Recap: Part 1 was a look at Augustine, as a young and confused young man, overcome by his selfish passions, making him unable to enjoy life or give God glory. Life was futile, life was hard, life was rather worse than death. Until his eyes were opened to the only worthy and lasting purpose for life…
It was at this time that he began to attend the church in Milan, under Bishop Ambrose, but not for the reasons one might perceive. Ambrose had become renowned as a powerful preacher, and because his draw in Milan was great, Augustine sat under his teaching in order to imitate his eloquent style (Shelley 126). He did not know he was playing with fire. Although Augustine had been raised by his devout Christian mother, he had always rejected the Bible in favor of the classical Latin works. Cicero and Plato’s works were polished and culturally prevalent he believed, whereas the Bible to him was, as Bryan Litfin explains, “grammatically inferior and full of crude stories… [as well as] utterly simplistic and could not stand up to rational scrutiny” (223). Clearly Augustine did not go to the church to learn about the Bible but to learn how to speak like the Bishop of Milan, Ambrose. But a strange thing happened, and he realized he had judged the Bible too soon, realizing later that “the Bible is composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them” (223).
The major stumbling block that lay between Augustine and the acceptance of Scripture was the barbarity and crudeness of the Old Testament. God seemed almost like an oppressive mongrel in it, while in the New Testament Christ seemed to evoke the peace and love that Augustine had pursued. Ambrose assuaged his fears by using allegory to interpret the Old Testament, spiritualizing the stories therein as most of the Church Fathers had done. This led to Augustine eventually becoming one of the best defenders of the faith by using human reason and logic, proposing Scripture not only as intelligent, but as inspired by God (Shelley 126). It would become a passion of his life, to defend and expound Scripture.
And thus the various defeaters, things keeping him from giving his life to God, were slowly removed. There were men in his life who challenged him to give up the success of the world and follow God, as they had. Ambrose himself had given up a life of wealth and prestige to become a bold preacher. The biography by Athanasius about Antony, the Egyptian hermit, also challenged Augustine immensely to live for God (Litfin 225).
It is important to note that becoming a Christian for him was not like many see it today. It was not a small commitment, but a lifelong one that entailed giving everything to serve God. It was all or nothing. He had to give up his career, his plans, and most importantly, his love life. This last one was perhaps the most difficult of all, for he could not seem to break loose from his sexual addiction with his concubine, and was full of guilt for his leaving his first. Even more he was soon to be married to another. He asked himself if he could live without sex, and he was hesitant to say the least. A storm was brewing in his soul, a torrent of tension. He had been reading the Paul’s writings and had found it very convicting. He knew he needed to give up everything to follow God, but he needed Divine power to make it possible (Battenhouse 31-2).
It was at the middle of this crisis that Augustine found himself torn, much like what Paul refers to in Romans 7, knowing what is right to do but not being able to do it. On one such a day he went out into a silent garden, while his mind raged. He felt like he could not control his sensuality and passion, yet such guilt overcame him that he felt overwhelmed. Suddenly he heard a voice, perhaps of a child, singing over and over “Tolle lege, tolle lege” or “Take up and read.” These were God’s words, offering him grace in the middle of his darkest crisis (Battenhouse 35). Immediately he found the works of Paul and read what first came to him. It was Romans 13:13-14, “Not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality…But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” At that very moment Augustine gave his life to Christ, completely and unrestrained (Litfin 226).
Soon after, in 387, he was baptized by Bishop Ambrose, and Augustine, with new-found purpose, returned to Africa with the intent of serving God in silent learning, meditation, and celibacy. He would imitate Antony the hermit and live a secluded and holy life. But his Savior had other plans. Three years later, by popular demand he became a priest in Hippo Regius, the second most important city in Africa, against his will. Within a year he held the position as Bishop of Hippo, at which he labored faithfully and honorably for thirty-three years until his death. During this time, he would shape the world in which he lived, mostly by his writing, and would stand “in the center of the storms of his time” (Shelley 127).
This is where we find Saint Augustine in 410, now fifty-six, at the fall of the Eternal City, Rome. All eyes were turned upon him, and as desperation took hold of the men of earth, Augustine of Hippo was prepared to inspire them with sights of heaven. His work, The City of God, would become their battle cry. It can be compared to the work of John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, in that as followers of God we are pilgrims and sojourners in this world. Augustine’s point was to compare the earthly and heavenly kingdoms. The earthly kingdom was Rome and was fallen and finite; heaven’s kingdom was Zion and was perfect and infinite. This book “directly or indirectly influenced the thought of Christians on what they owed to God and what to Caesar through the succeeding fifteen centuries” (Shelley 130).
As can be seen in Augustine’s writing and what can be known about him, his life completely turned around in Italy. The Holy Spirit worked in his life and used multiple and unexpected circumstances to bring him to a saving faith in Christ, above and beyond all human ambitions and philosophies. It was a point of no return, and Augustine was a new man. When he turned around, literally, he now had personal experience to rightly attack that which had chained him and made him restless. He wanted to free others, to give hope to all people, and to burn up the lukewarm elements in the church (Stevenson). His central foundation was Scripture. He enjoyed the philosophy of Plato, but he had come to understand that Scripture was God’s revealed Word to mankind, and the foundation and essence of truth (Geisler 23).
