Why was St. Augustine so important in Christian History?

Augustine's Conversion
St. Augustine, apart from Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul, is arguably the most influential figure in the history of Christianity. As both the Bishop of Hippo (located in Northern Africa) and a notorious philosopher, Augustine shaped the doctrines of the Catholic church and created the litmus test for orthodoxy up to and through the Protestant Reformation and beyond. Though it is difficult to summarize Augustine’s major contributions, it is possible to provide the context and consequences of the four major themes in Augustine’s theological and philosophical thought which are still meaningful contemporary Christian discussion.

It is critical to keep in mind that Augustine was heavily influenced and informed by both the Greek and Latin philosophical traditions. Augustine uses the dialectical tools and ideological framework provided by these traditions to understand and later explain Christian theology. From the Augustinian perspective there is nothing inherently wrong in pagan thought that makes it inadmissible in Christian theology--though useful, it is simply not a full account of the truth.

Original Sin

Many today, whether raised in a Christian environment or not, are familiar with the notion of original sin. This concept refers to the “fall of man” (Adam’s act of disobedience) articulated in Genesis 1, through which Adam and his progeny inherited an unavoidably corrupt and fallen human nature. Augustine is responsible for fashioning this doctrine, though a bleak and under-explored version of it existed prior to his own evaluation.

One can turn to Augustine’s most famous work, Confessions, to understand his articulation of “original sin.” In it he recounts an experience from his youth when he was with a group of friends and stole pears from a neighboring farm. As he wrestles with his motivations for taking the fruit, Augustine concludes that he had an inordinate desire to take it. In other words, he wanted to do it simply because he knew it was wrong--he enjoyed and relished the evil: “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved to perish. I loved my own error— not that for which I erred, but the error itself.”[1] This perverse desire (concupiscence), as far as Augustine is concerned, results from the corruption of the will, incurred from the “fall of man.” Man, being made for God should desire what leads him to union with God. He should desire the perfect, the good, the truth. However, man often prefers lesser goods (gratification of personal desires) to greater goods (the love of God) and this is a result of his will not functioning properly. The force of Augustine’s position echoed loudly throughout the church and officially became doctrine in the Council of Carthage (418 C.E.).

Grace

Now, the notion of grace is, though largely informed by his understanding of original sin, not one particular to Augustine. It is a major theme throughout the Pauline epistles and was heavily discussed by the Greek fathers. However, Augustine amplified the discussion of grace in what Christian historians now call the “Pelagian controversy.” The reason this debate is dubbed the Pelagian controversy is that Augustine’s theology of grace, its importance in morality and soteriology specifically, is largely developed through a series of letters to and from another Christian contemporary of Augustine: Pelagius.

The word grace in Christian theology tends to have a variety of meanings; however, Augustine understands it as an unmerited gift of God’s love and favor. The issue with Pelagius's account of grace is quite simple: he doesn’t acknowledge it. As far as Augustine is concerned, due to post-lapsarian (post-fall) position of man, we are in need of God’s grace to desire and carry out the good. Grace serves as a remedy in many ways to our fallen nature. Without it, mankind cannot act morally nor can he find salvation. Pelagius believed that man was capable, naturally, to desire and carry out the good. Moreover, this ability meant that man was entirely responsible for his own salvation. If he acted well, he was well-deserving of a reward; if he acted poorly, he was well-deserving of punishment.

Now, this debate with Pelagius was a pivotal moment in Christian discourse because it helped elucidate the importance of grace in the moral life and the very real effects of original sin according to the Christian narrative. Much of the Gospel is predicated on the idea that man is broken and in need of redemption. For Augustine, original sin is the source of the brokenness; grace is the means or restoration. In essence, man cannot save himself.

Pagan Virtue

Further, Augustine re-shaped the way the Western world thought about the ethical life. Augustine famously believed that the virtuous life was exclusively Christian. In order to be ethical, one had to do the right thing and carry it out for the right end (telos).[2] To be a good or virtuous person did not merely mean acting the right way, but acting the right way for the right reasons. And so, the Christian faith effectively becomes the point of departure for the happy life—the necessary teleological criterion for virtue. As Augustine himself asserts: “In Christian times there can be no doubt at all as to which religion is to be received and held fast, and as to where is the way that leads to truth and beatitude.”[3] Essentially, right belief (or Christianity) becomes paramount in acting well. This view will radically change the trajectory of ethical thought and praxis in the Western world until the dawn of the Enlightenment when both God’s goodness and existence will be questioned.

Christian Communion

In addition to the Pelagian controversy that looms largely over Augustine’s later life, Augustine also persistently argued with another faction of Christians in northern Africa called the Donatists.[4] In short, his rebuke of Donatism is rooted in the dissension they were causing in the church dating back to the year 303 C.E. As Harmless explains, under the Emperor Diocletian Christians faced mass persecution.[5] Not only where many martyred in the name of faith, but several bishops were forced under the threat of death to surrender Christian books and scriptures to be burned. Although many refused to do so, others gave into the demands of the emperor, fearing a brutal death.

According to the Donatists these acts of betrayal—surrendering the scriptures—were enough to constitute separation from the church. Thus, the Donatists formed their own sect of the Christian faith, which they claimed to be the true church “without spot or wrinkle.” Association with those “unrighteous” bishops meant putting the efficacy of the sacraments at risk. All of this is to say that Augustine’s polemic with the Donatists primarily dealt with their resolve for separation from the Catholics in Northern Africa. Augustine saw this schism as severely wounding the unity within the body of Christ. Thus, Augustine’s condemnation of Donatism was a statement about what it meant to be a Christian: in catholic communion bound by the bond of mutual charity (love). In this way love and unity were virtually inseparable.[6] Even in spite of Augustine’s outrage in regards to their eager schismatic efforts, Augustine urged that the Donatists be treated with tolerance and love. This tone and exhortation would carry over into the Church’s discussion of Donatism in the Council of Carthage (417 C.E.).

Conclusions

As may be easy to see, Augustine was a rather impactful figure in Christian history. He laid the groundwork for the formulation and acceptance of the doctrine of original sin, launched a nuanced discussion on the role of grace in the morality and soteriology, and set the trajectory for Christian ethics and ecclesiology. Augustine is such a formidable thinker that his writings stood, and still stand, as a bulwark of orthodoxy in the Church. It is important to note, though, that Augustine is not a static thinker. His philosophy and theology drastically changed throughout his life. For example, after the Pelagian controversy he became a more radical proponent of predestination, in such a way that departed significantly from his earlier works. That being said, depending on what time period one encounters Augustine, one may be getting a more or less radical version of his thought. This is why there are many various denominations who follow him closely, but have drastically different theological positions.

References

  1. Augustine, Confessions, trans. by J.G. Pilkington. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/110102.htm> II.4.9
  2. Gaul, Brett. "Augustine on the Virtues of the Pagans." Augustinian Studies 40, no. 2 (2009): 233-249
  3. Augustine, Of True Religion. trans. J.H.S Burleigh. (John Knox Press:1953), iii.3
  4. Kaufman, Peter Iver. "Augustine, Evil, and Donatism: Sin and Sanctity before the Pelagian Controversy." Theological Studies 51, no. 1 (1990): 115-126.
  5. Augustine, On Baptism, Book I.xii.18, qtd in Harmless, William. Augustine in His Own Words. (Catholic University of America Press:2010), 254
  6. Park, Jae-Eun. "Lacking love or conveying love?: the fundamental roots of the Donatists and Augustine's nuanced treatment of them." The Reformed Theological Review 72, no. 2 (August 2013): 103-121.

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