Tag Archives: Augustine

Augustine on My Little Pony

My Little Pony teaches us that friendship is magic. But is it? Is it really? Let us turn to Augustine to find out. (Spoilers: No)

I was miserable, and miserable too is everyone whose mind is chained by friendship with mortal things, and is torn apart by their loss, and then becomes aware of the misery that it was in even before it lost them. …… Look upon my heart, O my God, look deep within it. See, O my hope, who cleanse me from the uncleanness of such affections, who draw my eyes to yourself and pull my feet free from the snare, see that this is indeed what I remember. I was amazed that other mortals went on living when he was dead whom I had loved as though he would never die, and still more amazed that I could go on living myself when he was dead – I, who had been like another self to him. It was well said that a friend is half one’s own soul. I felt that my soul and his had been but one soul in two bodies, and I shrank from life with loathing because I could not bear to be only half alive; and perhaps I was so afraid of death because I did not want the whole of him to die, whom I had love so dearly.

Friendship is not magic! It chains us to things that will not last, and leaves us torn when they inevitably pass away. Make sure to tell your daughter this constantly when she’s watching her cartoons.

How to Sin

(The following is a tangent arising out of our last class on Augustine)

What is sin? Can you define it? This should be a basic question, but we often skip over the basics. When pressed most of us would define sin as “breaking one of God’s rules.”

This definition is not incorrect, per se. The rules are useful, and following them will steer you away from a lot of common human failure modes. But it doesn’t cut to the heart of the matter. What is the unifying factor that makes breaking those rules a sin?

What is sin?

Sin is Love

To be more specific, sin is loving what you should not, or loving something that you should, but in the wrong manner. Even sin, at its core, comes down to love.

The nature of love is to unite the lover and the beloved. This, done properly, is not just a beautiful thing, it’s what we exist for. Indeed, we often mistake love itself at the marker of morality. But just as loving the wrong woman will ruin a man, so will any of our other loves if not directed properly.

Augustine had personal experience with this. When he was young, a very close friend of his fell ill and died. Augustine felt like a part of his own soul had been torn from him, because indeed it had. Friendship is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination; most philosophers would have actually ranked it as the greatest thing this side of eternity. But where Augustine went wrong was in seeking final contentment in his friend; in loving him as if he weren’t going to die. To find true lasting happiness, we must unite ourselves to that which is eternal.

Salvation is love

Salvation, then, is coming to love God as we should. And this gives us a hint of what it means to say that after the resurrection we will be “unable to sin.” Once we are fully transformed, we will love God truly and fully. To ask if we could love something else instead becomes something of a category error.

Could we still sin? It is analogous to asking me if I could murder my daughter. On the one hand, I am indeed physically capable of it. On the other hand, no, never, no. No no no no. This could not be. I love her, more than anything in this world. The question itself is nearly unthinkable. If I, though I am evil, am bounded so by love, how much more when I am not evil, and I can love freely and truly?

Saint Augustine of Hippo

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.

Biography

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.

Manichaeism

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.

Pre-Conversion

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.

Conversion

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.

Pelagian controversy

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Documents

Preachers and Politicians

  1. Should a pastor simultaneously act as a government official, such as a governor or as an ambassador?
  2. Should a pastor call out a politician by name for his policies?
  3. Should the church be willing to use state force to combat heresies?

Once Christianity became the religion of the empire, it found itself having to grapple with these questions, and struggling to figure out where to draw that blurry line between state and church. As the bishop of a city which often housed the emperor, Ambrose found himself at the center of many of these controversies.

Ambrose (340-397)

Ambrose was born to Christian parents. His father was the Prefect of Gaul, which covered modern-day France, Britain, and Spain. His father died when he was a teenager, and the family moved to Rome, where he was educated to follow in his father’s footsteps. Eventually, he became a governor.

