Philosophy Theology

The Many Lives of Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine of Hippo is, arguably, the most dominant, consequential, complicated, and confusing church father in the West and the most influential Christian in the West after the Apostle Paul. Virtually all subsequent Western theology and philosophy is influenced, in some way, by Augustine, including: Catholic ecclesiology and sacramentalism, Reformed theologies of grace the philosophy of love, humanism, interior psychology and philosophies of consciousness, deconstructionism, and postmodernism. Here, we will briefly look at three of the most recognizable Augustines: the “Catholic” or Church Augustine, the Humanist Augustine, and the Reformed Augustine.

It has been said that the Reformation and Counter Reformation of the sixteenth century was a debate over the teachings of Augustine. B.B. Warfield, the eminent nineteenth and early twentieth century American theologian and President of Princeton University, said: “The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” People who say that Catholics or Protestants cited Augustine incorrectly, or that Augustine matured away from earlier teachings, are simply lying, ignorant, or misleading. Augustine’s wide corpus touched on many topics and they developed over time and in specific contexts.

While the ecclesiological Augustine and the Augustine of grace dominate are public perception of the bishop, the Augustine of love is the third Augustine who has experienced a renaissance in scholarship and writing in the past 50 years. (I wrote my thesis at Yale on Augustine’s political theology and how it is rooted in his theology of love.) The Augustine of love is often forgotten because his principal interlocutors that drew out this side of Augustine were forgotten following the Reformation: the Renaissance Humanists.

Let us begin with the “Catholic” Augustine.

There were two defining epochs in Augustine’s ministerial life: the Donatist Controversy and the Pelagian controversies (against Pelagius and then against the semi-Pelagians).

The Donatist Controversy consumed the first half of Augustine’s ministerial life. The Donatists were a schismatic group of North African Christians with the origins in the Novatian schism of the third century (the other famous North African church father Saint Cyprian dealt with the Novatians where he famously articulated his writings on the unity of the Church through the bishop of Rome). The Donatists, as heirs of Novatian puritanism, asserted the efficaciousness of Christian sacramentalism was through pure clergy. Here it must be stressed a two-fold dimension to the Donatist Controversy which are interlinked: church and sacraments; the Donatists were not proto-Reformers so to speak, they held to high ecclesiology and sacramentalism, in fact, so much so that that is the origin of the schism (going back to the Novatians) which persisted into Augustine’s time.

The Donatist position was thus: clergy who were installed by clergy who had forsaken the Christian objects of worship (like the Bible and the altars of churches) and renounced Christ during the Roman persecutions of the third and fourth centuries but restored to the Church sometime after the fact were invalid clergy. Thus, the newly consecrated clergy by those descended from the traitors (traditore, betrayer of tradition), were not real clergy and their sacraments without efficacy. Those clergy who were consecrated by those who didn’t capitulate during the persecutions were the valid clergy with the valid sacraments. The Donatists claimed that through centuries of persecution they were the only valid clergy with valid sacraments left. In its North African context the issue arose with the installation of Caecilianus as bishop of Carthage; Caecilianus was appointed by bishop Mensurius who was considered a traitor by the Donatists. It was an entirely North African (and mostly Carthaginian) affair.

Augustine rebutted the Donatists with his famous distinction between Ex opere operato (proper operation of the sacrament) and Ex opere operantis (proper operator of the sacrament). Augustine argued that the operation of the sacrament was in of itself efficacious, not the operator, who would always need to be in a perfect state of grace. Augustine further extrapolated that it is not men operating the sacraments but the Holy Spirit. This later became the basis for in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). For Augustine, unity was found in the sacraments of the universal church (following Cyprian) and not in a regional sect.

Augustine’s involvement in the Donatist Controversy shaped his view of the Church as a unified body (not unique to him as some critics claim). After the Donatist Controversy Augustine sought to find the unified body of the faithful in Scripture, his unified ecclesiology in Christ and the sacraments is elaborated in his famous work The City of God (I have a post on that). In a sentence, Augustine argued that God (through Christ) always worked through the Church (going back to Adam and subsequently Seth, Noah, Abraham, and faithful Israel in the Old Testament) and that the members of the Church could be found far and wide and not restricted to a singular place. The Augustine of ecclesiology subsequently became normative for the Western Church.

