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Kenosis and its Discontents: Towards an Augustinian Account of Divine Humility

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 July 2012

Stephen Pardue*
Asia Graduate School of Theology, 54 Scout Madriñan, Quezon City,


After many years of dormancy, the concept of kenosis has recently received widespread and lively attention from contemporary theologians. Yet, in the midst of this revival, there has emerged a steady stream of critique of the concept because of its apparently adverse doctrinal and ethical implications. Less remarked upon, but equally important, is an analogous and long-standing debate about the nature and pervasiveness that we should assign to humility in Christian teaching. Indeed, the interweaving of humility and kenosis in Philippians 2 arguably requires that the two rise or fall together; even if the concepts are not semantically equal, their meanings and their theological implications overlap in manifold and important ways. This article surveys the current state of the question, and argues that the works of Augustine yield valuable insights regarding the most knotty problems emerging from contemporary disputes about kenosis and humility. In the first part, I outline several recent perspectives on kenosis, aiming to bring clarity to the discussion. Along the way, I note the similarities between kenosis and humility as they function theologically, and I offer a summary of the qualities that a theologically sound account of those concepts would need to exhibit in order to address the valid concerns which have so far been raised. In the second part, I propose that closer attention to the theme of humility (both human and divine) may shed new and important light on kenosis debates, suggesting that Augustine is the ideal theologian on whom to test this theory. To this end, I explore Augustine's explanations of christology and language, suggesting that these are the loci through which Augustine's perspective on humility – both divine and human – is best expressed. In both cases, Augustinian humility strikes a noteworthy balance between restraint and empowerment and offers an instructive vantage point from which to address the complex and lively discussions about kenosis. While the African bishop may not offer a decisive resolution of these matters, his approach to them does hold significant promise for a depiction of humility and kenosis which incorporates the valid concerns of critics while simultaneously preserving an unavoidable and central aspect of Christian doctrine.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2012

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1 I thank Dan Treier, Kevin Vanhoozer, Mike Allen, Michael Graves and the members of the Theology Colloquium at Wheaton College, each of whom read and commented on earlier drafts of this article, improving it in important ways.

2 For an account of the rise and fall of kenosis, see Coakley, Sarah, ‘Kenōsis and Subversion: On the Repression of “Vulnerability” in Christian Feminist Writing’, in Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 339CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McCormack, Bruce L., ‘Karl Barth's Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 8 (2006), pp. 243–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Baillie, D. M., God was in Christ: An Essay on Incarnation and Atonement (New York: Scribner, 1948)Google Scholar.

3 Hampson, Daphne (ed.), Swallowing a Fishbone? Feminist Theologians Debate Christianity (London: SPCK, 1996)Google Scholar contains insightful interaction between Hampson and Coakley on kenosis (see esp. pp. 82–111, 120–4). See further Ruether, Rosemary Radford, ‘Is Feminism the End of Christianity: A Critique of Daphne Hampson's Theology and Feminism’, Scottish Journal of Theology 43 (1990), pp. 390400CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hampson, Daphne, ‘On Power and Gender’, Modern Theology 4 (1988), pp. 234–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 A primary locus of this debate is the relationship between the Son's kenosis on the one hand, and divine freedom on the other. See esp. McCormack, ‘Karl Barth's Christology as a Resource’; Hunsinger, George, ‘Election and the Trinity: Twenty-Five Theses on the Theology of Karl Barth’, Modern Theology 24 (2008), pp. 179–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McCormack, Bruce, ‘Election and the Trinity: Theses in Response to George Hunsinger’, Scottish Journal of Theology 63 (2010), pp. 203–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Gorman, Michael J., Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul's Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009)Google Scholar; idem, Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

6 My argument does not rely on a simple identification of kenosis and humility as equivalent terms, though many contemporary authors do use them thus. Rather, I hope to show that the widely varying accounts of kenosis have implications for an account of divine humility which deserve further exposition. On the one hand, they describe a concept which has clear overlap with humility and thus suggest how best to approach the matter. On the other hand, these contemporary proposals problematise kenosis. I will suggest that Augustine helps us to address the problems associated with articulating a positive concept of humility and the current confusion surrounding kenosis. A helpful test of any theological account of humility is whether it can make sense of kenosis without getting into ethical or heretical trouble. The interrelation of these two concepts (i.e. humility and kenosis), and their similar application to both God and creatures is not the arbitrary choice of theologians, but stems from biblical descriptions of Jesus (esp. Phil. 2).

