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Aurelius Augustinus, known by us as Augustine of Hippo, was born in AD 354 in a small town in North Africa. His father was a lifelong pagan who was baptized on his deathbed, and his mother was a devout Christian who prayed without ceasing for her wayward son. In time, this child from North Africa would convert to Christianity. He would also become the most influential theologian in the first thousand years of the church’s history and one of the most generally influential thinkers in all of Western history.

As a young man, Augustine was attracted to the dualistic religion of Manichaeism and then later to neo-Platonism. His dramatic conversion to Christ is recounted in his Confessions. In AD 395, Augustine became the bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa. As an influential church leader, he was deeply involved in two major theological controversies and numerous minor ones in his lifetime. The two major controversies to which he contributed much energy and ink were the Donatist controversy and the Pelagian controversy. His contributions to both permanently shaped the trajectory of the Western church.

Augustine also left the church a tremendous number of written works, including lengthy theological essays, polemical treatises, biblical commentaries, and letters and sermons numbering in the hundreds. These writings were important theological resources at the time they were written, and they remain important theological resources even today.

For much of the church’s early and medieval history, Augustine was one of the primary theological authorities outside Scripture itself. Just as a Reformed theologian today might appeal to the writings of John Calvin in support of a theological position, early theologians would regularly appeal to Augustine in support of their positions. In some debates, such as the Reformation-era debates over the Lord’s Supper, proponents of opposing views would enlist Augustine to their side.

In the twelfth century, Peter Lombard wrote a theological text titled The Four Books of Sentences. The Sentences became the standard theological textbook in the universities from the early thirteenth century to the time of the Reformation. Every theologian worth his salt wrote a commentary on Lombard’s Sentences as a part of his required education. I mention Lombard’s Sentences because one of the most striking things about it is that its contents are an almost continual appeal to the writings of Augustine.

The point is that Augustine’s understanding of Scripture and theology had a tremendous impact on early, medieval, and Reformation theology. The church officially approved many of his teachings, and the theologians of the church after Augustine attempted to build on his work. Even when the church and its theologians moved away from Augustine’s teaching, they did so very quietly. No one within orthodox Christendom really wanted to be seen as opposing Augustine.

If Augustine taught something, whether that something was biblical or not, it stayed with the church and influenced everyone in the church for centuries. This means that if Augustine got something right, his authority helped that teaching become a guardrail against future error. Yet if Augustine got something wrong, that error was compounded because of his influence on the subsequent teaching of the church. Western theologians were generally so loath to contradict Augustine that both the truths and the errors that he taught became part of the fabric of the church’s doctrine.

The previous article in this issue of Tabletalk discusses those instances when Augustine made significant mistakes. Often, this was due to the leftover remnants of the pagan teachings that Augustine followed before his conversion. This article’s focus, however, is on Augustine’s positive contributions to Christian theology. We will look first at some of his specific doctrines in their historical context. As we do so, we will note those places where the Reformers took issue with certain aspects of his teaching. This is necessary because sometimes there is a mixture of good and bad in Augustine even in those areas of his teaching in which he was largely on the right track.

According to Augustine, all those predestined for eternal salvation are given the gift of perseverance to the end.

Augustine himself encouraged this kind of approach to his writings. He did not suffer from any delusions of infallibility. He did not believe that his writings were on the same level as Scripture. In one recently discovered letter, Augustine writes:

We, who preach and write books, write in a manner altogether different from the manner in which the canon of Scriptures has been written. We write while we make progress. We learn something new every day. We dictate at the same time as we explore. We speak as we still knock for understanding. . . . I urge your Charity, on my behalf and in my own case, that you should not take any previous book or preaching of mine as Holy Scripture. . . . If anyone criticizes me when I have said what is right, he does not do right. But I would be more angry with the one who praises me and takes what I have written for Gospel truth [canonicum] than the one who criticizes me unfairly.

We will look first at a controversy that consumed around twenty-five years of Augustine’s life. The Donatist controversy had its origins in the persecutions suffered by the church during the third and early fourth centuries. During these persecutions, many Christians resisted any compromise and underwent extreme suffering, some to the point of martyrdom. Others compromised or collaborated with the persecutors, some even turning over copies of Scripture to the authorities, who then destroyed the manuscripts.

When the persecution ended, a controversy arose that led to a long-standing schism in the North African church. The two most significant questions concerned the nature of the church and the validity of baptism. The Donatists, who were not a monolithic group, basically saw the church as a pure and tiny body of the faithful. The church consisted of those who had not been infected with the sin of the traitors. This true church, many of them believed, was effectively confined to North Africa. Baptism was understood by them to be valid only when administered by a minister in this true church.

Augustine was involved in the Donatist controversy up until Donatism was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 411. Augustine responded to the Donatists’ view of themselves as the only true church by positing the doctrine of a universal church that contains and will contain both wheat and tares until the last day. His teaching has remained the generally accepted view since his day, although it has, of course, been understood differently by Roman Catholics and Protestants. In response to the Donatist idea that the validity of baptism depends on the worthiness of the priest or bishop, Augustine argued that the validity of the sacrament rests ultimately on the fact that it is Christ who administers it. The validity of the sacrament, then, does not depend on the character of the human instrument used by Christ. If it did, we could never know whether we had received a valid baptism because we can never know the heart of the person administering it. Reformed theologians largely agreed with Augustine on this point, even though they differed with him on the relationship between the sacrament and grace.

