Old Dead Guys Notes #4– Augustine of Hippo

Old Dead Guys Notes #4– Augustine of Hippo

John Wiers, PhD 2020


  1. Most have seen him as the most influential theologian of the Christian church, especially in the Western Church.  G. McDermott: ‘more influential than anyone else other than Jesus and Paul.”
  • 354-430
  • He has been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and certainly there are very “catholic” elements in his theology, but he was also the fountainhead out of which Reformation theology developed.
  • While the Eastern Church was where most of the great issues of Christology were worked out, it was in the Western church, especially through Augustine’s influence that the great issues of sin and grace were hammered out.
  • He never wrote a Systematic Theology- the closest was his short summary, The Enchiridion— but he was a massive writer, turning out hundreds of tracts, treatises, letters, etc keeping several secretaries busy as he dictated to them.  One medieval Spanish theologian once quipped: “He who claims to have read them all is a liar.”
  • He was also a great preacher– some have said the greatest orator of the ancient world– usually preaching 4-6 times a week, often daily.  Most of his sermons were biblical expositions and we have a number of them, most notably those on the Gospel of John and the Psalms.  Some are full manuscripts, but others are simply the outlines taken down by the secretaries as he preached.  Most were done rather extemporaneously.  Once when the lector (scripture reader) read the wrong Psalm, he simply preached on it anyway without any prep and did so brilliantly.
  • He was a native of North Africa, born in a provincial town, Thagaste, in what is today Algeria.
  •  Although he spent a number of his adult years in Rome and Milan as a teacher of rhetoric before his conversion, he returned to N Africa where he eventually became bishop of Hippo and a very active churchman.
  •  We know more about his life than any other early church figure because he left behind his Confessions, an autobiographical account of his conversion and early life as a believer. It was in the form of a prayer. 
  1. Most of the medieval theology in the West is a series of footnotes on his work– some have said Reformation theology is as well. 
  1. His philosophical bent was more intuitive, rather than deducing from particulars, especially sensory, such Aristotle advocated. 
  1. His life
    1. A was the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, Monica.  His father prohibited him from being baptized as an infant, but his mother prayed for his conversion all of his rather wild youth until he was converted at age 33.

          B. Although his mother has gone in history as a saint, she had a drinking problem, could be quite overbearing, and clearly very ambitious for her son.

          C. Although he was probably a native Berber speaking– about 20 % of Algerians today are still native Berber speakers and significant minorities in Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and other NA countries– his family was very Romanized and he received a fine classical education, with mastery of Latin and some Greek.

          D. He rebelled against his mother’s Christian influence and at age 17 he took a concubine, whom he came to love dearly and had a son with her who died when he was teenager.  Struggle with sexual desires seems to have been his most difficult area of sin to conquer.

          E. He seems to have been a bit of rascal as youth and in his Confessions tells the story of stealing pears just for the fun of it which brought him great guilt later in his life. 

          F. His conversion came in three stages, as he wrestled with different philosophies.

  1. The first stage was a detour into Manichaeism– a dualistic philosophy/religion with Persian roots.  He never became a full convert, but was a “listener” for about a decade.
  2. He studied Neo-Platonic philosophy for a period and this had great influence on his thinking, including how he developed some of his later Christian theology– for example he tended to see evil more as privation than as an actual thing, it was the absence of good.  This freed him from the dualism of the Manicheans.
  3. When he moved to Milan, he was attracted to the polished rhetorical preaching of Ambrose at the main church, at first only going to hear the fine speaking.

          G. He was in contact with a group of skeptics who challenged both his M’ism and his neo-Platonic philosophy, but he was obviously searching.  Yet he main issue was moral.  He was well aware of basic Christian belief from his upbringing and his attendance at Ambrose’s sermons.  Yet he claimed he prayed: ‘give me chastity, but not yet.”

