Aurelius Augustine was born in AD 354 in the northern African town of Thagaste, located in present-day Algeria. Although they lived a fair distance from Rome, Augustine’s family considered themselves to be decidedly Roman—hence his given name. Augustine’s father Patricius was an unbeliever. He insisted that his son be well-schooled, convinced that this was the way to advancement in society and in life.
Augustine’s mother Monica was truly a God-fearing woman who did all she could to train Augustine in the way of faith and obedience to God. However, for the first thirty-two years of his life, Augustine would have no regard for his mother’s instruction or admonition. He refused the way of godliness in favor of a life of fulfilling his sinful lusts. He despised Christianity, because with his powerful intellect and philosophical arguments he could overwhelm Christians.
Without question, God fashioned Augustine with one of the keenest intellects in all of church history. Yet his family was of modest means and unable to provide a good education for him. In the providence of God, a wealthy man recognized Augustine’s intellectual gifts and offered to finance his further education. Thus it was that at age sixteen Augustine was sent to nearby Madaura to study grammar and rhetoric, and a year later to the larger city of Carthage. Introduced to Cicero, Augustine fell in love with philosophy, especially that of the Romans.
When Augustine was eighteen, his father died. In that same year, Augustine took to living with a girl, whom he called a concubine. (Nowhere is the name of the woman recorded.) They remained together for some fifteen years until Augustine’s conversion. Although they never married, they had one son, Adeodatus.
In 375, at the age of twenty-one, Augustine returned to his home town of Thagaste to teach. He soon became dissatisfied with his position and moved back to Carthage after only a year. Later he moved to Rome in search of another good teaching position.
In his infatuation with philosophy, Augustine had become a devotee of Manichaeism. Manichaeism’s source was Eastern religion and philosophy, with some adaptations based on the Bible. It maintained that material things are inherently evil. In dualistic opposition to evil material, the spiritual is light and good. Manichaeism taught that the spiritual light in man longs to be delivered from the bondage of evil material. Those with a higher knowledge could hope that the spiritual (good) in them would one day be released and reunited with “god”—the spiritual. This philosophy appealed to Augustine, first, because it elevated those with special knowledge, and he considered himself to be such a man. Second, he thought he could blame his corrupt life on the evil material part of him, and assure himself that the spiritual element of him was undefiled by his sins.
Ultimately, however, Manichaeism failed to satisfy Augustine for it could not answer his questions about life and the order of the universe. Yet, Augustine still despised Christianity intellectually and morally, and turned next to Neo-Platonism, a modification of Plato’s philosophy with an emphasis on the unseen spiritual and the eternal. Evidence of his struggles with these anti- Christian philosophies appear in Augustine’s Confessions (see below).
In 383 Augustine moved to Milan (Italy) to accept a position as a professor of rhetoric. There he frequented the worship services led by Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. Augustine’s motive was to observe and learn from the capable preacher. God’s purpose was that Augustine sit under faithful preaching of the gospel.
Augustine’s mother caught up with him in Milan as well. In about 386 or 7, her prayers were answered when God converted Augustine from a life of sin and unbelief to faith in Jesus Christ. Both Augustine and his son Adeodatus were baptized. Not long afterward, Monica died.
The radically changed Augustine returned to North Africa in 389. In a relatively short period of time, Augustine endured two severe blows—the unexpected deaths of his son and of a close friend.
In 391 he moved to Hippo (in North Africa) and started a monastery. He was soon ordained a priest and began preaching. He was actively engaged in defending Christianity against the false claims of Manichaeism. In 395 he was consecrated the Bishop of Hippo. He faithfully fulfilled the duties of his office—especially in preaching and writing—until his death in 430.
This brief biography hardly does justice to the fascinating life of Augustine, nor to the powerful use God made of him. The rest of this issue of the SB will flesh out some of his genius, his theology, and his significance to the church of Jesus Christ. Interested readers are urged to do further reading.
Bonner, Gerald, St. Augustine of Hippo, Life and Controversies. Canterbury Press, 1963.
Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo, a Biography. University of California Press, Los Angeles, CA, 1967.
Hanko, Herman C., Portraits of Faithful Saints. Reformed Free Publishing Association, Grandville, MI, 1999.
His Confessions—a Synopsis of Books 1-10 Books 1-5: Autobiography
The first five books (chapters) of Augustine’s Confessions contain an autobiographical sketch of Augustine’s life from his infancy up to his conversion. It is written in the form of a “confession” to and about God as Augustine looked back on his life. He writes an account of his spiritual pilgrimage which, in these five books, describes primarily his life apart from and departing from God. Thus, in the Confessions, the discerning reader will find many of the significant elements of the Reformed faith set forth—God’s sovereignty, man’s depravity, salvation by God alone, all glory to God, and even the Reformed idea of the covenant as fellowship and friendship with God.
This work is a true confession in both senses in which the Scriptures use the word—a confession of sin and a confession of faith in God. Written by Augustine as a believer, it is characterized by proper humility, awe of God’s greatness, and reverence for the one only true God who has revealed Himself in His Word.
