Greatest of the Latin fathers, bishop of Hippo Regius in the Roman North African province of Numidia, Augustine exercised an unparalleled influence on Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. The corpus of his writings is huge and relatively complete, thanks to their extensive use in the Middle Ages. His theories of history, Christian society, ethics, and just war shaped Western civilization. His views on the essential goodness of creation, the nature of evil, the will, sin, predestination, faith, the sacraments, and the authority of the church were pivotal in the development of Latin church doctrine, furthering its distinctive interest (as versus Eastern Orthodoxy) in human nature and the operations of grace. Most Western theological movements claiming orthodoxy take their stand in the Augustinian tradition.
A master rhetorician, Augustine coined many sayings still familiar today, including: “Love, and do what you will”; “Unity in things necessary, liberty in things doubtful, charity in all things”; “With love for mankind and hatred of sins” (often styled “Love the sinner, but hate the sin”); “Jesus Christ will be the Lord of all, or he will not be Lord at all”; “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand” (the source of Anselm's famous formula credo ut intelligam); and “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (the “God-shaped hole” in every person). As these sayings suggest, for all his exposition and polemic, and for all his attention to the relations of faith and reason, Augustine saw Christian love for God and neighbor as the supreme goal of life and learning.
Aurelius Augustinus—the praenomen Aurelius is questionable—was born 13 November 354 of middle-class parents in Thagaste (in present-day Tunisia). His father, Patricius, a member of the local council, was a pagan who hoped to see his son advance in the Roman civil service. He figures very little in Augustine's account of his life, dying when Augustine was about 17. The dominant parent was instead his mother, Monica, a devout if imperfect and domineering Christian and the daughter of Christian parents. The young Augustine so excelled at his studies that his father sent him to nearby Madaura and Carthage to study rhetoric. After a period of loose living, he took a woman (name unknown) as his unofficial wife, who soon bore him a son, Adeodatus (“gift of God”). Reading Cicero's Hortensius in Carthage, Augustine was captivated by its exhortation to seek Wisdom, and found himself “with an unbelievable fire in my heart … to fly away from earthly things to Thee.” But when he turned to the Scriptures for this Wisdom, he found their style and content, especially in the OT, crude in comparison to pagan philosophy. Disillusioned, he was attracted by the “exceedingly well-spoken and fashionable” Manichaeans, followers of a rival religion to Christianity founded a century earlier by the Persian ex-Christian, Mani. Rejecting the OT, presenting their doctrine as the culmination of all religions, offering sophisticated rational demonstration and shunning the authoritarianism of Christianity, they identified evil with matter and good with the spirit, thus locating guilt outside the true self. Augustine joined as an “auditor,” not a full member, and at first was an enthusiastic advocate of the new religion. Eventually finding Mani's cosmology unreasonable, but unable to find a satisfying alternative solution to the problems of guilt and evil, he left the Manichees after nine years.
Meanwhile, he became a teacher of rhetoric in Thasgaste, Carthage, Rome, and finally Milan, where the imperial court resided. There he garnered the vital new post of city professor of rhetoric, delivering official speeches to publicize the emperor's and consuls’ programs. Anticipating a suitable official marriage to a Catholic heiress, he sorrowfully sent away his unofficial wife after fifteen years of cohabitation.
In Milan, Augustine flirted briefly with Skepticism, having learned from Cicero to conceive of Wisdom as a quest rather than an arrival. But he became a catechumen of the church of Milan—perhaps at his mother's bidding, perhaps as a gesture of conformity to a Christian imperial court—and the preaching of the bishop, Ambrose, impressed him. From him Augustine found that Christianity could be erudite and eloquent, and that allegorical interpretation could reveal unsuspected profundity in the Bible. Christian intellectuals introduced him to Neoplatonist philosophy, in which he found answers to the deficiencies of Manichaeanism: the Good is utterly transcendent; evil is a privation of good; and the soul, not just the body, partakes in this evil.
Augustine entered a second period of troubled sensual indulgence, heightening his sense of guilt in view of these teachings of God's transcendent goodness. A visiting countryman told him of the ascetic monks of Egypt and their conquests over self. Augustine, astonished that the unlearned should “storm the gates of heaven, while we, for all our learning, lie here groveling in this world of flesh and blood,” flung himself under a fig tree in his garden and wept. Just then a child's voice from a neighboring house sang out, “Take up and read!” Taking this as a divine call, Augustine picked up the copy of Paul's writings he had been reading and turned to Romans 13:13-14: “Let us walk honestly, as in the day … not in immorality … but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” This became his moment of resolve.
Immediately he abandoned his career and marriage plans and removed to a country estate in nearby Cassiciacum, where he lived with family, friends, and pupils in a kind of philosophers’ retreat within sight of the Alps. There he wrote classical dialogues and his self-searching Soliloquies while pursuing the union of Neoplatonic philosophy with the religion of the Church. He was baptized by Ambrose in Milan on Easter 387.
Augustine took an intimate core of his group homeward to found a smaller community of lay “servants of God.” En route from Milan his mother died; in Thagaste his son also died. Augustine's plans turned to founding a monastery—but while attempting to do so in Hippo he was pressed into the priesthood by the congregation in church one Sunday (391). Five years later he replaced the bishop. Thus Augustine the rhetorician-turned-philosopher became Augustine the bishop of Hippo, who combined eloquence, incisiveness, and the love of wisdom with the service of the Catholic church.
