Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was born on November 13 in Togaste, North Africa, in AD 354.
His father, Patricius was burgess of the town and a pagan, which set young Augustine toward a self-indulgent lifestyle. However his mother, Monica, was a Christian who devoted herself to prayer for both her husband and son. In years to come she saw both come to faith.
From his earliest days Monica instructed her son in the truth of Jesus Christ and initially her efforts appeared effective. When he fell ill he asked to be baptized, but he put the matter off once he recovered. He then threw aside all Christian principles and followed in his father’s sensual values. He had several mistresses, one which bore him a son, Adeodatus, whom he dearly loved.
While his mother prayed for him his ambition for knowledge led him eventually under the influence of Abrose in Milan. But not before he had become keenly devoted to several philosophies and heresies of the day. His demand for intellectual satisfaction saw his sour with each new hope of philosophic resolution. Meanwhile, however, he had gained a reputation as a teacher of rhetoric and was in some demand.
Thus Augustine came to Milan and came under the influence of Ambrose, of whom he said, “I was led to him unknowingly by God, that I might knowingly be led to God by him.” The main text that Ambrose pressed in those days was 2 Corinthians 3:6, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” This deeply impressed Augustine who was still questing for truth that liberated.
The testimony of Victorinus, a fellow teacher of rhetoric who converted to Christianity, shook Augustine. He told God, “I burned to imitate him. .… He appeared to me not so much brave as happy, because he had discovered an opportunity of waiting on You only. For this was what I was longing for, thus bound, not with the irons of another, but my own iron will.”
Augustine had given in to sensual desires and they now ruled him. He every attempt to transcend sin was defeated and he knew he was a slave to the chains of his own immoral choices. Desperate to come to faith he kept being pulled back by the fear of death to self and the total loss of all sensual addictions.
This is how Augustine described his slavery to evil self will. “The enemy held fast my will, and had made of it a chain, and had bound me tight with it. For out of the perverse will was lust made, and lust indulged in became habit, and habit not resisted became necessity. By these links, as it were, joined together (which is why I called it a ‘chain’), a hard bondage held me enthralled .… made strong by long indulgence.”
Unable to break free from his own evil choices Augustine ran into the garden and flung himself to the ground beneath a fig tree and there wept himself through repentance before God. He was then prompted by a voice telling him to “Take up and read” the Bible, which led him to Romans 8:13,14. “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 fulfil the lusts thereof” He adds, “I had neither desire nor need to read farther. As I finished the sentence, as though the light of peace had been poured into my heart, all the shadows of doubt dispersed. Thus hast Thou converted me to Thee, so as no longer to seek either for wife or other hope of the world, standing fast in that rule of faith in which Thou so many years before hadst revealed me to my mother” (Confess., viii. 30).
Following his conversion Augustine sought a life of retirement and solitude. This became the basis for the monastic life which he later prescribed and which grew into the Augustinian order. After three years he went to Hippo to visit a friend and was there pressed by overwhelming popular demand to take the position of presbyter. He took the post and progressed from that to the position of Bishop of Hippo.
In that role he wrote extensively, contending with the popular heresies of the day, including some he had previously been devoted to. His writings and his piety set the course for future development of Christian theology and thought.
Augustine’s impact on church history cannot be estimated. Benjamin Warfield says “he transfigured the Christian faith for those who would follow”.
Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote “without Augustine’s massive intellect Western theology would never have taken the shape in which it is familiar to us”.
His autobiography, Confessions, is regarded as a classic of Christian literature.
Roman Catholics canonised him … and a young Martin Luther belonged to the Augustinian order of monks.
His treatises against the heresies of his day reveal him to be the church’s most able apologist. One statistician claims that Augustine – in his writings – quoted the Old Testament 13,276 times, and the New Testament 29,540 times! (Treasury of Evangelical Writings, by D.O. Fuller, page 51).
But not everybody sings the praises of this famous Bishop of Hippo.
Arminius disputes his teaching on election. Baptists question his paedo-baptist stance, pre-millennialists take issue with his prophetic views, and his emphasis that the church should “compel her erring sons to return to the fold” led to the deaths of thousands when baptism or the sword became a matter of ‘conversion’. His passionate insistence that infants need baptism to protect them from their sins is not a belief that is commonly held today.
At the end of Augustine’s life the Vandals, who had been gradually enclosing the Roman empire, laid siege to the city of Hippo. Being ill, Augustine only pray for his fellow-citizens. He passed away during the progress of the siege, on the 28th of August 430, at the age of seventy-five. Thus he was spared the distress of seeing the city all into enemy hands.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.