The major theme of the work is expressed in the opening paragraph—“…Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” This idea of rest is oft repeated in these first five books. A main element of resting in God is the desire for fellowship with God. This includes enjoying His love, blessings, and infinite goodness and mercy. Augustine even uses implicitly the figure of marriage to describe his relationship with God. For example, he characterizes his sins as fornication against God (II, 14 & IV, 3). He confesses that he “loved (a friend) as a substitute for (God); and this was a vast myth and a long lie. By its adulterous caress,” he writes, “my mind which had ‘itching ears’ was corrupted” [emphasis mine, RJD].
Augustine’s confession of sin flows out of his desire to “rest in God.” He loves God, and the fact that he has sinned against God obviously grieves him. He knows that sin is a departure from God (II, 7 “…I was travelling farther from Thee”) and sin separates him from experiencing God’s love, making him experience instead God’s punishment (III, 16). He makes confession of sin in order that he might be forgiven and live in the love of God (II, 1). This humble confession is part of his return to God (III, 16): “Return to Thee is along the path of devout humility.” (III, 27): “Thou didst not grant joy and gladness to my hearing, nor did my bones exalt, for they had not been brought to humility.” He desires that God cleanse him from sin: “Look into my heart, my God, look within.… (F)or Thou dost cleanse me from these flawed emotions” (IV, 11).
At the same time, Augustine’s confession of sin is for the glory of God, whom he praises. He writes, “But I shall nevertheless confess to Thee my shame, since it is for Thy praise” (I, 1; IV, 1). And again, “Let my soul praise Thee that it may love Thee, and confess to Thee Thy mercies that it may praise Thee” (V, 1).
Most striking in this work is Augustine’s extreme consciousness of and sensitivity to sin. He recognizes sin as sin, never making light of or giving excuses for any sin. He laments the fact that at one time, holding to the teachings of the Manicheans, he did not see himself as a sinner, and made excuses for his sins (V, 18). He recognizes that sin is more than the deed—it is also in the mind and in the motives (III, 17). He admits that although his life often gained the praise of men, he was walking in sin because he was against God, not seeking Him (III, 17). He confesses that though he may have demonstrated an outward conformity to God’s law, as in honesty, for example, yet even that was sin because “it was not motivated by respect for the purity which (God) enjoin(s)” (IV, 3).
Augustine also confessed the doctrine of original sin by name (V, 16) and description—“…my mutable nature deviated by its own choice and that error is its punishment” (IV, 26). At the same time that he confesses his own sin, Augustine affirms the sovereignty of God, particularly as God led him through his life of sin, finally to bring him to conversion and deliverance from sin.
Books 6-10: Conversion
Book VI follows directly from the previous section. Augustine had come under the preaching of Ambrose in Milan, and was brought to the point where he was discarding the tenants of Manichaeism. Book VI describes his slow development and painstaking movement toward accepting the truths of the Christian Church. Augustine relates some of the struggles and the people who influence him, including his mother Monica, Ambrose, and two of his friends. He confesses the sins that held him back from making a full confession of faith—particularly ambition (honor and money) and fornication.
In Book VII, Augustine describes what effect his encounter with Neo-Platonism had in his gradual conversion. He seems to be quite convinced that this had a positive effect, leading him closer to God. He holds that all truth is God’s truth, convinced that Neo-Platonism has some truth and that it set him on the right path to knowing God. According to Augustine, Neo-Platonism taught him to stop seeking God in the outward, physical creation, and to turn within himself to find God. At the same time, Augustine is careful to show that Neo- Platonism did not, and could not give him the true and complete knowledge of God. He points out many truths about God and salvation that he could learn only from the Bible.
Book VIII recounts Augustine’s conversion. It was a great struggle—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. The last great hurdle was the need to forsake his fornication. Though he knew well that God required it, Augustine had not the will to do so, and did not believe it possible for him to overcome this sin. In the end he was convicted by the command of God in: “Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”
Book IX sets forth the consequences of Augustine’s conversion, particularly his decision to cease teaching rhetoric. The major part of this book is devoted to his mother Monica. Augustine extols the virtues of his God-fearing mother, their closeness after his conversion, and finally her entrance into glory.
In Book X , Augustine discusses the faculty of man’s “memory,” which includes also man’s unconsciousness. He investigates his own memory, particularly for the purpose of understanding how he knows God. This is compared and contrasted with the mind of the unbeliever. A second purpose seems to be to show the abiding sinfulness of the regenerated man, because the old sins are stored away in his memory—unknown to the man—to spring from this dark cavern in his dreams. Augustine is deeply conscious of his sinfulness, even as he writes. He examines and confesses his sins under the threefold “temptations” of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. He attributes to the sanctifying power of God any strength to fight sin and walk in obedience. More than once he asks God, “Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt” (40, 60).
Several elements in books VI-X are quite striking. First, Augustine manifests deep insights into human nature, which he is able to describe well and forcefully. For example, explaining the great hesitancy of the unbeliever to embrace the truth, he writes, “But just as it commonly happens that a person who has experienced a bad physician is afraid of entrusting himself to a good one, so it was with the health of my soul. While it could not be healed except by believing, it was refusing to be healed for fear of believing what was false” (VI, 6).
In all these books, Augustine maintains themes dear to every Reformed believer, namely, God’s sovereignty, man’s great sinfulness, that salvation is all of God, and that to God belongs all the glory. Throughout, this classic work is a confession of his sin, and a confession of God’s greatness. The believing reader finds that the confessions of Augustine resonate in his own soul. So, I urge anyone who has not yet done so—take it up and read it.