7 Moltmann argues that, given God's radical omnipresence, space must have been made before creation by a previous divine act. Employing the concept of zimsum, Moltmann depicts divine self-limitation as the carving out of a ‘primal, mystical space’ in which the whole of creation is able to subsist outside of (but somehow also inside of) God: The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), pp. 109–10; see also God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), pp. 86–93. God's power is ultimately spoken in the language of love, demonstrating its might not in autocratic ruling but in its stunning patience and unending ability to create sufficient space for creation's own realisation of its manifold potentialities: Moltmann, , ‘God's Kenosis in the Creation and Consummation of the World’, in Polkinghorne, John C. (ed.), The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 148–51Google Scholar.

8 Balthasar's account is marked by an insistence on taking the kenosis of the Son with utter seriousness, and a related unwillingness to restrict its import solely to the human nature or solely to the Son in the economy. To do so is to underestimate ‘the weight of the assertions made in Scripture’, and to succumb ‘at once to both Nestorianism and Monophysitism’: Mysterium Paschale, trans. Aidan Nichols (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), p. viii. In order properly to incorporate this profound truth into our understanding of the triune God, Balthasar suggests we think of the kenosis as an eternal ‘event’ in the intra-trinitarian life, particularly by tying the concept ultimately to the divine processions (ibid.). For further exposition, see esp. Mysterium Paschale, pp. 23–35, and O'Hanlon, Gerard F., The Immutability of God in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 1142CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 It is noteworthy that Moltmann's treatment of kenosis has received particular attention from a wide range of scholars. For example, almost every article in a recent book on the topic of kenosis and creation – composed by a mix of theologians and scientists – references Moltmann's work positively (Work of Love).

10 Gorman makes his case esp. from a close study of Phil. 2:5–11, arguing that the novel contribution of Pauline theology lies particularly in its countercultural approach to the phenomenon of power: Inhabiting the Cruciform God, pp. 22–39. McCormack, on the other hand, makes a dogmatic argument in dialogue with Barth's christology and doctrine of God that the kenotic dimensions of Jesus’ incarnate life are in conformity with and grounded in the eternal nature of the Son's nature (his mode of being), with the result that the Word's kenosis constitutes neither a change in God nor a ‘divestment of anything proper to deity’: ‘Karl Barth's Christology as a Resource’, p. 250. John Macquarrie, in a series of publications on the humility of God, has also argued for the priority of humility and kenosis in our understanding of the divine nature: ‘Kenoticism Reconsidered’, Theology 77 (1974), pp. 115–24; ‘The Humility of God’, in McDonald, Durstan R. (ed.), The Myth/Truth of God Incarnate (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1979), pp. 1325Google Scholar.

11 Thus, Barbour, Ian, ‘God's Power: A Process View’, in Polkinghorne, John C. (ed.), The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 120Google Scholar, and Hallman, Stephen, The Descent of God: Divine Suffering in History and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991)Google Scholar, both interpret divine kenosis as an assertion about process thought, while Moltmann, ‘God's Kenosis’, Fiddes, ‘Creation Out of Love’, in Polkinghorne, John C. (ed.), The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 167–91Google Scholar, Peacocke, ‘The Cost of New Life’, ibid., pp. 21–42, and Clayton, , ‘Kenotic Trinitarian Panentheism’, Dialog 44 (2005), pp. 250–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar, opt to defend instead its compatibility with panentheism – yet both groups are distinguishable from weaker proposals such as Gorman's inasmuch as they see kenosis as defining not only God's ethical stance, but divine existence itself.

12 ‘On Autonomy and Heteronomy’; ‘On Power and Gender’.

