Augustine of Hippo: A Worthy Guide Centuries Later
Imagine reaching the pinnacle of all your hopes and dreams! Despite coming from humble beginnings, all that you have worked tirelessly to achieve culminates in the successful career you always desired. Friends surround you. Fame and fortune await you. No pleasure is denied you. You have a position of great influence among the most powerful elite in the most powerful country on earth.
You might imagine that happiness is all that you would experience in this scenario. After all, that is what the world promises. Success, friends, fame, fortune, pleasure, influence = happiness. In fact, the world promises happiness if we achieve any of these things let alone all of them. Happiness is a shoe-in in this scenario, right?!?
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) would disagree. Why? Because he had received all these things that the world had to offer and found himself disillusioned by just how unsatisfying they turned out to be. He would no doubt sympathize with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes who after achieving great success and unrestricted pleasure in this world could say, "I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2:11)." Yet, Augustine knew the power of temptation. He knew the power of the false promises of the world. How tempting it would be to think, "Well, even if it didn't work for that guy, it would definitely make my life better! If only I had more money. If only I had better relationships. If only I had more influence. Etc..." Augustine knew that despite his warnings many would follow his same path to disillusionment. That is why he worked tirelessly to spare people the pain and point them to better promises. We would all do well to heed his warnings and question if the promises of the world really can deliver. Augustine has been to the mountain top and he speaks no empty words.
Augustine begins his Confessions speaking to God, "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you (Confessions 1.1.1)." If we had to sum up our current cultural context in one word we could certainly do worse than the word restless. Restless describes our culture well, and it likely describes many of us as individuals well also. We are a restless people living among restless people. Perhaps, Augustine then is still worthy of our time and attention. He, too, had a restless heart. Despite all the accolades and outward appearance his heart was restless until he rested in the love of God through the grace of Jesus Christ. Jesus brought rest to Augustine's life. Jesus brought purpose and meaning beyond the self-seeking pleasures this world offers. Augustine forsook all his hopes and dreams because he found something better - rest. The restless world suddenly did not seem so dazzling. He had all he ever needed in Jesus Christ. So, perhaps when Augustine speaks, even 1600 years later, we ought to listen.
What makes Augustine worthy of our time and attention? James K.A. Smith says it well, “What makes Augustine a guide worth considering is that…he knows where home is, where rest can be found, what peace feels like, even if it is sometimes ephemeral and elusive along the way…Augustine will unapologetically suggest that you were made for God - that home is found beyond yourself, that Jesus is the way, that the cross is a raft in the storm-tossed sea we call ‘the world’…The Christian gospel, for Augustine, wasn’t just the answer to an intellectual question (though it was that); it was more like a shelter in a storm, a port for a wayward soul, nourishment for a prodigal who was famished, whose own heart had become, he said, ‘a famished land.’ It was, he would later testify, like someone had finally shown him his home country, even though he’d never been there before. It was the Father he’d spent a lifetime looking for, saying to him, ‘Welcome home.’”
Ironically, in forsaking influence over the spheres of power within the Roman Empire, Augustine became far more influential in shaping world history, cultures, and thought than he could have ever imagined. Augustine is arguably the most influential Christian since the Apostles themselves. Nearly every Christian tradition can trace its roots back through this early Pastor Theologian from North Africa. He is considered a saint by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches and during the Protestant Reformation both Roman Catholics and Protestants appealed to his writings and teachings to defend their positions. Lutheran and Reformed Protestants even considered Augustine the father of the Reformation for his theology of divine grace in God’s salvation of sinners through Jesus Christ. In fact, Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk within the Roman Catholic Church prior to his excommunication from the church for teaching against its corrupt practices.
Augustine did not even convert to Christianity until he was 31 years old. Yet, he still managed to preach between 6,000-10,000 sermons in his life and many of his theological works – On Christian Doctrine, On the Trinity, and City of God – are still widely read. However, his most famous work, Confessions, still finds the broadest appeal among Christians because it demonstrates the surprising nature of God’s love for sinners in the gospel of Jesus Christ as one who was “hell bent” on running from God seeking pleasure and success in this world could not escape God’s relentless love. It is in Confessions that we most relate to Augustine as a fellow traveler through this world with all its temptations and struggles. In the words of James K.A. Smith, “Augustine in uncanny for us: he is so ancient that he is strange, and yet his experiences are so common they feel contemporary.” Augustine, not unlike the preacher of Ecclesiastes, pursued pleasure and success, achieving both in great measure, yet found neither of them ultimately satisfying. The promises of the world did not deliver. We may know this to be true yet the alluring temptations of the world still appeal to us and so Augustine is here to help us on our journey.
Augustine was born in 354 AD in the rural North African town. At that time the Roman Empire was changing rapidly due to political turmoil from invading armies. Augustine came from humble beginnings, but his pagan father, Patricius, sacrificed what little he had in order to provide for a classical education for Augustine, which was considered the only ticket to worldly success for someone of Augustine’s impoverished beginnings. His father converted to Christianity late in life when Augustine was a teenager but this had little effect on Augustine who described their relationship as always dealing with superficial things. Yet, undoubtedly this hole left by his earthly father led Augustine by contrast to a great longing for and appreciation of a perfect Father which he finally found in his relationship with God.
Augustine’s mother, Monica, generated a lasting impression on Augustine’s heart as he later reflected in Confessions on his life and his heart’s journey to Christ. Monica was a Christian whose faith might be described as provincial (she placed great reliance on dreams). Monica pursued Augustine relentlessly and appealed to God on his behalf with tears until Augustine too became a Christian. The parable of the persistent widow is embodied in the life of Monica. Mothers take note, God really does answer prayers even for the wayward son.
Augustine was educated in the Latin classics and became a successful orator. Not unlike his peers, Augustine fed his sensual desires with the theater and women. He took a concubine in his late teenage years and had a son soon after named Adeodatus [given by God], who many years later was baptized at the same time as Augustine himself. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Augustine’s life stems from this early family of his. His concubine (likely a Christian) from the lower classes, whose name is unknown to us, was later sent away due to Augustine’s ambition to marry into a wealthy family in order to ensure his elevation in Roman society. [To abandon one’s concubine, in order to take a wife in legitimate matrimony, was considered a sign of moral improvement at that time] His promising young son also tragically died at the age of 16 just one year after his baptism alongside his father.
Augustine’s desire to seek truth led him to and eventually away from Manichaeism, a dualistic religion [think eternal good vs. evil] with an elaborate gnostic [secret knowledge/spiritual truth] view of salvation. Augustine’s ambition led him to Rome and eventually to Milan where he became a successful professor of rhetoric among the influential and powerful governing classes. Both Manichaeism and his successful career left Augustine disillusioned. James K.A. Smith again captures it well, “What looks like attainment in Milan – success, conquest, arrival – was experienced as one more letdown. What looks like the good life is experienced as loss of nothing less than one’s self. Just as the prodigal son spends down his inheritance to nothingness, so the wandering, ravenous soul consumes everything and ends up with nothing: no identity, no center, no self.”
It was at this time that Augustine was found by God through the Bishop Ambrose who led him to Christ. In Augustine’s own words God ran to meet him in the person of Jesus, “He lost no time, but ran with shouts of words, acts, death, life, descent, ascent, all the time shouting for us to return to him.” After a year of being discipled by Ambrose, Augustine was baptized in 387 and left his career behind in order to return home to North Africa. He was ordained as a priest in Hippo in 391 and would faithfully serve the church and this provincial town on the outskirts of the Roman Empire for the remainder of his life. He worked tirelessly to bring the people of Hippo to Christ.
In 410, in the midst of Augustine’s ministry the unthinkable happened – the “Eternal City” of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. The Roman Empire was beginning to crumble and the stability that had been known for hundreds of years was starting to unravel. Augustine wrote his magnum opus, City of God, at this time to console fellow Christians reminding them that the truly eternal City of God would ultimately triumph despite the rise and fall of any earthly City of Man. In fact, by earthly standards, Augustine’s own life’s work in building up the local body of believers in Hippo came to nothing soon after his death. While Augustine was on his deathbed, Vandal armies were besieging the city of Hippo. Augustine then died on August 28, 430. Shortly after, the city of Hippo was burned by the Vandals as Hippo’s occupants fled for their lives. Yet, from the perspective of the City of God, his labors in the Lord were certainly not in vain, and his life and writings remain helpful guides to this day.
Four Reasons to Give Augustine Your Time and Attention
1. It surprises many who may only know Billy Graham, John Piper, or Joel Osteen [or substitute in any other American pastor] to hear that an African from well over 1,000 years ago is perhaps the most influential Pastor and Theologian in Christian history. His works have stood the test of time (and we are talking centuries, not just decades!). Though they may be more difficult to read the reward is great. If we limit ourselves to reading only modern Christian authors in our own context, we do ourselves a great disservice by limiting ourselves to our own time and place and people. We all have our blind spots. Augustine had his own, but he can also help to illuminate ours. In Augustine, we find a Christian from another world, and yet, one who still has much to offer our world.
2. Augustine knew well the stories and promises that the world offered. The details may be different but the stories and promises that tempt us today are the same. He knew the idols of the human heart because he gave himself over to them, and yet, found a true and better alternative in the story and promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ. City of God argues that only two people will ever exist: those who love themselves and those who love God. Augustine’s desire to love God first captures our attention because Augustine is brutally honest about just how difficult that is to do in reality. Augustine understood the temptation of idols. This gives Augustine a credibility and relevance even today. He has good news to offer our restless hearts.
3. Augustine’s world is not as different from our own as we might think. Success, ambition, self-fulfillment, fame, pleasure – the idols of the powerful Roman Empire – are the same idols of the powerful United States. Yet both, in perhaps very different ways, were beginning to crumble and come under intense criticism from within and without. We may share many of the same doubts and struggles as Christians in the late Roman Empire and Augustine helps us find our hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
4. Augustine reminds us to let go of our own earthly kingdoms in order to treasure, love and glorify God above all. He proclaims the sovereignty, love, and grace of God that destroy our temptations to look for satisfaction in the things of this world. Augustine found rest, peace, and joy in Jesus. He invites us to join him. Therefore, he is still a trustworthy shepherd whom we can follow as he follows the perfect Shepherd Jesus Christ.
Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “You are my glory, and the lifter of my head.” In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love. (City of God, 14.28)
 Smith, James K.A. On the Road With Saint Augustine, p. xii.  Smith, On the Road, p. xii.  Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo, p. 79.  Smith, On the Road, p. 12.  Smith, On the Road, p. 15.