Bishop of Hippo, Teacher of the Faith


Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Bishop of Hippo, Teacher of the Faith

Attributed to Gerard Seghers, Public Domain

Augustine’s parents, Patricius and Monica, were ambitious for him and struggled financially to obtain the best possible education for him. While at university in Carthage, he developed a deep thirst for truth, which took him first into Manichaeism, (which taught that there is a struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Through an on-going process that takes place in human history, light is gradually removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light, whence it came. Its beliefs were based on local Mesopotamian religious movements and Gnosticism.

In 383 Augustine moved to Rome and soon obtained a position as professor of rhetoric at what was then the western imperial capital, Milan. By this time he had become dissatisfied with the Manichaean pseudo-scientific explanations of reality. He was greatly influenced by Bishop Ambrose, who introduced him to a chain of Philosophical thinkers and thought and a more spiritualised interpretation of Scripture than he had met in North Africa.

Augustine eventually came to the conclusion that a commitment to Christianity was a total commitment to a disciplined life-style, dedicated to God. He struggled within himself over the cost of this commitment, but was eventually “converted” in 386. Abandoning the prospect of marriage and a brilliant public career, he received baptism from Ambrose at Easter in 387. Augustine resolved to return to North Africa and to live as a monk, seeking a life of contemplation and prayer.

While looking for a suitable place for a monastic community, he was made a minister by the people of the church in Hippo, and became bishop of Hippo in 395, a position he held until his death. In addition to his many responsibilities as bishop, Augustine carried on an extensive literary output in letters, treatises and sermons. He wrote at length against the Manichaeans and became embroiled in major debates in the western church over the nature of the church. The Donatists, a group within the church in North Africa, maintained a doctrine that the church as a body that must exhibit the purity of its life. Augustine argued that the church’s purity is a gift of God, not something we attain, and therefore there is room in the church for the sinner.

Augustine entered into a similar long debate with the Pelagians (a group who believed that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid) he argued with them over the question of moral effort and its relation to God’s saving grace. Where Pelagius was the moral reformer urging responsibility, Augustine was the redeemed sinner who knows that it is all God’s work in us.

Augustine’s most famous works are his Confessions, in which he uses his own personal life as an example of God’s working, and the City of God, a work occasioned by the sack of Rome in 410. This event shocked both pagans and Christians, whose sense of the favour of the gods or God was bound up with the city. Augustine answered with a view of the church as mingled here with the earthly city that is characterised by pride, but at the same time is on pilgrimage to the heavenly city of God that is characterised by love.

The most outstanding of early Christian thinkers in the western church, Augustine had a profound influence on the medieval world, and a continuing effect even beyond the period of the Reformation.

BORN: 13 November 354, Thagaste, North Africa (present day Algeria).

DIED:28 August 430 AD, Hippo Regius, Annaba, Algeria.