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How Augustine's Theology Shaped Western ...

How Augustine's Theology Shaped Western Christianity: Binary Oppositions Explained

Jun 03, 2024

I recently listened with great interest to a three-hour discussion on Substack between Dr. Joseph P. Farrell and Kelly Em of the Common Surface regarding the schism between the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Catholic Church.

I was intrigued because - following my thesis that the control of language controls our perception of reality - like E. Michael Jones' thesis in Logos Rising, the mistranslation of specific words has had a deleterious impact on human history for the past two millennia. Em wrote a short introduction here: A Pious Man Mistranslates a Word and Splits Europe.

The depth of the topic was truly enlightening, but I understand that the three-hour duration might be a challenge for most casual listeners. I thought the conversation was important, so once again, I took the transcript, dropped it into Chat-GPT4o, and had it put together an outline of Farrell's frame. His four-volume set of books "God, History and Dialectic" (volumes I-IV), which he refers to, turns out to be collected from his teaching notes from his time as a Medieval Philosophy professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Chat-GPT4o Summary of Joseph P Farrell: A Pious Man Mistranslated a Word and Split Europe

Prompt: Summarize the following video transcript, highlighting the Dr. Farrell's comments: Joseph P Farrell: A Pious Man Mistranslated a Word and Split Europe. Joseph Farrell with Kelly Em... [TRANSCRIPT]

In this podcast episode, Dr. Joseph P. Farrell discusses the profound and often misunderstood origins of Western civilization and its current crises with Kelly Em. Here are the highlights of Dr. Farrell’s comments:

  1. Formation and Influence of the Book “God, History, and Dialectic”:

    • Dr. Farrell’s book is a collection of transcribed lecture notes from his college teaching days.

    • It was created to elucidate the theological errors that shaped Western civilization, particularly the misinterpretations and deviations in the understanding of the Christian Trinity.

  2. Theological Roots of Western Crisis:

    • The current civilizational crisis in the West is deeply rooted in theological misunderstandings, especially the doctrine of God and the Christian Trinity.

    • Western Christianity deviated by failing to maintain a distinction in God without opposition, leading to a reduction of divine attributes to mutual equivalencies and ultimately to nihilism.

  3. Impact of Augustine’s Theology:

    • Augustine of Hippo’s theological formulations significantly influenced Western thought, but he made fundamental errors by reducing divine plurality to binary oppositions.

    • Augustine’s approach led to a cultural predisposition in the West to view distinctions as oppositions, fostering perpetual conflict and binary thinking.

  4. Schism Between Eastern and Western Christianity:

    • The Eastern and Western churches split due to theological disagreements, particularly over the nature of the Trinity.

    • The Western church’s acceptance of Augustine’s formulations created a theological and cultural divergence from the Eastern Orthodox Church.

  5. Historical Developments and Papal Authority:

    • Over time, the papacy in the West sought to centralize and assert its authority, which led to various theological and political conflicts.

    • The papacy’s increasing claims to authority, combined with its theological errors, contributed to the Protestant Reformation and ongoing tensions within Western Christianity.

  6. Modern Implications and Cultural Impact:

    • The modern West’s theological and philosophical foundations are flawed, leading to the current cultural and political crises.

    • Dr. Farrell emphasizes the importance of understanding these theological roots to address and resolve contemporary issues.

  7. Responses to Secular Humanism and Secret Societies:

    • The rise of secular humanism and secret societies in Western history is linked to reactions against the centralized power of the papacy.

    • These movements reflect the ongoing struggle between different theological and cultural forces within Western civilization.

Dr. Farrell’s detailed analysis sheds light on the deep-seated theological and cultural issues that have shaped the West’s development and current challenges.

Prompt: How does Farrell explain the differences between Eastern (Orthodox) and Western "Roman" Christianity?

