Focusing on Augustine’s personal transformation and dependence on the the Word of God, author Gerald Bray shows us how this ancient theologian can sharpen and encourage Christians today.
About the Author
Gerald Bray (DLitt, University of Paris-Sorbonne) is research professor at Beeson Divinity School and director of research for the Latimer Trust. He is a prolific writer and has authored or edited numerous books, including The Doctrine of God, Biblical Interpretation, God Is Love, and God Has Spoken.
Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He has written over twenty books and is an editor of the Theologians on the Christian Life series. He also hosts the weekly podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.
Justin Taylor (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher at Crossway. He has edited and contributed to several books, including A God-Entranced Vision of All Things and Reclaiming the Center, and he blogs at Between Two Worldshosted by the Gospel Coalition.
Read an Excerpt
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AUGUSTINE
Aurelius Augustinus, the man we call Augustine, was born on November 13, 354, in the small North African town of Thagaste, known today as Souk Ahras (Algeria). Then, as now, it was inhabited by Berbers, tribesmen who were the original inhabitants of North Africa and who have blended in with their various conquerors over the centuries without being totally assimilated by any of them. In the Roman Empire, the Berbers of Thagaste spoke Latin and lived like Romans, but they remained attached to their native soil and to customs that would survive after the empire disappeared. Augustine himself was brought up as a Roman — Latin-speaking and imbued with the culture and values of the imperial city. But he was detached enough from Rome that when it fell to the barbarians in AD 410, he was able to see it for what it was — a passing phase in human history that would vanish just as Nineveh and Babylon had disappeared centuries before.
Augustine was the son of a pagan father called Patricius and a Christian mother by the name of Monica. They were most likely of Berber origin, though there may have been an admixture of Italian stock in their background, and they were certainly Romanized. We do not know how they met and married, but most likely they were betrothed by their families at a young age. Whether Monica was a Christian when that happened we do not know, nor can we say what led her parents (if they were Christians) to give their daughter to a pagan husband. What seems almost certain is that it was not a love match but a social calculation. Patricius was a civil servant, a respectable and well-paid position that made him a man of some importance in a small agricultural village. Monica's family no doubt thought it was a good idea for them to have connections to the government, and they knew that their daughter would be well provided for. They could also hope that in time Patricius would be converted to Christ.
Christianity had been legalized in the Roman Empire in AD 313, not long before Patricius was born, and its influence was steadily growing. There was as yet no requirement that government officials should be Christians, and many were not, but the church was no longer persecuted, and Monica was free to practice her faith. What she could not do was pass it on to her children (and especially not to her male children) because in the ancient world a boy followed the religion of his father. But as Augustine tells us himself, that did not prevent her from bringing him up in a way that made him familiar with Christianity. She took him to church with her and even enrolled him as a "catechumen" (apprentice) in what was the fourth-century equivalent of Sunday school. However, she could not have him baptized without his father's permission, although she almost did when the young Augustine developed a fever and seemed to be close to death. At that point he himself cried out to be baptized.
You saw, my God, because you were already my guardian, with what fervor of mind and with what faith I begged for the baptism of your Christ, my God and Lord, urging it on the devotion of my mother and of the mother of us all, the church. My physical mother ... hastily made arrangements for me to be initiated and washed in the sacraments of salvation. ... But suddenly I recovered. My cleansing was deferred on the assumption that, if I lived, I would be sure to soil myself; and ... my guilt would be greater and more dangerous.
At home Augustine's mother sang hymns to him and prayed over him, leaving an indelible impression on his mind. In later years he would recall his early upbringing and praise his mother for the teaching and example she gave him even when he was too young to appreciate what she was doing.
