Augustine’s life (AD 354–430) can be divided into roughly two halves. The first half of his journey was spent searching for the truth that would give meaning, purpose, and significance to his life. The second half was spent reflecting upon, explaining, defending, and living out the truth he encountered through faith in Jesus Christ. Given his life-long quest for truth, years of leadership in the church, and dramatic conversion, Augustine was able to make several contributions of enduring value.
Augustine the Prolific Classical Author
One of Augustine’s greatest contributions to both the Christian church and Western culture is his voluminous body of writings. He was one of antiquity’s most prolific authors. Of his vast literary output, 113 books and treatises, more than 200 letters, and over 500 written sermons survive today. In fact, Augustine wrote three of the most important theological, philosophical, and apologetic works in history: Confessions, The City of God, and On the Trinity. All three have become literary classics of Western civilization.
A unique and masterful work, Confessions gave birth to a whole new genre of literature in Western culture—the autobiography. The composition chronicles Augustine’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual pilgrimage from paganism to Christianity. The title can be understood in a triple sense: (1) Augustine’s candid and contrite admission of sin; (2) his sincere acknowledgment of new found faith; and (3) his thankful declaration of God’s greatness.
Confessions may provide the most penetrating spiritual and psychological self-analysis of any work ever written. It is also suffused with truly profound theological, philosophical, and apologetic insights. Scriptural passages are quoted and expounded throughout, with the latter part of the work being devoted to an exegetical analysis of the early chapters of Genesis (creation being the cosmic setting for the soul’s journey to God). Written in the form of a prayer to God (similar to the biblical psalms), the work can serve as excellent devotional literature for modern readers.
While Confessions records Augustine’s extraordinary life and spiritual pilgrimage, the book also captures the human soul’s search for God. Even in reading Augustine’s autobiography, people often feel that they are reading about themselves (i.e., their own search for God). Confessions certainly stands as one of the greatest Christian books ever written.
The City of God (De Civitate Dei
Written over a 13-year period, The City of God (the title of which is taken from Psalm 87:3) stands as Augustine’s magnum opus. It is certainly his longest (about 1,500 pages) and most comprehensive work. Some scholars consider it his most significant contribution to Western thought. In this book, Augustine lays new foundations in the fields of Christian apologetics and the analysis of Christian history.1
The City of God can be divided into two major parts. The first part consists of Augustine’s refutation of the charge made by some Roman citizens that Christianity was responsible for the decline and subsequent fall of the Roman Empire. In the second part, Augustine develops 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. For Augustine, human affairs, like all things, are under the control of the sovereign and providential plan of an almighty God. In this work, Augustine provides the Western world with its first philosophy of history, presenting and defending a distinctly Christian linear view of history.
On the Trinity (De Trinitate)
This work contains the first fully systematic theological presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity in church history. Augustine explains and defends orthodox Trinitarianism, asserting that the one true God exists eternally and simultaneously as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He vigorously rejects 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,” in Latin 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 argues that since the Triune God created the world it would seem reasonable to 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), remnants 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 the Trinity doctrine was derived from, and was fully supported by, sacred Scripture.
On a general level, Augustine’s works, which seem to transcend time, are great contributions to the overall self-identification and spiritual journey that all humans experience in their lifetime.
- Ronald H. Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 163–4; Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), s.v. “De Civitate Dei.”
- Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology (Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 1998), 67–72.