Augustine of Hippo

Saint Augustin et Sainte Monique

Saint Augustin et Sainte Monique (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Augustine lived Nov. 13, 354 – Aug. 28 430 AD. He was the Bishop in Hippo in Northern Africa (modern day Algeria). He is widely considered the greatest Pre-Luther Theologian. Some consider him the greatest theologian in all of church history. Every Biblical scholar since Augustine has been influenced by Augustine. The amazing thing about Augustine was that he did not have an Augustine to lean on.

When Augustine came into the world,  the Church had possessed a New Testament Canon for around 150 years. Several things were unique about this era of time.

  • Latin was beginning to fall out of common use.
  • The Western Roman Empire was beginning to disintegrate.
  • The heretics were developing strategies and teachings that were not clearly addressed in the New Testament Canon.

The Early Years

Augustine was born to a devout Christian mother, Monica, and a Pagan father. At the age of 11 he began to distinguish himself as having a superior intellect and his parents decided to give him a superior education to fit.  At the age of 17 he was sent to Carthage to begin his education in Rhetoric.

It was around this time that he began to be enamored with a group of Heretics known as the Manichaeans. He remained an “auditor” of the religion for many years, which is the lowest level and not officially a member. The Manichaean religion was a new form of Gnosticm which the Apostle Paul had battled against. The Gnostics believed they had unique insight into God and salvation that wasn’t found in scripture.

  • They denied the Omnipotence of God and proposed that Satan and God were equal and opposite.
  • The believed creation is the result of a battle between God and Satan.
  • Man is not intrinsically evil, but rather some combination of Light and Dark.

Simultaneously, Augustine was at the height of puberty, which caused his battle with lust to escalate. Before he left for Carthage to study for three years, his mother warned him, “Do not to commit fornication and above all not to seduce any man’s wife.” Augustine writes, “I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.” He took a concubine during this period in Carthage and lived with this same woman for 15 years and had one son by her, Adeodatus.

It was during his education at Carthage that Augustine became very sexually promiscuous. During this time he uttered the prayer, “Lord Grant me chastity but not yet.” Of this period of life, Augustine wrote, “As I grew to manhood, I was inflamed with desire for a taste of hell’s pleasures. . . . My family made no effort to save me from my fall by marriage. Their only concern was that I should learn how to make a good speech and how to persuade others by my words.” In particular, he said his father, “took no trouble at all to see how I was growing in your sight [O God] or whether I was chaste or not. He cared only that I should have a fertile tongue.”

He quickly rose to the top of his class as one possessing both a keen intellect and a gift for communication. Augustine became a teacher of grammar following his graduation. He stayed in Carthage and taught for the next 9 years. Ultimately, he landed a job as a Professor of Rhetoric in the Imperial Court of Milan in 384 at the age of 30. Keep in mind during this time sexual sin did what sexual sin does – it began to escalate… Augustine was known to consort frequently with prostitutes.

His Conversion

His godly mother Monica had also moved to Milan in hopes of winning her son to Christ.  During this time she was a member of the Church in Milan under the Great Pastor Ambrose. Monica went to her Pastor to seek counsel about her son’s soul. Ambrose told Monica, “I don’t think God would so greatly burden a mother if He does not intend to save her son… keep praying for him.”

Monica prayed and tolerated his immoral life until finally Augustine officially joined the heretical Manichaeans Sect a sect that was hostile against Christianity. At that point Monica kicked him out of the house. It was said, “She could tolerate his whores, but not his heresy.”

In the summer of 386, Augustine decided to go and hear Ambrose preach. Not out of religious curiosity simply, but out of a professional desire to master the craft of good communication. However, while he was there he fell under deep conviction. It was then that the battle truly began. Augustine was convinced of the Christian faith, but seemed unable to get free from lust himself to follow Christ.

HE WRITES – I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes . . . In my misery I kept crying, “How long shall I go on saying ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?” . . . All at once I heard the singsong voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain ‘tolle lege’ ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.

