Augustine and the Knowledge of God

The following post is from a paper I wrote for a Fall 2015 course in Ancient Philosophy.



Arguments for the existence of God populate much of ancient and early modern philosophy, and still find their way into religious apologetics, academic debates, and other venues today. Though it is often claimed that many believe in God on the basis of faith, there is also some sense in which belief must involve knowledge. As James 2:19 famously says, “Even the demons believe – and shudder,” suggesting that belief alone is not where Christian faith should end. Human beings are in a notably different epistemological position from where demons allegedly are, too, meaning that we have to seek the spiritual realm, to search for God. How can we seek God unless we already know what we are seeking, though, and if we already know God, will it not be fruitless to try and know him by seeking him?

C.S. Lewis remarks in a paper delivered at the Oxford Socratic Club: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”1 Such a sentiment seems akin to the theological approach taken by Augustine of Hippo, who placed the Christian God at the top of his hierarchy of being, serving as the source of all intelligibility and order in the world. While Lewis’ theology is distinct from Augustine’s, his statement underscores the priority on God in Augustinian epistemology. Just as one cannot see without the sun, without light, so one cannot know the world and ourselves without assuming knowledge of Absolute Truth – what Augustine called God. Yet we have already seen that the possibility of this knowledge can be called into question, and so Augustine takes up the challenge in his Confessions.

For this essay, I will first begin by explaining the challenge, then proceeding to look at Augustine’s answer as articulated in a paper by Scott MacDonald. I will conclude with some criticisms, ultimately arguing that what MacDonald proposes as Augustine’s answer is unconvincing at best, and may in fact be only slightly less paradoxical than the challenge itself.

The Challenge of Knowing God

Shortly into the first chapter of the Confessions, Augustine contemplates the relationship between invoking God and knowing God:

Grant me, O Lord, to know and understand whether first to invoke thee or to praise thee; whether first to know thee or call upon thee. But who can invoke thee, knowing thee not? For he who knows thee not may invoke thee as another than thou art. It may be that we should invoke thee in order that we may come to know thee. But how shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?2

If one must know God first in order to invoke him, then could an unbeliever ever come to know God? For Augustine, it is necessary to invoke God to know God because if human reason or human will alone could somehow produce knowledge of God, then human beings would be Godlike in knowledge. Instead, Augustine and traditional Christian theology hold that it is through God’s self-disclosure to us that we come to knowledge of God, and so invoking God is a manner of requesting God’s assistance and self-disclosure. But if one must first invoke God to know God, and yet authentic invocation requires knowing what one is invoking, how is it possible for any unbeliever to invoke God, and thereby to come to know God?

Augustine hints at a resolution to this dilemma in the final line of the excerpt cited above: belief is prior to invocation and knowledge. The unbeliever may know God in some qualified sense that allows her to invoke him and come to know him, and this sense can be different from that implied in saying that genuinely invoking God leads to knowing God. Belief is a weaker claim than knowledge, since knowing a thing suggests an extensive familiarity with it. We are also capable of calling on persons we believe in, even if we do not know them well, and so it is quite plausible that belief in God is what must come first, before invocation and knowledge.

However, Augustine again raises the issue of knowing God, this time taking an alternate approach that circumvents the clarification on belief for a more general challenge. What does it mean to ask God into oneself, he ponders in the second chapter. How can the God of the universe come into a person, and can a person even contain God within? Augustine continues:

Is it possible that, since without thee nothing would be which does exist, thou didst make it so that whatever exists has some capacity to receive thee? Why, then, do I ask thee to come into me, since I also am and could not be if thou wert not in me?

How does God exist in us? If he is already in us, we cannot invoke him. If he is not already in us, we still could not invoke him, since we would not then exist, Augustine says. But there must be some sense in which God is already in us, in order for us to first believe, to call on him, and then come to know him. This will show for Augustine that being able to seek something means already having it in mind, and thus we are able to seek God and come to know God because he exists in some way in each of our minds.

Truth and Joy

In his paper, “The Paradox of Inquiry in Augustine’s Confessions,” Scott MacDonald connects Augustine’s search for God with his emphasis on memory.3 Two examples from the Confessions, the case of the lost coin and the nature of forgetting and recalling (which appear in 10.27-28), point to the fact that one cannot search for something if it is altogether absent from memory. The woman who lost her coin could remember it even without it being physically present. Further, when we forget a thing and we search the mind to finally recollect it, we are able to do so because we remember a part of the thing despite having forgotten other parts of it.

“For when I seek thee, my God,” writes Augustine in 10.29, “I seek a happy life.” But how is it we have the happy life in mind when we seek it? We do not remember it in the same way we remember a city we once visited, or in the way we remember numbers. The happy life is not experienced through the bodily senses, and our memory of it impels us to seek it more, unlike our recollection of numbers. The happy life is remembered as we remember joy, Augustine says. Joy is ascertained in the mind rather than the bodily senses, and it can be in the mind without being presently experienced. But joy is also something we all experience and can have in memory as a result of that experience, whereas the happy life may be something we seek despite having never experienced it.

MacDonald uses the term “token” to denote how Augustine places joy in relation to the happy life. One searches for the happy life because one has experienced joy, and one understands the happy life to involve more joy, to be, in essence, the bigger picture of where joy factors into human experience. Here, joy is not synonymous with the happy life, but is connected closely enough with it to explain how one can search for the happy life without already having it in mind: one can have joy in mind as a token of the happy life. Augustine then takes this basic structure and returns to the search for God, where he identifies God with true joy, and thereby argues that it is in our search for joy that we are able to search for the previously unencountered God. A very similar argument is made with respect to truth in Confessions 10.33, MacDonald observes.

