Saint Augustine : Christian Theology – Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity

Cyrus the Great : Asiatic Supremacy
Julius Caesar : Imperialism
Marcus Aurelius : Glory of Rome
Constantine the Great : Christianity Enthroned
Paula : Woman as Friend
Chrysostom : Sacred Eloquence
Saint Ambrose : Episcopal Authority
Saint Augustine : Christian Theology
Theodosius the Great : Latter Days of Rome
Leo the Great : Foundation of the Papacy

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity
John Lord

Topics Covered
Lofty position of Augustine in the Church
Parentage and birth
Education and youthful follies
Influence of the Manicheans on him
Teacher of rhetoric
Visits Rome
Teaches rhetoric at Milan
Influence of Ambrose on him
Conversion; Christian experience
Retreat to Lake Como
Death of Monica his mother
Return to Africa
Made Bishop of Hippo; his influence as Bishop
His greatness as a theologian; his vast studies
Contest with Manicheans,–their character and teachings
Controversy with the Donatists,–their peculiarities
Tracts: Unity of the Church and Religious Toleration
Contest with the Pelagians: Pelagius and Celestius
Principles of Pelagianism
Doctrines of Augustine: Grace; Predestination; Sovereignty of God; Servitude of the Will
Results of the Pelagian controversy
Other writings of Augustine: “The City of God;” Soliloquies; Sermons
Death and character
Eulogists of Augustine
His posthumous influence

Saint Augustine : Christian Theology

A.D. 354-430.

The most intellectual of all the Fathers of the Church was doubtless Saint Augustine. He is the great oracle of the Latin Church. He directed the thinking of the Christian world for a thousand years. He was not perhaps so learned as Origen, nor so critical as Jerome; but he was broader, profounder, and more original than they, or any other of the great lights who shed the radiance of genius on the crumbling fabric of the ancient civilization. He is the sainted doctor of the Church, equally an authority with both Catholics and Protestants. His penetrating genius, his comprehensive views of all systems of ancient thought, and his marvellous powers as a systematizer of Christian doctrines place him among the immortal benefactors of mankind; while his humanity, his breadth, his charity, and his piety have endeared him to the heart of the Christian world.

Let me present, as well as I can, his history, his services, and his personal character, all of which form no small part of the inheritance bequeathed to us by the giants of the fourth and fifth centuries,–that which we call the Patristic literature,–the only literature worthy of preservation in the declining days of the old Roman world.

Augustine was born at Tagaste, or Tagastum, near Carthage, in the Numidian province of the Roman Empire, in the year 354,–a province rich, cultivated, luxurious, where the people (at least the educated classes) spoke the Latin language, and had adopted the Roman laws and institutions. They were not black, like negroes, though probably swarthy, being descended from Tyrians and Greeks, as well as Numidians. They were as civilized as the Spaniards or the Gauls or the Syrians. Carthage then rivalled Alexandria, which was a Grecian city. If Augustine was not as white as Ptolemy or Cleopatra, he was probably no darker than Athanasius.

Unlike most of the great Fathers, his parentage was humble. He owed nothing to the circumstances of wealth and rank. His father was a heathen, and lived, as Augustine tells us, in “heathenish sin.” But his mother was a woman of remarkable piety and strength of mind, who devoted herself to the education of her son. Augustine never alludes to her except with veneration; and his history adds additional confirmation to the fact that nearly all the remarkable men of our world have had remarkable mothers. No woman is dearer to the Church than Monica, the sainted mother of Augustine, and chiefly in view of her intense solicitude for his spiritual interests, and her extraordinary faith in his future conversion, in spite of his youthful follies and excesses,–encouraged by that good bishop who told her “that it was impossible that the child of so many prayers could be lost.”

Augustine, in his “Confessions,”–that remarkable book which has lasted fifteen hundred years, and is still prized for its intensity, its candor, and its profound acquaintance with the human heart, as well as evangelical truth; not an egotistical parade of morbid sentimentalities, like the “Confessions” of Rousseau, but a mirror of Christian experience,–tells us that until he was sixteen he was obstinate, lazy, neglectful of his studies, indifferent to reproach, and abandoned to heathenish sports. He even committed petty thefts, was quarrelsome, and indulged in demoralizing pleasures. At nineteen he was sent to Carthage to be educated, where he went still further astray; was a follower of stage-players (then all but infamous), and gave himself up to unholy loves. But his intellect was inquiring, his nature genial, and his habits as studious as could be reconciled with a life of pleasure,–a sort of Alcibiades, without his wealth and rank, willing to listen to any Socrates who would stimulate his mind. With all his excesses and vanities, he was not frivolous, and seemed at an early age to be a sincere inquirer after truth. The first work which had a marked effect on him was the “Hortensius” of Cicero,–a lost book, which contained an eloquent exhortation to philosophy, or the love of wisdom. From that he turned to the Holy Scriptures, but they seemed to him then very poor, compared with the stateliness of Tully, nor could his sharp wit penetrate their meaning. Those who seemed to have the greatest influence over him were the Manicheans,–a transcendental, oracular, indefinite, illogical, pretentious set of philosophers, who claimed superior wisdom, and were not unlike (at least in spirit) those modern savans in the Christian commonwealth, who make a mockery of what is most sacred in Christianity while themselves propounding the most absurd theories.

