Augustine: A Saint of Insurmountable Influence
Augustine of Hippo has been called “the most influential theologian in the entire Western church, both Protestant and Catholic” (Gonzalez 216). While the fourth and fifth century (354-430 A.D.) Christian is now with the Lord, his efforts still impact modern day Christianity (Portalié). Christopher Dawson from St. Augustine: His Age, Life, and Thoughts writes, “However far we have traveled since the fifth century and however much we have learnt from other teachers, the work of St. Augustine still remains an inalienable part of our spiritual heritage” (39). The life and events associated with Augustine certainly reveal practical knowledge of early Christianity. Particularly, it is beneficial to examine his conversion, which reveals the persistent and unfathomable grace of God. Additionally, the theology and writings of Augustine can shape one’s interpretation of Scripture and view of God. After carefully evaluating the life, events, and theology that relate to Augustine, it is very reasonable to conclude that no other post-apostolic man has proven to be more influential to what is now modern-day Christianity.
John 3:6 confirms, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Leading up to the regeneration and massive spiritual impact of Augustine involves religious experimentation, worldliness, and a burdened desire for peace with God. Augustine was born in Tagaste, a beautiful and thriving city of North Africa during the middle of the fourth century (Gnayalloor 3). Historians and readers alike often confirm the same self-professed conclusion that Augustine’s family was “not rich” (Portalié). While they were probably not heavily wealthy, Jacob Gnayalloor infers that because Patricius, Augustine’s father, owned at least twenty-five acres of land, he was qualified for membership on the city council (4). Furthermore, while Patricius for much of his life held to the belief of paganism, Augustine’s mother, Monica, was a Catholic Christian (4). It is helpful to remember, that at this time period, the Roman emperor Constantine had already made his efforts in dismissing paganism, and implementing Christianity (4). Though she is quite often overlooked, Monica was a tremendous person of influence, not only in Augustine’s life, but a woman for many Christians to strive in imitation. First Peter 3:1 says, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” Reverend Jacob Gnayalloor writes, “Patricius was not faithful to his wife, but the pagans of those days were accustomed to polygamy and did not consider this a serious moral offense” (4). It is incredible to see the perseverance and agape love that Monica displayed, which according to some sources, eventually led to the conversion of Patricius (Portalié). While Augustine did not live in the greatest of homes, he benefited especially from his mother’s godly influence, eventually leading to his own conversion.
Scholastically, Augustine had several influences through education from his childhood. First of all, he had the privilege of receiving “Christian education” from an early age (Portalié). However, Augustine described his early education as “a prison,” for “he loved games and was fond of the sports of his contemporaries” (Gnayalloor 8-9). Despite his early frustrations, Augustine’s leadership and intellect was eventually manifested. His parents were desirous of the best possible education and proceeded in sending Augustine to a school in Madaura, a successful town at that time, located between Hippo and Theveste (10-11). While in Madaura, Augustine, to his disliking, read the works of Homer but also developed a strong interest in love stories, particularly poetry of Virgil (12). Once completing his education in Madaura, Augustine returned home, hoping to pursue further education. Augustine especially dreamed of studying rhetoric at Carthage, but was financially unable to pursue higher education at that time (13). Though Augustine probably benefited from his childhood education, his life was about to take a turn for the worst.
After earning enough money, Augustine proceeded to Carthage. Unfortunately, the city of Carthage was pagan around the time of A.D. 370, and faced struggles such as “licentiousness of other students, the theatres, the intoxication of his literary success, and a proud desire always to be first” (Portalié). On the account of hearing her son’s sinful behavior, Monica had pleaded with Augustine to refrain from his actions, especially his association with certain women (Gnayalloor 13). However, Augustine trusted that following his mother’s instructions would cost him the great popularity that he received at Carthage (14). In fact, “Augustine and his friends prided themselves upon their misconduct and perpetrated sins for the sake of notoriety” (14). Before long, Augustine had developed sexual relations with a woman he had not married and birthed a child named Adeodatus (Gonzalez 208). Additionally, Augustine and his friends took part in other sexual pleasures that Carthage had to offer. For example, the “heavenly Virgin Venus” festival incorporated the exhibiting of the immoral statue of Venus publicly, while girls danced naked in front of men (Gnayalloor 19). Without a doubt, at this point in his life, Augustine was indeed spiritually “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). In fact, Augustine stated in his Confessions, “For within me was a famine of that inward food, Thyself, my God; yet, through that famine I was not hungered; but was without all longing for incorruptible sustenance, not because filled therewith, but the more empty, the more I loathed it” (13). His life goes to show that God’s grace is able to cover a multitude of sins, even pride and sexual immorality.
