Augustine of Hippo

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Augustine of Hippo

The question may be asked: why is Augustine of Hippo so important in the history of the Christian Church? The answer lies in the evangelical nature of his theological contribution. He is regarded as the first great theologian since apostolic times – in the evangelical succession lying between Paul and John Calvin.

Born in 354 AD, of mixed heathen and Christian parentage, near Carthage in North Africa, Augustine manifested from his youth an insatiable thirst for knowledge along with remarkable intellectual gifts and became a rhetorician – practising this profession while continuing his studies in Carthage, Rome, and later in Milan. In 373 at the age of 18, his speculative cast of mind led him to embrace a popular heresy called Manichaeism (a universal religion seeking to combine eastern paganism with Christianity) finally lapsing into scepticism by 383, repudiating his Christian upbringing – thereby causing great distress to his pious mother, Monica, who had prayed unceasingly for his conversion. In her grief she sought help from a Christian bishop and was comforted by his parting words: “Go, it cannot be that the son of such tears will perish”.

God indeed answered her fervent prayers and tears. While stationed at Milan as public teacher of rhetoric, Augustine came under the influence of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, together with some wise Christian elders and friends. A lengthy period of deep conviction of sin eventually led to his thorough conversion. In his Confessions he candidly narrates how far he had wandered from the path of morality and true religion and how he was mercifully delivered from the snares of Manichaeism. Gospel liberty came while reading Romans 13; 13-14. In his own words: “I did not want or need to read any further, as I finished the sentence, the light of faith flooded into my heart, and all the darkness of doubt vanished.”

Shortly afterwards his illegitimate son, Adeodatus, was converted and both were baptised by Ambrose in 387. In 395 Augustine became bishop of Hippo. His deep experience of the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the sovereignty of divine grace, together with his fresh understanding of the Word of God, especially Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, enabled him to confute Manichaean dualism and fatalism by showing that human nature was not originally and necessarily evil – insisting on a measure of freedom as a necessary basis for human responsibility. Above all, it also qualified him to deal vigorously and successfully with the greater peril of Pelagianism – propagated by Pelagius, a British monk.

This learned adversary of the doctrines of grace taught that man has no inherited sin from Adam – sin proceeding from man’s will rather than from his nature – and that each new born child is created with perfect freedom to do good or evil – being in same position as Adam before the Fall. Consequently, man may choose to lead a perfect life – salvation being conditional upon good works. Therefore the Gospel and divine grace are not altogether necessary but can be of help to us in obtaining salvation – salvation resting less on Christ’s atoning death than in the example of his life and death. Clearly, Pelagius has many followers today!

Before Augustine’s time there had been general agreement on the reality of man’s apostasy, his moral accountability, the terrible curse of sin, and the necessity of redeeming grace. But there was little agreement on the extent of man’s depravity and the degree of human freedom and natural ability regarding conversion. However, when Pelagius began to set out his doctrine of the freedom of the will, Augustine found it necessary not only to oppose him but also to develop a Scriptural view of the nature of man. However, he could not stop there. He had to take the next step and examine the nature of God’s sovereignty in reference to man’s actions in salvation.

Augustine’s view of sin was that it was not something additional to man but good lost by him. Man was created with the capacity of bodily immortality but in sinning he entered into a state of inability to avoid sin and death. Adam was man’s representative not only federally as our covenant head, but organically. We sinned in him and fell with him. Hence man is totally depraved and utterly incapable of doing any spiritual good, separated from God, and burdened with guilt under Satan’s power. If man is unable, argued Augustine, then God must be altogether able. If the will of man needs renewal because opposed to God, then salvation is exclusively God’s work from beginning to end. Grace must be ‘irresistible’. All whom He has chosen to salvation are unable to resist effectually His divine work on their hearts – not forcing the will contrary to man’s natural free agency, but changing the will so that it voluntarily chooses the good. In Augustine’s own words: “Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt”. The power to obey must come from the One who commands. Hence the necessity of the operation of the Holy Spirit to complete the renewal of man’s basic disposition from being against God’s law, to desiring to love and obey it. The Holy Spirit alone can regenerate man, not man and the Holy Spirit!

This view of sin and grace led Augustine to see from Scripture, that if God is the author of any man’s salvation, then he must have willed and predestined the salvation of that man from eternity – leading to the inescapable conclusion that man’s choice of the good and his faith in Christ were themselves the effect of divine grace and therefore of divine predetermination. He conceived God’s decree as active for the elect but passive (simply being passed by) for the reprobate.

Augustine finalised orthodox teaching on the doctrine of the Trinity by stressing a unity of essence in the three ‘persons’ of the Godhead. Unlike three human persons – each possessing only a part of generic human nature – there is, in the Trinity, a relation of mutual interpenetration and indwelling. He saw the word ‘person’ as not the most satisfactory term, but the best available. The Holy Spirit, then, must be regarded as proceeding not only from the Father but also from the Son (incorporated into the Western form of the 7th century Nicene Creed).

However, his doctrine of the Church was less clear – influenced partly by the schismatic tendencies of the Donatist controversy in North Africa at that time which involved a break-up in the catholicity of the visible church along with disorder and rioting – leading Augustine to defend the traditional organisation of the visible church without distinguishing it from the company of the elect (the church invisible). Yet he also held the necessity of belonging to this church of the elect through whose intercession sins are forgiven and grace bestowed – distinguished from the external organisation containing both good and evil members. This dichotomy between the church visible and the elect church invisible Augustine failed to resolve. The result is that Romanists and High Churchmen have claimed Augustine’s views as justification for salvation by the Church and through the sacraments – in isolation, – regardless of his modifying doctrine of sin, grace and predestination. Yet it was the revival of these same doctrines of grace that resulted in the 16th century Reformation!