dans sa nature humaine, in forma servi. que Dieu. en fait. a pu s'humilier et se rendre
obeissant jusqu'a la croix. puisque dans sa nature divine il est par essence immuable. Cependant. en parlant
de Dieu en general. I'evc!que d'Hippone ne dira jamais que Dieu est humble ou que l'humilite est Dieu: il
met toujours apparement l'humilite de Dieu en relation avec l'abaissement du Verbe et sa vie terrestre.

Augustine speaks of the humility of God in the context of the abasement of the Word in the
Incarnation and throughout Jesus' earthly life. His expression "God became humble"88

points to God moving from a superior position to an inferior position-taking the

downward path. Yet this movement does not contradict God's immutability for it

manifests God's unceasing mercifulness.89 William Mallard explains that Augustine does
not understand God's immutable perfections in a static way:

His [Augustine's] dialogues declare that one of God's immutable

perfections is mercy, and virtually declare that another is humility. Yet if
mercy and humility are enduring, unyielding perfections of God. then
God's self-lowering in the Incarnation actually confirms the divine
immutable perfection. That is. God is immutable in being ever merciful,
and the humility of the Incarnation seals that fact. 90

Here Mallard proposes a way to reconcile the immutable perfection of God with the change

that is integral to divine humility-God becoming less. The humble act of the Incarnation.

an act of divine condescension and compassion. fully expresses God's ever-abiding


d. The Distinctiveness of Divine Humility

Augustine conveys the uniqueness of Christ's humility by comparing divine

humility with human humility. He insists that the monumental event of God's lowering is

unrepealable and cannot be imitated literally by human beings. Divine humility remains

Alben Verwilghen. "Le Christ Jesus. source de l'humilite chretienne." Saint Augustin et la Bible . .t37.
English trans. Pamela Bright. Augustine and the Bible (Notre Dame. IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

88Tractates on the Gospel of John 25.16 (Rettig254): "delIS propter te humilis factus est" (CAG):
Enarrationes in Psalmos 123.1: "delIS humilis factllS est~: ibid.• 33.1A "deus factus est humilis" (CAG).

89 De peccatorum meritis et remissione 2.27: "ad elatum hominem per superbiam. Deus humilis descendit
per misericordiam," (PL 44: 168)

90 W. Mallard. Language and Love. 131.

91 Serm. 144.4 (WSA IIII4:431-423).

inextricably tied to an act of lowering and emptying into creation. [n his translation of

sermon 68, Edmund Hill, explains in a footnote:

It sounds odd to talk of Christ having become humble, if you think of being
humble simply as a virtue; it suggests that he was previously not humble.
But a synonym for humble is 'lowly' and we talk about 'humble
circumstances,' 'a humble dwelling' etc, Christ became humble in
becoming lowly, in lowering himself to our leve1.92
God's humility is realized in God's own self-abasement through a lowering of the Word

into incarnate existence. This action cannot be captured by limiting Augustine's concept of

humility to the categories of virtue. For Augustine, humility is more fundamental than a
virtue because it refers to the panem of Christ's self-emptying which is an outward

expression of the very panem of God's love.

Augustine explains that because the distance between God and human beings IS

infinite, a human being can never lower him or herself as God lowers God's self. [n this

respect divine humility is ontologically unlike human humility. [n a homily praising

Christ's humility. Augustine explains this contrast:

If you were humbled to the extent of being made into a beast from being a
human being, you wouldn't be humbled to the same extent, by the same
amount as God humbled himself. A human being, after all. made into an
animal, would indeed be something endowed with reason made into
something lacking reason; but still in each case mortal and mortal. . . How
many things the human animal has in common with brute beasts! The sole
difference is that it has a mind endowed with reason, in which the image of
the creator is set. The God, on the other hand, who was made man, the
eternal made mortal, [clothed] himself with flesh from the lump of our
human stock, but without sin becoming a human being, being born, taking
to himself that in which he would suffer on our behalf. But look, he hasn't
yet suffered; take a look now at what he has become for you, before he
suffers. Is this a trifling act of humility? God has become man. Man. man,
notice that you are just a man.93

92 Senn. 68.11 (WSA III13:!34, fn. 20).

93 Senn. 341A.2 (WSA IIIIlO:31): Si ad hoc humilareris. ut ex homine pems fieres. non tanto interva[[o
humilareris. quanta interva[[o humilatus est deus. Etenim homo factus pecus, rationale quiddamfaccum eral
inrationale. tamen monale et monale. . . Quanta habet cum pecore communia! Unam solam rarionem
mentis habet disparem. ubi posita est imago creatoris. At vero deus qui factus est homo, aetemus factus est
monalis. induit se camem de massa propaginis nostrae sine peccato, factus est homo. natus est. adsumens

Augustine speculates that even if a human being were lowered to the rank of a beast, this

could not even approximate the lowering of God into humanity (the immortal into the
mortal) for both "man" and "beast" are mortal.94 The unity in Christ between the human

and the divine is uniquely radical because of the infinite qualitative difference between God

and all of God's creation. Divine humility exceeds beyond measure all possible examples
of human humility because it is a different kind of lowering. Augustine makes clear that
God's humility in the Incarnation involves a real ontological lowering for the sake of

sinners. God has become something that God is not. Out of love, the truly superior (God)

becomes inferior (human); the immortal, mortal. Human humility, in contrast, involves a

different kind of lowering-one is lowered from a false height (pride) to one's true place in

the divine ordering of creation. This contrast will be discussed at greater length in chapter
three (part two, section one).

Part II of this chapter will explore Augustine's teaching that Christ's humility plays

a dual role in human salvation: correction and mediation. As a corrective. Christ's humility

is God's response to the desperate situation of human beings deformed by pride and unable

to tum back to God on their own.9S As the antidote to pride. Christ's humility thus works

negatively through confrontation and contrast. However, in Augustine' s teaching on

Christ as "mediator between God and humankind," (1 Timothy 2:5) his humility works

more positively and constructively, drawing the sinner closer through similarity and

kinship. Lastly, part II will consider the kenosis of Christ which is the culmination of the

divine outpouring in creation through his own self-abasement.

in quo palerelUr pro nobis. Sed ecce nondum passus est: modo inspice. quid pro te Jactus sit. ante quam
patiatur. Parvane ista humilitas? Deus homo Jactlls est. a homo. vide quia homo es. (PLS 2:468). To
follow the Latin, I changed Hill's word "clothing" to "clothed.": Also Tract. in lo.ev. 25.16 (CCL 36:257).

94 Ibid .. Also. Serm. 341A.2 (WSA IIIIlO:3l).

9S Serm. 142.5 (WSA 1III4:416).

2.2. Soteriological Dimensions of Christ's Humility

A. Augustine's Antithetical Christology as Salvific

'Quae super6ia sanari potest, si liumifitate ~iCii 'Dei non sanatur?"J6
In developing his doctrine of the Incarnation. Augustine explores why God stooped

to our human level to save us. Why did God come to us in humility. taking on the

hardships and sufferings of human existence? Why did God not come in majesty.
manifesting the power and perfection of divinity? As Augustine sees it. the Word of God

took extreme measures in response to a desperate situation. Due principally to a deeply

ingrained pride (superbia) human beings turned away (apostatare) from God. But in this

alienation from God. self. and neighbor. humanity was called back by the Father through

his own Son. the Word of God. The Word's humility. visible in Jesus Christ. reverses

pride. which. in itself. is a reversal of God's created reality. Christ. therefore. re-orders

what has been dis-ordered by sin. Arbesmann explains that for Augustine. "the
Redemption was nothing else but the neutralization of man's pride by God's humility. "9i

Noted for his "dichotomous habit of mind."9s Augustine holds together three sets

of contraries. those found in Christ. in humanity. and between Christ and humanity.

Augustine relished the Latin rhetorical practice of antithesis99 and so it is no surprise that he

describes Christ's saving humility through its contrast with human pride. This antithesis

between Christ and humanity interlocks with what Basil Studer refers to as Augustine's

"antithetical Christo logy," a characteristic of classical rhetoric and of the anti-Arian tradition

96De agone christiano l1.l2 (CSEL 41.1l5):"For. what pride can be cured. if it is not cured by the
humility of the Son of God?" The Christian Combat. trans. Robert P. Russell. Fathers of the Church. 329.

97 R. Arbesmann. "The Concept of ' Christus Medicus' in S1. Augustine." Traditio iO (1954). 9.

98 Glenn Tinder. "Augustine's World and Ours: First Things 78 (Dec. 1997). 35.

99 William S. Babcock. "The Christ of the £tchange: A Study in the Cltristo[ogy of Augustine's
Enarrariones in Psa[mos" (Ph.D. diss .• Yale University. 1971). 24-33: Also. Basil Studer. The Grace of
Christ and the Grace of God in Augustine of Hippo: Christocentrism or Theocentrism? 41.

marked by the tendency to accentuate the contrasts united in Christ. 100 The central contrast

in Christ is that of the divine and the human. Other antitheses include: immortaVmortal.

immutable/mutable. creator/re-creator. and of course. exaltedlhumbled. lOl

Augustine's use of antitheses in his Christology and Soteriology highlights his

dialectical manner of thinking. In literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity
and in the Middle Ages, Erich Auerbach examines Augustine's rhetorical use of humility in
his preaching on the Incarnation:

The humility of the Incarnation derives its full force from the contrast with
Christ's divine nature: man and God. lowly and sublime, humilis et
sublimis: both the height and the depth are immeasurable and inconceivable:
peraitissima humilitas. 102
Without losing what God is. God becomes what God is not. Augustine's wonder and awe

before Christ's humility stems from his firm belief that Jesus Christ is nothing less than the
Incarnate Word. The sharpest divide between God and creation. between the immutable

and the mutable. comes together in Christ.

Auerbach observes that a mdical shift takes place in classical culture when scripture

introduces the idea of sublimity directly linked to lowliness. In Jesus Christ this unity of

contrasts finds its ultimate expression: "there is no basis for a separation of the sublime

from the low and everyday. for they are indissolubly connected in Christ's very life and

suffering."l03 In Jesus Christ a new kind of sublimity is introduced. a new way of seeing

100 B. Studer. The Grace of Christ and the Groce of God in Augustine of Hippo: Christocentrism or
Theocentrism? 4l.

101 Sum. 142.2 (WSA IIII4:4(3).

102 Erich Auerbach. Literary Language and Its Public. trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton
University Press. (965).41. (translated from Literatursprache und Publikum in der lateinischen Spatantike
und im Mittelalter. [Bern: Franke Verlag. 1958]).

103 Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Realicy in Western Literatllre. trans. Willard R. Trask
(Princeton: Princeton University Press. (953). 158.

is discovered-lowliness is inseparable from grandeur, humility is inextricably tied to


Augustine's emphasis on the contraries in Christ comes to the fore in his Christmas

sermons. which consistently express awe before the paradox of the majestic and almighty
God sleeping in a manger. Augustine marvels at the paradox: "He was being suckled at the

breast. and he was holding the universe together. He was lying in a manger. and feeding
angels ... "10-l Preaching on Christmas day just prior to becoming a bishop. he exclaims.

"0 manifest infirmity and wondrous humility in which was thus concealed total divinity!

Omnipotence was ruling the mother on whom infancy was depending; was nourishing on
truth the mother whose breasts it was sucking."105 Here. using the language of antitheses.

Augustine presents the contrast between that which is seen (humility) and that which is

unseen (divinity) in Christ.

Central to Augustine's doctrine of the [ncarnation is the distinction between what

Christ is (what is unseen) and what Christ became for us (what is seen). [n retaining his

identity as God. Christ fully takes on the identity of a human being. [n his homilies on

John's Gospel, Augustine draws upon the imagery of sight to explain the invisible and

visible dimensions of Christ. What is "seen" is limited and inferior to what is "unseen" and


Accordingly. in the form of God in which he is equal with the Father. the
Son. too. is invisible; but that he might be seen by men. he took the form of
a servant, and made in the likeness of men. he was made visible. 106

10* Serm. 123.3 (WSA IIII4:245).

105 Serm. 184.3.(WSA IIII6: 19).

106 Tractates on the Gospel of St. John 53.12 (Rettig. 299): Prorsus in forma Dei in qua aeqlllllis est PatTi.
etiam Filius inuisibilis est: ut autem ab hominibus uideretur. formam serui accepit. et in similitudine
hominum factus. uisibilis factus est. (CCl 26:458).

God's love in the fonn of humility both reveals and conceals. In the "fonn of a servant,"

the humble fonn. Jesus Christ enables us to see God concretely as a human being. The gap

between God and humanity is bridged and a new kinship between God and humanity is

established. Yet. in this coming together of contrasts. a distinction is introduced (the

visible and invisible) as Christ's humility hides and obscures the transcendent. unchanging.

and eternal reality of God. Augustine shows both the incongruence and symmetry between

the majesty of God the Word who is unseen and the humility of God Incarnate who is

In his use of antithesis. Augustine examines the contrast between Christ and

humanity. for. Christ's humility contrasts not only with his hidden grandeur (a distinction
in Christ) but also with human pride (a distinction between Christ and humanity). In the

opposition between pride and humility. Augustine sees Christ's salvific strategy. which
overcomes human pride by embodying its opposite. On Christian Doctrine explains that the

"principle of contraries is illustrated in the fact that the example of His [Christ's] virrues

cures our vices."107 Christ's humility cures our pride. A further contrast is the one in

human beings between pride and the actual vulnerability and weakness of humanity.

Rudolph Arbesmann explains these sets of antitheses: "It is especially the contrast between

the humility and omnipotence of the Divine Physician on the one side. and the pride and

frailty of man on the other. which St. Augustine wishes to impress on his hearers and

readers. "lOS In sum. the contrasts in the humble Christ. in sinful humanity. and in the

encounter between the humble Christ and a prideful humanity all intennesh in Augustine' s

work to bring to light the wondrous complexity of God's salvific work. Yet, to understand

107 On Christian Doctrine 1.14 • trans. D.W. Robertson. Jr. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
(958). IS.

\08 R. Arbesmann. "The Concept of 'Christus Medicus' in St. Augustine." II.

the corrective dimension of Christ's salvific humility a closer look at the sin of pride is


a. The Sin of Pride

According to Augustine. one of the surest ways to understand Christ's humility is

to see it in opposition to pride. I09 the root cause of human sin. Pride begins with the desire
to substitute the self for God. It seeks the praise of others rather than God's pleasure and

ultimately. pride leads to domination and isolation. llD Augustine's use of the word

superbia. often translated as 'pride: means something more profoundly disruptive to the
human situation than what is generally conveyed by "pride" in the modern context where

pride is regarded as self-assuredness and confidence or. at worst. boastfulness. Deriving

his understanding of pride principally from the biblical story of creation. and deeply

influenced by the text of Ecclesiasticus (10: 13). Augustine writes: '''The beginning of all

sin is pride; and 'The beginning of the pride of man is to falloff from God.' It has been

written. it is sure. it is true. "m For Augustine. the vice of pride always entails. at its root.

an offense or revolt against God. It does not have a strictly anthropocentric sphere of

reference as it tends to in contemporary parlance where pride generally means thinking

oneself superior to others.

Augustine bases the ethical dichotomy between pride and humility on his

ontological and teleological views. Pride and humility represent two fundamentally

109 For an explanation of the development of Augustine's understanding of pride see: Eugene TeSelle.
:lllglwine the Theologian. (New York: Herder and Herder. (970). 107-113.

110 Augustine and other classical Fathers (Basil. John Chrysostom. Dorotheus of Gaza) consider pride as
the central vice.

III Tractates on the Gospel of John 25.15 (Rettig. 253); Ecclesiaticus 10: 13 is first quoted in De mllSica
6.13.40. Augustine frequently quotes this verse when discussing the origin of sin. Serm. 3468.3: civitatis
Dei 12.6.

different responses to the givenness of created reality. Pride offends the very structure of
reality and humility abides by it. There is truth and purpose in created reality. Augustine

insists. but it is not a purpose that we create. God gives purpose. meaning. and direction
to the world and human existence. Humility. then. involves a submission: neither a

submission to something of one's own creation. nor to an arbitrary set of rules. but a
submission to reality. This reality is designed with a detinite orientation to goodness; a

goodness modeled upon the goodness of God the Creator. Augustine teaches that ordered

love (ordo amoris)ll2 reflects the ordering of creation by the Creator. The humble. then.

love God as the supreme good and from this love of God flows a proper love of self.
neighbor. and lesser things. in that order.ll3 [n On Christian Doctrine. he describes four

possible objects of love: "first. the kind which is above us; second. the kind which
constitutes ourselves; third. the kind which is equal to us; and fourth. the kind which is
below us ... "ll-l Pride is the disordering of ordered love whereby self-love replaces love

of God. A lower good is chosen in place of the highest good. This is reflected in the way
Augustine organizes the City of God according to two loves; the prideful love of self in the

City of Man and the humble love of God in the City of GOd. II5

Pride originates with Satan who is the first to reject the order of God's creation. II6

[n his commentary on Genesis. Augustine explains that Eve fell for the serpent's seductive

invitation to "be like gods" (eritis sicut dil) (Gen. 3:5).117 Out of envy. the devil lures

112 City of God 15.11 (Bettenson. 636).

113 Serm. 336.1 (WSA IIl19:167).

II~ On Christian Doctrine 1.13 (Robertson. 20).

115 City of God. 14.18 (Bettenson. 593).

116 Ibid.. 14.13 (Bettenson. 573).

117 Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichees 2.15.22 fR. 1. Teske. IlS). Also. City of God 14.13

Adam and Eve into grasping at divinity and making themselves in the image of God. The

devil's prornise is enticing because it is not entirely false but resernbles sornething true

about hurnan beings made in the image of God. The hurnan person. created in the image of
God. is destined to participate in divine life. The deepest and rnost fundamental hurnan

desire is for God. But this desire can be twisted into the quest to "be god." Out of pride.
Adam and Eve seized this prornise to "be as gods" and they sought to fulfill it on their own

terms. Pride then leads to a search for autonorny and separation frorn God and the God-
given structure of created reality. Original sin arose when the first human beings desired to

be their own source of power. separate frorn God.

Augustine is clear that the first sin is directly religious as it sets up a powerplay with

God. The proud rebel against their status as creatures and try to put themselves at the

center of existence. A perversion and distortion of reality sets in. Augustine's lively

imagination employs bodily imagery to illustrate how the more swollen and puffed the

mind becomes with pride (per slIperbiam tllmescens). the more difficult it is to see reality.

One's perspective narrows as the swelling expands. Vision and movement become

constricted for. a "swollen head" cannot "enter by the narrow door" (Mt 7: 15) to which

Christ calls his followers. 1l8 This leads Augustine to conclude that pride is a form of

bondage and enslavement to an illusory perspective based on exaggerated self-importance.

[n the City of God. Augustine discusses the fall of the human race as originating

inwardly in the pride of the corrupted will (volllntas mala):

[t was in secret that the first hurnan beings began to be evil: and the result
was that they slipped into open disobedience. For they would not have
arrived at the evil act if an evil will had not preceded it. Now. could
anything but pride have been the start of the evil will?119

118 Serm. 142.5 (WSA IIII4:416).

119 City of God 14.13 (Benenson. 460): in occulto autem mali esse coeperunt. ut in apenam
inoboedientiam laberentur. Non enim ad malum opus perueniretur. nisi praecessisset uoluntas mala. Porro
malae uoluntatis initium quae potuit esse nisi superbia? (CCl48:434).

Pride is the original sin: it was through pride that the first human parents fell from harmony

with God and passed on to their descendants a need for the restoration of harmony with

God. Here Augustine claims that this first sin originates not principally in the body but in
the will. 120 It begins in a failure to accept the extraordinary gift of being created in the

image of God. Essentially, the human person rejects creatureliness and wills to achieve
God-like status on his or her own terms.l21 Pride misuses creaturely freedom and

responsibility so that the image of God in the human creature is deformed into a perverse

similitudo Dei. All other sins derive from this egotistic anempt to be God and to shun
one's mid-rank position between God and lesser creatures. Rather than obeying God in
gratitude. the proud seek to manipulate God in jealousy and greed. They glory in

themselves rather than God.

In attempting to be God. the proud become more estranged from theocentric reality
and its proper ordering. To choose the self over God. a lesser good over the supreme

good, is ultimately to refuse the source of all existence and goodness: it is to distance

oneself from reality itself and move toward nonexistence or nothingness. Pride has

ontological consequences that distance a person from others and from reality itself.

Augustine explains that pride is ultimately self-defeating: "What happens is that the souL

loving its own power, slides away from the whole which is common to all into the part

which is its own private properry ... by being greedy for more it gets less." 12:! Created by

120 Pride has not been regarded unequivocally as the paramount sin in the Christian tradition. In The Nature
and Destiny of j~[an I. Reinhold Niebuhr cautions. ". . .it cannot be claimed that Christian Ihought is
absolutely consistent in regarding pride as the basic sin. Wherever the classical view of man predominates.
whether in early Greek thought. or medieval. or modem liberal thought. the tendency is to equate sin with
sensuality. The definition of sin as pride is consistently maintained in the strain of theology generally
known as Augustinian." (New Jersey: Prentice Hall. (964). 186.

121 Marthinus Versfeld. "The notions of pride and imitation in St. Augustine. South African Journal of
Philosophy 2.4 (1983). 180.

122 The Trinity 12.14 (Hill. 330)

God from nothing, human beings live in a dialectic with non-being. Thus, in desiring to be

what they are not the proud become less real. In the City of God. Augustine draws on the

doctrine of creatio ex nihilo to explain the ontological consequences of pride:

Yet man did not fall away to the extent of losing all being; but when he had
turned towards himself his being was less real than when he adhered to him
who exists in a supreme degree. And so, to abandon God and to exist in
oneself, that is to please oneself, is not immediately to lose all being; but it
is to come nearer to nothingness. That is why the proud are given another
name in holy Scripture; they are called 'self-pleasers: Now it is good to
'lift up your heart,' and to exalt your thoughts, yet not in the self-worship
of pride, but in the worship of God. This is a sign of obedience. and
obedience can belong only to the humble. In

By trying to be self-sufficient. the proud end up drifting from the very ground of existence.

The inner self becomes divided. The proud are self-deceived in that they live according to

the illusion that their own base drives overpower the will of God. This leads Augustine to

characterize pride as a lie for the proud live according to a false promise: "you shall be as

gods" (Gen. 3:5). They deny their maker and live by self-will rather than the will of
GOd. I2-l

Lying extends to a denial of one's own sinfulness. Augustine tinds this manifest in

Adam and Eve who boldly deny their guilt by pointing the finger of blame. Adam blames

Eve (The woman whom you gave me as a companion. she gave me fruit from the tree. and

I ate' [Gen. 3: 12]) and she, in tum. blames the serpent (The serpent led me astray, and I

ate' [Gen. 3: 12 ]).125 Pride is a profound disorientation that involves misreading God. self.

123 City of God 14.13 (Bettenson. 572) Nec sic defedt homo. ut omnino nihil esset. sed ut inclinatus ad se
ipsum minus esset. quam erato cum ei qui summe est inhaerebat. Reticto itaque Deu esse in semet ipso
hoc est sibi placere. non iam nihil esse est. sed nihilo propinquare. Vnde superbi secundum scripturas
sanctas alio nomine appellantur sibi placentes. Bonum est enim sursllm habere cor; non ramen ad se
ipsum. quod est superbiae. sed ad Dominum. quod est oboedientiae. quae nisi hum ilium non potest esse.
(CCl .t8: 434-435.)

12~ OJ. MacQueen. "Contemptus Dei: St. Augustine on the Disorder of Pride in Society. and its
Remedies." 258.

125 City of God 14.14 (Bettenson. 574).

others, and the whole of reality. Here an antithesis emerges between the lie of pride and
the truth of humility. Augustine characterizes the illusion of pride as hollow, insubstantial,
and unstable. Its vacuousness emerges when compared to the solidity and stability of
humility. Pride "puffs up," while humility "builds Up."126

Augustine recognizes different degrees of pride. "There is a clear difference

between the desire for glory before men and the desire for domination."127 Yet the two are

closely related and the former easily gives way to the latter. "There is. to be sure, a slippery
slope from the excessive delight in the praise of men to the burning passion for
domination."128 Augustine grants that those who simply seek the praise of others may, as

a result, have a cenain kind of vinue that is better to have than not to have. However, these
"vinues" are cultivated for the sake of praise and thus. they are not tme vinue. Moreover.
once the desire for approval from others slips into a lust for power and domination. no
approximation of vinue is possible. "But if anyone aims at power and domination without
that kind of desire for glory which makes a man fear the disapprobation of sound judges.
then he generally seeks to accomplish his hean's desire by the most barefaced crimes."129

Roben Markus points out that another feature of Augustine's notion of pride
involves a retreat into privacy, at the expense of giving oneself to others and ultimately to
GOd. l30 Pride can move from more oven expressions of dominance to a more concealed

closing of the hean. Pursuing private individual interest before the common good of others
turns the prideful in upon themselves (curvatus in se):

126 The Trinity 12.15 (Hill. 331).

127 City of God 5.19 (Bettenson, 212).

128 Ibid.
129 Ibid.
130 Robert A. Markus, "De civitate Dei: Pride and the Common Good," Collectanea Augustiniana
Augustine: 'Second Founder of the Faith ...• (New York: Peter Lang. 1990),245-259.

What happens is that the soul, loving its own power, slides away from the
whole which is common to all into the part which is its own private
property. By following God's directions and being perfectly governed by
his laws it could enjoy the whole universe of creation; but by the apostasy
of pride which is called the beginning of sin it strives to grab something
more than the whole and to govern it by its own laws: and because there is
nothing more than the whole it is thrust back into anxiety over a pan. and so
by being greedy for more it gets less.l3l

Striving for "more than the whole," which is illusory. the prideful sink into what is less

than the whole; in grasping for more they end up with less. Pride. then. has a
depersonalizing and isolating effect that leads to self-estrangement and places one in a

degraded sphere of existence. In this shrunken world formed by pride. one "loves" others

not for what they are but for how they advance one's private desires. In seeking self-

exaltation one arrives ultimately at self-debasement. This underappreciated dimension of

pride entails a movement of separation successively from God. oneself. and others.

Markus explains:

At tirst it [pride I is identified with taking pleasure in the wrong things.

pleasing oneself rather than God: in the second stage. this is refined: pride is
here seen in taking pleasure in God's good things. but as if one had
proprietary rights to them: finally. whittling it down to its most insidious
form, he [Augustine I will present pride as the desire for privacy at the
expense of sharing. Here is the opposition we found in the De Genesi ad
lilteram between the shared. the social. and the private. the last and most
hidden refuge of pride. The subtlest temptation is that of the retreat into
self. the fear 'of belonging to another. or to others. or to God.'l32

The depersonalizing effect of pride is demonstrated in the first four books of the

Confessions where Augustine, while being very sociable. does not mention any friends by

name, let alone the name of his mistress of fourteen years! Augustine even finds himself a
"stranger" to himself insofar as he is estranged from God.

131 The Trinity 12.14 (Hill. 330).

132 Markus. "De civitate Dei: Pride and the Common Good." 250.

Relying on their own drive for self-sufficiency and separateness. the proud stand

alone and become their own principium. The Stoics. for example. ascribed virtue to
themselves rather than acknowledging God as the source of all virtue and goodness. l33

Scorning the pride of the Manichaeans. Augustine remarks, "The trouble is that they want
to be light not in the Lord but in themselves."l34 [n me City of God, Augustine explains

how pride can advance from a rejection of creature Ii ness to a craving for "glory before
men"135 then to a lust for power and domination over others and finally, to self-seclusion

and alien<ition: "[PJride is a pervened imitation of God. For pride hates a fellowship of

equality under God, and seeks to impose its own dominion on fellow men. in place of
God's rule."l36 The isolation and distonion of pride objectifies others who become me

victims of a self-inflated ego. Here Augustine shows the interdependence of love of God

and the love of neighbor for me rejection of one automatically entails a rejection of me

other. Having emphasized me fall from God through pride. Augustine turns to me

remedy: Christ, the humble God.

b. Christ's Humility: the Antidote to Pride and Despair

While Augustine tends tl) be more concerned about exaggerated notions of self-

imponance than with self-deprecation, he, nonetheless, stresses Christ's humility as

counteracting despair as well as pride. Describing the hope given to us by Christ's humble

mediation, Augustine addresses God the Father:

133 Letter 155.1:4:6 (CSEL 44.431: ~35: 4360 cited in Arbesman. "The Concept of 'Christus Medicus' in
Sl. Augustine." 9.

13~ Confessions 8.10.21 (Chadwick. 148).

135 City o/God 5.19 (Bellenson. 212).

136 Ibid.• 19.12 (Bellenson. 868-869).

For us he was victorious before you and victor because he was victim. For
us before you he is priest and sacrifice, and priest because he is sacrifice.
Before you he makes us sons instead of servants by being born of you and
being servant to us. With good reason my frrm hope is in him. For you
will cure all my diseases (Ps. 102:3) through him who sits at your right
hand and intercedes with you for us (Rom. 8:34). Otherwise I would be in
despair. Many and great are those diseases, many and great indeed. But
your medicine is still more potent. We might have thought your Word was
far removed from being united to mankind and have despaired of
[ourselves] unless he had become flesh and dwelt among us (John 1: 14}.137

Christ's humility is not simply an antidote to pride, for it brings hope to those who have
lost hope in their salvation. [n The Trinity, Augustine explains that the Incarnation

simultaneously reveals "how much God loves us, and what sort of people he loves: how
much in case we despaired, what sort in case we grew proud."138

In his humility, Christ kindles hope in the possibility of human restoration. [n On

Catechising the Uninstmcted. Augustine marvels at Christ's humility as the "counteracting

remedy" to our pride:

[Tlhe same Lord Jesus Christ, God-man. is both a manifestation of divine

love towards us, and an example of human humility with us, to the end that
our great swelling might be cured by a greater counteracting remedy. A
proud humanity is a great misfortune, but a still greater mercy is a humble
In humility, God primarily counteracts "the cause of all diseases"l-w (pride) and reverses

our perverse attempts to reject creatureliness. Despite the immense evil that flows from

137 Confessions 10.43.69 (Chadwick. 110): pro nobis tibi uictor et uictima. et ideo uictor. quia uictima.
pro nobis tibi sacerdos et sacrificium. et ideo sacerdos. quia sacrificium. faciens tibi nos de seruis filios de te
IUlScendo. nobis seruiendo. MerilO mihi spes ualitia in illo est. quod sanabis omnes languores meos per
eum. qui sedet ad de:cteram tuam et te interpellat pro nobis: alioquin desperarem. Multi enim et magni sunt
idem languores. multi sunt et magni: sed amplior est medicina tua. POlllimus putare uerbum tuum
remolllm esse a coniunctione hominis et desperare de nobis. nisi caro fieret et habitaret in nobis. (CCL
17: 19~).

138 On the Trinity 4.1 (Hill. 154).

139 On the Catechising of the Uninstructed 4.8 (Salmond. 287): idem dominus [esus ChristllS. deus homo.
et dillinae in nos dilectionis indicium est et humanae apud nos humilitatis e:cempillm. ut Magnus tumor
noster maiore contraria medicina sanarelllr. Magna est enim miseria superbus homo. sed maior misericordia
humilis dellS. (CCL 46: 128-129).

140 Tractates on the Gospel of St. John 25.16 (Rettig, 254).

pride, there is a more powerful good that flows from Christ's humility. Here within the
pridelhumility. illness/cure antitheses. Augustine points to an antithesis of movement. The
movement of the lncarnation "towards us" from superiority to inferiority is the reverse of
the movement of human pride "away from God" from inferiority to superiority. In this
antithesis of movement God's humility reveals the human failure to see the fundamentally
unequal relationship between God and creatures. In humility. creatures recover an
awareness of that inequality in a concrete way.
In Book Four of The Trinity. Augustine develops his understanding of the
lncarnation as a great sign of love that overcomes both pride and despair:
First we had to be persuaded how much God loved us. in case out of sheer
despair we lacked the courage to reach up to him. Also. we had to be
shown what sort of people we are that he loves. in case we should take
pride in our own worth. and so bounce even further away from him and
sink even more under our own strength. So he deals with us in such a way
that we could progress rather in his strength; he arranged it so that the
power of charity would be brought to perfection in the weakness of
humility . loll

The humility of Jesus Christ accomplishes two things. First. it makes concrete God's love
for humanity, for instead of our reaching up to God. God reaches down to us. Out of love

and mercy for creatures made in God's image and fallen through sin. the second person of
the Trinity, the Word. takes on human existence. Secondly. the humbling of the Word
reveals the desperate state of humanity. God's extravagant self-emptying love revealed in
the lncarnation, highlights, by contrast, the possessiveness of human love. Before Christ's
kenosis our own selfishness is all the more glaring.

But, the Word made flesh enkindles a new hope. a hope that human beings are not
absolutely cut off from God but can be reunited with God and even become partakers in
God's own trinitarian life. Augustine preaches:

I·U The Trinity 4.2 (Hill. 153); Ibid.• 13.13 (Hill. 354).

Listen... in case you should be broken by despair. listen to how you have
been loved when you weren't in the least lovable, listen to how you were
loved when you were foul, ugly, before there was anything in you worth
loving. You were first loved, in order to become worth 10ving.142

Christ's willingness to share in our human weakness inspires the sinner to hope that the

habitual cycle of sin can be healed and overcome. Through the outpouring of God's love
we are made loveable and capable of loving in return.

Lest God's mercy generate human presumption. Christ's humility reveals the extent

of human blindness and the foolishness of self-reliance and self-satisfaction. Augustine

points out that since "God came humbly," in response to the helplessness of humanity. it is

especially scandalous for human beings to remain proud. Preaching on the humility of

Christ. Augustine says. "Be ashamed. man. of stiU continuing to be proud. you on whose

account God humbled himself."143 In reflecting on John 14:6. he shows again the shame

of pride that Christ's humility elicits: "Now just consider. brothers and sisters. if the

human race ought to be sick anymore, after receiving such a powerful medicine. God is

now humble. and we human beings are still proud."l+l

In describing Christ's redemptive work as healing more than judging, Augustine

draws upon medicinal images of "cleansing," "purifying." and "healing." In The Trinity,

he writes:

God became man for us as an example of humility and to demonstrate

God's love for us. Thus indeed it is useful for us to believe and to hold
firm and unshaken in our hearts. that the humility thanks to which God was
born of a woman. was led through such abuse at the hands of mortal men to

1~2 Serm. 142.5 (WSA IllJ4:416): Audi apostolum dicentem: audio ut di.ti iam dudum. ne desperatione
Jrangans: audi quomodo amatus es non amandus. audi quomodo amatus es turpis. foedus. antequam esset in
te quod amari dignum esset. Amatlls es prills. ut dignus fieres qui amareris. (PLS 2:729).

1~3 Serm. 340A.5 (WSA IllJ9:299).

l~ Serm. 142.5 (WSA IllJ4:417): "lam videte, Jratres. si amplius debet aegrotare genus humanum accepta
tanta medicina. lam humilis deus. et adhuc superbus homo." (PLS 2:729) ..

his death. is a medicine to heal the tumor of our pride and a high sacrament
to break the chains of sin. 145

Here pride. the gravest disease of the soul, is like a swelling tumor, which progressively
spreads its corruption to the body. The self-inflated person, who seeks to be God-like,

swells with vanity. This image of pride as a diseased tumor sets up a dramatic description

of Christ as the doctor (medicus) who descends into an ailing humanity. In the meeting of

contraries Christ reverses corruption and healing takes place. In The Christian Combat.

Augustine illustrates this "healing through opposites" by a series of antitheses in a parallel

sentence structure. They describe the diseases that Christ the Physician heals and the first
"medicine" in the series is the humility of the Son of God:

Quae superbia sanari potest. si humilitate Filii Dei non sanatur?

Quae avaritia sanari porest. si paupenate Filii Dei non sanatllr?
Quae iracundia sanari porest. si patientia Filii Dei non sanatur?
Quae impieras sanari porest. si carirare Filii Dei non sanamr?l-t6
The metaphor of healing intensifies all the more if we see it. as Augustine does. in the

context of the Gospel healing stories. In Luke's parable of the Good Samaritan. the man

who fell among robbers represents the fallen human race and the Samaritan who reaches

out to restore the wounded man is the Christ-figure. 14i Augustine interprets the story in

detail. He concludes that the assaulted man who traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho

represents the fallen Adam who went "down" from Jerusalem. a place of peace. to Jericho
a place of sin and mortality.l48 The Samaritan. who is Christ. takes the injured man to an

1-'5 The Trinity 8.7 (Hill. 247).

1-'6 De agone christiano 11.12 (CSEL 41.1(5):"For. what pride can be cured. if it is not cured by the
humility of the Son of God? What avarice can be cured. if it is not cured by the poverty of the Son of God?
What anger can be cured. if it is not cured by the patience of the Son of God? What ungodliness can be
cured. if it is not cured by the charity of the Son of God?" (R. Russell. 329).

1-'7 Serm. 171.2 (WSA lIIJ5:248).

148 Robert 1. O'Connell. Soundings in St. Augustine's Imagination. (New York: Fordham University
Press. (994).90-91.

·'inn." which represents the church. In being taken to the inn, the man is commended to the

innkeeper's care. "To what innkeeper? Perhaps to him who said, 'We are ambassadors for
Christ. '" The Samaritan also gives two pence to pay for the man's healing and these are the

two greatest comrnandments. I -l9

In his now classic study of the Augustinian theme of Christ as medicus humilis,

Rudolph Arbesmann highlights Augustine's frequent use of the "Divine Physician"

metaphor. ISO Arbesmann notes that in Augustine's day the image of Christ the Physician

had become a common theme in Christian apologetics. This popular idea was first
inttoduced into Christian Latin literature by Tertullian. 151 Drawing upon the work of O.
Scheel and 1. Mausbach.15Z Arbesmann explains that Augustine's Milanese teacher, St.

Ambrose. took up the theme of humilitas Christi and the work of his redemption.

However. Augustine is distinguished from Ambrose by:

the inimitable manner in which he [Augustine] uses the Chrisms mediclls

theme to link his doctrine on humility with his loftiest speculations on the
Redemption. It is by presenting the Savior above all in the role of the
medicus humilis that St. Augustine injects new life into what we may call a
commonplace of Christian argument. l53

Augustine puts his own mark upon the notion of ClzriStllS medicus by presenting the figure

of the medicus Izumilis. which give dramatic focus to the connection between humility and

Christ's salvific work. Augustine's eloquence and vivid imagery revived the tired concept

of the "Divine Physician" among African Christians and left a lasting impression upon

1-l9 Tractates on the Gospel of St. John 41.13 (Rettig. 149).

150 Arbesmann notes that the figure Christus medicus is used primarily in Augustine's sermons: "The
Concept of 'Chrisrus .'v[edicus' in St. Augustine." 7.

151 R. Arbesmann. "The Concept of 'Christus ,I;[edicus' in St. Augustine" Traditio \0 (New York:
Fordham University Press. 1954).20.

152 1. Mausbach. Die Ethik des heiligen Augustinus (2nd ed. Freiburg i. B. 1929) 1393 n.2: O. Scheel. Die
Anschauung Augustins iiber Christi Person und Werk (Tilbigen and Leipzig. 1901). 384-386.

153 R. Arbesmann. "Christ the 'Medicus Humilis' in St. Augustine." 626.

Christian piety.l54 Arbesmann explains that Augustine draws upon this imagery in order to
address the persistent accusation of the pagans. They maintained throughout much of

Augustine's life that Christians were responsible for the hardships of the West, especially

the barbarian invasions, because they refused to worship the pagan gods. Augustine turns

this accusation around by attributing the decline in the Roman Empire to human sin, in
particular to human pride. In several sermons, he invites his pagan hearers to receive the

only cure-the medicine of humility administered by the "Divine Physician."155

Using his healing motif, Augustine urges his congregation to "catch hold of
Christ's humility"l56 by being receptive to the grace of Christ. The humble person,

Augustine explains, lies low like a patient awaiting the doctor:

We are striving for great things; let us lay hold of little things, and we shall
be great. Do you wish to lay hold of the loftiness of God? First catch hold
of God's lowliness. Deign to be lowly, to be humble, because God has
deigned to be lowly and humble on the same account, yours, not his own.
So catch hold of Christ's humility, learn to be humble, don't be proud.
Confess your infirmity, lie there patiently in the presence of the doctor.
When you have caught hold of his humility, you start rising up with him.
Not as though he has to rise, insofar as he is the Word; but it's you, rather,
who do so, so that he may be grasped by you more and more. l5i

In this picture of lying expectantly before Christ's healing power, the receptive dimension

of humility comes to the fore. Before God we are all beggars, thus, openness and

15~ O. Scheel. Die Anschauung Augustins iiber Christi Person und Werk (TUbingen and Leipzig. 1901)
384-386. Cited in R. Arbesmann, "The Concept of 'Christus Medicus' in St. Augustine." 10.

155 R. Arbesmann. "The Concept of 'Christus Medicus' in St. Augustine" in Traditio 10 (New York:
Fordham University Press. (954).23.

156 Sum. 117.17 (WSA lIII4:220).

157 Ibid. Ad magna nos tendimus. paIVa capiamus. et magni erimus. Vis capere celsitudinem Dei? Cape
prius humilitatem Dei. Dignare esse humilis propter teo quia Deus dignacus t!st humiiis esse propter
eumdem te: non enim propter se. Cape ergo humilitatem Christi. disce humilis esse. noli superbire.
Conjitere injirmitatem tuam.jace patiencerante medicum. Cum ceperis hllmilitatem ejus. surgis cum illo:
non quasi et ipse surgat secundum quod Verbum est; sed tu potius. ut magis magisque a te capiatur. (PL

receptivity to God are the essential features of the humility modeled in Christ's receptivity
before the Father.
As the medicus humilis, Christ heals our particular infirmity and makes possible
our return to God. If human beings suffered from a different ailment, then a different
medicine would be prescribed to counteract the symptoms. 15S Preaching on one of his
favorite New Testament passages -"learn from me; for I am gentle and humble [tapeinos]
in heart" (Mt. LL:29)- Augustine describes the humility of the Incarnation as crucial for
humanity's healing and reconciliation with the divine:
For what is the cause of Christ's humility if not your infirmity? You were
afflicted with a serious and incurabLe disease, and this your condition
caused such a great Physician to come to you. For if your sickness were at
least such that you were able to go to the Physician, it would seem to be
bearable. But since you were not able to go to Him, He came to you. He
came, teaching us humility, that, by this way, we may return to life. 159
Here humility is (he remedy because pride is (he sickness. Christ, the "great Physician."
comes without an invitation because human pride has so crippled ailing sinners that they do
not see their need for healing. Like a patient. delirious with fever. the prideful tum away

from Christ's healing ointment. In this situation. only God's perfect expression of
humility can reverse the most profound human infirmity. In his Tractates on the Gospel of
John. Augustine illustrates this healing by contraries:
You see a man who was covered with sores and mange healed: but because
that fluid was not eliminated, the sore comes back again. The physician.
knowing this, gets rid of the fluid, removes the cause, and there will be no
sores. From what source does wickedness abound? From pride. Heal pride
and there will be no wickedness. Therefore. in order that the cause of all

158 On Christian Doctrine 1.14 (D.W. Robertson. Jr.• 15).

159 Serm. 142.2 (WSA IIJJ4:413-414); Quae enim CQllS{l humilitatis Christi. nisi injirmitas tua? Va/de
enim et inremediabiliter te (lbsidebat injirmitas: et haec res fecit ut veniret ad te tamus medicus. Si enim
vel sic aegrotares. ut tu posses ire ad medicum. poteral tolerabilis videri ipsa injirmitas: sed quia tu ire non
potllisti ad eum. ille venit ad te: venit docens humilitatem. qua redeamllS. (PLS 2:726) (Wilman 11.2) See
also: In Ep. Joh. ad Parthos. Tract.lO.l (PL 35:2054); Serm. 88.7 (38.543).

diseases, that is, pride, might be healed, he came down and the Son of God
became humble. 160
In rather graphic terms, Augustine shows that the medicine of humility cuts away at pride
and through searing the wound, a salutary suffering takes place. Here pride resembles the
discharge of an infected wound confronted with an antidote. Christ's humility rebukes
pride and cuts to the root of sin so that healing can take place. God's healing is both gentle
and abrasive; it cuts and bums when necessary.161 And so, the healing of humility
involves an initial period of exposure and a "remedial pain."162 As in Augustine's own

conversion experience. things become worse before they get better.

In his commentary on psalm 50. Augustine turns to the image of Christ as the
humble Physician (medicus humilis) who lifts an infirm humanity out of sin and despair:

"Relieve a deep wound after Thy great healing. Deep is what I have. but in the Almighty I
take refuge. Of my own so deadly wound I should despair. unless I could find so great a
Physician. "163 Christ the Physician is not only a truth to be painfully confronted but also a
promise of divine mercy. which engenders hope. Using the titles "great Physician" and

"humble Physician" (humilis mediclls) interchangeably. Augustine highlights how

paradoxically it is truly great in God's eyes to be humble.

Christ. as the antidote to human pride. serves the dual role of physician and
medicine. Augustine explains. "Thus the Wisdom of God. setting out to cure men. applied

160 Tractates on the Gospel of John 25.16 (Rettig 253-4). uides hominem qui fuit ulcerosis et scabiosus,
sanatum; sed quia humor ille non eiectus est, rursus ad ulcus reditur. Cognoscens hoc medicus, purgat
humorem. detrahit causam, et nulla erunt ulcera. Vnde abundat iniquitas? Per superbiam. Cura superbiam.
et nulla erit iniquitas. Vt ergo causa omnium morborum curaretur, id est sllperbia. descendit et humilis
factus est Filius Dei. (CCL 36:256-257).

161 Enarrationes in Psalmos 85.9: "non solumfouere, sed et secare et urere." (CCL 39:1184).

162 The Trinity 13.22 (Hill. 361).

163Enarrariones in Psalmos 51.6 (A. Cleveland Coxe. (91). Cited in Rudolf Arbesmann. 'The Concept of
'Chrisus Medicus' in S1. Augustine.~ 20. (PL 36:588).

