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Augustine: Foundational Thinker, Part I

On November 13, A.D. 354, on the cusp of the dying Roman Empire during the reign of Constantius II, Aurelius Augustine was born.

  • Rebecca Morecraft,
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On November 13, A.D. 354, on the cusp of the dying Roman Empire during the reign of Constantius II, Aurelius Augustine was born. His mother, Monica, was a Christian, and his father, most likely a Berber born in Numidia, was a pagan named Patricius. His hometown, Tagaste, was “nothing more than a somewhat pleasant county-seat for farms and great estates,”1 in what is now Algeria in North Africa. This small town had a thin veneer of Roman culture but national Berber traditions were still strong.

Augustine was probably of swarthy complexion, not very tall, and physically frail. “A stomach ailment almost killed him when he was a boy and a terrible fever (perhaps malaria) brought him close to death again when he was in his 20’s. He did survive for 76 years but throughout his life he was plagued with asthma, a bad stomach, insomnia, and recurrent fevers. His weak lungs were a factor in his decision to give up teaching when he was still a young man (though this did not stop him from preaching at length without benefit of microphone for forty years in his cathedral church at Hippo). When he was 56 exhaustion did force him to take time off in the country, but he continued his preaching and teaching and writing thereafter till shortly before his death 20 years later.”2

His mother steadfastly taught Augustine the basic principles of Christianity in his childhood although he held them in reserve while wasting his youth in decadent living. And yet, he admits that even in his rebellion against its statutes, the Bible was always a holy book of divine authority to him, beckoning with its promises, condemning with its threats. According to his own testimony, “he had already with his mother’s milk sucked in and preserved the name of the Saviour so intensely that nothing could really delight him later that was deprived of this name. (‘Confessions,’ III,4,8)”3 The key phrase in this admission is that “nothing could really delight him.” Eventually that early claim on his life and heart could no longer be denied when, in the providence of God, he abandoned the world that is passing away, and also its lusts (1 John 2:17) and submitted to the claims of Christ, confessing Him as Lord and Savior.

Dear reader, the God of Augustine is also your Creator-God, and as such, has a prior claim on your life just as He did on this man of old times. I entreat you to avoid the bright but empty promises of sin, remembering that only Christ and obedience to His commandments will bring you fulfillment and satisfaction. Let Augustine’s testimony to the pain of a life of rebellion against God’s law convince you to avoid that kind of life at all cost and commit yourself at an early age to serving King Jesus.

From his youth Augustine had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. His father was proud of his son’s intellect and made sacrifices to give him an extensive education. He was trained as a rhetorician, which profession he practiced at Tagaste and Carthage, North Africa, Rome and Milan until his conversion in A.D. 386. The ideal rhetorician (a creation of the ancient Greeks) was a man who had mastered language and classical literature, and who could entertain by his rhetoric and oratory. Augustine’s ability to enthrall his audience with his rhetorical abilities led him to become prideful and to doubt his mother’s simple faith. He learned to rely instead on his own abilities and talents, exulting in the praise of men. Pride always leads to destruction and it was only the grace of God that led Augustine through the maze of his own puffed-up vanity and that of false teachers he respected, to The Truth.

In his young adulthood he was infatuated with various heresies. He was first swayed by a popular heresy called Manichaeism which was not only a heresy, but originally a rival religion. It was created by a man named Mani, a Persian who lived in the third century A.D., who believed he had received special revelations from God that taught the existence of two rival gods, the god of light and spirit, and the god of darkness and matter. Good and evil are not moral positions, Mani declared, rather they are states of being. Each person has the “essence” of these two rival “gods”—of good and evil—within himself. Salvation, Mani taught, consists in siding with one or the other god.

