The Idiot’s Guide to Augustine

Next to the New Testament authors, perhaps no person has had a bigger impact on the church than Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine lived in North Africa [AD 354-430].  His mother Monica was a devout Christian.  His father was a pagan who converted to Christianity towards the end of life.  Augustine was born after the conversion of Constantine, at a time when Christianity had become more acceptable to the Roman empire, and also at a time when the empire was in decline.  Augustine was a brilliant thinker and an avid writer.  He brought new doctrines to the church and expanded others.  Given the breadth of his writings, most Christians will find themselves in agreement with some of his teachings, while disagreeing with others. Below is an overview of some the major points of his doctrine.  I’ve attempted to present a balanced, charitable view of his thought.

Original Sin: Original sin (or concupiscence) is the teaching that since Adam and Eve sinned, all humans are born sinful and are guilty before God.  Every human is conceived with an inherently sinful nature, and is unable to seek after God or please God without divine grace.  Original sin was taught before Augustine (See Romans 5:12 for example),  however, Augustine was the first person to systematically articulate the concept,  and to pursue some of its theological implications.   Most Christians today hold to some sort of belief in the inherent sinfulness of humanity, but not all agree with Augustine’s conclusions as to how it affects us.

Infant Baptism:  Should infants be baptized?  This question was in contention during Augustine’s era, just like it is in ours.  Augustine was not baptized as an infant, but he strongly advocated the view – believing it was necessary to take away the guilt of original sin.  He held that unbaptized infants who died were under the wrath of God.   “Concupiscence, therefore, as the law of sin which remains in the members of this body of death, is born with infants. In baptized infants, it is deprived of guilt, is left for the struggle [of life], but pursues with no condemnation, such as die before the struggle. Unbaptized infants it implicates as guilty and as children of wrath, even if they die in infancy, draws into condemnation.”(1)

Celibacy:  Augustine was quite conservative with his views on sexual pleasure – even in the context of marriage. He came to the conclusion that complete chastity was the only solution to the problem of lust.(2)  He taught that being single was preferable to being married, appealing to Paul (1 Cor 7:32-35).  He taught that even in marriage sexual pleasure led to lust.  He viewed sexual intercourse as positive in the context of pro-creation.  Augustine struggled with lust for much of his early life, and was transparent about it in his writings.  He once reportedly prayed: “[God] give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”.  Prior to conversion, he had relationships with at least two concubines – one relationship which lasted for 13 years, and with whom he had a son.  He wanted to marry the long time concubine, but was not permitted to because of her lower social status.  When he was 30 years old, his mother arraigned an engagement with a young girl of equal social status.  Augustine ultimately broke off the relationship with the concubine, and also broke off the arraigned engagement, choosing to commit to a single and celibate life.

Perpetual Virginity of Mary:  The early church held that Mary was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Christ, but early writers did not defend the matter of whether or not she remained a virgin for her entire life.  Since the Gospels record that Jesus had siblings (Matt 13:55-56), this seems impossible.  By the time of Augustine most contemporary theologians held to the perpetual virginity of Mary.  Augustine advocated this view.  He allegorically interpreted Ezek 44:2 as a reference to Mary’s virginity. “What means this closed gate in the house of the Lord, except that Mary is to be ever inviolate? What does it mean that ‘no man shall pass through it,’ save that Joseph shall not know her? And what is this: “The Lord alone enters in and goeth out by it,” except that the Holy Ghost shall impregnate her, and that the Lord of Angels shall be born of her? And what means this – “It shall be shut for evermore,” but that Mary is a Virgin before His birth, a Virgin in His birth, and a Virgin after His birth.”(3)

Just War: Prior to Augustine, Christians were typically pacifists.  Augustine was born after the conversion of Constantine.  Roman persecution of Christianity (at least sanctioned forms) had ended, and the Catholic church had developed an integral relationship with the state.  At the same time the empire was in decline.  The Germanic tribes sacked Rome in 410.  Some blamed the empire’s weakness on the growing influence of Christian pacifism.  Augustine proposed that it was possible to be both a good Christian, and a full Roman citizen.  He argued that a Christian could be a soldier, and could kill an enemy combatant in battle if the cause was just.(4)

Delayed Ensoulment: Prior to Augustine, most church fathers believed that a fetus received a soul infused from the parents at the time of conception.   This view was called traducianism.  Augustine leaned towards “creationism”, a belief that the human body received a soul created by God at some point after conception (thought to be 40 days for males, 90 days for females).   Fetuses that had not yet received a soul were not considered fully human.  Augustine also speculated on the idea of pre-existence of souls (advocated by Origen), but did not come to a conclusion on that issue.  His arguments have relevance to the modern abortion debate.  Nancy Pelosi recently appealed to Augustine on the issue.(5)  He argued that induced abortion was not murder until after ensoulment took place, although he clearly rejected abortion at any point during a pregnancy. “The great question about the soul is not hastily decided by unargued and rash judgment; the law does not provide that the act [abortion] pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation when it is not formed in the flesh, and so not yet endowed with sense.”(6)

