Tag Archives: Augustine

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 7-8

“A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.”

Leading up to Augustine’s conversion are 3 other conversion stories (although one is merely referenced as something his readers would already know), each of which build upon each other.

Victorious Victorinus

Victorinus was a neo-platonic philosopher who investigated the Christian scriptures and concluded that they were true. However, he was at first hesitant to admit so in public. (Page 127)

He used to read the Holy Scriptures, as Simplicianus said, and thought out and studied all the Christian writings most studiously. He said to Simplicianus — not openly but secretly as a friend — “You must know that I am a Christian.” To which Simplicianus replied, “I shall not believe it, nor shall I count you among the Christians, until I see you in the Church of Christ.” Victorinus then asked, with mild mockery, “Is it then the walls that make Christians?” Thus he often would affirm that he was already a Christian, and as often Simplicianus made the same answer; and just as often his jest about the walls was repeated. He was fearful of offending his friends, proud demon worshipers, from the height of whose Babylonian dignity, as from the tops of the cedars of Lebanon which the Lord had not yet broken down, he feared that a storm of enmity would descend upon him.

Probably all of us have heard similar views. There are many who claim to be Christians who avoid being involved in their church or being publicly associated with fellow-believers. But Christianity is a community religion as much as an individual one, and to be practiced properly it must be practiced with others.

Some are motivated by laziness; Victorinus was held back by his pride, which he eventually overcame, “for he more feared to be denied by Christ before the holy angels because he was now afraid to confess Christ before men.” He even made sure to profess his faith in public, because he had publicly taught rhetoric, which was far less important.

Augustine here takes a moment to wonder why there is more rejoicing the more unexpected a salvation is. God himself confirms that there is “more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7) He mulls over many examples of this seeming contradiction, noting that drinkers will eat salty food to increase their enjoyment when they quench their thirst. He wraps it up with a prayer.

Anthony and Ponticianus

Ponticianus held a high office in the emperor’s court. He told Augustine about St Anthony the monk. One day Anthony walked into church as Matt 19:21 was being read (“Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor”), and immediately went out and did so. He was the first most famous of the desert monks, inspiring many thousands to follow him and kickstarting the entire monastic movement.

At some point, Ponticianus and three of his friends had gone for a walk. Two of them came to a cottage where they find the book about the life of Anthony. They read it, and were inspired then and there to abandon their pursuit of political power and dedicate their lives to God instead.

Then, suddenly being overwhelmed with a holy love and a sober shame and as if in anger with himself, he fixed his eyes on his friend, exclaiming: “Tell me, I beg you, what goal are we seeking in all these toils of ours? What is it that we desire? What is our motive in public service? Can our hopes in the court rise higher than to be ‘friends of the emperor’? But how frail, how beset with peril, is that pride! Through what dangers must we climb to a greater danger? And when shall we succeed? But if I chose to become a friend of God, see, I can become one now.” Thus he spoke, and in the pangs of the travail of the new life he turned his eyes again onto the page and continued reading; he was inwardly changed, as you did see, and the world dropped away from his mind, as soon became plain to others. For as he read with a heart like a stormy sea, more than once he groaned. Finally he saw the better course, and resolved on it.

The story affected Augustine greatly; for all his learning, he was unable to do what the illiterate Anthony had done without hesitation. He is thrown into a moment of crisis, torn between a will that wants to follow God, and a will that wants to cling to his old sins.

Giving it over

Probably the most famous quote of Augustine’s is his prayer to God as he struggles with the idea of giving his life over:

“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.

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. Finally, in frustration, he throws himself down under a fig tree in his backyard and gives up, submitting himself fully to God’s power:

“Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”

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.

The prayer is answered right away in an odd form. He overhears a voice chanting “Pick it up, read it. Pick it up, read it.” This he views as a sign to open the Bible and read whatever page he randomly turns to. He finds Romans 13:13-14:

“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.”

The passage speaks perfectly to Augustine’s struggle. He shows it to Alypius, who was there with him, and Alypius finds that the very next verse, Romans 14:1, applies directly to his own situation. Both give their lives to God at once.

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?

The symbolism in Augustine’s story is meant to parallel humanity’s fall from and return to grace as well. Augustine focuses on his sin of stealing fruit from a tree (simply because it was wrong), just as Adam and Eve fell by taking fruit from a tree they had been forbidden. Mankind’s salvation is ultimately derived from Jesus being hung on a tree, and Augustine’s own salvation is found when he flings himself at the base of a tree. Note also that in each of the stories he tells, the inner change is induced by receiving the written word.

Homework

The biographical portion of Confessions is just about finished. Augustine wraps things up with the death of his mother. Read Chapter 9.

Optionally, you can also read the very same biography of St. Anthony that was read by Ponticianus’ friends. It was written the Athanasius, himself a great church father.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 3-4.5

Monica and Augustine“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” – I Corinthians 1:25

Now a young adult, Augustine travels to Carthage for what would be a rough equivalent of college. There, he discovers his love of philosophy, so it is fitting that this section ended up giving us several different things to ruminate on.