The Manicheans claimed to be a Christian sect, but were Oriental in their origin and Pagan in their ideas. They derived their doctrines from Manes, or Mani, who flourished in Persia in the second half of the third century, and who engrafted some Christian doctrines on his system, which was essentially the dualism of Zoroaster and the pantheism of Buddha. He assumed two original substances,–God and Hyle, light and darkness, good and evil,–which were opposed to each other. Matter, which is neither good nor evil, was regarded as bad in itself, and identified with darkness, the prince of which overthrew the primitive man. Among the descendants of the fallen man light and darkness have struggled for supremacy, but matter, or darkness, conquered; and Christ, who was confounded with the sun, came to break the dominion. But the light of his essential being could not unite with darkness; therefore he was not born of a woman, nor did he die to rise again. Christ had thus no personal existence. As the body, being matter, was thought to be essentially evil, it was the aim of the Manicheans to set the soul free from matter; hence abstinence, and the various forms of asceticism which early entered into the pietism of the Oriental monks. That which gave the Manicheans a hold on the mind of Augustine, seeking after truth, was their arrogant claim to the solution of mysteries, especially the origin of evil, and their affectation of superior knowledge. Their watchwords were Reason, Science, Philosophy. Moreover, like the Sophists in the time of Socrates, they were assuming, specious, and rhetorical. Augustine–ardent, imaginative, credulous–was attracted by them, and he enrolled himself in their esoteric circle.

The coarser forms of sin he now abandoned, only to resign himself to the emptiness of dreamy speculations and the praises of admirers. He won prizes and laurels in the schools. For nine years he was much flattered for his philosophical attainments. I can almost see this enthusiastic youth scandalizing and shocking his mother and her friends by his bold advocacy of doctrines at war with the gospel, but which he supposed to be very philosophical. Pert and bright young men in these times often talk as he did, but do not know enough to see their own shallowness.

“Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

The mind of Augustine, however, was logical, and naturally profound; and at last he became dissatisfied with the nonsense with which plausible pretenders ensnared him. He was then what we should call a schoolmaster, or what some would call a professor, and taught rhetoric for his support, which was a lucrative and honorable calling. He became a master of words. From words he ascended to definitions, and like all true inquirers began to love the definite, the precise. He wanted a basis to stand upon. He sought certitudes,–elemental truths which sophistry could not cover up. Then the Manicheans could no longer satisfy him. He had doubts, difficulties, which no Manichean could explain, not even Dr. Faustus of Mileve, the great oracle and leader of the sect,–a subtle dialectician and brilliant orator, but without depth or earnestness,–whom he compares to a cup-bearer presenting a costly goblet, but without anything in it. And when it became clear that this high-priest of pretended wisdom was ignorant of the things in which he was supposed to excel, but which Augustine himself had already learned, his disappointment was so great that he lost faith both in the teacher and his doctrines. Thus this Faustus, “neither willing nor witting it,” was the very man who loosened the net which had ensnared Augustine for so many years.

He was now thirty years of age, and had taught rhetoric in Carthage, the capital of Northern Africa, with brilliant success, for three years; but panting for new honors or for new truth, he removed to Rome, to pursue both his profession and his philosophical studies. He entered the capital of the world in the height of its material glories, but in the decline of its political importance, when Damasus occupied the episcopal throne, and Saint Jerome was explaining the Scriptures to the high-born ladies of Mount Aventine, who grouped around him,–women like Paula, Fabiola, and Marcella. Augustine knew none of these illustrious people. He lodged with a Manichean, and still frequented the meetings of the sect; convinced, indeed, that the truth was not with them, but despairing to find it elsewhere. In this state of mind he was drawn to the doctrines of the New Academy,–or, as Augustine in his “Confessions” calls them, the Academics,–whose representatives, Arcesilaus and Carneades, also made great pretensions, but denied the possibility of arriving at absolute truth,–aiming only at probability. However lofty the speculations of these philosophers, they were sceptical in their tendency. They furnished no anchor for such an earnest thinker as Augustine. They gave him no consolation. Yet his dislike of Christianity remained.

Moreover, he was disappointed with Rome. He did not find there the great men he sought, or if great men were there he could not get access to them. He found himself in a moral desert, without friends and congenial companions. He found everybody so immersed in pleasure, or gain, or frivolity, that they had no time or inclination for the quest for truth, except in those circles he despised. “Truth,” they cynically said, “what is truth? Will truth enable us to make eligible matches with rich women? Will it give us luxurious banquets, or build palaces, or procure chariots of silver, or robes of silk, or oysters of the Lucrine lake, or Falernian wines? Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” Inasmuch as the arts of rhetoric enabled men to rise at the bar or shine in fashionable circles, he had plenty of scholars; but they left his lecture-room when required to pay. At Carthage his pupils were boisterous and turbulent; at Rome they were tricky and mean. The professor was not only disappointed,–he was disgusted. He found neither truth nor money. Still, he was not wholly unknown or unsuccessful. His great abilities were seen and admired; so that when the people of Milan sent to Symmachus, the prefect of the city, to procure for them an able teacher of rhetoric, he sent Augustine,–a providential thing, since in the second capital of Italy he heard the great Ambrose preach; he found one Christian whom he respected, whom he admired,–and him he sought. And Ambrose found time to show him an episcopal kindness. At first Augustine listened as a critic, trying the eloquence of Ambrose, whether it answered the fame thereof, or flowed fuller or lower than was reported; “but of the matter I was,” says Augustine, “a scornful and careless looker-on, being delighted with the sweetness of his discourse. Yet I was, though by little and little, gradually drawing nearer and nearer to truth; for though I took no pains to learn what he spoke, only to hear how he spoke, yet, together with the words which I would choose, came into my mind the things I would refuse; and while I opened my heart to admire how eloquently he spoke, I also felt how truly he spoke. And so by degrees I resolved to abandon forever the Manicheans, whose falsehoods I detested, and determined to be a catechumen of the Catholic Church.”

