Augustine of Hippo (Part 2 of 2): Rightly Dividing the Truth

Augustine of Hippo (Part 2 of 2): Rightly Dividing the Truth

Augustine’s life (a.d. 354-430) can be divided virtually into halves. The first half of his life (see FACTS for FAITH 5) was spent searching for the truth that would give meaning, purpose, and significance to his life. The second half of his life was spent reflecting upon, explaining, defending, and living out the truth that he had encountered through faith in Jesus Christ. Given his lifelong quest for truth and his years of leadership in the church, Augustine made many contributions of enduring value.

Prolific Classical Author

One of Augustine’s most important contributions to both the Christian church and to Western culture is his voluminous body of writings. He was one of the most prolific authors of antiquity. Of his vast literary output, 113 books and treatises, more than 200 letters, and over 500 written sermons survive. In fact, Augustine wrote three of the most important theological, philosophical, and apologetic works in history. These same three works have also become literary classics of Western civilization. They are the Confessions, The City of God, and On the Trinity.


Confessions gave birth to a whole new genre of literature in Western culture—the autobiography. The work chronicles Augustine’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual pilgrimage from paganism to Christianity. The title “Confessions” can be understood in a triple sense: Augustine’s candid and contrite confession of sin, his sincere confession of newfound faith, and his thankful confession of the greatness of God.

The content of the Confessions may provide the most penetrating spiritual and psychological self-analysis of any work ever written. Suffused with truly profound theological, philosophical, and apologetic insights, Augustine quoted and expounded the Scriptures throughout. He devoted the latter part of the work to an exegetical analysis of the early chapters of Genesis (the created world being the cosmic setting for the soul’s journey to God). Written in the form of a prayer to God (similar to the Psalms), the work also serves as thought-provoking devotional literature.

While the Confessions records Augustine’s extraordinary life and spiritual pilgrimage, the book may really be about the human soul’s search for God. In reading the Confessions, people often feel they are reading about their own search for God. Confessions certainly stands as one of the greatest Christian books ever written.

The City of God

Written over a 13-year period, The City of God (the title is taken from Psalm 87:3) stands as Augustine’s magnum opus. It is his longest (about 1500 pages) and most comprehensive work, and is considered by some to be his most significant contribution to Western thought. In this book, Augustine laid new foundations in the fields of Christian apologetics and in the analysis of Christian history.1

The City of God can be divided into two major parts. The first part of the work consists of Augustine’s refutation of the charge made by some Roman citizens that Christianity was responsible for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. In the second part, Augustine developed his own tale of two cities: “the City of God” and “the City of Man.” The City of God, represented as “Jerusalem,” has a divine origin and a heavenly, or eternal, destiny. The City of Man, represented as “Babylon,” has a human origin and an earthly, or temporal, destiny. Augustine saw human affairs, like all things, as being under the control of the sovereign and providential plan of Almighty God. In this work, Augustine gave the Western world its first philosophy of history, presenting and defending a distinctly Christian linear view of history.

On the Trinity

This work contains the first fully systematic theological presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Augustine explained and defended orthodox Trinitarianism, asserting that the one true God exists eternally and simultaneously as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He vigorously rejected all forms of subordinationism that would treat the Son or the Holy Spirit as inferior in nature to the Father. He defended the Western church’s position that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father “and the Son.” [The use of the phrase “and the Son” (filioque) in the Western version of the Nicene Creed later gave rise to the filioque controversy that sharply divided the Eastern and Western churches.]

A unique feature in Augustine’s approach to the Trinity is his use of “psychological analogies.”2 He argued that since the Triune God created the world, one would reasonably expect to find “traces of the Trinity” in creation. And since human beings were made in the expressed image of the Triune God (Imago Dei), traces of the Trinity are likely to be found in human beings. Augustine believed the human mind (composed of “intellect, memory, and will”) reflected this three-in-one concept. Augustine believed that this Trinity doctrine was derived from, and fully supported by, sacred Scripture.

