Augustine’s Life and Times

HE WAS BORN IN THAGASTE, a smallish town in North Africa. He came from an old Carthaginian family. His father, Patricius Augustinus, was a pagan who honored the old Punic gods. But his mother, Monica, was a devoted Christian, who persistently urged her religion on her children—and particularly on Aurelius, who showed brilliance.

Their family was a small part of a large and complex economy. Patricius scrimped to send Augustine to school, and still had to rely on the generosity of a wealthy patron, Romanianus. The very name Patricius suggests Augustine’s father may have come from a proud, patrician family. But if he'd ever had wealth, it was apparently gone now. So, though the Augustinus family may have owned a substantial estate, it seems the Roman tax collectors had milked their fluid income dry.

As a boy, Augustine was sent to school in nearby Madaura. He made friendships there that would last all his life. But when he was 16 the tuition money ran out, and Augustine had to come home for a year while his family saved. In writing about this time in his Confessions, Augustine portrays himself as a lazy underachiever. Yet his superior intellect was probably already apparent to his family and friends. He seems to have outshone his older brother, Navigius, who tags along in later episodes of Augustine’s life.

Fruits of Disobedience

During that 16-year vacation from his studies, Augustine took part in the famous pear tree incident (see And a Saint in a Pear Tree . . . ?). To some this might seem like mere juvenile antics, just a bunch of rowdy boys ripping off pears and throwing them to the pigs—and that’s probably how Augustine saw it at the time. But looking back on it later, as he reflected in the Confessions, he perceived it as sin most foul. In the Confessions he also notes his struggle with sexual passion, indicating that this too mushroomed during that 16th year. After that year we find him going off to school in Carthage, supported by Romanianus, who evidently saw Augustine’s great potential and wanted this prodigy on his team. Augustine in Carthage was the backwoods boy in the big city. Carthage was the queen of North Africa, sophisticated and worldly. Five hundred years earlier Carthage had been Rome’s enemy. But the new Carthage had a solid place in the empire, basking in its Roman-civilization-with-Punic-twist.

The rowdy from Thagaste apparently continued sowing wild oats in Carthage. He doesn't relate the specifics of his sexual activity, but we do know that he took a concubine. He never names her; in that culture her name wouldn't have been important. He was a promising student-teacher, already making a name for himself in the school of rhetoric, on the first few rungs of the ladder of success; she was most likely from a lower-class family. He was 18 at the time.

His father had died a short time earlier, and possibly this made Augustine think about settling down and raising a family. But marriage at this point would impede his progress—he figured the sort of socially advantageous marriage he wanted would come later. Besides, taking a concubine was a socially acceptable thing at the time, not unlike unmarried couples living together today. One year later she bore him a son, and they named him Adeodatus—"a gift from God."

Light and Darkness

Two philosophical influences emerged as Augustine began to excel in Carthage, first as a student and then as a teacher. One was Cicero. The young African read the old Roman, and light dawned in his mind. The book was Hortensius, now long lost, but it must have been a beauty. It would form the basis for Augustine’s rhetoric and philosophy for years to come. Even in Augustine’s religious classics, we see traces of Cicero’s influence.

The other influence was Manichaeism. In his search for philosophical truth, Augustine moved away from his mother’s Christianity and the Bible, the Old Testament stories of which he dismissed as fables. He indicates he was longing for a system that made better sense of the world than the biblical system as he perceived it. Manichaeism, based on the teachings of a Persian named Mani, seemed to him to do that. It was a dualist corruption of Christianity that mocked the Old Testament like he did—and offered an easy answer for the problem of evil. That was all Augustine needed.

Mani’s main emphasis was that two worlds actually existed: the world of light, love, mind and spirit; and the world of darkness, evil, hate and the flesh. Mani stressed that the two worlds were constantly at war with each other, and the young Augustine could not help but agree. He could feel them at war in himself, for example, every time he had to choose between studying Cicero and hopping into bed with his concubine. According to Manichaeism, some specially blessed people would be able to devote themselves entirely and unequivocally to the higher things in life. But for most people it would be an ongoing struggle. Augustine took to Manichaeism with a sophomoric intensity. When his studies in Carthage were completed, he returned to Thagaste to teach rhetoric—and some Manichaeism on the side, though he tried to keep his mother in the dark about that. But Monica found out he was promoting heresy and threw him out of her house, at least for a time. Augustine was so persuasive in his proselytizing that he even converted his patron Romanianus to Manichaeism. Later Augustine would have to convert Romanianus back to Christianity.

