“Take and read”

IN 430 the Germanic tribe known as the Vandals fled the grip of another tribe, the marauding Huns. Their flight took them to the doorstep of Hippo in modern-day Algeria. There the Vandals laid siege to one of the weakening Roman Empire’s outlying
cities. The Christian bishop of that city, dismayed by the conflict, looked back over his 75 years and pondered
God’s sovereignty.

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That bishop, the greatest theologian in the Latin West, did not survive to see Hippo fall to the invaders from the north. But Augustine (354–430) had already witnessed a massive sea change.

That sea change was theological: the contentious fallout after the Council of Nicaea had been resolved (see “Fully man and fully God,” pp. 6–8). It was social and cultural: the brief recovery of paganism under Emperor Julian “the Apostate” ended with the establishment of Christianity as the empire’s religion under Theodosius in 380. And it was political and economic: the fall of Rome in 410 undid the stability of the late fourth century.

Augustine enjoyed a unique vantage point as Christianity shifted from persecuted to established, and he viewed it with a keen mind, a deep commitment to service, and an abiding faith in a gracious and loving God. It is no surprise that his autobiographical Confessions takes the top spot in our survey. His City of God ranks fourth, and two other works also make the list, On Christian Teaching [#18] and On the Trinity [#19]. Christian theologians from Thomas Aquinas [#2] to Martin Luther [#5] to John Calvin [#3] depended upon the theological fields he plowed and built upon the philosophical foundations he laid.

from backwaters to great cities

Born in 354 in a remote corner of the Roman Empire, Augustine rose to prominence first as a secular rhetorician and teacher and then as the preeminent Christian scholar-bishop of his time. Augustine’s genius was recognized early in his life. His gifts  took him from the backwater town of Thagaste in North Africa to the great ancient cities of Carthage, Rome, and Milan. At each stop he indulged not only his worldly pride but also his carnal desires. In Milan Augustine could no longer run from the grace of God and turned his will over to his Creator, a story he would later tell in the Confessions.

Once converted Augustine desired a reclusive life to spend his days in contemplation and prayer; but after only five years, he was pressed into pastoral service by Valerius, bishop of Hippo, who rather forcibly ordained Augustine to the priesthood. Before long Augustine succeeded Valerius as bishop of that bustling port city on the coast of North Africa. In the midst of his pastoral and ecclesial duties, Augustine began to write, and write, and write some more. His enormous body of work changed the face of Western theology.

A restless heart finds contentment

Augustine began his Confessions in 397, only 11 years after his conversion, and completed it in 401 as the newly installed bishop of Hippo. Although his parishioners, friends, and supporters recognized Augustine’s genius and passion for Christ, he had a checkered past as a philanderer, a Manichaean (a religion that saw creation locked in an equal battle between light and darkness), and an anti-Christian orator.

His era’s flat and emotionless “chronicling” style of biography writing wouldn’t do at all for this passionate man. Opening his heart to God, skeptical Christian leaders, and laypeople, Augustine poured out his honest tale with unprecedented vulnerability and psychological insight—in the process creating a whole new kind of autobiography. To each of his three audiences, he “confessed” in a different way.

To his God and Savior, Augustine spoke as an intimate, weaving together memory and prayer: “Who will give me help, so that I may rest in you? Who will help me, so that you will come into my heart and intoxicate it, to the end that I may forget my evils and embrace you, my one good?” In perhaps the most famous quote from the Confessions, Augustine answered his own question: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Augustine’s second audience was Christian leaders still leery of accepting a man known for employing his learning against the Christian faith. To refute these skeptics, Augustine narrated his past without sugar-coating. By confessing and rejecting his past life, Augustine offered skeptics an apologetic for his transformation; in his vulnerable authenticity, Augustine secured his leadership and answered his critics. 

His third and final audience was literate Christians who read an unflinching, theologically rich tale of one sinner’s “restless heart” ultimately finding its peace in the grace of God.

Augustine appealed to all three audiences in two stories that revolved around life in a garden and harkened back to the Garden of Eden. First, at the age of 16, Augustine was called home to Thagaste from rhetorical studies in Madura. Scholars debate why Augustine’s schooling was put on hiatus, but there is no debate that he pursued a life of hedonism in his lost year: “See with what companions I ran about the streets of Babylon, and how I wallowed in its mire as though in cinnamon and precious ointments!” Yet the moment he cited as his most grievous sin seems an innocuous juvenile act. Augustine and his friends stole mediocre fruit from a neighbor’s pear tree and threw it all on the ground for the pigs:

Behold my heart upon which you had mercy in the depths of the pit. Behold, now let my heart tell you what it looked for there, that I should be evil without purpose and that there should be no cause for my evil but evil itself. Foul was the evil, and I loved it.

