Augustine: A Personal & Theological Reflection
I have now had a few weeks to let my recent weekend intensive class (emphasis on intense) and its related reading and writing assignments simmer in my brain. It turned out to be a providentially-timed class for me, one that spoke to both my mind and heart. Augustine’s impact on me was equal parts intellectual and relational. In fact, from the six books that constituted our reading list, I gleaned a number of valuable insights, ideas, and quotes that I am employing for two completely different writing projects I have underway. The first is a theological book about the true Jewish roots of the Christian faith, to which Augustine’s profound insights into the connections between the Old and New Testaments will serve as a valuable resource. The other is a personal book about the death of my father in 2020. For the last two years of his life, my father and I carried on a deep and wide-ranging correspondence—he the quiet atheist, me the reluctant evangelist—about life, God, and other small topics. In Augustine’s personal story of wandering and searching for “home,” I found many parallels to my father’s journey, and to a degree, my own journey as well.
In this paper, I will first reflect on some of the areas of Augustine’s life and doctrine that resonated with me. I will then engage with several of his theological positions, a few I agree with, and a few others I do not. Lastly, I will share some of the ways I plan to integrate and apply my newfound knowledge of Augustine, his work, and his thinking into my life.
What Resonated with Me
There were a number of facets of Augustine’s life and thinking that impacted me personally. First was how, without compromising his stature as an intellectual giant, Augustine’s motivations, and thus his writings, were steeped in love. In the ubiquitous struggle to balance truth and grace, I often find myself overemphasizing truth via intellect and knowledge. Augustine helped to bring these two sides together for me, particularly in his concept of disordered loves and his examination of loves in the City of God. He held that those whose love is placed in self (and other finite things) make up the City of Man, whereas those who focus their love on our infinite, heavenly Father represent the City of God. Moreover, in On the Trinity, as he contemplated the greatest commandment, Augustine demonstrated how love and truth are interrelated: “True love then is that we should live justly by cleaving to the truth, and so, for the love of men by which we wish them to live justly, we should despise all mortal things” (Augustine & Mckenna, 2002, 8.10). Indeed, love so saturated Augustine’s worldview that his understanding of his own story was “only possible from within the story of the triune God’s love for us” (Levering, 2013, p. 90).
I was also inspired by Augustine’s synthesis of Christian and non-Christian sources of knowledge. All truth is God’s truth. Augustine did not retreat into an ivory tower of theology but rather incorporated other sources of knowledge—sources influencing the world around him—and, in a sense, took pagan thoughts captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:5). He was showing his contemporaries how to think for themselves in a pre-Christian society. For example, Augustine agreed with Platonists that “there exists a vast ontological gap between the divine and human and that we require a mediator to bridge it” (Augustine & Harmless, 2010, p. 340), but he then went on to denounce pagan sacrifices and leverage the mutual understanding of a human/divine chasm to build a case for the Gospel. Moreover, his lines of reasoning carom effortlessly between theological and philosophical concepts. For example, in the last section of the City of God, he analyzes the fullness of human participation in God—namely, resurrection and eternal life—by employing both theological and philosophical terminology. Augustine begins with a philosophical inquiry into happiness and particular “goods,” asking if there are a final good and a final evil, and masterfully works his way toward a theological conclusion:
Concluding that humans are body–soul combinations, he reasons that the supreme good must fulfill the highest desires of both body and soul. What then are the goods that fulfill these desires? . . . for the City of God, rooted in Scripture, the answer is easy: eternal life is the supreme good, and eternal death the supreme evil.Levering, 2013, p. 138
I was amazed by another aspect of Augustine: his surprisingly modern level of self-awareness and vulnerability. This is especially evident in Confessions. My wife and I have volunteered with a Christ-centered 12-step ministry called Celebrate Recovery for 12 years. The rigorous honesty, openness, and unapologetic dependence on God expressed in the recovery community feels like “real” church to me. And many of Augustine’s sentiments sound as if they could have been pulled right from the Celebrate Recovery curriculum:
The consequence of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes a necessity. By these links, as it were, connected one to another (hence my term a chain), a harsh bondage held me under restraint.-Augustine, Confessions (7.10)
Likewise, his rhetorical question to God earlier in the same book, “Without you, what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?” (Augustine & Chadwick, 1991, p. 52). I found it not only remarkable that Augustine was thinking this way so many centuries ago, but that he wrote it down and published his flaws for the world to see. That he candidly used his failings to point others to God is precisely the kind of brave vulnerability on which recovery programs like Celebrate Recovery are built.
Perhaps it was this level of vulnerability that made him feel like a kindred spirit, a fellow sojourner who, 1,600 years before I arrived on the scene, had traveled the same trail I find myself on today. I was not just learning theology from Augustine; I was learning about myself. Handwritten, single-word comments such as “Me!” and “Same!” liter the marginalia of my stack of Augustine books. For example, I took Smith’s note that “The disordered love of learning makes you a mere technician of information for some end other than wisdom” (Smith, 2019, p. page 144) as a personal warning. Similarly impactful was Levering’s summary of Augustine’s teaching that “The problem with fallen humans is that our desires are too small . . . God wants to fill us with himself, and this will not be possible if in our hearts we have substituted the things of this world for God” (Levering, 2013, p. 57). These were timely, sober reminders from an ancient man I was coming to know and respect.
Though I do not operate anywhere near Augustine’s level of brilliance, there were also several points of commonality I felt with him. For example, his “ability to work out in precise and cogent detail, an intuition that had already been hovering in a partial, confused form, at the back of the minds of his contemporaries” (Brown, 2013, p. 146) was familiar to some of my own experiences. We also seem to share a sense of being an outsider. “No matter how much Augustine wished to share the ideals of a group, he remained irreducibly eccentric” (Brown, 2013, p. 156). And this outsiderness seems to have led us both to frustration with a world that often does not seem to listen or care. The wise Bishop of Hippo reminds us that “the man you cannot put right is still yours: he is part of you; either as a fellow human being or very often as a member of your church, he is inside with you” (Augustine, 2000, Ps. 54).
Augustine’s profound sense of internal struggle also resonated as exceedingly familiar. I love how he described it in book 8 of Confessions, “Then, in the middle of a huge argument within my inner house, a quarrel I had strongly provoked against my own soul in our bedroom, that is my heart…” (Augustine, Confessions, 8.19). Harmless picked up on Augustine’s imagery, concluding, “Augustine is having a marital spat with his ‘soul’” (Augustine & Harmless, 2010, p. 25). Augustine didn’t only struggle with his concupiscence and love-of-self as God was drawing him into salvation. Even after his conversion, he continued to be open about his struggles with issues such as the effectiveness of his communication and how to deal with public adoration without falling into pride. This same level of careful introspection, and the process of sorting it out through writing, is echoed in my own life: “I am the sort of man who writes because he has made progress, and who makes progress by writing” (Brown, 2013, p. 354).
Additionally, it was somehow comforting to learn that Augustine shared my sense of urgency (or perhaps vice versa) about the brevity of life. The more we learn, the surer we become that the span of human life is far too short for us to ever know all we desire about God. Especially with the myriad other duties life demands of us:
But when can “the tongue of my pen” (Psalm 44:2) be adequate to the task of proclaiming all your encouragement and all your terrors . . . Even if I am up to the task of setting them forth in orderly detail, then time’s drops are precious to me . . . I do not want the hours to flow away, those I find free from the necessary tasks of refreshing the body and of intellectual labor and of the service I owe people and that which we give even though we do not know it.-Augustine, Confessions (11.2)
I was surprised at how much of the theology I am learning today from relatively recent theologians such as Spurgeon, Barth, Stott, Grudem, and Sproul—not to mention earlier luminaries like Luther, Calvin, and Edwards—has its roots in the centuries-old reasoning of Saint Augustine. He brought deep analysis and profound thinking to many theological issues far earlier in Christendom than I had realized. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of his theological ideas, I found I was mostly in agreement with Augustine’s theological positions.
His thoughts on free will enormously helped me. This is a challenging issue I have been grappling with for several years, and Augustine—with able assistance via the interpretation of James K. A. Smith—helped to connect a few dots for me. Prior to reading Augustine, the concept of “freedom from” versus “freedom to” struck me as a distinction without a difference, a mere semantic maneuver. Smith summed Augustine’s thoughts in a way that clicked with me. “My freedom of choice brings me to the point where I need someone else to give me a will that is actually free. And not merely free to choose—since that’s what got me here in the first place—but free to choose the good” (Smith, 2019, p. 66).
The theological areas where I was most in disagreement with Augustine seem primarily based around what we might today consider Roman Catholic theology. For example, his view that “there was no salvation outside the church and that baptism was the essential requirement for church membership” (Bray, 2015, p. 154) is something I do not find biblical. And I would reject his view of the Church which held that “there, only there, a believer can find forgiveness of sins” (Bray, 2015, p. 147). Thus, the incident in book 4 of Confessions where Augustine’s unnamed friend was baptized while unconscious struck me as particularly disquieting. Perhaps even more so, the fact that any believer who wanted to be baptized had to make a formal application by “turning in one’s name before Lent; and the local bishop could, if he chose, deny those he judged unworthy” (Augustine & Harmless, 2010, p. 28).
There is also the matter of the persecution of religious nonconformists and heretics. While Augustine believed that the standard principle on which a bishop should act is that of tolerance, he did acknowledge “that force had to be used from time to time, because although the most enlightened people were drawn to the truth by love, the majority responded only when under threat” (Bray, 2015, p. 145). While that position may have been understandable given the political realities of Augustine’s time, as Bray (2015) points out, in the long run, it would have calamitous consequences when used as support for “the persecution of heretics and religious dissidents that so disfigured later times” (p. 145).
Lastly, I cannot entirely agree with the level of allegory that Augustine brought to the Scriptures. Namely that “every word and deed in the Old Testament can be fruitfully re-read in light of Christ so as to discern prophetic meaning” (Levering, 2013, p. 42). Re-reading the Old Testament Scriptures in light of Christ is undoubtedly profitable. Still, I would caution against trying to find prophetic meaning in every passage since it was not intended in many cases.
The integration of Augustine’s thinking into my work and my personal life has already begun, starting with his emphasis on love. The timing of this class was providential in that, just as I entered the final leg of the Master’s program, it helped in shifting my mindset from academic to relational. It was inspiring to see how Augustine served people and engaged with the issues of his day while at the same time making tremendous progress on the theological and philosophical fronts. Smith (2019) rightly points out how “Christianity has been prone to . . . rationalization and privileging of the didactic (especially in Protestantism). We reduce the wonder and mystery of grace to teachable bullet points and statement of faith” (p. 171). Yet in the course of Augustine’s journey, I saw a manifestation of both sides of Paul’s admonishment to the young church at Corinth: “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8, ESV).
I was also encouraged by Augustine’s noble methodology for interacting with interlocutors. He employed tactics that I attempt to use as well, such as applying simple logic to expose the weakness of a claim made by your opponent. For instance, in his dialog with Faustus regarding Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Since one of Faustus’s arguments is that Matthew was not actually present on the mountain when Jesus gave the sermon, Augustine points out that neither were Mani and Faustus. If Matthew is not to be believed for this reason, then neither are Mani and Faustus” (Levering, 2013, p.29). And in a crucial strategy for Christians embroiled in debate who, at the same time, strive to operate in love, Augustine eschewed personal attacks. For example, he was “careful never to attack Pelagius in person in any of his writings” (Brown, 2013, p. 463). Augustine was modeling for his contemporaries how Christians should think for themselves and “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). It is an approach I aspire to today.
I marveled at the way Augustine seemed to almost “think in Scripture.” A fact made more remarkable knowing he lived long before anyone had ready access to mass-printed, cross-referenced study Bibles or digital tools like Logos or BibleGateway.com. Augustine seemed especially enamored by the Psalms, to the point that he often sounds psalmish even when not directly citing Scripture:
Behold, Your voice is my joy, Your voice is greater than an abundance of pleasures. Grant what I love, for I do love it. And this love is also Your gift. Abandon not Your gifts nor spurn Your grass when we are thirsty.-Augustine, Confessions (11.1)
As a result, I have taken to reading the Psalms daily and am finding them come alive for me.
As I mentioned earlier, I am also gleaning much from Augustine’s writing in antiquity that is germane and relevant to my work in 2021 against the heretical Hebrew Roots Movement. For example, in City of God Augustine discusses why Christians do not imitate the Old Testament animal sacrifices but rather understand them as symbols. He brilliantly points out how the animal sacrifices were really outward signs of an invisible, internal sacrifice. He explains that even in the Old Testament, God did not desire a burnt sacrifice, but rather a contrite heart:
Notice how the prophet, in saying that God does not want a sacrifice, shows that God does want it. What he means is that God does not desire the sacrifice of a slaughtered animal but rather the sacrifice of a contrite heart. Thus, the prophet says that what God does not want is a symbol of what he does want. What the prophet means is that such things do not please God in the way that foolish people imagine, namely, to satisfy his pleasure.”Augustine et al., 1981, 10.5
The words, ideas, and motivations of Saint Augustine spoke equally to my mind and heart. More than that, he helped to show me in practical ways how the two can and should be inexorably linked in the life of a Christian. While I may not agree with everything he believed or taught, his corpus is of tremendous value to me as a Christian, a theologian, an apologist, and a man. I plan to continue to press in and read more of his work and try better understand the deep currents of thought that underlie his impactful contributions to Christian theology.
Augustine, A. (2000). Expositions of the Psalms (C. Marriot & E. Pusey, Eds.; M. Boulding, Trans.). Oxford.
Augustine, A., & Chadwick, H. (1991). Saint Augustine confessions. Oxford University Press.
Augustine, A., & Harmless, W. (2010). Augustine in his own words. Catholic University of America Press.
Augustine, A., Walsh, G. G., & Monahan, G. (1981). The city of God, books VIII-XVI. Catholic University of America Press.
Brown, P. (2013). Augustine of Hippo: a biography. University of California Press.
Levering, M. (2013). The theology of Augustine: An introductory guide to his most important works. Baker Academic.
Smith, J. K. A. (2019). On the road with Saint Augustine: A real-world spirituality for restlesshearts. Brazos Press.