In Milan, where he lived, the Arian bishop had died, and there was a great conflict over his successor between the Catholics and Arians. Fearing a riot, he went to the church where the election was taking place and tried to talk the crowd down. During his speech, somebody yelled out, “Ambrose, bishop!” and soon the entire crowd was chanting it.

Ambrose fled and hid at a friend’s house, and this friend then turned him in. In the space of a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as a bishop.

He threw himself into this role, immediately selling everything he had, giving it to the poor, and adopting an ascetic lifestyle. He threw himself into the study of theology, which he had not had any schooling in previously.

1. Ambassador Ambrose

In 383 General Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by his troops, and then marched on and conquered Gaul, as well as emperor Gratian. He was marching on Italy and the 12-year old emperor Valentinian II when the Eastern emperor Theodosius sent troops to stop him. Ambrose was sent as ambassador to dissuade Maximus from proceeding further. The mission was a success, and resulted in Maximus being recognized as the western emperor.

How did you answer Question 1? If you said “no,” do you still think so? Would it have been better for Ambrose to stay out of political questions and consequently also fail to help the many people who would be killed in the resultant fighting?

2. Massacre at Thessalonica

In 390 in Thessalonica, a governor had arrested a popular athlete for trying to rape a male cupbearer. The people demanded his release, and when the governor refused, they rioted and killed him. The emperor was enraged, and sent out his troops. The people were invited to an exhibition in the Circus, where they were slaughtered. 7,000 people were killed.

He almost immediately thought better of the plan and sent a letter countermanding the order, but by then it was too late.

How did you answer question 2? How should Ambrose, who was the emperor’s pastor, have responded?

The following is a letter he wrote Theodosius after hearing of the incident:

What then was I to do? Must I disclose what I heard? But then I had reason to fear that the same result which I apprehended from your commands would ensue from my own words; that they might become the cause of bloodshed. Was I then to be silent? But this would be the most miserable of all, for my conscience would be bound, my liberty of speech taken away. And what then of the text, if the priest warn not the wicked from his wicked way, the wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but the priest shall be liable to punishment, because he did not warn him?

Is your Majesty ashamed to do that which the Royal Prophet David did, the forefather of Christ according to the flesh? It was told him that a rich man, who had numerous flocks, on the arrival of a guest took a poor man’s lamb and killed it, and recognizing in this act his own condemnation, he said, I have sinned against the Lord. Let not your Majesty then be impatient at being told, as David was by the prophet, Thou art the man. For if you listen thereto obediently and say, I have sinned against the Lord, if you will use those words of the royal Prophet, O come let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker, to you also it shall be said, Because thou repentest, the Lord hath put away thy sin, thou shalt not die.

This I have written, not to confound you, but that these royal examples may induce you to put away this sin from your kingdom; for this you will do by humbling your soul before God. You are a man; temptation has fallen upon you; vanquish it. Sin is not washed away but by tears and penitence. Neither Angel nor Archangel can do it. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say I am with you; even He grants no remission of sin save to the penitent.

In America, a preacher who speaks against a political leader risks losing their church’s tax-exemption. Ambrose could have been exiled or even executed. In the end, the Emperor accepted the humiliation of public penance, and was eventually readmitted to communion.

3. Suppression of the Donatists

Remember the Donatists? They were still a force during the time of Augustine, roughly 100 years after the schism started. You probably answered “no” to question 3. Saint Augustine would have disagreed with you:

Again I ask, if good and holy men never inflict persecution upon any one, but only suffer it, whose words they think that those are in the psalm where we read, “I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them; neither did I turn again till they were consumed?” If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious. She therefore is blessed in suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake; but they are miserable, suffering persecution for unrighteousness. Moreover, she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she may correct, they that they may overthrow: she that she may recall from error, they that they may drive headlong into error.

Finally, she persecutes her enemies and arrests them, until they become weary in their vain opinions, so that they should make advance in the truth; but they, returning evil for good, because we take measures for their good, to secure their eternal salvation, endeavor even to strip us of our temporal safety, being so in love with murder, that they commit it on their own persons, when they cannot find victims in any others. For in proportion as the Christian charity of the Church endeavors to deliver them from that destruction, so that none of them should die.

