386 Augustine Converts to Christianity

“LORD, MAKE ME CHASTE—but not yet.” That was the prayer of a man who was flirting with Christianity, but who was also flirting with a lot of other things. Yet he became one of the greatest, most influential authors the church has ever known.

Who was this complex man? He was Augustinus Aurelius, better known as Augustine. Born in 354 in Tagaste (in what is now Algeria), Augustine had a devout Christian mother named Monica. His pagan father, Patricius, was a Roman official.

Augustine was brilliant, so his parents arranged for the best schooling. He studied rhetoric—persuasive speech—in Carthage. Reading Latin authors such as Cicero convinced him that truth is life’s supreme goal. He couldn’t find truth in Christianity because he saw it as a religion for the simple-minded. In his teens, Augustine took a mistress—a concubine—who bore him a son. In his later Confessions he wrote, “I came to Carthage, where a cauldron of unholy loves was sizzling and crackling around me.”

Restlessness

Augustine’s intellectual restlessness led him to embrace Manichaeism, a popular religion of the day that held a dualistic view of the world as a battle between light and dark, flesh and spirit. (Even after his conversion to Christianity, his negative attitude toward sex reflected the Manichaean position.) After nine years of holding to Manichaeism, Augustine became disillusioned by the failure of a leading Manichaean teacher to answer his questions. He gradually drifted into Neoplatonism. Meanwhile, vocationally, he moved from Carthage to Rome to Milan, teaching rhetoric.

In Milan, Augustine met the Christian bishop, Ambrose, who impressed him with his intellect and answered his objections to the Bible. Augustine also learned about saints who had conquered sexual temptation by surrendering themselves to God. This was the right combination: a faith that would overcome his sexual temptations and let him be a thinker.

In the late summer of 386 Augustine sat in a garden in Milan and heard a child’s sing-song voice: “Take it and read it; take it and read it.” He picked up what was nearby, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and began reading Romans 13:13–14, “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . “

This was his conversion. On Easter eve in 387, Ambrose baptized him. Augustine returned to his joyful mother and spent time in retreat and study.

Augustine could have been happy living a quiet monastic life. But his reputation spread. While visiting Hippo Regius on the North African coast, he was seized by the people and presented to the bishop to be ordained. He asked for time to develop his knowledge of Scripture, and in 391 he was ordained. Four years later he was consecrated bishop.

Theology Forged in Controversy

Bishop Augustine was involved in every church controversy of the day. One was Donatism, a movement that refused to accept clergy who had handed over Scriptures to the authorities during persecution or even to accept clergy who had been consecrated by such a person. There were thousands of Donatists, especially in Augustine’s area.

Augustine wrote that there could be no rival church; the church is one, though it may include some lessthan- holy persons in it. The sacraments—Communion and baptism—are effective not because of the priest’s own righteousness, but because God’s grace operates through the sacraments. (Augustine also defined a sacrament as “a visible sign of an invisible grace,” which has become a standard definition.) Augustine’s view on the Donatists prevailed, and the movement eventually lost momentum.

A major heresy he fought was Pelagianism. Pelagius, a British teacher, emphasized man’s ability to do good. He didn’t really teach that people could save themselves, but he made it clear that they could take the first important steps apart from God’s grace. Augustine was much more pessimistic or, in his view, realistic. Individuals will not, he said, choose the good unless God leads them to. In fact, God has already predestined his elect, his redeemed ones, and nothing we can do will change the eternal decree. In 431, a year after Augustine’s death, Pelagianism was officially condemned at the Council of Ephesus.

Writings and Influence

Augustine wrote hundreds of works, including the monumental City of God. When Rome fell in 410, people asked, “If Rome is fallen, has God abandoned us?” Augustine said no. The church endures forever, no matter what happens to nations. He also wrote the classic work On the Trinity, probably the best known work on this difficult subject.

Augustine not only challenged heretics, he also wrote of his spiritual quest in his Confessions, a book that was probably the first true autobiography. The famous words “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You” are from its opening paragraph.

Augustine’s teaching has become so basic that we don’t realize how original he was at the time. His thought trickled down through both Catholic and Protestant theologians. Luther and Calvin, for example, liked his emphasis on God’s grace and quoted him constantly.

Augustine wrote in Latin, and in this, too, he was a pacesetter. Greek had long been the language of theology; after Augustine, in the western part of the Empire, it was Latin.

Space doesn’t permit us to do justice to Augustine. He was a grand figure, a thinker who put his vast mental abilities at the service of the church. He bequeathed to the church a pessimistic view of human ability—and perhaps a too negative view of sex. But his honesty about his sinfulness and his God-centered intellect continue to win admiration. “The true philosopher is the lover of God,” Augustine wrote, and that phrase sums up his achievement. CH

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[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #28 in 1990]

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