The Magazine

Saint From Hippo

How Augustine’s dilemmas shaped modern Christianity.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Mixing with men from all stations, “from dukes to dustmen,” as Chadwick memorably puts it, familiarized Augustine with the realities of human nature which, in turn, informed his theology. If one of Augustine’s most contested contributions to Christian orthodoxy was the doctrine of original sin, it was his encounters with unregenerate human nature, including his own, that convinced him of man’s abiding need for sacramental grace to overcome that nature. For Augustine, our propensity to sin bespeaks a deep-seated iniquity in human nature, to deny which flouts experience. “In Africa you may have to go far to find even one church where no one has been discovered in crime and where no clergy have been degraded.” Augustine attacked the British monk Pelagius because, in denying original sin, he underestimated this ineradicable defect in our nature.

Nevertheless, Augustine appreciated that often it is our sinful nature that leads us to faith and, therefore, “one should not be put off by hypocrites, who are to be found in every profession.” And in any case, the hypocrite may truly wish to put hypocrisy behind him, a truth to which Augustine gives perceptive expression: “A convert will find many good Christians in the Church if he sets out to become one himself.”

Then again, in his African parish, Augustine often witnessed those who came to scoff and stayed to pray. He himself, he says, initially accounted the Bible “unworthy in comparison with the dignity of Cicero.” It would take time for the fastidious rhetorician in him to discern the riches of Scripture, especially since (as Chadwick notes) “the old Latin version of the Bible had none of the noble classical prose of, say, the [King James] Version or Luther’s German Bible.”

Eventually, Augustine recognized that, while Ciceronian eloquence might be persuasive, the parish priest should stick to the Bible for the form of his preaching. At the same time, Augustine was adamant that while “oratory is morally neither good nor bad, it is damnable when used to persuade people to accept error.” Chadwick also nicely encapsulates Augustine’s view of the state, which he set out in the City of God

Persecutions had discouraged the early Christians from looking to the state for any moral benefit other than the suppression of wickedness. .  .  . Man’s longing is for an ordered society of fellowship and love. This is something the state cannot create or maintain. Man accepts the authority of positive law because order is preferable to anarchy and chaos; but in laws man seeks some vestiges of a higher justice.

Moreover, Augustine was not overly sanguine about the prospects of the Christian empire because, as he said: “The Emperor has become a Christian—the devil has not.” 

In his foreword, Peter Brown, the author of the definitive life of Augustine, praises Chadwick for his readiness to take issue with aspects of Augustine’s thinking of which he disapproves, particularly his linking of sexuality with original sin. As Brown points out, after Chadwick’s book was composed, an unpublished letter came to light in which Augustine stresses that “I would be more angry by far with the one who praises me and takes what I have written as Gospel truth than the one who criticizes me unfairly.”

Whether Augustine would agree with Chadwick’s criticism, however, is questionable. According to Chadwick, “It would be asking a lot to expect the man whose conversion to Christianity focused on a renunciation of sex to see it .  .  . as a natural gift of the good Creator to be used wholly innocently in accord with his commands.” Yet Augustine always denied that his own personal experience informed his estimate of sexuality. For Augustine “the transmission of Adam’s sin and guilt to his posterity is a proposition .  .  . without which the great mass of human suffering becomes an indictment of the Creator.” This may be unsparing but it is not incoherent, which is more than can be said for Chadwick’s reading. “Twentieth-century man,” he says, “more aware of his intimate affinity with the animal kingdom, regards sex as good and natural, but can easily make his exalted estimate of sex the concomitant of a low estimate of the institution of marriage.” 

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