Church History I

First Baptist Church Dandridge

Dr. Justin Terrell

Session Fifteen

Augustine of Hippo


The first five centuries of the Christian Church were filled with incredible leaders. From the early apostles, such as Peter, John, and Paul, to the next wave of bishops and theologians, like Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, the Cappadocian Fathers, John Chrysostom, and Jerome – God used such figures to advance the gospel from the neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the most distant nations. But while there were many leaders who deserve special recognition as champions of the church, most scholars agree that none are more significant than Augustine of Hippo. Gonzalez notes, “Throughout the Middle Ages, no theologian was quoted more often than he was, and he thus became one of the great doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. But he was also the favorite theologian of the great Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century. Thus, Augustine, variously interpreted, has become the most influential theologian in the entire Western Church, both Protestant and Catholic” (216). Augustine wasn’t only an incredible theologian, but his ministry also marked the end of the Imperial Church after Rome fell in AD 410. Therefore, Augustine concludes an era known as Imperial Christianity, which would give way to Medieval Christianity. 

  1. Early Life
  1. Birth: In A.D. 354, Augustine was born in the little town of Thagaste, in Northwest Africa (modern Algeria). His father was a pagan who served in the Roman government. But his mother, Monica, was a devout follower of Christ, and her fervent prayers eventually led to her husband’s conversion. Like so many other important figures in church history, Monica’s faith would shape Augustine’s life and ministry, helping him to be the spiritual giant he would become. 
  • Education: Augustine’s parents noticed his exceptional gifts and academic abilities, so they determined to get him the best education possible. Therefore, they sent him to learn in the nearby town of Madaura, and then later Carthage. There, Augustine quickly became immersed with the political, cultural, and economic studies of the day. And while he spent serious time in study, he also became involved with the many activities that life in the city was known for. For example, he started living with a girl that he never married, and he had a son named Adeodatus. But overall, his academic pursuits there focused primarily on the study rhetoric, leaning to speak and write with elegance and purpose. As he studied rhetoric, he became deeply involved with the works of Cicero, the famous orator of classical Rome. However, Cicero wasn’t just a master of language, but also philosophy. So, Augustine believed that learning to speak and write wasn’t enough – one must also learn how to discover truth. 
  • Search for Truth: In his search for truth, he first followed his mother’s footsteps and turned to the Bible. But he quickly found many things that only added to his confusion over life and truth. The Old Testament appeared to be cruel and barbaric, with stories of disobedience, violence, rape, and deceit. If God is truly divine and the author of Scripture, how could he write something filled with so much wickedness and sin? Also, if God is creator of everything, how could there be evil in the world lest it be created by God? These questions led him to look for truth in other places. 
  • Manicheism: The first place he turned was to the Gnostic sect of the Manichees, who rejected the Old Testament and looked for truth through pure reason. Mani taught that the universe contained “light” and “darkness,” where “light” is spiritual and good, and “darkness” is material and evil. Through a series of myths, he explained that the two forces had mingled, which brought corruption and evil into the world. Therefore, salvation consists of separating these two elements, which prepares human spirits to return to the realm of pure light. There are similar beliefs in modern Scientology. 
  • Prayers: Augustine spent nine years with the Manichees, and his mother was incredibly burdened about his departure from the Christian faith. It’s been noted that Monica prayed unceasingly for his deliverance and conversion. She once tried to persuade a Catholic bishop, who had previously converted from Manicheism, to prove to Augustine the errors of it and the truth of the Christian faith. However, he refused, saying that only prayer, not argument, would rescue her son from the Manichees. As Monica continued to weep over her son, the bishop said, “Go; it cannot be that the son of such tears will perish” (Needham, 269). Around this same time, Augustine became suspicious of the Manichee movement, asking questions of logic that none of the Manichee priests could answer. Therefore, he left the movement and continued searching for the truth. 
