Wednesday, March 06, 2013

St Augustine of Hippo


Augustine of Hippo is probably the most significant figure in Western Christian thought.  Thomas Aquinas acknowledged his as his main teacher; both the Roman Catholic church and the churches of the Reformation hold Augustine as a major influence.  More recently, a very particular approach to Augustine has been taken by the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ group of theolgians.  The books that have been written on Augustine are legion, the books that Augustine himself wrote are fairly lengthy!  So I am not going to offer you a thoroughgoing account of every aspect of Augustine’s life and thought.  Instead, I am going to look at a few important moments or themes in Augustine.  I hope that will be enough.

Let me begin with Augustine’s life.  Augustine was born on 13th November 354 at Thagaste, in modern day Algeria.  He was the son of Patritius, a city councilor and Monica.  Patritius was a pagan, only converting to Christianity shortly before his death; but Monica was a devout Christian.  It is hard to underestimate Monica’s importance in Augustine’s life.  Her persistence is one of the features of Augustine’s early life.  In times when infant baptism was unusual, Monica had the infant Augustine signed with the cross and entered as a catechumen.  She had high hopes for her clearly gifted son.  But Augustine did not live up to her hopes in his early life.  His childhood faith was submerged by what one of the historians of the period calls ‘adventures in sensuality.’[1]  At the age of 17 he took a concubine, to whom he was faithful until his mother’s efforts to marry him off brought the relationship to an end.  In 372, she bore him a son, Adeodatus (Given-by-God).  Monica wept for her son but was given a dream that suggested that Augustine would turn out alright.  This was confirmed by a priest who advised Monica, ‘let him alone … and only pray to the Lord for him: he himself by reading will discover his error.’[2] 


Augustine was educated in literature, and this too contributed to the decline of his faith.  He found the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, inferior to Latin classics.  But he remained someone who had a profoundly religious streak, and so became a member of the Manichaean sect.  The Manichees rejected the Old Testament, and seemed to offer reason where the church only offered authority.  Manichaeism offered a view of the world as lesser, and even evil.  It rejected the Old Testament largely due to the positive view that the Bible takes of the creation.  Jesus has a place, but Mani himself was seen as the Paraclete, promised by Jesus, to reveal all truth.  Augustine converted several of his friends to Mani’s religion and became a ‘hearer’, a second level member (and crucially one not required to become celibate).

Augustine spent nine years as a member of the Manichaean religion, much to Monica’s upset.  But by 384, Augustine had become skeptical and disillusioned.  This co-incided with a move to Milan. Here, he came under the influence of the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose, and for the first time Augustine met a Christian intellectual who he respected.  From Ambrose, Augustine learnt that there were ways to interpret the difficult passages of the Old Testament.  In Milan also, he learnt neo-Platonism and found a philosophical way of working with Christian faith.  Finally, his mother moved in, living with Augustine in Milan.  All the pieces were in place and in a Milan garden on a summer’s evening in 386, Augustine became a Christian.  As he sat in the garden, he heard a voice saying ‘take, read; take read’.  Picking up the Bible he opened it where it fell and read from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  ‘Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.’[3]  ‘I would read no further, nor was there any need for me to do so; for instantly, when I had finishes the sentence, by a serene light as it were infused into my heart, all the clouds of doubt were dispersed.’[4]  Augustine and his son were baptized on Holy Saturday in 387 by Ambrose in Milan cathedral.  Monica died that autumn and a year later Augustine left Milan for Africa once more.  In 391, on a passing visit to Hippo he was coerced by popular pressure into being ordained priest (something that would blow holes in the way the Church of England discerns vocations!).  Four years later he was consecrated as coadjutor bishop of Hippo, so that no other bishop could poach him.  A year later he became bishop of Hippo in his own right, and remained there until he died in 430.

That we know all of this about Augustine, and in so much personal detail, is the first of the moments of Augustine’s life and thought that I want to dwell on.  In 397, Augustine published his Confessions, a sort of spiritual autobiography in the form of an extended prayer.  It created a new genre, but remains one of the classics of the form.  It is not an autobiography with theological asides, but the autobiography and the theology are seamlessly blended so that one cannot be understood without the other.  Augustine is constantly looking for where and how God has been involved in his life.  Why was this allowed to happen? Where was God?  Rowan Williams suggests that ‘the question repeatedly modulates into a different key; not, Where was God? but, Where was I? … So much of the Confessions centres on the image of homecoming.  God waits for the soul to come back to its home with him; without that home in God, nothing can have any meaning.’[5]  The Confessions begins with the famous phrase, which has even found its way into rock music, that ‘Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart can find no rest until it rests in thee.’[6]  Later in the book, Augustine says this: 
Too late have I loved thee, beauty so ancient and so new! Too late have I loved thee! And behold, thou wert within, and I without, and without I sought thee; and I, deformed, ran after those forms of beauty which thou hast made. Thou wast with me, and I was not with thee. Those things held me back from thee, which could have no being but in thee, Thou calledst, thou criest, and thou breakest through my deafness. Thou flashest, thou shinest and thou chasest away my blindness. Thou didst become fragrant, and I drew in my breath and panted after thee. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. Thou touchedst me and I burned for thy embrace.[7]
There is something important in all of this in the way that the Christian life is understood as incomplete, still moving towards its home in God.  Augustine the great sensualist, has become Augustine the theologian of desire.