While continuing his education at Carthage, and getting well-acquainted with the pleasures the city had to offer, certain potential hindrances arose. At the time of Augustine’s life while at Carthage, he was met with financial difficulties. Not long after his arrival at Carthage, Augustine’s father had died (Gnayalloor 21). Fortunately, Augustine was able to receive financial aid from a man named Romanianus, providing enough money for him to continue in his education (22). Though continuing in studies led to valuable interactions, such as reading the Holy Scriptures, his education also provided stepping stones for a further rebellion from the one true God.
Though Augustine’s brilliance of rhetoric, scholarship, and influences were things of great desire to many people of the late fourth century, they were also greatly responsible for his early rejection of Christianity. Nearing the end of his education at Carthage, Augustine began to study Cicero’s Hortensius (Gnayalloor 23). Reading Hortensius brought forth different consequences. For example, Augustine stated in his Confessions, “This book altered my affections, and turned my prayers to Thyself, O Lord; and made me have other purposes and desires” (18). In other words, Cicero’s philosophies influenced Augustine in ways that caused him to ponder the reality of a divine being, particularly the God of the Holy Scriptures. However, after reading Cicero’s literature, pagan writings, and the Bible, the “prosaic language” of the Holy Scriptures did not seem to hold to as high of a standard in language as did Hortensius (Gnayalloor 24). Therefore, instead of drawing closer to the God of the universe, Augustine was left in disbelief (24).
Flirting with pagan philosophies and rejecting Biblical truth, Augustine eventually became entangled with the religion of Manicheism. In the year 373, not only did Augustine fall for this heresy, but he led his friend Honoratus astray as well (Portalié). Essentially, Manicheism is a fusion of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, and even Christianity (Gnayalloor 25). The religion was started by a man called Manus, or sometimes Mani, who was the son of a pagan priest and attempted to become a “Christ” (Gnayalloor 24; Portalie). The first fault of the religion is the fact that they horribly misconstrue the source of all things. Manicheism, like many similar religions, teaches that God is both good and evil (Breshears and Driscoll 153). Some teachings of Manicheism include: the battle between good and evil is eternal and will always remain active, God created the first man who was a spirit, God sent His own soul into the world to assist the first man, and material is evil but spirits are good (Gnayalloor 25). The only way for one to achieve salvation is to separate the spirit from the material until he is finally prepared for the realm of pure light (Gonzalez 208). Furthermore, Jesus, who apparently came from the sun, was the redeemer of imprisoned souls, but according to Manicheism doctrine, there was never an incarnation or a death and resurrection (25). Finally, Manicheism professes that Jesus’ teachings were not intelligible, and thus people needed the Holy Spirit who is Manus (25).
In the case of Augustine, historians are not certain who actually introduced him to this religion. Yet, Augustine was not fully convinced of this philosophical religion, though he did spend nine years studying Manicheism (Gonzalez 210). Eventually, Augustine had developed irresolvable questions pertaining to Manicheism which many teachers could not appease. As a last resort, Augustine listened to the great Manichean teacher Faustus to perhaps reconcile some questions about the religion (210). To Augustine’s disfavor, Faustus was not convincing whatsoever and further left him with an unquenchable thirst for the truth.
