What Would Augustine Say?


W. Jay Wood

I HAVE DECIDED that there is nothing I should avoid so much as marriage,” Augustine wrote soon after his conversion. “I know nothing which brings the manly mind down from the heights more than a woman’s caresses and that joining of bodies without which one cannot have a wife.”

Though today many believe this was Augustine’s definitive conclusion about sex, his thinking developed over his lifetime and was more complex than many imagine.

Good marriage

Augustine’s views were shaped partly in reaction to his sexually active youth, partly against Platonist philosophy, and partly in response to various heresies he combated throughout his career as a bishop.

At age 17 he began a faithful 13—year relationship with a concubine of lower social status (Roman law forbade marriage between unequal classes), clearly to satisfy his powerful sexual appetites. In the Confessions Augustine says that while he was sexually active, he felt trapped: “I was bound down by this disease of the flesh. Its deadly pleasures were a chain that I dragged along with me, yet I was afraid to be freed from it.”

As a Manichee, Augustine was taught that all sexual relations, even for procreative purposes, were evil and to be avoided. It was in response to the Manichees’ prayers that Augustine uttered his own famous prayer, “Lord give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

After his conversion, Augustine was influenced by his mentor, Ambrose, whose ascetic theology was heavily laced with the matter—spirit, soul—body dichotomies characteristic of Neo—Platonism and common to Italy at the time. Ambrose taught, for instance, that Eden and intercourse were incompatible, and that only after the Fall did Adam and Eve surrender their angelic bodies and acquire material bodies.

Thus Augustine’s early view of conjugal love.

But Augustine later rejected Manichean Gnosticism as well as the strong Platonism of Ambrose. Not to do so, he thought, would depreciate the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, doctrines that assume the essential goodness of bodily existence.

In his Literal Commentary on Genesis and On the Good of Marriage, Augustine argued that not only did Adam and Eve have material bodies in Eden, but they engaged in intercourse in order to propagate. Also contrary to some assumptions, Augustine denied that intercourse brought about the Fall, though he did teach that original sin is transmitted through intercourse.

Furthermore, Augustine affirmed marriage as the source of three goods: it is (1) a form of human community that makes friendship possible, (2) an appropriate outlet for uncontrollable sexual desires, and (3) a sacrament of inseparable union dissolvable only by death. Because of marriage’s sacramental character, Augustine allowed divorce only for adultery and, so long as the former spouse (or, interestingly, the dismissed concubine) lived, he categorically forbade remarriage as a damnable sin.

Married second-class

Augustine nevertheless viewed sex and marriage as inferior to the celibate life, in contrast to Jovian, a fourth-century monk who taught that marriage and celibacy were equal (and whose views were condemned by Ambrose and Pope Siricius).

In On Holy Virginity, Augustine defends the superiority of sexual abstinence. In On the Good of Marriage, he argues that the world is adequately populated—"there is on all sides from out of all nations an overflowing fullness of spiritual kindred"—thus lessening the urgency of God’s command to “go forth and multiply.” Thus “even they who wish to contract marriage only for the sake of children are to be admonished” to renounce sex in favor of spiritual friendship and the pursuit of God.

His reasoning? Although sexual activity accords with God’s original design for humans, it has suffered due to sin and strayed significantly from its divinely intended use. In Paradise, our bodies were entirely subject to the will’s bidding. As such, Adam could have commanded his body for sexual purposes merely by a rational act, and children, Augustine writes, would have been generated “by a calm act of the will.”

Erotic desires and passions were not part of God’s original plan for our sexual lives, as the Pelagian heretic Julian of Eclanum taught, but a consequence of sin. According to Augustine, sin caused a disjunction between our bodies and wills, mirroring the split between God’s will and our wills—our bodies no longer obey reason and the will but are moved by lust. Our divided selves are readily seen, he thought, in the sexual dysfunctions we suffer: impotence, frigidity, priapism, premature ejaculation, unwanted nocturnal emissions, and unbidden sexual fantasies. As regards sex, ours is like the condition poignantly described by the Apostle Paul: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Though Augustine’s views came to dominate Western Christian thinking about sexual morality, they contrast sharply with aspects of some contemporary Christian thinking about sex.

On the one hand, his teaching that sexual activity ought to occur only within the bounds of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage remains the dominant Christian teaching. On the other hand, he would recoil at the permissive stance taken in some Christian circles toward marriage after divorce. No doubt he would also try to convince Christians to remain unencumbered by marriage.

Finally, he would be appalled at much contemporary Christian marriage instruction that we should excite sexual passion and pleasure in our spouses for the sake of recreational sex. The idea that a godly Christian woman would greet her husband at the door draped only in plastic wrap to arouse his sexual ardor would probably occasion yet another anti-heretical treatise.