Himself to cure them, being at once the Physician and the Medicine. Because man fell
through pride, he applied humility as a cure."l64 Continuing this metaphor, Augustine
explains that the humble Physician takes the medicine of humility himself as a way of
encouraging the prideful who resist the antidote:

So he is the doctor who in no way needs any such medicine: and yet to
encourage the sick person he drinks what he had no need of himself, by
way of coaxing him out of his refusal and easing his dread of the medicine:
he drinks it first. The cup, he says, which I am to drink (Mt. 20:22).
There's nothing in me that needs to be treated by that cup, but I'm going to
drink it all the same, so that you won't loftily refuse to drink it: and you
certainly need to.165

Here the "cup of humility." the passion of Christ, is seen as the most extreme gesture of
encouraging a fallen humanity to receive the healing of humility. The "Doctor of Humility,"
who is perfectly healthy, drinks the very cure he is administering. He persuades the sick
by taking the cure that he does not need. He suffers and pays the price for humanity's
fallenness. 166
Augustine goes so far as to compare fallen humanity to a "madman" who refuses
the cure and mocks the physician:

For he [Christ] was a physician and had come to cure a madman, A

physician pays no auention to what a madman says to him, but is concerned
only that he return to health and become sane. Even if he is struck by the
madman, he does not care. The madman inflicts new wounds, the
physician cures the original illness. So too the Lord came to a sick man, a
madman; he paid no auention to the insults he received and the wounds

164 On Christian Doctrine 1.14 (Robertson. 15).

165 Serm. 142.6 (WSA IIII4:4l7).

166 Serm. 88.7 (WSA IIII3:423): "It's as though he [Christ) said. 'You have cenainly learned by experience
that I was telling you the truth when I said. Don't touch this thing. So anyway. get beuer. come back to
life. I am carrying your infirmity; drink the biuer cup. Those orders of mine which were given to you in
good health were easy and pleasant. but it's you yourself that have made them so hard and painful. They
were ignored. you have begun to toss about in fever. you can't get beuer unless you drink the biuer cup.
the cup of the trials and temptations this life is full of. the cup of afflictions. of distress. of suffering. Drink
it,' he says, 'drink it in order to live."

inflicted on him, thereby teaching men humility so that having been taught
by humility they might be cured of pride. 167

Through the image of the "madman" Augustine vividly illustrates how the humility of

Christ saves a people who are not simply ashamed of their sin but who despise the
medicine and the medicine giver. In the end, it is only the grace of God that moves us from

hardening and taking vengeance on the humble Christ to being receptive and transformed

by his healing touch.

In sum, Augustine's description of Christ's humility as the antidote to human pride

highlights how through the intersection of contraries in Christ's person. Christ overcomes

sin. It is in and through the contrasts that make up Christ's salvific work that we can see

how divine humility functions. confronting and eradicating pride.

B. The Humility of Christ the Mediator

''1ferefusei to 6e maie 6y men. a kin.g, 6ecause 1fe iispCayei the

pathway of humility to tliose un.liappy ones whom priie haa separatetl
from JUm. '168
Augustine's awe at the Incarnate Word grows from his awareness of the wide gap

between what is created and the Creator. From the heights of glory. the transcendent Word

of God descends into created reality. Two onto logically distinct realities are brought

together in the person of Jesus Christ. In the previous section. we looked at the healing

effect of Christ's humility through contrast. Yet a further dimension of Christ's salvific

167 £narrations on the Psalms 35 [361. 17 (O'Connell and Pellegrino. 53) Medicus enim erat. et
phreneticum CUI'Clre venerat. Quomodo medicus non curat. quidquid audiat a phrenetico. sed quomodo
convalescat et fiat sanus phreneticus. nec si et pugnum ab illo accipiat curat. ille illi facit noua vulnera. ille
veteremfebrem sanat. sic et Dominus ad aegrotum venit. ad phreneticum venit. ut quidquid muiiret. quidquid
passus esset contemneret. hoc ipso eos docens humilitatem. ut humilirate docti.. sanarentur a superbia.
(CCL 38:334).

168 On the Catechising of the Uninstructed 22.40 (Salmond. 307).

humility is seen in his role as "mediator between God and humankind" (1 Timothy 2:5).

Here Christ's humility has a salvific function through the similarity of Christ's humanity

and ours:
[T]he mediator between God and man must have something like to God and
something like to men. lest being in both things like to men. he should be
far from God. or being in both ways like to God. he should be far from
men. and so not be a mediator. 169
Christ partakes of the human condition in order to become a way of return to God. Though

knowledge and imitation of his humanity we are healed. made wise. and ultimately. united
with God. Christ partakes of the human condition in order to become a way of return to

At the heart of Augustine' s understanding of Christ's mediatorship is the joining of

humanity to the divinity in his Person. "He has appeared as Mediator between God and

men. in such wise as to join both natures in the unity of one Person. and has both raised

the commonplace to the heights of the uncommon and brought down the uncommon to the
commonplace."170 This new bond between God and humanity is not a joining of equals.

What is "commonplace" or ordinary becomes incorporated into what is ''uncommon'' or

extraordinary. Through this mingling the ordinary takes on new meaning and possibility.

The unity of Christ's person creates the way to a new form of restoration. which heals and

ennobles what has been wounded and disgraced. It is possible to be not only restored to

right relationship with God and creation but to share in the divine life itself.

While Augustine maintains his antithetical style within his theology of mediation. it

is similarity more than dissimilarity that is emphasized here. In The Trinity. Book Four.

Augustine writes: "Just as the devil in his pride brought proud thinking man down to death.

169 Confessions 10.42.67 (Chadwick. 219).

170 Letter 137 (Parsons. 25).

so Christ in his humility brought obedient man back to life."l7l As the devil mediates death,

Christ mediates life. In The de viI's pride is a rebellion against God; Christ's humility is a

submission to God. It is by Christ's likeness to us in our humanity and frailty that we sec

the way of return to God. As the antidote to pride, Christ's humility works negatively
through confrontation and contrast. But in the context of mediation. Christ's humility

works more positively. drawing the sinner closer through similarity and kinship.
Augustine finds the title. "Mediator," in the work of St. Paul (1 Tim. 2:5) and. although

not original to Augustine. he uses it frequently to describe Christ as a bridge between the
transcendent nature of God and a fallen humanity:

But when sin had placed a wide gulf between God and the human race. it
was expedient that a Mediator. who alone of the human race was born.
lived. and died without sin. should reconcile us to God. and procure even
for our bodies a resurrection to eternal life. in order that the pride of man
might be exposed and cured through the humility of God; that man might be
shown how far he had departed from God. when God became incarnate to
bring him back.1i3

In his article. "A Humble Mediator." Brian Daley notes that Augustine most often uses the
title "Mediator" to refer to the midpoint (medius) between God and humanityP-l As the

"God-man,"l75 Christ holds an intermediate position, which serves to reconcile all that

divides God and humanity.

171 The Trinity 4.13 (Hill. 162).

172 City of God 9.16: "In the lower world he was the Way of life. as in the world above he is the Life
itself." (Bettenson. 361).

173 Enchiridion lOS (J.B. Shaw. 126). Cum uero genus humanum peccala Longe separauerunr a deo. per
medialorem qui soLus sine peccalo nalUS eSI. uitit. occisus est. reconciliari nos oponebat deo usque at
camis resu"ectionem in uitam aetemam; ut hllmana superhia per humililatem dei arguerenlr ac sanaretur. et
demonstraretur homini quam Longe a deo recesserat. cum per incamatum deum reuocaretur. (eCL .16:107-

17* B. Daley. "A Humble Mediator: 105.

175 On the Catechising of the Uninslructed 4.S (Salmond. 2S7).

Daley also observes that it is panicularly in Augustine's middle and later works that
one can see the humanity of the Word as " 'the way' by which humanity can itself draw
near to God."176 Christ as "the way"l77 demonstrates the active dimension of Christ's

mediatorship that. in my view. emphasizes the link between Christ's humility and his

mediatorial role for it is precisely in his humble humanity that Christ mediates between the

unreachable God and creation. [n humility. Christ panakes of humanity and thereby joins
fallen humanity to his perfect humanityl78-an estranged people are given a pathway back

to God. "By reason of the fact that he is equal to the Father. he created us so that we might
be; by reason of the fact that he is like us. he redeemed us so that we might not perish. "179

Christ's humanity. which is unlike the Father and like us. points to the dynamic aspect of
humility in Augustine's Christo logy for in his humble humanity. Christ mediates salvation.

a. Mediation Through Christ's Humble Humanity

From the time of his involvement with the Manichees up to his baptism.

Augustine's orientation shifted dramatically as he came to believe in the Incarnation. As a

Manichee. he was impressed by the possibilities for human beings to ascend beyond

temporal reality. Needless to say. he looked disparagingly upon material reality. He could

not imagine material and spiritual realities as commensurable and harmonious. In his

experience of Neoplatonism. Augustine was drawn to Christ as the Logos. But he did not

draw his anention to the humanity of Jesus in his humility and poverty. Christianity's

affirmation of the earthly life of Jesus had seemed strange and embarrassing to him. UIO

176 B. Daley. "A Humble Mediator." 107.

177 In 14:6: "I am the way. and the truth. and the life."

178 Serm. 196A.2 (WSA IIII6:65).

179 Tractates on the Gospel of John 51.3 (Rettig. 273).

180 Confessions 7.19.25 (Chadwick. 128).

But. as Augustine grew in faith and in his understanding of the Incarnation, he

came to appreciate the implications of God freely choosing to dwell within the limits of

temporal existence. Bodily and material reality took on new meaning for him and he
distanced from the dualist currents of his age. The Stoics, the Manichees, and the
Neoplatonists, for instance. were disgusted by the notion that God humbled God's own

self and entered corporeal existence. According to the gnostic dualism of the Manichees,

only spiritual, non-material realities possessed the fullness of being. Bodily and material
realities were viewed as compromised forms of being to be regarded with shame. In this

way, Christianity's emphasis on lesus' earthly life was offensive to the spiritualist thought
and sensibilities of Augustine's age. lSI But as he left the Manichees and came under the

influence of the Neoplatonists. he reflected more intensely on the Incarnation. In lesus'

poverty and humility, he discovered greamess in what was considered least. He realized

that lesus Christ's humility is not simply an expansion of what he previously understood

about God. Rather the humble God inverts and challenges his notion of God as removed

from all forms of suffering and powerlessness. His imagination grew into seeing the

sublime in the weak and ordinary.

Far from a docetic Christo logy that de-emphasizes Christ's humanity, Augustine

developed an understanding of Christ that boldly proclaimed the humanity of God. Rather

than minimizing the shock of the humble God in a culture that disdains the body, Augustine

puts forward the truth of God's bodily existence without compromise. He realized that in

every respect but sin lesus Christ truly becomes what we are; he fully shares our flesh and

the conditions of our creatureliness. Augustine draws attention to Christ's humanity

especially as it is so repugnant to the "wise and prudent of his day"182 who had such

181 TJ. van Savel. "De la Raison ii la Foi," 20.

182 Serm. lS4.l (WSA 1III6:lS).

contempt for bodily and material reality. Aware of the scandal of his faith. Augustine does

not speak hesitantly of the infancy of the Word but draws attention to it and marvels at it.
He insists that Christ's human weakness and suffering are inseparable from God's

grandeur. Christ's weakness did not threaten divine omniscience or omnipotence but
revealed the paradox of strength in weakness.

Augustine urges his readers to fix their attention upon the details of Christ's life

where his humility plays a critical role in leading or "mediating" the faithful to the full

manifestation of the Word's divinity. Preaching with full rhetorical flourish in 413 on the
Feast of the Epiphany. Augustine presents the wonderful paradox of Christ's birth:
[The Magi1 are seeking, though, not a grown man, or one of great age.
conspicuous to human eyes on a lofty throne, with a mighty army,
spreading terror by force of arms, splendid in purple, with a diadem of
dazzling jewels ... but a newborn baby, lying in a cradle. eager for the
breast, not notable for any adornment of the body, any strength of limb. any
wealthy parents. or for his age, or for the power of his family.

Showing how Christ is an affront to the expectations of the day. Augustine continues:

[The Magi] are seeking the king of the Jews from the king of the Jews: from
Herod they are seeking Christ: they are asking a grown man about an infant.
someone famous about someone unknown. someone wealthy about
someone needy, someone strong about someone weak: and yet someone
contemptuous about someone to be worshiped. one in whom no royal state
could be seen. but in whom true majesty was to be worshiped. l83

Augustine's theological imagination captures the radically unexpected nature of the Word's

descent into the ordinary human experience of weakness and frailty. He is now unashamed

of God's humble ways.

183 Senn. 373.2 (WSAIIIllO:320-321): Magi veniunt ab oriente. regem Judaeorum requirunt. qui coc reges
Judaeorum nunquam antea quaesierunt. Requinmt autem. non aliquem viriLis aetacis. sive grandaevum.
humanis oculis. in e:ccelsa secle cOl!spicuum. e:cercicibus pocentem. annis cerrentem. purpura nicentem.
diademace reflligentem ... sed recens narllm. in clmis jacentem. IIberibus inhianrem. nullo omatu corporis.
nullis membrorum viribus. nllllis parencum opibus. non sue aeCate. non suo rum pocescate praestancem. £c
quaerunt regem Judaeorum. a rege Judaeorum: ab Herode {homine I. Chriscum {Deum eC hominem: a cerreno
rege homine. regem coelorum qui condideroI homineml: a grandi parvulum. a claro lacentem. ab e:ccelso
humilem. a loquenre infantem. ab opulento inopem. a forti infinnum: ec camen {quamvis ab Herode
persequente. sibi eC aliis Chriscum dominanceml. a contemnente adoranJum: profecco in quo nulla pompa
regia videbatur. sed vera majestas adorabatur. (PL 39: 1664).

In developing a theology of mediation. Augustine puts emphasis on Christ's
humble humanity.lSl In other words, Christ is the mediator because he is the Word made

flesh. The Incarnation makes mediation possible. In the Confessions. Augustine writes: "It

is as man that he is mediator. He is not midway as Word."lS5 T.1. van Bavel explains,
"As the Word of God, Jesus cannot be situated in the middle [between God and humanity];

as human, he can, but on the condition that he exceed us in justice. His mediating function
thus resides in his humanity."I86 Augustine explains the distinctive function of Christ's

divinity and humanity in a sermon delivered on the feast of John the Baptist: "But because

in the unity of God there is both Father and Son and Holy Spirit. let Christ's divinity hold
on to the unity, while his humanity takes on mediation."ISi

God's readiness to identify with us in our vulnerability and suffering is made

singularly clear by the specific form of humanity that the Word assumed. Quoting Paul's
Lener to the Corinthians. Augustine preaches that Christ "chose the weak things of the

world to confound the strong, and the foolish things of the world to confound the wise."I88

As noted above, Augustine regularly expresses Christ's humility as his humanity and it is

in the weakness of his humanity that Christ shows us concretely the way to God.

Augustine frequently uses the term humility in place of the term humanity when describing

what it is that contrasts with Christ's divinity. For Augustine, God human is God humble.

184 B. Studer. The Grace of Christ. 44.

185 Confessions 10.43.68 (Chadwick. 219).

186 Comme Verbe de Dieu. Jesus ne peut pas se situer au milieu: comme homme. il Ie peut. mais a.
condition de nous surpasser en justice. Sa fonction mediatrice reside donc en son humanite." TJ. van
Bavel. ''De la Raison a. la Foi." 23.

187 Senn. 293.7 (WSA III18:155).

188 Senn. 51.4 (WSA llU3:23).

Augustine points out that Christ's life. at every stage. illustrates humility. His

emphasis upon the humilitas motif goes hand-in-hand with his stress upon the importance

of concrete historical events in the life of ChriSt. 189 He does not simply call people out of
their suffering but he enters fully into their suffering. In Christ. God chooses to dwell

among the lowest in society: the materially poor. the physically poor. and the culturally

poor. Although he was equal to the Father. Christ did not come as a powerful ruler or hero.

He was born in a stable. in an obscure village; his parents were unknown and
undistinguished people of low social standing. 19O He slept "in a feeding trough."191 For

companions. he did not choose the learned or people of high standing nor did he seek out a
privileged social milieu. His first followers were commoners: tisherman. publicans. and

artisans (1 Cor. 1:26ft) and he lived among the common folk of Palestine. He reached out

to scorned women. the poor. the sick. and children. As part of his humility. he began his

public ministry by suffering hunger in the desen: in the river Jordan he was baptized by

John. giving a model of servanthood. 192 To conclude his public ministry. he bent down
and washed his disciples' feet as a sign of his call to lead by serving. In the institution of

the Eucharist. Christ passes on to his followers a reminder of his humility by offering

himself to them in the form of ordinary food and drink. 193

Finally. Augustine describes the wood of the cross as the culmination of the humble

pathway to God:

189 Auerbach. 42
190 On rhe Carechising of rhe Uninsrrucred 22.40 (Salmond. 307)

191 Serm. 189.4 (WSA IIII6:36).

192 Serm. 52.1 (WSA IIIi3:50).

193 Serm. 78.6 (WSA IIIi3:343): "Life came down. to be killed: bread came down. to go hungry; the way
came down. to grow weary on a journey: the fountain came down. to experience thirst; and are you refusing
to endure toil?"

He would be born in mortal flesh. take on the features of a speechless baby.
be laid in a crib. wrapped in swaddling clothes, nourished with his mother's
milk. pass through life's stages, and finally perish in death. All these are
manifestations of humility, an example of unbelievable humility. Whose
humility? The humility and lowliness of the Most High.ICU

In The Trinity. Augustine comments on the foolishness of those who disdain the cross of

Christ because they are assured of their own means to purification. Augustine points out
that they may glimpse the Promised Land but. without holding fast to Christ's way of

humility and submitting to the wood of the cross. they cannot be carried to the Promised


Their reason for assuring themselves of do-it-yourself purification is that

some of them have been able to direct the keen gaze of their intellects
beyond everything created and to attain. in however small a measure. the
light of unchanging truth: and they ridicule those many Christians who have
been unable to do this and who live meanwhile out of faith (Rom. I: 17)
alone. But what good does it do a man who is so proud that he is ashamed
to climb aboard the wood. what good does it do him to gaze from afar on
the home country across the sea? -And what harm does it -do a humble man
if he cannot see it from such a distance. but is coming to it nonetheless on
the wood the other disdains to be carried by.195

The humility of the cross is that which actually moves one to God. In joining their

suffering to His the humble tind a direct route to communion with God. To cling to "the

wood" of the cross196 is to surrender to the movement of God. to travel willingly the road

of humiliation prefigured for us in the violent rejection of Christ. Drawing from St. Paul.

Augustine preaches:

ICU Sum. 293.5 (O'Connell and Pellegrino. ~2): In came monali nascitunlS. infans parvulus futurus. in
prresepi ponendus. cunis involvendus. lacte nutriendus. per relates augendus. postremo etiam morte
perimendus. Hrec ergo omnia humilitatis indicia et nimice humilitatis est fomra. Cujus haec humilitas?
Excelsi. (PL 38: 1330).

195 The Trinity 4.20 (Hill. 167). Hinc enim sibi purgationem isti uinute propria pollicentur quia nonnulli
eo rum potuerunt aciem mentis ultra omnem crearuram transmittere et lucem incommutabilis ueritatis
quantulaclCmque ex parte contingere. quod christianos multos ex fide interim sola uilCentes nondum potuisse
derident. Sed quid prodest superbienti et ob hoc erubescenti lignum conscendere de longinquo prospicere
patriam transmarinam? ,llCt quid obese humili de tanto interuallo non eam uidere in illo ligno ad eam
uenienti quo dedignatur ille portari? (eCL 50: 187).

196 Serm. 75.2 (WSA III/3:304).

[L]et your faith board the wood of the cross. You won't be drowned, but
borne up by the wood instead. That, yes that is the way in which the
multitudinous seas of this world were navigated by the one who said. But
far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Gal
6: 14).197

Preaching on the Gospel of John, Augustine pinpoints the particular way that Christ

joins his righteous humanity to ours. His humility entails real poverty and suffering.

Finding our new identity in him, we must join in this radical humility:
So the one who had such enormous power was hungry, was thirsty, went
to sleep, was arrested. beaten, crucified. killed. That's the way; proceed
along humility. in order to come to eternity. Christ as God is the home
country we are going to; Christ as man is the way we are going by.198

Without being expendable or extrinsic to salvation, Christ's radical humility points beyond

itself, for. the way of humility is the starting point and the ongoing means to our final

destination in God.

b. The Way to Divinization

As mediator, Christ not only takes away sin. he persuades the proud to be humble

and he makes possible their participation in divinity. In The Trinity. Augustine writes:

"For us he became a road or way in time by his humanity. while being for us an eternal

abode by his divinity."l99 The "humble God" unites with us in our human weakness and

becomes the passageway from temporal reality to eternity: In Book Four, Augustine

expresses how integral Christ's humility is to the notion of divinization:

197 Serm. 131.2 (WSA IIU4:3(7): in crucifi.:cum crede. uc fides cua lignum possic ascendere. Non mergeris.
sed ligno porcaberis. Sic. sic in hujus sa!culi fluccibus navigabac ille. qui dicebac..Hihi aucem absic
gioriari. nisi in cruce Domini noscri Jesu Chrisci. (Gaiac. 6. 1~) (PL 38:730).

198 Serm. 123.3 (WSA IIII4:245): Qui ergo canCa pocuic. esurivic. sicivic. jacigacus esc. dormivic.
comprehensus esc. Ca!sus esc. est. occisus est. [sta est via: ambuia per humiiitatem. ut \'enias cd
a!temitatem. Deus Christus parria esc quo imus: homo Chriscus via esc qua imus. (PL 38:684-85).

199 The Trinicy 7.5 (Hill. 223).

The sinner did not match the just, but man did match man. So he applied to
us the similarity of his humanity to take away the dissimilarity of our
iniquity, and becoming a partaker of our mortality he made us partakers of
his divinity.200

Through his likeness to humanity, Christ joins his humanity to ours and in this similarity
and solidarity "the unlikeness of our iniquity" is overcome. [n this description of an

exchange Christo logy, the humility of Christ carries the promise of our redemption for in

humility the eternal God descends to our mortality to invite our ascent to immortality. God
becomes unlike God so that we may receive a new likeness to God. By likeness to Christ's

humility, we are promised the supreme likeness of being adopted sons and daughters in the
triune life of God. [n creation we are God's servants but in the grace of Christ's humility

we become sons and daughters.

As we have seen, Augustine describes Christ's humble humanity as milk. which

nourishes him in the infancy of his search to know God. Christ's humility prepares the

way for the full revelation of Christ as the Eternal Word. The milk is for Christ's "little

ones" who are not yet ready for the food of contemplating "Christ in his equality with the

Father. "201 Explaining the mediatorial purpose of the Incarnation in these metaphorical

terms, Augustine preaches:

The reason he has come, you see, the reason he has taken upon himself our
infirmity, is so that you may be able to receive a firm discourse of God's. as
he bears your infirmity. And it is very properly called milk. because he is
giving milk to the little ones, so that he may give them the solid food of
wisdom when they are grown up. Take the milk patiently, in order later on
to be able to feed on the solid food avidly.202

100 The Trinity 4.4 (Hill. 155): Non enim congruit pecca/or iusto, sed congruit homini homo. Adiungens
ergo nobis similitudinem humanitatis suae abstulit dissimililudinem iniquilatis nOSlrae. el factus parriceps
morrablitatis nOSlrae fecit participes diuinitatis suae. (eCL 50: 164).

101 Homilies on the First Epistle General of St. John 3.1 (Burnaby. 279).

102 Serm. 117.16 (WSA II1J4:220): Ideo enim venit. ideo suscepit inJirmitatem nOSlram, ut possis Jirmam
locutionem capere Dei porranlis inJirmitatem warn. £t vere dictum est lac. Lac enim dar parvu[us, ut
cibum sapienciO! del majoribus. Lactare patiencer, ut avide pascaris. (PL 38:670).

By coming to us and by accommodating to our infirmity Christ becomes the passageway to

our di vinization.

The humble Christ is the locus for movement from this life to the next.

Undoubtedly the union of humanity and divinity in Christ makes possible this mediating

role between humanity and GOd. 203 Yet Augustine emphasizes that as the Word made

flesh. Christ is the way (via); as the eternal Word, Christ is the homeland (patria):2~

Christ the way is the humble Christ (via Chrisms, humilis Christus): Christ
the truth and the life is Christ exalted and God. [f you walk along the
humble Christ. you will arrive at the exalted Christ: if in your sickly health
and debility you do not spurn the humble one, you will abide in perfect
health and strength with the exalted one. 205

Augustine's characterization of the humble Christ as "the way" can be seen within his

depiction of humanity as having strayed from God through pride. Like the Prodigal Son.

humanity had lost its way and wandered in obscurity away from its true home. But by his

humble humanity. Christ clears a pathway and invites all to make a return home.

C. Christ's Humility as Kenosis: Cnc, illa signum est humilitatis 206

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who. though he was
in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be
exploited. but emptied himself (healtton ekenosen), taking the form of a
slave. being born in human (anthropon) likeness. And being found in
human form. he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of
death- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and
gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus

203 Serm. 47.21 (WSA IIIn:3(6): "Uruie est mediator Dei et hominum; qllia DellS cum Patre. quia homo
cum hominiblls. . . Divinitas sine hllmanitate non est mediatri:c. hllmanitas sine divinitate non est
mediatri:c; sed inter divinitalem salam et hllmanitatem salam mediatrit est hllmana dh'initas et divina
humanitas Christi." (PL 38.310).

204 The figure of "returning to the homeland" is Neoplatonic and common in Augustine's early works.

205 Sum. 142.2 (WSA IIII4:4(3): Via Christus, humiUs Christus; veritas et vita ChriStllS, e:ccelsus et
deus. Si ambules in humili, pervenies ad e:ccelsum: si infirmus hUn/ilem non aspemieris, in e:ccelso
/ortissimlls permanebis. (PLS 2:726). (PL 38:178); Serm. 123.3 (WSA IIII4:245).

206 Enarrationes in Psalmos 141.9 (PL 36:(838).

every knee should bend. in heaven and on earth and under the earth. and
every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God
the Father.207
Augustine, more directly than any other church Father, credits St. Paul, "the least"
of the apostles,:!08 as the source of his appreciation for Christ's humility.209 Mallard points

to St. Paul as the one who taught Augustine that the humility of the Incarnation21O is utterly

distinct from the teachings and categories of Neoplatonism and other pagan
philosophies. 2 !! The humility of Christ's self-emptying catches Augustine's attention

sometime during his re-reading of Paul's letters in the mid-390s. As he reflects on the
second chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians (2:6-11), where Christ's humbling (v. 8)

is parallel to his emptying (v.7), he highlights how Christ's kenosis is essential to the
meaning of humility. In this humble act of self-emptying love, Christ reveals the very

structure of our salvation.

Augustine's interpretation of Philippians :2 begins with a belief in Christ's pre-

existence and full divinity: ..... Though he was in the form of God ..... (v. 6). Out of

humility, the Son who shares all the divine characteristics with the Father takes on

humanity. Without losing divinity, he comes to us in the form of a servant:

He was exalted, you see, from the beginning, because in the beginning was
the Word. This exaltation is without beginning, without time. because
through him all things were made (In 1:1.3). So what does the apostle say
about it? 'Since he was in the fonn of God, he says. he did not think it
robbery to be equaL to God (Phil 2:6); So, since he was ill the fonn of God,
he did not think it robbery to be equaL to God. You have heard about his

Z07 Phil. 2:5-11.

208 1 Cor. 15:9. See Confessions 7.21.27 (Chadwick 132).

Z09 P. Adnes. "Humilite." Dictionnaire de Spiritualite 7 (1969): 1150.

210 Confessions 7.9.14 (Chadwick. 122).

2!1 W. Mallard. lAnguage and Love. 106.

inexpressible exaltation~ now hear about his humility. He emptied
himself .. Not by losing what he was. but by taking on what he was no1. 212

Augustine is clear that Christ does not actually divest himself of divinity for his preexistent

divine attributes are not diminished or compromised in any way. Rather. divine power is
exercised in a new mode; ironically the "emptying" is more of an adding than a SUbtracting.

The Philippians hymn encapsulates the full scope of Christ's humility. for it
describes Christ's two divine "humblings." First there is the humility of God becoming

human. fully entering what is less. and sharing earthly limitations. "[H]e. . . emptied
himself. taking the form of a slave. being born in human likeness" (Phil. 2:7). Not

grasping at divinity or exploiting his power as God. the Word freely takes on the limits of

the human condition. Augustine asks: "How did he empty himself? By taking what he was
not. not by losing what he was. He emptied himself. He humbled himself."!l3 Christ's

self-emptying is revealed tirst with the [ncarnation.!I" Augustine stresses that this act of

humility. in itself. is astounding. [n this very act of becoming human. the Word forms a

new bond between God and humanity. But God's self-abasement goes even further.

The second "humbling," the suffering and death of Christ. demonstrates the

consummation of humility: "And being found in human form. he humbled himself and

became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8). Christ's humble

self-emptying extends to suffering the ridicule and abuse of his persecutors who nail him to

a cross. The self-emptying that unfolds throughout Jesus' life culminates in his passion

which is the ultimate expression of humble love. Christ demonstrates perseverance in

!12 Serm. 265£.2 (WSA mn:260-26l): "Exaltaws enim ab initio quia in principio eral verbum. Haec
altitudo caret initio. caret tempore quia per ipsum facta sunt omnia. Quid ergo de ilIo apostolus? Cum in
forma dei esset. inquit. non rapinam arbitratus est esse aeqrtalis deo ...Audisti eius altitudinem ineffabilem.
Audi et humilitatem. Semetipsum. iniquit. e:cinanivit... Non amittendo quod erato sed suscipiendo quod non
erat." (PLS 2:805-806).

!13 Serm. 92.2 (WSA III/3:467).

214 The Trinity 1.14 (Hill. 74).

humility by deigning to be condemned and crucified by those he came to save. Without sin

and consequently unbound to the path of human mortality, Christ chose to take on the
consequences of our sin. Augustine stresses that Christ's humility is God's initiative given
in love and generosity for our sakes. He suffers freely and without coercion.

Augustine tries to understand why God chose to save humanity in such an extreme

and costly way. He insists that there is nothing haphazard, accidental, or even necessary
about the cross. Christ deliberately chose to make himself accountable for our sin through

his suffering and death. As God, he was fully in charge and did not need to suffer or die.

His humility is pure sacrifice. Highlighting Christ's free decision to accept the cross,
Augustine writes: "It would, after all, have been perfectly easy for him to come down from
the crosS."21S But by choosing the lowly path and freely surrendering to the Father to the

very end, Christ reveals that he is the agent who freely takes the path of humility and
descends to the point of death on a cross. [n the end. his choice to accept abuse and cruelty

from those he loved becomes a victory over death. Christ's humility, taken to the extreme

of shedding blood and dying, ensures the victory of all subsequent suffering patterned on

Christ's own suffering.

[n the second part of Philippians 2, Christ is the recipient of the Father's action of

glorification. The receptive dimension of Christ's humility is seen in his total openness

before the Father who exalts him and gives him "the name that is above every name."216

Here Christ teaches us that we can't receive God's Spirit unless we recognize our need for

God and freely choose to depend on God. As the eternal doer and receiver of the Father's

will, Christ models the agency and receptivity that his followers are called to embody in
their own lives.

m Serm. 87.9 (WSA illI3:412).

216 Phil. 2.9.

Augustine explains that the second part of Paul's pericope describes the depth of
God's love for us and the full extent of the Word's self-emptying. Christ's submission to

humiliations, torture, and death demonstrates the full meaning of the first part of the hymn.

His death is the completion of the kenosis that is first revealed in the Word becoming flesh.
Preaching on this hymn, Augustine explains that if Paul stopped the hymn at verse 8 the
explanation of Christ's humility would be incomplete:

... he [Paul] wouldn't have defined the full measure of his [Christ's]
humility yet, ifhe hadn't added, death too on a cross. You see, this kind of
death was regarded by the Jews as peculiarly disgraceful. And that's what
he took upon himself, something peculiarly disgraceful, in order to provide
a reward for those who are not ashamed of this thing, humility. How far
was he prepared to go in cutting out your swelling tumor of pride? As far as
the indignities of the cross.217
Basil Studer remarks that the humility demonstrated in Christ crucified opens up a new
understanding of the depths of God's grace: "Above all, it is only the humility of the

crucified Lord that reveals (or "commends." as Augustine likes to say) in a unique way thac

the grace of God has its origin in a love which is God's very self. "218 For the self-giving

of God revealed in Christ's humble humanity culminates in the cross. [t is not merely an

instrument to salvation; it is the precise way that God chose to reveal himself and establish

our own return to God.

Augustine explains how Philippians 2 clearly describes this descending-ascending

structure of salvation:
[H]is humbleness begins, in the discourse of the Apostle, from the place
where he says, '[H]e emptied himself, taking the form of a servant: and
extends up to 'to the death of the cross.' But his glory begins from that

117 Serm. 68.lL (WSA III13:230): Tanta dixit. et modum humilitatis ejus nondum rerminavit. nisi
addidisset mortem autem crucis: hoc enim genus mortis magnum inter ludaeos habebar opprobrium. Hoc
suscepit. quod habebat magnum opprobium. ut de ipsa humilirate non erubescentibus dam praemium.
Quousque pervenit. secans tumorem tuum? Usque ad crucis opprobia. (PLS 2:510).

218 B. Studer. The Grace of Christ and the Grace of God in Augustine of Hippo. 158.

place where he says. 'And for this cause also God has exalted him: and
extends up to 'is in the glory of God the Father.'219

According to the Philippians hymn. the Christian life reflects Christ's self-offering and
consists of voluntary lowering or abasement followed by a "raising up" or exaltation to
union with God. The Word gives up exaltation for a time so that we might be exalted with
him. Christ does not seek his own glory but the glory of the Father who exalts him above
all. 220 Christ's descent into humanity and. ultimately. into the grave. becomes the road to
ascent. The foundation of this salvific panem is humility: "For from death comes
resurrection. from resurrection ascension, from ascension the sining at the Father's right
hand; therefore the whole process began in death. and the glorious splendor had its source
in humility."211

[t is as one who has been brought low and humiliated to the point of death. that
Christ asks his followers to be humble. He fully lives out what he proclaims to his
God would have humbled himself very considerably if he had only been
born for your sake: he was prepared even to die for you. So there he was
on the cross, as a man, when his Jewish persecutors were wagging their
heads in front of the cross, and saying, [f he is the Son of God, let him
come down from the cross. and we can believe in him. (Mk 15:29-32). But
he was keeping hold of his humility; that's why he didn't come down.
This then is what we should pay anention to in the Lord: let us mark his
humility. let us drink the cup of his humiliation. let us constrict ourselves to
his limits. let us meditate on him. [t's easy enough to think about grandeur.
easy enough to enjoy honors. easy enough to give our ears to yes-men and

Z19 Tractates on the Gospel of John 104.3 (Rettig, 255). Humilitas ergo eius incipit in sermone apostoli.
ab eo loco ubi ail: Semetipsum exinaniuil formam serui accipiens. et peruenil usque. ad mortem crucis.
Clarilas /lero eills incipil ab eo loco IIbi ail: Propler quod er deus exallauir eum. et penlenir usque. in gloria
est Dei Parris. (eeL 26: 602).

220 Ibid.• 29.8 (Rettig, 20); 14.5 (Rettig, 67).

221 Enarralions on rhe Psalms 109 [11O}.11 (O'Connell and Pellegrino. 55). De morte enim resurrectio. d?
resurrectione adscensio. de adscensione cxf dexteram sessio: hoc corum ergo coepir a morte. £tCelienria
claritaris huius. principium habet humililatis. (eCL 40:1611).

flatterers. To put up with abuse, to listen patiently to reproaches, to pray
for the insolent, this is the Lord's cup, this is sharing the Lord's table. 222

On the cross, Christ shows humility in the clearest possible terms. Here Christ's

perseverance in the agony of the cross expresses that the humility of kenosis entails being
emptied of all honor and respectability. The humble Christ not only does not cling to his

divinity; he does not cling to a human life of honor and enjoyment. Relinquishing all

power. Christ willingly suffers the cost of self-offering by placing himself completely in
the hands of his Father.
In describing Christ's total self-emptying, Augustine teaches that this complete

descent is inextricably tied with ascent. As part of the plan of redemption. the cross
involves both the abasement of Christ and the elevation of Christ. In the humiliation of his

Passion. the Son is lifted up on the cross. As he hangs on the tree. Christ is held up to all

the world as the full expression of the Father's mercy.


This chapter has sought to demonstrate the various ways that Augustine sees

Christ's humility in relation to Christ's salvific work. First, we considered how Christ's

humility saves through its contrast to pride. Here Christ's humility is confrontational but

ultimately curative. God's descent in humility counters the human ascent in pride. God's

descent serves to both cast down and lift up a fallen humanity. Christ's humility is salvi fie

because it is from the fundamental "disease" of pride that humanity needs to be saved.

Secondly, as the way of humility, Christ fully shares in humanity and mediates

salvation through similarity and kinship. Humility finds expression in his humanity and in
the particularities of his earthly life. He chose diminishment and vulnerability in order to

222 Serm. 340A.5 (WSA IIIJ9:299).

join humanity to divinity in his Person. Becoming the pathway between God and humanity

he made it possible to move in and through the humanity of Jesus to the divinity of Jesus to
arrive finally "face to face" before the triune God. Here Christ's humility is "the way" (via)

to salvation. Lastly, we considered Christ's saving humility revealed in the unfolding of

Christ's self-emptying from the Incarnation to the Passion. The cross is the consummation
of Christ's self-surrender and obedience to the Father's will. This dimension of Christ's

humility comes to light in Augustine's reflections on Paul's Phillipians hymn.

Augustine develops all three dimensions of Christ's humility by using vivid and

dramatic metaphors, which highlight the rhetorical and dynamic aspects of his Christo logy .
Through the use of antithesis, Christ is likened to the humble doctor who bends down to

his patient administering the medicine of humility to counteract the illness of pride. As the

humble mediator, Christ is the road of return to God. And, in the act of kellosis. Christ is
the culmination of the divine outpouring in creation through his own self-abasement.

The three ways that Christ's humility works in our salvation broadens our

understanding of humility. Humility is clearly more than a discipline urged upon Christ' s

followers for their own holiness. Rather, it reflects the very structure of Christ's salvific

work and shapes the way that we participate in our own salvation. Augustine insists that

from an understanding of humility as the key for understanding Christ's salvific work. we

can understand what the call of Christian discipleship entails. How Augustine envisioned

Christ's followers embodying this quintessentially Christ-like quality will be the subject of

chapter three.



":You sent liim so tfiat from liis qamp{e tfiey sfiou{tf {earn fiumifity. OIl


Deeply shaped by his pastoral sensibilities. Augustine sought to stir the hearts and
minds of his hearers toward ever greater communion with God. aiming both to spark
conversions and to strengthen the fervor of those already baptized. William Babcock
writes: "Important as other aspects of Augustine's theology may be ... he is still basically
a theologian of the Christian life. more interested in our return to God than in anything
else in the theological curriculum."z Augustine was convinced that the salvation offered
by Christ's life. death. and resurrection remains incomplete until men and women take the
path laid out by Christ's via humilitatis. 3 God's "true Mediator" was sent so that we
"should learn humility."~

But the Teacher of humility, Partaker of our infirmity. giving to partake of

His own Divinity. for this purpose coming down. that He might teach the
way and become the Way (John 14:6). deigned to recommend [chiefly]
His own humility to us. 5

\ Confessions lOA3.68 (Chadwick. 219).

Z William Babcock. The Christ of the E:cchange: A Study in the Christo[ogy of Augustine's Enarrationes in
Psa[mos. (dissertation. Yale University. 1971).59.

3 Tractates in Joannis evangelillm 5.3 (eeL 36:42) (case adapted).

~ Confessions lOA3.68 (Chadwick. 219).

5 Enarrationes in Psalmos 59.7 (T. Scratton. 133) (slightly adapted -italics mine): Doctor autem
hllmilitatis. paniceps nostrae injirmitatis. donans paniciparionem suae diuinitatis. ad hoc descendens ut
Iliam doceret et uiajieret. ma.time sllam humilitatem nobis commendare dignatus est (eeL 39:734).

In an unprecedented way, the eternal Word comes to us as the "humble God," Jesus
Christ. The initiative is all from God, but we are called to participate in his "downward"
love. His humility is the disposition that we are to receive and embody in being restored

to likeness to God.
Chapter two considered Augustine's understanding of Christ's humility. It
explored how humility gives definitive shape to Augustine's Christo logy and
Soteriology. The task of this chapter is to ascertain how Augustine envisions this
quintessential quality of Christ in the lives of his followers. What are the ways that
Augustine educates the faithful in humility? How do the faithful have the mind of Christ
(Phil. 2:5) in the daily practice of discipleship? My thesis in this chapter is that
Augustine's teaching on Christ's humility not only grounds his stress upon humility in
Christian discipleship but points the way to an attribute that is at once contemplative and

active, personal and social.

Part one of this chapter will consider humility's central place in Augustine's

concept of discipleship as imitation of Christ. Augustine draws upon Christ's humility to

clarify what it means to be a true disciple. Part two looks at Augustine's conversion to

the humble Christ in order to examine how Augustine himself experiences and
exemplifies humility. Although Augustine's thought resists systemization. his own
biography, which is inseparable from his theology, reveals two dimensions of humility:

humility as true self-knowledge and humility as self-giving in charity. Augustine's

understanding of the first (true self-knowledge), is more explicitly spelled out in his own
conversion story, whereas, humility as charity develops more implicitly throughout the

course of his life. It finds expression in his life and preaching as a bishop. In considering
the personal and social dimensions of humility, parts three and four, aim to give more
systematic and explicit attention to these two foci in Augustine's doctrine of humility.

Both parts will include Augustine's warnings against the temptations and destructiveness
of false humility.

3.1. lmitation of the Humble Christ

One of the most challenging aspects of Christian discipleship is not simply the

call to affirm certain truths about God but to imitate Jesus Christ. According to

Augustine, our salvation depends on letting His way become our own. While many

teachers point away from themselves in instructing their followers. Christ points directly

to himself. particularly to his humility. as the model and source of true imitation of God.

Christ asks his followers to learn humility directly from him. His self-understanding and

His way of being are characterized by the downward path. It is the clearest way to God

for it both derives directly from Christ and is intrinsically oriented to him. It is the sine

qua non of Christian discipleship.6 In us, humility is an extension of Christ's humility

and the surest sign that Christ lives in us: "Upon the forehead we bear His sign: and we

do not blush because of it. if we also bear it in the heart. His sign is His humility."7

Augustine repeatedly insists upon Matthew 11:29-30: "Learn of me.

Attending to this passage and Paul's Philippians hymn, he asks his congregation to make

their own the very humility that God embodies:

Listen: when were you ever in the form of God? And you're ashamed to
humble yourself, you for whose sake the form of God humbled itself?

6 Letter 118 (Parsons. 282).

7 Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John 3.2 (Gibb and Innes. 19).

Learn, he says, of me. You haven't discovered, perhaps, from whom you
might learn about this extremely important foundation of your lofty
dignity. "From me." he says. "learn that I am meek and humble of hearl,
and you shall find rest for your souls; for my yoke is light" (Mt 11 :29-30).8

Rather than being something that compromises human dignity. humility is the foundation

of human dignity. Paradoxically. the call to follow Christ's way of surrender and

sacrifice is an invitation to discover what is most lofty in our humanity.

In a later sermon on this same passage (Matthew 11 :28-30). Augustine probes

into the meaning of imitating Christ and clarifies Christ's central exhortation to "learn" of

his humility. At first, Augustine mentions some of the possibilities for what one may try

to learn from Christ:

What. Lord. are we to learn from you? We know that in the beginning
you were the Word. and the Word with God. and the Word who was God:
we know that all things were made through you. visible and invisible.
What are we to learn from you? How to hang up the sky. fix the earth
solid. pour out the sea. spread the air around. fill all the elements with the
appropriate animals. arrange the ages. rotate the seasons? What are we to
learn from you? Or do you perhaps want us to learn how to do the works
you did on earth? Is that what you want to teach us'?9

With these rhetorical questions. Augustine suggests the absurdity of trying to imitate the

omnipotence of the eternal Word. He highlights Christ's human history because we are to

imitate Christ not in the spectacular things, which he does as God, for those things the

divine Word did even prior to becoming incarnate and after ascending to the Father.

8 Serm. 68.12 (WSA llI/3:231).

9 Serm. 70A.l (WSA IIU3:243-244). Quid domine. discimus ate? Scimus in principio te esse Verbum. et
Verbum apud deum. et deum Verbum: scimus omnia per te esse facta. ~'isibilia et invisibilia. Quid a te
discimus? Cae[um suspendere. terram solidare. mare difftmdere. aerem e.'C[1andere. omnia elementa
animalibus congruis implere. saecu[a ordinare. rotare tempora? Quid a te discimus? An fone. quae
operatus es in terra. ipsa vis nos discere? Haec vis docere? (PLS 2:513).

Christ's miracles and demonstrations of power are not the distinctive mark of his earthly

life. Rather imitation of Christ is measured by his humanity-his weakness and his


Augustine makes the point that while only some people are given the power to

cure and cast out demons - all are called to humility. Humility is not a special trait

reserved for those on the spiritual fast-track (if indeed there is one). While some have

unique gifts. Augustine insists that humility is an essential and fundamental quality

necessary for all Christians. [n Holy Virginity, he writes:

Therefore. while humility ought to be observed by all Christians. since

they are named Christians from Christ. whose Gospel no one studies
carefully without tinding in Him the Teacher of humility. yet it especially
becomes those who by some great blessing excel over others to be
followers and adherents of this virtue, so that they earnestly observe what
[ proposed in the tirst place: ·The greater thou art, the more humble thyself
in all things. and thou shalt tind grace before God. (Ecclus. 3.18).10

[n contrast to Nietzsche's view that humility undermines human greatness. Augustine

sees humility and greatness as directly proportional because humility opens us to God's

grace. the true source of all human grandeur. Humility is not a repression or a distortion

of humanity but the true measure of human excellence.

Through Christ's perfect exemplum of humility. we are all restored to a new

humanity wherein we can imitate his way. Reiterating this point in a sermon. Augustine


Christ the teacher, the master, is calling out. .. Leamfrom me.

