Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

St. Augustine: Defender of Salvation By Grace Alone

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
In the next few editorials we ask your attention for St. Augustine, one of the greatest, if not the greatest of the Fathers of the early Church. Augustine was a bishop in Hippo, a small town in a remote province of the North African country of Numidia, an area roughly equivalent to modern Algeria. He is generally considered to have been the most learned and influential of all Christian theologians since the apostle Paul. Certainly, until Luther and Calvin appeared on the scene, no theologian has made a greater impact on the Church of Christ than he. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants claim him as their spiritual father, although for different reasons as we will see.

Augustine has made an enormous impact, not only on the Christian church, but on western civilization as a whole. The entire period known as the Middle Ages cannot be understood apart from his influence. It is no exaggeration to say that for about a thousand years, roughly from 500 to 1500 A.D., life in medieval western Europe was shaped and dominated by Augustinian thought.

Early Life
Augustine (Aurelius Augustinus) was born on November 13, 354 in North Africa in Tagaste, a small town near ancient Carthage. His mother, Monica, was a Christian and his father Patricius, though a pagan for most of his life, was converted and baptized shortly before his death. His mother was resolved to bring up her son as a Christian, but young Augustine showed little interest in the things of God. Being aware of their sonÕs exceptional gifts, Monica and her husband sought the best possible education for him at considerable financial sacrifice. Augustine was first sent to a provincial school in the nearby town of Madaura and later to Carthage, the capital of Numidia, for advanced studies.

Student life in Carthage
Augustine was about seventeen years old when he arrived at this great city that for centuries had been the political, economic and cultural centre of Latin-speaking Africa. While there, he threw himself into his studies, but he also found time to pursue the Òpleasures of the fleshÓ offered by that city. After indulging in promiscuous sex for some time, he took a mistress who bore him a son, Aeodatus (given by God) when he was about eighteen. Theirs was a long-term relationship, apparently with faithfulness on both sides, and we are left wondering why he did not simply marry the girl. He never tells us this (in fact he does not even tell us her name), so that we can only guess. Looking back on that period, Augustine characterized his early life as Òa life of dissipation.Ó This is what he writes in his Confessions II, i.1):

I will now call to mind my past foulness and the carnal
corruptions of my soul, not because I love them but that I may
love Thee, O my God. For love of Thy love I do it, recalling in
the very bitterness of my remembrance of my most vicious ways
that Thou mayest grow sweet to me--Thou sweetness without
deception! ... With abandon I plunged myself into a cauldron of
unholy love bubbling up all around me (III, i.1)... Woe, woe, by
what steps was I dragged down to the depths of hell! (III,
vii.11).

Teacher of Rhetoric
In preparation for a career in law or public service, Augustine had to be thoroughly trained in the art of rhetoric. The purpose of this discipline was to learn to speak and write elegantly and convincingly. Although he never mastered Greek, he became an expert in Latin and was able to speak and write beautifully in that language. Upon graduation he was hired as a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage, but the wild behaviour of his students and the fact that only a few of them bothered to pay their fees at the end of the school year, so upset him that he quit his post after a year. He decided to leave Africa to seek his fortune in Rome, where he had been told students were better disciplined. Augustine by now was in his late twenties.

Fascination with Manicheism
In Rome he was able to secure a position as teacher, but he soon discovered that the students there were no better than the ones in Carthage. Disillusioned, he decided to move to Milan, where he accepted an invitation to teach rhetoric. This was a prestigious appointment because Milan was the capital city of the Empire in the West at that time. AugustineÕs star was rising fast.

In addition to his proficiency in public speaking, Augustine was also keenly interested in philosophy. His pursuit of truth first brought him into contact with the religion of Manicheism. This religion was of Persian origin and had been founded by Mani who lived in the third century AD. According to Mani, the human predicament is the presence in us of two principles. The one principle that Mani calls Òlight,Ó is spiritual, and the other principle called Òdarkness,Ó is matter. Somehow the two have mingled and the present human condition is the result of that mixture. Salvation consists in separating the two elements and in preparing our spirit for its return to the realm of pure light, in which it will be absorbed. Since any new mingling of the principles is evil, true believers must avoid procreation. This doctrine, Mani claimed, had been revealed to a succession of prophets, including Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus and of course, Mani himself.

By AugustineÕs time Manicheism had spread throughout the Mediterranean basin. It appealed especially to intellectuals because it claimed to be eminently rational. Part of its propaganda consisted in ridiculing the teachings of Christianity, particularly the Bible, whose materialism, and primitive and inelegant language it mocked.

