Posts Tagged ‘Augustine’


Augustine of Hippo is a towering figure in church history and theology. All agree that he was born a Berber in what is now Algeria. But there is quite some debate about how African Augustine really was. Some of this surrounds the question of how dark his skin was – something that was almost irrelevant to the understanding of ethnicity in the Ancient world (ethnicity was understood much more in terms of place, language, customs and kinship). Some have suggested that since Roman north Africa was part of the Roman empire and since Augustine was skilled in Latin rhetoric, spent several years in Italy and was heavily influenced by the classical philosophers, he is more Roman than African.

Four points in answer:

  1. Augustine clearly understood himself to be an African. He talks of “Pontitianus, our countryman so far as being an African, in high office in the Emperor’s court” (Confessions, Book 8, emphasis added). Admittedly, when Augustine talks of ‘Africa’ (e.g. four times in his Confessions) he is almost certainly speaking of the Roman Province of Africa – central, coastal North Africa excluding Morocco and Egypt and certainly not including sub-Saharan Africa. However Roman ‘Africa’ was a distinctive place in the Empire, one that Augustine identified with and where he spent most of his life serving as a presbyter, preacher and overseer of the church.
  2. No culture is sealed. There is no pure indigenous culture. Every culture has come from somewhere else, is a mixture of influences from different places and is gradually (or speedily) in the process of change. North African cultures had clearly been greatly impacted by the coming of pagan-classical Roman rule and then, a few hundred years later, by the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. But Roman Africa would have been a very different place from Roman Britain or Roman Italy. As recent post-colonial theorists and anthropologists have discovered, colonialism (ancient or modern) does not create monolithic cultural hegemony but rather a complex patchwork of hybrid cultures as different places interact with the colonising culture in different ways. At the same time, the colonising culture turns out to be equally complex, changeable and undergoes its own hybridisation. The fact that Africans like Augustine and Pontitianus were working in Rome, not as slaves but as free men, teaching rhetoric to the elite, shows a different side to the Roman Empire than the one we often see in films like Gladiator, where the only Africans coming into Rome seem to be slaves to be slaughtered in the Colosseum. The Roman Empire was highly multi-cultural. That could be seen in an African man with a Roman name, following an eastern mystery religion (Manichaeism), with a professorship in classical rhetoric in the heart of the Empire and being prompted by tales of Egyptian monastics (especially Anthony) to consider a Palestinian religion (The Way) which has been adopted by the Roman state. The Roman world was highly diverse, interconnected and mobile with people like Augustine and his family quite able to make trips between Italy and Africa. So let us give up the idea of distinct, hermetically sealed ‘African’ and ‘Western’ cultures, either in history or today.
  3. When Augustine describes his family (in Confessions, Book 9) there are some quite African-sounding cultural details. His maternal grandfather, when a baby, was carried on the back of a young village girl “as little ones used to be carried on the backs of elder girls.” Augustine’s mother Monica (a Berber name) was brought up largely by a maid who was very strict with her, including making sure she didn’t drink too much water, a discipline to prevent intemperance. And as Monica comes close to death, Augustine notes how his brother tries to encourage his mother to keep going on the journey back home (from Italy to Africa) “wishing for her, as the happier lot, that she might die, not in a strange place, but in her own land.” Quite an African sensibility.
  4. Despite the complex influences upon him, ultimately Augustine was neither captive to his African culture nor Roman culture because he came to encounter the culture-transcending God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the pages of Scripture. At first the words of the Bible were repulsive to him: “they seemed to me unworthy to be compared to the stateliness of [Cicero]; for my swelling pride shrunk from their lowliness, nor could my sharp wit pierce the interior thereof. Yet were they such as would grow up a little one [child]. But I disdained to be a little one; and swollen with pride, took myself to be a great one.” (Confessions, Book 3). Augustine’s polished classical education prejudiced him against the rough bluntness of the Bible’s language while his pride, and perhaps also his African upbringing which would no doubt have emphasised the importance of transitioning from boy to man, prejudiced him against a reverse rite of passage – transitioning from man to little child. But, despite the cultural offence, he describes how he was slowly, agonisingly, irresistibly drawn by the saving power of God and through these same Scriptures was brought to Christ, crucifying his old nature and putting on Christ. And how then the Scriptures came alive to him, especially the Psalms: “how was I by them kindled towards Thee, and on fire to rehearse them, if possible through the whole world, against the pride of mankind” (Confessions, Book 9). It is these Scriptures which gave Augustine his strong doctrines of the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man – doctrines which are foolish and offensive to the natural man. It is these Scriptures which gave his mother Monica an increasing awareness of the surpassing goodness of the Future Land prepared for her such that by the time of her death she was no longer concerned to be buried on her ancestral land. It is these Scriptures which are the only hope for people from all nations.

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reeves breeze 1REVIEW: Michael Reeves, The Breeze of the Centuries: Introducing great theologians from the Apostolic Fathers to Aquinas, IVP: 2010.

The title is taken from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’ (an absolutely classic essay you must read) where Lewis argues brilliantly that we are in great danger of getting stuck in the limited horizons of our age (what some might call paradigms or discourses) and:

The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.

How Reeves has managed to read all the key primary and secondary sources related to these theologians from the second to the 13th centuries (including Aquinas, who, as he wonderful puts it, “seems to have spurted ink like a cuttlefish”) and then summarised it all into very readable introductions to each theologian of about 20 pages each, I have no idea. But he’s done it, and it’s a great service to us of smaller minds and lesser time.

There’s no point trying to summarise his summaries but a few things jumped out at me:

  • Some of the early church guys like Justin Martyr were brilliant. The way they handled the Bible, their focus on the gospel, the way they saw Christ all the way through the Scriptures, their understanding of the Trinity and the atonement, the way they answered the key apologetic questions was masterful. They had no Luther or Calvin or anyone to refer to – just the Bible – and yet they clearly articulated complex theology which was then virtually lost until the Reformation.
  • At the same time there were sections of the early church that drifted disturbingly quickly away from the gospel (as Paul warned the Galatians) into legalism and moralism – The Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas being sad examples of that.
  • I had always thought Anselm was a proto-Calvinist with a strong penal-substitution view of the atonement in contrast to the wishy-washy Abelard. But actually it turns out that his theological method was pretty terrible (‘faith seeking understanding’ really meant ‘reason seeking to prove theology without Scripture’), his view of the atonement was not penal substitution and his soteriology was more proto-Arminian, in contrast to Abelard who may actually have been quite good on atonement (the issues on Abelard are complex – see this academic paper on his commentary on Romans if you really want to go into it).
  • An important thread that runs through the different theologians Reeves looks at is their attitude to Scripture. From Ignatius to Athanasius Scripture is the Master. With Augustine you get Scripture plus Platonism. With Anselm you just get Plato. With Aquinas you get Aristotle. It’s the story of a steady slide away from the Scriptures and an increasing confidence in the ability of man to work out God by his own reason. It had to wait until the Reformation for the church to relearn 1 Corinthians 1-2 and the foolishness of wisdom.

What Reeves is really wanting to do is to calm our fears of approaching these theologians, to whet our appetites and actually get us reading the original texts (or at least English translations) for ourselves. So here they are:

And for articles and talks on historical theology from Reeves and others see the UCCF Theology Network’s section on Historical Theology.

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