I was a bit over ambitious at the beginning of the year. I had been reading various things from Aurelius Augustinus of Hippo and I was surprised at how much I connected with what he had to say. I guess I rather stupidly assumed that 1600 years was a long time and that anyone writing during that period would be so different in outlook to me that what they produced would be dry and difficult reading. But from the moment I picked up his book “Confessions” to when I put it down I was captured by Augustine’s brutal honesty about his own struggles and the stunningly personal way he connected with and spoke to God. While I am an intellectual pygmy compared to Augustine and while his walk with God was much more pious and full than my own there is still a real sense in which I feel like him. To Augustine everything was about God; all of life was about him and everything in one way or another works to bring God glory. Through the confessions there is a sense of the relentless and irresistible pursuit of God after Augustine, a demonstration of grace and patience and a sovereign ordering of events that puts God right at the heart of everything; that I connect with and feel too.
But… I was over ambitious because in agreeing to write something about Augustine I imagined that I could give a brief overview of his life, make some comments about The Confessions and The City of God, and then finally talk about the main contributions of his thinking to Christian theology.
That is not going to happen. Within a short time of beginning to write it became apparent that there is too much to say about his life, and if I do what I think I should then his theology will come out as we look at his life. You see confessions is marvellous because it isn’t just an autobiography; it is the story of God and Augustine. The way he talks about things , his life, his struggles and his thinking all speak volumes about his theology and I guess for many of us that is what makes the book so wonderful. So what follows is the briefest introduction to the life of Augustine of Hippo with some scattered quotes to show you how he thinks.
Augustine as born in the year 354 AD in an African city called Tagaste which is in what we know as Algeria today. In the time that Augustine lived, North Africa was a very different place to the 21st century; it was part of the Roman Empire and good education and relative affluence were part of his experience. Augustine spent the early years of his education at a school in a place called Madaurus and when he was 15 and family money had run out he returned to studies and life at home.
Even early on in his life Augustine was a serious thinking boy, he was obvious academically very able and his parents Monica and Patricius wanted him to pursue a good career in teaching. But all was not well as Augustine tells us that his heart was a long way from God and he was struggling with sin particularly during those years back at home with nothing to do. You know how it goes; you fall in with the wrong crowd and very quickly things go all wrong.
It was during that period, when he was sixteen that we have the famous pear tree incident. Let me read you Augustine’s own account of it.
Theft is punished by Thy law, O Lord, and by the law written in men’s hearts, which iniquity itself cannot blot out. For what thief will suffer a thief? Even a rich thief will not suffer him who is driven to it by want. Yet had I a desire to commit robbery, and did so, compelled neither by hunger, nor poverty through a distaste for well-doing, and a lustiness of iniquity. For I pilfered that of which I had already sufficient, and much better. Nor did I desire to enjoy what I pilfered, but the theft and sin itself. There was a pear-tree close to our vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was tempting neither for its colour nor its flavour. To shake and rob this some of us wanton young fellows went, late one night (having, according to our disgraceful habit, prolonged our games in the streets until then), and carried away great loads, not to eat ourselves, but to fling to the very swine, having only eaten some of them; and to do this pleased us all the more because it was not permitted. Behold my heart, O my God; behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon when in the bottomless pit. Behold, now, let my heart tell Thee what it was seeking there, that I should be gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved to perish. I loved my own error not that for which I erred, but the error itself. Base soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction not seeking aught through the shame but the shame itself 1
Now to me that is typical Augustine, certainly Augustine in the confessions: he takes his mind back to an incident in the past and he examines it carefully from lots of different angles and he does so particularly with reference to how it demonstrated his connection or lack of it with God.
And it is in this deep looking into his own heart and his own wickedness that that he seems to connect with the most force to many of us.
Listen to his analysis of why he took the pears, again from book two of the confessions.
Those pears truly were pleasant to the sight; but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had abundance of better, but those I plucked simply that I might steal. For, having plucked them, I threw them away, my sole gratification in them being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy.2
It is true that we sin sometimes because we get material gain from it. But the disturbing thing to me is that we often sin not because gain anything from it but rather because it is an addiction to the pleasure of doing wrong, being naughty, the love of rebellion itself.
