Augustine of Hippo – Saint

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Feast day: August 28

Augustine, Saint

Also known as: Augustine of Hippo; Aurelius Augustinus; Saint Augustine of Hippo;
Born: 354 Died: 430
Occupation: Christian theologian, bishop, and author

Bishop of Hippo from 395 till his death in 430, Augustine was a prolific author who became the most influential theologian of early Western Christianity one of the western fathers and mothers of the church. His feast day is Aug. 28.

It was Augustine who conceived and formulated the fundamental structure of Christian biblical theology as a grand schema reaching from creation, to the Fall, to redemption, and finally to resurrection after the judgment of the dead. He uncovered psychological and philosophical interiority and subjectivity; His social theories and sacramental theology had lasting influence on the Middle Ages. He was the principal source, after the Scriptures, for the Protestant reformers in their theologies of grace, justification, and predestination.

We know a great deal about Augustine’s life from his own writings, especially the Confessions, Letters, and Retractions. In addition his disciple Possidius (ca. 370–ca. 440) left us a Life of Augustine. Augustine was born of a Christian mother, Monica, and a non-Christian father, Patricius, in Tagaste, Numidia, a province of North Africanow in Algeria. He had a brother and maybe more than one sister; his nephew, also named Patricius, was a member of the clergy of his church in Hippo. His parents sent him to school in Tagaste, and a wealthy patron, Romianus, furthered his education at Madaura and Carthage. At Carthage he took a Christian concubine (never named), by whom he had a son, Adeodatus, born ca. 373. He read Cicero’s Hortensius, which instilled in him a love of philosophy and wisdom and which he later saw as a first step in his process of conversion (Confessions 3.4.7).

At the same time he became a “hearer” of the Manichees, whose deterministic dualism seemed to explain his own dual propensities toward sensuality and the spiritual life. Augustine sailed for Rome, the jumping off point for advancement, even though the emperors now resided in Milan. The Manichees helped get him an appointment as professor of rhetoric at the royal court of Valentinian II (r. 375–392) in Milan. Augustine’s secular career was launched, though his Christian mother remained close behind. As law is today, rhetoric was the profession leading to positions of power in Roman society. Monica arranged for a society marriage, and the concubine was packed off to Africa, probably to become a Christian “widow” in a community in Tagaste. Meanwhile, Augustine took another concubine.

Something, however, was changing in him. He grew dissatisfied with the Manichees, especially their teacher Faustus, who struck Augustine as sincere but ignorant. He began associating with a group of Neoplatonist Christians, most notably Sts. Ambrose of Milan, bishop of the city, and Simplicianus, mentor of Ambrose and later of Augustine. In the Confessions 8.12 he recounts a classic conversion scene. In a garden he heard the voice of a child in the distance saying “Tolle! Lege!” (“Take and read!”) over and over again. Picking up his Bible, he read at random Romans 13:13, which speaks against reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, and lust. He gave up his past life, including his imperial position, and was baptized in 387. He returned to Africa with his son and companions, planning to found a monastic community under the inspiration of Saint Anthony of Egypt. While visiting Hippo Regius on the way home to Tagaste, Augustine was chosen priest by popular acclaim; he remained at Hippo and was elected bishop in 395.

Three controversies mark Augustine’s theological career: his relation to his own Manichaeism, and the two controversies he encountered as bishop of Hippo, namely Donatism and Pelagianism. Augustine’s early involvement with Manichaeism helped define some of the most important Christian teachings on good and evil. The Manichees subscribed to the dualistic teaching that good and evil were real, enduring forces in the universe, and that good sided with the spirit and evil with the body. Like many Gnostics, they held that the material world was the work of evil powers and that the “elect” should shun even procreation. Following the Christian creeds, Augustine asserted in opposition that all creation, material and spiritual, was created good: “Whatever is, is good” (Confessions 7.12.18). Evil enters through the disordered will of both angels and humans and is a temporary phenomenon that will last only until the City of God is established at the resurrection.

Adam and Eve at first delighted in God and had an ordered love for all other creatures. After the Fall their love could delight in creatures even to the exclusion of God. Augustine saw his own act of stealing pears when he was a boy to win favor with a gang of troublemakers as a manifestation of this disorder (Confessions 2.4). Following Cyprian of Carthage, Augustine taught that children should be baptized to counteract the “contagion of death” inherited from Adam, which Augustine was the first to call original sin; critics often condemned this approach as a physicalist, quasi-Manichaein notion. Under the anti-Manichaean rubric, Augustine contributed four themes that ever since have been held to be essential to Christian faith in the West: the priority of goodness in the creation; the emergence of evil after the fact not as a positive force but as the absence or defect of the good; the Fall as disorder of love in the will (concupiscence), which is passed on through the act of generation; and the temporary rule of evil over the City of Man until the Kingdom of God comes.

