Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) is one of the giants of church history. In the fifteen-hundred-year span between the apostle Paul and Martin Luther, no one looms larger in the minds of most Protestants. With the possible exception of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, his influence as a theologian is unparalleled. And his memoir, Confessions, is given a place in literature as the first recorded memoir. Augustine was an African, and it is fitting that this man of such great stature is still read and debated today, when the African church, having come full circle, is again a center of vibrancy and scholarship.
As a youth, Augustine finds himself in “the thorny branches of sex and temptation.” He also sows his wild oats for several years as an adherent of Manichaeism, a dualistic religion in which the spiritual realm is manifested in conflict between light and darkness, spirit and body. There is no good God who reigns supreme; individuals are essentially on their own, seeking knowledge to save themselves.
Manichaeism eventually proves to be intellectually unsatisfying for Augustine, who turns to skepticism and then to Neo-Platonism, a philosophy extolling truth, goodness, and beauty. This intellectual shift parallels a geographical move from Carthage to Rome. From Rome he moves to Milan, where his mother joins him and soon becomes enamored with Ambrose and influences her son to attend his sermons. All the while, Augustine is moving away from a philosophical worldview toward orthodox Christianity.
His “garden conversion” is the spiritual climax of his memoir. While weeping in a garden, Augustine overhears a child’s voice calling, “Take up and read.” Augustine takes this as a sign from God, and reaches for a manuscript of Paul. There his eyes fall on these words: “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”
“Instantly at the end of this sentence,” he writes, “by a light of serenity infused into my heart, all darkness of doubt fled away.” Biographers and historians have pointed out that this was a conversion to a celibate monastic life as much as a recommitment to the Christian faith of his heritage and that it had been some time in coming.
On Easter Sunday 387, Ambrose baptizes Augustine, who leaves behind his teaching position to immerse himself in Scripture. He then returns to Africa to live quietly in his hometown as a monk, but the locals recognize his capabilities and elect him to be their priest. Then, in 395, only eight years after his baptism, he is elected bishop of Hippo. Unlike many bishops of the era, he seeks to retain a monastic way of life while preaching several times a week and writing more than a thousand treatises in addition to extensive correspondence.
During the course of his bishopric, several controversies arise between Augustine and other sects. One of these is with the Donatists, a sect arising in the aftermath of the Great Persecution of Emperor Diocletian. When Imperial officials demand that Christians hand over the Scriptures under penalty of death, some Christians surrender their manuscripts and are considered traditors by the Donatists.
The Donatists regard denial of the faith to be the ultimate crime against the church and against God; traditors are no longer part of the church. If someone is baptized by a traditor bishop, that baptism is invalid. In defense of priests and bishops who had surrendered the Scriptures, Augustine argues that the sacrament is valid irrespective of the sinfulness of the priest who administers it. The grace of Christ is operative in the sacrament; thus the worthiness of the priest is irrelevant. Grace is conferred through the sacrament.
Augustine’s most bitter theological controversies involve Pelagius, a devout and stout British monk, who teaches that individuals are responsible for their sins, even as they are for their good deeds. That humans inherit original sin from Adam he deems patently false; whether one sins or not is a matter of self-control and free will rather than determinism. Augustine, emphasizing God’s sovereignty and election, counters that our sinful nature propels us to sin and that no one has the innate capability to do good.
Yet Augustine knows above all else that God is entangled with mystery. “Since it is God we are speaking of,” he cautions, “you do not understand it. If you could understand it, it would not be God.”
Excerpted from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church
by Ruth A. Tucker