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The Thought and Teaching of Augustine of Hippo

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Augustine (354-430) is an extremely important figure in church history, who lived during a turning point in history. He lived through the dying years of the Roman Empire. This marked the end of classical antiquity, the age of the great empires, and looked forward into the medieval period, when the church would become the dominant force in Europe. At this change of eras, Augustine’s personal experience of God’s grace had a far longer-lasting effect on Christian thinking over the following centuries then he could possibly have imagined.

Augustine is still recognised as a great scholar, who raised the intellectual scholarship of the Western Church above that of the Eastern Church for the first time.

Theologically, Augustine brought a new emphasis on the theology of grace, which had been previously been lost by most of the Western Church, and stimulated a new interest in the writings of Paul. He identified three categories of grace, all of which he said were necessary for salvation. The first was prevenient grace, the grace in which God takes the initiative for the salvation of sinners. The second was co-operating grace, in which God assists us in our salvation. The third was irresistible grace, in which God works in people’s will so they will persevere in the faith. His doctrine of irresistible grace has not been accepted by most of the church, but was later accepted by Calvin. He taught that mankind was totally depraved through the original sin passed on from Adam, through the act of sexual intercourse. He limited man’s free-will, and taught that only a limited number of people were elected to receive God’s grace and eternal life, while the rest were predestined to Hell.

His doctrine of the church and philosophy of history is expounded in his ‘City of God’, in which he answers the charge that the fall of Rome had occurred because the empire had forsaken the pagan religions to adopt Christianity. He sees two cities, one earthly and one heavenly, which are in continuous struggle. In his time, these were represented by the State and the Church. He predicted that the Church will be victorious and replace the Roman Empire, bringing in the millennial rule of Christ. Through this, he laid the foundations for medieval Catholicism and the papacy, with the state being subject to the church.

It was to his doctrine of grace that the protestant reformers returned about a thousand years later, turning against his doctrine of the church, which had come to dominate medieval Europe.

One of his most famous writings is his ‘Confessions’, in which he intimately describes his search for faith expressed as a prayer to God. In these, he looks deeply into human personality, and paves the way for the future study of psychology.

During his lifetime, he was involved with two significant controversies. The first was against the Donatists, who had split from the Catholic Church nearly a hundred years previously. As a result of this, Augustine developed his doctrine of ministry and sacraments in the church. The second was against Pelagius and his denial of original sin and emphasis on man’s free-will, in which he emphasied the doctrine of grace and the necessity for a supernatural act of God to bring salvation.