10 Holy Virginity 33 trans. John McQuade (New York: Fathers of the Church. (955).27:182.

Learn what? .. Shall we ever be able to learn from him. to
manufacture a world. to fill a sky with lights. to arrange the changes of day
and night, to instruct the seasons and ages how to run their course, to
endow seeds with their energy, to fill the earth with animals? The heavenly
master is not telling us to learn any of that. He does all that as God.
But because this God was also willing to be man. insofar as he is
God. listen to him for your renewal; insofar as he is man. listen to him so
that you can imitate him. Learn. he says. from me; not how to manufacture
the world and create various natures; nor even those other things which he
acted here. hiddenly as God. manifestly as man. He doesn't mean then
either: "Learn from me how to drive out fevers. put demons to flight. raise
the dead. command the winds and the waves. walk on the waters"; he
doesn't mean that either by Leamfrom me. Yes. he did give these powers
to some of his disciples. to others he didn't give them. But what he says
here. Learn from me. he says to everyone; nobody is to be excused from
this commandment: Learn from me. since I am meek and humble of heart
(Mt II :29).' I

Augustine assures his congregation that Christ's humility is demanded of all: 'Learn from

me. he says to everyone.' 12 Moreover. imitating Christ's humility entails shifting

attention from the external marvels that Christ performs (instructing the seasons. healing

the sick) to taking on the kind of interior disposition and attitude that characterizes his

humility. In The Trinity. Augustine writes:

And so though the Lord Jesus Christ himself did such things. he wished to
open the eyes of men who were amazed and spellbound by such unusual
temporal deeds to larger perspectives. and convert them to eternal and
more inward realities: so he said, Come to me. you who toil and are heavy

II Serm. 164.7 (WSA UU5:(91): Chrisms ciamat magister ... discite a me. Quid? '" Numquid hoc ab eo
discere poterimus. mllndum fabricare. coelum luminibus implere. diei noctisque. vicissitudines ordinare.
tempora et saecula jubere percurrere. seminibus vim tribuere. animalibus terram replere? Nihil horum nos
jubet discere magister coelestis: illa facit ut Deus. ... Sed quia iste Deus et homo esse dignatus est. in eo
quod Deus est. audi ut recreeris; in eo quod homo est. audi lit imiteris. Discite. inquil. a me; non mundum
fabricare. et creare naturas: nec ilia quidem alia quae hic latens Deus. homo manifestlls effecit; nec ipsa
dicit. Discite a me febres ab aegrotantiblls pellere. fugare daemonia. mortuos suscitare. ventis et Jluctibus
imperare. super aquas ambulare: nec hoc dicit. Discite a me. Haec enim dedit quibusdam discipulis suis.
quibusdam non dedit: hoc autem. Discite a me. omnibus dicit; ab hoc praecepto nemo se excuset. Discite a
me quoniam mitis sum, er humilis corde. (PL 38:898.)

12 [bid.

burdened. and I will refresh you; take my yoke upon you-and he did not
add 'Learn of me, because I raise those who have been four days dead,'
but he said Learn of me because I am meek and lowly of heart (Mt 11 :28).
A down-to-earth lowliness [humility] is stronger and safer than a wind-
swept hauteur. And therefore he goes on to say, and you will find rest for
your souls (Mt 11:29). For love is not inflated (l Cor 13:4), and God is
love (1 1n 4:8), and those who are faithful in love will repose with him
(Wis 3:9). called away from the din outside to the joys of silence. 13

The way we are to be followers and imitators of Christ needs to be specified because

pride, in a certain sense, grows out of the aspiration to be like God. [n the Confessions.

Augustine observes: "In their perverted way all humanity imitates you. Yet they put

themselves at a distance from you and exalt themselves against yoU."I", Pride appeals to

the human desire to share in the life of God but it perverts this desire by seeking glory

and domination rather than obscurity and submission.

Augustine understands the root of prideful imitation in the human hunger for God.

Desiring God is so fundamental to human beings that even sin manifests this deep-seated

hunger. Sin is never wholly divorced from the good. The sinful inclination to be God

contains some attraction because it expresses our desire for God. In the City of God. he

writes: "Pride is a perverted imitation of God."15 Writing on this topic, Marthinus

Versfeld explains the attraction of pride thus:

Pride as image. self-alienated by futuristic imitation, is for Augustine the

root of all sins. It follows that we must regard lying. fornication,

13 The Trinity 8.11 (Hill. 252-253).

14 Confessions 2.6.14 (Chadwick. 32).

IS City of God 19.12 (Bettenson. 868). Also. de Musica 6.13.40: "Deum imitare quam Deo servire anima
maluit-through the vice of pride the soul desires rather to imitate than to serve God." as cited in Marthinus
Versfeld. "The notions of pride and imitation in Sl Augustine: in South African Journal of Philosophy.
1983.2(4) 180.

treachery, murder, dissension and the rest of St. Paul's list, as so many
human attempts to imitate God. There must be something in God, then,
which is imitated in these acts, especially since they are done by a spiritual
being created in his image, something distorted by an eye no longer single.
In other words, these acts have some substance, some reality, some
parasitic force. and that is why Augustine can say that some taste of the
eternal joy still lingers in them... Such acts are done when we imitate the
goodness of God. after refracting it through disobedient wills. They must
be parodies of God. testifying nevertheless to the structure of the
original. 16

Augustine knew first-hand that in sinful acts "some taste of the eternal joy still lingers in

them."17 And so. he is all the more on guard against the seductive desire of pride to

parody the powers of God.

Augustine traces prideful imitation back to Adam and Eve who fell for the

serpent's seductive words. "you will be like gods" (Gen. 3:5).18 They willed to be like

God. not on God's terms but their own. Rather than accepting their likeness to God. they

abandoned God who made them to be god-like. In the City of God. Augustine explains:

In fact they [our first parents] would have been better able to be like gods
if they had in obedience adhered to the supreme and real ground of their
being. if they had not in pride made themselves their own ground. For
created gods are gods not in their own true nature but by participation in
the true God. By aiming at more. a man is diminished. when he elects to
be self-sufficient and defects from the one who is really sufficient for

16 [bid .. 180-1.
17 [bid.

18 City o/God 14.13 (Beltenson. 573).

19 [bid. Quod melius esse possenc summo ueroque principio cohaerendo per oboedientiam. Dii enim crean
non sua uericace. sed Dei ueri parcicipacione sunt dii. Plus autem appecendo minus est. qui. dum sibi
sufficere deligit. ab ilio. qui ei uere sufficit. deficit. (eel 48:435).

In pride. creatures seek to make their own those powers that are exclusive to God. They

try to imitate God's omnipotence and infallibility-what is lofty in God not what is


Our imitation of Christ begins exclusively in his lowliness. his humility:

The Word of God says it, God says it. the Only-begotten says it. the Most
High says it: Learn of me. because I am meek and humble of heart. Such
high majesty came down to humility. and is man going to stretch himself
up? Pull in your horns, 0 man. and reduce yourself to the humble Christ.
or you may stretch yourself so far that you burst.!O

Here again Augustine teaches that a Christian should not aspire to imitate the Word who

orders creation. He warns against this delusional and self-defeating aspiration: "[A]nyone

who wishes to play God while he is just a man is not imitating the one who. while he was

God. became a man."!l Instead. he urges imitation of the distinctively humble elements

embodied in Christ's human life-those things that he did in his earthly existence. such

as. seeking out friendship with outcasts and sinners. bearing with insults and

misunderstandings. choosing poverty. humiliations. and. even death. For our imitation.

Augustine commends the Christ who was mocked and scourged. He focuses on what

Christ assumed in history not what he already was before becoming incarnate. It is the

concrete details of his earthly life-a life marked by tribulation and pain-that outline the

basic features of Christian discipleship.

20 Serm. 70A.l (WSA llli3:244): Verbum dei dicit. deus dicit. unigenilus dicit. altissimus dicit: discite a me
quia mitis sum et humilis corde. Tanta altitudo ad humilitatem discendit. et homo se tendit? Collige reo et
redige teo homo. ad humilem Christum. ne in tua e:ctensione rumparis.(PLS 2:513).

!l Serm. 137.4 (WSA 1I1'4:374): Qui enim vult Deus videri. cum sit homo. non imitarur illum. qui cum
Deus esset. homo factus est. (PL 38:756).

The downward mobility of Jesus' life is the template for all Christian life. His

trials prefigure our own. just as his resurrection anticipates our own. His sufferings teach

us that God's life triumphs in the midst of human weakness and agony. His resurrection

points to God's promise to "lift up the lowly" (Lk l:52)22 and to overcome all brokenness

and mortality. As his followers. our lives are to mirror the Paschal pattern by striving not

for the lofty things of God (i.e. hanging "up the sky") but to choose deliberately the lowly

things of God (even hanging on the Cross ["the wood of humility" ]).~

In sum. Augustine assures his hearers that seeking to be god-like is quite different

from seeking to imitate the "humble God" revealed in Christ's incarnate history. By

orienting ourselves in time to the things done for us by Christ in time. we are led beyond

time to eternity with God ("per hominem Chriscum in Chrisrum deum"). Our likeness to

Christ in humility promises a final likeness to the triune God through our participation in

divine immortality.2-~ But one cannot fast-forward to resurrection. exaltation. and eternity

without passing through the humility that is at the heart of Christian discipleship.

3.2. Augustine's Conversion to the Humble Christ

To arrive at a more concrete appreciation of how important humility is to
Augustine's understanding of the Christian life. I will begin with Augustine's own life.

where humility plays a decisive role in his own spiritual evolution. A student of

22 Scripture tense adapted

13 Senn 70A.l (WSA 1IU3:244).

William Babcock. The Christ of the E:cchange: A Study in the Christology ofA.ugustine·s Enarrariones in
Psalmos. 90.

Augustine realizes quickly that Augustine's own life experiences cannot be separated
from his theological work; they both weave together throughout his preaching and
writing. As the most personal of the Fathers. Augustine could not help but interrelate his
own dramatic search for God and his theological development. What perhaps most
distinguishes him as a theologian is the combination of his intellectually rigorous search
for truth and his deeply passionate quest for love. [n the humble Christ. he finds the

convergence of all that his mind and heart are seeking. so that. in passing on this reality
to others. he engages the whole person. mind and heart. as he himself was drawn to God.
Given this integrated approach. any study of Augustine's doctrine of humility must be
understood in light of his own journey to the humble God.

a. Confessions

Christ's humility deeply marked Augustine's own conversion and increasingly

shaped his sense of what mattered most in the Christian life. [n Carthage. at age nineteen

(372), Augustine finds himself admired among those at his rhetor's school for being able

to persuade people through his mastery of eloquent speech. Yet. a passage in Cicero's

Hortensius inspires him to pursue truth above all else. Cicero's words awaken him to the

emptiness and vanity of his worldly ambitions and he feels compelled to seek out

wisdom, "wherever found."15 At this turning point. he came to see through the

pretensions of Roman culture and his own training in his rhetoric. which offered only

fleeting satisfaction but failed to last and nourish his soul. Possessed by a new love for

wisdom, he did not stay with Cicero's philosophy because, through his mother's faith. he

15 Confessions 3.4.8 (Chadwick. 39).

had grown up with a vague but strong sense that Christ had to be integral to the full truth.

"[T]his name of my Saviour your Son, my infant heart had piously drunk in with my

mother's milk, and at a deep level I retained the memory. Any book which lacked this

name, however well-written or polished or true, could not entirely grip me."26 Since

Cicero did not mention Christ's name, Augustine turned to the scriptures to see if they

could offer him the whole truth.

Augustine correlates his discovery of the wisdom of scripture with his own

growth in humility. At first, Augustine finds that, in his pride, he is offended by the

Bible's humble form and he cannot penetrate its deeper meaning:

I therefore decided to give attention to the holy scriptures and to find out
what they were like. And this is what met me: something neither open to
the proud nor laid bare to mere children: a text lowly to the beginner bur,
on further reading, of mountainous difficulty and enveloped in mysteries.
I was not in any state to be able to enter into that, or to bow my head to
climb its steps ... It seemed to me unworthy in comparison with the
dignity of Cicero. My inflated conceit shunned the Bible's restraint, and
my gaze never penetrated to its inwardness ... I disdained to be a little
beginner. Puffed up with pride, I considered myself a mature adultP

Offended by its crude style, Augustine shuns scripture. Later in hindsight, lamenting his
"inflated conceit," he will describe the movement of humility as a lowering of his head so

26 Ibid.• (Chadwick. -ill): hoc nomen salualoris mei. filii lIIi. in ipso adhuc lacle matris tenerum cor meum
pie biberat et alte retinebat. et quidquid sine hoc nomine [uissel quamllis litteratum et e:cpolitum et
Ileridicllm non me tatum rapiebat. (CCl27:30).

27 Ibid.. 3.5.9 (Chadwick. .to): (taqlle institlli animum intendere in scriptllras sanctas et Ilidere. qllales
essent. Et ecce uideo rem non compertem superbis neque nudatam plleris. sed incessu humilem. successu
e.tcelsam et uelatam mysteriis. et non erarn ego talis. lit intrare in earn possem alit inclinare ceruicem ad
eius gressus. Non enim sicut modo loquor. ita sensi. cum attendi ad Wam scripturam. sed uisa est mihi
indigna. quam Tullianae dignitati compararem. Tumor enim meus refugiebat modum eius el acies mea non
penetrabat interiora eills. Verum aUlem illa erat. quae cresceret cum panllllis. sed ego dedignabar esse
paruulus ellllrgidus [asru mihi grandis uidebar. (CCl 27:30-31).

as to enter the low gateway of scripture and only then, "climb its steps."28 But for now,

he fails in this descending/ascending movement of humility because he lacks intellectual

docility and reverence for an authority greater than himself. The movement of lowering

to scripture's plainness is inextricably tied to the movement of ascent to its truth, and yet

his inflated ego keeps him from lowering himself. Years later, Augustine will describe
his own youthful arrogance to his congregation:

I am speaking to you as one who was myself caught out once upon a time.
when as a lad I wanted to tackle the divine scriptures with the techniques
of clever disputation before bringing to them the spirit of earnest inquiry.
In this way I was shutting the door of my Lord against myself by my
misplaced attitude: I should have been knocking at it for it to be opened.
but instead I was adding my weight to keep it shut. I was presuming to
seek in my pride what can only be found by humility.29

In the City of God. Augustine frames his critique of Roman culture in terms of the
contrast between its pride and the humility of those in the City of God. As one educated

in Roman literature and formed by Roman culture. Augustine knew first-hand its

cultivation of pride. Well-trained in the finest of Latin culture. he was put off by the

uncultivated and seemingly childish language of the Bible. which he read in its African

Latin (pre-Jerome) translation.3° Its style was deficient and he looked with ridicule and

disdain upon its awkward simplicity: it clashed with his highly cultured taste and it fell
below the standards of his intellectual acumen.

28 [bid.

29 Serm. 51.6 (WSA lllJ3:24): Loquor vobis. aJiquando deceprus. cllm primo p"er ad divinas Scripturas
ante vellem afferre acumen discutiendi. quam pietatem quaerendi: ego ipse contra me perversis moribllS
claudebam januam Domini mei: cum pulsare deberem. lit aperiretllr; addebam. ut clauderetur. Sllperbus
enim alldebam quaerere. qllod nisi humilis non porest in venire. (Pl38:332-254).

30 Ibid. fn. 17.

Yet after this dismissal of revelation. it would be fourteen years before Augustine

would tum again to the Bible and recognize the humble Christ as the one truth worthy of

his full trust and surrender. For nine years. he fell in with the Manichaeans who attracted

him by their austerity of life. their elaborate ceremonies. and their comprehensive
religious system. which claimed to cohere with scientific rationality. Most important,
Christ was included in the Manichaean teachings.31 though heretically.3:! and they gave a

compelling answer to the problem of evil. Although Augustine does not seem to have

fully assented to Manichaean doctrines and myths. 33 he remained with the sect while he
struggled to reconcile its beliefs about the cosmos and divine reality with his knowledge

of rationally demonstrated truths of natural philosophy and astronomy. He was assured

that the renowned Manichee bishop, Faustus, would provide satisfying answers to all the

miscalculations and absurdities that he began to uncover.

In his meeting with Faustus, Augustine gets a glimpse of humility. though it is

vague and unformed by Christ. He simultaneously experiences disillusionment and

attraction. On the one hand, he is thoroughly disappointed with Faustus, for this

acclaimed Manichee fails to answer the core questions that haunted Augustine for years.

Faustus acknowledges his limited knowledge of the liberal arts and he does not even

attempt to resolve Augustine's difficulties. Consequently. Augustine's enthusiasm for the

31 Confessions 3.6.10 (Chadwick. 40).

3:! The Manichees understanding of Christ was quite different from the humble God that Augustine came to
revere. Gerald Bonner observes that. according to the Manichees. Christ "was very different from the
Child born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger ... Christ. indeed only seemed to be in the likeness of sinful
flesh during His appearance on earth and therefore. as His flesh was not true flesh. so His Passion was a
mere pretence and His resurrection a fable:' Gerald Bonner. St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies
(Norwich: Canterbury Press: Revised Edition. 1986). 167.

33 The Happy Life 1.4. trans. Ludwig Schopp in Fathers of the Church (New York: CIMA Publishing.

Manichees fades and he questions whether he will ever be able to find truth. As his
search to understand God and the nature of evil reaches a dead-end, his disillusionment
turns to skepticism. He despairs of having wasted many years in a sect that proved so
insubstantial both intellectually and emotionally.
On the other hand, in his meeting with this distinguished Manichaean bishop,
Augustine learns something quite unexpected. As a pleasant and modest man, Faustus
inspires Augustine by his intellectual modesty. Faustus is careful not to speak of things
he does not know and he frankly states his ignorance. Augustine explains, "For the
controlled modesty of a mind that admits limitations is more beautiful than the things [
was anxious to know about."34 Augustine finds himself surprisingly drawn to Faustus'
ability to gracefully refuse to speak of matters he knew not. Without realizing it. Faustus
furthers Augustine's intellectual and moral conversion by confirming Augustine's well-
founded doubts about Mani's writings and encouraging him to honestly face his own

ignorance. Augustine does not find the satisfying answers he was hoping for. but he
receives a surprising glimpse of the humility that stands in contrast with the pride he
knows in himself. 3s

After a period of intellectual skepticism in Rome. Augustine goes to Milan. Here

he undergoes a tortured acknowledgment of his own self-deception. which becomes all
the more intense during Ponticianus' story of the two young imperial officers who were

converted under the influence of St. Athanasius' Life of St. Anthony:

Lord, you turned my attention back to myself. You took me up from

behind my own back where I had placed myself because I did not wish to

34 Confessions 5.7.12 (Chadwick. 79).

3S Although it is beyond the scope of this dissenation. it is wonh noting that Augustine' s mention of
people. like Faustus. who approximate humility. can point the way toward a consideration of secul:lr
analogues to humility.

observe myself (Ps. 20:13), and you set me before my face (Ps. 49:2l) so
that I should see how vile I was, how twisted and filthy, covered in sores
and ulcers. And I looked and was appalled. but there was no way of
escaping from myself. If I tried to avert my gaze from myself. his story
continued relentlessly, and you once again placed me in front of myself;
you thrust me before my own eyes so that I should discover my iniquity
and hate it. I had known it, but deceived myself. refused to admit it, and
pushed it out of my mind. 36
Through Ponticianus' story, Augustine confronts the contrast between the officers'
spontaneous abandonment to God and his own hesitancy and indecisiveness. God reveals
to him his own wretchedness and powerlessness to begin a new life. In the past. the pain
of this self-revelation was too much to bear and too much to overcome. But now
Augustine is granted the grace to enter into the pain of self-knowledge with the humble
recognition that he cannot be free from his sinful self on his own. In realizing his utter
dependence on God. he moves into what could be called the first stage of humility. Like
a patient awaiting the surgeon's scalpel. he must utterly trust in the humble doctor, the
physician of the soul. Only with utter trust in the doctor can such healing pains be
endured. Gradually, by engendering trust, God inculcates humility in Augustine so that

he can understand his painful journey to self-knowledge as a "severe mercy" that opens
the way to true healing.
As a rhetor and teacher moving in imperial circles. Augustine eventually finds an
intellectual home in Neoplatonism. In tracing his journey from Neoplatonism to his finai

home in Christianity, he describes Christ's humility as pivotal. With the help of

Neoplatonic thought, he resolves his difficulties concerning the nature of God, the

36 Confessions 8.7.16 (Chadwick. 144-(45): Tu alltem. domine. inter uerba eius retorquebas me ad me
ipsum. auferens me a dorso meo. IIbi me posueram. dum nollem me attendere. et constituebas me ante
faciem meam. ut lIiderem. quam turpis essem. quam distortus et sordidus. maculosllS et u/cerosus. Et
Ilidebam et horrebam. et quo a me fugerum non erat. Et si conabar allertere a me aspectllm. narrabat ille
quod na"abat. et til me rorsus opponebas mihi et impingebas me in oculus meos. ut inuenirem iniqllitatem
meam et odissem. NOlleram eam. sed dissimlliabam et cohibebam et obliuiscebar. (CCL 27: 123-(24).

problem of evil, and, the possibility of knowing the truth. 37 Pressing questions that had
troubled his mind find resolution and lead him to a deeper appreciation of Christian
truths. But the hean of Christian faith, the "Word made flesh." escapes him. While
standing at the threshold of Christianity, he acknowledges that Jesus had a unique
wisdom and was a paradigmatic model of a good human life; but he does not know how
to think about the union of the human and the divine in Christ. In Book Seven,
Augustine explains that although he initially considered Christ a supreme teacher and role
model. he had not begun to fathom how this man could be God. Using Augustine's
mediatorship terminology, one might say that, he had not moved from seeing Jesus'
humanity to believing in his divinity. He had yet to move from seeing Jesus in his
poveny and weakness to believing that he is the sublime and mysterious God that he

desperately sought. He writes:

I thought of Christ my Lord only as a man of excellent wisdom which

none could equal. I thought his wonderful binh from a virgin was an
example of despising temporal things to gain immonality for us, and such
divine care for us gave him great authority as teacher. But the mystery of
the Word made flesh I had not begun to guess. 38

Not yet seeing Christ as "the Word made flesh," he cannot believe that God chose to
share in the imperfect and corruptible realities of temporal existence. The movement

from seeing to believing entails a purification whereby in humility he is drawn from the
visible (the humble Christ) to the invisible (the transcendent God).

37William Mallard. Langllage and Love: Introducing Augusrine's Religious Thoughr Through rhe
Confessions Srory. (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press. 1994). 129.

38 Confessions 7.19.25 (Chadwick 128): Ego uero aliud purabam rantumque sentiebam de domino Chrisco
meo. quantum de excellentis sapienriae uiro. cui nullus posser aequari. praeserrim quia mirabilirer narus ex
uirgine ad exemplum contemnendorum remporalium prae adipiscenda immorralirare diu ina pro nobis cura
ranram aucrorirarem magisrerii meruisse uidebarur. Quid aurem sacramenti haberet uerbum caro factum.
ne suspicari quidem poteram. (CCl27:108),

Augustine acknowledges that, with the help of Neoplatonism, he came to learn
about the generation of the Word by God and the co-eternal presence of the Word with
God. He observes: "I also read in them [the Platonic books] that God, the Word, was

born not of blood nor man's desire nor lust of the flesh, but of God: but that the Word was

made flesh and dwelt among us, I did not read there."39 Among the Neoplatonists, there
was no disagreement over the divinity of the Word proclaimed in John 1: 1. But humility

did not accord well with Neoplatonic thought and never did they teach that '''the Word

was made flesh and dwelt among us'" (John 1: 13-14}.-IO Only partially accepting the
prologue of John's Gospel, they did not know the Word made flesh who died for our sins

and became the via ad patriam. From a distance, they knew the goal-returning to the

One-but not the "way" to the goal, the humble Mediator, Jesus Christ.-'I

Augustine observes ordinary, uneducated believers tinding the way to God while

he and the Neoplatonists. with all their intelligence and sophistication. refuse the "way."

The Neoplatonists. who held matter suspect. saw Christ's humility as unworthy of

divinity because it revealed God stooping to humanity, and taking on the burdens of the

flesh. Because the "flesh" was believed to be inherently at odds with the spirit. this union

in Christ was an utter contradiction. overturning the hierarchical ordering of the cosmos.

How could the unchangeable One become a lesser being? In Plotinus' view. it was

inconceivable that the return of souls to the One would involve the self-abasement of the

One. Moreover, divine immutability could not be reconciled with human suffering.

39 [bid.. 7.9.14 (Chadwick. 121): Item legi ibi. quia uerbum. deus. non ex came. non ex sanguine non e.:c
uoluntare uiri neque ex uoluntare camis. sed ex deo nalllS est; sed quia uerbum caro factum est et habitallit
in nobis. non ibi legi. (CCL 27: 10 1).

-10 [bid.

-'I [bid.• 7.21.27 (Chadwick. 131).

Looking back on his Neoplatonism, Augustine finds that pride was his obstacle.
As a budding intellectual. sharp and ambitious, he put great confidence in his own ability
to reason. He wanted. ultimately. to master truth. He clung to his reason as the principal
route to truth and he regarded faith as an inferior form of knowing. But reason alone
could not lead him to the humility of the [ncarnate Word.
Morally. Augustine was inspired by Christ's example of human excellence. But.
in trying to imitate his goodness. he fails. He writes: "Not yet was [ humble enough to
grasp the humble lesus as my God. nor did [ know what his weakness had to teach."42 [n
seeking moral and intellectual self-sufficiency. Augustine faces a dilemma. He finds that
the core of Christian faith cannot be fully grasped by reason and that ingrained moral vice
cannot be overcome by sheer will-power. Powerless to reach what he intellectually
knows to be true and what in his heart he most deeply desires. he confronts his

[n Milan. while being formed in Neoplatonic thought. Augustine came to a new

appreciation for scripture. Ambrose. the former Roman governor. now bishop of Milan.

opens his mind to the revealed word. At first. Augustine goes to hear Ambrose preach
just to admire his oratorical style.43 Then. as he listens to the content of Ambrose's
sermons. he learns about the allegorical reading of scripture. whereby ordinary language
communicates sublime truth. He overcomes a great stumbling block as he learns to look
beyond what at first seems simplistic or even contradictory. Beneath the humble and
rustic appearance of the words. Augustine discovers the vast beauty of divinely revealed
truths: what at first seems crude and almost insulting to the intelligence is seen in its

42 Ibid.• 7.18.24 (Chadwick. (28): Non enim tenebam deum meum [esum humilis humilem nee euius rei
magistra essel eius injirmilas noueram. (CCL 27:108).

43 Ibid.. 5.13.23 (Chadwick. 87).

humility to be a treasure revealing the most sublime mystery. As he draws closer to
understanding the Incarnation, he sees that scripture itself is an expression of the humility
of God. There is a humility in the Word made flesh and in God's "incarnation" in
scripture. The humble style of scripture mirrors the humility of the Incarnation: a
treasure comes in the form of what is lowly.
Speaking of his newly discovered appreciation of scripture. Augustine writes:

None of this is in the Platonist books. Those pages do not contain the face
of this devotion, tears of confession, your sacrifice, a troubled spirit, a
contrite and humble spirit (Ps. 50: 19), the salvation of your people, the
espoused city (Rev. 21:5), the guarantee of your Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 5:5),
the cup of our redemption. In the Platonic books no one sings: 'Surely my
soul will be submissive to God? From him is my salvation: he is also my
God and my saviour who upholds me: I shall not be moved any more' (Ps.
No one there hears him who calls 'Come to me. you who labour'
(Matt. 11:28). They disdain to learn from him, for 'he is meek and humble
of heart:""
Although the Neoplatonists advance beyond many fallacies in their search for truth. their
inability to receive the truth of Christ's humility begins to be seen. by Augustine. as a

grave error.
Beyond the direct witness of Christ's humility. and the humble form of God's
revelation in scripture. Augustine draws closer to Christian faith through a "cloud of
witnesses." Among those who taught him humility is Marius Victorinus. the African

rhetorician and translator of Plotinus:'s In 386. while in Milan, Simplicianus. an elderly

"" [bid.. 7.21.27 (Chadwick. 13l): Hoc illae litlerae non habent. Non habent ilIae paginae Illlltllm pietatis
huillS. laerimas confession is. saerificillm tuum. spirin,m eontriblliatum. cor eontritum et humilialllm. populi
salutem. sponsam ciuitatem. arram SpiritllS saneti. poeulum pretii nostri. ,vema ibi eantat: ,vonne deo
subdita erit anima mea? Ab ipso enim salutare meum: etemim ipse dellS meus et salutaris mellS. suseeptor
meus: non mouebor amplius. Nemo ibi audit uocantem: Venite ad me. qui laboratis. Dedignantur ab eo
discere. quoniam mitis est et humilis corde. (CCL 27: 11).

-lS F. Van Der Meer. Augustine the Bishop. trans. Brian Battershaw and G.R. Lamb. (New York: Sheed and
Wani. (961). 562.

priest familiar with Neoplatonism.46 tells Augustine the story of Victorinus' conversion
and the dramatic witness he bore to humility when confessing the faith. As an
exceptionally learned and distinguished teacher and scholar. Victorinus participated in
and defended the cultic rituals of Rome. ~7 At an advanced age. however. he examined
the scriptures and in private confessed to Simplicianius that he was a Christian. Because
he was afraid to offend his fellow cult worshippers and soil his reputation. Victorinus
kept his Christian beliefs private. Simplicianus chided him saying: "I shall not. .. count
you among the Christians unless [ see you in the Church of Christ." Victorinus retorted:
"Then do walls make Christians?"~8

Finally. Victorinus came to see his own pride and cowardice. He feared being
rejected by God for hiding his belief and not entering into open communion with the


He would have felt guilty of a grave crime if he were ashamed of the

mysteries of the humility of your Word and were not ashamed of the
sacrilegious rites of proud demons. whose pride he imitated when he
accepted their ceremonies.~9

And so. in the spirit of Christ's humility. Victorinus goes before the church and makes his
public profession of faith. He leaves his elite. privileged circle and joins the Christian

body where all are equal before God and all are offered the same salvation. regardless of

46 Ibid.• 571: Mallard 127-8: TeSelle 74.

~7 W. Mallard notes that along with fellow Neoplatonists. Victorinus participated in idol worship and
animal rituals. He even defended the practice of worshipping the gods of conquered peoples. which
included Anubis. the barking dog. Idols were believed to mediate an experience of the divine. especially to
those incapable of sophisticated contemplation. William Mallard. Language and Love. 132.

~8 Confessions 8.2.4 (Chadwick. 136): 'Won credem nec deputabo te inter christianos. nisi in ecclesia
Christi "ide roo .. llle autem inridebat dicens: "Ergo parietes /aciunt christianos?" (CCL 27: 115).

~9 Ibid. reusque sibi magni criminis apparuit erubescendo de sacramentis humilitatis llerbi tIIi et non
erubescendo de sacris sacrilegis superborum daemoniorum. quae imitator superblls acceperat. (CCL
:!7: 116).

their class or talents. The church brings together the ignorant and the brilliant, the young
and the old, the poor and the wealthy. As Victorinus surrenders to "the whole
Christ"-the community of faith-the ecclesial dimension of humility comes into focus.
Humility brings Victorinus into communion with ordinary and needy people.

The ecclesial dimension of humility, introduced here by Augustine, implies a

refashioning of the classical notion of friendship. Friendships are no longer based on a
comparable achievement of virtue but on a common faith. People are joined as brothers
and sisters in the body of Christ where humility and forgiveness bind together people of
differing moral and intellectual accomplishment. Humility ensures that drawing near to
Christ entails drawing near to the members of his body who are not equal in station or in
moral excellence. An attitude of humility sets the foundation for this new corporate and
communal identity. Augustine gives a poignant description of this body of Christ by
describing the sheer joy of the congregation who received Victorinus into their hearts.
Victorinus gives up being identified principally through his accomplishments: he

embraces his identity as one among many members of Christ's body. Augustine contrasts
the body of the church with the "crowds of frenzied pagans" who denounced Victorinus.
Like a body, the congregation is knit together by the Spirit with each part playing a
distinct but essential role for the health of the whole. A crowd. on the other hand. is
disordered and lacking in purpose and mutual cooperation. Augustine writes. "The proud

'saw and were angry. They gnashed with their teeth and were sick at heart' (Ps. lll: 10).
But the Lord God was the hope of his servant; 'he paid no regard to vanities and lying
follies' (Ps. 39: 5).50 Here Augustine identifies humility with the courage of testifying
before the community of faith not distinct for its eloquence but for its love. Influenced

50 Ibid. Superbi uidebant et irascebantur, dentibus suis stridebant et tabescebant: seruo autem tuo dominus
deus erat spes eius et non respiciebat in uanitates et insanias mendaces. (CCL 27: 116).

by Victorinus' conversion, Augustine himself will offer his own public testimony in his
writing of the Confessions.
The parallel between Victorinus and Augustine, of which Simplicianus was
shrewdly aware, consists largely in the journey from intellectual pride and moral self-
sufficiency to humble faith and trust in God. Augustine shows his awareness of
Simplicianus' intentions: "As soon as your servant Simplicianus told me this story about
Victorinus, I was ardent to follow his example. He had indeed told it to me with this
object in view."51 Both men needed to surrender their desire to be superior, in order to

join the community of believers.

After hearing the story of Victorinus and other conversion stories (Antony. the
Egyptian monk. and the Roman agents).52 Augustine burns with a desire to imitate them
but is unable. As he moves closer to his own conversion. he feels at odds with himself.
His lingering attachment to worldly ambitions and his sexual compulsion hold him in
bondage to sin. His leaning toward prideful independence pulls against his attraction to

the life of humility modeled in Victorinus' conversion. William Mallard observes that, at
this point, Augustine's struggle is moral rather than intellectual. for he no longer mentions

any intellectual difficulty with the Incarnation after his encounter with Simplicianus:

Simplicianus may have spoken to him specifically about the Incarnation,

the divine Humility, the Word made flesh. which had proved such an
intellectual stumbling block to the young Augustine ... Augustine's
recollection of Simplicianus. Neoplatonism. John's Gospel. and the 'proud
ones,' immediately includes John 1: 14, the Incarnation. The passage
thereby closely parallels the two sentences in the Confessions (8.2.3), in
which Simplicianus congratulates Augustine on the choice of
Neoplatonism as a philosophy, and urges him to accept the humility of

51 Ibid .. 8.5.10 (Chadwick. (39).

S2 Ibid.• 8.6.14 (Chadwick. (42).

Christ as did the once-proud Victorinus-advice that is only a breath away
from telling [of] God's own humility in the Word made flesh.53

Mallard concludes that some untold intellectual resolution occurred for Augustine
through Simplicianus' explanation of Christ's humility.

Augustine most directly credits St. Paul, "the least" of the apostles,s" as the source
of his appreciation for Christ's humility.55 Paul taught him that the humility of the Word

revealed in Christ is utterly central to the healing of the will. This is an important

development in his thought for in his biography of Augustine, Peter Brown observes that,
at the time of Augustine's conversion (386), he hoped to harmonize his Neoplatonism56

with Christianity. Christianity seemed to enrich, not contradict. his Neoplatonic outlook.
He even viewed Paul's account of the humble Christ as an important supplement to

Neoplatonism rather than something entirely new. 57 But roughly ten years later. when

writing his Confessions. this hope for an integration of Christianity and Neoplatonism

had diminished.58 Brown reports:

Ten years later ... Augustine. indeed. had decided that he would never
reach the fulfilment that he first thought was promised to him by a

53 W. Mallard. LAnguage and Lo~'e. 128-9.

5.. 1 Cor. 15:9. See Confessions 7.21.27 (Chadwick. (32).

55 P. Adnes. "Humilite." Dictionnaire de Spiritualitt! 7 (1969): 1150.

56 Neoplatonism is an umbrella term for a rather diverse philosophical continent. Not knowing Greek.
Augustine was limited to the available texts of Latin translators and commentators. Among scholars. his
knowledge of Neoplatonism is subject to debate. It is generally believed that. before his conversion. he
read a few essays from Plotinus' Enneads (1.6:5.1: etc) and some speculate that he read Porphyry's
Sententiae. In the 390s. Augustine is believed to have read Plotinus extensively and by the early .was he
was well acquainted with Porphyry. Augustine's Neoplatonism ran deep so that even while he professes to
renounce Neoplatonism. his pattern of thought remains tinged with its influence. See H. Hagendahl.
Augustine and the Latin Classics (Goteborg. (967); John M. Rist. ,\ugustine: :\ncient Thought Bapti:.ed
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994).8-9.

57 W. Mallard. LAnguage and Love. 106.

58 P. Brown. Augustine of Hippo. 146-8.

Christian Platonism: he would never impose a victory of mind over body
in himself, he would never achieve the wrapt contemplation of the ideal
philosopher. 59

This change came as a result of Augustine's re-reading of Paul's epistles in the mid-390s
at the urging of Simplicianus, a well-respected priest and friend of Ambrose and
Victorinus. As he wrote his reply to Simplicianus who questioned him about Paul's
Epistle to the Romans, a great change occurred. Augustine was struck by Paul's
insistence on God's grace. 60 Describing this event, Roben Markus writes:

He [Augustine] had begun the work as an attempt to vindicate the free

choice of the human will: but God's grace prevailed... His re-reading of
Saint Paul in the mid-390's is one of the great divides of Augustine's
intellectual development. It marks the end of his belief in human self-
determination and the beginnings of the theology of grace he would
deploy against Pelagius. This is the key to the growth of the new
preoccupations in Augustine's mind: his sense of the power of sin in men's
lives. of man's powerlessness to free himself of its sway. his need of God's
grace to attain salvation. 61
James 1. O'Donnell and others believe that his new reading of Paul led him. in writing his

Confessions. to give special emphasis to the theological imponance of Paul in his Milan

conversion. 62 Augustinian scholar, Paula Fredriksen. for instance. explains that it is

difficult for a reader of the Confessions to determine whether Augustine's conversion
account is describing events in 386 or some decade-later perspective. Nonetheless. she

59 Ibid .. 147.

60Propositionum ex epistola ad Romanos 44.3. Augustine an Romans: Propositions from the Epistle to the
Romans trans. Paula Fredriksen Landes (Chico. Califomia:Scholars Press. 1982), 17.

61 Robert A. Markus, Conversion and Disenchantment in Augustine's Spiritual Career (Villanova. PA:
Villanova University Press. 1989).21-22.

62 lames 1. O'Donnell. "An Introduction to Augustine's Co nfe s s ion s . ..

hnp·/ p.7: W. Mallard. lAnguage and Love. 106; David Vincent
Meconi. "The Incarnation and the Role of Participation in St. Augustine's Confessions" Aug. Srudies 29:1

argues that at the time of his conversion in 386, Augustine is largely shaped by
Neoplatonism. Thus, his works at Cassiciacum, written around this time, reflect his view

of Paul as a Christian philosopher. Beginning in 395, however, in re-reading Paul, his

views alter quite dramatically. For example. in 395. commenting on Romans. Augustine

defends the notion that one freely chooses to respond in faith to God's cal1.63 But. by

400, in both the ad Simplicianllm. 64 and the Confessions Book Eight. Augustine reads
Paul as teaching about the gratuitous gift of God's grace which mysteriously turns the

sinner around to receive God's grace. Fredriksen writes:

The Augustine who stands embroiled in the anti-Manichaean campaigns

of the Nonh African Church in the year 400, who has read the letters of
Paul for over a decade in a very different personal. political. and
ecclesiastical setting from that of the garden in Milan and the orillm
liberale of Cassiciacum. sees the events that introduced him to
Catholicism quite differently from the way he saw them in 386. He also
sees a different Paul-not the Christian philosopher. nor the staunch
defender of free will. but the sinner inexplicably redeemed from his
former life by the unmerited gift of God's grace~ and who. like Augustine.
accordingly sings praises to God's divine inscrutability.6s

Reflecting on his own journey in the Confessions. Augustine describes the powerful

effect of Paul's words: "In surprising ways these thoughts had a visceral effect on me as I

read 'the least' of your apostles (1 Cor. 15:9). I meditated upon your works and trembled

(Hab. 3:2)."66

63 Propositions fonn the Epistle to the Romans 44.3 (P. Fredriksen Landes. l7).

64 Ad Simplicianum Lii.5: 1.ii.22.

6S Paula Fredriksen. "Paul and Augustine: Conversion Narratives. Orthodox Traditions. and the
Retrospective Self." Journal of Theological Studies. n.s.. 37 (1986).24.

66 Confessions 7.21.27 (Chadwick. l32): Haec mihi inuiscerabantur mins modis. cum minimum
aposto[orum tuorum legerem. et consideraueram opera tua et e:cpaueram. (CCL 27: ll2).

In the midst of this marked change in Augustine's outlook, it seems that Paul's

teaching about the humble Christ in Philippians 2 made a deep impression on him and his

understanding of Christian discipleship. Albert Verwilghen observes that Augustine's

meditation on Paul's Philippians hymn served as a "second conversion." for it led him to

see humility as central to the pattern of Christ's life and Christian discipleship.67 It is

perhaps this "second conversion" that led him to write in the Confessions about the

opposition between Christian humility and the Neoplatonists' pride.68

Although many of his Neoplatonic convictions found resonance in Christianity

(the generation of the Word by God. the co-eternal presence of the Word with God).6'1

Augustine !Jecame increasingly aware that the Neoplatonists had no room for a belief in

God's humility as manifest in the self-emptying of the Word. The Incarnation. the

humility of the Word. constituted the decisive difference between Christianity and

Neoplatonism. The notion of a humble God who draws close clashes with the notion of a

divinity that is distant. aloof. and above the striving of humanity. Moreover. exhorting

followers to have the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5), the humble God. reverses the ascending

movement of Neoplatonic contemplation. The descending movement illustrated in the

Incarnate Christ calls for a watchfulness that anticipates God's initiative. Grace cannot

be exploited or controlled: it is always received as an undeserved gift.

67 Verwilghen•.US.

68 Eugene TeSelle. Augustine. the Theologian. 37.

6'1 Ibid.• 7.9.14 (Chadwick. (21).

Augustine's struggle through various kinds of intellectual perplexity plays a

crucial role in his faith journey, yet, in the final stages of his conversion he does not come

to God by way of a deeper intellectual insight. Nor does faith in Christ emerge out of

despair and intellectual skepticism. Rather, a crucial moment in Augustine's conversion

is when the drama of divine lowliness, in a mysterious way, overwhelms him and sets

him on a new road. The downward path of Christ, humbled to the point of death. reveals

a depth of love previously unimaginable. [n his astonishment at the love of God revealed

in humility, Augustine writes:

[n the inferior parts he built for himself a humble house of our clay. By
this he detaches from themselves those who are willing to be made his
subjects and carries them across to himself, healing their swelling and
nourishing Lheir love. They are no longer to place confidence in
themselves. but rather to become weak. They see at their feet divinity
become weak by his sharing in our 'coat of skin' (Gen. 3:21). [n their
weariness they fall prostrate before this divine weakness which raises and
lifts them upJo

With awe he describes how the impression made by the "humble God" elicits wonder and

praise for a God who shares "in our 'coat of skin.tI' Gradually. Augustine draws closer to

humility through a series of failed attempts to be self-sufficient both intellectually and

morally. Finally, Christ's humility is the catalyst that moves him from intellectual

presumption and moral autonomy to a true confession of his need for God's mercy.

70 Ibid .. 7.18.24 (Chadwick. (28): Verbum enim tuum. aeterna ueritas. superioribus creaturae tuae
panibus SIlpereminens subditos erigit ad se ipsam. in inferioribus autem aedificauit sibi humilem domum
de limo nostro. per quam subdendos deprimeret a se ipsis et ad se traiceret. sanans tlunorem et nutriens
amorem. ne fiducia sui progrederentur long ius. sed pocius infirmarentur Ilidentes ante pedes SilOS infirmam
diuinitatem ex panicipatione tunicae pelliciae nostrae et lassi prosternerentur in eam. ilia autem surgens
lellaret eos. (CCL 27:108).

Rather than seeking worldly fame as a great orator, Augustine's ambition is transformed

into a readiness to be honestly self-critical and to glorify God in weakness.

Finally. in a Milanese garden, flooded with tears and laments. Augustine receives

the grace to cast himself entirely upon Jesus Christ and commit to a Christian life. His

earlier prayer: "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet."71 turns into a whole-

hearted pleading: "Let it be now. let it be now."n Suddenly his anxious longing finds

solace. He hears a rhythmic call "Tolle, lege." (take up. read). opens a book of Paul's

letters. and reads "put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its

lust (Rom. 13:13-14)."73 At last with the grace to surrender to Christ. he recalls that. "it

was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of

doubt were dispelled."7" His vacillation and instability give way to a new freedom and

resolve. In Christ. he is empowered to live what before had been merely the aspiration of

his weak will. Augustine explains. "There is one hope. one ground of confidence. one

reliable promise-your mercy."75

In this dramatic turn. Augustine comes to receive the Incarnation more affectively

and imaginatively than intellectually. He finds that the mystery of God's condescension

and the stark paradox of the humble God cannot be completely grasped and contained in

71 Ibid.. 8.7.16 (Chadwick. (45).

n Ibid.. 8.11.25 (Chadwick. 150).

73 Ibid.. 8.12.29 (Chadwick. (53).


75 Ibid.. 10.32.48 (Chadwick. 207).

his mind. This discovery of the limits of his reason humbles him and reconfigures his

imagination. Only after reaching the limits of his mind and will. is he drawn in wonder

and awe to bend his knees in praise. Augustine contrasts his new found gratitude with the

Neoplatonists' pride:

But those who. like actors. wear the high boots of a supposedly more
sublime teaching do not hear him who says 'Learn of me. that I am meek
and humble in heart. and you shall find rest for you souls' (Matt. 11:29).
Even if they know 'God. they do not glorify him as God or give thanks.
but are lost in their own thoughts and their foolish heart is obscured;
professing themselves wise. they have become fools' (Rom. 1:21-3).76

William Mallard points out that. in the original text used by Augustine. this quotation
from Paul is in the past tense. n Augustine. however. quotes Paul in the present. which
suggests that he is speaking of his current indictment of the Neoplatonists for their self-

defeating pride.
As Augustine looks back on his conversion. he realizes that God used even his
failings to further his redemption. Paradoxically. he is brought closer to God with every

dead-end; in running away from God he ends up drawing closer to God. Augustine aptly
compares himself to the Prodigal Son of St. Luke's Gospe\. As he wanders far from
home he becomes increasingly desirous of returning home. God is revealed to him in his

own sin and failure. In shame, he returns home and discovers the immense love and
inexhaustible mercy of his Father. Augustine discovers a correlation between his own
weakness and divine grace; things become worse and better simultaneously. In honestly

facing his weakness and limitation, he draws closer to the moment when he desperately

76 Ibid .. 7.9.14 (Chadwick. 122) Qui autem cothumo tamquam doctrinae sublimioris dati non audiunt
dicentem: discite a me. quoniam mitis sum et humilis corde. et inuenietis reql!'em animabus uestris. etsi
cognoscunt deum. non sicut deum glorificant aut gratias agunt. sed euanescunt in cogitationibus suis et
obscuratur insipiens cor eo rum: dicentes se esse sapientes sallti facti sunt. (CCl 27: 102).

n W. Mallard. Language and Love. 110.

knocks on the door of life. He sees the value of his own weakness and he recalls how it

was precisely in weakness that he came to know how deeply God loved him. He writes:
"[L]et us who are in the night of this world hear also prophecy with earnest attention for

now our Lord willed to come in humility to our weakness and the deep night darkness of
our hearts."7s In his weakness, he is thunderstruck by the experience of a God who

stoops to meet him in the most unwelcome chambers of his being.