Arguably, the most important positive contribution made by Augustine to Christian doctrine occurred during the next controversy in which he was engaged. Augustine’s first anti-Pelagian writings were composed not long after the Council of Carthage. In these writings, Augustine sets forth his doctrines of sin, grace, predestination, and free will. His views set the parameters for discussion up to and during the time of the Reformation. To understand Augustine’s views, however, we need to look first at what Pelagius taught.

In response to the Manichaean view that humans are evil because of the corporeal part of their nature, Pelagius taught that human beings are basically good because they were created good by God. In his view, those Christians who taught that human beings were corrupted by Adam’s sin were teaching something close to Manichaeism. He rejected this teaching and argued instead that Adam’s sin affected Adam alone. When we sin today, it is not because of any kind of inherited corruption. When we sin, we are simply imitating Adam in the same way that a child imitates his father. If we do this often enough, we form a habit of sinning. We can overcome this habit of sinning by using our free will to choose good over evil. It is possible, in Pelagius’ view, to live a life of perfect sinlessness if we always use our free will to choose good over evil.

Although Pelagius had no doctrine of original sin, he did say that grace is necessary for salvation. But it is important to note exactly what he meant by “grace.” Pelagius used the word in several ways. In the first place, he argued that God’s revelation in the Bible is a gift of grace. Second, the incarnation of Jesus gives us a new example to imitate. That is a gift of grace. Third, and most importantly, our existence is a gift of grace. God has graciously created us with several faculties, including free will. This means that our ability to choose good or evil is a gift of God’s grace. The way that we choose to use our free will is entirely up to us, but the fact that we have the ability to choose is due to God’s gracious decision to create us. This is the way that Pelagius can say that God’s grace is necessary for salvation. God graciously gave us the ability to freely choose to imitate Christ, and if we do so, our good works merit our salvation.

In response to Pelagian teaching, Augustine drew a clear distinction between the state of human beings before and after the fall. Adam’s sin resulted in the corruption of his nature, and this corruption was passed on to Adam’s progeny. Before the fall, human beings had the ability to will either good or evil. Because of original sin, however, the human will is corrupt and no longer has the freedom it had before the fall. It is no longer free to will the good or to choose God. After the fall, our will is in bondage. It has the ability only to sin. We cannot do anything to free ourselves from this. Only Christ can save us. This is where grace comes into the picture in Augustine’s doctrine.

It is important to note what Augustine says about grace because the Reformers agreed with certain elements and disagreed with others. They agreed with Augustine’s basic anti-Pelagian stance. They agreed with his doctrine of original sin and the resulting human inability to save itself (see Westminster Confession of Faith 6). They agreed that sinful man required God to save him. What, then, was the point of disagreement? Augustine taught that grace is a gift of God, not something earned by man, but Augustine also spoke at times of grace in terms influenced by neo-Platonism, which implied a sort of scale of being ascending to God. The Reformed, however, speak of grace simply in terms of the unmerited favor of God.

Augustine’s doctrines of sin and grace influenced his development of the doctrines of predestination and perseverance during the semi-Pelagian stage of the controversy. For Augustine, predestination was not conditioned on any foreseen merits in any human being. Predestination was grounded solely in God’s sovereign mercy. Furthermore, according to Augustine, all those predestined for eternal salvation are given the gift of perseverance to the end.

Reformed theologians followed Augustine quite closely in their own doctrine of predestination, but they differed in one important respect. This difference is not always noticed by Protestants when they read Augustine, but it is important. Reformed theologians agreed with Augustine completely with regard to the idea that all the predestined are given the gift of perseverance to the end. They differed with Augustine in regard to whether believers could have any assurance in this life that they have the gift of perseverance to the end. For Augustine, all those predestined to salvation are given the gift of perseverance to the end, and God knows perfectly who has that gift. No individual believer, however, can be certain that he has the gift of perseverance to the end until he reaches the end. Only after persevering to the end can a person know that he has this gift.

Another important positive contribution made by Augustine to the church is his work On the Trinity. This opinion has not been shared by all recent historians of Christian thought. For many years, Augustine’s Trinitarian theology was caricatured and understood as being at odds with the Greek Trinitarian theology of the Cappadocian fathers. Augustine’s so-called “Western” Trinitarianism was said to be opposed to a more personal “Eastern” Trinitarianism. More careful recent examinations of On the Trinity have exposed these caricatures for what they are and have clearly revealed that Augustine was an exponent of the Trinitarian doctrine of the Nicene Creed. There is nothing particularly novel about Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity aside from the fact that he introduces a number of psychological analogies in an attempt to illustrate it. Whether these analogies are helpful remains a disputed point.

We would be remiss in an article on this topic if we did not briefly mention the positive contribution made by Augustine’s monumental work The City of God. This enormous book was written over the course of more than a decade, in response to the attack of the Visigoths on Rome. Many Romans were blaming Christianity for this catastrophe, and in The City of God, Augustine responds. It is one of the great works of Christian apologetics and theology. In the first part, books 1–10, Augustine refutes the arguments of the pagan Romans against Christianity and brilliantly refutes many pagan doctrines as well. In the second part, in books 11–22, Augustine provides a positive defense of Christianity. As he proceeds through the work, Augustine effectively touches on almost every conceivable topic. The work is long, but it is well worth the time invested, and I encourage any reader of Tabletalk who has not done so already to “take up and read.”

Augustine was a faithful Christian theologian, and when read with discernment, he remains a valuable theological resource for Christians today.
Detail from St. Augustine Reading Rhetoric and Philosophy at the School of Rome, 1464-65 by Gozzoli, Benozzo di Lese di Sandro (1420-97), Bridgeman Images

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