13 E.g. Post, Stephen G., ‘The Inadequacy of Selflessness: God's Suffering and the Theory of Love’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 56 (1988), pp. 213–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ruether, Rosemary Radford, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1993), p. 186Google Scholar; Kwok, Pui-lan, Introducing Asian Feminist Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp. 7997Google Scholar; Rieger, Joerg, Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007)Google Scholar.

14 Tanner objects to common Christian appeals to embrace self-sacrifice and suffering as gifts in light of Christ's example: Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), pp. 75–7. More recently, she clarifies that this position is grounded in an understanding of the atonement as at-one-ment, and suggests that Christians focus instead on the biblical image of communal feasting over a sacrifice: Christ the Key (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 247–72.

15 Vanhoozer argues that the widespread popularity of using kenosis as a metaphor for the God–creation relation is deeply mistaken. Specifically, he warns against a conception of God as self-contracting, self-limiting or kenotic in the sense of losing some part of himself for the sake of gaining genuine relationship: Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 394. Furthermore, Vanhoozer is worried about the prospect of ‘projecting kenosis onto the immanent Trinity’, a theological move that Vanhoozer argues is intimately tied to panentheistic assumptions about the God–creation relationship (ibid., p. 130).

16 A Theology of Compassion: Metaphysics of Difference and the Renewal of Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. xx.

17 Papanikolaou, Aristotle, ‘Person, Kenosis and Abuse: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Feminist Theologies in Conversation’, Modern Theology 19 (2003), pp. 4165CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 ‘The Touch of Humility: An Invitation to Creatureliness’, Modern Theology 24 (2008), p. 226.

19 While Wirzba does make a few observations about the similarities between divine and human interpersonal relationship, hinting that the divine persons – who are engaged in eternal, intimate relation from eternity and are comprised by their being-in-relatedness – might present a model of empowering humility (ibid., pp. 239–41), the distinct dissimilarities between divine persons and human persons undermines the potential fruitfulness of this approach. Since divine persons simply are not limited in the way that humans are, and their relations with one another are categorically different from human-to-human relationships of dependence, it is almost impossible to connect human and divine humility in any meaningful way when humility is defined solely in terms of dependence, relationship and limitation.

20 See ‘Kenosis: Theological Meanings and Gender Connotations’, in Polkinghorne, John C. (ed.), The Work of Love (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 192210Google Scholar.

21 Ibid., p. 208. Here Coakley specifically favours understandings of kenosis as ‘sacrificial love’ or as ‘an admission of creaturely dependence’. Elsewhere, however, she connects it esp. with silent, contemplative prayer and the rejection of sinful perversions of power: ‘Kenōsis and Subversion’, pp. 7–8, 11, 32–9.

22 ‘The Strange Persistence of Kenotic Christology’, in Kee, Alistair and Long, Eugene Thomas (eds), Being and Truth: Essays in Honour of John Macquarrie (London: SCM, 1986), pp. 359, 361, 369Google Scholar.

23 Ibid., pp. 366–72. This ambiguous relationship between Christians and power is reflected well in 1 Peter, which some have speculated has roots as a baptismal discourse, and which reflects quite astutely on the political implications of Christ's suffering example. For a particularly adroit analysis, see Bechtler, Steven Richard, Following in His Steps: Suffering, Community, and Christology in 1 Peter (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

24 ‘The Strange Persistence of Kenotic Christology’, pp. 372–3.

25 Herdt, Jennifer A., ‘Christian Humility, Courtly Civility and the Code of the Streets’, Modern Theology 25 (2009), pp. 551–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 For a brief but astute overview of the ebb and flow of humility's popularity, see Grenberg, Jeanine, Kant and the Ethics of Humility: A Story of Dependence, Corruption and Virtue (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 16CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 For a summary of the critique of the priority of humility as it relates to Augustine specifically, as well as a defence of his stance on humility, see Couenhoven, Jesse, ‘Not Every Wrong is Done with Pride?’, Scottish Journal of Theology 61 (2008), pp. 3250CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Deborah Wallace Ruddy, ‘A Christological Approach to Virtue: Augustine and Humility’ (PhD diss., Boston College, 2001), pp. 33–46, 238–56.

