No Christian more epitomizes the great transformations of the fourth and fifth centuries than a Latin-speaking Christian of North Africa: St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine ranks only behind Paul in his significance as a Christian thinker. He both embodies the ideas and changes of his own day and offers a transcendently important understanding of the Christian faith.
Augustine lived a generation after Gregory of Nyssa. His life is revealing and reflective of his generation during the late fourth century. A profound thinker, he represents the completion of ancient Christian orthodoxy, providing complete answers to the pressing questions but also providing a comprehensive theology.
Monasticism had raised the question about whether marriage was really a good or just a lesser evil. Monks and nuns remained celibate; to indulge the flesh in such a way would have distracted them from having a single mind and heart to love God, and a spouse would have been competing for God’s love. The role of marriage in the Christian life was debated during the fourth century.
The Roman Empire’s territory had receded since the days of Marcus Aurelius, but the Roman Empire was still in control of Greece, Alexandria, and the Holy Land. The focus of imperial power shifted to Constantinople. The Eastern, Greek world was still closely connected with the Western, Latin world, even though the tetrarchy had begun a rift that would deepen with time.
The fourth century saw a great generation of theologians, including Gregory of Nyssa and his brother Basil. They had been influenced by Origen, but they had an advantage on Origen – they shared the common background of the Nicene Creed. Like Origen, Platonism still deeply impacted Christianity – Christian theologians drew their ideas about the limitlessness of God from Platonism. During the fourth century, bishops were becoming the leaders of churches, asceticism was growing, ideas of orthodoxy were solidifying, and the canon was being finalized. There was a tension between radical asceticism and the mass conversion of the Roman world. Because of mass conversion, Christianity was brought into the Latin language.
Such was the backdrop of the life of perhaps the most influential Christian theologian, Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was born in 354 AD in North Africa. His mother’s name, Monica, is a Berber name – an indigenous name. His father was on the town council, in the upper echelons of a backwater society. Augustine was born a Christian, but the world around him was still religiously diverse, a mix of paganism and Christianity.
Augustine’s most famous work was the Confessions. It was the first book written by someone about his own life in depth. It is a prayer of repentance to God and a story about his religious journey, full of theological ideas. Every memory and every anecdote is carefully chosen. Augustine reveals the depths of his soul – we must admire him for his searching honesty. He proves himself to be a profound psychologist. He understands how twisted and corrupt humans can be on the inside.
The greatest contrast in the Confessions is between the human creature and God. Augustine also explores sin – he is one of the most consequential thinkers about sin. Sin is a huge facet of human nature -present from infancy. The first book consists of the memories of Augustine’s earliest days as well as observations about infant behavior. Augustine thinks that the sins of the child are the same as the sins of the emperor. The latter has more resources at his disposal and can affect many more people by his sin, but at their root the sins are the same.
Augustine received the highest level of education it was possible to receive. As a young man he learned both Latin and Greek – he hated Greek but loved Latin and mastered the language. He began rhetoric at this time too. He writes about his struggle with lust – libido. Augustine as a writer shows interest in uncontrollable feelings that pervade the adolescent mind and twist the reason. He writes about the mind’s capacity to rationalize something and provide a reason for wanting it that masks the real reason for wanting it. He also talks about the will to sin, the will to be bad during adolescence. He describes the (universal) feeling of wanting to do bad just for its own sake, and he is psychologically plausible. His anecdote of stealing pears is an example of this itch. He and his friends went into a neighbor’s orchard in the cover of darkness, and he stole pears not because he wanted to eat them but because he had a deep desire to disobey.
In college, Augustine read Cicero for the first time. Something was stirred within him – a first spark of wanting to seek the truth, a first love of philosophy. (Meanwhile, his father died, something that he glosses over.) The wealthiest family in town sponsors Augustine and gave him a scholarship to go to Carthage. He was heavily influenced by his time at Carthage. He calls it a “cauldron of lusts.” He graduated and became a professor in Carthage.
Meanwhile, the Donatist schism was going on in North Africa, Augustine’s birthplace. The Donatists, if we can remember back a few lessons, were trying to solve the problem of what to do with the “lapsed” – those who had abandoned the faith during the persecution but now wanted to repent and be readmitted into the church after the end of the persecution. The Christian church, the Donatists argued, must be a church of the faithful, and therefore the unfaithful should not belong to the church. However, the orthodox Christian response to the Donatists was that the fallen could repent and eventually, through true repentance and humble penance, come back to the church. The North African church was especially divided over the Donatist schism. Augustine’s family fell on the catholic side.