The outgoing and downward movement of God toward humanity reveals the

distinctively Christian conception of the divine-human relationship. Augustine highlights

how the descent of the Word into human existence reverses the Neoplatonic view that
human beings initiate divine-human contact by striving upward according to their own

merits and efforts. Plotinus, for instance. the father of Neoplatonism, believed that the

soul. no matter how fallen. having a divine origin. can always reach the vision of God on
its own.79 Augustine. however. came to realize that the soul is not itself divine. It is

made in God's image yet it is at a distance from God. This makes possible both its

freedom and its propensity toward sin. The fallen soul. weighed down by sin. depends on

divine mercy and intervention for its elevation to God.

Augustine's belief in the Incarnation radically reorients his Neoplatonic outlook

for it challenges the presumption of the "ascending" perspective by disclosing a God who

stoops down and draws near out of mercy. William Mallard describes Augustine's shift in


The shift in agency from the man particIpating upward to God

participating downward is quite enough to say that a cornerstone of
thought has changed for Augustine. A unique 'downward' initiative of

7S Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John 35.6 (Gibbs and [nnes. 206).

79Bernard McGinn. The Foundations of Mysticism. vol. 1 (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

singular divine agency could not emerge within Augustine's strictly
philosophical milieu. 80

This change in the "cornerstone" of Augustine's thought. which Verwilghen refers to as

his "second conversion,"si leads him to stress the contrast between Christian humility and

Neoplatonic pride. Later on in his life, in commenting on Psalm 31. Augustine

emphasizes that those who do not believe in the Incarnation (such as the Neoplatonists,

the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Manicheans) also do not teach humility. Despite the

partial soundness of their teachings, they miss the only route to God. Augustine writes:

Everywhere are to be found excellent precepts concerning morals and

discipline, but this humility is not to be found. This way of humility
comes from another source; it comes from Christ. What else did he teach
by humbling himself and becoming obedient unto death, even death on a
cross? What else did he teach by paying a debt which he did not owe. so
that he might free us from our debt? What else did he teach by being
baptized. though he had committed no sin. and being crucified. though he
was not guilty in any way? What else did he teach but this humility? Not
without good reason does he say: I am the way and the tnleh and the life.
By this humility human beings draw close to God. for the Lord is close to
those of contrite heart. 82

While agreeing with the moral precepts of many philosophies. particularly Neoplatonism.

Augustine finds that they all succumb to pride, which keeps them from knowing the

"humble God."

80 W. Mallard. "The Incarnation of Augustine's Conversion." Recherches Augustiniennes 15 (1980): 89.

81 Verwilghen.428.

82 Enarrationes in Psalmos 31.2.18 (cited and translated by Basil Studer in The Grace of Christ and the
Grace of God in Augustine of Hippo: Christocentrism or Theocentrism? 52). Vbicumque etiam inueniuntur
optima praecepta mOnlm et disciplinae. humililas tamen ista non inuenilllr. Via hllmilitalis huius aliunde
manat; a Christo uenit. Haec uia ab illo est. qui cum essel altus, humilis uenit. Quid enim aliud docuil
humilando se. factus oboediens usque ad mortem. mortem autem crucis? Quid aliud docuit soluendo quod
non debebat. ut nos a debiro liberaret? Quid aliud docuit bapti:arus qui peccarum non fecit. cnlcifixus qui
reatum non habebat? Quid aliud docuir nisi hanc humilitatem? Non immerito air: Ego slim uia et ueriras
el uira. In hac ergo hllmililare propinquatur ad Deum. quia prope est Dominus his qui obrriuenlnt cor.
(CCL 38:239).

Contrasting the presumption of the Neoplatonists with the humble confession of
the believer. Augustine explains that the proud presume that they reach heights of insight
through their own self-discipline and mental acumen. The self-sufficiency of the
Neoplatonic ascent reveals a pride that ultimately fails to reach God. For a lost humanity.
there is only one road to God. the way of humility:

It is one thing from a wooded summit to catch a glimpse of the homeland

of peace and not to find the way to it. but vainly to attempt the journey
along an impracticable route surrounded by the ambushes and assaults of
fugitive deserters with their chief. 'the lion and the dragon' (Ps. 90: 13). [t
is another thing to hold on to the way that leads there. defended by the
protection of the heavenly emperor. There no deserters from the heavenly
army lie waiting to attack. For this way they hate like a torture. S3
The homeland is not to be discerned from afar. as the Neoplatonists presume. but. "lived
in."!!4 The Word is a living reality that in Christ Jesus becomes intimate and palpable. It

is through God's humble descent to us that our own ascent to God is possible.

b. The Humble Bishop

From his youthful search for contemplative complacency to a life dedicated to

tirelessly serving the church as priest and bishop. Augustine shows both the gradual and
dramatic turning that takes place in the journey from pride to Christ-like humility.
Augustine's life as a bishop witnesses to the kenotic form of humility for in lieu of his

own preference for a quiet, contemplative life of study among friends. Augustine
tirelessly served the people of God, believers as well as those seeking faith. He knew that

83Confessions 7.21.27 (Chadwick 131-2): Et aliud est de siluestri cacumine uidere patriam pacis et iter ad
eam non inuenire I et frusta conari per il/uia circum obsidentibus et insidiantibus fugitiuis desenoribus
cum principe suo leone et dracone. et aliud tenere uiam illuc dllcentem cura caelestis imperatoris mllnitam.
ubi non latrocinantur qui cae/estem militiam deseruerunt: uitant enim eam sicut supplicium. (CCL 17:

!!4 Ibid.. 7.20.26 (Chadwick. 130).

intimacy with God was found in service to his ''fellow citizens and pilgrims."85 Speaking

to God, he writes: "You have commanded me to serve them if [ wish to live with you and
in dependence on you. "86

Commending his ordained ministry to the guidance and inspiration of Christ, the

"master of humility."K7 Augustine shunned the honors and prestige that accompanied his

position as bishop:

Whatever we may be, don't let your hope rest in our person as such. but in
the Person of Christ. [would readily make little of myself so as to speak
like a true bishop: [ want to rejoice over you and not be exalted by you.
Without a doubt, if [ find any people placing their hope in my person, [
would not commend them for this: they are to be corrected. not confirmed
in their attitude: to be changed. not to be left to continue in doing
this ... Don't let your hopes rest in us as persons, don't let your hopes rest
on men. [f we are good, we are ministers: if we are bad we are also
ministers. But, if indeed we be good, we are being ministers faithful to
Christ really and truly his ministers. K8

[n the City of God, Augustine goes even further to say, "a 'bishop' who has set his hean

on a position of eminence rather than an opportunity for service should realize that he is

no bishop."89 Servanthood is the principal feature of leadership in the church. Yet

Augustine's legacy is not without serious failure in humility. His desire for unity and

mutual love among Christians in North Africa led him to approve, painstakingly, of

8S [bid.• lO.4.6 (Chadwick. 181).

86 Ibid. (Chadwick. 182).

87 Tractates on the Gospel of John :!5.16 (Rettig, 254) (PL 35: 1604); also Tractate 59.1. Serm. 62.1.

88 Serm. 340A.9 (WSA lW9:302): Sed qualescumque sumus. spes \'estra non sit in nobis. Mihi derogo. ut
episcopus hoc loquar: gaudere de vobis vola, non inflari. Omnino quemcumque invenero spem ponentem
in me. non illi gratulor: emendandus est. non fimUlndus: mutandus est. non stabiliendus... spes vestra non
sit in nobis. spes vestra non sit in hominibus. Boni sumus. ministri sumus; mali sumus. ministri sumus. Sed
bani. fideles ministri. vere ministri. (PLS 2:644).

89 City of God 19.19 (Benenson. 880).

coercion to bring the Donatists into the church. His approval of force does taint his
witness to humble service and it is this failure which many leaders in the future would

later use to justify church coercion. Nonetheless, Augustine's extreme insistence on

unity to the point of coercion should not overshadow the humble service that marked
much of his tenure as bishop.
In the introduction to his classic study, Augustine the Bishop, F. Van Der Meer

gives a moving account of how humility stands out as Augustine's most saintly and

prominent attribute:

Yet we need not spend much time in searching out the virtue which
Augustine practised to such a heroic degree. It was humility. It was his
gift of sympathy and his ability to suggest to others that he shared their
feelings that made that naturally proud spirit into a man of charm: but it
was his humility that made him into a saint. Has he not told us himself
that he abandoned neo-Platonism because Christianity taught him that the
Intinite Majesty came to us in humility'? In the Word made flesh the
supreme Truth became kindly and indeed irresistible. so much so that
fishermen and other working folk could receive it. It was this which
moved him, and this realization was among the greatest gifts of grace
which he received. Until his death he was to preach that the essential
mystery of the Faith is the Incarnation and that the first lesson of the
Incarnation is humility. After that all seemed vanity to him. save only the
humble man's love. 'God humbled himself: he once cried from the pulpit.
'and yet man stays proud.'90

In his 39 years as a minister of the Catholic church (39l-430). Augustine always regarded

himself as a fellow traveler with his congregation. He did not speak to his hearers as if

he himself were superior or in any less need than they of God's grace.91 In Book Ten of

the Confessions, he tells his readers of his own ceaseless temptations to pride:

90 Van Ocr Meer. AlIglistine the Bishop. x;~i.

91Serm. 259.6 (WSA £lin: 182): After these days. let love of the law bring you to demand from me what [
have promised. After all. it's the real giver who is giving it to you through me: he of course is the one who
gives to us all."

Surely the third kind of temptation (l John 2: 16) has not ceased to trouble
me, nor during the whole of this life can it cease. The temptation is to
wish to be feared or loved by people for no reason other than the joy
derived from such power, which is no joy at all. It is a wretched life, and
vanity is repulsive. This is the main cause why I fail to love and fear you
in purity.'n

It is likely that Augustine's ongoing temptation to pride led him to stress the importance

of humility, especially for those holding a position of prominence. Augustine also comes

to realize that the success of his life depends not so much on becoming perfect in virtUe

and moral discipline as shifting trust from himself to God's mercy. Knowing the fragility

of our goodness, Augustine writes: "Anyone who could change from the worse to the

better can also change from the better to the worse. There is one hope, one ground of

confidence, one reliable promise-your mercy."'l3 Later. in the City of God. he writes:

"Our righteousness itself. too. though genuine. in virtue of the genuine Ultimate Good to

which it is referred. is nevertheless only such as to consist in the forgiveness of sins

rather than in the perfection of virtues."'l-l Augustine openly acknowledged his need for

ongoing conversion and he firmly placed himself at the side of his community in seeking

God's mercy and strength. Lee F. Bacchi observes that Augustine's language:

indicates his awareness that he was a fellow disciple along with all other
Christians. even though as bishop he had authority over them. He never
referred to the congregation at Hippo as 'my people.' Rather. he would
speak of them as 'the people of the heavenly Jerusalem,' 'members of
Christ.' 'the sheep of the Lord.' He tells Darius that 'we [bishops] are

92 Confessions 10.36.59 (Chadwick. 213): quoque tertium temptationis I genus cessauit a me aut cessare in
hac tota uita potest. timeri et amari uelle ab hominibus non propter aiiud. sed ut inde sit gaudium. quod
non est gaudium? Misera uita est et foeda iactanria. I Hinc fit uei ma.time non amare te nec caste timere
teo (CCL 27:187).

93 [bid.. 1O.32A8 (Chadwick. 207): utrum qui fieri potuit ex deteriore melior. non fiat etiam ex meliore
deterior. Vna spes. una fiducia. una firma promissio misericordia tuG. (CCL 27: 181).

94 City of God 19.27 (Bettenson. 892). (psa quoque nostra iustitia. quamuis uera sit propter uerum boni
finem. ad quem refertur. tamen tanta est in hac uita. ut pocius remissione peccatorum consret quam
perfectionem uirtumm. (CCL 48: 697).

your guardians, you are the flock of God,' not using the possessive

Augustine's humility took the form of being ready to give of himself, however needed, in

his catechesis and preaching. As bishop, he did not cater to the tastes of his well-educated
hearers although he certainly had the genius to impress the most sophisticated Latin
elites. He consciously tried not to show off his rhetorical skill to impress his hearers.%

lnstead, he acknowledged that the Christian message is appropriated at different levels

and he judiciously adapted his preaching style to his diverse hearers. In De
Catechi:andis Rudibus, for example, Augustine offers his readers two different

catechetical discourses - one for those more properly formed in their views and one for
those whose views need serious correction.'}7 He also used colloquial slang and earthy

comparisons for his Berber hearers and more high-flown language and elaborate rhetoric

for the Roman expatriates. while keeping the content of his message the same. The

stylistic range of Augustine's sermons is astonishing. He aimed to engage all hearers and

stir their hearts with the Good News.98

Augustine insisted that his own words were inadequate in the light of the word of

God. Writing at a time when church leaders differed markedly about scriptural
interpretation,99 Augustine cautions:

We, who preach and write books, write in a manner altogether different
from the manner in which the canon of the Scriptures has been written.

Lee F. Bacchi •.• A Ministry Characterized by and Exercised in Humility: The Theology of Ordained
Ministry in the Letters of Augustine of Hippo." Collectanea Augustiniana 2:406.

% Auerbach. Literary Language and Its Public. 53-54.

'T7 On the Catechising of the Uninstnlcted16:24-17:28 (Salmond. 299-302).

98 Gillian Oark. The Confessions (Cambridge. MA: Cambridge University Press. 1993).70-79.

99 Peter Brown. KA New Augustine." in The New York Review of Books. (June 24. 1999).48.

We write while we are still making progress. We learn something new
every day. We dictate books at the same time as we are searching for
answers. We speak in sermons while we still knock at God's door for
understanding. I urge you all, on my behalf and in my own case, that you
should not take any previous book or preaching of mine as Holy Scripture .
. . If anyone criticizes me when I have said what is right, he does not do
right. But I would be more angry with the one who praises me and takes
what I have written as Gospel truth (UI canonicum) than the one who
criticizes me unfairly. [00

Augustine sternly warns his congregation not to automatically associate his teaching with

God's truth. Moreover. his openness to self-criticism and lively debate on his own views

gives a credible witness to the kind of authority that humility evokes.

Despite his revered position in the church, Augustine remained open to ongoing

correction and repentance. Bacchi reports:

The author of De magislro always considered himself first and foremost as

a learner. He told Florentina. a young lady whom he tutored. that he acted
not so much as a finished master. but as one who needed perfecting along
with his pupils.lO[

It was in this spirit that Augustine wrote one of his last works. the Relractaliones

(Revisions), in which, reviewing his major writings with a humble and self-critical eye.
he acknowledged his mistaken claims and oversights. [02 Relying on the authority of

scripture, Church Councils. and the leadership of the see of Rome, he was ready to

modify or completely change his positions after prayerful re-consideration. In sum.

[00 Dolbeau Sermon (unspecified) in Peter Brown. "A New Augustine:' The New York Review of Books
(1999). ~8. A review of The Works of Saint Augustine Illlll: Newly Discovered Sermons. trans. Edmund

lOt Lee F. Bacchi. UA Ministry Characterized by and Exercised in Humility: The Theology of Ordained
Ministry in the Letters of Augustine of Hippo:' 408-409.

UP- Not all scholars have appreciated Augustine's revisions. Eugene TeSelle observes that Augustine
misinterprets some of his earliest writings from Cassiciacum (386-387) because he "continually felt called
upon to express regret at things that had been said playfully by a cultured schoolmaster." TeSelle.
Augustine the Theologian. 59.

Augustine demonstrates the humility of self-knowledge by always remaining aware of

himself as a sinner. Yet, in showing that truthfulness bears fruit in charity, he graciously
accepted his responsibility as a leader and lived out his call to be a channel of divine
grace for his fellow Christians and those who would inherit his example.

In parts three and four of this chapter. we turn from Augustine's personal account

of humility to his more theological teaching on humility as true self-knowledge and as

service. Part three focuses on the movement of truthfulness in humility-viewing self-

knowledge in relation to the ultimate goodness of the created order as well as the

sinfulness that corrodes that goodness. This section covers the initial movement of
humility from egocentrism to theocentrism. Part four, humility as service, is more

Christocentric. The focus is on the movement of love in humility-understood in relation

to the self-emptying of God's love in Jesus Christ. This more outwardly directed

movement expresses a deeper level of humility that builds upon the self-honesty that

makes true self-giving possible.

3.3. Humility as True Self-Knowledge

One of Augustine's great insights. as illustrated in the Confessions. is that self-

knowledge is inextricably linked to knowledge of God. Because human beings are

created in the image and likeness of God. true self-perception is found not in isolated

introspection but in relation to others, especially Christ, who most clearly reveals to us

who we are. In Book Ten, he writes: "For what I know of myself I know because you

grant me light. and what I do not know of myself, I do not know until such time as my

darkness becomes 'like noonday' before your face (Isa. 58:10)."103 Augustine's narrative

103 Confessions 10.5.7 (Chadwick. 182-(83).

of his conversion invites readers to look at themselves in the presence of God. In
particular, before the humble God they come to know themselves as called to humility.

This section will begin with distinguishing human humility from divine humility. It will

then tum to humility as knowing one's ultimate goodness as well as one's sinfulness,

correcting despair and pride. What most easily corrupts true self-knowledge, according
to Augustine, is pride. It festers under the guise of humility. Thus, we will look at

Augustine's warnings against a "lying humility" because it undoes our own goodness and
truthfulness. Finally, this section will consider how humble self-knowledge keeps an eye

on the promise of exaltation. It calls for being "present" in a way that encompasses past,
present, and future.

a. Divine and Human Humility

While truth and love are inseparable in Augustine's thought. the difference

between divine humility and the initial movement of human humility can be understood

in terms of the truth-love distinction. As mentioned in chapter two (2.1.d.), Augustine

often compares divine and human humility by explaining that divine humility is utterly

unique and cannot be imitated literally. By lowering into creation and dwelling among

human beings. God humbly becomes what God is not. Human humility, on the other

hand, involves a different, less dramatic kind of lowering. Rather than an ontological

lowering, the disciple is lowered from the false heights of pride to the true lowliness of

humility. Here humility involves a "lowering" from self-deception to truth.

Augustine teaches that love is pivotal to the downward movement of God's

humility. Out of love, God's Son joins the human lot and takes on the full array of
human needs. For our salvation, the Word moves from the highest point-etemity with

the Father-to the lowest point-death on a cross. Augustine writes. "It was not sin. but

love, that made him humble."I04 [n other words, the humble God is God's loving

response to humanity gone astray. Tntth, on the other hand, is pivotal to the downward
movement of human humility, the deflation of human pride, and the acceptance of true

self-knowledge. In humility, we see both our giftedness and our sinfulness before a God
who already knows us more intimately than we will ever know ourselves. At its most

basic level, human humility is about becoming aware of what and who we are; it is

essentially, self-honesty. For instance, Augustine exhorts his congregation to awaken to

their true identity as creatures. "Man. man. notice that you are just a man."105

The humble self. re-centered in God. is lowered from a false superiority to a true

recognition of his or her limitedness and sinfulness. Explaining this dimension of

humility, Augustine preaches: "You are not being told. 'Be something less than you are:

but 'Understand what you are. Understand that you're weak. understand that you are
merely human. understand that you are a sinner."I06 God's self-revelation in Christ

enjoins us to know our giftedness as God's creatures while being aware of our need to be

reconciled with our Creator. Although being lifted out of despair is a facet of Christ's

humility, Augustine focuses on the recognition of our sin over the appreciation of our

true value and giftedness. This focus reflects his belief that we are not only more prone to
exaggerate our self-importance but this form of pride is most pervasive and corrosive to

the good. Thus, while humble self-knowledge can bring us up from despair, Augustine

gives great attention to humility bringing us down from pride.

104 Holy Virginity 38 (O"Connell and Pellegrino. 65): "Eum cene humilem non iniquitas. sed caritas fecit."
(CSEL 41:278).

105 Serm. 341A.2 (WSA lIUlO:31): 0 homo. vide quia homo es. (PLS 2:468).

106 Senn. 137.4 (WSA UI/4:374).

In the Tractates on the Gospel of John, Augustine encourages an imitation of
Christ's humility while highlighting the distinction between divine and human humility:

Why are you proud. man'? God became humble for your sake. Perhaps. it
would shame you to imitate a humble man; at least imitate a humble God.
The Son of God came in [the form of] a man. and became humble; you are
instructed to be humble. you are not instructed to become a brute animal
instead of a man. That God became a man; you man. know that you are a
man. All your humility is this, that you know yourself. 107

Here Augustine specifically points out the foolishness of the notion that human humility

can literally imitate divine humility. Human beings cannot and should not become

animals. for human humility does not call for one to be less than one truly is. The

humbled self is not degraded or belittled but honestly knows its true place in the ordering

of creation. To be humble is to see through the devil's false promise: "you shall be as

godS."I08 Self-knowledge includes self-love but it is intelligent self-love (inlelligenli

amare se ipsllm) based on the truth about oneself and one's destiny in God.lQ'l Thus. a

theocentric orientation is essential to authentic self-love.

Augustine's understanding of humility as self-knowledge goes to the heart of his

ontology for he links the humble discovery of self to the ontological ordering of reality.

Self-understanding is inextricably tied to an understanding of the created order.

Moreover, there is a harmony between the divine ordering in creation and the interior

order of the creature. The order within the self (whereby the soul governs the body, the

107 Tractates on the Gospel of John 25.16 (Rettig, 254): Quid superbis. homo? Deus propter te humilis
factus est. Pllderet te fonasse imitari hllmilem hominem. saltem imilare humilem Deum. Venit Filius Dei
in homine. el hllmilis factlls est: praecipilur tibi ut sis humilis. non tibi praecipitllr lit e:c homine fias pecllS;
ille DellS factus est homo; til. homo. cognosce qllia es homo: rota humilitas tlla. ut cognoscas teo (CCL

108 Genesis 3:5 as cited in City of God 14.13 (Bettenson. 573).

109 City of God 10.3 (Bettenson. 376).

mind rules the passions), the order in society, in creation, and in the divine-human
relationship, all yield peace: "the tranquillity of order."IID Fundamentally, humble self-

knowledge entails knowing one's proper place in creation-one's true relation to God,
self, neighbor, and lesser created goods. It begins with coming down from self-inflation

and acknowledging oneself as limited, incomplete, and dependent on God.

In fine, the tenn humility is not a univocal one in Augustine's writings. Both
divine and human humility entail submission to the will of the Father, but the downward

movement, integral to both. is markedly different. In human humility, one lowers from
an inflated sense of self to a true understanding of oneself. In human humility, we

become more fully ourselves, whereas. in divine humility, God becomes other for our

b. Humility and Self-Love

Here we directly address how Augustine's teaching on humility stands in relation

to the modern suspicion that cenain traditional virtues undennine self-respect and human

dignity. While Augustine describes Christ's humility as lowering the self from pride, it

also entails elevating the self from despair. Humble self-knowledge corrects the

tendency to underestimate one's self-worth and to turn inward in self-hatred and despair.

In fact, a proper love of self is essential to love of neighbor.

Now God, our master, teaches two chief precepts, love of God and love of
neighbor; and in them man finds three objects for his love: God, himself,
and his neighbor; and a man who loves God is not wrong in loving
himself. It follows, therefore. that he will be concerned also that his

liD [bid., 19.13 (Bettenson, 870).

neighbor should love God, since he is told to love his neighbour as
himself. .. 111

Humility calls for recognizing that as God's creation we are fundamentally praiseworthy.
This delight in oneself before God is not arrogance but true humble appreciation:

Praise not yourself but God in you; not because you are this or that kind of
fellow, but because he made you: not because you possess a certain power,
but because he shows his power in you and through you. [n this way they
will praise you [God] and 'proclaim your might' - not their own power,
but yours. Learn. then. to praise. Contemplate the work and admire the
maker - thankfully, not arrogantly. Praise him because he made you and
established you thus and gave you such gifts. I I:!

Rather than boasting and congratulating ourselves. we are to thank God for all that is
good in us. The person who knows God as the source of all good. accepts admiration
from others graciously. Without protest or frustration at his or her unworthiness. the
humble person receives praise by giving it all to God: "[f admiration is the usual and

proper accompaniment of a good life and good actions. we ought not to renounce it any
more than the good life which accompanies it."1l3 Augustine assures his readers that
humility is not just a matter of being modest or feeling oneself to be unworthy of praise.
Rather. humility is built upon realism and the sincere desire to acknowledge dependence

on God. Self-disparagement or self-pity, based on intellect alone or mere sentiment. fails

to capture the submission of heart and mind inspired by Christ's humility.

III Ibid .. 19.14 (Bettenson. 873): lam vero quia duo praecipua praecepta. hoc est dilectionem Dei et
dilectionem pro:cimi. docet magister Deus. in quibus tria in venit homo quae diligat. Deum. se iPSlun et
pro:cimum. atque ille in se diligendo non errat. qui Deum diligit: consequens est. lit etiam pro:cimo ad
diligendum Deum consultat. quem illbewr sieUI se ipsllm diligere .. .(CCL 40:681).

II:! Enarrationes in Psalmos 144 [145}.7 (O'Connell and Pellegrino. 67): Dellm in te lallda. non te: non
qllia tu es talis. sed qllia ille fecit te; non qllia tu aliqllid potes. sed quia potest ille in te et per teo .k per hoc
lalldahunt teo et virutem tuam annllnriabllnl: non suam. sed tuam. Discite ergo laudare. lntuentes opera.
miramini artificem; gratias agendo. non arrogando. wlIdale qllia ipse fecit. quia sic constituit. quia talia
donauit. (CCL 40:2093).

113 Confessions 10.37.60 (Chadwick. 2(5).

Augustine speaks of Christ's humble way as the "middle way" between "despair"
(deficient self-regard) on the one hand and "presumption" (excessive self-regard) on the
other. I I",

To keep, however, to the middle way, the true, straight road, threading its
way, as it were, between the left hand of despair and the right hand of
presumption, would be extremely difficult for us, unless Christ had said I
am the way... Christ the way is the humble Christ; Christ the truth is
Christ exalted and GOd. 115

Christ's humility enables us to find the mean or "middle way" because it simultaneously
expresses God's love and God's judgment. It provides the true "measuring rod"116 for a

proper sense of self-worth, because it reveals our desperate need for Christ (due to our

sin) while reassuring us that there has been a high price paid for us (due to our dignity).

Christ's humility brings to light that God's love is not diminished on account of

our repeated failings but remains constant. In The Christian Combat, Augustine writes:

Let the human race take hope and rediscover its own nature. Let it see
what an important place it occupies among the works of God ... Who can
despair of his own salvation. for whom the Son of God has willed to
become so lowly [humilis]?ll7

This passage suggests that it is only in view of Christ's saving humility that we can look

honestly at our sin. sincerely repent. and find healing. However guilty we may be.

11"' Serm. 142.1 (WSA UU4:4(3).

lIS £bid.• Tenere autem viam mediam. veram. rectam. tamquam inter sinistram desperationis et de:cteram
praesumptionis. difficillimum esset nobis. nisi Christus dice ret. Ego sllm via. . . Via Christus. hllmilis
Christus; veritas et vita Christus. e:ccelsus et Deus.

116 MacQueen. "Contemptus Dei: Sl Augustine on the Disorder of Pride in Society. and its Remedies:'
Recherches AllgllStiniennes 9 (1973) 279.

117 The Christian Combat 11.12 (R.P. Russell. 329-330): Erigat spem suam genus hllmanum. et
recognoscat natllram suam: videat qllantum locum habeat in operiblls Dei... Quis de se desperet. pro quo
tam hllmilis esse voluit Filius Dei? (PL 40:297-298).

Christ's humility on the cross offers unprecedented hope to our fallen humanity because it

reveals how God does not hold back in giving himself to us, even at our worst:

If we look to ourselves, what are we? If we look to him, he is God and all-
powerful. Will he who made man out of nothing, not make an angel out
of man? Or do you think God sets little value on man. even though he
wanted his only Son to die for him? Consider the proof of God's love.
We have received so many pledges of God's promises: we have the death
and the blood of Christ. Whose death? The death of the only Son. For
whom did he die? 0, for good men; surely for just men! But what do we
read? 'Christ died for us godless men,' says the Apostle (Rom 5:6)! If he
bestowed on godless men the gift of his death. what gift has he left for the
just. except his life?118

In this passage. Augustine joins Paul in expressing amazement that: "while we still were

sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). Christ entered into the worst of humanity and in

the agony of the cross he forgave all. those who abandoned him as well as his

persecutors. I 19

Christ's self-subjection does not call us to be self-denigrating or servile in our

relationship to God or each other. After all. he gave himself to us in dignity and freedom.

Rather than driving us to self-pity and self-loathing. the cross challenges believers to

never despair or forget God's extreme love and forgiveness. Humility. then, does not

consist of berating ourselves and grudgingly swallowing our pride. Rather. Christ's

humility brings consolation and liberation to the believer. who is always called to return

to God in repentance and hopefulness:

118 Enarrations on che Psalms 148.8 (O'Connell and Pellegrino. 146); Si ad nos adtendamus. quid sumus!
si ad ilium. Dells est. omnipotens esc. Non est facturus angelum ex homine. qui fecit hominem ex nihilo?
alit uero pro minima habet Dells hominem. propter quem mori uolllit Vnicum suum? Adcendamus ad
indicium dilectionis. Promissionis Dei cales arrhas accepimus: tenemlls morCem Chrisci. cenemus
sangllinem Christi. Qllis mortuus est? Vnicus. Pro quibus mortuus est? Vtinam pro bonis. utinam pro
iustis. Sed quid? Etenim Christus. ait aposrolus. pro impiis mortuus est. Qui donauic impiis mortem suam.
quid seruat illstis. nisi uitam suam? (CCL 40:2170).

119 Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John 40.2 (Gibbs and Innes. 225).

So there is hope, even for the sinner. Pray to God, don't despair, beat your
breast, take it out on yourself by repentance, so that he won't take it out on
you in judgment. Whoever humbles himself and lowers himself draws
near to the Most High.l211

Dissatisfaction with ourselves and a hunger for God do not necessarily yield self-defeat
and frustration, rather, they can motivate us toward the good. Augustine' s stress upon
dissatisfaction and self-scrutiny must be understood in this context. Honest awareness of
sinfulness aims to correct exaggerated notions of self-importance. It frees us from the
debilitating need to be right all the time and impress others. Pride can result in a turning
within which isolates us from others and brings despair. Augustine reminds us that in
pride, we justify human failure, rather than seek our true identity in Christ where. by
grace, we live according to a higher standard.
Moreover, humility is stable because it does not base self-worth on the fleeting
consolations of the world. It is rooted in the unchanging love of God. It entails
acknowledging one's sin. repenting, and "forging ahead": 121

Forge ahead, my brothers and sisters: always examine yourselves without

self-deception, without flattery, without buttering yourselves up. After all.
there's nobody inside you before whom you need feel ashamed. or whom
you need to impress. There is someone there, but one who is pleased with
humility: let him test you. And you, too, test yourself. Always be
dissatisfied with what you are, if you want to arrive at what you are not
yet. Because wherever you are satisfied with yourself, there you have
stuck. I!!

120 Serm.136A (WSA ITU4:360) (PLS 2:521).

121 Serm. 169.18 (WSA rrU5:235) (PL 38:926).

1:!2 Ibid. Proficire. frares mei. discutite vos semper sine dolo. sine adulatione. sine palpatione. Non enim
aliquis est intllS tecum. cui cmbescas. et jactes teo Est ibi. sed cui placet humiliras. ipse te prober. Proba et
te ipsum tu ipse. Semper tibi displiceat quod es. si vis perllenire ad id quod nondum es. Nam ubi tibi
placuisti. ibi remansisti (PL 38:926).

Like his teacher St. Paul, Augustine encourages the Christian to keep moving forward, to
avoid despair and self-loathing and to properly love self in light of the goodness of God,
our creator.

c. The Personal Dimension of False Humility

Augustine places humility at the tirst stage of the Christian spiritual journey. but,
he insists that it is needed all along the way because pride is a continual threat to
Christian discipleship. Pride is such a serious vice because it can be present even when
one does good. Long before Nietzsche set out to unmask the pride that hides behind the
cloak of humility. Augustine warned his fifth century congregation about false humility.
for actions that seem humble often can be the most arrogant. Knowing that when a
person doing good begins to crave praise and honor. appearances can become more
valued than the good deed. he warns: "We must be fearful of all the other vices in sin. but
pride we have to fear even when we do right. We mustn't let our desire for praise cost us
the things we do that are worthy of praise."l:!3 For instance. the very condemnation of

pride can generate pride in the desire to be praised for speaking out against vanity: "This
[vanity] is a temptation to me even when I reject it, because of the very fact that I am
rejecting it. Often the contempt of vainglory becomes a source of even more vainglory.
For it is not being scorned when the contempt is something one is proud 0["114

Augustine also advises against the various protestations of unworthiness. In the

City of God, he explains that:

If anyone acts before men's eyes with the intention of seeming to despise
glory. then men may suspect that such action is designed to win greater

l:!3 Letters of Saint Augustine. trans. John Leinenweber (Tarrytown. N.Y.: Triumph Books. 1992). 10 1.
114 Confessions 10.38.63 (Chadwick. 217).

praise, that is, greater glory; and there is no way in which he can make it
apparent to perception that such suspicion is groundless. l25
Attuned to the human capacity for deception and ever alert to pride, Augustine rails
against what he calls a "lying humility" whereby, to avoid the appearance of arrogance,
one professes to be sinful while interiorly believing in one's innocence and worthiness
before God. [n pointing out the hypocrisy and irony involved in a "lying humility."
Augustine insists upon the convergence of humility and truthfulness:

God does not accept your lying humility...

You're lying, because you don't say with your lips what you believe
yourself to be in your heart. So even if you weren't a sinner. you begin to
be one as soon as you lie. What you're saying, you see. is. "[['s for the
sake of humility that we say we are sinners; because God can see that we
are just.' So since you tell a lie for the sake of humility. if you weren't a
sinner before you lied, by lying you were turned into what you had been
avoiding. The truth is not in you, unless you say you are a sinner in such a
way that you also actually know you are. What truth means is that you
should say what you actually are. After all. how can there be any humility
where falsehood is reigning,?126

False humility, in this case, is the lie of pride, which denies sinfulness and presumes

worthiness. This self-righteousness corrodes all moral probity. Here Augustine shows
the elusiveness of humility for it cannot be known simply by what one says or does. but

only in the secret of one's inner self. This "hiddenness" of humility illustrates the
importance of attending to what lies beneath the surface. Appearances can be deceiving.
even in our own self-understanding. Thus. humility calls for a "looking within." a testing

125 City o/God 5.19 (Beltenson. 212).

126 Serm. 181.5 (WSA UII5:326): Non accipit Deus mendacem humilitatem tuam ... Mentiris. quia non quod
te esse corde credis. hoc ore dicis. Ergo et si non eras peccator. esse incipies dum mentiris. Dicis enim:
Humilitatis callSa non dicimus peccatores esse: nam Deus videt quia justi sum us. Cum ergo humilitatis
callSa mentiris. si non eras peccator antequam mentireris. mentiendo efficeris quod evitaveras. Veritas in te
non est. nisi te ita dixeris peccatorem. ut edam esse cognoscas. Veritas autem ipsa est. ut quod es dicas.
Nam quomodo est humilitas. ubi regnat/alsitas? (PL 38:981).

of one's true motivations. Augustine assures his congregation that God sees all that
happens interiorly:

You are modest and submissive out of your craving to get rich, but the one
who made you knows better; he's taking better care of you by not giving
you what isn't good for you, even when you ask for it... You're looking at
that rich neighbor of yours, a man of property and of pride. By looking at
him and trying to compete with him, you will grow proud too. You won't
become humble unless you look at the one who became humble for your
sake. m
Urging his hearers to fix their attention on Christ's humility, Augustine cautions against
the false modesty that comes from craving worldly praise and comfort: "If you put your
hopes in another man, that is the wrong kind of humility; but if you put your hopes in
yourself, that is dangerous pride." 128 Humility comes only from a hope firmly placed in

Christ and external expressions alone cannot be the measure of humility.

Augustine does not propose a methodical way to cultivate humility but he does
suggest that certain things can be remembered to encourage humility. He counsels
believers to cultivate true self-knowledge by meditating on their own mortality. [n

commenting on Psalm 39, Augustine recommends "the medicine of mortality":

Remember. you are mortal and clothed in decaying flesh. 'like men you
shall die. and fall like any prince' (Ps. 82.7), like the devil shall you fall.
How shall the medicine of mortality help you? The devil is proud, being
an angel without mortal flesh. You are clad in mortal flesh, and if such an
infirmity does not help you to humble yourself, you shall 'fall like any

m Serm. 68.11 (WSA IIII3:130) Cllpiditate habendi te submittis: sed melills te novit, qlli te fecit: melius
consulit tibi. qlli et petenti non dat qllod non expedit tibi ... Adtendis enim ad ~'icinllm tUllm divitem.
habentem. superbientem: adtendendo illllm et aemlliando. sllperblls eris: humilis non eris. nisi ellm qlli
propter te humilis factus est adtenderis (PLS 2:510).

128 Serm. 13.2 (WSA llIIl:309).

129 Enarrations on the Psalms 38 [39] (O'Connell and Pellegrino. 44); Ecce mortales estis. ecce camem
putrescentem portatis. et sicut unus ex principibus cadetis: sicut homines moriemini. et cadetis sicut
diabolus. Quid Ilobis prodest medicina mortalitatis? Superbus diaboills. tamqllam angelus non habens

In other words, our well-being as disciples depends on keeping our mortality regularly in
mind. Not only are we all alike in the inevitability of our death but we are all prone to
revisiting our sins again and again. To be humble is to realize our place among sinners so
that we remain vigilant and never presume that we are above certain failings.

In showing the interrelation between true humility and an interior

acknowledgment of one's place among sinners. Augustine sternly distinguishes Christ-
like humility from a "false innocence":130

Humility is part of our confession that we are sinners. But humility lies
not in the spoken word. which might seek only to avoid the offense of
arrogance in calling ourselves righteous. In wickedness and folly a man
will say: I know that I am righteous. but I cannot say so openly. for folk
will not suffer it: let my righteousness be known of God. and I will call
myself a sinner-not because I am. but that I may not be set down as
arrogant and offensive. No. say what you are. to man as well as to God.
If you do not tell God what you are. he will condemn what he finds in you.
If you would not have his condemnation. speak your own. If you would
have his pardon. do you acknowledge your need of it: say to God. 'Tum
your face from my sins'; say with the Psalmist: 'For I acknowledge my

True self-knowledge. for Augustine. concerns knowing oneself as equal to others in the

shared need for God's grace. All human beings, rich and poor. lay and religious. old and
young, stand before God in desperate need of forgiveness and healing. In his first homily
on I lohn. Augustine warns against the way pride nourishes a sense of superiority over

God gave you a place above the beasts, in which you are of more value
than they. That is your natural privilege, always to be better than a beast.

camem morralem: tu alltem qui accepisti morralem camem. et nee hoc tibi prodest. lit tanta infirmitate
humileris. sicllt unus ex principibus cades. (CCL38:419).

130 Senn. 125.2 (WSA IllI4:253).

131 Homilies on the First Epistle GeneralofSc. John 1.6 (Burnaby. 264).

If you would be better than another man, you will grudge to see him as
your equal. You ought to wish all men equal to yourself; and if you have
gone beyond another man in wisdom, you should want him too to show
himself wise ... Man has transgressed his proper limit: created higher than
the beasts, he has let covetousness carry him away, so that he might be
higher than other men. And that is pride. 132

For those seeking to be superior to others, Augustine suggests that they be satisfied with
their "natural privilege" of being higher than the beasts. Being above one another,

however, violates God's intention for human beings. Rather than seeking to outdo one
another, we are to wish our best gifts upon each other.

Aware of our need for rigorous self-examination and honesty, Augustine

recommends introspection:

Come back to your own conscience, and question it: pay heed, not to the
visible flowering but to the root beneath the ground... Come back, then,
my brothers, into the place within, and in whatsoever you do, look for the
witness of God. See, as he sees, the intention of your acts. 133

Augustine challenges his congregation to attend to God's presence within, in order to

uncover self-deceit and discover the truth about oneself and the mystery of God.

d. The Eschatological Motivation of Humility

Humble self-knowledge is profoundly teleological. Organizing humility around a

eudaemonist orientation, Augustine teaches that along the humble way one never loses

sight of the horizon or end of Christian discipleship: transformation in Christ and eternal

life with God. "Humbleness is the earning of glory; glory is the reward of
humbleness."134 As we have seen in the preceding sections, Augustine teaches that

132 Ibid.• 8.8 (Burnaby. 321-2).

133 Ibid.• 8.9 (Burnaby. 323).

134 Tractates on the Gospel ofJohn 104.3 (Rettig. 256).

human humility mirrors the humility of Christ in that its descending movement is, like
Christ's, followed by a glorification. \3S Augustine associates humility with hope and joy

because it includes knowing that one will be raised up from lowliness. By being formed

in the image of the humble Christ. we become adopted sons and daughters. blessed to
share in Christ's eternal communion with the Father. Bernard McGinn remarks: "Like

Irenaeus, Athanasius, and other Fathers, Augustine characterizes the ultimate purpose of
the Incarnation as the divinization of humanity."136 This divinization is the destination of

the way of humility and the culmination of Christian faith.

Augustine establishes such an intimate connection between humility and

glorification. descent and ascent. that at times he speaks of majesty as intrinsic to

humility itself and not simply as a consequence of humility. The inseparable link between
the movement downward in humility and the subsequent movement upward in exaltation

is revealed in Christ and reflected in a redeemed humanity. Inspired by Paul's discovery

of the divine hidden in Christ's lowly existence. Augustine writes: "Where there's

humility. there's majesty: where there's weakness, there's might: where there's death.

there's life. If you want to get to these things, don't disdain those."137 In other words,

weakness and strength converge in the person of Christ so that to discover Christ's

humility is to know his majesty. Paradoxically. the descent is itself an ascent. Thus.

keeping an eye on what is to come, Augustine assures his congregation of the unity

between the pattern of Christ's life and their own: "Those... who have worshipped him

135 This descent-ascent account of Christ's life follows a parabolic pattern well known in Neoplatonism.
RJ. O'Connell. "The Riddle of Augustine's Confessions: A Plotinian Key." International Philosophical
Quanerly 4 (1964) 327-372: See also RJ. O·Connell. The Odyssey o/Soul.

136 Bernard McGinn. The Foundations of Mysticism. vol. 1 of The Presence of God: A HislO'!' of Western
Christian Mysticism. 251.

137 Senn. 160.4 (WSA UI/5: 131). (PL 38:875).

in his humility have found him in his sublimity."138 Encouraging them, on another

occasion, he explains: "He wouldn't have come to you in his humble condition, if he

hadn't wished to be known to you in his exalted state."13,:!

To illustrate the link between humility, receptivity, and exaltation, Augustine

describes the humble as "capacious" or "hollow" in that they are emptied of selfishness

and worldly attachments. They do not glory in themselves but make room for the Spirit

to dwell. As empty vessels they are ready to be filled with the Holy Spirit:

He [the Holy Spirit) is water, you see, looking for a humble heart. like a
hollow place where he can stay; but he is repelled by the self-importance
of pride, and runs away from it, as from the swelling slopes of a hill:
which is why it says God resists the proud. but gives grace co the humble
(Jas 4:6; IPt 5:5). What's gives grace'? Gives the Holy Spirit. He fills the
humble, because he finds them capacious.I-IO

God's grace, like rain. tlows off the mountain of pride and collects in the "humble" valley

below. The more humble a person is. the more receptive he or she is of God's grace.

Drawing from Isaiah, Augustine preaches: "Every valley shall be filled in, all

humility shall be exalted; and every mountain and hill shall be humbled: all pride shall be

cast down."I-'1 Like the valley ready to be replenished by rain falling from the hill. the

humble soul receives the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. I"2 The more we empty ourselves

138 Senn. 196A.l (WSA UII6:64).

139 Serm. 142.6 (WSA UII4:417).

1-10 Serm. 270.6 (WSA UII7:294).

1-'1 Senn. 289.3 (WSA UII8:121).

1-'2 This image of grace as rain and the humble as a valley or hollow space is found repeatedly in
Augustine's treatment of humility. See Serm. 131.3 (WSA llII4:318): "For it is God who is at work in you
both to will and to work. for his good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13). it is God who is at work in you. therefore.
with fear and trembling make a hollow. receive the shower. Depressions get filled. high places dry up.
Grace is rain. So why be surprised if God withstands the proud but gives grace to the humble (Pry 3:34)?
That's the reason for with fear and trembling. which means 'with humility: Do not be high minded. but
fear (Rom 11:20). Fear. in order to get filled; do not be high minded. in order to not dry up." (PL 38:730)

of selfishness, the more ready we are to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Then, in being
Spirit-filled we are able to give to others. In service to others, a new form of emptying
takes place for the first form of emptying is an emptying of egoism. Out of this
relinquishing of the ego comes an emptying of self for others. This emptying expands
our capacity to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to give to others.
There is no shortcut to our exaltation: we move to the Father along the way of
Christ's humility, which climaxed in his crucifixion: All who seek to follow in Christ's
footsteps, must ask if they are willing to drink the "cup of humility," for the way of
humility is the way of Christ's suffering: "This is Christian teaching, the rule of humility,
the recommendation of humility, that we should not take pride in anything except the
cross of our Lord Jesus ChriSt."1-'3 Referring to the scene in Mark's Gospel where the two
disciples ask to be seated in places of honor in the Kingdom. Augustine rephrases Jesus'
question. "Can you drink the cup which I am going to drink?" (Mk 10:37-38) by asking,
"[C]an you drain to the dregs the cup of humility?"I"" In other words. following the

humble Christ means doing what the humble Christ did, namely, giving of himself
wholly, not holding back anything, for the sake of love.

