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Augustine of Hippo


Augustine of Hippo or Saint Augustine (November 13, 354 - August 28, 430), bishop of Hippo, was one of the most important figures in the development of Christianity. His writings such as The Confessions and The City of God display his depth of faith and the theological skill of a trained rhetorician. His explanation of the doctrines of God, free will, evil, original sin, grace, illumination, and predestination have become standard for the majority of Christians. His Confessions is often called the first Western autobiography. His City of God defended Christianity from pagan accusations blaming it for the fall of the Roman Empire.

Born in what is present-day Algeria as the eldest son of Saint Monica, Augustine as a young man pursued a secular career as a teacher of rhetoric and philosophy while living a dissolute lifestyle. For nine years he was a follower of Manichaeism. In Milan he studied Neoplatonism and his conversion to Christianity took place in 386. As a theologian, he was called to write against the many heresies of the period-Manichaeanism, Donatism, and Pelagianism, and in so doing he defined the shape of orthodox doctrine.

In Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Communion, he is a saint and preeminent Doctor of the Church, and the patron of the Augustinian religious order. Many Protestants, especially Calvinists, consider him to be one of the theological fathers of the Reformation teaching on divine grace. In the Eastern Orthodox Church he is a saint, although a minority are of the opinion that he is a heretic, primarily because of his position on the filioque clause regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit. Among the Orthodox he is called "Blessed Augustine" or "St. Augustine the Blessed," not so much for his theological teachings as for his writings on spirituality.

Augustine's theology has received criticism especially for his teachings on predestination, which appears to exclude the reprobate from salvation, and on the use of force, through which to bring back heretics such as the Donatists, although that criticism may be based on a misconstruction of the real intent of Augustine. Also, sometimes his theology is critiqued for being tainted with Platonism and/or Neoplatonism. Nevertheless, his reputation as the preeminent Christian theologian is universally recognized.


"St. Augustine and Monica" (1846), by Ary Scheffer

Augustine was of Berber descent and was born in 354 in Tagaste (present-day Souk Ahras, Algeria), a provincial Roman city in North Africa. His revered mother, Monica, was a Berber and a devout Catholic, and his father, Patricius, a pagan. At the age of 11 he was sent to school at Madaurus, a small Numidian city about 19 miles south of Tagaste. At the age of 17 he went to Carthage to continue his education in rhetoric. Although raised as a Catholic, Augustine left the Church to follow the controversial Manichaean religion, much to the despair of his mother. As a youth, Augustine lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time and, in Carthage, he developed a relationship with a young woman who would be his concubine for over 15 years. During this period he had a son, Adeodatus, with the young woman.

Augustine's education and early career was in philosophy and rhetoric, the art of persuasion and public speaking. In 383 he moved to Rome, where he believed the best and brightest rhetoricians practiced. However, he was disappointed with the Roman schools, which he found apathetic. Manichaean friends introduced him to the prefect of the city of Rome, Symmachus, who had been asked to provide a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan. The young provincial won the job and headed north to take up his position in late 384. At age 30, Augustine had won the most visible academic chair in the Latin world, at a time when such posts gave ready access to political careers. However, he felt the tensions of life at an imperial court, lamenting one day as he rode in his carriage to deliver a grand speech before the emperor, that a drunken beggar he passed on the street had a less careworn existence than he did.

It was at Milan that Augustine's life changed. While still at Carthage, he had begun to move away from Manichaeism, in part because of a disappointing meeting with a key exponent of Manichaean theology. At Milan, this movement continued. His mother, Monica, pressured him to become a Catholic, but it was the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, who had most influence over Augustine. Ambrose was a master of rhetoric like Augustine himself, but older and more experienced. Prompted in part by Ambrose's sermons, and partly by his own studies, in which he steadfastly pursued a quest for ultimate truth, Augustine renounced Manichaeism. After a flirtation with skepticism, he then became an enthusiastic student of Neoplatonism, and for a time believed he was making real progress in his quest.

