This episode of CS is titled “Augustine – Part 1.”
Late have I loved You, O Beauty so ancient yet so new; Late have I loved you. You were within while I was without. I sought You out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. These things kept me far from You; even though they’d not even be unless You made them. You called and cried aloud, and opened my deafness. You gleamed and shined, and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrant odors and I drew breath, and now I pant for You. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace.
Wrote Augustine of Hippo in his classic Confessions.
We turn now to the life and work of a man of singular importance in the history of the Church due to his impact on theology. I’ll be blunt to say what it seems many, maybe most, are careful to avoid when it comes to Augustine. While the vast majority of historians laud him, a much smaller group are less enthused with him, as I hope becomes clear as we review the man and his impact.
Augustine is the climax of patristic thought, at least in the Latin world. By “patristics,” I mean the theology of the Church Fathers. If you’ve ever had a chance to look through collections of books on theology or church history, you’ve likely seen a massive set of tomes called the Ante & Post Nicene Fathers. That simply means the Church Fathers that came before the Council of Nicaea and those who came after and helped lay the doctrinal foundation of the Church. Augustine was THE dominant influence on the Medieval European; so much so, He’s referred to as the Architect of the Middle Ages. Augustine continues to be a major influence among Roman Catholics for his theology of the church and sacraments, and for Protestants in regard to his theology of grace & salvation.
Augustine’s back-story is well-known because there’s plenty of source material to draw from. Some say we know more about Augustine than any other figure of the ancient world because—not only do we have a record of his daily activities from one of his students; Possidius, Bishop of Calama; we also have a highly detailed record of Augustine’s inner life from his classic work, Confessions. We also have a work titled Retractions where Augustine chronicles his intellectual development as he lists 95 of his works, explains why they were written, and the changes he made to them over time.
Let me begin his story by laying the background of Augustine’s world . . .
The end of the persecution of the first 2 centuries was a great relief to the church. No doubt the reported conversion of Emperor Constantine seemed a dream come true. The apostle Paul told the followers of Christ to pray for the king and all those in authority. So the report of the Emperor’s conversion was a cause of great rejoicing. It was likely only a handful of the wise who sensed a call to caution in what this new relationship between church and state would mean and the perils it might bring.
During the 4th Century, churches grew more rapidly than ever. But not all those who joined did so with pure motives. With persecution behind them, some joined the Church to hedge their bets and add one more deity to their list. Others joined thinking it would advance their social status, now that being a Christian could earn them points with officials. Some sincere Christians witnessed the moral and spiritual dumbing down of the faith and fled to the wilderness to pursue an ascetic lifestyle as a hermit or into a monastery as a monk. But most Christians remained in their cities and towns to witness the growing affiliation between the church and earthly institutions. The invisible, universal or catholic church began increasingly to be associated with earthly forms and social structures.
I need to pause here and make sure everyone understands that the word Catholic simply means UNIVERSAL. Historically, this is the Age of Catholic Christianity – not ROMAN Catholic Christianity. Historians refer to this time and the Eastern Orthodox Church as Catholic, to differentiate it from the several aberrant and heretical groups that had split off. Groups like the Arians, Manichaeans, Gnostics, and Apollinarians, and half a dozen other hard to pronounce sects. But toward the end of the 4th Century, the Institutional replaced the Communal aspects of the Faith. The Gospel was supplanted by dogma and rituals in many churches.
Jesus made it clear following Him meant a call to serve, not be served. Christians are servants. They serve God by serving one another and the world. During the first 3 centuries when the church was battered, the call to serve was valued as a priority. The heroes of the faith served by offering themselves in the ultimate sense-with their lives. But when the Church rose out of the catacombs to enter positions of social influence and power during the 4th Century, being a servant lost priority. Church leaders, who’d led by serving for 300 years, began to position themselves to be served. Servant-leaders became leaders of servants.