This then is what we should pay attention to in the Lord: let us mark his
humility, let us drink the cup of his humiliation, let us constrict ourselves
to his limits, let us meditate on him. It's easy enough to think about
grandeur, easy enough to enjoy honors, easy enough to give our ears to
yes-men and flatterers. To put up with abuse, to listen patiently to
reproaches, to pray for the insolent, that is the Lord's cup. that is sharing
the Lord's table.l-'s

1-'3 Serm. 160.5 (WSA [W5:132). Augustine's words mirror Paul's phrase in Gal 6:14. "May [never boast
of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. by which the world has been crucified to me. and [ to
the world."

I"" Serm. 96.3 (WSA lII/4:31).

1-'5 Serm. 340A.5 (WSA ITII9::!99).

[n sum. the works of humility are costly but the rewards promised to Christ's disciples are
incomparably superior to all that is sacrificed in service and love of neighbor. ,-16

3.4. The Humility of Service

This section will explore first the movement from humble self-knowledge to
Christ-like service. Second. given contemporary questions about whether humility
contributes to an other-worldly spirituality. section two will consider how humility
functions in light of Augustine's view of Christian citizenry. Third, Christ-like service
will be examined in terms of the interconnection between humility and charity. This
section will look specifically at the way Christian humility participates in the self-
emptying of Christ's life and death. The fourth section will, once again, examine false
humility, but with an eye to the form it takes in prideful self-giving. Finally, in section
five, the ecclesial dimension of humility will be discussed in terms of Augustine's

understanding of a ministerial humility in the body of Christ.

a. Two Levels of Humility

While Augustine's teaching on humble discipleship resists systemization it is
clear that humility has at least two dimensions that move from a deepened awareness of

self toward communion with others. Without explicitly outlining various levels or stages
of humility, (as Bernard of Clairvaux and [gnatius of Loyola would later dO),' ..7
Augustine hints at a distinction between the grace of a beginner's humility and a more

,-16 Serm. 259.4 (WSA IIJn: 181).

' ..7 Bernard of C1airvaux. The Steps of Humility (Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press. 1940); Louis
1. PuhI. The Spiritual £tercises of Sf. Ignatius 165-168 (Chicago: Loyola University Press. 1951). 69-70.

advanced or mature form of humility. The first entails knowledge of one's crearurely
dependence on God and an honest confrontation with one's sinfulness. Here humility
refers to what is done interiorly and mysteriously by the action of God. But true self-
knowledge culminates in the more radical, active dimension of humility that calls us out
of ourselves into communion. This two-fold dimension of humility entails an ongoing
dialectic between interiority and outreach.
Expressed in more individual terms, the first type of humility is proper to the
order of creation. [t focuses on the human being's ontological situation of limitation.
mortality and sin. [n commenting on Psalm 39 Augustine observes:

[t is really pride that makes him [man) displeasing [to God], and from
humility that he should learn ... The first grace God bestows on us, then.
is to force us to admit our weakness and to confess that if we can do any
good, if we have any ability, it is because of him. Then, 'whoever boasts
will boast in the Lord' (cf. I Cor.31).148

The personal and interior dimensions of this "first grace" are theocentric. But the second,

more radical type of humility is outwardly directed; it is socially and Christologically

defined. The self-honesty of humility culminates in the humility of service, giving oneself

away as completely and fully as possible. As Christ gives richly and lavishly to us so we
are to give to others. This ministerial humility belongs properly to the order of
redemption wherein creatures find a new, more socially constituted identity based on
Christ's kenosis.

Augustine's interest in the close link between Christ's kenosis and humble
discipleship has practical consequences for the disciple's relationship to the world.
Christ's humility does not just refer to his one-on-one submission to the will of his

148 Enarrationes in Psalmos 38 [391.l8 (Pellegrino and O·Connell. 44): ..... quia superbia qllafiam
displicuit. ut erudiretur humilitate. .. Ipsa est ergo gratia beneficii Dei prima. redigere nos ad
confessionem infirmitatis. lit quidquid bani possumus. quidquid potentes sumus. in ilia simus; ut qui
g[oriatur. in Domino glorietur." (CCl38:418).

Father. It includes his self-emptying love for others, particularly those in need. With an
honest awareness of the sinful human condition and a ready trust in God's mercy, humble
self-knowledge elicits a total giving of oneself in love of neighbor. But how does
Augustine understand this love of neighbor in light of his social and political outlook?

b. Humility and Christian Citizenry

In the City of God. Augustine explains that Christians are never fully citizens of
this passing world. They are "pilgrims" detached from the temporal priorities of material
possessions, and worldly prestige. Humility, Augustine explains. is a central attribute of
Christian citizenry: "[H]umility is ... especially enjoined on the City of God during the
time of its pilgrimage in this world."149 Based on Christ's own "pilgrim" existence. the

basic orientation of a Christian is to long for the true homeland that is the City of God
and to realize that there is no lasting home here below. This "pilgrim" consciousness is
evident in the humble who do not seek glory in this world but eagerly await glorification

in the next (3.3.d.). But does this "heavenly longing" imply contempt for the world and

resignation with respect to injustices here and now? Does Augustine's promotion of
humility among Christian citizens ultimately mean that Christians should essentially say
their prayers. pay their taxes. and just accept the status quO?150

Augustine gives us reason to wonder such things because while he recognizes

social inequalities in his own society, he does not imagine significant change in the

temporal sphere to be possible. In his own time, the sheer weight of classical culture and

149 City o/God. 14: 13 (Bettenson. 573).

ISO Hannah Arendt. Love and St. Augustine. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (996). Many scholars.
Hannah Arendt most notably. have held that Augustine's political thought implies that Christians ought to
remove themselves from the messiness of the world's political complexities.

politics and the endless cycle of human sinfulness seemed so increasingly intractable that
Augustine's "politics of imperfection"151 led him to see all social institutions as necessary
for social order and security but nonetheless imperfect. Plagued by the conflicts and
power struggles that endanger all human endeavors after the Fall. social institutions.
according to Augustine. are always morally ambivalent creations. From social
institutions. he expected a minimal level of control and protection. not a fostering of true
human communion.

Consequently. Augustine gave priority to interior disposition over the more

"external" roles played in society. These factors led him to deem it better to be the slave
of a human master than the slave of lust for domination. IS:! [n the City of God. he writes:
"As for this mortal life. which ends after a few days' course. what does it matter under
whose rule a man lives. being so soon to die. provided that the rulers do not force him to
impious and wicked acts?"IS3 [n other words. life is short and our efforts should focus on

interior purity more than a just social order. Yet. lest we think that Augustine did not
consider social change. we should remember that one of his contributions to political
theory is his persuasive account of how the interior disposition of citizens has social and
political ramifications. [n the City of God. he criticizes inflated self-love as the root
cause of political and social decay.

151 J. Joyce Schuld. ·'Augustine. FoucaUlt. and the Politics of Imperfection." The JOllrnal 0/ Religion 80
(2000), 1-22.

IS:! City o/God 19.15: "And obviously it is a happier lot to be slave to a human being than to a lust; and. in
fact. the most pitiless domination that devastates the hearts of men. is that exercised by this very lust for
domination. to mention no others. However. in that order of peace in which men are subordinate to other
men. humility is as ~alutary for the servants as pride is harmful to the masters. And yet by nature. in the
condition in which God created man. no man is the slave either of man or of sin." (Benenson. 875).

153 City o/God. 5.17 (Bettenson. 205).

Moreover, despite his increasingly low expectations for lasting transformation in
this world, Augustine's teaching on the actual practice of humility at least tempers his
skepticism and resignation about social change. In his sermons and in the City of God, for
instance, Augustine stresses the active and communal dimensions of humility. He offers a
helpful caution to those who would use humility as an excuse to absent themselves from
concrete engagement with the world. In fact, Augustine's teaching on humility
encourages a readiness to take on hardships in order to serve others. In this model of
discipleship, the call to the eternal City of God is never divorced from the way of service.
Christians take the long view with respect to seeking justice in the world because
with humility they do not despair when their ideals are not fully realized. Discouragement
and hopelessness are associated with those who count entirely on human work in the
world. Humility counts on rewards that extend into the future and await completion by
God. Christ's humility points toward realism and away from the self-deception of pride.

which moves between idealism and cynicism. Idealism so easily collapses into despair
and defeatism because grandiose ideals can easily turn into a grim dismissal of all human
possibility. Moreover. pride denies human fallenness and dependence on God so that
when faced with human failure-despair and contempt for humanity settle in. Humility,

however, provides a lens to understand the incongruity and conflict that make up human
existence. Rather than aspiring to heroic feats, the humble see small actions as important.

The humble view their everyday work and relationships within the larger context of the
body of Christ and the promise of God's fulfillment. For those concerned with more
revolutionary change one could argue that small actions, over the long haul, rather than
short-lived dramatic actions, often pave the way toward deeper and more lasting societal
change. Today, when social problems (racism, hunger. war, terrorism) seem so

enormous and overwhelming it is worth considering the positive impact of social reform

shaped by the small but persistent acts of humility.

Augustine does not insist upon dramatic forms of imitating Christ. The self-

sacrificing love of humility can be in the ordinary moments of discipleship. In fact,

Augustine is credited with deepening the understanding of God's grace by highlighting

the work of God in the ordinary. Preaching at a time when Christian congregations

revered the ancient martyrs. Augustine helped his hearers to see the glory of God in the

less spectacular events of their lives. Peter Brown remarks:

What Augustine did. from 397 onward. was to tap into that reservoir of raw
charisma. so as to draw upon the sense of grace and calling usually
associated with the cult of the martyrs. to fill the lives of humble. workaday
Christians. He insisted that the same grace as had blazed out in the martyrs
was still at work in the unspectacular-no less extraordinary-triumphs of
grace in the lives of ordinary people. 15-I

Preaching on the feast of martyrs. Augustine insists: "God is not pleased only with the

spurting out of blood. He has many martyrs in secret. .. "ISS Here Augustine encourages

the humility of ordinary Christians who endure the pains of life in faithfulness.

Because the humble Christ is the true source and model of genuine Christian

discipleship, Christian humility calls for concrete, hands-on service where one tinds

companionship in a shared humanity. A life of imitating the humble Christ cannot

overlook his own identification with people on the fringe of society. His reaching out in

love to those who were oftentimes regarded as unworthy of attention is part and parcel of

his humility.

15-1 Peter Brown. "A New Augustine." in The New York Review of Books. (June 24. (999).49

155 Dolbeau Serm. (unspecified) cited in Peter Brown. ~A New Augustine." in The New York Review of
Books. (June 24. (999).49.

c. Humility and Charity

Augustine does not fall prey to the tendency to identify the life of discipleship

with one character trait. Although he gives special attention to humility, he never loses

sight of its connection to other virtues in the Christian life, such as charity. Humility is

the essential source and foundation for Christian charity:

Learn from him [Christl. because he is meek and humble of heart. Dig in
yourself this foundation of humility, and you will eventually reach the
pinnacle of charity .156

Christian love grows out of the roots and soil that are humility.157 Thus, Augustine

compares humility to the roots of a tree. The tree-top represents charity, the fruit of


Think of a tree~ it tirst seeks out the lowest level, in order to grow upward~
it tixes its roots in the lowly soil, in order to stretch out its topmost
branches to the sky. Can it reach upward from anywhere except its
humble roots? You, though, wish to comprehend the heights without
charity: you are challenging the winds without roots. 158

Humility, like the roots of a tree, moves downward. The roots set a firm foundation for

the ascending movement of charity. the full expression of humility. The criterion. then.

for a fruitful and lasting charity is the downward movement of humility. Pride. in

contrast, moves upward without any foundation and thus, it withers and cannot bear fruit.

It is in Augustine's description of the relationship between humility and charity

that he discusses how humility develops in us. Humble self-giving, modeled on Christ's.

requires physical and active love of others. It is not simply a matter of intellectual insight

or grace working internally. Christ teaches humility, for instance, in the washing of his

156 Serm. 69.4 (WSA UU3:237).

157 The Trinity ~.2 (Hill. 153).

158 Serm. 117.17 (WSA 3/4:221) Arborem attendite: ima petit prillS. ut sursum excrescat; figit radicem in
hllmili. ut sursum e.'Ccrescat; figit radicem in hllmili. lit verticem tendat ad coelum. Numqllid nititur nisi ab
humilitate? Til alltem sine charitate vis excelsa comprehendere; sine radice auras petis? (PL 38:671).

disciples' feet. Humbling himself before his friends, Christ shows that his love is

concrete, tangible, and unafraid to touch the unwashed parts of humanity, literally and


We have learned, brothers, humbleness from an Exalted One; let us,

humble in our tum. do what the Exalted One did humbly. Great is this
commendation of humility! And the brothers do this to one another, and
indeed by very visible activity, when they receive one another in
hospitality. For among very many there is the habitual practice of this
humility, even as regards the act by which it is exhibited and seen ... [I]t is
much better and indisputably truer that it should also be done by the
hands; and let the Christian not disdain to do what Christ did. For when
the body is bent to the brother's feet. the affection of humility itself either
is stirred in the very heart or if it was already there, is strengthened...
[8]y washing the feet of his already washed and cleansed disciples, the
Lord signified, on account of the human affections in which we are
involved on earth. that. however much progress we have made in the
attainment of justice, we may know that we are not without sin: and he
now and again washes by interceding for us when we pray that the Father
who is in heaven forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. 159

In this act of foot washing, Christ reveals our ongoing need for the cleansing forgiveness

that his hands perpetually extend to each one of us. By his own actions, Christ sets a high

standard for the practice of humility. It is not simply a call to enact a liturgical ritual of

washing people's feet. Rather, it calls for concrete acts of working with those in need:

acts that literally "get our hands dirty."

Reflecting upon this scene in John's Gospel. Augustine does not limit the meaning

of this action to a spiritual attitude of humility but describes the radical aspect of humility

that is shown with the hands. The external act of humility nourishes and strengthens the

interior humility that it expresses. As humility is exercised with active charity. it is

progressively interiorized. Thus. providing for the material as well as the spiritual needs

159 Tractates on the Gospel ofJohn 58.4 (Rettig. 4:22)

of others is integral to imitation of Christ who became materially poor so that we might
become spiritually rich.
Humility, in this context, is not simply a pure unmerited gift, but a gift that,

paradoxically, demands practice and cultivation. There is progression in humility, not

simply a once and for all moment when pride becomes humility. Fundamentally, in
humble service. in literally kneeling before the feet of our brothers and sisters, the self is
not destroyed in servile abasement but reconstituted and perfected through a participation
in the divine pattern of loving. We begin to discern God's will and become like God the
more we embody Christ's presence in the world through active humility. Augustine

paraphrases Christ's teaching in this way:

I have come, a humble man; I have come to teach humility; I have come. a
master of humility. He who comes to me is embodied in me; he who
comes to me becomes humble. He who adheres to me will be humble
because he does not his own will. but God's. And. therefore. he will not
be cast out because. when he was proud. he was cast out. 160

In following Christ's via hllmilitatis. our self-giving to one another is a participation in

the ongoing work of Christ's redemption. 161 Our suffering is transformed into a real
sacrifice that shares in the trajectory of Christ's suffering.
Augustine refers to this practice of humility as "the humility of lending a helping
hand."162 He challenges the wealthy of his day to consider how humility requires more
than "arms-length charity." 163 One must give personally with one's own hands:

160 Tractates on the Gospel of John 25.16 (Rettig. 254):Humilis veni. humilitatem docere veni. magister
humilitatis veni: qui ad me venit. incorporatur mihi: qui ad me venit. humilis fit: qui mihi (U[haeret. humilis
erit. quia nonfacit vo[untatem suam. sed Dei: et ideo non eicietur foras. quia cum superblls esset. proiectlls
estforas. (CCL 36:(604).

161 Verwilghen. ~29-430.

162 Senn. 259.5 (WSA mn:18l).

163 Ibid.. footnote 23 (WSA UJn:l84).

What's called for, you see, is not only the kindness of lavishing assistance,
but also the humility of lending a helping hand. [don't know how it is, my
brothers and sisters, but the spirit of the person who actually hands
something to a poor man experiences a kind of sympathy with common
humanity and infinnity. when the hand of the one who has is actually
placed in the hand of the one who is in need. Although the one is giving,
the other receiving, the one being attended to and the one attending are
being joined in a real relationship. You see. it isn't calamity that really
unites us but humanity. 1M

Here humility calls for direct engagement with another person' s suffering. Humility is
not just a one-way giving from those who have to those in need. Nor is it the friendly
condescension and pity of the wealthy allaying their consciences and wishing others well.
[t calls for a love of neighbor that transcends the categories of "poor." "unfonunate." etc.
so that we see the "other" as a fellow human being. It involves a recognition of the

sufferer as more than simply their suffering or victimization. [n humility. we learn to see
through appearances and to discern that we are one before God in our "common
humanity and infinnity."I65

[n this passage, Augustine points toward reciprocity rather than unilateral giving

for humility cuts through class differences by joining people in their common humanity
and ovenurning the conventional patterns of human relating. As Christ becomes a
neighbor to us in humility. we become neighbors to one another across all cultural.
ethnic, and economic divides. Humility teaches that we are in solidarity with one another

as members of his one body. From the outside. a rich person bending down to help
someone who is poor can suggest a disparity in worth or dignity, but humility frees a
person to see that all are equally indebted to God who gives salvation out of love and

mercy. not merit and reward.

1M Serm. 259.5 (WSA lIIJ7:18l).

165 Ibid.

d. The Social Dimension of False Humility
Even while stressing the necessity of almsgiving and good works in living out a
humble life. Augustine shows deep concern for one's interior disposition in performing
good deeds. He lays great stress on the Christian's interior conformity to
Christ-developing "the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus."I66 Thus, he
cautions against the arrogance and superiority that can develop when one serves the poor.
[n a homily on 1 John. he writes:

Once you have bestowed gifts on the unfortunate. you may easily yield to
the temptation to exalt yourself over him. to assume superiority over the
object of your benefaction. He fell into need. and you supplied him: you
feel yourself as the giver to be a bigger man than the receiver of the gift.
You should want him to be your equal. that both may be subject to the one
on whom no favour can be bestowed. The true Christian will never set
himself up over other men. 167
Here Augustine shows a keen awareness of the human propensity to control and
dominate others in the name of charity. With good intentions a person can "set himself
up over other men"l68 in trying to serve them. Augustine sternly warns that this is not the

Christian way. but a self-serving and, ultimately, destructive way rooted in the ceaseless
desire to "be as godS."I69 even in seeking to establish the good. [n this pride. "a
fellowship of equality under God"170 evaporates and gives way to domination. Humbly

knowing his own struggle to curb his ego, Augustine remains shrewdly conscious of the

166 Phil 2:5.

167 Homilies on the First Epistle General of St. John 8.5 (Burnaby. 321).

168 [bid.

169 Genesis 3:5 as ciled in Cit), of God [4.13 (Beltenson, 573).

170 City of God 19.12 (Beltenson. 868-869).

tendency toward superiority and self-centeredness among those actively doing good. In
pinpointing some exterior signs for humble self-giving, Augustine alludes to riches and
poverty as indicators of pride and humility but he also explains that these signs can be
misleading. One can never presume that poverty constitutes humility. Yet. Augustine
wants Christians to "get humility right," to practice it properly. because the human
tendency toward perverting humility can be so great: "Pride will wrest from our hand any
good deed we do while we are in the very act of taking pleasure in it."171 Humility easily
can become a means to an ultimately self-centered form of "service"; presumption or self-
loathing can lie just beneath the surface of morally good deeds.
In sum. Augustine calls disciples to an intimate sharing in Christ's person through
self-giving love. True humility can never be reduced to an action or an attitude; they are
both necessary, for it is because the believer is intimately joined to Christ through the
Holy Spirit. the Spirit of unity. that he or she is ready to completely give of self. In other
words, humble self-giving depends on a communion with Christ which extends into a
communion with his members. the church.

e. Humility and the Body of Christ

One prominent idea in Augustine's writings is the notion of the church as the
totus Christlls. As members united in the body of Christ, each one shares in his life and

contributes to the sanctification of the whole. It is precisely as head of the mystical body

that Christ teaches his members and even shames them into humility:

Christ came down and raised up the one who was lying flat on the ground.
Notice. though, what your Lord raised you up by; he raised you up by
humility. Becoming obedient unto death. he humbled himself (PhiL 2:8).
Your chief is humble. and are you going to be proud? The head is

17\ Leiter 118 (Parsons. 282).

humble, and is the member proud? Perish the thought. Any who love
pride don't really wish to belong to the body of a humble head. 172

The members are gathered together under the humility of the head. To reject this

attribute. which even the head did not refuse. is sheer arrogance: it separates us from the

head and the body.

For Augustine charity is integrally bound up with membership in Christ and the

church. In true charity Christ's life is extended in the church. for the members become

Christ's body in the world. In humility. Christ gives over his very identity to us. Thus.

the humility of Christ is repeated time and again in the flesh through the active self-

giving of his members. As we live out the pattern of divine love-life through

sacrifice-we become more fully images of Christ. Drawing upon the theme of the

church as the body of Christ, Augustine maintains that it is in our needy neighbor that we

find the humble Christ:

So when a Christian takes in a Christian, members are serving members:

and the head rejoices, and reckons as given to himself whatever has been
lavished on a member of his. So here let Christ be fed when he's hungry,
be given a drink when he' s thirsty, clothed when he's naked. taken in
when he's a stranger. visited when he's sick. Such are the needs of the
journey: that's how we have to live in this wandering exile, in which
Christ is in want. He's in want in his people. he's replete in himself. l73

Augustine explains that the humble Christ is alive, most recognizably among the

members of his body who are hungry, thirsty, naked, alone, or sick:

So now, having already suffered through that humility. already died.

already been buried, already risen and ascended into heaven, he is both

172 Serm. 354.9 (WSA llUlO:162).

173 Serm. 236.3 (WSA ITIn:45-46).

there, seated at the right hand of the Father, and here suffering want in his
Out of a humble love, Christ chose to be needy among us and it is among those in need
today that we find him, as, for instance, the liberation theologians tell us. [n Christian
discipleship, the burdens and limitations of others in the body of Christ become one's
own not out of dismay but out of a love for the living Christ.
Augustine anticipated that Christ-like humility would be met with
incomprehension and hatred. [n bearing with this scorn, Augustine assures the humble
that they are sharing in Jesus' own suffering. To demonstrate the unity between Christ
and his suffering body, Augustine reflects on Acts 9:4 where Christ questions the
persecuting Saul, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"17S Reflecting on this passage

Augustine describes how the persecuted Christ continues to suffer in his members who
reach out from below:

... when he [Saul] was persecuting the Church, you see, he was stumbling
over the stone of stumbling. Christ was lying, humble and lowly, on the
ground: he was also, to be sure, in heaven, his flesh that had been raised
from the dead having been lifted up there. But unless Christ were also
lying on the ground, he wouldn't cry out to Saul, 'Why are YOLt persecllling
me?' (Acts 9:4) So he was lying there. because he was displaying and had
a preference for humility... 176

Here Augustine identifies Paul's persecution of the church with the persecution of Christ.

The rejection and persecution of Christ is not a one-time event. The humble Christ lives
on among those who are cast out. These are the ones who stand in for Christ today and
shame us in our pride. They are the stumbling block that confounds the rich and the


17" Senn. 123.3 (WSA llU4:244-5).

175 Acts 9:4

176 Senn. 169.9 (WSA llU5:228).

As members of Christ's body, the humble seek each member's sanctity and unity

with God. They are called to be active members of a servant church where the least are

served and treated as co-heirs with Christ. By members joining with members in their
suffering, they are brought together into unity with Christ. Humility and charity make us

members of Christ's body where there is both individual and corporate sanctity through a

participation in his redemptive sufferings. 177

Augustine's teaching that the humble Christ is found among the poor points to a
crucial development in his thought from a more Neoplatonic search for the Logos within

to a more Pauline focus on tinding Christ in the community that is his body. This striking

shift may be due in part to the homiletic context in which these passages on charity and

humility are found.

First and foremost. Augustine insists that humility is a divine attribute made

manifest in the Incarnate God. Yet. it is the attribute that Christ's followers are called to

imitate before any other. For creatures made in God's image. fallen in pride. and called to

share in the divine life. Christ's humility is paramount. Augustine's biography gives a

vivid illustration of a life of Christian discipleship increasingly shaped by the humility of

Christ. His life demonstrates that true self-knowledge comes to fruition in love of

neighbor. the living out of Christian humility. Conscious of the temptation to pride.

Augustine warns that both the individual and the social forms of humility are subject to

the ever-present danger of false humility. While giving practical advice to guard against
self-deception. Augustine maintains that humility cannot be acquired simply by human

177 Paul teaches the ongoing suffering of Christ in his famous phrase: "making up for what is lacking in the
suffering of Christ." Col. 1:24.

will or intellectual insight, it is a graced state of being that begins in truthfulness and

culminates in self-sacrificing love.





Given that the thought of a fifth-century North African bishop does not

automatically translate into an early twenty-first century context, it is imperative that a

renewal of Augustinian humility be pursued in conversation with a contemporary figure

who similarly places humility at the heart of Christian discipleship. Such renewal also

calls for an expansion of Augustine's vision of humility, particularly one that will provide

new terms and categories for mediating between Augustine's teaching and contemporary

challenges to humility. In particular. this chapter will prepare the way for a fuller

treatment in chapter five of feminist criticisms of humility.

Although Augustine provides a Christo logical foundation for thinking about

humility, there are many present-day concerns about humility that are not addressed in

his teaching. Thus. in order to bridge this gap between Augustine and contemporary

thought. I propose to look at the German Catholic theologian. Johann Baptist Metz.

whose work offers resources for renewing Augustine's teaching on humility. Metz

extends Augustine's primary focus on humility as an interior disposition into social

concerns about the vast suffering of humanity throughout history. His historical focus

shows how humility does not diminish human agency or shrink from social

responsibility, but allows for a vital engagement with the more interruptive aspects of

contemporary human existence. Moreover, Metz's response to modem questions can be

useful for drawing attention to certain unnoticed facets of Augustinian humility, such as

its connection to self-giving love. Metz goes beyond Augustine, however, for he relates

the notion of humility, or what he analogously calls, "poverty of spirit," to contemporary

forms of alienation, as well as to poverty and exploitation, issues not addressed in

Augustine (for obvious reasons). Conversely, Augustine emphasizes the cosmic scope of

Christ's redemption through humility. He brings out the Trinitarian grammar of salvation

which Metz's theology neglects, however unintentionally. I In this way, then, Augustine

and Metz may be seen as complementary and mutually illuminating voices for a renewal

of humility today.

It should be noted that our tum to Metz hinges on the judgment that Augustine's

humilitas, particularly its emphasis upon self-knowledge and self-emptying, is

comparable to Metz's Annut im Geiste (poverty of spirit). In Christian history, it has

been common for the first Beatitude of Matthew's Gospel. "Blessed are the poor in spirit.

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,"! to be taken as an exhortation to humility.3 Both

Metz and Augustine interpret this Beatitude in this way. Moreover, they draw from

I Metz. for example. does not relate poverty of spirit to the work of the Holy Spirit and the reality of
resurrection seems almost absent from his spirituality of "suffering unto God." Matthew Ashley responds
to this charge articulated by Russell Reno but it remains a contentious point that will not be resolved in this
dissertation. James Matthew Ashley. Interruptions: Mysticism. Politics. and Theology in the Work of
Johann Baptist Met:. (Notre Dame. IN: University of Notre Dame Press. 1998). Russell R. Reno.
"Christo logy in Political and Liberation Theology." The Thomist 5612 (April. 1992).291-322.

2 Matt 5:3.

3 John Chrysostom. Homilies on Matthew 15.1 (PG 31.1217): John of Thebes 1 (PG 65:233D). Cited in
Douglas Burton Christie. The Word in the Desen: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian
Monasticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983),236. Also. for a more contemporary treatment of
poverty of spirit as humility. see Raniero Cantalamessa. Poverty. trans.. Charles Serignat. (New York: Alba
House. 1997).

similar scriptural sources to explain their respective terms, namely Genesis 3:5;' Paul's

Philippians hymn (Phil. 2:5-11), and the first Beatitude of Matthew and Luke's Gospels

(Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20). Where Metz at times uses the term "humility" in connection with

"poverty of spirit:' Augustine regularly uses "humility" interchangeably with "poverty of


Blessed are the poor in spirit. for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3).
The kingdom of heaven will be yours later on. right now be poor in spirit.
Do you want the kingdom of heaven to be yours later on? Ask yourself
whose you are now. Be poor in spirit. Are you going to ask me. perhaps.
what being poor in spirit means? No conceited person is poor in spirit:
therefore being humble is being poor in spirit. The kingdom of heaven is
high up above, but Whoever humbles himself shall be exalted (Lk 14: 11).5

Moreover. both Augustine and Metz hold that humility and poverty of spirit describe the

central dynamic of the divine descent into humanity and the way of our salvation. Christ

is the paradigm and source of this foundational Christian attribute and it is from him that

both Augustine and Metz issue their exhortation to humility and poverty of spirit.

Metz's theology has definite stylistic similarities to some patristic authors. like

Augustine. For example. he draws heavily upon scripture. and he does not set out to

construct a complete and systematic theology. but is. rather. a topical writer. sensitive to

the pastoral needs of the church. Both Augustine and Metz are highly dialectical thinkers

4 The devil tempts Adam and Eve to reject their own humanity and to aspire to be "like God." The
principal temptation of Satan. "You will be like God." twists the imago Dei teaching. [t leads one to
exaggerate one's own capacities and ignore the fundamental dissimilarity between humanity and God.
Metz. Poverty of Spirit. trans. John Drury. [nelusive Language Version. Carole Farris (New York: Paulist
Press. 1998), 11. Originally published under the title Annut im Geiste (Munich. W. Germany: Verlag Ars
Sacra Josef MillIer. 1962).

5 Serm. 53.1 (WSA llIJ3:66); (PL 38:364-5); Also. Senn. 53A.2 (WSA [lU3:77); Serm. 14.3 (WSA
1IU1:318); Senn. 347.3 (WSA lIU3:89).

who marvel at the paradoxes of Christian faith. It is this eye for paradox, perhaps, that

leads them to keep the Incarnation central to their theologies.

Matthew Ashley, who has recently written a comprehensive study of Metz's

work,6 contends that poverty of spirit is a recurring theme in Metz's writings (particularly

in Poverty 0/ Spirit (1962), Followers o/Christ (1977),7 and A Passion/or God (1998)), 8

and that it is a good template for understanding the evolution of his thought. Metz himself

states: .. [ confess that meditation on this Beatitude permeates my theological biography."')

In these three works, Metz offers a contemporary articulation of poverty of spirit that

reformulates, to some extent. Augustine' s two-fold understanding of humility as true self-

knowledge and self-emptying love. While laying out the developments in Metz's

teaching on poverty of spirit, I will address the following questions raised by his work:

What can an Augustinian approach to humility learn from Metz's articulation of poverty

of spirit'? And, to prepare the way for chapter five, [ will consider to what extent Metz

can transpose some of Augustine's insights about humility so that this disposition can

speak to the feminist concern for women's full personhood and liberation.

6lames Matthew Ashley. Interruptions: jl;[ysticism. Politics. and Theology in the Work of Johann Baptist
Mer:. (Notre Dame. IN: University of Notre Dame Press. 1998).

7 lohannBaptist Metz. Followers of Christ: The Religious Life and the Church. trans. Thomas Linton (New
York: Paulist Press. 1978). Originally published under the title Zeit der Orden? Zur Mystik lind Politik der
Nachfolge (Germany: Verlag Herder. 1977).

8 Metz. A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity. trans .. l. Matthew Ashley
(New York: Paulist Press. (998).20.

9 Ibid.• 157.

4.1 Metz's Theology

[n his present theology, Metz has revised his earlier transcendental approach to

include three interrelated categories: memory, narrative, and Memory is the

remembering of those who are the victims of history. It involves being present to

individuals on the margins of history who are more linked with our own history than we

realize. Metz asserts that. for Christians. the core memory is the memory of Christ's

death and resurrection. which extends into the memory of other crucified people and their

liberation. Narrative is related to these "dangerous memories" in that it is the structure

and form by which memory comes to us. Narrative interrupts our lives and draws us into

the story of those who have suffered: it beckons us to join in the struggle of bringing the

crucified people down from the cross. as lon Sobrino would say.11 Memory and narrative

are complemented by solidarity which results from remembering the forgotten victims of

the past and present and re-telling their story. It is a conscious reaching out to share in

the anguish of those who have been victimized and forgotten. to labor with them and to

hope with them. Giving primacy to Christian praxis, Metz ties this solidarity to the

imitation of Christ whose suffering lives on in these forgotten ones.

10 Ashley. Interruptions. 160-163. Drawing from Metz's ten year study of Heidegger. Ashley calls these
categories "existentials~ because they are anthropological constants. Bruce Morrill. who has written on
Metz [see Anemnesisl. argues that memory. narrative. and solidarity are best referred to as "categories~
since this is how Metz explicitly conceptualizes them. Theological Studies 60 (1999 ). 776-777.

11 Jon Sobrino. The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (Maryknoll. N.Y.:
Orbis Books. (994).

Metz's three fundamental categories of expressing Christian faith are drawn from

the anamnestic culture of Judaism and find their realization in what Metz calls "suffering

unto God" (Leiden an Gott). "Suffering unto God" refers to the passionate questioning

of God arising from suffering (one's own, but especially. that of others}.l:! Metz turns to

both biblical Israel and the passion of Christ to find a way to authentically question God.

Metz himself refers to his political theology as a "critical corrective" to prevailing

theologies that tend to privatize Christian faith and remove it from the socio-political

realities of history. He offers a perceptive diagnosis of the problems faced by Christianity

today and his dialectic between the mystical and the political seeks to recover the

"provocative and scandalous character"l3 of Christianity. The "mystical" refers to the

personal and interior dimensions of imitating Christ, whereas the "political" refers to its

situational and practical implications. Remaining rooted in the biblical. patristic. and

medieval tradition of the church. his writing aims to jar his readers out of the passivity

and conformity of contemporary culture. Matthew Ashley summarizes Metz's theological


Metz's theological odyssey is best understood as an attempt to define a

stance toward the world and history, articulated with new conceptual tools.
for which the concrete catastrophes of history would be an irritating.
interruptive presence internal to faith and for which theology would be
constitutionally on the lookout. This led to three further results. first the
intensification of already appropriated themes; second. a reevaluation of
the biblical roots of Christianity; third. the definition of authentic Christian
spirituality as 'suffering unto God' [Leiden an Gott].14

12 Ibid .. 184.

13 Metz. A Passion for God. 152.

141M. Ashley. Interruptions. 123.

In short, Metz insists that it is through poverty of spirit that the church today will be

renewed in her witness to the gospel and show the face of Christ to the larger world.

Holding together, then, the individual-moral and the social-political dimensions of the

human person, Metz seeks to counter the erosion of the human subject evident in what he

calls "civil" or "bourgeois" religion. IS

Let us tum now to Metz's treatment of poverty of spirit within the three texts that

represent his theological development of this theme. His move from a transcendental

theology l6 to a more political theology allows us to see both the existential and social

dimensions of poverty of spirit.

4.2. Poverty of Spirit in Metz's Theology

A. Poverty of Spirit in Poverty of Spirit

Metz maintains that poverty of spirit is the foundational disposition for Christian

life and the wellspring of virtue:

This poverty, then. is not just another virtue. one among many. It is a
necessary ingredient in any authentic Christian attitude toward life.
Without it there can be no Christianity and no imitation of Christ. It is no
accident that 'poverty of spirit' is the first of the beatitudes. 17

IS Metz. A Passion for God. 35.

16 The first decade of Metz's theological writing in the 1950s was influenced by the transcendental
Thomism of his teacher and friend. Karl Rahner. His book. Poverty of Spirit. represents the phase of his
theological biography when he tried to incorporate the transcendental approach into a concrete appreciation
of the interconnectedness between history and the human person.

17 Metz. Poverty of Spirit. 21.

It is "the hidden component of every transcending act, the ground of every 'theological

virtue."ls As with Augustinian humility, poverty of spirit is the source and foundation of

all Christian virtue and its source is Jesus Christ. It involves coming to grips with

creatureliness. We come from God, we depend on God to sustain our existence, and it is

only through God that we flourish and find our fulfillment.

In contrast to Metz. however. Augustine gives greater stress to humility correcting

the self that is "puffed up" with pride. Pride is the source of all sin. Moreover.

creatureliness. in Augustine. is closely tied with sinfulness. Christ's humility is an

extreme measure that awakens humanity from its sinful slumber. Metz concentrates on

Christ's poverty of spirit teaching us self-acceptance. He consciously distances himself

from an Augustinian emphasis on self-accusation. While Augustine leans toward a

framework of contrasts. through type/anti-type (e.g. humility/pride) language. Metz

stresses the similarities between our own humanity and Christ's. Christ's Incarnation

reveals God's new solidarity with humanity. Jesus Christ descends inco the human

struggle so that we will not evade the struggle inherent to our humanity.

Metz explains that we find our true identity, and we become fully human. only in

and through Jesus Christ's poverty of spirit:

Christ showed us how to really become human beings. In him we see the
unimagined heights and depths of our human lot. He is the prototype of
human existence, the "first-born of all creation (Col. 1: 15), the "son of
earth." In him we find out what it means to be human~ in him we find the
kernel and the acme of our existence... In giving us the Only Begotten
One, God showed us what our existence is, showed us the true nature of

IS Ibid .• 45.

our humanness, and showed us the proper spirit to have in becoming a
human being: the spirit of poverty .19

Through Jesus' loving embrace of human weakness, the radical distance between God

and humanity is overcome and who we are is revealed. Jesus' poveny of spirit opens us

to a discovery of our own poverty of spirit:

Only through poveny of spirit do we draw near to God: only through it

does God draw near to us. Poverty of spirit is the meeting point of heaven
and eanh, the mysterious place where God and humanity encounter each
other. the point where infinite mystery meets concrete existence.1O

In Christ's lowliness. there is a newly established "meeting point" between the human

and the divine. Drawing closer to God. then. is not about self-improvement but

surrender: in the limitedness of human existence we discover how Christ's poverty of

spirit embraces our own weakness so that through him we become our authentic selves.

Metz shows that Jesus' acceptance of human powerlessness and vulnerability

"gives us the courage to be true to ourselves.'-21 After all. "Jesus held back nothing: he

clung to nothing. and nothing served as a shield for him. Even his divine sonship did not

shield him: 'He ... did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. but emptied

himself (Phil. 2:6)."12 Without explicitly identifying his discipleship Christology with a

kenotic Christo logy, Metz. like Augustine. directly draws upon Philippians 2 as the

touchstone for understanding an authentic Christian life. Metz interprets Philippians 2

19 Ibid.. 19-20.

10 Ibid .• 21.

21 Ibid.. 14.

12 Ibid.• 10.

mainly in terms of the human Jesus whereas Augustine takes it to refer mainly to the

[ncamation of the Word. [n Poverty of Spirit, Metz writes:

Truly he emptied himself (Phil. 2:7). God's merciful hand no longer

sustained him. God's countenance was hidden during the passion, and
Christ gaped into the darkness of nothingness and abandonment where
God was no longer present. He reaches his destiny, stretched taut between
a despising earth that rejected him and a faceless heaven thundering God's
"no" to sinful humankind. Jesus paid the price of futility. He became
utterly poor.:!J

Metz sees the depth of Jesus' poverty of spirit in his full surrender to the Father. By

identifying with us in our weakness. Christ reveals a new understanding of strength as the

courage to remain faithful to the seeming futility and meaninglessness of our suffering


The poor in spirit do not ..take scandal"14 at their own poverty or set up defenses

to hide from the vulnerability of being fully human. Metz writes:

To become human means to become 'poor: to have nothing that one

might brag about before God. To become human means to have no
support and no power. save the enthusiasm and commitment of one's own
heart. Becoming human involves proclaiming the poverty of the human
spirit in the face of the total claims of a transcendent God.15

Here Metz captures Augustine's own insistence on the connection between humility and

creaturely dependence on God. While Augustine stresses the ontological aspects of

creatureliness. (e.g. drawing near to nothingness unless we cling to God [2.2.A.aJ), Metz

highlights the more existential dimensions. by teaching that our creatureliness is the key

:!J Ibid.• 13.

14 Ibid .• 27.

15 Ibid.• 10.

to human freedom and fulfillment. He insists that being receptive to God's will and

being true to one's fundamental human identity coincide. Creaturely dependence

"demands an attentive receptivity and obedient assent to the total claim and inescapable

quandary that the mystery of God poses to our human existence."26 To put ourselves.

then. in all our frailty. at the service of God. is the greatest act of human freedom and

self-identity .17

Metz relates poverty of spirit to the modem rejection of human limitedness. which

he identifies as the root of sin. Addressing the bourgeois Christian. living in a

technologically sophisticated world. Metz calls for a re-examination of human weakness

and limitation so that we are less fearful and resistant to the reality of our fallibility and

dependence on God. He draws a sharp distinction between the poverty of our humanity

and the sin of our humanity. which rejects that poverty. This is helpful for developing a

proper sense of self-worth for creaturely dependence is viewed as a good. leading us to

communion with God. Poverty of spirit demands an appreciation for embodied existence

and a refusal to "escape the harsh distress of the human situation:'28

Recalling his teacher Karl Rahner. Metz stresses that the core of our being is

religious and our surrender to God's will entails taking up our human vocation. Here

Metz indirectly addresses the feminist concern with divine power being understood as

dominating and overpowering of human agency (1.2.c). Metz teaches that the

Z6 £bid.• 27.

27 £bid .• 31.

28 £bid.• 5.

convergence of God's will and true human freedom is found in the acceptance of human

poverty manifest in the Incarnation:

It is no arbitrary will [God's will] that sweeps across our being without
appeal to our freedom. It is within our very being that the claims of this
will find their lettering. That is why the individual guises of this poverty
are the possibilities bestowed on us by God, the opportunities enabling us
to become real human beings. They are the chalice that God holds out to
us: if we drink it, we allow God's holy will to work on US.!9

[n other words, God does not absorb or obliterate our humanity: divine love fully enters

into our humanity and sets us free to be who we truly are. Divine power is not

controlling and coercive but restoring and trans formative for God works in collaboration

with our humanity.

[n concluding his book. Metz insists that poverty of spirit matures and is sustained

by the inseparability of love of God and love of neighbor: "[Ilt is in our relations with our

sisters and brothers that our spirit of poverty is preserved, that our readiness for sacrifice

enables us to become truly human."30 Our human vocation flourishes in the context of

relationships that build upon poverty of spirit, manifest in total self-giving:

[n total self-abandonment and full commitment to another we become

completely poor. and the depths of infinite mystery open up to us from
within this other person. [n this order, we come before God. If we commit
ourselves to this person without reservation, if we accept and do not try to
use this person as an instrument of self-assertion. our human encounter
occurs within the horizon of unending mystery. This openness to others
can be enjoyed only in the poverty of self-abandonment: egoism destroys
it. 31

29 [bid.. 45.

30 [bid.• 33.

31 [bid.. 33-34.

In Poverty of Spirit, Metz teaches that we become our authentic selves through the

intimacy of loving God and neighbor. But in later work, as Metz develops his

understanding of social sin, the connection between poverty of spirit and love of neighbor

takes on a more global character.

In Followers of Christ and A Passion for God, Metz shows how poverty of spirit

calls for reform not only in the life of the individual Christian but in the life of the

Christian community and wider society. The scope, then, of Metz's teaching on poverty

of spirit incorporates the personal and the social, which resembles Augustine' s two

dimensions of humility where true self-knowledge culminates in the self-emptying love

of neighbor.

B. Poverty of Spirit in Followers of Christ


Metz's Poverty of Spirit relates the mystery of God incarnate to the individual's

struggle to be authentically human. Building on this. his lectures entitled Followers of

Christ propose a way for members of religious orders and of the church at large to be

authentically Christian in the modem world. Here Metz reflects on the end-time and

criticizes a privatized, individualized eschatology:

[Christians] have accepted an understanding that compels them to make all

expectation of the second coming an extremely private concern. focused
on the death of the individual. and that obliges them either to think of
God's future strictly without reference to time or to project it into a pattern
of evolution. 32

32 Metz. Followers of Christ. 77.

We now live, according to Metz, with the illusion of evolutionary progress, which dims

our sense of expectation of Christ's return. The church contributes to this diminishing

sense of expectation by favoring safety and stability over an openness to divine

interruption. The church, Metz argues, needs to be shocked out of this "reasonable"

approach for the injustices of the world have reached massive proportions which. if taken

seriously. should inspire "apocalyptic 10nging"33 for Christ's return. To live with the hope

of Christ's imminent coming entails following Christ without delay. acting. not in a

frenetic panic. but. with a sense of urgency and immediacy.

It should be noted that Metz's move toward a more socially attuned theology

consciously seeks to interrelate the personal and social dimensions of discipleship:

All we have is an abridged form if the business of following Christ is

consciously restricted (0 individual moral behaviour. Following Christ has
a fundamental social and political element: it is at one and the same time
mystical and political.J.J

With the introduction of the "mystical" and the "political" into his theology, Metz

realizes that there is a temptation to collapse one into the other: "What happens is either

the reduction of following Christ to a purely social and political dimension of behavior or

its reduction to private religious spirituality."35 Discipleship and the specific practice of

poverty of spirit necessarily includes a tension generated by holding together the personal

and the social within an apocalyptically expectant form of Christian discipleship.

33 Ibid.• 80.

J.J Ibid.• 41.

35 Ibid.

In Followers of Christ, Metz applies the mystical-political dimensions of

discipleship to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows call for a chosen

solidarity with those who do not choose poverty, loneliness. and political oppression but

live with them nonetheless. Bruce Morrill observes that the kenotic element of

Philippians 2 implicitly pervades Metz's teachings in Followers of Christ for each vow,

in its distinctive way. calls for a self-emptying modeled on the descent of God.36 By

drawing a strong connection between Christ's kenosis and Christ's solidarity with the

poor. Metz adds more force and specificity to Augustine's own link between humility and

the recognition of Christ among the poor (3.4.e).

a. Poverty and Following Christ

Metz insists that poverty of spirit entails a living solidarity with the poor but he

warns against the tendency to "replace piety by social commitment. mysticism by

politics. spirituality by practical political concerns, and prayer by social action."37 Far

from fostering a passive and other-worldly attitude. poverty of spirit calis for hopeful

perseverance in the midst of the world's adversity. In poverty of spirit. eschataiogical

hope outweighs the fear. anxiety. and futility. which arise when our work does not bear

immediate fruit. Christ "impels Christians to expose and give of themselves to the bitter

36 Bruce Morrill. :\namnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue
(Collegeville. MN: Liturgical Press. 2000). 37.