During this time in Thagaste, he was called to the bedside of a boyhood friend who had suddenly taken ill and was dying. A priest was also summoned to the deathbed, and much to the unbelieving Augustine’s dismay, the priest proceeded to baptize the comatose young man. Augustine had shared with this buddy a disdain for Christianity, together they had mocked the church. And now, without Augustine’s friend even knowing it, the priest was dragging the lad right into the church’s arms. Then the friend miraculously recovered. Later, as Augustine chatted with his friend, he began joking about this bogus baptism. But the friend became very serious. It was no laughing matter, he indicated: the baptism had been real.

His friend’s change of attitude shook Augustine. But he was even more shaken when the friend suddenly died two weeks later. As he recounted it later in the Confessions, this seemed to mark the beginning of a reappraisal in Augustine’s heart and mind. He could laugh at Christianity, but he was dumb in the face of death.

Roads to Rome

In 376, the 22-year-old Augustine returned to Carthage to teach. The widowed Monica followed him there. She had dreamt that Augustine would become a Christian, and she seemed to play “the hound of heaven” over the next several years, praying and pleading for his conversion.

The young professor was soon master of rhetoric in Carthage, and seemed eager to move on—to Rome, city of the great rhetorician Cicero. The Manichaeans could use him there as well—a gifted speaker like himself could restore that faith to a place of prestige. Besides, a professorship in Rome could do wonders for Augustine’s career. From there he might well rise to the senatorial class. Soon, possibly through the influence of Romanianus, he was offered a professorship in Rome. But Monica got wind of it, and begged Augustine not to go. He reassured her; no, he would not leave. Then he sent her home and claimed he had to see a friend off on a journey. But he was the one taking the journey. He bundled up his mistress and little Adeodatus and set sail for Rome in the middle of the night, while Monica slept and dreamt.

Rome was almost more than Augustine could handle. He was wowed by the trappings of the high society that surrounded him. Suddenly he was hobnobbing with influential people—senators and the like! He was on the bottom rung of a ladder of success, enticed by what he saw at the top.

Augustine stayed with a Manichaean friend in Rome, but soon learned that Manichaeism was not politically helpful there. Christianity was the chosen faith in the imperial class—the executive branch of government, whose Italian headquarters were in Milan. And the traditional pagan religions—those of Jupiter and Juno and the rest of the pantheon—were the choice of the senatorial class in Rome. To them, Manichaeism was a low-class religion, an import from the sticks of North Africa. Thus in Rome, as Augustine struggles to shed his Punic accent and speak proper Latin, we find Manichaeism losing its hold on him. It offered the same answers it had in Carthage and Thagaste, but Augustine was asking different questions now that he was in the capitol of the Roman empire.

An empire which, not incidentally, was in deep trouble. Barbarians threatened its borders to the north and the west, and yet its chief defense was also in the hands of barbarians—mercenary Germans paid with Roman tax money to keep other Germans from crossing the Rhine and the Danube. Rome had built its empire with muscle and diplomacy; but now the barbarians had the muscle, and Roman diplomacy was dissolving amid competing special interests.

Religious conflicts were also rife. Despite Athanasius winning the day for orthodoxy at Nicea, Arianism was still alive and well. Many local congregations continued to hold that Christ was “similar” to God, not “of the same substance.” And now, generations after Nicea, the groups still felt enmity toward each other. In North Africa, Donatism was carrying on a similar feud with the official church. Maintaining that the Catholic Church had compromised itself during the persecutions of emperor Diocletian, the Donatists set up their own alternative, “pure” church. That conflict sometimes became violent. In Rome, the pagan religions were still promoting immoral traditions that had been popular in the city’s pre-Christian days. But then Ambrose, bishop of Milan, convinced the emperor to take measures against paganism. Why should the state pay for Vestal virgins? asked Ambrose. And why should the Senate chamber have a pagan altar to the goddess of Victory in it?

