Church History, Part 1: St. Augustine

February 9, 2003



Church History, Part 1: St. Augustine (2/9/03)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This morning we begin a four-week series on some of the church’s great theologians. Now, before you go running for the door, let me promise you that this is not a four-week lecture series on theology. These sermons are at least as much about the people themselves, and the history surrounding them, as they are about the lasting legacy of their theologies.

When I started seminary I was intimidated by the various required disciplines. There were five: Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, Practical Theology, and Church History. I immediately identified Church History as the area in which I would spend as little time as possible—five required classes. But as I proceeded through seminary I discovered that it became my favorite area of study. It is in this area—church history—that theology comes alive. It isn’t simply a matter of theoretical ideas splashed in ink across ancient parchments. Church history is the story of real-life flesh-and-blood human beings struggling with the most important questions we face: Why are we here? Is there a God? Who was Jesus and what did he do?

In this series I will look at four theologians who changed the course of church history. Each of these four people caused a worldwide shift in the way people approached the Christian faith. The four are St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and Frederick Schleiermacher. Today we will take a look at St. Augustine.

We examined Augustine briefly several weeks ago when we compared some parts of his theology to the current thinking of theologian Matthew Fox. Today we will go into some depth regarding this remarkable man.

In each of these four sermons I will spend a fair bit of time putting things in historic perspective. History does not happen in a vacuum. Religious and political leaders do not arise out of nowhere. The moment a great person arrives in history—the reality of the world at that particular time—is what makes their thinking important and memorable.

To understand Augustine, we must go through the highlights of the first four or five centuries of the church. I know the dates will come fast and furious, but don’t worry about that. What matters is the order in which things happen—not the specific dates on which they occurred.

Jesus taught in Galilee sometime around the year 30 A.D., and was crucified in Jerusalem sometime between 30 and 33. Paul went around the Roman world establishing churches between 35 and 60 A.D., and it is Paul’s letters to those churches he had started that comprise a large part of the New Testament.

The first gospel, Mark, was written sometime around 70, and the last gospel, John, was written sometime around 90. At least, that is the best guess of most scholars. So that rounds out the first century, and our information about that time comes directly from letters and writings that were later compiled as the Bible.

In the second century—from the year 100 to the year 200—the church started getting more organized. Now a hierarchy had developed, with various bishops trying to organize the faith around common ideas. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven historically important letters around the year 107, which provide our first glimpse of this early church. He wrote those letters, by the way, as he was being transported to Rome, where he was killed for being a Christian leader.
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It is clear from the letters of Ignatius that Christians were not actively sought out for persecution, but if they were discovered and refused to worship the Roman gods, they were punished. Over the first centuries of the church, many Christians, when put to the ultimate test, quite willingly renounced their faith and worshipped whatever gods the authorities required. Others, such as Polycarp (poh-LEE-krp), the Bishop of Smyrna, refused to deny Christ, even as they were slowly tortured to death. Polycarp was martyred in the middle of the second century.

Through the second and third centuries it remained illegal to be a Christian, but they were not usually sought out for punishment as long as they kept a low profile. During that period the first great thinkers of the church arose—those who attempted to make the Christian faith acceptable to people steeped in Greek philosophy. Justyn Martyr and Origen are the most famous of the first church philosophers.

Everything changed for Christians, and for the church, in the year 313. Constantine, the Roman Emperor, issued the Edict of Milan, which officially ended the persecution of Christians. Soon, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The secret cult, with its mysterious rituals and forbidden methods of worship, was now the state religion of the most powerful nation the world had ever known.

It was Constantine’s hope that this religion would unify the empire under a common faith. He soon discovered that there was very little agreement within the church about what Christians actually believed. Some said Jesus was a great man—the greatest teacher of all time. Others said he was God himself. Some said that he did not even leave footsteps where he walked, that he was pure spirit, seen differently by everybody who looked upon him. Some said he was half God and half man; others that he was sometimes God and sometimes man depending on the situation.

To make matters worse, these Christians didn’t even have an official collection of Holy Scripture. There were hundreds of books floating around that told about Jesus and the Apostles and Paul, but there was no cohesive message that ran throughout those books.

