We concluded our previous article on a sketch of the life of Augustine with the remark that that Church Father became unwittingly, the founder of the Augustinian order, which gave the reformer, Luther, to the world. We may now continue with this sketch.
Augustine wore the black dress of the Eastern coenobites, with a cowl and a leathern girdle. He lived almost entirely on vegetables, and seasoned the common meal with reading do free conversation, in which it was a rule that the character of an absent person should never be touched. He often preached five days in succession, sometimes twice a day, and set it as the object of his preaching, that all might live with him, and he with all, in Christ. Wherever he went in Africa he was begged to preach the word of salvation. He faithfully administered the external affairs connected with his office, though he found his chief delight in contemplation. He was specially devoted to the poor, and, like Ambrose, upon exigency, caused the church vessels to be melted clown to redeem prisoners. But he refused legacies by which injustice was done to natural heirs, and commended the bishop Aurelius of Carthage for giving back unasked some property which a man had bequeathed to the church, when his wife unexpectedly bore him children.
Augustine’s labors extended far beyond his little diocese. He was the intellectual head of the North African and the entire Western church of his time. He took active interest in all theological and ecclesiastical questions. He was the champion of the orthodox doctrine against Manichaean, Donatist, and Pelagian. In him was concentrated the whole polemic power of the Catholicism of the time against heresy and schism; and in him it won the victory over them.
In his last years he took a critical review of his literary productions, and gave them a thorough sifting in his Retractions. His latest controversial works against the Semi-Pelagians, written in a gentle spirit, date from the same period. He bore the duties of his office alone till his seventy-second year, when his people unanimously elected his friend Heraclius to be his assistant and successor.
The evening of his life was troubled by increasing infirmities of body and by the unspeakable wretchedness which the barbarian Vandals spread over his country in their victorious invasion, destroying cities, villages, and churches, without mercy, and even besieging the fortified city of Hippo. Yet he faithfully persevered in his work. The last ten days of his life he spent in close retirement, in prayers and tears and repeated reading of the penitential Psalms, which he had caused to be written on the wall over his bed, that he might have them always before his eyes. Thus with an act of penance he closed his life. In the midst of the terrors of the siege and the despair of his people he could not suspect what abundant seed he had sown for the future.
In the third month of the siege of Hippo, on the 28th of August, 430, in the seventy-sixth year of his age, in full possession of his faculties, and in the presence of many friends and pupils, he passed gently and happily into that eternity to which he had so long aspired. “O how wonderful,” wrote he in his Meditations, “how beautiful and lovely are the dwellings of Thy house, almighty God! I burn with longing to behold Thy beauty in Thy bridal-chamber . . . . O Jerusalem, holy city of God, dear bride of Christ, my heart loves thee, my soul has already long sighed for thy beauty! . . . . The king of kings Himself is in the midst of thee, and His children are within Thy walls. There are the hymning choirs of angels, the fellowship of heavenly citizens. There is the wedding-feast of all who from this sad earthly pilgrimage have reached thy joys. There is the far-seeing choir of the prophets; there the number of the twelve apostles; there the triumphant army of innumerable martyrs and holy confessors. Full and perfect love there reigns, for God is all in all. They love and praise, they praise and love Him evermore . . . . Blessed, perfectly and forever blessed, shall I too be, if, when my poor body shall be dissolved . . . . I may stand before my Ring and God. and see Him in His glory, as He Himself hath deigned to promise: ‘Father, I will that they also whom Thou hast given Me be with Me where I am; that they may behold My glory which I had with Thee before the world was.'” This aspiration after the heavenly Jerusalem found grand expression in a hymn which sings of the glory and grandeur of Paradise, and which is incorporated in the Meditation of Augustine, and the idea of which originated in part with him, though it was not brought into poetical form till long afterwards by a certain Peter Damiani.
He left no will, for in his voluntary poverty he had no earthly property to dispose of, except his library: this he bequeathed to the church, and it was fortunately preserved from the depredations of the Arian barbarians.
Soon after his death Hippo was taken and destroyed by the Vandals. Africa was lost to the Romans. A few decades later the whole West-Roman empire fell in ruins. The culmination of the African church was the beginning of its decline. But the work of Augustine could not perish. His ideas fell like living seed into the soil of Europe, and produced abundant fruits in nations and countries of which he had never heard.