Of all the rest of Augustine’s achievements and deep thinking, I want only to look at two things;  First his argument with the greatest British theologian of antiquity, Pelagius.  Pelagius had spent time in Rome, and he had been particularly alarmed at the moral laxity of Roman society.  When he heard a bishop quote from Augustine’s Confessions, ‘Thou commandest continency, grant what thou commandest and command what thou wilt,’[8] Pelagius was horrified.  He had no problem with the second part – ‘command what thou wilt’ – but the first seemed to imply that human beings had no responsibility for their actions.  Pelagius was a moralist and a rigorous Christian.  He feared that Augustine was preaching ‘cheap grace’ (to borrow a term from a much later century).  For Pelagius, human beings were capable of living fully moral and perfect lives, otherwise they could not be judged justly by God.  God’s role in all of this was to give teaching, and the supreme moral example of Christ.  Forgiveness was a gift of grace, but advance in the moral and spiritual life, according to Pelagius, depends on the free choices of the will confronted by the possibilities of right and wrong.  Pelagianism remains the quintessential British heresy, popularized in such things as the saying about in pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, and the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor.  It still has a strong hold today.  (Anyone hearing in this a link with the Coalition government’s welfare reforms and political rhetoric is not mistaken!)

Augustine could not agree with this.  No less a moralizer that Pelagius, Augustine understood more about sin, and its corrupting nature.  Had Pelagius been right, then the sin of Adam would have been all about Adam (and Eve) but would have had no effect on their descendants.  Instead, Augustine knew that sin was corrosive and pervasive.  It has an effect on the whole world, not just individual sinners.  His theology of original sin, which has its roots in the argument with Pelagius, is actually a theology of grace.  Original sin is not a matter of seeing infants as evil and corrupt.  Infants are affected by sin, and so freedom of action for all of us, child or adult, is compromised.  Without an intervention from God, human beings could not free ourselves from the mire into which our own sin has placed us all.  The grace of God, the free gift of God, is forgiveness and a re-ordering of life.  Augustine has a theology of the cross that seems missing from Pelagius.  Augustine’s emphasis on grace is what distinguishes him as a theologian, and what made him the source of inspiration for Martin Luther.


The final moment of Augustine’s life that I want to dwell occurred on 24th August, 410 when Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome.  It is hard to underestimate the significance of this, it was the 9/11 of the fifth century and possibly more significant even than that.  Rome had become the center of Christianity, and many of the Christian writers had seen in the conversion of Constantine a moment that brought the coming of Christ closer.  All of that theological romanticism was blown apart by Alaric’s triumph.  But the Christian world was left in disarray.  It had seemed that the Christianisation of Rome was a sign of God’s approval, what had happened?  In his greatest work, The City of God, Augustine brought two things to the theological rebuilding of Western Christianity.  The first was a deeply biblical understanding, that could see in the Old Testament the way that God had used invasion and exile as a means of disciplining the people of Israel.  The second was a philosophical approach which could in the biblical cities of Jerusalem and Babylon an analogy of the earthly and heavenly cities.  These were not states, but ideal societies composed of individuals.  No earthly state can ensure the security of human beings.  Augustine refuses the option of apocalyptic distrust of all human organization, and that of the romantic identification of any existing social order with the heavenly city.  The people of God are a mixed community, on pilgrimage to the heavenly city, containing both saints and sinners.  Perhaps Augustine’s greatest contribution to the philosophy of history is just this, that the meaning of history is not to be found in outward events, but in the drama of salvation, of sin, grace and redemption.

That is, then, a woefully inadequate account of this great sinner, saint, bishop and theologian.  In his Confessions, Augustine gives us a theology of the Christian life as homecoming to God.  In his argument with Pelagius, Augustine gives us a theology of grace.  In his City of God, Augustine gives us a theology for the end of history.  There are riches here indeed.  Let me end with the collect for St Augustine’s Day:
Merciful Lord,
who turned Augustine from his sins
to be a bishop and teacher:
grant that we may follow him
in penitence and discipline
till our restless hearts find their rest in you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen


Given as part of a series on 'A History of Christianity in 30 Characters' at the Chapel; of St Mary on the Bridge, Derby on 4.3.13.

[1] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin, 1967), p. 217.
[2] Augustine, Confessions, III.xi.
[3] Romans 13.13-14.
[4] Confessions VIII.xii.
[5] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross (DLT, 1979), p. 71.
[6] Confessions, I.i.
[7] Confessions, X.xxvii
[8] Confessions, X.xxix.

1 comment:

Felix said...

Do you, by any chance, know who was the artist who did that painting of Alaric's sack of Rome?