Constantine ordered the first great Council—The Council of Nicea—in the year 325, to settle these issues once and for all. Who was Jesus? What was his relationship to God? What is the Holy Spirit? What is the proper role of the church? It was during this series of meetings that the Nicene Creed was formulated. Several other councils would meet over the following years in an attempt to precisely define the nature of the Christian faith. (As a side note, I should mention that as Congregationalists, we are a covenantal church, and not a creedal church. We study all the creeds, but unlike other denominations, we do not specify which ones a person must accept or reject in order to be a part of our congregation.)

It was in the fourth century that many of these matters were settled, both at the Council of Nicea and at other church councils that followed. The theology of a bishop named Athanasius won the day at the early church councils, and it was his view of Jesus and the church that was adopted as truth. There was only one way to think about Jesus that was not heretical: Jesus was not created by God, but was begotten of God; Jesus is of the same substance as God; Jesus is not half human and half divine, but paradoxically, fully human and fully divine.

The church has been arguing about what all that means for 1600 years, but it remains “orthodox,” or correct thinking. Athanasius was also the first person to name the 27 books which now make up the New Testament as the official canon of the church. That was well over three hundred years after the death of Jesus.

Okay, we have some historical perspective. In the year 354, as all these theological issues were being settled at the church councils, Augustine was born in North Africa, in what is present day Algeria. He was a brilliant student from his earliest years, and his parents provided for him to receive a great education.

At the age of 17 he studied in Carthage, which was the cultural center of Latin-Speaking Africa. Augustine became obsessed with the search for truth. He poured through the most difficult writings on politics, economics, philosophy, and religion. All the while, he enjoyed the more earthly pleasures such a cultural center affords, and while still a teen he fathered a son by a woman he never married. As I told you when we took a brief look at Augustine last month, there was no indication from his younger years that he would one day be sainted by the church. Among his favorite prayers from that time, he later confessed, was one that went something like this: Oh Lord, save me from my fallen life of pleasure and debauchery—starting tomorrow.

In spite of his…zest for life, he was serious about his search for ultimate truth. For a time he was a Manichean, a dualistic idea in which two forces do battle with one another in this world. One force is spiritual, and is called light; the other force is material, and is called darkness. Manicheism made of point of mocking Christianity, because of its primitive language and its apparently irrational approach to salvation. All things material, according to Manicheism, were to be rejected. For obvious reasons, they claimed, there is no way a Creator of this universe could look at creation and say, “It is good.”

Augustine became disenchanted with Manicheism. When he was about 30 he went to Rome, and then to Milan, where he was a professor of rhetoric. Three things happened that changed Augustine, and in doing so changed the course of the church. Augustine had the experience we heard about from the lectern this morning, where he was moved by the passage from Romans saying to make no provisions for the flesh, but to put on the armor of light; he came under the influence of Neoplatonism; and he met St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan.

For the Manicheans, there were two great principles or powers: good and evil. Neoplatonism, based on the writings of Plato, said there is only one principle, and that all of reality emanates out from that one principle. Envision it this way: Compare all of the universe to a pebble dropped into a pond. Concentric circles appear, moving out from where the pebble is dropped. Those realities that are closer to the center—closer to the source of being—are superior. Those realities that are farther away from the center, are inferior. So evil is not in itself a power separate from God. Moral evil is simply turning away, or moving away, from God.

This answered the problem of evil for Augustine. But he still had a problem with the Bible. It was said by Christians that the Bible was true. But how could that be? Augustine had read the Bible, and he was too honest with himself to pretend all those stories were historically accurate. And then he started going to hear the sermons of Ambrose—the brilliant Bishop of Milan. Ambrose interpreted the Bible allegorically. Of course God did not create the heavens and earth in six days and rest on the seventh! Both Ambrose and Augustine believed that a person would have to check their brain at the door of the church to believe such a thing. But, the story shows, allegorically, that there is a plan behind creation. Creation didn’t suddenly appear in its present form, and it didn’t get the way it is through a series of accidents. God slowly and meticulously created it over time, and the Genesis story of creation allegorically reveals that truth through metaphor and poetry.

Augustine converted to Christianity. He resigned his teaching post, and returned to North Africa where he planned to spend the rest of his life in a monastic retreat, and eventually settled with a few friends who shared a common goal: a quiet life of study, devotion and meditation.