          H.  When challenged by Ambrose to read the Bible, he and some others started reading Romans, but his pursuit was still primarily intellectual.  He had laid his Bible down and was relaxing when he heard a little girl say, Tolle Lege– Latin for take up and read.  He took this as a divine sign and picked up his Bible where he had left off reading and it was at Romans 13: 14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

  1. He was converted, and by his claim it was direct and instantaneous and wholly from God.  It was clearly moral in nature and not primarily intellectual

          J. Since chastity had been his key moral issue, he took vows of perpetual chastity and sent his concubine (who was of humble origins) back to N Africa, in spite of the fact that his overjoyed mother had a 10 year old girl of upper class background that she wanted him to marry.

          K. He was baptized and returned to N Africa where he and some friends formed a monastic community.

          L. He wanted to lead a life of quiet contemplation, but he was rather forcibly ordained as a presbyter and a few years later forcibly ordained as bishop of Hippo, the main town in that area.  He served as bishop until his death.

          M. He became the main preacher at the church and was involved in theological disputes with the Manicheans, the Donatists (a schismatic, yet orthodox group) and the Pelagians.

          N.  In his final years Rome was sacked by the Germanic Goths and they were on the doorstep of Hippo when he died.  He wrote his famous philosophy of history, The City of God in response to those shocks.

III. Augustine’s Theology

  1. Most of his theology was written in response to heretical movements that he needed to address.
  • The center core of this theology was love– the 2 fold love command– our failure to live up to this and redemption as rightly re-ordering our love.  He said Romans 8:26 was the HS’s groaning to make us lovers of God.
  • He wrote on several key areas– we’ll focus on 2, but highlight a couple of others. He also wrote extensively against the Manicheans, the group he had followed for a number of years as a young man. 
  • The Donatist controversy was already in full swing when he became bishop of Hippo.
  • The Donatists were theologically orthodox, but schismatic.  Some had actually turned violent and become a public menace. 
  • They came into being when some bishops buckled under persecution.
  • The “non-bucklers,” the strict and strong ones, said that anyone who buckled was not a true bishop and thus their churches and baptisms were not valid.
  • A argued that a sacrament was valid if and when it was correctly done by the authority of the church and did not depend on the moral quality of the administrator.
  • He tried every means to get the Donatists back including force and many returned, but the Donatist church remained in existence until Islam overran N Africa and virtually wiped out all Christianity.

E. The City of God

  1. This was in response to the sacking of Rome and the charge from Roman pagans that it was the Christian’s fault.
  2. A wrote that our citizenship was in the eternal, not the earthly city and that our problem is that we love the earthly city- our loves need to be reoriented.
  3. Along the way he addressed the claims of the pagan critics, showing them to be wrong.
  4. The church was not the City of God- it was a mixed group– but it was the place where the City of God was manifested.

F. The Trinity

  1. A is the most influential figure on the Trinity and it is the only work of his theology that is not directly an answer to a heresy or a crisis.
  2. He worked on it for years.  He once was alleged to have said about the Trinity: ‘If you deny it you will lose your salvation, but if you try to understand it you will lose your mind.”
  3. He was familiar with the earlier work by Athanasius and builds on it, but was less familiar with that of the eastern theologians, the Cappadocians who came after Athanasius. He consolidated much of the work on that doctrine by those who had gone before.
  4. He wrote a massive work, laying out the biblical evidence, but he also sought to explore implications and develop illustrations.
  5. His most famous illustration is that we reflect the Trinity, not in that we are composed of 3 parts– so-called trichotomy (body, soul, spirit) but that we are memory, intellect and will.
  6. A admitted that it wasn’t a perfect illustration, but he thought it could be useful.
  7. He was most noted, though, for seeing the Trinity in terms of love.  The Father eternally loves the Son and the Holy Spirit is the bond of love between them.
  8. This is crucial because it shows that the Trinity is not an extraneous doctrine, but at the heart of the Christian faith so that we can understand that God is love at the core of who He is.
  9. The main criticism of his doctrine of the Trinity is that he emphasized the unity of being more than the distinction of persons which the Eastern theologians, the Cappodicians in particular did.  This debate still goes on today. 