But strong though his attachment was to his mother, Augustine was a man who was expected to live in a man's world. For the son of Patricius that meant getting a good education and rising in the imperial administration, which was the most secure and prestigious form of employment known to him. Augustine could not get what he needed in Thagaste, so when he was eleven years old he was sent to board in Madaura, a larger town about twenty miles to the south, which was known for its excellent schools. He stayed there for about four years, but had to return home when his father died. Patricius had accepted Christ as his Savior shortly before his death, but although in later years Augustine rejoiced at that, it made little impression on him at the time. There was nothing for him to do back home, and after a year he was sent to Carthage for further education, paid for by a certain Romanianus, who was a wealthy friend of the family.
Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis), was the capital of Roman Africa and the second city in the western half of the empire. It could not compete with Rome or with the great urban centers of the East, like Alexandria and Antioch, but it had a famous history and had long been an important center of Latin culture. The education Augustine got there was as good as any that could be had in the ancient world, and there was no need for him to go elsewhere. He was already well versed in the classics of Latin literature and had mastered the art of rhetoric (public speaking) that was essential for anyone who wanted to make a career in the ancient world. He had also studied Greek, but that language was not spoken in North Africa, and Augustine was not a gifted linguist. For him, Greek remained essentially a textbook language, which was a disadvantage to him as a Christian theologian. He had no trouble establishing himself as a teacher of philosophy and rhetoric at Carthage, but in later years his weakness in Greek would be held against him by men like Jerome (ca. 330–410), who was a brilliant linguist and translated the Bible into Latin, not only from Greek but from Hebrew as well. Augustine could not compete with that and remained dependent on translations of the Scriptures that were often of poor quality, which is surprising considering how central the Bible was to his preaching and teaching ministry.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. On arriving in Carthage, Augustine quickly settled into student life. He spent much of his time at the theater, where he reveled in the romantic lives of the stage characters. He had an exceptional love of music and drama, and his appetite for romance was whetted as well. Before long he acquired a mistress — her name is one of the few things about his life that we do not know — who bore him a son before he was eighteen years old. It is interesting to note that although he was not even formally a Christian at this stage, he called his son Adeodatus ("given by God"), the Latin equivalent of the Greek Theodoros (Theodore). Years later, after his conversion, he sent his mistress away but he kept his son, who was very precious to him.
Not long after this, as he was honing his rhetorical skills by reading Cicero's Hortensius — a work now lost — Augustine was struck by the beauty not only of Cicero's language but also of his ideas, and he fell in love with philosophy. Among the many religious and philosophical groups that competed for attention in Carthage was the sect of the Manichees, named for a Persian prophet called Mani who had lived in the borderlands between the Roman Empire and Persia about 150 years before Augustine's time. Mani was eclectic in his tastes, borrowing a lot from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, various strands of Greek philosophy, and even Christianity. He was the "New Age" guru of his time, and his ideas suited the young Augustine perfectly. They were black-and-white in a way that the more sophisticated philosophies of the Greeks were not. Like Zoroaster, Mani believed that the world was divided into absolute good and absolute evil — two equal powers that did battle for the soul of man. He claimed to be rational, offering an explanation for every problem, but he skated over contradictions and untidy facts that did not fit his scheme of things. For someone who wanted intellectual assurance without taking the trouble to become truly educated, Mani offered the perfect belief system, and there were many who joined the Manichees for that reason.
The Manichees prided themselves on their knowledge of natural science and thought that they could use it to fight the power of evil. Regarding spirit as good and matter as evil, they claimed to have a higher form of knowledge, but at the same time they indulged their fleshly appetites in what Augustine later came to see was hypocritical debauchery. Far from achieving a balanced approach to life, they swung from one extreme to another because they were unable to judge good and evil for what they really were or cling to the former in order to subdue the latter.
