Disciplining the Imagination: Augustine’s Refutation of Arianism in Sermon 126

Focusing on Augustine’s theological anthropology revealed in his sermons, this project interrogates how Augustine understood his preaching to effect change in his audience through training their imaginations. Scholarship on Augustine’s foundational anthropological concepts like memory and imagination and their theological significance tends to focus to narrowly on his famous works like Confessions, De Civitate Dei, and De Trinitate. I evaluate Augustine’s approach to the human person revealed in his preaching by building on recent work on Augustine’s sermons like Kevin Grove’s Augustine on Memory and his exegesis like Michael Cameron’s Christ Meets Me Everyone: Augustine’s Early Figurative Exegesis. Adapting from ancient psychagogic practices, Augustine’s preaching blends together philosophic and rhetorical strategies to cure the soul from its diseases making the sermon a site for healing through moral formation. This moral formation aims to train the mind and reform the heart toward the vision of God. Augustine recognized, though, that openly applying the medicine of spiritual truth to people whose carnal minds might cause them to reject it would be counterproductive. To overcome this dilemma, Augustine sought to confront his audience with images from creation and biblical figures that would cultivate a desire for spiritual realities. I argue that Augustine’s preaching reveals how he disciplines his audience’s imaginations to see through images of earthly things beyond to heavenly realities in order to enflame love for God and neighbor.

In particular, I offer a close reading of Augustine’s trinitarian exegesis of John 5:19—”The Son cannot do anything of himself, except what he sees the Father doing”—in s. 126 to illustrate how he seeks to discipline his audience’s imaginations according to Pro-Nicene exegesis. I trace Augustine’s disciplining in two steps. First, he does not turn his audience away from material things but exhorts them to see through earthly things to the spiritual realities they signify. Such an imaginative process requires that Augustine guide his audience to see how creation points back to the Creator. Yet, second, he disciplines his audience’s imagination through a performative correction of the image Arians used to interpret John 5:19. Augustine refutes the ”material-minded” imagery of the Arians with Pro-Nicene exegesis of John 1:3 and John 14:8-9 where Christ can be seen in both the forma servi and the forma Dei. Christ’s incarnation offers the paradigm for disciplining human imaginations to see through visible creation to the invisible realities beyond. In sermon 126, then, Augustine simultaneously values and limits the theological significance of the imagination in coming to know and love God.

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