One thing I did not mention previously is that the Donatists themselves had begun to turn violent. Sometimes they would loot and destroy Catholic churches. They also prevented people among their ranks from going over to the Catholic side by using violence. Does this change your view any?

And what are we to say of those who confess to us, as some do every day, that even in the olden days they had long been wishing to be Catholics; but they were living among men among whom those who wished to be Catholics could not be so through the infirmity of fear, seeing that if any one there said a single word in favor of the Catholic Church, he and his house were utterly destroyed at once? Who is mad enough to deny that it was right that assistance should have been given through the imperial decrees, that they might be delivered from so great an evil, whilst those whom they used to fear are compelled in turn to fear, and are either themselves corrected through the same terror, or, at any rate, whilst they pretend to be corrected, they abstain from further persecution of those who really are, to whom they formerly were objects of continual dread?

But if they have chosen to destroy themselves, in order to prevent the deliverance of those who had a right to be delivered, and have sought in this way to alarm the pious hearts of the deliverers, so that in their apprehension that some few abandoned men might perish, they should allow others to lose the opportunity of deliverance from destruction, who were either already unwilling to perish, or might have been saved from it by the employment of compulsion; what is in this case the function of Christian charity, especially when we consider that those who utter threats of their own violent and voluntary deaths are very few in number in comparison with the nations that are to be delivered?

What then is the function of brotherly love? Does it, because it fears the shortlived fires of the furnace for a few, therefore abandon all to the eternal fires of hell? and does it leave so many, who are either already desirous, or hereafter are not strong enough to pass to life eternal, to perish everlastingly, while taking precautions that some few should not perish by their own hand, who are only living to be a hindrance in the way of the salvation of others, whom they will not permit to live in accordance with the doctrines of Christ, in the hopes that some day or other they may teach them too to hasten their death by their own hand, in the manner which now causes them themselves to be a terror to their neighbors, in accordance with the custom inculcated by their devilish tenets? or does it rather save all whom it can, even though those whom it cannot save should perish in their own infatuation? For it ardently desires that all should live, but it more especially labors that not all should die.

Documents

Jerusalem and Athens

Back when I was studying Augustine, I found that the more I learned about his view, the more it sounded like he was basically a Calvinist. Predestination, Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace; all of these themes can be found in Augustine’s thought, a thousand years before John Calvin entered the scene. But I could never be entirely sure. Some of my sources on Augustine were themselves explicitly Calvinists; might they be filtering his thought through their own? How could I disentangle Augustine’s thought from concepts that were layered on ages later? I’m still not sure, but I think the answer is that Calvin was in fact building on ideas first put for by Augustine. Augustine may not have been a Calvinist, but Calvin was an Augustinian.1

Plato gives me a similar feeling. Reading the Republic was a watershed moment in my life. It was almost a conversion moment for me, more so even than my actual conversion, which happened when I was so young that there was very little to convert. Reading through the ancient Greeks, I get the strong feeling that at last I’m getting a glimpse behind the dark glass at the real truth of things.

Greek philosophy seems so in line with Christian theology that it’s uncanny. The very word “philosophy” literally means “lover of wisdom,” which is given the highest praise throughout the Proverbs. Using only their reason, they deduced that there was a single God underlying all creation, in whom everything has its being. They held up pursuit of Truth as the highest good, something Jesus himself would certainly agree with. They were deeply concerned with living a life of virtue, and argued strenuously for it against the Sophists. In this world, they held up “friendship” as one of the greatest goods; but the concept would be better translated as “love,” which again ties back into God himself. Basically, all that is left is to identify those threads with Jesus and you’re done.

