Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

St. Augustine: Defender of Salvation By Grace Alone (2)

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
Last month we introduced Augustine to you as a young brilliant scholar from North Africa. Born into a Christian family and raised by his godly mother Monica, he seemed at first to show no interest in God or His Word. For many years he lived in sin, but his conscience never stopped working until under the powerful preaching of bishop Ambrose of Milan he was convicted and began to seek salvation. Deeply conscious of his inability to change his sinful ways in his own strength, he begged the Lord to deliver him from his besetting sin, which was lust.
His Conversion
While in that state, he found himself at one point sitting alone in a garden belonging to a friendÕs house. There he pondered the question how some of his friends were able to make firm commitments, while he could not even take the first step towards becoming a Christian. It was then that he heard the voice of a little child coming from the neighbourÕs backyard, saying over and over, "Tolle lege; tolle lege," or, "Take up and read; take up and read." Taking this as an omen from God, he picked up a copy of Paul's Epistle to the Romans that was lying on a table nearby. As he opened it, his eye fell on the end of the thirteenth chapter: ÒThe night is far spent, the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us walk honestly as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering [debauchery] and wantonness [licentiousness], not in strife and envying. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.Ó

As he read, he realized that God was speaking directly to him, convicting him of his past sins, offering him forgiveness, calling him to amend his life, and promising him the grace and power to do it. He burst into tears, and surrendered. Later, he wrote in his Confessions:

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold, Thou wast within and
I without, and there I sought Thee. Thou wast with me when I was
not with Thee. Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.
Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispel my blindness. Thou didst
touch me, and I burned for Thy peace. Thou hast made us for
Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in
Thee. Thou hast burst my bonds asunder; unto Thee will I offer up
an offering of praise.

In The Monastery
Shortly thereafter Ambrose baptized him, with his dear mother looking on, overwhelmed with gratitude that at long last her prayers had been answered and that the son of her tears had been saved by the grace of almighty God.

Soon after his conversion, Augustine, accompanied by Monica and his son Adeodatus, and a few close friends, settled in a monastery in Cassiciatum, North Africa, where they hoped to spend the rest of their lives in prayer, mystical contemplation and philosophic inquiry. It was there that Augustine wrote his first Christian works. They still bore a Neoplatonic stamp, although he gradually came to understand the difference between Christian teaching and pagan philosophy, even in its mixed form as Neoplatonism. The year was 387.

But manÕs best-laid plans have a habit of not turning out as hoped. AugustineÕs fame soon spread beyond the confines of the monastery where he felt comfortable. He drew the attention of influential church leaders in Africa who had other plans for his life.

The Reluctant Bishop
Following the sudden and unexpected death of Monica and Adeodatus, Augustine visited the town of Hippo to talk to a friend whom he wished to invite to join him at Cassiciatum. While there he attended a church service led by bishop Valerius. When the good bishop saw the young scholar in his audience he departed from his prepared notes and mentioned how God had always sent shepherds to tend His flock. He then asked the congregation to pray for GodÕs guidance in case there was among them someone sent by God to be their minister. Then without warning, he said, "This congregation is in need of more priests, and I believe that the ordination of Augustine would be to the glory of God." Willing hands dragged a shocked and protesting Augustine forward. Unable to stop the proceedings and realizing that it was GodÕs will, he was ordained to the priesthood by the laying on of hands. A few years later, when Valerius died, Augustine was chosen to succeed him.

As bishop of his flock, Augustine sought to retain as much as possible the simple lifestyle of the monastery. But some things had to change. His energies from now on had to be directed less towards contemplation and more towards pastoral responsibilities. It was with those pastoral responsibilities in view that he wrote most of the works that made him the most influential theologian since New Testament times

Early Writings
Augustine's first writings were attempts to refute the Manichees. Since he had helped lead some friends to that religion, he now felt it was his duty to refute the teachings that he had supported earlier. Consequently, most of these early works dealt with the authority of Scripture, the origin of evil, and free will.

The question of the freedom of the will was of particular importance in his polemics against the Manichees. They held that everything was predetermined, and that human beings had no freedom at all. Against such views, Augustine became the champion of the freedom of the will. According to him, human freedom is its own cause. When we act freely, we are not moved by something either outside or inside us, as by a necessity, but rather by our own will. A decision is free inasmuch as it is not the product of nature, but of the will itself. Naturally, this does not mean that circumstances do not influence our decisions. What it does mean is that only that which we decide out of our own will, and not out of circumstance or out of an inner necessity, is properly called free. Although in his later life Augustine revised his earlier views on this subject, he always maintained that manÕs will is free, but only in the sense that it is free to sin, not free not to sin.

The Problem of Evil
Closely related to the issue of free will was the matter regarding the origin and nature of evil. Augustine insisted that there is only one God, whose goodness is infinite. How, then, can one explain the existence of evil? By simply affirming that the will is created by God, and is therefore good; but that the will is capable of making its own decisions, including sinful ones. The origin of evil, then, is to be found in the bad decisions made by both human and fallen angelic wills. Thus, Augustine was able to affirm both the reality of evil and the creation of all things by a good God. In his view, evil is not a "thingÓ or a substance, as the Manichees taught. Rather, evil is a departure or movement away from God and a negation of good.

This view on the origin of evil was to have enormous influence on the development of theology and philosophy. Although Calvin and other Reformation theologians judged AugustineÕs concept of evil inadequate inasmuch as it fails to do justice to all that Scripture says on the subject, his view of evil as negation of good remains popular. The other day I read an article in which a concept of the origin of evil was set forth that immediately struck me as Augustinian. This article came to me by way of an email sent by friends in Grand Rapids. I will give it to you in its entirety.

Did God Create Evil?
At a certain college there was a professor with a reputation for being tough on Christians. At the first class, every semester, he asked if anyone was a Christian and proceeded to degrade them and to mock their statement of faith. One semester, he asked the question and a young man raised his hand. The professor asked, "Did God make everything young man?" He replied, "Yes sir, he did!" The professor responded, "If God made everything, then he made evil." The student didn't have a response and the professor was happy to have once again proved the Christian faith to be a myth.

Then another man raised his hand and asked, "May I ask you something, sir?" "Yes, you may," answered the professor. The young man stood up and said, "Sir, is there such a thing as cold?" Of course there is, what kind of a question is that? Haven't you ever been cold?" The young man replied, "Actually, sir, cold doesn't exist. What we consider to be cold is really an absence of heat. Absolute zero is when there is absolutely no heat, but cold does not really exist. We have only created that term to describe how we feel when heat is not there.

The young man continued, ÒSir, is there such a thing as dark?" Once again the professor responded, "Of course there is." And once again, the student replied, "Actually, sir, darkness does not exist. Darkness is really only the absence of light. Darkness is only a term developed to describe what happens when there is no light present."

Finally, the young man asked, "Sir, is there such a thing as evil?" The professor responded, "Of course, we have rapes, murders and violence everywhere in the world. Those thing are evil." The student replied, "Actually, sir, evil does not exist. Evil is simply the absence of God. Evil is a term developed to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. It isn't like truth or love, which exist as virtues like heat or light. Evil is simply the state where God is not present, like cold without heat, or darkness without light." The professor had nothing to say.

Effective as this view of evil is in causing atheists to pause and think, there is more to be said about the origin and nature of evil

CalvinÕs View
As mentioned earlier, Calvin did not agree with AugustineÕs view that evil is not a reality but only a privation of good (Conf. 7.12). For the Genevan reformer this was too philosophical a concept for which he, Calvin, could not find enough support in Scripture. He correctly saw evil as a positive evil and the product of totally depraved human nature. Moreover, whereas Augustine sought this corruption primarily in the sensual appetites, Calvin located its seat in the higher as well as the lower faculties of the soul.

This became very important in the controversy with Rome. In opposition to Rome, Calvin and the other reformers maintained that original sin is something more than a mere absence of original righteousness and that the first movements of the desires which tend in the direction of sin, are themselves sins, even before they are assented to by the will, and not merely the fuel for sin. They are indwelling sins, which just like overt sins, render man guilty in the sight of God and worthy of condemnation (cf. Systematic Theology, L. Berkhof). On this issue R.A. Finlayson has this interesting comment:

Since to Augustine the essence of sin lay in its defection from
God, the supreme good and source of life, it was natural to
regard sin as a privation, not an addition to life but a
subtraction from it. He uses the illustration of a plant in which
the cessation of life means decay. To us, with modern ideas of
bacteriology, decay is not just the mere absence of life; it is
the presence of the agents of disintegration in the form of
bacteria which take over the breaking down of organized matter.
So AugustineÕs doctrine that evil is merely the privation of
good, and has no metaphysical reality, is open to the serious
objection that it deals only with the metaphysical aspect of sin,
and not with the moral and ethical, and so does not do justice to
the positive character of sin in experience (The Story of
Theology, pp.29-30).

But AugustineÕs most important writings were still to come. Next time, D.V., we will examine his views on Donatism and Pelagianism.

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