When he became bishop of Hippo, Augustine walked into a beehive of Donatism. This schismatic movement was named after Donatus (d. 355), who was consecrated rival bishop to the orthodox bishop of Carthage during the Great Persecution of Diocletian (303–05), when traditores (“betrayers”) reportedly handed over the Scriptures to be burned or offered sacrifices to the Roman gods. The purist Donatists insisted that these betrayers needed to repent and that those who received baptism from them needed to be rebaptized. The Donatists wanted to keep the church as the bride of Christ, pure and untainted by the state. Augustine’s answer was both theological and biblical. First, he declared that the sacraments are administered by Christ, who is not dependent on the spiritual or moral condition of the priest. This laid down the principle later stated as ex opere operato (Lat. “from the deed done”), whereby a sacrament is valid even if the priest acts in an unworthy state and outside the pale of the law. Against the rigorist view of the Donatists, Augustine also appealed to the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24–29, 36–43), in which God lets good and evil coexist until the harvest (Last Judgment), lest the good be destroyed along with the bad.

In the beginning of the controversy Augustine declared in a letter to the Donatist bishop Eusebius that “no one should against his will be coerced into the Catholic communion” (Letters 34), yet in 405 he gave approval to the imperial Edict of Unity, which deprived the Donatists of legal standing. After the Council of Carthage in 411, Augustine agreed to the Roman tribune Marcellinus’s use of force in suppressing the Donatists. Unlike his predecessors, he established the use of religious force in theory, citing (out of context) a line from the parable of the wedding banquet: “Compel them to come in” (Luke 11:23; Augustine, Sermons 112.2). While Augustine saw the church as a mixed bag of struggling believers ever tending toward great charity, his sinister policy on the Donatists helped pave the way for the Inquisition and violated his earlier declaration of liberty of conscience in religious disputes and his own theology of God’s unbounded love.

The controversy with the Pelagians was more complicated. At first Augustine engaged and defeated the Celtic British lay ascetic Pelagius and his followers (many of whom misrepresented their leader). Later he contended with Julian of Eclanun over some of the same issues.

Today scholars are radically reevaluating Pelagius’s writings; they view him as first and foremost an ascetic and moral theologian who grounded his views in a particular theology of creation. Pelagius, in Rome at the time, challenged Augustine’s assertion “Give what you command and command what you will” (Confessions 10.24.40), which expressed Augustine’s conviction in his later years that God’s grace must precede all human merit, including faith itself. According to Augustine, all humans inherited Adam’s sin after the Fall, which had vitiated human will itself. Pelagius had a much higher theology of creation: even after the Fall humans could still choose between good and evil. Adam’s sin was a pattern but not an inheritance (Commentary on Romans 5:12–21). Pelagius points to all the righteous followers of God in the Book of Genesis who chose good over evil even after the Fall (Letter to Demetrias).

Accused of heresy, Pelagius went before two episcopal councils in Palestine and was found sound in his teaching. (Eastern Christianity has never subscribed to the legalistic trends in Western theology in general and to its theology of sin in particular.) Conniving with Jerome, Augustine appealed to Pope Innocent I (r. 401–11), who charged Pelagius with heresy. Innocent promptly died, and his successor, Zosimos (r. 417–18), reversed the decision. Jerome and Augustine appealed to the emperor, Honorius (r. 395–423), now residing in Ravenna. Honorius’s opposition to Pelagius forced Zosimos’s hand, and he issued his own condemnation. These maneuvers again reflect on Augustine’s willingness to go beyond dialogue in winning arguments.

Like Pelagius, Julian of Eclanum, bishop of Apulia in central Italy, took umbrage with the remnants of Manichaeism in the African bishop’s theology, especially his physicalist and fatalist understanding of original sin and the assertion that every act of sexual intercourse involves sin. Augustine won the day with his treatise Marriage and Concupiscence. Julian was sent into exile around 418 and condemned at the Council of Ephesus (431).

In between the Pelagian and Julian controversies, Augustine wrote City of God, his monumental apologia of Christianity. Dedicated to Marcellinus, the massive tome undertakes to defend Christianity against the charges that it was responsible for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Augustine refutes the charges and goes on to unfold the grand scheme of salvation as a struggle between the City of God (grace, the good, love, justice) and the City of Man (sin, evil, domination) stretching from creation and the Fall to redemption and sanctification in the resurrection. His most systematic theological work was The Trinity, in which the interrelations among the persons of the Godhead (amor amorans, or “love loving love”) are related to the inner psychological realities of humans and to human love itself (the lover, the beloved, and the relation that is love itself).

Augustine’s place in the West is paramount. He bequeathed to Christian theology the grand schema of creation to resurrection, the doctrine of original sin, and the fundamentals of sacramental theology. His portrayal of the hierarchy of the soul (reason, the supernatural, the ruler) over the body (passion, the natural, the ruled) laid the foundations for the theory of society in the Middle Ages (City of God 19.13–15). His teachings on grace, predestination, and justification as well as his principles of scriptural interpretation provided fuel for the fires of the Reformation. No other theologian has been as influential in the West.

From: Encyclopedia of Catholicism.

Last updated: March 21, 2013 at 18:02 pm

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