Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
There are times in the history of the church of Christ when God has such an important work in the defense and development of the faith for a man that in a special way God determines his life, almost from infancy, to prepare him for that calling. This was the case with Martin Luther, whose deep struggle with the assurance of his salvation was used by God to lead him to the great truth of justification by faith alone. This was also true of Augustine, whose wayward and sinful youth was used by God to prepare him for the development of the truths of sovereign and particular grace. Herman Hoeksema writes:
God had prepared Augustine also spiritually for this battle (against Pelagianism). He had been forcibly drawn out of the forces of sin unto the redemption there is in Christ Jesus. He had tasted that, “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.” It had become a fact of experience to him that only efficacious grace was sufficient to draw the sinner out of darkness into light and the free-will moralism of Pelagius, was an abomination to him because of that experience . . . . We can understand that when . . . the refined but highly superficial Pelagius and his disciple began to make propaganda for a doctrine that was not only clearly in conflict with Scripture but also militated against all that Augustine had experienced o the grace of God, he threw himself into the battle with all his heart.1
Augustine was born on November 13, 354 in Tagaste, a part of North Africa which is known today as Algeria. One wonders what happened in the days of the courtship and marriage of his parents, for his father, Patricius, was an unbeliever whose interest in his son was limited to preparing Augustine for a career which would lead to fame and fortune and his mother, Monica, was a woman of exceptional piety and godliness whose great sorrow in life was her wayward son. So long and bitterly did she weep and pray for her son that he has become known as a “son of tears.”2
Although Augustine attended classes for catechumens, he early fell into the sins of idleness, dissipation, and immorality. When he was only 17 years old, the same year his father died, he took a mistress, and a year later fathered a son, Adeodatus.
All this time he was pursuing his education and proved to be an able student. But, as is so often true, his very ability proved his downfall. He drifted, as a bumblebee looking for nectar, from one heresy to another. First it was the Manichaean error, which taught that there are two eternal and independent principles in the world: Light or the good god, and darkness or the evil god. These two principles are in eternal conflict, with the outcome forever undetermined. Then it was astrology, with its vain and empty superstitions. From astrology he drifted into skepticism, a philosophy which is nothing but an intellectual shrug of the shoulders: it is impossible ever to know what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong.
During this period of immorality and apostasy Augustine began to develop a career. In 376 he taught grammar in his birthplace; a short time later he went to Carthage to teach Rhetoric. In 382 (now 28 years old): he determined to go to Italy, but did not want his mother with him. He left without telling her of his departure or destination, but took with him his mistress and son. He briefly taught Rhetoric in Rome, but then went to Milan and came under the influence of the powerful preacher, Ambrose, godly and courageous bishop of the church in Milan.
Although Augustine went to hear Ambrose preach only in order to learn more of Ambrose’s skills as an orator and rhetorician, he soon came under the power of the gospel. Gradually his errors were stripped away, although he resisted with all his might, especially because of the lusts of his flesh. It was a time of struggle.
Obstinate in seeking truth outside of her only sanctuary, agitated by the stings of his conscience, bound by habit, drawn by fear, subjugated by passion, touched with the beauty of virtue, seduced by the charms of vice, victim of both, never satisfied in his false delights, struggling constantly against the errors of his sect and the mysteries of religion, an unfortunate running from rock to rock to escape shipwreck, he fled from the light which pursues him—such is the picture by which he himself describes his conflicts in his Confessions. 3
It was this fierce struggle which finally brought Augustine to understand with a profound awareness that the grace of God which delivers from sin is sovereign and irresistible, overcoming and defeating all our resistance, accomplishing a work the Author of which is God alone.
Augustine himself tells us the story of his final conversion in his Confessions, and we can do no better than hear him tell it. One day, tom by violent struggles, he fled to a garden to attempt to find calm. While in the garden he heard a voice say, “Take up and read. Take up and read.” Augustine tells us that he picked up “the volume of the Apostle.”
I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell. “Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness . . . . But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof.” I had no wish to red more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of faith flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.
Later, explaining it all, he wrote in a touching confession:
I have loved Thee late, Thou Beauty, so old and so new; I have loved Thee late! And lo! Thou wast within, but I was without, and was seeking Thee there. And into Thy fair creation I plunged myself in my ugliness; for Thou wast with me, and I was not with Thee! Those things kept me away from Thee, which had not been, except they had been in Thee! Thou didst call, and didst cry aloud, and break through my deafness. Thou didst glimmer, Thou didst shine, and didst drive away my blindness. Thou didst breathe, and I drew breath, and breathed in Thee. I tasted Thee, and I hunger and third. Thou didst touch me, and I burn for Thy peace. If I, with all that is within me, may once live in Thee, then shall pain and trouble forsake me; entirely filled with Thee, all shall be life to me.”
After a year of preparation Augustine and his son Adeodatus were baptized by Ambrose. He soon left Milan to return to Africa. His mother, who had followed him to Italy, now set out to travel back with him to Africa, but died at the port on the River Tiber in the arms of her son, with the joy of answered prayer in her heart, and after a profound and moving discussion with him of the glories of heaven.
