Christians in History: Augustine (354 – 430)

The eminent church historian, Philip Schaff, described him as ‘the great church teacher of all times’. Augustine is a towering figure in the long history of the Christian church. Aside from standing as an important link between early Christianity and the Middle Ages, his views and ideas have deeply influenced how the Christian world understands God and his relation to us.

In the words of Andrew Hoffecker,st-augustine-hippo

Few figures in history rival Augustine, bishop of Hippo, for his influence on the Western church, as well as on philosophy, theology, and culture. Augustine’s penetrating understanding and development of Christian truth, and the breadth of his interests and literary production, surpass all who preceded him and establish him as one of the “Doctors of the Church.”

According to Philip Schaff:

Augustine, the man with upturned eye, with pen in the left hand, and a burning heart in the right (as he is usually represented), is a philosophical and theological genius of the first order, towering like a pyramid above his age, and looking down commandingly upon succeeding centuries. He had a mind uncommonly fertile and deep, bold and soaring; and with it, what is better, a heart full of Christian love and humility. He stands of right by the side of the greatest philosophers of antiquity and of modern times. We meet him alike on the broad highways and the narrow footpaths, on the giddy Alpine heights and in the awful depths of speculation, wherever philosophical thinkers before him or after him have trod. As a theologian he is facile princeps, at least surpassed by no church father, scholastic, or reformer. With royal munificence he scattered ideas in passing, which have set in mighty motion other lands and later times. He combined the creative power of Tertullian with the churchly spirit of Cyprian, the speculative intellect of the Greek church with the practical tact of the Latin. He was a Christian philosopher and a philosophical theologian to the full. It was his need and his delight to wrestle again and again with the hardest problems of thought, and to comprehend to the utmost the divinely revealed matter of the faith.

Augustine was born in the year 354 in the city of  Tagaste (modern Algeria). His mother, Monica,  was a devout Christian woman. She brought up her son as a Christian, and he was even listed as a baptismal candidate. As he grew older, however, he rejected his Christian faith. He even came to belittle the Bible as a book for women! Nevertheless, his mother did not stop trusting in God for his conversion. She laboured fervently in prayer that God would bring him to faith in Christ and her prayers were answered several decades later. In recalling his early childhood, he described the efforts of his mother in urging him towards a life of godliness:

‘Woe is me! Do I dare affirm that thou didst hold thy peace, O my God, while I wandered farther away from thee? Didst thou really then hold thy peace? Then whose words were they but thine which by my mother,thy faithful handmaid, thou didst pour into my ears? None of them, however, sank into my heart to make me do anything. She deplored and, as I remember, warned me privately with great solicitude, “not to commit fornication; but above all things never to defile another man’s wife.” These appeared to me but womanish counsels, which I would have blushed to obey. Yet they were from thee, and I knew it not. I thought that thou wast silent and that it was only she who spoke. Yet it was through her that thou didst not keep silence toward me; and in rejecting her counsel I was rejecting thee–I, her son, “the son of thy handmaid, thy servant.” (Confessions, Book 2, Chapter 3)

Augustine spent his youth pursuing sensual pleasures. He had a lady whom he lived with for several years. She had a child for him, though they never married. For several years he was an adherent of the Manichaens, a religious sect which held gnostic views and flourished in the Roman Empire. But he gradually fell away from them. Having pursued the study of Philosophy, literature and rhetoric both locally and in the city of Carthage, he eventually became a teacher of rhetoric. He moved to the city of Milan where he came under the preaching of Ambrose, the local Bishop.

Under the influence of Ambrose and his private reading of the apostle Paul, Augustine was eventually converted. His conversion account has passed down as one of the most dramatic in the history of Christianity. He recounts it in his own words:

I flung myself down under a fig tree–how I know not–and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighbouring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.

So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. (Book 8, Chapter 12)

After his conversion, he moved to the city of Hippo Regius, the second most important city in North Africa at the time, where he was ordained a priest in 391 . He eventually became the Bishop and would go on to exercise a globally renowned ministry over the next thirty-eight years.

He died in the year 430 as the city of Hippo was being overrun by barbarian invaders.

His Significance

Augustine laboured to clarify the teachings of the Christian faith and defend them against various opponents both within and outside the Christian community. He wrote numerous books and treatises with the aim of clarifying scriptural teachings, (including the Trinity, nature and grace, original sin) and refuting false ideas. He also wrote expository commentaries on the Gospels and on some Epistles. He opposed popular systems and ideas like Manichaeism, which threatened to destroy the Christian worldview with its dualism; Donatism, which threatened to disintegrate the unity of the Christian Church; and Pelagianism which threatened to corrupt the purity of the gospel.

We will examine the last movement more closely.

Pelagianism

Pelagius was a British monk who denied that the fall of Adam had any effect upon humanity beyond the fact that we often imitate his negative example. We do not receive any corrupt nature from him, contrary to what had been widely understood within the Christian community.

As elaborated by Louis Berkhof, Pelagius held that ‘There is no hereditary transmission of a sinful nature or of guilt, and consequently no such thing as original sin. Man is still born in the same condition in which Adam was before the fall.’ (History of Christian Doctrines, p.132) Therefore, God’s grace does not actually transform human nature; it merely assists us in doing what we could do on our own. Pelagius was impressed by the goodness of the created order, but failed to take into account the depth or consequences of the fall. He understood man to be capable of perfectly obeying God’s commands.

In the year 418, a council convened in the city of Carthage and condemned the following tenets of Pelagianism:

  • Adam’s death was normal or natural, and not a result of his sin
  • Humanity does not derive any corruption from Adam (the doctrine of original sin)
  • Justifying grace only applies to our past sins and does not help toward future sins
  • Grace merely enables us to do more easily what we could still do without it.

Augustine countered the views of Pelagius and his followers by clarifying and defending the Bible’s teaching on Original sin and God’s saving grace. All humanity have been affected by the fall of Adam. We are born with a sinful nature and our wills answer to this corrupt and sinful nature. The grace of God is needed not only for our past sins, but we continue to depend on it all through our lives as Christians.

The Christian worldview is a realistic account of the human condition. It affirms that history is divided into 3 phases of Creation, Fall and Redemption. Each phase is essential to the integrity of the entire worldview. To minimise or under-emphasize one aspect is to jeopardize the whole story. The system of Pelagius was an unfortunate attempt in this direction. He so exalted the goodness and beauty of the created order but minimized the dark and gloomy reality of the fall. His carelessness with the second link thus radically distorted his understanding of redemption. By not staying close enough to scripture and by not carefully observing the universal human condition, he produced a distorted system which is intellectually appealing but spiritually debasing. His system seeks to elevate man but fails in the attempt. For it denies what every man in his deepest self knows to be true. And it wrenches from God the glory due to him alone.

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