AUGUSTINE of  HIPPO

354-430

Baptized 387; Bishop of Hippo 396

 Benozzo Gozzoli,
 Augustine Reading in the Garden - Tolle lege,

 Augustine Cycle San Gimignano, 1465
.

BISHOP of HIPPO REGIUS, Doctor of the Church

[1] Born at Tagaste in N. Africa, of a pagan father and a Christian mother (Monica), he received a Christian education.  He was sent to the University of Carthage, where he studied rhetoric with a view to becoming a lawyer, but he soon decided to devote himself exclusively to literary pursuits.  Here he gradually abandoned what little Christianity he possessed, and also took a mistress, to whom he remained faithful for fifteen years.

[2] A new stage was reached in 373, (age 19) when a reading of Cicero’s (lost) ‘Hortensius’ aroused in him a passionate interest in problems of philosophy.  Shortly afterwards he became a Manichaean, and to this religion he remained attached for nine years.

[3] In 383 (age 29) the failure of Faustus, a celebrated Manichaean, to solve many problems which had been puzzling him eventually disillusioned him, and when shortly afterwards Augustine migrated to Rome and opened a school of rhetoric, he had ceased to be openly a member of the sect though he was still held captive by some of their doctrines.  Disgusted by the behaviour of his pupils at Rome, he left the capital for a professorship at Milan, where he soon came under the influence of the bishop, Ambrose.  By the time he arrived at Milan, his philosophy was probably already that of the ‘Academics’, which denied the possibility of attaining absolute truth; but a little later he became a Neoplatonist and gradually drew nearer to Christianity.  The sermons of St Ambrose attracted him both by their literary quality and the answers they afforded to many of his objections to the Bible.  Simplicianus, Ambrose’s tutor, recounted the conversion of the Neoplatonist, Victorinus, and it soon became apparent that the only thing that held Augustine back was his inability to live in continence.

[4] In the summer of 386 (age 32) he heard from Pontitian the story of the two civil servants who had become monks after reading the Life of St. Antony, and very soon afterwards a glance at Rom. 13:13 f. (in response to a Divine oracle, ‘Tolle lege’), gave him the final victory. After some months spent in seclusion at Cassiciacum, Augustine was baptized on Easter Eve, 387 (age 33) .

[5] In 388 (age 34) he returned to Africa and established with some friends a kind of monastery at Tagaste.  While visiting the town of Hippo Regius he was suddenly seized by the people and presented to the aged bishop, Valerius, for ordination.

[6] He became a priest in 391 (age 37) , and although he continued to live a monastic life he soon acquired considerable influence in the affairs of the African Church.  In 395 (age 41) he was consecrated coadjutor bishop to Valerius, Bishop of Hippo, and from c. 396 (age 42) until his death (age 76) presided as sole bishop over the see.  He died on 28 Aug. 430, when the Vandals were besieging Hippo.

      Augustine’s abiding importance rests on his penetrating understanding of Christian truth.  During his episcopate he was called upon to deal with three heresies, all of which were confronting the Church with problems of the greatest moment; and it was mainly through his struggle with these three systems that his own theology was formulated.  The least dangerous was Manichaeism, for its doctrines were too obviously remote from historic Christianity to have any real hope of success at that period.  But in his attack on it, Augustine laid the basis of the metaphysic which moulded the thought of the Schoolmen.  He defended, against the Manichaean attempt to solve the problem of evil by positing the existence of an evil agency eternally opposed to the good God, the essential goodness of all creation.  He maintained that God was the sole creator of all things and alone sustained them in being, and that evil is, properly speaking, the privation of some good which ought to be had.  In the case of physical evil this results from the imperfect character of creatures; in the case of moral evil it springs from free-will.

