Augustine is hugely important to Christian theology. Throughout the Middle Ages, to say you were Augustinian was basically the same as saying that you were orthodox. At the time of the Reformation, Luther, Calvin, and the Catholics all wanted to claim him as their own. This makes studying Augustine very handy. He is early in the church relative to us but late enough that Christians had had time to think through and develop a lot of their basic doctrines, and he is claimed by all major branches of Western Christianity. If the Bible is the gold standard of orthodoxy, Augustine may be something of a silver standard: the ideas he presents may be incorrect, but they are at least not heretical.
Augustine lived from 354-430AD. He was born less than 50 years after Emperor Constantine proclaimed religious tolerance, ending the extremely vicious persecution that had been prosecuted against Christians before then. (For comparison, if you were born in the 1980s, about the same length of time separates you and the Holocaust). He was born in Africa, in what is now Algeria, back when it was still part of the Roman empire, and was of Berber descent. His mother was a Christian; his father was not (although he converted shortly before his death). The family was middle class, with enough money to give Augustine a good education (he later went on to become a teacher).
This came in very useful when he wrote his Confessions, which are essentially his autobiography, structured as a prayer to God. He starts from the beginning of his time as a baby, before moving on to the famous incident of the pear tree:
There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.
Those pears were truly pleasant to the sight, but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had an abundance of better pears. I stole those simply that I might steal, for, having stolen them, I threw them away. My sole gratification in them was my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy; for, if any one of these pears entered my mouth, the only good flavor it had was my sin in eating it.
The incident is notable to him because he can come up with no justification for the theft. He wasn’t hungry, and he had better pears at home. Apparently, the only reason he stole was to do something wrong. Each of us have also done the same thing (for example, any time you’ve intentionally annoyed somebody simply to get a reaction out of them). He uses this as a starting point to explore both the nature of sin, especially how it usually consists in (poorly) imitating some aspect of God, and his own sinful nature.
Though he was ostensibly raised as a Christian, it didn’t take, and as a youth he left it for Manichaeism. Manichaeism, then about 150 years old, was one of the more influential of the Gnostic religions that were cropping up at the time. In answer to the problem of evil, it posited a dualistic world, with both a Good God and an Evil God. The Good God was identified with light and the spiritual realm; the physical world was the domain of the Evil God. Humans had a soul made by the Good God, but it was trapped inside the evil body that belonged to the Bad God.
Manichean followers were divided into two groups: the hearers and the elect. The elect had to follow a life of extreme asceticism: they were completely celibate, could eat no meat, or even kill plants for food. They were entirely dependent on the hearers to cook and provide for them. When taking a meal, the elect would ritualistically deny all responsibility for having killed the wheat to make it. This would then allow them to ascend to the spiritual realm upon their death, while the hearer who had made the meal would have to do penance in the form of being reincarnated as a vegetable themselves in their next life.
Augustine’s faith in Manicheanism crumbled when he met a famous Manichean teacher, and found him unable to answer any of his questions. At the same time, he met Ambrose, and found him very impressive. Ambrose was a great speaker, and dazzled Augustine with his interpretation of Scripture, which Augustine had previously found to be of too simple a style. Finally, he learned about St. Anthony, and was ashamed that such an uneducated man could live such a better life than he seemed capable of.
Before long, he was intellectually convinced of the truth of Christianity, but still unable to give himself over to it.
Wretched youth that I was — supremely wretched even in the very outset of my youth — I had entreated chastity of thee and had prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For I was afraid that you would hear me too soon, and too soon cure me of my disease of lust which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished.
I kept saying to myself, “See, let it be done now; let it be done now.” And as I said this I all but came to a firm decision. I all but did it — yet I did not quite. Still I did not fall back to my old condition, but stood aside for a moment and drew breath. And I tried again, and lacked only a very little of reaching the resolve — and then somewhat less, and then all but touched and grasped it. Yet I still did not quite reach or touch or grasp the goal, because I hesitated to die to death and to live to life. And the worse way, to which I was habituated, was stronger in me than the better, which I had not tried.
They are sentiments we can all relate to. Make me righteous, after I’ve had the chance to be wild and enjoy myself. The conflict tears Augustine apart, as part of him desperately wants to make the leap, but the other part just as desperately clings to his old habits and lusts. Many times he comes very close to making the change, but never quite gets there. On his own strength, he is powerless to change.
Like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), Augustine is praying not only that he will change, but that he will want to change. The change in his heart that needs to take place goes down to the very core, covering his actions, his motivations, and even that part of him that attempts to change his motivations.
Finally, in frustration, he throws himself down under a fig tree in his backyard and gives up, submitting himself fully to God’s power.
I flung myself down under a fig tree — how I know not — and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee.
I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which — coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon.
I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.
Closing the book, then, and putting my finger or something else for a mark I began — now with a tranquil countenance — to tell it all to Alypius. And he in turn disclosed to me what had been going on in himself, of which I knew nothing. He asked to see what I had read. I showed him, and he looked on even further than I had read. I had not known what followed. But indeed it was this, “Him that is weak in the faith, receive.” This he applied to himself, and told me so. By these words of warning he was strengthened, and by exercising his good resolution and purpose — all very much in keeping with his character, in which, in these respects, he was always far different from and better than I — he joined me in full commitment without any restless hesitation.
Here we see God performing one of those deniable miracles which He seems so fond of. Nothing in the chain of events is explicitly supernatural, but the string of coincidences is so unlikely that is hard to take any other explanation seriously. The voice Augustine overheard did not boom down from heaven, and may well have been simply a child in a neighboring house, and yet the strange chant was exactly what Augustine needed to hear (Augustine himself seems unclear as to whether the voice had an actual human behind it or not). Augustine then opens his Bible and against all odds lands on a verse that is again exactly what he needs to hear; one followed immediately by another verse that is exactly what his companion needs to hear. It could all be a coincidence, but would a mere string of coincidences really have been able to make such a radical change in both Augustine’s and Alypius’ lives?
Augustine was ordained a priest in 391, and became bishop of Hippo in 395.
Pelagius was a monk from Britain, who became very concerned with society’s moral laxity, and came to blame this in part on the doctrine of the divine grace. The essential core of his doctrine was that mankind can avoid sinning, and that we can use our free will to choose to follow God’s commandments. There is no original sin; each person is a new free agent with the same power of choice as Adam. We are fully capable of not sinning our entire lives.
Augustine reacted strongly against this doctrine, which starkly contradicted his own experience. He recalled how even in his youth he would do things simply because they were wrong, and how even when he was intellectually convinced of the truth of Christianity, he was unable to let go of his past sinful habits.
Augustine’s response can be boiled down into the following points:
- Original Sin: As humanity’s representative, we are involved in some way in Adam’s fall, and consequently we all inherit that guilt from our parents.
- This corruption of man’s nature makes us unable to choose God or move towards restoration with him in any meaningful way. Essentially, Adam started in a state of being both able to sin and able not to sin. After the fall, humans become not able not to sin. After our redemption and death, we will finally become not able to sin.
- Most importantly, it is only through the grace of God that we can be saved.
Augustine also brings in predestination, and though Pelagius was ultimately condemned by the church, the debate still rages today over the precise interplay between God’s grace and our own free will.