Augustine's mother had followed him to Milan, and he allowed her to arrange a society marriage, for which he abandoned his concubine. But he had to wait two years until his fiancée came of age. So, he promptly took up in the meantime with another woman. It was during this period that he uttered his famous prayer, "Grant me chastity and continency, but not yet" (da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo).1

In the summer of 386, after having read an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert which greatly inspired him, Augustine underwent a profound personal crisis and decided to convert to Christianity, abandon his career in rhetoric, quit his teaching position in Milan, give up any ideas of marriage, and devote himself entirely to serving God and the practices of priesthood, which included celibacy. Key to this conversion was the voice of an unseen child he heard while in his garden in Milan telling him in a sing-song voice to "tolle lege" ("take up and read") the Bible, at which point he opened the Bible at random and fell upon Romans 13:13, which reads: "Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying" (KJV). He would detail his spiritual journey in his famous Confessions, which became a classic of both Christian theology and world literature. Ambrose baptized Augustine, along with his son, Adeodatus, on Easter Vigil in 387 in Milan, and soon thereafter in 388 he returned to Africa. On his way back to Africa his mother died, as did his son soon after, leaving him alone in the world without family.

Upon his return to North Africa Augustine created a monastic foundation at Tagaste for himself and a group of friends. In 391 he was ordained a priest in Hippo Regius, (now Annaba, in Algeria). He became a famous preacher (more than 350 preserved sermons are believed to be authentic), and was noted for combating the Manichaean heresy, to which he had formerly adhered. In 396 he was made coadjutor bishop of Hippo (assistant with the right of succession on the death of the current bishop), and remained as bishop in Hippo until his death in 430. During the period as bishop of Hippo, he combated the Donatist and Pelagian heresies. Although he left his monastery, he continued to lead a monastic life in the episcopal residence. He left a Rule (Latin, Regula) for his monastery that has led him to be designated the "patron saint of regular clergy," that is, clergy who live by a monastic rule.

Augustine died on August 28, 430, at the age of 75, during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals. He is said to have encouraged its citizens to resist the attacks, primarily on the grounds that the Vandals adhered to the Arian heresy. It is also said that he died just as the Vandals were tearing down the city walls of Hippo.


Augustine was one of the most prolific Latin authors, and the list of his works consists of more than a hundred separate titles.2 They include apologetic works against the heresies of the Donatists, Manichaeans, and Pelagians as well as of the Arians, texts on Christian doctrine, notably "On Christian Doctrine" (De doctrina Christiana), exegetical works such as commentaries on Genesis, the Psalms and Paul's Epistle to the Romans, many sermons and letters, and the "Retractions" (Retractationes), a review of his earlier works which he wrote near the end of his life. Apart from those, Augustine is probably best known for his Confessions, which is a personal account of his earlier life, and for "The City of God" (De Civitate Dei), consisting of 22 books, which he wrote to restore the confidence of his fellow Christians, which was badly shaken by the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410.

Formulation of His Theology against Heresies

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As the Christian Church was seriously faced with the three heresies of Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism chronologically around the life time of Augustine, he proved to be a central and influential theological leader that clarified and defended the Christian faith against these heresies. Augustine wrote many treatises and letters against these heresies, and this was how his theology was developed and formulated. Hence the polemical character of his theology. Nevertheless, his theology turned out to be creative and insightful, influencing later Christian theology.

Against Manichaeanism

Manichaeism was founded by Mani, a Persian, in the third century. As a mixture of Zoroastrianism, the old Babylonian religion of the Ophitic type, gnosticism, etc., it was a dualistic religion of the two separate, co-eternal principles of light (God) and darkness (Satan). It became widespread throughout the Roman Empire till the fifth century, even influencing Christians. Augustine himself was drawn to Manichaeism for nine years before his conversion for at least two reasons: firstly, because his question of why evil is so virulent in the world seemed to be plausibly addressed by its dualistic view of the world as a mixture of God and Satan; and secondly, because he felt exempted from any responsibility for his own sin due to the Manichaean fatalism. But, as soon as he became a Christian, Augustine felt the need for protecting the Church from the Manichaean heresy.

