Augustine of Hippo

August 28 is the day Augustine of Hippo is remembered, since he died on that date in the year 430. Augustine was a pastor in North Africa who was also a prolific writer. His literary production helped to guide the thinking and history of Christianity during and after his lifetime.

Augustine’s mother was Christian, but first he did not follow her example of faith. He learned Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, and then he toyed with the religion called Manichaeism, a blend of Christian concepts and Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia. Augustine wavered at the edge of Christian faith for several years, being encouraged by other Christian writers such as Ambrose to put his trust in Christ. When he finally did become a Christian, Augustine brought his learning from Latin philosophy and culture into the service of Christianity. His writings helped to shape medieval church thinking as well as later generations—both Martin Luther and John Calvin were heavily influenced by Augustine’s works.

In his Confessions, Augustine not only admits to his youthful indiscretions (among them, that he fathered a child without being married), but he also confesses his faith in God and in the teachings of the Christian Church. Instead of writing an autobiography, Augustine uses the events of his past life as an outline to proclaim the doctrines of Christianity and to celebrate the greatness of God. In his The City of God, Augustine discusses the dual citizenship held by every Christian. We are citizens of an earthly country, subject to an earthly government which we obey out of reverence for Christ, since that early authority represents his ultimate authority. At the same time, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. If we truly honor our heavenly citizenship, we will not despair over the troubles of our earthly city. (This was written at a time when German tribes were entering the Roman Empire and threatening even its strongest western cities.) God hears our prayers about earthly things and answers those prayers according to his good will. He is more concerned, though, about preserving our faith, which is our guarantee to a home in his eternal city.

Many of Augustine’s sermons, Bible commentaries, and letters have been preserved. Augustine firmly defended the inerrancy and reliability of the Bible. He clearly and repeatedly stressed the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ. He spent much of his time defending Christian truth against the attacks of Manicheans, Donatists, and Pelagians. (Spellcheck thinks those last two ought to be dentists and pelicans, but Augustine had no trouble with either of those.) We know more about these heresies from Augustine’s replies to them than from their own writings. This is true, not because of any conspiracy of church leaders to destroy all evidence of alternate forms of Christianity. It is true because Christians saw no need to copy and preserve documents whose errors had already been rejected through the application of Scripture by writers such as Augustine.

Manicheans, as stated earlier, tried to blend Christianity with Zoroastrianism. Both religions were monotheistic, believing in only one God. Both called for members to lead a moral and upright life. Both promised heavenly rewards for those who were good and a punishment of eternal fire for those who were evil. Yet, as Augustine showed, the Manicheans erred by depicting good and evil as roughly equal in power. They erred by teaching that each individual determined his own eternal destiny by good works or by evil works. Their errors limited the power of God, who is stronger than all evil, and who works the miracle of faith in the hearts of his people, calling him to them and moving them by his power rather than making them earn salvation through their own good works.

Donatists claimed to be the only true Christians, even though their movement only existed in parts of Africa. They rebaptized any Christian who joined them from another congregation. Augustine affirmed that the true Church is found wherever Christians gather around God’s Word, trusting in Christ for salvation. No splinter group can claim for itself the label of the only true Church on earth. He recognized that Baptism is valid even if performed by a heretic or unbeliever. The power of Baptism is not in the identity of the person performing the act, but in the promises of Christ himself.

Pelagians said that all human beings are basically good at heart, and that the goodness within us draws us to Christ and his salvation. They taught that even non-believers could please God by performing good works. Augustine used the Bible to show that no one can please God in any way other than salvation through Jesus Christ. No work is acceptable to God if it is not done through faith in Christ. Rather than trusting some internal goodness to draw one to God, a Christian celebrates the gift of God which grants saving faith and keeps him or her in that saving faith by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Augustine is a saint worth remembering and celebrating. His writing shaped Christianity, not by changing it into something new, but by preserving the message of the Bible and the historic teachings of the Church. On this day that commemorates Augustine, Christians thank God for his leadership and his wisdom. J.

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