The bishop's life was one of constant activity: ecclesiastical duties, preaching, encouraging monastic life, training future bishops, and battling against enemy doctrines within and outside the church. He articulated his most famous theological positions in polemics against the Manichaeans (on evil and the soul), Donatists (on ecclesiology and the sacraments), and Pelagians (on sin and grace).
When one speaks of “Augustinianism” it is usually in reference to his unflattering view of the human condition. Believing that evil is falling away from the Good, Augustine located sin in the misuse of man's highest gift: free rational choice. Through pride—the deliberate choice to put his will above God's—Adam fell, and took us all with him into a fallen condition. We remain free, but free only to sin; we inherit not only a tendency to sin, but an inability to choose God. Therefore our salvation becomes impossible without God's grace, given to some and withheld from others by an inscrutable act of predestination. Pelagius, one of the readers of Augustine's Confessions, protested that these teachings would encourage moral laxity. The exchange between two men, beginning in 410, anticipated similar debates centuries later between Luther and Erasmus and the Calvinists and Armenians. Augustine's doctrine of original sin became catholic orthodoxy when the Council of Ephesus (431) condemned Pelagianism along with Nestorianism.
The positive counterpart to Augustine's bleak anthropology is a high confidence in God's power to save his chosen ones. Salvation is entirely God's work, at God's initiative, and therefore cannot fail. He gives his elect the gift of perseverance, so that even though they sin they will repent and eventually be unable to forsake the good. Before the fall, Adam was able not to sin (posse non peccare); unredeemed humanity cannot avoid sinning (non posse non peccare); but the redeemed of the Lord will attain the highest freedom, being unable to sin (non posse peccare).
It is on this issue of power that Augustine's soteriology turns. As fallen humans we still have free agency—but we freely choose sin and evil, lacking the power to do otherwise. Thus this very freedom of ours is itself a kind of unfreedom, “for he is freely in bondage who does with pleasure the will of his master.” We are free, responsible, and unfree all at once. Even our virtues—and Augustine does acknowledge virtue among the unregenerate in areas of civil justice—are laced with sinful motives. Agency we have; what we lack is the power to change our choices and our motives. Only after regeneration by the extrinsic power of God can we believe in him and do good out of pure love for him (Enchiridion, 30-32).
Salvation is thus God's gracious gift, granted rather than earned. Grace is utterly sovereign and efficacious. But for Augustine, grace is not just unmerited, predestinating favor; it is also an infused power unto righteousness, connected intimately with the sacraments. It is the granting of both pardon and goodness, and it comes by gradual process. Here Augustine did not distinguish between justification and sanctification as crisply as would the Reformation.
The basic impulse in Augustine's doctrines of sin and grace—as in those traditions that build on them (especially the Reformed theology)—is to ascribe all good to God alone. To love any created thing in itself, without reference to God, is sin (On Christian Doctrine, 1. iv, xxii). Thus Augustine countered his anti-Manichaean assertion of the goodness of creation with a stern suspicion of creaturely delights—not because pleasure is evil, but because fallen humanity so easily delights only in the creature rather than delight in God through the created thing.
So impressed was Augustine with the wickedness of misdirected delight that he urged even married priests to abstain from sexual relations, regarding the power of sexual pleasure as unmanageable by the will and therefore to be avoided. Unlike the desert ascetics, Augustine interpreted fallen sexual desire not as a symptom of greed or vainglory, but as a punishment—a specific punishment fitting Adam's crime. After the fall, sex could never be enjoyed without loosing the body from the control of the will and vaunting the self above God, reminding even Christian spouses in the act of love that they were corrupt. While Augustine certainly did not originate the early Christian denigration of sex, he gave it a powerful boost and bequeathed it to the Middle Ages.
In several other ways Augustine's theology looks foreign to most Protestant evangelicals. In addition to the literal, he practiced the allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, and while he declared their inerrancy he also said he would not have believed them had not the Church declared them true. He taught that no one in this life can know with certainty that he is elect. He held with Cyprian that outside the church there is no salvation, and that bishops of the church hold authority by apostolic succession. And he held a high doctrine of the sacraments, teaching that they “place the reality before us and actualize it.” In the controversy with the Donatists—who, after enduring the Diocletian persecutions, declared unholy the sacraments administered by those who had denied Christ, and set up rival churches—he justified the use of coercion against heretics and schismatics in the name of catholic Christianity.
Augustine's later life saw the beginnings of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. When the Visigoths sacked the Eternal City and pagans ascribed the catastrophe to the abandonment of the Roman gods, Augustine defended Christianity in his City of God, taking the opportunity to develop and apply an eschatological Christian philosophy of history. This, together with his intimate, autobiographical Confessions (written in middle age), is his best-known work. He died with the barbarians literally at the gates, in the third month of the Vandal siege of Hippo. He spent his last days meditating on his sickbed on the penitential Psalms, which were mounted on the wall for that purpose.
Among Augustine's best-known theological treatises are On Christian Doctrine (important for his views on Scripture, hermeneutics, and preaching), the Enchiridion (a brief manual of doctrine famous for its articulation of original sin), On the Trinity, and Literal Commentary on Genesis (an extensive theology of creation). His Retractions—written three years before his death—review, explain, and correct his life's work. Numerous topical treatises, polemical works, Scriptural commentaries, sermons, and letters round out his writings.
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