  • Neoplatonism: Due to his students not paying their tuition, Augustine left Rome to fill a teaching vacancy in Milan. After arriving, he would learn about a popular philosophy called “Neoplatonism,” which involved study, discipline, and mystical contemplation. Unlike the dualism of Manicheism, Neoplatonism taught that all reality arrived from one principle source, and everything else came about through a series of emanations – like ripples moving outward from a pebble thrown into water. The realities that are closer to the One are superior, but those that move further out are inferior. Therefore, when it comes to morals, evil doesn’t originate from the principle source, but develops as things move further away. In other words, moral evil consists of looking away from the One, and turning to what is further out and inferior. While not entirely biblical, this philosophy opened Augustine’s eyes to how God could be Creator, while allowing evil to exist in creation. Therefore, “Evil, though real, is not a ‘thing,’ but rather a direction away from the goodness of the One” (Gonzalez 211). 
  • Ambrose: The other major question that Augustine struggled with involved how God could author the Bible and it be filled with so many crude, sinful, and violent details. Augustine’s mother Monica insisted that he visit the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, and listen to his sermons. He was fascinated by Ambrose’s preaching, particularly his intelligence, eloquence, and reason; and how he emphasized that some passages of the Bible were intended to be understood allegorically. This made Scripture seem less crude and sinful, which satisfied some of his doubts. 
  • Conversion: However, even after having many of his questions and doubts about Christianity answered, he knew that to fully embrace the faith that had been handed down to him by his mother, it would require a full commitment to Christ – which meant he would have to give up his career as a teacher of rhetoric and every sinful pleasure he had enjoyed. As Augustine wrestled with this decision, his heart was torn between Christ and the world. He once prayed, “Give me chastity and continence; but not too soon!” However, in A.D. 386, while experiencing the most intense conviction about giving his life to Christ, he found himself in a garden one day, only to hear a child’s voice mysteriously saying, “Take and read! Take and read! Take and read!” He opened a copy of the New Testament, and it landed on Romans 13:13-14, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” After reading these verses, he stood up and gave his life fully to Christ. Augustine later wrote, “I did not want or need to read any further. Instantly, as I finished the sentence, the light of faith flooded my heart, and all the darkness of doubt vanished” (Needham, 271). It wasn’t long after that, Augustine’s son, Adeodatus was converted, and Ambrose baptized both of them on Easter Sunday, A.D. 387. 
  • Ministry
  1. Monastery: Following his conversion, Augustine and Adeodatus returned to North Africa, to Cassiciacum, where he sold his land and possessions and founded a monastery. His son would soon die at the age of 18, but Augustine continued leading many in the monastic life and disciplines – devotion, study, and meditation. It was here that he began writing some of his most profound works, some of which refuted the Manichees and other philosophies. His ministry also resulted in other monastic communities throughout North Africa. 
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Description automatically generatedPresbyter: After becoming very popular in the region, in A.D. 391, while visiting a Catholic church in Hippo, just west of Carthage, the congregation overwhelmingly demanded that Augustine be ordained as a presbyter. It came as an answer to prayer for the aging bishop, Valerius, who had been seeking a successor. Following a sermon delivered by Augustine, the congregation was insistent that he was God’s man. So, he became a presbyter, and would later succeed Valerius as bishop in A.D. 396, following his death. From there, Augustine would begin a forty-year ministry in Hippo (modern Annaba, Algeria). According to Needham, “Augustine’s thirty-four years as bishop of Hippo make him shine out as one of the brightest stars in the patristic galaxy. A preacher, a practical Church administrator, a theologian, a mystic, a man of learning, a leader of the monastic movement, a writer of many books, and a pastoral counselor: among the early church fathers there were few who surpassed Augustine in these roles, and none who combined them all so successfully.” (272). 
  • Theological Defenses
  1. Donatism
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Description automatically generatedHistory: Almost a century before, the Donatist controversy erupted in Carthage, very near where Augustine would serve in Hippo. The controversy developed over the ordination of Caecilian, who had allegedly been ordained by an unqualified bishop (see Session 10). Therefore, the church in Northwest Africa split, with each side claiming to be the true catholic church. One side followed Caecilian, the other followed Donatus. While Emperor Constantine finally stepped in and sided with Caecilian, the divide remained for the next hundred years, which led up to the time of Augustine. 