28 Ruddy, ‘A Christological Approach to Virtue’, pp. 163–4.

29 Cavadini, John C., ‘Pride’, in Fitzgerald, Allan and Cavadini, John C. (eds), Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 682Google Scholar.

30 Christologie et spiritualité selon Saint Augustin: L'hymne aux Philippiens, Théologie historique 72 (Paris: Beauchesne, 1985).

31 ‘Jesus Christ: Source of Christian Humility’, in Augustine and the Bible, trans. Pamela Bright (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), p. 301. Verwilghen counts 422 citations and 563 allusions to the text in Augustine's treatises, letters and sermons (ibid., p. 310).

34 Ibid., pp. 306–7. Note esp. In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus (IoEvTrac) 36.4, ed. R. Willems, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina (CCL) 36 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1954), pp. 325–6, which, as Verwilghen notes, couches the series of divine condescensions described by the hymn in the image of divine mercy.

35 Christologie et spiritualité selon Saint Augustin, p. 424.

36 Ibid., pp. 291–5. ‘Par son abaissement in forma servi, le Fils est tout à la fois source de salut et modèle de vie’ (p. 295).

37 Ibid., pp. 424–5.

38 Ibid., pp. 427–8.

39 Ibid., p. 426. See John 8:28. These two ways in which the divine humility exerts influence on Christian doctrine – objectively making way for salvation, and simultaneously offering an example for humanity to follow – participate in a broader pattern in Augustine's soteriology that Verwilghen recognises as sacramentum and exemplum (ibid., p. 295). See further Studer, Basil, ‘“Sacramentum et exemplum” chez Saint Augustin’, Recherches Augustiniennes 10 (1975), pp. 87141CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Ruddy, ‘A Christological Approach to Virtue’, p. 96.

41 Ibid.; italics original.

42 Clancy, Finnbarr G., ‘The Cross in Augustine's Tractatus in Iohannem’, Studia Patristica 33 (1997), pp. 5862Google Scholar.

43 This image is suggested by Ruddy (‘A Christological Approach to Virtue’, p. 97). Phillip Cary has raised significant questions about Augustine's true convictions regarding the power of outward signs, including the sacraments, to communicate grace to Christians. On his account, Augustine's intimate relationship with Platonism has been widely underestimated, and as a Christian Platonist, he is far less optimistic regarding these outward signs than most of his interpreters have assumed: Cary, Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine's Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 3–14. Cary's is indeed a challenging proposal that should form a strong deterrent against facile descriptions of Augustine's relationship with Platonism. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the extent of diversity within Platonism during Augustine's lifetime, and the precise nature of Augustine's relationship to these various versions of Platonism is hotly disputed (see e.g. Cavadini, John C., review of Philip Cary, Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist, Modern Theology 18 (2002), pp. 425–8Google Scholar; Kenney, John Peter, review of Inner Grace: Augustine in the Traditions of Plato and Paul, Journal of Religion 89 (2009), pp. 603–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a historically sensitive and very clear engagement with Cary's foundational work on Augustine's relationship to Platonism – Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) – see Kenney, John Peter, ‘Augustine's Inner Self’, Augustinian Studies 32 (2002), pp. 7990CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 In addition to Clancy's defence of this concept in IoEvTrac, see also Studer's, Basil treatment of its prevalence in De Trinitate (DeTrin) and the Enchiridion: Studer, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church, ed. Louth, Andrew, trans. Westerhoff, Matthias (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), p. 179Google Scholar. Ruddy also focuses on its pervasive presence in Augustine's sermons: ‘A Christological Approach to Virtue’, pp. 93–9.

45 IoEvTrac 2.16: CCL 36: 19; trans. Rettig, John W., Fathers of the Church (FC) 78 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), p. 73Google Scholar. Note that per eius humilitatem, ‘by his lowliness’, is replaced with per eius humanitatem, ‘by his humanity’, in many codices, suggesting perhaps the conceptual overlap between these two concepts in the communities receiving Augustine's work.

46 Ibid. Augustine is alluding here to the Gospel pericope in which Jesus heals a man's blindness with dirt (John 9), and unsurprisingly he makes the same connections in 44.1–2 (CCL 36: 381–2), a tractate dedicated to that passage.

