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Shaped By Struggle: Lessons From the Life of St. Augustine
How do great Christians become great? Often God shapes His servants through the fire of many trials. The following are insights gained from reading Peter Brown’s excellent biography Augustine of Hippo.
The great Aurelius Augustinus, known to us as Augustine, was not born into greatness. Instead, Augustine’s life began in the year 354 A.D. in the humble North African agricultural town of Thagaste, set inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The town itself was surrounded by wealthy landowners, an economy of which Augustine’s family had no part.
Escape Through Education
Wealth in Thagaste was available to few and the common dream of the town’s ambitious youth revolved around escape from this rural trap of poverty. Everyone believed that escape came through education. Therefore Augustine’s father proudly saved and sacrificed to send his son to school to achieve an education that would be the young man’s ticket out of poverty. Instead Augustine’s wealth would be heavenly riches in the form of spiritual and intellectual insights that perhaps would influence the Christian church more than any one individual since the Apostle Paul.
If education unlocked the path to prosperity, the mastery of rhetoric could be thought of as the final destination according to the academic sensibilities of Augustine’s age. Rhetoric, the art of using words to persuade others to accept your opinion, would captivate Augustine’s attention early on and lead him to read the works of the great Roman orator Cicero. While reading Cicero’s The Hortensius, the young intellect was introduced to the great promises of wisdom, upheld by the Roman as the gate to consolation, purification, and the ability to transcend the evils and distractions of this world and to provide one with a sense of identity in relation to the cosmos (29). For one as driven to self improvement as Augustine, such a promise proved irresistible. The young man became driven to attain this wisdom wherever it might be found, regardless of philosophy, sect, or religion.
Deceived By Manichaeism
Contrary to his mother Monica’s wishes, Augustine would not pursue wisdom at this point through the Christianity he grew up with. His initial experience with the Bible was negative, and he found its contents and form objectionable. To him the stories of the Old Testament were filled with immorality. The biblical text available to him at the time was an unpolished translation filled with crude language that conflicted with the ideal of lofty and fluid prose esteemed in his day. Lastly, he could not reconcile the seemingly contradictory genealogies in the Gospels which introduced a Jesus who was supposed to be Wisdom personified (31). For now, the Bible was not for him. Instead Augustine would be drawn to the teachings of the Manichees.
In 376, Augustine moved to Carthage, the capital of North Africa and the second greatest city of the Roman Empire at the time. There he would finish his education, begin teaching, and dive headlong into the Manichee religion. The Manichees offered Augustine the perfection he was searching for by promising a release of the soul from the confines of the body. Such release was available only by the enlightenment obtained through their instruction.
For six years Augustine would sit as a learner under the Manichee elect and struggle toward this promised enlightenment. However, disillusionment with the sect eventually set in. The fanatics of the religion were unable to answer many of the philosophical questions burning in Augustine’s mind. Additionally, he was making no progress toward the perfection they had promised. By 382, a growing dissatisfaction with the Manichees, coupled with his bad experience teaching the poor quality of students in Carthage, led Augustine to pursue his spiritual and academic goals in Rome. However, he didn’t find Rome any better as the students there often cheated him out of his tuition fees by fleeing when it came time to pay. Two years later he moved to Milan as a professor of rhetoric and met the man who would have the single greatest impact upon him in his entire life.
Again facing disillusionment with his pursuit of truth, Augustine once more turned to the writings of Cicero for guidance. Cicero encouraged individuals to judge ideas slowly and not jump to a single opinion, advice which probably contributed even more to Augustine’s growing skepticism of the absolute promises of the Manichees. In 385, he became a catechumen at the church in Milan, possibly due to his mother Monica arriving there in an attempt to set him up with a Catholic heiress. Here he came under the teaching of Ambrose, bishop of Milan. In his preaching, Ambrose took on the great pagan writers and secular philosophers and treated them contemptuously with the utmost confidence. These strong and convincing assertions from a powerful Christian intellect were a far cry from the Catholics he had observed losing debate after debate with the Manichees in Carthage. Augustine became enamored with Ambrose’s teachings.
Introduction to Christianity and Neo-Platonism
At this time Augustine also began reading the works of the neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus. Ambrose himself was greatly affected by Plotinus and sometimes quoted him verbatim in his sermons. Plotinus influenced Augustine through his ideas of the “changing” and the “changeless”. Things in this world are constantly in a state of change, taught Plotinus, but were rooted in things in another world that remained changeless. This other-worldly anchor was the essence of the One, Plotinus’ deity, flowing to this world in stages. The human mind strives ever towards the One, longing for completion that can only be found in the deity. These ideas resonated deeply with Augustine and shifted him from the Manichean view of an individual being personally identified with God to the idea of a transcendent God that was separate from man.