G. The Pelagian controversy

  1. This perhaps A’s most controversial doctrine.
  2. Pelagius was a British monk who had come to Rome and was appalled at the low moral level he found there.
  3. Pelagius read what A said about sin and grace and claimed that it gave people excuses to sin.
  4. Pelagius believed that sin had not affected us much, we could be perfect if we wanted to be– he believed a few Old Testaments saints actually were, and that grace ought primarily to be seen as good teaching and good examples that God gives us to do better.  Pelagius’s commitment to any real understanding of grace was “ambivalent and ambiguous.” (Roger Olson)  Pelagius believed that “ought means can.”  God wouldn’t have told us to be perfect, Matthew 5:48if we couldn’t be perfect. 
  5. Pelagius said we come into this world innocent and only sin because we’ve seen bad examples.  God is like a coach and grace because his encouragement from the sidelines. 
  6. Pelagius said death was not the result of sin, but simply a biological necessity.  A refuted this and said that the fact of death was one of the key proofs that original sin and original guilt is true.
  7. While Pelagius’s theology may sound humane to many, it was really oppressive because it offers no real hope. It was “stern and chilling.” Yet JIP says that Pelagianism is the “default position of the sincere, religious, but unrepentant heart…. It is also the assumption of the keen, zealous Christian who has little or no interest in doctrine.”
  8. A took up his pen in a whole series of pamphlets and small books, known collectively as the Anti-Pelagian writings, that answered Pelagius and his chief followers, Celestius and Julian, who were actually better advocates of his point of view than he was.  A actually admitted that his earlier handling of the subject had been incorrect and he followed the biblical logic of where his refutation of Pelagius lead him. 
  9. A developed the first comprehensive doctrine of original sin.  Even though his Latin translation of Romans 5:12 was not perfect he gave the correct sense of Paul’s argument in Romans 5 and other texts to show that we were born in sin.
  10. A argued from scripture that this meant that although humans still had “free will” of a sort, that free will was in bondage to a sinful nature and thus could only do sin until freed by the grace of God.– He said there were 4 stages of freedom
    1. As originally created, Adam had the freedom to sin or not to sin.
    1. After the fall we lost the freedom not to sin, although we are free to sin in many various ways.
    1. Those who are regenerated by a sovereign act of God regain the freedom to be able not to sin, but not so as we still can’t sin
    1. In heaven, we will be confirmed in righteousness and not able to sin.  This is crucial, because the Pelagian and later Semi-Pelagian definitions of freedom– always liberty to do the contrary would mean that “free will” is actually lost in heaven.

III. Augustine’s significance

  1. Some have said that the legacy of A between Romans Catholics and Reformational Protestants is what portions of Augustine would be emphasized.
  2. Protestants emphasized his views of original sin, election and a wholly gracious conversion.
  3. RCs emphasize his sacramental system– he believed in baptismal regeneration and conceded that unbaptized infants could not go to heaven.
  4. Although John Gerstner valiantly tries to claim A as teaching sola fide, he really believed that justification was a process, much like traditional RC theology, but he believed it was all totally by unmerited grace and he seems to have believed that we can have assurance of salvation.  There are similarities to how Irenaeus and Athanasius used the knowledge of Sonship as the source of that assurance. 
  5. His emphasis on the Trinity as communion of love has been central to most discussions of that doctrine ever since and is crucial for us to understand the Trinity– God loves us not because he is lonely, but as an outflow of his loving being.
  6. His view of the validity of the sacraments in the Donatist controversy is still the standard view in virtually all orthodox branches of the faith.
  7. His philosophy of history and understanding of how we relate to the world around us as outlined in the City of God is still the most influential discussion of that and should be revisited by some who get too carried away with “Christian America.”
  8. His model of patiently working, preaching and correcting a church that was a mixed bag is an important reminder that “pure” churches exist nowhere in this fallen world and the work of the church is a hospital for the sin-sick, not a place for pure and nearly sinless people.