“London remains a vast and exhilarating mystery to me,” said novelist Bill Bryson. Even after living in the United Kingdom for decades he stated that he still found that there were great fragments of London “that I have not just never visited but never heard of.” Indeed, there are some subjects that are so immense that no matter how much one reads or visits there remains more to know and master.
Such is the case with the profitable life and exhilarating thought of the early Christian theologian, Augustine (354-430). Regularly, many still find that when reading Augustine there is much “that I have not just never visited but never heard of.” Still further, historian Philip Schaff spoke of Augustine’s epoch inaugurating life as “towering like a pyramid above his age, and looking down commandingly upon succeeding centuries.” If the study of Augustine starts with a lowly look up an insurmountable precipice, even though rich and edifying, why start something that cannot be mastered? The answer resides in the irony of Augustine himself. Even though it is right to speak of his theological stature with a conglomeration of superlatives, the more one reads Augustine, the more it is clear that Augustine would be doing anything but looking down upon anyone. It is the humility of this giant that removes the question of inaccessibility and draws one to embark up just a few steps “of this pyramid” in order not to conquer him, but follow instead.
If the study of Augustine starts with a lowly look up an insurmountable precipice, even though rich and edifying, why start something that cannot be mastered?
The world of Augustine’s early years, explains biographer Peter Brown, was a world of farmers. Born in the town of Thagaste in modern day Algeria, Augustine’s parents worked hard to give him a classical education, the one vehicle available to take to find a life free from impoverishment. Augustine wrote very little about his father but his mother, Monica, served as a centerpiece of his life, even when Augustine strayed far from her and her Christianity. At 17, he attended university in Carthage, spending his non-study time chasing every physical desire he had following women as “an ox goes to the slaughter” (Prov 7:22). These sins that so easily entangled him held him. While he sought aid he found no remedy, only continual relapse. Augustine drank from a variety of religions seeking to quench his thirsty vice, but dissatisfaction led him finally to the heresy cult Manichaeism. After nine years of faithful practice, Augustine found this belief system too had failed. Meanwhile, by consequence of a steady relationship with a concubine, he fathered a son.
After school, Augustine settled in Milan and worked as a professor. In contrast to his personal life, he excelled in his pursuit of the life of the mind. By the age of 30, he realized many of his career ambitions, but found no rest from his sins. His mother joined him in Milan, and though separated from his mistress, he continued his intoxication with other women. Perhaps at the encouragement of his mother and his own spiritual bankruptcy, Augustine began attending the Church of Milan under the care of the widely regarded bishop, Ambrose. In Ambrose, Augustine found an intellectual counterpart, one who could demolish the volleys of the Manicheans and through whom he began to hear the voice of God. Augustine wrote of Ambrose, “I found nothing in his teachings that offended me, though I could not yet know for certain whether what he taught was true. For all this time I restrained my heart from assenting to anything, fearing to fall headlong into error. Instead, by this hanging in suspense, I was being strangled.”
In Ambrose, Augustine found an intellectual counterpart, one who could demolish the volleys of the Manicheans and through whom he began to hear the voice of God.
The strangling intensified the internal battle of Augustine’s desire for freedom from his sins that he knew he could not control and from which he had yet to find a way of escape. Retreating to a courtyard near his home, he came to a moment of deep contrition and hopelessness when he heard the sound of a neighboring child chanting, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” Taking this as a command from God, he opened the Bible, and read the first passage his tearful eyes saw, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14). “Instantly,” he said, “at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” Augustine sought his mother and, to her great joy, told her of his conversion. Ambrose baptized Augustine at the next Easter service just months before Augustine’s mother would pass away. Augustine returned to Africa, seeking to lead a secluded life to pursue philosophical thought. While consenting to serve in the church more broadly, he avoided any town where there was no bishop, for he feared the responsibility of such an office. Yet, during a visit to the town of Hippo, he was implored into service as a priest. After a few years of preparation, he became bishop of Hippo. For the next thirty-three years until his death, the pinnacle of Augustine’s influence and theological contribution would rise to such heights that would alter the future of Christianity. While this included significant theological debates and the crafting of written works of classic literature, the student in search of Augustine the theologian misses everything if he fails to see Augustine the pastor.
While this included significant theological debates and the crafting of written works of classic literature, the student in search of Augustine the theologian misses everything if he fails to see Augustine the pastor.
Augustine’s achievements, however defined, came as a result of the everyday service of the people of God. The role of Augustine’s major literary works in his life and ministry should be seen like the crooked staff in the hands of a shepherd. Augustine used these writings to direct gently the gaze of his sheep toward God while fighting off heretical enemies seeking to steal and destroy. In his Confessions, Augustine recounts the first thirty-three years of his life but with an absence of vanity rarely achieved in autobiography. Written in the form of prayers, the testimony of the work of God to overcome Augustine’s sin enables the reader to see the source of Augustine’s humility. Like the woman who anointed Jesus with the alabaster flask, Augustine’s Confessions are a tribute to his great love to the God who forgave his “many sins” (Luke 8:47).
Justin Taylor has recently assembled several encouraging endorsements for the Confessions as they are rightly and regularly commended, of all of Augustine’s works, as the best place to start reading. On the Trinity provides Augustine’s development of the doctrine after Nicaea whereby he focuses on the double procession relationship of the Holy Spirit in binding the Father and the Son and, in turn, binding them to human believers. This is through the love of God “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). In The City of God, Augustine writes a defense of Christianity following the fall of Rome and provides what Robert Louis Wilken calls, “The first treatise to deal in depth with the relation of Christianity to social and political life.” The “city of God” consists of all those who love God. These citizens also simultaneously dwell in the “city of the world” comprised of those who love transient things.
Augustine towers but he doesn’t look down. Instead he gently guides and challenges one to follow.
Augustine’s life specifically impacted the sixteenth century Reformation, where B. B. Warfield has wryly noted that the Reformation “was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” Indeed, both Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants find common heritage in Augustine’s works. Both groups share the rejection of the major heresies Augustine fought. Roman Catholics developed further Augustine’s advocacy of the church as the result of his conflict with the Donatists, espousing a mixed body of believers and unbelievers, the understanding of sacraments as visible signs of grace, and the perpetuation of the episcopate. Evangelical Protestants, as Schaff said, “were led by his writings into a deeper understanding of Paul.” The debates with Pelagius led Augustine to articulate his understanding of the depth of humanity’s sinfulness “in Adam” compared to the generous and free gift of God’s grace “in Christ.” These doctrines would inspire Luther and Calvin to quote Augustine more than any other early church theologian.
Augustine truly towers over the intervening centuries in terms of his original thinking and longstanding influence. However, the theologian was also a shepherd of great humility never forgetting the depth of his own sin and the greatness of a gracious God. Augustine towers but he doesn’t look down. Instead he gently guides and challenges one to follow.
- Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo. University of California Press, 2000.
- James J. O’Donnell. Augustine: A New Biography. Harper Perennial, 2006.
- John Piper. The Legacy of Sovereign Joy. Crossway, 2000.
- Possidius, Life of Augustine.
- B. B. Warfield, Studies in Tertullian and Augustine. Oxford University Press, 1932.