by Gerald Bray, author of Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God.
Does Augustine Still Matter?
What does Augustine mean to us now? What is there about his life and work that still speaks to the Christian life today, and to what extent are his thoughts original to him? Was he merely repeating what had gone before, or did he strike out on new pathways that have remained serviceable for the modern church?
1. The Importance of Real Relationship with God
The first thing we notice about him is the emphasis he placed on the relationship of the individual to God. He lived in a world that was rapidly becoming Christian, at least in a formal and public sense. It would have been very easy for him to have gone with the flow, as many of his contemporaries did. But Augustine confessed that he became a Christian only when the Holy Spirit of God moved in his heart, and not before.
He had to be brought face to face with his sinfulness and complete inability to save himself. He was forced to recognize that he had no hope other than to put his trust in Jesus Christ, who had died to pay the price of his sin. He had to learn that to be a Christian was to be in fellowship with the Son of God, to be united with him in a deeply individual union that rested on personal conviction, not on outward support or tradition. From beginning to end, his faith was a walk with God that could only be expressed as a dialogue between two spirits. Take that away and there would be nothing to speak of at all—no faith to confess and no life to live.
2. The Necessity of the Church
Next on the list comes his adherence to the church. Augustine knew that although every Christian must have a personal faith that is not dependent on outward rites and traditions, he also belongs to the universal church. Christians cannot leave the church and live on their own, as if nobody else is good enough for them. There may be good reasons for establishing new congregations, but believers ought to be in fellowship with others and not cut themselves off as if nobody else is quite as good or as pure as they are.
There is no such thing as a pure or perfect congregation, as those who have tried to establish such things have discovered to their cost. In every place, the wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest; the sheep and the goats will only be separated at the last judgment. It was Augustine who first stated this clearly as the reason for not breaking away from the church, and his logic is as valid today as it was when he wrote.
3. The Helplessness of Humanity
Augustine has also taught us that the human race is united in sin and rebellion against God and cannot save itself. Those who have met with Christ have learned that they must trust him completely and not rely on their own efforts, qualities, or inheritance for their salvation.
The works which they do as Christians are those that have been commanded by God, but they only make sense within the context of the relationship that he has already established with his people. If that relationship is right, then everything a Christian does will be forgiven by God, however bad or unfruitful it may be. But if that relationship is wrong, then even “good” works will be of no use, because the context and rationale for them is lacking.
4. The Supreme Authority of the Bible
Augustine also taught the church that the Word of God is to be found in the Bible and nowhere else. He suffered from the problem that he was unfamiliar with the original languages of Scripture and he had inadequate textual resources at his disposal. As a result, his exegesis is often faulty and cannot be trusted.
However, because he had a concept of the Bible as a single, overarching message from God, these faults of detail were less serious than they might otherwise have been. He never appealed to an isolated verse in a way that would make it contradict the general witness of Scripture as a whole. For example, he did not use the assertion that “God is love” in a way that would preclude eternal punishment in hell, of which Jesus himself warned his followers. However “God is love” was to be understood, it had to be consistent with the existence of eternal damnation. On more than one occasion, this sense of “the whole counsel of God” preserved Augustine from errors into which he might otherwise have fallen.
Augustine’s sense of the bigger picture is of great importance to the church, because there is a constant temptation to take Bible verses out of context and use them in ways that contradict the overall message of the God’s Word. There is also a temptation to introduce human traditions that are not in the Scriptures and make them tests of orthodoxy. Augustine’s method of interpretation was designed to prevent aberrations like these, and the miracle is that—despite the limitations of the resources available to him—he succeeded as well as he did.
We should not always follow him, of course, and must correct him when we can show that he was wrong. However, that is true of any interpreter of Scripture—nobody gets it right all the time! What we must not do is reject Augustine because of his limitations and deny that he has anything to teach us. His conclusions may not always have been right, but his methods and principles remain surprisingly valid, even after so many centuries.
5. The Trinity of Love
Augustine taught the church that God is a Trinity of love. He certainly did not invent the idea that God is love; that is clearly stated in the New Testament (1 John 4:15). Nor did he construct the doctrine of the Trinity, which he inherited from both his Greek and his Latin forebears.
What Augustine did—in a way that nobody before him had managed—was to bring the two things together. Love cannot exist on its own because it is not a thing or an attribute possessed by a thing. In other words, God cannot be love unless there is something for him to love. But if that something were not part of himself, he would not be perfect. The Bible does not teach us that God needed the creation in order to have something to love, because if that were true, he could not be fully himself without it. So Augustine reasoned that God must be love inside himself. To his mind, the Father is the one who loves, the Son is the one who is loved (the “beloved Son” revealed in the baptism of Jesus), and the Holy Spirit is the love that flows between them and binds them together. It is in the Spirit, moreover, who binds believers to God and makes us partakers by adoption of that love which is intrinsic to the Trinity’s being.
