People living within the Roman Empire during the 4th and 5th centuries embraced some ideas which would largely seem foreign to us today. These ideas are relatively unknown to us in the 21st century, but they played a large role in the life of our Top Theologian: Augustine. In order to appreciate Augustine, we need to appreciate his world.
Cicero (106-43BC) was one of the greatest of the Roman orators. Many of his works are today lost to history. We know one of his books named Hortensius was popular during the time of Augustine. Cicero offered to the Romans a worldview.
Cicero wrote about happiness. He said everyone seeks happiness. In the life-long quest for happiness he observed most people tried to find pleasure through food, drink and sex.
Happiness, however, is not found in a self-indulgent life of pleasure, which merely destroys both self-respect and true friendships.1 He observed people seeking happiness through indulgent pleasures ended up with a miserable life. Most people in his world, he observed, ended up with a miserable life. Cicero thought this misery possibly came from some sort of divine judgment.
Cicero, through refreshingly plain language, advocated a different way to seek happiness. To find happiness one should live a highly principled and aesthetically pleasing life. Happiness will come through a rigorous program of self-discipline and self-improvement. The wise man was someone who trained his head to rule his heart and physical passions in order to live a humble and objective life.2
Humility, discipline and selflessness replaced the Roman dream of self indulgence. The thoughts of Cicero would rock Augustine’s world.
Along with the thoughts of Cicero, a new flavor of Christianity spread through the Roman world during the time of Augustine. Its founder, Mani, also offered the Romans a worldview.
Mani was born around 216AD in the area of modern-day Iran. He called himself an “Apostle of Jesus Christ.” He claimed to have unique secret information about the nature of God, humanity and the universe. In actuality, Manichaeism was a Persian adaptation of Christianity, which added in Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, speculative philosophy and superstition.3
According to Mani, the human predicament is the presence in each of us of two principles. One, which he calls “light,” is spiritual. The other, “darkness,” is matter.4 The kingdom of darkness has been fighting to defeat the light. In every human being these two principles have mixed together. Every human is so mixed with these principles that everything from the waist down is considered part of the kingdom of darkness. Everything from the waist up is the kingdom of light. Sex is not allowed for a Mani. It only contributes to the furthering of the kingdom of darkness.
Salvation consists in separating the two elements, and in preparing our spirit for its return to the realm of pure light, in which it will be absorbed.5 According to Mani, this doctrine had been revealed in various fashions to a long series of prophets, including Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus and Mani himself.6
A great deal of Romans jumped on board with the ideas of Mani. Followers of Mani lived lives of extreme self-denial. Mani would have an extreme influence in the life and world of Augustine.
A third popular person of the day offering the Romans a worldview was a man named Plotinus. Plotinus (205-270AD) started a school of philosophy in Rome which became a hub of intellectual activity. Knowles talks about this fascinating man:
Plotinus lived an ascetic life with very little food or sleep. He ate only vegetables and never took a bath. His own body and person seem to have been of little interest to him, as though he were living as independently of them as possible.7
Plotinus rediscovered the teachings of Plato. Many actually believed him to be a reincarnation of Plato. He is known as the father of a movement of ideas called Neo-Platonism. Neoplatonism was very popular at the time of Augustine.
Neoplatonism disagreed with the worldview of Mani. It taught there was only one principle in the universe. There is not a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness. There is, so to speak, only one kingdom. This kingdom is ruled by the One, the source of all things.
Reality is like the concentric circles that appear on the surface of the water when hit by a pebble. The realities of life that are closer to the One, the center, are superior. Evil then does not originate from a different source, but consists simply in moving away from the One.8 The miserable life described by Cicero is seen by the Neo-Platonists as people living in the outer circles away from the One.
Gonzalez explains the pursuit of the Neoplatonist:
Through a combination of study, discipline, and mystical contemplation, it sought to reach the ineffable One, the source of all being. The goal of the Neoplatonist was the ecstasy that one experienced when lost in such contemplation.9
Neoplatonists found great pleasure in their contemplation. Augustine would spend a great deal of time contemplating their contemplations. We now turn to #1 on our list of Top Ten Theologians.
Early Years with Monica
Augustine was born in 354AD in the little town of Thagaste, in North Africa. His father worked for the Roman government. His father followed traditional North African pagan religions. His mother Monica, however, was a passionate believer in Jesus.
