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Augustine

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Category Articles
Date October 27, 2004

Aurelius Augustine was born of mixed heathen and Christian parentage November 13, 354 A.D. in Roman North Africa. He has been rightly described as the greatest man the Christian church possessed between the apostle Paul and Martin Luther. What are some of the significant features of his life?

1. His Voluminous Writings. It was at his conversion that he began to write. Augustine was especially involved in a series of controversies with the chief errorists of his day, the Manichaeans, Donatists, and Pelagians. These volumes were interspersed with books of Bible exposition and ethical studies. Finally his career ended with half a dozen or so very great writings; his ‘Confessions’ (an autobiography in which he analysed his own religious experience), ‘Christian Doctrine,’ ‘The Trinity,’ ‘Grace and Free Will,’ ‘Predestination of the Saints,’ and ‘The City of God.’ These writings entered the church as a leaven and were enlightening to the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century.

2. The Worst Act of His Life. When he was seventeen he began to live with a woman whom he never married. At eighteen years of age he became the father of Adeodatus. Years later a young girl was chosen to be his wife and so he dismissed this woman who was the mother of his son, she who had lived faithfully with him, and he never mentioned her again. She went to Africa where she lived meekly for the rest of her life. Augustine then took another concubine as he was still waiting for the young woman to attain marriageable age. He was never to marry, and left a confused inheritance to the church of the high merits of celibacy. He saw the destiny of man as sexlessness, to be like the angels, and he preached, “How much better are you who before death begin to be what men will be like after the resurrection.” Augustine never completely recovered from his early involvement in Manichaean teaching that matter is essentially evil and spirit essentially good.

3. The Unusual Way He Gained an Assurance of His Salvation. Sitting in his garden in agony of soul he was praying, “How long, O Lord, how long? Remember not my former sins. Tomorrow and tomorrow – why not now?” Then some children began to play in the garden next door. Perhaps they were skipping, but whatever was their game one child began to chant “Tolle, lege; tolle, lege” – “take, read; take, read,’ over and over again. He had never heard them say such words in their play before this occasion and he was agitated enough to hurry to the New Testament. Opening it he encountered the words of Romans 13:13&14, “ . . . but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil its lusts.” The power of these words were his confirmation of mercy received from God, and he walked to his mother Monica to tell her what had happened. She recognised the hand of God in the conversion of her son for whom she had prayed so long.

4. His Inconsistent Understanding of Grace. Many of Augustine’s conceptions fill out the system of Roman Catholic ideas – its doctrine of merit, mortal and venial sins, its elaborate sacramental system, the indelible character of baptism and ordination, its assertion of ex opere operato – all these perspectives indicate that Roman Catholicism is Augustine’s monument.

5. His Commitment to Evangelicalism. Augustine was chief among the church fathers to espouse a religion of personal faith, as distinct from a religion of works. In other words, he saw how in true Christianity a person despaired of self, and cast all his hope on God. He expounded this most powerfully in his ‘Confessions’ and then in his last writings in which he declares most fully what he has learned from Scripture, a theology of grace. Augustine realised that as a consequence of sovereign mercy a new mood must come into the life both of a believer and a congregation when it became assured that it had received full pardon from a gracious God. This was the doctrine of Paul which Augustine recovered for the church. Two children were struggling in the womb of his heart, Roman Catholicism and God’s sovereign grace, and if he had lived longer – ten years of vigorous life – the latter would have triumphed over the former. The summons to return to New Testament Christianity would have sounded out 1,200 years before the Reformation.

6. His relevance to Western Civilisation’s Crisis of Thought. We live in a culture in which a sense of helplessness pervades literature, the media, popular and serious music and even politics. There is no longer that pride that contends that man is able to save himself and the world. Pessimism, cynicism and fatalism are the virulent weeds that we meet everywhere. Only the stream of divine grace can supplant these poisonous fungi with those of hope, meaning and courage. Augustine’s stress on grace is the theology that can fulfil the need of this world, though the world knows it not.

GEOFF THOMAS

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