St. Augustine and His Mother. After the painting by Ary Scheffer

St. Augustine and His Mother. After the painting by Ary Scheffer

This was the great crisis of his life. He had renounced a false philosophy; he sought truth from a Christian bishop; he put himself under Christian influences. Fortunately at this time his mother Monica, to whom he had lied and from whom he had run away, joined him; also his son Adeodatus,–the son of the woman with whom he had lived in illicit intercourse for fifteen years. But his conversion was not accomplished. He purposed marriage, sent away his concubine to Africa, and yet fell again into the mazes of another unlawful and entangling love. It was not easy to overcome the loose habits of his life. Sensuality ever robs a man of the power of will. He had a double nature,–a strong sensual body, with a lofty and inquiring soul. And awful were his conflicts, not with an unfettered imagination, like Jerome in the wilderness, but with positive sin. The evil that he would not, that he did, followed with remorse and shame; still a slave to his senses, and perhaps to his imagination, for though he had broken away from the materialism of the Manicheans, he had not abandoned philosophy. He read the books of Plato, which had a good effect, since he saw, what he had not seen before, that true realities are purely intellectual, and that God, who occupies the summit of the world of intelligence, is a pure spirit, inaccessible to the senses; so that Platonism to him, in an important sense, was the vestibule of Christianity. Platonism, the loftiest development of pagan thought, however, did not emancipate him. He comprehended the Logos of the Athenian sage; but he did not comprehend the Word made flesh, the Word attached to the Cross. The mystery of the Incarnation offended his pride of reason.

At length light beamed in upon him from another source, whose simplicity he had despised. He read Saint Paul. No longer did the apostle’s style seem barbarous, as it did to Cardinal Bembo,–it was a fountain of life. He was taught two things he had not read in the books of the Platonists,–the lost state of man, and the need of divine grace. The Incarnation appeared in a new light. Jesus Christ was revealed to him as the restorer of fallen humanity.

He was now “rationally convinced.” He accepted the theology of Saint Paul; but he could not break away from his sins. And yet the awful truths he accepted filled him with anguish, and produced dreadful conflicts. The law of his members warred against the law of his mind. In agonies he cried, “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” He shunned all intercourse. He withdrew to his garden, reclined under a fig-tree, and gave vent to bitter tears. He wrestled with the angel, and his deliverance was at hand. It was under the fig-tree of his garden that he fancied he heard a voice of boy or girl, he could not tell, chanting and often repeating, “Take up and read; take up and read.” He opened the Scriptures, and his eye alighted not on the text which had converted Antony the monk, “Go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven,” but on this: “Let us walk honestly, as in the day, not in rioting, drunkenness, and wantonness, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and not make provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” That text decided him, and broke his fetters. His conversion was accomplished. He poured forth his soul in thanksgiving and praise.

He was now in the thirty-second year of his age, and resolved to renounce his profession,–or, to use his language, “to withdraw from the marts of lip-labor and the selling of words,”–and enter the service of the new master who had called him to prepare himself for a higher vocation. He retired to a country house, near Milan, which belonged to his friend Veracundus, and he was accompanied in his retreat by his mother, his brother Navigius, his son Adeodatus, Alypius his confidant, Trigentius and Licentius his scholars, and his cousins Lastidianus and Rusticus. I should like to describe those blissful and enchanting days, when without asceticism and without fanaticism, surrounded with admiring friends and relatives, he discoursed on the highest truths which can elevate the human mind. Amid the rich olive-groves and dark waving chesnuts which skirted the loveliest of Italian lakes, in sight of both Alps and Apennines, did this great master of Christian philosophy prepare himself for his future labors, and forge the weapons with which he overthrew the high-priests who assailed the integrity of the Christian faith. The hand of opulent friendship supplied his wants, as Paula ministered to Jerome in Bethlehem. Often were discussions with his pupils and friends prolonged into the night and continued until the morning. Plato and Saint Paul reappeared in the gardens of Como. Thus three more glorious years were passed in study, in retirement, and in profitable discourse, without scandal and without vanity. The proud philosopher was changed into a humble Christian, thirsting for a living union with God. The Psalms of David, next to the Epistles of Saint Paul, were his favorite study,–that pure and lofty poetry “which strips away the curtains of the skies, and approaches boldly but meekly into the presence of Him who dwells in boundless and inaccessible majesty.” In the year 387, at the age of thirty-three, he received the rite of baptism from the great archbishop who was so instrumental in his conversion, and was admitted into the ranks of the visible Church, and prepared to return to Africa. But before he could embark, his beloved mother died at Ostia, feeling, with Simeon, that she could now depart in peace, having seen the salvation of the Lord,–but to the immoderate grief of Augustine who made no effort to dry his tears. It was not till the following year that he sailed for Carthage, not long tarrying there, but retiring to Tagaste, to his paternal estate, where he spent three years more in study and meditation, giving away all he possessed to religion and charity, living with his friends in a complete community of goods. It was there that some of his best works were composed. In the year 391, on a visit to Hippo, a Numidian seaport, he was forced into more active duties. Entering the church, the people clamored for his ordination; and such was his power as a pulpit orator, and so universally was he revered, that in two years after he became coadjutor bishop, and his great career began.