The pears themselves are nothing at one level and yet at another level they reveal perfectly the problem that we have: sin is enslaving and addictive and pulls us in so easily. Augustine’s own comments on this remind me of John Piper’s contention that we are always seeking happiness and pleasure and that seeking in itself is not a bad thing, it is rather a bad thing when we try and find the pleasure in something other than God or in something separate from God as if the things we have don’t come from him.
Thus doth the soul commit fornication when she turns away from Thee, and seeks without Thee what she cannot find pure and untainted until she returns to Thee.3
That pattern of looking for fulfilment and happiness continues in his life over the next few years.
When he was 17 he was sent to Carthage to continue his studies in rhetoric, this is a little like college and university and there He tells us in his autobiography that he read a book by the Roman Philosopher Cicero called Hontensius, a book that had a profound effect on him and for the first time got him thinking seriously about life and God. But instead of getting involved with the Bible and the church Augustine got involved with the Manicheans. The Manicheans were a Gnostic sect that came out of Persia, mixing bits of Christianity with bits of other religions and taught all sorts of strange ideas about the cosmic struggles between light and darkness, the spiritual world and the material world and essentially were dualistic in their view of how things work (Matter is evil – Spiritual is good). I think Augustine found them attractive because at first their arguments and ideas seemed to tie in with his own experiences of struggling with evil and sin and they had some very able people who carried Augustine along with their passion and devotion to their beliefs. But Augustine became increasingly troubled by inconsistencies in what they taught and when he questioned them he was told that everything would be made plain when a leader in the sect called Faustus (a Manichean bishop) arrived in Carthage.
Now as I say Augustine was not just looking for spiritual answers during this time, he was also trying to find answers by pursing pleasure in many forms. During that time in Carthage Augustine lives what by 21st century western standards would seem a very normal life. He gets a girl friend she ends up pregnant and he becomes the father of Adeodatus and for the next thirteen or more years Augustine and his lover are together, faithful as he says but it is not the same as marriage; there is something missing. He is also involved in the other pursuits that he regrets and repents of later. He is involved with the wreckers or Subverters as they were also known; a group of wasters who loved to cause trouble, bully younger students and boast about their sexual exploits. Augustine was so influenced by them and so keen to be accepted as one of them he even made up stories to tell them of his own actions even though they were complete fables, and he is ashamed as he looks back at all of that. He is ashamed of his complete immersion in the world of the plays. He finds his emotions deeply stirred by things he considers now to be foolish and silly.
Eventually his studies are completed and at 21 he returns to Tagaste to teach rhetoric in his home town. During this time his dear friend, a young man the same age as Augustine became very ill. He was so ill that while he was comatose his family had him baptised because they thought he was going to die. Augustine thought that was rather silly and when the friend recovered briefly Augustine joked with him about it. But his friend rebuked him and told him that if he was going to remain friends he should not talk about the baptism in such dismissive terms. It seems like this friend had either become a Christian or had suddenly had a change of heart about the Christian religion. Augustine was very confused by this but left it alone thinking he would talk to him when he was stronger. But is friend didn’t get stronger: he died.
At this sorrow my heart was utterly darkened, and whatever I looked upon was death. My native country was a torture to me, and my father’s house a wondrous unhappiness; and whatsoever I had participated in with him, wanting him, turned into a frightful torture. Mine eyes sought him everywhere, but he was not granted them; and I hated all places because he was not in them;4
He couldn’t bear it any longer so he left for Carthage, his college town and become a teacher of rhetoric there. Just as an aside this understanding of the tools and skills needed to speak and write, the skills of rhetoric obviously put Augustine in a good position to not only understand scripture and the way that the Bible writers form and construct their arguments but also gave him a good skill in constructing and presenting his own arguments and speeches. Interestingly in his book called “On Christian Doctrine” Augustine spends some considerable time discussing the difference between rhetoric and wisdom and without throwing out the need for clear and well constructed speech argues the need for content over form as the key thing in a bible teacher. I guess something we would all agree with. He has a rather neat little illustration about a key. He likens the sermon to a key and the point of the key is to unlock the text, unlock God’s word. In that way it doesn’t matter if it is a beautiful ornate key or a wooden key because the function of unlocking is the important thing. So likewise in preaching the style takes second place to the content or wisdom in the words. Although he does say clear, well put together words aid in that task.