Augustine spent nine years in the company of the Manichees but became increasingly disenchanted with them when he realized that their great teacher, a man called Faustus, was unable to answer his most pressing questions. He grew restless in Carthage, having reached the summit of what it had to offer, and began to feel the pull of Rome. Eventually he left for the imperial capital, much against his mother's wishes, and tried to set himself up as a teacher there. Unfortunately for him, nothing seemed to work out as he intended. No sooner had he arrived in Rome than he fell seriously ill, and it was some time before he could establish himself as a teacher. He was mocked for his provincial accent, and although the students he attracted were better than those in Carthage, they suffered from a fatal defect — they were reluctant to pay their fees. Intellectually, Augustine was still moving in Manichaean circles, but he was attracted to the so-called New Academy, a group of skeptical thinkers who questioned everything and claimed that the search for truth was a waste of time because absolute truth did not exist. This appealed to Augustine's disillusionment with the Manichees and helped him to escape from their clutches, but it did not provide much of a substitute. Like skeptics in every age, the New Academics knew what they were against but not what they were for, so they could never provide an honest seeker after truth like Augustine with the peace of mind that he craved.
Before long, Augustine left Rome for Milan, which was then the seat of the Roman emperor in the West and a city of great importance. Augustine arrived there in 384 and soon came across the local bishop. This was Ambrose (ca. 339–397), a former prefect (mayor) of the city who had been chosen by popular acclaim to be its bishop ten years earlier, even though he was still a layman at the time. Ordained deacon, presbyter, and bishop overnight, Ambrose had quickly established himself as the leading moral and spiritual authority in the Latin world. He did not flatter those in power but castigated them — something that nobody had previously had the courage to do. Even the emperors were shamed into doing his bidding, so strong was his personality and sense of mission. Moreover, Ambrose was a master of rhetoric whose command of logic impressed even Augustine. Before long, Augustine found himself going to hear Ambrose preach. For the first time, Augustine came to see that Christianity made sense and had answers to the questions he had put to the Manichees in vain. He was gradually coming round to Christianity, but two things stood in his way: his inability to think of God as a spiritual being who had created a world that was fundamentally good, and his unwillingness to adopt a moral lifestyle.
The first of these problems was largely resolved by Platonism, which Augustine now encountered for the first time though the translations made by Marius Victorinus, a Platonic philosopher who had become a Christian. Platonism went back to Plato, who had lived at Athens in the fourth century BC, but it had been revived in a modified form about a century before Augustine was born by an Alexandrian called Plotinus (ca. 204–270) and his disciple Porphyry (ca. 234–ca. 305). Plotinus is credited with having turned what was essentially an academic philosophy into a kind of religion that would enable those who pursued it not only to understand but also to experience the supreme being. Whether Plotinus was influenced by Christianity has been debated, but in the marketplace of ideas there is no doubt that his Neoplatonism (as we now call it) competed with the gospel for the hearts and minds of men. This is especially clear from the writings of Porphyry, many of which were direct attacks on Christianity. For that reason, they are now almost entirely lost because Christian scribes of later times saw no reason to copy them (and every reason to destroy them); but they circulated freely in Augustine's day and made it easy for intellectuals to look down on the faith taught by Jesus. Augustine was in no mood for that, though, and it seems that what he took from the Neoplatonists was the positive teaching of Plotinus rather than the critical views of Porphyry.
Plotinus solved the problem of evil for Augustine by persuading him that it had no real existence of its own. According to him, every created thing is good in itself because it has been made by the supreme being, which cannot make or do anything that is foreign to its nature. Evil is therefore a defect — the absence or perversion of what is good — not a power or substance in its own right. While absorbing this doctrine, Augustine was also reading John's Gospel, which to Augustine's mind sounded very much like the teaching of Plotinus. The big difference was that John spoke of the nonmaterial Word of God becoming flesh, something that a Platonist could not contemplate. Plotinus also taught Augustine the value of self-examination. Rather than look for answers in the stars or in nature, a man should look into his own soul and test the witness of his conscience. This was to become one of the most significant ways in which Augustine would discover truth as a Christian, and so it is important to understand how it first came into his life.