In the midst of this Altar of Victory controversy, Augustine landed in Rome. By order of the emperor, the statue of the goddess Victoria had been removed from the Senate. The senators were appalled. Symmachus, leader of the pagan party, fired off a letter to the emperor, arguing the merits of restoring the Altar of Victory. For centuries, he maintained, Rome had owed its success to its good relations with the gods. Now it was in danger of gravely offending them. Even if the empire was officially Christian, he argued, it should leave room for the worship of pagan gods. Bishop Ambrose published a masterful reply. During the year that Augustine was in Rome, Symmachus composed a second letter to the emperor on the same subject. The dispute continued.

All in all, it was not a good year for Augustine. He was sick for much of the time. There was a famine in the area, so the school was threatening layoffs, and some students refused to pay their bills. Yet the year was profitable in that Augustine attracted the attention of Symmachus, a prefect in Rome. Apparently the prefect was impressed by a speech Augustine gave, and expressed a desire to become his patron. It is possible Symmachus even negotiated with Romanianus, who often visited Italy, to acquire the “rights” to Augustine.

As prefect, Symmachus was asked to recommend a professor for the chair of rhetoric in Milan. The job would entail a good bit of contact with the young emperor, Valentinian II, who was residing there. The professor would be sort of his press spokesman. Doubtless Symmachus saw this as a chance to get someone in Milan who would lobby for his side in the Altar of Victory controversy. He chose Augustine. Augustine was, after all, a college professor; he had a son not much younger than the emperor; and he regularly had a corps of bright young men following him. Augustine’s winning manner would surely sway Valentinian.

One wonders what Ambrose must have thought of the recommendation. He must have known Symmachus’s intentions—before becoming bishop Ambrose had been a savvy politician, and had certainly carried those skills into the holy see. He wielded such power in Milan that he would probably have to approve such an appointment. Did he perhaps anticipate that he and his God would sway Augustine to their side? Or did he just owe his cousin Symmachus a favor? Whatever, the appointment went through and Augustine moved to Milan.

Bishop and Rhetorician

Right away, Augustine was impressed by Ambrose. He was 30 when he arrived in Milan, and Ambrose was 44. He was attracted by Ambrose’s warm personality, and at the same time marveled at Ambrose’s deep thoughtfulness and his devotion to scholarly sermon preparation. In fact, the bishop’s preaching dazzled Augustine—not the style so much as the substance. Faustus the Manichaean had been more fun to listen to, but in content, he couldn't hold a candle to Ambrose. The bishop’s deft handling of Old Testament stories easily answered the Manichaean objections. Ambrose’s famous sermons on Genesis may have been preached in Augustine’s hearing, and the bishop definitely taught the younger rhetorician to appreciate the Apostle Paul.

By this time, Augustine had become a spiritual mongrel. Raised a Catholic by his mother, he became a catechumen in Ambrose’s church—but initially at least, this was probably no more than a move of expediency made by many up-and-comers. At the same time, he was well-acquainted with the Punic paganism of his late father, and technically was still a Manichaean, though he seems to have pressed the borders of that faith and moved beyond it. Also, Symmachus and Roman paganism were paying his bills.

Then Ambrose and his chief counselor, Simplicianus, introduced a new element to this mix: Neoplatonism. It was a sly move on their part. Neoplatonism synthesized the diverse elements of Augustine’s religious life in an appealing way. It was a highly rational philosophy, based on the teachings of Plato, which had been resurrected a century earlier by Plotinus. Augustine’s searching mind was eager for such discipline. Neoplatonism offered Augustine middle ground. It was the philosophy of choice for a growing number of pagans in Rome and Christians in Milan. Whether one served a single God or many, Neoplatonism held forth certain transcendent principles, ideals to which all earthbound souls might aspire.

