Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine's Thought – By Phillip Cary [Book Review]

Modern Theology 27 (1):206-208 (2011)
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A Review of Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s Thought by Phillip Cary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), xxiv + 344 pp. Phillip Cary has written another highly significant book on Augustine, and his writing displays the art of a master stylist. A complement to his Inner Grace, Outward Signs extends Cary’s thesis in Augustine and the Invention of the Inner Self: that Augus- tine’s Trinitarian and semiotic theology, groundbreaking as it was, remains beholden to a Platonist privileging of inner vs. outer and idea over sacramental performance. Outward Signs should be of special interest to readers of Modern Theology, because the inwardness Cary interrogates displays a dimension of Augustine’s work that receives significant attention from a number of Modern Theology authors. Once again, Cary has offered an appropriate warning about any uncritical embrace of Augustine as theologian for the church today: the embrace could bring with it a turn to spiritualism, subjectivism, intellectualism, and also supersessionism (since the Old Testament and Jewish “law” belong to the merely outward life of the Word). Like Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Richard Rorty before him, Cary captures the line of potential influence that moves from Plato to Augustine to Descartes and Kant. Here, knowledge tends to ocular knowing, and Cary shows how inadequate that model is to account for performative knowing in the church, of which sacramental life is one instance. But performative knowing would apply, as well, to the study of Augustine’s writ- ings. Read “outwardly,” Augustine’s corpus generates several possible vectors of theological practice. The stronger vectors may point “inward,” but readers should also attend to those (weak or strong) which point to that which is inward, outward, both, and neither.

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Peter Ochs
University of Virginia


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