Augustine is often considered the greatest historian in the first 1000 years of the Western church. His life story is inspiring, his many books are still worth reading. His thinking defined much of the theology of the church, including that of the Protestant Reformers.
The life of Augustine
Aurelius Augustine was born in 354 AD in Tagaste, North-Africa, as son of a heathen father (Patricius) and a devout Christian mother (Monica). He received a good education. During his wild high school years in Carthage, Augustine went in search of redemption. This led him to the Manicheans (see below).
After a short career as a teacher, Augustine continued his studies in Rome and Milan. There he became a Christian. Later he was appointed priest, then bishop in the city of Hippo (near his hometown). Augustine died in 430 AD.
Augustine’s spiritual journey
Manicheism was a Gnostic religion based on the teachings of Mani (216-276 AD). Mani attempted to synthesize and improve the teachings of Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus. Like all ancient Gnosticism, Manicheism was dualistic: the good spiritual world was in constant opposition to the evil material world. People were supposed to free themselves from their physical limitations by a life of asceticism.
For Augustine, the Manichean message was not enough. He rejected it but did not immediately become a Christian. He thought the Christian Scriptures to be crude and unsophisticated, especially the physicality of the Old Testament.
When in Milan Augustine heard bishop Ambrose, he changed his attitude. Ambrose was not only eloquent but also provided an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, which suited Augustine much better. The final decision came when one day, Augustine heard a voice nearby say: “Take and read!” He took up a Bible and what he read convinced him to become a Christian.
Augustine vs. Pelagius
While Augustine was bishop, he interacted with the teachings of a British monk by the name of Pelagius. Pelagius had an uncommonly “low” view of human sinfulness, but his teachings gained popularity. According to Pelagius, human beings are only sinful because they follow bad examples; in principle they could freely choose to live a good life, without needing the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Augustine (who had radically broken with the message of self-redemption of the Manicheans!) opposed Pelagius strongly. He emphasized that Adam’s fall had made all humans incapable of doing any saving good. Only the Holy Spirit can instill good in people. Thus, faith and faithful living are gracious gifts of God.
In the course of his career, Augustine worked out what this means. He developed the concept of effectual grace, God’s saving power in people that brings them to faith and enables them to do what is right. Augustine also developed the doctrine of election: out of the fallen human race, God chose those whom he would give faith and salvation, independent of any quality or merit of these people. The others God would simply leave in their sin.
As a result of Augustine’s work, Pelagius was declared a heretic by the Council of Ephesus (431 AD). However, Augustine’s views of election and effectual grace were not officially adopted. Later, the Protestants (16th century) would take their starting point in this Augustinian teaching.
The City of God
Of Augustine’s many writings, the best known are his Confessions (an autobiography) and his City of God. This latter book was written in the chaotic context of fifth-century Rome. At this time there was increasing military, political, and economical trouble. This culminated when in 410 the city of Rome was invaded by barbarian tribes under leadership of Alaric. Eventually, in 476, the Western Roman Empire would fall when Odoacer set himself up as king in Italy.
The invasion and fall of Rome brought up many questions. For a century, the church had been closely linked to the glorious empire; how was she to continue?
In City of God, Augustine responds by outlining “two cities”, the “city of man” and the “city of God”. These are the secular world and God’s Kingdom as they develop side-by-side in history. Augustine describes their parallel histories but also points out the essential differences between the two.