Simplicianus spent much time with Augustine, talking philosophy and sharing with him books by Plotinus, Porphyry and other Neoplatonists. Simplicianus had known Marius Victorinus, the Neoplatonist scholar who translated these books into Latin. On one occasion, the old counselor told Augustine this story about the translator:

Victorinus had confessed to Simplicianus, “In my heart I am a Christian.” The counselor replied, “I’ll believe it when I see you in church.” The philosopher retorted, “Do church walls, then, make a Christian?” In telling this story, the crafty Simplicianus was planting seeds in Augustine’s soul. Interestingly, Victorinus, an African man of letters just like Augustine, later did come forward to be baptized as a Christian.

Augustine was being stretched in other ways as well. Monica had arrived in Milan. She immediately set about the task of finding her son a proper wife. Remember, his concubine was a lower-class woman, a convenient companion but an impediment to real social progress. When a marriage to a Christian heiress was arranged, Augustine was forced to send his concubine away, though he says he deeply loved her. The 13-year-old Adeodatus stayed with his father.

Monica regularly worshiped at Ambrose’s church. In fact, Augustine relates how she would give him questions to ask the bishop. She was probably at the church during a most dramatic event—the church was surrounded by imperial soldiers.

The siege was instigated by Justina, mother of the young emperor. She followed the Arian heresy, which thrived in the hinterlands, but was shunned in the capitals of the empire. Determined to lead a resurgence of her faith, she demanded that Ambrose hand over his church building and another in Milan for use by Arian congregations. He refused, so she sent the imperial guard (as Gothic mercenaries, they would be mostly Arian themselves). Ambrose still refused to give in. The stage was set for a massacre: while the mercenaries awaited the order to attack, the bishop led his congregation in psalm-singing. But the order never came. The troops withdrew. One suspects Ambrose sent word to emperor Valentinian that such an incident would arouse the ire of his “uncle” Theodosius, the mighty and devout Emperor of the East, ruling from Constantinople. Valentinian hadn't expected such strong opposition from the bishop. As he ordered the troops’ withdrawal, the boy emperor joked that Ambrose’s power was nearly equal to his own.

What impression might this have made on Augustine? More awe of Ambrose, no doubt, but perhaps also a sense of the interaction between state power and church power, the city of man and the City of God. And for a man clawing his way up the ladder of Roman success, it would come as a jolt to realize that the most powerful man in Italy was not a senator like Symmachus, but a man of the cloth.

A Changed Man

One day Augustine and Alypius received a visitor, Pontitianus, a fellow African and a member of the emperor’s secret service. Pontitianus noticed a copy of Paul’s epistles on Augustine’s desk, and began talking about his own Christianity. He mentioned the story of St. Anthony, founder of an Egyptian monastery, who had entered a church in time to hear the Scripture: “Go and sell all you have . . . “ Anthony had apparently heard God speaking to him in this chance occurrence, so he gave up his possessions and started a monastery. Two colleagues of Pontitianus, on finding a copy of St. Anthony’s story by the roadside, determined to renounce the world as well.

Shortly after that visit, Augustine was walking in the garden of his house when he heard a child’s singsong voice repeating, “Take up and read.” [For the rest of this famous story see Augustine’s own account, Augustine’s Conversion.]

For all its fame, Augustine’s conversion did not have the drama of a sawdust-trail altar call. Something went “click” in his mind, the lights went on, “and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” It may have been politically expedient for Augustine to pay lip-service to the church as a catechumen, but when he really got serious about Christianity, it uprooted his life. Suddenly ladder-climbing didn't make much sense. He no longer cared to be a senator, so what should he do? He could be a monk, maybe, like St. Anthony. Marriage, certainly, was out of the question. He was devoting himself entirely to God, sexuality and all. He broke his engagement.

He resigned his professorship, dashed off a note to Ambrose telling of his conversion, and retreated to a country villa in Cassiciacum. His friends followed him there. Monica, overjoyed at his newfound faith, ran the household. Augustine and Alypius discussed philosophy, and Augustine continued churning out philosophy books in a Neoplatonist vein.