Augustine was now well on the way to joining the church, but there were still hurdles that he had to surmount. His mother persuaded him to abandon his mistress, but she wanted to find him a suitable wife instead. She managed to identify a ten-year-old, underage girl who was more than twenty years Augustine's junior, and he was understandably unenthusiastic about her. Instead of that, Augustine tried to persuade some of his friends to set up a kind of commune where they could study philosophy in peace, but his mother objected to the idea, and it foundered when the others pulled out because they did not want to abandon their wives or potential wives. Augustine was torn between what he saw as incompatible alternatives: either he could marry and settle down like everyone else, or he could live a solitary life, which he did not want to do. He even took another concubine, impatient with his mother's drawn-out plans for his future marriage, but that was no solution and the arrangement did not last long.
At this point in his life Augustine needed someone to talk to, and he found help from one of Ambrose's assistants, an old man called Simplicianus. Simplicianus listened as Augustine recounted his doubts and fears, and was able to share experiences of his own, including the remarkable conversion of Marius Victorinus, which he had witnessed some years before in Rome. Another powerful influence on him at this time was that of Ponticianus, who was also from North Africa. Ponticianus introduced Augustine to monasticism, which was only then making its appearance in Italy, although it had been flourishing in Egypt for more than a century. Thanks to him, Augustine met people who had given up great careers and positions in the world and sought peace of mind in the simplicity and renunciation associated with the solitary life. What others saw as madness, they thought of as heroic self-sacrifice, and Augustine felt ashamed that he was unwilling to follow them in this.
Filled with a growing sense of his personal inadequacy and realizing how empty his life had so far been, Augustine fell into a state of despair. He was torn between the monastic ideal, on the one hand, and the pleasures of this world, on the other — wanting to embrace the former but finding it too hard to abandon the latter. It was when he was in this condition that he heard a child's voice say: Tolle, lege (Take up and read). Somewhat confused, he reached for a portion of the Scriptures that he had to hand and read: "Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Rom. 13:13–14).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Augustine on the Christian Life"
Copyright © 2015 Gerald Bray.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
Augustine's Latin Titles and Their English Translations,
1 The Life and Times of Augustine,
2 Augustine the Believer,
3 Augustine the Teacher,
4 Augustine the Pastor,
5 Augustine Today,
For Further Reading,
A Note on the Numbering of the Psalms,
What People are Saying About This
“Gerald Bray accomplishes an improbable task with this remarkable book on Augustine’s view of the Christian life. Bray surveys the voluminous and brilliant contributions from the bishop of Hippo and presents them in a readable and understandable manner. In doing so, he provides us with an edifying, informative, and helpful resource for students, historians, theologians, and church leaders alike. It is a joyful privilege to recommend this excellent addition to Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series.”
David S. Dockery, Chancellor, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“Gerald Bray gives us a richly informative and richly edifying introduction to Augustine and his teaching on the Christian life. It will enable those who have read very little of Augustine, as well as those much more familiar with him, to see Augustine as he would have wanted to be seen: a sinner saved by grace seeking to teach faithfully what he found in the Scriptures. Augustine’s specific devotional teaching is placed in the context of his mammoth contribution to Christian theology and Western civilization more generally. The accessibility of this introduction belies the depth of scholarship, which becomes evident in the footnotes and bibliography. Here is a sure-footed guide to the thinking of one of the greatest minds in the history of the Christian church.”
Mark D. Thompson, Principal, Moore Theological College
“Augustine told us that only God can be enjoyed for his own sake; all others must be considered as they relate to God. How fitting that Gerald Bray leads us to consider Augustine not for his own sake, but as a gateway to a vision of the one true God and the life lived more deeply in his triune presence. With a teacher’s wisdom and a scholar’s facility with the primary texts, Bray helps guide readers more deeply into the Christian life through the great bishop’s interaction with a host of challengesreal, cruel threats to Christian faithfulnessranging from the Manichaeans to the Donatists and the Pelagians. Take up and read, and let Bray take you to school.”
Michael Allen, Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando