Notes on a lecture at Evington, December 2002
I need to give you a very brief outline of the period leading up to the times Augustine lived in.
The NT church was led by our Lord’s chosen Apostles. Local churches were under the leadership of elders (also called bishops, overseers, presbyters) and deacons. It is evident that there was normally more than one elder in a church.
By the end of the first century all the Apostles had died, e.g. Paul about AD64/67 and John at the end of the century.
Then followed men who knew or may have known the Apostles, called the Apostolic Fathers (about AD95-140). After they died out the next group of Christian leaders were called the
Early Church Fathers and these were the influential teachers and writers of the- first five or six centuries. Christians living in the first few centuries were living in the Roman Empire, both the eastern and western parts of that empire. Until the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, (about 280337AD) Christians had suffered more or less severe persecution. Constantine became the ruler of the united Roman Empire, east and
west, in 324 and nominally became a Christian so that Christian persecution ended.
During these early centuries it had become the practice for each local church to have one Bishop and their personal authority increased. What we today refer to as the Roman Catholic Church should not be confused with the churches of the early centuries who were called the Catholic Church, meaning the one universal Christian church, as in the Apostles’ Creed, `I believe in the holy Catholic Church’.
Whilst there were many heresies and divisions during these early centuries the majority of Christian Churches held to New Testament doctrine and I quote from N.R. Needham’s book, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, part 1, `The result of the Gnostic (a diverse group of teachers who claimed special knowledge and were condemned by the true church) heresy was that the early church developed a number of special features: an emphasis on orthodoxy, unity, tightly controlled church organisation and discipline and the importance of standing in the line of apostolic tradition (which eventually developed into the doctrine of apostolic succession). These features gave the early Church its unique identity as the Catholic Church’.
As the years went on some bishops became more powerful and were called patriarchs. The church eventually recognised the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem as having the highest patriarchal rank. This was the situation during the life of Augustine. The great division of East and West, centred on Rome and Constantinople, had not yet developed.
Augustine of Hippo must not be confused with Augustine of Canterbury who lived 100 years later and was the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
Augustine was born in 354AD in Thagaste, north-west Africa, in the region now called Algeria. He had a pagan father and a Christian mother, Monica (331-387).
Significant points in Augustine’s life l. The influence of his mother, Monica.
This, I believe, is the secret of Augustine’s future life as a Christian, a Bishop, and a great Theologian. Monica is a great example to all praying mothers never to give up in despair whatever may be the dreadfully ungodly lives of their children. Monica went on praying even when her son treated her most unkindly. On one occasion she wanted to sail with him from Carthage to Rome but Augustine tricked her into waiting for a boat while he managed to get aboard and leave her behind.
2. His rejection of Christianity and involvement with the Manichees. Augustine had a good education and evidently had a brilliant mind. In 370AD his father died and he became a teacher to support the family.
Still an unbeliever he fell into an immoral relationship with a girl whom he never married. The relationship lasted until just before he was converted. They had a son, Adeodatus.
In 373AD he moved to Carthage where he began to read widely in a search to understand life’s great questions. He began to study the Old Testament but, with dismay, felt it was a cruel, violent, and revolting book. This led to a complete break with Christianity.
He then became involved in a sect called the Manichees who were part of a movement known as the Gnostics (from the Greek for knowledge) who claimed to have special knowledge and could prove all their doctrines by the use of pure reason. Augustine stayed with this group for nine years. Monica still prayed for him and once pleaded with a Bishop who had been converted from the Manichees to try and convert her son. The bishop refused but Monica wept and begged for his help so that he replied, `Go; it cannot be that the son of such tears will perish’.
3. His work in Rome and then Milan and involvement in Neo-platonism. In 383 when Augustine was 29 he moved to Rome to take up another teaching post and by this time he began to lose his faith in the beliefs of the Manichees and fell into the state that seems sadly reminiscent of so many today. A nihilistic, pessimistic feeling that it is impossible to solve the deepest problems and questions of life.
The following year, 384AD, he was appointed a professor of rhetoric in Milan. At this stage he learned, in his reading of the works of Plato and his later followers, that humanity’s true destiny lies in the knowledge and love of a supreme God and he came to believe that the true God was a spiritual and perfect Being. At this time he also began to hear the preaching of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, a very attractive preacher who helped Augustine to overcome his problems with the OT scriptures.
4. His conversion.
But Augustine was still unconverted. By now he was now convinced that the Christian faith was true but his sinful heart would not submit to its truth. The attractions of the world and his obsession with sensual pleasures were still the more powerful force in his soul.