This change escalated with the disintegration of the Western Empire during the 4th & 5th Centuries. As foreigners pressed in from the North and East, and civil authorities fled from the frontiers, people look more and more to the bishops and church leaders to provide guidance and governance.
We’ve already seen how the Church and Bishop at Rome emerged as not only a religious leader but a political leader as well. The fall and sack of Rome by the Vandals in 410 rocked the Empire, leaving people profoundly shaken. One man emerged at this time to help deal with their confusion and anxiety over the future.
Augustine was born in 354 in Tagaste, a small commercial city in North Africa. His father Patricius was a pagan and member of the local ruling class. His mother Monica was a committed Christian. Though far from wealthy, Augustine’s parents were determined he should have the best education possible. After attending primary school in Tagaste he went to Carthage for secondary education. It was there, at the age of 17, he took on a mistress with whom he lived for 13 years & by whom he had a son named Adeodatus. While this seems scandalous, realize it was not all that uncommon for young men of the upper classes to have such an arrangement. Augustine seems to have had a genuine love for this woman, even though he fails to give us her name. It’s certain he did love their son. And even though Augustine loved his girlfriend. He later wrote throughout these years he was continually hammered by sexual temptation and often despaired of overcoming it.
Augustine pursued studies in philosophy in general; picking no specific school as the focus of his attention. When he was 19 he read the now lost Hortensius by the Roman orator Cicero & was convinced he should make the pursuit of truth his life’s aim. But this noble quest battled with what he now felt was a degrading desire toward immorality. For moral assistance to resist the downward pull, he defaulted to the faith of his mother’s home and turned to the Bible. But being a lover of classical Latin, the translations he read seemed crude and unsophisticated and held no appeal.
What did appeal to Augustine was the Manichaeans with whom we’ve already treated. By way of review, Mani was a teacher in Persia in the mid-3rd Century who mashed a Gnostic-flavored religion together with ancient Persian ideas as embodied in Zoroastrianism. Augustine was an intellectual, the kind of person Manichaeanism appealed to. They disdained faith, saying they were the intellectual gate-keepers of reason and logic. They explained the world in terms of darkness and light. Light and Spirit were good, darkness and the physical; evil. The key to overcoming sin was an early form of the campaign used on public school campuses in the US years ago regarding drugs: “Just say no!” Augustine was told if he just employed total abstinence from physical pleasure he’d do well. He was a Manichaean for 9 yrs until he saw its logical inconsistencies and left.
His record of this time reveals that while he remained within their ranks, he had problems all along. Assuming he just needed to learn more to clear up the problems, the more he studied, the more problems popped up. When he voiced his concerns, other Manichaeans told him if he could just hear the teaching of Faustus, all his concerns would dissolve. Faustus was supposed to be the consummate Manichaean who had all the answers.
Well, Faustus eventually arrived and Augustine listened in the expectation that everything he’d been doubting would evaporate like dew in the morning sun. That’s not what happened. On the contrary. Augustine said while Faustus was eloquent of speech, his words were like a fancy plate holding rotten meat. He sounded good, but his speech was empty.
Augustine spent time with Faustus, trying to work through his difficulties but the more he heard, the more he realized the man was clueless. So much for Manichaeanism being the gate-keeper of reason.
At the age of 20, Augustine began teaching. His friends recognized his intellectual genius and encouraged him to move to Rome. In 382, closing in on 30, he and his mother moved to the Capital where he began teaching.
As often happens when someone’s religious or philosophical house is blown over like a stack of cards, Augustine’s disappointment with Manichaeanism led to a period of disenchantment & skepticism. Remember; he’d given himself to the pursuit of truth and had assumed for several years Mani had found it. Now he knew he hadn’t. Once bitten, twice shy works for philosophy as well as romance.
Augustine was rescued from his growing skepticism by Neo-Platonism and the work of Plotinus who fanned to flame his smoldering spark of longing for truth.
In 384, Augustine was hired as a professor of rhetoric at the University of Milan where his now widowed mother Monica and some friends joined him.