Thagaste, now in modern-day Algeria, was in the middle of a North African boom during the early years of Augustine. Life was good. An inscription has been discovered explaining the indulgent life there, “The hunt, the baths, play and laughter: that’s the life for me!”10
Augustine grew up around this indulgent life but his family had lesser means. It was clear to his parents, however, that Augustine had unusual intellectual abilities. His family would sacrifice greatly to allow Augustine the best of educations. To that end they sent him to the nearby town of Madaura, and later to Carthage.11 Augustine was 17 years old when he arrived in Carthage. While he did not neglect his studies, he set out to indulge in the full offerings of the city. In fairly a short time he had a girl living with him. She would end up living with him for the next fifteen years. Shortly later, Augustine and his girlfriend had a son. They named him Adeodatus – meaning ‘given by God.’
All the students of his day preparing for careers inside government or as lawyers became students of Rhetoric. It was a crucial skill during this age to be able to speak and write in an elegant and convincing way. Truth wasn’t that important in his studies. It was more valuable to speak convincingly than to speak truthfully.
During this time Augustine started to study one of the masters of Roman rhetoric: Cicero. Cicero began to shake Augustine’s world. He saw the masterful communication of Cicero, but Augustine would not allow himself to stop merely at Cicero’s style. He began to read the content of his works. Rhetoric, without truth, could lead someone like Augustine to become a rich man able to fulfill every indulgent desire.
Cicero’s writings let Augustine know his life of indulgence would end in misery. Instead, he needed to search for truth above rhetoric.
Augustine’s response to the writings of Cicero:
Suddenly, all empty hope for my career lost its appeal; and I was left with an unbelievable fire in my heart, desiring the deathless qualities of Wisdom, and I made a start to rise up and return to Thee…I was on fire, my God, on fire to fly away from earthly things to Thee.12
Augustine becomes a Manichee
One of the fascinating aspects of Augustine’s life is his journey of faith. With the influence of Cicero propelling Augustine forward, he went looking for a new worldview. He threw himself completely into the teachings of Mani.
Manicheism claimed to be the belief system of the intelligent. Its teachings were supported by astronomical observations. They ridiculed Christianity, and the Bible, as being too focused on the flesh and too barbaric in the writing of the Bible.
The issue of evil became a big focus for Augustine. His mother had always taught him that there was only one God. If there was only one God then why would he allow or create evil? In Manicheism he found a worldview where evil is an equal opposite to the kingdom of light. Since they have no relation to each other the kingdom of light cannot be blamed for the kingdom of darkness.
Augustine’s mother, Monica, was not happy with him becoming a Manichee. Monica was so opposed to his Manichee views she would not allow him in the house!13 During this time Augustine led several of his friends to become Manichees. Although Mani taught a strict self-denial, Augustine continued to live an indulgent lifestyle. Throughout this time, however, he continued to have questions and doubts about Manichee beliefs.
During Manichee gatherings Augustine started to vent his doubts. Gonzalez explains Augustine’s last days as a Manichee:
He was told his questions were very profound, and that there was a great Manichean teacher, a certain Faustus, who could answer them. When the much announced Faustus finally arrived, he turned out to be no better than the other Manichean teachers. Disappointed, Augustine decided to carryon his quest in different directions14.
On to Neoplatonism
Augustine at this time had become a professor in rhetoric. After unsuccessful attempts to teach in Thagaste and Carthage, he moved on in 384AD, at the age of 30, to a teaching position in Milan. In Milan he encountered the teachings of Plotinus and became a Neoplatonist. His nagging question about the origin of evil seemed to be answered.
In Neoplatonism you can have a single being, of infinite goodness, as the source of all things. Evil exists but it is not a “thing.” This is a huge realization for Augustine. Evil is real, but it is not a “thing.” It is rather a direction away from the goodness of the One. Neoplatonism helped to open the door for Augustine to become a Christian. He was still, however, disturbed by the Bible. He had come to see the Bible as sloppy rhetoric. Its language was crude and at times violent. How could this be the Word of God?
While in Milan, Monica convinced her son to go listen to the Bishop of Milan. Ambrose had been bishop for 11 years. Ambrose was the most famous speaker in all Milan. As a professor of rhetoric Augustine was interested to go hear the bishop. Initially, Augustine didn’t care about what Ambrose said, just how he said it. Eventually, however, Augustine stopped listening as a critic and listened to Ambrose as a seeker of truth.
Augustine had long looked at the Bible as a second-rate work. Through the teaching of Ambrose, however, he saw how the Bible could be the Word of God. His major intellectual objections had melted away, yet there was still a big hurdle in his path.
