Augustine, Doctor of Grace
by Tom Nettles
For combination of doctrine and piety, Augustine (354–430) has few peers in the history of Christianity. His writings inform every area of discussion in Christian philosophy, systematic theology, philosophy of history, polemics, rhetoric, and devotion. Though some views support doctrines of intercessory prayer and sacrifices for the dead, purgatory, and transformational justification, Augustine’s mighty doctrines of grace and Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice are given accurate and substantial development in the confessions of Reformed theology. After the fall of Rome, the thousand-year project of rebuilding western civilization on Christian rather than pagan thought proceeded on Augustinian concepts. The Reformation of the sixteenth century rediscovered and built upon neglected elements of Augustine’s doctrine of sin and salvation.
Augustine was born in 354 at Tagaste in the Roman Province of Numidia, North Africa. Later observations on infancy and the fall led Augustine to remark, “The innocence of children is in the helplessness of their bodies rather than any quality in their minds” (Confessions, 1.7. Subsequent references to Confessions will be identified only by book and chapter numbers.)
His father, Patricius, was a pagan. Augustine remembered him as a crude, lusty, and irascible man unfaithful to his marriage bed. He worked hard but found it difficult to rise as an African in the Roman system of economy and politics. Augustine seemingly felt little affection for him, though his father sacrificed to give him an education. Patricius died before Augustine was seventeen.
His mother, Monica, was a zealous Christian. Extraordinarily attached to Augustine and his well-being, Monica sought her son’s salvation with relentless energy and constant prayer. She literally jumped for joy on hearing of his conversion and his submission to orthodox Christianity. Soon after, assured that his gifts and devotion burned intensely for God’s glory, she knew that she would not live longer. She died in the fifty-sixth year of her life when Augustine was thirty-three.
Both of his parents, in Augustine’s opinion, gave undue stress to the success of his studies. His father had no spiritual motivation, but only vain ambition for his son’s advancement. His mother believed that his study would not hinder his conversion but actually help. She was right.
After elementary studies at Tagaste, from 365–369 he studied classical literature at Madaura. He began a life-long love of language that searched for proper expression of truth. His earlier studies showed how perversely men could use something as marvelous and intrinsically good as language. Words and eloquence so necessary for persuasion and exposition suffered the abuse of depicting and inculcating error and vileness. Later, in his Confessions, Augustine would observe with what anxious care men observe the rules of letters and syllables while they neglect the eternal rules of everlasting salvation.
With the help of a wealthy benefactor named Romanianus, Augustine went to Carthage in 370 for advanced studies in rhetoric. Here he began a concubinage with one woman that lasted for about thirteen years. A child, Adeodatus (“given by God”), resulted from their union. In thinking of the desire that drove him into this union Augustine recalled, “From the muddy concupiscence of the flesh and the hot imagination of puberty mists steamed up to becloud and darken my heart so that I could not distinguish the white light of love from the fog of lust” (2.2).
For nine years he sought truth within the sect of Manichaeism, fascinated by their materialism and dualism. They addressed the problem of evil by combining thought from Christ, Buddha, and Zoroaster (a Persian sage). Augustine welcomed what seemed a sophisticated and scientific approach to evil’s existence while ostensibly endorsing his childhood training concerning the kingdom teaching of Christ. He discovered eventually that this beguiling syncretistic system had nothing in common with his personal search for unity between word and substance. Instead, the Manichees were “a sect of men talking high-sounding nonsense, carnal and wordy men.” Their talk trapped souls “with an arrangement of the syllables of the names of God the Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ and of the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, our Comforter. These names were always on their lips, but only as sounds and tongue noises” (3.6).
His reflections on Manichaeistic dualism led to one of his most profound theological points concerning evil. In his Soliloquies, written soon after his conversion, he addressed God as one who “to the few that flee for refuge to that which truly is, showest evil to be nothing.” Since God created everything, evil does not have an existence independent of good things. Evil is a privation of good. When all good is gone, nothing exists. Evil is only an absence of good. It is not an independent substance that invades and contaminates, but must borrow from God’s good and diminish its glory. The substances in which evil resides are themselves good. Evil is removed not by eradication of a contrary nature, such as the Manichees would conceive, but by purifying of the thing itself which was thus depraved. Truth and falsehood dwell in the same tension, according to Augustine, for nothing is false except by some imitation of the true.
After completing his studies, he taught rhetoric in Carthage. He found the pedagogical atmosphere intolerable. A group of students known as “over-turners” disrupted all order, acted like madmen committing outrageous and stupid acts. Had they not been protected by “custom” they could have been punished by law.
In order to escape this destructive atmosphere, he went to Rome in 383. Within the year he learned of a teaching post in Milan for rhetoric. The terms were attractive; he applied and went in 384. There he encountered Ambrose, the great preacher of the church in Milan. He did not find Ambrose’s rhetoric as scintillating as that of the Manichaen master, Faustus, but soon learned that the true power of his speech dwelt within the correspondence of his language with true and substantial reality. He became convinced that Christianity was defensible against the Manichees and enrolled as a catechumen, again, in the church. Neo-Platonism further cleansed his mind from the dualism of the Manichees, after a brief flirtation with skepticism. His renewed engagement with Scripture began to fill in the blank places in his intellectual development. The Christian doctrines of creation ex nihilo, providence, and redemption by the triune God more than abundantly satisfied the longing of both head and heart.
He now knew that man made in God’s image could find no resting place for the soul apart from praise, love, and knowledge of God. God alone is the one who is “loved, wittingly or unwittingly, by everything that is capable of loving.” He discovered that God “movest us to delight in praising Thee; for thou hast formed us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee” (1.1).
At age thirty-one, he was converted upon reading Romans 13:13–14. He heard children in a garden chanting, “Take and read.” When he picked up a Bible nearby, his eyes fell on the words of the text thus bringing to an end the cycle of dissatisfaction, conviction, and search that had plagued him for more than fifteen years. He was baptized by Ambrose, April 25, 387.
Augustine desired to live in seclusion, possessing nothing, having forsaken his former search for pleasure, beauty, and honor, giving himself to contemplation of God through Scripture. He studiously avoided being in a position where any church without a bishop might set their sights on him. He went to Hippo in 391 for the purpose of establishing a monastery because the city had a bishop, Valerius. Valerius, however, arranged to ordain Augustine as priest and eventually as bishop in 395.
He spent the rest of his life serving the people of his parish as pastor and serving the entire Christian world as a profound guide to Christian truth and pure worship. His Confessions, a spiritual autobiography, established the theological agenda to which he devoted his massive skills of philosophical and theological reflection. His views of Christ, the Trinity, human sin, the character of evil, the free agency yet innate depravity of the fallen will, the power and necessity of divine grace, the nature of the sacraments, and the direction of human history under divine providence in a fallen world — all these find a beginning point in the Confessions.
His statement, “Give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt” (10.29), offended Pelagius. Augustine’s resultant life-long defense of the necessity of grace led to some of his most profound and controversial theological positions. This aspect of Augustine’s thought inspired noble living and powerful theology in Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and many others. He articulated his view of the person of Christ so clearly and cogently that he anticipated the formula of the orthodox christological views of Chalcedon. His remarkable theodicy unfolded in the City of God revolutionized not only western views of history but created a dynamic for the discussion of church-state relations that still bears fruit and stirs controversy. While his defense of the persecution of the Donatists bore much evil fruit, his powerful views of the unity of the church have given substance to many evangelical efforts to achieve various types of unity through doctrinal discussion and affirmation.
The monk Gottschalk stated 1,200 years ago what is still true today: Augustine is, after the apostles, the teacher of the entire church.