More out of professional courtesy as a professor of rhetoric than anything else, Augustine went to hear Milan’s bishop Ambrose preach. Augustine was surprised at Ambrose’s eloquence. It’s not like this was his first time in church. He’d attended the churches of North Africa while growing up there. But he’d never heard anyone speak like this. Ambrose showed Augustine that the Christian faith, far from being crude and unsophisticated, was both eloquent & intelligent.
An elder named Simplicianus made Augustine his personal project. He gave Augustine a copy of a commentary on Paul by Marius Victorinus, who’d converted from Neo-Platonism to Christianity 30 years before. Being a Neo-Platonist himself, Augustine went through something of an intellectual conversion, if not a spiritual transformation.
Augustine’s future was bright. He had a prestigious job, committed friends, wealth, influence and he was still young and healthy. But inwardly he was miserable. His mother Monica suggested what he needed was a normal family. Of course, she was against his long-time but illicit affair with his girlfriend, the mother of his son. She’d followed him on all his various moves; to Tagaste from Carthage to Rome, then Milan. Monica told Augustine his girlfriend was keeping him from finding a suitable wife, someone more fit for his social standing. Though Augustine loved her, his mother’s constant urging to put her away eventually moved him to locate his inner unrest with his mistress. So he ended their relationship. He then proposed to a young woman of wealth and society. Problem is, she was too young to marry so a far-off date was set. Augustine couldn’t master his lust, and only a short time after breaking up with his mistress, he found another. From Augustine’s own account of his struggle in the Confessions, we might describe his problem as a sexual addiction. His inner battle between the higher call of virtue and the lower pull toward vice threatened to tear him apart in a mental breakdown.
It was then, as he devoured material in his quest for truth that he heard of Christian hermits like Anthony of Egypt who’d mastered their fleshly desires. Their example shamed Augustine. Until then he’d considered Christians as intellectually inferior — yet they were able to accomplish a victory over sin he’d been powerless to attain. He began to wonder if maybe Christianity possessed a power he’d missed.
Conversion became for Augustine, as it was for so many at this time, not so much an issue of faith as action. He was persuaded of the intellectual strength of Christianity; he just did not want to give up his sin, though he knew he should.
One day in 386, while walking in the garden of his house, his soul seething in confusion and moral anguish, he carried a Bible hoping to draw guidance from it. But he could make no sense of it. He dropped it on a bench and paced back and forth; his mind in torment. From somewhere nearby, he heard a child’s voice calling out the line of what must have been a game though Augustine did not know it. The voice said, “Tolle lege (tawlee Leggy) = Take up and read.” He reached down and picked up the Bible he’d just dropped. The page fell open to Romans 13 where his eyes fell on words perfectly suited to his current mindset. He read à
Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.
Augustine later wrote, “As I read those words, instantly it was as if the light of peace poured into my heart and all the shades of doubt departed.” The following Easter, Augustine and his son Adeodatus were baptized by Bishop Ambrose. A few months later Augustine returned to North Africa. On the way, his mother Monica died and not long after he returned to Tagaste, his son also passed. Augustine lost interest in living and longed to leave the world he once longed for.
His friends rallied round and gave him a purpose to carry on. They formed a monastic community, out of which would come the famous Augustinian Order and Rule.
While Augustine would likely have been content to live out his life in the monastery, the North African church desperately needed a leader with his gifts. In 391 the church at Hippo ordained him as 1 of their priests. He did the preaching because their bishop was Greek and could speak neither Latin nor the local Punic. He became co-bishop 4 years later, then a year after that, sole bishop at Hippo. He served in that capacity for the next 33 years.
He kept up the monastic life throughout his tenure as Bishop at Hippo. His was an extremely busy career; divided between study, writing and general oversight of church affairs.
We’ll pick it up at this point in our next episode as we consider some of his more important writings. Then we’ll get into Augustine’s career as a theologian.