The defining mark of Manichaeism as a heresy is that it defines the issues confronting man, not as a moral antithesis, but as an antithesis of being. If the antithesis is moral, someone clearly needs changing. Christianity insists on the necessity of conversion. When a man is born again, he is not another being; he is the same man but with a new heart, with a spirit of faith and obedience, not of rebellion and disobedience.4

When he finally was convinced of its error, Augustine began refuting Manichaeism as vigorously as he had promoted it. He sought to strike at its root by disputing it on every level of thought and philosophy. His approach involved discussing its flawed beliefs in “…the nature of God and His relation to the world, the nature of the world, the nature of man, and the problem of good and evil. Augustine’s method is one of raising irreconcilable either/or’s for his opponents, and of [then] establishing his own doctrine [and position]…”5

Augustine pointed out that the Bible does not present us with two gods in endless conflict; nor does it teach that matter is evil and only spirit is good. Instead, the Bible teaches us of one true God who made everything and who made everything good—both matter and spirit. (And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. Gen. 1:31 NAS) For in Christianity, as R. J. Rushdoony states, “[S]alvation is by Christ’s atonement and by His regenerating work within us. From being rebels against God, we become members of Christ’s new humanity. This conversion makes us a new creation in the moral, not the metaphysical sense.”6

God used Augustine’s refutation of the Manicheans as a necessary phase in his pathway to conversion. Augustine later confessed to God concerning this period in his life:  “Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee … I tasted, and do hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.”7

Sadly, Augustine’s bout with Manichaeism did not cure him entirely from dabbling in heresies. He also struggled with Neoplatonism, A.D. 385.

Although Augustine saw the emptiness and error of Manichaeism, in his early years he continued to hold to a dualistic worldview because of the influence of Neo-Platonism on his thinking. (The Neo-Platonism of Plotinus held that the material/physical is inferior to the spiritual/heavenly.) Although after his conversion and as he matured as a Christian thinker he saw the unbiblical nature of Neo-Platonism … Augustine never completely escaped its influence on his thinking, but its influence on him diminished with the passage of time.8

Dr. Francis Nigel Lee comments further on the influence of Neoplatonism on Augustine’s thinking:

A remnant of neo-Platonism is seen in his apparent elevation of the spiritual above the material: the soul is vastly superior to the body…
Yet, notwithstanding all this, Augustine’s philosophy is still basically molded according to the Biblical religious basic motive of creation-fall-recreation—if his philosophy did have some non-Christian elements in it—rationalism and irrationalism, it was certainly not his intention … And Augustine’s later true successors, the Reformers in general and Calvin in particular, would intentionally try to remove these non-Christian elements and develop an exclusively Biblical life and world view.9

A brief outline of Augustine’s Christian life: He was converted to Christ in A.D. 386 and spent much of A.D. 387 studying philosophy and the Bible in Cassiciacum. He was baptized in A.D. 387 and stayed in Rome briefly, returning to his hometown, Tagaste, in the autumn of A.D. 388 where he established a Christian retreat center for himself and his friends. In A.D. 391, he was dramatically forced into ordination as a presbyter at Hippo and five years later was promoted to bishop, A.D. 396. Thus he became a Christian at age 32, a priest at 36 and a bishop at 41.  

His conversion can be told only in Augustine’s own moving words in a prayer from his Confessions:

There was a little garden next to our lodging of which we had use … Thither the tumult of my heart drove me, where no one could interrupt the fierce quarrel which I was waging with myself, until it should reach the issue known to Thee but not to me … Thus was I sick and tormented, reproaching myself more bitterly than ever, twisting and writhing in my chain, until it should be entirely broken, since now it held me but slightly—though it held me yet … And I kept saying in my heart, “O, let it be now!  Let it be now!”  And as I spoke I almost resolved—I almost did it, but I did it not … So when searching reflection had drawn out from the hidden depths all my misery and piled it up in the sight of my heart, a great tempest broke over me, bearing with it a great flood of tears … And I went further off … and flung myself at random under a fig tree there and gave free vent to my tears; and the flood of my eyes broke forth, an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And not indeed in these words, but to this purport, I cried to Thee incessantly, “But Thou, O Lord, how long?  How long, O Lord?  Wilt Thou be angry forever?  O remember not against us our iniquities of old!” I felt myself held by them; I raised sorrowful cries, “How long, how long?  Tomorrow, and tomorrow?  Why not now, why not this instant, end my wickedness?”
I was speaking thus and weeping in the bitterest contrition of heart, when lo, I heard a voice, I know not whether of boy or girl, saying in a chant and repeating over and over:  Take and read, Take and read [in Latin, Tolle Lege!]. At once with changed countenance I began most intently to think whether there was any kind of game in which children chanted such a thing, but I could not recall ever hearing it. I choked back the rush of tears and rose, interpreting it no otherwise than as a divine command to me to open the book and read whatever passage I first lighted upon.—So I returned quickly to the place where Alypius [Augustine’s friend] was sitting, for I had laid down the volume of the apostle there when I left him. I seized it, opened it, and read in silence the passage on which my eyes first fell:  “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”  No further did I wish to read: nor was there need. Instantly, as I reached the end of this sentence, it was as if the light of peace was poured into my heart and all the shades of doubt faded away … For Thou didst convert me to Thyself in such a manner that I sought never a wife nor any hope of this world—taking my stand on that Rule of Faith on which Thou didst reveal me to my mother so many years before.10