I’m hardly the first to think so, either. As early as Justin Martyr, Christians found themselves admiring and turning to the Greeks. And here we again come to Augustine. Augustine was a Platonist, and throughout his writings he merges the two systems of thought together. And that’s the catch. Do I find Plato appealing because he’s right? Or do I find him appealing because I’ve been living my whole life under systems of thought that always had him at their root?

It may not really be that important; so long as he is right the rest is really just details. I will always be grateful to and love Plato. Apologetics gave my faith a shield, but it was philosophy that gave it deep roots.

1 We are all Augustinians, at least all of us in the West.

St. Augustine and the End of the World

The Sack of Rome

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The year is 410. The day is August 24. Alaric, leader of the Visigoths, has Rome, the center of the known world, under siege.

This is the third time he has besieged Rome. The previous two times, he was left after being paid off. This time is different. This time the money has not come.

And so, for the first time in 800 years, Rome falls to an enemy. The barbarians, pour through the gates and loot it for three days. The city’s great buildings are ransacked. The mausoleums of past Roman emperors are raided and their ashes scattered to the wind. The city is devastated, and many Romans is taken captive. Jerome, voicing what many feel, wrote, “My voice sticks in my throat. The City that took the whole world captive is itself taken.”

There is one notable exception to the devastation. Alaric, who considered himself a Christian, left the churches alone, and made sure that his troops did the same.

City of God

Tens of thousands of refugees fled Rome, and many of them made their way to Hippo, where they were welcomed by St. Augustine. They needed answers for why this great tragedy had befallen the Eternal City, and a response to pagan critics who blamed its embrace of Christianity for its decline. Augustine provided those in the form of his great work City of God. It is by far his longest work, and was written in many pieces over the course of more than a decade. Where Confessions laid out Augustine’s theology of individual salvation, City of God lays out his theology of history.

Remember how horrified you were to see Augustine advocate state suppression of the Donatists? Why was that? Because we believe in a doctrine of separation of church and state. By now, it will probably not surprise you to learn that even this idea has its origins in Augustine’s thought.

In reply to those critics who charged that Rome has fallen because it had Christianized, Augustine countered that Rome had in fact not truly converted. Rather, he posited, there exist two overlapping kingdoms in the world: the City of God, and the City of the World (alternately called the City of Man).

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.” In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all.

Augustine traces the origin of the two cities back through the Bible, all the way to the original rebellion of Satan and his angels. This rebellion continues with Adam and Eve, who join the City of the world when they are seduced by Satan into loving themselves more than God. The split is reiterated with the story of Cain and Abel.

Of these two first parents of the human race, then, Cain was the first-born, and he belonged to the city of men; after him was born Abel, who belonged to the city of God. For as in the individual the truth of the apostle’s statement is discerned, “that is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual,” whence it comes to pass that each man, being derived from a condemned stock, is first of all born of Adam evil and carnal, and becomes good and spiritual only afterwards, when he is grafted into Christ by regeneration: so was it in the human race as a whole.

Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none. For the city of the saints is above, although here below it begets citizens, in whom it sojourns till the time of its reign arrives, when it shall gather together all in the day of the resurrection; and then shall the promised kingdom be given to them, in which they shall reign with their Prince, the King of the ages, time without end.

Of course, you remember How the story of Cain and Abel ended. Cain’s jealousy of Abel’s relationship with God caused him to commit fratricide. In the same way, the City of Man is at war against the City of God, which Augustine continues to trace down through scripture. He even ties this idea in with Rome’s founding myths. According to legend, Romulus killed his twin Remus before himself founding the city of Rome, once again placing Rome firmly in the “City of the World” category.

The City of the World has its uses, according to Augustine, but even at its best it just serves to suppress the crime and more blatant effects of sin. The City of God is what we were truly made for. Most importantly, all works of man, and all the civilizations they build will ultimately die; only the City of God is eternal.

The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.