It is important to notice that Augustine became the influence he is today through his writing. Some have called the Confessions the greatest book after the Bible, and the effects of the City of God have been monumental (Patton). Obviously it will prove to be impossible to cover all of the material that Saint Augustine wrote, but some general principles can be understood to enable the reader to grasp the background and enjoy his various works. For one, Augustine wrote on the issues of his day, against the philosophies of it, and he subdued many of them by his incredible writing ability and persuasion. He also wrote in response to his lifestyle, as can be seen in Confessions, addressing sex, philosophy, and worldly success. His writing, thus, seems to speak to the soul of the reader because he wrote from personal experience, being down to earth, and not from the vantage point of a super-Christian.
As said before, when looking at Augustine’s writings it is important to sense his foundation, Scripture. His primary goal was to study and understand it, because it became the center-force of all his writings. He wrote in the City of God that “[Christ] also inspired the Scripture, which is regarded as canonical and of supreme authority and to which we give credence concerning all those truths we ought to know and yet, of ourselves, are unable to learn” (Geisler 36). In this he points to Scripture as his basis of authority, yet at the same time he expresses the difficulty it provides to the reader’s understanding. Augustine also speaks of Scripture’s authority in his Letters, “It is to the canonical Scriptures alone that I am bound to yield such implicit subjection as to follow their teaching” (Geisler 37). One thousand years later Luther held to this line of argument against the Catholic Church, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it” (Bainton 103).
It is ironic though, because, while Augustine did base his Theology on Scripture, he seemingly displaced it on several occasions, breaking his own rule. A drastic change came in Augustine’s view of sex, and it was basically because he had seen the damage it had done to him. It can be argued that perhaps experience overpowered the Scripture’s teaching on occasion. Clearly it taught against fornication, adultery, abuse, and sexual immorality in general as he saw in Romans 13:13. But Saint Augustine went well beyond this in his teaching. To the married couple he said that sex was to have “procreation for [its] object,” otherwise it might fall into category of a “damnable sins… [To] serve as overbearing concupiscence (passion or lust)” (Geisler 212). Simply put, sexual intimacy was to produce children, and any satisfaction or enjoyment found in it was wrong. He taught this because he had used sex as a tool, and used it for enjoyment, not for procreation (Neuhaus 73).
Some argue that Augustine went too far in this, and in wiping out sexual pleasure he took taking away one of the greatest gifts of God. Augustine had in mind to give us a longing to the intimacy man will experience with God in heaven. That sex is weak precursor for it, like raw corn is to the mouth in comparison with a Thanksgiving dinner. R. J. O’Connell states that: Augustine was almost certainly right to set our sights on our promised heavenly union with God. But he could, at the same time, have made it clearer to husbands and wives that when they strove to make their sexual union an expression of their reverent love for one another, it could become something in addition to an instrument of procreation, an earthly prefiguration of that ultimate, rapturous union. (Neuhaus 87)
Saint Augustine had struggled with the ravenous addiction to lust, and his efforts to attack it were done with great vigor. The same intensity can be applied to his attacks on Manichaeism and a misuse of human reason. Augustine had been among this group, one of their leaders even, so he knew their teaching very well. Manichaeism was popular in North Africa, but it can be rightly said that the scholarship of Augustine thoroughly crushed this worldview. He strongly defended Christ as being God; he denied any division in the Trinity, and put forth the idea of Total Depravity (Bourke 28). Showing another of his attacks, Augustine wrote to a friend, saying: “For you well know that the Manichees move the unlearned by finding fault with the Catholic Faith, and chiefly by rendering in pieces and tearing the Old Testament: and they are utterly ignorant [as to] how far these things are to be taken…” (30).
This brings up the point of hermeneutics, as in, how the Bible is to be interpreted. The classic way of reading the Old Testament, used by virtually all the Church Fathers (as well as Ambrose), was to allegorize. This was taking the difficult passages of Scripture and stripping the literal meaning, for example spiritualizing the Creation story by applying it to the Church. Augustine was a pioneer in many ways by encouraging a literal reading of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament. But as stated before, he did use allegory as well. In De Doctrina Cristiana he explains that there are four levels of hermeneutics, with literal being the first and simplest form. But from there, after the literal meaning was understood, the passage could be ‘spiritualized’ (Patten). Many have accused Augustine of allegorizing too much, but in reality he revitalized the literal hermeneutics. He treats Creation as literal, agrees that the first men lived much longer, and that Jonah’s incredible story is to be taken literally, for example. In this he built the bridge to what we consider the standard mode of interpretation, based not on allegory but the literal reading of Scripture. Augustine took ‘leaps and bounds’ in hermeneutics that led to what is taught today (Geisler 41-44).