Romanianus, his old patron and friend, occasionally joined him there, along with his 16-year-old son, Licentius, a long-time pupil of Augustine’s. Licentius was a prodigy fascinated by music, particularly taken by the psalm-tunes Ambrose had pioneered. Once he offended Monica by singing a psalm in the bathroom. Adeodatus, a few years younger, showed academic promise as well. Later he would assist his father in the writing of De Magistro (On the Teacher). Augustine’s brother, Navigius, was there too, but he regularly complained of a bad liver and seemed to miss the point of most everything Augustine said. The whole arrangement was much like what Augustine had planned before his conversion—an enclave of philosophers, living a life of thoughtful leisure. But now it had a Christian twist. After six or seven months, around Easter of 387, Augustine emerged from his retreat and returned to Milan. There, along with Alypius and Adeodatus, he was baptized by Ambrose.

The Prodigal Returns

Then Augustine decided to go home to Thagaste. The prodigal had tired of his wandering. There was no point in being anywhere else. Perhaps there he would start a monastery. Europe was in turmoil anyway, not a place for quiet contemplation. Ambrose had recently returned from the northern imperial capital at Trier. There he must have learned about the weakening Roman defenses along the Danube. But the big news was in the west, where Maximus, general of the Roman armies in Gaul and Britain, had declared himself emperor. He had overrun Gaul and was threatening Italy. If Augustine was to escape a blockade of Italy’s seaports, he would have to set sail for Carthage soon. He didn't make it. He and his band of followers were detained in Ostia, Rome’s seaport. There, he records, he and Monica shared a vision of “eternal wisdom.” “We . . . did by degrees pass through all things bodily, even the very heaven whence sun and moon and stars shine upon the earth; yea, we were soaring higher yet, by inward musing, and discourse, and admiring of thy works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might arrive at that region of neverfailing plenty, where thou feedest Israel forever with the food of truth, and where life is the Wisdom by whom all these things are made . . . .” Nine days later, Monica was dead. She had assured her sons they need not bury her alongside her husband, so they buried her at Ostia.

The group wintered in Rome. While there, Augustine possibly did some research on the monastic movement. Jerome had recently furloughed in Rome, acting as secretary to Bishop Damasus. He might have left behind some of the east’s spiritual wisdom.

Eventually the sea blockade was lifted, and Augustine and friends traveled to Carthage and then Thagaste. It should have been big news in North Africa. Augustine and his yuppie friends from Milan had given up their high-powered positions and retired to a life of contemplation in tiny Thagaste. There they would serve the church, not as priests and bishops, but as writers and thinkers.

Soon after Monica’s death, Augustine suffered more loss. His dear son Adeodatus, for whom he had great hopes, died shortly after their return to Africa. He also lost one of his inner circle of friends, Nebridius, about that same time. Though he still had a loyal group around him, he says he felt very much alone. Within a few years he had lost his mother, his son, his friend, and his beloved concubine. But the loss of these loved ones served to propel Augustine toward deeper, more-vigorous commitment and service.

Pressed into Service

In 391, Augustine learned that someone in Hippo—a former member of the secret service—was interested in joining a monastery. Though he didn't like to travel, Augustine hiked to Hippo, where he was warmly received. Perhaps too warmly. Seeing the renowned layman in church that Sunday, Bishop Valerius put aside his prepared sermon and preached on the urgent need for priests in Hippo. Who among them would be willing to give his life to the priesthood? The crowd spotted Augustine. In a scene amazingly similar to the sudden ordination of Ambrose 20 years earlier, Augustine was made a priest against his will. The people noticed him weeping, but thought it was because he wanted to be bishop, not just a priest. All in good time, they assured him.

Valerius was a shrewd Greek who knew what the church needed. Throughout North Africa, the Catholics were feuding—and sometimes losing—against the Donatists. The church needed a champion to argue down the Donatist arrogance, and Valerius saw Augustine as that champion. So the bishop gave Augustine the use of a house and garden near the cathedral, and Augustine brought his friends along to use the garden as a monastery.

