Most of us, I’m afraid, approach church history a little like Sally from the old Peanuts cartoon stip. She once famously began an essay on church history, “In order to understand the history of our church, we should start at the beginning. Out pastor was born in 1950. . .”
It’s a shocking revelation for most Protestants (among whom I do count myself ), but there really were Christians before Martin Luther. One of the most important, and indeed the Christian writer who Martin Luther credited with having understood the heart of the gospel best of all the church fathers, was St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine is a towering figure in church history and church theology. We should be telling his story to our children. And reading his own writing is a richly rewarding experience. Augustine’s Confessions is one of the great autobiographies of all times. It is strong evidence that human nature has remained the same over the 3,000 years of recorded history.
Let me briefly tell you his story.
In 354 AD, seventeen years after the death of the Emperor Constantine, a boy named Augustine was born in the small town of Tagaste in the Roman province of Africa. Augustine’s mother, Monica, was a Christian. His father, Patricius, was not a Christian, but he was not unsympathetic to Monica’s faith. Late in life, just before he died, he was baptized and received into the church. Patricius and Monica shared a commitment to giving their son a good education. The goal of education in the late Roman world was to develop the ability to speak persuasively. The highest achievement of a well-educated Roman was to be recognized as an “orator.” A Roman orator spoke in public on matters of public concern, or in defense of someone charged with a crime or, occasionally, as the prosecutor of those who had broken the law.
Augustine was introduced to the writings and speeches of the great Roman orators, with particular emphasis on the best Roman writer of the late Republic, Cicero. He quickly showed himself to be a gifted student with great promise as a writer and speaker. After he finished his introductory studies in his hometown, at age 17 he went to the next largest town (Madaura) for further studies, and then after only a year, to the largest town in Roman Africa, Carthage.
In Carthage, much to the disappointment of his Christian mother, Monica, Augustine abandoned the Christianity of his youth and joined a new exciting religious sect recently arrived in Roman Africa, the Manichees. The Manichees were followers of Mani, an eccentric Persian mystic who had been executed in 276 in Babylon by the Persian Emperor. The Manichees claimed to have direct revelation of the true nature of God, man, and the universe, set down in writing by Mani. The writings of Mani were not circulated publicly, but remained a secret available only to those who committed themselves to be his followers. For the 20-year-old Augustine, the promise of access to secret knowledge and true wisdom was a powerful lure. He declared himself a Manichee.
Augustine returned from Carthage to his hometown of Tagaste in 375 at the age of 22 and began to teach his young students the same things he had been taught a decade earlier. But his mother, Monica, was appalled at his new religious views. At first, she refused to let him into her house. Only after she had a dream in which she was assured that Augustine would return to Christianity did she relent. After a year, Augustine returned to the larger world of Carthage to continue his studies and to teach more advanced students. His wide and voracious reading of philosophers and orators raised a number of questions for him about the details of the Manichee religion.
Augustine was told by other Manichees that the leader of all the Manichees in the Roman Empire, a man named Faustus, would answer his questions and reveal to him the true wisdom of Mani. When Faustus visited Carthage in 383, Augustine was anxious to meet him. When he did, he was profoundly disappointed. For Faustus was not only unable to answer Augustine’s questions, he asked Augustine to teach him more about the philosophers he had been reading. Augustine agreed, but he abandoned the Manichee religion.
He did not, however, return to the Christianity of his mother and his youth. Christianity seemed to him too coarse, too unrefined. He could not understand, or reconcile the stories of the Old Testament with the teachings of the New. He plunged further into a study of philosophy. He began pursuing, in earnest, a career as a teacher. He had gradually built a reputation as one of the most eloquent men of Carthage. He was admired as an accomplished orator who knew the classics well and could quote them from memory to sway an audience. He was also a much sought-after teacher. Faustus was but one of many students, not a few of them older and wealthier than Augustine, who sought him out in order to be taught about Roman literature and the art of speaking well. Carthage, Rome & Milan
Augustine set his sights now to advance from Carthage, the capital of Roman Africa to the City of Rome itself, the capital of the Empire. His mother tried to talk him out of it. If he could not be persuaded to stay, she vowed to accompany him to Rome. But Augustine, age 32, did not want Monica along on the next phase of his career. He left Carthage for Rome without telling her goodbye.
Augustine’s first year in Rome was both pleasing and disappointing. Rome did not live up to his expectations. For one thing, the Emperor no longer resided in Rome, but had moved his residence to the northern city of Milan. For another, the students in Rome proved to be not much better than those of Carthage – and they had the annoying habit of trying to cheat their teachers when they paid their tuition! But Augustine was pleased in one respect. His public speaking and instruction came to the attention of the Prefect of Rome, Symmachus. (the office of Prefect is something equivalent to the modern office of Mayor, but appointed by the Emperor rather than elected) The Prefect had been directed by the Emperor to select a Professor of Rhetoric for the Imperial Court in Milan. Symmachus chose Augustine. Symmachus hoped the young African pagan, Augustine, would be a champion of the old Roman gods at the court of the Emperor in Milan.
Once in Milan, Augustine was joined by his mother, Monica, newly arrived from Africa. She took charge of his household and set about arranging a marriage for him with the daughter of a wealthy Christian aristocrat. Augustine reluctantly agreed to sign up with the Christian church as a “catechumen” or candidate for baptism. Augustine wrote later that he felt safe in doing so and was sure he could put off an actual baptism forever if necessary – but did it simply in order to please his mother.