As a bishop he won universal admiration. Councils could do nothing without his presence. Emperors condescended to sue for his advice. He wrote letters to all parts of Christendom. He was alike saint, oracle, prelate, and preacher. He labored day and night, living simply, but without monkish austerity. At table, reading and literary conferences were preferred to secular conversation. His person was accessible. He interested himself in everybody’s troubles, and visited the forlorn and miserable. He was indefatigable in reclaiming those who had strayed from the fold. He won every heart by charity, and captivated every mind with his eloquence; so that Hippo, a little African town, was no longer “least among the cities of Judah,” since her prelate was consulted from the extremities of the earth, and his influence went forth throughout the crumbling Empire, to heal division and establish the faith of the wavering,–a Father of the Church universal.

Yet it is not as bishop, but as doctor, that he is immortal. It was his mission to head off the dissensions and heresies of his age, and to establish the faith of Paul even among the Germanic barbarians. He is the great theologian of the Church, and his system of divinity not only was the creed of the Middle Ages, but is still an authority in the schools, both Catholic and Protestant.

Let us, then, turn to his services as theologian and philosopher. He wrote over a thousand treatises, and on almost every subject that has interested the human mind; but his labors were chiefly confined to the prevailing and more subtle and dangerous errors of his day. Nor was it by dry dialectics that he refuted these heresies, although the most logical and acute of men, but by his profound insight into the cardinal principles of Christianity, which he discoursed upon with the most extraordinary affluence of thought and language, disdaining all sophistries and speculations. He went to the very core,–a realist of the most exalted type, permeated with the spirit of Plato, yet bowing down to Paul.

We first find him combating the opinions which had originally enthralled him, and which he understood better than any theologian who ever lived.

But I need not repeat what I have already said of the Manicheans,–those arrogant and shallow philosophers who made such high pretension to superior wisdom; men who adored the divinity of mind, and the inherent evil of matter; men who sought to emancipate the soul, which in their view needed no regeneration from all the influences of the body. That this soul, purified by asceticism, might be reunited to the great spirit of the universe from which it had originally emanated, was the hopeless aim and dream of these theosophists,–not the control of passions and appetites, which God commands, but their eradication; not the worship of a Creator who made the heaven and the earth, but a vague worship of the creation itself. They little dreamed that it is not the body (neither good nor evil in itself) which is sinful, but the perverted mind and soul, the wicked imagination of the heart, out of which proceeds that which defileth a man, and which can only be controlled and purified by Divine assistance. Augustine showed that purity was an inward virtue, not the crucifixion of the body; that its passions and appetites are made to be subservient to reason and duty; that the law of temperance is self-restraint; that the soul was not an emanation or evolution from eternal light, but a distinct creation of Almighty God, which He has the power to destroy, as well as the body itself; that nothing in the universe can live without His pleasure; that His intervention is a logical sequence of His moral government. But his most withering denunciation of the Manicheans was directed against their pride of reason, against their darkened understanding, which led them not only to believe a lie, but to glory in it,–the utter perverseness of the mind when in rebellion to divine authority, in view of which it is almost vain to argue, since truth will neither be admitted nor accepted.

There was another class of Christians who provoked the controversial genius of Augustine, and these were the Donatists. These men were not heretics, but bigots. They made the rite of baptism to depend on the character of the officiating priest; and hence they insisted on rebaptism, if the priest who had baptized proved unworthy. They seemed to forget that no clergyman ever baptized from his own authority or worthiness, but only in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Nobody knows who baptized Paul, and he felt under certain circumstances even that he was sent not to baptize, but to preach the gospel. Lay baptism has always been held valid. Hence, such reformers as Calvin and Knox did not deem it necessary to rebaptize those who had been converted from the Roman Catholic faith; and, if I do not mistake, even Roman Catholics do not insist on rebaptizing Protestants. But the Donatists so magnified, not the rite, but the form of it, that they lost the spirit of it, and became seceders, and created a mournful division in the Church,–a schism which gave rise to bitter animosities. The churches of Africa were rent by their implacable feuds, and on so small a matter,–even as the ranks of the reformers under Luther were so soon divided by the Anabaptists. In proportion to the unimportance of the shibboleth was tenacity to it,–a mark which has ever characterized narrow and illiberal minds. It is not because a man accepts a shibboleth that he is narrow and small, but because he fights for it. As a minute critic would cast out from the fraternity of scholars him who cannot tell the difference between ac and et, so the Donatist would expel from the true fold of Christ those who accepted baptism from an unworthy priest. Augustine at first showed great moderation and patience and gentleness in dealing with these narrow-minded and fierce sectarians, who carried their animosity so far as to forbid bread to be baked for the use of the Catholics in Carthage, when they had the ascendency; but at last he became indignant, and implored the aid of secular magistrates.