Proceeding Augustine’s relationship with Manicheism came the introduction to the religion of Neo-Platonism. In accordance with his change of religion, Augustine also had a change of residence for he accepted a job teaching rhetoric in Milan, a city in Italy (Portalié). The school in Milan was actually his second teaching position, for Augustine had a short stint in Tagaste that was cut short due to financial problems (Gonzalez 210). The philosophical religion of Neo-Platonism teaches “through a combination of study, discipline, and mystical contemplation,” one can “reach the ineffable One, the source of all being” (210). Though the roots originate from the ideas of Plato, the first true Neo-Platonist is considered to be a man named Plotinus who lived from 204-270 (www.pbs.org). Contrary to Manicheism, Neo-Platonism resolves that evil does not originate from a deity, but rather is accomplished by a progressive straying from the One, or in Christian Neo-Platonism, from God (Gonzalez 210). To Augustine, the reconciliation of sources of evil started to make sense. Additionally, though Neo-Platonism does not incorporate the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the philosophies started to point Augustine in a more Biblical direction of theology.
It was at the Italian city of Milan where Augustine’s faith finally found place of rest, following the burdensome path of previous philosophical and religious disappointments. Although Augustine developed a curiosity for Neo-Platonism, Ambrose of Milan was the man who essentially influenced him to eventually convert to Christianity (Portalié). Encouraged by his mother, Augustine went to hear the preaching of Ambrose who was significantly talented in rhetoric (Gonzalez 211). Aside from the content, Augustine was actually originally more intrigued by the style of presentation due to his profession (211). However, the “word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Conviction dwelled in the heart of Augustine as he struggled with abandoning his pleasures to wholeheartedly follow Jesus Christ (Gnayalloor 56). Upon studying the Scriptures and the company of friends also converting to Christianity, Augustine would likewise become convinced of this faith. In particular, a famous Roman philosopher Marius Victorinus and two civil servants who were greatly influenced by Athanasius were the primary converts of importance (Gonzalez 211). Finally, Augustine repented and became a Christian at the garden of Milan in September of 386 (Portalié). This glorious moment led to a Christian who accomplished much for the glory of God.
The post-conversion events of Augustine were quite significant and heavily affected the rest of his life. First, both Augustine and his son Adeodatus were baptized by Ambrose of Milan (Gonzalez 211). Before long, Augustine quit his professor position and left to go to Tagaste, North Africa to spend in a life of Monasticism (221-212). Along with Augustine came Monica, Adeodatus, and a group of friends; however, their plans were interrupted at the seaport of Ostia when Monica developed a sickness and soon died (212). Augustine had a tremendous respect and love for his mother, devoting an entire chapter in his Confessions about her (100-117). Upon his mother’s death, Augustine confidently wrote, “Of this we were assured on good grounds, the testimony of her good conversation and her faith unfeigned” (112). Additionally, Augustine rested assured not just in his mother’s faith, but in the work of Jesus Christ by writing, “For she will not answer that she owes nothing, lest she be convicted and seized by the crafty accuser: but she will answer, that her sins are forgiven her by Him, to whom none can repay that price, which He, who owed nothing, paid for us” (117). Though confident in their eternal hope, Augustine, his son, and companions remained idle for several months before finally arriving in Tagaste (Gonzalez 212). Once arriving, Augustine sold much of his property and gave money to the poor, while he and his son moved to Cassiciacum, Italy (212). However, more death approached his family with the passing of Adeodatus shortly after their arrival (212). Despite many trials, Augustine continued in his intentions to live a life of study and contemplation.
