The lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin reveal the glory and grace of our perfect God in the imperfect lives of his faithful servants.
About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.organd the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God;Don’t Waste Your Life;This Momentary Marriage;A Peculiar Glory;andReading the Bible Supernaturally.
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The Liberating Power of Holy Pleasure in the Life and Thought of St. Augustine
The End of an Empire
On August 26, 410, the unthinkable happened. After nine hundred years of impenetrable security, Rome was sacked by the Gothic army led by Alaric. St. Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate, was in Palestine at the time and wrote, "If Rome can perish, what can be safe?" Rome did not perish immediately. It would be another sixty-six years before the Germans deposed the last Emperor. But the shock waves of the invasion reached the city of Hippo, about 450 miles southwest of Rome on the coast of North Africa, where Augustine was the bishop. He was fifty-five years old and in the prime of his ministry. He would live another twenty years and die on August 28, 430, just as eighty thousand invading Vandals were about to storm the city. In other words, Augustine lived in one of those tumultuous times between the shifting of whole civilizations. He had heard of two other Catholic bishops tortured to death in the Vandal invasion, but when his friends quoted to him the words of Jesus, "Flee to another city," he said, "Let no one dream of holding our ship so cheaply, that the sailors, let alone the Captain, should desert her in time of peril." He had been the bishop of Hippo since 396 and, before that, had been a preaching elder for five years. So he had served the church for almost forty years, and was known throughout the Christian world as a God-besotted, biblical, articulate, persuasive shepherd of his flock and a defender of the faith against the great doctrinal threats of his day, mainly Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism.
Unparalleled and Paradoxical Influence
From this platform in North Africa, and through his remarkable faithfulness in formulating and defending the Christian faith for his generation, Augustine shaped the history of the Christian church. His influence in the Western world is simply staggering. Adolf Harnack said that he was the greatest man the church has possessed between Paul the Apostle and Luther the Reformer. Benjamin Warfield argued that through his writings Augustine "entered both the Church and the world as a revolutionary force, and not merely created an epoch in the history of the Church, but ... determined the course of its history in the West up to the present day." He had "a literary talent ... second to none in the annals of the Church." "The whole development of Western life, in all its phases, was powerfully affected by his teaching." The publishers of Christian History magazine simply say, "After Jesus and Paul, Augustine of Hippo is the most influential figure in the history of Christianity." The most remarkable thing about Augustine's influence is the fact that it flows into radically opposing religious movements. He is cherished as one of the greatest fathers of the Roman Catholic Church, and yet it was Augustine who "gave us the Reformation" — not only because "Luther was an Augustinian monk, or that Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other theologian ... [but because] the Reformation witnessed the ulti-mate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over the legacy of the Pelagian view of man." "Both sides in the controversy [between the Reformers and the (Catholic) counter-reformation] appealed on a huge scale to texts of Augustine."
Henry Chadwick tries to get at the scope of Augustine's influence by pointing out that "Anselm, Aquinas, Petrarch (never with-out a pocket copy of the Confessions), Luther, Bellarmine, Pascal, and Kierkegaard all stand in the shade of his broad oak. Augustine's writings were among the favourite books of Wittgenstein. He was the bête noire ["object of aversion"] of Nietzsche. His psycho-logical analysis anticipated parts of Freud: he first discovered the existence of the 'sub-conscious.'" There are reasons for this extraordinary influence. Agostino Trapè gives an excellent summary of Augustine's powers that make him incomparable in the history of the church:
Augustine was ... a philosopher, theologian, mystic, and poet in one. ... His lofty powers complemented each other and made the man fascinating in a way difficult to resist. He is a philosopher, but not a cold thinker; he is a theologian, but also a master of the spiritual life; he is a mystic, but also a pastor; he is a poet, but also a controversialist. Every reader thus finds something attractive and even overwhelming: depth of metaphysical intuition, rich abundance of theological proofs, synthetic power and energy, psychological depth shown in spiritual ascents, and a wealth of imagination, sensibility, and mystical fervor.
Visiting the Alps without Seeing Them All
Virtually everyone who speaks or writes on Augustine has to dis-claim thoroughness. Benedict Groeschel, who has written a recent introduction to Augustine, visited the Augustinian Heritage Institute adjacent to Villanova University where the books on Augustine comprise a library of their own. Then he was introduced to Augustine's five million words on computer. He speaks for many of us when he says,
I felt like a man beginning to write a guidebook of the Swiss Alps. ... After forty years I can still meditate on one book of the Confessions ... during a weeklong retreat and come back feeling frustrated that there is still so much more gold to mine in those few pages. I, for one, know that I shall never in this life escape from the Augustinian Alps.