Predestination: Differing concepts of election and predestination divide Calvinists and Arminians to this day.  Prior to Augustine, the church taught that humanity had free agency (by God’s grace and design), and that anyone could put their faith in Christ and be saved.  In condemning Gnosticism, Irenaeus was one of the fathers who expressed the pre-Augustinian view of grace and free will: “This expression [of our Lord], “How often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldest not,” set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests (ad utendum sententia) of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. And therefore does He give good counsel to all.”(7)  Augustine instead taught that free agency was destroyed at the fall, and that God imparted faith only to the elect.  His views were a reaction against Pelagius, a British monk who taught that man was inherently good and did not require the grace of God.  Augustine wanted to make clear that man cannot be good on his own.  He argued that only the elect (whom God unconditionally chooses) will be saved.  Against Pelagius, Augustine wrote: “faith itself makes the believer to differ from the unbeliever. And thus, when it is said, “For who makes you to differ? And what have you that you received not?” if any one dare to say, “I have faith of myself, I did not, therefore, receive it,” he directly contradicts this most manifest truth—not because it is not in the choice of man’s will to believe or not to believe, but because in the elect the will is prepared by the Lord.”“(8)

Salvation in Only the Catholic Church:  In Augustine’s time there was a schism between the Catholics and the Donatists.  The split was based on whether or not laity needed to submit themselves to the authority of a group of disputed bishops.  Of particular concern to the Donatists were the bishops who had renounced their faith during times of persecution and repented once persecution was over. The Catholics said it was necessary to submit to these reinstated leaders, the Donatists said no.  The Donatists also held that the church should remain separate from the state.  The Catholics instead argued that church unity and submission to authority were most important.  The Catholics had the backing of the state, and Augustine sided with them.  He held that the Donatists were not saved, and were usurping the authority of the church.   Against Emeritus (a Donatist bishop), Augustine wrote: “No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honor, one can have the sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church”.(9)

Amillennialism:  There are several different Christian views about the end times and the nature of Christ’s second coming.  The two views that influenced Augustine will be addressed here – premillennialism and amillennialism.  Premillenialists taught that there would be a tribulation on earth (with Christians present), and that after the tribulation Christ would return for a 1000 year physical reign.  Augustine initially held to premillennialism, but later switched to the amillennial view.(10)   This was in part due to his disagreement with the Donatists, who held to the pre view.  Augustine held that Christ’s 1000 year reign was a symbolic return, and not not a physical one.  His view became the default view of the church.  While Augustine interpreted the physical reign of Christ’s as symbolic, he still held to the 1000 years as a literal time period.  He speculated that the world would end in either AD 650, or AD 1000 (both of which were far in the future).  After AD 1000,  amillennialist views were adjusted to allow for other possibilities.

Purgatory: Purgatory is the belief that Christians who die must go through a purification period before getting into heaven.  Catholics and Orthodox hold to purgatory.  Most Protestants reject the concept.  Augustine held to the idea of purgatory, writing that: “For our part, we recognize that even in this life some punishments are purgatorial…temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But of those who suffer temporary punishments after death, all are not doomed to those everlasting pains which are to follow that judgment; for to some, as we have already said, what is not remitted in this world is remitted in the next, that is, they are not punished with the eternal punishment of the world to come.”(11)

Intercession of the Saints:  Saintly Intercession is the teaching that it is possible for believers to ask deceased saints to pray and intercede for them.  Like purgatory, the doctrine is held by Catholics and Orthodox, but rejected by Protestants.  Augustine held to intercession of  saints.  In his prayer to Mary, he wrote:  “Blessed Virgin Mary, who can worthily repay you with praise and thanks for having rescued a fallen world by your generous consent! Receive our gratitude,and by your prayers obtain the pardon of our sins. Take our prayers into the sanctuary of heaven and enable them to make our peace with God.”(12)

How Do You Pronounce That Name?  If you’ve made it this far, be sure to vote on how to correctly pronounce Augustine’s name.  You can vote here (previous blog post).

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(1)  On the Merit and Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, Augustine
(2) Augustine’s Sex-Life Change: From Profligate to Celibate,  Frank A James III
(3) Augustine on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, catholicfidelity.com
(4) A time for war?  Robert L Holmes, Christianity Today.
(5) Abortion, Augustine and … Nancy Pelosi? David Gibson, August 26, 2008
(6) On Exodus 21, 80, Augustine
(7) Against Heresies, Irenaeus
(8) On the Predestination of the Saints, Augustine
(9) Address to the People of the Church at Caesarea, Augustine
(10) Amillennialism from Augustine to Modern Times, Walvoord, Bible.org
(11) City of God, XXI, 14, Augustine
(12) Prayer to Our Lady of Mercy, Augustine

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7 Comments

Filed under Augustine

7 responses to “The Idiot’s Guide to Augustine

  1. So I might agree with him on ensoulment, war, and perhaps a variant of original sin?

  2. I have a few reasons. It would take a while to explain. But I am uncertain that conception equates to new soul. I really don’t know but there are a few considerations (biblical and scientific) that cause me hesitation at this stage. For what it is worth, I act as if conception equals soul.

    • The nature of ensoulment is one of those things that we can speculate on, but it’s difficult to know for sure. However it happens, treating conception as the time a person gets a soul is a pretty safe and wise way to go. I agree with you there.

  3. Great overview! Very helpful.

  4. Ken

    Excellent overview of Augustine’s beliefs, I believe it would unnerve many Calvinists that use him to validate their view on Predestination.

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