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Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

Category Articles
Date October 17, 2018

Augustine, the son of a Roman official, was born at Tagaste in North Africa in A.D. 354. Endowed with brilliant talents, strongly motivated by vain glory and the desire of praise, he was by the age of nineteen studying and teaching rhetoric in the ancient city of Carthage. Here, with his mind bent on the pursuit of worldly wisdom, and his heart captivated by the pleasures of sin, Augustine remained consuming the prime of his life. ‘Woe, woe!’ he later wrote, ‘By what steps was I brought down to the depths; of Hell! Toiling and turmoiling through want of truth!’ The various philosophical systems of thought which in turn occupied his attention, only plunged him deeper into a maze of error. By the age of thirty-one, mental despair and heart misery led him to take up the doubts of the Academics, who believed that nothing was certain. ‘I was overcharged with most gnawing cares, lest I should die ere I found the truth.’ Now, in his downward path, consciousness of sin began to torment him. Lashed by fear and shame, made painfully aware that sin had diseased his mind and bound his will, he began to abhor himself.

Little did Augustine realize that a vessel of mercy was being formed, that a servant of Christ was being made, that he should be by grace, one of the mightiest champions of the truth that God has ever given to his Church. So it was, that in a garden in Milan in the year A.D. 386, a voice fell upon his ears as from heaven, commanding him to take up and read the Bible. ‘Thou calledst, and shoutedst, and burstedst my deafness.’ Opening a copy of God’s Word at Romans 13: 13-14, he said, ‘A light of serenity infused into my heart, and the gross darkness which had floated before my eyes dissolved in an instant. Thy powerful voice said, Let there be light and there was light.’ Henceforth Augustine, humbled in the dust, had only one consuming desire, to love and serve his Saviour. ‘I taste no other pleasure but that which results from speaking, hearing, writing, conferring and perpetually dwelling upon the meditation of Thee and Thy glory.’

It was the appointed time of God for the raising of this servant. The age was one full of cause for alarm and solemn fears. The Church of Christ was threatened with errors from within, while from without the fall of the Roman Empire was bringing confusion, invasions of barbarians, and centuries of disorder and darkness over Europe. In the years following his conversion we see Augustine being moulded into the instrument of God’s purpose. Day by day, year by year, he was solely engrossed in the Word of God: often he would be studying it till half way through the night, learning it upon his knees, unweariedly digesting its contents. Foundation truths were being laid deep in his soul, truths from the Word of God which were to shine like beacons for future ages of the Church.

In the spring of 392, the prayers of the aged Valerius, Bishop of Hippo, for another pastor for his flock were answered by the sending of Augustine to that place. There he was ordained a presbyter at the age of 39, and subsequently became the bishop. Unhappily for the Church, the apostolic equality of presbyters and bishops was disappearing. Although at Rome the office of bishop had already begun to be associated with lordly arrogance and priestly pretension, it was not so at Hippo in North Africa. Augustine as Bishop of Hippo held all things in common with fellow believers, he himself never being preferred. At his death he left no money, and in his life he not only parted with all his own means, but even melted down the silver vessels of the Church for the sake of the poor. From the pulpit he would plead with souls in a startling fashion. His one authority was the Word of God which he treated with the most profound reverence. ‘Wondrous depths of Thy Word!’ he exclaimed one day in preaching, ‘whose surface behold is before us little ones; yet are they a wondrous depth, O my God, a wondrous depth!’ Towards the end of his life this apostolic minister declared ‘that though he should with better capacity and greater diligence study all his lifetime, from the beginning of his childhood to decrepit age, nothing else but the Holy Scriptures; yet they are so compacted and thickly set with truths, that he might daily learn something which before he knew not.’ Augustine preached from his heart, and his deep love for souls made him long to preach big hearers into Christ. He had learned in his own daily life to gaze so intently on Christ, that in his preaching all other themes dwindled into nothing.

‘Oh unspeakable love,’ he would cry, ‘that God for man should die in the flesh; had not man been ransomed at so vast expense, he must have unavoidably suffered eternal damnation.’ He eschewed wisdom of words, and preached in a vehement, plain, downright manner, often reducing his hearers to tears.

What were the doctrines of this godly man? What errors did God raise him up to oppose? Let none say that the remoteness of Augustine’s times has caused his writings to outlive their usefulness. The world, as Augustine said, with its glory and grandeur will soon perish, but the truth of God abides, eternal and unchanging. Likewise, although error appears in countless differing forms, the foundation upon which error stands is one and the same in all ages. In fact, it is true to say that the doctrines which Augustine expounded from the Scriptures are of such momentous importance that to be ignorant of them renders one unable to judge the issues that are at stake to-day. The error which he opposed then is the error which is alive with devastating effects in the Church now.