For Augustine, sin took root in the desire to satisfy the self with no regard for goodness or purpose; taking the forbidden fruit, not out of hunger or for beauty, but only to quench the passion to do evil. Augustine’s desire for evil was only tempered at this point in his life by his desire for wisdom. As he chased after both wisdom and women, God had a plan to meet him in yet another garden.

losing everything

By the time Augustine reached a garden in Milan in 386 at age 32, he was a man adrift. His devout Christian mother had made him cast away his socially inferior concubine in favor of an arranged marriage to a more suitable girl. And girl she was, for Augustine was told he would have to wait two years until she was of marriageable age! By all accounts, Augustine’s concubine, the mother of his son, Adeodatus, was the love of his life. Losing her threw him into a cycle of licentiousness and self-recrimination for his lack of control.

Augustine had also lost his faith in Manichaeism on account of its logical errors. Finally he had physically lost the very thing that had brought him fame and (meager) fortune as a teacher and rhetorician: his voice. Drowning in loss Augustine seized upon the lifeline of grace he had heard about from his mother and from the bishop of Milan, Ambrose.

He cried out, and God responded with a vision of a beautiful woman—Lady Continence—for whom he had no carnal desires. She showed him a great cloud of witnesses who had accomplished what he truly desired. Yet Augustine still felt the tug of his old lusts. She counseled him:

Why do you stand on yourself, and thus not stand at all? Cast yourself on him. Have no fear. He will not draw back and let you fall … he will receive you and heal you.

Today, modern readers can see the influence of Augustine’s writing on Western autobiographies and memoirs, sacred and secular: a thematic narrative that describes not only the “how” and “what” of sequential events but the internal motivations and the “why” behind life-altering decisions and moments.

The Confessions impacted the Western church in its understanding of original sin and grace, as well as the meaning of God’s creative acts (the last three sections of the book leave the story of Augustine’s life behind for a theological exploration of Genesis). During the Reformation Martin Luther wanted to show how his understanding of the sufficiency of Christ alone was more Augustinian than that of his theological opponents. The Catholic Reformation responded by claiming its own Augustinian imprimatur. Among modern works that strongly bear Augustine’s fingerprints is The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis. Christians who have not yet encountered the Confessions’ depth and power should likewise “take and read!”

Opposition and Restoration

But the Confessions was not Augustine’s only masterpiece. The proverbial barbarians were indeed at the gate of Hippo when Augustine died at 75; however, by that time, Rome had been in decline for decades. Some blamed the empire’s adoption of Christianity in place of the ancient gods. Augustine marshaled his skill and knowledge to answer these critics in City of God and beat them at their own game: “In [this work] I am … defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to its Founder.” Augustine began his great task in 413 and completed it in 426. The work has four parts: an apologetic against pagan philosophy, an account of the origins of the “City of God” and the “City of Man,” the histories of the two cities, and each city’s final destiny.

The Confessions uses personal narrative to draw the reader in. City of God approaches things differently, arguing philosophically that the eternal glory of God stands above the fading glory of human creations. Scholar Peter Brown said about the book, “Augustine drains the glory from the Roman past in order to project it far beyond the reach of men, into the ‘most glorious City of God’.” Augustine depended upon a long tradition of exegesis centered on the conflict between the earthly city and the heavenly city, most notably in the book of Revelation:

On the one side are those who live according to humankind; on the other, those who live according to God. … We may speak of two cities or two human societies, the destiny of the one being an eternal kingdom under God while the doom of the other is eternal punishment along with the devil.

Augustine was not trying to demonize Rome as “Babylon” and justify its fall, nor was he trying to claim God’s approval for the empire. Rather he separated the temporal and flawed cities and empires created by humanity from the eternal kingdom established by God. 

The positive reception of City of God was immediate. A contemporary of Augustine, Bishop Macedonius, wrote before the book was even finished, “I am in doubt what to admire most … the teachings of philosophy, the extensive knowledge of history, or the charm of … style, which is such as to bewitch even the unlearned.”

Readers throughout the centuries, like Macedonius, have been bewitched by its theological scope and profundity, and well-worn and annotated copies live on the shelves of pastors, politicians, medievalists, military historians, sociologists, and theologians. Along with the Confessions, it points Christians toward the praise of God, calls us to draw near to the heart of God, and invites us to yearn for another kingdom:

Now it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, while Abel, as though he were merely a pilgrim on earth, built none. For the true city of the saints is in heaven, though here on earth it produces citizens in whom it wanders as on a pilgrimage through time, looking for the Kingdom of eternity. CH

Alex Huggard is an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in Latin patristics at Marquette University and headmaster at Eastbrook Academy.

This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!

By Alex Huggard

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

Alex Huggard is an adjunct professor and PhD candidate in Latin patristics at Marquette University and headmaster at Eastbrook Academy.
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