But the fact that no one can exhaust the Alps doesn't keep peo-ple from going there, even simple people. If you wonder where to start in your own reading, almost everyone would say to start with the Confessions, the story of Augustine's life up through his conversion and the death of his mother. The other four "great books" are: On Christian Doctrine; the Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope and Love, which, Warfield says, is "Augustine's most serious attempt to systematize his thought"; On the Trinity, which gave the Trinity its definitive formulation; and The City of God, which was Augustine's response to the collapsing of the Empire, and his attempt to show the meaning of history.
The brevity of the tour of these Alps is drastically out of pro-portion to the greatness of the subject and its importance for our day. It is relevant for our ministries — whether vocational minister or layperson — and especially for the advance of the Biblical Reformed faith in our day. The title of this chapter is "Sovereign Joy: The Liberating Power of Holy Pleasure in the Life and Thought of St. Augustine." Another subtitle might have been "The Place of Pleasure in the Exposition and Defense of Evangelicalism." Or another might have been, "The Augustinian Roots of Christian Hedonism."
Augustine's Life in Overview
Augustine was born in Thagaste, near Hippo, in what is now Algeria, on November 13, 354. His father, Patricius, a middle-income farmer, was not a believer. He worked hard to get Augustine the best education in rhetoric that he could, first at Madaura, twenty miles away, from age eleven to fifteen; then, after a year at home, in Carthage from age seventeen to twenty. His father was converted in 370, the year before he died, when Augustine was sixteen. He mentions his father's death only in passing one time in all his vast writings. This is all the more striking when you consider the many pages spent on the grief of loszing friends.
"As I grew to manhood," he wrote, "I was inflamed with desire for a surfeit of hell's pleasures. ... My family made no effort to save me from my fall by marriage. Their only concern was that I should learn how to make a good speech and how to persuade others by my words." In particular, he said that his father "took no trouble at all to see how I was growing in your sight [O God] or whether I was chaste or not. He cared only that I should have a fertile tongue." The profound disappointment in his father's care for him silenced Augustine's tongue concerning his father for the rest of his life.
Before he left for Carthage to study for three years, his mother warned him earnestly "not to commit fornication and above all not to seduce any man's wife." "I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust. ... My real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul. I was not aware of this hunger." "I was willing to steal, and steal I did, although I was not compelled by any lack." "I was at the top of the school of rhetoric. I was pleased with my superior status and swollen with conceit. ... It was my ambition to be a good speaker, for the unhallowed and inane purpose of gratifying human vanity." He took a concubine in Carthage and lived with this same woman for fifteen years and had one son by her, Adeodatus.
He became a traditional schoolmaster teaching rhetoric for the next eleven years of his life — age nineteen to thirty — and then spent the last forty-four years of his life as an unmarried monk and a bishop. Another way to say it would be that he was profligate until he was thirty-one and celibate until he was seventy-five. But his conversion was not as sudden as is often thought.
When he was nineteen, in the "cauldron of Carthage," swollen with conceit and utterly given over to sexual pleasures, he read Cicero's Hortensius, which for the first time arrested him by its content and not its rhetorical form. Hortensius exalted the quest for wisdom and truth above mere physical pleasure.
It altered my outlook on life. It changed my prayers to you, O Lord, and provided me with new hopes and aspirations. All my empty dreams suddenly lost their charm and my heart began to throb with a bewildering passion for the wisdom of eternal truth. I began to climb out of the depths to which I had sunk, in order to return to you. ... My God, how I burned with longing to have wings to carry me back to you, away from all earthly things, although I had no idea what you would do with me! For yours is the wisdom. In Greek the word "philosophy" means "love of wisdom," and it was with this love that the Hortensius inflamed me.
This was nine years before his conversion to Christ, but it was utterly significant in redirecting his reading and thinking more toward truth rather than style, which is not a bad move in any age.
For the next nine years he was enamored by the dualistic teaching called Manichaeism, until he became disillusioned with one of its leaders when he was twenty-eight years old. In his twenty-ninth year he moved from Carthage to Rome to teach, but was so fed up with the behavior of the students that he moved to a teaching post in Milan, Italy, in 384. This was providential in several ways. There he would discover the Platonists, and there he would meet the great bishop Ambrose. He was now thirty years old and still had his son and his concubine — a tragic, forgotten woman whom he never once names in all his writings.
In the early summer of 386, he discovered the writings of Plotinus, a neo-Platonist who had died in 270. This was Augustine's second conversion after the reading of Cicero eleven years earlier. He absorbed the Platonic vision of reality with a thrill. This encounter, Peter Brown says, "did nothing less than shift the center of gravity of Augustine's spiritual life. He was no longer identified with his God [as in Manichaeism]: This God was utterly transcendent."
But he was still in the dark. You can hear the influence of his Platonism in his assessment of those days: "I had my back to the light and my face was turned towards the things which it illumined, so that my eyes, by which I saw the things which stood in the light, were themselves in darkness."