What human factors led to Augustine’s conversion? We find several strands which God wove together to bind Augustine to Himself. Primarily, God worked through the prayers and tears of his mother who continually begged God to show him the emptiness of the false philosophies that intrigued him, both in his studies and acquaintances. She also prayed that he would realize as futile his attempts at true contentment pursued by his immoral lifestyle. He was greatly affected as well by the eloquent and powerful preaching of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and led to deep reflection about the state of his soul through conversations with his friends, Simplicianus and Theodorus.

Young reader, whose opinions matter most to you? To whom do you really listen? Beware of allowing the high praise of men to lead you to vanity. Beware of high-sounding words taught as “the truth” that may lead you away from the true faith, “once delivered to the saints.” Test the spirits to see if they are from God by testing every opinion of man against the Word of God. Even great men with good intentions are capable of leading themselves and others astray when they begin inventing new methodologies and proclaiming as truth the ideas of men. Remember, too, that “life is a vapor”—only what is done for Christ will last through eternity. Even the mighty Roman Empire fell.

In A.D. 410, Alaric and the Visigoths sacked Rome but   Augustine continued to serve as bishop at Hippo until his death August 28, A.D. 430, during the reign of Theodosius II.

A year later, Hippo was evacuated and partly burned by the Vandals. Yet … Augustine’s library escaped destruction and thus enabled Possidius to compile a full list of his works and write his Life of Augustine. In 475, a young Romulus Augustulus was made emperor of the Empire, but an empire reduced to a very small amount of territory. Completely ruined, it could no longer fulfill its engagements to its army, whereupon the troops [mostly barbarians], elected as their head Odoacer, a Germanic leader. He was proclaimed emperor in 476 and the Roman Empire was no more. [During the time of the Romans, North Africa was a fertile agricultural area known as ‘the bread-basket’ of the Roman Empire., R.M.] All of the riches that had belonged to North Africa were to dwindle during the Vandal occupation and after the arrival of the Turks and Arabs these riches were to disappear entirely, giving place to arid mountains and desert brush, with only traces of the old roads, cities and monuments still to be seen along the coast.11

Why consider such a small man who lived so long ago primarily in a small area of North Africa and Rome?

Augustine’s physical world was far smaller than the whole of the Roman Empire. Apart from a few years in Italy in the 380’s, he lived his life chiefly in three places:  Tagaste, Hippo, and Carthage. His trips elsewhere in North Africa were few and limited. Though his words traveled widely, his spatial limitations are important to remember, not least because they kept him chiefly in the more urbanized and coastal north of Africa, away from the high plains and the frontier, away from the districts where a rougher form of life and perhaps a more native form of religion held sway.12

As you young people read about Augustine, remember that, whether you are large or small of stature, whether you look impressive or not, faithfulness to your calling in life is what matters. Augustine, like Athanasius, the other great African we have studied, wasn’t impressive in appearance; but his study of the Scriptures and application of them to all of life has impacted the thinking of men and helped shaped culture for over a thousand years! In another article, we’ll look at some of his most famous writings and how they have influenced theology, philosophy, the establishment of Biblical families and churches, individual holiness, and nearly all facets of Western culture.

Augustine was a man, and as such, he was not perfect nor were his writings without error. But because he attempted to “think God’s thoughts after Him,” he has contributed more than probably any man in human history to Christianity and Western civilization.