Yet Plotinus still promised that man could reach God through his own effort via reason. Augustine had difficulty abandoning this concept until he started reading the works of the Apostle Paul while facing an inability to rid himself of his own sinful tendencies. One day, during a time of inner turmoil, he found himself in a garden area and heard a child singing “take it and read it, take it and read it”. Immediately he believed this was a message to return to the Bible he left sitting with his friend Alypius. He opened the book at random to Romans 13:13-14 which reads, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires” (ESV). At once Augustine knew that it was God’s providential hand guiding him to truth and it is there at that moment most believe Augustine was converted.
A sudden illness cut Augustine’s time in Milan short and in 386 a patron allowed his group of friends and mother to live in his villa in Cassiciacum in the foothills of the Alps. There Augustine believed he would pursue a cultured retirement of intellectual pursuit. He began writing books concerning his new found life in “Philosophy,” as he called his Christian beliefs. He felt he had finally found the path to truth and pursued it eagerly.
This was a time of great intellectual enthusiasm and self-reflection among him and his group of like-minded friends. Augustine’s goal at this time was directed toward philosophical contemplation that he believed would allow him to develop a system that would unlock the mysteries of God and show Him with clarity. In time, Augustine would abandon the formation of such a system, but he would never abandon his pursuit to understand His Creator.
In 387 his time of retirement came to an end and Augustine went back to Milan to pursue baptism, which required him to receive personal instruction from Ambrose. After his baptism, he planned to return home to Thagaste to live a life of seclusion with his mother and friends. However, due to a naval blockade, the trip home was suspended and the group had to stay in the town of Ostia where his mother fell ill and died, an event that rent Augustine’s soul. He returned to Rome to await the blockade and then left for Carthage in 388 and finally back to Thagaste where he lived on the family estate for a time.
First Battles: Fighting the Manichees
During his stay at the estate he began writing works attacking the Manichees who still exerted influence in the Thagaste area, even though they had been officially purged from Carthage in 386. His writings against the Manichees helped elevate Augustine’s status in the eyes of the church. In 391, Augustine decided to leave for Hippo to find a place to establish a monastery where he and his group can pursue their spiritual and philosophical pursuits in community.
From Seclusion to Front Line Ministry
However a life of seclusion would not be the life God had for Augustine. While visiting a church in Hippo, the bishop there preached on the need for ecclesiastical servants. The congregation recognized Augustine and pushed him forward to be ordained as a priest. Augustine wept as he was pressed into service since he remembered a time when he made fun of the clergy and mocked their profession. Augustine seemed to be the perfect fit to assist the bishop since the man did not speak Latin well and was in need of an assistant to minister to the people in their language, especially in light of the local threat from both the Donatists and the Manichees. Thus began Augustine’s life of formal church service.
Within two years Bishop Valerius had Augustine preaching, an occurrence that shocked the congregation since such an honor was typically reserved for the bishop alone. Augustine began by teaching the creed and then the catechism. The bishop also gave Augustine part of the church’s property to set up a monastery. In 395 Augustine was ordained as a co-adjutor bishop to help the elderly Valerius. Providentially, Augustine found support from his friend Aurelius who had become bishop in Carthage and held great power in the African church. This alliance gave teeth to many of the reforms Augustine wished to implement. Several of his friends also became bishops in the region and together they would reform African Christianity to take on the Donatists, the Manichees, and the sinful among their congregation.
During this time Augustine’s view of attaining perfection in this life began to change. He no longer believed earthly perfection possible but rather saw life’s journey as one of incomplete progress. He also started seeing the will of man as not completely free but instead held captive by patterns of behavior that became impossible to break without the help of God. This shift in thinking would influence his writings in the near term and in the future against Pelagius’ assault.
The Confessions – Waging the War Inside the Soul
In 397 Augustine decided to write a new kind of biography. Up to this time, conversion stories typically accented the virtuous and heroic acts of the individual and gave readers the impression of a complete turnaround and perfect life after conversion. Augustine’s story would be quite different. In his Confessions, Augustine would portray himself as a soul that struggles to find truth and fights to dislodge itself from sinful patterns. Augustine’s self-portrait would be one of a sick man still in need of healing rather than a man who has arrived at perfection. The Confessions were primarily a story of Augustine’s heart and his affections in response to the journey God had led him through to this point. The work was also a self-accusation of his own sinfulness along with a vindication of the glory of the God. Above all, Augustine sought not to elevate himself, but to elevate the God who had mercy upon him.
Fighting the Donatist Separatists
Augustine’s life of struggle up to this point had been primarily internal. But from here on to the very end of his life, the man would be shaped by external conflicts, one after another. The first major struggle was with the Donatists, Christian separatists who saw themselves as the pure church and the true bride of Christ. The Donatists sprang out of the peace following the great persecution and claimed to be spiritual successors to the bishops who did not apostatize under the threats from the Roman state. They believed the Catholic church of Augustine were the apostates and they did everything they could to keep themselves away from it.