Augustine’s controversy with the Donatists led to two remarkable tracts,–one on the evil of suppressing heresy by the sword, and the other on the unity of the Church.

In the first he showed a spirit of toleration beyond his age; and this is more remarkable because his temper was naturally ardent and fiery. But he protested in his writings, and before councils, against violence in forcing religious convictions, and advocated a liberality worthy of John Locke.

In the second tract he advocated a principle which had a prodigious influence on the minds of his generation, and greatly contributed to establish the polity of the Roman Catholic Church. He argued the necessity of unity in government as well as unity in faith, like Cyprian before him; and this has endeared him to the Roman Catholic Church, I apprehend, even more than his glorious defence of the Pauline theology. There are some who think that all governments arise out of the circumstances and the necessities of the times, and that there are no rules laid down in the Bible for any particular form or polity, since a government which may be adapted to one age or people may not be fitted for another;–even as a monarchy would not succeed in New England any more than a democracy in China. But the most powerful sects among Protestants, as well as among the Catholics themselves, insist on the divine authority for their several forms of government, and all would have insisted, at different periods, on producing conformity with their notions. The high-church Episcopalian and the high-church Presbyterian equally insist on the divine authority for their respective institutions. The Catholics simply do the same, when they make Saint Peter the rock on which the supremacy of their Church is based. In the time of Augustine there was only one form of the visible Church,–there were no Protestants; and he naturally wished, like any bishop, to strengthen and establish its unity,–a government of bishops, of which the bishop of Rome was the acknowledged head. But he did not anticipate–and I believe he would not have indorsed–their future encroachments and their ambitious schemes for enthralling the mind of the world, to say nothing of personal aggrandizement and the usurpation of temporal authority. And yet the central power they established on the banks of the Tiber was, with all its corruptions, fitted to conserve the interests of Christendom in rude ages of barbarism and ignorance; and possibly Augustine, with his profound intuitions, and in view of the approaching desolations of the Christian world, wished to give to the clergy and to their head all the moral power and prestige possible, to awe and control the barbaric chieftains, for in his day the Empire was crumbling to pieces, and the old civilization was being trampled under foot. If there was a man in the whole Empire capable of taking comprehensive views of the necessities of society, that man was the Bishop of Hippo; so that if we do not agree with his views of church government, let us bear in mind the age in which he lived, and its peculiar dangers and necessities. And let us also remember that his idea of the unity of the Church has a spiritual as well as a temporal meaning, and in that sublime and lofty sense can never be controverted so long as One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism remain the common creed of Christians in all parts of the world. It was to preserve this unity that he entered so zealously into all the great controversies of the age, and fought heretics as well as schismatics.

The great work which pre-eminently called out his genius, and for which he would seem to have been raised up, was to combat the Pelagian heresy, and establish the doctrine of the necessity of Divine Grace,–even as it was the mission of Athanasius to defend the doctrine of the Trinity, and that of Luther to establish Justification by Faith. In all ages there are certain heresies, or errors, which have spread so dangerously, and been embraced so generally by the leading and fashionable classes, that they seem to require some extraordinary genius to arise in order to combat them successfully, and rescue the Church from the snares of a false philosophy. Thus Bernard was raised up to refute the rationalism and nominalism of Abélard, whose brilliant and subtile inquiries had a tendency to extinguish faith in the world, and bring all mysteries to the test of reason. The enthusiastic and inquiring young men who flocked to his lectures from all parts of Europe carried back to their homes and convents and schools insidious errors, all the more dangerous because they were mixed with truths which were universally recognized. It required such a man as Bernard to expose these sophistries and destroy their power, not so much by dialectical weapons as by appealing to those lofty truths, those profound convictions, those essential and immutable principles which consciousness reveals and divine authority confirms. It took a greater than Abélard to show the tendency of his speculations, from the logical sequence of which even he himself would have fled, and which he did reject when misfortunes had broken his heart, and disease had brought him to face the realities of the future life. So God raised up Pascal to expose the sophistries of the Jesuits and unravel that subtle casuistry which was undermining the morality of the age, and destroying the authority of Saint Augustine on some of the most vital principles which entered into the creed of the Catholic Church. Thus Jonathan Edwards, the ablest theologian which this country has seen, controverted the fashionable Arminianism of his day. Thus some great intellectual giant will certainly and in due time appear to demolish with scathing irony the theories and speculations of some of the progressive schools of our day, and present their absurdities and boastings and pretensions in such a ridiculous light that no man with any intellectual dignity will dare to belong to their fraternity, unless he impiously accepts–sometimes with ribald mockeries–the logical sequence of their doctrines.

Now it was not the Manicheans or Donatists who were the most dangerous people in the time of Augustine,–nor were their doctrines likely to be embraced by the Christian schools, especially in the West; but it was the Pelagians who in high places were assailing the Pauline theology. And they advocated principles which lay at the root of most of the subsequent controversies of the Church. They were intellectual men, generally good men, who could not be put down, and who would thrive under any opposition. Augustine did not attack the character of these men, but rendered a great service to the Church by pointing out, clearly and luminously, the antichristian character of their theories, when rigorously pushed out, by a remorseless logic, to their necessary sequence.