      More urgent on the practical side was the Donatist controversy on account of the deep divisions into which it rent the African Church.  It forced Augustine to carry the doctrines of the Church, the Sacraments, and Sacramental grace to a stage beyond that reached by any of his predecessors, and thereby to influence all subsequent Western theology.  The Church, he maintained, was ‘one’ through the mutual charity of its members, and ‘holy’, not because her members, but because her purposes, are holy.  She contains within her fold both good and evil men, and not till the last day will the latter be rooted out; and while he acknowledged that there were good men outside the Church, he seems to have thought that all who were to be saved would become members of the Church before they died.  His teaching also greatly furthered the development of the distinction between ‘validity’ and ‘regularity’ in the administration of the Sacraments.  In another department of theology, the same controversy forced him to consider the relation of the coercive authority of the state to the Church.  He accepted the civil power as part of God’s Providence, but held that it was good only in so far as it was founded on justice, which included the worship of the true God.  As a corollary, he came to accept the aid of the state to punish and suppress heresy and schism, but deprecated the use of the death-penalty.

      His later years were taken up largely with the Pelagian controversy.  It was c. 410 that Augustine received news that Pelagius had been attacking a sentence of his (Da quod iubes et iube quod vis) in the ‘Confessions’ (x. 29 [40]).  A fierce controversy ensued which evoked his teaching upon the Fall, Original Sin, and Predestination.  Augustine maintained that man was created with certain supernatural gifts which were lost by the Fall of Adam.  As a result, man suffers from a hereditary moral disease, and is also subject to the inherited legal liability for Adam’s sin; and from these evils we can be saved solely by the grace of God.  At times Augustine shows himself to be frankly Predestinarian.  The whole human race is one mass of sin (massa peccati), out of which God has elected some souls to receive His unmerited mercy.  There is no other explanation of the elect and non-elect than the inscrutable wisdom of God, and babies who die unbaptized go into everlasting perdition.  This side of Augustine’s teaching was strongly affected by his personal experience of the overpowering grace of God.  It found its most extreme formulation in the writings which he issued at the end of his life, and exercised a great influence upon J. Calvin and some of the other Reformers, though its details have won only limited approval from some of the most illustrious theologians both before and since the 16th century.

      In consequence of these controversies, a large proportion of Augustine’s writings take a polemical form.  Of his other works, the two most celebrated are the ‘Confessions’ and the ‘City of God’.  The former, the greater part of which is autobiographical and carries the story of his life down to his conversion, was written shortly before 400.  The marked differences in temper between the ‘Confessions’ and his philosophical writings roughly contemporary with his conversion seem to compel the conclusion that in the ‘Confessions’ he has imposed on the facts, probably unintentionally, a considerable element of interpretation.  In its power of analysing the emotional side of Christian experience in the face of sin it is unsurpassed.  The impulse to the writing of the 22 books of the ‘City of God’, which was spread over several years (413–26), arose out of the fall of Rome to Alaric in 410.  The event had caused consternation throughout the civilized world, and Augustine, who himself was profoundly moved, conceived the book as a reply to pagans who maintained that the fall of the city was due to the abolition of the heathen worship.  It led him to deal with the fundamental contrast between Christianity and the world, and has made it the supreme exposition of a Christian philosophy of history.  Among his other writings are a philosophical treatise ‘De Trinitate’  in 15 books, a large collection of epistles (including an interesting correspondence with St. Jerome), many sermons, and, from his earlier Christian years, a collection of philosophical dialogues.  Shortly before his death he published his ‘Retractations’, in which he reviewed his literary work.

      Augustine’s influence on the course of subsequent theology has been immense.  He moulded the whole of that of the Middle Ages down to the 13th cent., and even the reaction against Augustinianism with the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 13th cent., e.g. in St. Thomas Aquinas, was less complete than has widely been supposed.  The Reformers also appealed to elements of Augustine’s teaching in their attack on the Schoolmen; and later the Jansenists invoked his authority. Without St. Augustine’s massive intellect and deep spiritual perception Western theology would never have taken the shape in which it is familiar to us.  Feast day, 28 Aug.

Adapted from Cross and Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd. ed, (Oxford,1983). pp. 108-110

 

 

 

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