The other life of Augustine flourished in the Renaissance. Encounters with Islam and the (re)discovery of ancient Greek writings, principally in Neoplatonic philosophy and mysticism, led to the rise of the humanists. Pico Mirandola, Nicholas of Cusa, and Marsilio Ficino are among the most famous. The humanists embarked on a grand synthetic project in theology: the attempt to make Greek philosophy compatible with Christianity. They turned principally to Augustine (whom they were all extensively well-read on) for their basis.

Augustine’s theology (or psychology/philosophy) of love is often forgotten in larger theological debates. However, Augustine’s theology of love is extremely important for the development of philosophies of love, ecumenism, and psychology following the fifteenth century. Augustine’s view of love is roughly as follows: Human nature is love (and wisdom) and the will is moved by its desire for happiness; this impulse of love which is intrinsic to human nature exists inside human interiority (the heart, mind, and soul) and is the sole cause of human activity; the aim of love is happiness through knowledge.

According to Augustine, all things are to be loved through God: “The word is conceived in love of either the creature or the creator, that is of changeable nature or unchangeable truth; which means either in covetousness or in charity. Not that a creature is not to be loved, but if that love is related to the creator it will no longer be covetousness but charity.” I love myself not merely for my sake but for God; I love others not merely for their sake but for God; I love the world and the creation not merely for its sake but for God. In another way of understanding, all things that exist do so in relationship to God—in Augustine’s vision all things subsist in God, and when you understand (knowledge) that all things subsist in God that is what allows you to love God through anything and everything. That is proper love. Furthermore, love always aims at beauty: “Late Have I Loved You, Beauty so Ancient and so New!” and “How can we love anything but the beautiful?”

The humanists picked up on this theme in order to carve out sovereignty and autonomy from state and ecclesiastical coercion. They argued that the compulsion that moves humans to Truth (who is God) is an interior desire that Augustine called love. Love compels humans to seek Wisdom (who is Christ) and this knowledge of Wisdom leads to a union of corporeal reality with Transcendent Truth (the subsistence of creation with God). The humanists went further by articulating the sanctification of the conscience (also drawn from Augustine) wherein the conscience, and the conscience alone, is moved to these actions it undertakes. From this move the humanists then asserted that love of wisdom (philosophy) was a quest to find God and that even the Islamic religion’s impulse to worship is a quest to find God, thus paving the way for compatibilism: all religion and all philosophy once fully enlightened to the person of Christ will find its way to the one true God. Following Augustine, the humanists also stressed love is the desire for beauty as Ficino wrote, “Love is the desire to enjoy beauty. Beauty is a radiance that attracts human soul.”

Here it is important to remember, contrary critics of the humanists, that their mission wasn’t to subordinate Christianity to philosophy but to show how worldly sciences and philosophies and other religions can lead to Christianity. Moreover, the Protestant Reformers inherited and expanded the humanist sanctification of the interior conscience during their debates with the Catholic Church. After all, part of the humanist agenda was to carve out that sovereignty of the mind from state and church coercion.

Moving into the early modern period with the Reformation, we return to B.B. Warfield’s statement that the triumph of the Reformation was the triumph of Augustine’s theology of grace against his theology of the Church.

The other great epoch of Augustine’s ministerial life was the Pelagian controversies. The Pelagian controversies came in two waves; first through his direct rebuttal of Pelagius (who was actually an admirer of Augustine), second through his writings on predestination and perseverance during the semi-Pelagian controversy. There is a lot of misinformation about the Pelagian controversy. The controversy was not about the will, as hyper-Calvinists claim (confessional Reformed Christians know this and properly discuss grace in Augustine’s Pelagian context, battles over the will that get reimposed into the Pelagian controversy were a result of the Arminian controversy in the seventeenth century and contemporary continuation of that debate clouds the appeals to Augustine during the Pelagian debate), but about nature and grace.