Whereas Manichaeism believed that the power of God is limited in front of Satan, Augustine affirmed that God is all-powerful, supreme, infinite, and immutable, and that Satan did not exist from eternity. Whereas Manichaeism asserted that the world is a mixture of good and evil, Augustine held that all creatures are good. For him, as for Neoplatonism, all being is good. Against the Manichaean view of evil as substantial, Augustine presented his view of evil as non-substantial. For him, as for Neoplatonism, if all being is good, then evil is non-being (non esse) or non-substance (non substantia). To be more precise, evil is the privation of good (privatio boni). It is the privation, diminution, or falling away (defectus) of a good being from what it originally is in terms of measure, form, and order, but it is still non-substantial as mere privation or diminution: "Evil is that which falls away from essence and tends to non-existence."3 Against the pessimistic determinism of Manichaeism that deemed evil as necessary, Augustine presented an indeterminism that regarded evil only as possible. Evil is only possible because all being, which is originally created to be good, is still finite, changeable, and corruptible as it only participates in God who is infinite, unchangeable, and incorruptible as the supreme good. Whereas Manichaeism blamed God and Satan for evil as its authors and did not blame humans for evil, Augustine attributed the possibility of evil to the "free will" (liberum arbitrium) of rational creatures such as angels and humans. According to Augustine, free will is originally created to be good, but the privation or diminution of the moral rectitude which free will is originally endowed with is possible, and when it happens as in the case of Adam's fall, it constitutes moral evil, which is sin. When it comes to the question of how this moral evil starts, however, Augustine seems to have had no real answer. For he admitted that there is no efficient cause of an evil will, while God is the efficient cause of a good will: "as to whence it evil is, nothing can be said."4

Augustine's refutation of Manichaeism, although it was quite Neoplatonic, issued in a distinctive definition of God, a non-substantive theme of evil, and a free-will defense, all of which became important elements of the Christian tradition.

Against Donatism

The Donatists were a heretical group of rigorist Christians. This heresy started in 311 C.E. when Caecilianus was consecrated as bishop of Carthage by Felix, who had been a traditor (traitor) during the Diocletianic persecution (303-305). Questioning the efficacy of that consecration, they set up Majorinus against Caecilianus in the same year, and in 315 Majorinus was succeeded by Donatus, after whom this heresy was named. The Donatists claimed to be the only faithful and pure Christians, and asserted that no one outside the Donatist Church is holy enough to be able to administer the sacraments, and that if you want to be admitted to the Donatist Church, you must be rebaptized. After being persecuted by Emperor Constantine, these schismatics became resentful, furious, and even violent. The unity of the Church was severely threatened.

Augustine took pains to address this problem from around 396. His work "On Baptism, Against the Donatists" was definitive.5 He distinguished between the gift of baptism itself and the efficacious use of it, by saying that the former exists everywhere, whether inside or outside of the Catholic Church, but that the latter exists only in the place where the unity of love is practiced, i.e., the Catholic Church. In other words, baptism can be conferred even by heretics and schismatics as long as they give it in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because the real source of baptism is God and not any human being. But, it will be only after you come back to the Church that your baptism received outside of the Church becomes efficacious. You don't have to be rebaptized. The Catholic Church, of course, is far from perfect, containing bad Christians as well as good ones, but if they love one another, baptism conferred will be efficaciously and profitably used. In order to show the importance of the unity of love in the Church for the efficacy of baptism, Augustine referred to St. Cyprian's praise of Saint Peter who was so humble, patient, and loving as to be corrected even by St. Paul, his junior. In Augustine's ecclesiology, love is an essential element of the Church.

Augustine also showed much love and sympathy for the Donatist heretics, urging them to come back. Originally, therefore, he opposed the use of force for their coming back in favor of gentle discussion and instruction. Later, however, he felt some need for a practical way to cope with the violence of armed Donatist zealots, and referred to Luke 14:23 ("compel them to come in") to support the use of force,6 which the Church subsequently adopted to justify the Inquisition unfortunately. Augustine is, therefore, often blamed for having started this notorious tradition. But, many believe that this negative assessment of Augustine is not completely accurate.78 For he apparently understood the use of force to be only an act of love and not of hatred, like when God out of love forced Paul into correction and faith through physical blindness, or when we forcibly save people from a building about to collapse.9

Against Pelagianism

Pelagianism was named after Pelagius, a monk from Britain, who, as a contemporary of Augustine, stressed the moral ability of Christians to stay sinless if they will even without any supernatural assistance of grace from God. For Pelagius, divine grace merely consists in the fact that we are endowed with free will, law, and gospel. He also rejected original sin, saying that what we have in front of us is merely Adam's bad example, which we can overcome through our moral efforts. The Pelagian controversy started soon after Coelestius, a young capable lawyer, became the chief disciple of Pelagius and drew much public attention. Again, the unity of the Church was at stake theologically.


Augustine was convinced of the ineffableness of God's grace and the absolute dependence of humans on God. In 412 he was asked by the imperial official of Carthage to address the problem of the Palegian heresy. Augustine affirmed the reality of original sin, by saying that the entire human race partakes of Adam's sin both in terms of "guilt" and "corruption." Given corruption, our free will is injured and enslaved. So, God's grace is necessary in order to liberate free will from its injury and enslavement to sin. After the liberation of free will, however, God's grace is also necessary, so it may act through liberated free will. Augustine called these two distinguishable stages of divine grace "operating grace" (gratia operans) and "co-operating grace" (gratia cooperans), respectively.10 "Operating grace" is prevenient in that it precedes human free will that is "small and weak." It is also gratuitous and unmerited in that it is unconditionally given only on the ground of God's infinite mercy and undeserved favor. By contrast, "co-operating grace" is given subsequently to work with liberated "great and robust" free will.


The Pelagians apparently talked about the purity and holiness of marriage and sexual appetite, blaming Augustine's view of original sin for making marriage evil. In response, Augustine distinguished between marriage and concupiscence (lustful desire), saying that marriage is good, while concupiscence is evil, and that concupiscence is not the essence of marriage but an accident of it.11 Marriage is good because it is a sacrament that shows a bond of love centering on God and also because it involves sexual union for procreation. The evil of concupiscence does not destroy the goodness of marriage, although it conditions the character of the offspring through the transmission of original sin which it allows for in sexual union. In this context, sexual union for the gratification of lust in marriage is discouraged as venial sin. Furthermore, virginity is preferred to marriage in spite of the goodness of marriage.

Original sin and its transmission

Augustine was not the first to talk about original sin. Before him, Church Fathers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrose discussed about it. But Augustine took the subject more seriously. According to Augustine, original sin is the sin of disobedience committed by Adam when he fell, and it affects all his descendants because the whole essence of human nature was contained in him. This solidarity of all individual humans through the fallen essense of human nature, according to Eugène Portalié, reflects Augustine's Platonic realism.12 Original sin thus explained contains both "guilt" and "corruption." (Note that Eastern Orthodoxy, by contrast, refers to original sin only in terms of "corruption," thus not taking original sin as seriously as Augustine.) Thus, we are all both guilty of Adam's sin and corrupted in our human nature. Augustine's further explanation of how original sin is transmitted from generation to generation is noteworthy. According to him, it is transmitted through sexual intercourse, although Adam's fall itself did not involve any sexual intercourse. After Adam's fall, however, sexual intercourse even in lawful marriage can never avoid concupiscence, which is a bad sexual desire. Concupiscence totally overwhelms parents engaged in sexual intercourse for procreation, depriving them of self-control and rational thought, although it is permissible for the purpose of procreation. This is how original sin is transmitted from parents to their child: "Wherefore the devil holds infants guilty who are born, not of the good by which marriage is good, but of the evil of concupiscence, which, indeed, marriage uses aright, but at which even marriage has occasion to feel shame."13 Predestination

During and after the Pelagian controversy, Augustine developed a doctrine of predestination in accordance with his doctrine of unmerited "operating grace." God chooses the elect gratuitously, without any previous merit on their part, and even before the foundation of the world God predestines who the elect are. The number of the elect "is so certain that one can neither be added to them nor taken from them."14

One might wonder if Augustine's emphasis on grace and predestination was contradictory to his earlier emphasis on free will during the Manichaean controversy. In fact, the Pelagians themselves appealed to his earlier, anti-Manichaen work, "The Free Choice of the Will," written in 395. But, it should be noted that throughout his entire theological career Augustine himself never abandoned his doctrine of free will. So, there seems to have been no contradiction in the mind of Augustine. According to him, divine knowledge is the key to reconciling predestination and free will. For God predestines to save those who he foreknows will choose to be saved through their free wills:

… they themselves also exhort to chastity, charity, piety, and other things which they confess to be God's gifts, and cannot deny that they are also foreknown by Him, and therefore predestinated; nor do they say that their exhortations are hindered by the preaching of God's predestination, that is, by the preaching of God's foreknowledge of those future gifts of His.15

