Augustine was born of a pagan father and a Christian mother in Thagaste in Algeria in 354[i] AD.
It was an interesting time. There was a strong clash between the liberal Christianity in the West of the Empire and the dogmatic, conservative Christianity of the eastern part of the Empire. Christianity in the west was “tending to absorb pagan cultures, to synthesize the biblical teaching with classical education, Christian with pagan art, and to accommodate the churches law to the ways of existing society.”[ii] In the East and that included North Africa, “Christianity, both Donatist and Catholic, continued the tradition of protest. Views tended to be formulated in terms of contrast with pagan society… Christianity was regarded as a ‘law’ distinct from secular law.”[iii] In northern Africa converts renounced everything about the world: politics, philosophies, literature, art, and so forth.
Donatism was a very pure form of Christianity and is reflected in the above statement. Donatists believed that the hallmark of Christianity was purity for the believer and especially for the clergy. Donatists aspired to for a martyr’s death. Donatists believed that their clergy must be faultless for their sacraments to be valid. Donatism was the opposition to Western Christianity’s willingness to absorb pagan society.
Many people in North Africa in high places of society were Donatist, and Donatism continued into the sixth century.
Thagaste at the time of Augustine’s birth had recently been Donatist but had converted to Catholicism. Still, these issues of the standards of North African Catholicism, Donatism, and Western Catholicism were widely debated around Augustine from his birth. That is not to say that Augustine was pure in his Christianity from the very onset because as we shall see he embraced other philosophies and religions before he eventually became the Orthodox theological powerhouse that led him to be later named as one of the first Doctors of the Church.
On a broader scope, Augustine was born mid-fourth century, and the fourth century marked major changes for Christians and the establishment of much of what to this day became to be known as orthodox mainstream Christianity. In 313 AD Christians are restored their property. In 323 AD Christianity is established as at least a religion of the empire. The council of Nicaea, 325 AD, established the Nicene Creed with the deity of Christ as its focal point and “of one substance with the Father” as the key phrase. In 380 AD Nicene (read Orthodox) Christianity is declared the official religion of the Empire. In 381 at the 3rd Council of Constantinople, the doctrine of the Trinity is established making Jesus and the Holy Spirit persons of the Godhead. In 397 the Catholic church created the official canon of scripture at the Council of Carthage. Augustine’s life was in the middle of all these events.
Augustine was raised a Christian by his Christian mother, Monnica. His father, Patricius, was a small landowner who had a good position in the community. Patricius did not embrace Christianity until later in his life.
Though very smart and raised to be Christian, Augustine was a pretty wild kid. He ran with a crowd that lived totally in contrast to the Christianity around them. In his book Confessions, Augustine describes how he and his mates pursued sex, boasting and reveling in it. In the same book, he cites a misdeed of stealing pears from someone, and how the group reveled that they had gotten away with it not been caught. Condemnation from these misdeeds and more motivated Augustine for the rest of his life.
As a teenager, he was sent to Madaura and then to Carthage for studies in Rhetoric. Rhetoric is the study of persuasive speech, and as Augustine’s persuasion extends to modern times, he excelled at it.
Again, Augustine’s path was not straight and true. He was raised a Christian, but later became a Ciceronian and then even later converted to Manicheism, a religion with Christian, Gnostic, and pagan elements. A Manichean who has known him at Rome stated that his mind was set on the great things that elevate the soul toward heaven.
“At Carthage Augustine experienced two conversions, first, circa 372, toward the undivided pursuit of wisdom through philosophy, and second, circa 373, as a means to that end, to the Manichaean interpretation of Christianity.”[iv] Augustine finally returned to Catholicism around 386 AD.
While studying Augustine took a concubine, and had a son. He lived with the concubine for 14 years.
Williston Walker writes, “if this sensuous Augustine was thus early aroused, truth-seeking Augustine was speedily awakened. When nineteen, the study of Cicero’s now almost completely lost Hortensius ‘changed my affections, and turned my prayers to Thyself, oh Lord’[v]. This imperfect conversion caused Augustine to desire to seek truth as that alone of value. He began to study the Scriptures, “but they appeared to me unworthy to be compared with the dignity of Cicero.”[vi] Augustine did not stay a Christian at this point. Instead, he turned to Manichaeism and remained a Manichaean for nine years. Eventually, he met a well respected Manichaean leader named Faustus which proved to be a turning point.
Faustus proved to be a disappointment, and Augustine’s commitment to Manichaeism waned. In 383 A.D. Augustine moved to Rome, and then in 384, he obtained a position as a teacher of rhetoric in Milan. In Milan, Augustine met Ambrose, a powerful and eloquent preacher. Augustine was more impressed with the elegance with which Ambrose preached than the message. Nevertheless, Augustine began to follow Ambrose.