Though in most of North Africa preaching was exclusively the task of bishops, Valerius gave his preaching duties over to Augustine. And when the bishops of North Africa convened in Hippo, Valerius let Augustine do the teaching. Wisely, the novice priest chose to carefully go over the creed, setting a pattern that would last for the next 37 years—Augustine teaching the church what it believed. In 395 Valerius convinced the bishop of Carthage to make Augustine co-bishop with him—even though this violated the canons of Nicea. A year later Valerius died, and Augustine became the sole bishop of Hippo.

Heresy-fighting topped the new bishop’s agenda. Manichaeism was already on its way out, but Augustine dealt it a death blow. He knew this foe inside and out. At the public baths in Hippo (sort of the community assembly hall), Augustine debated Fortunatus, a former school colleague of his from Carthage days and now a leading Manichee. The bishop made quick work of the heretic, and Fortunatus left town in shame.

Donatism, however, was more firmly entrenched, supported as it was by many wealthy landowners. It was less of a doctrinal struggle than a political one. The Donatists had set up their own church in the early 300s as a “pure” alternative to the “compromised” Catholic Church (holding that a number of Catholic leaders had betrayed the church during the persecution of Diocletian). Several generations had grown up with this division, along with the violence and vandalism it provoked. It was Augustine’s job to show that the Catholic Church was not compromised, that it was the valid continuation of the apostolic church. In his writing and preaching he began to shore up the Catholic tradition. The Donatists recognized the threat Augustine presented. And for the Donatist landowners, this was big business. They plotted to kill him.

Meanwhile, Augustine’s band of meditative men was dispersing. Alypius became bishop of Thagaste; Possidius, bishop of Calama; Evodius, bishop of Uzalis. Augustine’s conversion had given the church not only Augustine, but a whole cadre of bright young leaders. It was just what the church needed in its fight against Donatism.

As bishop, Augustine spent most of his time judging cases and resolving disputes in Hippo. He was a man of integrity who would not be bought off. He may have wanted to be writing theology or meditating on God’s sovereignty, but his duties demanded he decide which farmer owned a certain plot of land. The press of Augustine’s administrative duties makes his philosophical and literary output all the more remarkable. Where did he find the time to write the works that would shape Christianity for millennia to come?

Cities of Man and God

In 410, the barbarian general Alaric and his troops sacked Rome. Many upper-class Romans fled for their lives to North Africa, one of the few safe havens left in the tempestuous empire. This would have been a time of some irony for Augustine. Once he had had trouble fitting in among the Romans; now Romans were coming to him for shelter.

Paganism was by now powerless, but its heart beat on in the murmurs of the refugees. Christianity had caused this tragedy, they said; the gods of Rome would have saved Rome if Rome still believed in them. So Augustine had a double task: to care for these homeless people, and to refute their anti-Christian charges. He began to develop his thinking about the cities of God and man.

In 411 the Donatist controversy came to a head. The failing empire, still trying to hold things together, convened a debate in Carthage to decide this troublesome Donatist-Catholic dispute once and for all. Flavius Marcellinus, the veteran diplomat sent to referee, requested that each group send seven bishops as delegates. The Donatists, suspecting that the deck was stacked against them, sent their full contingent of bishops. Hundreds of them, and their behavior was ornery throughout the proceedings.

For each town in North Africa, they presented their bishop and his credentials, then challenged the Catholics to put forward a legitimate bishop for that town. When it came time to debate, the Donatists requested more time to prepare their case. Colleagues like Alypius and Possidius said no, but Augustine, who emerged as the debate captain, confidently allowed it. When it came his turn, Augustine demolished the Donatist appeal. A master of rhetoric at work, he would have made Cicero proud. Marcellinus took little time to decide; the Donatists had no case.

In the ensuing years, Augustine struck up a friendship with Marcellinus, the imperial commissioner. The diplomat urged the bishop to put his thoughts concerning the city of man and the city of God into writing. Then suddenly Marcellinus was arrested. Heraclion, general in charge of Roman forces in North Africa, had revolted against the empire. The rebellion was squelched and its leaders executed. Marcellinus, falsely implicated, was sentenced to death. Augustine tried his best to win a reprieve, but to no avail. Marcellinus was killed.

