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Saint Augustine His Christian World View

by Lewis Loflin

Darrel Cole, Instructor in Religion at the College of William and Mary in his article Good Wars, had this to say about the early Christian church:

For a variety of reasons (mainly focusing on the idea that Jesus' rejection of force was meant to be unique to him rather than emulated by his followers), Jesus' refusal of the sword did not keep Christians from employing it in increasing numbers, beginning sometime around the end of the second century.

Nor did Jesus' refusal prevent some early Church Fathers from defending the use of force. Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, Ambrose, and Augustine, to name just four, defended the just use of force unequivocally. Their various "defenses"-especially Augustine's-were the genesis of the Christian Just War doctrine, a doctrine which insists that war can be the sort of thing Christians ought to support.

None of these early Christian approaches to war treated it as a necessary evil. Each held that the person who used just force was acting in a way consonant with God's wishes and was, though in a way less praiseworthy than bishops and clerics, following Christ. The just soldier's acts in war were thus thought to be positively good acts-acts that would shape him into the kind of person fit for beatitude with God....

From the very beginning Christianity has been in a "just war" to spread the "Word of God." Fundamentalists will claim the Bible is the "Word of God" but is in fact the work of men such as Saint Augustine. I read his book The Confessions in college and this man is totally insane. Page after page of self-loathing, stories of being beaten as a child, and his own unhappiness with the world.

Standing in his garden in a type of self-hating rage he would claim to hear voices saying, "take up and read" and had an instant conversion to Jesus. His insane rambling and total rejection of reason and logic would be the excuse for Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, to murder and torture millions in a "just war" for Christ.

That is why today Christians insist they don't have to follow the moral teachings of Jesus and most don't. Both he and others like him would plunge Europe into centuries of darkness and superstition. His writings would strongly influence John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other so-called "reformers."

During the early history of Christianity, many learned men, "fathers of the church," explained and defended church teachings. Most of the leading early fathers wrote in Greek, but in the middle of the fourth century, three great Latin writers-Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, and Saint Ambrose-profoundly influenced the course of Christianity in the West. 1

The most important Christian theoretician in the Late Roman Empire was Saint Augustine (A.D. 354-430), bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Born in the North African province of Numidia, Augustine attended school at Carthage where he studied the Latin classics. During his student days, Augustine took a concubine, by whom he had a son.

Struggling to find meaning in a world that abounded with evil, Augustine turned to Manichaeism, an oriental sect whose central doctrine was the struggle of the universal forces of light and good against those of darkness and evil.

But still Augustine, now a professor of rhetoric, felt spiritually restless. In Milan, Augustine, inspired by the sermons of Ambrose, abandoned Manichaeism, and devoted his life to following Christ's teachings. After serving as a priest, he was appointed bishop of Hippo in 395.

In his autobiography, the Confessions, Augustine described his spiritual quest and appealed to devotees of Manichaeism and to adherents of pagan philosophy to embrace Christianity. Augustine wrote The City of God at the turn of the fifth century when the Greco-Roman world-view was disintegrating and the Roman world-state was collapsing. Augustine became the principal architect of the Christian outlook that succeeded a dying classicism.

In 410, when Augustine was in his fifties, Visigoths sacked Rome-a disaster for which the classical consciousness was unprepared. Throughout the Empire people panicked.

Pagans blamed the tragedy on Christianity. The Christians had predicted the end of the world, they said, and by refusing to offer sacrifices to ancient gods, Christians had turned these deities against Rome. Pagans also accused Christians of undermining the empire by refusing to serve in the army.

Even Christians expressed anxiety. Why were the righteous also suffering? Where was the kingdom of God on earth that had been prophesied?

Augustine's The City of God was a response to the crisis of the Roman Empire in the same manner that Plato's Republic was a reaction to the crisis of the Athenian polis. But whereas Plato expressed hope that a state founded on rational principles could remedy the abuses of Athenian society, Augustine maintained that the worldly city could never be the central concern of a Christian.

He said that the ideal state could not be realized on earth, that it belonged only to heaven. The misfortunes of Rome, therefore, should not distress a Christian unduly, for Christianity belonged to the realm of the spirit and could not be identified with any state.

The collapse of Rome did not diminish the greatness of Christianity, for the true Christian was a citizen of a heavenly city that could not possibly be pillaged by ungodly barbarians, but would endure forever.

Compared to God's heavenly city, the decline of Rome was unimportant. The welfare of Christianity was not to be identified with Rome's material progress or even its existence.

Augustine provided comfort to Christians anguished by Rome's misfortunes. They were assured that the decay or prosperity of Rome was ultimately meaningless compared to the bliss that awaited them in the heavenly city.

They were told that Christianity was measured neither by Rome's successes nor by its failures. What really mattered in history, said Augustine, was not the coming to be or the passing away of cities and empires, but the individual's entrance into heaven or hell.

Yet Augustine was still a man of this world. He stipulated that although the earthly city was the very opposite of the heavenly city, it was a reality that people must face. Christians could not reject their city entirely, but must bend it to fit a Christian pattern. The city that someday would rise from the ruins of Rome must be based upon Christian principles.

Warfare, economic activity, education, and the rearing of children should all be conducted in a Christian spirit. Although the City of Man was ever evil, imperfect, and of no consequence in comparison to the City of God, it was not about to disappear and be replaced by the Kingdom of God on earth.

The church could not neglect the state, but must guide it to protect human beings from their own sinful natures. The state must employ repression and punishment to restrain people, who were inherently sinful, from destroying each other and the few good men and women that God had elected to save from hell.

