Sunday, April 22, 2007


Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) was born, raised and educated in the Roman province of Africa, in the parts of the world we know today as Algeria and Tunisia. Augustine's early adulthood was spent in Rome and Milan, where he had a distinguished career as a politician and teacher of philosophy. Like many ambitious people in the Roman empire of his day, Augustine was nominally a Christian, but also flirted with several other religious cults and philosophies. As well, he seems to have devoted quite a bit of his time and energy into chasing after women and attending drinking parties.

One of the sayings attributed to Augustine during this period is the famous prayer; "Lord, make me a good Christian but not just yet!"

Augustine did not have much chance of escaping from being a good Christian. He was surrounded by saints! His mother was Saint Monica, a devout woman who was a Christian scholar and teacher in her own right. And one of Augustine's professional colleagues whilst he was a teacher of rhetoric in Milan was the local Bishop, Saint Ambrose of Milan. The humility and simple teaching of the faith that he experienced in the ministry of Ambrose, together with the prayers and urging of his mother, brought Augustine to the point where he accepted baptism. Not being one to do things by halves, he completely turned his life around from that day on, leaving aside worldly philosophies and secular politics, and devoting himself entirely to the study of holy scripture and the practice of ecclesiastical politics, which is much more interesting.It was not long after his return to northern Africa that Augustine was ordained a priest, and then elected as bishop in the town of Hippo not far from where he had been born. During his lifetime he was a great teacher and leader of the church, and his sermons and writings are still quoted to this day amongst the texts which help us to understand the intricacies and implications of our Christian faith.

Augustine's greatest battle on behalf of the Church was against two groups with related ideas: the pagan Manicheans, of whom he had been a member in his youth, and the Christian followers of a British monk called Pelagius. Both the Manicheans and the Pelagians taught an idea which has never really disappeared from the world - indeed, it is surprisingly popular in the secular world, and even amongst some Christians, to this day. They believed that salvation and human fulfilment can be achieved by human effort - by knowing and doing the right things. Their argument goes something like this: 'If I know what is right, and then do what is right, I can find fulfilment in this life and salvation in the next. The more good I do, the better my chances of coming out on top in the end.'

That might sound familiar. The culture of good works as a path to salvation is alive and well in the world today, and even the Christian churches and their leaders are not totally immune to this seductive idea.

But Augustine stood firm against such heresy. He believed that human beings, even the best of us, still always fall short of the righteousness which would lead to salvation. His doctrine of "Original Sin" is a shorthand way of saying that it is in the nature of every human being, when faced with a moral decision, to choose evil more often than good. This propensity is not our own choice - it is hardly even our own fault. It is simply the way we are. We can all be good some of the time, and the most saintly of us might even be able to be good most of the time, but not one of us can be good all the time.

Augustine followed Jesus in defining the ultimate goal of religion, and therefore the definition of "goodness", as love of God and neighbour. Anything which harms our relationship with God, and anything which harms our neighbour, is sin. And the truth is that it is simply not possible for any human being to exist on this earth and be in a perfect state of union with God at all times, and to never do anything which brings harm to a neighbour. Almost every thing we do harms someone, even if we are not aware of it at the time.

In the book of Genesis, the events known as "the fall" recount how the first humans disobeyed God by eating of the forbidden fruit, and then their offspring fought and brought harm to one another. This ancient story expresses the fundamental truth that ever since we have begun to make conscious choices, human beings have known what God wanted of us - and mostly done the opposite. We have also allowed our greed and pride to lead us into making choices almost every day which place the love we have for ourselves over the love we know we should have for others and for God.

Love of God and love of neighbour - the two things we have failed to do since the beginning of history. Pelagius and his followers said we could do them if we tried, but Augustine was more realistic, pointing out that we do not have it in ourselves to change what we fundamentally are. There is sin in each of us - a propensity to do what we know is wrong, in our relationship with God and in our dealings with our neighbours. That is just the way we are. Augustine taught that we cannot overcome the way we are - we cannot deny ourselves. Although we can change our behaviour (some of the time), we cannot change our nature. We have original sin, because it is in our nature as human beings to be against God and to do harm to our fellow human beings. The consequence of this is that we all die, and most of us probably deserve worse.The good news of the Gospel is that God in Christ does not change our nature, but he excuses us from the consequences of our nature. He forgives us the wrong choices we have made, and promises a better life than we deserve in this world and the next. What God asks of us is that we respond to his generosity and love by expressing our faith in him, showing the same generosity and love in our worship, and in our relationships with others. Augustine's teaching has been accepted as the definitive Christian view for about 1500 years. It undergirded both the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and the Catholic Counter- reformation which followed. It is firmly based on the Bible, but also inextricably bound up with the life and worship of the Church.

As we remember Saint Augustine tonight, let us give thanks for his example and teaching, for his contribution to Christian scholarship and the spread of the Gospel. And let us give thanks for the wonderful truth that, although there is nothing we can do to escape the innate sinfulness of being a human being, God loves us anyway. He accepts us, and he calls us to love and serve him. As he has loved us, so let us love one another, in spirit and in truth.

Nigel Mitchell (reproduced with the author's permission).


Note from Rowland: The Confessions of Saint Augustine is one of the most moving books I've read. I'll probably write something on it in another blog - 1 Month of Books you should Read And I'll also be writing an article on Matthew Fox, whose idea of 'Original Blessing' is critical of Augustine's doctrine of 'original sin'.

No comments: