Did Augustine Lead the Ancient Church Astray?

Anybody who has heard my podcast, listened to my theological lectures, reviewed my Reflections blog, or read my books will know that I have a special appreciation for St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430). He is my favorite Christian thinker outside of the Bible, though just a little ahead of other great Christian thinkers like St. Athanasius, Blaise Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. I also realize that not everybody shares my appreciation.

I am attracted to Augustine for many reasons, including the notion that I think a contemporary Christian philosopher needs to hitch their wagon to a robust philosophical-theological tradition within Christendom. In such a system, philosophy serves as a handmaid to historic Christian theology. And for me as an evangelical Protestant, Augustine in particular and the tradition of Augustinianism in general comprise a vibrant orthodox system of Christian thought. While Augustine’s ideas aren’t without reasonable theological challenges and difficulties, I think Augustine and the broad tradition that bears his name got the most important doctrinal issues right (God, creation, sin, salvation) and they reflect a broad ecumenical part of Western Christendom.

But while I am glad to associate myself with Augustine, some people have challenged me by asserting that Augustine is not an appropriate theological model because he led the ancient church astray. I recently received that criticism from someone who reads my blog posts, and I would like to respond.

Criticism of St. Augustine

“As for Augustine, he was a man with a great experience of God, it would appear, but he was [also] the author/inventor of the most misleading doctrines; doctrines which had never appeared in church history previously and which have blighted the life of the church ever since. It is not for me to evidence what I’m saying in a brief comment like this—I would simply recommend reading God’s Strategy in Human History by Roger Forster and Paul Marston, a book whose appendix in particular takes the Augustinian view apart. Forster is an important church leader/thinker in England, formerly a mathematician at Cambridge; Marston’s area is history and philosophy of science.”

My Response

Here’s my brief response to a couple of the critic’s comments:

“He [Augustine] was the author/inventor of the most misleading doctrines.”

St. Augustine was the champion of such essential Christian doctrines as creation ex nihilo, original sin, salvation by grace, and the Trinity. These doctrines generally reflect the consensus of Christian orthodoxy.

Even Augustine’s somewhat controversial view of predestination is very similar to that of other great theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, and John Calvin. Some within Christendom, though certainly not all, would even argue that Augustine’s view largely reflects the views of the apostle Paul as set forth in the Book of Romans (specifically chapters 8 and 9).

Also, some people criticize Augustine for his attachment to Neoplatonism, but I think the criticism is overstated. Neoplatonism does influence some of his thinking, but Augustine’s final authority is Scripture. For example, his body of writing, which extends to five million words, includes some 40,000 biblical references. He is the most prolific author of antiquity, surpassing all other Latin and Greek writers.

“[Augustine’s] doctrines . . . had never appeared in church history previously and . . . have blighted the life of the church ever since.”

Augustine is not highly regarded in Eastern Christendom, but he is still one of the great shapers of Christian orthodoxy overall. His theological influence covers an extensive range: anthropology, hamartiology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

Among patristic scholars, Augustine is often spoken of as the greatest of the church fathers. Rather than being a “blight” on the church, his theological influence has shaped much of Catholic and Protestant thinking about the very nature of the church itself.

We might also consider Augustine’s tremendous influence on other areas such as philosophy (e.g., faith seeking understanding), psychology (e.g., the examined self), and Christian apologetics (e.g., the problem of evil). Thus, I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that St. Augustine is arguably the most influential Christian thinker outside of the New Testament and one of historic Christian theology’s deepest shapers and defenders.

For more details, I recommend my book Classic Christian Thinkers, which includes chapters on Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, and Lewis.

Although anyone is welcome to disagree with Augustine (many scholars, including me, disagree with some of his views), in such areas as creation, sin, grace, and the triune nature of God his thinking has been held in high regard and he has, without question, shaped virtually all of Western Christendom.

Final Thoughts

St. Augustine was far from a perfect man, and he humbly admitted making mistakes in his theological thinking. His most popular book Confessions testifies to his state as a sinner who was in desperate need of God’s gracious gift of salvation in Christ. And his last book Retractions shows that he wrestled with various theological issues—even changing his mind on some important matters.

Even if you do disagree with some of Augustine’s views, like my friend above, I hope you’ll consider reading his writings and not merely listening to or reading what others, including me, say about him. A good place to start is with his book Confessions. You’ll be reading a Christian and literary classic of Western civilization.

Reflections: Your Turn

Have you read any of St. Augustine’s writings? Do you have a favorite Christian thinker outside of the Bible?

Resources

  One thought on “Did Augustine Lead the Ancient Church Astray?

  1. samkim87
    February 5, 2020 at 10:50 pm

    Nothing beats reading the bible with prayer. When reading books written by Christian thinkers, we must always read it in a secondary sense. Theology can and does misinterpret revelation at times. Augustine is no exception in a crucial way. From my experience, reformed doctrine did not cultivate in me a proper fear of God’s wrath as a christian. When the reformed preachers speak of fear of God, they mean reverence. When we read the bible, we get a more dire, mortal sense of the fear of God. Christians ought to fear offending God for their very souls. That is what the bible teaches. We don’t enjoy complete immunity from the wrath of God on this side of life. Christ’s atonement only has effect if we are remain or abide in him. Few preachers are willing to warn Christians of hell and that is a shame.

    • February 5, 2020 at 11:19 pm

      Samkim87:

      St. Augustine read the Bible with prayer. In his corpus of writings he quotes and references Scripture some 40,000 times.

      You say “theology can and does misinterpret revelation at times.” Since you hold a theology does that then mean that your theology can misinterpret revelation as well?

      You seem very critical of Reformed theology. But is it possible you are vulnerable to mistakes as well just from a different theological perspective?

      Doing theology well is hard work for all of us.

      Ken Samples

      • samkim87
        February 6, 2020 at 5:42 am

        Of course it is possible that I could be wrong. However, I explained why I believe the reformed view on the aforementioned matters is wrong while you did not attempt to explain why I am mistaken. I also did not suggest that Augustine did not pray or read the bible.

      • February 6, 2020 at 8:47 am

        Samkim87:

        I’m glad to hear you acknowledge that you could also be wrong. All of us need to approach Christian truth with humility and winsomeness.

        May our gracious Lord lead all of us into truth, unity, and charity.

        My best regards in Christ.

        Ken Samples

    • February 11, 2020 at 1:56 pm

      “Nothing beats reading the bible with prayer.”

      I must respectfully disagree. I think that prayerfully reading the Bible *as well as* reading the conclusions of many thoughtful people (from all persuasions) who’ve studied the Bible is far and away better than solely reading the Bible.

      True, the Bible must be first, foremost and preeminent. But considering a wide variety of ideas will certainly increase your ability to make informed conclusions yourself and greatly increase your understanding of scripture. As scripture itself testifies, “without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Prov 15:22).

      • February 11, 2020 at 2:10 pm

        Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Lawrence.

        Ken Samples

  2. Rita
    February 18, 2020 at 8:06 am

    What caught my attention in samkin’s response was his comment that “we don’t enjoy complete immunity from the wrath of God on this side of life.” .Whether that’s true or not, I can only think that he doesn’t seem to enjoy the Lord’s pleasure as an adopted child of the Father. As His child we, at the very least, should have a sense of well-being and being cherished as by the best of earthly fathers. Even more so because of the highest price the Savior paid to draw us to Himself. We may need correction at times, but I don’t think we’re in one moment and out the next What a frightful way to live.

    • February 18, 2020 at 10:01 am

      Thanks, Rita.

      Ken Samples

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