History of St Augustine

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Augustine of Hippo


The Feast of Saint Augustine is August 28, the date of his death in 430 A.D. Augustine is the most influential bishop in history. He is the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, and several cities and dioceses worldwide.

Most of what we know about him is from his own writings: his Retractions in 428 A.D, which discusses his mental struggles in coming to faith, but more importantly, his Confessions (397 A.D.), an autobiography written to God in the form of a prayer about his spiritual struggles.


Significance of Augustine

Augustine of Hippo was the first to clarify and systemize the meaning of the New Testament. He did it more brilliantly than anyone else had done. The Protestant Reformation is essentially a restatement of Augustine.

  • Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk.
  • John Calvin said he could have answered the Catholic accusations of “introducing novelties to traditional Christian doctrine” by simply quoting Augustine.


All the Reformers read his writings from over a millennia earlier.

“Augustine’s impact on Western Christian thought can hardly be overstated; only his beloved example, St. Paul of Tarsus, has been more influential, and Westerners have generally seen Paul through Augustine’s eyes.”


Augustine’s Early Life in Africa

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Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica (1846) by Ary Scheffer

He was born in Roman North Africa, in Tagaste near Carthage (now Tunis, Algeria), the land of the once powerful Hannibal. He had a godly mother, Saint Monica, a Christ-follower, and a pagan father, a minor Roman official. He lived a rather lustful life in his youth, following the sensual morals and promiscuity of his pagan culture. He had an illegitimate son at the age of 19. He sought peace in literature; he became a follower of Manichaeism.


Augustine in Rome

He was a desperate man. Desperate men do desperate things. Then, he became a Neo-Platonist; he went to Rome from Carthage in northern Africa to teach rhetoric. He almost died of illness before he went north to Milan to accept an appointment to tutor the young Emperor at the imperial court there.


Augustine in Milan

In Milan, he heard the preaching of St. Ambrose, a superior rhetorician and preacher. Impressed by Ambrose’s character and explanation of the Christian faith, Augustine found his doubts about Christianity slowly dissolved. After being impressed by Romans 13:14

“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

… he was converted and baptized by St. Ambrose.


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The Conversion of St. Augustine, by Fra Angelico

One of his most quoted lines from the Confessions is his prayer:

“Grant me chastity… but not yet.”

He returned to Africa, where he would write his Confessions.


Augustine’s Return to Africa

An interesting story is told about Augustine’s return to Africa. When he arrived at the dock, one of his favorite paramours met him at the ship. She was thinking something like, “Oh boy, Augustine is back; happy days are here again.” She ran up to him and said, “Augustine,” and he turned his face from her. She thought that was strange, so she ran up to him again and said, “Augustine,” and he turned away from her again. So finally, she ran after him, grabbed him, and said, “Augustine, Augustine, it is I!” He turned to her and said, “It is not I, but Christ.”

So, he emerged from his conversion with a profound sense of his sin.


Augustine in Hippo

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Saint Augustin Basilica, overlooking the ruins of Hippo Regius

He preached extensively in Africa, around 6,000 to 10,000 sermons, though only about 500 are accessible today. Some of his sermons would last over an hour, and he’d preach several times weekly. He was ordained a priest in Hippo Regius (now Anaba, Algeria). Later, as “Bishop of Hippo,” he preached and interpreted the Bible to his congregation, leading a monastic life in the church residence there.


Augustine’s Theology

The issues he addressed concerning theological anthropology were:

  • Does man have any innate ability to affect in any measure his standing before God?
  • Is there any goodness in man that would cause God to look upon him with favor?
  • Is man totally depraved?
  • Can man do anything to save himself?

Augustine strongly affirmed the existence of original sin (he popularized the term), the need for infant baptism, the impossibility of a sinless life without Christ, and the necessity of Christ’s grace for salvation.

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Augustine Disputing with the Heretics, by Vergós Group

At first, he had believed predestination was based on God’s foreknowledge of whether individuals would believe in Christ, that God’s grace was “a reward for human assent.” Later, in response to the heterodox teachings of the British monk Pelagius, Augustine said that the sin of pride consists of assuming “we are the ones who choose God or that God chooses us (in his foreknowledge) because of something worthy in us” and argued that God’s grace causes the individual act of faith.

Augustine wrote:

“And what is written, that He wills all men to be saved, while yet all men are not saved, may be understood in many ways, some of which I have mentioned in other writings of mine; but here I will say one thing: He wills all men to be saved, is so said that all the predestinated may be understood by it, because every kind of men is among them.”

Pelagius taught that what occurred in Genesis 3 was a myth. He denied the fall of man and the idea of original sin (innate, inherited depravity of the mind and spirit). Man can save himself, Pelagious taught, and has no need for God’s grace. Man sins by choice, and he can choose not to sin. And it is when he chose not to he saved himself.

  • Pelagius: “We are sinners because we sin.”
  • Augustine: “We sin because we are sinners.”

Augustine taught that man cannot repent unless the grace of God draws him and transforms man’s heart. God appears so loving and so kind and so benevolent that we are caused to be willing. And when we are willing, he saves us.

Augustine then taught that men fell from innocence in Adam; man is born in sin because he was born in Adam. Man is totally depraved, unable in any way to affect or influence his position before God. Salvation, therefore, can only be God’s gift apart from any human contribution or lack of it. Pelagianism was condemned at the ecumenical church Council of Ephesus in 421 A.D., but it did not disappear.


Augustine and Monergism

He championed the idea of monergism. This means that only “one works” in salvation, namely God alone, not by man’s efforts. He got this idea from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

The Protestant Reformation subsequently picked it up: Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, low church Anglicans, Puritans, Dutch Reformed, and Reformed Baptists.


Augustine on History

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St. Augustine in the Nuremberg Chronicle

Augustine also postulated a providential theory of history, one that is more linear than progressive, though it had both components. His theory was both interventionist – God can intervene supernaturally in history (miracles) – and eschatological – there is a climax, an end to the history of the present age.

He captured these thoughts in his book The City of God, which was occasioned by his observing the sack of Rome in 410 AD by Alaric. His theory was embraced for over a millennia until the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, with its materialistic and empirical approach that precluded the possibility of supernatural intervention.

He is respected today by both Catholic and Protestant churches.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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