Theologian of Grace

The theological traditions of Roman Catholicism and historic Protestantism both claim Augustine as one of their own. On one hand, his theological views concerning the nature of the church and the sacraments (arising from the Donatist controversy) significantly influenced the development of Roman Catholic theology. On the other hand, his theological views concerning the nature of original sin, the absolute necessity of grace in salvation, and predestination (arising from the Pelagian controversy) influenced how Protestants formulated their doctrinal views. In effect, Augustine’s theological views substantively influenced how Western Christendom formulated many of its central doctrines.3 Those doctrines, within the context of systematic theology, include: anthropology (doctrine of man), hamartiology (doctrine of sin), soteriology (doctrine of salvation), ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), and eschatology (doctrine of the last things). The following two doctrinal controversies illustrate Augustine’s significant theological influence.

The Donatist Controversy

In the early part of the fourth century, the Christian church suffered severe persecution at the hands of the Roman emperor Diocletian (a.d. 284-313). During the persecution, certain Christian leaders bowed to the pressure and surrendered their copies of Scripture (possession of which was declared illegal) to the Roman authorities. After the persecution died down, some of those leaders who had given in to Rome’s demands nevertheless rejoined the church. The Donatists (named from Bishop Donatus, and centered in North Africa) argued that these traditores (“those who handed over,” traitors) should be excluded from the church, for the church was made up only of the “pure.” The Donatists further argued that apostate (lapsed from the faith) clergymen cannot properly and validly administer the church’s sacraments. The Donatists subsequently divided from the catholic church and formed their own “pure church.”

The Donatist controversy4 was very important for it raised questions concerning the true nature of the church and the validity of its sacramental system. Augustine opposed the Donatists, arguing that the Christian church throughout its existence would remain a “mixed body” of both saints and sinners. He believed that the lapsed clergymen could be restored to the church through repentance. Further, he argued that the validity and the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the human agent who administers them, but rather upon the One who instituted the sacraments, namely Jesus Christ. For Augustine, the personal unworthiness of a minister could not compromise the validity of the sacraments. Augustine’s views became normative in the church concerning these issues.

The Pelagian Controversy

In the early part of the fifth century, an intense theological controversy broke out over the nature of human sin and the necessity of divine grace in salvation. Pelagius (ca. a.d. 360-420), a British lay monk, in attempting to bring about moral reform in the church began teaching that human nature was not corrupted by Adam’s fall (a denial of original sin) and that salvation was an earned reward. For Pelagius, human nature had no natural or inherent inclination toward evil that must inevitably result in sin; thus, human beings need not sin. He believed that sin resulted merely from improper education, bad examples, and bad habits.

Augustine viewed Pelagianism5 as a dangerous heresy of self-help salvation. He argued vigorously that Adam’s fallen nature (including both guilt and corruption) had indeed been transmitted to his progeny. Fallen humanity, left to its own devices, could never enter into a relationship with God. He even referred to fallen humanity as massa damnationis, “a mass of damnation.”6 However, God has intervened in mankind’s desperate dilemma through the life, death, and resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ. For Augustine, salvation is a gift of God’s grace from first to last. What human beings cannot do for themselves because of sin, God has accomplished through the grace of Christ. Historical theologian Alister E. McGrath comments:

Augustine held ‘grace’ to be the unmerited or undeserved gift of God, by which God voluntarily breaks the hold of sin upon humanity. Redemption is possible only as a divine gift. It is not something which we can achieve ourselves, but is something which has to be done for us. Augustine thus emphasizes that the resources of salvation are located outside of humanity, in God himself. It is God who initiates the process of salvation, not men or women.7

Ultimately, Pelagius and Augustine had two fundamentally different views of Christianity. McGrath succinctly summarizes the Pelagian-Augustinian debate:

The ethos of Pelagianism could be summed up as ‘salvation by merit,’ whereas Augustine taught ‘salvation by grace.’ It will be obvious that these two different theologies involve very different understandings of human nature. For Augustine, human nature is weak, fallen, and powerless; for Pelagius, it is autonomous and self-sufficient. For Augustine, humanity must depend upon God for salvation; for Pelagius, God merely indicated what has to be done if salvation is to be attained, and then leaves men and women to meet those conditions unaided. For Augustine, salvation is an unmerited gift; for Pelagius, salvation is a justly earned reward.8

Augustine’s view that Christianity is a religion of divine rescue finally overcame Pelagius’s self-help religion. In the year a.d. 431, at the Council of Ephesus, Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy. Augustine’s teaching about salvation by grace, in which he was deeply influenced by the Apostle Paul’s epistles, would significantly influence the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. Augustine later became known as the doctor gratiae (“doctor of grace”).9

Controversial Understanding of Predestination

The Pelagian controversy also focused Augustine’s thinking concerning the doctrine of predestination. In his early writings, Augustine taught that God merely chose those human beings whom He foreknew would freely choose to believe in Him (thus predestination is based upon God’s foreknowledge). However, the mature Augustine took the position that God chooses to extend His saving grace to some (the elect), but not to all (bypassing the reprobate).10 Thus God predestines some to eternal life via (irresistible but not coercive) grace, but leaves others in their sin to be justly condemned (thus predestination is based upon God’s autonomous and inscrutable choice).

