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Reflections

Did Augustine Lead the Ancient Church Astray?

By Kenneth R. Samples - February 4, 2020
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Anybody who has heard my podcast, listened to my theological lectures, reviewed my Reflections blog, or read my books will know that I have a special appreciation for St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430). He is my favorite Christian thinker outside of the Bible, though just a little ahead of other great Christian thinkers like St. Athanasius, Blaise Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. I also realize that not everybody shares my appreciation.

I am attracted to Augustine for many reasons, including the notion that I think a contemporary Christian philosopher needs to hitch their wagon to a robust philosophical-theological tradition within Christendom. In such a system, philosophy serves as a handmaid to historic Christian theology. And for me as an evangelical Protestant, Augustine in particular and the tradition of Augustinianism in general comprise a vibrant orthodox system of Christian thought. While Augustine’s ideas aren’t without reasonable theological challenges and difficulties, I think Augustine and the broad tradition that bears his name got the most important doctrinal issues right (God, creation, sin, salvation) and they reflect a broad ecumenical part of Western Christendom.

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But while I am glad to associate myself with Augustine, some people have challenged me by asserting that Augustine is not an appropriate theological model because he led the ancient church astray. I recently received that criticism from someone who reads my blog posts, and I would like to respond.

Criticism of St. Augustine

“As for Augustine, he was a man with a great experience of God, it would appear, but he was [also] the author/inventor of the most misleading doctrines; doctrines which had never appeared in church history previously and which have blighted the life of the church ever since. It is not for me to evidence what I’m saying in a brief comment like this—I would simply recommend reading God’s Strategy in Human History by Roger Forster and Paul Marston, a book whose appendix in particular takes the Augustinian view apart. Forster is an important church leader/thinker in England, formerly a mathematician at Cambridge; Marston’s area is history and philosophy of science.”

My Response

Here’s my brief response to a couple of the critic’s comments:

“He [Augustine] was the author/inventor of the most misleading doctrines.”

St. Augustine was the champion of such essential Christian doctrines as creation ex nihilo, original sin, salvation by grace, and the Trinity. These doctrines generally reflect the consensus of Christian orthodoxy.

Even Augustine’s somewhat controversial view of predestination is very similar to that of other great theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, and John Calvin. Some within Christendom, though certainly not all, would even argue that Augustine’s view largely reflects the views of the apostle Paul as set forth in the Book of Romans (specifically chapters 8 and 9).

Also, some people criticize Augustine for his attachment to Neoplatonism, but I think the criticism is overstated. Neoplatonism does influence some of his thinking, but Augustine’s final authority is Scripture. For example, his body of writing, which extends to five million words, includes some 40,000 biblical references. He is the most prolific author of antiquity, surpassing all other Latin and Greek writers.

“[Augustine’s] doctrines . . . had never appeared in church history previously and . . . have blighted the life of the church ever since.”

Augustine is not highly regarded in Eastern Christendom, but he is still one of the great shapers of Christian orthodoxy overall. His theological influence covers an extensive range: anthropology, hamartiology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

Among patristic scholars, Augustine is often spoken of as the greatest of the church fathers. Rather than being a “blight” on the church, his theological influence has shaped much of Catholic and Protestant thinking about the very nature of the church itself.

We might also consider Augustine’s tremendous influence on other areas such as philosophy (e.g., faith seeking understanding), psychology (e.g., the examined self), and Christian apologetics (e.g., the problem of evil). Thus, I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that St. Augustine is arguably the most influential Christian thinker outside of the New Testament and one of historic Christian theology’s deepest shapers and defenders.

For more details, I recommend my book Classic Christian Thinkers, which includes chapters on Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, and Lewis.

Although anyone is welcome to disagree with Augustine (many scholars, including me, disagree with some of his views), in such areas as creation, sin, grace, and the triune nature of God his thinking has been held in high regard and he has, without question, shaped virtually all of Western Christendom.

Final Thoughts

St. Augustine was far from a perfect man, and he humbly admitted making mistakes in his theological thinking. His most popular book Confessions testifies to his state as a sinner who was in desperate need of God’s gracious gift of salvation in Christ. And his last book Retractions shows that he wrestled with various theological issues—even changing his mind on some important matters.

Even if you do disagree with some of Augustine’s views, like my friend above, I hope you’ll consider reading his writings and not merely listening to or reading what others, including me, say about him. A good place to start is with his book Confessions. You’ll be reading a Christian and literary classic of Western civilization.

Reflections: Your Turn

Have you read any of St. Augustine’s writings? Do you have a favorite Christian thinker outside of the Bible? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

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  • Sin
  • Historical Figures
  • Church History
  • History of Christianity
  • Christian History
  • Augustine
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  • Confessions
  • Augustinianism
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