47 Tractates 2.16 (CCL 36: 19), 44.1–2 (CCL 36: 381–2) and Augustine's comments on John 13 (Tractates 55–66 (CCL 36: 463–95)), all ponder the connection between the revelation of God's glory in Christ and his lowliness. Specifically, Augustine recognises the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ statement that the Son of Man is glorified right after Judas’ betrayal becomes apparent and Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, both of which seem to conceal, rather than expose the Son's glory. As we might expect, he reports that this is a classic case of biblical language asserting that mundane signifiers can point to much more glorious truths (Tractate 63.2 (CCL 36: 486–7)).

48 Tractate 3.2 (CCL 36: 20; FC 78: 76).

49 Tractate 3.3 (CCL 36: 21) and 3.6 (CCL 36: 23).

50 Ruddy includes a section which examines the difference between human and divine humility, suggesting that, while the former involves merely ‘descending’ from pretension to a realistic evaluation of oneself, the latter implies ‘descending’ by transforming into something new for the sake of humanity (‘A Christological Approach to Virtue’, pp. 148–51). While this is a helpful qualification – humility is not univocal for Augustine and should not be for us – the nature of divine descent, which is the very point at issue in much of the kenosis debate, requires further description.

51 Perhaps the most recent high-profile attempts to enlist Augustine as an ally to the emerging postmodern discourse are Caputo, John D. and Scanlon, Michael J. (eds), Augustine and Postmodernism: Confessions and Circumfession (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005)Google Scholar; Boeve, L., Lamberigts, M. and Wisse, Maarten (eds), Augustine and Postmodern Thought: A New Alliance Against Modernity? (Leuven: Peeters, 2009)Google Scholar; Marion, Jean-Luc, Au lieu de soi: L'approche de saint Augustin (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 ‘Augustine's Hermeneutics and Postmodern Criticism’, Interpretation 58 (2004), p. 42.

53 Ibid., pp. 54–5.

54 Ibid., p. 55. Unfortunately, Young does not substantiate the connection with humility with any citations from Augustine's corpus.

55 ‘The Liberation of Questioning in Augustine's Confessions’, Journal of American Academy of Religion 70 (2002), pp. 548–50.

56 Ibid., p. 551. In an illuminating turn of phrase, Mathewes suggests that Augustine urges readers to become ‘“eschatologically patient” rather than “apocalyptically impatient”’.

57 Ibid., p. 553. See DeTrin 15.2, ed. W. J. Mountain and F. Glorie, CCL 50A (1968), pp. 460–2.

58 ‘Liberation of Questioning’, pp. 555–6.

59 Ibid., p. 557 (italics original).

60 Mathewes, ‘Liberation of Questioning’, p. 556; Young, ‘Augustine's Hermeneutics and Postmodern Criticism’, p. 54. See also Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), pp. 140–52.

61 Confessionum, ed. L. Verheijen, CCL 27 (1981), 9.10.23–5.

62 The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Re-Reading The Confessions (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 10.

63 Ibid., p. 11.

64 Ibid., pp. 11–12. The relationship between Augustine's thinking on this subject and Plotinian accounts of contemplation with which he was clearly familiar is an important question, but one beyond our scope here. For discussion of this matter, including interaction with interlocutors (such as Cary, Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self and Paul Henry, The Path to Transcendence: From Philosophy to Mysticism in Saint Augustine, trans. Francis F. Burch (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1981), see esp. Kenney, The Mysticism of Saint Augustine, pp. 49–61; idem, ‘Saint Augustine and the Limits of Contemplation’, Studia Patristica 38 (2001), pp. 199–218.

65 Review of John Peter Kenney, Mysticism of Saint Augustine, First Things (Nov. 2006), p. 56.

66 In addition to the work of Mathewes mentioned above, Catherine Conybeare attempts to explore (by analysis of three of the bishop's earliest works) ‘an Augustine too little attended to: the Augustine who gives questioning, uncertainty, and human limitations their due role in his theology’: The Irrational Augustine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 7. For an interesting attempt to complicate the concept of conversion by close attention to several struggles leading to Augustine's own loss of optimism regarding Christian life, see Markus, Robert A., Conversion and Disenchantment in Augustine's Spiritual Career (Villanova, PA: Villanova University Press, 1989)Google Scholar.

