I’ve heard it said that evangelical Christians don’t study our church history very deeply. As a fellow evangelical, I think there is, unfortunately, a lot of truth in this statement. Contemporary Christians can learn a great deal from the history of their faith. But where to start? This series, “Christian Thinkers 101,” provides a snapshot of some of the faith’s key theologians and apologists and their important books and ideas.
Let’s begin with the man who is the most popular church father.
Though he lived 1,600 years ago, St. Augustine remains revered. But what exactly did he believe and what did he contribute to Christianity? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of St. Augustine—and why he still matters today.
Who Was Augustine?
St. Augustine (AD 354–430) was born in North Africa to a pagan father and a Christian mother. Following a youth and an early career steeped in debauchery and ambition, Augustine experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity when he turned from his pagan beliefs. His classic book Confessions details his conversion story and, to this day, remains widely acknowledged as the first Western autobiography.
Augustine was a prolific author, a robust theologian, an insightful philosopher, and a tenacious apologist for the truth of historic Christianity. He is a universal Christian voice within Western Christendom and remains today as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics. He is also the only Christian thinker to be mentioned in songs by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
What Did Augustine Write?
Being the most productive author of the ancient world, Augustine penned more than 5 million words. Many of his works were influential, making it difficult to identify his most important books. Perhaps the two that stand out most are Confessions and The City of God. Confessions chronicles Augustine’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual pilgrimage from paganism to Christianity. If you want to learn more about Augustine, pick up Confessions; you’ll be reading a Christian and literary classic. The City of God, his most comprehensive work, gave the Western world its first philosophy of history and presented and defended a distinctly Christian view of history.
What Did Augustine Believe?
Christians of various traditions continue to defend several of Augustine’s beliefs. Perhaps three of Augustine’s most important ideas or arguments for the God of Christian theism are the following:
- Rest and peace for human beings is found only in God. This is the central theme of Confessions. As creatures made in God’s image, humans can only find genuine rest and peace for their souls through salvation in Jesus Christ.
- According to Augustine, human beings are dependent upon God’s grace for salvation. Known as the doctor gratiae (“doctor of grace”), Augustine argued vigorously that Christianity was uniquely a religion of divine rescue instead of a works-based, self-help religion that was advocated by some of Augustine’s opponents.
- In response to the problem of evil, Augustine argued that while evil is real it is not a substance or a “thing.” 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).
Why Does Augustine Matter Today?
Augustine has been criticized for introducing Neoplatonic ideas into Christian theology, failing to be sufficiently systematic in his writings, and for being excessively pessimistic in his view of human nature. Yet many Augustine scholars consider these criticisms highly overstated.1 Nevertheless, while Christianity has produced many prominent thinkers, Augustine may be the most influential Christian thinker outside of the New Testament authors. His significant influence, especially on Western Christianity, is directly tied to his profound work as a theologian, philosopher, apologist, and church bishop.
St. Augustine has influenced evangelical protestants virtually as much as he has influenced Catholics. When evangelicals speak of a God-shaped hole within the human heart, or argue that God didn’t create evil, or insist that salvation is not achieved on the basis of good works, they are affirming ideas that Augustine articulated and passionately defended.
Reflections: Your Turn
Augustine’s key spiritual insight is that human beings were made for God; thus, their inner existential longing will only find contentment through a redemptive relationship with God. Is this your experience? Does this comport well with humankind’s search for peace?
- My former podcast, Straight Thinking, contains several episodes that discuss St. Augustine, including an episode called “Augustine’s Top Five Contributions to Philosophy.”
- To read a two-part article that I wrote about Augustine, see: “Augustine of Hippo (Part 1 of 2)” and “Augustine of Hippo (Part 2 of 2).”
- Two years ago, I gave a six-part lecture on Augustine in which I discussed some of the key events in his life along with his most important writings, ideas, and achievements: “If I Had Lunch with St. Augustine.”
- While Augustine wrote an autobiography titled Confessions, a fine recent biography of Augustine’s life and thoughts is found in Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.
- To hear my response to these criticisms, see my audio series, “If I Had Lunch with St. Augustine.”