Was Augustine (the emphasis is on the second syllable, hence aw-GUS-tin, not AW-gus-teen) the greatest theologian in the history of the Christian church? That will always remain a matter of opinion, but if there is a Top Ten list he would most assuredly be counted in the first five. Today we look at ten things we should know about him.
(1) Augustine was born on November 13, 354, in the small North African city of Thagaste. He died on Aug. 28, 430. His father, Patricius, was of the middle class and a pagan. He reportedly professed faith in Christ and was baptized just before his death in 370. Augustine’s relationship with his father was less than ideal, the latter allowing his son to do as he pleased. Augustine had an older brother (Navigius) and sister (whose name was never mentioned).
(2) Augustine’s mother, Monica, was a devout Christian who prayed for her son without fail. Her intercession was fueled by a dream in which she saw herself and Augustine walking hand-in-hand in heaven.
(3) At the age of 11 Augustine was sent to Madaura, 20 miles south of Thagaste, where he was trained in the classical poets and orators as well as Latin grammar. He stayed in Madaura until he was 16.
By his own confession, Augustine was a wild and lawless youth. He stole simply for the pleasure of stealing and excelled at lying. “He was thrashed repeatedly in school, for impudence and for playing dice and bones in class. Years later when he was an old man and wore the miter of a bishop, the memory of those thrashings remained vivid in his mind; he would conjure up in an agony of remorse the stripes on the bleeding flesh” (Robert Payne, “The Dark Heart Filled with Light,” Christian History, Issue 67 [Vol. XIX, No. 3], 12-13).
(4) At age 18 he went to Carthage where he soon became chief in the school of rhetoric. He obtained a mistress, with whom he lived for many years, who also bore him his only child, a son named Adeodatus (lit., “gift of God”).
(5) Augustine became engrossed in the theater and the imaginary joys and sorrows of its actors. He was set free from this fantasy world when he was introduced to philosophy through the reading of Cicero’s Hortensius. He was soon enamored with Manichaeism, a form of Gnostic philosophy that espoused a radical form of metaphysical dualism. The Manichaeans “believed in two eternal and equally powerful forces of good and evil locked in endless combat. Like Gnostics they attributed evil to matter – the creation of the evil principle – and good to spirit created by the good God of heaven” (Olson, 257). He remained a Manichaeist for 9 years.
He became disenchanted with Manichaeism after listening to one of its principal spokesmen, Faustus of Milevis. He went to Rome hoping to teach rhetoric, but when no openings became available he travelled to Milan and resumed his teaching career.
(6) While in Milan, Augustine came under the influence of its intelligent and articulate bishop, Ambrose. However, if there was a decisive human factor in his ultimate conversion, it was his mother Monica and her undying intercession. She “shed more tears [over] my spiritual death,” said Augustine, “than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son” (Confessions, III,11). Once, when Monica sought the advice of an aged bishop, she was told: “Leave him alone. Just pray to God for him. From his own reading he will discover his mistakes and the depth of his profanity. . . . Leave me and go in peace. It cannot be that the son of these tears should be lost” (III.12).
(7) The major obstacle in Augustine’s life was not intellectual but moral: he had lived with a mistress for 15 years. One of his prayers was: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet!” There is some disagreement about the extent of his sexual activity. In one place in the Confessions he describes how lust “stormed confusedly within me, whirling my thoughtless youth over the precipices of desire, and so I wandered still further from Thee, and Thou didst leave me to myself: the torrent of my fornications tossed and swelled and boiled and ran over.” On the other hand, Garry Wills has recently argued that he was sexually faithful to his mistress. I lived “with her alone,” he declared, and “kept faith with her bed.” After he ended the relationship, “he took a ‘stopgap’ mistress to tide him over until the marriage. It is characteristic that he did not resort to promiscuity, but to another sole concubine” (Garry Wills, Saint Augustine, 41). In one place he wrote,
“I cared nothing but to love and be loved. But my love went beyond the affection of one mind for another, beyond the arc of the bright beam of friendship. Bodily desire, like a morass, and adolescent sex welling up within me exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust” (Confessions, 2.2).
Before he arrived in Carthage at the age of 18 his mother had given him a warning:
“My mother commanded me not to commit fornication, and especially that I should not defile any man’s wife. This seemed to me no better than women’s counsels, which it would be a shame for me to follow. . . . I ran headlong with such blindness that I was ashamed among my equals to be guilty of less impudence than they were, whom I heard brag mightily of their naughtiness; yea, and so much the more boasting by how much more they had been beastly; and I took pleasure to do it, not for the pleasure of the act only, but for the praise of it also” (quoted by Payne, 13-14).
(8) Notwithstanding his struggle, the Lord graciously sought him out:
“There was a small garden attached to the house where we lodged. . . . I now found myself driven by the tumult in my breast to take refuge in this garden, where no one could interrupt that fierce struggle in which I was my own contestant. . . . I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity. I was dying a death that would bring me life. . . . I was frantic, overcome by violent anger with myself for not accepting your will and entering into your covenant. . . . I tore my hair and hammered forehead with my fists; I locked my fingers and hugged my knees” (VIII,8).
Finally, while praying, he relates praying these words: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why is there not this hour an end to my uncleanness?” He continues:
“I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when lo, I heard the voice as of a boy or girl, I know not which, coming from a neighbouring house, chanting, and oft repeating: ‘Take up and read; take up and read’ [tolle lege; tolle lege]. I grasped the Bible, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell: ‘not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.’ No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended — by a light, as it were, of security into my heart — all the gloom of doubt vanished away” (Confessions, 8.12).
(9) His resistance was overcome by “sovereign joy,” the name he gave to divine grace. He writes:
“How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose . . . ! You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation” (Confessions, IX, 1).
Writes John Piper: “This is Augustine’s understanding of grace. Grace is God’s giving us sovereign joy in God that triumphs over joy in sin. In other words, God works deep in the human heart to transform the springs of joy so that we love God more than sex or anything else” (The Legacy of Sovereign Joy [Wheaton: Crossway, 2000], 57).
(10) Soon thereafter Augustine withdrew to Cassiciacum on the outskirts of Milan to begin a life of self-denial and meditation. After only a brief time there, he and his son returned to Milan where he was baptized by Ambrose. He spent a short time in Rome, returned to Thagaste to sell some property inherited from his parents, and prepared himself for a life of monastic meditation. In a.d. 391 he visited the city of Hippo and was ordained a priest by Bishop Valerius. When Valerius died some four years later Augustine succeeded him in office.
Augustine’s ordination was not entirely voluntary! One Sunday while he was worshiping with the church in Hippo “they literally laid hands upon him and dragged him forward to be ordained by the bishop despite his tears and protests” (Olson, 25).