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A book review appeared in U. S. News and World Report (May 23, 2005) that piqued our interest. The book was Augustine: a New Biography by James J. O’Donnell, professor of classics and provost at Georgetown University. Dr. O’Donnell notes that the new pope, Benedict XVI, “has long claimed St. Augustine as his theological lodestar.” The review states (and highlights) the fact that “Augustine constructed a theological notion, original sin, that defies logic on various points.” We were aware that Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, had great influence on the development of Roman Catholic (and Protestant) theology. But a look at this biography illustrates this most effectively.

The first three centuries

A study of the “Ante-Nicene Fathers” takes us on the journey toward the apostasy that developed in the first three centuries. Elements of gospel truth are still to be found in their writings – such as belief in the return of Christ to reign over an earthly kingdom. The drift away from these principles can also be discerned, especially toward the end of the period. Finally, with the ascension of Constantine as the first “Christian” emperor and the “calling up” to prominence of the Christian community in the Empire, the apostate system was officially born.

By this time, the doctrine of the trinity had been defined and accepted and the immortality of the soul and other falsehoods were commonly taught. It was also no longer assumed (as had been the case for many years) that believers were required to remain separate from worldly institutions — government, the army, etc. With the new beginning, an updated “apostle” was required, and Augustine would take on that role. He would pretty much define the whole system of the new, revised Christianity.

Who was Augustine?

Augustine was born in 354 A.D. to a family of some means and grew up in Algeria. He studied in Carthage and became a professor of rhetoric there. Christians in North Africa during this period were divided between several sects, and the young professor first fell in with the Manicheans. The bishop Ambrose and others later drew Augustine toward the more orthodox religion of his mother. He experienced a moment of conversion while sitting in a garden where he supposedly heard a voice directing him to a passage in one of Paul’s epistles. Baptized in 387, he would soon become a prolific writer of theology, helping to develop the medieval church in doctrine and practice.

Augustine and theology

The review in U. S. News poses the question, “How did a North African bishop who lived and wrote in the late Roman Empire become so essential to the shaping of Christianity? Put another way, would the Christianity we know today be different if Augustine of Hippo had not existed?” Dr. O’Donnell’s biography presents convincing evidence of the powerful influence of Augustine on church theology.

When Augustine came on the scene in the fourth century, most of the wrong notions of false Christianity were already in place – immortality of the soul, etc. So the base from which he worked was corrupt (in spite of his efforts to find support for his views in scripture). He would become a prolific writer of considerable talent – The City of God and his autobiographical Confessions were just two of his many writings. He would be accepted as an authority on church doctrine and his influence is still felt, as in the case of the present pope.

Two statements of his have been quoted very often. One described the attitude of his youth, “Master, make me pure, but not yet.” The other would be used by the established church to bolster its position of authority: “There is no salvation outside the [Catholic] church.” In his personal life, this future “saint” was married (whether formally or not) in North Africa and had a son. In Milan, his socially ambitious mother sought a more suitable match for him; so he sent his wife back home. But instead of taking another wife, he was converted, baptized, and became a celibate priest. He would, while still a young man, become bishop of Hippo in North Africa. His writings gained considerable influence even in his lifetime, and he would be honored by most future theologians.

Original sin and infant baptism

Until the time of Augustine, baptism was only administered to adults – those of an age of understanding. When he became bishop of Hippo he was disturbed to learn that the practice of baptizing infants was becoming prevalent in the North African Christian community. Dr. O’Donnell comments:

And so the practice, scattered at first and then widespread, becomes increasingly popular. The young Augustine is baffled by it, the bishop Augustine capitulates to it, and the middle-aged Augustine begins to explain it: but he could only explain it by constructing a theological notion, original sin, that defies logic on various points. It has the qualities of a mathematical equation that requires you to fail to notice that it divides by zero on two or three occasions in order to get to its results…The world’s history is full of comparably obsessive ideas, worked out in elaborate detail, that make no sense when seen from outside.

The doctrine of “original sin” teaches that all people born since Eden have the sin of Adam in the garden imputed to them. That is, all of us inherit from our first parents not just the effects of the first transgression (mortality and a proneness to sin) – but the guilt of that sin as well. As it worked itself out, the idea led to the belief that infants (since they were believed to have immortal souls) would go to hell (or at least to a place called limbo) for eternity. Infant mortality being what it was in those days, parents were eager for a new approach to the subject. Dr. O’Donnell explains in further detail how Augustine became the originator of the doctrine of inherited sin.

Different forces drove Augustine to that doctrine of original sin, his most original and nearly single-handed creation…Recall the puzzlement he expressed, when he was first back in Africa, at the local habit of baptizing infants. How could this be truly valuable, he wondered, doing this to babies who had no understanding of what was going on? Here he was confronted by anxiety and (worse) logical inconsistency…The only logical escape was to conclude that the infants themselves carried the stain of sin. From this point on, the doctrine and its associated stories were assured a long future. In books 13 and 14 of “The City of God” a few years later, the story of Adam and Eve would be fully associated with this doctrine.

It is incomprehensible that this doctrine, created to accommodate an unscriptural practice, has become a cornerstone of Catholic theology.

And the Jews

Augustine had encountered several sects of Christians as well as pagans, but the Jews he considered unique – they worshiped the true God, but their understanding of Him he considered to be incorrect. They had not accepted Jesus, so of course they were lost to salvation. He argued that they had been allowed to survive so as to be a tangible witness to the scriptures and to the origin of Christ. Without them, Christians might be accused of making the whole thing up. But the Jews’ only hope was in accepting Catholic Christianity. His view – supported by church teaching at the time – was that the Old Testament was fulfilled in the New. He did not include in his theology a latter day restoration of Israel. All the prophecies that speak of this coming event were said to be fulfilled in the church. To them, that was the kingdom of God on earth.

The papacy

As an historian with particular knowledge of the development of Christendom, Dr. O’Donnell makes a number of excellent observations. One has to do with the origin of the papacy. He points out that the institution was still undeveloped in Augustine’s day. “The bishop of Rome in Augustine’s lifetime was still only a prestigious and sometimes influential figure, but he was not yet ‘pope’ to Christians at a distance from Rome in any meaningful sense; that would take another hundred years.” The notion that there was a continuous line of popes beginning with the apostle Peter was a still later invention.

The first compilations of the Book of the Popes (Liber pontificalis – with short biographies of each pope from Peter onward, kept current, pope by pope) apparently date to the early sixth century. From that period we even have evidence of competing versions of the book of popes being created and disseminated by rival factions.

But Dr. O’Donnell also observes that Augustine’s part in shaping the Catholic identity was the “central achievement of his career.” He lived to see the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, which presaged the fall of the Empire and also its being replaced by a different structure and a new Pontifex Maximus.

From Augustine to Benedict XVI

As a writer, Augustine was far ahead of his time, and that is one reason his writings have had such influence on later generations. His Confessions, an autobiographical work, reads, they say, almost like a novel. Obviously his works have been able to hold the interest of readers. Augustine was declared a “saint” of the Roman Church long before the present process of canonization was invented. His rules for the monastic orders are still in force. Among those ordained into the Augustinian Order was the young Martin Luther. It is interesting that this Augustinian priest would bring about a Reformation that would make the Bible available to all in their common tongue and bring about a freedom of worship that would make the search for gospel truth possible.

The appearance of this new biography – widely reviewed – attests to the importance of Augustine in the development of Christendom as we know it. And there is another book about him in the works. Boston University scholar of ancient Christianity Paula Fredriksen is producing a book, Augustine and the Jews.

Joseph Banta

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