This musing on the perennial influence of Augustine of Hippo was first published in the denominational magazine of the Baptist General Conference, the founding denomination of my seminary:
As Western Christians we are all disciples of a man who died more than 1500 years ago. This was Augustine (354-430 A.D.), from the North African city of Hippo. In at least six ways our thinking about God and ourselves has been deeply shaped by his thought.
1. Augustine first elaborated for Christians the idea of “inwardness.” This is the concept that the human self has depths which, when plumbed, reveal truth. For Augustine, especially, we meet God in those depths of ourselves. When we talk about ourselves as having inner psychological depths, we are speaking Augustine-ese.
2. Out of this focus on inwardness, Augustine worked a theology of love. His whole Confession may be called a “love song to God.” It is in prayer form, and it narrates brilliantly the shift in young Augustine’s affections from the sins of the flesh to God himself. For him, original sin was a problem of “disordered love.” And he once famously described the Trinity in terms of love: The Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved and the Holy Spirit is the Love that passes between them.
3. Augustine also used love as the interpretive key to Scripture. When you run into a passage and are tempted to interpret it in a way inconsistent with the known character of God as love, then you must reject that interpretation.
4. The vision of a persistent God whose irresistible grace pursues us until we finally cannot elude his loving arms is essentially the vision of Augustine, as it was his own life’s experience that when he was at his worst, God would not let him go. This doctrine has acted for over a millennium since Augustine as the necessary, biblical counterweight to the Pelagian heresy: that in the religious life, we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
5. It was Augustine who pioneered that staple of modern apologetics, the “argument from desire.” In its simplest form, this is the idea that we have a “hole in our hearts” that, if we are honest about it, we will realize only God can fill. Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards and British apologist C.S. Lewis both employed this theme. Their apologetics are elaborations of one famous line from Augustine’s Confessions: “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in thee.”
6. Finally, Augustine invented the genre of autobiography and one of its most characteristic forms: the record of how one person’s ideas and ideals developed over time. Not all autobiographies are framed as a prayer. But almost all seek the meaning of the author’s life by reviewing his or her innermost thoughts and feelings in a narrative account of life experiences.
Plug into Augustine
For a greater understanding of Augustine’s thought and impact, one of the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” is the next best thing to enrolling in a university course (and a whole lot cheaper). Like the Teaching Company’s other courses, this one is presented by a professor who is not only an accomplished scholar but a compelling teacher.
Eastern University’s Phillip Cary starts Augustine: Philosopher and Saint with the paradoxical “bang” embedded in the course title: “Surely,” we may be tempted to think, “you can be a philosopher, or a saint . . . but not both.” In fact, as Cary convincingly shows, the modern stereotype of philosopher-as-rationalist-atheist doesn’t work at all for ancient and late ancient philosophers such as Augustine. For those men, not only did philosophy and religion not conflict, they were part of the same pursuit.
Cary goes on to show us how, whether we are Christian or not, Western people’s very understanding of our psychological make-up, God’s grace, the nature of evil and sin, and the relationship between religion and happiness have all been deeply formed by this seminal philosopher-saint.
We also get to meet Augustine as explicator of the doctrine of the Trinity and progenitor of understandings of church, sacraments, and church-state relations that have persisted as pillars of Western Christian thought.
This luminous course, available at www.teach12.com, is well worth the $16 – $25 for the audio or video format of its twelve 30-minute lectures.
I learn much from these courses. Cary is one of the stronger teachers of intellectual history I’ve run across.