Heresy never appears as heresy. In Augustine’s day it arose from a man named Pelagius, apparently a blameless, mortified, modest monk, who zealously exhorted others to follow the example of Christ. The teaching of this man was so subtle and ambiguous that it passed undetected before a counsel of 14 bishops in Palestine. It was left to Augustine to expose the foundations of Pelagianism. Through many years of trial and humbling God had prepared his servant for this task. The root of Pelagian teaching lay in its view of human nature. Man, Pelagius said, was not in a condition of original sin, but possessed free-will as Adam did before the Fall. Sin was inherited by example rather than by nature. Therefore, in salvation, the grace of God was not an inward power renewing the ruined nature and restoring the fallen will of man to its freedom, but rather grace was something external, which the will may grasp if it so chooses. Pelagius asserted that the grace of God was extended equally to all, and therefore it was the choice of man that determined whether grace was received or not. In Short, Pelagianism is the belief that salvation is the result of the co-operation of God and the sinner.

What led Augustine to contend so strongly against such statements as these? He was not the man to engage in controversy for the sake of nonessentials, a controversial spirit was quite foreign to his tender love towards all men. His only concern on earth was the glory of God through his Church, but because he knew that the safety of the Church lay in the preservation of the truth, he was ready to denounce Pelagianism as a pernicious error. ‘The great sin of Pelagianism,’ he declared, ‘is that it makes a man forget why he is a Christian.’ Upholding the Scriptures, he asserted that the conversion of the sinner proceeds solely from the free election of God, and that the reason why he calls some and leaves others reprobate, lies solely in his own unsearchable will. In his work, Concerning the Predestination of the Saints, Augustine writes as follows: ‘Lest anyone should say, My faith or my righteousness distinguishes me from others, the great teacher of the Gentiles asks ‘What hast thou that thou hast not received?’ Faith, therefore, from its beginning to its perfection, is the gift of God. But why faith is not given to all, ought not to concern the believer, who knows-that all men by the sin of one, came into the most just condemnation. Why God delivers one from this condemnation and not another, belongs to his inscrutable judgments. And if it be investigated how it is that the receiver of faith is deemed worthy of God to receive such a gift, there are not wanting those who will say, It is by their human will. But we say that it is by grace; or Divine Predestination.’ Following the Bible, he shows election to be the first great cause of all, and demonstrates the absurdity of making the foreseeing of faith by God the cause of election. ‘Paul does not declare that the children of God were chosen, because he fore-knew they would believe, but in order that they might believe. God did not choose us because we believed, but so that we might believe; lest we should appear to have first chosen him. Paul loudly declares that our very beginning to he holy is the fruit of election. They act most preposterously, therefore, who put election after faith. When Paul lays down, as the cause of election, that good pleasure of God which he had in himself, he excludes all other causes whatsoever.’

It was claimed by Augustine’s adversaries that the authority of the Church was against his doctrines, whereupon he replied that before the heresy of Pelagius the fathers of the primitive church did not deliver their opinions deeply upon predestination, which reply was the truth. And he adds, ‘What need is there for us to search the works of those writers, who, before the heresy of Pelagius arose, found no necessity of devoting themselves to this question. Had such necessity arisen, and had they been compelled to reply to the enemies of predestination, they would doubtless have done so. What was it that compelled me to defend those passages of Scripture in which predestination is set before us? What, but the starting up of the Pelagians who say that the grace of God is given to us according as we render ourselves worthy of it!’

How the Pelagian controversy was fought out, how the Council of Ephesus condemned the positions of Pelagius in A.D. 431, how the godly bishop of Hippo, filled with love for Christ, laboured till his dying breath, how he died three months before the Roman garrison at Hippo was overwhelmed by the barbarian invasion; these are things we cannot speak of now. Nor is there space to draw out the lessons from this man’s life, except to mention one. The life of Augustine disproves once and for all the objection that faith in God’s Eternal Predestination is inconsistent with earnest preaching and evangelism. ‘They say,’ writes Augustine, ‘that the doctrine of predestination is enemy unto preaching, that it should do no good. As though it had been an enemy unto the Apostle’s preaching. Hath not that excellent teacher of the Gentiles so oftentimes commanded predestination, and yet ceased not to preach the Word of God?. . . For as godliness is to be preached, that God may be truly worshipped, so also is predestination: that he which hath ears to hear, may glory of the grace of God, in God, not in himself.’

The old world of Augustine’s day has passed away, but the errors he fought have not. They revived powerfully in Arminianism in the seventeenth century, and to-day these same errors — this great sin as Augustine called it — have overspread the visible Church. God has pronounced a solemn curse on those who seek to undo his work by building up what he has cast down (Joshua 6:26). Let us then weigh well in closing the following words of Richard Sibbes, once a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge:–

The heresy of Pelagius was damned to Hell by the ancient Councils. The African Councils, divers of them, divers synods, wherein Augustine himself was a party, they condemned Pelagius’s heresy. Are there not men now abroad who will revive these heresies? We can expect nothing but a curse to prevail when men go about reviving heresies that God has condemned. They are opinions cursed by the church of God, that have been led by the Spirit heretofore; such opinions, I mean, as speak meanly of the grace of God, and advance the strength of free-will, and make an idol of that; and so, under the commendation, and setting up of nature, are the enemies of grace.

This article was first published in the third edition of the Banner of Truth Magazine, October 1956.

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