There are few men in the two thousand year history of the Christian Church who have cast such a far reaching shadow as St. Augustine of Hippo. Perhaps no one other than the Apostle Paul himself have so defined the theological trajectory of God’s holy church. A testament to this undeniable reality is the extent of his written works which were preserved in the Middle Ages and survive to this day; indeed among ancient writers his corpus is without near equal the largest still extent in modern libraries. He has quite justifiably been celebrated in church and academy alike as the giant theologian that he in fact was, having commented thoughtfully on such wide-ranging theological topics as the Trinity, baptism, the unity of the Church, and the relationship between sin and grace. The man even wrote his own monastic rule, which a Roman Catholic order, the aptly named Augustinians, still follow to this day. It is right to honor his theological fingerprints on the Church, for they indeed cover just about everything theologians have discussed from all the centuries from his to ours, a span of sixteen hundred years. One aspect of Augustine’s legacy which has not garnered as much attention in recent days, however, was the sheer quality of his life. Setting aside with great reverence and humility the content of his theology for just one moment, what can we Christians learn today from the quality of his character? I suggest there are three things his life can teach us now.
Augustine was without question humbly submitted to the authority of the Church in which he served. As a bishop, he had incredible authority and clout among his flock and indeed throughout the church. But even from his lofty episcopal throne, he was ever mindful of his duty to a tradition which was far larger than himself, and to whose stewardship he was committed. In his day, the catholic tradition of the global church was far from established in his diocese of Hippo. He had to contend against the heresies and schisms of the Manicheans, Donatists, and Pelagians, the former two of whom dominated the ecclesiastical life of the city when he first became bishop. His duty to the larger tradition compelled him to face in its defense mobs, imperial rulings, and even attempts on his own life. He even laid before the altar of the catholic faith his own ideas and reflections, composing at the end of his life The Retractions, a point by point correction of his earlier works wherever he later found them to deviate from the teachings of the global church and the Scriptures upon which they were based. For all the ways he influenced that global church’s teaching after his death, he was ever in his life a man stalwartly committed to the careful maintenance, without addition of subtraction, of the tradition which he was given. In our age of rampant individualism, which celebrates innovation and “relevance” for their own sakes, we can learn a lot from the man who stated at the beginning of his work on the Trinity, “This is my faith because it is the Catholic faith.” Augustine ever submitted himself without question and with holy fear to the Faith which had taken him captive because it had set him free.
In all his submission to the great tradition, Augustine was ever aware of God’s work in his life. He was a deeply sensitive man who had trained himself to open his eyes so that he could see the movements of God in his midst. Nothing better captures this spirit of Augustine’s than his own autobiography, The Confessions, written shortly after he became bishop in Hippo. That work has become a classic of Christian spirituality, I submit, not for his lofty theological reflections found therein (of which there are many), but because of his deep vulnerability and heart-wrenching honesty before God, who is addressed in the second person throughout the work. In it, Augustine confesses to his Savior both the deep brokenness of his own soul after a life spent running from God, as well as his own faith in a God whom he then knew to have been guiding him toward Himself all the while. “What am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?” his heart cried out to God. “But we are made for you, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” he continued in sincere reverence. What follows is a brutally honest assessment of his own life as he worked his way up the social latter as a popular public speaker, all the while committing himself to a self-conscious rejection of the faith and fervent prayers of his blessed mother. In the meantime, God was advancing on Augustine ever closer, teaching him profound truths even as he committed himself first to Gnostic heresy and then to pagan philosophy. Even in his own sexual addiction, to which Augustine (the newly elected bishop!) confesses boldly and transparently, he came to see God teaching him his own utter inability to justify himself before a holy God. Later, as he records the profound and climatically dramatic moment when he made his first confession to the Christian faith, it was his own gut-wrenching brokenness that led him tearfully to the God of mercy and restoration. As the Christian church of today increasingly relies on therapeutic preaching and gentle self-improvement schemes to bring in new members, Augustine casts a long shadow of rebuke. He teaches us that only when we face with brutal honesty and sincere reverence for Almighty God our own utter depravity and weakness, can we truly find that Truth which alone completely sets us free.
In that brokenness, Augustine came face to face with that truth which became the fundamental bedrock of his entire theological system, the merciful Providence of Almighty God. It is indeed fitting that the greatest thing we can learn from Augustine’s life is the one thing for which he could not, by his own masterful Confession, take any credit whatsoever. Through his long conversion experience, Augustine came to rely with utter humility on the profound guidance of God in all things. An episode later in his life, after he had already written The Confessions, bears out this truth with dramatic intensity. On his way to a council of the church to settle the question of a break-away sect, he got terribly lost on the back roads between Hippo and Carthage. After thusly arriving late to the council, he learned there that on the main route which he was supposed to have taken, several members of the break-away sect in question were waiting in ambush to assassinate him, for they feared the power of his oratory. This story illustrates how in all things—things in which God does not seem to be working at all—Augustine developed eyes to see God carefully and tenderly working to love and save his soul. In a nation where self-reliance and self-striving are the greatest public virtues, Augustine shows us that it is ultimately God alone who is at work in his people, to will and to act according to his good pleasure. We should therefore cast ourselves on God, as Augustine did, waiting patiently no matter the trial for the God who alone sets his Church free.
We have much to learn from Augustine, the Doctor of theology. I suggest that we have as much to learn from Augustine, the Christian man. From him, we can learn to submit ourselves in holy fear to the Faith which was once given to the Saints. By his example, we can learn that only by embracing what we truly are in humble reverence can we find the saving power of Almighty God. By the manner of his life, we can learn to cast ourselves on Jesus in steadfast hope for the powerful working of his unsearchable and undefeatable Providence. We can, in short, learn how to live that Faith which Augustine so boldly taught and confessed. Let us, on this the 1,580th anniversary of his going home to be with his Lord, gladly walk in the path St. Augustine of Hippo powerfully and humbly cleared for us by his life as well as his doctrine.
~ On the Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, August 28, 2010.