67 Burton, Philip, Language in the Confessions of Augustine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

68 ‘Augustine on Language’, Literature and Theology 3 (1989), p. 154.

69 The most compelling text is De Catechizandis Rudibus 2.3, ed. J. B. Bauer, CCL 46 (1969), pp. 122–3, to which Louth points (‘Augustine on Language’, pp. 156–7).

70 Ibid., p. 158. Note that language is both the thing being healed and the thing doing the healing, just as humanity is both the thing being healed and the thing doing the healing in the incarnation.

71 Beauty and Revelation in the Thought of Saint Augustine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

72 Ibid., pp. 54–6. As an example of language's limitations, Harrison cites DeTrin 4.21.30 (CCL 50, pp. 202–3), in which Augustine alerts the reader to the inability of language to capture rightly the unity of the three persons of the Trinity (since we must use titles and descriptions which give the impression of more individuation than we ought).

73 Ibid., pp. 57–8. See IoEvTrac 37.4 (CCL 36, pp. 333–4).

74 This is a common assertion throughout Augustine's work, but as Phillip Cary has demonstrated, it is stated with particular clarity in De Magistro (Outward Signs, p. 94). There, Augustine argues that words, as signs, cannot really reveal things at all unless we are already familiar with the realities to which they point (De Magistro, p. 33, ed. K. D. Daur, CCL 29 (1970), p. 192).

75 Beauty and Revelation in Augustine, pp. 63–7.

76 Ibid., p. 67.

77 This is true at least until the eschaton (Outward Signs, pp. 87–9).

78 Beauty and Revelation in Augustine, pp. 82–3. The matter of multiple levels of meaning makes this claim more complex, Harrison argues, but in the end vindicates its veracity inasmuch as Augustine seems to think of the literal meaning veiling but also revealing the spiritual meaning(s) (ibid., pp. 83–6). While the literal sense may indeed obscure, it does so like Jesus’ parables – to conceal the truth from those who are unprepared while simultaneously leading the pure in heart towards truth – rather than in a deceptive manner (ibid., p. 91). For this defence of the veiling nature of scripture, see e.g. DeTrin 15.17.27 (CCL 50A, pp. 501–2) and IoEvTrac 45.6 (CCL 36, pp. 390–1).

79 ‘The relation of Scripture to the knowledge of God is thus like the relation of the doctor's orders to healthy vision . . . [they] do not embody or give us what we are looking for, but they direct our efforts to learn how to see better’ (Outward Signs, p. 43). At times, Cary may overplay his case on the limitations of words as signs in Augustine, such as when he asserts somewhat vaguely that Augustine's view of signs is closer to that of ‘the skeptics than to the philosophers who believed in the possibility of empirical knowledge’ (ibid., p. 18). Elsewhere, Cary avers that ‘we cannot expect from Augustine a strong doctrine of Scriptural revelation. For the Scriptures consist of words, which are signs, and signs do not reveal things – especially not divine things, which are seen only by the mind’ (ibid., p. 43). To be fair, these may be cases in which Cary is using hyperbole in order to give the reader a sense that Augustine also spoke hyperbolically on this matter (esp. in De Magistro) to emphasise the necessity of divine aid for words to lead to salvific knowledge.

80 For two recent descriptions of Kantian humility, see Grenberg, Kant and the Ethics of Humility; Langton, Rae, Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)Google Scholar. Of course, this understanding of humility was around before Kant, and many post-Kantian instantiations of this view are not genetically indebted to him. Further, recent studies suggest that the scepticism often attributed to Kant in theological matters may not be quite right: Firestone, Chris, Theology at the Transcendental Boundaries of Reason [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007Google Scholar; Firestone, Chris and Jacobs, Nathan, In Defense of Kant's Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008)Google Scholar. Nevertheless, I draw attention to him here because he is a particularly influential and symbolic figure widely understood to promote a version of intellectual humility which is esp. constraining for theological discourse.