Every Thumb's Width

A Biographical Jet Tour of Augustine

Augustine’s testimony is typical. He was born, lived in sin until God saved him at age 32, soon after was called to the ministry, and shepherded the same flock until he died. That said, he was no ordinary sinner, nor was he an ordinary pastor. The following provides a jet tour of his 75 years. As is the case for every Christian, God’s work in his life through people and providence is a cause for praising God’s grace.

The Roman Empire, c. AD 395

The Chronology of Augustine’s Life

354 – Thagaste

Augustine was born November 13, 354, in Thagaste, a small city in northern Africa. His father, Patricius, was a poor, unbelieving farmer, though his mother, Monica, was a devoted Christian in the Catholic church (which was the only orthodox church). Augustine was 16 when his father professed faith; he died a year later. Augustine later lamented that his father

did not care what character before You I was developing, or how chaste I was so long as I possessed a cultured tongue–though my culture really meant a desert uncultivated by You, God. (Confessions, II. iii.)

366 – Madera

From 366 to 369, between the ages of 11 and 15, Augustine went to school in Madera, about 20 miles from Thagaste. His father desired that his son to have the best education possible; education was the only way out of poverty for a young man like Augustine. He was “acutely anxious to be accepted, to compete successfully, to avoid being shamed, terrified of the humiliation of being beaten at school” (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 35). After those three years, he spent a year at home (370) before leaving for additional schooling.

371 – Carthage

Carthage was the big city. Boys from small towns all over northern Africa came to study, and to play, in Carthage. Augustine came to Carthage as a 17 year-old full of lust.

I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust….My real need was for You, my God, who are the food of the soul. I was not aware of this hunger. (from his Confessions, quoted in Piper, 47)

Augustine discovered the theatre in Carthage, and wrote “it was a world ‘full of reflections of my own unhappiness, fuel to my raging fire'” (Brown, 39). His only shame was that he wasn’t as bad as his friends.

I went on my way headlong with such blindness that among my peer group I was ashamed not to be equally guilty of shameful behavior when I heard them boasting of their sexual exploits….I went deeper into vice to avoid being despised, and when there was no act by admitting to which I could rival my depraved companions, I used to pretend I had done things I had not done at all, so that my innocence should not lead my companions to scorn my lack of courage, and lest my chastity be taken as a mark of inferiority. (Confessions, II. iii.)

He took a concubine, who we might call a live-in girlfriend, or more palatably, a mistress, and lived with her for 15 years. It was socially acceptable but never acceptable to his mother. In five million words of published works, and even though she bore him his only son, Adeodatus, he never mentions her name.

Augustine was a slave to the praise of men and the love of women. For all his external success and advancement, dissatisfaction grew within him.

373 – Thagaste/Carthage

He went home to Thagaste for a couple years to teach grammar, then returned to Carthage for nine years (374-383) to teach rhetoric. During this time Augustine became part of a religious cult, the Manichaees. Along with other heretical beliefs, these followers of Mani were dualists, teaching an eternal battle between the good spirit and the evil flesh. This temporarily soothed Augustine’s guilty conscience, because Manichaeism claimed that sin wasn’t really the fault of a person, it was the fault of the person’s body. Manichaeism was so dishonorable that Augustine’s mother didn’t even let him back in the house.

Ironically, he grew tired of the apathetic, out of control, rebellious students in Carthage.

383 – Rome

He moved to Rome when he was 29, believing that he would find better students there. He did not. The students often skipped out on the teacher before the final class when their tuition was due.

384 – Milan

Desperate to get away, burnt out by pathetic students and the politics of Rome, he moved to Milan. Most significantly in Milan he met the bishop Ambrose. Augustine enjoyed Ambrose’s teaching style as well as his explanation of parts of the Bible Augustine had misunderstood. Now 30 years old, Augustine realized many of his previous objections to Christianity were based on untrue things.

While living in Milan, his mother arranged a wife for him. Marriage would make Augustine proper in her eyes. In his eyes, it was merely a way to advance his career. He sent his concubine back to Africa though he said, “this was a blow which crushed my heart to bleeding. I loved her dearly” (quoted in Brown, 88). He never married and took another mistress. He was unwilling to let loose of, and unable to escape, his lusts.

That is until 386. His conversion deserves more attention later, but after getting saved, Augustine returned to Thagaste in 388. His mom died in 387, and soon after, his son died.

391 – Hippo (Regius)

Augustine aspired to start an monastery now that he was a Christian. Hippo was a fairly large city, and more importantly, the church already had a bishop, so Augustine figured he would be free from broad, public, ministry responsibility. Much like John Calvin, however, others soon pressed him into the role of assistant bishop (396), and five years later he became the primary bishop. Augustine served the church in Hippo for almost 40 years until his death in 430.

For a number of years he spent his mornings arbitrating legal cases. I can’t imagine how much I would hate that; Augustine hated it too.

Augustine would visit jails to protect prisoners from ill-treatment; he would intervene, tactfully, but firmly, to save criminals from judicial torture and execution; above all, he was expected to keep peace within his ‘family’ by arbitrating in their lawsuits. … Augustine would listen for hours while families of farmers argued passionately about every detail of their father’s will. (Brown, 195, 226)

He spent much time writing against the Manichaean heresy, and during the last few years of his life, he debated Pelagius over the issue of man’s depravity and the place of God’s grace in salvation. Augustine himself listed over eighty heresies he had fought against (Brown, 35-56).

Possidius, a friend of Augustine, wrote about him as a “man who ate sparingly, worked tirelessly, despised gossip, shunned the temptations of the flesh, and exercised prudence in the financial stewardship of his see” (“Augustine,” Wikepedia, accessed January 3, 2009.)

Based on the frequency and tone of his references to Monica, I personally tend to think he was a bit of a momma’s boy. I also suspect that after salvation he swung a little too far toward the “fasting” side and missed out on the “feasting” side of enjoying God’s gifts to His people. Yet I have come to love Augustine as a tenacious pastor and a prolific author, who wielded a worldview always ready to magnify God, and who had remarkably great optimism regarding God’s work in and through the church. He was constantly trying to resolve tensions that were within himself, learning and making progress till his death.

In [Augustine] we discover heart and mind married in an intimate union where deep, thoughtful theology, rooted in Scripture and never afraid of condemning error, nonetheless burns and sings with a spiritual vibrancy that makes most modern piety seem pale and sickly by contrast. (Needham, 43)

But the reason I find him so compelling, the reason I think God graciously chose to use him as an instrument to change the world, is because he saw sin for what it really is. He loathed his sin and lauded God’s grace.