At the same time, Augustine’s mother, Monnica, persuaded him to become betrothed to a person fit for his station. With regret, Augustine dismissed his concubine but “entered on an even less credible relation with another. It was the low point of his moral life “[vii]
Augustine turned again to philosophy, this time Neoplatonism. Somehow he believed this philosophy showed him that the spiritual world and God were the only realities. The greatest blessing of life was to know God, and this new philosophy led him to accept Christianity. But it wasn’t necessarily the simple Christianity of the New Testament. Augustine was impressed with the authority of the Catholic Church as the religion of the Empire.
Now, Augustine embraced Scripture. He literally heard a nearby child say “Take up and read” and he immediately opened a copy of the epistles that he had with him to read “not in rioting or 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 to fulfill the lusts thereof”. This transformed him. He was converted. With that Augustine found peace and confidence that he had the power from God to change.
Augustine embraced Roman Catholicism as the path for living Christianity. Augustine wrote, “I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.”[viii] He resigned his position and retired with friends to an estate named Cassisaicum to wait to be baptized and where he began debating with his friends his newfound Christianity. The debates were philosophical discussions along Neoplatonist lines, and at the same time, Augustine began writing treatises.
From there he was baptized, later ordained to the priesthood, still later ordained Bishop of Hippo. “In Hippo, he founded the first monastery for that portion of Africa and made it also a training school for the clergy.”[ix]
All along the way, Augustine wrote, putting his training in rhetoric to use. He was a prolific writer, and much of it has survived to this day.
It’s important to me to see the mindset of Augustine. Here is a man, a privileged man who has the opportunity to embrace different philosophies, religions, and lifestyles before finally deciding that the religion of Roman Catholicism in North Africa in the late fourth century is the absolute way to go. Furthermore, here is a man that is a gifted communicator who used that communication skill to persuade as many people as he could to do likewise. I mean the man set up the first monastery/seminary for his part of the world. How more influential could anyone be?
Because of Augustine’s status as a Doctor of the Church and what that means, let’s take a minute and contrast Augustine’s path as a “man inspired by the Holy Spirit to formulate Christian doctrine”(the Roman Catholic Church’s definition of a Doctor of the Church) with the apostle Paul, the most prolific writer in the New Testament. Paul was instructed by the disciples, apostles, prophets, etc. of the first century. As an educated man, Paul certainly was familiar with philosophy, but his training was not Greek, but rather Jewish. Paul was certified as one who was led by the Holy Spirit as he was declared to be an apostle.
Augustine, on the other hand, was much more a product of the times he lived in. Furthermore, as we will see in studying some of his writings that are crucial to the promotion he received to become a Doctor of the Church, he was deeply influenced by both his personal indiscretions as well as the conflict between the different factions in the church to be, for example, highly puritanical in his approach to sex as well as other issues.
Look at this paragraph by WHC Frend regarding the religious and philosophical conflicts of Augustine’s time, “if Donatism suited the majority of Christians in North Africa, it’s insular and rigorous traditions had always been opposed by those who either sought (like Augustine) a synthesis between philosophy and Christianity, and those who were prepared to go further – to reject the Old Testament as the word of God and accept a mystical dualistic interpretation of Christianity. The Gnostics and Marcionites of the second and third centuries have largely been absorbed by the Manachees… In the 75 years since Diocletian’s rescript banning them, they have flourished in North Africa.”[x]
This paragraph again shows again that Christianity at this point had gone away from the simple, Jewish based traditions that we see in the Old Testament, and for centuries had been merging with philosophy and the other traditions of Greek thinking as well as absorbing pagan culture in all of its forms. At the same time factions were rising that developed ascetic Christianities focusing on purity, denial, and legalism. And Augustine was right in the middle of these transitions and conflicts. What Augustine did and wrote about after that clearly reflects these conflicts.
Nevertheless, Augustine was a profound individual, and I believe a true believer. In future posts, we will examine his writings to see more about what he taught and it’s status as true Christian doctrine.
[i] [i] THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY, W.H.C. Frend, Fortress House, Philadelphia, 1984, p. 659
[ii] Ibid, p. 652
[iii] Ibid p. 653
[iv] THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY, W.H.C. Frend, Fortress House, Philadelphia, 1984, p. 660
[v] Confessions 3:4
[vi] A HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, Williston Walker, Scribners, New York, 1959 p.161
[viii] Against the Epistle of Manichaeus, 5
[ix] Ibid p. 162
[x] Ibid, p.661