Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) is considered a saint of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. He is also respected by many Protestants as a pivotal thinker and theologian.
Background: Augustine was born in modern-day Algeria of a pagan father and Christian mother (Monica). He described himself as an intelligent, but very bad boy. As a teenager, Augustine took a mistress, whose name is lost to history. For years his mother prayed for his soul, seemingly without effect.
After receiving the best in Roman and Greek education, he became first a Neoplatonist, then a Manichaean, much to the sorrow of his devoutly Christian mother. As a philosopher, he honed the skills of a master debater and teacher of philosophy.
In his thirties, Augustine escaped his mother’s Christian influence (so he thought) by sailing to Rome with his mistress and son. Later, in Milan, he heard and befriended the great preacher, Ambrose. After much debate and discussion, Augustine was finally converted through Ambrose’s intellectual defense of Christianity. The moment of truth is said to have arrived as he sat on a bench in Ambrose’s garden and heard a children’s rhyme, which said “Pick it up and read.” Seeing no children, but finding a portion of scripture near the bench, Augustine read what was written and surrendered to Jesus Christ. Putting away his mistress, in due time he was ordained a priest, and then Bishop of Hippo. Augustine used his impressive education and keen mind in service of Christianity during his lengthy ministry. Agustine’s accomplishments include:
The Doctrine of Total Depravity. Around the year 400, a British monk named Pelagius began traveling widely in the Roman Empire spreading the teaching that Adam’s sin was not passed down to the human race, but that each person is born innocent and able to choose goodness and live righteously. Therefore, according to Pelagius, Jesus’ salvation forgives personal sins but is not necessary to free a person from the slavery of a sinful nature.
In contrast, Augustine taught that Adam’s sin had indeed infected the entire race at the most basic level of being. This he called “original sin”. As a result all people are, by nature, lost and deserving of God’s wrath. Rather than being guilty of personal offenses, all people share in a human nature which is totally depraved. That is, human nature is infected with sin in all its component parts (body, soul and spirit). Hence all people (including babies) are born sinners and need Jesus’ salvation regardless of their relative outward moral standing.
The Doctrine of Sacramentalism. Augustine taught that the Catholic Church is “the Ark of God, outside of which there is no salvation”. In his view, the atonement provided by Jesus was entrusted to the Church, who dispenses it to those in Christ. The method by which the Church dispenses God’s saving grace is through holy acts called sacraments. Eventually, there came to be the standard seven sacraments of: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (communion), penance (confession), prayer for the sick (last rites), ordination to holy orders, and holy matrimony.
The City of God. In the last years of his life, Augustine was caught up in the beginnings of the barbarian invasions of Rome. These barbarian groups (Vandals, Huns, Goths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons and others) would eventually destroy Roman order and occupy its western provinces, bringing Rome in the West to an end around 470 AD. Augustine was troubled by people’s reaction to this unfolding disaster. Many people were asking how God could allow Rome to be destroyed by such godless people, especially since it had outwardly embraced Christianity in the previous century. Feelings of abandonment and fear were common among many believers and in the general population. His response was to write a defense of God’s power and love, called The City of God. In it, Augustine argues that God has promised to guard and prosper his Church. Though Rome may have embraced the Christian gospel at some level, God never promised to preserve Rome itself. Therefore, God was not failing to fulfill his purposes for the world. In fact, the Church was actually strengthened by the barbarian depredations and began to grow steadily in power. Augustine counseled believers to trust in God’s providence and purposes even though events seem to run counter to common thinking about God’s will.
Augustine can be seen a vital figure in the development of Christian doctrine and thinking for the entire Church. His concept of sacramentalism has been adopted by both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches. His teaching of total depravity is accepted by those traditions as well as many Protestant groups. The perspective of God’s sovereignty even over huge historical disasters is a needed perspective for believers in any epoch of history.