Thursday, May 7, 2015

Augustine of Hippo - Prodigal Son

Sometimes the greatest appreciators of grace are those with a sinful background. Augustine of Hippo was one of the great defenders of grace. And he came from a background that would lead him to appreciate it. Though his mother was a Christian, he lived his early life pursuing the pleasures of the world. He got involved in pagan philosophy and culture, but his chief weakness, and the hardest one for him to bring under control, was for sexual indulgence. He went from pagan philosophy to Manicheanism (the belief there are two Gods, one good and one evil).  Then he became a Christian as a result of the influence of Ambrose of Milan. He became a leader and teacher of the church in his day and in the ages after.

He opposed Pelagius, who was a strong advocate of the idea that we could do good works and earn God's favor with little or no help from God. He also made a clear contrast to his contemporary Jerome, who comes off as generally self-righteous and critical. While he did not go as far as Luther, his emphasis on human sinfulness and God's grace protected the church of his day from falling into a performance-oriented mentality. In defense of grace he affirmed that God predestined people to be saved, a teaching that I would affirm, but which was and remains controversial. (It is interesting that, perhaps out of respect for Augustine, this teaching was later attributed to Fulgentius, and ultimately to John Calvin.) 

Augustine's great error was, as with many errors, the bad side of his strength. There was a group called the Donatists who had broken off from the regular church organization because they thought it had too easily forgiven those who had denied Christ during the persecutions. (It should be noted that the regular church was not totally lax on this, but made people go through a lengthy process before receiving them back.) Augustine accused the Donatists, with some justice, of lacking love and forgiveness for their fellow Christians. But in response to this he endorsed Cyprian's error of requiring the absolute necessity for maintaining unity with the existing church. This helped lay the foundation for the papacy. Later he became so frustrated that he used political force against the Donatists. It is interesting that he opposed the use of force earlier in his life, even against the Manicheans, who from a theological point of view were farther from Christianity than the Donatists. Sometimes the people who are closer to us in their position, who we feel should be on our side, are more exasperating than those who are more clearly different.

Augustine's legacy, like that of most of us, was mixed. But he was a man who from experience had come to appreciate grace. And in that we have a good example to follow, no matter what our background.

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