Whatever value may be attached to that science which is based on deductions drawn from the truths of revelation, certain it is that it was theology which most interested Christians in the time of Augustine, as in the time of Athanasius; and his controversy with the Pelagians made then a mighty stir, and is at the root of half the theological discussions from that age to ours. If we would understand the changes of human thought in the Middle Ages, if we would seek to know what is most vital in Church history, that celebrated Pelagian controversy claims our special attention.

It was at a great crisis in the Church when a British monk of extraordinary talents, persuasive eloquence, and great attainments,–a man accustomed to the use of dialectical weapons and experienced by extensive travels, ambitious, ardent, plausible, adroit,–appeared among the churches and advanced a new philosophy. His name was Pelagius; and he was accompanied by a man of still greater logical power than he himself possessed, though not so eloquent or accomplished or pleasing in manner, who was called Celestius,–two doctors of whom the schools were justly proud, and who were admired and honored by enthusiastic young men, as Abélard was in after-times.

Nothing disagreeable marked these apostles of the new philosophy, nor could the malignant voice of theological hatred and envy bring upon their lives either scandal or reproach. They had none of the infirmities which so often have dimmed the lustre of great benefactors. They were not dogmatic like Luther, nor severe like Calvin, nor intolerant like Knox. Pelagius, especially, was a most interesting man, though more of a philosopher than a Christian. Like Zeno, he exalted the human will; like Aristotle, he subjected all truth to the test of logical formularies; like Abélard, he would believe nothing which he could not explain or comprehend. Self-confident, like Servetus, he disdained the Cross. The central principle of his teachings was man’s ability to practise any virtue, independently of divine grace. He made perfection a thing easy to be attained. There was no need, in his eyes, as his adversaries maintained, of supernatural aid in the work of salvation. Hence a Saviour was needless. By faith, he is represented to mean mere intellectual convictions, to be reached through the reason alone. Prayer was useful simply to stimulate a man’s own will. He was further represented as repudiating miracles as contrary to reason, of abhorring divine sovereignty as fatal to the exercise of the will, of denying special providences as opposing the operation of natural laws, as rejecting native depravity and maintaining that the natural tendency of society was to rise in both virtue and knowledge, and of course rejecting the idea of a Devil tempting man to sin. “His doctrines,” says one of his biographers, “were pleasing to pride, by flattering its pretension; to nature, by exaggerating its power; and to reason, by extolling its capacity.” He asserted that death was not the penalty of Adam’s transgression; he denied the consequences of his sin; and he denied the spiritual resurrection of man by the death of Christ, thus rejecting him as a divine Redeemer. Why should there be a divine redemption if man could save himself? He blotted out Christ from the book of life by representing him merely as a martyr suffering for the declaration of truths which were not appreciated,–like Socrates at Athens, or Savonarola at Florence. In support of all these doctrines, so different from those of Paul, he appealed, not to the apostle’s authority, but to human reason, and sought the aid of Pagan philosophy, rather than the Scriptures, to arrive at truth.

Thus was Pelagius represented by his opponents, who may have exaggerated his heresies, and have pushed his doctrines to a logical sequence which he would not accept but would even repel, in the same manner as the Pelagians drew deductions from the teachings of Augustine which were exceedingly unfair,–making God the author of sin, and election to salvation to depend on the foreseen conduct of men in regard to an obedience which they had no power to perform.

But whether Pelagius did or did not hold all the doctrines of which he was accused, it is certain that the spirit of them was antagonistic to the teachings of Paul, as understood by Augustine, who felt that the very foundations of Christianity were assailed,–as Athanasius regarded the doctrines of Arius. So he came to the rescue, not of the Catholic Church, for Pelagius belonged to it as well as he, but to the rescue of Christian theology. The doctrines of Pelagius were becoming fashionable and prevalent in many parts of the Empire. Even the Pope at one time favored them. They might spread until they should be embraced by the whole Catholic world, for Augustine believed in the vitality of error as well as in the vitality of truth,–of the natural and inevitable tendency of society towards Paganism, without the especial and restraining grace of God. He armed himself for the great conflict with the infidelity of his day, not with David’s sling, but Goliath’s sword. He used the same weapons as his antagonist, even the arms of reason and knowledge, and constructed an argument which was overwhelming, if Paul’s Epistles were to be the accepted premises of his irresistible logic. Great as was Pelagius, Augustine was a far greater man,–broader, deeper, more learned, more logical, more eloquent, more intense. He was raised up to demolish, with the very reason he professed to disdain, the sophistries and dogmas of one of the most dangerous enemies which the Church had ever known,–to leave to posterity his logic and his conclusions when similar enemies of his faith should rise up in future ages. He furnished a thesaurus not merely to Bernard and Thomas Aquinas, but even to Calvin and Bossuet and Pascal. And it will be the marvellous lucidity of the Bishop of Hippo which shall bring back to the true faith, if it is ever brought back, that part of the Roman Catholic Church which accepts the verdict of the Council of Trent, when that famous council indorsed the opinions of Pelagius while upholding the authority of Augustine as the greatest doctor of the Church.