But they are the reflections of an older, wiser Augustine. In the time that he spends at Tagaste and Carthage as teacher in rhetoric he was proud and arrogant and puffed up with his own excellence:
now I was head in the School of Rhetoric, whereat I rejoiced proudly, and became inflated with arrogance5
I mentioned earlier that Augustine was involved with the Manicheans and that wanted more answers that most of them could give him. When Augustine was in his late twenties Faustus finally arrived in Carthage and Augustine immediately set to work talking to him about his problems, quizzing him on the issues he was finding difficult and what he found was that although Faustus was an able speaker and had a natural ability to communicate well he lacked substance and he was even less well read than Augustine himself. This disappointment coupled with his increasing annoyance at the behaviour of the students, messing around, turning up late for lectures and sometimes not even bothering to turn up at all leads to a decision to leave Carthage and in 383 he sails to Rome.
Monica his mother who was a very passionate and devote Christian did not want here son to go. She was worried about his involvement with the Manicheans and was desperate for him to find real answers in the church but Augustine was set on going and in a moment of cowardly deception he leaves his mum praying in Carthage for the night and gets a boat for Rome with his woman and their son, Adeodatus.
But things are no better in Rome. The students may have been better behaved in that they didn’t disrupt the lessons and cause riots but they did stop coming to lessons before the course was out so that they didn’t have to pay their fees. Again this left Augustine disillusioned with things and began to look around for a way to move on.
This opportunity was provided by God when the city of Milan sent a message to Rome that they needed a teacher of Rhetoric and so Augustine was sent. And it’s really here that Augustine starts taking huge strides towards knowing God and being born again. In Milan the bishop or pastor was a man called Ambrose. Ambrose is himself quite remarkable: during his ministry as the pastor of the Church in Milan he refused to allow one of the Roman emperors to take communion, even to enter the church because of a massacre that he had committed and never repented of. Ambrose was apparently a much loved man because of his gentle and calm nature but he also must have had nerves of steel to refuse the emperor entrance to the church.
Augustine begins to meet with Ambrose and he is deeply impressed with him.
[Ambrose] received me like a father, and looked with a benevolent and episcopal kindliness on my change of abode. And I began to love him, not at first, indeed, as a teacher of the truth,which I entirely despaired of in Thy Church,but as a man friendly to myself. And I studiously hearkened to him preaching to the people, not with the motive I should, but, as it were, trying to discover whether his eloquence came up to the fame thereof, or flowed fuller or lower than was asserted; and I hung on his words intently, but of the matter I was but as a careless and contemptuous spectator; and I was delighted with the pleasantness of his speech, more erudite, yet less cheerful and soothing in manner, than that of Faustus.6
I take that as a good challenge to us as minsters to make our hospitality not a secondary and optional extra. It seems to me that we can become so concerned with the busyness of our business that we can forget that sometimes the young people who come through our churches need mentoring and discipling in a way that is not just achieved through pulpit ministry. I don’t say that to denigrate preaching because Ambrose’ preaching has a profound effect on Augustine, but I say it to remind myself that being friendly is part of the job.
Now this brings us to one of Augustine’s big problems with Christianity, namely the way that the Old Testament seemed to say such incomprehensible things about the way the universe has been made and deal with such ordinary flawed and uninspiring people. As Augustine listened to Ambrose, and increasingly listened not only to the form of the sermon but also the content so he was brought face to face with a way of handling the Old Testament that was different: allegorical. Now while we may have a problem with this way of handling the Bible it was used by God to open Augustine’s hard heart to looking at the Bible again. He had previously rejected it as crude and unhelpful but now he began to become much more serious about studying it and finding its deeper meaning. He started reading Paul’s letters and he was amazed that the wisdom and truth he had been so desperately searching for ever since reading Hortensius was right there in the New Testament.
Now at this stage in his life so many key things happened quite quickly. He had left Manichaeism behind, he had been reading and exploring Neo-Platonism which to his mind gave a much more satisfactory explanation for the idea of the spiritual than his former sect. He also lefts his lover in order to become engaged which was seen as a much more moral and politically sensible option (although this leaving was extremely painful to him even in later years looking back). His fiancée was only 11 years old so while he waited for her to grow up he took another lover but then after two years left her too.