37 Metz. Followers of Christ. 51.

end; to make themselves vulnerable and open to disappointment and disillusion."38 Here

Metz suggests that works of charity and justice. rooted in poverty of spirit. are called to

withstand all temptations to give up. when the results are not what they should be.

Metz concludes his section on poverty with a discussion of how in poverty of

spirit we recognize our failures but move forward in hope. There is an acknowledgment

of our ongoing need for forgiveness which resembles Augustine' s remark that pilgrims of

the City of God ought not to trust in their own righteousness but in the mercy of God:

"Our righteousness .. .is nevertheless only such as to consist in the forgiveness of sins

rather than in the perfection of virtues."39 [n this vein. Metz writes:

[W]hat is claimed here for the poverty involved in following Christ is not
disavowed or revealed as abstract by the fact that one can hardly live up to
it. Forgiveness will meet those who commit themselves to it if they
should fail. The criterion is that they are trying and do not give up trying.
The radical nature of this poverty does not really describe a goal but a
common way that discloses itself only to those who follow it. with at least
enough light for the next step and with enough hope in case of failure.-IO

Both Augustine and Metz recognize that humility and/or poverty of spirit is often

approximated but never fully lived out in most people's lives. [ntegral to this quality,

then. is a readiness to always begin anew in our struggle for holiness. Humility involves

a rejection of perfectionism and an ability to honestly accept our need for grace. Like

Augustine, Metz connects poverty of spirit directly with the unspectacular struggles of

38 Ibid.• 48.

39 City a/God 19.27 (Bettenson. 892).

-10 Metz. Followers a/Christ. 59.

daily life. Both are aware that being scrupulous and wallowing in gUilt can lead to


Metz's stress upon the external form of humility complements Augustine's focus

upon the interior attitude of poveny. While both reflect on the distinction between

appearance and reality. Augustine warns against self-deception. for personal holiness is

not based on pious gestures or poveny alone but inner transformation-Christ's spirit re-

ordering of our love.-I I Metz concentrates on other forms of social deception and warns

against an interior piety that is deaf to the cry of the poor. He calls for visible signs of

Christ's poveny as a witness to consumer culture.

Neither Augustine nor Metz limit their understanding of humility and poveny of

spirit to a strictly interior trait. Rather. their different emphases reflect their varying

concerns. [n a society preoccupied with correct form and outward appearance. Augustine

stressed the connection between humility and interior purity. But. in a bourgeois society

focused on self-examination and therapeutic introspection to the point of narcissism.

Metz urges Christians not to lose sight of the fundamental difference. in form. that the

Christian life demands.

b. Chastity and Following Christ

-IIAugustine maintains that both rich and poor are capable of arrogance. He regularly associates riches
with pride because riches encourage an exaggerated sense of self-importance and superiority. Yet.
Augustine's realism argues that both rich and poor are capable of arrogance. "You can, after all. find a
beggar who is proud. and a rich man who recognizes his own lowliness:' Enarrations on the Psalms 85.3
(O'Connell and Pellegrino. 44). See also Serm.. 70A.l (WSA UJ/3:243).

Metz writes only briefly about the vow of chastity in connection to discipleship.

He sees poverty of spirit as a call for celibates to work against the tendency toward self-

enclosure. resignation. and despair. A celibate life can be a renewed sign of hope. not by

being esoteric. cut off from others. and apolitical. but. by real solidarity with the lonely

and immersion in the exigencies of history. [n this section. Metz implicitly warns against

a form of pride to which we have seen Augustine draw attention. Pride leads not only to

domination and self-aggrandizement which moves outward but also to a retreat into

privacy and a turning in on oneself.

[n Of Holy Virginity. Augustine warns religious women against a pride that is

"self-pleased" and stands outside and above other ordinary Christians who have

married.":! Those who have taken the vow of celibacy are in great danger of pride.

according to Augustine. and it is this form of prideful isolation that Metz finds manifest

in the exclusivity and isolation of religious life. But Metz's warning to celibates goes

further than Augustine in that he proposes solidarity with the disenfranchised as a central

corrective to the tendency toward worldly resignation and superiority.

c. Obedience and Following Christ

[n his reflections on the obedience integral to poverty of spirit. Metz turns to

Christ's passion. The mystical aspect of Christ's obedience to the Father culminates in his

obedient "yes" to the cross:

"2 Of Holy Virginity 34 (Cornish. 429).

His cry from the cross is the cry of that God-forsaken man who for his part
has never forsaken God. [t is this kind of suffering that provides the point
of reference for his obedience, his obedience 'unto death, even death on a
cross.' [n the situation of radical hopelessness and contradictoriness there
stands his yes, his assent, his obedience. ~3

Metz insists that the tragedy of the "rejected Messiah" on the cross should not be

tempered and too quickly linked to the triumph and glory of the resurrection. Obedience

requires an unconsoling and agonizing persistence when there is no reassurance about the


Obedience calls for fidelity to a God who can be hidden and silent before our

questions and agonizing pleas. [n other words: n[f those who pray are seen as those who

are obedient in the sense of following Christ. then it is not any cheap assent they are

giving, nor are they any fawning cowards. any masochists with a yen for submission, any

pious subjects."~ Obedience involves a tense longing for God which is full of passion

and discord; it is not a passive relinquishing of power. Metz understands that this stark

example of Jesus' obedience, when taken wrongly, can condone submission to injustice.

Thus, he writes, "it is here. in the understanding of this obedience, that following Christ

can most damagingly and ultimately most easily be abused."~5 [t is incumbent then upon

those who exhon others to follow the obedience and humility of Christ to warn against

forced or blind obedience that ultimately dehumanizes and distances us from Christ.

~3 Metz. Followers of Christ. 64.

~Ibid.• 65.

~5 Ibid.

Metz sharply distinguishes poverty of spirit from the weaker expressions of

obedience found in "feeble resignation or infantile regression."~ What sets Christ's

obedience apart from a self-pitying victimization and resignation is that it is a freely

chosen abandonment to the will of the Father. It is not out of desperation and emptiness

but from his fullness that Christ empties himself. Here Metz strongly parallels

Augustine's conception of humility. Poverty of spirit requires Christ's followers to stand

with the dignity of being fallen but loved creatures. This leads Metz to say: "Only the

one who walks upright can also bend the knee willingly and give thanks cheerfully."-I7

From receptivity to divine love. Christian self-giving and servanthood become possible.

True obedience then is the full exercise of human freedom in solidarity. not the cowardly

or coerced surrender of one's freedom to another.

As a twentieth century theologian, Metz addresses modem concerns about the

abuses of obedience. He explains why Christ's obedience is not an invitation to

relinquish responsibility and accept the domination of another. [n fact. Metz concludes

that a primary source for Christian passivity and resignation is not simply an overly

spiritualized poverty of spirit. or. an overemphasis on humility. but. "a late bourgeois

mentality of prosperity."-'8 Growing prosperity leads to greater indifference and

insensitivity to the suffering of the poor. Metz insists that Christ's example of obedience

~ Metz. Followers of Christ. 65.

,\7 Metz. Passion for God. 4.

.u! Ibid.• 16.

leads us to trust in a God who suffers with us and who calls us to suffer with others for

the sake of ending abusive power.

Turning to the political component of obedience, Metz teaches that Christ's

suffering is intimately connected to the suffering of untold victims of cruelty throughout

history. Christ's "yes" to the Father impels us toward a deeper commitment to those

whose obedient "yes" is coerced and not freely chosen in love. It challenges and enriches

our imagination so that we see Christ's pain in the pain of another: "The God of this

obedience does not impel us towards a frenetic search for our identity, nor does he absorb

our imaginative capacity for appreciating other people's suffering but rather arouses and

sustains it."·&9 Obedience then is not primarily the suppression or obliteration of our will

in favor of another, rather, it involves reorienting our will through a deeper communion

with the oppressed.

Bruce Morrill observes the kenotic dimension in Metz's discussion of obedience

for he extends it to a giving of oneself to those dehumanized by obedience:

Like the hymn [Phil 2], Metz treats Jesus' obedience to God in a narrative
form, expounding on both the 'radical hopelessness and contradictoriness'
of Jesus' 'obedience unto death on a cross: and the revelation of the
'brilliant image of God who raises up and liberates, who releases the
gUilty and the humiliated into a new future full of promise' [Followers of
Christ, 64,66] ... This pattern establishes the definite character of Christian
subjectivity and the practical knowledge at the heart of christology ...
Kenosis thereby characterizes not only Jesus' life but also the life that can
be salvific for the middle class Christian. 50

~9Ibid .. 67.

50 Bruce Morrill. Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory. 37.

In this decision to "stand close"51 to those who suffer under unjust power, Metz specifies

the kind of kenosis that is integral to a disciple's obedience.

Quoting from the West German Synod's document, Our Hope: a Confession of

Faith for ollr Time (l971-1975),52 Metz relates Christ's self-emptying and obedience to

the liberating power of God:

For the image of God that appears in the poverty of Jesus' obedience, in
the complete surrender of his life to the Father, is not the image of a tyrant
god who humiliates people; nor is it the image of God as an exaltation of
earthly domination and authority. It is the brilliant image of God who
raises up and liberates, who releases the guilty and the humilitated into a
new future full of promise and comes to meet them with outstretched arms
of mercy and compassion. 53

Metz draws from the image of Jesus on the cross to distinguish between humility and

humiliation as well as between authentic and inauthentic forms of obedience. True

obedience does not turn its back on those who suffer but aligns with the oppressed. This

solidarity of Christ-like obedience makes coerced obedience all the more glaring: it is

more clearly seen as a distortion of the obedience that Christ's passion evokes.

In Followers of Christ, Metz's most focused treatment of Christology, he

discusses the dynamism inherent in a discipleship Christology shaped by the mystical and

political dimensions of poverty of spirit. According to his "discipleship christology'·s.J

51 Metz. Followers o/Christ. 43. 67.

51 "Our Hope: A Confession of Faith for This Time," Study Encounter 12 (1-2), 1976. Metz wrote a draft
of this document produced by the joint synod of the dioceses of the Federal Republic of Germany.

53 Ibid.. 66-67.

5.J Ibid., 39.

following Christ is integral to the study of Christ55: "Following Christ is therefore not just

a subsequent application of the Church's christology to our life: the practice of following

Christ is itself a central pan of christology."s6 He adds, "It is only by following him that

we know who he is and what we are to think of him."S7 Echoing Augustine's

mediatorship language. Metz writes: "Christ himself is not only a supreme being worthy

of worship. but also. and always. a way."S8 Speaking of Christ as the "way" is not

unique to Augustine but it is striking that Augustine and Metz similarly express their

understanding of discipleship as a "way" of return to God. Christian morality is never

reduced to rules and doctrines that abstract from the concrete life of Christ.

Augustine and Metz clearly distance the notion of obedience from a mechanical

rule following or passive acquiescence to willful decree. Both draw from Philippians 2

and discuss obedience in the context of Christ's kenosis. They view true obedience as a

pathway to greater freedom, although Augustine gives greater stress to liberation from

personal sin, whereas Metz gives greater stress to liberation from "outside" oppression.

To be free is to be aware of one's place in history, one's complicity in social sin. and

one's capacity to engage the suffering of others.

Metz concludes Followers of Christ with a challenge to an apocalyptic hope that

moves poverty of spirit closer to chosen poveny and solidarity with those who are

S5 Metz. Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology. trans. David Smith
(New York: Seabury Press. 1980) 52. This is a translation of the second of five editions of Metz's Glaube
in Geschichte und Gesellschaft.
S6 Metz. Followers of Christ. 39.

S7lbid.. 88.

S8lbid.. 39.

destitute. Drawing close to those who are lonely and subject to political oppression,

poverty of spirit does not quell the impetus to invest in this world but rather deepens and

radicalizes Christian discipleship.

C. Poverty of Spirit in A Passion for God


[n Metz's earlier work, poverty of spirit consists in becoming fully human

through an acceptance of human vulnerability and weakness. This mandate is made

possible by God's willingness to enter into the powerlessness of our humanity.

Ultimately, Christ's self-emptying teaches us that the process of becoming human

unfolds by our giving wholly of ourselves to one another. [n Followers of Christ. Metz

denounces the pride that turns religious orders inward and urges them to adopt poverty of

spirit, modeled on a more radical and literal following of Christ through the vows.

Beginning in the 19805, Metz orients his understanding of the Beatitudes more fully

toward the political and cultural tensions involved in solidarity with the humiliated. the

oppressed, and the forgotten. [n a relatively recent collection of essays entitled A. Passion

for God, Metz reflects on the meaning of poverty of spirit with a more apocalyptically

charged understanding of time. He sees time as bounded by the second coming of Christ

and insists that theology must be shaped by an "eschatological uneasiness,"59 for we

await Christ's return with a certain disquietude and urgency.

59 Metz. A Passion for God. 56.

As Metz shifts to this more apocalyptic expression of poverty of spirit he relies

heavily on the Hebrew scriptures and the Gospel of Mark, the most apocalyptic of the

Gospel narratives. While acknowledging Christianity's indebtedness to Greek culture,

Metz sets out to correct "thinking about the God of Abraham, the God of lesus, as if this

God were a Platonic idea."60 He seeks to reestablish its connection to the anamnestic

culture of the lewish faith by arguing that the contemporary view of time as progressive

and ongoing ignores the concrete realities of history that rupture any continuum and

interrupt all predictable patterns. To forget or cover over the interruptions of suffering is,

in Metz's mind, to render suffering meaningless.

[n his third essay, "Theology as Theodicy?" (1990)61 in A Passion/or God. Metz

observes how Jesus' surrender to the Father in Luke's Gospel contrasts with Mark's

account of lesus' cry of forsakenness: "My God. my God. why have you abandoned

me?" (Mark l5:34). Metz argues that Christian faith must center around this "cry of the

Son, abandoned by God. "62

[nthe God-forsakenness of the cross. he affirms a God who is still other

and different from the echo of our wishes. however ardent; who is ever
more and other than the answers to our questions, even the strongest and
most fervent - as with lob, and finally with lesus himself. 63

60 Ibid .. 154.

61 Ibid.• 54-71.

62 Ibid.• 126.

63 Ibid.• 67.

The cry of Israel and the cry of Job are now "christologicaUy intensified"64 in

Jesus' agonizing plea to the Father. Although Augustine acknowledged that the Hebrew

scriptures teach humility, he stressed that Jesus Christ's humility is unique and definitive

(2.l.d). He focused on Jesus Christ introducing something new and transformative of all

previous notions of God. Thus, Christianity is both continuous and discontinuous with

Judaism. Metz, however, describes a progression in poverty of spirit from the Israel's cry

from the desert to Christ's cry from the cross. Responding to the divisions between

Christianity and Judaism, Metz underscores the continuity between Israel's poverty of

spirit and Jesus Christ's poverty of spirit.

a. Poverty of Spirit and 'Suffering unto God'

In comparing Metz's writings, we can see a shift from a more existential (e.g.

Poverty of Spirit) to a more historically rooted understanding of Christianity (e.g. A

Passion for God). Augustine's writings demonstrate a similar shift. As noted in chapter

three (3.4.e), Augustine moves from a more Neoplatonic focus on Christ as the "inner

teacher" toward a more historical, Gospel-based understanding of Christ as the crucified

one. Augustine, however, does not draw principally from the Jewish roots of Christianity,

as Metz does, in making this shift.

Metz argues that it is particularly Israel's poverty of spirit that demonstrates how

indispensable Judaism is to Christianity. He writes:

64 Ibid.. 58.

What is it that distinguishes pre-Christian Israel, what is it that
distinguished this small, culturally rather insignificant and politically
humble desert folk from the glittering high cultures of its time? In my
view it was a particular sort of defenselessness, of poverty, in a certain
sense Israel's incapacity successfully to distance itself from the
contradictions, the terrors and chasms in its life - by, for example,
mythicizing or idealizing the context in which it lived. . . One could
almost say then that Israel's election, its capacity for God, showed itself in
this particular form of its poverty and incapacity: the inability to let itself
be consoled by myths and ideas. This is precisely what I would call
Israel's poverty of spirit, in which it was mindful of itself in the
remembrance of God.65

At the heart of poverty of spirit is an incessant questioning of God, rooted in the prayer

traditions of the Psalms, the Book of Job, and the Jeremiah of Lamentations.66 This

uneasy questioning is the foundation for all authentic discourse about God. The Israelites

faced the pain of history and suffered the dangers of oppression and exile; they did not

repress or explain away "negative realities":

Israel knew no mythical or ideational riches in spirit with which it could

transcend or console itself when it faced its own fears, the alienation of its
exile, the history of suffering continually breaking out in its midst. It
remained. in its inmost essence, mythically and idealistically mute. It
showed little gift for forgetting, and at the same time little gift for the
automatic, idealistic handling of disillusionment. and little gift for
soothing its anxieties. It remained poor in spirit. 67

65 [bid .• 65-66.

66 [bid.. 66.

67 [bid .• 125.

Seeing Israel as the first exemplar of poverty of spirit, Metz warns against the Christian

tendency to mute Jesus' cry from the cross which is echoed in the cry of those who

throughout history have longed for God's justice.68

Metz calls this persistent questioning of God that is rooted in Judaism, a

"mysticism of suffering unto God."69 Ashley argues that the mystical-political stance of

"suffering unto God" is the principal form of poveny of spirit in Metz' s current

thought: 70

The spirituality of Leiden an Gott. which is the heart of Metz's mature

interpretation of the venerable disposition of 'poveny of spirit,' has
emerged as the crucial element of any authentic following of Christ. of
being a subject along with other subjects. in the presence of GOd. 71

"Suffering unto God" is found in the Israelites who call unto God in the midst of

persecution. Metz explains: "Its Old Testament exemplar is Job. and the New Testament

exemplar is Jesus Christ. "7:! In Christianity. the person who is poor in spirit remains

present to suffering. passionately questions God, and urgently longs for Christ's second


The language of this God-mysticism is not first and foremost one of

consoling answers for the suffering one is experiencing. but rather much
more a language of passionate questions from the midst of suffering,
questions turned toward God, full of highly charged expectation. 73

68 [bid.. 56.

69 [bid.• 66.

70 [bid.. 66. Also. Matthew Ashley. footnote 19 inA Passion for God. 178.

71 Ashley. Interruptions. [69.

7:! Metz. A Passion for God. 178. See also 66-67.

i3 [bid.. 67.

To be a subject. according to Metz. is to be a responsible historical agent who wrestles

with the unsettling questions that emerge when one' s eyes are open to the realities of

history. Only the eschatological questioning of God. seen throughout the biblical

narrative. adequately treats the inexplicable anguish of the world. Rather than solving the

problem of suffering. poveny of spirit clears a space for the problem of evil to be heard

with its full force. To be human. then. is to be willing to suffer. to be affected by the pain

of another. In this attentiveness and solidarity, we find opponunities for real human

agency and liberation.

Metz is careful to distinguish poveny of spirit from the false humility that

compromises human freedom and personhood:

These mystics (the poor in spirit) are no willing yes-men. neither assenive
nor apathetic. They practice neither cowardly submission nor masochistic
self-subjugation. They are not pious underlings. Their yes to God does
not express shallow humility or infantile regression. And the prayer that
expresses their yes is not a language of exaggerated affirmation. no
anificial song of jubilation that would be isolated from every language of
suffering and crisis and which all too quickly falls suspect to being a
desperately feigned naivete,14

The poor in spirit are not groveling people who resign themselves to oppression, nor are

they people who turn their backs on suffering and smugly proclaim God's salvation. The

poor in spirit live with the tension of mourning and hopeful anticipation.

"Suffering unto God" (Leiden an Gott) has two dimensions. On the one hand. it

involves being present to the devastation and misery of human suffering. Viewing

74 Metz. A Passion for God. 67.

history from the perspective of the victim, one cries out to God in complaint. There is a

continual turning back to God with the apocalyptic question, "How long yet?,,7S On the

other hand, "suffering unto God" entails hopefulness in the midst of lamenting. The

capacity to mourn suffering is proportionate to the capacity to hope in God's justice. It is

then by trusting in the promise of God's full justice that we can confront the injustices of

the world and not be overwhelmed by despair. Metz argues that this poverty of spirit.

manifest in "suffering unto God" reveals the interconnectedness of working for God's

justice and longing for the fullness of that justice. Metz concludes that: "This God [of

Christian faith] is for me the only reliable foundation for that universal solidarity and

justice for which human beings hunger and thirst:'76 This hope for God's justice can

only be sustained by a person who becomes a self in solidarity with others:

It is not the isolated time of one' s own life that forms the matrix for this
hope. but much more the time of others: it is not only one' s own end in
death. but rather others', the deaths of others. that keeps eschatological
suspense awake in one's own heart. n

This solidarity sparks a longing for an answer from God and this "wordless cry"78 to God

in lament brings a new dimension of poverty of spirit to the fore.

Metz challenges Western culture's pretensions to social justice. His essays in A

Passion for God deconstruct the modern middle-class subject who does not recognize his

or her own gUilt in the midst of the vast histories of human suffering. Today, he

7S Ibid.• 71.
76 Ibid.• 37.

n Ibid.• l64.

observes, we are more aware of the suffering of others, yet we are increasingly spectators

and voyeurs of the tragedies of history. Both Augustine and Metz relate true self-

knowledge to knowledge of our own complicity in the tragedies of others. In the City of

God, Augustine chronicles the moral shortcomings of Roman culture. Similar to the

culture of the West today, Rome assumed a morally superior stance, boasting of its

central place in human civilization. Augustine challenges Rome's claim to being a just

society by highlighting its grave injustices going back to the murder of Romulus' brother

and extending to its enslavement of conquered peoples. 79

Augustine's own faith, particularly in his later writings, moves closer to Metz's

eschatological longing for deliverance from both personal and social sin. Metz. however.

gives greater emphasis to social sin. He shows how poverty of spirit does not settle into

structures of sin but works against them by joining in solidarity with the suffering Christ

in history. In Metz's writing, any longing to be liberated from individual sinfulness is

joined in the fervent longing and hope for the conquered and the oppressed.

b. Shattering Mythology and Discovering Personhood

Generally speaking, the question of whether humility or poverty of spirit

contributes to a loss of personhood or self-identity is a modern question that Metz can

address more directly than Augustine. Nonetheless, Augustine's perception of humility

as a corrective to our illusions of self-grandeur continues to have contemporary

78 Ibid., 1-2.

79 City a/God 19.4-8 (Benenson. 852-863); Ibid.• 22.22-23 (Benenson. 1065-1070).

relevance. Metz, however, extends his critique of the modem self into an exploration of

the tendency to live by myth so as to escape the alienation. guilt. and suffering of human

existence. He warns that today the greatest threat to human subjectivity is not poverty of

spirit or humility but the modem person's attraction to consoling myths in place of


There is a new enthusiasm for religion. or more precisely a new

enthusiasm for myths. that is popping up everywhere: first among
intellectuals. but also among managers and the managed. among those
who return from their electronically networked workplaces and whose
imaginations need to recuperate from the faceless computer. Religion. as
a compensatory myth of freedom. is on the rise in our still- or postmodern
world. sO

Myths foster a forgetfulness that shields us from interruption. [n his fourth essay.

"Theology versus Polymythicism." (1991) Metz marvels at Time magazine's decision to

make the robot the "Man of the Year."81 He writes: "[t is an intelligence without history.

without pathos and without morals. a rhapsody of innocence congealed into a machine."82

This image captures the loss of personhood in a myth-making culture that prioritizes the

mechanical, the efficient. and the productive and turns to a "proreligious godlessness" for

relief and consolation. The Western middle-class citizen. shaped fundamentally by a

capitalist technological society, sees Christianity as merely added to life for consolation.

While technological advances aim to free us from powerlessness and suffering, Metz

maintains that our real need is to be freed from apathy. from the incapacity to mourn. and

80 Metz. A Passion for God. 156.

81 Ibid.• 80.
82 Ibid.

from the failure to recognize the ways in which we contribute to the victimization of


Like Augustine, Metz reflects on the temptation to either exaggerate human

power (pride) or exaggerate human powerlessness (despair). In analyzing the extremes

of pride and despair, Metz shows how they both misconstrue human power as separate

from divine power. These contemporary forms of pride and despair can be seen in what

he calls "the cult of managing" and the "cult of apathy."83

The "cult of managing" represents the temptation to idolize human power, to try

to change the world to serve our own ends. Metz believes that technological advances

have intensified that temptation. The "cult of managing" subscribes to the belief that

"everything is possible."l!-I We do not need God. each other. or even ourselves to

dominate and control reality; technology is all-powerful. In observing this frenzy [Q

overcome all the interruptions of nature and history. Metz calls for a recovery of the

receptive and expectant modes of human existence found in poverty of spirit. Metz

denounces the egoism of self-enclosure whereby in an increasingly technological,

computerized age, one retreats into self and covers over all forms of human frailty and

uncertainty. Capitalism and a fast-paced, market-driven culture, Metz argues, undermine

real human relationships. Consumerism consumes our very selves. We lose the capacity

to feel, to acknowledge our guilt, and basically, to suffer.

83 [bid.. 51.

8-l [bid.

Alternatively, the "cult of apathy" holds that "everything can be superseded."85

Nothing really counts and nothing is ultimately at stake no matter what we do or do not

do. The past is ultimately rendered irrelevant. Metz observes that ordinary people, caught

up in the workaday world, become imaginatively sterile and do not see themselves as

responsible agents in history. Instrumental reason subjects human values to the capitalist

principle of exchange where fundamental human goods (such as interpersonal

relationships and lifetime commitments)86 are viewed as commodities that can be turned

in for new ones. This kind of calculation and manipulation of human values contributes

to fatalism and apathy.

Showing the interrelationship between the tendency to overestimate and

underestimate human agency, Metz writes:

Resignation is the undertow to the sense of possibility. The two, the cult
of managing our fate on the one hand and the cult of apathy on the other,
belong together like two sides of a single coin. The understanding of
reality that guides the scientific-technological domination of nature and
draws its energy from the cult of the possible, is deeply marked by a
representation of time as an empty continuum, growing evolutionarily into
endlessness. in which everything is mercilessly. gracelessly enclosed. 87

The poor in spirit are those who find no consolation in either of these myths that repress

the tensions, uncertainties, and tragedies of human life. As Augustine chided the

Manichaeans for their myth-making and the Platonists for their superstitions. so Metz

85 Ibid.

86 Ibid.• l66.

87 Ibid.• 5l.

denounces those who, "in our mythically enthralled postmodem age,"88 allow the most

agonizing questions and contradictions of human existence to be resolved cheaply. Both

Augustine and Metz understand that sin is attracted to the unreal and illusory. Humility

and poverty of spirit disrupt our mythical slumber in order to draw us toward the real.

While Augustine opposes humility to Neoplatonist and Roman pride, Metz opposes

poverty of spirit to the banality and expediency of modem life.

Metz is alert to the contemporary sociocultural climate and the tendency to make

the search for human authenticity a narcissistic one. Like Augustine, he shows that

poverty of spirit and liberation from sin are closely allied with service and solidarity. He

notes that the true self is discovered in generosity, not in self-preoccupation. Metz's

apocalyptic theology stresses that the poor in spirit are not passive but actively receptive

in that they eagerly await God by working for nothing less than a new creation; a world

transformed into the Kingdom of God. It is precisely this anticipation that sustains

concrete political action.

The mythically enchanted who seek God as a means to self-satisfaction,

sentimental comfort. and tranquility, contrast with the poor in spirit. who wrestle with the

regret and guilt caused by facing up to the unreconciled realities of history. The

disturbing and unsettling character of the biblical narrative contrasts with contemporary

expectations of happiness. Aware of the endless search for personal satisfaction, Metz

mocks the modem search for "a convenient God"89:

88 £bid.• 158.

89 £bid.• 101.

Was Israel. for example. happy with its God? Was Jesus happy with his
Father? Does religion make one happy? Does it make one mature? Does it
give one identity? Home. security. peace with oneself? Does it soothe
anxieties? Does it answer questions? Does it fulfill our wishes. at least the
most ardent? I do not think so ... biblical consolation does not remove us
to a mythical realm of tensionless harmony and questionless reconciliation
with ourselves. The Gospel is no catalyst or automated assembly line for
human self-discovery.'lO

Challenging the claim that poverty of spirit or humility foster political detachment. Metz

observes that it is the culture of myth-making that contributes to the lack of political

engagement today. In contrast. the passionate questioning of God. for whom no person' s

suffering is anonymous or forgotten. generates social criticism and concrete political

action. Metz asks provocatively:

[s it not our culture industry. the growing power of the mass media (not
least. of television). which as time goes on quasi transcendentally
overarches everyday life and in various entertaining ways relieves us more
and more of ourselves. of our own memory. our own perceptions and our
own language. turning us finally into voyeurs of our own history'? Does
not this culture industry go out of its way to promote a pacified
subjectivity. a suspension of action and distance from decision,?,!1

Reflecting on the last judgment discourse of Matthew 25. Metz writes:

[n the end. witness [to GodJ is intimately involved. with eyes that see, in
that history where people are crucified and tortured. hated and miserly
loved; and no mythos far-removed from history. no world-blind gnosis.
can give it back the innocence that is lost in such an historical trial.92

c. Metz and the Masters of Suspicion

'lO Ibid.• 68.

'II Ibid.• 77.

92 Ibid.• 163.

One way that Metz develops the socio-political implications of poverty of spirit is

by responding to two "masters of suspicion": Marx and Nietzsche, who, as we have seen,

look disparagingly upon humility. [n the sixties and seventies, Metz wrestled with the

thought of "revisionary" Marxists who led him to consider the social mission of the

church, as well as the political implications of Christian belief.'}3 Aided by the social

criticism and historical consciousness of Marxism. Metz criticizes its inability to

distinguish between true and false forms of guilt. The poor in spirit experience authentic

guilt as they face their own responsibility for the suffering of others. This gUilt is the

catalyst for true solidarity. An alienating guilt. in contrast, leads to excessive moral self-

recrimination that turns one away from others. A proper acknowledgment of guilt.

however, is a sign of personal dignity for it is a natural outcome of human subjects taking

responsibility for history. Metz observes that the Marxist perspective fails to understand

the empowering role that gUilt can play. He remarks. "a Christianity holding itself

accountable to the idea of liberation becomes a critical challenge to Marxism'''l4 for

through this accountability a Christian consciousness can be revolutionary.

More recently, Metz has turned to the work of Nietzsche. whom he sees as having

anticipated the "world-weariness" of contemporary culture. [n A Passion for God. Metz

provides a pithy diagnosis of Western Europe: "Marx is dead: Nietzsche lives."qS Metz

93 [n retrospect. Metz explained that the members of the Frankfurt School (specifically Theodor Adorno.
Max Horkheimer. Herbert Marcuse. and Walter Benjamin) politicized him "out of the existential and
transcendental enchantment of theology." A Passion for God. 3. 175.

94 Ibid.• 185. footnote 8.

9S Ibid.• 156.

agrees with Nietzsche that human personhood is undennined when Christian faith

becomes the means to shield oneself from the tragedy and disjunction of human existence

in the modem world. He applauds Nietzsche's insight in diagnosing the contemporary

situation as not only witnessing to the death of God but its consequence. the death of the

human person. In response to Nietzsche' s criticism. Metz proposes poverty of spirit as

the antidote to the coddling fonn of Christianity practiced today. Poverty of spirit works

directly against bourgeois Christianity's search for comfort and consoling answers. It

fosters an "open-eyed mysticism" that obliges us to perceive more fully the suffering of


d. Memory

Metz explains that through an awareness of the histories of suffering. a person is

brought closer to knowing what it means to be responsible and free in the presence of

God. On a personal level. Augustine speaks of Christ's humility re-ordering his own will

so that he is free to truly love and re-member his life in the presence of God. Developing

the theme of memory. Metz speaks of poverty of spirit as a recovery of memory.

particularly the memory of untold victims who re-live Christ's crucifixion everyday.

Metz teaches that the exercise of authentic memory. which is true Christian discipleship.

does not shield itself from the underbelly of history; it remembers what is tragic.

destructive. and senseless about the suffering of others.

96lbid.• 69.

Metz observes that true memory is kept alive in the Eucharist: "The faith of

Christians... is a remembrance: the memory of the suffering. the death and the

resurrection of Jesus Christ. We Christians have certainly preserved this remembrance-

structure of our faith in our cult ("Do this in remembrance of me")."97 The remembering

that Metz sees as the heart of Christian faith is not a psychological recalling of an event.

It is a remembering that re-orients our lives so that we see that Christ identifies himself

with every victim.98 In a world painfully torn by discord and hostility. the poor in spirit

maintain hope that all who share in his suffering will be lifted up. No matter how

desperate and dire things can be. the Christian community gathers to remember that

God's love and victory are final.


In this overview of Metz's term poverty of spirit and in the mutually corrective

readings of Augustine and Metz. a more contemporary notion of Augustinian humility

emerges. Metz. on the one hand. points the way toward a contemporary understanding of

Augustinian humility through both his earlier transcendental theology and his more

recent political theology. In his earlier work. Poverty of Spirit. Metz articulates how

humility entails being true to one's authentic humanity before God. Far from a degrading

and dehumanizing trait. humility enhances our humanity by directing us to Christ as the

97 Ibid., 131.

98 This underdeveloped aspect of Metz's Christology has been developed by Jon Sabrina. See Jon Sabrina.
The Principle of Mercy: Taking rhe Crucified People from rhe Cross (Maryknoll: Orbis, (994).

fullest expression of human existence. Metz's transcendental theology provides the basis

for understanding humility properly for it sets up a mutually correcting dialectic between

becoming more fully human and becoming humble. Unlike Augustine, Metz provides

more explicit precautionary checks against pathological understandings of humility. The

legitimate concerns about demeaning forms of humility are addressed within a theology

that seeks to show how Christianity is humanizing. Thus, Metz's transcendental

approach enhances the possibilities for humility to be more fully incorporated into

contemporary Christian life.

Like Augustine, Metz also emphasizes that our finiteness and utter dependence on

God are not negative realities. but help us to realize that we are personally loved and

cared for by God. Our sinfulness, in this light. is a failure to accept our vocation to

vulnerability and radical dependence before God. [n this early stage. Metz's use of

existential terms and the language of creatureliness relates poverty of spirit to the

psychological climate of modem Western culture where a healthy cultivation of the self

is a central value. Without endorsing a reductively therapeutic approach to personhood,

Metz describes humility in terms such as "authenticity" and "self-acceptance," which

have more resonance in our present socio-cultural context. [n a time when people are

concerned with low self-esteem, for instance, he consciously distances poverty of spirit

from self-hatred, groveling social manipulation, or a wallowing in guilt.

In Followers of Christ and A Passion for God, Metz calls for a still more radical

conversion to Christ, based on the social dimension of poverty of spirit. Metz consciously

guards against being misread as endorsing meek submission or romanticizing

victimization. He links poverty of spirit with solidarity and challenges us to move from a

childish kind of obedience and a socialized self-forgetfulness to a deeper love that issues

in a mature sense of responsibility for ourselves and one another. In late capitalist

societies in Western Europe and North America, this entails being emptied of a bourgeois

way of life, whereby we are socialized into complacency before the oppression of those

who bear the face of Christ. Poverty of spirit thus moves us from expediency, where we

count the cost of our love, to a costly witness, where we freely give of ourselves, not

timidly or hesitantly, but with a joyful confidence in our God-given capacity for self-gift.

The emphasis in these later works is not primarily on discovering one's true self but on

discovering the history of the oppressed and forgotten. Poverty of spirit. then, is a matter

of becoming authentically human by remembering and hoping for God's deliverance. [n

sum, Metz's existential and historical foci expand Augustinian humility by addressing

concerns that humility contributes to both a lack of self-regard and a failure to assume

social responsibility.

Augustine proves indispensable to the insights of Metz, on the other hand,

because he reminds us of the newness of Christ's humility. Metz' s rightful focus on the

continuity between Judaism and Christianity gives us little sense that Christ's humility is

not only continuous but also discontinuous with previous revelations. Christ's poverty of

spirit goes beyond an intensification of Israel's poverty of spirit,99 for it inaugurates a

new communion between God and humanity. Transformed in Christ, we become

extensions of Christ's redeeming life. Ironically, Metz's theology of interruption does

99 Metz. A Passion for God. 58.

not highlight the interruption of God's revelation in Christ and the newness of Christ's

humble spirit.

Although recognizing that there is something mysteriously transforming about

God's kinship with the "least." Metz points only vaguely to its salvific content in phrases

such as: "We become suddenly humble when we are overtaken by [Christ's] 10ve."100

Metz shows that Christ's love is constitutive of humility, but. in portraying the person

and work of Christ, he seems to steer away from ontological or Trinitarian claims.

Instead, he remains focused on the living Christ in history as our moral exemplar. He

provides only a fragmentary sense of how Christ saves us through his poverty of spirit.

Similarly. although Metz gives stress to Israel and Christ as the paradigmatic way

of poverty of spirit. he avoids discussing Christ's ontological significance. Augustine

claims our relationship with God is restored through Christ's humility so that we

come to participate in the very life of the triune God. We become adopted sons and

daughters by opening ourselves to the descending initiative of God who heals our

brokenness and carries us to our eternal home by the wood of his crosS. IOI The humility

of Christ bridges the chasm between God and humanity created by our pride and despair.

This is the very work of salvation.

Metz teaches about the centrality of humility, but in a different "key" from

Augustine, for his interest in poverty of spirit is driven by modern questions of liberation

both from the injustices of oppression and material poverty and the more elusive

100 Metz. Poverty of Spirie. 49.

101 The Trinity 4.20 (Hill. 167).

existential alienation and numbness of bourgeois society. Emphasizing the historical

dimensions of Christ's poverty of spirit, Metz shows how Christ's kenosis affirms our

humanity but also challenges us to draw near to the crucified people throughout history.

However, for Augustine, Christ's humility reconstitutes us as persons whose

being is ·'being in communion." His humility not only intensifies Israel's cry to God, but

also reconfigures the profound disorder in the human person. He enables us to become

new selves, Christo logically defined selves in a Christo logically defined community. In

brief, Augustine is more explicit than is Metz about Christ's interruptiveness in the

inauguration of a new creation. His poverty of spirit and kenosis free us and structure our

return to the triune God.




This dissertation began with the assertion that humility is presently an under-

appreciated virtue. Chapter one set out to understand the various reasons why humility is

suspect in the view of many philosophers. theologians. and feminist scholars. In chapters

two and three. I organized a representative selection of Augustine' s teachings on

humility. according to themes found in his Christo logy . These passages were organized

not historically but thematically. so that the theological dimensions of humility could be

brought to light. Chapter four illustrated how the theme of humility finds resonance in

the theology of lB. Metz. who introduces a more historically and politically conscious

account of what he calls "poverty of spirit." Now. in order to advance a critical recovery

of Augustine' s teaching on humility and in some way retrieve his Christo logical approach

to virtue. we must engage current criticisms of humility. particularly among feminist

scholars. To show the relevance of humility for the modem person. we also need to

consider its applications within a contemporary context.

This concluding chapter will propose that a more theologically substantial reading

of humility. based on Augustine's Christo logical framework. can be a resource for both

addressing current concerns about humility and reinvigorating the call to humility. It will

begin by distilling Augustine's teaching on humility into four theses that highlight the

various dimensions of this central Christian disposition. In brief, these consist of

humility as l) rooted in the pattern of Christ's redemptive action, 2) foundational for

Christian discipleship, 3) the key to true self-knowledge, and 4) the source and

inspiration of self-emptying love. This overview will set the stage for the second and

third sections, which will consider the two most pressing and serious challenges to

humility by feminist writers: first, that humility contributes to a woman's loss of self and

a lack of centeredness in her person, and second, that humility reinforces patterns and

structures of domination and subordination.

Critiques from Marx and Nietzsche will not be directly addressed in this chapter,

as certain key aspects of their suspicions about humility are expressed in the questions

raised by the feminist theologians re-visited here. As mentioned in chapter one, Marx

suspected that humility is used by the powerful to maintain the status quo. This shows

through in the feminist concern about women being exhorted to humility when they

challenge inequalities in the church and wider society. Nietzsche's accusation that

humility is weak, manipulative, and cowardly is revealed in the concerns about humility

fostering passivity and keeping women from being responsible moral agents.

The fourth section of this chapter explores a contemporary application of

Augustinian humility in order to move from the critical to the constructive. Here I will

consider the role that humility can play in the policies and practices of American Catholic

universities. Since the issuing of John Pauill's £( corde Ecclesiae (1990) there has been

much discussion about the catholicity of Catholic universities. I believe a renewed

understanding of humility from an Augustinian perspective could illumine this discussion

while also revealing new areas for exploration between the intersection of Christian

virtues and the practices of Catholic higher education. Lastly, in the conclusion, [ will

summarize what I have learned from this study of humility and express my hope that

Augustine's work can point the way toward a more expansive and compelling ex.pression

of humility in the life of Christian communities today.

5.1 Overview of Augustine's Doctrine of Humility

a. Humility as rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

While there are many theological reasons for recommending humility (the doctrine

of creation, the doctrine of sin), Augustine is absolutely clear that Jesus Christ is the

foundation and source of this central Christian attribute. Humility is first and foremost. a

divine quality because its content and form are defined by God who draws near to us in

Jesus Christ. The ex.ample of his person and the very way that he redeems us defines

humility. Since. for Augustine. pride is the root of all sin. humility becomes a central

aspect of what he notices in the person and work of Christ. Christ's humility is the

antidote to human pride. As the healer of human pride and the teacher of humility. Christ

restores proper order between God and humanity and the whole of creation. The salvific

role of his humility works by contrast and confrontation. as well as through mediation

and expiation.

In its confrontational mode, Augustine presents humility in a negative fashion by

stressing the dangers of pride. the paramount vice. Christ's humility is the ··counteracting

remedy"\ that directly combats the universal disease of pride. "Because man fell through

\ On the Catechising o/the Uninstructed 4.8. (S.D.F. Salmond. 287).

pride, He [God] applied humility as a cure."2 The movement of the Incarnation

downward and toward us is the reverse of the movement of human pride upward (in self-

exaltation) and away from God. In this reversal, Christ shows us the scandal of our own

pride and makes possible our restoration.

Humility works by mediation because in humility, Christ himself becomes our

way to the Father. He is the locus for movement from this life to the next because he is

fully human and fully divine. Augustine writes: " ... he [Christ] applied to us the similarity

of his humanity to take away the dissimilarity of our iniquity, and becoming a partaker of

our mortality he made us partakers of his divinity:'3 We move in and through Jesus'

humble humanity to his divinity in order to become adopted sons and daughters who

participate in the divine life of the triune God.

Lastly, Christ shows the extreme depth of his humility through kenosis-self-

emptying-which begins with the Incarnation and extends unto death on a cross: "Christ

was crucified in virtue of the weakness he took to himself in mortal flesh, not in virtue of

his immortal power; and yet of this weakness the apostle says. What is weak of God is

stronger than men (l Cor 1:25)."4 In the shedding of his blood. Christ embodies God's

total outpouring of love for the sake of our redemption. In Christ. the humility of laying

down one's life is inextricably connected to the power of overcoming death in


2 On Christian Doctrine 1.13 (Robertson. 15).

3 TIle Trinity 4.4 (Hill. 155).

4 Ibid.. 8.18 (Hill. 358).

In the confronting, mediating, and self-emptying action of Christ's humility, our

own salvation becomes effective. Discipleship entails inheriting this pattern of love so as

to participate in our own return to God. We become co-heirs of his descent in humility,

and ultimately of his ascent into glory. In sum, the specificity of Christian humility is

given to us by the "fullness" (In 1.16) of lesus Christ. The salvific structure of his

humility, in tum, makes a claim upon us to be humble disciples. Humility, then, is not

merely an attribute of Christ. it defines the very substance and form of our reconciliation

to God the Father.

b. Humility as foundational for discipleship.

Augustine understood humility as central to the Christian "Way," (Acts 9.2) not

because it outshines all the other virtues, but because it serves as the necessary starting

point for all human goodness. To be fully human is not to rely on one's own powers but

to be empowered by God. Humility is that disposition that opens us to discern God's will

and receive the grace to live it out. It needs to accompany every Christian virtue so that

the good that we do may be rooted in the source of all goodness.

In Augustine's letter to Dioscorus, he suggests that humility is a quality that must

pervade the whole of the Christian life:

[I]f humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good
work we do, and if it is not set before us to look upon, and beside us to
lean upon, and behind us to fence us in, pride will wrest from our hand
any good deed we do while we are in the very act of taking pleasure in it.s

S Letter 118. The Fathers o/the Church 18 trans. Wilfred Parsons (New York: The Fathers of the Church.

Humility is not merely a starting point. which then fades into the background as other

virtues develop. Rather, humility is essential to the integrity of the whole Christian life.

It is the disposition that colors all human actions and relationships. It cannot simply be

added to one's moral repertoire for it necessarily transfigures the whole edifice of our

moral lives. In the early, middle. and later stages of discipleship. it unifies all the virtues

and directs them to God.

According to Augustine. humility is a determinative virtue because it re-orders

our love. It ensures that the good that we do is done for God and not for ourselves.

Because humility can so easily slip into pride or despair, it must constantly be held in

check with the expectation that we often do not "get it right" and must begin again.

Augustine has stem warnings about false humility precisely because humility itself is so

elusive and fragile.

Without humility, no "virtue" is valid. according to Augustine. In the City of

God, he argues that without humility a person's life is oriented according to .. the standard

of the flesh" (secundum carnem)6 rather than "the standard of the spirit" (secundum

spirilum)J He recognizes that there is a kind of virtue practiced by those in the city of

man that is better to have than not to have. but it is not akin to the true virtue that is built

upon humility:8 "However much praise and public approbation is given to the virtue

6 City of God 14.1 (Bettenson, 547).

i Ibid.

s Ibid.• 5.19 (Bettenson, 213).

which is engaged in the service of human glory, it is in no way to be compared to the

humblest beginnings of the saints, whose hope has been placed in the grace and mercy of

the true God. "9

c. Humility as truthful self-knowledge in Christ

According to Augustine, humility is based on truth and pride is identified with

falsity and error. In pride we replace God, the center of reality. with a faulty center. the

self and/or other created realities. By orienting our life according to what is false, we live

a lie. We become disoriented and blind to the truth about ourselves and the world around

us. The proud are unwilling to face the reality that we depend on God for our very

existence and for our salvation. Instead, the proud person believes that life's gifts are

deserved and in a sense, owed. Pride destroys our sense of wonder. awe. and gratitude for

existence itself.

