As a young man in North Africa, Augustine traded the Christian faith of his mother Monica for the pursuit of personal pleasure and prestige. Despite her son’s descent into deeper rejection of God, Monica never stopped praying for him. And the more Augustine chased after the things he thought would make him happy, the more God continued to pursue him.
It was in a garden in Italy that Augustine heard the voice of a child, singing a bit of rhyme, “Tolle lege. Tolle lege. Take up and read, take up and read.” When Augustine took up a nearby copy of the New Testament to read, the first verses to catch his eye were from Paul’s letter to the Romans, 13:11-14. Broken by the message of this text, Augustine finally recognized Jesus as Lord not only of the world but also of his own life. The year was 386.
Nine years later, Augustine was declared overseer of the church in the city of Hippo (modern Annaba, Algeria). In this role, he became a prolific defender of orthodox Christianity against false teachers such as the British monk Pelagius. Talents and personality traits that had once driven Augustine to seek his own glory became the very tools through which God worked to strengthen the faith of his people in the fifth century and beyond.
When the city of Rome was sacked in the year 410, many Roman citizens blamed Christianity. After all, the eternal city had never fallen during the days when Romans worshiped pagan gods! In The City of God—perhaps Augustine’s most important work, one that has shaped centuries of Christian political thought—the overseer of Hippo guided his readers to understand why no earthly empire, not even the Roman Empire, can last forever.
It is almost impossible to overstate Augustine’s impact on the history of Christian thought. In an outstanding article on the continuing relevance of Augustine, Nick Needham writes:
A. N. Whitehead once quipped that the history of Western philosophy was simply a series of footnotes to Plato. By a pardonable exaggeration, one might say that the history of Western theology is simply a series of footnotes to Augustine. The fifth-century African father towers mightily over the succeeding centuries…. We are sometimes fond of saying that we stand on the shoulders of the great Christians who went before us. In the case of Augustine, I suspect most of us may feel less a dwarf on his shoulders than an ant on his ankle.
Here are a few of my favorite words and ideas from the pen of Augustine…
* …his account of how he and his friends stole pears that they neither needed nor desired, simply for the thrill of the theft: Confessions 2:4-8.
* …his account of his conversion: Confessions 8:7-12.
* …his contrast between the City of God and the Earthly City or City of Man, summarized here by James K.A. Smith.
* …his unrelenting emphasis on the grace of God, summarized here by Tom Nettles.
And here is a whimsical and enjoyable, albeit amateur, video summary of the life of Augustine:
30 Days through Church History: Day 12