Wherever men discuss the meaning of good and evil, or human love and the love of God, or the nature of justice, or the unity of the Church and the relations of Church and State, the argument often turns on references to Augustine’s thought. Why is this so?  In part the answer is that a reading of St. Augustine belongs to the discovery of our own intellectual and spiritual ancestry. It was he who in the fourth century gave to Western civilization the formative ideas which have guided it for centuries—Whoever would know the structural ideas of the Christian tradition and Western philosophy which have shaped our minds for fifteen centuries must know Augustine.13

Another man has said that “[W]ithout Augustine there would have been no Western civilization … If anything … Western civilization is a comment on Augustine.”14 But Augustine would not have desired any praise. His Savior, who Himself was not impressive to look on and who never traveled more than a few miles from home in the region of Galilee, consumed Augustine’s thoughts and life.

Possidius, a friend, student and co-worker of Augustine, wrote a Life of Augustine, explaining his literary activity, his labors for peace and unity in the church, and his transformational education of the clergy. Possidius “…also paints for us a touchingly sincere portrait of the personality of his beloved master and enables us to see him at his daily work, submerged under superabundant labors, but always able to lift his heart to God, and already enjoying his rest with Him even in the midst of the clangor of the warfare he was ever waging for His Church and His truth.”15 He says of Augustine:

Alike at home and in the Church, he gave himself unstintedly to teaching and preaching the word of salvation with all confidence, in opposition to the heresies prevalent in Africa … to the unspeakable admiration and delight of the Christians who as far as in them lay spread abroad his words.—But I think that those could profit more from him who could hear and see him speaking as he stood in the church, especially if they were not ignorant of his walk among men. For he was not merely a learned scribe in the kingdom of heaven, bringing out of his treasury things new and old, and one of those merchantmen who, having found a pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it; but he was also of those to whom it is written, “So speak and so do,” and of whom the Saviour says, “Whosoever shall do and teach men thus, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”16

[In part two of our series on Augustine, we’ll share portions of an excellent book on his life, Son of Tears, by Henry Coray. Maybe you can find this book and read, in novel form, more details from the life of the great Augustine.]

1. Donald X. Burt, “St. Augustine, His Life and Times,” Reflections on Augustine’s Spirituality,

2. Ibid.

3. Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Church, combined edition of The Fathers of the Greek Church and The Fathers of the Latin Church (United States: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 189.

4. R. J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 234.

5. Stanley Romaine Hopper, “The Anti-Manichean Writings,” in A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine, ed.  Roy W. Battenhouse (1955; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 158.

6. R. J. Rushdoony, Roots, 233.

7. Augustine, from Confessions, x. 27.38

8. Joe Morecraft, in an unpublished paper, “Augustine of Hippo,” Cumming, GA, 2006.

9. Francis N. Lee, A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1975), 117.

10. B. B. Warfield, “The Confessions,” Calvin and Augustine, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1956), 362–363.

11. Margaret L. Jordan, unpublished paper, “Saint Augustine of Hippo and His Times,” Atlanta, GA, 33.

12. James J. O’Donnell, “ Augustine: His Time and Lives,” Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 9, .

13. Daniel D. Williams, “The Significance of St. Augustine Today,” A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine, ed. by Roy W. Battenhouse (1955 reprint; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 3.

14. Colin Wright, “St. Augustine:  His Life and Thought, Part V: Augustine’s Philosophy,” Christianity and Society, Vol. VII, No. 1, ed. by Stephen C. Perks (Somerset, England, 1997), 4.

15. B. B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 10 vols. (1932; reprint Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 2003), 4:231.

16. Ibid., 233.

*Once again, I am indebted to my husband, Rev. Joe Morecraft, III, for much of the background information of this article.

  • Rebecca Morecraft

Becky Morecraft is thankful to be married to Dr. Joe Morecraft, pastor of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in Cumming,GA. They have been married for 39 years and have four children and seven grandchildren. Becky loves to sing with her sister, Judy Rogers, to read and write. She is grateful to her parents and grandparents for teaching her to love the Lord at an early age and to appreciate her heritage.

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