In the Donatist system, fear of moral compromise was ever present. The separatists had a kind of ritual purity not unlike Old Testament Israel where they felt they would lose spiritual power if they came into contact with sinful things. Furthermore, the Donatists were brutal in dealing with former members who wished to reintegrate into the Catholic church, once even beating a former bishop and leaving him for dead. Due to their violent tendencies, the state branded them as heretics. Eventually the Donatist church would be disbanded, essentially rendering their status as “illegal”.
In time, Augustine would write in defense of the state’s violent actions towards the Donatists, believing it was merely a form of discipline not unlike what God showed toward Israel on a number of occasion. This perspective was consistent with Augustine’s view of mankind as utterly sinful and fallen and sometimes in need of harsh restraints to deal with its sinfulness. In spite of this, Augustine wrote against the execution of some of the Donatists since capital punishment took away the opportunity for repentance, a goal Augustine continually strove for when dealing with the separatists.
Once declared illegal, the Donatist property in Hippo was taken away and fell under the jurisdiction of Augustine as bishop. Finally in 411, at a conference in Carthage, the Catholic and Donatist bishops were gathered at the order of the Emperor to deal with the schism. The court ruled against the Donatists and imposed a fine on any lay person who refused to become Catholic. Severely weakened by the state and unable to further harass the church, the Donatists were defeated and Augustine could finally claim victory.
Fighting Sin in His Own Congregation
Another problem Augustine had to deal with was the sinfulness of his own congregation. African Christians tended to be practical syncretists, often embracing pagan ideas to deal with problems in this world while believing that Christianity primarily addressed life after death. There was also a perception of the clergy as the spiritual elite who were able to attain the high standards of Christianity, something not possible for everyone else. Additionally, the North African culture tended to excuse sexual sin, especially the practice of taking a concubine, but on the other hand, it could be absolutely lethal on matters of greed and drunkenness.
Augustine’s approach in dealing with these issues was to teach people to yearn for God in order to be satisfied rather than to yearn for the things of this world. He approached the matter of wealth as not something evil in itself, but only a problem when the desires of the individual were evil. After all, to Augustine, a poor person could be much greedier in his heart than a rich man. These struggles with the congregation, along with his own experience wrestling with his sinful heart, shaped Augustine’s view of the church as a mixed body of people made up of the sinful and the righteous. It was an ecclesiastical view that stood in sharp contrast to that of the Donatists.
Fighting the Fear of Rome’s Collapse
One of the great shocks to the culture at this time was the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410. The capital of the Empire was ravaged for three days and partially burnt. Refugees streamed to North Africa looking for physical and emotional security. The event had a major impact on the psyche of the Roman world. Rome wasn’t just the capital, it in fact “symbolized the security of a whole civilized way of life” (287). It was especially difficult for Christians who found security and identity in the “Christian” Empire and were shocked that God would allow barbarian heretics to conquer it. But Augustine viewed the invasion of Rome just like any other tribulation man might experience in this world, as a form of discipline designed by God to correct a fallen humanity rather than as the result of any one specific sin. To comfort his people, Augustine urged Christians not to hold on to a world which was passing away but to look forward to the world to come.
The City of God – Fighting Christianity’s Critics
Facing the emotional turmoil from the sack of Rome, sensing a growing threat to Christianity from philosophical neo-paganism, and experiencing increasingly ill health in his old age, Augustine felt it was time to write his magnum opus, The City of God. The first three books, out of the final total of twenty-two, were complete in 413. It would take a total of thirteen years to complete the work in its entirety.
In The City of God, Augustine attacks the origins of the pagan philosophical systems to undercut the foundation of their beliefs. He addresses the Roman desire for glory by demonstrating that the heavenly city of God was the only place where the Romans’ lofty ideals could ever be attained. He also encourages Christians who were distraught at the suffering they were experiencing by painting a picture of this life as a continual struggle against the city of man and the devil with true peace only found in the world to come. With its clever defense of the faith, a vision for Christian life on earth, and myriad other issues found within, The City of God would rival any of the great literary works the pagans had ever written.
Fighting an Internal Threat – The Pelagian Heresy
Though he had faced many trials and now was dealing with the frailty of old age, God would not be through shaping Augustine through adversity. His next battle came in the form of a heretic, ironically motivated by Augustine’s own writings. Pelagius was a British monk who had his own ideas about Christianity to spread through the Empire. Pelagius became particularly incensed at Augustine’s assertion in The City of God that man cannot obey God’s commands unless God gives him the ability to do so. Instead, Pelagius believed that man was born with the ability to completely obey anything God tells him to do. The monk found allies and patrons in Rome that would support him and help spread his teachings.