To a man like Augustine, with his deep experiences,–a man rescued from a seductive philosophy and a corrupt life, as he thought, by the special grace of God and in answer to his mother’s prayers,–the views of Pelagius were both false and dangerous. He could find no words sufficiently intense whereby to express his gratitude for his deliverance from both sin and error. To him this Deliverer is so personal, so loving, that he pours out his confession to Him as if He were both friend and father. And he felt that all that is vital in theology must radiate from the recognition of His sovereign power in the renovation and salvation of the world. All his experiences and observations of life confirmed the authority of Scripture,–that the world, as a matter of fact, was sunk in a state of sin and misery, and could be rescued only by that divine power which converted Paul. His views of predestination, grace, and Providence all radiate from the central principle of the majesty of God and the littleness of man. All his ideas of the servitude of the will are confirmed by his personal experience of the awful fetters which sin imposes, and the impossibility of breaking away from them without direct aid from the God who ruleth the world in love. And he had an infinitely greater and deeper conviction of the reality of this divine love, which had rescued him, than Pelagius had, who felt that his salvation was the result of his own merits. The views of Augustine were infinitely more cheerful than those of his adversary respecting salvation, since they gave more hope to the miserable population of the Empire who could not claim the virtues of Pelagius, and were impotent of themselves to break away from the bondage which degraded them. There is nothing in the writings of Augustine,–not in this controversy, or any other controversy,–to show that God delights in the miseries or the penalty which are indissolubly connected with sin; on the contrary, he blesses and adores the divine hand which releases men from the constraints which sin imposes. This divine interposition is wholly based on a divine and infinite love. It is the helping hand of Omnipotence to the weak will of man,–the weak will even of Paul, when he exclaimed, “The evil that I would not, that I do.” It is the unloosing, by His loving assistance, of the wings by which the emancipated soul would rise to the lofty regions of peace and contemplation.

I know very well that the doctrines which Augustine systematized from Paul involve questions which we cannot answer; for why should not an infinite and omnipotent God give to all men the saving grace that he gave to Augustine? Why should not this loving and compassionate Father break all the fetters of sin everywhere, and restore the primeval Paradise in this wicked world where Satan seems to reign? Is He not more powerful than devils? Alas! the prevalence of evil is more mysterious than the origin of evil. But this is something,–and it is well for the critic and opponent of the Augustinian theology to bear this in mind,–that Augustine was an earnest seeker after truth, even when enslaved by the fornications of Carthage; and his own free-will in persistently seeking truth, through all the mazes of Manichean and Grecian speculation, is as manifest as the divine grace which came to his assistance. God Almighty does not break fetters until there is some desire in men to have them broken. If men will hug sins, they must not complain of their bondage. Augustine recognized free-will, which so many think he ignored, when his soul aspired to a higher life. When a drunkard in his agonies cries out to God, then help is near. A drowning man who calls for a rope when a rope is near stands a good chance of being rescued.

I need not detail the results of this famous controversy. Augustine, appealing to the consciousness of mankind as well as to the testimony of Paul, prevailed over Pelagius, who appealed to the pride of reason. In those dreadful times there were more men who felt the need of divine grace than there were philosophers who revelled in the speculations of the Greeks. The danger from the Pelagians was not from their organization as a sect, but their opinions as individual men. Probably there were all shades of opinion among them, from a modest and thoughtful semi-Pelagianism to the rankest infidelity. There always have been, and probably ever will be, sceptical and rationalistic people, even in the bosom of the Church.

Now had it not been for Augustine,–a profound thinker, a man of boundless influence and authority,–it is not unlikely that Pelagianism would have taken so deep a root in the mind of Christendom, especially in the hearts of princes and nobles, that it would have become the creed of the Church. Even as it was, it was never fully eradicated in the schools and in the courts and among worldly people of culture and fashion.

But the fame of Augustine does not rest on his controversies with heretics and schismatics alone. He wrote treatises on almost all subjects of vital interest to the Church. His essay on the Trinity was worthy of Athanasius, and has never been surpassed in lucidity and power. His soliloquies on a blissful life, and the order of the universe, and the immortality of the soul are pregnant with the richest thought, equal to the best treatises of Cicero or Boethius. His commentary on the Psalms is sparkling with tender effusions, in which every thought is a sentiment and every sentiment is a blazing flame of piety and love. Perhaps his greatest work was the amusement of his leisure hours for thirteen years,–a philosophical treatise called “The City of God,” in which he raises and replies to all the great questions of his day; a sort of Christian poem upon our origin and end, and a final answer to Pagan theogonies,–a final sentence on all the gods of antiquity. In that marvellous book he soars above his ordinary excellence, and develops the designs of God in the history of States and empires, furnishing for Bossuet the groundwork of his universal history. Its great excellence, however, is its triumphant defence of Christianity over all other religions,–the last of the great apologies which, while settling the faith of the Christian world, demolished forever the last stronghold of a defeated Paganism. As “ancient Egypt pronounced judgments on her departed kings before proceeding to their burial, so Augustine interrogates the gods of antiquity, shows their impotence to sustain the people who worshipped them, triumphantly sings their departed greatness, and seals with his powerful hand the sepulchre into which they were consigned forever.”