As far as we can tell from what limited source material survives from Pelagius, Pelagius’s teaching is that humans are not born with original sin. Pelagius maintains, however, that humans will sin. But when they sin they can, on their own power, turn to Christ for forgiveness and sanctification. Pelagius’s theology can be summarized (from what we know) as such: Humans are born without sin but will sin; Christ exists to help those who fall into sin; the atonement of Christ is relevant to only those who sin and repent; grace enters the life of the repentant sinner after an act of will. Thus, for Pelagius, the will precedes grace. It is wrong when people say Pelagius believed humans could live a sinless life. He doesn’t say that and Augustine never implied that was Pelagius’s view. The semi-Pelagian controversy was twofold: a debate over God’s foreknowledge in relationship to salvation and whether faith preceded grace (which were not part of the first Pelagian controversy).

In rebutting Pelagius Augustine argued that humans were born in original sin and therefore incapable without God’s help of living a sanctified life. (This is also not unique to Augustine as critics charge, Irenaeus and Tertullian were both appealed to by Augustine for his views, as well, of course, as Saint Paul in Latin translation.) According to Augustine, since humans are born sinful they can never freely choose the regeneration offered by Christ as Pelagius claims. Thus, Christ exists for all (not just the person who falls into sin from a sinless origin). Christ becomes the Christus Medicus (the healing medicine) of the soul who regenerates our nature to enlightenment to know God through Christ and to love properly. Christ becomes necessary for salvation in Augustine’s schema where, theoretically though not practically speaking, Christ is not absolutely necessary in Pelagius because if one escapes sin one doesn’t need regeneration in Christ. The Pelagian controversy is about the place of grace in relation to the will and the purpose of Christ in salvation. The will is part of the debate but not the central focus.

During the semi-Pelagian controversy Augustine countered the semi-Pelagians who maintained that faith preceded grace which influenced the sanctification of the will. The semi-Pelagian position of salvation is: faith leads to grace which leads to an obedient will which leads to sanctification. Augustine disagreed. He asserted in his treatise “The Gift of Perseverance” that grace precedes faith which leads to an obedient will that cooperates with grace and leads to sanctification and perseverance. The semi-Pelagian debate isn’t about the will either. It’s a debate over the place of faith in salvation. Does faith precede grace or does grace precede faith? Augustine argued the later: “if grace precedes faith, since it [also] precedes the will, then clearly it precedes all obedience, and it also precedes love, by which alone God is truly agreeable and enjoyed.”

In the Reformation, the debates over the theologies of grace become the central issue for the Reformed Reformers (“Calvinists”). The debate over grace was rooted in Augustine. Because Augustine doesn’t explicitly state in any of the Pelagian letters that grace is dispensed by the sacraments of the Church, the Reformers argued that the gift of grace is not essential to the sacraments or the Church but a free gift of God that impacts the interior life of the elect. The Reformers were able to utilize Augustine to undercut the Catholic sacramental system. Now Augustine clearly believed that grace was dispensed through the Church but it is equally true that his theology of grace doesn’t make reference to the sacraments (because it was a debate over nature and not ecclesiology). The Augustine of the Reformers became normative for Reformed Protestantism and Reformed Anglicanism as well as confessional Lutheranism.

Who owns Augustine? Everyone and no one. As twentieth century studies further developed, non-Christians and atheists began to utilize aspects of Augustine as well. Psychology drew from his theology of the will and love and secularized it. Deconstructionists and postmodernists drew upon Augustine’s critique of Roman culture and power systems to achieve the same deconstruction of Western culture and power structures following post-Marxist disillusionment after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution and Prague Spring. “Modernists” in the Church reemphasized Augustine’s theology of love to advance ecumenism. Vatican II, in many ways, was the dogmatization of aspects of Augustine’s theology of love as developed by humanist theologies in Catholicism. And contemporary debates between New Reformed and New Arminians in Protestantism have distorted Augustine’s purpose during the Pelagian controversy by emphasizing the primacy of the will which was actually a peripheral issue.

Because Augustine wrote on so many topics, he is easily claimed by whoever wants to claim him. And that testifies to his influence.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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