Augustine journeyed to Africa, revisited Rome, returned again to Africa, and began his work in the cause of Christ. In 389 he was, against his will, ordained presbyter at Hippo Regius by Valerius, its bishop. In 395 he was ordained assistant bishop, and in 396, at the death of Valerius, he was ordained his successor. He spent the rest of his life as pastor of this large flock, as prolific writer, as ardent defender of the faith, as faithful man of God in the service of the truth. He asked, as he lay on his death bed, to have the Penitential Psalms written on the wall so that they might be constantly before him to read at will. He died on August 28, 430 at the age of 75, just a short time before the Vandals (a barbarian tribe from Europe) sacked the city of Hippo and destroyed it.
Augustine produced an enormous amount of work after his conversion,4 most of it of enduring value. Some of his better known works are:Confessions, a book which every child of God ought to read at some time in his life;5 City of God, written to explain the fall of Rome before the barbarian hordes, but including a Christian philosophy of history which is a clear exposition of the antithesis and in which one will find some of Augustine’s teachings on sovereign predestination; a treatise on The Trinity which is the clearest exposition of this doctrine prior to the writings of Calvin;6 Retractions, in which he corrected all his earlier writings and withdrew statements with which he disagreed after coming to maturity of thought; and many writings against the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians.
Augustine did battle with the Manichaeans, a sect to which he had belonged prior to his conversion, and with the Donatists, a schismatic sect which he attempted to woo back into the church.
But his greatest battles were waged against the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians. About these battles we must speak.
It must be remembered that, prior to Augustine, the church had made no advances in the areas of such doctrines as the fall of Adam, the depravity of man, the work of salvation through grace, the doctrine of predestination. In fact, it was generally held in the church that, although the salvation of man was rooted in the cross of Christ, it was dependent upon man’s free will. Almost all the church fathers held to this.7
Pelagius appeared on the scene with his superficial and God-denying teachings in which salvation was entirely rooted in the natural ability of man to do good and to earn his own salvation by good works. The Semi-Pelagianism which followed outright Pelagianism was only an early form of Arminianism and a modification of Pelagianism.8
Against this sort of nonsense, Augustine fought. It is a never ceasing source of amazement to me how clearly Augustine saw the issues and developed the doctrines involved. Not only did Augustine take issue with the errors promoted by Pelagius and the Semi-Pelagians, but he developed the doctrines of sovereign and particular grace. More specifically, he denied any kind of “free offer of the gospel” and “common grace,”9 even calling the so-called good works of the heathen, “splendid vices.” He taught sovereign and double predestination, limited atonement, total depravity, imputed guilt, and salvation by the sovereign work of grace in the hearts of the elect. Single-handedly, he laid the whole foundation for a biblical anthropology and soteriology.
Sad to say, Augustine’s doctrines were never received in the Romish Church. Semi-Pelagianism won the day shortly after Augustine’s death, and a mighty defender of Augustine’s views, Gotteschalk by name, was martyred in the Ninth Century for teaching them. In a way this was inevitable, for the church, even in Augustine’s day, had committed itself to a view at odds with Augustine’s teachings: the meritorious value of good works. To embrace Augustine’s teachings would have involved a repudiation of a doctrine already held dear throughout much of the church.
For this reason, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, true Augustinianism had to await the time of the Reformation for acceptance in the church of Christ. One who has even a cursory knowledge of Calvin’s Institutes will know how often Calvin appeals to Augustine in a conscious effort to point out that he stands in the tradition of the great bishop of Hippo.
And so do we. Students and disciples of Calvin as we are, we know that the truth we love and cherish is a truth which goes back all the way to the Fifth Century and the teachings of the beloved Augustine, bishop of Hippo. And in holding to those teachings of Scripture which were dear to Augustine, we can find his words echoing in our own hearts: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee.”
1. Herman Hoeksema, History of Dogma (Theological school of the Protestant Reformed Churches: 1982) Syllabus.
2. So a well-known biography, now out of print, is entitled, “Son Of My Tears.”
3. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological’ and Ecclesiastical Literature, McClintock and Strong, Vol. I, p. 540.
4. They fill five massive volumes in the first series of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.
5. It is not strictly an autobiography, though it is the story of his early life and conversion; it is rather a confession of sin and a doxology of praise to God Who delivered him. It is cast into the form of a prayer and has as its theme a statement which appears very near the beginning “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee.”
6. It is interesting that the so-called “Athanasian Creed,” which is included in the back of our Psalter, was not written by Athanasius, but by either Augustine himself or those of his school. It is a mature exposition of the doctrine of the trinity and the Person and natures of Christ.
7. In a way this is not surprising because: 1) the church was totally absorbed in the controversies concerning the truth of the trinity and the Person and natures of Christ; 2) the church, consequently, had no time or energy to investigate the doctrines of soteriology and anthropology; 3) the idea of freedom of the will was thought to be necessary to avoid the Manichaean doctrine of sin as necessity; 4) in the wisdom of God, the truth concerning Christ had to be settled first, for the truth of our salvation rests upon the truth concerning Christ and His work of atonement.
8. Our Canons call Arminianism the old error of Pelagianism resurrected out of hell. Cf. Cannons II, B, 3.
9. It must be remembered that these errors were not issues in Augustine’s day, although the Semi-Pelagians taught similar ideas.