Augustine’s Death

While Augustine lay on his death bed in 430, the Vandals made their way into Africa, and laid siege to Hippo. He spent his final days in prayer and penitence, reading the penitential psalms and convinced that the end of the world was at hand. Not long after his death, his own city of man did fall. The Vandals burned down Hippo, leaving only Augustine’s cathedral and library intact.

This seems like a downer, but looking back I consider it somewhat comforting. The end of the Roman world turned out not to be the end of the world. Western civilization carried on, and even surpassed the rest of the world in spite of all of that. We look around the world today and we see a lot of things going wrong. History reminds us that though things are bad today, things have been bad before. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.

Now What?

If you want more Augustine, he has plenty of writings to choose from. The massive City of God is his most famous and important work, but there are lots of others. On Christian Doctrine is another popular (and fairly short) work of his. If you want to further explore the Pelagian controversy that we touched briefly upon, his Anti-Pelagian Writings have been collected together into a volume of their own. If you’re interested in the free will aspects of that debate, he has a separate work titled On Free Choice of the Will. If you liked his work on time, you may be interested in his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis. This is just a small sampling; there are many other tracts, sermons and books that he authored.

Augustine did change his mind. Significantly, he later went back over his past work, revising and even abandoning some of his ideas in his Retractions.

So go pick up an old book and get to reading!

Now what?

Our church history class is over, but I’m hoping that won’t be the end for you. Obviously, there is plenty more history that we did not cover, even in the small time periods that we did discuss. If you want to fill those in, the best way is to read. You don’t even need to read a lot; I have committed myself to only 10 pages a night, but over the past 8 years, that has really added up.

If you read only two books as a result of this class, let them be On the Incarnation and Confessions of St. Augustine. I would even encourage you to make a study of them with whatever small group or bible study you’re a part of. If you’ve already read them, skip ahead to the rest of the resources you should check out.

On the Incarnation, by Athansius

Athanasius was the greatest defender of Trinitarian Orthodoxy during the turbulent times after Nicea. On the Incarnation, written before he even turned 30, is a brilliant explanation of the incarnation of Christ. C.S Lewis praised it especially highly:

Athanasius stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.

As you read, you would also do well to listen to relevant episodes from this podcast, as he walks his own class through this book.

On the Incarnation is available in a variety of formats:

The Confessions of St. Augustine

It’s a classic for a reason. Augustine explores human nature and whole range of other topics in this masterpiece, and even comes close to deriving the Big Bang from an analysis of Genesis. If you want to study this with your small groups, contact me and I’ll pass my notes along to you from when I did the same.

Please note that there are many translations, and you would do well to find one in modern English, which will likely mean getting an actual physical book.

More History!

For a good overview of church history, I recommend this book: Church History in Plain Language. It goes all the way up to the present time.

If you’re online, you can do even better. A number of college courses make recordings of their lectures available online for free. The best part about audio resources like this is that you can let them play while you do other things. The following two were particularly helpful in preparing this course:

However, if you really want to know what’s going on, you need to dive into primary sources. I have made sure to include primary sources in every class partly for this reason, and partly to show you that they’re still perfectly approachable. We can learn directly from the greats.

Luckily for us, all of these primary sources are available on the internet. However, they’re almost all from the Roberts-Donaldson translation from the early 1800s, and the language is very King Jamesy. You are better off finding an actual book with a modern translation. I’m sure you can get these from fine publishers such as Zondervan or Baker Books. Your local college library is also likely to have some more obscure texts.

If you stick to the online world, you will likely find yourself visiting the Christian Classics Ethereal Library often. Early Christian Writings is also a handy site. If you like your books electronic, Orthodox e-books may interest you.