Dr. Joseph P. Farrell explains the differences between Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman) Christianity by focusing on several key theological, historical, and cultural distinctions:

  1. Theological Foundations:

    • Eastern Orthodox Christianity: The Eastern Church emphasizes the concept of “Symphonia,” which means harmony between the church and state. It maintains a distinct but cooperative relationship between ecclesiastical and secular authorities. Theologically, the Eastern Church upholds the idea of the Trinity as a unity that does not reduce distinctions to oppositions. The Eastern Orthodox Church rejected Augustine’s formulations and maintained a more holistic approach to the Trinity.

    • Western Roman Christianity: The Western Church, influenced heavily by Augustine of Hippo, developed a theological framework that often reduced divine attributes to binary oppositions. Augustine’s influence led to a more legalistic and hierarchical structure within the Western Church, culminating in the assertion of papal supremacy. The Western Church’s acceptance of Augustine’s theological formulations created a predisposition towards viewing distinctions as oppositions, which permeated Western thought and culture.

  2. Historical Developments:

    • Eastern Church: Maintained a decentralized structure with local bishops having significant autonomy. The Eastern Church’s theology remained consistent with the early Church Fathers and avoided the extreme centralization seen in the West.

    • Western Church: The Western Church evolved towards a centralized structure with the Pope at its head. The assertion of papal authority and infallibility, especially during the pontificates of Leo III and Nicholas I, marked significant departures from earlier Christian traditions. This centralization was part of a broader trend in Western Christianity towards institutional control and doctrinal uniformity.

  3. Cultural and Political Impact:

    • Eastern Church: The Byzantine Empire’s model of church-state relations, where the emperor was seen as a protector of the church, influenced the Eastern Orthodox approach. The church and state were distinct but aimed to work harmoniously.

    • Western Church: The Western Church’s history was marked by the struggle for dominance between the papacy and secular rulers. Pope Leo III's crowning of Charlemagne in 800 AD symbolized the church’s attempt to wield temporal power. Over time, the papacy sought to assert control over not just religious but also political matters, leading to conflicts such as the Investiture Controversy and the Protestant Reformation.

  4. Doctrinal Divergences:

    • Filioque Controversy: A key doctrinal dispute was the addition of the “Filioque” clause (“and the Son”) to the Nicene Creed by the Western Church, which the Eastern Church rejected. This addition reflected deeper theological differences about the nature of the Trinity and the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    • Atonement and Salvation: The Western Church, influenced by Augustine and later Anselm of Canterbury, developed the idea of atonement in terms of satisfaction and penal substitution. The Eastern Church, however, emphasized theosis, the process of becoming united with God and sharing in the divine nature.

  5. Practical and Liturgical Differences:

    • Eastern Church: This church maintains ancient liturgical practices and a strong emphasis on mysticism and the experiential aspects of faith. The Divine Liturgy is central, and the use of icons in worship reflects the theological emphasis on the incarnation and the transfiguration of matter.

    • Western Church: The Western Church developed different liturgical practices, especially after the Second Vatican Council, which led to reforms and a more modernized approach to worship. The Western liturgical tradition also places a significant emphasis on legalistic and doctrinal precision.

Dr. Farrell argues that these differences have led to fundamentally distinct paths for the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, with the West’s theological errors contributing significantly to the cultural and political crises it faces today.

Prompt: expand on the Doctrinal Divergences

Dr. Joseph P. Farrell expands on the doctrinal divergences between Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman) Christianity by examining several key theological disagreements and their implications:

1. The Filioque Controversy:

  • Eastern Orthodox Position: The original Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Eastern Church maintains that this phrasing accurately reflects the relationship within the Trinity as understood by the early Church Fathers. The Eastern Orthodox theology emphasizes the monarchy of the Father, from whom both the Son is begotten and the Holy Spirit proceeds.

  • Western Roman Position: The Western Church added the phrase “Filioque” (Latin for “and the Son”) to the Creed, stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This addition was made without an ecumenical council’s approval and became a point of contention. The Western Church’s position reflects Augustine’s influence, who argued for the double procession to emphasize the unity and co-equality of the Trinity.