Despite the plans of Augustine to complete the rest of his life in Cassiciacum, God used scenarios in his life to lead him to the town of Hippo. On a trip to Hippo, Augustine was meeting with a friend to encourage him to join the community in Cassiciacum (Gonzalez 212). While at Hippo, Augustine attended a church service led by bishop Valerius who was in great need of a man to assist him in his congregational and missionary work (Gnayalloor 82-83). To Augustine’s surprise, Valerius preached a sermon on the issue of God providing more priests for ministry in Hippo (83). At the completion of the service, the people started shouting “Augustine, a priest! Augustine, a priest!” (83) Soon, Augustine was ordained as a priest, and four years later received the position of bishop (Gonzalez 212). According to Justo Gonzalez, the reasoning for pronouncing Augustine as a bishop was to make certain that he would not be taken as a bishop for another church (212). After all, once a man became a bishop, it was essentially guaranteed that he would remain in that authority for a lifetime (212). His preparations for life-long contemplation were replaced with plans for being a pastor and theologian. Indeed, for the sake of other Christians and even unbelievers, these changes turned out to be a significant blessing in disguise.
Aside from leading a flock of believers as bishop of Hippo, Augustine left a tremendous impact on the world through his theological insights and defense of Christianity. Getting started in the battle of apologetics, Augustine quickly gathered Biblical truths and data to refute the heretical religion of Manicheism. Not only was Augustine skilled in his speaking ability, but now also in his knowledge of theology. Augustine sought to discover and defend the origins of evil, especially since that was his struggle during his lifetime as a Manicheist. According to Justo Gonzalez, Augustine became the “champion of the freedom of the will,” and thus was able to successfully refute the Manicheism heresies (213). Augustine proposed that evil is not a “substance,” but is simply “a decision, a direction, a negation of good” (213). Furthermore, Augustine stated in his book The City of God that “sin is caused not by the flesh, but by the soul, and that the corruption contracted from sin is not sin, but sin’s punishment” (443). Additionally, Augustine continued in his thoughts that man can be “restored only by its Author” (457). Modern day Christians are greatly benefited from Augustine’s hamartiology and beliefs on free will. In particular Gerry Breshears and Mark Driscoll believe similarly that the free will of man involved with sin and eternal punishment concludes that man freely chooses to sin, and essentially also chooses hell (429). In addition to his writings, Augustine was also able to publicly refute the Manicheism heresies. He refuted Mani in 397, Faustus in 400, Felix in 404, Secundinus in 405, and others as well (Portalié). What was once a hindrance to Augustine’s salvation was finally a defeated opponent, due to the fact that he was born again and wielded the power of God.
Another significant heresy that opposed Augustine was the issue of Donatism. While the most serious threats of Manicheism were based on doctrine, Donatism was a very dangerous threat to Catholic Christians socially due to persecution (Gnayalloor 97). Dangerous organizations in connection with Donatism included the “Young Fighters for Christ” and “circumcellions” (Gonzalez 214; Gnayalloor 97). With the Donatist movement centered in North Africa, Augustine dealt with them frequently (Gonzalez 213). While Donatism was a religious group which caused several different problems that questioned doctrines of Christology and Hamartiology, the main focus of discussion in North Africa concerned the “holiness of the hierarchy” (Portalié). Particularly, many Donatists had questioned whether or not the ordinations of bishops were valid (Gonzalez 213). Augustine replied that the virtue of the bishop, though it is important for the health of the church, does not nullify or qualify a certain action, with baptism being an example (213). In other words, one who is baptized by a sinful bishop is still legitimately baptized. Finally, in 411 at a conference in Carthage, with 286 Catholics and 279 Donatists, the Catholics were pronounced victorious by Proconsul Marcellinus and eventually led to the termination of Donatism (Portalié).
