St. Augustine of Hippo is one of the most important theologians of the Christian church. His works, especially The City of God and Confessions, still influence Christian thinkers today. The church celebrates his contribution to Christianity on August 28th.
Augustine lived from 354 AD to 430 AD . He was born in Roman Africa to a Christian mother and a pagan father, who later converted to Christianity on his deathbed. While Augustine was taught Christianity as a child, he did not actively pursue his faith. Instead, he devoted himself to sex and fun.
When he turned 17, he went to the best schools in Carthage, where he was a brilliant student. He studied rhetoric, reading the classic latin authors like Cicero. While in Carthage, Augustine became interested in Manichaeism , a heretical offshoot of Christianity. After graduating, Augustine returned to his hometown to teach rhetoric and promote his newfound religion.
Augustine soon moved to Rome and then to Milan to teach rhetoric. In Milan, he attended the cathedral to hear another famous Christian speak, Ambrose of Milan . He didn’t attend to hear about Jesus, though. He came because Ambrose was famous as a rhetorician. Shortly thereafter, Augustine converted to Christianity and left his life of hedonism behind.
After his conversion, Augustine resigned his teaching position and retreated to a country villa. After six months, he was baptized by Ambrose before returning to his hometown of Thagaste. During his journey home, Augustine suffered many personal losses, his son, his mother, and a close friend. His grief drove him to commit himself more fully to Christ. He and some friends established a lay religious community outside of his hometown, where he studied the scriptures and prayed.
In 391, Augustine travelled to Hippo to see about establishing another religious community. When he attended worship, Bishop Valerius saw this famous Christian theologian in the congregation, and he preached on the urgent need for priests in the city. The congregation turned to look at Augustine, and the propelled him to the front to be ordained against his will. After Valerius died a few years later, he became Bishop of Hippo in his place.
Augustine spent much of his time as a bishop pulling up the weeds of heresy wherever they sprouted. He debated Manicheans, and exposed the failings of the theological system. He also tackled the Donatists, who believed that the church had been corrupted during the persecutions of the previous century.
Augustine also face a theological challenge through the British monk, Pelagius. He denied that human beings had original sin, and he claimed that we could make a free choice to follow God. We did not, therefore, need God’s grace to be saved. We simply had to decide to follow him. With Augustine in the lead, the church declared Pelagianism a heresy.
One of the worst theological challenges was not heresy but history. Alaric and his troops sacked the city of Rome. For many years, the pagan citizens of the Roman empire claimed that Christian teaching would cause Rome to fall, because they did not support Rome’s gods. When Rome finally did fall, Augustine set out to defend his church against pagan claims. He interpreted the fall of Rome as part of God’s plan for human history to move toward eternal salvation.
Augustine died, due to a fever, in 430 AD, at the age of 76, during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals. His writings survived their invasion, and his thought became foundational for the Christian church. In addition to his writings, his influence was felt through the Augustinian order of monks that still exists today. Augustine is an example of the promises of God . He was brought, by God’s word, from a sinful life to becoming one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time.
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