On this view, some of the joys we pursue are tokens of true joy, and some of the apparent truths we pursue are tokens of the absolute truth. “God has given us natures that are sensitive to joy and truth,” concludes MacDonald, “and that, having once tasted them, restlessly hunger for true joy and truth itself.” As God is the only true joy, as he is truth itself, the unbelieving are able to seek the God they do not know through the tokens that both are distinct from God and point them to him.

Reconsidering the Challenge

Augustine’s methodology presents a compelling account not just of knowledge of God, but of knowledge in general, particularly for how we come to know things we have not encountered before. It does not need to imagine the mind as a blank slate, nor does it require viewing abstract concepts from a strict rationalism. It allows room for free will and responsibility with regard to the beliefs and knowledge we hold, and treats the issue of knowing God as more than a merely mysterious faith or mystical revelation, but as something comprehensible and thus instructive. Theologically as well as philosophically, it seems to have much going for it.

On the other hand, there are aspects of Augustine’s view that seem to evoke more questions than they answer. For example, why should God be thought of as the only true joy? Augustine comments on this in 10.32:

For there is a joy not granted to the wicked but only to those who worship thee thankfully–and this joy thou thyself art. The happy life is this–to rejoice to thee, in thee, and for thee. This it is and there is no other. But those who think there is another follow after other joys, and not the true one.

This passage, however, seems to evade some of the more rigorous inquiry that makes up the Confessions, taking an assertory approach instead. Augustine distinguishes between the experience of joy and the source of joy, noting that there are true and false sources for the experience of joy. Yet this need not suggest a singular source of true joy, only that there are some true sources, just as there are some false sources. Without naming God as the only true joy, though, Augustine’s argument would not succeed in quite the way he intends. If God is one source of true joy among many, then further explanation would be needed for why some tokens of true joy point to God and why others do not, pointing instead to other true joys.

Perhaps it is God’s identification with truth itself that is important here. If all truth ultimately comes from God, then there can be no other true sources of joy apart from God. There is a distinction here to be made as with joy – the source of truth differs from what we hold before our cognitive gaze as truth. We can, after all, be mistaken in the beliefs we hold to be true, including beliefs about the source of truth, as Augustine would agree. On a coherentist framework, the source of truth is coherence within a given set of specific propositions or beliefs. On a correspondence framework, the source of truth is in how a proposition or belief corresponds to actual states of affairs in the world. If one seeks to go a step further and asks how either framework can be true, one could conceivably respond by saying that it coheres well with our beliefs about reality, or that it corresponds to the reality we experience. These responses do leave open questions about the nature of the relation between subject and object, but so does the framework that names God as the sole source of truth. What Augustine has not argued for is that human beings can come to know God as the source of all truth. This would not just be theologically suspect, but would raise the problem of the paradox again, since God is in essence truth itself, and so what one would be arguing for would not be a token that leads one to God, but knowledge of God’s essential nature.

Romans 1:18 declares: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness”. What does it mean to suppress the truth in unrighteousness on Augustine’s view? It cannot mean knowledge of God’s essential nature as truth itself, since such knowledge would seem to eliminate faith, make human beings almost Godlike in their knowledge, and return to the paradox of knowing what has not yet been encountered. To suppress something is to suppress something known. Is it then that the wicked suppress the tokens of true joy and absolute truth? The wicked person does not know the difference between experiences of truth and joy that are tokens leading to God and those that are false sources. Augustine seems sympathetic to this point in his focus on the desires we all have not to be deceived and to live the happy life. His advice is not to stop defying a god or the signs of a god unknown to the unrighteous, but to seek joy and seek truth, in the hope that eventually the search will end up on the right tokens.

In the Confessions, Augustine makes great strides in explaining how a search for God can lead one to God. The challenge of knowing what you seek, even while you have not found it and do not actually know it, is unloaded of many of its more perplexing and confusing aspects. Still, what remains is problematic for other reasons. One cannot know that God is the only truth or the only true joy anymore than one can know that coherentism or correspondence theory is true. We reach ends of explanation, and say we think that correspondence theory ‘just is’ true without needing anything else to make it true, or we say we think God ‘just is’ the sole source of true joy and truth itself without needing anything else to make it true. Belief can indeed be a gateway to knowledge, but it can also be a roadblock, sometimes with no clearly identifiable right or wrong reason behind it.

Coming to know God in Augustine’s way may not demand any unreasonable belief or knowledge from the skeptic, but it also seems to only be incidentally about God. Many men and women have described their conversion in terms suggestive of how they were not looking for God, but they found him nonetheless. My contention is that the less one knows what one is looking for when the search began, the more problematic it is to suppose that one now knows what was sought. A search for God that leads into belief, faith, and knowledge should perhaps be more directly related to God. If belief is an assent to a proposition, believing in God is not just about assenting to the search for joy or the search for truth, and it is a puzzle of its own to imagine why God would reveal himself to someone seeking something not God, but only like God in rudimentary ways. If belief is more than propositional – a good possibility in the case of religious belief – then it seems even more important that one should have a favorable disposition towards God specifically, rather than towards abstract qualities or concepts.


1. C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” (1945)

2. Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.

3. Scott MacDonald, “The Paradox of Inquiry in Augustine’s Confessions,” Metaphilosophy, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2008).

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