Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo

Born in 354 c.e. to a pagan father and a Christian mother, (St.) Monica, in Tagaste in North Africa, Augustine received a classical education in rhetoric on the path to a career in law. During his studies at Carthage in his 19th year, he read Cicero’s Hortensius and was immediately converted to the pursuit of wisdom and truth for its own sake.

In this early period at Carthage he also became involved with the ideas of Mani and Manichaeanism, which taught that good and evil are primarily ontological realities, responsible for the unequal, tension-filled cosmos in which we live.

However, the inability of their leaders to solve Augustine’s problems eventually led the young teacher to distance himself from the group. Leaving the unruly students of Carthage in 383, Augustine attempted to teach at Rome only to abandon the capital in favor of a court position in Milan the following year.

This step brought him into contact with the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, whose preaching was instrumental—along with the writings of the philosophers of Neoplatonism—in convincing Augustine of the truth of Christianity. He could not commit himself to the moral obligations of baptism, however, because of his inability to live a life of continence.

His struggle for chastity is movingly told in his autobiographical work Confessions: Hearing of the heroic virtue of some contemporaries who abandoned everything to become monks, Augustine felt the same high call to absolute surrender to God but was held back by his attachment to the flesh. However, in a moment of powerful grace which came from reading Romans 13:12–14, he was able to reject his sinful life and to choose a permanent life of chastity as a servant of God.

This decision led him first to receive baptism at Ambrose’s hands (Easter 387 c.e.) and then to return to North Africa to establish a monastery in his native town of Tagaste. In 391 he was ordained a priest for the town of Hippo, followed by his consecration as bishop in 395.

In his 35 years as bishop Augustine wrote numerous sermons, letters, and treatises that exhibit his penetrating grasp of the doctrines of the Catholic faith, his clear articulation of difficult problems, his charitable defense of the truth before adversaries and heretics, and his saintly life.

Augustine’s theology was largely shaped by three heresies that he combated during his episcopacy: Manicheanism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. As a former Manichee himself, he was intent on challenging their dualistic notion of god: He argued that there is only one God, who is good and who created a good world. Evil is not a being opposed to God but a privation of the good, and therefore has no existence of itself.

Physical evil is a physical imperfection whose causes are to be found in the material world. Moral evil is the result of a wrong use of free will. In fighting Donatism, Augustine dealt with an ingrained church division that held that the clerics of the church had themselves to be holy in order to perform validly the sacraments through which holiness was passed to the congregation.

In rebutting the Donatists, Augustine laid the foundation for sacramental theology for centuries to come. He insisted that the church on earth is made up of saints and sinners who struggle in the midst of temptations and trials to live a more perfect life. The church’s holiness comes not from the holiness of her members but from Christ who is the head of the church.

Christ imparts his holiness to the church through the sacraments, which are performed by the bishops and priests as ministers of Christ. In the sacraments Christ is the main agent, and the ministers are his hands and feet on earth, bringing the graces of the head to the members.

Augustine’s last battle was in defense of grace. Pelagius, a British monk, believed that the vast majority of people were spiritually lazy. What they needed was to exert more willpower to overcome their vices and evil habits and to do good works.

Pelagius denied that humans inherit original sin of their ancestor Adam, the legal guilt inherent in the sin, or its effects on the soul, namely a weakening of the will with an inclination toward sin. He believed that human nature, essentially good, is capable of good and holy acts on its own. In his thought grace is only given by God as an aid to enlighten the mind in its discernment of good and evil.

For Augustine, whose own conversion was due to an immense grace of God, the attribution of goodness to the human will was tantamount to blasphemy. God and only God was holy. If humanity could accomplish any good at all, it was because God’s grace—won through the merits of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth—was freely given to aid the will in choosing good.

Grace strengthens the will by attracting it through innate love to what is truly good. Thus Christ’s redemption not only remits the sins of one’s past but continually graces the life of the believer in all his or her moral choices. In the midst of this long controversy (c. 415–430) Augustine also developed a theology of the fall of Adam, of original sin, and of predestination.

Augustine is probably best known for his Confessions, his autobiography up to the time of his return to North Africa, and for the City of God, undertaken as his response to both the pagans and the Christians after the sacking of Rome in 410, the former because they attributed it wrongly to divine retribution and the latter because their faith was shaken by the horrific event.