The story would end there, and we would never have heard of Augustine, were it not for the fact some of his private writing—personal philosophical tracts—were copied and circulated. Soon, his fame spread across the world. Within a few years he was made a priest, and then the Bishop of Hippo. He accepted this post reluctantly, preferring the quiet life of a secluded scholar, but believing it was God’s will for him to serve the wider church. Augustine served as the Bishop of Hippo for over thirty years, until his death in the year 430.

It would be pretty boring to attempt an in-depth review of the theology of Augustine. His two most important books—Confessions and The City of God—remain important classics to this day. What actually secured Augustine’s place in history was the fall of the Roman Empire. The Fall of Rome is traditionally dated to the year 476, but the city of Rome—the center of Christendom and the source of the church’s power—was sacked in the year 410 by Alaric and the Visigoths. Augustine was considered the most important religious voice at this moment when world history changed dramatically.

Many believed Rome fell because it had adopted the Christian faith, and turned away from its original pagan gods. Augustine wrote the book The City of God in response to Rome’s fall. The City of God is a vast history that holds there are two metaphorical cities in creation, each built on a foundation of love. One is built on love of self, and the other is built on love of God. All kingdoms and nations are built on love of self, and will wither away. Only the City of God is eternal.

Along with the fall of Rome, there were two theological controversies within the church that secured Augustine’s legacy. First, the Donatist controversy. Remember those times in the first several centuries of the church when Christianity was illegal? People were dragged before the courts, perhaps tied to a stake about to be set on fire, and asked, “Do you renounce Jesus Christ as your savior and accept the Roman gods?”

Now, put yourself in their shoes. As you can imagine, a fair number of those folks ended up saying something like, “Jesus Who? Never heard of the guy!” Included among those who denied Christ were priests. And over the years that ensued there were still many priests who just didn’t quite live up to the expectations of the church. (Of course, nothing like could happen today, right?)

The Donatists said that if a person had been baptized by a bad priest—by an unworthy priest—it didn’t count in the eyes of God. Likewise with marriage. Likewise with Communion. None of the sacraments of the church counted unless they were performed by a “proper” priest.

This caused no small amount of concern. How could you be sure your priest was on God’s good side? It may sound odd to a 21st Century Protestant, but there were a lot of people who envisioned themselves burning in hell because the guy who baptized them had not been holy enough. Augustine solved the problem. He said, basically, that no priest was truly worthy of administering the sacraments. But it doesn’t matter, because God does not act through the priest, but rather within the sacrament. This is really important. When we take communion together, God does not act through me—the preacher. God acts—God is present—in the ceremony itself. Those who preside at religious ceremonies are simply playing a role. My worthiness does not affect the power and truth of the sacrament itself. (Hey, you don’t have to look so relieved!)

The second controversy that Augustine solved for the church was called the Pelagian controversy. The Pelagians were a group of Christians who thought people could overcome their sins through their own efforts. If a person tried hard enough, he could perfect himself. Augustine wrote that sin had a hold on each and every one of us, and that no matter how hard we tried, we could never perfect ourselves. This led to the term “original sin.” Augustine held that the original sin of Adam and Eve had been passed through the generations to all humanity.

Remember, Augustine did not read the Bible literally. Because of his own lustful past, he associated sin with sex. The biblical story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit had something to do with lust—but it went much deeper than that. The bottom line is simple: we just can’t be perfect. Frankly, over the centuries the church probably placed far too much emphasis on Augustine’s concept of original sin, and missed his most important point. The Christian faith, he claimed, is all about grace. Grace is God’s favorable attitude toward us in spite of our sin.

This is the way Augustine shaped the church for all future generations. For Augustine, and for the church ever since Augustine, if a person says, “I’m not a sinner—I always do the right thing,” he or she is living a lie. On the other hand, if a person says, “I’m a sinner, but it’s not my fault! God made me this way,” that person too is living outside the truth. The truth comes in saying, “I am created in such a way that I fall short of perfection. But I accept responsibility for my life, and my actions, and I have faith that God loves me. And with God’s help I can live a good life.”

That’s really Augustine in a nutshell. And it remains the core of Christian theology today.

That is as in depth as we need to go with Augustine. Next week we will look at St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived more than 800 years after Augustine. We will also talk about what happened over those 800 years. It was a time when the church was at its most powerful. It was a time when even the greatest kings were crowned by the church. For some it may sound like the good old days. For others, it has another name: the Dark Ages.

Between now and then, may we all live in the light of Christ, whose spirit has overcome the darkness of the human heart time and again over the ages.