Augustine & the Battle for Orthodoxy: A Gallery of Influential Antagonists

Symmachus

(c. 345–c.402) 
Augustine’s Pagan Patron

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, Roman prefect, was everything Rome admired: wealthy, eloquent, a born leader. He was also a dedicated pagan at a time when paganism was on the wane.

The Roman empire at this time tolerated paganism, but Christianity was clearly the rising star among religions.

Symmachus, a conservative aristocrat, tried to fight this trend, but he was outmaneuvered by his powerful cousin: Ambrose, bishop of Milan.

Ambrose persuaded the Roman emperor Gratian to remove the Altar of Victory from the Roman senate chamber—an obvious slap at Rome’s pagan past. The senate sent Symmachus to plead with the emperor to replace the altar. Though eloquent (his style evoked comparisons with Cicero and Pliny), Symmachus failed in his mission.

Symmachus’s clout was sufficient, however, to give Augustine’s career an early boost. In 384 a government position as teacher of rhetoric in Milan was open, and some of Augustine’s Manichee friends told Symmachus of the eloquent young teacher. “Symmachus … set me a test to satisfy himself of my abilities,” Augustine recalled, and the young rhetorician won the post easily.

While in Milan Augustine came under the influence of Ambrose, which put him at odds with his former benefactor. However, no real conflict materialized because the two never met again after 384.

Petilian

(died c. 415) 
Defender of the “pure” church

Petilian could have been remembered as a lawyer and bishop of Cirta, but instead he is known as a chief advocate for Donatism—and a major opponent of Augustine.

Donatists believed that the church’s holiness was dependent on purity; sacraments administered by impure clergy (especially those who had buckled under persecution) didn’t count. In contrast, Catholics stressed the church’s unity, and because the Donatists sought to separate themselves from other “tainted” Christians, Augustine and others felt they must be stopped.

Petilian and Augustine traded barbs in several public letters. In Epistle to the Elders in 400, Petilian claimed that the Donatists were the true church. He threw Augustine’s pre-Christian past in his face, calling him “priest of the Manichees,” conjurer, and adulterer (for his years with a concubine).

Augustine, in Against the Letters of Petilian, countered that, until the end of history, “The time will not come for the church as a whole when it will be utterly without spot or wrinkle.” In the meantime, it is the job of “constant, diligent, and prudent ministers of Christ” to excommunicate immoral priests. Therefore, there was no excuse for “the enemies of Christian unity throughout the world” to perpetuate the schism.

In 411, at a council held in Carthage, Petilian spoke long and eloquently to defend Donatism. When his side was clearly losing, he tried to have the council adjourn, claiming he had a sore throat (which was probably true).

Soon afterward, Donatism was officially outlawed, but Petilian worked to keep the movement united. He disappeared from the scene after 415.

Pelagius

(c. 350–c. 425)
Optimistic Moralist

Pelagius was actually less “Pelagian” than his followers, for he never wrote that free will equaled autonomy. He did, however, deny two of Augustine’s central doctrines—original sin and predestination—and he believed that “a man can, if he will, observe God’s commandments without sinning.”

Augustine was certain that both Scripture and his own experience showed sinlessness to be impossible. He and his fellow African bishops kept fighting Pelagianism even after other church leaders, including the bishop of Rome and a 415 synod in Diospolis, heard Pelagius and declared his faith essentially sound.

The Council of Ephesus, affirming earlier decisions, finally condemned Pelagianism in 431, one year after Augustine’s death and many years after Pelagius had retreated to a wandering life in the East.

Julian of Eclanum

(c. 380–c. 454)
Pernicious Pelagian

Julian lashed out in a dozen books, calling Augustine “the Manichee,” “the most stupid of men,” and “the detestable Punic quarrel—seeker.” Augustine, retaliating with several books of his own, dubbed Julian the “architect of the Pelagian heresy.” Yet even while vigorously opposing him, Augustine addressed correspondence to “My dear son Julian.”

The quarrel went beyond theology into the personal. Julian accused Augustine of using church funds to cover the costs of heretic hunts and to bribe government officials. He claimed Augustine’s mother Monica had been a drunkard in her youth, which angered the bishop.

At the Council of Carthage in 416, over 200 bishops declared Pelagianism heretical. In 418 the new bishop of Rome, Zosimus (who had decided in Pelagius’s favor twice before), sided with the council and, in accordance with the decision of an imperial court at Ravenna, condemned the Pelagians.

Julian and 18 other bishops refused to subscribe to Zosimus’s decree, so they too were condemned. Julian took refuge in the East, where he continued writing in support of Pelagianism.

Julian is supposed to have died in Sicily around 454 after giving all his goods away to aid the poor during a famine.

Jerome

(c. 347–420)
Hyper-sensitive scholar

Both Augustine and Jerome were in Rome around 383, but they never met. Augustine moved on to Hippo; Jerome was expelled from Rome for being too controversial. He eventually settled at a monastery in Bethlehem. Their acquaintance began in 394 with a lengthy letter exchange that, unfortunately, generated more heat than warmth.

First Augustine raised some questions about Jerome’s translations and commentaries. Jerome, famously sensitive and contentious, did not appreciate the critique. Their exchange soon became a spectacle, with both correspondents pecking at the other’s reasoning and theological perception. Jerome lamented that the world should “see us quarreling like children.”

Eventually both men wished the bickering to end, but neither would back down or apologize. Jerome finally proposed that they could “play together harmlessly in the fields of the Scriptures,” but Augustine would have none of it. “As for me, I prefer to do things in earnest, not to ‘play,’” he wrote. “If you chose the word to imply that what we do is easy exercise, then let me tell you frankly that I expected more of you.”

Around 416, the two giants of the faith reconciled over a common enemy: Pelagianism. That year a gang of hooligans burned down Jerome’s monastery, assaulted several men and women, and murdered a deacon. Augustine, like Jerome, assumed the culprits were Pelagians. The two wrote each other and quoted each other in their treatises, presenting a united front against the heresy.

In 418 Jerome wrote Augustine, “Your fame is worldwide. Catholics revere you as the second founder of the ancient faith, and—what is a mark of greater fame—all the heretics hate you.” Augustine hailed Jerome as the great author of “ecclesiastical literature in the Latin language.”

In the eighth century, Jerome and Augustine were both proclaimed Doctors of the Church. CH

By J. Stepehn Lang

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #67 in 2000]

J. Stephen Lang lives in Seminole, Florida, and is author of 20 books, including The One Hundred Most Important Events in Christian History.
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