This is the second of a 5-part series that will blog through Trevin Wax’s choices for Christianity’s Most Important Theologians. We will explore each to show why Trevin and others find these figures so influential. The first post was on Athanasius.
Augustine is almost universally loved by Christians. Indeed, those who find cause to reject Augustine often do so based on a particular issue they find problematic in his teachings. Rarely is someone a full-blown anti-Augustinian. Certainly for all Western Christians Augustine is an unrivaled figure in the history of Christian reflection. Indeed, there is hardly a subject that is not shaped by his writings and ministry.
We actually know a great deal about Augustine’s life, his world, and his body of writings. This is due largely to the fact that Augustine gave us maps to his life: first in his spiritual autobiography (Confessions) and then late in life he left a list of his theological writings. When compared with others from his day, we seem to know every twist and turn of his journey.
Augustine was born in the city of Thagaste in North Africa. At his birth the tidewater had changed in the Roman world after the conversion of Constantine, so that now there were no longer persecutions of Christians and there were unassailable bastions of fierce theological orthodoxy in various parts of the empire. North Africa was one of these bastions. In fact, North Africa would resemble the modern Bible Belt: a church that is proud of its resistance to the sway of other worldviews or lukewarm Christians. These were not Christians to be trifled with.
Augustine’s mother fit this bill easily. If ever there was a helicopter mom, chasing down her son for Jesus, it was Monica. During Augustine’s life of pleasure and success his mother would be an ever-present feature in his life.
Augustine was a prodigious student in the art of rhetoric—a subject that is almost impossible to convey to modern minds for all its power in the Roman world. But rhetoric could mesmerize a crowd, as the speaker relied not only on wisdom and beauty in his speech, but also on a variety of syncopated rhythms. (Some have made parallels to hip hop music for this reason.) So an expert in rhetoric was a rare skill that required mastery of many disciples, and once mastered it became the path to a lucrative and prestigious career.
For his early life, Augustine pursued a career in rhetoric. He was quite good and through this subject he made his way first to Rome and then to Milan—the later being the imperial seat of western Rome and a hothouse for rhetoricians. There in Milan, though, Augustine found himself confronted not only with pagan rhetoricians, but with the local bishop, Ambrose, who could hold his own with anyone in the rhetorical arts. The relationship blossomed, and eventually Ambrose’s preaching brought Augustine to convert to the faith. Monica had prayed for years for Augustine’s conversion, and she lived long enough to see her boy baptized.
Augustine returned to his native Africa in a bid to live a life of prayer and reflection. The church had other ideas for his life, though, and they quickly drew Augustine into service as bishop of Hippo. As bishop Augustine would write nearly all of his works on theology, culture, the Bible, and just about any major topic in the Christian life.
Augustine’s writings are best known for their heroic assault on weak theology. He put an axe to the root of Manichaeism, which was a popular syncretism in his day of Christian, pagan, and mystical insights. Having himself embraced these views as a young man, Augustine made sure to forever close the door to these teachings for his readers.
But two of the most important subjects of Augustine’s writings—at least in terms of subsequent history—were on the nature of the church and on grace.
His reflections on the nature of the church were set largely against the Donatists, a group of purists content to break fellowship rather than allow even a repentant priest back into church leadership. Augustine’s teachings acknowledge the problem of sinful pastors, yet he urges severe caution against those who believe the church can be purified in this life. The church—and its pastors—are imperfect sinners, so it is impossible to separate the wheat from the tares before Christ returns. To do so, he argues, is to build a schismatic church on the false notion of purity. That zeal for purity leads, ultimately, to pride.
Another major area of Augustine’s writings focused on the nature of grace, free will, and the gospel. In this, Augustine is very much a man to be read and appreciated. Augustine focuses his energies on the Pelagian movement of his day, with their estimation that the Christian life is based on our obedience to the Law.
Augustine stands tall on the words of Paul that the Law and our will are unable to bring us to full repentance apart from the work of the Spirit. We have free will in a sense, Augustine argues, much the way a broken scale can still weigh fruit in the market. What we are unable to do, however, is weigh the things of God rightly apart from God restoring our eyes to see, our ears to hear. The grace of sanctification then is also a gift, not the work of our hands. Pelagianism, if it is true, is the rejection of the gospel.
Augustine and His Flock
What we know today, however, is that Augustine was not the sum of his writings against bad theology. He was a pastor—back when bishops were known as much for their preaching as for their authority—and Augustine spent enormous time in the pulpit.
Today we are in a much better position to grasp the life of Augustine as a pastor, due largely to the fact that scholars are devoting their attention to his sermons, rather than just his polemical works. The image we have of Augustine from the pulpit is of a caring, sensitive preacher, always quick to ‘translate’ the rich theology in his mind to the language of the masses. He holds out the goal of the Christian life, not as a series of philosophical squabbles, but as the heart captive to the love of God in all things.