Augustine’s “great and terrible” doctrine of so-called double predestination (though the reprobates are damned through their own choice and deeds) was rejected by many in his time and still is by many today. However, Augustine believed that while God’s act of election may be inequitable [“Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13)], His election is not unjust. For Augustine reasoned that sinners have no claim whatsoever to the grace of God. The choice as to whom God extends His grace is totally within God’s sovereign discretion and prerogative. Most importantly, Augustine believed his thinking on the subject was merely reflecting the clear teaching of Scripture, especially the writings of the Apostle Paul (Romans 8-9; Ephesians 1).

Augustine’s strong predestinarian views influenced a number of Roman Catholic thinkers in history, but has been for the most part set aside or rejected by modern day Roman Catholicism. Augustine’s basic views on this topic were embraced in large part by such Protestant Reformers as Martin Luther and John Calvin, and are still reflected today in the historic confessional statements of the Reformed theological tradition.

Christian Philosopher

While Augustine had no formal education in philosophy, he was nevertheless an intuitive philosopher with varied interests. His use of philosophy in the service of his study of theology left a deep and abiding influence on Western philosophical thought. What follows is a brief outline of some of Augustine’s philosophical ideas and contributions (for most references within the following section see reference11).

Augustine’s Top Ten Contributions to Philosophy

1. Theory of Time: In the ConfessionsBook 11 Augustine developed a very provocative concept of time. He argued that time itself is part of the created order and that time is uniquely apprehended through the human mind (the past in memory, the present in recognition, and the future in expectation). The philosophical skeptic Bertrand Russell said Augustine’s theory of time was superior to Immanuel Kant’s subjective theory.

2. Learning Language: Augustine attempted to explain how small children learn and express language. The analytical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s starting point (albeit critical) in his Philosophical Investigations was Augustine’s discussion of language in the Confessions.

3. Faith Seeking Understanding: In his Sermon (43.7, 9) Augustine asserted: Crede, ut intelligas (“Believe in order that you may understand”).12 For Augustine, faith (“trust in a reliable source”) is an indispensable element in knowledge. One must believe in something in order to know anything. Knowledge begins with faith and faith provides a foundation for knowledge. Faith is itself indirect knowledge (like testimony or authority). While faith comes first in time, knowledge comes first in importance. Faith and reason do not conflict, but instead complement one another. Augustine believed that while reason does not cause faith, reason everywhere supports faith. Augustine also argued that Christians should seek to use their reason to understand doctrines (the Trinity, Incarnation, etc.) that are given via divine revelation (thus “faith seeking understanding”). Augustine’s writings about the role of faith influenced Credo, ut intelligam (“I believe in order that I might understand”) by St. Anselm (a.d. 1033-1109).

4. Ontological Argument: Augustine’s writings also influenced St. Anselm’s formulation of the ontological argument for the existence of God. In De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine), Augustine wrote that God is “something than which nothing more excellent or more sublime exists . . .”13 Anselm would later write in his work the Proslogion that, “God is a being than which none greater can be conceived.”

5. Refutation of Skepticism: The French philosopher René Descartes’ (1596-1650) cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) is derived from Augustine’s dubito ergo sum (“I doubt, therefore I am”) and si fallor sum (“If I am deceived, I am”).14

6. Existence of God from Eternal Truths: Augustine argued that the human mind apprehends universal, objective, unchanging, and necessary truths that are superior to the human mind itself. Since truth must reside in a mind, Augustine argued that these eternal truths are grounded in the eternal mind of God. Thus an eternal God exists to explain these eternal truths.

