A is for Augustine
What does an early church theologian such as Augustine have to do with us today? Is his work relevant to our day and age? Augustine certainly was born into a different time – 354 AD – a long way into the past. He was born into a different culture than we embrace today. His birthplace was in northern Africa (what we consider to be Algeria today.) However, the truths of Christianity are universal and timeless. Therefore, great value is to be gained by looking at Augustine’s life and ministry. There are two aspects to this great church father that hold interest to us. The first is his testimony, which portrays a radical conversion to Christianity. The other is his doctrine. Augustine’s doctrinal convictions have influenced many church leaders throughout the ages. Some would even regard him valuable in a literary sense. His works are considered to be remarkable classic literature. For these reasons, at the very least, Augustine is important to our study of Christianity.
Augustine was raised in the church, but while at the university he was drawn to the religion of Manicheanism. This was a dualistic religion that stood in opposition to the Christian faith. It limited the power of God. Further, it pictured the struggle between God (good) and Satan (evil) as almost being an equal match. Its philosophy was drawn heavily from gnostic teachings. While space does not provide for a full analysis of their religion, suffice it to say that he was drawn to a non-Christian belief system. Known to be a liar and a cheater, he also was involved in illicit sexual relations. There was much in his life from which to be saved.
At the age of 32, he met the Bishop Ambrose. The Bishop answered Augustine’s objections to the Bible and Christianity. With his objections removed, Augustine was well on his way to salvation. In the summer of 386, Augustine sat in a garden of Milan. While there he heard a child’s sing-song voice saying, “Take it and read. Take it and read.” He took up what was near him, the book of Romans, and began reading at Romans 13:13–14,
“Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This challenged him even more. Here was Augustine’s grand conversion experience. On Easter, Ambrose baptized Augustine in obedience to the Lord. It is interesting that this early church conversion resulted in believer’s baptism. Perhaps this speaks to modern practices of baptism; it is an indication that the early church understood baptism as something for a believer to experience. In the next few years, Augustine became a monk and then a bishop. He became one of the most well-known figures in church history. That was true of his day and through current times.
His conversion and life story are told in his book The Confessions. This is perhaps the most well-known of his works. It is rich in scripture, doctrine, and personal application. It is also remembered for being the first autobiography in western literature. As well-known as this book is, his City of God may actually be even more significant. The City of God spells out many doctrinal issues that have bearing on us today. One of the key concepts developed is the tension between the city of God and the city of man. In application, he illustrates this by the church. There are those in the church that represent the city of God as regenerated Christians. While there are others who live as the city of man. Therefore, the church is, in Augustinian terms, made up of saints and sinners. This may well have been the impetus forming Luther’s classification of a visible church and an invisible. As with many issues, the waves of Augustine’s influence echo throughout church history. Both The Confessions and The City of God are well worth reading to enrich our faith.
Augustine was a theologian who changed the world.
There are many other ways in which Augustine influenced us. He was the first theologian to offer a systematic biblical understanding of the trinity. Much of our Trinitarian view draws from his early presentation. He was the prototype for systematic theology. He also soundly presented the sovereignty of God, as seen in his understanding of creation as well as in salvation by grace. This understanding included a teaching on original sin. Original sin was such that it resulted in the total depravity of mankind. He recognized from this the need for a totally monergistic salvation. These doctrines also advocated a strong view of predestination. If you are thinking that this is sounding a lot like Calvinism, then you are already recognizing the influence his theology has had through the ages. Essentially, Augustine drew upon Paul’s Epistles. Then Calvin drew from Augustine and the Bible. Others followed Calvin, Augustine, and the Bible. Thus, we have a man who lived faithfully in his time but has influenced every era of the church since then.
That is not to say that we would agree with Augustine on every issue. For instance, his teaching on the nature of the church and the sacraments formed the basis for much Roman Catholic theology. He held to a very figurative interpretation of The Book of Revelation. Augustine was caught at times between an allegorical and a literal approach to the Scriptures. His hermeneutical model might even be viewed as inconsistent. But his positive influences by far outweigh the negative.
Other influential thoughts that come up through his writings. He presented a theory of time itself in The Confessions. He provided a theory of how learning a language happens, a study which has influenced many linguistic specialists. His work influenced St. Anselm in his development of the ontological argument for the existence of God. He posited some solid theories on the origin of evil. He presented the need for divine illumination. Since man is dead in his sins, it is impossible for him to believe until God illumines his mind. There are many other issues about which he wrote. It can be understood that while he was human and thusly imperfect, he was a brilliant theologian. His conversion experience, subsequent radical desire to serve God, and his vivid theological ideas make him important to us today. Even more than 1600 years after his birth, he continues to inform, educate, and advance Christianity. Augustine was truly a Theologian Who Changed the World.
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