Besides all the treatises of Augustine,–exegetical, apologetical, dogmatical, polemical, ascetic, and autobiographical,–three hundred and sixty-three of his sermons have come down to us, and numerous letters to the great men and women of his time. Perhaps he wrote too much and too loosely, without sufficient regard to art,–like Varro, the most voluminous writer of antiquity, and to whose writings Augustine was much indebted. If Saint Augustine had written less, and with more care, his writings would now be more read and more valued. Thucydides compressed the labors of his literary life into a single volume; but that volume is immortal, is a classic, is a text-book. Yet no work of man is probably more lasting than the “Confessions” of Augustine, from the extraordinary affluence and subtilty of his thoughts, and his burning, fervid, passionate style. When books were scarce and dear, his various works were the food of the Middle Ages: and what better books ever nourished the European mind in a long period of ignorance and ignominy? So that we cannot overrate his influence in giving a direction to Christian thought. He lived in the writings of the sainted doctors of the Scholastic schools. And he was a very favored man in living to a good old age, wearing the harness of a Christian laborer and the armor of a Christian warrior until he was seventy-six. He was a bishop nearly forty years. For forty years he was the oracle of the Church, the light of doctors. His social and private life had also great charms: he lived the doctrines that he preached; he completely triumphed over the temptations which once assailed him. Everybody loved as well as revered him, so genial was his humanity, so broad his charity. He was affable, courteous, accessible, full of sympathy and kindness. He was tolerant of human infirmities in an age of angry controversy and ascetic rigors. He lived simply, but was exceedingly hospitable. He cared nothing for money, and gave away what he had. He knew the luxury of charity, having no superfluities. He was forgiving as well as tolerant; saying, It is necessary to pardon offences, not seven times, but seventy times seven. No one could remember an idle word from his lips after his conversion. His humility was as marked as his charity, ascribing all his triumphs to divine assistance. He was not a monk, but gave rules to monastic orders. He might have been a metropolitan patriarch or pope; but he was contented with being bishop of a little Numidian town. His only visits beyond the sanctuary were to the poor and miserable. As he won every heart by love, so he subdued every mind by eloquence. He died leaving no testament, because he had no property to bequeath but his immortal writings,–some ten hundred and thirty distinct productions. He died in the year 430, when his city was besieged by the Vandals, and in the arms of his faithful Alypius, then a neighboring bishop, full of visions of the ineffable beauty of that blissful state to which his renovated spirit had been for forty years constantly soaring.

“Thus ceased to flow,” said a contemporary, “that river of eloquence which had watered the thirsty fields of the Church; thus passed away the glory of preachers, the master of doctors, and the light of scholars; thus fell the courageous combatant who with the sword of truth had given heresy a mortal blow; thus set this glorious sun of Christian doctrine, leaving a world in darkness and in tears.”

His vacant see had no successor. “The African province, the cherished jewel of the Roman Empire, sparkled for a while in the Vandal diadem. The Greek supplanted the Vandal, and the Saracen supplanted the Greek, and the home of Augustine was blotted out from the map of Christendom.” The light of the gospel was totally extinguished in Northern Africa. The acts of Rome and the doctrines of Cyprian were equally forgotten by the Mahommedan conquerors. Only in Bona, as Hippo is now called, has the memory of the great bishop been cherished,–the one solitary flower which escaped the successive desolations of Vandals and Saracens. And when Algiers was conquered by the French in 1830, the sacred relics of the saint were transferred from Pavia (where they had been deposited by the order of Charlemagne), in a coffin of lead, enclosed in a coffin of silver, and the whole secured in a sarcophagus of marble, and finally committed to the earth near the scenes which had witnessed his transcendent labors. I do not know whether any monument of marble and granite was erected to his memory; but he needs no chiselled stone, no storied urn, no marble bust, to perpetuate his fame. For nearly fifteen hundred years he has reigned as the great oracle of the Church, Catholic and Protestant, in matters of doctrine,–the precursor of Bernard, of Leibnitz, of Calvin, of Bossuet, all of whom reproduced his ideas, and acknowledged him as the fountain of their own greatness. “Whether,” said one of the late martyred archbishops of Paris, “he reveals to us the foundations of an impure polytheism, so varied in its developments, yet so uniform in its elemental principles; or whether he sports with the most difficult problems of philosophy, and throws out thoughts which in after times are sufficient to give an immortality to Descartes,–we always find in this great doctor all that human genius, enlightened by the Spirit of God, can explain, and also to what a sublime height reason herself may soar when allied with faith.”


The voluminous Works of Saint Augustine, especially his “Confessions.” Mabillon, Tillemont, and Baronius have written very fully of this great Father. See also Vaughan’s Life of Thomas Aquinas. Neander, Geisler, Mosheim, and Milman indorse, in the main, the eulogium of Catholic writers. There are numerous popular biographies, of which those of Baillie and Schaff are among the best; but the most satisfactory book I have read is the History of M. Poujoulat, in three volumes, issued at Paris in 1846. Butler, in his Lives of the Saints, has an extended biography. Even Gibbon pays a high tribute to his genius and character.

Theodosius the Great : Latter Days of Rome

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity