August 28 – Augustine of Hippo

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

20 – Augustine of Hippo, Christian thinker

Aurelius Augustinus, arguably perhaps the greatest figure in the Western church, was born at Thagaste in North Africa in 354CE, the son of a devout Christian mother, Monica and a pagan father, Patricius. He lived only five of his 76 years outside of North Africa. Schooled at Madaura and Carthage, his reading of Cicero’s protreptic work Hortensius inspired him at the age of eighteen – the same year when his father died and his own son Adeodatus was born – to pursue Truth. He taught briefly at Thagaste and then at Carthage and then in 383, perhaps to escape the suffocating presence of his mother, he took ship for Rome itself where he accepted an imperial post teaching rhetoric.

In the intervening years, in his quest for truth, he had read the Bible but without real interest and engaged as a hearer with the Manichaean sect. While in the end he ended his association with this group, their influence, positively or negatively, continued to inform his theological development for the rest of his life. After a short stay in Rome he accepted the imperial post of Professor of Rhetoric at Milan and his move there in 384 began for him a journey from Platonism to Christianity, from Milan to Cassiciacum to Ostia to Thagaste and thence to Hippo in North Africa.

In Milan he met the formidable bishop Ambrose who introduced him to (Neo) platonism and to Greek Fathers like Basil. In the garden of his residence at Milan he experienced his famous conversion, went on retreat to Cassiciacum where he wrote his Soliloquies, and thence to Ostia where he experienced his famous vision.

Following Monica’s death, he returned to North Africa and Thagaste via Rome and there determined to set up a retreat of sorts for like-minded men. A side-trip to Hippo – and the untimely death of his son – saw a life-changing experience where he was ordained, effectively by force, by the church there, made co-bishop and then, on the death of the bishop in 395, elected in his place.

As bishop he wrote much. Between 397 and 401 he wrote his magisterial Confessions in which he explored the personal life in the context of his own journey to faith. This work is widely regarded as not only a major text in the Christian canon but also in the Western literary canon itself. Over a twenty-year period – from 399 to 419 – he wrote the De Trinitate which has so influenced the development of this central doctrine in the Western church. From 411 onwards he began a series of anti-Donatist writings in which he developed his ecclesiological thought. Between 413 and 425 he authored the De Civitate Dei – perhaps it should have been titled A Tale of Two Cities! – in which he presented a way in which human history might be understood as a process in which people either turn towards God or away from God and into themselves. The content is somewhat drawn-out perhaps but the idea is magnificent. From 413 he began his writing against the teaching of the British Pelagius – whom he never actually met in person – and the so-called Pelagians, including the extremist Julian, bishop of Eclanum. His authoritative De natura et gratia in which he outlined his concerns with Pelagius’ own writings – though Augustine managed here to play the ball and not the man, for he clearly regarded him with great respect – and with presenting his notion of original sin [or guilt], that idea with which Augustine is clearly, rightly or not, so identified. The next few years saw other like writings, including the contra Julianum (in six books) and On Grace and Freewill. In his later years he developed and published his Retractationes in which he amended, modified and even dismissed some of his earlier views on a wide range of matters.

In 430, as the Arian Vandals besieged the city of Hippo the great bishop and Doctor of the Church died. When the Vandals finally entered and burned the city all that they left untouched were Augustine’s cathedral and his library.

 by Rev Dr David Mackay-Rankin