top of page
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.

Apr 24 Baptism of St Augustine

Today we remember how Augustine of Hippo was baptised by Ambrose in Milan as a 33 year old man - a 'late convert'.

His writings and his thoughts would go onto to shape much of Western Christianity - whether through original sin, just war theory or his idea of the 'City of God'. His autobiographical 'Confessions' is one of the greatest works in the Western Canon.

One of the four great 'Doctors' of the early church with Jerome, Gregory the Great and Ambrose who baptised him today.

In today's pod we explore his life, thought and legacy.

This was the end of one of the most significant conversion stories ever. Augustine arrived at the baptismal font after an agonizing process of deliberation. According to his autobiographical book The Confessions, "We were baptized and all anxiety for our past life vanished away." Augustine had one of the finest minds in the ancient world, he would eventually become a Bishop and a Doctor of the Church, a title given to saints recognized as having made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine. His thinking has been massively influential in the development of Western Christianity. So what was the anxiety that he talks about in the Confessions? In his earlier life, he was as a teacher of rhetoric and pagan philosophies at some of the Roman Empire's finest schools.

At the age of 17, the talented student went to Carthage to continue his education in rhetoric. By his own account he had lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, associating with young men who boasted of their sexual exploits. Inexperienced and with the desire to impress his peers, he had a relationship with a young woman in Carthage, she had remained his lover for over fifteen years and gave birth to his son . He had finally ended the relationship in order to prepare to marry a ten-year-old heiress. Having to wait for two years. because the legal age of marriage in the ancient world, for women was twelve, during the wait he decided to become a Catholic priest and the marriage did not happen.

Reading Cicero as a young man, had sparked a lifelong interest in philosophy. Although raised Catholic, Augustine became a Manichaean, much to his mother's chagrin. The Manicheans were from Persia, followers of the prophet Mani and taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology. They believed in the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Mani was revered as the final prophet after Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Jesus. However Augustine, under the influence of his mother, Monica, and the famous bishop Ambrose, turned back to Christianity. His baptism by Ambrose, today, marked his entrance into the church. He would become the bishop of Hippo Regius in Numidia, North Africa. His writings have influenced the development of Western philosophy and Western Christianity, and his books are still influential, including The City of God, On Christian Doctrine, and Confessions. His impact was recognised at the time as another famous contemporary, Jerome (the compiler of the Bible) who said that, Augustine "established anew the ancient Faith".

Augustine developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and perspectives. Believing that the grace of Christ was indispensable to human freedom, he helped formulate the doctrine of original sin which has had a profound effect on civilisation. Augustine's understanding of the consequences of original sin and the necessity of redeeming grace was developed in the struggle against Pelagius a Scottish theologian who was eventually condemned as a heretic. Theology is often developed as a result of a dispute, when the other person in dialogue with you forces you to clarify your ideas. Pelagius and his disciples refused to agree that the disobedience of Adam and Eve was the cause of universal original sin as Augustine called it. Augustine argued that, although their disobedience was caused by pride, their nature was wounded as a result. This woundedness he called concupiscence which affected human intelligence and will, as well as affections and desires, including sexual desire.

In later times psychoanalysis would refer to this as libido. The subtler points that Augustine was making was that we do bad things not because we are possessed by an evil spirit but because we are wounded in some fundamental way. This state of concupiscence was the privation of good, acting like a wound. The Pelagians, argued that human nature cannot lose its moral capacity for doing good, but that a person was free to act or not act in a righteous way. Pelagius gave an example of eyes: they have capacity for seeing, but a person can make either good or bad use of it. Augustine pointed out that humanities tendency to doing bad things was deeper rooted that this, it was like we are always being dragged backwards by some unnamed force. For him the apparent disobedience of the flesh to the spirit, as St Paul described it, concupiscence was as a result of original sin.

Many modern thinkers dismiss Augustines ‘obsession with sex’ however the Italian scholar, Agostino Trapè insists Augustine's personal experience cannot be credited for his doctrine about concupiscence. He considers Augustine's marital experience to be quite normal, and even exemplary, aside from the absence of Christian wedding rites. Augustine used Ciceronian Stoic concept of passions, to interpret Paul's doctrine of universal sin and redemption. The rejection of his own highly sensual nature as described in the Confessions, and a new life of continence are significant. Augustine taught that human sexuality had been wounded, together with the whole of human nature, and required the redemption of Christ. The sin of Adam is inherited by all human beings. Original Sin.

How does creative and original thinking become official dogma? This does not happen immediately, but as ideas are tested and ‘peer reviewed’ by authoritative structures. The process of the development of Christian doctrine is part of the living reception of a living tradition. John Henry Newman in his book An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine argued that various Catholic doctrines not accepted by Protestants (such as devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Purgatory) had a developmental history analogous to doctrines that were accepted by Protestants (such as the Trinity or the divinity and humanity of Christ). Such developments were, in his view, the natural and beneficial consequences of reason working on the original revealed truth to draw out consequences that were not obvious at first. This process involves a period of reception that describes a dynamic process in doctrine that is sometimes lost when ‘dogmatic’ is often used as a pejorative word to describe something that is stuck and unchanging. As the church absorbed Augustine’s thinking around sin, it was confirmed at numerous councils, from Carthage (418), to Trent (1546) but his idea of inherited guilt eternally damning infants was omitted by these councils and popes. The process of reception accepted part of Augustine’s thought whilst rejecting other parts.

His significant contribution to just war theory is also worth considering. Augustine asserted that Christians should be pacifists as a personal, philosophical stance. However, peacefulness in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a sin. Defence of one's self or others could be a necessity, especially when authorized by a legitimate authority. While not breaking down the conditions necessary for war to be just, Augustine coined the phrase in his work The City of God. In essence, the pursuit of peace must include the option of fighting for its long-term preservation. Such a war could not be pre-emptive, but defensive, to restore peace. Thomas Aquinas, centuries later, used the authority of Augustine's arguments in an attempt to define the conditions under which a war could be just. When the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate, Augustine imagined the Church as a Spiritual City of God, distinct from the material Earthly City. His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview. The segment of the Church that adhered to the concept of the Trinity as defined by the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople closely identified with Augustine's On the Trinity. Thomas Aquinas was influenced heavily by Augustine, but on the topic of original sin, Aquinas proposed a more optimistic view of man than that of Augustine in that his conception leaves to the reason, will, and passions of fallen man their natural powers even after the Fall, without "supernatural gifts".

Both Catholics and many Protestants consider him to be one of the most important Church Fathers. The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has written: "Augustine's impact on Western Christian thought can hardly be overstated; only his beloved example, Paul of Tarsus, has been more influential, and Westerners have generally seen Paul through Augustine's eyes." In the East, his teachings are more disputed, the most controversial doctrine associated with him, the filioque, was rejected by the Orthodox Church. Filioque is a Latin term meaning and from the Son and was added to the Nicene Creed. - I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Jesus Christ, is an additional origin point of the Holy Spirit. This Creed, is still recited by many Christians regularly in public worship. Disputation over this became the theological reason for the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054 – the split between the Eastern & Western Church. Augustine's influence spreads wider than Christianity. His early and influential writing on the human will, a central topic in ethics, would become a focus for Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Augustine's philosophical method, especially demonstrated in his Confessions, had continuing influence on Continental philosophy throughout the 20th century. Ludwig Wittgenstein extensively quotes Augustine in Philosophical Investigations for his approach to language, both admiringly, and as a sparring partner to develop his own ideas, including an extensive opening passage from the Confessions.


bottom of page