By Rev’d Ed Standhaft
First published in The PALS Magazine No. 23
The problem with St. Augustine is that there are two of them who have prominent positions in the history of the church, each being important but in different ways. Take heart if you are already experiencing theological confusion: you will not be the first – or last. Medieval historians frequently mixed up Augustine of Canterbury (6th century) with Augustine of Hippo (5th century) and even today we are not always sure about which one they are writing about!
Augustine of Canterbury who died in May 26th 604 is best known to readers and those who have visited Canterbury cathedral. He was a Benedictine monk, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the English, establishing his monastery at Canterbury, and who later became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Augustine was soon revered as a saint and this tradition continues both in the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.
The other Augustine, also considered a saint in both Catholic and Anglican traditions was Bishop of Hippo a pastor, a theologian, and is revered as a Doctor of the Church, despite what today we might consider as holding some views, unorthodox even unacceptable. It is about this Augustine that I want to write, if only briefly.
Hippo is in North Africa, present day Algeria, and by the 5th century Christianity in its various forms was exercising a growing influence in that part of the Roman Empire. I say this because Catholic Christianity was but one branch of the faith along with Arianism and Manichaeanism and possibly others, with competing theological views.
Augustine was born 13th November 354 and died 28 August 430. He is best known for his views on sex, his mistress with whom he lived for over 15 years and their son, Adeodatus whom he loved throughout his life. But his sexual exploits as a young man, important though they are, form an important but not all- consuming totality to his thinking.
Augustine, by birth, therefore, was an African and was proud of his African heritage: how interesting that one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers should come out of Africa! Monica, his mother was a devout Christian and his father converted in later life.
Before coming to faith himself, Augustine, furthering his education highly intelligent and gifted, was influenced by the great thinkers in Carthage: while maintaining his hedonistic life-style he decided to become a Manichaean, which in its Christian form began to draw him into faith. However it was in Milan that Augustine’s Catholic theology began to take shape, particularly under the influence of the preaching of Ambrose, bishop of Milan.
Ambrose was a spectacular orator and it is impossible to overestimate the influence of this great bishop had on Augustine. He wrote of Ambrose “that man of God received me as a father would and welcomed my coming as a good bishop should.” The influence of this pastorally-minded, intellectual bishop, along side Monica’s Christian faith and his friendship with a Christian student led Augustine to seek Baptism at the age of 31, along with his son. Later priestly ordination and eventually episcopal ordination led him back to Hippo where he became this bishop.
Many people remember Augustine for two things: first his famous saying “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” And the other, hearing a child’s voice say “take up, and read” (the Bible): the reading was St Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13 verses 13-14, which includes the phrase “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Augustine did and it changed the church.
More on what he wrote and Augustine thinking that shaped the church, Protestant as well as Catholic for well over 1000 years may be found in a later edition of the magazine.