Augustine

 

Aurelius Augustinus (354-430) was born in the town of Tagaste, Numidia (modern day Algeria). His mother, Monica, was Christian and his father Pagan. Young Augustine chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and studied rhetoric in Carthage, North Africa.  While a student he practiced Pagan religions, frequented the theatre, pursued the pleasures of the flesh, kept a mistress and fathered a son.

 

From Carthage, Augustine travelled cross the Mediterranean Sea to pursue a career as teacher of rhetoric in Rome, but found no success.  In the 4th century, Rome was not the Imperial Capital.  Emperors had relocated their headquarters to Milan, making it the most important city in the Roman Empire. Some of the Emperors had flirted with Christianity so the Bishop of Milan was the most influential Christian leader.

 

After failing in Rome Augustine relocated to Milan. He immediately fell under the influence of Ambrose, the Bishop Milan, who converted him from to Christianity in 386.  Augustine returned to North Africa, ostensibly to establish a small monastery and retire from the world to pray and study scripture. Three years later, on a trip to Hippo Regius, the local congregation unanimously voted to make him presbyter. The crowd forced him, weeping and pleading that he did not want the responsibility, to abandon monastic serenity for an active life of ministry. This was a life-changing event that marked Augustine as God’s chosen shepherd, recognized by the flock, and anointed by the Church.     

 

Augustine’s mentor was Ambrose, who had been a district governor before his election as Bishop of Milan. One fateful day, Governor Ambrose had addressed a riotous crowd of Christians (half called themselves orthodox and the others heretical) to restore peace and order. The crowd, divided on every other issue, unanimously called for Ambrose to become their new Bishop. Ambrose, like Augustine, protested that he was horrified by the idea and refused to accept, but the crowd would accept no refusal; the appointment was destined and inescapable.  The election of Ambrose was even more puzzling because he was not even a baptized Christian. Ambrose would play the major role in compelling Emperor Theodosius to impose Christianity as the sole religion of the Roman Empire.

 

Augustine’s position as presbyter of a backwater church was an unlikely platform to ascend to leadership of the entire Christian Church. Augustine began writing tracts denouncing heresies; first against the Manicheans, his pre-Christian colleagues, then against the Donatist heresy.  Meanwhile, Bishop Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius were fighting the front-line battle to stamp out Paganism.

 

Leadership of the war against Pagans changed hands quickly. Theodosius died in 395, Ambrose died in 396 and Augustine was elevated to become Bishop of Hippo Regius in 397. The final conquest of Christianity now depended on a brand new Bishop from a fringe of the Empire. How was this unknown and relative new-comer to the faith going to establish himself as the spiritual leader of Christianity?

 

Augustine was the first leader in history to mount a media campaign to establish his reputation and shape his public image. He wrote a book called The Confessions.  It is a PR masterpiece. The Confessions deftly portrayed Augustine’s divine ‘calling’ and dramatic conversion from truth-perverting Pagan to truth-defending Christian. And Augustine shrewdly revealed a human side to his character which everyone could identify with, including Pagans. Yes, Augustine was the chosen one of God and, yes, he was a future saint of the Church, but no one had ever been a greater or more enthusiastic sinner. Pre-conversion Augustine wallowed in wine, women and wantonness. The most famous and frequently quoted line in The Confessions is Augustine’s ironic version of the sinner’s prayer:  ‘God, grant me chastity and sobriety, but not today.’  If Jesus was the friend of sinners, Augustine was their patron saint.  Augustine’s Confessions established him as a hero for both saints and sinners. 

 

From the moment Augustine became Bishop, he wrote opinions on every issue confronting Christianity.  He was 1,500 years ahead of his time in anticipating the media age. Ambrose had recruited Augustine as a professor of rhetoric whose speciality was persuasive argumentation. Ambrose needed Augustine because ideas are stronger than armies and more enduring than empires. The young Bishop churned out volumes of letters, sermons, commentaries, theologies. Augustine was a one-man blogosphere and rapidly became the leading opinion maker of his day; initially due to the patronage of Ambrose, but ultimately due to his relentless drive and personal brilliance in the long battle against Pelagianism.

 

Augustine had learned from his struggles with Donatus that excess of virtue can be portrayed as a vice. Augustine fought Donatus and Pelagius on the same issue: perfection. Against Donatus, closing the Church to imperfect sinners is a sin against God. Against Pelagius, excessive striving after moral perfection is a sin against God. Pelagius gave Augustine all the material he needed to create a weapon of mass conversion.  But it took him 20 years to convince his fellow Bishops that the Pelagian quest for perfection was the main threat to Christianity.    