I quote from his famous book, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, one of the most famous of all personal confessions, amazingly detailed and so spiritually intense; `But I wretched, most wretched, in the very commencement of my early youth, had begged chastity of Thee, and said, “Give me chastity and continency, only not yet”. For I feared lest Thou shouldest hear me soon, and soon cure me of the disease of concupiscence, which I wished to have satisfied, rather than extinguished.’
Later, when with a friend Alypius, in a garden in Milan he was now
under deep conviction of sin and wrote of how he prayed at this time, `And Thou, O Lord, how long’? How long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words; How long? How long, tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness?’
As he was weeping in the most bitter contrition of heart he heard a voice of a boy or girl repeating, ‘Tolle lege,’ `Take up and read, take up and read’. This so surprised him that he immediately took up his Bible, taking it to be a command of God to open the Book and read the first chapter he saw. It was Romans 13.13-14. `I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell; `Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh,’ (that is, in concupiscence). No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of the sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.’
5. Becomes Bishop of Hippo (now Annaba in Algeria) in 396AD when he was 42.
Augustine’s son Adeodatus was converted soon after this and both he and his father were baptised on Easter Sunday in 387AD and the following year they both returned to N. Africa.
Augustine sold all his family possessions and set up a small monastery. He was now a prolific writer in the cause of true Christianity and became well known across N. Africa. In 391 AD while visiting the Catholic church in Hippo, west of Carthage, he was persuaded to accept ordination as a presbyter and became assistant to the ageing bishop Valerius. In 396 Valerius died and Augustine succeeded him. He lived there until he died in 430AD. During these years at Hippo he wrote extensively and there were two particular areas of controversy he was involved with.
6. His conflict with Donatism.
These were followers of Donatus who died in 355. A separatist group who insisted that moral impurity in a clergyman rendered his ministry invalid so that even the baptism of a sincere and innocent person was invalid. They also held that they were the only true church.
Augustine certainly did not overlook the sin of immorality in clergymen but he strongly objected to the separatist attitudes of the Donatists and believed that the validity of baptism in the name of the Trinity and the conduct of the Lord’s supper was a matter for the individual being baptised or partaking of the Supper. Failure in the minister was serious but sincere believers were truly baptised and did rightly partake of the Supper whatever the secret and unknown sin of the minister. Augustine was deeply concerned for the unity of the Church.
7. His conflict with Pelagianism.
I quote from Margaret Siddans’ Dictionary of Theological Terms on Pelagianism, `Pelagius was a British monk who lived in Rome in the early fifth century. He taught that people are born without original sin, without a bias towards evil. They can choose to do good, just as they can choose to do evil. Augustine taught from Scripture that God, by His grace, must save people and make them holy, but Pelagius denied that God’s grace was necessary. People have the power in themselves to follow the example of Christ.’ Pelagius was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD431.
Augustine’s writings on this controversy has given rise to the term ‘Augustinianism’ to which free grace believers today owe so much. Again I quote from Margaret’s very useful booklet. `He taught the great doctrines of the Scriptures on the sovereignty of God, the complete inability of mankind to save themselves or to do anything towards their salvation, God’s electing and prevenient grace, and the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ alone. His Biblical theology was the forerunner of that of Calvin, Luther, and other Reformers of the 16th Century.’
8. His writings.
I have already quoted from Augustine’s Confessions and will now give you a few quotations from the other books of his that I have in my library. First from his Homilies on Saint John.
`Not ye have chosen Me, saith He, but 1 have chosen you (John 15.16). This is that ineffable grace. For what were we when we had not yet chosen Christ, and therefore did not love Him? since if one have not chosen Him, how can he love Him’? Was that already in us, which we sing in the Psalm (84. 10), 1 have chosen to be a cast-away in the house of the Lord, more than to dwell in the tabernacles of sinners? No, assuredly. Then what were we, but unrighteous and lost’? For we had not already believed on Him, that therefore He should elect, or choose, us: since if He chose us as already believing, He chose us as being Himself chosen of us. Then why should He say, Not ye have chosen Me, but because His mercy preventeth us? Here at any rate there is no room for the vain presumption of those who uphold God’s foreknowledge against His grace, and say that the ground of our being elected before the foundation of the world, was this, that God foreknew that we should be good, not that He would make us good. Not this saith He who saith, Not ye have chosen Me. For if He chose us on this ground, that He foreknew that we should be good, He would at the same time have foreknown that we should first choose Him. For in no other way was it possible for us to be good: unless perchance that person can be called good who hath not chosen the Good.