  • Implications: The Filioque addition created a significant theological rift. The Eastern Church viewed it as a distortion of Trinitarian theology and an unauthorized alteration of the Creed. This disagreement contributed to the Great Schism of 1054.

2. Atonement and Salvation:

  • Eastern Orthodox Position: The Eastern Church emphasizes the concept of theosis (divinization), which is the process of becoming united with God and participating in the divine nature. Salvation is seen as a transformative process where humans are gradually deified through cooperation with God’s grace. This view is more holistic and mystical, focusing on the restoration of the image and likeness of God in humans.

  • Western Roman Position: Influenced by Augustine and later by Anselm of Canterbury, the Western Church developed the doctrine of satisfaction and penal substitution. Anselm’s theory, articulated in “Cur Deus Homo,” posits that humanity owed an infinite debt to God due to sin, which only the God-man Jesus Christ could satisfy. This legalistic framework views salvation in terms of atonement for sin and satisfaction of divine justice.

  • Implications: The Western focus on legalistic and penal aspects of salvation differs sharply from the Eastern emphasis on mystical union and transformation, leading to different spiritual practices and understandings of the Christian life.

3. Original Sin and Anthropology:

  • Eastern Orthodox Position: The Eastern Church views original sin as ancestral sin, emphasizing the inherited consequences of the first sin (mortality and propensity to sin) rather than inherited guilt. Humanity is seen as fundamentally good but fallen, and each person is responsible for their own sins.

  • Western Roman Position: Augustine’s doctrine of original sin argues that humanity inherits both the guilt and the consequences of Adam’s sin. This view, which became dominant in the Western Church, posits that all humans are born in a state of sin that requires redemption through baptism.

  • Implications: This difference affects the theology of human nature, sin, and salvation. The Western view tends to be more pessimistic about human nature, whereas the Eastern view maintains a more optimistic perspective on humanity’s potential for holiness.

4. Ecclesiology (The Nature of the Church):

  • Eastern Orthodox Position: The Eastern Church views itself as a communion of autocephalous (self-governing) churches, each led by its own bishop. The principle of conciliarity (synodality) is central, with major decisions made collectively by councils. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople holds a position of honor but not of supreme authority.

  • Western Roman Position: The Western Church developed a more centralized structure with the Pope as the supreme authority. Papal infallibility, defined during the First Vatican Council in 1870, asserts that the Pope can proclaim doctrines free from error under specific conditions. This hierarchical model places significant emphasis on the authority and primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

  • Implications: This ecclesiological difference underpins many theological and practical disputes between the two branches of Christianity. The Eastern emphasis on collegiality contrasts with the Western focus on papal primacy and centralized authority.

5. Liturgy and Worship:

  • Eastern Orthodox Position: The Eastern Church maintains ancient liturgical practices, emphasizing continuity with early Christian worship. The Divine Liturgy, rich in symbolism and ritual, is central to Orthodox spirituality. Icons play a crucial role in worship, serving as windows to the divine.

  • Western Roman Position: The Western Church, particularly after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), introduced significant liturgical reforms to modernize worship and make it more accessible. The Novus Ordo Mass replaced the traditional Latin Mass in many places, emphasizing participation and understanding of the congregation.

  • Implications: These liturgical differences reflect broader theological and cultural divergences. The Eastern liturgical tradition emphasizes mystery and transcendence, while the Western reforms aimed at simplicity and clarity.

6. Authority of Scripture and Tradition:

  • Eastern Orthodox Position: The Eastern Church holds that Holy Tradition, including the writings of the Church Fathers, Ecumenical Councils, and liturgical texts, is of equal authority with Scripture. The Bible is understood within the context of this living Tradition.

  • Western Roman Position: While the Western Church also values Tradition, there has historically been a stronger emphasis on the Magisterium's authority (the Church's teaching authority) to interpret Scripture and Tradition. This has led to different approaches in theology and biblical interpretation.