Yet another significant heresy refuted by Augustine was against perhaps his most renowned opponent Pelagius. Paul Enns defines Pelagainism as “the view taught by Pelagius that every soul was created directly by God and therefore innocent. Man, therefore, had the ability to initiate salvation by himself” (643). Additionally, Jacob Gnayalloor writes, “Pelagius taught that man is created mortal, that there is no original sin, that man can attain his end without God’s help” (108). It is very clear to see that Pelagianism was a very serious heresy that ignored the majestic grace of God. Pelagianism, though most harshly affecting Africa, started in Europe until it quickly spread to Africa (108). Pelagius was a British monk who became quite popular in his theology and simply viewed the Christian life as a battle to overcome sin and attain salvation (Gonzalez 214). It is quite evident that Pelagius formulated his own thoughts about God apart from Scripture, and therefore his contradictions of clear Biblical truths certified him as a heretic. The Apostle Paul could not make God’s message of salvation clearer by stating, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Those who opposed Pelagianism were quick to respond, and thus this heresy was evaluated and condemned in 412 at Carthage, reconfirmed in 417 at Carthage and Mileve by Pope Innocent I, and finally in 418 at Rome by Pope Zosimus (Portalié). By the year 426 the view of “Semi-Pelagianism” arose, which was a middle-ground approach to both Augustine’s and Pelagius’ views of salvation (Portalié). Paul Enns defines “Semi-Pelagianism” as “the view stressing both the grace of God and the free will of man. Man is seen as contributing with God in salvation. This view is embodied in Roman Catholicism” (647). On the contrary, Augustine developed the understanding of the doctrine of “irresistible grace.” Enns defines “irresistible grace” as “God’s sovereign work in effectively calling some to salvation. None of those whom God calls can reject His call” (636). Eventually, the Synod of Orange declared in 529 that Augustine’s view of grace, to an extent, was Biblical and that Pelagianism should be rejected (Gonzalez 215). Overall, it is possible to say that Pelagianism was defeated because the Augustinian or Semi-Pelagian views became more commonly accepted. However, Pelagianism is still actively involved in countless religions. Though other religions do not claim to be “Christian,” the same view of man working for salvation while removing Jesus is constantly evident. On the contrary, authentic Christianity declares that Jesus, God in human flesh, has come to the world to offer grace to people lost in sin (John 1:17).
Even in his final years of life, Augustine battled heresies, all while continuing to fulfill his duties as bishop of Hippo. In particular, there was a political uproar which intertwined with Arianism (Portalié). Count Boniface had led a revolt in Africa, only to be opposed by the Goths, under the command of Emperor Placidia (Portalié). Additionally, Count Boniface found assistance with the Vandals, who happened to be entirely Arian (Portalié). Augustine continued to defend his faith against yet another heresy while trying to maintain political peace (Portalié). Unfortunately, there was little resolve and as Justo Gonzalez says, “Augustine’s work was the last glimmer of a dying age” (216). At the age of seventy-six, Augustine was overtaken by a fatal illness and died soon afterward in the year 430 (Portalié). Despite his death, Augustine’s influence has lived on in immense proportions. For example, Augustine was the most quoted theologian throughout the entire Middle Ages (Gonzalez 216). Furthermore, while he was one of the “great doctors” of Roman Catholicism, he was also the favorite theologian among the Protestant reformers (216). Augustine certainly lived a life worthy of great honor and importance.
Overall, after evaluating the life, events, and theology of Augustine, one can receive a great blessing from studying such an influential Christian. It is not farfetched to denote Augustine as “undoubtedly the greatest theologian between Paul and Martin Luther” (Enns 424). In fact, due to the overwhelming influence that Augustine had on Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, it would seem reasonable that no other Christian has been more significant in Christianity. Though not all of his influences were necessarily doctrinally appropriate, such as transubstantiation, it is inescapable to not come to the conclusion that Augustine’s influence was massive (427). Above all else, what is perhaps most substantial about Augustine is the fact that his theology matched his life. In the realm of theology, the “Augustinian View” is defined as “All mankind participated in Adam’s sin since each person was seminally present in Adam. All human beings, therefore, are charged individually with sin and death” (629). However, the grace of God, according to Augustine is “irresistible” and first initiated by God (Gonzalez 215). Likewise, salvation can never be earned, but can be only a gift from God. Augustine was a great example of his own theological beliefs, since he flirted with the evils of the world but was changed by the grace of God. Truly, Augustine was a man of incredible intelligence and powerful courage, but also had the humility to recognize his frailty before a holy God. There may never be a Christian with a more powerful testimony, brilliant theology, or penetrating influence on Christianity as Augustine.
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