Church history: Augustine "Father" of the Western Church


Augustine (354-430) has been called the most significant Christian theologian “since New Testament times.”1 He was born Augustinus Aurelius in the North African town of Tagaste, in today’s Algeria. His pagan father, Patricius, was a Roman official and his mother, Monica, was a devout Christian. They sent their son to a prestigious school in Carthage at age 17, where he studied rhetoric. The teenage Augustine took a young woman as a concubine, whom he kept for 15 years. She bore a son, Adeodatus, “given by God.”

Dabbling in philosophy

Augustine adopted Persian Manichaeism when he was 19. The philosophy failed to answer his nagging question about why evil exists, so he cast it aside after nine years. At age 29, Augustine decided to move to Rome. His mother, Monica, vexed by his lifestyle and interest in pagan philosophies, determined to chaperone him. He eluded her, sailing away secretly.

Augustine won a position as professor of rhetoric at Milan’s imperial court. He dabbled in the skeptical philosophy of the Academics and then adopted Neoplatonism around age 32, which would infuse itself into his theology.2

Augustine’s mother caught up with him at Milan, imploring him to attend the congregation of the illustrious Bishop Ambrose (340-397). Augustine agreed, because Ambrose was known as a good orator. Ambrose was able to decisively answer Augustine’s objections about the Bible and the Christian faith. Augustine now began an ambivalent struggle against his fleshly pulls. This conflict is poignantly summarized in his plea to the Lord in his retrospective spiritual autobiography, Confessions, “Give me chastity and continency,only not yet.”3

Conversion and baptism

Augustine’s conversion occurred in the summer of 386. In his Confessions he describes his tearful prayer in a Milan garden setting, beseeching God to purify his unclean thoughts and habits:

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 neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.”4

Augustine ran to the bench, where he had left the book of Romans.

I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eye 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” (Romans 13:13).5

Augustine explains that when he read the passage “there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”6 After prebaptism study and counseling, the 33-year-old Augustine and his son were baptized by Bishop Ambrose on Easter evening, April 24, 387. He mentions this baptism in a meaningful sentence in his Confessions, “We were baptized, and anxiety for our past life vanished from us.”7 He  progressively left his old life, his career in rhetoric and his concubine.8

Soon after his baptism, Augustine was struck with a double tragedy. His devoted mother died unexpectedly and so did his teen-age son, Adeodatus. After a period of deep grief, Augustine sailed for North Africa in August 388. He hoped to live an ascetic and contemplative life studying the Scriptures and writing theological expositions. His expectation was quickly dashed. While attending church at Hippo in 391, he was put on the spot by Bishop Valerius, who openly prayed that “someone” — think Augustine! — would come to shepherd the congregation.

Augustine was virtually drafted into the priesthood by bishop and laity and ordained in 391. Four years later, at age 42, he was ordained co-bishop of Hippo. The elderly Valerius soon passed away and Augustine became full bishop.

He would also continue to write extensively throughout his life. Augustine authored more than 100 major Christian treatises, 200 letters and 400 sermons, covering important areas of Western Christian theology. Luther, Calvin and Roman Catholic theologians each appealed to Augustine’s writings during the Protestant Reformation, leading to his being thought of as the “forerunner of the Reformation.”9

For more than four decades Augustine wrote, combated heresies and dealt with church and pastoral problems. He died on August 28, 430 as the Vandal siege of Hippo was in its third month.

Endnotes

1 Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1 (HarperCollins, 1984), 216, 212.

2 Some theologians, Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance in particular, believe the influence of Platonic dualism is a major structural fault in Augustine’s theology. Torrance says he heard Barth go so far as to refer to his theology as süses Gift! — “sweet poison” in German! On the other hand, Torrance speaks of Augustine’s De Trinitate as among a class of “supremely great” works of Christian theology. See Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, Thomas F. Torrance, pages 4-7, 122, 138, 156, 172, 185, 189, 194, 197.

3 Augustine, Confessions, translated by E. B. Pusey.

4 William C. Placher, Readings in the History of Christian Theology, page 105, “The Confessions,” book 8, chapter 12.29.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Augustine, Confessions, translated by E. B. Pusey.

8 At this time Augustine betrothed himself to a young girl at his mother’s encouragement, but his affianced bride was too young for marriage. He then took another concubine for a short time.

9 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, volume 3, pages 1017-18, 1020.

Author: Paul Kroll

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