Now came the time for the final move, the move from Platonism to the apostle Paul, through the tremendous impact of Ambrose who was fourteen years older than Augustine. "In Milan I found your devoted servant the bishop Ambrose. ... At that time his gifted tongue never tired of dispensing the richness of your corn, the joy of your oil, and the sober intoxication of your wine. Unknown to me, it was you who led me to him, so that I might knowingly be led by him to you."
Augustine's Platonism was scandalized by the biblical teaching that "the Word was made flesh." But week in and week out he would listen to Ambrose preach. "I was all ears to seize upon his eloquence, I also began to sense the truth of what he said, though only gradually." "I thrilled with love and dread alike. I realized that I was far away from you ... and, far off, I heard your voice saying I am the God who IS. I heard your voice, as we hear voices that speak to our hearts, and at once I had no cause to doubt."
But this experience was not true conversion. "I was astonished that although I now loved you ... I did not persist in enjoyment of my God. Your beauty drew me to you, but soon I was dragged away from you by my own weight and in dismay I plunged again into the things of this world ... as though I had sensed the fragrance of the fare but was not yet able to eat it."
Notice here the emergence of the phrase, "enjoyment of my God." Augustine now conceived of the quest of his life as a quest for a firm and unshakable enjoyment of the true God. This would be utterly determinative in his thinking about everything, especially in his great battles with Pelagianism near the end of his life forty years from this time.
He knew that he was held back now not by anything intellectual, but by sexual lust: "I was still held firm in the bonds of woman's love." Therefore the battle would be determined by the kind of pleasure that triumphed in his life. "I began to search for a means of gaining the strength I needed to enjoy you [notice the battlefront: How shall I find strength to enjoy God more than sex?], but I could not find this means until I embraced the media-tor between God and men, Jesus Christ."
His mother, Monica, who had prayed for him all his life, had come to Milan in the spring of 385 and had begun to arrange a proper marriage for him with a well-to-do Christian family there. This put Augustine into a heart-wrenching crisis and set him up for even deeper sin, even as his conversion was on the horizon. He sent his concubine of fifteen years back to Africa, never to live with her again. "The woman with whom I had been living was torn from my side as an obstacle to my marriage and this was a blow which crushed my heart to bleeding, because I loved her dearly. She went back to Africa, vowing never to give herself to any other man. ... But I was too unhappy and too weak to imitate this example set me by a woman. ... I took another mis-tress, without the sanction of wedlock."
The History-Making Conversion
Then came one of the most important days in church history. "O Lord, my Helper and my Redeemer, I shall now tell and confess to the glory of your name how you released me from the fetters of lust which held me so tightly shackled and from my slavery to the things of this world." This is the heart of his book, the Confessions, and one of the great works of grace in history, and what a battle it was. But listen carefully how it was won. (It's recorded more fully in Book VIII of the Confessions.)
Even this day was more complex than the story often goes, but to go to the heart of the battle, let's focus on the final crisis. It was late August 386. Augustine was almost thirty-two years old. With his best friend Alypius he was talking about the remark-able sacrifice and holiness of Antony, an Egyptian monk. Augustine was stung by his own bestial bondage to lust, when others were free and holy in Christ.
There was a small garden attached to the house where we lodged. ... I now found myself driven by the tumult in my breast to take refuge in this garden, where no one could interrupt that fierce struggle in which I was my own contestant. ... I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity. I was dying a death that would bring me life. ... I was frantic, overcome by violent anger with myself for not accepting your will and entering into your covenant. ... I tore my hair and hammered my forehead with my fists; I locked my fingers and hugged my knees.
But he began to see more clearly that the gain was far greater than the loss, and by a miracle of grace he began to see the beauty of chastity in the presence of Christ.
I was held back by mere trifles. ... They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, "Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, for ever and ever." ... And while I stood trembling at the barrier, on the other side I could see the chaste beauty of Continence in all her serene, unsullied joy, as she modestly beckoned me to cross over and to hesitate no more. She stretched out loving hands to welcome and embrace me.
So now the battle came down to the beauty of Continence and her tenders of love versus the trifles that plucked at his flesh.
I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes. ... In my misery I kept crying, "How long shall I go on saying 'tomorrow, tomorrow'? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?" ... All at once I heard the singsong voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain "Take it and read, take it and read." At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Legacy of Sovereign Joy"
Copyright © 2000 John Piper.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
|Introduction: Savoring the Sovereignty of Grace in the Lives of Flawed Saints||17|
|Chapter 1||Sovereign Joy: The Liberating Power of Holy Pleasure in the Life and Thought of St. Augustine||41|
|Chapter 2||Sacred Study: Martin Luther and the External Word||77|
|Chapter 3||The Divine Majesty of the Word: John Calvin: The Man and His Preaching||115|
|Conclusion: Four Lessons from the Lives of Flawed Saints||143|
|A Note on Resources: Desiring God Ministries||150|
|Index of Scriptures||153|
|Index of Persons||155|
|Index of Subjects||157|