During this time we have his famous prayer “Give me constancy (purity) – just not yet”
Various conversations and visits from friends happened. He heard about the conversion of a famous Roman Professor and he was moved deeply by it. And then a visit from a Christian and discussion about Saint Anthony of the Desert a man who had renounced all the temptations and trappings of the world to follow Christ by becoming a hermit and how this had affected two others who have given up their careers and lives to follow Jesus hit Augustine like a ton of bricks. There was no turning away from it; he knew he couldn’t put it off any longer, he had to either turn to Christ whole heartedly or he was a hypocrite. Augustine and his great friend Alypius were deeply impressed by this radical approach to Christianity and Augustine stumbled out into his garden to get some space to think about what it all meant.
And thus follows his famous conversion in his own words:
I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much unto Thee: and Thou, O Lord, how long? how long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words: How long, how long, “to-morrow, and tomorrow?” Why not now? why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness? So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read. ” Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly 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.7
Augustine was born again. And Adeodatus his son and Alypius his friend also both become believers.
Augustine was then taken ill and he continued working at his post as teacher of literature at Milan until the autumn but then he and Aylypius and his mother and his son and two young students plus two other relatives moved north to a mansion owned by a friend to recuperate. It was an extraordinary time of blessing for them all. They talked and debated and discussed many things during that time and as a result four or five books were written of their conversations and Augustine’s reflections.
They returned in the March 387 to Milan and Augustine became a Catechumen in the church, something like confirmation classes or Christianity Explored, a discipleship class that allowed people to explore the teachings of the Bible and prepare for baptism.
April 387 and Augustine, Adeodatus his son and Alypius his greatest friend together were baptised by Ambrose.
In 388 he started his return journey to North Africa and sadly on the journey home his mother Monica died. A heart breaking experience for Augustine and the first section of his Confessions finishes with the most moving prayers from Augustine for his mother and father. It was while he was Ostia with his mother waiting for a boat that they spoke about heaven and Augustine said he had a moment of pure knowledge a sort of vision a moment when things became clear. Six days later she died.
The last four chapters of Confessions are on Memory, Time, Matter and Creation and although some see this as a very odd way to end what is in many way a ground breaking autobiographical work it ties in very well with Augustine’s purpose in writing his most famous book: Augustine is keen to show us the soul’s journey to God. And that all ties in with the means God uses to bring all things to himself: memory and time, the business of spiritual realities and the means of creation are all part of Augustine’s theology of redemption.
Upon returning to North Africa Augustine started a sort of monastery in his old Family house so that he and some friends could devote themselves to studying scripture and growing in devotion. Two more tragedies struck: a great friend Nebridius whom Augustine had hoped would join him in Tagaste died and then his own son Adeodatus died at age 17.
Augustine was not really interested in public life and so avoided travelling at this stage but he was called up to Hippo a very old town on the coast to visit someone who wasn’t yet a Christian. He attended the church in Hippo on the very Sunday that the then Bishop stated they needed to find a successor. As was not unusual in the day the congregation started chatting Augustine’s name and so 391AD he was made a presbyter in the church and then after another five years of preaching and teaching the people of the town he was appointed as Bishop.
For 34 years he worked tirelessly as Bishop in Hippo. He was a powerful speaker, a keen defender of the faith and a proflic writer. He spoke and wrote against the Manicheans, the Donatists and other sects but probably his most famous controversy was was the British Monk Pelegius. Interestingly the two never met but Augustine was so persuaded that Pelegius’ ideas were a denial of the gospel that he debated and wrote at great length against him and his followers. In many ways this was the great debate of the fifth century for the North African Church, maybe even the whole church. Pelegius and his disciple Celestius were excommunicated, forgiven and welcomed back and the excommunicated again. The church was struggling to get it’s head around what salvation by grace meant and Augustine was God’s man for the moment to help God’s people think it through and see the issues.
Pelagius taught that we can choose to obey God’s commands and that God would not command something it was impossible for us to do. Essentially pelagianism teaches that we can save ourselves because we have free will and can choose God. At root it is salvation by obedience. Augustine was clear: we are fallen in Adam and we by nature are inclined to evil and so what we need is regeneration, transformation. In struggling with his own sin Augustine has a very memorable phrase “Give what you command and command what you will” meaning that in order to obey God’s commands we need the work of the Holy Spirit. We are not free until he sets us free and we need him to work in us so we can obey him. There is no salvation by self effort.
Semi-pelaginanism followed this controversy and Augustine opposed that too. They idea of the semi-pelagianists (Arminians as we would call them today) is that while we cannot save ourselves we can cry out for help; “A sick man cant heal himself but he can call for a doctor”. But that for Augustine was again to misunderstand how dead in sin and rebellion we are and even repentance itself is a gift of God.
Augustine died in 430AD just as the Vandals were surrounding the city of Hippo. 80,000 men had crossed over the Straits of Gibraltar and were moving along the top of Africa. Christians were being killed and many pastors were looking to Augustine for advice on what to do. He told them to remain in their positions all the time there were Christians there to serve. It was brave advice and he followed it himself. He had remained firm and faithful during his ministry and God spared him the sight of the city being ransacked.
Augustine was a prolific writer. According to lists of his works there are over one hundred separate titles in his writings. You will no doubt of heard of his two most famous: Confessions and The City of God.
Confessions I have already quoted at various points and I would suggest is well worth a read I have read it a number of times now over the last year or so and found it the most helpful of all the things I have read from him.
The City of God is massive, it is long; about four times as long as confessions and I have to say I found it extremely hard going. Chapter after chapter at the beginning about different reasons for suicide and why they are all wrong, and then when he gets to his main material which is a comparison between the Roman Empire: the City of Man, and the Eternal purposes of God: the City of God his basic argument is clear but so long that I long concentration too many times. Now that of course may simply be a reflection on my own ability to follow things but I did find it heavy going.
He also wrote commentaries on Genesis, Psalms and Romans as well as numerous letters and sermons.
His works on Theology most famously include
On the Trinity – which I haven’t read yet and
On Christian Doctrine – Which I have. I assumed this would be a type of systematic theology but it’s not really. It looks as such interesting topics of how to correctly pronounce and translate the Bible into Latin, how to distinguish between signs and things and what category words themselves fit into.
One thing in “On Christian Doctrine” that I did find tremendously challenging was his comments of preparation for preaching:
And so our Christian orator, while he says what is just, and holy, and good (and he ought never to say anything else), does all he can to be heard with intelligence, with pleasure, and with obedience; and he need and so far as he succeeds, he will succeed more by piety in prayer than by gifts of oratory; and so he ought to pray for himself, and for those he is about to address, before he attempts to speak. And when the hour is come that he must speak, he ought, before he opens his mouth, to lift up his thirsty soul to God, to drink in what he is about to pour forth, and to be himself filled with what he is about to distribute. For, as in regard to every matter of faith and love there are many things that may be said, and many ways of saying them, who knows what it is expedient at a given moment for us to say, or to be heard saying, except God who knows the hearts of all? And who can make us say what we ought, and in the way we ought, except Him in whose hand both we and our speeches are? 8
What a challenge! More will be achieved by piety in prayer than gifts of oratory, isn’t that a rebuke to those of use who think we can speak well and an encouragement to those of us who feel weak in speech.
The other work of real interest is “Retractions” which was a review of some of his earlier material and then corrections he makes to ideas and opinions expressed there.
Some Odd Views
Baptismal Regeneration: Confessions 9:3 – Changed by the time we get to City of God “For whatever unbaptized persons die confessing Christ, this confession is of the same efficacy for the remission of sins as if they were washed in the sacred font of baptism.”
Interpretation of Scripture – Very allegorical (Ambrose’ influence)
Five husbands – Five Senses
Teeth like sheep – Teeth of the church whyby they tear men away from the world
Neo-Platonic views on time and existence (Bertrand Russell says this changed in later life – Bertrand Russell History of western Philosophy Book II Chapter IV)
“The Virgin Mary “conceived as virgin, gave birth as virgin and stayed virgin forever”
Books to read:
Augustine for Armchair Theologians – Stephen Cooper
The Triumph of Grace – Nick Needham (Grace Publications)
Augustine: A Mother’s Son – Dolina MacCuish (CFP)
Augustine: A Brief Introduction – (OUP)
Things worth listening to:
Augustine – Mike Reeves
City of God – Nick Needham
(c) Paul Lintott – Given at the Teeside Minister’s Fraternal 2009