Augustine, the man with upturned eye, with pen in the left hand, and a burning heart in the right (as he is usually represented) is a philosophical and theological genius of the first order, towering like a pyramid above his age, and looking clown commandingly upon succeeding centuries. He had a mind uncommonly fertile and deep, bold and soaring: and with it, what is better, a heart full of Christian love and humility. He stands of right by the side of the greatest philosophers of antiquity and of modern times. We meet him alike on the broad highways and the narrow footpaths, on the giddy Alpine heights and in the awful depths of speculation wherever philosophical thinkers before him or after him have trod. As a theologian he is the acknowledged leader, at least surpassed by no church father, scholastic, or reformer. With royal munifence he scattered ideas in passing, which have set in mighty motion other lands and later times. He combined the creative power of Tertullian with the churchly spirit of Cyprian, the speculative intellect of the Greek church with the practical tact of the Latin. He was a Christian philosopher and a philosophical theologian to the full. It was his need and his delight to wrestle again and again with the hardest problems of thought, and to comprehend to the utmost the divinely revealed matter of the faith. He always asserted, indeed, the primacy; appealing, with theologians before him, to the well-known passage of Isaiah 7:9. But to him faith itself was an acting of reason, and from faith to knowledge, therefore, there was a necessary transition. He constantly looked below the surface to the hidden motives of actions and to the universal laws of diverse events. The metaphysician and the Christian believer coalesced in him. His meditation passes with the utmost ease into oratory, and his oratory into meditation. With profundity he combined an equal clearness and sharpness of thought. He was an extremely skillful and a successful dialectician, inexhaustible in arguments and in answers to the objections of his adversaries.
He had enriched Latin literature with a greater store of beautiful, original, and pregnant proverbial sayings, than any classic author, or any other teacher of the church.
He had a creative and decisive hand in almost every dogma of the church, completing some, and advancing others. The center of his system is the FREE REDEEMING GRACE OF GO IN CHRIST, OPERATING THROUGH THE ACTUAL HISTORICAL CHURCH. He is evangelical or Pauline in his doctrine of sin and grace, but catholic (that is, old-catholic, not Roman Catholic) in his doctrine of the church. The Pauline element comes forward mainly in the Pelagian controversy, the catholic-churchly in the Donatist; but each is modified by the other.
Dr. Baur incorrectly makes freedom the fundamental idea of the Augustinian system (it much better suits the Pelagian), and founds on this view an ingenious, but only half true, comparison between Augustine and Origen. “There is no church teacher of the ancient period,” says he, “who, in intellect and in grandeur and consistency of view, can more justly be placed by the side of Origen than Augustine; none who, with all the difference in individuality and in mode of thought, so closely resembles him. How far both towered above their times, is most clearly manifest in the very fact that they are alone, of all the theologians of the first six centuries, became the creators of distinct systems, each proceeding from its definite idea, and each completely carried out; and this fact proves also how much the one system has that is analogous to the other. The one system, like the other, is founded upon the idea of freedom; in both there is a specific act, by which the entire development of human life is determined; and in both this is an act which lies far outside of the temporal consciousness of the individual . . . .”
The learning of Augustine was not equal to his genius, nor as extensive as that of Origen and Eusebius, but still considerable for his time and superior to that of any of the Latin fathers, with the single exception of Jerome. He had received in the schools of Madaura and Carthage a good theoretical and rhetorical preparation for the forum, which stood him in good stead also in theology. He was familiar with Latin literature, and was by no means blind to the excellencies of the classics, though he placed them far below the higher beauty of the Holy Scriptures. The Hortensius of Cicero (a lost work) inspired him during his university course with enthusiasm for philosophy and for the knowledge of truth for its own sake; the study of Platonic and Neo-Platonic works (in the Latin version of the rhetorician Victorinus) kindled in him an incredible fire; though in both he missed the holy name of Jesus and the cardinal virtues of love and humility, and found in them only beautiful ideals without power to conform him to them. His City of God, his book on heresies, and other writings, show an extensive knowledge of ancient philosophy, and history, sacred and secular. He refers to the most distinguished persons of Greece and Rome . . . . But his knowledge of Greek literature was mostly derived from Latin translations. With the Greek language, as he himself frankly and modestly confesses, he had, in comparison with Jerome, but a superficial acquaintance. Hebrew he did not understand at all. Hence, with all his extraordinary familiarity with the Latin Bible, he made many mistakes in exposition. He was rather a thinker than a scholar, and depended mainly on his own resources, which were always abundant.
This concludes our sketch on Augustine as quoted from Philip Schaff.