Test everything. Hold on to the good.I Thessalonians 5:21

See the rest of the Church History posts

The End of the World

“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” – Isaiah 40:8

Sack of 410

In the year 410 AD, the Visigoths, led by Alaric, besieged and plundered Rome. This was the first time in 800 years that Rome had fallen to an enemy, but it was a long time in coming. The empire had long been plagued by German incursions, and in many cases solved the problem by paying other Germans to fight them off. Theodosius signed a treated with the Visigoths which declared them to be subjects of the empire, but autonomous subjects. Alaric later fought alongside Theodosius in the battle that would unite the empire for the last time under one rule. In that battle, Theodosius made sure to order the Visigoth troops to charge before sending in his Roman troops, killing half of them. We can be sure Alaric took that lesson to heart.

He resumed hostilities with Rome not long after the emperor’s death, and laid siege to the city twice, each time leaving when he was bought off. The third time the payoff did not come, and on August 24, 410, slaves opened the gates to the barbarians, who poured in and looted it for three days. The city’s great buildings were ransacked. The mausoleums of past Roman emperors were raided and their ashes were scattered to the wind. The city was devastated, and many Romans were taken captive. Jerome, voicing what many felt, wrote, “My voice sticks in my throat. The City that took the whole world captive is itself taken.”

There was one notable exception to the devastation. Alaric, who considered himself a Christian, left the churches alone, and made sure that his troops did the same.

Sack of 455

In 455, Rome was besieged again, this time by the Vandals. Emperor Maximus fled the city rather than fight them off. The only authority left in the city was Pope Leo. He negotiated with the Vandals, and got them to agree not to destroy the city or murder its inhabitants. The gates were opened for them, and they plundered Rome for the next 14 days. However, they largely kept their word, refraining from violence or burning down buildings.

This was the second time Leo had acted in such a capacity. A few years earlier, Attila the Hun had invaded Italy, and sacking cities and making his way to Rome. Leo was sent with an envoy to negotiate with Attila, and he succeeded in convincing Attila to not only spare the capital, but withdraw from Italy altogether.

Papacy

It is not hard to imagine what this did for the position of the church. Rulers and political leaders had failed at their most basic task of keeping people safe. But where they fled for their own lives, the Pope stayed behind and did the job that they were supposed to do. It is here that the Papacy really starts to become the Papacy as we know it. Staying out of politics and away from temporal power was no longer even a possibility; when it mattered most, the church was the only temporal power left.

City of God

Tens of thousands of refugees fled Rome, and many of them made their way to Hippo, where they were welcomed by St. Augustine. They needed answers for why this great tragedy had befallen the Eternal City, and Augustine provided those in the form of his great work City of God.

The City of Man is bound together by a common love for temporal things, while the City of God is bound together by the love of God. The former exists largely to suppress the crime and some of the more blatant results of sin, but it’s the City of God which we were truly made for. Most importantly, all works of man, and all the civilizations they build will ultimately die; only the City of God is eternal. “The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.”

While Augustine lay on his death bed, the Vandals made their way into Africa, and laid siege to Hippo. He spent his final days in prayer and penitence, reading the penitential psalms and convinced that the end of the world was at hand. Not long after his death, his own city of man did fall. The Vandals burned down Hippo, leaving only Augustine’s cathedral and library intact.

This is a happy ending

This seems like a downer, but looking back I consider it somewhat comforting. The end of the Roman world turned out not to be the end of the world. Western civilization carried on, and even surpassed the rest of the world in spite of all of that. We look around the world today and we see a lot of things going wrong. History reminds us that though things are bad today, things have been bad before. The Church survives.

Class Materials

Dos, Don’ts, and Donatists

Documents

  • Homilies on Leviticus, Origen
    Origen distinguishes between mortal sins and regular sins. This work is of considerable length.
  • On Modesty, Tertullian
    Tertullian attacks what he sees as the excessive leniency of the church in Rome. Note that he was a Montanist by this time. I can’t claim this one is short either.
  • Sermon 23, St. Augustine
    Augustine preaches on the parable of the wheat and the tares, and uses it to explain why good Christians must tolerate the bad ones. This one is short; read it.
  • Class Materials
    This is perhaps the only Sunday School class ever to use images from both Portal and Street Fighter.