You don’t want no drama

Augustine was quite taken with the theater in his younger days, but looking back he views it as a great waste of time. He cannot seem to figure out why we would enjoy watching something that stirs up feelings that, in real life, we try to avoid:

But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters — whether historical or entirely imaginary — are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy. Tears and sorrow, then, are loved.

In our discussion, none of us were able to come up with an answer to this, even though none of us shared his dim view of the entertainment industry. Some did theorize that movies provide us with a release for some of our more negative emotions, preventing us from bottling them up, although this didn’t seem to quite cover things. If true, though, the ideal movie would run through all of the emotions.

The simple complexity of scripture

Reading Cicero gave Augustine a thirst for knowledge, and he turned back to the Bible to learn more. However, as a teacher who specialized in rhetoric, he found the language somewhat crude.

When I then turned toward the Scriptures, they appeared to me to be quite unworthy to be compared with the dignity of Tully [Cicero]. For my inflated pride was repelled by their style, nor could the sharpness of my wit penetrate their inner meaning. Truly they were of a sort to aid the growth of little ones, but I scorned to be a little one and, swollen with pride, I looked upon myself as fully grown.

One of the important features of Scripture is that it is accessible to even the simplest people; everybody is able to comprehend what is necessary for salvation. It’s interesting that Augustine actually viewed this as a mark against it; he was too proud to want to be part of something that was so accessible to even the uneducated. At the same time, looking back, he realizes that Scripture also went over his head. Underneath the simple message, there is more than enough meaning and wisdom that even two thousand years later people still haven’t finished penetrating its depths.

Unsaved loved ones

At this point in his life, Augustine had turned to Manichaeism, which caused extreme distress to his mother:

My mother, thy faithful one, wept to thee on my behalf more than mothers are accustomed to weep for the bodily deaths of their children. For by the light of the faith and spirit which she received from thee, she saw that I was dead.

This stood out as a rebuke to most of us, who have unsaved members of our own families, but not a similar level of distress. Augustine’s mother was eventually rewarded with a vision assuring her that he would rejoin her in the faith, a prophecy that took almost a decade to come true.

Baptism and death

One more incident stood out to me in this section. Augustine’s best friend falls sick. Augustine had previously converted this friend to Manichaeism, but while he was unconscious and near-death, his presumably Christian family has him baptized. Surprisingly, this has a very marked effect on the friend when he temporarily revives:

For when, sore sick of a fever, he long lay unconscious in a death sweat and everyone despaired of his recovery, he was baptized without his knowledge. And I myself cared little, at the time, presuming that his soul would retain what it had taken from me rather than what was done to his unconscious body. It turned out, however, far differently, for he was revived and restored. Immediately, as soon as I could talk to him — and I did this as soon as he was able, for I never left him and we hung on each other overmuch — I tried to jest with him, supposing that he also would jest in return about that baptism which he had received when his mind and senses were inactive, but which he had since learned that he had received. But he recoiled from me, as if I were his enemy, and, with a remarkable and unexpected freedom, he admonished me that, if I desired to continue as his friend, I must cease to say such things.

All of which raises for us the issue of just what baptism is. Modern Protestants don’t usually take it very seriously, but historically baptism has been a very contentious issue. Lancaster itself was settled by the Anabaptists, who were regarded as heretics in large part because they felt that people should not be baptized until they were able to understand their creed. While many of us now regard baptism largely as a rite we undergo because God commanded it, previous ages viewed it as having almost mystical powers, a view that seems supported by this story.

The friend died not long after, plunging Augustine into a great depression. Everything “looked like death” to him now, and seemed pointless. Augustine continues to delve into this in the next section.

Assignment

Read through Book 5. The first half of this section departs from autobiography and delves more into theology, dwelling particularly on how even good things like friendship can distract us from God. He also discusses the first books he wrote (he finds them foolish now), and we learn more about his interactions with the Manichaeans.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 1-2

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” -Psalm 51:5

The Innocence of Infants

Augustine starts his biography with his time as a baby (he actually goes even earlier, wondering if he had an existence before he was even conceived). Though he doesn’t remember this directly, he is able to deduce what he must have been like from his observations of other babies. The inherent sinfulness of man is a repeated theme in the first two chapters, and Augustine finds sin even in babies. He describes the selfishness he observes in them, and concludes that babies aren’t innocent, so much as they are weak. They struggle hard to hurt those who care for them whenever they don’t get what they want, but lack the strength to inflict any damage.

Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed? Thus, the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind. I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast. … Yet we look leniently on such things, not because they are not faults, or even small faults, but because they will vanish as the years pass. For, although we allow for such things in an infant, the same things could not be tolerated patiently in an adult.