 

To read a collection of Augustine's quotes,  click here.

 

Augustine wrote books and letters, building his case against the deadly heresy of Pelagianism.  When he thought his case was made, Augustine had Pelagius arrested in Jerusalem and put on trial. At first the Bishop of Jerusalem refused to cooperate because he considered Pelagius a holy man. Bishop John finally agreed to bring Pelagius to trial before 14 Bishops in Palestine and they gave him a full acquittal.  

 

Next, Augustine appealed to the Bishop of Rome, who was the ultimate arbitrator in religious disputes. Pope Innocent agreed that Pelagius must be a heretic if the charges were true. Before Pelagius could be brought to trial in Rome, Pope Innocent died.  The next Pope, Zosimus, carefully studied Pelagius’ side of the story and declared the accused and his followers perfectly orthodox. Then Pope Zosimus severely rebuked Augustine for wrongfully condemning Pelagius.  Augustine was not bothered.  The guilt or innocence of the man Pelagius was of no significance.  After 20 years of writing books and letters to build a case against the deadly heresy called Pelagianism, Augustine had won over a significant majority of Bishops to his way of thinking. The time for persuasion was over. He had the numbers to impose his new theology on the entire Church, with or without the Pope’s blessing.   

 

In 418, Augustine convened a war council in North African. Two hundred bishops voted to condemn Pelagius as a heretic. Their vote was in deliberate contempt of the Pope’s authority.  The very next day, Emperor Honorius blindsided Pope Zosimus by condemning Pelagius to exile along with all who supported him. The wording was deliberately formulated to include the dissident Pope, who could suffer the condemnation of Pelagius or quickly realign himself with the orthodox majority.

 

Benjamin B. Warfield in his preface to Augustine’s collected Writings against Pelagius wrote, ‘The appeal to civil power was, of course, indefensible, although it accorded with the opinions of the day and was entirely approved by Augustine.  ...Whether this simultaneous action was the result of skilful arrangement can only be conjectured; its effect was necessarily crushing. There could be no appeal from the civil decision and it played directly in the African definition of the faith.... Pope Zosimus found himself forced either to go into banishment with the Pelagians or desert their cause. Zosimus not only condemned and excommunicated Pelagius, whom six months earlier he had pronounced ‘orthodox’ but, in accordance with the imperial decree, issued a stringent pronouncement which condemned all Pelagians.’ 

 

Persuading the Emperor to throw his full support behind a renegade council of African Bishops was a stroke of genius.  The war was over without a shot being fired. Pelagius was declared a heretic and pushed off the pages of history. The obliging Emperor and repentant Pope both agreed to support Augustine, who used original sin to impose Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Augustine had established himself as the true leader of the Catholic Church and the single most influential man in the Roman Empire.

 

Augustine’s weapon of mass conversion was an unparalleled success.  Within a single generation, Paganism was eradicated and Christianity controlled all religion and government thought the Empire.  Augustine’s Church was more powerful than any modern dictatorship. Not only did the unified Christian state control all religion and government throughout the Roman Empire, it inflicted punishment on dissidents in this life and condemned them to eternal torment in the afterlife. 

 

Augustine taught that God hates the world because of the sin of Adam and Eve. The good news was that a few drops of baptismal water would remove the penalty of damnation. The bad news was that anyone who did not receive baptism was eternally damned, and this included unbaptised babies who died ‘in their sins.’Modern apologists deplore this aspect of Augustine’s theology.  No sooner had the old warrior died than the Catholic Church began to ‘fix’ the doctrine of infant damnation.  It was dismissed as a minor error, easily fixed, best forgotten. Infant damnation was not an error, but the cornerstone of Augustine’s theology.  

 

By the end of his life, Augustine had become a sin-obsessed old man who saw evil in everything, even new born babes and the lawful marital sexual relations that had conceived them.  Despite Augustine’s extraordinary power, and his belief in an Almighty God who had predestined the conquest of Christianity, the Roman Empire was attacked on every side . As Augustine lay dying, barbarians desolated his city. The Vandals were Christians, having converted during the previous century, but they were the enemies of Rome and the enemies of Augustine’s Trinitarian theology. Augustine’s early writings about freewill were a more accurate predictor of human affairs than his later theories about predestination and direct divine intervention.

 

Augustine was subsequently made a saint. His writings remain highly influential among Catholics, Calvinists and Charismatics.

  

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