Then what chose He in them that were not good’? For they were not chosen, because they were good, who would not have been good, had they not been chosen. Otherwise, grace is no more grace
(Romans 1 1.5,6) if we contend that merits preceded. In fact, this is the election of grace, of which the Apostle saith, So then at this time also the remnant by election of grace is saved: whereupon he adds, Now if it be grace, it is no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace. Hear, ungrateful one, hear: Not ye have chosen Me, but I have chosen you. Thou mayest not say, I was elected, because I already believed on Him. For if thou believedst on Him, then hadst thou chosen Him. But hear, Not ye have chosen Me. Thou mayest not say, Ere I believed, I already did good works, therefore was I elected. For how can there be any good work before faith, when the Apostle saith, Whatsoever is not of faith, is sin? (Romans 14.23). Then what are we to say at hearing, Not ye have chosen Me, but, that we were evil, and were elected that we might be good through the grace of Him that elected us’? For it is not grace, if merits had preceded: but it is grace; this therefore did not find, but made the merits.
And see, beloved, how not as being good He electeth them, but maketh them good as having elected them. I, saith He, have chosen you, and have set you that ye should go, and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain. Is not this fruit that of which He had already said, Without Me ye can do nothing? (John 15.5). He chose us therefore, and set us that we should go and bring forth fruit; consequently, we had no fruit for which He should elect us. That ye may go, saith He, and bring forth fruit. We go that we may bring forth, and He is Himself the Way by which we go, in which He hath set us.’
The second is from his book, The City of God, where the first section is a kind of history of the city of Rome and the second part a description of the spiritual city of God.
“‘And I saw,” he says, “a great city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, but neither shall there be any more pain: because the former things have passed away. And He that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new,” (Revelation 21.2-5). This city is said to come down out of heaven, because the grace with which God formed it is of heaven.
Wherefore He says to it by Isaiah, “I am the Lord that formed thee.” It is indeed descended from heaven from its commencement, since its citizens during the course of this world grow by the grace of God, which cometh down from above through the layer of regeneration in the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. But by God’s final judgment, which shall be administered by His Son Jesus Christ, there shall, by God’s grace, be manifested a glory so pervading and so new, that no vestige of what is old shall remain; for even our bodies shall pass from their old corruption and mortality to new incorruption and
immortality. For to refer this promise to the present time, in which the saints are reigning with their King a thousand years, seems to me excessively barefaced, when it is most distinctly said, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, but there shall be no more pain.” And who is so absurd, and blinded by contentious opinionativeness, as to be audacious enough to affirm that in the midst of the calamities of this mortal state, God’s people, or even one single saint, does live, or has ever lived, or shall ever live, without tears or pain, – the fact being that the holier a man is, and the fuller of holy desire, so much the more abundant is the tearfulness of his supplication? Are not these the utterances of a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem: “My tears have been my meat day and night;” and “Every night shall I make my bed to swim; with my tears shall I water my couch;” and “My groaning is not hid from Thee;” and “My sorrow was renewed?” Or are not those God’s children who groan, being burdened, not that they wish to be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality may be swallowed up of life? Do not they even who have the first-fruits of the Spirit groan within themselves, waiting for the adoption, the redemption of their body? Was not the Apostle Paul himself a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem, and was he not so all the more when he had heaviness and continual sorrow of heart for his Israelitish brethren? But when shall there be no more death in that city, except when it shall be said, “O death, where is thy sting’? The sting of death is sin.” Obviously there shall be no sin. But as for the present it is not some poor weak citizen of this city, but this same Apostle John himself who says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” No doubt, though this book is called the Apocalypse, there are in it many obscure passages to exercise the mind of the reader, and there are few passages so plain as to assist us in the interpretation of the others, even though we take pains; and this difficulty is increased by the repetition of the same things, in forms so different, that the things referred to seem to be different, although in fact they are only differently stated. But in the words, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, but there shall be no more pain,” there is so manifest a reference to the future world and the immortality and eternity of the saints, – for only then and only there shall such a condition be realized, – that if we think this obscure, we need not expect to find anything plain in any part of Scripture.’
Augustine was an amazing example of the truths he taught, a great sinner saved by great grace. The Christian life of this great man was one of the more notable in the whole of NT church history after the time of the Apostles. His influence in the realm of Christian doctrine has been
enormous and all churches like our own owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to God and to Augustine.
No-one would agree with all of Augustine’s ideas and interpretations of Scripture and we need to realise that he lived in the period in which dangerous tendencies were developing in the Catholic Church that eventually produced the catalogue of errors in what became the Roman Catholic Church, e.g. the setting up of a monastery and the growing centralisation of power in the local Bishops leading to the Papacy years later.