Education before virtue

Though Monica is now regarded as a saint, she was far from perfect. We get the impression that she only awakened slowly to the importance of raising her son up with a solid Christian foundation, and she of course had no help from her non-Christian husband:

My Father had no concern as to how I grew towards you, or how chaste I was, as long as I was skillful in speech, however fruitless I might have been your cultivation of my heart, which is your field, O God. Although my mother had no fled out of the “center of Babylon,” she still went more slowly in the skirts of it. She advised me to be chaste, but paid no heed to what her husband had told her about me, so as to restrain within the bounds of married love what she felt to be presently destructive and dangerous for the future. She did not heed this, for she feared that a wife might prove a clog an hindrance to my hopes -not the hopes of the world to come, which my mother had in you, but the hopes of education, which both my parents were too anxious for me to acquire- my father because he had little or no thought of you and only vain thoughts for me, and my mother because she thought that the usual courses of learning would not only be no drawback, but even of some help towards my attaining you. And my iniquity grew enormous.

Don’t we do the same thing when prioritize sending our kids through college over getting them married?

The Great Pear Heist

Pears
Augustine’s view of himself doesn’t improve as he ages. As he describes his early years, he focuses particularly on an incident where he and a group of his friends steal some pears.

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. The entire section is well worth reading.

Augustine notes other ways in which his sense of morality was deficient as well. He liked to cheat at games, but then get very indignant when he caught somebody else cheating. Since he was just as prone to cheat, he really had no basis to complain when the same was done to him. We are all prone to being far more forgiving of our own sins than those of others.

Assignment

Read Book 3 to about halfway through Book 4. He begins to stray. Look out for the following:

  • Augustine develops a love of the theater, something he now regrets. What do you think of his view of fiction?
  • Augustine investigates astrology, but finds it lacking.
  • Augustine’s mother, who has grown fearful for his salvation, has a vision.
  • Augustine’s best friend died young. How does this affect him?

Confessions of St Augustine – Introduction

Augustine“The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” -Benjamin Warfield, Calvin and Augustine

Welcome, brave readers! For the next two months, we’re going to plunge into one of the oldest and most significant Christian writings, written by and about one of the most significant Christians: The Confessions of St. Augustine. Read along at home, and then show up to the class where we’ll discuss it in depth (or read along at home and telecommute to class when I post my notes online).

Why Augustine?

The modern church is woefully ignorant of its history and roots. To most of us, Christian history consists of the following: Jesus came, died, and rose again. Then Acts happened. Then Catholicism messed things up and the Reformation happened. And then our church was formed.

It is necessary to study those who came before us, both to understand who we are, and to get grounding for our beliefs. Augustine is a good starting point for a number of reasons. He is the first major Christian thinker after Paul (in fact, he is probably also the most important Christian thinker after Paul). Also importantly, he predates the major controversies which still split the church today, so nearly every denomination from Protestants to Catholics are happy to claim him. If you find an idea in Augustine, it may well be wrong, but it’s probably not heretical.

Augustine’s influence stretches throughout history; some even credit him with laying thr groundwork for the Reformation. Martin Luther was himself an Augustinian monk, and both he and Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other theologian. In turn, during the Counter-Reformation, St Teresa of Avila was inspired by her reading of Augustine’s Confessions to become a Carmelite nun, an order which she then undertook to reform. The theology he laid out still shapes our thinking today, and we can all stand to gain from reading his insights first-hand.

What to expect

We will be using a modern English, abridged version, and reading through the equivalent of 2 chapters each week. If you’re bold, feel free to get the full version, but try to stick with a modern English translation; many of the ones out there are essentially King James versions and can be very difficult to trudge through. The text is also available online in many places (even in the original Latin). If reading isn’t your thing, you can listen to it instead.

The first 9 chapters (they are usually referred to as “books”) of the Confessions are Augustine’s autobiography. The last 3 delve into philosophical issues, such as the nature of time, memory, and the creation of the world. Each chapter begins with a prayer to God, which may seem a little unusual to our modern sensibilities. In fact, the whole book is really a prayer to God (hence the title; Augustine is confessing to God and we’re just listening in).

Background

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 a non-observant pagan (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).

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.

The rules for hearers were much less stringent, and it was this group that Augustine belonged to. Not only were they allowed to marry; Augustine himself lived with a woman without marrying her for over a decade, and even had a son with her, without raising any eyebrows. He stayed with the sect for 8 years, but eventually became disillusioned with their hypocrisy and false claims of knowledge. He converted to Christianity and eventually became a bishop, and played a pivotal role in the Pelagian Controversy, dealing with Donatism, and picking up the pieces from the sack of Rome.

Assignment

For next week, read up to page 30, which corresponds to the first 2 chapters, and covers Augustine’s childhood. Keep an eye out for the following:

  • Though he doesn’t remember his own time as a baby, Augustine uses his observations of other children to determine what he must have been like. Note Augustine’s view of a baby’s “innocence.” He takes a dim view of human nature even from birth, which is a significant part of Christian theology.
  • Augustine recounts a very famous incident where he stole pears from a neighbor’s tree. This was significant to him because he stole them not because he was hungry or they were especially good pears; he stole them solely because it was wrong to steal them. This also informs his views on the fallenness of human nature.

Resources

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!