If Augustine were to accept the faith of his mother, he would be all-in: 100%. He was convinced that, were he to become a Christian, he must give up his career in rhetoric, as well as all his ambitions and every physical pleasure.15 It was this last aspect he struggled with the most. By this time Augustine’s initial girlfriend was out of the picture, but he was engaged to a second woman and sleeping with a third. During this time he famously used to pray, “Give me chastity…but not too soon.”
After reading a biography of Athanasius (our #4 theologian) and hearing of several other people becoming Christians, Augustine gave his life fully to God. He and his now teenage son were then baptized by Ambrose.
Augustine resigned from his teaching position and decided to return to North Africa. On the way, tragically, his mother became ill and died. After several months of grieving in Rome he finally reached his hometown of Thagaste when another tragedy rocked Augustine. His son, Adeodatus, also died.
Leader and Bishop
Augustine’s plan was to sell most of his possessions, move to nearby Cassiacum, and devote himself to contemplation and writing. From these early writings, Augustine’s fame began to grow as his sharp mind and newfound life in Christ found expression. He was eager to write against all the worldviews he had been swept into that claimed truth but left the adherent empty.
Augustine’s life was about to go in a totally different unexpected direction. He simply traveled to the city of Hippo to invite a friend to join him at Cassiacum. During a church service the bishop, Valerius, noticed Augustine sitting in the congregation. He spontaneously changed his message asking the congregation to seek God if someone in their midst might have been sent to be their minister! Augustine, much against his will, was ordained to serve with Valerius in Hippo.16 Within four years Augustine was the bishop of Hippo.
He would never return to a life of solitude and writing. All his most famous writings, including his monumental interactions with Pelagius, would be done under the stress of daily pastoral responsibilities. It’s these writings, his thoughts we now examine.
Freedom of the Will
Since Augustine led many friends to become Manichees, many of his first works were written to refute their teachings. These early works dealt mainly with the divine authority of Scripture, the origin of evil and the freedom of the will. At such an early time in the history of Christianity Augustine goes on to develop a robust view of the freedom of the will. This was important to solve the difficulties having to do with the origin of evil. 17
Influenced by Neoplatonism, Augustine sees in Scripture the fact that evil is never a substance. God did not create a substance called evil. He instead creates humans and angels with a good will. Humans and angels are able to make decisions out of their own will. This will, however, is freely capable of making a bad decision. The origin of evil is found in the bad decisions made by both humans and angels – those of the demons, who are fallen angels.18 Augustine was able to show how an all-powerful good God can create and sustain the world and also explain the reality of evil.
The freedom of the will is absolutely crucial in understanding and appreciating the thoughts of Augustine. A new question rose up in Augustine’s life. How free are humans to sin? Furthermore, how free are humans to avoid sin? These questions came from a man named Pelagius. To him Augustine turned his focus.
It was against the thoughts of the godly man Pelagius that Augustine wrote his most important theological works. Pelagius, a monk from Britain, had become famous by his piety. Pelagius claimed humans can attain a sinless life. He denied that human sin is inherited from Adam.19 He believed that humans are free to act righteously. He saw no need for an outside influence. He did not believe we needed the special enabling power of the Holy Spirit. Pelagius saw the Christian life as a constant effort through which one’s sins could be overcome and salvation attained.20
Augustine remembered his personal experience where he wanted to follow God but was unable to give up his sexual lifestyle. He both willed to obey and willed to not obey. Perhaps the will regarding sin was not as simple as Pelagius thought. Augustine’s disagreement with Pelgaius centered around conversion, the question arose:
How can we make the decision to accept God’s grace? According to Augustine, only by the power of grace itself, for before that moment we are not free to not sin, and therefore we are not free to decide to accept grace. The initiative in conversion is not human, but divine. Furthermore, grace is irresistible, and God gives it to those who have been predestined to it.
Pelagius, for example, views salvation as a life preserver. If you find, while you are swimming, that you need help with your sin then you grab the life preserver. It’s there if you need it, most people do in some way. Augustine, on the other hand, embraced the biblical concept of being dead in our sins. Dead people can’t grab a life preserver. They’re floating face-down. The only way Augustine can be saved is if God jumps in, drags him to shore and brings him back to life.
Augustine’s famous statement from this debate was, “Grant what you command, and command what you will.” If God desires for someone to come and follow Him, he has to grant the ability to do what He commands. The only thing we bring to our salvation, according to Augustine, is our sin.
The views of Pelagius were eventually rejected by the church.