  • Teaching: In dealing with the continued division in the church, Augustine wrote and debated several important points that solidified the official theology of the true church. 
  • He argued that the validity of any rite of the church does depend on the moral virtue of the one administering it. If this were so, many Christians might wonder if their baptisms were legitimate, not knowing whether the presbyter performing the baptism was pure. Therefore, regardless of the one performing the rite, the rite is still valid as long as God is the One behind it. 
  • Since the Donatists had used violent means to settle their differences, Augustine first developed what would late be called “Just War Theory,” which argues that while war is violent and deadly, there are situations where the greater good is achieved by opposing enemy forces in battle. However, such warfare must come by proper authority, like through a national government, not through an individual’s or group’s agenda; it also must be merciful and gracious, not killing innocent lives or doing more harm than necessary. 
  • Pelagianism
  • History: Pelagius was a monk from Britain, who became famous for his piety and strictness. He taught that the Christian life was a constant struggle through which one’s sins could be overcome and salvation attained. While Pelagius agreed with Augustine that humans had a free will to make decisions for themselves, he took his teaching a different direction by arguing that humans had the power in themselves to always choose righteousness over sin. He believed that all humans are born as sinless as Adam before the fall, giving them the ability to choose good or evil. Adam didn’t corrupt human nature, only left the world a bad example. In other words, all humans are born with a neutral heart, which can either choose to serve God or disobey. Therefore, salvation is strictly a matter of humans making the personal decision to follow Jesus – which every human has the power to do. Furthermore, Pelagius reasoned that there was no such thing as “original sin,” nor a total corruption of human nature that forces us to sin. For example, children had no sin until they, on their own free will, decided to sin. In fact, Pelagius believed that it’s possibility to live an entire life without sin, which was accomplished by saints such as the prophet Daniel. 
  • Teaching: However, Augustine taught that salvation was available to any human who turned to Jesus, but outside of God’s grace, no human would ever turn to Jesus in faith because their heart was dead to sin and incapable to desiring Christ to save them. According to Augustine, “the power of sin is such that it takes hold of our will, and as long as we are under its sway we cannot move our will to be rid of it…the sinner can do nothing but sin” (Gonzalez 214). So, if sinners are bound to sin, how can anyone choose salvation? Augustine argued from Scripture that only by the power of God’s grace can a sinner be awakened to their true condition and see their need for Christ; then, and only then, will they make the personal decision to follow Jesus. Therefore, conversion is an act of God, not the act of human will. 
  • Outcome: While several groups accepted or denied bits and pieces of Augustine’s views (e.g., Semi-Pelagians), the Synod of Orange (AD 529) upheld Augustine’s doctrine of the primacy of grace in the process of salvation. These doctrines would eventually shape the fifteenth century Protestant Reformation. 
  • Writings
  1. The City of God: Augustine wrote this book after the Visigoths captured Rome in A.D. 410. Pagan blamed the disaster on the fact that Rome had abandoned its traditional gods under Constantine’s rule. However, Augustine argued a different view of world history. He reasoned that the world had always been divided into two spiritual communities: “the city of the world,” made up of those who were controlled by a supreme love of self and earthly things; and “the city of God,” made up of those who were controlled by a supreme love for God and eternal things. These two cities were mingled together on earth but would finally be separated into their opposite destinies when Christ returned. The city of God existed and was nurtured by the Church, although the Church contained many unbelievers in the pews. The city of the world represented the state. The city of the world could never provide true peace, love, righteousness, and security (which is why the city of Rome fell). However, humans could find true life in the next world by becoming citizens of the city of God. 
  • Confessions: This work is Augustine’s autobiography, which tells how God led him to faith through a long and painful pilgrimage. It is told in the form of a prayer to God. It has always been Augustine’s most popular book.