But the earthly city would always be inhabited predominantly by sinners, said Augustine. People should be under no illusion that it could be transformed into the City of God, for everywhere in human society we see love for all those things that prove so vain and breed so many heartaches, troubles, griefs, and fears; such insane joys in discord, strife, and war; such wrath and plots of enemies . . . such fraud and theft and robbery; such perfidy homicide and murder, cruelty and savagery, lawlessness and lust; all the shameless passions of the impure-fornication and adultery. . . and countless other uncleanness too nasty to be mentioned; the sins against religion-sacrilege and heresy, the iniquities against our neighbors-calumnies and cheating, lies and false witness, violence to persons and property . . . and the innumerable other miseries and maladies that fill the world, yet escape attention.

Yet, God, infinitely compassionate, still cared for his creation, said Augustine. By coming to earth as man in the person of Jesus Christ and by enduring punishment and suffering, that God had emancipated human beings from the bondage of original sin.

But Augustine did not hold that by his death Christ had opened the door to heaven for all. The majority of humanity remained condemned to eternal punishment, said Augustine; only a handful had the gift of faith and the promise of heaven. People could not by their own efforts overcome a sinful nature; a moral and spiritual regeneration stemmed not from human will power but from God's grace. And God determined who would be saved and who would be damned.

Whereas the vast majority of people, said Augustine, were citizens of a doomed earthly city, the small number endowed with God's grace constituted the City of God. These people lived on earth as visitors only, for they awaited deliverance to the Kingdom of Christ, where together with the good angels and God they would know perfect happiness.

But the permanent inhabitants of the earthly city were destined for eternal punishment in hell. A perpetual conflict existed between the two cities and between their inhabitants; one city stood for sin and corruption, the other for God's truth and perfection.

For Augustine, the highest good was not of this world but consisted of eternal life with God. Augustine's distinction between this higher world of perfection and a lower world of corruption remained influential throughout the Middle Ages. However, the church, rejecting Augustine's doctrine that only a limited number of people are predestined for heaven or hell, emphasized that Christ had made possible the salvation of all who would embrace the opportunity.

Augustine repudiated the distinguishing feature of classical humanism-the autonomy of reason. For him, ultimate wisdom could not be achieved through rational thought alone; reason had to be guided by faith.

Without faith there could be no true knowledge, no understanding. Philosophy had no validity if it did not first accept as absolutely true the existence of God and the authority of his revelation. Valid ethical standards could not be formulated by reason alone, but were revealed to people by the living God. Christian truth did not rest on theoretical excellence or logical consistency; it was true because its source was God.

Augustine's belief contrasts with that of Socrates, who insisted that through rational reflection each individual could arrive at standards of good and evil. For the humanist Socrates, ultimate values were something that the individual could grasp through thought alone and could defend rationally. Augustine insisted that individuals, without divine guidance, lacked the capacity to comprehend ultimate truth or to regenerate themselves morally, and that without God they could not attain wisdom nor liberate themselves from sin.

Thus, against the classical view that asserted the primacy of reason, Augustine opposed the primacy of faith. But he did not necessarily regard reason as an enemy of faith, and he did not call for an end to rational speculation. Augustine possessed rare intelligence; a student of the classics and an admirer of Platonism, he respected the power of thought.

What he denied of the classical view was that reason alone could attain wisdom. The wisdom that Augustine sought was Christian wisdom, knowledge of God and God's expectations for humanity.

The starting point for this knowledge, he said, was belief in God and the Scriptures. For Augustine, secular knowledge for its own sake was of little value; the true significance of knowledge lay in its role as a tool for comprehending God's will. Augustine adapted the classical intellectual tradition to the requirements of Christian revelation.

With Augustine, the human-centered outlook of classical humanism-which for centuries had been undergoing transformation- gave way to a God-centered world-view. The fulfillment of God's will, not the full development of human talent, became the central concern of life. Augustinian Christianity is a living philosophy because it still has something vital to say about the human condition.

To those who believe that people have the intelligence and good will to transform their earthly city into a rational and just community that promotes human betterment, Augustine warns of human sinfulness, weakness, and failure. He reminds the optimist that progress is not certain, that people, weak and ever prone to wickedness, are their own worst enemies, that success is illusory, and that misery is the essential human reality.

Other Church Fathers

As a youth, Saint Jerome (A.D. c. 340-420) studied Latin literature in Rome. Throughout his life, he remained an admirer of Cicero, Virgil, Lucretius, and other great Latin writers, and he defended the study of classical literature by Christians. Baptized in his mid twenties, Jerome became attracted to the ascetic life and lived for a while as a hermit in the desert of Chalcis near Antioch.

After becoming a priest, he visited holy places in Palestine and intensely studied the Scriptures in Constantinople. Returning to Rome, Jerome became secretary to Pope Damasus and spiritual adviser to a group of wealthy women attracted to the ascetic life. Facing criticism for his attacks on the luxurious living and laxness of the clergy, Jerome left Rome. He established a monastery near Bethlehem, where he devoted himself to prayer and study.

Saint Jerome wrote about the lives of the saints and promoted th spread of monasticism. But his greatest achievement was the translation of the Old and New Testaments from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. Jerome's text, the common or Vulgate version of the Bible, became the official edition of the Bible for the western church.

Saint Ambrose (AD. 340-397), bishop of Milan, Italy, composed religious hymns and wrote books on Scripture, dogma, and morality. In his work on the duties of the clergy, Ambrose provided humane rules for dealing with the poor, the old, the sick, and the orphaned. He urged clerics not to pursue wealth, but to exercise humility and to avoid favoring the rich over the poor. Ambrose sought to defend the autonomy of the church against the power of the state. Emperors are not the judges of bishops, he wrote. His dictum that "The Emperor is within the church, not above it" became a cardinal principle of the medieval church.

Extracts Marvin Perry, Western Civilization, Ideas, Politics, and Society, 2nd edition. Pages 167-70