What kind of sting must this have caused Augustine? Had he been an Ambrose, he might have been able to pull the strings necessary to save this innocent man. Ambrose, after all, had stood his ground against imperial troops. And another time Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius the Great and lived to see the mighty emperor trudge into church wearing sackcloth. Ambrose had wielded power in the city of God and in the city of man. But somebody had changed the locks on the city gates. The world was different now, and Augustine lost a friend.

Quietly, perhaps sullenly, Augustine continued his work on The City of God. It would appear in installments over the next 12 years, and would revolutionize Roman-Christian thought. In 418, a new general arrived in North Africa. Boniface had held the line against the barbarians in Europe. Now he was stationed on the edge of the Sahara, guarding North Africa against marauding nomads. Augustine made friends with Boniface, no doubt happy such an able warrior was protecting his people. Boniface was a Christian, and had a very devout Christian wife. When his wife died in 420, Boniface even considered entering a monastery.

But Augustine and Alypius journeyed out to the desert to convince Boniface to stay at his post. Thirty years earlier, travel-shy Augustine had ventured to Hippo to talk someone into joining a monastery. Now he went out of his way to talk Boniface out of it. They needed a good general more than they needed another monk, thought Augustine.

Life’s-End Challenges

Meanwhile, the bishop was weathering attacks from another quarter. Young Julian of Eclanum was taking potshots at Augustine’s theology—and his character. Julian was a Pelagian, not believing in original sin. Pelagius himself had been excommunicated in 417, and Julian, who had been a bishop in Italy, had been kicked out of his church shortly thereafter. But still he wrote, challenging the bishop of Hippo. Augustine was a Manichee, he charged (probably not as worried about Manichaean theology as about the low-class stigma attached to it). Augustine was an African, he trumpeted. Augustine and his African band of bishops had taken over Roman Christianity, he charged, probably hoping to arouse his Roman readers.

Augustine answered the junior exbishop in kind, pointing out Julian’s high-class snobbery. Over the last 10 years of his life, Augustine published two collections of responses to Julian. It might have been better to let the matter drop. Surely Augustine had better things to do than bicker with this sophomoric hatchetman.

But Augustine was arguing with a younger version of himself. That may be why he debated Julian so intensely. Like Julian, he too was once enamored with secular wisdom. And he too had resisted the idea that man is born in sin. But God had not given up on Augustine when he was a brash know-it-all with his head buried in heresy. Could Augustine so easily give up on Julian?

Problems other than Julian were pressing Augustine’s people. Boniface had been steadily accruing power through the 420s. In 426, he visited the imperial court at Ravenna to assert his position as Count of Africa. He returned with a rich wife—an Arian woman—and a few concubines. The following year, he launched his revolt. Now he had to defend his position against both the barbarians and the Romans.

Augustine wrote to Boniface, chastising him for his actions. Confusion in North Africa, he suggested, would surely provide an entry to the Vandals who were already perched at Gibraltar, ready to overrun the continent. Augustine urged peace with the empire and a united front against the barbarians. But Boniface, who had anticipated support from Augustine and the other bishops, argued that his claims to power were legitimate. Nonetheless, Augustine turned a cold shoulder to him. The general came to visit the bishop once, but Augustine was apparently too tired to meet with him.

In the summer of 429, the Vandals invaded North Africa and met little resistance. The citizenry fled before them. many to the fortified city of Hippo. There Augustine comforted and cared for the influx of refugees. Possidius, a charter member of his monastery at Thagaste, now a bishop with a congregation, also fled to Hippo, and helped Augustine organize his writings. Boniface was there too, valiantly defending the city. In the third month of the Vandals’ siege of Hippo, Augustine caught a sudden fever. For 10 days the 76- year-old bishop fought it. Then he died. But almost miraculously, his writings survived the Vandal takeover, allowing his influence to live on and on.

By Randy Petersen

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #15 in 1987]

Randy Peterson is a freelance writer from Westville, N. J., and a contributing editor for Christian History.
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