Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
Many scholars regard Augustine as the most influential Christian theologian of all time, and though he would become a powerful public figure of the faith and an individual who knew and loved God personally, his initial conversion was slow and painful. He was born in Roman occupied Thagaste, North Africa and was raised in the context of and in general adherence to Roman values. As a child, Augustine learned stories that idealized power, honor, and success. He comments on this stage of life in his Confessions, saying to God, “at that time I believed that living a good life consisted in winning the favor of those who commended me.” In his adolescence, he became obsessed with sex, even telling lies about how sexually promiscuous he was “lest [he] be thought less courageous for being more innocent.”He studied rhetoric and his parents placed much hope in his potential success. He excelled in this craft and his growing reputation continually fed his pride.
Soon, Augustine began to develop an interest in philosophy, which led to the beginning of his long and intentional quest for wisdom. The philosophical system that first appealed to him was Manichaeism because their dualistic system, expressed in a mystical narrative about the battle between good and evil, answered his questions about the nature of evil and gave him a way to assuage the guilt he held in his heart for maintaining an intimate relationship with a woman he was not married to. However, after meeting with a prominent Manichaean teacher and hearing his inadequate responses to questions about the intricacies of Manichaean doctrine, Augustine began to see the holes in this system of thought.
After this disappointing event, Augustine turned to philosophical skepticism and believed that human beings were unable to have knowledge that was beyond doubt. At this time, his close friend died, casting him into a pit of sorrow. To escape the pain, Augustine moved to Carthage to teach but was disgusted by the undisciplined behavior of his students. Thus, when he was offered a position in Rome, he jumped at the opportunity to teach among the civilized and obedient. This, too, proved to be a disappointment, as his cultured students lacked a sense of morality as well. Augustine moved to Milan to teach, permanently leaving the Manichees behind for his new-found skepticism.
In Milan, Augustine became a catechumen in the Catholic church because it was the social norm. He was drawn to Neo-Platonism, which finally enabled him to conceive of God as a spiritual being, answered his questions about the origin of evil, and led him to read Paul’s letters. He sought Platonic ecstasy or oneness with the Good, but in his small glimpse of reality he realized that he was infinitely far from God and could not reach him.
Augustine began to seek ways to grow closer to God.Through the testimonies of several Christians he entered into an extreme struggle with his flesh as he considered repentance. He sought help from Christian friends who he respected. After hearing their stories, Augustine began to hate himself and how he had wasted so many years searching for wisdom but never repenting. He had told himself that he was putting off repentance because he was not completely convinced of Christianity, but in reality he was. This hate turned into anger. While he was agonizing over his repentance, he had a vision of Continence and heard a voice who told him to “pick up and read.” In that moment, he picked up Paul’s letters and read Romans 13:13 and realized that was all he needed to know to repent from his sin. Augustine finally renounced his sin and threw himself upon God’s mercy.
After his conversion, Augustine abandoned his career and was baptized. Though he merely wanted to be a monk, he soon became a priest and bishop. He rose to prominence through his preaching, writing, and opposition of heresies such as Donatism and Pelagianism, which he saw as forms of spiritual pride, and left a legacy of emphasizing humble dependence upon God’s grace.
Augustine, The Confessions(trans. Maria Boulding. Rev. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012), 31.
Where to Begin
Confessions by Augustine (the authoritative English version of one of the most famous spiritual autobiographies of Christian history)