Augustine’s book Confessions is without a doubt the most famous of all his writings. His autobiography, written between 397 and 401AD is unique in all ancient literature. No human being had ever written such an honest account of their own life. Augustine’s perception of himself in light of His God would shape western theology for a thousand years – not only in their conclusions, but in an observant, reflective and astonishingly honest quest for truth.21
City of God
The other book standing out among his many volumes is his work The City of God. The immediate occasion compelling Augustine to write this book is the fall of the Roman Empire. At the time many of the people who had clung to the ancient pagan beliefs of the Roman Empire thought Christianity was to blame for the fall of Rome. Augustine wrote this work to respond to those people. The book is a huge sweep of history centered on two cities. Each city is built on a foundation of love. The city of God is built on love for God. The earthly city is built on love for self. In the end, all earthly cities will crumble, only the city of God will remain.
The thoughts of Augustine have had unparalleled influence in church history. It is this influence we now look at more closely.
The influence of Augustine is broad and deep. On a personal level his finger-prints are all over Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Bellarmine, Pascal and Kierkegaard. For example, it’s hard to read more than two pages in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion without coming across a quote from Augustine.
During the last year of his life Jerome sent a letter from Bethlehem to Augustine to tell him that by his books he had virtually, “refounded the old faith,” and that the bitter attacks on him by heretics were sufficient testimony to his achievement.22
It is easier, however, to mention his influence more on movements than on individuals. The theology and philosophy of medieval schoolmen and of the creators of the first universities were rooted in Augustinian ideas of the relation between faith and reason. When Peter Lombard compiled his foundational Sentences (1155) to provide a basic textbook of theology, a very high proportion was drawn from Augustine.23
The Reformation found much of its foundation in Augustine. Both sides in the controversy, interestingly, appealed on a large scale to texts of Augustine.
During the 18th century enlightenment people were debating the concept of Augustine’s “Original Sin.” Immanuel Kant surprised the men of the Enlightenment by affirming that human nature is distorted by a pervasive radical evil.24
Augustine has and continues to influence those who follow Christ. Augustine, however, was not perfect. He had plenty of reasons why we should only worship Christ and view Augustine as a fellow sinner. His foibles help keep him in perspective compared to our Savior.
Augustine’s life before coming to Christ was full of licentious living. His 15-year relationship with his live-in girlfriend seems to be a Foibles purely on the grounds of how it ended. Right around the time Augustine is coming to Christ is when he sends her on her way. This could have been a righteous decision, but it also could have been a great chance to make a wrong situation right. As he was sending her away, she vowed to never marry another man. Later in his life he seems to have realized the injustice of the situation.
Many Christians would see Augustine’s view of baptism as a Foibles. Pelagius saw people free from original sin. Since there is no original sin, thought Pelagius, infants did not need baptism. Infants had not committed sin, so they did not need anything to get to heaven. Since Augustine disagreed with the premise of Pelagius, he viewed original sin to the degree that infants were unable to go to heaven unless they had been baptized. Outside of the debate with Pelagius it is possible Augustine did not hold this as strongly as some of his works suggest. He wrote in City of God some ideas which suggest some who die in infancy may be able to get to heaven without baptism. Augustine, however, wrote strongly on this topic which seems to harsh to many 21st century ears.
Additionally, some of Augustine’s views on the end-times, predestination, Mary, martyrs, etc… have been criticized by certain groups of Christians throughout the centuries as not balanced or sufficiently biblical.
Augustine’s Effect on Us
Dr. Bradley Green nicely summarizes Augustine’s effect on us:
At one level all of Western theology has been – in a sense – a long series of footnotes to Augustine. He bequeathed to the church deep reflection on how to talk and think about God, how language works when speaking about God, and on the nature of the triune God. His insights as to how one must affirm one God in three divine persons – where the three are understood in terms of relationship and love – is seminal. Augustine’s doctrine of man as sinner – and hence in need of radical grace – is central to understanding Scripture, and every evangelical must still come to terms with his view of original sin. Augustine is rightfully considered the Doctor of Grace, for it is in Augustine’s understanding of grace that he has perhaps made his greatest mark on the church. The grace of God, set upon us from all eternity, that moves us to trust in and believe God, that transforms our hearts, that effectively moves us to obey God for salvation and moves in us that we persevere to the end – that is a grace worth believing and promulgating in the world today. For these and many other reasons, Augustine is worthy of our attention, and can help evangelicals as we strive to understand and serve the God of Scripture.25
As this post comes to an end my hope is these mighty mentors of history will only begin to shape our lives. These ten theologians are potentially ten people God may use to mentor you to be all He has called you to be. My prayer is your connection with these mentors will grow until He calls us safely home.
I hope you have enjoyed the series as much as I have enjoyed learning from these men.
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