  • Implications: The interplay between Scripture and Tradition affects theological development and doctrinal decisions. The Eastern approach tends to be more conservative and resistant to change, whereas the Western approach allows for more doctrinal development under the authority of the Pope and Church councils.

Dr. Farrell explores these doctrinal divergences and how Eastern and Western Christianity have developed distinct theological identities and practices, shaping their respective spiritual and cultural landscapes.

Prompt: explain "reducing divine plurality to binary oppositions"

Dr. Joseph P. Farrell’s concept of “reducing divine plurality to binary oppositions” refers to a theological and philosophical shift in Western Christianity that began with Augustine of Hippo. This shift fundamentally altered how distinctions within the divine nature were understood, leading to significant implications for Western thought and culture.

Key Concepts:

  1. Divine Plurality:

    • Traditional Understanding: In early Christian theology, especially as understood in Eastern Orthodoxy, divine plurality refers to the existence of distinct persons within the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) without reducing these distinctions to oppositional categories. The persons of the Trinity are seen as distinct yet fully united, emphasizing a harmonious and relational understanding of divine unity.

    • Augustine’s Influence: Augustine of Hippo, an influential theologian in the Western Church, introduced a framework where distinctions within the divine nature were often conceptualized in terms of binary oppositions. For instance, he emphasized the unity of God in a way that tended to blur the relational distinctions between the persons of the Trinity.

The Shift to Binary Oppositions:

  1. Binary Thinking:

    • Binary Oppositions: Binary oppositions involve categorizing concepts into pairs of mutually exclusive, opposing elements (e.g., good vs. evil, light vs. dark). This type of thinking simplifies complex relationships into dualistic structures.

    • Impact on Theology: In Augustine’s theology, distinctions within the Trinity were often framed in binary terms. For example, he equated God’s foreknowledge with predestination, reducing the plurality of divine attributes to a single, oppositional framework.

  2. Theological Implications:

    • Reductionism: Augustine’s approach led to a reductionist understanding of the divine nature, where the richness of relational distinctions within the Trinity was diminished. The Western Church began conceptualizing God’s attributes (such as love, justice, and mercy) in ways that tended to equate or oppose them rather than understanding them as distinct yet harmonious.

    • Predestination vs. Free Will: Augustine’s emphasis on predestination over free will is a prime example. By framing divine foreknowledge and human free will as oppositional, he created a theological dichotomy that influenced later Western Christian thought, leading to ongoing debates during the Reformation and beyond.

  3. Cultural and Philosophical Consequences:

    • Dialectical Thinking: Augustine’s binary framework influenced Western philosophy, leading to a dialectical approach where progress and understanding were seen as emerging from the conflict and resolution of opposites. This influenced thinkers like Hegel and Marx, whose dialectical methods underpinned significant developments in Western thought.

    • Conflict and Division: The binary approach contributed to a cultural predisposition toward viewing distinctions as sources of conflict rather than complementary aspects of a unified whole. This mindset permeated various aspects of Western culture, from theology to politics and social theory.

  4. Contrast with Eastern Orthodoxy:

    • Eastern Orthodox Theology: The Eastern Orthodox Church resisted this binary reductionism, maintaining a more nuanced understanding of the Trinity and divine attributes. The Eastern approach emphasized relational unity and the coexistence of multiple goods within the divine nature, avoiding the pitfalls of binary oppositions.

    • Symphonia: In the Eastern Orthodox framework, the concept of symphonia (harmony) between church and state exemplifies their approach to distinctions. Rather than viewing the church and state in binary opposition, Eastern Orthodoxy seeks a harmonious relationship where both entities work together without losing their distinct identities.


Dr. Farrell argues that the Western Church’s shift towards binary oppositions, influenced by Augustine, fundamentally altered its theological and philosophical landscape. This shift reduced the richness of divine plurality to simplified, oppositional categories, leading to ongoing conflicts and a fragmented cultural mindset. In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox tradition maintained a more relational and harmonious understanding of divine distinctions, avoiding the binary reductionism that characterized Western thought.

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