7. Response to the Problem of Evil: Augustine argued that while evil is real it is not a substance or a “stuff.” Rather, evil is a privation (an absence of goodness in the human will). Therefore, God did not create evil; only good. Augustine further argued that the origin of evil resulted when Lucifer chose a lower good (himself) and exalted it above the ultimate good (God).

8. Divine Illumination: Augustine developed an epistemology (theory of knowledge) known as divine illumination. Augustine believed that God illumines the human mind, and makes the world and divine truths intelligible. Human knowledge is thus directly dependent upon God.

9. Creation Ex Nihilo: Augustine vigorously argued that God created the world ex nihilo (creation “out of nothing” or “from nothing”). This means that God created the universe without recourse to anything but His infinite wisdom and awesome power. God called the world into existence not from pre-existent matter or energy or some other “stuff,” but literally out of, or from, nothing. There was nothing but God. Then He created the universe (including matter, energy, and time). Certain points of Augustine’s fifth-century cosmological thinking are amazingly consistent with modern-day big bang cosmology.

10. The Examined Self: Augustine was one of the first to write in depth about the self, particularly in relation to God. In the Confessions, he discusses the negative effects of sin on human nature and the will. He explores the motives and intents of behavior, and how human happiness is only found in a loving relationship with God. He argues that what human beings need most are hearts that rest in the love and care of Almighty God.

Contemporary Criticism of Augustine’s Thought

While Augustine’s presentation and defense of classical Christian theism is strongly criticized at points by some modern scholars (especially those who are skeptical and theologically liberal), much of his thinking is still embraced by many within Western Christendom. Two areas in which Augustine is criticized, even by some sympathetic contemporary scholars, relate to his philosophical thinking and to his use of political power.

Some contemporary philosophers have argued that because Augustine is more of a rhetorician than a philosopher, his philosophical writings sometimes lack “precise, systematic argumentation.”15 This apparent lack of systematization is illustrated by Augustine’s conflicting positions in different works, and by the current inability to know precisely what his views were on certain topics. The enduring tradition of Augustinianism is often understood as representing broad philosophical themes rather than exact positions. In fairness to Augustine, however, he never intended to isolate his philosophical views from their broader theological context, or from the important context of his life experiences. Augustine is uniquely a Christian philosopher and/or a philosophical theologian.

Some have criticized Augustine for his handling of the Donatist controversy. Augustine used the political and legal power of the Roman Empire to suppress the Donatist church. Because of their schismatic views, the Donatists were fined and their church properties were confiscated. From Augustine’s point of view, this was his attempt to compel the Donatists to come back to the catholic church after swallowing some bitter medicine. It is important to note that he never called for the Donatists to be tortured or executed as heretics.

The Oxford History of Western Philosophy summarizes Augustine’s tremendous influence on Western intellectual history as follows:

It is arguable that Augustine is the most influential philosopher who ever lived. His authority has been felt much more broadly, and for a much longer time, than Aristotle’s, whose role in the Middle Ages was comparatively minor until rather late. As for Plato, for a long time much of his influence was felt mainly through the writings of Augustine. For more than a millennium after his death, Augustine was an authority who simply had to be accommodated. He shaped medieval thought as no one else did. Moreover, his influence did not end in the Middle Ages. Throughout the Reformation, appeals to Augustine’s authority were common place on all sides. His theory of illumination lives on in Malebrache and in Descartes’s “light of nature.” His approach to the problem of evil and to human free will is still widely held today. His force was and is still felt not just in philosophy but also in theology, popular religion, and political thought . . .16

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  1. Ronald H. Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 163-4; Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed. Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), s.v. “De Civitate Dei.
  2. Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 67-72.
  3. McGrath, 26-27.
  4. McGrath, 34, 72-79.
  5. McGrath, 35-37, 79-85.
  6. Fitzgerald, s.v. “Predestination.”
  7. McGrath, 36.
  8. McGrath, 36.
  9. McGrath, 35.
  10. Fitzgerald, s.v. “Predestination.”
  11. See Colin Brown, Christianity & Western Thought, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1990), 93-99; Nash, 140-66; Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 40-90.
  12. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), s.v.v. “Crede, ut intelligas,” “Credo, ut intelligam.” 
  13. As cited in Copleston, 70.
  14. Copleston, 54.
  15. Anthony Kenny, ed. The Oxford History of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University, 1994), 59.
  16. Kenny, 57-58.