Saint Augustine’s feast day is observed on August 28th in western Christianity. This brief introduction was read in part at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church on August 30th, as a reminder of the church father’s exemplary intellectual contributions to the literature of our faith. We share this synopsis with woeful recognition of the difficulty of summarizing the life and works of such an inspiring example of Christian intellectualism, but with the hope that it will encourage reading of some of Augustine’s key works.
Augustine converted to Christianity from Roman paganism (specifically Manicheanism), and was a bishop in North Africa. He founded a monastery and composed for it a monastic rule of life, and wrote about 93 books and 400 sermons. Augustine was a forefather of the medieval scholasticism that culminated in figures such as Thomas Aquinas and a profound influence on Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. He has therefore relevance to all Christian believers, and is an edifying figure for Anglicans in particular to study because of our “via media” perspective of the catholicity of the Christian faith. The widespread impact of Augustine on the Christian tradition in general, and upon Anglicanism in specific, can hardly be overstated. Among well-known Anglican writers who admired Augustine are C.S. Lewis, George Berkeley, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, and William Wordsworth.
Throughout his life, Augustine rigorously dedicated his intellectual abilities to seek in Scripture, tradition, and reason the meaning of Christ’s Incarnation for human history. He once wrote, “We are presently seeking in faith what we shall then share joyfully in vision.” Concerning the first commandment to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind, Augustine sets a powerful example for the Christian life of the mind, but has much to edify the heart and soul as well.Four books from Augustine’s extensive writings can be especially fruitful for the modern Christian, each summarized briefly here.
First, Augustine’s intensely personal Confessions provides an amazing autobiographical look into the life of this church father. We are given a window into the heartfelt struggles Augustine experienced with sin, including stealing, adultery and fornication. All Christians can benefit from recognizing that one of the best known figures of our faith struggled as earnestly as we do, and can profit as well from the way Augustine shows his readers that reading and interpreting Scripture should become a part of each Christian’s biography. C.S. Lewis’s own autobiography, Surprised by Joy, is an example of the influence of the model for Christian testimony provided by this work.
The sequel to the Confessions is The City of God, a long book in which Augustine powerfully presents the uniqueness, rationality, and soundness of the Scriptural portrayal of God, as opposed to pagan ideas about Him. It also deals with topics such as the proper affiliation between a Christian church and secular state, the relationship between predestination and free will, and the perennial problem of why an all-powerful, all good, all-loving God allows evil, or, simply, why bad things happen to good people. Anglican apologetic writings, such as Berkeley’s Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, have been greatly influenced by this grand example of theological discourse.
Third, in On Christian Education Augustine discusses the importance of church tradition in arriving at reliable interpretation of Scripture and the rigorous programs of education necessary to become a teacher of God’s truth. Augustine’s faith that the final authority of the Bible is compatible with regard for the life of the mind, and the traditions of the Church Militant, provides an excellent resource for Anglicanism. Augustine’s discussion in the final section of this book, that eloquence should match the subject of discourse, can help Christians who value liturgical worship to understand and to articulate the value we see in the reverential language found, for example, in The Book of Common Prayer.
Finally, Augustine’s treatise “On the Trinity,” remains today one of the greatest explanations of the biblical revelation of the Triune God ever written. It has provided a model and touchstone for many expositions of the doctrine, including Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “Idea, Energy, Power,” in The Mind of the Maker.
Augustine’s restless seeking for God in Scripture, reason, and tradition, in worship, and in his life makes him an example for our own pursuit of God through the powers of the mind that the Lord gave to all of us. In prayer and in exhortation, Augustine wrote in The Confessions, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
By Anthony G. Cirilla, October 29th, 2015