Robert L. Holmes

The fall of Rome in 410 was a calamity of staggering proportions to the citizens of the Roman Empire. Civilization itself had been shaken to its foundations.

So it was viewed by Augustine, from his vantage point on the North African coast. But he worried not so much about the empire as about the threat of a backlash to Christianity.

Hadn’t critics warned for years that Christians’ pacifism would weaken the empire? Didn’t this confirm the fears that Christianity was too other—worldly for its followers to be responsible citizens of the state?

Though church and state had worked together for nearly a century (since the conversion of Constantine), Augustine still felt that he needed to establish once and for all that Christians could in conscience assume the full obligations of citizenship, including participation in warfare.

The task was a challenge. Critics seemed to have on their side the teachings of Jesus himself. Though Jesus never talked about war directly, his message of love, humility, and compassion seemed incompatible with violence and killing. And so it was understood by most early Christians.

However, Augustine had already argued (in his attack on the Manichees) that, properly understood, Jesus’ teachings did not in all cases call for literal obedience. Of Jesus’ injunction, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Augustine said, “What is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition. The sacred seat of virtue is the heart.”

To illustrate this priority of inward motive, Augustine asked readers to consider a man hitting a boy and another man caressing a boy. The first case seems bad, but the man might be a father lovingly disciplining his son; the second case seems good, but the man might be a child molester. Thus, Augustine said, “We find a man by charity made fierce; and by iniquity made winningly gentle.”

Because God judges the soul, the ultimate question is not “what the man does . . . but with what mind and will he does it.” The appropriate motive in all cases, Augustine rules, is love. What is done from love of God must be good.

This opens the door for Christians to perform outward acts that might appear to be forbidden by Scripture. Still, there had to be a rationale for stepping through the door, and Augustine gave that rationale in City of God.

There Augustine insists there is no “private right” to kill. One can kill only under the authority of God, as communicated by direct or implicit command from God, or by a legitimate ruler who carries out God’s intent to restrain evil on earth. Augustine further suggests that one who obeys such a command “does not himself ‘kill.”’ He acts only as an instrument of the one who commands.

Augustine concludes, “The commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged wars on the authority of God, or those who have imposed the death—penalty on criminals when representing the authority of the state, the justest and most reasonable source of power.”

When there is no command by God, war may be waged only by those with legitimate authority, and only for a just cause. Augustine was not, however, specific on what causes can be considered just. He has been interpreted narrowly, as saying states may go to war to avert (defensively) or avenge (offensively) a violation of their rights, or broadly, as saying war may be waged to redress any wrong against God’s moral order. Thus Augustine fashioned what is now called the “just war theory,” which over the centuries has become a complex set of criteria to govern both the recourse to war in the first place and the conduct of war once begun.

According to this justification, theologian Paul Ramsey contends in The Just War, Christian participation in warfare “was not actually an exception [to the commandme“You shall not murder"] . . . but instead an expression of the Christian understanding of moral and political responsibility.”

This understanding has, of course, been challenged from many angles. But with the exception of the “peace churches” (Quakers, Brethren, and Mennonites), mainstream Christianity has stayed to the present day essentially on the course set by Augustine.


Jeff Winkle

Over the centuries after his death, Augustine acquired quite a reputation for being a stern suppressor of heretical factions. When Elaine Pagels wrote a historical account of original sin in 1988, she blamed him for pushing “laws denying civil rights to non-Catholic Christians; then the imposition of penalties, fines, eviction from public office; and finally, denial of free discussion . . . and the use of physical coercion.”

Was the bishop really so harsh? While his rhetoric could be venomous, and while he often did support imperial edicts that suppressed dissent, his writings and conduct also reveal an attitude of remarkable tolerance.

Augustine’s war against the Manichees, Donatists, and Pelagians was above all a war of words, for he believed that the ideal battle would be confined to debate in the public square and to the page. An admirer of Plato, he seems to have embraced the Socratic ideal that if people are exposed to the truth, they will eagerly pursue it. As Augustine (a master of word play) might have put it, heretics need not be convicted but convinced.

Augustine’s views on the power of public debate were tied to his views on conversion. He recognized that a faith worth anything must be chosen freely, not result from force or fear. Thus he famously lashed out against the fire-and—brimstone tactics of the Pelagians: “A man who is afraid of sinning because of Hellfire, is afraid, not of sinning, but of burning.”

Early in his career as priest and bishop, Augustine successfully exercised his argumentative skills, honed during his days with the Manichees, for the Catholic cause. In 392 the 38-year-old Augustine challenged Fortunatus, a Manichean priest and former friend, to a debate in a public bath house. After two days Augustine had defeated him so resoundingly that Fortunatus was forced to leave town.