By understanding God in this way, Augustine not only explained the Trinity but made it a necessary part of the divine being. Without the Triune framework, God would not be the love that the New Testament said he was. Moreover, said Augustine, the inner necessity of a Triune divinity can be seen in the composition of human beings, who are created in his image and likeness. The fact that our minds possess memory, intellect, and will—all of which can be distinguished but not separated, and which are all equally important if we are to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves as we are called to do—is additional evidence of the coherence of the Creator and his creation.
6. The Purpose of the Universe
Augustine further taught that God created the world for a purpose. The fact that he placed his own triune image in Adam—who was intended to be the crowning glory of his creation—teaches us that God’s otherwise mysterious act had a reason that we cannot fully understand or appreciate.
Nobody can say why God made the world. It was not necessary for him to do so, and although it was an act of love on his part, we do not know why he chose to express himself in this particular way. More importantly, we cannot say why he made creatures that were not only free to disobey his will but that would not be annihilated as a result. Satan rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven, but he was not eliminated. Instead, he is still the prince of this world, and the human race has been tempted into subjecting itself to him. Why did this happen? Could God not have prevented it?
From our human standpoint, we cannot understand many of the things we experience or see going on in the world around us. But we can be confident that there is a purpose in God’s plan that will one day be revealed to us. Sometimes, as in the resurrection of Jesus, we see what that purpose is, because it is worked out within a time frame that we can grasp. But on other occasions, God’s plans are not tied to our schedules. For him, a day is as a thousand years, so the outworking of his will is hidden from our eyes.
Augustine could not have known that his world would disappear and that a new Christian culture, based to a large extent on his ideas, would spring up centuries later in Western Europe. He would probably have been astounded to think that people would still be reading not only his major works, but even his letters and sermons, so many generations later. But he did know that there was a divine purpose at work in his life and that God was using him in ways that he could not fully appreciate, and that is what mattered to him.
7. The Christian Life as a Journey of Faith
Augustine also taught us that the Christian’s life is a journey that we walk by faith. Within the context of his theology, this is an important complement to the doctrine of predestination which, if it is not personalized, can easily look like a kind of fatalism.
Augustine did not believe that a Christian should just sit back and let events take their course. To be in a relationship with God means to live with him, to share his thoughts, to have the mind of Christ, and to do his will in the power of the Holy Spirit on a day-to-day basis. From birth to death, every waking moment belongs to God, even if we are not believers.
This is part of the message he conveys in his Confessions, where he reviews different aspects of his pre-Christian life and points out how God was using them to further his purposes and how Augustine had already embarked on the Christian journey, even though he was not consciously aware of it at the time.
8. The Christian Life as Mission
Finally, Augustine taught us that the Christian mission is important wherever it is exercised. Augustine was a man who was schooled in philosophy and rhetoric. To pursue those interests, it was necessary for him to go where the action was—to Carthage, Rome, and Milan, the seat of the Western empire at that time. Had he stayed at home in Thagaste, such a career would have been inconceivable.
Yet after he became a Christian, his fortunes changed. He retraced his steps—from Milan to Rome, then back to Carthage and even to Thagaste for a time. After a few years, he was called to Hippo, a port city of medium importance commercially and unknown for any literary or academic achievement. He did not want to be a bishop, nor was he interested in spending the rest of his life in a backwater like that.
For over thirty years, he was forced to preach to congregations that had little appreciation for his genius and would as soon go to the theater as listen to him. He had to write time and again against Donatism and Pelagianism, errors that his keen mind must have found risible at one level, but which were disturbing the church to which he had to minister. Somehow or other, he found the time to do other things as well, but there must have been many days when he was weary of the struggle and wished he could have been doing something else.
A Most Influential Life
Augustine died in the knowledge that a few days later the barbarians would enter Hippo—which they were besieging at the time—and he must have feared that his life’s work would go up in flames. Things did not turn out quite as badly as that, but there was to be no lasting legacy of his labors in Hippo. No great basilica with his name carved into it. No academic chair dedicated to his memory. Not even a park bench with a plaque saying that his estate had paid for it.
To the naked eye, there was nothing. Yet as we know, what must have appeared then as a fairly insignificant ministry in a provincial town became the backdrop for the most productive life any theologian in the Western world has ever lived. Generations of Christians who would never go anywhere near Hippo would read what Augustine wrote in the hot and dusty chambers that were his earthly dwelling place, and would marvel at his gifts and intellect.
More than that, they would be moved—as we still are—by his passion for Christ, and would go away from his writings more determined than ever to walk in the way mapped out for them by God.
Gerald Bray (DLitt, University of Paris-Sorbonne) is research professor at Beeson Divinity School and director of research for the Latimer Trust. He is a prolific writer and has authored or edited numerous books, including God Is Love, God Has Spoken, and Augustine on the Christian Life.