Manicheism appealed to Augustine because he shared some of its criticism of Christianity. He too was turned off by what he considered the poor vocabulary and grammar of parts of the Bible. It seemed to him that the style in which so much of Scripture was written was far below that of the great Roman authors with whom he was familiar. Besides, it featured too many crude episodes of violence, rape, deceit and the like. Another problem Augustine had with Christianity had to do with its view on the origin of evil. His mother Monica had taught him there was only one God. But Augustine saw evil everywhere, including in himself, so he wondered where all this evil came from. If God was supreme and pure goodness, evil could not be a divine creation. And if, on the other hand, God created all things, He could not be as good and wise as the Church claimed. Manicheism, in his view, had better answers than the Church regarding these issues. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, was not in fact the word of the eternal principle of light. Nor was evil a creation of that principle, but of its opposite, the principle of darkness.

Manicheism presented itself not so much as an alternative to Christianity as a more advanced version of it, suitable for the spiritually mature and the intellectually gifted. Manichees claimed that their beliefs were based on reason rather than authority, and that they had answers for everything. Members were divided into an inner circle, the "elect" who were expected to be celibate and vegetarian, so as to avoid all those dark particles, and the "learners," of whom considerably less was expected.

Augustine signed up as a learner. At first he was completely captivated, but after a while doubts arose about some of its teachings. The rank and file of the movement did not seem to be very clear thinkers. Even after meeting some of the leaders who were advertised as the ÒTowering Intellects of the Ages,Ó he was not impressed. So he decided to carry on his quest for truth in a different direction.

Switch to Neo-Platonism
While in Milan, Augustine became interested in Neo-Platonism, a popular school of philosophy with religious overtones. Neo-Platonists believed that man could reach God, the Ineffable One and the Source of all being, through a combination of study, discipline and mystical contemplation. The goal was to experience the ecstasy resulting from such contemplation. Neoplatonism differed from Manicheism in that it affirmed that there was only one ultimate principle from which all reality was derived through a series of emanations--much like the concentric circles that appear on the surface of the water when hit by a stone. Those realities that are closer to the One are superior, and those that are farther removed from it are inferior.

What impressed Augustine most about Neoplatonism was its insistence that evil does not originate from a different and independent source, as Manicheism taught, but that it consists in moving away from the supreme Form of the One to the inferior realms of the many. Augustine found this very helpful because it allowed him to conceive of a Being of infinite goodness, who was the source of all things, and at the same time account for the presence of evil in the universe. Evil, as real as it is, is not a thing; it does not have substance, rather it represents a movement away from the goodness of the One. This understanding of the nature of evil was to influence Augustine for the rest of his life, although as he got older, he learned to modify it considerably by putting it on a more biblical basis.

Influence of Ambrose
Helpful as Neoplatonism was to him, Augustine was still wrestling with another problem, namely how Scripture with its crude language and strange stories could be the Word of God. It was here that bishop Ambrose of Milan proved to be of real help to him. Ambrose was a famous preacher known for his eloquence and rhetorical finesse. Monica, who was with her son in Milan, urged Augustine to go and hear this renowned orator--which he did. The professor of rhetoric was immediately impressed by what he heard. As he admitted later, he was at first not so much interested in what the preacher said as how he said it. However, as time went on he found he was not only listening to the bishop as a professional, but increasingly as a seeker as well. He writes in his Confessions, ÒAlong with the words which I prized, there came into my mind also the things about which I was careless: for how could I separate them? And while I opened my heart to admit Ôhow skillfully he spoke,Õ there also entered with it, but gradually, Ôhow truly he spoke!ÕÓ (V.xiv.24).

Ambrose was also able to remove AugustineÕs reservations about the literary value of the Bible by his use of the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture. This method, whereby difficult and seemingly crude passages were given a less literal and more spiritual meaning, helped to make Scripture more acceptable to his aesthetic taste. For the first time in his life, Augustine saw Christianity as a religion fit for a philosopher.

The One Remaining Problem
With his intellectual difficulties being resolved for the most past, Augustine was still left with a huge spiritual problem: he knew he had to surrender his life to Christ but he couldnÕt do it. The problem was that he understood what such a surrender involved, namely giving up his sinful lifestyle as well as his worldly ambitions. Things came to a head when his mother persuaded him that he ought to give up his mistress and get married. He agreed to a betrothal to a suitable young lady; but his betrothed was too young for immediate marriage, and so the actual wedding was postponed for two years. Meanwhile the mistress had been sent back to Africa. Augustine, not ready for two years of sexual abstinence, lapsed back into promiscuity. He prayed for the gift of chastity but he begged the Lord not to give it to him just yet. Ashamed of his indecisiveness and envious of friends who were able to make the break with sin and commit themselves to the Lord, he plunged into deep depression. But the time of his deliverance was near!

To be continued.

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