Twelve years later Augustine (by this time a bishop) debated another Manichee, Felix, who then signed a declaration denouncing Mani and was received by Augustine into the church. But when Augustine faced the exhausting challenge of the Donatist schism in the latter part of his career, he was forced to change his tactics. Public debate was useless against opponents who refused to even sit at the same table with Catholics, as this would violate their rules about consorting with “sinners” and compromise their purity. In addition, the Donatists were well aware of Augustine’s skill in argument and prudently stayed out of his way.

Unable to lure them into debate, a frustrated Augustine used other strategies. He began to publish a steady stream of vicious—but nonetheless clever—satirical polemics against his opponents, especially harping on the circumcelliones, a small, violent, nomadic faction of the Donatists. He encouraged his own church community to out—do the schismatics at living pure lives. He also wrote pamphlets showing that Donatist beliefs were contradicted by Scripture.

To help make his arguments against Donatist separatism memorable, he composed a 297—verse chant playing off the parables of the comingled catch of fish and of the wheat and chaff:

See church as net, and world as sea 
Saints, sinners in net mingled be 
We sail on to the end of time 
Then doom is fixed, what’s yours, what’s mine.

In 411 Donatist and Catholic bishops met at conference in Carthage to settle the schism once and for all. Augustine quickly established himself as a peacemaker, assuring one Donatist bishop, “God knows I shall take no steps that anyone be forced into joining with Catholics against his will.” His oratory during the conference was masterful (despite heckling from the Donatists), and throughout he pleaded with the crowd to forget past quarrels and to focus on their similarities.

After three sessions the Imperial Commissioner Marcellinus (a Catholic himself) ruled that the heresy laws applied to the Donatists. Their churches were confiscated, and they were fined for not attending Catholic churches.

Augustine now found himself torn between the joy of victory and his distaste for confession achieved through coercion. Ever the mediator, Augustine sought a middle ground. He developed what Garry Wills calls a “theory of suppression"; that is, he attempted to justify the edict by means of Scripture. This in itself is remarkable, for Augustine lived in an era when ruling powers needed no such justification.

Employing Luke’s parable of the wedding banquet to which outsiders are compelled to come, Augustine argued that some coercion was necessary simply to get heretics into the church. “Let the heretics be drawn from the hedges, be extracted from the thorns,” his Sermons read. “Stuck in the hedges, they do not want to be compelled: ‘We will enter when we want to.’ But that is not the Lord’s command. He said, ‘Compel them to come in.’ Use compulsion outside, so freedom can arise once they are on the inside.”

The battle—weary Augustine became less patient with his opponents as he got older, but he never sought to suppress his enemies without also teaching them. The essence of his stance is illustrated in an episode in 405, following the imperial Edict of Unity, which branded the Donatists as heretics. While several of Augustine’s colleagues rushed to jail and killed their rivals, the bishop of Hippo covered the walls of Donatist churches with posters stating the reasonableness of his arguments. Even after the legal battles were won, Augustine never stopped trying to convince his opponents of what he believed to be the truth.


Robert Louis Wilken

In 410 Rome was occupied by hostile forces for the first time in centuries. Pagans blamed the Christian God for failing to protect the city. Augustine countered these charges in City of God: a book “in which I have taken upon myself the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of that City.”

To frame his argument, the bishop discusses not only Roman religious practices, but also the most sophisticated thinking of its most eminent philosophers: Porphyry and Plotinus, usually called Neo—Platonists.

At the end of the third century, Porphyry had written a book titled Philosophy from Oracles, in which he compiled religious lore from many peoples of the ancient world. Ostensibly he hoped to discover a way of approaching God that was universal, embracing all peoples and times, and not dependent on particular historical events.

Judged on this basis, Christianity (like all other foreign religions Porphyry encountered) failed. How could Christ, he asked, a man who had appeared only late in history, be the universal savior? “What became of the souls of Romans or Latins who were deprived of the grace of Christ which had not yet come until the time of the Caesars?”

Although Porphyry’s writings against Christianity were answered by a number of Christian thinkers in the fourth century, his work was still being read at the end of the century. When Augustine began to write City of God at the beginning of the fifth century, Porphyry’s defense of traditional Roman religion and his critique of Christianity set the agenda for Augustine’s apologetic.

Augustine had great respect for Porphyry and Plotinus. As reported in the Confessions, their books helped Augustine on his journey to Christianity. Their idea of a higher light “on which all depends and to which all look and in which all are and live and think” led Augustine to say that “in spite of your irregular terminology, you Platonists have some kind of an intuition of the goal to which we must strive, however dimly seen through the obscurities of a subtle imagination.”


Bruce L. Shelley

[Sorry, we may not have permission to place this section on the internet]


By Jay Wood

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

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