Augustine fought Pelagius through books, letters written to influential people that had fallen under Pelagian ideas, and by drawing up doctrinal tests of orthodoxy designed to evaluate Pelagianism. Discussion ensued in the church as to whether or not Pelagius’ ideas constituted heresy. Augustine struck at the heart of the confusion with a clever challenge to the bishops – if Pelagianism is true and man can help himself, what need does he have of the church? Framed in this way, Pelagianism could more easily be seen as a threat to the power and stability of the church. The Emperor himself intervened in the controversy after followers of Pelagius started a riot. He expelled Pelagius and his disciple Calestius from Rome and threatened expulsion to any who agreed with them. This act by the Emperor brought the hesitant Pope Zosimus over to Augustine’s side. The Pope condemned Pelagianism as heresy and officially ended the discussion.
The Final Fight – Julian
Yet Augustine would find no reprieve from his opponents. Perhaps the fiercest critic in his old age was a young man named Julian. He held Pelagian ideas and led a revolt of eighteen Italian bishops and settled in the Greek East, an area more tolerant of doctrinal diversity. Julian had the nasty habit of viciously attacking the leading experts he disagreed with in his writings. He was particularly ravenous against Augustine’s ideas about original sin. Augustine believed that man had only to examine his inner self honestly to find proof for original sin. This sinful nature also manifested itself in all of life, particularly man’s sexual desires. Julian labeled Augustine’s ideas on original sin unjust. After all, God could not possibly punish children for the sin of their fathers, even in the form of inherited sin. Unfortunately, Augustine could not fully respond to all of Julian’s attacks as he caught a fever that would soon prove fatal.
Concluding Encouragements – Persevere Through Hardship
In 429, Augustine, nearing the end of his life, wrote On the Gift of Perseverance to address the concerns of some of the bishops fearing that their congregations may lapse under growing persecution from the invading barbarians. “The gift of perseverance,” Augustine wrote, “was the greatest of God’s gifts to the individual. For it bestowed on frail human beings the same unshakeable stability as the human nature in Christ had enjoyed: by this gift, a man was joined forever to the Divine [and] could be confident that the hand of God would be stretched above him to shield him, unfailingly, against the world” (409).
It was a timely message the church needed to hear. In 429 and 430 the Vandals overran North Africa. Hippo held out a little while and as a fortified town, attracted many refugees. Yet the invaders finally breached its defenses and partially burned the city in 429. Although he survived the assault, Augustine would die of fever the next year. But by the hand of God, Augustine’s library remained untouched by flame. It is through the gift of this great man’s writings that Augustine touched the church in every age until now. Augustine lived a long and full life, shaped by God to become a pillar of the Christian of the faith.
Reflection on Augustine’s Life For Today
A Man Forged in Fire
Without a doubt, Augustine’s ideas on the Trinity, on grace, on original sin, on eschatology, and on Christian spirituality have deeply influenced the church for nearly 1,600 years. Yet there is great value in simply observing how God shaped Augustine through the trials of his life. Augustine was a man forged in fire, whether it was the battles with his inner self, his unceasing intellectual strivings, or the opponents he fought vigorously. Augustine was a man shaped by struggle. It was through these struggles that God developed him into the great man he became. This fact has immense value for American Christians today who seem to expect a life of progress through ease. Instead, believers today need to be taught to struggle against sin, in themselves and outside themselves, to fight for the advance of the Gospel in this world, and to expect resistance.
Progress, Not Perfection
Augustine’s life also teaches us something about the idea of perfection. For a time Augustine wanted to desperately attain perfection but never found it on earth. This failed pursuit led him to view the Christian life realistically, as a life of progress rather than perfection. This is a crucial lesson for the young and ambitious who are often captivated, as Augustine was, with the promises of perfection in this life. Augustine’s experience reminds that God’s will for His children on earth is to progress through struggle, helped by the grace of Christ, and not to expect perfection until we enter glory.
God’s Mysterious Ways on Display
Finally, through Augustine we observe the myriad of ways in which God uses various human influences to accomplish His purposes. It is through the writings of Cicero that Augustine sets out on his pursuit of wisdom that eventually leads him to the cross of Christ. It is through the preaching of Ambrose that Augustine finds the bold assertions of Christian truth that defeat the strongholds of pagan thought that had captivated him. And finally, it is through the Bible’s message of putting the flesh to death in Christ that Augustine discovers the only release from his own enslaving habits.
Augustine’s path to conversion in Christ was not straight. Knowing this might encourage parents who worry about the sinful choices their children are making, not at all unlike Augustine’s own mother Monica and her worry and continual prayer for her son. It can also be an encouragement to the pastor who wonders whether his preaching of God’s Word is affecting anyone. God uses the truth, wherever it is found, to bring about His plans for His people. From Augustine’s life we can have confidence that God will bring His elect to faith, even if the path of some pass through pagan philosophy, deceptive teachings, and the lure of the lusts of this world.
Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.
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