In Milan, Augustine enjoyed his life as a professor of rhetoric, an official at the court, and a young man with a reputation for brilliance and eloquence. He quickly learned that, after the Emperor, the most important person in Milan was the Bishop, Ambrose. Ambrose had been the leader of the Christian Church in Milan for eleven years when Augustine arrived. He was fourteen years older than Augustine – in his late 40’s. His education and career had been similar to Augustine’s as a young man. Trained as an orator, he had been an official in the government of the Emperors, eventually being appointed as governor of the region of northern Italy of which Milan was the capital. But he was also known as a committed Christian and an elder in the church with a reputation for integrity and an ability to teach and explain the Christian faith. In 375, when the Bishop of Milan died and the deacons and elders of the city were meeting to select a new bishop, the crowd outside the church spotted Ambrose and, chanting his name, compelled him to accept appointment as bishop. Since that time, Ambrose had demonstrated his strength of character, deep faith, and commitment to Christ by proclaiming the gospel in eloquent sermons and transforming the worship of the church in Milan by adding music. He had also confronted the Emperor (and the court) on more than one occasion when they committed acts of wickedness, or seemed to be straying into heresy or paganism.
Augustine began attending the Christian worship services in Ambrose’s cathedral. At first, he went to hear the music. But soon he was coming to attend Ambrose’s spell-binding sermons. Here was someone who explained the Scriptures and proclaimed the Christian faith in a compelling, eloquent, persuasive, cultured way. Augustine began to reconsider Christianity.
After some months, he and several of his friends took a long vacation at a villa outside Milan. While there, they debated paganism, Christianity, music, and Ambrose’s sermons. Augustine began to read the Bible again. He had become persuaded of the truth of Christianity – by the preaching of Ambrose, by his reading of the Bible, and by the example of his mother – but he hesitated. He did not want to give up his sinful habits. He found his own attraction to sin disgusting, but he could not change. He berated himself and paced in the garden of the villa. While wrestling with his sins, he heard, over the wall of the garden, the voice of a child, chanting a rhyme in Latin, “Tolle, lege, tolle lege” (take it, read it, take it, read it). He turned back into the house and picked up the Bible. The first verse which caught his eye was Romans 13:13-14: “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.”
Augustine looked up from the passage at his best friend, Alyppius, and announced that he wished to be baptized as a Christian. Alyppius read the passage for himself and agreed. He told Augustine that he, too, wished to be baptized. Together they went to tell Augustine’s mother, Monica.
Shortly thereafter, Augustine and his friends resolved to return to Roman Africa and establish a religious community where they could devote themselves to prayer and study of the scriptures. They left Milan, traveled to Rome and prepared for the sea-voyage across the Mediterranean to Carthage. While they were waiting for a ship in Ostia, the port of Rome, Monica caught a fever and died after an illness of nine days.
Augustine, his older brother, and several of their friends buried Monica and then returned to their hometown of Tagaste in Africa. For a short time, they enjoyed the life of their religious community. But as it grew and more Christians wished to join them, Augustine realized he would have to seek a larger estate. While he was visiting the city of Hippo Regius on the coast of the Mediterranean, scouting for property, he visited the church and heard the local bishop preach. The Bishop preached a sermon lamenting the need for good men to take the office of priest in order to care for the Christians throughout the city. At the end of the sermon, someone in the crowd recognized Augustine in the back of the church and raised a shout that here was a man who should be a priest. Augustine was pushed to the front of the church and reluctantly agreed to be ordained and to take up the office of priest in Hippo. The first task he was given by the bishop was to preach and teach the Christians of the city all that they needed to know from the scriptures and from the creeds. When the bishop died four years later, Augustine was the immediate and unanimous choice of the Christians in Hippo to be their new bishop. He was 41 years old – young even then to be made a bishop.
For the next 35 years, until he died at the age of 76, Augustine served as the Bishop of Hippo Regius on the coastline of the Mediterranean in Roman Africa. His education in language and literature and his mastery of the classics of Roman culture served him well. His experience as an adherent of the Manichees and as a defender of paganism in Rome and Milan gave him a sharp appreciation of the beliefs of those outside the church. His eloquence and skill as a teacher helped him to make a lasting contribution to the church’s understanding of the scriptures. He wrote a great deal. His two masterpieces are his autobiography, the Confessions, written shortly after his conversion, in 401 AD when he was 47 years old and had been a bishop for about six years and The City of God, written after the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD.
In the Confessions, Augustine gives us a brutally frank self-portrait and a revelation of his interior life which will not be matched by any author for over 1,000 years – and by few since then.
In the City of God, Augustine answers the charge by the old Roman aristocrats that Christianity is to blame for the fall of Rome. Augustine answers by showing that it was the corruption of pagan City of Rome which led to its destruction and that in spite of that disaster, God is at work, building through his church, the eternal City of God.
In 430, another tribe of Germanic barbarians, the Vandals, under their Chieftain Gaiseric crossed the Mediterranean and began working their way east from Gibraltar towards Carthage. Bishop Augustine gave orders for all his priests to remain with their congregations and face martyrdom if necessary, but not to flee and abandon the sheep in their care. As the Vandals besieged the city of Hippo Regius, Augustine himself fell ill. He died before the final Vandal conquest, on August 30, 430 and was buried beside his cathedral.
Augustine left behind a huge deposit of wisdom in his writings. He wrote over five million words – the equivalent of a 300 page book every year for over 30 years. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and down to our own day, what he wrote continues to be read and Christians continue to be taught by his wisdom and his eloquence. In the Middle Ages, around 1200 AD, a monastic order was formed by men who wished to live by practical rules drawn up by Augustine. The monks were recognized by the Pope as the Augustinian order in 1244 AD. In England they are sometimes called the “Austin Friars.” In 1505, a young German student entered the Augustinian order in Erfurt, Germany. His name was Martin Luther. But that’s another story. . .