So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting . . . seized [the book of Paul’s epistles] and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: “Not in reveling in drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites” (Romans 13:13-14). I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled. He was baptized the next Easter, 387, in Milan by Ambrose.

The Move to Hippo – 

In 388 (at almost 34) he returned to Africa, with a view to establishing a kind of monastery for him and his friends, whom he called “servants of God.” He had given up the plan for marriage and committed himself to celibacy and the monastic way. God had other plans. Augustine got the idea that it might be more strategic to move his monastic community to the larger city of Hippo. He chose Hippo because they already had a bishop, so there was less chance of his being pressed to take on that role. The church came to Augustine and basically forced him to be the priest and then the bishop of Hippo, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

In a sermon much later, Augustine said to his people, “A slave may not contradict his Lord. I came to this city to see a friend, whom I thought I might gain for God, that he might live with us in the monastery. I felt secure, for the place already had a bishop. I was grabbed. I was made a priest . . . and from there, I became your bishop.”

NOW IT WAS AS A BISHOP at the age of 36 that Augustine began his life’s work.

The Pelagius Controversy – 

Pelagius was a monk who lived in Rome in Augustine’s day and taught that “though grace may facilitate the achieving of righteousness, it is not necessary to that end.” He denied the doctrine of original sin, and asserted that human nature at its core is good and able to do all it is commanded to do.

When Pelagius arrived in Rome he frequently heard a prayer offered up to God, “Oh God, Grant what thou dost command, and command what thou dost desire.”  The now famous prayer was attributed to Augustine.

Pelagius recognized that Augustine was suggesting that God might command us to do something that without his granting (giving us enabling grace), we are morally incapable of doing. Augustine believed that the same God who commanded us to obey had to also give us the grace, the empowerment to obey. He had to grant our obedience. Augustine had taught extensively that God commanded men to be Holy, but that man had been RUINED by the Fall. This is known as the doctrine of original sin.

 Romans 5:12 (ESV) Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—

Remember God told Adam, “the day you eat of the fruit you will surely die.” When Adam sinned, he died spiritually, thus all who were born of Adam were born dead spiritually. When Paul says you were, “dead in your trespasses and sin” he is referring to the same kind of dead that Adam was the day he sinned. Adam served as the Covenant head of all his descendants. Just as apples produce apple trees, dogs produce dogs…. sinners reproduce sinners. So now God commands us to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, but we are morally incapable of doing so.

Our natures are totally void of any spiritual good – 

  • Rom. 7 – I know that nothing good dwells in me that is in my flesh.
  • Tit. 1:15 – to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted.
  • Jer. 17:9 – the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it.
  • Eph. 4:18 – darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.

Because of Adam, we are unable to do spiritual good before God – 

  • Rom. 8:8 – those who are in the flesh CANNOT please God.
  • Joh. 15:5 – Apart from me you can do nothing.
  • Joh. 8:34 – everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
  • Isa. 64:6 – All of our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
  • Psalm 14:3 (ESV) 3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.
c. 1480

c. 1480 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thus Augustine argued that God must impart GRACE for us to be saved. Pelagius went on a tirade teaching that Augustine was wrong. Pelagius believed that man was morally capable of earning a right standing with God apart from God granting him the power to do so. He thought faith was helpful and grace was helpful but not necessary.

Augustine writes, A man’s free-will, indeed, avails for nothing except to sin, if he knows not the way of truth; and even after his duty and his proper aim shall begin to become known to him, unless he also take delight in and feel a love for it, he neither does his duty, nor sets about it, nor lives rightly. Now, in order that such a course may engage our affections, God’s “love is shed abroad in our hearts” not through the free-will which arises from ourselves, but “through the Holy Ghost, which is given to us” (Romans 5:5).

The Church in Augustines day universally condemned Pelagius as a Heretic. Augustine continues to be a source of inspiration for those committed to, “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”