Humility begins with knowing who we truly are, which entails seeing ourselves

in relation to God and knowing, at the most basic ontological level. that God is God and

we are not. \0 Any real encounter with God includes an acknowledgement of divine

sovereignty and our radical dependence as creatures. Humility entails knowing our place

in the hierarchy of being and imploring God to reorient our desires so that we may

reverence and love God first, self and neighbor second, and then the rest of the created

order. To know oneself is to be in ajust relationship with God and the whole of creation.

9 Ibid.• 5:19 (Bettenson. 224). See also 19.25.

10 Fr. Michael Himes. Lenten homily. delivered at Boston College. 1999.

The divine-human relationship is the principal referent for humility. In humility

we know who we are and whose we are. We are made by God from nothing and we exist

in utter dependence on God. This is the occasion for a sense of lowliness and abasement

as well as reverence and awe. We confront our own "smallness" in the face of life's

grandeur and mystery. This knowledge of God's perfection compared to our imperfection

restores our sense of the inequality in our relationship with God.

But the full extent of true self-knowledge, for Augustine. goes beyond a generic

sense of one's limitations. Humble self-knowledge is not the same as the Greek precept

"know thyself' (gnorhi seaulOn)ll taken of the Oracle of Delphi, for it entails knowing

oneself in light of a direct personal relationship with God. It is the recognition of oneself

as personally called by God to image God in the world and to follow God's will. l :! It

entails receiving divine grace and being an instrument of God in the world. In humility,

we know that we have personally fallen short of living up to this God-given vocation.

But, in the presence of divine mercy, we are not crushed by this realization. The

unexpected descent of the Word into humanity testifies to the unfathomable depths of

divine love for humanity.

Both the Incarnation and the Passion awaken us to our great need for healing.

Especially before Christ's humility, we recognize our own guilt and realize that only God

controls the ultimate destiny of our lives; only God can save us. This realization. then.

II Antoine Vergote. "A Psychological Approach to Humility in the Rule of St. Benedict" in The American
Benedictine Review 39:4 (1988): 406.

that God comes to us in humility is a saving knowledge. God's unfathomable generosity

in the Incarnation evokes in us a new self-knowledge. On the one hand, we recognize our

personal unwonhiness of God's love and so we cry out with Peter "Go away from me,

Lord, for I am a sinful man!" (Lk 5:8). Yet, on the other hand, Christ's humility does not

devastate us but overwhelms us with a new sense of how profoundly we are loved. We

simultaneously come to know the depths of our own poveny and goodness by being

touched by his goodness and tenderness. God's presence in the humble Christ opens us

to the searing and consoling truth about who we are.

Humble self-knowledge focuses on the divine-human relationship and moves

between the recognition of our neediness and of God's fullness and mercy. This dialectic

is the foundational dynamic of humility. It reminds us that humility is a religious vinue

built on a personal encounter with Christ who not only reveals to us our most profound

identity but through humility incorporates us into his person. In sum, true self-knowledge

is proper to the order of creation, highlighting our human situation of limitation,

monality, and sin. But true self-knowledge culminates in the more radical, active kind of

humility that calls us into Christ's physical and active love of others.

d. Humility as social and kenotic

Augustine teaches that the pattern of Christian discipleship not only mirrors the

self-emptying of Christ but participates in this salvific action. Augustine's teaching on

12 In comparing the Aristotelian and the Augustinian understanding of virtue. Professor G. Scott Davis
discusses ..the epistemic shift [in Augustine) away from the law of nature, and on to the will of God." G.
Scott Davis. "The Structure and Function of the Virtues in the Moral Theology of St. Augustine." p. 17.

humble discipleship has two interconnected dimensions. In humble self-knowledge, the

self is understood anew and reconstituted in Christ. There is a return to the genuine order

of things; right vision is restored. This new, Christologically defined self finds full

expression in kenotic humility where the self becomes a being in communion with others

through a participation in Christ's self-emptying. This less noticed but more demanding

form of humility is proper to the order of redemption. It suggests that humility is not just

about right vision but also right action. Here truthfulness bears fruit in generosity and

active charity once we see who we truly are in the light of Christ's humility.

The kenotic nature of Christ's Incarnation and Passion gives form and content to

the practice of Christian humility, which calls us to concretely give of ourselves to those

in need. In other words. the paschal mystery frames the practice of Christian humility.

Christ's self-emptying in the Incarnation. his becoming poor for our sakes. is correlative

with the form of our own care for the needy. Augustine does not "spiritualize" away

concern for the poor, for in humility we are called to the concrete labor of loving and

serving others according to his own self-emptying. 13

In washing his disciples' feet. for instance. Christ sets the pattern of self-emptying

love. which animates and sustains all genuine love. His love is relived in our own humble

submission to one another. We become his body by becoming servants to one another. By

giving ourselves to those in need. we learn that the poor are bearers of Christ. They are

13 Tractates on the Gospel ofJohn 58.4 (Rettig. 22).

portals into communion with God. 14 Thus by freely choosing to give ourselves to others,

especially the poor, humility takes on its full amplitude.

By offering ourselves to Christ who is present in his members in need, we become

formed in the servant mode of God; we enter into the paschal mystery, wholly spending

ourselves out of love for another. Augustine explains that Christ is found among those

who are poor: "Christ is destitute when any poor person is destitute ... and he is pleased to

receive temporal help in every single poor person."IS Thus, the humility of Christ is

repeated time and again in the flesh through the self-giving of his disciples.

The fullness of humility, for Augustine, is in Christ's passion and death. Paul's

Christological hymn in Philippians 2 provides the scriptural basis for Augustine's

conviction that humility is central to understanding the passion and death of Christ. In

the self-emptying of humility. we grow in solidarity with one another as members of

Christ's body. Humility and charity join us to one another making us members of

Christ's body where we attain both individual and corporate sanctity through a

participation in his redemptive sufferings. Here Augustine points the way toward a more

positive theology of the cross, for it is the self-emptying of Christ on the cross that binds

us all the more closely to one another.

The kenosis of the Son calls for an interior emptying so as to make space for the

interior fullness found in communion with others. The essence of the disciple' s humility

thus takes shape according to the life of Christ, recapitulating his receptivity to the Father

14 Serm. 38.8 (WSA I1U2:213).

IS [bid.

and the emptying of the Incarnation: "though he was in the form of God, he did not

regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself." (Phil 2:5).

Cultivating within oneself "the mind that was in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2.5f) means

relinquishing all that stands in the way of total openness to the will of God.

In humility, one descends to the deepest part of oneself in order to meet the other

at the core of his or her pain: in an awareness of this shared infirmity, both are then

opened to Christ's healing presence. To be in communion with Christ necessarily entails

being in communion with others and vice versa: "[W]hen a Christian takes in a Christian,

members are serving members: and the head rejoices, and reckons as given to himself

whatever has been lavished on a member of his."16 The goal of humility in this life is not

merely to experience a one-on-one encounter with God, for it is in service to one another

that we share in Christ's own service to us.

In sum. in these four sections. we have laid out the central themes in Augustine' s

doctrine of humility. Humility is central to Christian discipleship and distinctly rooted in

Jesus Christ. Its theocentric dimensions convey a basic self-knowledge that is seen in its

fullness in a Christologically defined self that experiences divine mercy and seeks to

imitate Christ's self-emptying. True discipleship, then, entails participating in the very

pattern of our redemption revealed in the way of humility.

5.2. Revisiting the Feminist Criticism


16 Senn. 236.3 (WSA UIn:45).

The troublesome aspects of humility pointed out by the feminist writers discussed

in chapter one have to do with several interlocking concerns. Does humility hinder a

woman's self-development and freedom. reinforce a woman' s exclusion from the public

sphere. and support patterns of domination and subjugation within society? Does it

encourage hypocrisy. whereby self-interest is served through self-deprecation? Finally, is

it a virtue that perpetuates oppressive power by discouraging confrontations with

injustice? While Augustine's teaching on humility cannot fully and adequately settle

these issues, he can provide the seeds for a theological account of humility that takes

them seriously.

Augustine may seem to be an unlikely tigure to interrelate with feminist writers.

given the fact that his theology is so vigorously criticized among feminists today. 17 What

could he possibly have to say about the demands of contemporary feminism? After all,

Augustine is not entirely of one mind in his views about the equality between men and

women. At times, he speaks of their intellectual and ontological equality. I!! He even

challenges a common patristic reading of I Cor. 11.7 ("[man] is the image and reflection

of God: but woman is the reflection of man"), which affirms that only men are created in

17 Rosemary Radford Ruether, "Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church,"
Religion and Sexism: [mages of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. ed. Rosemary Radford
Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974); Margaret R. Miles, Desire and Delight: A New Reading of
Augustine's Confessif'ns (New York: Crossroad, 1992); Elaine H. Pagels. Adam. Eve. and the Serpent
(New York: Random House, 1988); "The Politics of Paradise: Augustine's Exegesis of Genesis 1-3 Versus
That of John Chrysostom:' Harvard Theological Review 78 (1985).

18 Confessions 13.32.47 (Chadwick. 302).

the image of GOd. 19 In our fallen condition. however, Augustine clearly regards women

as the weaker sex, inferior and subordinate to men.20 Thus, his work is often held up as

an example of misogyny and patriarchy in early Christian theological teachings.21 To

exonerate Augustine of these sometimes rash charges 22 is not the aim of this study. But,

instead of simply excusing Augustine as a "man of his time," perhaps he can be held

more accountable for certain positions, given his insights into the human condition

evident in his thought on humility. Sarah Coakley demonstrates, for example, that

Augustine's teaching on receptivity and submission both in prayer and community life

might serve as a corrective to his own insistence on control and order in male/female

relationships and sexuality.:!J

19 Kari Elisabeth Borresen. "[n Defense of Augustine: How Femina is Homo" AugllStiniana ~o (1990).

20 TIle Trinity 12.10 (Hill. 328). [n general. certain aspects of Augustine's theology are troubling to most
modern readers. e.g. his acceptance of slavery. male/female hierarchy. his support of religious repression
and his unease with the body and marital sex.

21 Rosemary Radford Ruether. Religion and Sexism (New York. 1974). 156. NOle: Augustine occasionally
uses humility 10 affirm the stalus quo. For example. Augustine did not consider the subordination of wives
to their husbands. and slaves 10 their masters. to be integral 10 God's design but 10 be Ihe result of sin.
(Serm. 51.18 (WSA lliI3:31). But given our fallen condition. he thought this hierarchical ordering should
be respected and he appeals to the humility of Mary to make his case. Speaking 10 thl! faithful of Hippo,
Augustine urges wives to remain subordinate to their husbands according 10 the social hierarchy of the day.
He encourages them 10 imitale the humility of Mary who pUI her husband Joseph before herself and thereby
abided by the right order of marriage.

1. van Bavel. "Augustine's View of Women," AllgllStiniana 37 (1989), 5-53. Van Bavel explores
22 T.
Augustine's texts in light of various feminist accusations and determines the shortcomings of bOlh
Augustine's view of women as well as various feminist accusations against Augustine.

:!J Sarah Coakley explores the doctrine of the Trinity in patristic thought by considering its implications for
Christian spirituality and sexuality: "'Batter my heart ... '? On Sexuality. Spirituality. and the Christian
Doctrine of the Trinity." Graven [mages 2 (1995). 74-83. 77. 80-81.

Gerald Schlabach reminds us that critically appropriating Augustine calls us to

"read Augustine against himself."2~ He then can be a resource for and model of humility

even if his life fell short of his teaching. For example. Augustine's endorsement of

Roman suppression of pagan rituals and his reluctant and partial consent to imperial

sanctions and coercion of the Donatist church in North Africa reveals a lack of

consistency in his own practice of humility. Desiring Christian unity so deeply, he did

not "bear with their hostility,"2S but eventually provided a rationale for religious

repression. Thus, Schlabach advises that we appropriate Augustine's work cautiously and

critically without disqualifying, for instance. his wisdom on humility or diminishing its

relevance for us today. He writes:

Much of his [Augustine'sl writing reflects life-long inner debates with

himself. So it is that Augustine left behind resources that enable us to
continue the dialogue. questioning him on his own terms. This is of
crucial importance, for these resources are part of what allows
Augustinian Christianity to be a living tradition.26

By entering the "living tradition" of Augustinian Christianity, we may indeed interrelate

Augustine and feminist thought on humility to consider the extent to which his doctrine

of humility can be an unexpected resource for a more liberating and egalitarian

understanding of this once central Christian virtue. The feminist objections to humility

can offer insights for a critical appropriation of Augustine's teaching. This means, for

!~ Gerald W. Schlabach. "Continence. Consumption and Other Abuses: Or Why an Augustinian Ethic is
Worth the Bother." Society of Christian Ethics January 8. 2000.

!5 City of God 1.35 (Bettenson. -l5).

!6 Gerald Schlabach. "Augustine's Hermeneutic of Humility." 302.

example, adding cautionary remarks about the hyperbole of Augustine's language.

clarifying his distinction between our true and false selves, and showing the way that

humility is oriented to love and truthfulness.

a. The Feminist Critique

The feminist critique of humility has individual and social dimensions. First.

humility undermines a woman' s development as a person by encouraging a kind of self-

destructive subordination. Its stress on self-sacrificing love and submission-which

correct male forms of sin (e.g. self-aggrandizement and domination) jeopardizes

women's capacity to freely choose to give of themselves. It undermines their relationship

to God. self. and others. Valerie Saiving, Judith Plaskow. and Anne Patrick. for instance.

argue that humility can turn out to be a vice for women. because it exacerbates their

temptation to serve others to the neglect of self. It contirms women's unhealthy

tendency to submit passively to the will of others or to exercise control by manipulatively

seeking the lowest place. Plaskow refers to this self-forgetfulness as a "refusal of self-

transcendence,":!7 for women often do not actively choose to give to others but instead

acquiesce to external demands without a sense of real moral agency. They lack a centered

self and depend excessively on others for self-definition. Echoing Nietzsche's criticism of

Christianity, many wonder whether humility encourages women to cultivate weakness

and dependency in a community that rewards passivity and meekness.

17 Judith Plaskow. Sex. Sin. and Grace. 68.

Secondly, on a larger scale, humility reinforces relationships of domination and

subordination between genders, classes, racial groups, and even between God and

humanity. Here Marx lingers in the background as feminists question whether humility's

emphasis on self-sacrifice and powerlessness can serve as 'opium' for women,28

reinforcing their subordinate position in society. Humility can be employed in abusive

ways as women surrender to others out of feelings of either guilt and inadequacy or by

the sheer desire to attain power that is unjustly denied. Daphne Hampson, for instance,

argues that the suffering servant model of discipleship discredits the various ways that

women try to resist injustice:

[I]f the doctrine of self-sacrifice and the paradigm of powerlessness are

held up as exemplary before those who are struggling to change their lot, it
may serve to undercut them. For resistance to injustice then comes to look
un-Christ-like. 29

Upholding female autonomy as a supreme good, Hampson concludes that Christ's model

of self-emptying is inappropriate and rightly rejected by women. 30

Among Catholic feminist writers, Anne Carr criticizes a "male-centered" ethic

which hinders women' s capacity to challenge traditional gender roles within the church:

"[W]hen women who call for ordination are criticized for adopting male (sinful) styles.

for being pushy and power hungry. such judgments are delivered from a totally male-

28 Ibid.. 239.

29 Daphne Hampson. "On Power and Gender.~ Modem Theology 4:3 1988.240.
30 Ibid.• 239.

centered ethical and theological understanding."31 Speaking out against injustices and

challenging double standards are often considered contrary to what makes a woman


In short, many women scholars look askance at humility because it is too closely

aligned with attitudes that hinder women' s personal development and reinforce their

marginalized status in the church and society. [t is seen as emerging out of a male-

centered view of how sin and grace work in the human person. Humility, therefore, can

unintentionally exacerbate women's sinful temptations and it can be a self-serving tool

used by those in power to assert unjust authority over others. [n a more subtle way.

humility can encourage social manipulation whereby women covertly search for power in

contexts where their own dignity is compromised.

5.3. An Augustinian Response to the Feminist Critiques

A. Preliminary Observations

Before suggesting ways in which Augustine's teaching can be re-presented to

respond to the above charges against humility, let me offer some initial reflections on

what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of the feminist critiques of humility. First, on

an appreciative note, they bring to light the various ways that humility can be distorted

and misapplied to women. Women are suspicious, and rightly so, about the retrieval of

Christian virtues that have been used to reinforce their subordination. By demonstrating

that twisted and truncated versions of humility abound, feminists challenge the Christian

31 Anne Carr. Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women's Etperience. 58.

community to either replace humility with more affirming virtues or to explicitly

distinguish between genuine humility and its manifold counterfeits. They point to the

need for criteria to distinguish between a trans formative and liberating kind of humility

and one that fosters slavish acquiescence and passive resignation.

Too often. however. feminist writers settle for humility being left aside so that

increased emphasis can be placed on women's self-esteem and empowerment. Female

personhood is then judged according to psychological or sociological perspectives that

seem to marginalize, rather than intertwine with. the theological and spiritual. [n

describing her journey to post-Christian feminism, for example. Daphne Hampson notes

that "empowerment means coming to find yourself."32 Self-discovery. she explains.

comes through women empowering one another by means of self-affirmation and the

redirecting of blame away from the self toward ideologies and structures that are male

dominated. 33 [n this healing of the self there is little sense of Augustine's dialectical

understanding of selfhood whereby the self is discovered in relationship to God who

enables us to see both the dark and the light of our conflicted selves.

Moreover. in exhortations to autonomy and self-realization there seems to be an

implied contempt for dependence, vulnerability, and weakness. It is not clear how

Christ's own vulnerability and self-sacrifice can positively influence the new feminist

self. At an even more general level. to what extent does the feminist view of women's

development entail transcending narrow self-interest, receiving forgiveness, and

32 Hampson. "On Power and Gender:' 244.

33 Ibid., 242.

submitting to grace? In seeking to correct women's internalization of male guilt, some

feminists seem to resist all forms of submission, even to God. Furthermore, in the

emphasis on the social and historical dimensions of sin, the natural relationship between

personal and social sin can be obscured.

At times, it seems as if a woman's lack of centeredness should be replaced by

self-centeredness, so that instead of another person governing a woman's life, the

woman's ego becomes her driving force. Idolatry is replaced by narcissism. From an

Augustinian perspective. boch conditions are forms of enslavement to sin. By replacing

other-centeredness with self-centeredness. a profound disorientation remains. because

only Christ. at the center of the human personality. constitutes authentic human freedom.

Christ-centered humility can challenge women who slavishly give "love" but

refuse to receive it. Humility is not a monolithic gesture of submission. Rather. it

requires an openness to receiving God's love and the love of another. It also entails the

deliberate choice to sacrifice oneself for another out of this given love. The ultimate

example of this is Jesus Christ receiving the complete self-giving love of his Father and

pouring himself out in service to others. Peter's initial refusal to have his feet washed by

Jesus (1n 13:8) represents our own resistance to receiving the fullness of divine love.

which is the source of all true humility and love.

Furthermore. the feminist criticism of the Christian spiritual tradition and its

emphasis on self-sacrifice and humility seems to be based on feminist interpretations of

women's experiences that are regarded as normative COliC court. The feminist

characterization of female temptations to self-abnegation rather than self-aggrandizement

seems over-simplified insofar as it does not acknowledge the plurality of women's

experiences. Women today, particularly in a first world context, receive a host of mixed

messages about what it means to be feminine and virtuous. The temptation to be

submissive, lacking in self-regard, and other-centered seems just as easily matched or

outdone by the temptation to be self-preoccupied and self-promoting. Our increasingly

market-driven culture prods us to become ever more consumed with ourselves and our

immediate desires. Men and women alike find themselves struggling to "get out of

themselves" and look beyond their own interests and image-making. Given that the

variety of women's experiences are a fundamental datum of feminist theology, it seems

necessary at least to mention that certain kinds of self-preoccupation may be more

common among women today than was recognized in the 1960s and 1970s when

Suiving's argument took root in theological circles.

Feminist theologian Sara Maitland. for instance. in speaking about her journey to

full communion within the Roman Catholic Church. expresses this sentiment:

If indeed my temptations were to submission. to infantile dependency, to

abnegation of personal vision-then perhaps it would be wrong of me to
follow the current of my heart. But. in honesty, I have to say that I incline
more to intellectual arrogance, to gnostic elitism, and to individualistic
self-righteousness. As I wrestle (and I continue to wrestle) with the
theological issues that have concerned me for the last 20 years-gender.
sexuality, creativity, power-I desire to do so in a community which will
hold me accountable, which insists that I am one member of a universal
body and cannot just make it up to suit myself. I want to be held
answerable to both Scripture and history, just as any sane trapeze artist
wants a safety net: not to stop her flying but to catch her when she falls.34

34 Sara Maitland. The Tablet 247 (April 3. 1993).422.

Maitland's struggle with arrogance is perhaps an occupational hazard for all those who

are academically inclined and who hold positions of power and authority. Nonetheless,

her wrestling with pride speaks to many contemporary women's experiences. This

suggests that the varieties of women's experiences with respect to sin and grace need to

be more fully accounted for when considering the usefulness of humility for women's

spiritual lives.

In sum. while the problem of humility seems to be rightly identified by the

feminists, the response to the problem remains unsatisfying. This perception is largely

shaped by the fact that I have focused more on the critical work of feminist writers and

not attended to the more constructive theologies that are currently taking shape. These

theologies seem to have a greater openness to humility for they take seriously the role of

suffering, vulnerability, and surrender in the spiritual lives of women. 35 Sarah Coakley,

for instance, has written about the ways that women's vulnerability and receptivity can be

spiritually empowering rather than degrading.36 She and others have explored the

"creative tension"37 between vulnerability and receptivity in conjunction with women's


35 Kristine M. Rankka. Women and the Value of Suffering (Col\egeville. MN: Liturgical Press. (998);
Emile M Townes. ed.. A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering <Maryknoll.
N.Y.: Orbis Books. 1993). Isabel Carter Heyward. "Suffering. Redemption. and Christ: Shifting the
Grounds of Feminist Christo logy." Christianity and Crisis 49 (December II. (989).

36Sarah Coakley. "Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of 'Vulnerability' in Christian Feminist
Writing." in edt Daphne Hampson. Swallowing a Fishbone? Feminist Theologians Debate Christianity
<London. S.P.C.K.• (996).

37 Elizabeth A. Dreyer. for instance observes: "Female autonomy cannot ape the kind of rugged
individualism that leaves relational values in the dust. Rather it must conserve the values both of the
community and of the individual in creative tension. These values are not polar opposites that cancel one
another out. but a paradox that cries out for mutual inclusion in a higher integration. Women are in an

Despite the limits of the feminist critiques. their objections to humility are

profoundly challenging and any serious renewal of humility cannot afford to ignore them.

Their work leads us to ask: What can a Christo logical understanding of humility offer to

those in despair and to those who are oppressed? What does Christ's humility teach us

about the liberating dimensions of self-emptying love"? How does Christ-like humility

enable us to discriminate between our true and false selves as well as between just and

unjust authority?

B. Humility and Personal Identity

While we can acknowledge that certain understandings of humility have wrongly

given normative status to distinctively male experiences. we can perhaps find a way to

recover a less gender-biased account of humility in the writings of Augustine. For the

sake of addressing concerns about the development of women' s full humanity, I propose

that three aspects of Augustinian humility be appreciated more fully and incorporated

into its retrieval: 1) humility as the corrective to a broad notion of pride that includes

certain sinful tendencies of the marginalized 2) humility as the antidote to despair as well

as pride 3) humility as the way to a centered self capable of true self-giving.

a. Women's pride

excellent position to contribute to the creation of this new reality:' in ''The Virtuous Woman: New Wine
and Old Wineskins:' The Way 35 (1995),347.

Augustine views humility principally as the healing and correction of pride, which

is understood today to be a typically male form of sin. He generally applies pride to

those who have a certain dominance within a culture. Those in high positions are

certainly prone to replace God with themselves. However, Augustine's notion of pride is

not limited to those with power and privilege. There are more subtle and manipulative

kinds of egocentrism that can develop among those who are more marginal and

powerless. Augustine's realism perceives that no one is immune from this root sin.

Humility, therefore, can be the antidote to prideful domination as well as to prideful self-

enclosure and manipulation. It can be directed toward those who hoard power as well as

to those who grasp at power perhaps through various forms of self-disparagement. In

pride, both the powerful and the powerless replace God with themselves. Although

Augustine focuses on the lust for domination and self-aggrandizement. a retrieval of his

teaching on humility can give greater emphasis to its challenge to those on the margins.

such as women, who may replace God with a greed for power or recognition.

b. Women's despair

In addition to seeing humility as the antidote to a broader understanding of pride it

should also be noted that Augustine conceived of humility as the "middle way"38 between

pride and despair (2.2.b). Feminist writer, Patricia Lamoureux, remarks: "When we

listen to the stories of women. especially those who are powerless. who suffer from

material poverty, violence. and abuse. we discover that their major sins are not those

38 Senn. 142.1 (WSA IIII4:413).

defined by the Church but negation of self, self-hatred, and despair."39 Metz's Poverty of

Spirit teaches us that despair involves hopelessness about one's own vulnerability and

powerlessness whereas pride involves attempting to overcome vulnerability and reshape

reality. One can feed into the other because pride's lust for power may compensate for

the hopelessness of despair. [n any case, both pride and despair lead us to replace God as

the center of our existence. [n both pride and despair, we assume that we must be the

source of our own rescue.

The feminist concern, then, with low self-esteem and resignation among women

who become complicit in their own oppression challenges us to re-Iearn certain aspects of

Augustine's understanding of humility as self-knowledge. Humility is not a matter of

denying our gifts but remembering that they are given to us to share. To tum inward and

deny one's gifts is to refuse humility.

Augustine sees humility as a direct response to despair for it not only deflates the

person who is "puffed up" with pride; it also lifts up the person who is sunk in

hopelessness. [n The Trinity, Augustine explains that the humility of the Incarnation

counters both the inflated and deflated self: "we needed to be persuaded how much God

loves us, and what sort of people he loves; how much in case we despaired, what sort in

case we grew proud,"-IO This kind of self-affirmation is not focused on recognizing the

39 Patricia A. Lamoureux, "Deadly Vices and Redeeming Virtues: A Feminist Perspective:' Nelli Theology
Review 8/2 ( (995), 8.

-10 The Trinity 4.2 (Hill, (54).

greatness of one's human capabilities but recognizing the "uncalled-for generosity"'u of

God manifest in us. This God-given basis for loving ourselves is more fundamental and

stable than the love of self that creates a false sense of achievement and entitlement. It

points to our inherent worth due to God's love and generosity, not our own fragile

accomplishments. [n brief. the feminist critique necessitates a greater emphasis on

humility as having a distinctive relevance for women through its drawing us out of

ourselves and our own self-defeat and self-pity. Once we attend to the way that

truthfulness and love are constitutive of humility. we find that pride is not its only


c. The Recovery of Self

Augustine does not suggest that a woman sacrifice the core of who she is in order

to be humble. [n fact. humility calls for a mature self that has been restored through the

gift of Christ's Spirit. [t is this new self. the fruit of the paschal mystery, that is capable

of self-denial and sacrifice. [n humility we learn how to love ourselves rightly by

orienting our love toward God. We come to love all things more intensely when we love

them in God: "Love the Lord, and in so doing learn how to love yourselves. so that when

by loving the Lord you genuinely love yourselves. you may have no hesitations about

loving your neighbors as yourselves."42

41 Ibid.. 8.13 (Hill. 354).

42 Serm. 90.6 (WSA ITII3:452).

To be centered is to be rooted in the truth of Christ who is the ultimate source of

our identity. Humility frees us from being swayed by the tides of opinion that can so

often lead to an endless cycle of self-doubt and self-recreation. [n a certain way, a

woman's loss of centeredness can result from idolatry: a dethroning of God, replacing

absolute value with relative value, mistaking the part for the whole. Whether it be self-

effacement or vanity, bashfulness or boastfulness, these are all forms of idolatry, which

result from giving too high a value to social opinion. Disordered love deepens still

further when social opinions no longer matter and only one's own views of either self-

worship or self-loathing have absolute value.

[n humility, our feet are tirmly planted ("of the earth."-humus) and secure in our

most basic identity. We know who we are. because we know whose we are. and what our

ultimate destiny is. Augustine compares humility to the roots of a tree (3.4.c) in order to

convey how humility gives us a definite sense of ourselves by rooting us in God.

Augustinian humility contends that the living out of Christ's self-giving love is not a

substitute for the self but the core of our identity. Humility frees us from the compulsion

of giving to others out of guilt and calls us to give to others out of a love that has tirst

been given to us. [n Christ. we tind our true self-worth and we become our authentic

selves. Thus, humility reveals the Christian paradox of self-discovery through self-


Being aware of how fully we are loved by God empowers us to face our own sin

with real integrity and honesty. The mercy conveyed by Christ's humility gives us the

confidence to know that the worst that is in us does not finally define us. Furthermore,

rather than diminishing our aspirations, humility challenges us to re-imagine our

capability and to take on new risks that seem to us, on our own, to be impossible.

Augustine, for example, found that humility led him to serve the church in ways that

went well beyond the quiet contemplative life that he imagined for himself at


In sum. the issues of pride. despair, and lack of centeredness. raised by feminists.

challenge us to give greater attention to Augustine's teaching on humility as one that

counters idolatry, lifts us up from despair, and properly roots us in our true identity. The

image of the humble self needs to be reconceived as an expansive self. open to others,

and secure in identity through Christ. Service in this context is not a substitute for the

self nor is it an earning of self-worth, rather it is the expression of our deepest identity

given to us by Christ. To open oneself freely to another, imbued with Christ's humble

Spirit, is not to be obliterated and replaced with another power. but to be more fully

incorporated into the power given to all members of the body of Christ:H

C. Humility and Social Justice

a. Humble Authority and Obedience

Thus far, we have focused on the way that Christ's humility can/oster rather than

hinder a woman's development. I have tried to highlight how Augustinian humility can

..3 Khaled Anatolios notes that some Eastern religions. particularly Buddhism. seek to address human pride.
by practicing a "self-overcoming of the ego." But according to Christian redemption ··the self is not to be
eradicated but rather reconstituted 'in Christ...• "Christian Ethics and Christian Faith." Commllnio 22
(Summer. (995).249.

restore a woman's centeredness in Christ, overcome despair, and lead to Christian

charity. With new dimensions of humility brought to light, it can guard against both

individual masochism and undue guilt, but does it challenge social sin? In this section, l

hope to show that the communal dimension of humility can serve as the basis for a new

courage to confront unjust social patterns and abuses within both the church and wider

society. Augustine's teaching on humility, however. gives little direct attention to the

ways that humility can work against the status quo.

In the City of God, Augustine challenges the Roman empire' s boasts about

achieving unprecedented justice and progress. He identifies pride as the source of its

domination. coercion. and ultimate failure. Yet he does not have much hope about

transforming social institutions. which he viewed as postlapsarian necessities.

Recognizing Augustine' s limits. then, this section will occasionally supplement

Augustine with Metz's teaching on social sin. in order to address more fully some of the

feminist concerns about oppressive authority and women's freedom.

In a period when authority is generally suspect, within the church and in wider

society, many feminists raise crucial issues about the practice of humility and the exercise

of authority. Attuned to this concern, Metz calls the church to distance itself from secular

models of authority driven by self-preservation, power, and domination. The institutional

practices of the church, he concludes, have leaned too heavily on legal and juridical

means for establishing authority. It has become triumphalist and puffed with prideful

self-assertion. To recover its authenticity, then, church authority must be re-established

through a "consistent following of Christ,""" whereby the church no longer gives the

appearance "of a social arrangement for lulling painful disappointments, for the welcome

neutralization of uncomprehended fears and for the quieting of dangerous memories and

unsuitable expectations."45 Instead, it should be a model of kenosis, freely giving up self-

promotion for love of otht:rs. Metz proposes that Christ's self-emptying on the cross be

the basis for distinguishing between true and false authority.

The way that Christ is humble and the way that he elicits our submission, shows

us that Christians are not called to arbitrary submission to authority. For. it is in humility

that Christ calls us to humility. not by being coercive or dominating, but by coming to us

as the "Godhead at our feet."-'6 His humble love elicits our humble allegiance and

gratitude. True authority then should be measured by how Christ himself is "Lord" and

how he demands our submission. His lordship does not pacify but enlivens and liberates

us to be more truly generous and rooted in our restored humanity. Humility is not a

command from on high but a choice motivated by love. Jesus Christ persuades us to be

humble by being the epitome of humility himself. Through kenosis. the Word becomes

one of the anawim. the marginal, and with Christ's self-emptying comes an invitation for

us to join in this divine pattern of loving.

Christ's own humility helps us to distinguish between choosing to be humble out

of love and succumbing to humility out of fear or threat. Obviously, without intending to

.w Ibid., 70.

.JS Ibid., 68.

-'6 Gerald Schlabach, "Augustine's Hermeneutic of Humility," Journal of Religious Ethics, 316.

address twentieth century women's concerns, Augustine stresses that Christ chose self-

giving love. ["he set his face to go to Jerusalem." (Lk 9:51); "1 lay down my life in order

to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have

power to lay it down. and I have power to take it up again" (In to: 17-18)]. Augustine

explains that "It would have been perfectly easy for him to come down from the crosS."47

As God, Christ was fully in charge and did not need to suffer or die. yet. he deliberately

made himself accountable for our sin. Christ was not a victim of suffering but a willing

servant who accepted suffering out of love. Our humility then comes not from being

desperate or victimized but from being so filled with God's love that we are eager to

serve and give of ourselves. The exercise of our full humanity is lived out in the context

of relationships built on trust and mutual submission.48 We do not hoard or cling

possessively to Christ's love for it puts us in a position of fullness and empowerment that

directs us outward.

In pointing us to Christ as the measure of true leadership. Augustine helps us to

revision and renew our understanding of authority as service. Christ's divinity and

lordship are revealed to us in weakness and deprivation. He does not "grasp at" power but

relinquishes it, coming to us in vulnerability and servanthood. Christ calls us to partake

in his divine act of love by letting go of our own craving for admiration, status, and

47 Serm. 87.9 (WSA lliJ3:4(2).

48 The heart of Augustine's teaching on humility flows from the narrative of Jesus Christ. In a certain way.
this coincides with certain feminist challenges to shift moral reflection from questions about individual
moral acts to questions about relationality that are more historically conscious and contextual. (See
Elizabeth Johnson. She Who [so (New York: Crossroad. (992). 68-69.} Augustine's reliance on the
narrative of Christ to explain humility concurs with those arguing that virtues are not abstract. individual
ideals but communally identified values.

power. His "lordship" establishes a new kind of strength made real in weakness. This

paradoxical association of power and vulnerability reshapes our understanding of what

real authority is all about. It can even resonate with Rosemary Radford Ruether's

position that Jesus' self-emptying cans for a "kenosis of patriarchy": ·· ... Jesus as the

Christ. the representative of liberated humanity and the liberating Word of God.

manifests the kenosis of patriarchy, the announcement of the new humanity through a

lifestyle that discards hierarchical caste privilege and speaks on behalf of the lowly."-'9 In

brief, a renewal of humility's obedience and submission needs to be oriented with respect

to love. For Augustine. creation does not want primarily to obey God but to praise God!

Obedience flows from overwhelming gratitude. It is not a "buckling under" but an

expression of the fullness of love.

b. Humility and Solidarity

Key to a recovery of humility is that it is principally related to Jesus Christ and it

is lived out in the context of discipleship and Christian community. Augustine and Metz

both show that humility is not an isolated individual character trait. for it is learned

historically in the material, incamational claim made upon us made by Jesus Christ. Our

submission to Christ's way of humility comes in response to his personal, concrete

invitation made known to us by the Spirit in the community of faith. Humility is the

basis for authentic human identity and solidarity. One does not know the humility that

-'9 Rosemary Radford Ruether. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston. Beacon Press.

Christ teaches. for example. if the cries of the poor are ignored or if one distances oneself

from the needs of the most marginal in society.

lndeed. once unhinged from the context of discipleship. humility can be reduced

to "respectable modesty."so But by calling for recognition of our human connectedness at

the deepest level. humility fosters a real communion of persons who are more alen to the

sufferings of one another and ready to risk themselves for one another. This bond renders

people less rather than more susceptible to unjust structures of domination. for people

who are bound together by a willingness to serve one another are less easily manipulated.

Confident in their own identity within the body of Christ. the humble are perhaps more

likely to develop a critical consciousness of their own society and to resist becoming

complicit in unjust social patterns. In fact. humility makes it imperative that we seek the

good of the most forgotten members of Christ's body.

Reflecting on the role of hope and solidarity in sustaining a strong self that resists

domination. Metz writes:

[H]ope for others and thus for myself provides authentic criteria for a
critique of all institutional phenomena leading to the isolation of self. the
flight from self. and consequently into a problematic openness of the self
to being dominated by others. The strong self. the strong subject of hope
and witness to God. is a plurale tantum.5 1

Here Metz briefly addresses concerns about humility or poveny of spirit fostering

passivity. acquiescence to power. and a loss of self (2.1.2.c). Connecting a loss of self

with despair. isolation. and estrangement from the history of suffering. Metz insists that

50 Klaus Wengst. Humility: Solidarity of the Humiliated (Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1987). 31.

51 A Passionfor God. 165.

the self is discovered as one moves outward into communion with those who suffer. This

solidarity is built upon acknowledging failures in moral agency and recognizing one's

own rootedness in the history of suffering.52

The social criticisms of humility, then, challenge us to explore the social

implications of humility as a Christ-centered virtue. With the help of Metz, we can see

the communal and ecclesial dimensions of humility reveal how human agency and socio-

political responsibility are integral to Christ-like humility. The wisdom retrieved from

Augustine and Metz is that Christ-like humility involves self-emptying of all idolatry,

which then makes space for the reception of an expansive and liberating kind of love. It

fosters the fullness of humanity not through the promotion of self-esteem and autonomy,

but through an awakening of our true human worth in Christ and the liberation found in

communion with his body, the church. This social dimension of humility serves as the

basis for continued exploration of these only partially resolved questions about how

humility can be a way to true liberation and empowerment. In sum, I have tried to show

that Augustine's account of humility is more applicable to women than it may first

appear. In fact, Augustine and Metz together help us to see that humility is a key

component to the promotion of women's full humanity and broad social transformation.

In order to consider this Christ-centered humility in a specific context applicable

to the lives of the feminist scholars and theologians discussed in the previous two

52 The relationship between humility and solidarity needs to be reflected on and articulated more fully in
the church today. when the possibilities for greater interconnectedness coincide with greater fragmentation
and isolation. Pope john Paul U has stressed the importance of solidarity and suggested developing it as a
new virtue for our time. On Social Concern (Sollicirudo Rei Socialis) #38-#40. (O'Brien and Shannon. 421-

sections, I will consider humility within the life of a Catholic university. There are many

potential contexts within which to apply humility in the political, social, and cul£ural

arena today but relating it specifically to the sphere of university education at a Catholic

university will enable readers of this study to apply humility more readily to their own

contexts. Moreover, a Catholic university is specifically charged with maintaining a

Christo logical character. Therefore humility necessarily ought to have a central place in

its practices. With this last section of the chapter, then, I hope to leave the reader with a

more concrete understanding of how humility can be lived within the core practices of a

Christian institution.

5.4. Humility and the Catholic University


In this last section. I hope to show that Augustine' s teaching on Christian humility

is directly relevant to the mission of the contemporary American Catholic university. In

his article on the virtue of humility in Jesuit university life. Brian Daley observes, "One

principal reason for this stress on humility in a ministry of education. surely, is that

pretentiousness has always ranked among the worst vices of the academy."s3 From the

dramatic pomp of university commencements to preoccupations with academic rank.

title, and recognition. the university can be a cauldron for the highest forms of arrogance.

53 Brian E. Daley's paper, "The Pursuit of Excellence and the 'Ordinary Manner": Humility and the Jesuit
University," delivered at Georgetown University in February. 1996. published in For That I Came: Virtues
and Ideals of Jesuit Education (Georgetown University Press. (997). 9-35. This paper has been
enormously helpful to me in this exploration of the impact that a Christo logically shaped humility could
have upon the academic community. 25.

Pope John Paul II's £" corde Ecclesiae (1990) and subsequent documents by the

United States Bishops about its implementation have generated a great deal of

conversation and controversy about the character of Catholic universities. Here, I do not

intend to address the more controversial and intricate questions about Catholic

universities and their canonical relationship to the church. Rather. I hope to build upon

John Paul II's statement that the Catholic university "is a living institutional witness to

Christ and his message."54 John Paul II characteristically puts his discussion of Catholic

universities into a Christo logical context:

A Catholic University pursues its objectives through its fonnation of an

authentic human community animated by the spirit of Christ. The source
of its unity springs from a common dedication to the truth. a common
vision of the dignity of the human person and. ultimately. the person and
message of Christ which gives the Institution its distinctive character. 55

Here we are reminded that the spirit and person of Christ are intimately connected to the

dignity of the human person. The challenge of a Catholic university. then. is to infuse the

spirit of Christ. the spirit of humility. into the humanizing mission of its everyday

practices and policies. 56

In this consideration of the role of humility in Catholic university life. I want to

address the following questions: What are the implications of Christ's lowliness for

Catholic higher education? How can this downward mobility of Christ's self-emptying be

lived out in an institution typically focused on upward mobility? How can such a

54 John Paul U. £'C corde Ecclesiae 49 (Washington. D.C.: United States Catholic Conference. 1990).
55 Ibid.. 21.

counter-cultural disposition be fostered in a modem university setting, which is more and

more focused on self-sufficiency and self-promotion? More specifically, how can its

leaders begin to cultivate Christ-like humility in their style of leadership? What is the role

of teacher and student in light of Christ's humility? Finally. how can humility apply to

the issues concerning pluralism on a Catholic college campus? By addressing these

questions. I hope to demonstrate primarily that humility has both very immediate.

practical applications as well as far-ranging implications for the meaning and ultimate

purpose of Catholic education.

I offer one disclaimer. In recommending humility as an attribute of a Catholic

university. I am not suggesting that all administrators. faculty. staff. and students be

Catholic or Christian. The modem Catholic university rightly encourages a diverse

community of people to search for truth together. I will discuss the value of pluralism at a

Catholic university in section 5.4.d.• but for now [ simply note that the Catholic

university is indebted to various advances in truth made by scholars and scientists of

different religious and nonreligious persuasions. It is. therefore. with a lively mix of

voices dedicated to pursuing truth that the Catholic academy flourishes. However. it also

exists as part of a larger faith community that has brought it into existence and to whom it

is accountable. Therefore. Christian qualities. like humility. ought to shape a Catholic

university's outlook about its mission and the kind of graduate that it hopes to influence.

Decisions about university policies and practices ought to be made with the purpose of

56 Humility is raised in various articles about revitalizing the catholicity of Catholic universities: Lawrence
Cunningham. "Faith and Reason." Nocre Dame Maga:.ine (2000): 28-31: John J. Piderit. "A President's
View: Academic Credibility." Commonweal 126 (1999): 18-20.

reflecting and fostering the way of Christ. I believe that this cannot be coherently carried

out unless the university is made up of a critical mass of people who actually believe in

Christ and actively seek to embody his spirit of humility. Yet, in renewing its

Christo logical character, the Catholic university should recognize that those who do not

share the Catholic Christian faith are also integral to its prophetic and evangelical


a. Humility and Institutional Leadership

To many of those charged with leading Catholic universities, this call to Christ-

centeredness through the cultivation of humility might seem hopelessly naive and

impractical. Many would say that without constant self-promotion a modem university

cannot survive in the competitive academic arena. However, I maintain hope that

humility, by calling a university back to its roots, to its ultimate purposes in educating

students, will actually cultivate a more stable, inherently attractive identity rather than a

manufactured one that caters to current trends. Rather than diminishing its goals and

lowering its standards, humility proposes something more fundamental to the very soul of

a Catholic university. It encourages the formation of a community of individuals who

trust one another so that they can admit mistakes and hold one another accountable for

living out and teaching the truth more fully.

To understand how humility informs leadership, we can go back to Augustine's

teaching about the way Christ calls forth humility from his followers. Christ leads by

living what he commands. It is not by force or coercion but through the divine practice of

humility that others are drawn to it. Augustine teaches that all human authority must look

ultimately to God. Without that divine perspective we lose all sense of our solidarity

with one another. Human relationships can become commodities and the school mission

can get reduced to pragmatic concerns.

Augustine's teaching about leadership in the church draws upon the witness of

Christ's humility and has analogous significance to leadership in a Catholic university.

As bishop, for example, Augustine described himself as "servant of Christ and of the

servants of Christ."57 On the anniversary of his ordination, he preaches about the

meaning of his ministry:

Where [' m terrified by what I am for you, I am given comfort by what I

am with you. For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian ..
. I hope the fact that I have been brought together with you gives me more
pleasure than my having been placed at your head; then. as the Lord has
commanded, I will be more effectively your servant, and be preserved
from ingratitude for the price by which I was brought to be. not too
unworthily. your fellow servant.58

In practicing humility, ministers are not to renounce their leadership responsibilities but

must stand as fellow-disciples with the faithful, not apart from them.

Lee F. Bacchi's study of Augustine's ministry notes that his stress upon the need

for humility among his fellow clergy grew out of his social concern about the economic,

social, and legal privileges given to Christian clergy in the fourth and fifth centuries. He

57 Letter 130.1 (Parsons. 376).

58 Serm. 340.1 (WSA IIU9: 292-293).

urged fellow ministers to resist these privileges. 59 Such luxuries, he argued, could

distance ministers from their flock and Augustine strongly believed that ministers ought

not to place themselves above their people, but should be at their service. Bacchi

summarizes Augustine's views about humility and episcopal leadership as follows: ''The

bishop could not be the head of the community as leader unless he was first and also at

the side of the community. sitting together with them at the feet of the one Master. the

Lord Jesus Christ. "60

The leader of a Catholic institution is constantly challenged to lay aside personal

ambitions and opinions for the sake of the greater whole. Just as Christ does not grasp at

his own divinity. a true leader gives himlherself over to service. Christ embodies all that

he calls us to be: so. too. in a Christian institution. true leadership comes not through title

and power but through the witness of those who stand beside those they lead and live the

challenges that they issue. For example, a Catholic institution of higher learning can only

be a credible advocate of justice if its leaders ensure that justice is practiced in the

university's internal procedures. If the market determines pay for part-time faculty rather

than the standards of justice. then the university's call to educate students for justice will

ring hollow. Similarly. justice remains an abstraction at Catholic law schools with large

endowments and paltry loan-forgiveness programs for those who enter public service


59 Lee F. Bacchi. "A Ministry Characterized by and Exercised in Humility: The Theology of Ordained
Ministry in the Letters of Augustine of Hippo." Augustine: Presbyter Factus Sum. eds. Joseph T. Lienhard.
Earl C. Muller. Roland Teske (New York: Peter Lang. (993),405.