According to Augustine, therefore, it is always correct to say that all can be saved if they wish. This unique way of reconciling predestination and free will by Augustine, which was further developed by the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina in the sixteenth century, was not recognized by Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin nor by prominent historians of theology such as Adolf von Harnack and Friedrich Loofs. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, Augustine never taught the absolute type of predestinarianism of Calvin and others, and its origin "must be traced back to the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of St. Augustine's views relating to eternal election and reprobation."16

Other Theological Developments

The Trinity

It took Augustine many years to finish writing his treatise On the Trinity (De Trinitate), spanning a period from 400-416, because he was sometimes in bad health and he was also busy in being involved with the Donatist controversy. But, the treatise was not polemical (except sporadically when arguing against Arianism), as there was no concerted attack upon the doctrine of the Trinity. His intention was to help strengthen the faith of his fellow Catholics in the mystery of the Trinity through the Bible (books 1-7) and also through his unique analogy of psychology (books 8-15). Apparently due to his lack of knowledge of Greek, Augustine did not read the trinitarian writings of Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers except translated excerpts from them, thus not even referring to the Nicene word of homoousios ("of the same substance"). But, his treatise turned out to be one of his most important accomplishments.

According to Augustine, although the Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not inferior to the Father. Of course, in order to argue for the unity of the three persons, the Greek Fathers had already talked about the "mutual indwelling" (perichoresis) of the three persons, and Augustine did not disagree. But, the theory of mutual indwelling apparently had the threeness of the Trinity as its presupposition. Augustine now went the other way around, by saying that the oneness of the divine nature is prior to the threeness of the Trinity because the divine nature is held in common by the three persons. According to Augustine, the three persons are so united and co-equal that they are just one person in a way: "since on account of their ineffable union these three are together one God, why not also one person; so that we could not say three persons, although we call each a person singly."17 Hence his belief also that creation, redemption, and sanctification, i.e., the external operations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are indivisible (opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). Needless to say, he held that the Holy Spirit proceeds for the Father and the Son.

Augustine's psychological analogy of the Trinity is very original. According to this, as human beings were created in the image of God, an image of the Trinity should be found in them and especially in the psychology of the human mind. He pointed to many vestiges of the Trinity in the human mind such as: 1) lover, loved, and their love; 2) being, knowing, and willing; 3) memory, understanding, and will; and 4) object seen, attention of mind, and external vision. From this started the Catholic doctrine of vestiges of the Trinity in creation (vestigia trinitatis in creatura).

Divine illumination

When the human mind or soul, which is finite and mutable, perceives sense objects, which are also finite and mutable, how certain is its perception of the objects? This is the problem of certitude in perception. Can our perception acquire eternal and immutable truths about the objects which are finite and mutable? Plato answered this in the affirmative through his theory of recollection of eternal ideas. Augustine, too, answered it in the affirmative, but his approach was different from Plato's because he as a Christian did not believe in Plato's notion of the pre-existence of the soul. Following Plotinus' crucial notion that the eternal ideas or forms subsist in the mind of God, therefore, Augustine suggested that if divine illumination comes upon us and the sense objects to be known by us, then the eternal ideas or forms which are subjoined to these objects will be seen by us, with the result that we acquire eternal and immutable truths about the objects: "the intellectual mind is so formed in its nature as to see those things i.e., eternal ideas or forms, which by the disposition of the Creator are subjoined to things intelligible i.e., sense objects to be known in a natural order, by a sort of incorporeal light of a unique kind." And it is just like the physical eye can see things if there is corporeal light from the sun, i.e., "as the eye of the flesh sees things adjacent to itself in this bodily light."18 Thus, when the eternal ideas or forms subjoined to the objects are illumined by God, they constitute our criteria of judging and evaluating the objects.

Later, the Franciscans interpreted this to mean that God's illumination directly infuses and impresses the eternal ideas or forms upon the human mind for its judgment and evaluation of the objects. But this interpretation seems to regard human beings merely as passive receivers of God's intellectual activity. Perhaps, our role should be more active, given Augustine's admission that the eternal ideas or forms are already existent in the human mind in some way: "unless something of our own mind were subjoined to them i.e., eternal ideas or forms, we should not be able to employ them as our measures by which to judge of corporeal things."19

Creation of the world

Interpreting Genesis

Augustine took the view that the biblical text of Genesis should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason. In an important passage in his The Literal Meaning of Genesis, he wrote:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on the facts which they themselves have learned from experience and the light of reason?20

Thus, Augustine took the view that everything in the universe was created simultaneously by God, and