60 [bid.. 406.

Furthennore. those in authority positions at Catholic universities ought to resist

the temptation to impose their will or manipulate others for their own purposes. The

strength of their leadership comes from their capacity to listen to those whom they serve

and to be open to self-criticism. Authority is built upon entering into the realities of the

people one is leading-knowing their aspirations as well as their fears and

disappointments. This leadership through solidarity can be seen as weakness and

indecisiveness by those accustomed to corporate and political methods. But Augustine

points out that even emperor Theodosius was a powerful leader precisely because he did

not put himself above the correction of others. He repented in public for avenging crimes

that he had promised to pardon. In the City of God. Augustine described his powerful

expression of humility:

But nothing could be more wonderful than the religious humility he

[Theodosius] showed after the grievous crime ... he was constrained by the
discipline of the Church to do penance in such a fashion that the people of
Thesalonica. as they prayed for him. wept at seeing the imperial highness
thus prostrate. with an emotion stronger than their fears of the emperor's
wrath at their offence.61

But in concrete terms. what does humility look like among Catholic university leaders?

In calling for the "humility of service" in Catholic education. Brian Daley recommends:

... a healthy skepticism. on the part of faculty and administrators. towards

developing activities and involvements that simply enhance the
university's public prestige: corporate membership in exclusive academic
organizations. big-name scholarships and awards for its graduates. big-
time athletic programs whose main purpose is to enhance alumni bragging
rights and promote national recognition.62

61 City of God 5.26 (Bettenson. 223).

62 Brian Daley. ''The Pursuit of Excellence and the 'Ordinary Manner': Humility and the Jesuit

Where is Christ's spirit of humility, for instance, when alumni money is sought through

an appeal to pride, in either subtle or crass ways? Those directly involved in shaping the

structure of Catholic institutions are not simply to avoid creating and participating in

what John Paul II calls "structures of sin" but they are to create "structures of salvation"63

Given the challenge of Christ-like leadership and its contrast to the leadership

styles favored in modem academic life, a Catholic university leader ought to be willing,

for example, (0 risk a drop in the US World and New Report ranking for the sake of

higher goals. A Catholic university needs to trust that in relinquishing certain forms of

popUlarity and superiority for greater integrity, it will regain its identity in a more

powerful and compelling way.

b. Humility and Faculty

One of the principal tasks of university faculty is teaching. Augustine's doctrine

of humility can be a crucial basis upon which teaching and faculty-student relationships

can flourish. [n The Teacher. one of Augustine's early writings. strongly influenced by

his Neoplatonism and new Christian faith, he shows his son Adeodatus the importance of

humility in the craft of teaching. [n the very tone and content of their dialogue, Augustine

demonstrates how the teacher is primarily a learner. The teacher should confess

ignorance of what he does not know and he should stand beside his pupils in his need to

be corrected. Speaking of a passage from Cicero. Augustine confesses, ''It may be that [

63 [ thank Professor William Gould. political science professor at SL Anselm College in Manchester. Vt.
for this phrase which he coined in connection to Pope John Paul II's "structures of sin."

do not correctly understand the passage and others may explain it differently ... "64

Shortly, thereafter, he asks Adeodarus, "{ should like you to recall what we have learned

as a result of our conversation."6S After Adeodatus' summary, Augustine adds, "I must

confess these distinctions now seem to me to be much clearer than they did when our

discussion forced them out from obscurity."66 Humility in teaching involves a give and

take whereby teacher and student submit to the truths made manifest by their

conversation. Humility itself becomes their teacher.67 It teaches that real learning

requires that we trust the guidance of others while interacting critically with what they


Augustine shows us that humility is a prerequisite for learning because authentic

learning requires an awareness of our limitations and a readiness to abandon opinions that

have been proven false. This same conviction is echoed in the work of Alasdair

MacIntyre who seeks to retrieve certain aspects of Augustinian epistemology and

pedagogy. He insists that humility is a pre-conditional virtue for anyone seeking to

pursue the good within a tradition-guided enquiry:

The will which directs them [the learners} is initially perverse and needs a
kind of redirection which will enable it to trust obediently in a teacher who
will guide the mind towards the discovery both of its own resources and of
what lies outside the mind, both in nature and in God. Hence faith in
authority has to precede rational understanding. And hence the acquisition

64The Teacher 5.16 trans .• lohn H.S. Burleigh in Augustine: Earlier Writings. (Philadelphia: The
Westminster Press. 1953).81.

6S Ibid.• 7.19 (Burleigh. 82). Italics mine.

66 Ibid.• 8.21 (Burleigh. 84).

67 Confessions 7.18.24 (Chadwick. 128).

of that virtue which the will requires to be so guided, humility, is the
necessary first step in education or in self-education.68

MacIntyre goes on to explain that for Augustine "it is only through the

transformation of the will from a state of pride to one of humility that the

intelligence can be rightly directed."69 The learning process necessarily has its

dangers because teachers can foolishly mishandle or abuse the trust of their

students. Perhaps, this is why, in The Teacher. Augustine shows that an openness

to correction is critical on the part of both teacher and student:

It is the most difficult thing in the world not to be upset when opinions
which we hold, and to which we have given a too ready and too wil[l]ful
approval, are shattered by contrary arguments and are, as it were, weapons
torn from our hands. It is a good thing to give in calmly to arguments that
are well considered and grasped, just as it is dangerous to hold as known
what in fact we do not know. We should be on our guard lest. when things
are frequently undermined which we assumed would stand firm and abide,
we fall into such hatred or fear of reason that we think we cannot trust
even the most clearly manifest truth. 7o

This awareness of our limitations is not to discourage us, but should spur us on to learn

with greater fervor. Humility encourages us to work patiently but persistently with our

own incomplete knowledge. It calls for self-honesty whereby we confront our own

capacity to distort the truth. sometimes in the interest of securing our own self-image as a

lover of truth.

68 Alasdair MacIntyre. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. (Notre Dame. [ndiana: University of Notre
Dame Press. 1990). 84. [talics mine. For Mac[ntyre. humility entails trusting in a tradition and in the
authority of persons within that tradition who are masters in the craft of moral enquiry. Although he draws
principally from Thomist and Augustinian wisdom in making this case. Mac[ntyre does not refer to the
exemplar and source of humility. Jesus Christ.

69 £bid.• 91.

70 £bid.. 10.31 (Burleigh. 92).

Augustine explains that teaching requires attending to the words of one's

conversation partner as well as listening to Christ, the inner teacher.

Our real Teacher is he who is so listened to, who is said to dwell in the
inner man, namely Christ, that is, the unchangeable power and eternal
wisdom of God. To this wisdom every rational soul gives heed, but to
each is given only so much as he is able to receive, according to his own
good or evil will. 71

In light of Christ, the inner teacher, Augustine views himself as a midwife of truth. "Even

when I speak what is true and he sees what is true, it is not I who teach him. He is taught

not by my words but by the things themselves which inwardly God has made manifest to

him."72 The humble teacher. then, does not take credit for the truth learned by the student

for God grants us the disposition to be open to the truth and not to be taken in by the

understanding of truth as something we independently create. This is shown clearly in

Augustine's preaching on the way to learn of Christ: ..... you ask, 'What sort of God is

Christ?' Listen with me. I'm not saying listen to me, but with me. In this school, you

see, we are all fellow students: heaven is our professor's chair. So listen to what sort of

God Christ is."73

Humility fosters, in teacher and student alike. a sense of wonder and gratitude.

Intellectual insights are seen as gifts, not independent achievements. But, when identities

are built on "achievement" more than truth and when marketplace values debase the

faculty-student relationship, grade inflation ensues as teachers cater to student "tastes"

71 Ibid.• 11.38 (Burleigh. 95).

72 Ibid.• 11.40 (Burleigh. 96-97).

73 Serm. 261.2 (WSA IIIn:209).

and students begin to feel entitled to high grades. There is a growing trend at universities

for faculty-student relationships to be defined in terms of consumer satisfaction: a

'mutual message' of inflated grades and teacher evaluations. Humility teaches faculty and

students alike that they are both in service to the truth. Serious intellectual effort is

necessary for growth in knowledge, but our capacity to learn and make connections is

ultimately a gift.

Augustine's teaching on humility suggests that in reading texts in the humanities.

for instance. the humble approach to reading opens us to the truth revealed by the text. In

pride, the reader is the principal measure of truth. This hinders the truth of the text from

challenging one's faulty perceptions. It prevents the text from "reading us." To properly

read a text. for instance. teacher and student alike need to be emptied of all insistence that

the text resonate with one' s own sensibilities and insights. in order to be true and


Augustine reminds us that the greatest mysteries of our faith are conveyed to us in

humble ways. e.g. the Incarnation, the scriptures. the poor, and the Eucharist. The most

precious truths of our faith often abide in rather simple and sometimes unattractive forms.

Augustine's discovery of scripture is, probably, the most appropriate example for

discussing humility in education because it was precisely his own educational

background that led him to dismiss the style of scripture as crude and contradictory.

Augustine's whole education was based on rhetoric, the art of persuasive and elegant

speech. It fed his conceit so that with regard to scripture he could not "bow" his "head to

climb its steps."14 Having grown accustomed to finding truth in more eloquent and

sophisticated forms. it took him a while to find the heart of truth in the crude words of his

pre-Vulgate scriptures.

Humility. therefore. challenges teachers to find important truths embodied in very

ordinary forms. for appearances can be deceiving.75 The humble teacher will not cater to

the most articulate students or the most sophisticated writings but will recognize that

truth can often be found where it is not commonly recognized. Humility fosters genuine

inquiry. and a readiness to give someone yet another chance. It translates into a

"readiness to always look again. to be corrected. to have one' s research made obsolete.''16

A teacher who practices humility is willing to be surprised and to take each student

seriously. even the most difficult.

To imitate the humble self-emptying of God who accommodates to our

"infirmity''17 teachers need to communicate truths in ways that challenge students while

also meeting them where they happen to be. Rather than watering down material. we can

call students to stretch themselves intellectually while finding ways to relate new ideas

and truths to what is most real in their own life experience. Under faculty pressure to

publish. specialize. and gain academic distinction. it is too easy for professors to use the

74 Confessions 3.5.9 (Chadwick. 40).

75 Ibid .. 5.6.10. "Already I had learnt from you that nothing is true merely because it is eloquently said. nor
false because the signs coming from the lips make sounds deficient in a sense of style." (Chadwick. 78).

76 Brian E. Daley. ''The Pursuit of Excellence and the 'Ordinary Manner': Humility and the 1esuit
University," 26.

n Serm. 117.16 (WSA llII4:220).

classroom as an arena for working out their own research interests, even when this

interferes with the educational needs of their students. For example, a professor may

focus on her own area of specialization without considering the students' prior need for

the essentials. Arrogance can also lead faculty to judge student work according to their

own individual interests rather than by the quality and integrity of the work itself.

Brian Daley's reflection on humility and the Catholic university warns of the

temptation to seek adulation from students. subtly exploiting their dependence on faculty

approval.18 It is tempting to teach for popUlarity or, similarly, to publish for recognition

from colleagues. Alan Wolfe. a prominent sociologist, remarks: "Far too many

academics write to be judged by other academics who are remarkably like themselves."79

Self-referential scholarship is really an academic form of Augustinian pride. turning in on

oneself and refusing to share with "outsiders." Perhaps Augustine' s kenatic dimension of

humility suggests a kind of scholarship and writing that is viewed as a gesture of self-

emptying love: giving oneself away for the sake of helping others to better understand

themselves. the world around them. and their relation to God.

Speaking of Catholic intellectual life today, theologian Lawrence Cunningham

sees humility as integral to the "growing edge" of scholarship. For it is only by being

emptied of egotism, that a person is open to learning from an "outsider":

The surest cure for intellectual error is the humility that accompanies any
idea put out into the arena of discussion. Humility does not mean a

78 Brian E. Daley. 26.

79 Alan Wolfe. "The Promise and the Raws of Public Scholarship," The Chronicle of Higher Education 43
no. 18 (January 10, (997),84.

Pecksniffian groveling about one's own unworthiness. Humility means
that one is sufficiently self-aware to understand that his limitations might
be such that truth could come to a person from unexpected sources. It is
that humility that Aquinas exhibited when he saw a vehicle for theology
coming from a pagan source (Aristotle) mediated to him from Islamic
sources. The contemporary intellectual must be open to that cascade of
new disciplines, recovered sources from other parts of the world, and the
common wisdom that comes from people who offer their own experience
as apt subject for reflection. Humility is not antagonistic to boldness.
Indeed, boldness of speech characteristic of the prophet is a sign of
intellectual maturity. The search for truth cannot be judged solely by what
the majority thinks or the preponderant

Humility opens us to the incorporation of new knowledge and it fosters productive

collaboration where no one participant claims to be the expert and guardian of truth. In

the pursuit of truth, the humble scholar recognizes his or her need for others outside of

one's familiar circle.

Yet among faculty members, pride can intiltrate discussions when professors find

themselves needing to be at the center of conversation and insist on being understood

themselves before trying to understand others. Specialization, while it allows for certain

crucial advances in knowledge, also contributes to isolation and a protecting of "turf'

which can lead to a refusal to acknowledge the need for peer review and correction. True

academic excellence depends on the humility that willingly places one's ideas before

others for rigorous scrutiny.

When the ego is not at stake in the weighing of various ideas, the truth can be

more freely and readily identified. The humble scholar can help peers and students alike

to learn that shifts in viewpoint are not necessarily signs of intellectual weakness. But if

80 Lawrence Cunningham. "Faith and Reason," Nocre Dame Maga:.ine (2000), 28-31.

one becomes overly identified with one's ideas, then it is harder to let them go when they

are rightly challenged or made obsolete. If the truth must coincide with various kinds of

flattery and ego-boosting, then it is more likely to elude us. Humility demands an

adherence to the truth. even when this calls for our own humiliation.

c. Humility and Students

For Augustine the development of a student's mind depends on the development

of humility. Humility fosters a trust and docility with respect to the truth. This means

that knowledge is not to be possessed and consumed. and held over against others.

Rather. knowledge elicits a sense of wonder, gratitude. and a desire to give to others.

Faith in the humble Christ moves us to consider the implications of our knowledge for

contributing to a world desperately needing truth and all that it implies in terms of

compassion and justice.

Augustine teaches that humility is not simply a conversion of intellectual

perspective but also a transformation of one's whole life. Through the Spirit. the self is

recreated according to the image of Christ and lived out in the fullness of the body of

Christ. To live out Christ's way of humble service. self-giving love, is to pursue

knowledge for the sake of service not resume-building.

To foster this sense of service, it is often proposed that students engage in service-

learning courses, immersion trips to the inner-cities, visits to third world countries, and

regular volunteering in the local community. Valuable as they may be, these activities

can perpetuate fragmented forms of social participation based on contract and limited,

carefully defined obligation. Serving others and seeking justice end up being viewed as

something "on the side," not integral to one's professional work. In many ways, service

activities reinforce unjust relationships and leave certain stereotypes of the poor

unchallenged. These activities can lead students to be consumers and spectators of

poverty. They can often confirm their view of themselves as powerless and disconnected

from the sinful structures that generate immense suffering. Service activities also can

foster a certain patronizing attitude where giving is unilateral: those "with goods" ("the

haves") distribute them to those "without goods" ("the have-nots"). There is often little

self-criticism within this service model and little recognition of what can be learned from

those who are underprivileged. Most importantly, it seems that service projects only

rarely capture students' moral imagination and point them toward a more lasting

commitment to others based on the demands of justice and charity.

From the side of those "being served" through student volunteering, giving is on

the terms defined by the privileged and the poor remain utterly dependent on the choices

of those who are outside their everyday struggles. Such dependence of the poor on the

rich can foster a kind of "false humility" among the poor who feel compelled to grovel

for their daily existence. Dorothy Day sadly observed this phenomenon and reiterates an

Augustinian notion of humility rooted in the divine-human relationship:

One must be humble only from a divine motive, otherwise humility is a

debasing and repulsive attitude. To be humble and meek for love of
God-that is beautiful. But to be humble and meek because your bread
and butter depends on it is awful. It is to lose one's sense of human

81 Dorothy Day. Selected Writings. ed. Robert ElIsberg. (Maryknoll. N.Y.: Orbis Books. 1993).68. (second

Although there are numerous exceptions to these general trends, Catholic universities

face an immense challenge in seeking to connect personal involvement with the poor and

serious intellectual engagement about the meaning of justice, solidarity, and the common

good. 82 How the spiritual tradition of the church and virtues like humility relate to moral

reflection and professional training is an issue central to forming students who are

dedicated over the long-term to living justly in their personal and professional lives.

Beyond humility's call to truth and right relationships, Augustine challenges us to

exceed "right order," in the kenotic humility that bears fruit in charity. Shaped by Christ's

kenosis humility extends to generosity that goes well beyond what is deemed

"reasonable" and proportionate. In kenotic humility the lavishness of God's love is at

work. Augustine calls Christians to this deeper level of commitment by stressing that

Christ is present in all persons, but most especially in the poor. for the humble Christ

identified himself with those most in need.

Augustine's teaching on humility directly challenges the notion of one-way giving

for he questions the wealthy of his day who are satisfied with their arm's-length

donations to the poor.83 Finding this inadequate to real Christian humility, he calls for a

82 See Michael 1. Buckley. "The Search for a New Humanism: The University and the Concern for
Justice." The Catholic University as Promise and Project: Reflections in a Jesuit Idiom. (Washington.
D.C.: Georgetown University Press. (998). 105·128.

83 See chapter 3.4.d: Augustine directly cautions against the arrogance and superiority that can develop
when one serves the poor. He writes: "Once you have bestowed gifts on the unfortunate. you may easily
yield to the temptation to exalt yourself over him. to assume superiority over the object of your benefaction.
He fell into need. and you supplied him: you feel yourself as the giver to be a bigger man than the receiver
of the gift. You should want him to be your equal. that both may be subject to the one on whom no favour
can be bestowed. The true Christian will never set himself up over other men." Homilies on the First
Epistle General O/SI. John 85 (Burnaby. 321).

communion of persons between rich and poor, based on our shared humanity. He exhorts

them to Christ-like humility, which nurtures the spirit of solidarity where we recognize

that we are part of one another. Augustine recommends humility to the well-educated and

prominent people of his time, as well as to paupers. He calls the young Greek medical

student, Dioscorus, as well as women in religious communities, to humility. Augustine

was convinced that pride knows no bounds. The most impoverished as well as the most

influential can succumb to the temptation to flatter oneself in lieu of praising God. After

all, Augustine does not presume that affliction and suffering automatically produce good

character. There is a certain equalizing of all human beings in their capacity to spoil

God's order and goodness. Based on our infirmity, there is what Augustine terms, "a

fellowship of equality under God."84

In Augustine's "humility of lending a helping hand," persons of privilege come to

recognize that they share a "common humanity and infirmity" with those who are poor.S5

The poor are not the only ones in need and the rich are not the only ones with riches. In

connection to its root meaning in Latin. humus, "of the earth," humility calls us to

remember the fundamentals of human existence: our unity with other human beings and

most especially those who tend to be defined one-dimensionally by lack of material


84 City of God 19.12 (Bettenson. 868-869).

S5 Serm. 259.5 (WSA IIIn:18l).

In his most recent Apostolic Letter, Novo millennio ineunte (200 1), John Paul II

reiterates this challenge to meet the demands of justice and charity in a way that

recognizes the call of the humble God to "draw close" to the poor:

Christians must learn to make their act of faith in Christ by discerning his
voice in the cry for help that rises from this world of poverty. This means
carrying on the tradition of charity which has expressed itself in so many
different ways in the past two millennia, but which today calls for even
greater resourcefulness. Now is the time for a new "creativity" in charity.
not only by ensuring that help is effective but also by 'getting close' to
those who suffer, so that the hand that helps is seen not as a humiliating
handout but as a sharing between brothers and sisters.86

John Paul II challenges the growing partition between rich and poor. which leads to a

false humility and a scandalous arrogance on the part of the privileged who can be

content to keep their distance from the suffering of Christ's body. Real liberation is

found when people reach out to one another to form a body of people who willingly

submit to one another. [n the weakness of their submission they discover the collective

power that can overcome structures of sin and create structures of salvation.

In living out the implications of our fundamental unity with other human beings,

humility challenges students to use their education to address the root causes of injustice

and to take responsibility for shaping a society that promotes real community and dignity

among all people. Humility does not mean being simplistic about the work of justice. [t

calls for a level of thoughtfulness and generosity that draws the whole person in all of his

or her intellectual and emotional energy to work toward relationships that are just and

ultimately, expressions of Christ's self-emptying love.

86 Pope John Paul II. Novo millennia ineunle. 50.

Michael J. Buckley proposes concrete academic strategies for responding to the

need to foster greater solidarity and justice among Catholic university students. Humility

is not simply about being humanly connected, it also means responding intelligently and

compassionately to the wretched condition of a vast majority of people throughout the


... a humane sensibility must become an educated sensibility. It is not

enough to feel deeply; one must also know. Deep care without
concomitant skills and knowledge leads only into enthusiasms. From this
appreciation must come an educated awareness of what these students can
do with their lives and with their education to better the human condition.
The university must awaken both a sensibility to the suffering of human
beings-both nationally and internationally-and an educated
commitment to address this suffering if the university is to educate the
students into a humanism adequate for our times. Within this context. the
social sciences can take on a significantly humanistic dimension. If the
university proposes to develop in students both social sensibility and a
sound understanding of the great social problematic of our times. it must
insist upon courses in economics, political science, and sociology
precisely as those are geared to continue the humanistic development of
the student. 87

In student vocational choices, Augustine's teaching about the living presence of

the humble Christ among the poor needs to be more fully explored. The scandal of

societies that systematically ignore the humble Christ needs to be met not merely by a

one or two year stint of service but a life-long career devoted to questioning our inherited

structures of sin and advancing the work of charity within Christ's body.

A Catholic university that seeks to foster this kind of social humility should

institutionally support students who choose work that runs counter to the American

87Michael 1. Buckley. The Catholic University as Promise and Project: Reflections in a Jesuit Idiom
(Washington. D.C.: Georgetown University Press. 1998). 122.

impulse to maximize income and prestige. Efforts should be made to establish student

loan forgiveness for those who use their professional training to serve the needs of the

poor. But beyond that. students should be so spiritually formed by the "mind of Christ"

so that the risk of humility poses a real challenge to their life choices. In putting Christ at

the center of vocational discernment. a Catholic university will be led to redefine success

and render humble service to the world through concrete engagement with a world

desensitized to social structural sin.

d. Humility and Pluralism

This section considers how Christ's humility can apply to the challenges and

opportunities of pluralism within a Catholic university. Humility can help shape a way of

arguing, disagreeing, and deciding which is faithful to the Christian call to love. Humility

teaches us to listen to others who do not share our views. our culture. or our faith. Just as

Christ reaches out to the "other" in becoming human, so we are to reach out to the

"other" (though in a much less radical way for as human beings we are fundamentally

alike in our creatureliness). This reaching out to "the other" is particularly Christ-like for

the Incarnation is the ultimate expression of loving and cherishing what is other, separate.

and different. This kind of humble engagement which does not seek domination but

communion is important in an academic community prone to pride and yet charged with

a communal search for wisdom.

Humility teaches us that our own grasp of the truth is always partial. In The

Teacher, Augustine comments •.•... my desire is that God, who is very truth. should bring

us thither by steps suited to our poor abilities. "88 Acknowledging our limitation does not

mean distrusting the integrity and wholeness of our own tradition. Augustine knew that

the full truth was in the Christian tradition, but that his own apprehension of that truth

was always in need of correction and growth. Gerald Schlabach remarks:

Augustine developed his ideas not just through introspection and solitary
study of the Scriptures, but in conversation and debate; though, to be sure,
these were often conversations with friends, we have far more documents
transcribing or reflecting debates with adversaries. Had Constantinian (or
to be more precise Theodosian) decrees actually made the Roman Empire
safe for orthodox Christianity by snuffing out paganism, heresy, and
schism, Augustine would have left us a far poorer theologicallegacy.89

Augustine's dialectical habit of mind kept him in conversation with himself and others

who could be unlikely bearers of truth. Schlabach goes on to argue that Augustine's

"hermeneutic of humility" offers an alternative to moral imperialism on the one hand and

moral relativism on the other. Humility challenges a "willful imposition" of truth as well

as a "false humility" which reduces all truth claims to equally valid viewpoints. Instead.

humility calls for the positing of truth through real witness and conversation.9O

A concern for the destiny of every person is integral to Christ-like humility, which

helps us to realize that we are all equally dependent on God's grace for our own

salvation. According to the logic of Augustine's City of God. the two cities are

interwoven in this life in such a way that one cannot presume to know who is in the City

of God. Those we consider wrongheaded or perhaps evil may well be future citizens of

88 The Teacher 8.21 (Burleigh. 85).

89 Gerald Schlabach. "Augustine's Hermeneutic of Humility." 324.

90 Ibid.. 325.

that City: "And perhaps those who appear evil today will tomorrow be good; and those

who pride themselves on their goodness will tomorrow be discovered to be evil."91

Knowing that we cannot anticipate God's own judgment, Augustine urges us not to

despair or presume too much. He argues vehemently against the Donatist claim to

Christian purity and calls for an openness to others which characterizes Christian

catholicity. He believed that Christians can never define the ultimate destiny of others, to

know the divine dispensation. They exhibit pride by presuming more than is humanly

possible to know about the mysterious ways of God. For Augustine, humility functions

in such a way that no one is dismissed as unworthy of God's Kingdom for that judgment

rests with God whose grace can tum the most stubborn sinner into a saint.

The work of Charles Mathewes, Augustine scholar, can help us to understand how

Augustine's teaching on humility offers resources for embracing the challenge of

pluralism within a Catholic university. In his article, "Pluralism. Otherness. and The

Augustinian Tradition." Mathewes refers to Augustine as the "master of engagement."92

because he enables us to see pluralism in theological terms. Augustine's theology fosters

an engagement with diverse forms of "otherness" because he highlights how the sinful

self is "other" to itself and. how God is "the absolute other:'93 The Incarnation, in this

91 Enarrationes in Psalmos 119.9: Et Jorte hodie qui mali apparent. eras boni erunt; et qui de bonitale
hodie superbiunt. eras mali invenientur. (CCL 40: 1786).

92 Charles T. Mathewes. "Pluralism, Otherness and the Augustinian Tradition," Modem Theology 14: 1.

93 [bid.. 88.

light, can be seen as the definitive, paradigmatic example of authentic engagement with

the other.

For Augustine, conversion is the process of ongoing struggle toward internal

integrity whereby a person comes to understand "the self as always already in dialogue

with. and 'possessed' by, another-namely God.''94 Because the self is "anchored in the

activity and presence of a 'radical' other, namely. the divine,"95 selfhood is a necessarily

communal discovery. In his Confessions, Augustine describes turning inward and

finding God who is "more inward than my most inward part"% and yet. in reflecting on

his "otherness." he writes "I found myself far from you [God] 'in the region of

dissimilarity:"97 Conversion moves toward reconciliation of the self to itself but the

process is never complete. and so dialogue is always necessary.

Mathewes explains that:

The Augustinian tradition is particularly suited to pluralism because it

affirms a conversionist theology. a theology which understands that the
love of God is at best only partially and provisionally appropriated in any
human life, even though it is the key to every such life. Thus. no one is
wholly separated from the love of God. just as no one is wholly conformed
to it. 98

In other words, Matthewes suggests that Augustine's City of God and City of Man exist

not merely in the outer world but within each human person. Augustine's Confessions

94 Ibid.• 93

95 Ibid .. 99.

% Confessions 3.4.11 (Chadwick. 43).

97 Ibid.• 7.10.16 (Chadwick, (23).

98 Mathewes. 88.

shows as much. No one is wholly "cut off' from the truth99 and the person who seems

most estranged from God could be nearing a profound conversion to the truth.

Humility is marked by a restlessness which recognizes that we can never fully

know the truth. This "otherness" which is central to both the self and the nature of truth

is an ongoing reality that helps us to engage the "other" in our world. Humility brings us

to recognize our partial apprehension of truth and our need for a deeper understanding.

However, humility is always correlated with a confidence in the solidity of the truth that

has already grasped us in the humble, incarnate Christ. Mathewes writes:

Confidence and humility go hand in hand, as one has both confidence in

the truth of one's claims, and humility about one's understanding of those
same claims. even as one is making them. One engages other people with
both the conviction that your message is one of genuine importance to
them, and the recognition that through the engagement with them you will
yourself learn from them, further deepen your own understanding. tOO

Mathewes' insightful application of Augustinian humility points, in tum, to the Gospel's

insistence that a Christian be open to the "stranger" for the "good news" is directed to an

"estranged world. "lOt

Given then the need for engagement inherent in the living out of Christ's

humility, how does pluralism relate to Catholic university life? Augustine's teaching

implies that the most creative and in-depth engagement with differences takes place in an

environment where the living center of faith holds and the identity of the community is

99 Ibid. 93.

tOO [bid. 102.

tOi Ibid•• 100.

clear. However, the pursuit of truth necessarily includes those who are "other." Each

person is somehow integral to our life's deeper purpose and destiny. In short, the

Augustinian tradition challenges us to see pluralism as an opportunity to dialogue and to

deepen our conversion. 102

However, Robert Imbelli rightly warns that reacting to a "rigid uniformity" in the

Catholic church can give rise to a "'promiscuous' pluralism ... which distinguishes only to

further divide and which leads. ultimately. not to unity but to fragmentation."103

Pluralism can be feared and rejected or too casually embraced so that a radical relativism

emerges where the very notion of truth is challenged and various ways of life are blended

together into an eclectic and incoherent collection of viewpoints. A Catholic university

rooted firmly in a Catholic "unity in diversity" can engage seriously the diversity within

the Catholic tradition and outside it. Catholic studies programs. for instance. can. at their

worst. set up a narrow. romanticized restorationist vision. but. at their best. open students

to the vast richness of the Catholic tradition for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Thus.

in considering the role of humility in the various facets of Catholic university

life-administration. faculty teaching, student volunteering, and conversation in pluralist

contexts-we can see how Christ-like humility does not reinforce the status quo as much

as it challenges people to a new way of being mutually committed to one another in the

pursuit of truth. Perhaps humility, understood according to the pattern of Christ, can be

102 Ibid.• 106.

103 Robert Imbelli. "Toward a Catholic Vision: The Theology of the Communion of Saints." Review for
Religiolls (March-April. 1983).290.

the basis for a new "spirituality of communion"l04 which John Paul II has called all

Christians to embody in the new millenr!ium. Christ's humility can be a "school of

communion" which opens us to '''make room' for our brothers and sisters. bearing 'each

other's burdens' (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us

and provoke competition. careerism. distrust and jealousy."\o5


In this chapter we have reviewed key themes of Augustine' s doctrine of humility

and based on this we have wrestled with certain feminists' skepticism about humility.

Recognizing the importance of these challenges. we explored what Augustine and Metz's

Christ-centered approach to humility could contribute to these concerns. The feminists

rightly challenge the limits of humility for women. when it is understood as a corrective

to self-aggrandizement and domination. But, rather than dispensing with humility, I have

suggested that greater attention needs to be paid to Augustine's teaching on humility as a

corrective to despair and a turning in on oneself. Metz develops this dimension of

humility by relating poverty of spirit to self-forgetfulness and alienation as they emerge

in market-driven cultures.

Even though the feminist criticism is too often couched in therapeutic terms, the

concern about humility needing to be paired more explicitly with true self-love is a

legitimate one. Women's full humanity cannot be fostered simply by a greater focus on

104 John Paul U. Novo millennia ineunte (2000). 43.


self-esteem, autonomy, and self-direction. Instead, a more substantive rooting of the

human person in Christ needs to develop and humility can play an integral role in this

theological self-understanding.

Furthermore, given that humility is closely aligned with surrender and obedience

to God, the feminist scholars point to the need to develop criteria for distinguishing just

from unjust authority. Exhortations to humility are unwelcome when it is paired with

advice to remain silent before injustice. Understanding humility in connection with just

authority is a delicate and demanding task that has not been treated exhaustively in this

dissertation; however, Augustine can lay the foundation for this exploration. He shows

that Christ is the exemplar of humble authority. Christ's authority is not domineering,

manipulative, or repressive. His authority comes from others perceiving in him a

truthfulness and love that is inherently attractive and compelling. He does not command

arbitrary or mindless submission but calls us to submit to truth which exceeds our grasp,

but nonetheless resonates with the deepest part of ourselves. In general, Augustine's

teaching on humility applies more directly to those in positions of authority because he

himself wrote about his struggle to be a humble bishop in service to the faithful of Hippo.

For those who ask. "Can humility help us to guard against arbitrary forms of

oppression?," Augustine's teaching is less directly applicable. He warns against self-

righteousness and provides the basis for true solidarity but these themes are developed

more fully in Metz's theology which is attentive to the dangers of poverty of spirit among

the oppressed.

Lastly, in order to concretely visualize the practice of humility today, we

examined the shape that Christ-like humility could take in the life of Catholic

universities. The way that humility could impact the role of administrators, teachers, and

students revealed that this attribute challenges many conventional university norms. It

calls for a willingness to be self-critical and open to the truth being discovered in what is

other. In general, humility calls us to greater vulnerability with respect to the search for

truth that is given as a gift.


In his book. Pagan Virtues. John Casey observes that in contemporary Western

culture. Greek virtues of proper pride and great achievement are preferred to the

traditionally Christian virtues of humility and self-denial. l Individuals seek to be their

own creator and to overcome life's limitations and interruptions. Self-esteem. self-

achievement. and self-fulfillment have become the road to happiness and ··salvation."

But there are doubts about whether these pursuits promise more than they can deliver.:!

The ultimate purpose of our life's efforts seems to escape us and there exists a hunger for

new ways to respond to our deepest human longings.

At this time. Augustine's work is worth singling out because he continually

reminds his readers that Jesus Christ is the answer to our deepest human need and desire.

He urges us to learn humility precisely because it is the heart of who Christ is and what

his disciples are to become. "Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart." (Mt

11 :29). A Christ-centered understanding of humility is in desperate need of recovery, not

merely for an understanding of a forgotten but central Christian disposition, but. for an

understanding of the person who is central to Christian faith. It is in and through

humility that we draw near to Jesus Christ and discover that the ultimate purpose of our

human existence is to be in communion with the triune God. Augustine shows that the

1 Iohn Casey. Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics. 211.

2Michael Casey. A Guide to Living in the Truth: Saint Benedict's Teaching on Humility (Liguori.
Missouri: Liguori Publications. 1999).9-10.

way that God saves us is inseparable from salvation itself: "our very salvation in Christ

consists in the humility of ChriSt."3

This study of Augustine on humility has been intentionally one of retrieval. [t is

driven by a concern about the loss of a rich and subtle attribute that has been central to

Christian life and discipleship until recently. We began with a consideration of the

various objections to humility made by a range of philosophers. theologians. and social

critics. Then. by going back to St. Augustine, one of the earliest advocates and shapers of

humility in the Christian tradition, we have examined some of its original Christian roots.

Although certainly not offering the last word on humility. Augustine can provide a solid

foundation for seeing humility as a window into understanding Christ and Christian

discipleship. Recognizing the validity of many arguments made against "humility:' [

have tried to show that Augustinian humility presents a fuller. more theological account

of this Christian quality, which is quite distinct from some contemporary formulations.

For Augustine. humility always finds its exemplar in Jesus Christ: his self-emptying

[ncarnation, his washing of the disciples' feet. his obedience to the Father. and his

relinquishing of all superiority and power to the point of death. But humility is more than

simply moral; it is soteriological. The humility of the cross is the principal way that

Christ reconciles us with God and so knowledge of humility is a salvific knowledge.

Augustinian humility can be put to contemporary theological use by helping us to

understand the descending/ascending logic of our salvation. The downward and upward

path is the pattern by which God draws near and creates a way for our own

3 Senn. 285.4 (WSA lIII8:97).

transformation in Christ. This point was elaborated in chapters two and three in reference

to the confronting, mediating, and self-emptying modes of Christ's salvation. Here, a

Christ-centered humility is shown to be markedly different from the Greek notion of true

self-knowledge based simply on an accurate assessment of one's capacities. Humility,

from a Christian point of view, is only derivatively related to one's own particular talents

and capabilities. It depends primarily upon understanding the personal character of

salvation through lesus Christ. Secondarily, the way that Christ saves us sets a pattern

for diSCipleship and our return to God. To be humble is to live according to the very

character of the paschal mystery.~ Christ's receiving of the Father's love teaches us that

our generosity depends on our reception of divine love. Through Christ's humility, we

become not merely "receivers" of divine grace but participants in our own salvation. for

by partaking in Christ's way of humility we are transformed and enfolded into the divine


In a certain sense, every age is at once in need of and yet resistant to a

rehabilitation of humility. Augustine helps us to see why this quality is so elusive and

difficult to understand properly. The humility of lesus Christ. for instance, is both a

consolation and a stumbling block. On the one hand, the divine assumption of the human

further ennobles human dignity and satisfies all human hungers: ..... humility makes us

whole."s Yet, humility also causes us to stumble because we expect God to come in

.. The Trinity (Hill. (62): "Just as the devil in his pride brought proud-thinking man down to death. so
Christ in his humility brought obedient man back to life.~

5 Enarrationes in Psalmos 35.17 (PL 36:353), cited in R. Arbesmann. "Christ the Medicus Humilis in Sl
Augustine," Augustinus Magister rr. (Paris. (955).627.

grandeur and majesty. We want a God who will demonstrate greatness, "fix things up,"

and take us away from life's struggles. Instead, he enters into them. This is why Metz

refers to Christ as "the dangerous ChriSt."6 Christ is the suffering servant who shares in

our sorrows and endures our pains. He upsets our expectations by suffering and joining

his life with ours. Our solidarity with God, then, is found in becoming more fully present

to those who reveal the face of the "suffering Christ."

[n re-presenting Augustine's teaching and introducing Metz' s more contemporary

rendition of poverty of spirit, I have been influenced by the current social and ecclesial

climate of criticism of humility. Thus. I have tried to stress those facets of humility that

are most likely to have resonance among the seekers of today. [n the contemporary

church climate. preachers of the gospel emphasize the empowering and liberating

message of the Good News. But, unfortunately. when this call is heard as uncritical self-

affirmation. it rings hollow. especially in communities where there is no honest wrestling

with the limitations. struggles, and failures of human existence. The time is ripe, then,

for Augustine to teach us how this quality of submission and self-emptying actually is the

pathway to a more expansive and authentic expression of Christian faith. [n the

unexpected way that God accompanies us in humility, we are able to be present to the

darkness and tension of our lives, as well as to become more conscious of the mystery

and grandeur of life. We become more willing to be surprised by the pain and beauty of

what is not "I." Humility teaches us to remember and accompany the other in the sadness

and joy of true solidarity. Metz, as we have seen, teaches that those who are poor of

6 Metz. A Passion for God. 48.

spirit are able to hope in God and have room for the unsettling realities of human

existence. He shows how needed humility is amidst the anonymity of mass culture. His

link between poverty of spirit and remembering the sufferings of the other shows that

humility cannot be lived amidst strangers who isolate themselves from what is not yet

accomplished in our Christian faith.

In light of contemporary concerns about humility as degrading and discouraging

human achievement. I have emphasized those facets of Augustinian humility that point to

its social and liberative character. The twofold shape of Christ-like humility-true self-

knowledge and self-emptying love-reveals the profoundly relational nature of this virtue

too often aligned with a privatized and somber Christianity. Augustinian humility shows

that the willing. non-coercive submission to another. in Christ. can be a corrective to

despair and a pathway to empowering human love. The capacity to love another lavishly

through a partaking in God's humble self-emptying is quite distinct from a slavish love

that seeks to earn self-worth through a measured generosity. Augustine's Christocentric

understanding of humility. after all. is a recipe. not for servility. or "earning self-worth"

but for the transformation of church and world.

Above all else. Augustine never ceases to be amazed at the humble God. His

work returns repeatedly to this great proof of God's immense love for usJ The great

Doctor of Hippo inspires us to humility by teaching us awe before the unfathomable

generosity of God in Christ:

7 The Trinity 8.7 (Hill. 247).

What praises, then, should we be singing to God's love, what thanks
should we be expressing! I mean, he loved us so much that for our sake he
came to be in time, though all times were made through him; and he was
prepared to be younger in age than many of his servants in the world,
though he is older in eternity than all the world. He loved us so much that
he became man though he had made man; that he was created from a
mother whom he had created, carried in arms he had fashioned, sucked
breasts which he himself filled; that he lay squalling in a manger wordless
in infancy, though he is the Word without whom human eloquence would
be at a loss for words. Observe, 0 man, what God became for you;
acknowledge the teaching of such incalculable humility, even coming
from a teacher not yet able to speak. 8

Augustine shows us that it is not only God's greatness and power that are

incomprehensible, but also God's humility and worldly powerlessness. Humility is

always shrouded in mystery and beyond our comprehension. Our language fails to

capture the essence of God's humility. Yet, in his sermons, treatises, and letters, with an

eloquence unmatched in Christian history, Augustine reassures us that placing ourselves

before the mystery of humility makes us beautiful and unites us to one another in God.

All of our words and images, therefore, must never lose sight of the fundamental mystery

that is the humility of the Word of God:

I am speaking, brothers, of the humility of Christ. Yet who can speak

either of the majesty of Christ or of his humility? When we seek to explain
even in small degree the humility of Christ, we do not succeed; indeed we
fail badly. Therefore we entrust the whole subject to your reflection and
make no attempt to satisfy your desire to hear of it from us. Meditate,
then, on the humility of Christ. But, you may say, 'Who will explain it to
us, if you do not speak?' Christ himself speaks, interiorly. He who dwells
within will speak better of the mystery than he who raises his voice
outside you. May he show you the grace of his humility, now that he has
begun to dwell in your hearts. 9

8 Senn. 188.2-3 (WSA UIl6:32).

9 On the Gospel of St. John 3.15 (O'Connell and Pellegrino. 40). (CCl 36:27).


ACW Ancient Chrisrian Wrirers.

CAG Corpus Augusrinianum Gissense a Cornelio Mayer edirum. Textbase on
CD-ROM. Basel: Schwabe and Co., 1995.
CCL Corpus Chrisrianorum. Series Larina.
CLCLT Ceredoc Library of Chrisrian Larin Texrs. Textbase on CD-ROM.
Turnhout: Brepols, Universitas Catholicas Lovaniensis, Lovanii Novi,
CSEL Corpus Scriprontm Ecclesiasricorum Larinorum.
FC Farhers ofrhe Church.
LCC Library of Chrisrian Classics.
NPNF A Selecr Library of rhe Nicene and Posr-Nicene Farhers of rhe Chrisrian
PL Parrologia Larina.
PLS Parrologiae Larinae Supplementuffl.
WSA The Works of Saint Augusrine: A Translarionfor rhe 2rt Century.

St. Augustine (primary texts)

Augustine's writings are listed alphabetically according to their Latin titles and the
translation (s) consulted. In some cases, I have consulted multiple translations.

De agone christiano. PL 40: 284-3lO.

The Chrisrian Combar. Translated by Robert P. Russell. FC 2. New York and

Washington: Catholic University Press, 1947-.

De carechizandis rudibus. CCL 46: ll5-78.

On the Catechising of the Uninstrucred. Translated by S.D.F. Salmond. NPNF 3.

New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 19l7.

De civirare Dei. CCL 47-48.

City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson. Introduction by John O'Meara.

Harmondswroth' England: Penguin, 1984.

Confessiones. CCL 27.

Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press,


De doctrina christiana. CCL 32.

On Christian Doctrine. Translated with an introduction by D.W. Robertson, Jr.

The Library of Liberal Ms. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

Enarrationes in psalm os. CCL 38-40.

£'Cpositions on the Book of Psalms. Translated by A. Cleveland Coxe. NPNF 8

New York. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917.

£'Cpositions on the Book of Psalms. Translated by T. Stratton. Library of Fathers

3. London: Oxford John Henry Parker. 1849.

Give What You Command: Augustine's Reflections on the Christian Life.

Translated by Michael Cardinal Pellegrino and Matthew O·Connell. New York:
Catholic Book Publishing Co. 1975.

Enchiridion ad Laurentium deJide et spe et caritate. CCL 46:49-114.

Enchiridion on Faith. Hope, and Love. Translated by lB. Shaw. Washington.

D.C.: Regnery Publishing. Inc .• 1996.

Epistolae ad Romanos inchoata exposito. CSEL 84.

Unfinished Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. In Augustine on Romans.

Edited and translated by Paula Fredriksen Landes. Early Christian Literature
Series 6. Chico. Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982. 51-89.

Epistolae. CSEL 34.1-2.44,57-58.

Letters. Translated by Wilfrid Parsons, S.N.D. Vols. 9-12. 14 of Writings of Saint

Augustine. FC 12. 18. 20. 30, 32. Washington: Catholic University of America
Press, 1951-56.

Letters of Saint Augustine. Translated by John Leinenweber. Liguori. Missouri:

Triumph Book. 1992.

De sancta virginitate. CSEL 41. PL 40:397-428.

Of Holy Virginity. Translated by C.L. Cornish. NPNF 3. New York: Charles

Scribner's Sons. 19l7.

Holy Virginity. Translated by John McQuade. FC 27. New York, 1955.

Sermones. PL 38-39. PLS 2.

Sermons. Translated by Edmund Hill. WSA. IWl-ll Brooklyn: New City Press,

Tracrarlls in episrolam loannis ad Parthos. PL 35: 1977-2062.

Ten Homilies on the Firsr Episrle of Sr. John. Translated by John Burnaby.
Augustine: Larer Works. LCC 8. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955.251-348.

Tractarus in evangelium loannis. CCL 36.

Tractates on the Gospel according to Sr. John. Translated by John Gibb and
James Innes. NPNF 7. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1888. Reprint. Grand
Rapids. Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co .• 1956.

Tractares on the Gospel of John. Translated by John W. Rettig. FC 78. 79, 88, 90.
Washington. D.C.: The Catholic University of America. 1988.

De Trinitate CCL 50-50A.

The Trinity. WSA U5. Edited by John E. Rotelle. Translated by Edmund Hill.
Brooklyn: New City Press, 1991.

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